I’ve always assumed that the point of these end-of-year lists is to look back and appraise the year as a whole. Was it a good year for games? Any new trends? What was good? What was bad? What are we looking forward to?
That’s a good thing to do. The problem I’m having this year is that I didn’t play very many titles released in 2017. A lot of the games I played this year are actually more than two years old. I put a lot of hours into old favorites like Kerbal Space Program and FactorioWhich won my #1 spot last year., and I spent a lot of time chipping away at my Steam backlog.
Which brings me to a question that’s been bugging me for the last few months:
What’s the cut-off date for a “game of the year” list?
If a game comes out in December 2015 it’s obviously too late to make the 2015 list and should belong to 2016. But where do you draw the line? Or is the entire concept of annual delineation an archaic leftover from the days of retail and our end-of-year lists should just focus on what we played that year, regardless of release date?
The idea of games belonging to a specific year is the result of a world where games have firm release dates for retail sale, and that’s not the world we live in anymore. Sure, that’s how AAA titles work, but since the one-two punch of the indie revolution and the retro revival, AAA blockbusters don’t quite have the dominance they used to. These days you might play a game for a year before its official release date due to Early Access. After release, the game might get numerous patches and free content updates that might keep you around for two or three years after launch. On top of all that, on the PC you’ve got Steam sales that discount games and pull in new players even after all the mods, updates, and expansions have come and gone.
So our relationship with a game is no longer anchored to a single release date, but spread out over a period of months or years. So I’m thinking it makes sense to relax the rules about what games can make “the list”.
Year of the Loot Box
Yes, loot boxes have been around for years. But this is the year where several major games were deliberately made less fun by the developer in order to sell more boxes. Shadow of War was compromised by them. Need for Speed Payback had to backpedal away from their original design. And of course Star Wars Battlefront II was the big offender this year, causing worldwide controversy, consumer protest, and perhaps even inciting some legislation.
I see people suggesting that this moment is going to lead to some sort of reckoning for EA. That would be nice, but I don’t see that happening. They have a lot of money and power and a stable source of reliable income in their sports franchises. They can shrug off a lot of really dumb mistakes as long as those Madden and FIFA dollars keep coming. They haven’t sustained any damage severe enough to trigger the sort of company-wide disruption required to get them to change course.
The ESRB weighed in, claiming the loot boxes are not gambling. The term “gambling” is pretty flexible and I can see how a reasonable person might conclude that a system where you pay money for the chance at intangible, non-transferable items with no monetary worth is not gambling. Some people define gambling by terms of what you put in, and other people define it in terms of what you (potentially) get out, so we wound up with an obnoxious debate where everyone was shouting past each other.
“Of course they aren’t gambling!”
“No! They OBVIOUSLY are! Are you blind?!”
I think there are reasonable positions on both sides, and in reality the important issue was less about what we call these things and more about if they’re an appropriate thing to have in a game sold to young teens.
However, the ESRB’s reasoning was really strange and I don’t think their definition of “gambling” matches anyone else’s, on either side of the debate. My only guess is that they wanted to carve out a safe area for titles like Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone can operate.
This story didn’t really come to a head until the end of the year, so I think we’ll still be dealing with the fallout from this in 2018.
The Year Prices Bounced Back
For the past few years, the flood of indies has driven the price of games through the floor. But this year I noticed there was a little push-back. I saw indies launching for $30 and $20 rather than $20 and $15. I couldn’t possibly play a large enough sample of games to know if this was representative of the quality of the titles, but it was an interesting development.
This might be one of those cases where price is being used (or interpreted) as an indicator of quality. There’s so much garbage on Steam that users are looking for quick, low effort details to use as a first-pass filter. So maybe you wind up with situations where a user is thinking, “Huh. The screenshots look good, but it’s only $5. It’s probably crap. Oh, but this one is $20 so it’s probably pretty good.” The same thing applies to a lot of fancy health foods: People assume that because it’s expensive, it must be tangibly better than the cheaper alternatives.
In cases like this you get the paradoxical outcome where raising the price might result in more sales. If you’ve made a good game, then the last thing you want is for it to get lost in the deluge of $5 shovelware.
I don’t know. That’s just what I observed when checking on titles that interested me, and that’s a pretty small sample. I’d love to hear from other people and see if anyone has noticed the same.
Looking Back at Looking Back at Looking…
Last year I gave Deus Ex: Mankind Divided my #3 spot, but at the time I said:
I get the sense that this game is a bit of a bottle rocket: A temporary bright flash, quickly forgotten. I really liked Tomb Raider in 2013, but it hasn't aged well for me. I looked back on my 2013 write-up and was surprised to see I'd given the game the #2 spot. Some of my other 2013 picks included Saints Row IV, Don't Starve, and Kerbal Space Program. I've returned to those games since then and continued to enjoy them. But the charm of Tomb Raider faded quickly and I have no desire to play it again.
It turns out this prediction was true. I never gave Mankind Divided a second look. It came, it went, and it left very little impression on me. Compare this to (say) Doom 2016 or Skyrim. Or compare it to indie darlings like Kerbal Space Program and Factorio, which I’m still playing years later.
It’s not that Mankind Divided doesn’t have replay value. I mean, it doesn’t, and that certainly doesn’t help, but the more pressing problem is that it makes promises it can’t keep.
Mankind Divided it pretends to say a lot of profound things but manages to say nothing at all. There’s nothing to think about from a philosophical perspective. Which is normally fine. I don’t need every game to be a Socratic exercise or yet another exploration of the Trolley Problem. But the game acts like you’re going to explore themes of power, the police state, transhumanism, and media manipulation, but then it turns around and tells you what to think by mapping all the positions into crude good guy / bad guy roles. Instead of being thought-provoking, it comes off as vaguely sanctimonious.
On the mechanical side, there wasn’t a lot to love either. In fact, a lot of it felt like it was repeating the sins of Deus Ex: Invisible War, where all of your choices were immediate and ephemeral. Do you want to shoot this guy, hack a door, or crawl through a vent? It doesn’t matter, because all three paths lead to the same room where you can shoot a guy, hack a door, and crawl through a vent.
You can compare this to the original Deus Ex, where I was still finding new routes and new outcomes on my seventh play-through. Mankind Divided is a poster child for how we’ve come so far with regards to graphics and presentation, but lost so much more in terms of depth.
My point here is not to retroactively dump on Mankind Divided as a horrible game. It was just disposable and inconsequential. Like a lot of AAA games, it was all sound & fury.
Same goes for Titanfall, which I played last year. I enjoyed it at release, but never thought about it again. Like, I forgot it existed until I was scrolling through my archives and saw the article I wrote about it.
Why do I bring this up?
Over the years I’ve re-read these end-of-year articles and the one thing I hate is when I see I gave high honors to a game that no longer means anything to me. “What? I made Shoot Guy 3 my #2 game for that year? Shit. I forgot that game existed.”
There’s nothing wrong with disposable, forgettable games. It’s not a crime for a game developer to make a linear game with safe mechanics and no replay value. But when I make these end-of-year lists I’m usually looking to recognize games that accomplished something more than just giving me six hours of steady sensory input. It ought to be different. Or engrossing. Or have something interesting to say. Or resonate on an emotional level.
So I’m going to try to avoid including games like that. I don’t know if that’s possible, and maybe in some future year I’ll have the opposite problem where I regret leaving out a game that continued to pull me in years later. We’ll see.
Next week we’ll look at some of the disappointments of 2017.
 Which won my #1 spot last year.
The Loot Lottery
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