By Andy Humphreys
Most would agree that the story of 2016 is pretty miserable one. So much so that 2016 has ended up one of the most maligned years in recent memory, a year to which all future terrible years will be compared.
But in the gaming world, it’s not all so hopeless. For gamers, 2016 has been a particularly interesting year, defined by key moments which will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect well into 2017 and beyond.
It was the year when…
…No Man’s Sky played a dangerous game and lost.
Starting out as a promising-looking indie title from small studio Hello Games, No Man’s Sky was snapped up as a console exclusive by Sony for the Playstation 4. The game was teased at a number of press events, and with its unbridled ambition and strong visual aesthetic, belied its indie roots. “But what exactly do you do? “ was a commonly asked question when the game was displayed, but Sony and Hello Games were intentionally vague with their responses, a marketing strategy that would prove hugely detrimental.
After Sony’s colossal marketing push, the game saw strong sales on release, then experienced an immediate backlash as gamers felt the game they were playing bore little resemblance to what had been teased. Many decried the game’s simplistic, repetitive harvesting gameplay, the numerous technical issues that were present at launch, and the lack of multiplayer, a feature which was repeatedly promised during development. Hello Games were vilified for intentionally misleading the public in the build up to launch, an accusation that would lead to legal action.
Though Hello Games were eventually exonerated of blame for misleading the public, the ramifications of this saga will go on. It’s likely No Man’s Sky’s legacy will be a more transparent development of games, or at least a dedicated effort to avoid misleading the consumer by keeping the hype-train from going off the rails. And that can only be a good thing.
As if to provide a counterpoint to No Man’s Sky’s example of when hype and misleading marketing can kill a promising indie title, this year brought many examples of small independent games coming out of nowhere to really surprise and amaze with their quality. In fact, many of the absolute best gaming experiences of the year came from smaller studios.
Of course, no successful game actually comes out of nowhere — the road to excellence is long and painstaking. And with many of these games it really shows.
The flow of brilliant indie titles in 2016 was unstoppable, and a couple of games really caught the attention of the mainstream. Like the universally praised Inside, studio Playdead’s atmospheric follow-up to the equally moody Limbo. Or the uniquely cinematic narrative experience that was Firewatch, a game which developers Campo Santo would go on to announce would be made into a movie (more on the whether that’s a good idea later).
Other, less high-profile examples of when indie games excelled include 80s police simulator Beat Cop, contemplative X-Files/Twin Peaks mash-up Virginia, endlessly foreboding psychedelic rhythm game Thumper, and the genre-defying and daringly meta Pony Island. And this barely scratches the surface. Over the course of twelve months, the extent of what can be achieved by an indie studio really has been utterly redefined.
…We witnessed the rise-and-rise of Overwatch
There’s very little that hasn’t been written about this game. Blizzard’s multiplayer online class-based shooter has enjoyed incredible success since it’s release in May. And with good reason. There are two main pillars of Overwatch’s success. The patented Blizzard community-building that has been perfected after years of maintaining World of Warcraft’s still busy servers; and, most importantly, a brand of incredibly solid, competition-standard gameplay that is constantly evolving.
It took no time at all for a rabid fan-base to spring up around the game, and it is this fan-base that has gone berserk when Blizzard have teased upcoming additions to the game’s repertoire of Heroes with elaborate AR meta-games. As the year comes to a close, the game is as popular as ever and, if Blizzard has its way, that’s exactly how it will continue for many years to come.
…Console hardware got seriously confusing
For a year when both Sony and Microsoft were adamant that the next generation is still some time away, there certainly were a lot of new consoles. Both the Xbox One and PS4 received mid-gen refreshes, with the Xbox One S and the PS4 Slim providing just the sales boost their respective manufacturers will have been hoping for. The new smaller Xbox, in particular, transformed previously underwhelming sales of Microsoft’s latest hardware, topping the console sales chart for consecutive months after release.
It was also a year to look to the future of consoles, with Sony choosing to have their cake and eat it too with the Playstation Pro. Taking a daringly new approach, Sony took the PlayStation console and upgraded the innards to push games a little harder, allowing for 4K gaming for the first time on a home console. Microsoft meanwhile, in a move many believe was a direct response to Sony’s PS4 Pro announcement, also decided to show their hand by announcing their the long-rumored Project Scorpio no less than a year and a half before release. It was a bold move that is yet to be proven successful, especially given Microsoft’s bluster that Scorpio will be the world's most powerful console at launch. But don’t call it a new generation, whatever you do.
Over at the Nintendo, where generations don’t seem to matter, rumblings of a new console eventually came to a head with the announcement of the Nintendo Switch. This home console/handheld hybrid, in the tradition of every piece of hardware Nintendo has released in the last decade or so, has the potential to be either a huge success or an epic failure. Nintendo will be hoping for a repeat of its Wii and 3DS experiences rather than that of the Wii U, which quietly ended production this year, just four years after launch.
…VR went mainstream
The hype surrounding VR has been around for a while, and 2016 was the year when two of the heavyweights — Occulus and HTC — finally released their hardware, the Rift and Vive, respectively). Since then, it’s been a relatively slow build. After all, the majority of consumers simply don’t have the type of high-specification PC needed to be able to run VR.
It was to take an emergence onto consoles, specifically the PS4, for VR to finally reach the mainstream. Playstation VR’s launch in October finally brought VR to the masses, and although exact figures have not been pinpointed, Sony say sales are ‘on track’. This, coupled with the fact that Sony make a profit on every PSVR sold will please the Japanese giant greatly.
The jury’s still out on whether VR will be a lasting trend. Most would agree that the games that have so far made use of the technology have been a mixed bag, not just in their quality, but also in the way they utilize the system. Perhaps until that absolute killer app comes to the fore, VR will remain where it is, as an intriguing diversion.
…Pokemon took over the world
In a year when Pokemon celebrated its 20th year, few could’ve predicted the venerable franchise would celebrate this momentous anniversary by capturing the public’s attention like never before
Pokemon Go was an absolute phenomenon for many reasons, not least the incredible anecdotes it created. Who could forget stopping on a public footbridge to catch that elusive Blastoise with a huge group of complete strangers? The release of Pokemon Go was an event that really captured the world’s imagination, with gamers and non-gamers alike uniting to see just what all the fuss was about.
Even though months later Pokemon Go doesn’t enjoy quite the same media attention it did immediately after launch, it is still an immensely popular mobile game, finding a groove with its audience and becoming increasingly more stable with each update (because, as anyone who downloaded it knows, as game-changing as it was at launch, Pokemon Go was totally broken).
…Big games were good games
So if 2016 was a year when indie developers stepped up to release games polished enough to compete with the big boys, how did the big boys actually do? The answer is pretty damn well. This was truly also a year when the most anticipated releases of the year really delivered.
Gears Of War 4, Battlefield 1, Doom, Uncharted 4, Dishonored 2, Final Fantasy XV, Civilisation 6, Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Titanfall 2, Ratchet & Clank, Watch Dogs 2, Forza Horizon 3, Dark Souls 3, XCOM 2…
Notice anything? That’s right. Every game in that list ranges from being pretty great to extraordinarily brilliant — not a genuine stinker amongst them. This year, every franchise that saw a release came good.
Yes, you could argue that there is a chronic lack of innovation in the majority of these titles, and sure, most are just incrementally improved versions of the games we’ve been playing for years. But hey…they’re fun, they’re familiar and from the publishers’ point of view, they’re absolute bankers.
…Esports took more steps towards legitimacy
This year saw esports continue its relentless rise in both popularity and profitability. Activision got serious about its competitive aspirations by buying key esports player Major League Gaming for $46 million in order to found a pro-league for Overwatch. This year's DOTA 2 International Championships had an estimated prize pool of more than $20 million. These are not insubstantial sums of money.
In February, South Korea took the first baby steps to applying to make esports an Olympic discipline, a process that will take many years and is likely face a huge amount of resistance. In real terms, then, this means very little for the progression of esports (at least right now), but it does illustrate how the boundaries between esports and traditional sports are beginning to blur.
This is further demonstrated by the interest of the most profitable independent organizations in athletic sports — the teams. Big names from the world of football, basketball and soccer have closed-in and bought-up esports teams, and organizations WETA and the Professional Esports Association were set up to mediate between leagues, sponsors, players and owners in order to promote the interests of esports and further grow the industry. How exactly it grows will be an interesting story in the next few years.
…The first truly great video game movie continued to elude us.
This year promised so much for fans of games and movies. After years of promise, was this really to be the year when a video game adaptation finally gained genuine critical acclaim? It certainly looked that way for a while.
Ratchet and Clank has long been a series that seemed tailor-made for the sort of kid-friendly animated feature that Pixar have perfected. As it turned out, the movie was just ok, far outshined by the latest game in the series which also released this year. Upcoming indie director Duncan Jones’ association with Warcraft gave many a cause for hope, but it wasn’t to be. Despite making a ton of money, especially internationally, and becoming the most successful video game adaptation of all time, it released to a pretty scathing critical reaction.
Critics haven’t been much kinder to the equally promising looking Assassin’s Creed film. The respectability brought by actor Michael Fassbender’s association with the project as lead actor and producer apparently hasn’t helped it live up to the great untapped potential of Ubisoft’s license.
And if anyone held out any hope that The Angry Birds Movie would be the film to buck the trend, they were left disappointed. Do we need to talk about Dead Rising: Endgame? No, we do not.
So, 2016 has certainly been packed full of surprises, moments, and really great games. And it’s the last bit that really matters. If the trend of quality releases continues over the coming twelve months, we can be sure that this time next year, we’ll be looking back on another really great time.
You can follow Andy on Twitter @AndyJHumphreys