2020 was the worst decade of my life. Yes, there was all of the big stuff everyone complained about: Global pandemic, the various lockdowns and subsequent economic fallout, the California wildfires, mass protests, the Australian wildfires, a rancorous American electionTo be honest, this one was like 7 different news stories in a long chain., the Amazon firesBut not this kind of Amazon Fire., a bunch of war, the Canadian wildfires, a stock market crash, mass unemployment, the invasion of murder hornetsThis one was more buzz than sting. It’s like the “Shark attack” stories from a few years ago, when shark attacks were down but shark attack coverage was up., and the fact that among all these crazy stories, the only one I made up was the one about Canadian wildfires.
I’m really happy we’ve got 2020 in the rear view mirror now. On the other hand, disasters don’t follow the Gregorian calendar, so there’s no real assurance that 2021 is going to be any better.
But let’s take all of these global concerns and shove them off to one side. We’re not here to talk about the troubles with the human race and planet earth. This is obviously a tabletop roleplaying website, which means we’re here to talk about the AAA video game industry.
Within the hobby, 2020 was a bit of a mixed bag. The one-two punch of global pandemic + economic strife took its toll on the industry, but we also got some good news and a few good games. Let’s look back at a few of the big stories this year and see how things went…
The Continued Debasement of the Live Service Looter
Back in the aughts we had the plague of WoW clones, where studios would make a cynical competitor to World of Warcraft and expect to become the Next Big Thing just because they slavishly copied everything about WoW and then added a new gimmick feature. It was a sad and frustrating time. A lot of money and talent was wasted on games that launched with great fanfare and then quietly died over the next few fiscal quarters.
And now that pattern is repeating with the Live Service Looter. In fact, they seem to have the same predictable lifecycle:
1) Our game is nothing like [dominant title]! We’re not even trying to compete with it. But our game is actually way better and everyone will play it and you should totally preorder it right now, particularly if you’re a fan of [dominant title].
2) Our initial sales are fantastic! In fact, our game has sold more than twice as many copies as [unrelated single-player game]! This launch is a massive success, I mean, look at how hard it is for people to log in during busy times! Look at all the gripes over queueing, disconnections, and lag. Clearly our servers are overwhelmed, therefore we’re having a great launch.
3) Everything is great. We have so much content planned. Players should stick with the game because in just a few months we’re going to start rolling out New Crap. You don’t want to miss out!
4) Our player base is NOT dying. It’s totally normal to see a very slight reduction in active users after launch. If you feel like you’re all alone when you log in, rest assured there’s actually millions of players still out there. Somewhere. They’re all in the next quest zone. Or maybe they’re about to log in. Maybe they’re all in a different instance. Or maybe they logged out juuuust before you got here. This game is still very popular, and our community is the best. We love you guys.
5) Good news everyone! Our game is SO SUCCESSFUL that we’re now looking to grow the community even more. We’re shutting down some servers to concentrate the population a bit, which is a totally normal thing to do when a game is growing. The game is also going free-to-play. See! Our game is so successful we don’t even need to charge money for it anymore. From now on we plan to subsist on the love and adoration of our fans. (And also a bunch of microtransaction stuff.)
6) We’re scaling back / delaying some of the New Crap we promised. We still have total confidence in this game and it’s going to be bigger than ever, but we’re no longer spending money on it and actually we’ve taken most of the staff and fired them / assigned them to a different game. You folks are great. [Game Title] Forever!
7) Happy First Anniversary everyone! Some people say our player base is “small”. Some people call it “A joke”. Some people claim that our user base is nothing more than “A tiny cult of deluded whales, lost in a sea of unchecked bots and spammers.” But they’re wrong. We’re a FAMILY. And to celebrate our family, we’ve decided to create a handful of low-effort cosmetic items that you can purchase. Thanks for being the best fans in the world!
And so it goes. Just as a game reaches Stage 7, a new game is announced and enters Stage 1. Live Service Looters are a little different from an MMO, but the overall trajectory is about the same.
I’m a former fan of this genre. I really do like a good murder-based skinner box. I was a big fan of the first two Diablos and the first two Borderlands. But then the genre mutated into some horrible beast made of grind, multiplayer with randos, and microtransactions. The genre is now represented by The Division, Destiny, and Anthem, and none of those games have the ingredients that originally drew me to this genre.
The bad news is that 2020 gave us two different misbegotten Live Service Looters: Marvel’s Avengers, and Godfall. The good news is that these products struggled to find an audience and make back their money.
The Tide Turns
I want to make it clear that I’m not cheering for the downfall of this genre. If these games had been good, then I’d be happy for the people enjoying them. But the games were bad, and so I’m glad the public recognized them as bad and the games suffered as a result. This ought to send a pretty clear signal to starry-eyed producers of the future: “Stop this lazy cynical bullshit. Do better.”
I’m sure there are still one or two LiveLooters currently in development, but I’ll bet the twin failures of Marvel’s Avengers and Godfall will make it very hard for similar copycat projects to get greenlit going forward. Maybe the next time someone designs one of these games, they’ll start with the gameplay rather than the monetization scheme.
In particular, the design of Godfall makes me crazy. A few weeks ago I watched this review from SkillUp:
Every design decision in this game irritates me. The gaudy art. The overused shine on everything. The gameplay. The outrageously busy and over-designed models. The lazy approach to storytelling that would make a low-budget indie blush for all the cut corners. The way inputs are (not) handled. The particle spam. The horrible UI. The way it tries to have the benefits of being a LiveLooter without taking on the responsibilities in terms of server infrastructure, matchmaking, and social features.
So yes, 2020 gave us two horribly designed and shockingly cynical LiveLooters, but both games struggled in a way that ought to make this sort of thing less likely in the future.
Stadia isn’t dead yet, but the platform seems to be fading into irrelevance. Nobody talks about it these days, it hasn’t landed any high-profile exclusives, and I don’t see a lot of games targeting the platform. The big companies keep telling us that the future is this nightmare world of perma-rentals and the death of ownership, but now for the second time this idea has died. There are plenty more coming: xCloud, GeForce Now, and Amazon Luna are the big ones right now, but I’d be surprised if we don’t have more on the way.
To be clear: I think there’s a place in the market for cloud gaming. If you live near a major population center and don’t have the money / space for dedicated gaming hardware, then cloud gaming might make a lot of sense. But that’s a niche market, not the future of the hobby.
The Stadia pricing model where you pay launch day prices for old games on top of your monthly subscription fee is an idea that needs to die. Cloud gaming is a more limited experience. It suffers from input lag and visual artifactsYes, these will get better with time. But no matter how fast your internet connection gets, it will always be slower than a local experience because PHYSICS., as well as limiting the end user’s ability to use mods. It devours bandwidth, which can introduce extra costs and complications for people who share a connection with a family.
This approach to gaming is a compromise, and the pricing needs to reflect that. Google tried to convince us that we should be willing to pay extra for this inferior gaming experience. Hopefully, that assumption will die with Stadia.
 To be honest, this one was like 7 different news stories in a long chain.
 But not this kind of Amazon Fire.
 This one was more buzz than sting. It’s like the “Shark attack” stories from a few years ago, when shark attacks were down but shark attack coverage was up.
 Yes, these will get better with time. But no matter how fast your internet connection gets, it will always be slower than a local experience because PHYSICS.
Starcraft 2: Rush Analysis
I write a program to simulate different strategies in Starcraft 2, to see how they compare.
The Loot Lottery
What makes the gameplay of Borderlands so addictive for some, and what does that have to do with slot machines?
Crysis 2 has basically the same plot as Half-Life 2. So why is one a classic and the other simply obnoxious and tiresome?
In Defense of Crunch
Crunch-mode game development isn't good, but sometimes it happens for good reasons.
Grand Theft Auto Retrospective
This series began as a cheap little 2D overhead game and grew into the most profitable entertainment product ever made. I have a love / hate relationship with the series.