5 video game news stories that defined the industry in 2021

It’s hard to keep track of all the gaming news that happens in a single year. The video game industry is a constantly expanding universe and even its most ardent fans couldn’t possibly keep up with it all. It would require being hooked up to an RSS feed (or Twitter, modernly) like you would an IV.

Sometimes, that news can be so exciting that it makes you feel like you’re living through a historic moment. The year 2021 brought a wealth of innovation in tech, game design, and accessibility. From Valve announcing the potentially game-changing Steam Deck to Forza Horizon 5 adding sign language interpreters, there’s a real sense that every corner of the industry is evolving.

But there’s a flip side to that — and a dark one at that. A bombshell report about Activision Blizzard’s toxic company culture quickly became the defining story of the year, reminding us of the real human cost of those innovations. As much as the video game industry has changed, other parts are depressingly stagnant. And Activision’s response to its own drama shows that it might be a while until those problems are completely uprooted.

Here are all the biggest video game stories from an emotional, roller coaster year full of contradictions.

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.

Activision Blizzard faces a familiar scandal

On July 21, a bombshell report outlining a history of toxicity within Activision Blizzard dropped. The company was sued by the state of California and faced accusations surrounding its “frat boy” workplace culture. The reports are hard to stomach, detailing a history of sexual harassment at the company.

The story only got worse as the year progressed. In November, another report alleged that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick knew about the company’s issues and actively tried to sweep them under the rug. Kotick was allegedly part of the problem as well, with a former assistant claiming that he threatened to kill her over voicemail. Despite external pressure from companies like Sony for Activision to take action against Kotick, the company’s board of directors chose to stick with him. Kotick remains the company’s CEO at the time of writing.

It’s a depressingly familiar story. Just last year, Ubisoft’s own workplace culture scandals were featured in our “biggest news of 2020” article. The industry at large still struggles to grapple with its dark reality. At the 2021 Game Awards on December 9, host Geoff Keighley began the show with a preamble condemning harassment and toxicity in gaming, though he stopped short of naming names (perhaps because Activision’s Rob Kostich is on the event’s advisory board). Moments later, Keighley introduced a trailer for latest game from Quantic Dream, a studio that’s long been struggling with toxic workplace allegations.

These incidents show that there’s still a fair amount of cognitive dissonance in the gaming world when it comes to these issues. The desire to celebrate games, but also hold the companies that make them accountable, can often clash, leaving players with an existential crisis. There are no easy answers, and that makes this story all the more frustrating.

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Delays define 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, but its effect on gaming wasn’t felt until 2021. Many of 2020’s biggest releases were already close to completion by the time developers had to pivot to working from home. But what did that mean for games that weren’t as far along?

At the start of the year, we predicted that 2021 would be plagued by delays, and that’s exactly what happened. High-profile titles like Horizon Forbidden West and God of War Ragnarok shifted into 2022, thinning out the holiday season. While indie developers still loaded the year with hits, players weren’t enjoying games like Elden Ring as they may have expected heading into the year.

As disappointing as they may seem, delays are a necessity. Last year’s Cyberpunk 2077 was a cautionary tale for developers after a seemingly rushed launch ended in disaster for CD Projekt Red. Studios seemed keen to avoid those mistakes this year, opting to give their games the time they needed. Hopefully, those decisions reduced employee crunch, which remains a widespread issue in the video game industry.

Factorio running on a Steam Deck.
Steam

Valve shocks with the Steam Deck

For decades, the gaming console landscape has been defined by three companies: Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. While there are plenty of other companies making tech, no one else has made a dedicated gaming device that’s really changed that dynamic. That made Valve’s Steam Deck announcement a genuine system shock.

The surprise device is essentially a Nintendo Switch for PC gamers. It can actually store and play PC games, unlike devices like the cloud-focused Snapdragon G3x. Pre-orders surged despite the hefty price tag. It’s easy to see why there was so much excitement around the Steam Deck. The idea of taking your Steam library on the go is a dream come true, and one that one-ups the aging Switch and its old tech.

Of course, there was a hitch. While the Steam Deck was scheduled to launch this month, Valve delayed it into 2022 right at the finish line. Even the biggest stories of 2021 felt like they were teasers for next year.

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Sony and Microsoft’s latest war heats up

The console wars seemed like they were dead and buried as Sony and Microsoft’s strategies drifted apart, but a new battle has begun. Last year, Microsoft fired a huge shot by acquiring Bethesda, gobbling up games like The Elder Scrolls VI as potential exclusives. It felt like the start of an arms race and Sony was sure to respond.

Sure enough, Sony spent 2021 making power plays. The company went on an acquisition spree, locking down developers like Returnal studio Housemarque, as well as Bluepoint Games, which created the Demon’s Souls remake.

Microsoft still played the ultimate trump card, though. In a genuine shocker, Sony’s own MLB The Show 2021 came to Xbox Game Pass at launch. It was a move forced by the MLB itself, which pushed Sony to release the game on other platforms rather than hold on to it as an exclusive. That move showed the power of Game Pass in the current gaming landscape — it’s a service that seemingly everyone wants a piece of. With Sony reportedly planning its own Game Pass competitor, we might see that battle get even more tense in 2022.

Character sliding in Fortnite.

Apple vs. Epic resolves with no clear winner

Last year, Apple took a massive shot at Epic Games by removing Fortnite from its app store. It was a move spurred on by Epic trying to get around Apple taking a sizable chunk of its in-app purchases. Epic responded with a lawsuit, setting the stage for a high-profile legal battle that had the potential decide the future of the industry.

The trial itself took place in May and descended into immediate chaos as Fortnite fans got a hold of the trial’s Zoom link. Players flooded the call with cries to “free Fortnite,” while others just plugged their YouTube channel. The case itself was just as weird, with attorneys discussing whether or not Mr. Peely, the game’s banana hero, was technically nude.

The case concluded on September 10 with neither side really coming out on top, but both claiming victory. While Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers largely sided with Apple on nine out of 10 counts, Epic did get one key win. Rogers ruled that Apple could no longer block developers from linking to external storefronts to make purchases. Apple can still take a 30% cut of app sales, but developers now have a workaround when it comes to in-app purchases, which is big news for Fortnite (though the game remains banned on iOS).

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