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Game Developer's best of 2022: The trends that defined the year

From unionization efforts to pandemic cooldowns to mergers and acquisitions aplenty, these are the main trends of 2022.

A scramble for audiences

Promotional art for Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

The Game Developer team got into an argument about three minor trends we saw this year—triple-A devs bringing big franchises to mobile, a slew of game remakes and remasters, and big bets on multimedia adaptations of their games. We then realized these three business shifts were part of a larger trend: large companies stretching out in search of new audiences.

Are game developers direly in need of new audiences? It's hard to say, although it's certainly bizarre to hear some of the business crowd boast about the industry's billion-dollar market cap and then preach a need to expand beyond traditional game audiences. But if these billion-dollar publishers are going to satisfy the growth demands of investors, there is a valid point—the existing game-playing audience only has so much money to spend. 

Each of the major trends noted above creates quicker on-ramps to get players not familiar with certain game franchises to get in without playing catch-up. Mobile adaptations make big games like Apex Legends or Call of Duty: Warzone more approachable in regions where mobile outperforms console. Remakes and Remasters make a new "first" entry in a game series for new fans to jump in. And CD Projekt is the sterling example of how licensed multimedia adaptations can boost a game's business—Cyberpunk 2077's turnaround definitely owes a lot to the Netflix series Cyberpunk 2077: Edgerunners.

So we can confidently exit 2022 stating that in 2023 and beyond, we'll see more of these trends manifest as big game companies look to grow, and grow, and grow…hopefully not until it bursts.

– Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

Devs take toxic players to task

Apex Legends character Caustic

A number of high-profile developers took their communities to task this year in a bid to protect their workers from harassment and toxicity. We doubt that anybody reading this will be surprised to hear that the discourse surrounding video games (big and small) can quickly turn toxic, with social media and other channels like Discord and Twitch bringing creators closer to their players, while also leaving them more vulnerable to targeted abuse.

This year, however, devs started taking a firm stand against those who overstep the mark after an apparent uptick in harassment towards those involved in the creative process. In September, Apex Legends developer Respawn reminded its community that it has a "zero tolerance policy for threats and the harassment of our developers," adding that it will take "appropriate action to ensure the health and safety of our team." Prior to that, God of War: Ragnarok creative director Cory Barlog had to implore fans to treat his team with respect after false rumors indicated the title might be delayed, resulting in fans sending angry messages those working on the project.

Those two instances are just the tip of the iceberg. Other studios and developers including Bungie, Digital Cybercherries, and Return to Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert, were all forced to respond to instances of harassment, with Gilbert even halting development updates in the wake of personal attacks. Although it's notable to see developers firmly push back against those attacks, it's a trend that shows the video game industry is still struggling to keep the lid on toxicity both within studios and the communities they support.

– Chris Kerr, News Editor

A free-to-play heyday

The Sims artwork

In 2022, two top-selling games made the high-profile switch to a new method of monetization.

In January, developers for open world battle royale title PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds announced they would no longer be charging $30 for a base copy of the game, opting for a monthly subscription model that offers additional modes of play. This move comes after a reported 13 billion dollars in worldwide revenue following the game’s console release and mirrors the model of similar games in its genre, most notably Fortnite, which adapted to battle royale from its original construction/builder-based format following PUBG's popular release in 2017. Fortnite went free-to-play in 2019.

Meanwhile, in October, EA joined the F2P bandwagon, removing the $20 price tag on The Sims 4 in favor of pushing the series’ hefty ecosystem of DLC. While unprecedented in the series history, earlier financial reports reveal that surges in player spending on The Sims 4 has been previously linked to free-to-play events, suggesting that EA has been considering this move for some time. 

As noted by Game Developer publisher Alissa McAloon, the game’s add-ons, which include expansions, game and item packs, and decor kits, are far more lucrative than the base game itself, totaling over $900 worth of content. It’s likely these add-ons comprise a significant portion of the $1 billion in revenue that the game has accumulated since its 2014 release, making this a smart move as part of a greater strategy to extend the shelf life on this eight-year-old title.

– Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator

Unions take center stage

The Campaign to Organize Digital Employees logo (via the CWA)

History was made in 2022 as games industry workers at one of the biggest publishers in the world managed to unionize, paving the way for others to follow suit. In the wake of a cultural crisis that rocked Activision Blizzard, which began after serious allegations of misconduct and harassment were raised during a high-profile DFEH investigation, QA staff at the company's Raven Software subsidiary rallied together to organize in pursuit of better working conductions.

Assisted by the Communications Workers of America, a group of Raven employees successfully formed the first-ever union at a triple-A studio in the United States. Those involved managed to organize under the Game Workers Alliance banner, despite alleged attempts by Activision Blizzard to quash their efforts. Since then, QA workers at Blizzard Albany have also voted to unionize, becoming the second union to emerge at the Call of Duty and World of Warcraft publisher.

There were others, too. Just weeks ago, hundreds of QA workers at Bethesda parent company ZeniMax Studios announced they'd also be voting to unionize, and could potentially become the first studio to unionize under Microsoft in the United States. Meanwhile, in June it was reported that British Columbia-based employees of Keywords Studios had also successfully unionized.

The CWA has been incredibly proactive throughout 2022, assisting staff across the U.S. with their unionization efforts and also entering into a labor neutrality agreement with Microsoft that will allow workers to "freely and fairly make a choice about union representation" if the company's merger with Activision Blizzard is approved. The CWA described the move as "ground-breaking," and it'll be fascinating to see whether more staff in the U.S. and across the world continue to push for unionization as we head into 2023. 

– Chris Kerr, News Editor

The M&A maelstrom continues

Artwork announcing the Microsoft and Activision Blizzard merger

Big companies spending big money to make big gains is nothing new in the video game industry (or any other for that matter), but 2022 might just go down as the year where one deal in particular changed the landscape as we know it. Of course, we're referring to Microsoft's proposed $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, which if approved would see the Xbox maker become the owner of numerous studios and franchises including Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush (to name but a few).

The key words here are "if approved," with regulators in the United States and UK still sizing up the deal at the time of writing—although it has already been given the go-ahead in regions such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia. That being said, the fact Microsoft tabled a bid of such sheer enormity is indicative of where we are right now. For instance, this year also saw Sony purchase Destiny developer Bungie for $3.6 billion and Embracer snap up practically everything else that wasn't bolted down—including the literary rights to the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit—for barrels of cash, and those deals barely register when compared to Microsoft's mammoth merger.

For better or worse, the all-consuming M&A machine that has been gaining momentum in recent years, like a freewheeling Katamari propelled forward by unbridled capitalism, currently shows no signs of slowing. We're sure everyone out there will have thoughts about what that means for the industry as more and more studios become congealed and conglomerated, sometimes resulting in layoffs and shutterings, but we'll only know for sure once the dust has settled.

– Chris Kerr, News Editor

The game industry counts the cost of inflation

A pile of cash featuring a number of currencies

Sustenance. Energy. Video games. Everything got more expensive this year thanks to a cost of living crisis and materials shortage, and our digital playthings were no exception. Major companies including Sony and Microsoft both announced price hikes, with the former raising the price of the PlayStation 5 in select markets and Microsoft announcing that the cost of Xbox Series X|S first-party titles will increase to $70 in of 2023.

Ubisoft also committed to pricing its "big games" at $70, while Meta decided to stick another $100 on the price tag of the Quest 2 (taking the price of the base 128GB model to $399) to help it "continue investing in moving the VR industry forward for the long term." As Biggie, Mase, and Diddy quite rightly predicted, it turns out that more money does indeed equal more problems—just perhaps not in the way the trio expected back in 1997.

Still, some clouds do have silver linings, and there were a handful of game companies that responded to the cost of living crisis by permanently increasing wages. In September, VR studio nDreams offered all full-time employees a £1,000 raise to help them weather the economic storm, while UK studio Chucklefish bumped wages by £4,000 for the same reason.

– Chris Kerr, News Editor

Reality bites the blockchain 

Axie Infinity promotional art

The blockchain market exploded in value from 2020 into 2021, but 2022 has been a giant comedown. It's like a massive hangover after a metaphorical night of extreme drinking. If blockchain firms were a metaphorical person, it would have gone from screaming "I love you" over and over again at a party to waking up in the bathtub with the world's most skull-pounding headache.

In the broader blockchain world, the crash of cryptocurrency exchange FTX (and allegedly fraudulent activity that accompanied it) seems to be waking everyone up to the high risks of speculative financialization. Even before it crashed however, blockchain game developers who soaked up millions in venture capital laid off hundreds of workers as they failed to capture an audience.

And we can't blaze through this year's blockchain busts without talking about Axie Infinity. This was supposed to be "it." The game that proved "play to earn" (or "play and earn," whatever spin you want) was viable. It wasn't. Though it had managed to pick up a healthy playerbase in the last few years, all of those "scholars" packed up shop as soon as the game's affiliated cryptocurrency tanked, and then hackers stole most of that currency by exploiting a vulnerability on the Ronin bridge.

Is the blockchain party over? We doubt it. It's just nursing a greasy meal at the nearby diner with a few bucks it nabbed from your wallet. Maybe it'll clean up its act and be less of a lout at the next party—or maybe it'll find a way to be louder and more destructive.

– Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

The Metaverse takes a big swing, and misses

Mark Zuckerberg in Paris via the magic of the metaverse

Metaverse was the talk of the town in 2022, although perhaps not in the way Mark Zuckerberg would have liked. 

Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, was the most high-profile face of the technology this year, pouring billions into the development of its flagship product, Horizon Worlds, while simultaneously navigating public missteps with regards to its viability. In the past few months, the company has faced plunging stocks, diminishing revenues and rising operation costs, resulting in layoffs and a hiring freeze in early November.

The “metaverse,” however, is not limited to Meta’s attempts at a large scale, shared user virtual space. It encompasses many other projects that bear a similar premise or vision. But while the concept is ripe for investor speculation, many of its proposed uses have failed to materialize. And of the lower-profile games to debut this year, none seem to have gained a mainstream or substantial audience. Among the few that did, the issues abound; the developers of Axie Infinity, one of the only other household names in the metaverse, were accused of exploiting players amid an unstable in-game economy back in April.

There are many possible reasons for the metaverse’s failure to launch. VR is expensive, the graphics are ugly, and there are myriad safety and privacy issues involved. But more importantly, the experience it promises has existed for decades. Second Life, World of Warcraft or, more recently, Fortnite: video games and virtual marketplaces already provide the service that metaverse purports to offer. And they do it without the financial instability of NFTs and bitcoin, which both have suffered catastrophic hits to their viability in 2022. 

In that regard, the metaverse may be too messy for the average consumer. After all, why reinvent the wheel? Or rather, why invent a less safe and unreliable wheel? To those outside investment circles, it just doesn’t make sense.

– Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator

The post-pandemic cooldown

Graphs and charts

What goes up must come down, and when it comes down boy does it come down hard. Game companies of all sizes snapped back to reality in 2022, as heady gains from stay-at-home mandates in the COVID-19 pandemic faded away (even in tightly restricted countries like Japan and China).

Some companies were able to shrug off the comedown from the pandemic high. Microsoft's earnings dipped in some quarterly reports, but that's no threat to Xbox. But others weren't so lucky. Ubisoft, Meta, and Roblox Corp. are just a few of the major companies that had to brace themselves against these reversals—Meta maybe being the most embarrassing example of a company that bet big on audiences wanting to stay at home and only interact with each other through machines.

GameStop's rocky financial year also feels like a story about the pandemic. It gained some modest revenue as the next generation of consoles launched, but its real headline-grabber of the last two years was the battle over its stock price, and how short-sellers went up against retail investors and got clobbered. The fever dream glory days of that rising stock price seem to be over—and with less surprise pandemic uncertainty, there probably aren't many gamblers interested in rolling the dice. Now the company is left to experiment with blockchain markets and quarterly layoffs of key employees.

– Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

PlayStation embraces the PC market

PlayStation franchises on PC

For years, Sony treated PlayStation as a sacred cow whose first-party lineup was reserved for those willing to buy its consoles. Microsoft, on the other hand, could probably be convinced to send Xbox consoles directly to the doorsteps of players via high-speed drone (complete with a free Game Pass subscription) if it brought more people into the fold. All things considered, then, we don't feel it'd be unfair to say that Sony’s approach was somewhat restrictive.

Of course, 2022 didn't mark the first time PlayStation titles launched on PC, but it did see the largest number of releases leap the platform divide. Previous PlayStation 4 heavy hitters God of War and Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man duology made it clear that previously releasing Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone in 2021 wasn’t a fluke. And though other releases such as the Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection and Sackboy: A Big Adventure didn’t light the world on fire, their releases allowed the franchises they’re attached to grow just a little more.

Given the sheer amount of prestige that's been attached to PlayStation first-party titles for almost a decade, those titles landing on PC is the games equivalent of a blockbuster returning to theaters for a single weekend. Not every release is going to be a massive success, but they don't need to be since the PlayStation brand has very few losers in terms of properties. Their release on PC becomes a win by virtue of placing key franchises back into the spotlight. Look at how Days Gone turned out last year.

Sony’s PC pursuit will continue in 2023 starting with The Last of Us Part I and Returnal, but 2022 was truly the year that the Japanese company began to understand the importance of bringing its lineup to other platforms. 

Looks like its slogan of play knowing no limits wasn't just for show.

– Justin Carter, Contributing Editor

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