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Best of 2021: The trends and events that defined the year for game developers

Reality has, quite frustratingly, knocked on the video game industry's door and said "hello! We've come here to stress you out again."

In 2020, we had to write about how a once-in-a-century global pandemic shaped the video game industry. It was less time spent discussing online worlds, trends in design, or the fate of the indiepocalypse, and more reckoning with how the real world reached in and rattled our tiny video game one.

Well it's 2021 and here we are again folks. The real world has, quite frustratingly, knocked on the video game industry's door and said "hello! We've come here to stress you out again."

The pandemic, for what it's worth, has not abated. But the spread of vaccines and loosening of public health restrictions have meant a slow adaptation to new normalcy. We must then instead turn our attention to the massive engines of finance that have rocked and roiled the video game industry for twelve months, the legal cases that have come to inspire everything from worker organization to (potential) platform policy changes, and the work being put in by game developers to make the wider industry a better place to be.

Epic v. Apple


The high-profile legal battle between Epic Games and Apple finally went to trial this year, bringing the case to something that resembled a conclusion. The two companies had been trading blows ever since Apple yanked Fortnite from the App Store in 2020 after Epic broke platform guidelines by adding third-party payments.

Epic then sued Apple in the name of ending the App Store monopoly, quashing platform fees, and liberating developers around the word. Apple, on the other hand, suggested its platform guidelines ensure the App Store remained a "safe and trusted marketplace." As anybody who followed the saga closely will recall, it all became rather tit-for-tat.

When the trial finally commenced, however, things became significantly more interesting. As both companies attempted to prove their case in court, a number of previously unseen documents were made public, providing onlookers with a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Epic Games' financial history, documentation that detailed a rumored streaming service from Walmart, and some choice emails from Epic CEO Tim Sweeney that revealed an attempt to persuade Xbox to time its own freemium multiplayer pivot with Epic's first attack on Apple.

In the end, the trial ended in something of a stalemate. Apple was hit with a permanent injunction preventing it from prohibiting links to third-party payments on the App Store, while Epic was accused of overreaching during the suit and was ordered to pay $3.65 million in damages to Apple for a breach-of-contract.

Naturally, both sides appealed the verdict, with Epic explaining it would continue to fight for "fair competition" by calling on a higher court to reexamine the case. Apple, meanwhile, successfully delayed the enforcement of the court injunction with its own appeal, convincing a Ninth Circuit three-judge panel to question the merits of the original ruling. What does that mean for developers and customers? As it stands, not much. Fortnite still hasn't been reinstated onto the App Store, and won't reappear until all respective appeals have played out, and Apple still hasn't been forced to alter its terms of service (yet). Still, it didn't half make for a great story. - Chris Kerr, News Editor

Accessibility Advances

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The industry still has a long way when it comes to accessible gaming, but 2021 had some highlights worth noting. The biggest win on the triple-A front? Customizable subtitles. Across the board, people are benefiting from the increased ability to change key visibility factors for text and captioning.

This year Guardians of the Galaxy received positive remarks for the specificity of their subtitles options, particularly in how the developers used key signifiers and tonal cues like text color and speaker labels to provide additional context to each scene. The game also was noted for its hint system, skippable quick-time events, and highly customizable difficulty options, as well as audio adjustments that allow for reducing “non-critical” noises from the soundscape.

Forza Horizon 5 similarly won people over with its customizable, easy-to-read subtitles and the ability to increase text size, as well as other visual considerations like speaker labels, keyword highlights, color blind filters, and adjustable HUD elements. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, it was also praised for its difficulty level adjustments (affecting everything from tire wear to traction to antilock braking), including the in-game rewind feature that allows for backtracking to key moments in a race. Perhaps most intriguing though was the new “game speed” mode, an offline-only feature that slows down the speed of the game so that on-screen events can be parsed more easily. These elements, a mixture of features old and new, presented a more expansive approach to customization that served players intuitively for an optimal experience regardless of ability. And the work hasn't stopped there. Just last month, Microsoft announced an upcoming update will add American Sign Language and British Sign Language interpreters to the subtitle options of Forza Horizon 5, adding a new dimension of comprehension and context for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Back 4 Blood meanwhile brought to the table robust colorblind options, text-to-speech and speech-to-text function, customizable subtitle text, and even motion blur and camera motion strength adjustments. And browsing the additional features showed a surprisingly thoughtful amount of attention paid to the needs of both the game and the disabled gamers who played it. Inclusions like reticule shape and color options, and being able to remap certain actions as either holds or toggles, gave insight into how visual, audio, and physical challenges were considered on both a micro and macro level.

While they are far from the only games to have accessibility options this year, at the very least, these three mainstream examples speak to how commonplace accessibility accommodations are becoming and will continue to be in the future. Case in point, as this article was in draft, Sony announced a new website that promises to provide “an overview of tools and features available for players of all abilities” on PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4 consoles, meaning that accessibility is fast becoming a serious consideration in all levels of games production and design.

(Thank you to Can I Play That? For their extensive reporting on this topic.) - Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator


"GameStonks"

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Not two weeks after a mob of Trump supporters assaulted the U.S Capitol, we turned our attention to another baffling phenomenon: GameStonks. In a wild turn of events, a group of day-traders working on a Subreddit called WallStreetBets successfully called the bluff of other traders trying to short GameStop's stock.

A few investors' loss was their gain, and soon the internet was aflame with GameStop fever. The stock just kept going up, up, up, and if you got in early enough, you were due for a big payout. It was called Wall Street Populism, some said it fight back against the financial forces profiting off our lives.

From a distance, it looked comparable to what happens when an armored car breaks open on the highway, dumping cash that anyone can grab. The saga did little to shift the economic landscape, but it sure got a lot more people to download trading apps like Robinhood on their phones (until that app decided it had had enough of the volatility).

The story of GameStonks began with a game industry fixture but soon moved away to other investment products like movie theater chain AMC and the Dogecoin cryptocurrency. It's tempting to look at this incident as a Coen Brothers exercise in absurdity, but if you peel away layers, you find elements of desperation and frustration that will matter more as we continue throughout the year.

We almost didn't add the GameStonks saga to this list, but this weird intersection of investment schemes, luck, and financial desperation after years of economic inequality would go on to shape the game industry for the rest of the year. - Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

NFTs and Blockchain Games

A screenshot of Ubisoft's NFTs


We would be fools to deny it. 2021 was the year that the cryptocurrency crowd began digging their teeth into the video game industry. Major corporations like EA, Sega, Ubisoft, Zynga, and more have pledged to make investors richer by integrating blockchain in their games.

How? Your guess is as good as mine. Everyone seems excited about non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as tools to create "real digital ownership," but I'm frankly not excited by all the carbon emissions associated with the technology. Same goes for all the scams.

The wider game development and player communities seem to share that skepticism, at least to a certain degree. Some studios like Stalker 2 developer GSC Game World have already backtracked on plans to tie NFTs into their games following widespread community complaints. While some industry executives have praised NFTs as the future of game development or reportedly likened the current backlash to the early microtransaction discourse, others like Xbox head Phil Spencer have expressed skepticism over the current state of the tech.

Steam just going "nope" to the whole thing also shows how impactful it was (as there aren't many market forces that force the company to take a hard stance on headline-grabbing affairs!), though Epic Games was quick to swoop in to welcome blockchain-driven games to its competing platform.

Games like Axie Infinity made headlines for allowing players to earn money by collecting digital pets whose worth is tied to a unique coin, but it weirded me out when I learned that in places like the Philippines, where the currency has tanked, people are grinding hours away in this game just to survive (sometimes for the benefit of rich Western players).

Depending on who you talk to, blockchain technology is here to make everything open-source and decentralized (in a vague way), or it's going to let players earn money in pay-to-earn schemes.

I can't help but look at this year's blockchain explosion as a natural evolution of the GameStonks phenomenon from earlier this year. Excitement for NFTs and other financial products is one part collector's itch, another part the desire to earn desperately-needed money.

And with headlines about NFTs and other blockchain-tied property selling for thousands of dollars (some sales may have been price pumping), some chunk of the buyers in this environment are absolutely people hoping it can improve their financial outcomes.

Both economic inequality and pandemic-era restructuring have devastated the financial lives of people around the globe. And the success of GameStonks, and the addictive sensation of gathering in online spaces to make money off the internet appears to be taking new form as we close out the year.

Not all blockchain investors are aloof elites trying to turn millions into billions—plenty are ordinary folks hoping to turn thousands into hundreds of thousands. They want a way out of our economic miasma, and blockchain has rolled up with a sweet promise that will change your life.

But it's a promise that will only hold up if you get other people to buy in. And what happens when nobody else wants to buy one of these weird digital collectibles? - Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

The Metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg reaches for his own digital avatar


And then there's the metaverse.

I still do not like the metaverse. I do not like that it is inspired by dystopian fiction. I do not like how much blockchain technology and artificial digital scarcity drives some of its advocates. I especially don't like how Mark Zuckerburg's personal fascination with it is being used to obscure the awful, world-changing mistakes his company has made.

But game companies of all stripes wanted to get in on the hype this year, and so here we are, one step closer to a hybrid digital world.

A good-faith evaluation of the metaverse is that it's a recognition that people—especially young people—gather in online spaces and have a large portion of their lives expressed in worlds of ones and zeroes.

Travis Scott's Fortnite concert was a creative masterpiece and great merging of culture and digital play. Apex Legends' Market collaboration brings fashion forward thinking to Battle Royale. And new Second Life-ish games like Sandbox and Horizon Worlds continue to chug along.

The creative highs of different metaverse proposals start to come crashing down when you read how many press releases from investors use the phrase with little regard for what the word means. Unity's purchase of Weta Digital is about the metaverse. Investment in a new startup with triple-A veterans is about the metaverse. Pokémon Go, a game where you play in the real world, will be a metaverse somehow.

Part of the dream of this digital world is items and avatars that you can pull from one game to another, or property you can exclusively claim is yours. But where will those dreams begin to step on the fun and freedom video games offer right now?

The technologists are right to dream of spaces that blend the real and digital, showing how our social and artistic lives can coexist with virtual environments. But make no mistake, many of the architects of a unified metaverse are looking hungrily at how they can make money out of Balkanized pockets.

Cryptocurrency's claiming to offer solutions in this world, but it will be a tragedy if an industry dedicated to play and creative expression crumbles into a new sweatshop operating on hard drives. - Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

"The Great Resignation"

A photo of a green exit sign
Photo by Andrew Teoh via Unsplash


Let's have a break from the heavy topics, and talk briefly about worker power.

Across industries, people are quitting their jobs like crazy. The motivations are wide, but the incentives are clear—workers want better conditions.

And while the game industry has not become an ode to r/antiwork, it is experiencing its own share of exit vectors at large companies. Longtime industry giants like EA, Ubisoft, 2K, and Activision Blizzard are seeing veteran employees looking elsewhere for greener pastures.

Some of those developers are fleeing toxic work environments, others just want better pay and work-life balance. And it's got companies scrambling. New startups flush with cash can offer new kinds of perks, free from the legacies of larger companies. Developers across the globe—at least those in high-demand fields—have more power to leave their jobs, or pressure their companies to provide better benefits.

As for what's driving workers to organize? Well, we should talk about… 

The Volcanic Explosion of Activision Blizzard

A protester holds a sign saying 'Women's Voices Matter!'


The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing's lawsuit against Activision Blizzard felt like a volcano exploding.

Like a volcano, the lawsuit did not happen "suddenly." It was the result of pressure, gasses and chemicals churning under the surface, first quietly, then loudly and violently.

The immediate weeks following the DFEH lawsuit's reveal brought word of many statements and emails, both internal and external, ranging from an early pledge to for change and an internal email calling the alleged behavior "troubling" and "completely unacceptable" to a second internal email (allegedly ghostwritten by CEO Bobby Kotick) calling the lawsuit "a distorted and untrue picture of our company" and telling staff the claims were "factually incorrect, old, and out of context". 

Botched and conflicting communications from executives did nothing to reassure Activision Blizzard's hundreds and hundreds of employees that leadership had their best interests at heart. Within days, over 2,000 current and former employees signed their names to an open letter calling the company's responses "abhorrent and insulting". Dozens of then-remote workers gathered on the Blizzard campus in protest and made their own demands of Activision Blizzard leadership. All the while, developers continued to share their own stories of harassment and discrimination from their time at Activision Blizzard.

In the first week of the public outcry Kotick apologized for the company's initial controversial response, though a report later emerged to suggest he himself had written the lawsuit-critical email sent under another executive's name, and suggested the company would "set the example" on inclusion under his leadership. Later, news would emerge that Kotick allegedly told his assistant he would kill her, and allegedly protected a studio boss whose firing was recommended by HR, prompting a second walkout and still-enduring calls for Kotick's resignation.

To a certain degree, other major companies began to, internally for some, distance themselves from Activision Blizzard. The Overwatch League appeared to lose several sponsors. Some shareholders spoke out about the company's "deficient" cultural reform plans. The heads of Nintendo of America, Sony Interactive Entertainment, and Xbox have all reportedly chimed in (internally) to criticize Activision Blizzard's response to the allegations. Despite it all, the Activision Blizzard board has made it quite clear they stand behind its CEO and maintains Kotick "appropriately addressed workplace issues" despite extensive reporting claiming otherwise.

In the flurry of reporting about the lawsuit and the ensuing fallout, it has become easy to become wrapped up in characters and moments that make this feel more like a television drama. But the stakes are too high for trivial comparison. A woman allegedly died by suicide because of harassment. Another was allegedly raped. Dozens, maybe hundreds of workers have been left traumatized.

When the rot starts from the top, it will drain right down to the bottom. Firings and suddenly improved financial compensation will not fix the years of damage that happened under Kotick's watch. He and the board began this 6-month saga with tactics borrowed from former president Donald Trump's career—refusing to apologize, lashing back at regulators, and telling employees that everything at the company was fine.

It was not fine. Employees themselves began to share stories and realized how widespread the damage was. It was their efforts, their pushback, their walkouts, and their talking to the press that led to follow-up reporting that directly shined a light on Kotick's complicity.

In any disaster, the brightest spot you'll find is solidarity—love, warmth, and advocacy for other human beings. Activision Blizzard's workers have made that bright spot for themselves, and they didn't need a single all-hands meeting or company-wide memo to do it. 

This still-simmering volcano may erupt again and reshape the land around us. Others like it may be waiting to explode. But Bobby Kotick and others like him will not be the ones who pick up the ashes. It will be the people of the game industry who do that. - Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

Worker Organization

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Conversations surrounding worker organization and unionization have been around the industry for a while at this point, but their momentum certainly increased in 2021 as game developers reckoned with fresh allegations of mistreatment, inequality, and harassment throughout major companies in the industry. Despite working remotely at the time, staff at Activision Blizzard came together and organized a walkout on the Blizzard campus after significant allegations of misconduct within the company came to light. When allegations arose that CEO Bobby Kotick had personally intervened to keep a documented harasser on board and had himself mistreated an employee under his leadership, developers quickly rallied to call for his firing with a similar show of staff solidarity at a second Blizzard walkout.

Organizations like A Better ABK and A Better Ubisoft formed to give a collective voice to the game development workforce across these massive studios rife with misconduct allegations, fielding questions both online and in-person at the walkouts held to protest those very wrongs. A Better ABK issued its own list of reform demands when all hell broke loose at Activision Blizzard, holding the necessary feet to the fire and repeatedly calling out leadership when official statements and actions failed to address those core concerns.

Widespread unionization may yet be a ways off, despite a 2020 State of the Industry survey (published by Game Developer sibling organization GDC) showing 47 percent of respondents in favor of unionizing, but at least one studio did notably take that leap this year. The staff at Vodeo Games came together with CODE-CWA to create North America's first video game union: Vodeo Workers United. Though Vodeo doesn't have the workforce of, say, Activision Blizzard, staff told Polygon that unionizing aimed to ensure a equitable workplace for the 13 staff and contract workers it employes across the US and Canada, and to "help set a positive precedent for the digital games industry as well.” - Alissa McAloon, EiC


The Rise of Cozy Games


This year saw the continuing rise of cozy games, a "wholesome game"-adjacent trend that perhaps grew only stronger as the pandemic wore on. Comprising older titles like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley but also games like this year’s Cozy Grove or 2019's A Short Hike, the cozy games are personified by their soft aesthetic and domestic fantasies.

The latter may seem like an oxymoron (after all, who daydreams about doing the chores?), but as Kris Lorischild, co-writer on Cozy Grove, explains, if cozy games have accelerated in popularity, it’s likely because they portray a world (“of low stakes, of domesticity, and creature comforts”) that is becoming less accessible. “We don't desire things we can easily obtain; we don't have power fantasies of things that are easy to achieve. If our real world is increasingly chaotic, unpredictable, and alienating to us, why wouldn't a large swath of the game-playing population find solace in a simpler, more sedate world of growing your own food and socializing with your neighbors?”

Alex A.K., Creative Director at Soft Not Weak, echoes the sentiment, citing the subversion of expectations on queer art as part of the appeal. “I associate coziness with aesthetics, an overall uplifting message, and (mostly) a lack of aggression. If the game makes me feel pleasant feelings and leaves me hopeful or relaxed, that’s a cozy game right there.” They add, “I definitely consider Spirit Swap a cozy game, although I know a lot of people might disagree with labeling any overtly queer game as “cozy” because queerness is inherently subversive. I get that, but I honestly think that when you’re part of a constantly embattled demographic, you need those spots of sunshine to hit even harder. There’s nothing cozier than seeing your full self reflected in characters you love and embody. Queerness is subversive, but it can also be cozy and happy--and isn’t that we’re fighting for in the end?”

And as Wholesome Games’ founder Matthew Taylor concludes, “I have to imagine that if the world becomes more stressful and bleak, you might want your entertainment to provide an opportunity to relax and do some good.” While, as he notes, players have been expressing interest in less-violent games for some time, cozy games seem to have established themselves more as a relaxing, pastoral slice-of-life experience versus the freeform optimism of wholesome games. ”Those developing or streaming cozy games are doing a great job of creating a welcoming space for people who use games as a way to unwind after a stressful day, or in the case of 2020 and 2021, stressful years!” - Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator


Mergers and Acquisitions and Investments

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The amount of cash flowing through the business side of the game industry has been steadily increasing for years, but it still feels as if 2021 brought headline after headline of major investments and acquisitions from start to finish. Last year, we saw console-makers like Sony and Microsoft beef up their own first-part offerings through acquisition, and that trend continued and spread to other major players this year as game development studios and tools providers alike made their own big ticket acquisitions and investments.

We saw Epic Games pick up companies from ArtStation to Mediatonic, along with RAD Game Tools, Sketchfab, and Capturing Reality likely intended to bolster the offerings of Unreal Engine. Competing game engine maker Unity acquired Weta Digital in a massive $1.63 billion deal, along with Parsec months before that. Niantic acquired a number of companies, largely those that could help it further develop its immersive AR worlds platform, Facebook (now Meta) acquired studios to build out both its (no longer Oculus) virtual reality brand and Facebook Gaming platform, and even Netflix got in on the action with its acquisition of Oxenfree developer Night School Studio. And that’s not even mentioning Tencent, which has continued to maintain sizable momentum on the M&A front for 2021 with over a billion dollars in game related acquisitions like Sumo Digital, Turtle Rock, and many more.

In terms of sheer volume, none of the above can hold a candle to Embracer Group, the holding company and THQ Nordic parent that acquired well over a dozen studios throughout 2021 (including a $1.38 billion buy of Gearbox Entertainment) and many within the last few months alone.

This quick list is only the tip of the iceberg. Investment bank Drake Star Partners (via VentureBeat) estimates that the game industry saw $71 billion in investments, acquisitions, and other deals throughout the first 9 months of 2021, including Epic Games’ $1 billion funding round (with a $200 million contribution from Sony), a duo of $100 million and $145 million rounds for the social app Rec Room, Focus Home’s €70 million ‘development accelerating’ round, and sizable funding infusions for companies like Embracer and Azerion intended to raise more money for the M&A machine. And even this is only a small selection of the deals we saw this year. The list goes on and on, and it's one that seems likely to continue to grow in 2022 and beyond. - Alissa McAloon, EiC

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