Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft (@krisgraft) takes a look at the trends that shaped the video game business in 2018.
The year 2018 lasted approximately 30 normal years. From studio closures to the Fortnite phenomenon, here are the trends that defined the game industry in the longest year in the history of humankind.
A rough year for closures and layoffs
While the volatile game industry is no stranger to layoffs and studio closures, 2018 was a particularly devastating year.
The closure of The Walking Dead episodic series developer Telltale Games was the toughest to swallow. The studio was known for much-loved adventure games – particularly The Walking Dead – and although not every game was a hit, there was a sense of being blindsided, even a broad sense of denial, when the closure was confirmed.
Searching for “layoffs” in Gamasutra search is particularly depressing this year, and the list of studios affected by job cuts and closures is too long draw out here in full. Capcom Vancouver, Daybreak Games, Jam City, Flaregames, Six Foot, Big Fish, Carbine Studios—just to name a few.
There's no one single reason for these layoffs and closures. Anything from poor management to shifting business models to an increasingly competitive marketplace are to blame. This uncertainty that underpins many game industry jobs fueled the discourse around unionization…
Unionization genie is outta the bottle
The unionization of the video game industry is by no means a fresh topic. But 2018 is when the conversation surrounding unionization hit fever pitch.
The discourse gained traction early this year following the announcement of a GDC 2018 roundtable discussion about unionization, hosted by International Game Developers Association director Jen MacLean. Though the meeting was contentious at times, it brought the conversation about worker organization in the game industry out of the dark and into the light.
The newly-formed organization Game Workers Unite helped carry that conversation on throughout the year, acting as a voice in support of industry workers, and an outspoken critic of mismanagement and poor labor practices at game industry employers.
While unionization is still a contentious topic (for example, the game industry trade body Entertainment Software Association claimed this year unionization isn't a "significant" issue, drawing the ire of pro-union game devs), and unionization isn't broadly applied in the industry at this time, the genie is now out of the bottle; this topic isn't going away any time soon.
The beefing-up of Microsoft Studios
After years of a slow culling of its internal game development studios, this year Microsoft made it a point to show the world that it’s rebuilding its first-party studio infrastructure with acquisitions of studios that are brimming with game dev talent.
This year Microsoft bought Compulsion Games (We Happy Few), Undead Labs (State of Decay), Ninja Theory (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice), Playground Games (Forza Horizon), InXile Entertainment (Torment: Tides of Numenera), and Obsidian Entertainment (Pillars of Eternity).
That’s not to mention the acquisition of PlayFab this year, a company that specializes in cloud-based backend services with a focus on games as a service. Microsoft took clear steps throughout the year to show that it has the intention to stand toe-to-toe with PlayStation and Nintendo in terms of sheer talent and quality--the coming years should be interesting for Xbox.
The Great Storefront Wars
Steam's dominant position as the market leader for digital distribution of PC games has made any commentary about a "Steam-killer"--or even a real competitor--laughable. At over 150 million users and practically the default platform for the vast majority of PC game releases, Steam's dominance seems insurmountable.
But 2018 showed a certain invigoration among companies that would dare to enter the third-party digital distribution space. Kongregate announced Kartridge; Epic announced the Epic Games Store; Discord announced the Discord Store.
The reason these new storefronts are being taken more seriously as Steam competitors is clear: all of the companies jumping into the digital distribution game this year already have widespread recognition among players and game developers, and all of them have huge communities to market to. These aren't little startups, but established companies that between them have hundreds of millions of users (Discord alone has 200 million registered accounts).
The newcomers are also vying for game developers to come onto their respective platforms, offering deals that are more appealing than the standard 70/30 revenue split we see on Steam and mobile platforms.
Does this spell the beginning of the end for Steam? Nah, not by a long shot. But 2018 certainly saw clear attempts at one-upmanship between major industry players in what can only be described as the first shots of the storefront wars.
Fortnite is a full-blown phenomenon
Even though it launched last year--and only began to see real success once it piggy-backed on the success of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds in the battle royale genre--it was in 2018 that we saw Fortnite grow from 'successful video game' to 'full-blown cultural phenomenon.'
Let's review the latest numbers: Last month, Epic said Fortnite had 200 million registered users, a reported 60 percent leap over the prior five months. The company also said last month that the game hit 8.3 million concurrent players worldwide following its launch in South Korea, more than doubling the 3.4 million concurrent players reported in February.
As for revenue, Bloomberg said the game was on track to make $2 billion this year alone.
The game has increased its reach so much this year that Fortnite is its own newsmaker—whether it’s parents fretting over their kids’ supposed addiction to the game, Epic being sued over a dance emote, or just the sheer success of the game, Fortnite in 2018 has found its way into the true mainstream, and there’s no sign of that momentum slowing.