Every year, we run down the best annual surprises from the world of video games. Needless to say, 2020 was not like previous years. That’s why, this year, we’re reorienting our annual tradition to focus on the biggest—not necessarily the best—ones.
2020 was full of shockers. This was the year Sony held a virtual event where everyone looked like a digital character. Nintendo released a Switch game that did nothing more than simulate the action of jumping rope. Demon’s Souls was remade from the ground up for the PlayStation 5, and—surprise!—turned out to be way better than the “remake” qualifier would have you believe. Presidential candidates stumped in Animal Crossing. Most everyone with a keyboard or controller devoured an indie roguelike about beating up your dad (to be fair, anyone familiar with Supergiant’s oeuvre saw that one a mile away).
We couldn’t have predicted much of what happened in 2020. Here are the biggest surprises of the year.
The covid-19 pandemic
Every story of the year was cast in the shadow of the covid-19 pandemic. There’s a case to be made that people—especially public health experts and the U.S. government—saw this one coming, but your average person mostly did not. The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on January 30. Daily life continued apace, even as the infection rate and death count soared in countries such as China and Italy. Chalk it up to the insipid curse of American exceptionalism. Chalk it up to institutional fecklessness at every level of government. (On the eve of an eventual yet far too late shutdown, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio told citizens, “If you love your neighborhood bar, go there now.”) Few of us were as prepared as we should’ve or could’ve been.
In the middle of March, Kotaku switched our operations to working from home. I, for one, expected to be back in the office in time to use our PS4 Pro to cover Final Fantasy VII Remake—which released on April 10—and maybe badger my bosses about some time off around the Memorial Day weekend. How wrong I was.
Many of our colleagues in the gaming press corps are in similar situations. So are the people who make games: Many development studios, from behemoths like Blizzard and Ubisoft to smaller shops like Capy and Digital Extremes, switched to a work-from-home model. Making games is hard enough when one developer can walk to another’s desk and talk through a problem; switching to remote work poses all manner of new challenges. There were a few notable game delays in 2020, including The Last of Us Part 2, as a result. But the ramifications of this new paradigm will likely still be felt in 2021 and beyond, as games in the midst of production see timetables pushed back.
The industry’s ceremonial and promotional events ground to a halt as well. E3 was cancelled outright. GDC was too, before showing up as a digital event in August. PAX followed with a similar online-only event in the fall. The Game Awards were mostly virtual, shirking the pomp and circumstance but not the raft of announcements. Many cosplay conventions were shelved, with some already cancelled for 2021.
Whatever negative impact we thought the covid-19 pandemic would have—on the gaming community, on society at large, on matters of literal life and death—turned out to be so, so much worse. The global death toll is rapidly closing in on 2 million.
The industry’s response to Black Lives Matter
Ash Parrish: My biggest surprise of 2020 was the video game industry’s response to Black Lives Matter. When talking about 2020’s surprises, they’re usually centered on positive things, but this surprise better fits the textbook definition of the word: “an unexpected or astonishing event.” I didn’t expect the video game industry to offer full-throated endorsements of Black Lives Matter during this year’s summer of struggle. Usually when something like the murders of Black civilians like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor happen, companies prefer to provide toothless statements of sympathy designed to engender goodwill in the moment (unless you’re Ben & Jerry’s). I expected the juggernauts of the video game industry to follow suit with general statements like “We stand with the victims” without saying who the victims were or what they’re standing against.
They proved me wrong.
I realize that being “surprised” by video game companies performing the bare minimum of human decency means that the bar is in hell, but…you can only go up from hell, right? However, a few solidarity tweets do not an actionable plan for change make. The video game industry has a startlingly bad record when it comes to diversity. Studios and companies can tweet their Black Lives Matter support all they like, while the systemic issues that drive and keep Black people out of their industries persist. A lot of companies matched their statements with donations; Microsoft even committed to doubling the number of Black people in leadership positions by 2025. But while I’m pleased these companies are ready to name names and specific grievances, I still haven’t seen any long term goals. What are these companies doing to redress the systemic issues of inequality that depress the number of Black employees, influencers, developers, and leaders? Hopefully we see more action in the years to come.
Among Us, Fall Guys, and Genshin Impact make a huge impact among players
If you asked anybody on December 31, 2019, what the biggest games of 2020 would be, you’d have likely heard Cyberpunk 2077, or The Last of Us Part 2, or Ghost of Tsushima. You certainly wouldn’t have heard anyone tell you that 2020’s attention podium would be stacked with a free-to-play gacha game, a silly platformer royale, and a social deception game released more than two years ago. But that’s exactly what happened.
- Right before the fall backlog jam, the action-RPG Genshin Impact landed on PC, PS4, and mobile devices for the low price of zero dollars. It included microtransactions, but they weren’t invasive (at least not until you approached the endgame). It was also genuinely gorgeous and astonishingly fun, no small thanks to an engaging battle system. In 2019, when the game was first revealed, people wrote Genshin Impact off as a Breath of the Wild clone. It turned out to be so much more.
- Fall Guys hit the ground running, the result of a savvy, streamer-based marketing strategy and one seriously plucky social media presence. The game was also free for PS Plus members for a month after launch, and it became the service’s most downloaded game ever.
- And then there’s Among Us. First released in 2018 for mobile devices, and a few months later on PC, the game was basically “Mafia, but with chores.” It lived in relative obscurity until the summer of this year, when Twitch streamers helped rocket its popularity into the stratosphere. The game’s social nature—particularly in a time when social gathering was largely off the table—sure helped, as did a certain luminescent U.S. politician. Among Us came into its own well after its release, but resonated when its time came. In November, nearly half a billion people played Among Us.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez becomes a bona fide streamer
Nathan Grayson: In hindsight, maybe this one shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Since day one, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has brought a personable relatability to politics (and Instagram), and that’s the kind of thing Twitch feasts on. Meanwhile, politics became a centerpiece of Twitch this year thanks to the presidential election, uprisings over the summer, and big names like Hasan Piker talking politics on a daily basis. So when AOC publicly put out feelers in October to see if anybody wanted to stream with her, it was no shock to see a stampede rush to meet her and scream “ooo, me, me, me!”
Still, even if you’re a pop culture soothsayer who found the run-up to AOC’s Twitch debut blasé and predictable, you can’t deny that the sheer scale of her success was wild to behold. After 24 hours of furious preparation on the part of AOC, her staff, chat moderators, and a plethora of organizations, AOC managed to draw nearly 440,000 concurrent viewers to her freshly made Twitch channel—totaling out to millions over the course of a multi-hour Among Us session. In the presence of pros like Piker, Pokimane, and Dr Lupo, AOC and fellow rep Ilhan Omar (D-MN) took to streaming like naturals, resulting in a fun, lighthearted broadcast that nonetheless managed to touch on important issues like healthcare. Since then, other politicians have followed in AOC’s wake, but none have managed to stick the landing with such easy charisma.
Microsoft buys Bethesda’s parent company
Microsoft is no stranger to consolidating power. Last year, it bought Double Fine Productions, the storied development studio behind Psychonauts and Brütal Legend. The year before that, it gobbled up everyone else. But no prior acquisitions were as big a deal, or as out of left field, as Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of ZeniMax Media, the parent company of Bethesda and several other slightly-smaller-but-still-huge video game companies. When the ink dries next year, Microsoft will add top-flight game series like Dishonored, Wolfenstein, Prey, Elder Scrolls, and Fallout to its first-party portfolio. In a peculiar twist, the deal also means Microsoft will publish two games—Arkane’s Deathloop and Tango Gameworks’ Ghostwire: Tokyo—on the PlayStation 5 next year under a timed console exclusivity window. After that, it’s anyone’s guess as to which platforms these games will appear on, but Xbox head Phil Spencer told Kotaku that the “deal was not done to take games away from another player base like that.” One way or another, the fallout of this partnership will be felt for some time.
Fortnite developer Epic takes on Apple
Riley MacLeod: In August, Epic Games released its own payment method for Fortnite on iOS and Google Play, in clear violation of both platforms’ rules. Both Apple and Google fired back by removing the popular game from their stores. Epic filed legal complaints against both companies, but Apple has been the most high profile of the two, with Epic joining the likes of Spotify and the Department of Justice in taking Apple to task for antitrust practices. The two have been steadily duking it out in court since, with a trial set to start next year. While there have been some missteps along the way—including some strange messaging and Epic CEO Tim Sweeney being himself about the whole thing—Epic’s case has the potential to benefit indie developers by challenging Apple’s 30-percent cut of App Store fees and, alongside others, to break up some of the power of the big tech companies that are trying to rule our lives. Whether the core of the fight is about some idea of justice or just various billionaires wanting to stuff more money into their pockets, it’s been a surprise to see Epic leverage Fortnite’s popularity in this way. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how the case shakes out.
Ghost of Tsushima boasts next-gen load times on last-gen tech, and then releases free expansion out of the blue
Sucker Punch, the venerable developer behind Ghost of Tsushima, boasts a lengthy track record of solid games, so it was of little surprise that their open-world samurai game hit the mark. The load times caught us off guard, though. Ghost loaded so fast in production that Sucker Punch had to dial it back a bit for launch. (Still, even in its final state, the game featured loading times so snappy we could fit them in a GIF.) When the PS5 came out, the system’s innards seriously shrunk load times of backward-compatible PS4 games, sometimes by an entire minute. Ghost, meanwhile, loaded roughly as fast on PS5 as it did on PS4. Did Sucker Punch crack some secret code in the PS4’s architecture? Sell the studio’s soul to master the dark arts of technical wizardry?
Then, in August, Sucker Punch officially revealed that Ghost of Tsushima would receive a free online, four-player cooperative mode called Legends. When Legends launched in October, it wasn’t some enervated afterthought. It was an absolute blast, fully fleshed out with four unique classes, a narrative arc, wave-based survival stages, a raid, and a robust loot system. Sometimes, big-budget single-player games are one-offs; other times, they receive a steady trickle of paid add-ons. But a whole free expansion that’s nearly as meaty as an individual game on its own merits? What a pleasant surprise.
Microsoft and Sony release two consoles each
That the next generation of gaming consoles officially kicked off this year was no surprise. More shocking was the fact that both major players launched with two console models right out of the gate. In November, Sony released two models of the PlayStation 5: a $499 standard edition and a $399 digital-only model, which possessed the same technical guts but lacked a disc drive. Microsoft, meanwhile, split their potential user base in half by offering two distinct consoles. Reports of a more affordable, less powerful next-gen Xbox swirled in 2019, but the gulf between the two wasn’t apparent until September, when Microsoft revealed the Xbox Series S. Clocking in at $299 compared to the Series X’s $499, the Series S offered half the internal storage (a 512GB SSD compared to a 1TB one), a lower target performance (1440p compared to 4K at 60fps), and a third of those sweet, sweet teraflops (4 to 12). But, despite the ostensibly lower stated metrics, when it launched in November, the Xbox Series S turned out to be no slouch, and in fact loaded some games faster than the upmarket Series X. Price is one major barrier to entry for console gaming. With both companies taking a two-model approach—with one sporting a lower price tag at the expense of some bells and whistles—that barrier is lower than ever. May the era of “$599” stay locked in the annals of history.
The year in review: