What set the course of our gaming future over the last decade? From the rise of Twitch to the decline of E3, here's all the moments that mattered most.
The rise of Twitch
It's hard to believe how quickly Twitch has grown to dominate the video games landscape, but the platform was only spun off from Justin.tv in 2011. It quickly rose in prominence and became the subject of a bidding war, with Amazon beating out Google. Twitch quickly became the premier streaming service for gaming, creating a new class of influencers and celebrities like like Ninja (although he's since moved on to Mixer).
While YouTube has always housed gaming channels and communities, Twitch was really the first time that streaming hit gaming's main street, and it changed the way that people play games. Social and collaborative gaming grew wildly in the 2010s, in no small part because of Twitch and its rampant success.
The death of LucasArts
When Disney purchased the rights to the Star Wars franchise in 2012, it had the unintended consequence of sending video games developer LucasArts into disarray. The Star Wars franchise has a long gaming history, and the buy-out saw several exciting projects cancelled while Disney took stock. This included the much-anticipated Star Wars: 1313, a game which would have expanded on the adventures of bounty hunter Boba Fett.
EA was given the exclusive license to develop Star Wars games, resulting in a series of middling games, and ones that were riddled with microtransactions. EA cancelled promising titles of their own, including Visceral's single-player Star Wars adventure.
Electronic Arts has canceled its open-world Star Wars game, according to three people familiar with goings-on at the company. The game, announced alongside the shutdown of Visceral Games back in 2017, had been in development at EA’s large office in Vancouver.
Disney themselves retreated from video games as well, culminating in the high profile shut down of Disney Infinity. The toys-to-life franchise, Disney's answer to Skylanders, cost more than $US100 million to produce, manufacturing included. Hundreds of developers around the world contributed to Infinity at some stage, and the House of Mouse at one stage were planning to include content from Thor: Ragnarok, Rogue One, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Pixar's Coco, and Cars 3.
The biggest impact of Disney's buyout, however, has been to the reputation of Star Wars video games, a franchise that was once the pillar of year-round gaming. This year's Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order went some way towards repairing the damage, and Fantasy Flight Games have held up their end with some excellent board games, the franchise still has a long journey to recovery.
Microsoft buys Minecraft for $US2.5 billion
Minecraft was an instant hit even before its full release in 2011. Along with praise for its open world mechanics, freedom of gameplay and inherent creativity, the game already had its own annual convention. It was also a hit with young kids, and schools began incorporating the game as a learning tool in lessons.
Microsoft saw Minecraft's potential for good, and purchased the game in 2014 for $US2.5 billion ($3.67 million). This was a game that had already sold 50 million copies, and by 2014, Minecraft was settling into a steady (but still very popular) hum. But in capitalising on such a popular game, Microsoft adopted a passionate fanbase, as well as a massive educational opportunity.
In 2016, Microsoft oversaw the release of Minecraft: Education Edition, which teaches children valuable skills like problem solving and collaboration. It marked a turning point in games, and helped mainstream audiences see the value in education through games. It's currently used in curriculums in over 115 countries around the world.
While the major publishers and their buckets of cash have the potential to change the conversation in a way few games can, sometimes it's the indies, the diamonds in the rough, that rise above it all. Over the last decade, indies have had a profound effect on the industry. Here's some whose waves are still being felt today.
The rise of loot boxes, and the rising backlash
Was anything this year as consistently detested as loot boxes? As the cost of game development slowly increased from the release of the PS4 and Xbox One, the major publishers looked for more ways to offset the cost. The rise of mobile gaming and various free-to-play games, from things like League of Legends to well established trends in Asia and China, showed there was an appetite for buying things in bite-sized chunks.
So, eventually publishers started to double down. Microtransactions had been tried in AAA games before - EA wedged microtransactions into Dead Space 3 back in 2013, something Visceral were never really keen on - but it wasn't until games like Shadow of War and the most grating, Star Wars: Battlefront 2, that fans really got up in arms.
Loot boxes, of course, had been a problem well before then. The secondary marketplace underpinning games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive were rife with problems, with a lack of regulation and oversight allowing scammers to operate, YouTubers promoting gambling to minors while making a profit, and virtual skins selling for, sometimes, tens of thousands of dollars.
From all of the public responses to microtransactions and the rise of loot boxes, the most consistent line of attack in gaming — and the one most easily adopted by authorities worldwide — has been against the grey market. The rise of the rainbow gun economy has been the area most heavily criticised by academics, with class action lawsuits even being filed against Valve for exposing minors to gambling.
Given that 2017's Star Wars Battlefront II is broadly considered the tipping point in an anti-loot-box conversation that has recently led to a loot box bill in the United States senate, you might be forgiven for thinking that Electronics Arts games have loot boxes. Not so, says its VP of legal and government affairs; they merely have “surprise mechanics.” And they’re “quite ethical.” Phew!
But thanks to Battlefront 2, the whole affair gained a level of notoriety the gaming industry absolutely didn't want. Regulators worldwide, including in Australia, are monitoring the proliferation of loot boxes and ways games ask people to spend cold, hard cash. Elements of games have been banned or shut down in certain countries.
Loot boxes are bad, and regulators around the world are cracking down on the most egregious models. Counter-Strike is at the forefront of that, because of its secondary market that sees weapon skins and knives get traded for hundreds of real-world dollars. So here's some hot bullshit: To provide the appearance of transparency, Counter-Strike developer Valve has introduced an X-Ray Scanner consumable item that lets players see inside the contents of a loot box, but it's only available in France.
Loot boxes in FIFA 18, Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are now illegal in Belgium, with the country's legislators declaring today that if the games' publishers don't remove the offending microtransactions, people behind the games could face fines and even time behind bars.
the indies, the diamonds in the rough, that rise above it all. Over the last decade, indies have had a profound effect on the industry. Here's some whose waves are still being felt today."]
Politicians, academics and governments are beating from the beat of the same drum, while publishers are sounding increasingly silly about it all. Some developers have even gone as far to remove loot boxes from their games entirely, including Shadow of War and, more recently, Rocket League.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War came out on 11 October 2017. Two hundred eighty days later, it is now free of all microtransactions. It’s a drastic change and yet another sign that 2017 was a turning point for the video game industry’s brief obsession with loot boxes.
Fortnite takes over, forces cross-play everywhere
What was gaming like before Fortnite? The biggest irony is that it became popular off the back of PUBG's success in the battle royale genre. While it wasn't the first game to have a battle royale mode, it became the most popular and spawned waves of merchandise from Funko Pop! Vinyls, t-shirts, action figures and even a Monopoly set. Fortnite's popularity was astounding, and it also had some fantastic knock-on effects.
Fortnite opened the floodgates for console/PC crossplay, and it worked hard to create a gaming landscape where everyone could play together. Fortnite encouraged Sony and Microsoft to come together for all gamers, and it wasn't long before the push for crossplay in all games gathered steam. Gaming is better together, and Fortnite helped push the games industry forward with that idea.
The release of the Nintendo Switch
For a solid decade, Nintendo played second fiddle to the PlayStation and Xbox consoles because of its focus on either handheld or "gimmicky" consoles. With the release of the Switch, Nintendo proved their prowess, combining innovative new ideas with a console that was powerful enough to run even high-spec AAA games like The Witcher. Long gone are the days when Nintendo consoles were considered second-tier, with the Switch swiftly becoming the fastest selling console ever in the U.S.
The Nintendo Switch was a return for success for Nintendo, and it's hard to get past a new gaming release without someone asking whether the game is coming to Switch. (Is it, though? All games belong on Switch.) The Switch's hybrid portability is fantastic, one that's sure to make an impact on future gaming consoles and accessories.
Game streaming arrives
Towards the end of the decade, game streaming services began their slow ascent to the top. Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Now (never launched in Australia), Google Stadia (yet to launch in Australia) and Apple Arcade were just some of the streaming services that arrived in the late decade, signalling a new era for gaming. Much like Netflix, game streaming services seek to create an easily accessible, affordable means for playing games. With new AAA releases costing anywhere between $50 and $80, and in an era where disposable income is at an all-time low, streaming arrived to change how we consume games.
For a small fee, on many consoles, gamers are now able to access a variety of games on a month-by-month basis. For those only looking to play a handful of games, a service like Xbox Game Pass, which really does have an incredible games line-up, can be a great money saver.
The retro console rebirth
Everything old became new again when Nintendo reintroduced the NES console via the Nintendo Classic Mini, and its wild popularity proved just how nostalgic gamers were for the good old days. The idea here was pretty simple — slap a couple of classic games on an emulator, package it up like a baby version of the real console and you're hot to trot. The idea proved so successful that it was followed by a Mini SNES, and a PlayStation Classic from Sony. While throwback consoles did exist before the Mini NES and SNES' came around, they didn't garner nearly as much attention as Nintendo's offerings.
The Mini NES was so popular it outsold all other consoles in June last year. In Australia, it was difficult to even get one when it first released because pre-orders sold out. The popularity of the consoles proved just how great retro gaming still was for a mainstream audience, and importantly, highlighted the buying power of nostalgia.
No Man's Sky evolves
No Man's Sky was an okay game when it released. It was fine, but it was nothing like the grand claims promised by developers Hello Games. Kotaku's own Kirk Hamilton hated it when he first reviewed it. But Hello Games was listening, and slowly, something miraculous happened.
No Man's Sky was almost completely rebooted via an update known as Next in 2018, following on from the successful Atlas Rises free expansion in 2017. Next added the long-promised multiplayer. It dramatically improved visuals. It rethought game mechanics. The No Man's Sky of today is very different than when it first released, and it revealed the trend towards games as a service.
While game releases were previously one-and-done, the idea of games as a service meant that now, developers are able to change games on the fly, adding content to keep people entertained, or changing it where it doesn't work. This development was an important one, because it changed the way that people play games, and how developers create them. Relationships between games creators and consumers are now closer than ever, though whether that's particularly healthy is a prickly question.
Sony skipping E3 2019
E3 2019 was missing a very important guest. The spectacle of Sony's appearances at E3 were dearly missed in 2019, a year where developers began to shun the large-scale conference for smaller, more intimate affairs. Rather than announcing their latest slate of games at the marquee event, Sony chose to pepper release announcements throughout the year. Part of this was to do with a lack of prominent releases, and rather than look weak against the competition or forcing something out that wasn't ready to be seen, Sony chose to nix the conference.
While it was a good decision for the company, it was one that contributed to the whispers that E3 is becoming less and less important for the games industry. Publishers like Nintendo were already distancing themselves from the event with short form announcements via Nintendo Direct and Indie World presentations, and Sony's departure felt like another nail in E3's coffin. Will this trend continue? It's hard to say. Sony may very well return to E3 2020 and rebalance the scales. But perhaps in the next decade, the power of E3 will wane even further than it already has in this one.
The success of Untitled Goose Game
Success is hard to come by in the games industry, particularly if you're operating in the still-developing Australian market — but House House's Untitled Goose Game not only cracked the mainstream in Australia, it had roaring success overseas, too!
Untitled Goose Game was a rarity for Australian games, but proved how popular and successful Aussie games could be. In a time when games are frequently blamed for addiction issues and gun violence, it was wonderful to watch Untitled Goose Game soar to new heights, and highlight the potential that video games had to delight and entertain. Now, if only the Australian government would sit up and pay attention.
The only constant in video games is change, and the next decade is sure to bring more of it. Gaming's future may be hazy for now, but as we look back on a decade of developments, it's clear that there'll be plenty to look forward to in the coming years.