2019 saw two new console reveals and Google enter the games industry, but what were the other big stories and how will they impact 2020?
The fact that next gen Xbox and PlayStation consoles were announced this year did not come as a surprise to anyone. These things are always open secrets, and most of the hard information still comes from leaks rather than official announcements, but the launch of the new formats next year will, as always, change the face of gaming.
But there were other stories and trends that will also have almost as much impact, including the increasing weaponisation of influencers as marketing tools and what might finally be some level of synergy between Hollywood and the games industry…
1. How to make a successful video game
It’s always good to see a major publisher making the effort to push a new IP, especially when it turns out to be a great game like Apex Legends. But watching EA promoting Apex Legends was a fascinating instruction in how the modern video games business work. Developer Respawn only started teasing the game a day before its launch, before paying 100 influencers (including Ninja, who was allegedly paid $1 million for his efforts) to stream the game. The end result was 1 million players in eight hours and 50 million in a month.
But while still successful now, once the influencer money ran out interest in the game quickly peaked and Fortnite was soon back on top as the number one battle royale game. Some of that was down to miscalculations with the first battle pass, and Respawn’s refusal to work their developers to the bone, but despite its ongoing success Apex Legends never quite became the next big thing.
2. More a trickle than a stream
At the start of the year Microsoft and Sony were terrified of the prospect of Goggle entering the video game market. But now that 2019 is over, Google’s Stadia is something close to a laughing stock. Not literally, because Google has enough money (if not patience) to throw at the idea until it’s successful, but the lead up to launch was an endless parade of bad press, with Google constantly having to explain that it isn’t the Netflix of gaming and that most of the promised features didn’t actually work. The service itself did, which is the important thing, but with no major exclusives and embarrassments like launching with a two-month-old version of Borderlands 3 they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them convincing people that Stadia is the future of gaming.
3. Successful project
By comparison with Stadia, Microsoft’s Project xCloud (it’s just a codename) was much better received, even though it’s only in beta at the moment and there’s indication of when it’ll transition into a paid-for service. The reasons for Microsoft’s warmer reception is pretty straightforward, and a lesson to any company looking to launch a new console or service: it’s all about the games.
Announcing that Project xCloud would work with all Xbox Game Pass titles instantly made it more interesting than Stadia, especially given how many more titles have been added to Game Pass over recent months. Not promising features that never materialised also helped and whatever else happens with the next gen Xbox it’s clear Project xCloud already has a bright future.
4. The one to beat
Since they weren’t at E3 (which started a snowball effect that could finish off the expo for good), Sony chose to unveil the PlayStation 5 in a Wired article in April, although at first they wouldn’t even confirm it’s name. There were some vague tech specs though (since augmented by various leaks and patent discoveries) but officially we know next to nothing about the console, other than it will support backwards compatibility and that Sony are initially aiming their sights at hardcore gamers.
That won’t last, but clearly Sony has a backlog of news to unveil at some point in 2020 – probably fairly early on in the spring. Although it’ll also be interesting to see what plans they may have for streaming, as although they’ve recently given PlayStation Now a power-up they’ve also teamed up with Microsoft, of all companies, for what’s presumed to be their equivalent to Stadia and Project xCloud.
5. What’s in a name?
A new console announcement is always going to be the biggest news of any given year, and in 2019 we had two. Project Scarlett, as it was known at first, was revealed at E3 in June, although as with Sony the tech specs have so far been kept very vague – with most information coming through leaks.
The new console got a second surprise unveiling at The Game Awards in December, revealing an usually vertical design and the instantly controversial name of Xbox Series X. The fact that Microsoft had to issue a statement a few days later, to clarify the name, shows they’ve learnt little about giving their consoles sensible monikers, but the trailer for Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 was impressive enough to suggest everything to do with the console itself is looking very promising.
6. Death and rebirth
Fortnite has been the biggest thing in gaming for two years now, but what goes up must come down and by the spring the chinks in Fortnite’s armour were beginning to show. In-game sales were down and the honeymoon period was clearly over. Something had to be done and whatever you think of the game it’s impossible not to be impressed by Epic Games’ attempts to combat the inevitable decline in interest.
The first pushback was the hugely successful Fortnite World Cup in July, but the main event of the year was the complete destruction of the original Fortnite map, whose death throes attracted an audience of millions and left many more frantic when the game was down for several days – before being reborn as Fortnite: Chapter 2. There’s evidence that in-game sales quickly began to drop again, but you can’t say that Epic hasn’t been putting in the effort to keep Fortnite relevant.
7. Apple Arcade
Although it hasn’t got nearly as much traction amongst hardcore gamers as the news over Stadia and Project xCloud, the most successful new service launch of the year has been Apple Arcade on iOS. For just £5 a month you get access to over 100 titles, all of which are guaranteed to be microtransaction free.
It’s a fantastic service, at least as good as Xbox Game Pass, and something Apple is planning to spend $500 million on overall. Whether they’ll ever start to push more console style titles, and offer a more direct rival to the other streaming services, remains to be seen but on the basis of Apple Arcade you’d have to say they’re welcome to try.
8. A Blizzard of anger
Most video game controversies are pretty insular affairs and usually revolve around things like publishers do something anti-consumer or games not working properly. But one of the biggest news stories of 2019 revolved around some very serious real-world issues, after a Hearthstone player was banned for making comments supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Blizzard’s unapologetic response to the aftermath caused protests of its own amongst fans and even employees, until eventually they at least partially gave in. At the height of the controversy Chinese Overwatch character Mei was being widely used by activists in Hong Kong, although many ordinary gamers seemed to forgive Blizzard remarkably quickly, in their excitement over announcements for Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4 at Blizzcon a few week later.
9. Influential value
As if the early success of Apex Legends wasn’t illustration enough of how important influencers are to video games companies the rush to poach popular streamers from Twitch started to involve some serious money by the end of 2019, starting with Ninja.
Some reports suggest that Microsoft may have paid over $50 million for Ninja, even though, in terms of audience numbers, Mixer is only a minnow compared to Twitch. Shroud and Ewok quickly followed but while Dr. Disrespect and others vowed loyalty to Twitch, YouTube and Facebook Gaming also made moves for other prominent figures – a trend that is certain to continue in 2020.
10. Epic rap battle
One of the more unsavoury stories of the year involved a nasty war of words between Fortnite publisher Epic Games, Valve, and their various ‘fans’. The new Epic Game Stores launched in December 2018 and quickly tried to establish itself by signing up exclusive deals with various PC games, with one report suggesting they paid £8.38 million for Control alone.
This led not only to Epic’s Tim Sweeny quarrelling with Valve but getting involved in an embarrassing rap battle with an angry fan. Inevitably it was gamers who took things the furthest, with death threats aimed at anyone that dared sign a deal with Epic, including obscure indie title Ooblets. All over the fact that games they probably had no interest in were being sold on a different online store.
11. Interactive movies
By the sheer law of averages it had to happen sooner or later, but 2019 saw the release of the first genuinely good (or at least mostly good) video game movie, in the form of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. It was only a minor hit, but it did segue into complaints about the hilariously awful Sonic The Hedgehog trailer, where the main character seemed to have been designed as some sort of nightmare-fuelled monster instead of a cute blue hedgehog.
For once fan complaints had a positive effect and all concerned agreed to delay the game and create a new design with help from an artist that worked on Sonic Mania.
12. Hollywood synergy
After decades of talk about video games and movies melding into one – that clearly was nothing but talk – it did actually start to happen this year. Not only with the promise of good video game movies but Hollywood stars appearing in video games and actually making an effort with their performances.
Not only was there Death Stranding with Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, and Léa Seydoux but Keanu Reeves being in Cyberpunk 2077 was one of the biggest stories of E3. And then there was George R. R. Martin working on FromSoftware’s Elden Ring, which leaked before the news was made public but seemed so unlikely most people didn’t believe it.
13. Get Dexit done
The sad thing about compiling a list of the year’s most important stories is that it’s easy to spot the biggest ones because they’re the ones that involve death threats. Pokémon Sword and Shield might seem like a bright, cheerful game but its fans were furious that it didn’t include every single pokémon – as previous games have – a process they referred to as Dexit.
The game attracted an unusual amount of pre-release heat for the decision, with developer Game Freak clearly unused to dealing with that level of vitriol. Although their standoffish approach eventually proved to be the right strategy, as despite all the complaints the game immediately went on to become the biggest Switch launch ever and the second biggest Pokémon game in its history.
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