As I mentioned in my recent Year-in-Review megapost, it’s time to run down and wrap up the year that was 2023.
First up is a recap of the biggest trends across gaming, technology and media that guided the story during the last 12 months, and will have a major impact on the future of these sectors. Better or worse, it was a busy time for those within and following these industries.
Below I’ll go through six of the biggest trends then a bonus for fellow games industry enthusiasts out there. It wasn’t all pretty. In fact, I’d argue it was overall a tough year especially for folks whose livelihoods depend on working in and around technology.
Without further delay, I’ll move right into it. There’s a whole lot of ground to cover after all!
Labor Market, Layoffs, Strikes & Return to Office
One of the main, and disheartening, things that people will remember about 2023 was a broadly decaying labor market. After the pandemic period of easy money and hiring bursts, a correct came this past year as a laundry list of industry-driving companies suffered layoffs or business unit closures. Microsoft, Google, Zoom, Twitter, Yahoo, Vimeo, Hasbro and Tik Tok owner ByteDance cut their respective workforces, some by double-digits. Meta Platforms, Amazon, Spotify and LinkedIn all had two rounds of job cuts. Walt Disney had three.
It’s estimated the tech industry lost a staggering 240K jobs, or 50% more than 2022. The games industry cut almost 10 thousand. It was a painful indication of what can happen when companies over-expand, mismanage or aren’t able to adjust, with lower tier employees suffering more than their C-suite overlords. Plus, those that did remain were forced back to the office, as only 26% of American households have someone working remotely, down from almost 40% in 2021. Roughly 66% of U.S. workers are back to the office full time, up from 41% a year ago. Upside being that unionizing and collective action can work, with the major examples being Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA pressing film and TV execs, a bright spot amidst a difficult year for workers.
Consolidation Continues as Activision Blizzard Joins Microsoft
Merger and acquisition activity heated up this past year, with the global volume of deals jumping 27% to almost $2 trillion in value through just the first three quarters. This came even amidst rising interest rates and volatility in global markets. Within my covered sectors here, there was Broadcom and VMWare, Savvy Games and Scopely, Sega Sammy and Rovio, Oracle and Cerner, Opentext and Micro Focus plus ServiceNow and Era Software.
Then, the corporate saga I’ve been tracking the most closely ended as Microsoft finally closed its purchase of Activision Blizzard in October. It was the finale of a two year-long fiasco of regulatory hurdles, market pressures and data leaks. The nearly $70 billion deal was the largest ever for the games industry, whereby a massive third party software publisher became part of a platform holder, bringing the likes of Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and, quite importantly, mobile titles like Candy Crush into Microsoft’s possession to bolster its Game Pass and cloud services. Best of all, the closure means scummy industry villain Bobby Kotick will no longer run Activision Blizzard, a total win for its employees and culture.
Coming Out Party for So-Called Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence, shortened to AI, is a phrase used so commonly to describe many things that aren’t actually it, and 2023 was the year where usage of adjacent services or products truly ramped up in the mainstream, moving beyond the dreams of start-up nerds and angel investors. Wikipedia said it was one of the most viewed topics of its online database. Investment flooded into companies specializing in the space, futurists talked of its melding with humanity and governments scrambled to catch up to the pace of progression.
While this partially happened to due to deep fake videos, robo-news stories and computerized music, the real reason was large language models (LLMs). Namely, the chatbot called ChatGPT. Made by OpenAI, a firm mired in controversy that only helped to popularize it, the service accumulated a staggering 100 million users per week this past year. It became a popular tool for students and email writers alike, blasting Open AI’s annual revenue past $1 billion compared to under $30 million in 2022. Everyone is trying to get in on the action, with competitors including Google’s Bard, Meta’s Llama 2 and Bing AI via Microsoft. It’s the easiest entry point for the public to see what certain types of “intelligence” are capable of while projecting a variety of potential futures, some of them dark for the course of humanity.
Rising Streaming Costs & Media Subscription Changes
This could be a recurring category as companies adapt content delivery methods to squeeze consumers for dollars. While moderate inflation, or when prices are generally increasing over time, isn’t necessarily news, 2023 saw outsized “streamflation” in that plenty of major services jacked up rates, some of them multiple times. Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+ Spotify and Xbox Game Pass all became more expensive. Apple raised the cost of AppleTV, twice. Amazon reiterated that starting in the new year, Prime Video will have ads and charge a fee for ad-free viewing. Cost savings from cord-cutting just ain’t what it used to be.
Then there’s companies moving to rename, restructure or reorganize their services, adding or consolidating levels such that no one can ever truly keep up. Warner Bros Discovery combined HBO Max and others into Max starting mid-year. Sony wholly rebranded its PlayStation Plus membership system around that time as well. Paramount Global recently announced Paramount+ With Showtime. It’s enough to make your head spin, and your bank account hurt.
Companies & Governments Battle in Court
While I’m not a legal expert, I tend to track certain courtroom tussles that impact major companies because it can dictate the direction of vast industries, the people who work in them and those that spend money on them. Global regulators, especially the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the United Kingdom’s Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) heated up scrutiny, namely around antitrust and merger activity. There was the aforementioned Microsoft and Activision Blizzard deal, plus Meta buying up virtual reality firm Within Unlimited, both of which moved forward despite governmental pressures. Meta also settled anti-privacy lawsuits in 2023, agreeing to pay $725 million yet maintaining claims of no wrongdoing.
Then there’s the historic U.S. antitrust suit against Google alleging a monopoly in online search, which closed arguments in November and has a verdict due likely in the first quarter of 2024. As for companies fighting each other, Epic Games won its recent case against Google where the jury ruled that Google’s app policy is monopolistic in certain aspects. Which is intriguing, considering a couple years back, the Fortnite maker mostly lost to Apple in a very similar suit. That’s law for ya.
Best Year (Maybe) Ever for Game Releases
In a bout of more positive news, the last 12 months was pound-for-pound one of the top times for game releases. Fans of various genres were not just eating well, but chowing down a lot. Even if, woefully, many people that made them aren’t properly recognized or no longer have jobs. As I’ll cover in later Year-in-Review posts, the quality was consistent and outstanding. Baldur’s Gate 3. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Super Mario Bros Wonder. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2. Final Fantasy XVI. Alan Wake 2. Diablo IV. Star Wars: Jedi Survivor. Hogwarts Legacy. Lies of P. Dave the Diver. Hi-Fi Rush. Starfield (love or hate it). Street Fighter 6. Mortal Kombat 1.
Not to mention, 2023 saw multiple indie contenders like Chants of Sennaar, Cocoon, Dredge, Pizza Tower, Tchia and Sea of Stars alongside mobile joints like Monster Hunter Now and Honkai Star Rail. This was supplemented by remakes or reissues of legacy titles like Dead Space, Resident Evil 4 and Metroid Prime. Even one of the highest rated virtual reality experiences ever in Asgard’s Wrath 2. Sure, it also produced stinkers like Redfall, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, Skull Island: Rise of Kong and the campaign in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. No year is perfect. In aggregate, it’s been mostly a legendary run that stands with the best of them.
Bonus: Embarrassing & Epic Embracer Group Fail
On the flip side, the biggest games industry fail of 2023 goes to Embracer Group and its management, led by Founder and Chief Executive Officer Lars Wingefors. Executives have misguided the bloated Swedish conglomerate, which owns a bunch of operating groups and employed nearly 17 thousand people at its height, making poor decision after poor decision in a frankly shameful display of ineptitude that ultimately affected the lives of thousands of employees.
This started during the pandemic, when Wingefors and crew decided to spend easy cash on scooping up dozens upon dozens of studios and intellectual property rights, expand into tabletop via Asmodee and pursue comics via Dark Horse, attempting to capitalize on volume rather than quality. Once interest rates rose and debt piled up, management tried to secure a deal worth $2 billion with an unknown partner, now reported to be Saudi Arabia’s Savvy Games, which ultimately didn’t happen. This led to a disastrous 2023 of layoffs, project cancellations and business unit closures, with teams like Volition Games closing its doors and Gearbox Entertainment supposedly being shopped around for sale. The pain isn’t over as Embracer’s restructuring will continue into next year and beyond, all as a result of repeatedly bad calls by those at the top.
Sources: CNBC, Company Media & Investor Websites, LinkedIn (Image Credit), Marvin Meyer (Image Credit), NPR (Image Credit), Skadden, TechCrunch.