The 10 biggest video game news stories of 2021 – from Activision Blizzard to NFT
GameCentral looks back at an eventful year in gaming, including the non-existence of the Switch Pro to the return of Lucasfilm Games.
New video game releases may have been thin on the ground for large parts of 2021, and new consoles almost impossible to get hold of, but one thing there wasn’t a shortage of was rumours. Nowadays it’s almost impossible for anything to happen in the games industry without it first being leaked in full detail beforehand, which meant that the last 12 months have been disappointingly short on real surprises.
It’s true that the endless talk of a new Silent Hill never came to pass, and no one predicted Chris Pratt as the voice of Mario, but in the end the biggest news stories of 2021 were very serious ones, about toxic workplace conditions and the insidious rise of NFTs.
These are topics that will continue on well into 2022 and beyond, as the pandemic forces major and lasting change on the video games industry. Although at this point it’s still impossible to tell whether it will be for better or worse…
1. Small in Japan
With the PlayStation 5 being a runaway success Sony has seemed to feel little need to discuss any of its future plans in public, and so there was immediate confusion and upset when it seemed they were abandoning their Japanese heritage by closing down the long-running Japan Studio.
Analysts immediately claimed that the PlayStation brand is in decline in Japan and that the PlayStation 5 is doomed to sell less than half of its predecessor, in large part because the format has so few Japanese-made games on it.
Sony denied any of this was a problem and that it is still committed to supporting the Japanese games industry – although there’s been nothing since then to suggest that’s any more than empty words, with rumours of a new Japanese studio so far not proving true.
2. Lucasfilm strikes back
Disney’s long held disdain for video games has never been explained but it’s meant that for the earlier part of the last decade there were virtually no Marvel or Star Wars games of any note. Things are changing though, and while Marvel’s approach lacks any public controlling force the return of Lucasfilm Games (aka LucasArts) was an unexpected surprise in 2021.
This immediately led to a suite of new announcements, with EA no longer being the sole owner of the Star Wars licence (despite seeming to have several years of exclusivity left) and Ubisoft confirmed to be working on a new open world title.
Suddenly it seemed like every developer in the business was getting a Star Wars game, although since that includes Zynga and Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream there were immediate questions about how carefully Lucasfilm is choosing its partners. Wolfenstein developer MachineGames working on a new Indiana Jones game should be cool though. Now if only Lucasfilm would announce a new Monkey Island…
3. Scott free
The biggest news story of 2020 was the disastrous failure of the Cyberpunk 2077 launch, which by the end of the year looked like it could bring down developer CD Projekt or at least see them sold off cheap to someone else. In the end though they seemed to get away with the debacle with relatively little issue, with even the vaunted lawsuit from investors only amounting to a trivially small fine of £1.4 million.
CD Projekt already seems considerably less contrite now than they did at the beginning of the year but the most disappointing part of the story is that the disaster of Cyberpunk 2077, which at first seemed to have other companies terrified of releasing a broken game themselves, has ultimately had no lasting effect on the games industry.
By the end of the year almost every publisher was releasing broken, buggy games and only admitting to the fact after considerable fan complaint – in other words business as usual. From Battlefield 2042 to Rockstar’s GTA remasters and Nintendo’s emulated N64 games the lesson games companies have taken from Cyberpunk 2077 is that you can get away with pretty much anything as long as you promise to fix it later.
4. Delays: The Sequel
Considering how many there were in 2020 these were the least surprising headlines of 2021, with even games that did make it out this year usually being delayed a few months from their originally intended date. It’s all the fault of Covid, of course, but notable casualties included the entire slate at Warner Bros., including Gotham Knights, Suicide Squad, and Hogwarts Legacy.
Other casualties were Horizon Forbidden West, God Of War Ragnarök, Gran Turismo 7, Saints Row, Elden Ring, Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4, Prince Of Persia remake, Dying Light 2, and the next gen versions of Cyberpunk 2077.
That’s led to one of the busiest looking spring line-ups in recent memory although you shouldn’t take any of those new release dates as certain either, as Marvel’s Midnight Suns became the first 2022 to be delayed until later in the year – although it’ll almost certainly not be the last.
5. Out of stock
The PlayStation 5 has become Sony’s fastest selling console ever, which is no mean feat for a piece of hardware that it’s almost impossible to buy. Be in the right place at the right time and you might just get a 10-minute window of opportunity to buy one every few weeks – a buying experience that’s unlikely to change in 2022.
The worst thing is that hopes for a gradual improvement in the situation never really came true and while at the beginning of the year some people were talking about the shortages lessening relatively quickly, the more recent updates admit they’re set to continue into 2023 and beyond.
That’s going to have a major effect on not only hardware but also software, with cross-gen games likely to continue to be made for the foreseeable future and relatively few next gen only titles for either PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X.
6. Betting on VR
Despite all the problems with hardware, across all industries, in 2021 Sony made it very clear that they are still all-in when it comes to virtual reality. They haven’t shown what it looks like yet, but they announced a new next gen PlayStation VR headset and showed off its controllers. They also bought up VR experts Firesprite and made deals for prominent VR titles like Moss: Book 2.
Rumours suggest that the new VR headset will be extremely powerful but what that’s going to mean for the price remains to be seen. Microsoft has still shown absolutely no interest in the technology, but Oculus Quest 2 (now Meta Quest 2) has become increasingly popular, with its low cost hardware and increasingly high quality games.
The Quest 2 is wireless but rumours are mixed as to whether the PlayStation headset will be, as the question for Sony becomes whether they can compete with Facebook and a headset that doesn’t need a console to work.
7. Enough is enough
The biggest news story of the year didn’t have anything to do with games or consoles but instead the appalling behaviour of some of the people that make them. Activision Blizzard boss Bobby Kotick started the year with demands that he take a pay cut, given the outrageous sums he’s paid, and it ended with even louder calls for his resignation and root and branch change at the publisher.
In July, the State of California concluded a two year investigation into the company that claimed Kotick presided over a ‘frat boy culture’ with harrowing stories of workplace discrimination against women and minorities, all enabled by an apathic leadership and HR department.
Subsequent revelations led to photos being posted of the ‘Billy Cosby Suite’ at Blizzcon – which is somehow even worse than it sounds – which in turn led to walkouts and a series of high profile exits, including the head of Blizzard.
Activision Blizzard’s response to the controversy was heavily criticised, as Kotick at first tried to fight the initial lawsuit and then seemed more interested in preventing unionisation than doing anything about discrimination.
Similar stories at other companies soon began to circulate, with Ubisoft no doubt feeling relived that Activision Blizzard had taken the spotlight away from their own controversy, which was also heavily criticised for the response by the company and the fact that many accused did not lose their job.
Whether all this will lead to any permanent change remains to be seen but it could end up being one of the most significant games industry stories of the decade. Or it could end up like the Cyberpunk 2077 story, where all the fury and anger saw a dispiritingly fast return to the status quo.
8. Pro tip: never trust a Nintendo rumour
One of the biggest news stories of 2021 was actually no story at all, as despite numerous reports, from usually reliable sources, the Switch Pro never did get announced and Nintendo has denied it has any plans for releasing substantially new hardware.
It’s unusual for so many leaks to be proven wrong but in the end the only new console they announced was the OLED model – a minor upgrade with a better screen that was no more powerful than the original version.
Some suspect the Switch Pro was real but was cancelled at the last minute, when Nintendo released that chip shortages would make it impossible to get hold of for most people, but either way it means that the Nintendo Switch is now over five years old and there’s still no official hint on either its replacement or even an interim upgrade.
9. Nasty future technology
Sometimes it feels like the games industry is desperate to do anything other than just make video games. The idea of developing a good game and having people pay money for it went out of fashion decades ago and in 2021 publishers started to convince themselves that live service games, free-to-play, and NFT were the most cost effective ways to make money in the future.
The first two are not particularly new ideas but Ubisoft and EA restated their enthusiasm for them, with the former announcing multiple new titles – even though none of their previous efforts have ever been major successes.
It was NFTs which led to the most controversies though, thanks to the general absurdity of the concept and its serious environmental impact. EA and Ubisoft were especially keen but the Ubisoft released promoting Ubisoft Quartz proved so unpopular they quickly unlisted it – even though they later admitted in an interview that it hadn’t put them off the concept at all.
Since NFTs act like a weaponised form of cosmetic DLC, which publishers can pretend are rare and promote as something you can sell to other people, they’re in danger of quickly becoming the only thing companies are really interested in, with the games themselves merely a platform to sell more.
It’s not just big greedy publishers that are interested though, with Peter Molyneux allegedly making over £40 million from his new game and GSC Game World adding them to Stalker 2… and then having to remove them less than 24 hours later after fan complaints. Like other terrible ideas such as loot boxes and online passes, NFTs are not a concept companies will easily give up on and you’re going to be hearing a lot more about them in 2022.
10. Valve’s Steam Pro
The Switch Pro might not have turned out to be real but Valve’s PC equivalent, the SteamPal, is. Naturally, news leaked out about the portable PC ahead of time but the response from gamers was so positive that pre-orders quickly sold out.
Although that’s not really that important because it was then immediately delayed and most people will be lucky if they get one before the end of next year.
Although its physical design is obviously inspired by the Switch, the SteamPal claims to be able to run almost any PC game on Steam and is surprisingly cheap. Although how much impact it will really have depends very much on how easy it is to get one.
There was also some hope that the new device would encourage Valve to get back into traditional games development, but while they’ve hinted that that will be the case, they’ve already confirmed that Half-Life 3 is still not in serious development.
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