2021 was a year filled with major controversies and the continued effects of COVID-19 in the video game industry.
2021 was, in many ways, a year that cannot be discussed without mentioning 2020. Many of the problems that plagued 2020--including the COVID pandemic and subsequent supply shortages for the new consoles--had rippling effects throughout 2021. Games we heralded as boredom-crushers in 2020 gave way to long game delays in 2021, with many developers having to slow down their work process in order to accommodate work-from-home setups.
Aside from that, we had a changing landscape with Netflix entering the gaming space, the nebulous promise of the "metaverse," big gaming companies getting even bigger, and a certain green hero getting thrown back into the spotlight.
But we also had a massive reckoning at one of the biggest companies in the industry, with allegations of widespread abuse and harassment that shone a light on how people in positions of power have avoided consequences for their actions.
These were the biggest gaming news stories of 2021.
There were a lot of delays in 2021--a lot of delays. These ranged from games getting pushed back several weeks or months to games not even scheduled for 2021 releases getting bumped into 2023. It affected everything from giant games like Overwatch 2 to smaller indie titles, and many of the announcements blamed the pandemic for slowing down the workflow.
The delayed game list for 2021 is comically long, affecting all three major systems and PC. Advance Wars 1 + 2: Re-Boot Camp, Dying Light 2, Horizon Forbidden West, God of War: Ragnarok, and Diablo IV are among the biggest games to get delayed at some point during the year. But it wasn't just software--we also saw hardware get delayed, including Valve's exciting portable Steam Deck PC, which was already releasing in waves after its preorder allotment quickly sold out.
Console stock woes
With basically every other console generation, we saw new systems' preorders sell out quickly, they would be tough to find for a few months, and then they'd end up on store shelves. Thanks to a perfect storm of the pandemic limiting in-person shopping, scalping bots buying up online stock, and--most critically--continued supply shortages for key components affecting all three console makers' ability to, well, make consoles, new game systems are very hard to find.
The problem has no clear end in sight, either. Semiconductor shortages could continue into the middle of 2022 or even longer, and the stock that has already been manufactured has experienced shipping delays due to crowded unloading docks. Microsoft's cloud gaming solution could act as something of a stopgap for this, letting those with Xbox One consoles (or a PC or phone) still play the newer games until they can actually find the Series X.
Google Stadia first-party development ends
Google Stadia didn't get off on the right foot, missing several of its promised features at launch and not sporting a particularly deep library. Since then, we've seen the games come sporadically and many of those features have been added, but it has struggled to gain relevance. It looked like Google was going to have to rely on its own development teams to create incredible experiences that made Stadia worth using.
But those developers never got the chance, as Google shut down all internal game development teams. Going forward, there may not be any exclusive Stadia games, limiting its appeal to those who already own a console. It even has competition from Microsoft's Xbox Cloud Gaming, too, which comes as a complementary perk for Xbox Game Pass subscribers and doesn't require any extra purchase.
Fortnite trial ends with both sides unhappy
Last year, Epic Games began offering a third-party payment system without the iOS and Google Play versions of Fortnite, provoking Apple and Google to remove the game from their stores for violating their terms of service. Epic Games had a lawsuit already drafted and ready to go, and the trial was scheduled for 2021.
Well, the trial between Apple and Epic Games happened, and neither side is likely happy with the outcome. On most points, it actually went in Apple's favor, as Epic Games did pretty clearly and willingly violate the App Store's policies. However, it was also ruled that Apple cannot stop other companies from offering third-party payment systems in the App Store going forward, which bodes well for players and could potentially open the door for apps with direct payment systems to arrive on iOS.
A PlayStation game launches… on Xbox Game Pass?
For years, Xbox games were on Xbox systems and PlayStation games were on PlayStation systems--and that was it. Then Microsoft started releasing its games on PC, and a select few of Sony's games also came to PC. But what happened this year was still a surprise. Not only did MLB The Show 21 release for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S, as Sony and Major League Baseball had suggested in the past, but it also launched on Game Pass.
This meant that Xbox players had a chance to play the game without buying it, while PlayStation players couldn't do the same. The decision, as it turns out, was made by the MLB rather than Sony, likely as part of its agreement to maintain the license for the league. However, it doesn't make the pill any easier to swallow for those who bought a PS5 instead of an Xbox Series X|S and ended up having to pay more money to play a Sony-developed game… though another Microsoft-owned studio made a game that released on PS5 but not Xbox systems.
A year did Halo good
Halo Infinite's campaign was unveiled for the first time in 2020, and the response from players was tepid at best. The visuals were criticized, not just for the lack of visual detail we'd expect from a Halo game releasing on Xbox Series X|S, but also for the stiff character animations best exemplified in the "Craig" meme. The game was due to release just a few months after that, but Microsoft made the decision to delay the game an entire year.
The decision appears to have been a good one. With former Halo writer Joe Staten leading the creative team for its final year of development, Halo Infinite has seen a huge improvement to its visuals, and the response to its online multiplayer--aside from its progression system--has been almost universally positive. Early previews from the campaign are similarly glowing, suggesting 343 Industries may have finally managed to re-capture the magic that Bungie did when Master Chief first landed on the Halo ring 20 years ago.
Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy -- The Definitive Edition -- The Bad Edition
One of the biggest disappointments of the year, Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy -- The Definitive Edition, has an obnoxiously long name, made less palatable by the odd design choices and apparent lack of attention or time that went into the final remastered games. The action figure-like character designs don't always match up with the environments, which did not always have as much of a visual overhaul, and the decision to enhance the flawed mobile ports of GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas rather than overhaul the originals came across as a cost-cutting and cynical move.
Despite adding GTA V-style controls and making some other modern improvements, there are elements of the remastered games that make them worse than the PS2 versions. Rain's opacity makes it hard to do anything during a storm, and there are even some visual gags that don't work because of how the visuals were updated--like a doughnut shaped like a hex bolt getting smoothed out. Given the literal billions of dollars Take-Two has earned on the franchise to date, this lack of care is even more egregious.
Netflix enters the gaming industry
Netflix long reigned in the movie- and TV-streaming space, but it has seen a ton of competition in recent years from the likes of Disney, HBO, Amazon, and Peacock. So, why not expand into gaming to diversify? Netflix entered the gaming industry in 2021--albeit in a limited form--offering a selection of free games on mobile devices at no extra cost to its subscribers. Some of these are based on existing Netflix franchises, while others aren't, and could hint at a greater expansion in the future.
It's also clear Netflix isn't interested in just having multiplatform games on its service. The company purchased Oxenfree developer Night School Studios in September, likely for expansion into exclusive games. These games, Netflix has promised, will also have no in-app purchases or ads, which is a rarity for mobile games in 2021 and could attract more traditional players who are otherwise not interested in mobile gaming.
Microsoft and Sony keep buying studios
Sony and Microsoft are showing no signs of slowing down when it comes to studio acquisitions. Microsoft's acquisition of Bethesda officially went through in 2021 after regulators approved it, bringing companies like Arkane, id Software, Tango Gameworks, and Machine Games under the Xbox umbrella. Most future Bethesda games will seemingly be console-exclusive to Xbox, and they'll release for no extra charge on Game Pass.
But it was Sony that actually made the bigger moves in 2021. PlayStation Studios acquired Nixxes Software, a company that has specialized in creating PC ports, as it continues to release former PlayStation-exclusive games to PC. It also acquired Bluepoint Games, a studio known almost entirely for its remakes and ports of existing games, as well as Housemarque--which developed Game of the Year contender Returnal earlier this year. Sony did also close one developer--its Japan Studio--though it retained the Team Asobi group responsible for Astro's Playroom.
NFTs and the "metaverse" try to weasel into gaming
Non-fungible tokens, better known as NFTs, have become all the rage lately, with everyone from musicians to filmmakers offering some sort of digital goods with sole ownership available to a purchaser. Their environmental effects and exclusive nature have some seeing them as elitist and exclusionary, but despite this, blockchain technology seems poised to make its way into nearly every major video game company. EA, Ubisoft, Take-Two, and Square Enix all seem to be bullish on the concept, with talks of the "future of the game industry" that isn't really backed up by any concrete plans. One company that doesn't seem to be fond of the blockchain is Valve, which banned all blockchain-based games from its platform in 2021.
Even more recently, there is talk of the "metaverse," especially from Facebook--sorry, from Meta. The company changed its name to represent its shift toward the metaverse, a nebulous concept that Mark Zuckerberg didn't seem to totally have prepared but insisted would be really important during a presentation he gave in late 2021. Oculus is now branded as Meta, as well, and the Quest looks to be a big driver with its VR games moving forward. But just what this all means remains unclear to us, and we're being told it's the future without a compelling reason why.
A reckoning at Activision Blizzard and across the industry
Following a major upheaval at Ubisoft in 2020, during which widespread sexual harassment--and in some cases, assault--as well as gender discrimination were brought to light, a similar controversy erupted at Activision Blizzard. Initially, it appeared the problem was primarily with Blizzard Entertainment, where allegations and several reports of harassment, discrimination, and sexism led to a lawsuit by the State of California. The studio's president resigned in the wake of this, and one of his replacements later left after she said she was not given the same payment as her male counterpart.
Activision Blizzard said it was working with regulators to address the issues, and CEO Bobby Kotick eventually requested his salary be reduced to just $62,500 until the issues were resolved. However, a later report from the Washington Post alleged the problems were much more widespread, including instances of rape at one studio and Kotick threatening to murder an assistant during a phone call. These revelations led to widespread calls for Kotick's resignation, as well as condemnation from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. As of now, Kotick has yet to resign, and the board of directors--of which he is a member--have supported him publicly.