GameCentral looks back at a turbulent year in gaming, that’s seen the surprise success of Nintendo Switch and the scourge of loot boxes.
2017 may have been a classic year in terms of the quality of games released, but a lot of the industry news from the last 12 months was considerably less inspiring. The death of single-player and the rise of loot boxes threatened to close the year out in depressing fashion, but in the end even those stories ended on a relatively positive note.
Many of these stories will rumble on into next year, while others are more self-contained. But these are the issues that made 2017 what it was, and will shape the future of the video games industry for a long time to come…
The dream is over
Every time we work on a preview for the new year we have to factor in something about Half-Life 3. It’s been a decade now since the last entry in the series and this year started off with stories of a developer claiming that, ‘there is no such thing as Half-Life 3’, while Gabe Newell promised that Valve are working on a new game in the Half-Life universe. We’ve a nasty feeling that might have been Bridge Constructor Portal, but there was finally some sense of closure when the original writer of the game released the plot of what was going to happen in Half-Life 2: Episode Three. The names had to be changed to protect the innocent, but now you finally know what happened after the last game’s cliffhanger ending.
Nintendo’s big switch up
After a positive responsive to its unveiling in October 2016, the Nintendo Switch did not have the greatest start to the year. The preview events and price reveals in January were unconvincing, and many feared that it would end up another Wii U after all. And then people started getting proper hands-on time with Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, and suddenly Nintendo were riding a wave of success that still shows no sign of breaking. Not only did Zelda get more 10/10 scores than any game in history but Nintendo didn’t have a dud all year with games like ARMS, Splatoon 2, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and particularly Super Mario Odyssey. In December it was revealed Switch sales had hit worldwide sales of 10 million well ahead of schedule, which puts it in a very favourable position for next year.
How to kill a franchise
EA’s annus horribilis began early on, with the disaster that was Mass Effect: Andromeda. The original trilogy was one of the most popular franchises of the last generation, and yet curiously little was seen of the new game until it got very close to release. And soon it became obvious why. Andromeda’s terrible animation, and an equally bad script, quickly became a laughing stock across the Internet, and when the game proved a sales disappointment EA were equally quick to cancel plans for DLC and any talk of a sequel. There were patches to fix some of the graphical issues but the studio was quietly shut down a few months later, and fans were suddenly left hoping that EA aren’t lying when they say the franchise will still continue in the future.
Nintendo’s mini crisis
The success of the Switch was such a surprise in large part because Nintendo themselves are so unpredictable. And this year saw a classic example of just how weird they can be, when they suddenly decided to discontinue the Classic Mini NES – despite it being so scarce most people hadn’t had a chance to buy it yet. Almost immediately rumours emerged of the Classic Mini SNES, which was eventually revealed and turned out to be another near perfect retro recreation. Why Nintendo stopped making the NES has never been satisfactorily explained, but it is coming back next year.
Microsoft’s power trip
The first big news story of 2017 was the cancellation of Xbox One exclusive Scalebound, which preceded the delay of Crackdown 3 and Sea Of Thieves into 2018 and left Microsoft with worryingly few exclusives for the year. How much of a problem they consider this to be is still unclear, but this year their priority was hardware, not software. The Xbox One S is cheaper than ever and the launch of the Xbox One X just before Christmas meant they once again have the most powerful console in the world. Given the price it is, by Microsoft’s own admission, a machine only for hardcore gamers, but initial sales have easily outstripped Sony’s equivalent of the PS4 Pro. Which will certainly give Microsoft confidence as they take the fight to Sony in 2018.
Winner, winner chicken dinner
No matter how well more traditional games may have sold this year the real success story was, up until a few weeks ago, only on PC. Back in March, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, aka PUBG, was just another glitchy multiplayer game. But within an almost frighteningly short period of time it had become a global sensation. It is the best-selling single format game of the year, the biggest game ever on Steam, and in nine months it’s sold over 26 million copies. And that doesn’t include over 1 million copies of the Xbox One version in just 48 hours.
Sticking it to the man
One of the best things about 2017 is that there were a number of very worrying stories, from a games industry business perspective, that ended up having unexpectedly happy endings. When Square Enix announced they were ditching Hitman developer in May fans were distraught, but it later emerged that not only would the studio carry on as an independent but that they’d managed to keep the Hitman licence and immediately republished the game under their own name.
There was further good news when Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice proved an unequivocal success, proving that indie games with a higher than normal price tag and budget (more than normal indie titles but less than retail games) could be successful and look just as good as any more expensive game. We didn’t even like Hellblade that much but its success should have a very positive influence on the whole industry.
Sony’s unstoppable year
As well as the Switch has done, and as good a start as the Xbox One X has enjoyed, neither console format seems to stand any chance of beating Sony this generation. Sales of the PlayStation 4, including PS4 Pro, hit a staggering 70.6 million this year, after just four years on sale. That’s compared to around 33 million for the Xbox One over the same period. The PlayStation VR headset has also sold 2 million units worldwide, but the most interesting figures for UK gamers came just recently, when it was revealed that 50.2% of all retail video game sales are for Sony’s console, compared to just 31.6% for the Xbox One and 7.5% for the Switch.
The death of single-player
Things only really started to get bad for EA in October, when it was revealed that they were closing Dead Space developer Visceral Games, and rethinking the Star Wars game they’d been working on for the last several years. Rumours claimed that the game was being revamped because EA didn’t think single-player games were popular enough anymore. An idea that seemed to come out of the blue but which, worryingly, several other industry figures started repeating. But then it emerged that it was linear single-player games EA had the real problem with (the game was believed to be similar to Uncharted) and what they were really upset about was that there was no way to get loot boxes into the game…
The loot box battlefront
After such an amazing year, with so many classic games, the problem with loot boxes seemed to come out of nowhere. There were gamers, happily enjoying the best year for a decade when suddenly it seemed as if the whole concept of video games was under attack, not from politicians or the media but from the people that made them. In fact, politicians were actually helping for once – which showed just how bad things had got – as figures around the world warned that loot boxes were out of control and should be subject to gambling laws.
Loot boxes have been around for years now but the extent of this year’s problem only became obvious with Christmas releases such as NBA 2K18, Forza Motorsport 7, Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War, Need For Speed Payback and, most infamously, Star Wars: Battlefront II. EA’s second Star Wars game had been previewing very well during the course of the year and their promise that all DLC would be free was seen as a welcome alternative to season passes.
But what nobody realised until much closer to release was that loot boxes weren’t an optional extra. The entire player progression system was built around them, and it all but ruined the game. This led to a series of U-turns from EA, culminating in them pulling microtransactions from the game a day before its release. It’s still not clear whether they’ll ever come back, but what is known is that the game sold 2.5 million less copies than the first one.
It was a sign that gamers really do care about the issue and that the controversy is not going to go away next year. Especially given existing concerns about EA Sports UFC 3, and worries about Destiny 2 after Bungie came under fire for fiddling experience point gains and Activision were discovered to have a patent for using matchmaking to sell more microtransactions. The problem is that loot boxes now make more money than games, and that’s not an issue that’s going to go away anytime soon…