Layoffs, GTA 6, Fortnite, PS5 Slim, AI, Microsoft Buys Activision: The Biggest Gaming News Of 2023
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2023 is coming to a close
2023 was another big year for the video game industry, with many memorable moments, ups and downs, and storylines that dominated the headlines. With the end of the year in sight, we're looking back at the year that was and compiling the biggest news of 2023.
Perhaps the biggest storyline of 2023 related to the human element of making games. 2023 was marked with significant layoffs, studio closures, and other difficult news for the people who make games. By some estimates, more than 7,000 jobs were lost this year alone. All the while, major gaming companies made massive profits in 2023, and there has been a renewed discussion about the overall health, viability, and sustainability of game development at large.
Some believe the AAA gaming business is unsustainable and headed for a crash, if it hasn't happened already.
Another major story from 2023 was Microsoft's $68.7 billion to buy Activision Blizzard finally, after a lengthy regulatory approval process, getting completed in October. This brought an end to 18 months of regulatory process that included many secret documents and personal emails finding their way online and providing a rare peek behind the curtain.
2023 also saw notable events like the closure of the Overwatch League and the shutdown of the Wii U and 3DS eShops. Beyond that, in 2023 we tragically lost beloved video game actors like Lance Reddick (Destiny, Horizon) and Annie Wersching (The Last of Us). The communities surrounding those games celebrated their lives and legacy with tributes.
What's more, Rockstar Games released the first trailer for Grand Theft Auto 6 and Epic Games released such a big update for Fortnite that some believe it's more akin to Fortnite 2.
Read on to see all the biggest gaming news of 2023.
AI On The Rise
In 2023, artificial intelligence reached new levels of prominence and ubiquity. Everyone is seemingly talking about it, and the video game business was no different. It's still relatively early days, but opinions on the technology are all over the place. For its part, Microsoft has said it's a big believer in AI and its potential to do good, help developers make games faster, and improve gaming experiences for users. Microsoft wants to put AI in every product it makes, including Xbox. This stance should be no surprise, as Microsoft paid OpenAI a reported $10 billion as part of a major deal.
Others, however, have been skeptical or pessimistic about the role that AI could play in game development. There are real fears that AI could replace human jobs. In the wake of the Hollywood actor and writer strikes, which both successfully won protections against AI for their members, people in gaming are requesting a similar level of shielding from the potential human cost of the role of AI.
EA CEO Andrew Wilson said he believes AI has the potential to be transformative for video games, but it might also lead to job "displacement."
Layoffs, Closures, And Pain
2023 was marked, most notably, with numerous layoffs, studio closures, and other pain for the people who make the games we love. By some estimates, more than 7,000 jobs were cut in 2023 alone. Jobs were lost at Xbox, Niantic, EA, Unity, CD Projekt, Ubisoft, Rockstar, Digital Extremes, Epic, Telltale, BioWare, Bungie, CD Projekt Red, Ascendant, Embracer, Amazon, and many more. The reasons for the cuts varied by studio, including big bets that didn't pay off, general market contraction, low interest rates coming to bear, deals falling through, and more.
Take-Two boss Strauss Zelnick said he believes many companies staffed up too much during the pandemic and are now making tough choices. "I think many of our competitors overbuilt during the enthusiasm of the pandemic and they're rationalizing now," he said. "I think we were a little bit more moderate." For what it's worth, Take-Two wasn't immune, as it also cut positions in 2023, though not as extensively as other companies did.
Beyond layoffs, entire studios were shuttered in 2023. Studios that shut down in 2023, citing the current development landscape and other factors, included Mimimi, PixelOpus, Volition, BonusXP, and Tiny Human, among others.
The Swedish gaming giant Embracer had a challenging 2023 as well. It disclosed that it lost a $2 billion deal at the 11th hour from Savvy; this, among other factors, prompted the studio to cut staff, cancel or delay games, and close entire studios. The latest of these is Free Radical Design, the studio behind TimeSplitters, which Embracer said is facing closure before Christmas.
Xbox Live Gold Goes Away
Xbox Live Gold was a mainstay on Xbox for years--it debuted in 2002--but the offering died off in 2023. Microsoft phased out Xbox Live Gold and replaced it with Xbox Game Pass Core in September. Core is the same price as Gold, and all existing Gold subscribers were automatically transferred to Core. Subscribers get access to online multiplayer and a selection of 35-plus games, and more over time. They don't get the full Game Pass catalog--that's locked away to the higher tiers.
Game Pass, PS Plus Price Increases
Death. Taxes. And subscription services getting more expensive. That proved to be true for Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus in 2023, with both services seeing increases. The PS Plus Premium tier, for example, saw its annual price increase by $40. The Xbox Game Pass price increase was not as significant, rising from $10 to $11/month for the standard membership and $15 to $17/month for the Ultimate offering that includes cloud-streaming. Not only that, but Microsoft started charging $10 more for its first-party games in 2023, raising the price from $60 to $70.
Google Officially Closes Stadia
2023 began with something that ended. Google officially pulled the plug on its game-streaming service, Stadia, in mid-January. The company informed subscribers of the shutdown in 2022, but it was on January 18, 2023 that Stadia was officially taken offline for good. Google had big plans for Stadia and recruited names like Phil Harrison and Jade Raymond to create games and entire teams to make content for Stadia. But the service never caught on, and like many Google projects before it, Stadia ended up shutting down.
Super Nintendo World Opens In America
Following its debut in Japan in 2021, the Super Nintendo World theme park at Universal Studios opened at the company's park in California in February 2023. Nintendo's ambitious theme park is centered around the Mushroom Kingdom, featuring rides, attractions, food, and merchandise. Universal Studios will open a Super Nintendo World park in Orlando in 2024.
ESA Cancels E3 2023, Plans For 2024 In Doubt
In March, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) officially canceled E3 2023. This was going to be the first show run by ReedPop, which took over management of the show. ReedPop said companies who wanted to attend did not have enough time to get playable demos ready, while "resourcing challenges" also made having E3 take place at the normal time too much of an obstacle to overcome. A report from IIGN said E3 "simply did not garner the sustained interest necessary to execute" the show in the way the ESA wanted to.
In September, it was reported that E3 2024 might be canceled as well. Beyond that, it was reported that a "complete reinvention" of the show could come in 2025.
Mario Movie Breaks Records, Zelda Movie Coming
In April, Nintendo and Universal released The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Many wondered how the movie might fare with critics and at the box office, and it succeeded more than many might have imagined. The animated movie, which features the voice of Chris Pratt as Mario, earned more than $1.3 billion worldwide to become 2023's No. 2 film overall, behind Barbie. That also made it the biggest video game movie of all time, rocketing past films like Detective Pikachu ($450 million), Warcraft ($440 million), Need for Speed ($203 million), and many others. The movie also featured the voices of Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Charlie Day, and more famous people.
Later in the year, Nintendo announced another movie, but it wasn't the Mario movie sequel many expected. Instead, Nintendo partnered with Sony (yes, really!) to make a live-action Legend of Zelda movie. Very few details are known as of yet, but it's confirmed that Marvel veteran Avi Arad will produce, with Maze Runner director Wes Ball lined up to direct. No casting announcements have been made yet, nor is there a release date, but the Zelda movie will no doubt be one to watch for.
Charles Martinet Steps Back As The Voice Of Mario
In August, Nintendo announced that longtime Mario voice actor Charles Martinet would be stepping back as the voice of Mario and would transition to become a "Mario Ambassador." Martinet has voiced Mario for decades, as well as Wario, Luigi, Waluigi, Baby Mario, and Baby Luigi, among other roles in the wider Nintendo universe.
Martinet's voice and performance as Mario is iconic and memorable, which is part of the reason why people were upset that the character would be voiced by Chris Pratt in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Martinet had a cameo in the movie, though, lending his voice to Mario and Luigi's father, as well as another character for a very meta gag about his voice.
In addition to his voiceover roles, Martinet acted in the live-action movie Nine Months starring Hugh Grant. He also appeared in 1997's The Game, which starred Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. So far, Martinet has not appeared in his official Ambassador role, but the latest two games featuring his characters, Super Mario Bros. Wonder and WarioWare: Move It, have included new actors filling the roles.
The new Mario voice actor is Kevin Afghani, who also voices Luigi.
There were a number of management shake-ups in the video game industry in 2023, including at PlayStation and Xbox. Sony Interactive Entertainment president Jim Ryan announced his retirement and will officially leave the company in 2024. He's not done making deals, though, as Ryan helped push the deal with NCSoft across the line in November prior to his exit from PlayStation.
At Xbox, Microsoft announced a reorg that saw Sarah Bond rise to become the new president of Xbox. Bond will oversee a variety of Xbox teams spanning devices, player and creator experience, platform engineering, strategy, business planning, data and analytics, and business development.
Additionally, Microsoft Game Studios boss Matt Booty has been promoted to president of game content and studios. In that role, he will oversee ZeniMax and Bethesda. Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer said in a memo to staff about the changes that ZeniMax will continue its role as a "limited integration entity" that is led by Jamie Leder of ZeniMax. Leder will now report to Booty.
Unity Controversy And CEO Exit
In September, the video game engine company Unity--one of the most popular and most-used game engines in the world--announced dramatic changes to its pricing structure that were immediately panned. The company said it would implement a "runtime fee" that developers would need to pay based on the number of times a game made with Unity was installed. The response was swift and negative, with many developers discussing abandoning Unity for other engines or in other ways terminating business deals with Unity.
It didn't happen immediately, but Unity would later change course and pare back this scheme, but that wasn't the end of the situation. Unity CEO John Riccitiello resigned from the company in the wake of the controversy, with many suggesting he might not have actually left of his own accord. Unity also had multiple rounds of layoffs in 2023 and it even decided to close Weta Digital, a company it acquired just two years ago in 2021, putting more than 265 jobs on the chopping block. Unity said this was part of a wider "reset" of the company.
Microsoft Buys Activision Blizzard
Unquestionably one of the biggest gaming stories of 2023 was Microsoft's buyout of Activision Blizzard. The deal was announced at the beginning of 2022, but it took almost 18 months for the agreement to be finalized due to regulatory hurdles and other issues that Microsoft had to overcome. In particular, the UK's Competition & Markets Authority heavily scrutinized the deal and initially blocked it before Microsoft sold its cloud gaming rights in the UK to Ubisoft to help get the agreement across the line.
As part of the regulatory and legal process, a number of key documents emerged online providing an unprecedented peek behind the curtain. We saw executives speaking frankly in personal emails and we also saw Microsoft's future Xbox plans leaked well ahead of time.
In the end, the deal was officially closed in October 2023, giving Microsoft ownership of Activision Blizzard and all of its many studios and franchises, including Call of Duty, Diablo, Warcraft, Candy Crush, and more. Even though the deal is done, it's still early days for the integration of the two companies, so there is no word yet on when Activision games might begin to appear on Game Pass or any other synergies that might come to bear. As part of the buyout, Phil Spencer has asked Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick to stay on through the end of 2023, and he is expected to leave in 2024.
New PlayStation Hardware
When the PS5 launched in November 2020, many remarked that it was a very big boy. Seriously, it's a big, big console. And that's fine. Some people wanted a slimmed-down version, and that's exactly what Sony delivered in November 2023. The new PS5 is about 30% smaller and it weighs less, too. The disc-based version stayed locked at $500, but the all-digital edition saw a price increase from $400 to $450. The system officially went on sale in November and will become the only available PS5 model once existing stock is sold through. People who buy the digital edition can add a Blu-ray disc drive for $70. A console stand is available for $30.
The new PS5 model wasn't the only fresh piece of hardware that Sony released in 2023. Also debuting in November was the PlayStation Portal handheld device. The $200 device has an 8-inch LCD screen capable of 1080p resolution at 60fps. Sony says the device is aimed at people living in homes where the TV is pretty busy, as the device lets users beam PS5 games from their console to the handheld so they can play in bed or when they're on the toilet. Streaming is the system's only functionality--it doesn't play games locally. GameSpot's Portal review said the device just isn't good enough thanks to its limited use-case and inconsistent performance. It's difficult to recommend, our review and others said.
Additionally, Sony launched the PlayStation VR2 device in early 2023. It didn't exactly make waves or shake things up on a broad level. Sony hasn't said much in the way regarding the impact it has made commercially, but we do know that it performed better than the original PlayStation VR at launch.
Handheld PC Growth
2023 was also a year marked with the launch of even more handheld PC devices. Valve's Steam Deck got an OLED edition in 2023 that, in addition to its better screen, had improved audio, increased battery life, and other welcome features to make the experience even better. It also makes it clear that Valve is in this market for the long haul.
Beyond that device, 2023 also saw the launch of the Asus ROG Ally, which was heralded as an impressive, capable device that comes highly recommended for playing PC games on the go. Also debuting in 2023 was the Logitech G Cloud device that streams games. Here at GameSpot, we also really loved the Ayaneo 2S gaming handheld, saying in our review that it could replace your PC and give you a great new way to play high-end PC games on the go.
In essence, 2023 was the year where it began to feel even more like handheld PCs are becoming increasingly viable and are here to stay as another form of handheld gaming.
After waiting for more than a decade, Rockstar Games finally delivered the goods in December and officially announced Grand Theft Auto VI with its first trailer. The video leaked the night before it was due to arrive, so Rockstar decided to debut the trailer ahead of time. And what a trailer it was! The 90-second video, set to Tom Petty's "Love Is A Long Road," showed off a first glimpse at the new Vice City and its surrounding areas. The video also introduced fans to Lucia, one of the new protagonists, and people have many theories about who she is, where she came from, and what her story may be. Fans will want to get comfortable, though, as GTA VI is not due to release until 2025 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S.
After laying off 900 staff earlier in the year, Epic delivered a massive update to Fortnite tin December through the Season 5 Chapter 1 "Big Bang" update and more, which Epic said marks a "new beginning" for the game. In addition to an overhaul of the battle royale mode, Fortnite evolved to become more of a platform with the launch of three games inside Fortnite--Lego Fortnite, Rocket Racing, and Fortnite Festival. This is all part of Epic's longheld strategy to create a platform that has everything you want so you never leave.
Epic is not officially calling this Fortnite 2, but GameSpot's Fortnite expert Mark Delaney feels that's an appropriate title for it.