Between the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and a tense presidential election, 2020 brought a constant stream of big news. That was true for the video game industry as well, which saw a massive boost in business as people started playing more during lockdown. That would have been enough to make 2020 a critical year for gaming, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to painting a picture of the industry in 2020.
In one word, 2020 was explosive for video games. There were shocking acquisitions, bitter rivalries between corporations, and one gaming controversy to end all gaming controversies. All of that came together to make 2020 a completely unpredictable year for gaming enthusiasts that toed the line between exciting and troubling at every turn. It’s hard to keep track of everything that happened in such a relentless and seemingly never-ending year, so here’s a recap of all of the year’s most significant gaming stories.
COVID-19’s effect on the industry
This year was supposed to be a celebratory one for video games, with the launch of two new consoles and tons of major software releases. Live events like E3 were going to usher in an exciting new generation, part of a yearlong reveal party for Sony and Microsoft. Of course, all of those plans were shattered when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The entire industry turned on its head in March. E3 and the Game Developers Conference were canceled, throwing every company’s plans out the window. Developers were forced to adapt to a work-from-home environment, which slowed down development on some of the year’s most anticipated releases. Huge titles like The Last of Us Part II were pushed back a few months in response. Halo Infinite was supposed to be the Xbox Series X’s big launch title before it was indefinitely delayed. CD Projekt Red inadvertently became a meme for the number of times it pushed back Cyberpunk 2077 with its dreaded yellow-background announcements.
Game delays and conference cancellations are small potatoes compared to the incalculable damage COVID-19 has caused, and continues to cause, on human life. Ultimately, the industry still found ways to thrive and recover, but we have yet to see the full impact. Games take many years to develop, which means that titles that are currently in development will be most significantly affected. That could mean the next few years are light on major releases. It’s a bit of a mystery box from here on out, but it seems like COVID-19’s effect on gaming will be felt for years to come.
Ubisoft’s misconduct reckoning
The conditions in which games were made came under heavy scrutiny this year. The biggest example of that came from Ubisoft, which was forced to reckon with its toxic workplace culture over the summer. Grim stories leaked from the company, painting it as a harmful environment rife with harassment and misconduct in its top ranks. That led to some of the company’s top names leaving the company in some form, including Rayman creator Michel Ancel and former Assassin’s Creed Valhalla creative director Ashraf Ismail. The reports say that one in four Ubisoft employees experienced misconduct of some form at the company.
The scandals only piled up for Ubisoft through the year, as the company came under fire for using a Black Lives Matter symbol to represent a terrorist organization in one of its games. All of the bad press eventually led to CEO Yves Guillemot formally apologizing and committing to changes. It’s yet to be seen if the studio will make good on that promise, but the situation highlighted the turmoil behind the scenes at one of the world’s biggest game studios.
Apple vs. Epic Games
Fortnite may be a few years old at this point, but the battle royale game made its biggest headlines yet in 2020. Publisher Epic Games entered into a fierce battle with Apple over the company’s practice of taking a 30% cut from App Store developers. Epic tried to circumvent Apple’s rules by directing users to buy V-bucks in-game, which prompted Apple to remove Fortnite from the App Store entirely. Google followed suit by removing the game on Android, but Epic mostly directed its fury at Apple in the form of lawsuits and a satirical #FreeFortnite campaign.
Both companies have drawn criticism for the messy situation. Some called Apple out for its steep 30% cut, while others lambasted Epic for its attempts to weaponize kids in a legal battle. Months later, not much has changed. Epic lost the legal case as a judge ruled that Apple did not need to bring Fortnite back to iOS, but Epic appears to be setting the stage for retaliation in 2021. The company just added the Spotify app to the Epic Games Store, which may signal that Epic is looking to turn its Games Store into an App Store competitor. It may have lost the battle, but the war is just beginning.
Microsoft acquires Bethesda
There wasn’t a lot that could make people’s jaws drop in 2020, but Microsoft pulled off a genuine stunner. In September, the company announced that it intended to acquire ZeniMax Media and, by extension, Bethesda Softworks. The landmark $7.5 billion deal is the biggest in video game history and gives Microsoft access to a stable of beloved studios, such as id Software and Arkane Studios.
The deal won’t be finalized until early next year, so we’ve yet to see what the deal really means for the industry. The news quickly raised questions about whether or not Bethesda-published games would be exclusive to Microsoft from now on. Microsoft said that it would honor all current exclusivity agreements, meaning that games like Deathloop will still launch as a console exclusive on PS5, but it’s unclear what the deal means for games like The Elder Scrolls VI. Whatever happens, the move is a legitimate game changer for Xbox Game Pass, which will add Bethesda’s robust library of games, further establishing it as the best deal in gaming.
Cyberpunk 2077’s rocky launch
As the old saying goes: Any press is good press. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true when it came to Cyberpunk 2077. This was supposed to be the ambitious open world game’s year — and in many ways it was … just not in the way CD Projekt Red expected. It started with multiple delays as the game’s launch window kept moving deeper into 2020. Then developer CD Projekt Red reversed its promises about crunch, reportedly implementing a mandatory six-day crunch on developers ahead of the game’s launch. One final, last-second delay set off alarm bells as fans started wondering what shape the final game would be in.
It turned out that the answer was much worse than anyone could have imagined. The game launched with significant bugs and graphical issues. Those were especially prevalent in the last-generation versions of the game, which have severe performance issues. CD Projekt Red was accused of purposely hiding the state of the game from press, players, and investors to get the game out in time. After initially recouping the cost of the game from pre-orders, the company’s stock plummeted and its founders reportedly lost $1 billion in wealth overnight. On top of that, Sony pulled the game from PlayStation entirely and multiple retailers are offering full refunds for the game.
It’s not an exaggeration to call Cyberpunk 2077’s launch the worst in video game history. The situation gets seemingly worse by the day as more game-breaking bugs are uncovered. The release leaves us wondering if modern game development is sustainable as developers try to create bigger and bigger games by utilizing problematic labor practices. Like all of the stories on this list, the situation will likely bleed into 2021 as it continues to cause headaches for everyone involved. We can only hope that the disaster serves as a cautionary tale for everyone else.
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