2020 in Review: Winners and Losers - ArticleTaneli Palola , posted on 02 January 2021 / 3,269 Views
Coming up with positive topics to discuss for this end-of-year review was honestly more difficult than ever before, whereas on the negative side of things I was spoiled for choice pretty much from the beginning of the year. What I'm trying to say here is that the video game industry continues to find new and disappointing ways to make things worse on an almost weekly basis, for both itself and the people working in it. So let's talk about that for a while, shall we? But first the few positives.
One of the few constants on the winner's side since I first started writing these yearly articles has been Nintendo. The company hasn't necessarily been perfect every year by any means, but especially in comparison to most other big video game companies Nintendo is easily among the best and least offensive. It generally doesn't engage in predatory business practices, and for the most part develops high quality games that people tend to enjoy a lot.
Of course, Nintendo does make its share of odd or baffling decisions, one of which will be talked about later in this piece, but with games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Super Mario 3D All-Stars, Luigi's Mansion 3, and Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition the company went through 2020 with a positive record overall.
Sony and Microsoft
I've put these two together because both companies are mainly being listed here on the strength of their new consoles. Of course, Sony had a very strong generation with the PS4, selling over double the amount Microsoft managed with the Xbox One. But over the last year Microsoft has been making huge and necessary moves in building up its video game division, the biggest of which was the purchase of Zenimax, and by extension Bethesda and all of its IPs. This should definitely make the new console generation very interesting and probably much closer.
Still, it's ultimately the launch of the new consoles that gets them an entry in the 'winners' section of this article. The new Xbox was reportedly the most successful launch in the history the company and Sony's PS5 was the most successful console launch ever, so it seems like for the first time in over a decade we have three genuinely competitive systems on the market.
Sony also had a very good launch line-up for the PS5, with titles like Demon's Souls and Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and both had a large number of 3rd party releases to go along with their launches too.
Naturally, it's going to take a while before the trajectory of these new consoles can properly be determined, especially with supply constraints heavily limiting the number of available consoles for at least the next few months. Still, the future for both consoles is looking very bright, at least for now, and once Microsoft's developer acquisitions start bearing fruit we should hopefully begin to see some real competition in the console market between all three big companies.
Video Game Companies Embracing Positive Policies
Over the last several years I've gotten so used to the video game industry being an increasingly horrible cesspool of abusive practices and hatred that when a company actually does something good I'm pleasantly surprised by the news, which is quite a sad indictment on the state of the industry to be honest. Regardless, when it does happen I think it should be acknowledged and commended. So, here's a small selection of video game companies, both big and small, doing something good for a change:
- Square Enix's work at home policy. The pandemic has made it necessary for a lot of video game companies around the world to have their employees work from home. While in the past the policy in a lot of companies has been that this is either not possible or not practical, the current situation has brought to light the fact that it's actually perfectly feasible. Square Enix for one has taken this to heart.
The company recently announced that it would adopt a permanent work-from-home policy, allowing the majority of its employees to do so if they so wish, designating each individual as either home or office-based. Not only does this help employees with physical limitations to keep working without any issues, but Square Enix has also stated it expects this to actually increase productivity and help employees achieve a better work-life balance.
Supergiant Games enforces mandatory vacation days. Crunch and overworking have been an issue within the video game industry for decades, and even when companies have given their workers time off whenever they need or want it, many simply choose not to use such options for fear of leaving others to shoulder their workload or falling behind in terms of career advancement. Because of this the developer of the massively successful Hades, Supergiant Games, requires that all staff members take at least 20 vacation days each year. The company also prohibits the sending of work e-mails during weekends. It's no wonder then that every single original member of the team from the studio's formation is still working there, 11 years on.
People Who Make the Games We Play
This year it has become clearer than ever before that the video game industry is not exactly the healthiest place to work for a lot of people making games. Overly long work hours, crunch, lack of job security, poor pay, and so many other issues that plague this industry mean that a lot of those who work in it only do so through sheer passion for the art. The fact that sometimes the whole industry seems to have been designed specifically to sap that passion out of them is just awful.
The people behind the games we play deserve to be acknowledged and compensated properly for the work they do, and yet all too often it seems like they are just hurled abuse by both the companies they work for and the people who play the games they make. If you're angry because of a game, hold off on potentially taking it out on developers who may have had no control over decisions that adversely influenced the creation of said game. They deserve better, and we can and should treat them better.
Ubisoft's reputation hadn't exactly been good before 2020, but this year its reputation managed to sink lower than ever before, which earns it a section in this article all of its own to savour. That's what happens when your company spend years, possibly even decades, systematically abusing workers both physically and mentally, and keeping it all hidden from the public view while protecting the abusers on a corporate level, moving them between different departments within the company to shield them from any potential backlash.
The company CEO Yves Guillemot either knew of the abuse and helped cover it up, didn't know despite it going on right in front of him, or perhaps knew of some instances of abuse but didn't consider them serious enough to do anything about. Regardless of which of the above is true, it all paints him in a horrible light, and the lackluster response from Guillemot and the company following the reveal of these abuses hasn't helped his cause whatsoever. In fact, claims have been made that it was Guillemot's close relationships with those engaging in abusive practices that kept their actions hidden for so long in the first place.
Naturally, Ubisoft has now apologized for the whole thing, and said it's launching an internal investigation into the matter, from which very little of note has actually materialized so far. Several people who have been accused of abusing and mistreating their employees have resigned or been terminated, but that's still far from making amends for the years of abuse suffered by people working at the company. Especially as many of the people responsible for this abuse are still working at Ubisoft, having suffered no real consequences for their actions.
In addition, none of the victims have received any compensation for the way they were treated. Ubisoft has a very long way to go to make this right, as this culture of abuse seems to run deep within the company's core structure, which is completely inexcusable.
Epic vs. Apple
There's something particularly egregious about a massive company trying to play the role of underdog against another massive company, but that's exactly what Epic attempted to pull earlier this year. Basically, things began escalating when Epic's cash cow release Fortnite was pulled from the Apple and Google storefronts due to Epic violating the terms of service by allowing players to purchase in-game currency directly rather than using the payment systems of the stores themselves.
Epic has, for a long time, railed against the 30% cut that companies like Apple take from developers selling games on their storefronts, as well as other practices. Epic then knowingly - and this part is very important - violated Apple and Google's terms of service. Then, when Fortnite predictably was pulled from these companies' storefronts, Epic almost immediately filed a lawsuit against both Apple and Google.
Following this, Epic launched an intricate PR campaign in which it painted itself are the heroic underdog fighting against tyrannical mega-corporations, spoofing one of Apple's famous commercial from the 1980s in the process. The fact that Epic had this campaign ready to go the moment the game was pulled makes it rather obvious that this was its plan from the very beginning.
Epic then essentially used Fortnite's removal from these storefronts to mobilize fans of the game against Apple in particular, to try and sway public opinion against the tech giant and gain sympathy. However, whatever reasons Epic might claim to have had in doing all of this, ultimately it just comes down to money and profits. Epic was not some heroic rebel fighting against a tyrant; everything it did was entirely for its own gain, and the only ones who suffered from all of this are fans of the game who now can't play it on the platforms they used to.
Here's the thing though - Epic is actually right in saying that parts of Apple's terms of service, and in particular the cut it takes from every item sold within games, isn't fair on game developers. But whether it likes the terms of service or not, Epic still signed off on them, so they're still ultimately in the wrong. Whoever comes out on top of this thing in the end doesn't really matter, because there's very little chance that anyone other than Epic, Apple, and the other big companies who have a stake in this business will benefit from it.
The AAA Video Game Industry
I already singled out Ubisoft for its actions in 2020, but the video game industry as a whole - especially within the AAA space - continues to find ways to be worse than before every single year. With that in mind, here's just a small selection of happenings within the AAA space over the last 12 months:
- Predatory microtransactions in premium titles remains an issue across the industry. They don't belong in games people already paid money for, and in general just make the releases they appear in worse for having them.
- Nintendo arbitrarily limiting the availability of some of its games to a specific time frame, after which they'll no longer be available. It's just a baffling decision, especially when it comes to digital releases, and serves no other purpose than arbitrarily and artificially limiting access to the games in question.
- Full screen advertisements in premium priced games. Because the thing you most want to see in a sports game you paid up to $60 for are unskippable, full screen ads that stop you from actually playing the game. Apparently this was done with the aim of making the experience feel 'authentic' and similar to a real sports show. Right. And of course it was EA - it wouldn't be a complete year without EA doing something awful after all.
- Crunch continuing to be an issue, from the biggest AAA video game companies to the smallest of indie developers. People working on video games are burning out at an alarming rate due to excessive crunching and poor working conditions, and as a result leaving the medium for good. The video game industry has developed a pattern of using people and then spitting them out once they've been worked to exhaustion, and then just replacing them with a new crop of optimistic workers to be ground down in turn.
A notable recent example is CD Project Red not only crunching, but doing so after explicitly stating it wouldn't do this for Cyberpunk 2077. The company even said the crunch would ensure the game wouldn't be delayed further, which of course turned out to be false because the game was delayed anyway. The best part of this is that when Cyberpunk 2077 was finally released it was still a buggy, broken mess, especially on the older consoles. And all that despite crunching. Was it really worth it?
Angry 'Fans' Sending Threats to Developers & Journalists
This is actually something that has been happening for a long time now, and it's certainly not limited to just video games, but anyone who feels the need to make threats of violence against other people because of a video game really needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and re-think their priorities. There is simply no good reason to attack a developer, a voice actor, a reviewer, or anyone else over something as petty as you not agreeing with what they said about or did in a video game.
One of the more notable examples in 2020 was Laura Bailey being harassed and threatened because the character she played in The Last of Us Part II did something that some so-called fans didn't like. That's not to mention the developers of that game also being attacked over the contents of its storyline in general.
More recently the delay of Cyberpunk 2077 for a few additional weeks saw some so-called fans crawl out of whatever holes they'd been hiding in and deciding the rational and smart course of action in response to this news was to send death threats to the people working on the game.
Then the game finally released and the reviews began arriving. And of course some 'fans' got angry all over again, because I guess that's what you do when your sense of worth is tied to a video game. One reviewer wrote that she had suffered a seizure because of a particular scene in the game that featured a lot of flashing lights (which, at the time, the game didn't warn you about). When she brought this fact up, she was bombarded by idiots sending her videos of flashing lights, all because she dared say the game had triggered her epilepsy. The sad part is this was just one of many such examples this year, or pretty much every single year for as long as I've been following the video game industry to any degree. The sense of self-entitlement among certain circles of video game fandom is simply reprehensible and utterly indefensible.
So to all of those who've done something like this, grow up and stop making negative aspects of our passion worse than they already are. Your personal feelings on a video game aren't more important than the well-being of other people, especially when those people are effectively forced to risk their health making these games in the first place. I'd rather have seen Cyberpunk 2077 delayed for another six months than learn about developers having to crunch for months to try and get the game done for some arbitrary deadline in order to appease fans and investors.
It's not actually that important for you to get your hands on a video game as soon as humanly possible. The fact that this is something a certain cohort of 'fans' can't seem to grasp is pathetic. I can maybe understand these kinds of reactions if you're around 12 years old, but many of the people engaging in this sort of behaviour are supposedly adults, which is just utterly baffling to me. Could we at least try to be better in 2021? Reading and writing about some of these things over the course of the year was just depressing.
There we have the winners and losers of 2020, in my opinion. What are your biggest positives and negatives of the year? What did I miss? Share your thoughts in the comments below.