GameCentral looks back at one of the best years ever for quality video games, but worries whether there’s darker times on the horizon.
In years to come gamers will look back at 2017 and wonder how so many great games were crammed into so few months. At the beginning of the year we felt the same way, with a steady supply of all-time classics the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 16-bit era. The torrent slowed to a trickle once we got to Christmas, and the more mainstream releases of the year, but it’s not for that reason that 2017 seemed like a game of two halves.
In the first half of the year, when publishers were not competing for Christmas gift money, we saw instant classics such as Resident Evil 7, NieR: Automata, Persona 5, Nioh, and Yakuza 0 released alongside amazing indie games such as Nex Machina, The Sexy Brutale, Polybius, and What Remains Of Edith Finch.
The interesting thing about the retail games though, is that most of the best ones were Japanese in origin. The Japanese games industry in general has already had a much better start to this generation of consoles than the last, and one of the particularly encouraging trends of 2017 is that they seem to have finally returned to something like their old competence, and confidence.
The most obvious example of that is, of course, Nintendo who at the start of the year once again seemed to be bumbling their way to failure. But for once (given how often they prefer to do things the other way round) they managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Switch was an instant success and the games have not only been uniformly excellent but have maintained a steady schedule, and even attracted a fair number of indie developers – many of which claim to be selling the most on the Switch.
But more than the games itself, it’s been fascinating to see how the well the hardware concept of the Switch has gone down with ordinary people. Being able to play multiplayer Mario Kart on a train, with proper controls and amazing graphics, is a very literal game-changer and suddenly you start to think about the concept of video game consoles in a very different way.
Whether Nintendo can maintain that success into next year is impossible to say, since as usual they’re being incredibly secretive. But surely this year cannot have been just luck on their part, and whatever plan they’ve been following didn’t suddenly stop after Christmas.
It’s interesting though, how the year’s two biggest successes were both from outside the normal establishment. Nintendo has always done their own thing, but the most successful game of the year was an early access PC game from an unknown publisher and developer, who, much like the Switch, took only a few short months to conquer the world. The success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (aka PUBG) is entirely deserved and proves yet again that slick marketing campaigns and focus-tested games are not the only route to success.
The situation contrasts well with Sony and Microsoft, neither of whom have had a particularly exciting year. Sony’s success with the PlayStation 4 continues to be unassailable, but while they did release a number of interesting new games – Horizon Zero Dawn in particular – their E3 was fairly quiet, as they were forced to try and catch up with themselves after announcing so many games ahead of time that are still nowhere near release.
With titles like God Of War and The Last Of Us Part II waiting in the wings, Sony are likely to have a very good 2018. But what will happen to Microsoft remains a mystery. Their lack of format exclusives this year has been subject of much bafflement, not least because they don’t seem to care. They put a lot of effort into promoting the Xbox One X, and it is important for them to now be able to claim they have the most powerful console on Earth, but by their own admission the Xbox One X was never going to drive sales and will always be a niche device.
Whether Microsoft see the lack of exclusives as a problem to fix or an unnecessary luxury is impossible to say, but while their position hasn’t gotten worse in 2017 it hasn’t really improved either.
But these are just the normal ups and downs of the games industry. Console manufacturers have good years and bad years, and as long as there’s not too many of the latter all goes along as normal. What is the real concern at the moment is the subject that has dominated headlines in the second half of the year: loot boxes.
We’ve already summarised what happened in our top 10 news stories of the year article, but while the issue did seem to have a happy ending – with EA forced to remove microtransactions from Star Wars: Battlefront II, which then went on to underperform in terms of sales – it was just the opening salvo in what is clearly going to be a war for the future of video games.
The underlying problem with loot boxes is that publishers have discovered that they can make more money selling them than they can the actual games. That’s the situation EA and Activision are already in and you really can’t blame any businessperson for wanting to follow them. Even if it seems likely to everyone else that it’s going to destroy the entire games industry.
There are two key problems with loot boxes. The first being that they are essentially gambling, which means they prey primarily on the young and those susceptible to addiction. Only a tiny percentage of players buy loot boxes, or pay for microtransactions in general, in any volume but these ‘whales’ are where publishers make their real money. Which is terrible.
It’s terrible not just from an ethical point of view but because it means publishers are now designing games only to suit the addictions of a tiny percentage of their players. Which leads into the other problem with loot boxes: the temptation to alter gameplay in order to encourage their use. We’ve seen this multiple times this year in everything from Forza Motorsport 7 to Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War – and seemingly every EA game bar Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Loot boxes, paid for or not, have suddenly become integral to player progression, and so the natural temptation is to slow down progress when playing ‘normally’ and tempt you into spending money to speed things up. Gamers rebelled at the idea when it came to Battlefront II, and that truly was one of the most inspiring moments of the year, but the war for the soul of gaming is far from over.
If publishers carry on without regulating themselves in any way then it’s becoming clear that governments and politicians are prepared to step in and do it for them. And ultimately that may be the only thing to make them think twice. But there’s a deeper issue here than just loot boxes, in that they’re just a new face to an old problem: the attempt by big publishers to slowly strip out the need for any element of skill or effort in video games; so that they can, in their eyes, be made even more appealing to the mass market.
Turning video games into a fruit machine is a dream come true for many businesspeople in the games industry, even if it’s an anathema to those that make and play games. And so it’s likely that in the future 2017 will be seen only as an opening skirmish in the war for video gaming’s artistic integrity. But whatever happens in 2018 at least it can’t take anything away from the best year ever.
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