2020 Year-in-Review: Biggest Trends in Gaming, Tech & Media

Year-in-Review is here!

Across gaming, technology and media, 2020 both continued major trends from last year and introduced select new ones, most notably around how people consume entertainment and work together during a global pandemic.

Some are common across all, such as digital distribution, streaming platforms and direct-to-home content delivery systems gaining steam this year. Consolidation continued with mergers and acquisitions both big and small, changing the way these industries look. Mobile gaming reached new records, plus targeted a more core audience via traditional genres and gameplay systems.

Then there’s the new or unique, in a year during which two major video game console manufacturers somehow launched new products. Game developers worked in even more difficult circumstances to finish projects in time for ship date. Similarly, 2020 brought ongoing reports of difficult workplace conditions, whether due to sexual harassment or “crunch” culture.

On the media side, topics of political policy, privacy matters and general regulation for social media platforms. Within technology, remote work and virtual collaboration redefined how people work, likely forever.

Let’s now dig into the biggest trends of 2020!

Digital, On-Demand, Streaming & Cloud Everywhere

The transition to digital as the primary distribution platform, whether in gaming or otherwise, is essentially complete with the surge of online storefronts and streaming services that deliver entertainment direct to folks in their homes or wherever on their devices. This was inevitable in my opinion, comparable to the music industry, though perhaps accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic quarantining millions upon millions of (often bored) people.

In particular, 2020 will be remembered as the time where film distributors embraced the direct-to-home model, with major releases such as Universal Pictures’ Trolls World Tour, Disney’s Mulan and WB’s Wonder Woman 1984 all hitting on-demand services simultaneously as their theatrical debuts. This is a tectonic shift within an industry historically reluctant to move away from its traditions.

Comparatively, this model is now solidified within gaming. Xbox Game Pass is the best value around, now with beta access to its Cloud Streaming in select areas. Sony supplemented its PlayStation Plus and PS Now offering with a PlayStation 5 PlayStation Plus Collection catalog. Google Stadia, while not the most popular, is still active and attempting to attract an audience. Amazon introduced Luna, an intriguing new cloud player that will support “gaming channels” with Ubisoft already on board. NVIDIA’s GeForce Now is a go-to cloud technology for PC gamers. Steam and GOG, to name a few, are well-established online storefronts.

The games industry generated at least $175 billion in sales during 2020 according to Newzoo, an increase of 20% year-on-year. A staggering 91% of this is digital sources. It’s to the point where every major media or gaming company seemingly has or supports digital platforms, cloud streaming services or a combination of both. Taking advantage of the ability to reach people on whatever device they want to use. Oh, and the ongoing subscription revenue doesn’t hurt either.

The Next Game Console Generation Begins

Even as I write this, more than a month out from release, I’m still shocked that teams at both Microsoft and Sony were able to successfully launch new gaming consoles in the year that was 2020.

But that’s just what they did. And they deserve eternal kudos for it, considering the type of year it was. The Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 debuted during the same week in November, each with its own distinct strategy to entice people to upgrade to the newest generation of gaming hardware.

Microsoft has expanded its Xbox brand to encompass all of its gaming ventures across console, computers and mobile, so it pushed a multi-tiered product launch with Xbox Series X at the upper end then the entry level-priced Xbox Series S to hit both ends of the market. Xbox overall is now about ecosystem, with its push towards a library of games via Xbox Game Pass and backwards compatibility across software and accessories. Even without a major exclusive like the delayed Halo: Infinite, Xbox Series X|S still boasted the most successful commercial launch in brand history.

Sony’s bread and butter is the core audience, thus its more traditional approach with a bevy of new software titles coinciding with the PlayStation 5’s start. Even if one of them was a shorter “expandalone” in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and another was a remake in Demon’s Souls, Sony fans (and scalpers alike, unfortunately) came out in droves to scoop up the new hardware. Sony said demand for PS5 was “unprecedented,” resulting in the fastest-selling global console launch in history. It also set a new record domestically for launch month dollar and unit sales, outpacing its predecessor in both instances.

This is really just the start for both boxes, notably in short supply during this holiday season. While production will ramp up in 2021, software offerings will as well. It’s an exciting time to be a console owner, or someone that covers the industry to see where sales and consensus go in the future.

Toxic Workplace Environments & Crunch Culture

This important and timely topic deserves an article unto itself, and it’s a trend I hope will ease in the future. It’s not exclusive to gaming by any means, though 2020 brought with it several high profile releases from some of the industry’s most notoriously difficult workplaces, which is why it’s currently front-of-mind. (As it really should be always.)

“Crunch” culture is a part of game development, like many other workplaces. Where people labor for long hours, even weekends, leading up to the completion of a project. It’s the type of tricky situation that impacts both physical and mental well-being yet is hard to avoid for many, since it’s so embedded, so the trend of reporting on this from media outlets is welcome. Places like Take-Two’s Rockstar Games, Sony’s Naughty Dog, Ubisoft and CD Projekt Red plastered the headlines as current and former employees spoke about what it’s like to work under these kinds of conditions.

The latest of these is CD Projekt Red and its downright ugly release of Cyberpunk 2077 this month, a game that was clearly rushed to meet financial deadlines as I posited in my recent piece. This was after executives said there wouldn’t be mandatory crunch. Management held an internal Q&A session shortly after launch, proving that it should have opened feedback loops well before then for its employees. (I’ll note that CD Projekt is fairly compensating employees for their hard work. Rightfully so.)

Similarly, Ubisoft was in the spotlight due to accusations of sexual harassment and general misconduct at certain of its global studios. Back during the summer, multiple people at the company raised abuse or harassment allegations towards fellow employees or even management. One of these resulted in the removal of former Chief Creative Office Serge Hascoët, another the firing of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla original director Ashraf Ismail. Since then, CEO Yves Guillemot outlined a plan to address this sort of workplace toxicity. It’s yet to be seen if anything major will come of this, however getting rid of the worst offenders is a good start.

Record-Breaking Mobile Game Revenue

Mobile remained the hottest category in its industry last year, as it accounted for nearly half of the yearly global games market at a staggering $86 billion. An increase of almost 26% since 2019.

Leading the charge was a set of five titles each with more than $1 billion in sales, which is a record number for a single year. Two games published by Chinese tech and social media conglomerate Tencent topped the list, with PUBG Mobile at $2.6 billion then Honor of Kings eclipsing $2.5 billion.

Former cultural phenomenon Pokémon GO is still at it, clearing over $1.2 billion in sales. This makes 2020 its best year ever, bolstered by changes made to accommodate stay-at-home restrictions. Rounding out the billion-makers are Coin Master and Roblox, each with an impressive $1.1 billion.

In addition to these big money-makers, 2020 marked a time where mobile publishers continued to combine the model with more traditional gameplay mechanics. The highest profile of these was Genshin Impact, an open world action RPG from China’s miHoYo that’s generated almost $400 million within only two months of launch. Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad followed in the steps of Call of Duty: Mobile when it launched back in August, offering a first-person shooter experience comparable to console play on the go. There’s big money in mobile, especially if it can appeal to both casual and console/PC type audiences.

Push for Accessibility Features in Games

As someone who plays with inverted camera controls and often leverages subtitles, this trend is an especially important one. I’m thankful that creators are moving in a direction toward accessibility and inclusion, to where the industry and media at large are celebrating it.

This is a multi-step effort, one driven intrinsically by developers making games easier to play for people of all types, especially those that may have disabilities or other challenges. Flexible settings, camera controls, button mapping or even custom controllers, deaf/hard of hearing considerations, choices for those lacking motor skills, blind/low vision/colorblind filters. Basically, the more varied and considerable the options, the better.

Then, the industry overall is finally signal-boosting accessibility more by rewarding projects with the best options. This culminates in efforts like AbleGamers, Can I Play That, Steve Saylor (Blind Gamer) and award ceremonies specifically dedicated to these extremely important, I’d argue essential, features.

AbleGamers hosted its first annual Video Game Accessibility Awards in 2020. Both The Game Awards and entertainment outlets like IGN highlighted games like The Last of Us II, Grounded (boasting a genius filter to combat arachnophobia), Ghost of Tsushima, Fuser, Watch Dogs: Legion and HyperDot, all of which are setting the bar. One that I hope all creators hope to achieve.

Consolidation, Mergers & Acquisitions

It’s an ongoing move within a variety of spaces, though some of the biggest acquisition deals in gaming and technology took place during the last twelve months. And it’s not just the top-end, massive deals. Many smaller teams were picked up by the mid-tier of publishers, in particular the likes of Embracer Group, Zynga and Enad Global 7 (EG7).

Within technology, the big news makers were of course NVIDIA, AMD and Salesforce. NVIDIA’s purchase of Arm hit a whopping $40 billion in deal value, the biggest in the tech industry this year. Just behind that was AMD grabbing fellow semi-conductor manufacturer Xilinx for $35 billion, while Salesforce’s purchase of communication software firm Slack Technologies hit upwards of nearly $28 billion.

Within gaming, the hottest deal was Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of Bethesda parent company ZeniMax. It’s an industry-shaking event, where future Bethesda output like Starfield and the next Elder Scrolls project could very well end up exclusive to Xbox platforms. Within China’s local streaming scene, Huya and DouYu have a $6 billion merger planned for mid-2021 (where the resulting entity will naturally be majority owned by Tencent). Then there’s Electronic Arts making a $1.2 billion offer for racing developer Codemasters, outbidding fellow American publisher Take-Two Interactive.

Swedish publisher EG7 announced the purchase of a few notable teams including Daybreak, Zynga is taking over smaller mobile developers plus Embracer Group (THQ Nordic) is buying.. well, literally dozens of development studios or smaller independent companies.

After a super active 2020, will the pace slow down next year? Will Sony or Nintendo partake? Let’s just say I don’t see consolidation going anywhere, anytime soon.

Social Media Politics & Government Regulation

It was an election year in the U.S., one of the most significant in recent history I’d say. Which means social media took center stage in terms of discourse and advertising. This led lead players like Facebook and Twitter in attempts to both earn integrity and stop the spread of misinformation by instituting practices such as removing bad accounts, moderating posts and comments plus flagging threads that had questionable claims. Others like YouTube took a less proactive approach, opting to react to political outcomes after the fact.

Then there’s the similar theme around the U.S. government’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Section 230 law, which in the past has allowed social media and modern tech companies to essentially avoid accountability when it comes to the content produced on their platforms. This stemmed from Facebook and Twitter restricting a NY Post story on now President-Elect Joe Biden.

Now the question becomes, where will Section 230 and responsibility of social media companies go under a new administration? It sounds like Biden opposes the law, though it isn’t clear what will happen if it’s adjusted or even repealed. Would self-regulation be better? I don’t know if that’s an effective option, since it wholly depends on media companies acting against their own self-interest of maintaining freedom of speech and keeping active users. Yet there’s also the responsibility to keep platforms clean of lies. There may not be a perfect outcome.

Remote Work & Virtual Collaboration in Technology

In terms of general technology trends this past year, the ramp-ups in remote working, artificial intelligence and the movement towards automation all defined 2020. These are all areas expedited by how companies operate during a global pandemic, which challenged the traditional model of office work and manual processes.

For those companies with the capabilities, remote work increased during the early days of the pandemic in March and April. For those without, they had to put them in place. Quickly. There’s the initial challenge of getting basic tech to workers, maintaining security at home, collaborating virtually and balancing family life outside of the office.

Flexibility in workspace proved to be a key topic across the tech landscape. Back in July, Google made a major decision on virtual working: Employees have the option to work from home until July 2021. During October, Microsoft announced that employees with the option to do so can stay home permanently, as part of its focus on both location and workweek hours.

Among many other things that 2020 changed, where and how people work is one of the most significant. You might even be reading this while working in your home office or bedroom, getting ready for a video call or virtual meeting. It’s my thought that this will become the norm, the pandemic was merely a catalyst.

There we have it: The biggest trends of 2020 completed. Which ones caught your eye? Any others you’d point out? Check back to the megathread for more Year-in-Review content. Thanks for stopping by!

Sources: Andrew Neel (Photo), Bloomberg, GamesIndustry.Biz, Kotaku, Microsoft Blog, Newzoo, NPD Group, Sam Pak (Photo), Sensor Tower, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Ubisoft Entertainment, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

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