Comebacks, Controversies and Crypto: The State of Gaming in 2021

As with any year in the world’s biggest and youngest entertainment industry 2021 was a mess. With soaring highs, crushing lows and creamy middles the state of the video games industry this year held surprises, both positive and negative, for even the most burnt-out developer, jaded fan or hard-boiled journalist. The year was not without its controversies such as Activision-Blizzard losing many of it most senior management thanks to a rake of harassment lawsuits and allegations. Elsewhere many franchises from Halo and Battlefield to Call of Duty and Resident Evil either got back on their feet or had the ground fall out from under them. And then there’s Ubisoft and S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2 developer GSC Game World with their short lived attempts at NFTs. It may not always have been good but 2021 was never boring.

The Comebacks

Nostalgia has dominated pop culture for the last several years and nowhere was this more prevalent than in gaming. Remastering the original trilogy of Crash Bandicoot games as well as the likes of Spyro or MediEval made sense. A next-gen upgrade of The Last of Us – which isn’t even 10 years old – makes less sense. But we’re not talking about remasters or remakes for once no we’re talking about the game franchises that have been around in the last ten years that either really came out swinging in 2021 or fell flat on their face.

Resident Evil Village was likely a surprise hit for many who had lost most of their faith in the series considering it’s odd twists and turns since Resident Evil 5. But in committing to the first person camera it carried over from Resident Evil 7 and it’s dumb wife-guy protagonist Ethan Winters the game had a strong basis for the violent, outsize Universal Monsters-style camp it was going for. It’s doubtful Capcom really knew what kind of success they had on their hands here but if this kind of creativity persists we can expect big things from the next game. Less successful were the returning first person games.

We’ll get to Halo Infinite in a moment but let’s talk the more “realistic” FPS games that came out this year for a moment. While Call of Duty will always be popular there has seemed to be a dud every time the series has returned to World War II. Even last year’s Cold War seemed a little less successful than the pretty stunning Modern Warfare remake that came out in 2019. This is conjecture but I’d say that players are pretty sick of the World War II setting. When lesser used settings like the height of the Cold War, the near future or the far future are being used than it’s easy to be fed up when you’re forced to run through the Battle of Stalingrad again. But even if your game is set sometime like 2042 it’s not a guaranteed success marker.

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While Call of Duty: Vanguard was still a success, as CoD always is, it’s safe to say that Battlefield 2042 was standing on shakier ground. Ever since the still-frenetic but slightly slower Great War-set Battlefield 1 players took umbrage with a wide variety of perceived and real issues in Battlefield V – another game set in World War II – but it was still more successful than this year’s Battlefield 2042. By all accounts 2042 promised the world and then failed to deliver. The gameplay servers used by critics who were granted early access functioned relatively well but when hundreds of thousands of players jumped in on day one numerous game breaking bugs became apparent as did a lack of previous features as well as several changes to gameplay. With that said the grappling hook is still a fun time…

And speaking of grappling hooks how much fun is Halo Infinite huh? God what a good time that is. While Halo never really went away it very much ceded its throne to first Call of Duty and then to the battle royale games that stuck around long enough to make something of themselves. But it’s always been there even if Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians were nowhere near the achievement it’s 2010 entries were. Well over a decade after Halo Reach it feels good to step into the boots of the Master Chief again. This time on a mostly open ring world. Halo’s tactically aggressive combat feels more fluid and varied than ever thanks to some new additions and old favourites. It’s multiplayer needs some work on the progression end of things but more importantly it actually works and feels good to play. What a win for millennial gamers.

The Controversies

Like any year in gaming 2021 was riven through with controversies. Although things were pretty light on the journalism side of things – no plagiarism this year thank God – on the development side controversy dominated the headlines. Activision-Blizzard had a bright future for themselves in 2021 and further down the line. The much anticipated Diablo 3 and Overwatch 2 were in the pipeline. A new Call of Duty was slated for October this year. But all that was lost in the smoke cloud as Activision-Blizzard’s reputation went up in flames.

In July 2021 the California Department of Housing and Fair Employment filed a lawsuit against Activision-Blizzard citing sexual harassment, a toxic workplace culture and racial profiling. This had been ongoing for nearly two decades with multiple levels of senior management and development complicit in some of the worst cases of harassment since the Ubisoft revelations in 2020. These same members of senior management including their Global Head of HR began to drop like flies either resigning or being fired as Activision-Blizzard desperately sought to do damage control. Mass walkouts persisted throughout the latter half of 2021 along with boycotts and multiple other lawsuits.

While the Activision-Blizzard catastrophe shows no sign of slowing down it certainly smoke-screened the results of the Quantic Dream hostile workplace case as well as Ubisoft’s own ongoing labour malpractice accusations. David Cage’s Quantic Dream has little to worry about as the courts found mostly in favour of the company but the other French company, Ubisoft, has been quietly going through its own wildfire this year. As shown in a report by Axios the 20,000 strong multinational has been losing employees at a rate of 12% over the last 18 months. While what’s known as “The Great Exodus” is certainly due to a wider issue of resignations across the world as well as the COVID-19 pandemic it’s impossible to exclude the harassment accusations Ubisoft underwent last year either. The only company with a higher rate of resignations? Activision-Blizzard at a staggering, unsurprising 16%. It’s an employees’ market as they say.

The Crypto

It’s almost as if someone said “Well things could be worse!” and a finger curled on the monkey’s paw. Cryptocurrency is nothing new to the games industry as almost every live service game from Fortnite to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has its own form of in-game currency. Of course it’s not quite cryptocurrency as the vast majority of these currencies have little baring on real world economies. Still the idea of physically non-existent money being used to purchase virtual tools or clothing in an online space is not so different from Bitcoin or what have you. And that’s where NFTs come in.

For years live service games, be they multiplayer or just always online by necessity, have trafficked in exclusive or very expensive items meaning that only very wealthy or time conscious players can afford to get or play for them. NFTs are simply the next level to that. The problem is how to incorporate them when so many players are against them. Initial attempts by Ubisoft and GSC Game World were or will soon become failures. What matters more is where we go from here.

It’s hard to see any of the major platforms coming out in support of NFTs at the minute. Disregard the massive environmental cost and the cringey Elon Musk types for the moment. Imagine instead this: Little Jimmy is having a grand old time playing Fortnite. Little Jimmy’s bestest bud Billy sends him a link to a really cool looking gun skin available for the low low price of $2,000. Jimmy grabs his dad’s credit card and in a matter of seconds the cool, non-refundable gun skin is his. Flash forward a few months and Jimmy’s irate father has taken Sony and Epic Games to court.

The major platforms don’t want a headache to do with NFTs, cryptocurrencies or the blockchain. As such they won’t allow their use on their marketplaces be it Steam, the Nintendo e-Shop or the PlayStation Store. At least, that’s the hope. It’s not out of the bounds of reality for a marketplace or indeed a gaming platform to be founded based entirely on the blockchain and take payments exclusively in cryptocurrencies as well as sell NFTs. This is the world we live in. This was the state of gaming in 2021.

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