2019 In Review Parts 1 and 2 – The Games Industry and My MMO Titles

(Editor’s note – this post started as one whole, cohesive 2019 recap, including gaming news, MMO news, and blog recap. However, the draft was nearing 3,000 words in an incomplete state, and while I could milk this into 3 separate posts over 3 days, I don’t want to lose the thoughts in the shuffle that is coming with WoW patch 8.3 next week. So, here are the first two, and probably within an hour, a third part. Does it make sense that this is both 1 and 2? Maybe. Time is relative and partitioned content a human construct that I can enact weirdly!)

2019 was an…interesting year in games.

There were a few themes that I would argue dominated the year in gaming, which are worth a quick discussion:

-Hardware Power: As the current gen consoles have their replacements identified, we’ve seen console games push the limits of their current platforms, PC ports that gain appreciable amounts of quality and framerate from the shift, and developers beginning to firmly hit the “work around the limitations” phase of the console lifecycle. On the PC side, we’ve seen an appreciable increase in CPU horsepower at every cost tier, along with some smaller increases to graphics performance in 2019.

-Digital Distribution: It was a banner year for downloading games, as the Epic Game Store really began to throw rocks at Steam, PS Plus and Xbox Live have pushed hard on their free games with subscription model, and Microsoft had a huge digital distribution year – launching the Xbox Game Pass service and a Blu-ray drive-less Xbox One S model that aims to change behaviors to digital distribution.

-The Future: The industry as a whole has always been forward-looking, but the years where the current-gen consoles are locked in with no replacements in sight can make the market feel stagnant. 2019 saw a lot of talk of the future – the PS5, Project Scarlett/Xbox Series X, and the use of the increased compute power of heavily multi-core CPUs like AMD’s top-end Ryzen CPUs. Alongside all of that has been the maturation of Nvidia’s RTX technology in an interesting way, with more titles focused on DLSS and the use of resolution scaling to give players the ability to play at higher resolutions on lesser hardware. The new Radeon lineup also brought scaling technology to the forefront with Radeon Image Sharpening, and both GPU brands are now locked into a battle for supremacy over who has the better scaling technologies, all the while, a slow trickle of leaks and press decks for Intel’s forthcoming discrete GPUs made their way out into the public eye.

-The Artform of Games: While cynical critic Roger Ebert is no longer around to throw a bucket of cold water on the “video games as art” debate (for the record, he was wrong), games released in 2019 have continued a trend of an increasing awareness of the art of games and the kinds of things that a game can do that most media cannot. Indie titles remain the kings of artsy concept games, but even AAA games have been more willing to experiment with themes, tone, and the introduction of more nuanced and varied storytelling.

-The Business of Games, Ruining Said Games: Okay, hyperbole aside, I think 2019 has been a year where the industry exposed a lot more of the fiendish side of the modern business. Lootboxes were a hot topic with nearly every major release, with an EA representative describing them as “surprise mechanics” in the face of increased regulation not helping matters. The psychologically insidious design of paid mechanics was highlighted throughout the year, as a variety of stories about kids charging lootboxes until their parents owe a pile of money for pixels made their way into the mainstream press. The business model of “live services” has remained pervasive, to the point that you rarely can play a true single-player game anymore without internet connectivity and a constant stream of reminders to buy digital currency and unlock cool rewards. Capitalism’s core tenets will ensure that AAA developers will continue to implement these sharp and awful mechanics into games to increase shareholder value and attempt to hold up the infinite growth demanded of our flawed economics, while developers and staff at these companies suffer for it.

Speaking of that suffering, 2019 was a year that highlighted how the industry chews up and spits out talent, with the massive Activision-Blizzard layoffs in February 2019 setting a tone that resonated especially with Blizzard fans, who are normally not used to such action, even as investigation around the time of said layoffs revealed a number of times in the past where Blizzard has done the same. Speaking of Blizzard specifically, 2019 was a year that called into sharp focus the disconnect between the company’s fan-friendly image and the actual truth.

For as much as I enjoy Blizzard’s products, the company behind them is just as greedy, capitalistic, and callous as any other – they just dress it up with layers of fiction that run deeper than most studios. This was further brought to light with the Blitzchung incident in October 2019 – and while elements of the community latched onto it for a variety of falsified narratives and self-promotion, it does highlight a sharp divide between the interests of the company and the fans. Blizzard did not help things through their response, which can only be described as absolutely bungled and easy to read as an apathetic PR move and nothing more. In the end, the issue was largely a blank canvas for people to project onto with their own interpretation of events – which in some ways made it worse, as discussion about the events are an incomprehensible mess of hyperbole, solid points, and moralizing posturing.

Having done all the fluff I normally don’t write as much about, let’s talk the MMO space in 2019.

For me, the broad MMO space was defined by three major events in 2019 – the continued lack of enthusiasm for World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, the launch of WoW Classic, and the launch and subsequent hype of Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers.

Why just these three? Well, I think we can broadly categorize a lot of industry activity as reactions to these three events.

WoW’s continued fan apathy meant that the opportunity presented itself for every competitor to the game to come in and take its lunch. Throughout 2019, this was a theme – Shadowbringers drew a lot of attention partially due to the number of “WoW refugees” roaming the internet, The Elder Scrolls Online seems to have drawn a lot of interest from other WoW fans I follow, and it has created openings for people like me to try a variety of MMOs we would not have been enticed to were it not for the various issues with BFA. In 2019 alone, I played WoW, FFXIV, Riders of Icarus, Everquest II, purchased (but not played) Black Desert Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Destiny II. For me, this is a highly varied and different MMO diet compared to any other year I’ve been playing games in the genre – most of which started and ended with one title – WoW.

The launch of WoW Classic, however, was Blizzard’s opportunity to deliver something to steal the headlines for WoW towards a positive reception. Initially resistant to the idea, Blizzard changed their tune and 2019 saw the game (re)launch to critical acclaim and an interesting amount of posturing, flaming, and reckoning with what made the game work in 2004 and why it seems to have a bit of a divide among vanilla players – some of whom took to the game immediately and haven’t left yet, while others (like myself) found the game no longer quite scratched the same itches and haven’t looked at it as fondly. Today, the game has still remained highly popular, and while some prognosticators prophecy that Classic means the retail game is on borrowed time, I’d argue that is largely baseless, as we are all working from our own anecdotes and no one save for Blizzard (quite conveniently!) has access to the full dataset proving one way or the other.

Lastly, Shadowbringers. My god, Shadowbringers. While my current playtime of FFXIV is sharply diminished compared to the summer or fall, it would be hard to deny the impact that Shadowbringers had. It came at a perfect time, with early access just in advance of the WoW patch 8.2 launch, and the expansion’s proper retail launch coming the same day as said WoW patch, making FFXIV able to capitalize on apathy in the WoW playerbase.

Shadowbringers is the first time in the FFXIV saga that I’ve felt the storytelling on offer has matched or exceeded the gold-standard of Final Fantasy stories past (yes, even Heavensward wasn’t as poignant for me as this was). It did this by pairing a strong base story of a world in peril with a ton of lorebuilding and backstory that fills in a lot of the space in the FFXIV canon – finally making real sense of the Ascians, the Garlean Empire, the Ascians’ role in the Garlean Empire, the nature of the Warrior of Light (it’s not just a MacGuffin that the player character is possessed of these abilities!), and even makes clear the nature of the Umbral Calamities and how the realm of Eorzea is shaped by these events – all while taking place in another world! It coupled all of this excellent storytelling with a well-fleshed out world (fragmented though it feels due to the nature of FFXIV’s engine), beautiful visuals and soundtrack, and added new jobs that fit the current game quite well while being fun to play. Sure, ultimately, if you dislike WoW’s gameplay model of focus on a never-ending endgame with progression always going forward and upwards, Shadowbringers didn’t change your mind, but coupled with the relative dud of the BfA expansion for WoW, Shadowbringers had so much to gain and definitely took advantage of the opportunity.

Lastly, seemingly every major MMO had some sort of expansion launch or large piece of new content to chew on in 2019. Everquest II had Blood of Luclin, Star Wars: The Old Republic had Onslaught, Archeage: Unchained released, The Elder Scrolls Online had Elsweyr, and outside of that was a variety of patches and new content.

On top of all of this, there were anniversary events for the juggernauts, with Everquest’s 20th anniversary, Everquest II’s 15th, and WoW’s 15th (which also marks 25 years of Warcraft as a whole).

While it can sometimes feel like the live online multiplayer games we sometimes call MMOs are a closed field slowly dying, there continues to be innovation in the genre, new titles that integrate genre conventions into games that otherwise wouldn’t be MMOs, and altogether, it seems like the genre still has room to stretch and grow. 2020 will be a fascinating year in the space with a new WoW expansion, an FFXIV expansion announcement, yearly expansion releases for both flavors of EQ, and the continued growth of titles on all levels.

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