It’s not surprising that we’re at a point of reflection, as we’re now past a year of life being upended and drastically changed from how it was before. Our day-to-day routines aren’t likely to be ‘normal’ for some time yet, in truth, but a consistent part of our lives of anyone reading this has remained with us – gaming.
This isn’t a new topic; we’ve spoken to developers about the impact of COVID-19 on their teams, and we’ve looked at the incredible cultural impact of Animal Crossing: New Horizons as it collided with an unprecedented point in recent human history, among other topics. From a business standpoint, too, the video game industry has seen surges in interest and indeed profits; never has gaming been more ‘mainstream’. In fact, we’re at the point where discussions about its role in entertainment and culture are unnecessary; it’s now long established.
So, how did gaming take the most challenging year in living memory — for a great many of us, at least — and not only survive, but thrive? For one thing, it was uniquely placed alongside TV streaming services.
So, how did gaming take the most challenging year in living memory — for a great many of us, at least — and not only survive, but thrive? For one thing, it was uniquely placed alongside TV streaming services. We’ve been stuck at home for extended periods, and when seeking entertainment will head for the TV or similar device. So far, so obvious.
Hardware sales jumped, of course, and at the start of it all Nintendo Switch was the most recent console to launch and a perfect fit for the times; demand often out-stripped supply. The insatiable demand for PS5 and Xbox Series X/S has been – at least in part – driven by this, but of course Sony and Microsoft have encountered serious issues with manufacturing and materials. Nintendo fell into a good spot not just with the likes of Animal Crossing taking off, but in having well-established manufacturing pipelines and supply chains; a hit was taken last Spring as factories shut down, but from late Summer 2020 onwards Nintendo could catch up and make hay.
For the Triple-A parts of the software business though, this has actually been a mixed period. On the one hand, massive titles that did get out the door typically delivered notable sales due to our appetite for new games; releases like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla did particularly well, but like so many big games it had issues with bugs (ahem, Cyberpunk 2077).
Nintendo arguably had a mixed time in terms of the quality and depth of releases, even if its accountants will care naught. Paper Mario: The Origami King was enjoyable but the series isn’t the company's most prestigious (though the Switch entry was the fastest-selling for the IP).
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity certainly got the blood pumping for Zelda and BoTW fans, and is an excellent title that nevertheless pushes the hardware to its limits; the Korok Forest level is painful, but never mind. Past that, not much was new as such, but capitalised on nostalgia and Mario’s anniversary; even the most ardent fans should probably concede that the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection was a little lacklustre as a celebratory product. Bowser’s Fury, as a new game in its Super Mario 3D World package, was innovative and fun but even that arguably lacked aspects of the usual Nintendo polish; that’s not necessarily a harsh criticism of the spin-off as Nintendo sets itself such a high bar with the franchise, but a reality of the disrupted development process.
It's often been smaller titles that have captured the lockdown zeitgeist. Gamers of all types have wanted to feel connected with family and friends, and games became a go-to way to achieve that.
For smaller developers there will have been logistical challenges, of course, and we’ll talk another time about some aspects of the past year that will have hurt that area. Yet in terms of game production, many of these little teams likely already worked remotely ('medium-sized' Indies will have found it harder), at least to some degree with staff spread all around the world. It won't have been simple — far from it — but the agility and flexibility of smaller studios will have served them well.
That made 2020 an amazing year for the best of Indie games to take off in the mainstream, as more complicated triple-A projects battled to make progress and often got delayed – ‘now coming in 2022’ is a familiar line for major titles that were targeting this year, too, so these issues are ongoing.
Unsurprisingly it's often been simple concept, easy-to-play titles with a multiplayer focus that have captured the lockdown zeitgeist. Gamers of all types have wanted to feel connected with family and friends, and games became a go-to way to achieve that. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout certainly tapped into this, with the smart decision to include it in PlayStation Plus greatly enhancing its exposure along with significant PC sales. It is often overlooked that Devolver Digital publish this game, so it wasn’t a plucky Indie release out of nowhere, but the publisher’s savvy deal with Sony was vital. It’s also easy to play and enjoy, which was a trend of viral hits in the past year. We're interested to see how it goes down with Switch owners when it arrives on their console later this year.
Then, of course, there’s Among Us, which is arguably the bigger story as it genuinely was the work of a small team with no major backers. When you look at the concurrent Steam charts it’s fascinating, as this is a game that ticked along with a small but loyal userbase for quite some time, before exploding into life last year courtesy of its strong design and the nudge of powerful influencers that fell in love with it. Its tale is one of exponential growth through Summer and Fall 2020 following its big break, and is now very much a major part of the current Indie gaming scene. Again, it captured that need to play with others and to connect, doing so in a fun way. Valheim is the current viral hit on PC, so this trend will no doubt continue for a while yet.
The trends of the past crazy year are fascinating, but the ultimate goal of this little piece is to give a hat tip of thanks to developers and publishers of all sizes, from triple-A to the smallest of Indies, that delivered so many excellent games over the past year. Every challenge we’ve all experienced — and it will vary for each individual — will have been the same for these game creators. Reflecting on the quality and depth of games over the past year seems even more surprising with that in mind.
Most importantly, gaming got to show a wider audience what many of us have known for decades. Video games matter, the experiences they give us matter. Whether it’s plugging in headphones and embarking on a solo adventure, or connecting with others for multiplayer shenanigans, games give a degree of immersion and entertainment that is unique. As a medium it has amazing power, and it shone over the past year.