2020's Biggest Gaming News: COVID-19, Game Delays, Ubisoft Scandal
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2020 in video games was a momentous year. Ubisoft was called out for a widespread sexual misconduct scandal, COVID-19 changed the way games are made and led to the cancellation of major shows, including E3, and Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser left the company.
2020 also marked the release of the newest generation of consoles, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S, while politicians used games in new ways to spread their messages and encourage people to vote in the US presidential election. These were just a few of the notable headlines from 2020. In this recap, we're taking a look at a selection of the biggest gaming industry news of the year.
We have much more to come in our coverage of the Best of 2020 over the next few days and weeks. You can look forward to console report cards, best-of lists, and of course, our Game of the Year countdown.
What do you think was the most significant piece of gaming news in 2020? Let us know in the comments below.
COVID-19 And Its Impact On Gaming
One of the biggest storylines in gaming and across the world in 2020 was COVID-19. The global health crisis was and remains a gigantic issue that has thrust the world into a new paradigm. This has affected the video game business in a multitude of ways.
One of those was how it forced the cancellation of, or resulted in major changes to, multiple major video game events, the first major one of which was PAX East in Boston.
The event was scheduled for the end February, and while it did in fact go ahead, many publishers and developers pulled out. The companies behind Cyberpunk 2077, The Last of Us Part II, and PUBG all cancelled appearances and events for the convention, while numerous others chose not to attend due to concerns about the virus.
The string of cancellations for in-person gaming and entertainment events continued from there. With the virus spreading, the organizers of E3 2020 announced in March that the annual gaming event in Los Angeles would be cancelled due to concerns over health and safety. It was a momentous change, as E3 had been held annually and continuously for 25 straight years before this. While E3 2020's in-person show was canceled, the summer was not without news events.
Instead of a concentrated week-long run of news briefings and press conferences, publishers like Microsoft, Sony, Ubisoft, Devolver, and others held their own individual virtual events that were spread through the summer months and streamed online. These events brought news about the prices and release dates for the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S, the announcement of games like Skate 4 and Far Cry 6, and new footage and details on Cyberpunk 2077, among other games.
COVID-19 also led to major changes in how developers operate. At various points in the first half of 2020, developers big and small shifted to a work-from-home setup. With physical recording studios closed, . Due to the challenges of working in this environment, multiple major games faced delays, including the marquee Xbox Series X launch title, Halo Infinite, as well as The Last of Us Part II, Wasteland 3, NHL 21, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, Far Cry 6, and Rainbow Six Quarantine. Some game developers, like Square Enix, have announced plans allow their developers to work from home permanently as a result of the pandemic, and more may follow.
Despite the challenges related to COVID-19, both Microsoft and Sony successfully released their next-generation consoles, and both are selling well. In fact, they have been so popular that both companies have sold through all their stock and new orders sell out immediately. The consoles haven't been without issue, however, as reports have emerged about various issues such as crashing and problems with the PS5's rest mode, in particular. Whether or not these issues are related to COVID-19 or are just the normal teething issues with new hardware, it's not immediately clear.
With so many people staying home during the pandemic, either voluntarily or under shelter-in-place orders, time spent gaming and revenue from gaming increased dramatically. All major publishers reported a surge in sales and play time due to the virus. Gaming revenue is expected to reach new all-time records for sales this year due to the pandemic.
Lots Of Game Delays
Connected to the impact of COVID-19, and for a variety of other separate reasons, there were numerous game delays for projects big and small in 2020. Perhaps the highest-profile delay was that of Halo Infinite, which was scheduled as a launch title for the Xbox Series X|S (November 10) before Microsoft pushed it out to 2021. Microsoft said complications related to the shift to a work-from-home environment at least partially contributed to the delay. This was a particularly meaningful delay, as Halo Infinite was lined up as the launch title for the Xbox Series X|S, and it would have marked the first time since the original Halo in 2001 that a Halo game launched with new Xbox hardware. Alas, though, it was not meant to be. Another Xbox Series X|S launch window title, The Medium, was also pushed out to 2021.
Another major game that saw its release date pushed out this year was Cyberpunk 2077, the long-in-development RPG from the creators of The Witcher series. The game's latest delay pushed the title out to December 10, and it will have been a long time coming, as Cyberpunk 2077 was originally announced with a concept teaser all the way back in 2012.
Other notable major game delays in 2020 that were due in part to COVID-19 included The Outer Worlds for Switch (from March to June), The Last of Us Part II (from May to June), Ghost of Tsushima (from June to July), and No More Heroes (from 2020 to 2021). Ubisoft's Far Cry 6 and Rainbow Six Quarantine were also delayed to unspecified dates in the future, with the publisher citing complications for developers working from home--a typical refrain in announcements about delays.
PS5 And Xbox Series X
New console launches only come around once every seven or eight years, and, despite the problems presented by COVID-19, Microsoft and Sony went ahead with the release of their next-generation consoles. 2020 was dominated by headlines surrounding the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
Microsoft actually kicked things off in earnest by revealing the design of the Xbox Series X in December 2019 during The Game Awards, but Sony cranked things into gear with the reveal of the PS5 form factor during a June 2020 digital news briefing. This was supposed to be Sony's show-stopping moment at E3 2020, and despite no physical event, the news sent shockwaves through the gaming world. Just as people roasted the Xbox Series X for looking like a mini-fridge, the gaming community jumped on Sony and quickly came up with excellent memes for the PS5 that poked fun at its gigantic size and how it resembles the Eye of Sauron.
Another big story of 2020 for next-gen consoles was price. Microsoft got out of the gate first by announcing a $500 USD price for the Xbox Series X, which Sony matched for the PS5 with its own reveal in mid-September. The consoles were not as expensive as some imagined they might be, and that's just one part of the equation. Sony and Microsoft also released disc-free editions of their consoles, the PS5 Digital Edition ($400 USD) and the Xbox Series S ($300 USD), helping bring next-gen to the masses with lower price points.
The Xbox situation is a little more unusual, however, as the gulf between the Xbox Series X and S in terms of raw power is significant. Contrasting this, the PS5 and the PS5 Digital Edition have the same guts, the only difference being the disc drive. For Xbox, this sets up a situation where developers will need to prepare their games for a broad range of hardware.
Much was said about the launch lineups for the PS5 and Xbox Series X being relatively weaker than the previous console generation, but a big change with the new consoles is that they offer extensive backwards compatibility with the previous generation. Therefore, the systems are more akin to a new iPhone, where you pay more for the shiny new thing and get to keep your digital libraries. Even without dedicated updates, PS4 and Xbox One games have shown to play and perform better on the new consoles thanks to the extra horsepower. Gone are the days when upgrading to a new platform means your previous purchases are rendered obsolete.
The PS5 and Xbox Series X launched in early November within a few days of each other, and they each immediately sold out. Stock is still being replenished at retailers, but the consoles are expected to remain a hot commodity throughout the holidays and beyond. Microsoft has warned that Xbox Series X shortages could run for "months" to come.
Microsoft Buys ZeniMax
In October, seemingly out of nowhere, Microsoft announced its intention to acquire ZeniMax, the parent company of esteemed publisher Bethesda Softworks, id Software, and Bethesda Game Studios, the game development team behind the Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises.
The shocking announcement included a jaw-dropping $7.5 billion acquisition price, which makes it the second-largest acquisition in gaming's history in terms of dollars, only behind the $8.6 billion that Tencent paid to acquire Supercell. For another point of comparison, Disney paid $4 billion to buy the Star Wars series from George Lucas. And looking in-house, Microsoft years before spent $2.5 billion to acquire Minecraft and developer Mojang.
Microsoft's dealmaking for ZeniMax led many to wonder what it means for future Bethesda games, such as The Elder Scrolls 6, Starfield, and the inevitable next Fallout game. We still don't know, and part of that is because Microsoft and Bethesda are legally forbidden from sharing details on their deal until it closes in 2021. We do know that deals that were already in place, like the PlayStation console exclusivity for Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo for the PS5, will remain intact. But going forward? It's less clear.
Microsoft's next-generation strategy is all about making more people Xbox customers, and specifically through Game Pass. To get there, Microsoft needed more content to convince people to sign up, and having ZeniMax's lineup of studios in the fold goes a long way in that department. According to Bloomberg analyst Matthew Kanterman, if Microsoft can sign up 10 million more Game Pass Ultimate subscribers, the $7.5 billion deal to buy ZeniMax pays for itself in four years, and potentially faster if Microsoft raises Game Pass subscription prices.
In buying ZeniMax, Microsoft also sets itself back up for success with role-playing games, a category that it hasn't seen much success or growth in since the Fable days.
Epic Versus Apple
Independent game developer Epic, the studio behind the wildly popular battle royale game Fortnite, picked a fight with Apple in 2020 over platform fees, and the results have already begun to shape the industry and impact how much money studios make from selling games on iOS.
It all started in August when Epic launched its own in-game Fortnite store that allowed players to purchase V-Bucks directly from Epic--at a discount--instead of going through Apple's store and thereby denying Apple its 30 percent cut of sales. Apple was none too pleased by missing out on this revenue and upset with Epic for breaking its rules. As a result, Apple yanked Fortnite from the iOS store, and it's still not available today. Epic fired back with a civil lawsuit that asserted Apple is violating antitrust laws. It's worth noting, too, that Epic has sued Google over similar issues and the removal of Fortnite from its own store.
With the situation unresolved iOS players are getting a less-than-ideal experience. Those who have the game installed can keep playing, but the iOS edition has not been receiving updates. Additionally, Apple has completely blocked Fortnite from the iOS store, which has led to an eBay market for phones with the game installed. For the Google version, players can still access it directly from Epic due to the relatively more open nature of Google's OS.
The Epic vs. Apple trial is expected to begin in July 2021. While the hearing isn't going forward until then, it seems Epic's action has spurred Apple to change in some ways. In November, Apple announced that it would reduce its cut from App Store fees for small businesses to 15 percent beginning in January 2021. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said he was not impressed with the move, saying (via Variety) that by making this deal, "Apple is hoping to remove enough critics that they can get away with their blockade on competition and 30% tax on most in-app purchases."
Another significant component to this story is how Epic has waged an especially public campaign against the two technology giants. Epic has weaponized Fortnite fans through the #FreeFortnite hashtag and the bizarre 1984 ad. Epic has been called out for deliberately writing its legal filings in an attention-grabbing manner. Epic has also faced backlash after Epic CEO Tim Sweeney invoking the Civil Rights movement and, in general, positioning itself as the David in the fight against the goliaths Apple and Google.
Ubisoft's MeToo Reckoning
Over the summer, reports and stories regarding abuse allegations at one of the biggest publishers in gaming, Ubisoft, began to pick up steam. Reporting from Bloomberg and others shone a light on the harassment and abuse going on inside the company, and these reports and other accounts would go on to push the Assassin's Creed publisher to make changes to its corporate leadership and support networks. In response to the reports, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot sent a notice to staffers wherein he said he "won't accept anything less" than a welcome and respectful company culture and environment.
A number of high-profile Ubisoft developers would quit or resign from the company over the summer in the wake of the allegations. Ubisoft's longtime chief creative officer, Serge Hascoet, who was accused of sexism, resigned from his post, while Assassin's Creed Valhalla's creative director, Ashraf Ismail, stepped down in the wake of reports about his personal life. In terms of changes going forward, Ubisoft said its Editorial group will be "revised" after formerly being comprised of seven white men.
Data released by Ubisoft in October showed that nearly 25% of Ubisoft employees who took part in a study regarding company culture experiences some form of workplace misconduct over the last two years. Minority groups were disproportionately affected; women experienced harassment 30% more than men, and non-binary employees experienced it 43% more than men. What's more, just 66% of respondents who reported an incident said they felt they received support from management.
Politicians Get Into Gaming
The United States elected a new president in November, but before the election, politicians used video games to help encourage people to vote.
Joe Biden conducted this kind of outreach through Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the wildly popular Nintendo game played by millions of people. His campaign rolled out a new island called Biden HQ that featured a number of activations to encourage people to have their say in the election. A villager modeled after Joe Biden himself was seen walking around the island, and he even uttered his famous "No malarkey!" slogan.
Biden was not the only high-profile politician to use gaming to help reach voters. Just weeks before the November election, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) held a livestream on Twitch where she played the popular impostor game Among Us with another lawmaker, Ilhan Omar, and a series of high-profile streamers.
Virtual Concerts Go Big
Among the many live events that got cancelled in 2020 were in-person concerts after March. While you might have missed out on your favorite band's tour or a local gig, video games reached new heights in 2020 when it came to offering alternative, virtual venues. With in-person concerts cancelled and revenues cratering, performers turned to video games for a reprieve.
In April, Epic's battle royale game Fortnite hosted a Travis Scott concert. The event was a mind-melting extravaganza that was truly a sight to behold. And a lot of people turned up. By Epic's latest count, more than 27 million people watched the concert, which featured a hologram of a gigantic Travis Scott performing for players in the bright and colorful world.
Another popular game, Roblox, hosted a major concert of its own this year as well. In November, "Old Town Road" singer Lil Nas X not only performed a literally larger-than-life concert in the MMO, but he debuted a new single during the show. This event was even bigger than the Travis Scott concert, reaching more than 32 million people over the course of four shows. The rapper's management said they were looking to reach more fans and chose Roblox as the venue for the show because of its size, scale, and demographic. Given the enormous success of the Travis Scott and Lil Nas X events, you can expect more of these in the future.
On a smaller scale, the band Korn debuted their newest music video, "Finally Free," inside the free-to-play mobile game World of Tanks Blitz. Singer Jonathan Davis said, "I think there is a connection between rock and video games because video games are intense and rock 'n' roll music is intense. It seems like they have always gone hand in hand."
Minecraft also had a big year in 2020 for in-game concerts. An event that started as a joke led to a real series called "Block by Blockwest" where almost 30 bands performed across multiple stages.
Other Big Gaming News In 2020
- Call of Duty League kicks off inaugural season [Full story]
- Rod Fergusson leaves Gears developer The Coalition to join Blizzard [Full story]
- Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser leaves the company [Full story]
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons becomes a phenomenon culturally and commercially [Full story]
- GTA 5 was announced for even more platforms, the PS5 and Xbox Series X [Full story]
- Halo Infinite's gameplay was finally shown off, and it did not impress. Microsoft also confirmed that Halo Infinite's multiplayer element would be free, marking a big change for the series [Full story]
- Veteran Ubisoft developer Michael Ancel retires [Full story]
- Amazon announces a new game-streaming service, Luna [Full story]
- Microsoft's game-streaming platform, xCloud, launches publicly [Full story]
- Reports emerge of CD Projekt Red enacting mandatory crunch to finish Cyberpunk 2077 [Full story]
- Rockstar Games owner Take-Two Interactive buys Codemasters for nearly $1 billion [Full story]