The Top Stories That Shaped Video Games in 2020

I’m finding it hard to come up with names of any friends or acquaintances in games who don’t feel exhausted as we inch toward 2020’s end. It feels like many of us entered lockdowns at the start of the year with a bit of optimism about how video games and the networks surrounding them could provide comfort and community during this time. Surely, with games culture and production so online already, we’d collectively be able to weather this storm better than others, right?

The outcome depends on who you ask, maybe. Ugly echoes of past controversies and ever-present issues of oversight and abuse have left an awful stamp on this year. The remote work shift highlighted a pressing need for more flexibility in this industry. At the same time it threatens to hide exploitative practices away in people’s homes. Grand promises have been made and—for reasons both good and pathetically flimsy—many have been broken.

What follows are five stories from that past year that I think define 2020 in gaming, though many or all of them can be seen as new developments in existing narratives. To me, these issues should stay top-of-mind for anyone who loves games as we enter 2021 and look to the medium’s imminent future. We can’t let the collective struggle and trauma of this year lead to a memory-holing of what 2020’s biggest changes and challenges actually mean.

There’s no “writer’s room” responsible for making 2020 a tough year. It can’t be shrugged off like a bad season of TV. If anything, the pandemic accelerated trends both good and bad that will likely stick with games for years to come, and we’d do well to try and understand them now rather than shrug and hope for better days to come.

The Long, Agonizing Year of Cyberpunk 2077

Before large swathes of the world had even heard of COVID-19, an announcement in mid-January kicked off a cycle of reporting, anticipation, and disappointment that we’re still mired in now.

Cyberpunk 2077’s first delay in January moved it from April to September, a move that hardly came as a surprise with The Last of Us Part 2, Marvel’s Avengers, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake also getting pushed back at around the same time. Delays are nothing new in triple-A development, but Cyberpunk’s obvious production struggles whispered a story that was drowned out by its aggressive marketing

After another two delays, required crunch, an epilepsy crisis, and an unprecedented Sony delisting, Cyberpunk stands as a game that simply wasn’t ready for release on any platform. A few days before release, Stacey Henley wrote astutely about how Cyberpunk’s deliberately edgy marketing and transphobic leanings had worked well and will likely be copied by others in the future. Sure enough, right before ire over the broken state of the game on PS4 and Xbox One surged, Cyberpunk handily broke a massive PC pre-order sales record. The marketing did work.

My sympathies are with the devs who continue to put in long hours while trying to make the game one worth playing, and I understand the frustration of players who’re now trying to get their refund. For the folks who genuinely wanted to make Cyberpunk 2077 a good game, and for those who want to play that game, I hope there’s a happy ending of sorts. At the same time, I don’t trust other CD Projekt or other companies to learn from this botched launch if there’s any kind of redemption arc here.

Cyberpunk 2077’s release should serve as a harsh wake-up call to publishers. You might be able to produce a fine game by crunching, and you can generate sales by feeding the worst impulses of certain people, but doing both while also over-promising and under-delivering results in an absolute mess. This isn’t the first time, it won’t be the last, and even if CD Projekt Red does manage to greatly improve the game and repair its trust with the public over time, its current leadership shouldn’t be let off the hook for creating this disaster.

Microsoft’s Spending Billions Today to Secure Tomorrow for Game Pass

When Google first unveiled its plans for Stadia, I observed that the long-term goal of all cloud business is to take computing capital out of the hands of individuals—to leave customers with “a minimally viable point of entry” to networks that serve up content and services while sucking in data. Convenience and a corporate-determined “freedom of choice” are offered in exchange for the right to actually own and modify something. Anyway, I’m paying $10 a month for Xbox Game Pass, and I bet you might be too!

While Google, Amazon, and Facebook fumble with their own gaming content pipelines and partnerships, Microsoft—no stranger to acquisitions or to cloud computing at scale—is running circles around them and Sony in terms of lining up big titles that will work on its streaming service. Game Pass is already an extraordinary value for its wide selection, but the point of all the studio-buying Microsoft’s been doing is to make that value unquestionable. Hence the $7.5 billion purchase of ZeniMax and Bethesda.

Microsoft’s consolidating computing power in the cloud while its studio purchases consolidate talent and established IP. Sony, Google, and others likely see the writing on the wall, too—the seemingly unstoppable shift toward streaming and subscriptions means going big or going home. I’m not so pessimistic as to think this has to correspond with things only getting harder for smaller studios and independents to make it without signing deals with big company X or Y, but that’ll certainly be the case if the platform holders don’t care to ensure otherwise. The last thing the industry needs is for new and upcoming developers to start getting treated like musicians putting their music on Spotify.

2020’s seen incredible growth for Game Pass in large part because Microsoft seems committed to making the model work well for developers and customers alike. As we’re seeing now with movie and television streaming a decade-plus into that model, though, there’s no absolutely reason to trust any large company to keep encouraging creativity and variety or to continue cutting good deals for its customers in the long-run.

Ubisoft and Others Reckon With Abuse, Assault, and Harassment

“Given the particular stratification and longstanding struggles with diversity within the video games business, however, these new allegations add up to a call for a major re-evaluation of industry norms.” I wrote that back in June when multiple stories of harassment and sexual misconduct within streaming circles, gaming press, and game development all came to light in a matter of days. I wanted to emphasize that while these instances of alleged wrongdoing were certainly fit within the broader patterns of abuse in entertainment that sparked the #MeToo movement, the games industry is also structured so as to produce unique failings.

In the weeks that followed, focus zeroed-in on Ubisoft as further allegations came to light. It only became clearer that all-too-common issues of precarity, project mismanagement, and lack of representation in game development helped create conditions where abusers were protected and even promoted up the chain whilst espousing racist and homophobic views or preying upon their subordinates. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot promised reform, and several figures accused of offenses have left the company or been forced out, but that’s only so much of a “win” after so much damage done.

Twitch, too, has been accused of fostering a workplace culture tainted by “rampant and unavoidable” harassment, sexual misconduct, racism, and abuse. Just this week, as it gears up to institute a new harassment policy for users in the new year, the streaming giant has also been criticized for instituting hard-to-moderate policies like banning the words “simp” and “incel” while ignoring longstanding community requests that frequent streamers believe will actually help, like instituting a Trans tag so that transgender viewers can more easily connect with communities that stand against transphobia.

Altogether, 2020’s wave of stories about abuse highlight incompetence and ignorance on the corporate level. Streamers who actually contribute all the value of Twitch’s platform and workers at Ubisoft (or any other studio) who create the games that enrich board members and shareholders don’t just deserve “better” protections, determined by and handed down from on-high. They deserve seats at the table to make reforms based on real experience, not ones fretted over by lawyers and C-suite execs with liability and profitability in mind.

The Best Online Events Were Those That Strived To Be Better

If there’s any one phrase from 2020 in gaming that’ll pop up in stress dreams for years to come, it’s the “Summer Games Mess.” Thanks, Jeff Grubb.

In truth, Grubb did a tremendous service for myself and other journalists by trying to wrangle together dates for the trainwreck that a pandemic-disrupted console launch year with no E3 was sure to become. The mess was unavoidable, and I don’t fault any organization that decided now was the time to copy some notes from Nintendo’s Directs and launch a new online showcase. Marketing had to happen somehow, and the overwhelming number of events probably helped some games receive attention they wouldn’t have otherwise.

That said, let us all take a collective step back and realize that it all amounted to a shaggy, haphazard slog. With nobody needing to compete for attention in E3 or PAX-sized windows, everything was stretched thin to the point of absurdity. Turns out the DualSense is a cool controller with amazing haptics, but in hindsight, that makes the idea of a hands-on stream with it all the more pointless. In the cases of several titles, including Xbox’s crown jewel Halo Infinite, the summer bombast seems ill-advised in retrospect since delays proved necessary anyway.

2020’s best online events were the ones declined to chase business-as-usual. Games Done Quick put on two tremendous charity marathons, one for COVID-19 relief and the annual SGDQ in summer—going online increased the global diversity of participants and the variety of games, two changes so palpably positive that it makes you wonder if online runs should remain a part of the big annual events. Guy Blomberg, formerly of ReedPop, turned a Zoom hangout modeled after hotel bar gatherings into GIG, a series of industry networking events that’s proving to be both more accessible and more inclusive thanks to a zero-tolerance approach to harassment. I’d even lump the AOC/Ilhan Omar Among Us stream in here, a savvy and entertaining act of political outreach that should put to bed the notion that “gamers” as a mass identity want nothing to do with progressive politics.

Black Lives Matter Deserves More Than a Namedrop

To that last point, I hope 2021 sees more large game studios and publishers making real commitments to racial justice. As the summer protests sparked by the death of George Floyd expanded across the entire globe, we saw plenty of large companies make gestures toward the movement that were surprising not in their apparent earnestness or impact, but in that it was shocking to see them acknowledge it at all. Some donated money, a handful of titles got sparse Black Lives Matter splash screens, and events got shifted around as tensions flared and attention was demanded elsewhere.

In a few instances—more often with smaller developers, streamers, and gaming press—there was actual talk not just of the value of Black lives, but of the institutions and groups that work to diminish and destroy them. Decades of police brutality brought the US to the flashpoint it reached this summer. Epic removing cop cars from Fortnite ends up reading as a whisper-quiet offshoot of an idea that millions bravely took to the streets to yell: the world we have now will see no justice and no peace so long as it defends its racist police.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales has a powerful story, but even so, it tiptoes around conversations about race. | Sony

Even in Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a launch game made commercially viable thanks to the soaring popularity of its beloved, unapologetically Black lead, its well-meaning nod of solidarity toward the Black Lives Matter movement leaves much to be desired. Critics Gita Jackson, Charles Pulliam-Moore, and Joshua Rivera have all pointed to how the presence of a giant Black Lives Matter mural in Miles’ Harlem can be seen as an intrusion of our reality into the sanitized New York that Marvel depicts. Miles doesn’t really work with the police like Peter Parker did, and when they do arrive late to the scene of a crime he stopped they hardly seem happy to see him, but to say that’s reflective of how the police treat Black teens in real life would be a generous interpretation. Maybe the cops have seen enough webbed-up super villains to think twice about trying to stop and frisk Harlem’s Spider-Man, but what of the all ordinary people in Miles’ Manhattan?

Directing attention toward societal ills and funnelling money to foundations that tackle them are commendable acts, but they’re not actions that utilize the full potential of this medium. As bigger games hopefully continue to feature more Black characters while also supporting more Black creators, every designer, studio, and publisher should ask themselves how a commitment to equality can be better expressed in the systems and stories of their games. The possibilities there are more potent than any pre-menu statement could ever be.

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