Animal Crossing: New Horizons was one of the best-selling games of 2020, on account of being exactly the right game for 2020. (Nintendo Image)If any field of human endeavor on Earth can be said to have had a good 2020, it was the video game industry. After shutdowns and safety measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic managed to endanger or postpone almost every other form of entertainment this year, games turned into both a pastime and a lifeline for people in quarantine all over the planet.
2020 was always going to be a madhouse of a year in gaming, but the pandemic served as a force multiplier, growing the audience while simultaneously complicating the business end with work-from-home orders. Big releases like Sony’s The Last of Us Part II showed up to steal all of the awards, while a couple of indies like Hades and Fall Guys quickly found audiences. With Among Us and the newest Animal Crossing in particular, gaming as a social event came to the forefront like it never had before, because in 2020, your real-life friends and your internet friends were effectively the same people.
2021 in the games business is a question of whether it can maintain that newfound popularity and continue to grow the overall audience. It’s closer to business as usual so far in 2021, with all the new consoles finally on the market and an assortment of popular franchises slated to issue their next installments, including international hits such as Resident Evil and Far Cry. The cloud in particular is about to heat up, with Microsoft and Amazon both muscling in on Google Stadia’s territory with their own cloud-based gaming initiatives.
For the moment, though, January has traditionally been a time for the games industry to take a minute to breathe after the holiday rush. While a few games are slated to come out soon, including a surprising revival of an old 2010s-era favorite, things should be relatively quiet for at least the next few weeks. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, no one has made any firm pronouncements yet about the rest of the year. Past March or so, the calendar is wide open, which makes the first quarter of 2021 the calm before the storm.
Read on for a rundown of what to expect this year from Nintendo, Microsoft, Valve, cloud gaming, and indies.
Recapping a wild year for games
Surviving Crewmates try to find the Imposters in a round of Among Us, broadcast live on AOC’s Twitch channel. (Twitch screenshot)We knew from the jump that 2020 was going to be crazy. The first half of the year was packed with big-ticket releases, such as Final Fantasy VII Remake, Doom Eternal, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, the remake of Resident Evil 3, the Bellevue, Wash.-produced historical samurai epic Ghost of Tsushima, and Sony’s Seattle-set revenge drama The Last of Us Part II. The most hotly anticipated game of 2020, Cyberpunk 2077, was initially scheduled for an April debut. After that, enthusiasts had two major console launches to look forward to, with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S poised to start the ninth generation of hardware.
Then, of course, COVID-19 hit. Events got canceled, conventions went virtual, and even Pokémon were staying indoors. Much of the entertainment industry shut down for six months. Without competition from movies, TV, comics, or going outside on a regular basis, video games found a bigger, wider, and arguably captive audience in 2020.
That isn’t to say that COVID-19 left the games industry untouched. Several major productions, such as Cyberpunk and Halo Infinite, suffered significant delays; most of the industry’s annual events, like the Game Developers’ Conference and Electronic Entertainment Expo, were canceled; and at least one game, Amazon’s Crucible, was shut down due to problems that can be at least partially attributed to the pandemic.
The Seattle-area games industry also lost a particular talent in April when Rick May, a teacher at the Rekindle School who voiced the Soldier in Valve Software’s long-running hit Team Fortress 2, passed away from COVID-19.
The year saw its share of more traditional hits, with Fortnite ascending into its new form as a virtual concert venue, The Last of Us Part 2 proving to be the gaming equivalent of “Oscar bait,” and the usual annual sales dominance of a new Call of Duty. Supergiant Games’s Hades, an evocative action game about attempting to escape from the Greek underworld, seems to be the word-of-mouth indie hit of 2020, drawing praise from fans and professionals alike, and is still causing social-media buzz now.
However, the real story of the year for video games was in their ability to provide some semblance of social interaction in the middle of a year of not-as-enforced-as-it-should-have-been distancing.
Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons became a full-fledged lifestyle choice shortly after its debut in March, with quarantined Americans buying out entire store stocks of Switches in order to sign up for Tom Nook’s latest real-estate venture. New Horizons, in just nine months, became the second best-selling game on the Switch, just barely behind the three-year-old Mario Kart 8, as well as the second best-selling game of 2020. Depending on how Nintendo’s holiday season went, New Horizons may yet break out to become the best-selling Switch game yet.
Smaller productions, such as Among Us and Rec Room, got big audience spikes for similar reasons. Among Us, developed in the Seattle region, became a breakout “party game” when it suddenly went viral among game streamers in July, while the Rec Room’s community used its interactivity to create socially-distant birthday parties, math classes, happy hours, and even therapy sessions. At the same time and for some of the same reasons, Amazon’s Twitch saw its audience skyrocket, with livestreamers all over the world rallying to keep their communities entertained.
For the video game industry, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, 2021 is about momentum.
Gaming’s consumer audience has been consistently growing for years, but 2020 caused a major engagement spike, largely on account of there being very little else to do. If video games as a medium can hold onto that newfound interest, particularly while other forms of entertainment are in a mad scramble to stay alive, relevant, and/or productive following the 2020 pandemic lockdown, then the medium could end 2021 in a better position than it’s ever been in before.
For years, video games have been a bigger part of the overall entertainment industry than many analysts seem to want to admit, but they’ve never really felt like a driver of the cultural conversation in the way that a hit movie or popular TV show does. After 2020, the year of a congresswoman streaming Among Us and a talk show built entirely inside Animal Crossing, that’s abruptly begun to change.
Conversely, if the games industry can’t hold that audience’s interest, the end of the pandemic could also cause a bubble to burst. It likely wouldn’t cause any lasting ill effects — anyone who’s feverishly anticipating another event like the 1983 crash is just jonesing for disaster and can safely be disregarded — but it could cause some awkward realignments.
In November, the Nintendo Switch set a 24-month record as the single best-selling console in the American market, despite the launches of the Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5. As it heads towards its fourth anniversary in March, the Switch hosts an unusually strong lineup of Nintendo’s first-party games like Animal Crossing, Mario, Super Smash Bros., and The Legend of Zelda, and has proven to be a popular platform for the increasingly important indie development scene.
(Nintendo Photo)2020 also marks the first year since 1989 that Nintendo has only sold a single console. After quietly discontinuing the 3DS family of products last autumn, Nintendo’s sole focus is now on the Switch. As a result, it’s got the best of both worlds, with the 3DS’s quirky lineup of third-party games and Nintendo’s own first-party library.
If Nintendo has a point of vulnerability right now, it’s the “JoyCon drift” issue. Two separate lawsuits have been filed against the company due to a well-documented defect with the Switch’s trademark modular controllers, and Nintendo has been unusually quiet on the subject. That, in turn, has fed ongoing rumors that Nintendo will announce a new model of the Switch, a new JoyCon design, or both in 2021, on the logic that the only reason Nintendo wouldn’t be all hands on deck trying to fix this is if their plan is to address it with a full hardware refresh.
The Switch’s release calendar is also very slow for the time being. Its next big game is Bravely Default 2 at the end of February, which is the third entry (inexplicably) in a popular series of Japanese RPGs that started on the 3DS. Axiom Verge 2, the sequel to the 2015 indie hit, is also planned to make its initial debut on the Switch at an unspecified point in the first half of next year.
The Switch does have one near-guaranteed slam dunk that’s coming in 2021, and that’s Capcom’s Monster Hunter Rise. It’s the latest entry in the popular Monster Hunter franchise, a series of fantasy/survival co-op games about killing hostile wildlife and making them into ugly hats. While it’ll certainly find an audience in North America and Europe, Monster Hunter Rise is almost guaranteed to take over Japan on week one, and it’s being built specifically for the Switch.
To a certain extent, Microsoft’s 2021 is about killing time until it can release Halo Infinite. The Series X|S has a lot going for it, but the Chief is the face of the franchise.
(Microsoft / Halo Infinite Image)It’s safe to expect that whenever Infinite is ready, which likely won’t be before sometime next summer, it’ll be at the heart of a broad-spectrum multimedia marketing push, with Showtime’s Halo live-action series serving as a lead-in. Once Infinite does arrive, it’s already been confirmed that it will be available on launch day on the Xbox Game Pass, alongside a couple of the Series X|S’s best 2021 releases like Psychonauts 2 and The Medium.
Outside of Halo, Microsoft has a particular strategy with the Xbox line of products right now, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it matures. Right now, the brand identity of the Xbox line appears to be primarily about access: you can subscribe to the Game Pass from just about anywhere, on many of the devices you’ve already got lying around, and play Microsoft’s lineup of supported games for a low monthly cost. You don’t see many real exclusives as an Xbox loyalist, as even the Microsoft-published games also show up on Windows 10, but the releases you do get are numerous, good, and if you’re on the Game Pass, surprisingly cheap. The physical Xbox itself is more of a specialized method of access to the Xbox as a brand experience, which makes it unique among past and current game consoles.
(Xbox image)The real X-factor with Microsoft, though, is whether or not it goes on another buying spree. After its purchase of Bethesda in September, and its flurry of acquisitions in the year and a half leading up to it, Microsoft is in direct control of a huge number of the highest-profile franchises in gaming, including Doom, Minecraft, Fallout, and the Elder Scrolls series.
While Microsoft doesn’t seem interested in leveraging its partner studios specifically to sell more Xboxes, it does have that as a constant background option. We’d be looking at a very different games market today if, for example, Microsoft had decided back in 2013 that all future patches for Minecraft were now exclusive to the Xbox One. If Microsoft ever wants to sell an extra couple of million XSXs in a hurry — once it has enough in supply to sell — all it has to do is announce that the next Elder Scrolls will be exclusive to the Xbox.
More importantly, if Microsoft was willing to put down $7.5 billion for Bethesda, then no independent studio is safe. Microsoft’s biggest asset in 2021, and in the ninth generation console war, is its willingness to write big blank checks. Whatever analysts try to predict about games in 2021 has to come with the big invisible proviso that at any time, Microsoft may kick over the apple cart by announcing it’s bought something else. Like the moon.
Alyx Vance returned from limbo in 2020, even if it was in a prequel. (Valve Image)Steam, Valve’s digital storefront for PC games, is a universe unto itself. For the last couple of years, its lax curation and flawed algorithms have caused a constant buzz of controversy around the service, as it was easy for developers to get “troll games” or outright scams onto the marketplace, while honest indies have struggled to get noticed at all. (Remember, if there’s an upcoming indie game on Steam that you’re interested in, one of the best ways you can support it before its release is to add it to your Steam wishlist, as it helps to nudge Steam’s discovery algorithms in that game’s direction.)
However, the last couple of years have marked the debut of a number of genuine competitors for Steam, particularly the Epic Games Store. While it’s hard to say from outside the company how much of an impact that’s actually had — Steam seems to have had a remarkable year regardless, with new record highs in its concurrent userbase — Valve has quietly made a number of changes throughout 2020 that have been aimed at improving the Steam experience for both players and developers.
There was a lot going on in Steam Labs in 2020, much of which seemed to go unremarked upon. Valve’s “experiments” included a personalized news hub, themed pages for flash sales, and a Play Next option that’s meant to help a player sort through their library. While a few of the new features felt like they were coming in years late, like Chat Filtering, it still marks a period of time where Valve seems more responsive to Steam’s problems than it’s been in years.
2020 also saw a big spike in Valve’s profile as a publisher, with the release of its flagship VR title Half-Life: Alyx. Not only did this breathe some life into a long-dead tentpole franchise after the last Half-Life game ended on a notorious cliffhanger in 2007, but it moved a lot of units for Valve’s Cadillac-styled virtual reality headset the Index and gave virtual reality in general a new “killer app.”
While Valve’s internal game development can always be relied upon to move on its own idiosyncratic schedule — we may see another Half-Life game next week, or next year, or never again — it is an uncommon sign of hope for its franchises’ long-suffering fanbases that it actually released something that was both new and good.
(Photo by Casey Rodgers/Invision for Xbox/AP Images)Gaming in the cloud got a shot in the arm in mid-December when, against all odds, Google’s Stadia became arguably the best platform on which to play Cyberpunk 2077. This had a lot to do with the game’s troubled launch; the PS4 and Xbox One versions of Cyberpunk flat-out did not initially work, and it’s notoriously buggy even on systems that can run it.
A high-profile, tech-intensive game like Cyberpunk still serves as a useful display of some of the advantages of cloud gaming. You can melt your video card in a desperate attempt to run Cyberpunk at high graphics quality, or play it on a tablet and let Google’s data servers take most of the strain for you.
That’s a useful point in Stadia’s favor going into 2021, as it’s about to pick up some competition. Amazon is currently in the testing process for its subscription-based cloud gaming service Luna, and Microsoft’s Project xCloud is entering the fray as a browser app. Stadia’s had a little over a year to build its platform, but 2021 will see its first serious challengers.
The real question is whether there is enough overall interest in the cloud gaming scene to support three big competitors within it. It’s likely that the real money to be made here is in the international market, where apartments are smaller, the internet is better, and the mobile market makes up most of the potential audience, but this is still largely unexplored territory. Cloud gaming is too enticing a prospect for publishers to ignore — they don’t have to print any physical goods or put up with the PC mod scene — but I’ve got real doubts about whether consumers will be as excited overall.
The indies and third parties
Many of the usual suspects will continue to drive big parts of the games industry conversation for 2021. This is the era of games as a service, where some titles are deliberately built to last forever. Fortnite, League of Legends, Minecraft, and other ongoing franchises are still tentpoles of the medium, and barring spectacular disasters, are likely to stay that way.
There are few firm release dates past March 2021 right now, as much of the business seems to be in wait-and-see mode. Picking a good release window is always crucial, but with so many big games in uncertain states, it’s a higher priority this year than usual. Besides, there’s still a pandemic happening. It’s safer to play things by ear.
Some of the early contenders for the new year’s best games include Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, a surprise rerelease of the hit 2010 arcade beat-’em-up, coming out on Jan. 14; Little Nightmares 2, a sequel to the creepy sleeper-hit puzzle/platformer; the latest installment in Capcom’s landmark survival horror series, Resident Evil Village; and new next-generation entries in both the Far Cry and Hitman franchises. If we’re very lucky, Dying Light 2 might actually come out, ending its years in development hell. We can also expect to finally get our hands on the Playdate, the new Pacific Northwest-produced 2-bit handheld.
In Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines 2, you play as the monster. (Hardsuit Labs Image)A big game to watch in 2021, at least in the Pacific Northwest, is Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2, built and set in Seattle by local studio Hardsuit Labs. Set in a world where vampires are real, run the world, and conceal their existence to protect themselves, Bloodlines 2 is a heavily choice-based RPG that puts the player in the role of a newly-turned, weak-blooded vampire, with an assortment of classic and new supernatural powers. You’re then left up to find a way to survive Seattle’s vampire politics.
Bloodlines 2, like its 2004 predecessor, is a straightforward adaptation of the ’90s horror tabletop game Vampire: The Masquerade. Vampire, in turn, is the first and highest-profile game set in what its publisher White Wolf calls the World of Darkness, a modern urban fantasy/horror setting where players take the roles of traditional monsters like vampires, werewolves, and ghosts.
This is worth bringing up because White Wolf and the World of Darkness are both owned by Paradox Interactive, the Stockholm-based independent publisher that’s best-known for its games of “grand strategy” like Stellaris and Crusader Kings. 2021 is apparently the year where Paradox has decided to finally get its money’s worth out of White Wolf; it has multiple games set in the World of Darkness scheduled for an upcoming release, including the werewolf-themed Earthblood. Paradox, which acquired the Bellevue-based strategy developer Harebrained Schemes (Battletech) in 2018, also owns a 33% share of Hardsuit Labs, and it’s looking to start a whole new horror-themed video game universe in 2021. If Bloodlines 2 is a success, Seattle could end up as ground zero for a new wave of horror games.