I’m worried we maybe went a little too far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really enjoying this high-speed voyage through a fantastic future world of electric cars and pocket phones. I just get a little freaked out every time I look in the mirror and see how absurdly old I am.
But here we are. I guess this is really happening. All I can do is mark the time as it passes and try to make sense of it all. Maybe if we look at trends in enough detail and with sufficient hindsight we can discern the currents of history and understand the decisions that brought us to this moment. Or barring that, maybe we can use the turn of the year as an excuse to complain about videogames.
Actually, let’s just do the latter. That sounds a lot easier.
Every year I try to find (or contrive) some sort of connective theme. 2012 was the year of illusionary binary choices. 2013 was the year of the indies. 2014 was the year of “meh”. 2015 was the year about making games about making games about making games. 2016 was the year of waiting for VR to take off or die. (We’re still waiting, BTW.) 2017 was the year of the loot box.
Obviously these are pretty arbitrary, but I like assigning meaning to the chaos.
The Year of Good News
I know I’ve earned a reputation as a grump and someone who’s “always looking for something to complain about”. I’d counter that I’m actually looking for things to analyze, but I know it’s generally useless to argue with the crowd. In any case, I think this was an uncharacteristically good year in terms of gaming trends and news.
There, see? I can be happy sometimes. I can be positive. I stopped complaining for almost a month when Spider-Man came out and there was a moment in late November when I heard news that was so good I nearly smiled. I’m a regular bundle of joy.
I suppose you’re looking for some sort of specifics? Fair enough. Here are a few stories this year that I would categorize as, “Hmph. I guess that’s good news for a change. Probably won’t last, though.”
My first bit of good news was that my favorite pro Starcraft player scored a nice victory this year. Scarlett’s career has been a long string of near-misses. She’s the equivalent of an actress who’s been nominated 5 times for an academy award and never won. So I was happy when she fought through the hardest bracket and then beat the most financially successful Starcraft player in the world to take the title.
I realize that doesn’t have any industry-wide impact, and most Starcraft II fans would probably insist that the match between Serral and Stats was a bigger upset in a more prestigious venue. That’s fair, but Scarlett’s win was the one that got me excited.
Here are six stories I’d classify as good news in 2018:
6. The PC Returns to Relevance
This year I discovered that apparently the PC is a big deal again?
The previous console generation was a rough one. The PlayStation 3 was an overpriced toaster oven with mutant hardware that made it hard to develop for. The Xbox 360 had the life expectancy of a fruit fly. The only successful machine was the Wii, and it was built around a controller nobody knew what to do with.
And yet despite this disaster, the PC still managed to become the runt of the platforms. Publishers didn’t care about it. Even when they bothered to release a game on the PC they usually did a shitty job with the port and then loaded it with obnoxious DRM. This was the height of the Games for Windows LIVE insanity. The upgrade treadmill made it expensive and stressful to keep your machine up to date. Less PC gamers meant less titles and worse ports, which meant less users, and so on.
At the time, I ran into some articles explaining that the PC was lagging far behind the other platforms in terms of AAA sales. That explained the publisher’s indifference towards the PC, so I accepted this as the explanation for why the platform was such a wasteland. Then this year I ran into this Global Games Market Report showing that the PC accounted for 25% of all videogame revenue. This means the PC brings in as much as the other 3 platforms combinedAlthough all of them are dwarfed by mobiles. If I followed mobile gaming at all I’d probably be calling this the year of mobile dominance..
I think this console generation is a lot better than the last one, and I’m happy to see the PC is doing well. I do wonder if part of this positive trend is the fact that…
5. Graphics Cards are for Graphics Again
Apparently the disaster of GPU prices is over. Either cryptocurrency miners have lost interest in graphics cards, or the production has finally caught up to demand. Either way, prices have crept back down to sane levels. If this price drop is the result of increased production, then prices might keep dropping. If cryptominers start putting their used cards up for sale, that might create some downward pressure on prices as well.
The bad news is that the ongoing confusion over graphics card models isn’t going to stop anytime soon. In fact, it’s about to get worse. NVIDIA is apparently making six slightly different variants of their latest card. As various sites are reporting:
There are three memory sizes, 3 GB, 4 GB, and 6 GB. Each of the three memory sizes come in two memory types, the latest GDDR6 and the older GDDR5. Based on the six RTX 2060 variants, GIGABYTE could launch up to thirty nine SKUs. When you add up similar SKU counts from NVIDIA’s other AIC partners, there could be upward of 300 RTX 2060 graphics card models to choose from. It won’t surprise us if in addition to memory size and type, GPU core-configurations also vary between the six RTX 2060 variants compounding consumer confusion. The 12 nm “TU106” silicon already has “A” and “non-A” ASIC classes, so there could be as many as twelve new device IDs in all! The GeForce RTX 2060 is expected to debut in January 2019.
Normally I would say this is terrible news that will harm PC gaming in the long run. If you need to be an expert on graphics hardware to be a PC gamer, then you’re not going to have a lot of PC gamers. The vast majority of the population does not have the time or the patience for this nonsense. Building your own PC from hand-picked parts is fun, but a two-day research project trying to sift through layers of obfuscation and confusion to select a graphics card is not fun. While prices have come down to “reasonable” levels, they’re still high enough that you can’t afford to make mistakes. The market is a minefield and it’s very easy to waste your money on something that won’t get the job done. In particular, offering a model with only 3GB of memory seems crazy. That’s basically obsolete now, even for people playing at standard 1080p resolution.
However, there isn’t a huge need for all this power. Assuming you’re not into VR or trying to play at 4k resolution, then there’s no reason to ride the bleeding edge right now. Just ignore the confusing 2060 line and get something from the previous generations. My graphics card will turn 6 years old in May, and I’m still able to run most games on high settings and enjoy a stable 30FPS. The only trouble I’ve had recently is with Wolfenstein II, and I’d blame that more on a bad port than old hardware. The power that game demanded was absurdly out of line with its visuals.
The point is that graphics cards are getting cheaper and there’s less pressure to upgrade. That’s good news to me.
4. No Man’s Sky NEXT
After two years of updates, I think Hello Games has finally cobbled together a set of mechanics that qualifies as a videogame. I don’t particularly like this videogame, but we at least have some sort of coherent progression. The game now has systems that do more than simply generate disappointment.
The game is no longer a dumb self-justifying loop of gathering resources so you can gather more resources. I had some fun with it for a couple of weeks, although I had to use a save editor to cure the incessant inventory tribulations so I could engage with the progression systems. At launch, No Man’s Sky was a terrible game with nothing inside. Today, it’s a mediocre game trapped inside a ludicrous self-defeating inventory system.
I do give Hello Games credit for putting in the work and trying to make things right. I guess this counts as good news.
3. Nintendon’t Do That Again
For the last several years, Nintendo has been hounding small-time creators on YouTube, hitting them with takedown notices. They set up a “Creators Program” where you could join their network and they would get a cut of your ad revenue – assuming you’re willing to abide by their rules. This was the only way to post Nintendo content without risking spurious copyright claims. I’ve said before that punishing people for sharing your marketing is self-defeating, and this was a pretty good example of that in action.
This was obnoxious to the point of being borderline evil. Whether they intended it or not, this effectively allowed them to regulate criticism on their products. If I’m doing a video review of Super Mario Whatever then the most obvious and useful format is for me to narrate over footage from the game. Sure, I could review the game without showing footage. But then my review is less interesting, more costly to produce, and less immediately informative to the audience. This will naturally make my video less popular, which means that channels paying the Nintendo tax will be more successful. Either way. Nintendo gets what they want. They get to tax their critics and they get to control the discussion.
So this move had Nintendo violating the principles of fair use by bullying small-time creators and skimming their meager income in order to suppress the distribution of critical opinions. I realize that loot boxes were overall more annoying, but I thought of this Nintendo policy as more insidious and destructive. Loot boxes harm games that have them, but an attack on fair use and criticism spreads the damage across the industry.
The good news is that Nintendo has finally reversed this policy. Maybe they had a magical change of heart and decided to embrace a free and open marketplace of ideas, or maybe they realized that this policy hurt them more than it helped. Either way, it’s good news.
And speaking of loot boxes…
2. EA’s Comeuppance
To be honest, I’m not crazy about this legislation. At least, not in principle. For years we’ve had loot box-type situations in Magic the Gathering, FIFA, and Madden. It was fine. There was never any backlash. I never cared about those games but people loved them. The fans were happy, the companies made their money, and it basically all worked out. I’d never play those games, but I wouldn’t want to see them destroyed.
EA’s crime wasn’t the loot box itself. Their crime was stupidly trying to cram loot boxes into games where they didn’t belong and where they would act as a detriment to the core appeal of the game. Then they implemented this in a brazenly pay-to-win way. Then when people complained about it, EA was was tone-deaf and entitled.
Now there are many different countries proposing and passing various laws on loot boxes. If EA understood the different gaming markets they serve then they never would have made this mistake. But CEO Andrew Wilson is a man with one idea, and now the company is facing a compliance nightmare. Worse, these laws will threaten their FIFA and Madden cash cows.
I’m not a fan of reactionary laws written in response to “Think of the CHILDREN!” and there’s a risk that good products like Magic The Gathering could be harmed in the attempts to stomp out the bad ones, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun seeing EA squirm. This mess is hurting the EA stock price, which means this is finally impacting the one thing the EA leadership cares about. The executives might not care if they destroy Maxis, Visceral, and BioWare with their clumsy greed and reactionary fad-chasing, but I know a falling stock priceIt’s true that tech stocks are down across the board, but EA’s drop is far more serious than what other companies are experiencing. is something that might keep them up at night.
1. The New Rivals to Steam
I feel like I need to defend the approval I gave Epic for their new store. Lots of people pointed out that the store is still lacking in features and titles. The thinking was that if Epic isn’t attractive to you as a consumer, then who cares how much of a cut they give to developers?
And to a certain extent, that’s fair. I’m certainly not making Epic my preferred platform anytime soon. But for years I’ve been complaining that aside from GoG, nobody seems inclined to compete with Steam. Everyone just wants to make their own sad little platforms and then pull their tentpole titles off of Steam. This shows a very narrow view of the market. The people running Origin and Uplay do not know how to compete with Steam, because they don’t use Steam.
Epic is the first contender to show they have some kind of plan. They recognize that to dislodge an entrenched rival requires bold moves. Yes, they still need to offer solid features, a good client, attractive pricing, a competitive return policy, and reliable customer support. They are nowhere near a competitor yet, but their opening move indicates that they understand this.
We also got the Discord store. Again, it’s not eating Steam’s lunch or anything. But their position as the dominant platform for communications and communities gives them a unique leverage that the other contenders don’t have. It will be very interesting to see what they do with it.
In the next entry I’ll talk about the games I missed this year.
 Although all of them are dwarfed by mobiles. If I followed mobile gaming at all I’d probably be calling this the year of mobile dominance.
 It’s true that tech stocks are down across the board, but EA’s drop is far more serious than what other companies are experiencing.
Crash Dot Com
Back in 1999, I rode the dot-com bubble. Got rich. Worked hard. Went crazy. Turned poor. It was fun.
Project Button Masher
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Programming Language for Games
Game developer Jon Blow is making a programming language just for games. Why is he doing this, and what will it mean for game development?
Zenimax vs. Facebook
This series explores the troubled history of VR and the strange lawsuit between Zenimax publishing and Facebook.
Video Compression Gone Wrong
How does image compression work, and why does it create those ugly spots all over some videos and not others?