2021 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

I’ve arrived at the very final post of 2021 Year-in-Review, and really the entire year for the website. It’s time to crown Game of the Year!

This piece marks a bittersweet moment. Looking back on a challenging, stressful 12 months, I’m impressed by any game development team and publishing outfit that was able to release games in 2021. Collaborating remotely, balancing work and life, juggling responsibilities and still making awesome games is an incredible feat.

Now’s the time to celebrate my favorite titles, the best of the best. And I must say, it was a unique one. Certain years, like films made specifically for award season, there are clear “best of” list entries. Not 2021. Variety and diverse quality defined gaming this past year, between triple-A surprises and fantastic indies, to where it was impossible to predict at the beginning where I’d be at the end.

Despite what some might say, I think last year was an incredible year for gaming. The breadth of experiences, glorious and saddening, is clearly reflected in the ranks of my top games. Here are the ten best games I played in 2021, then a quick set of excellent honorable mentions.

10. Monster Hunter Rise (Capcom)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC.

Capcom’s bespoke Nintendo Switch entry in the storied Monster Hunter franchise reminds me of predecessor Monster Hunter World in the best ways while simplifying certain areas for a more specific audience. The third-person action-crafting game is an amalgamation of console and handheld tendencies for Monster Hunter, sparked by a new ability that tremendously expands traversal, which benefits its cooperative gameplay and remains rewarding over dozens if not hundreds of hours.

9. Halo Infinite (343 Industries, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC.

After a year delay, the latest and arguably most important Halo entry since Halo: Combat Evolved twenty years ago nails its core gameplay within a bold move towards an open area structure, its campaign blending traditional corridor sequences with encounters that encourage experimentation. It overcomes a predictable storyline because it’s so fun to play as Master Chief, who I can’t imagine now without his signature grappling hook. I haven’t delved much into multiplayer, which I hear is fantastic, yet it’s still missing cooperative campaign and user generated content features which dings its ranking.

8. Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)
Platforms: PlayStation 5

The Ratchet & Clank series is pure gameplay joy mixed with high quality visual flair, and Rift Apart continues this traditional amidst an expanded cast of characters and gorgeous environment design. The latest generation of consoles lets famed developer Insomniac dazzle players with fast loading times, snappy mechanics and quick grappling plus its narrative is charming with Rivet and Kit joining Ratchet and his robo-buddy Clank adventuring across multiple timelines. It doesn’t push boundaries; it’s just plain old interactive fun.

7. Life is Strange: True Colors (Deck Nine, Square Enix)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Stadia.

One of the year’s best titles is also my favorite in the Life is Strange franchise, which now spans three mainline stories and select spin-offs. It’s carried by main character Alex Chen, an empath dealing with both her own and others’ traumas, plus creative writing, outstanding dialogue and consequential player choice. The fictional Haven Springs is a stunning setting, the backdrop to an effective character drama. Chapter 3 is the best single sequence of 2021, a few hours of pure bliss as the game briefly turns into a fantastical, turn-based role-playing adventure.

6. Lost Judgment (Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Sega)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One.

Another sequel makes my top games list as Lost Judgment refines the detective mystery, martial arts fighting, hilarious character personalities and wacky side content the original did so well. It adds skateboarding, climbing and a detective doggo named Ranpo plus parallel questlines in solving a high-profile murder while investigating bullying at a local high school. The developers behind Yakuza expertly balance humor with gravity as Yagami’s path now spans two Japanese cities, and their vision coalesces into a thrilling experience as I wrote in my full review.

5. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (Eidos Montreal, Square Enix)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC.

Rounding out the Top 5 is the most startling Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a spectacular adaptation underpinned by an affecting story, infectious chatter, beautiful visuals and delicate character moments when least expected. Starlord and team band together, fall apart and reunite in a game with exquisite writing and quick decision-making. Combat combines team management and third-person shooting, starting slow then ramping up with new abilities as squad relationships deepen. It drags at times in the third act yet ultimately reveals a narrative with themes of self-doubt, responsibility and redemption.

4. Psychonauts 2 (Double Fine Productions, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (Backwards Compatible), Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass (Cloud, Console & PC), PC.

Back in August I raved about the genius of Psychonauts 2, the follow-up to the cult classic launched way back in 2005. This action platformer is so much more than its genre convention, an artistic delight with thought-provoking themes, exceptional environmental artwork and an improved mechanical identity. Tim Schafer and Double Fine are best-in-class at establishing tone, incorporating references and focusing on finer details that bring an aesthetic to life. Each level is hand-crafted, from a psychedelic festival to hospital casino, resulting in a bizarre yet comical experience through the psyche that certainly has a mind of its own. Oh, and the year’s best song in Jack Black’s epic “Cosmic I/Smell the Universe.”

3. Forza Horizon 5 (Playground Games, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass (Cloud, Console & PC), PC.

The Forza Horizon franchise isn’t about racing. It’s about driving. The thrill of an open road, the roar of an engine and view of a brilliant sunset just over the.. well, horizon. The fifth entry is set in Mexico and has perfected its formula, more an open world exploration game with events than anything else. The trick behind its excellence is a constant reward loop. Its accessibility features make for smooth steering mechanics which can lean towards arcade or simulation. Collectibles, races, stunt opportunities and campaign stories dot the landscape, offering plenty to do in one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. There’s multiplayer, seasonal goals and even a dedicated battle royale mode. Last year, Forza Horizon 5 raced to the top of my favorite driving games of all time.

2. Inscryption (Daniel Mullins Games, Devolver Digital)

Platforms: PC.

It’s wholly inaccurate to call Inscryption solely a deck-building card game. It’s part psychological horror, part escape room and all instant narrative classic with a phenomenal card game as its primary player interaction. It’s the type of multi-layered experience that can’t be described without spoiling its later acts, because it’s so much more than what it initially presents. There’s a meta-story, referential themes, individual character arcs and consistent moments that utterly floored me. Jaw-dropping. Awe-inspiring. Daniel Mullins subverts every expectation and had me hooked on a card game that mainly uses sacrifice to strengthen a deck, a theme paralleled in its later puzzles. The early cabin area is tough, and its second act is probably too long, however I have minimal complaints about this monumental indie masterpiece.

1. The Forgotten City (Modern Storyteller, Dear Villager)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (Cloud), PC.

And finally, my Game of the Year is: The Forgotten City. A most delightful surprise in a year filled with great games.

If you’ve visited the site or chatted on social media, you’ve seen me tell everyone and anyone who would listen about this masterclass of game design and storytelling prowess that originated as a Skyrim mod. I wrote an unscored review around launch. Now that I’m scoring my critiques, The Forgotten City would easily earn a 9.5 out of 10.

Its setting: an underground Roman city. Its rule: if even a single person sins, everyone dies. The playable character is dropped into this ancient setting, summoned there to figure out who will commit the deed that leads to the city’s demise. It’s a first-person game less about combat, though there is light action mainly via a magical bow, and all about character dialogue, investigating leads and making impossible choices. There’s also the time loop element, resetting the world each time the player fails to uncover its mysteries.

What makes it stand out in the year of time loop games is a deft approach to repetition. Rather than requiring the player to conduct the same interviews and persuasions each run, it has a helpful character named Galerius that assists in carrying out various duties. Each action has a reaction as the player tries to close the loop to create a time paradox, zipping them back to modern times.

Of course, there’s a broader mystery about why someone from present day is suddenly ripped through time to solve this dilemma. Clearly not everything is as it seems. Most character arcs are well-written, especially that of Naevia in a forbidden palace and the lonesome Livia who knows the city’s secret, and its themes center on morality, philosophy, mythology and societal conventions of right versus wrong.

While animations can be janky and it should have more flexible options, The Forgotten City wins this award on the strength of its fantastic writing and revelations around societal conventions of right versus wrong, with multiple endings that reflect what the player considers in each scenario. I can’t recommend it enough. I hope it stands the test of time as one of the single best stories in all of gaming.

Top Five Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order):

Chicory: A Colorful Tale (Greg Lobanov, Finji)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac.

Death’s Door (Acid Nerve, Devolver Digital)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC.

Deathloop (Arkane Studios, Bethesda Softworks)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PC.

Metroid Dread (Mercury Steam, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Returnal (Housemarque, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 5.

And that’s the last of 2021! Switch back over to the megapost for everything Year-in-Review.

Thank you very much to everyone for visiting and chatting this past year.

2021 saw the single best month of visitors for Working Casual (that was August 2021) and this month is already the highest average per day ever for the website. Be safe in the coming year, and look forward to many more posts and coverage of gaming, technology and media soon!

Sources: Company Websites, Press Kits, Twitter & Investor Relations.

Disclaimer: Code was provided by the publisher for Psychonauts 2.

-Dom

2021 Year-in-Review: Independent Studios of the Year

This might be my favorite post all year. It’s time to specifically shout out the best indie studios of 2021 and their incredible games.

“Indie” has always been a nebulous term that’s difficult to define. Where do we draw the line? Team size? Budget? Scope? Association with a major publisher? To me, it’s elements of these things. Indie teams are usually smaller, self-published or shopping projects around for financing and games are kept at a more focused strategy. However, to me it’s mostly about the team’s spirit and approach when the lines become blurred. Shoot, it might not even be a team. These days, a single individual can make a multi-million seller indie epic.

There are also indies backed, or even purchased, by major game publishers. This post isn’t meant to litigate semantics about what is or isn’t part of this space. It’s a place to talk about which studios or individuals made the best “smaller” or independent projects this past year.

In terms of sheer number, it’s the largest list for this category ever. Nine entries deep! Let’s get on with the festivities, here are the top independent game studios of 2021 in alphabetical order.

Acid Nerve

Mark Foster and David Fenn make up Acid Nerve, a team based out of Manchester that created the awesome Death’s Door, one of the year’s most striking indie games. It’s a dark, isometric adventure game with tricky combat and creative bosses, where the player collects souls in a bureaucratic version of the afterlife. Previous projects include Titan Souls and Telepaint, but 2021 was Acid Nerve’s best yet.

Daniel Mullins Games

I promise this name will come up again during my Game of the Year list. Known previously for Pony Island and The Hex, Daniel Mullins recently created the incredible Inscryption, a deck-building card game I guarantee is like none other. Daniel is mostly a solo developer known for meta narrative and genre-bending, and this formula is perfected with Inscryption which is exquisitely executed, the type of experience that lingers long after it’s done.

Greg Lobanov

Another mostly solo creator is up next in Greg Lobanov for his excellent work on Chicory: A Colorful Tale, a game about self-doubt, artistic vision and ultimate perseverance. Greg, a Philadelphian in Canada formerly known as Dumb and Fat plus maker of Coin Crypt and Wandersong, worked with a small team to make one of 2021’s most layered games about anthropomorphic animals facing real life issues, sparked by a magical visual flare as the player can color its entire environment.

Ember Lab

Pixar-quality action-adventure Kena: Bridge of Spirits was incredibly the first game for Ember Lab, a team led by brothers Mike and Josh Grier who had a history in short film and commercial animation. The team leveraged this prowess to make a gorgeous game about Kena, guide to spirits and friend to cute creatures, which won both best indie and top independent debut at this year’s The Game Awards.

Four Quarters

A team originally based out of Russia and now spread around the globe remotely, the four-person Four Quarters launched the ingenious, enigmatic Loop Hero this past year. This semi-idle game with tower defense, crafting and role-playing elements captured the stage in first quarter 2021, selling over a million units and cementing Four Quarters, previously makers of Please, Don’t Touch Anything, as celebrated indie creatives.

Hidden Fields

Haunting visuals and tense interactions define Mundaun, a psychological horror game and first full-length project from one-man Swiss studio Hidden Fields. Michel Ziegler illustrated and programmed the hand-stenciled game set in the Alps where a man travels back to its hometown to find out more about his grandfather’s passing, and it’s one of 2021’s most dramatic, bizarre and unique indie releases.

Housemarque

Technically no longer independent since its purchase by Sony in June, Housemarque released time-bending action game Returnal in April which has since garnered critical praise and commercial success. As noted in my review, Returnal was the most ambitious and impactful title from the outfit previously focused on fast-paced arcade gems like Resogun and Nex Machina, blending bullet hell elements with run-based elements in splendid harmony.

Iron Gate Studio

Headquartered in Sweden, Iron Gate Studio broke out in 2021 after launching gathering, crafting and building game Valheim which snagged the zeitgeist in February with its Norse world and fantastical setting. At one point, the procedurally-generated title was selling a million units every other week, culminating in upwards of 8 million as of August and spawning many a tale of emergent, co-op interactions and challenging enemy battles.

Modern Storyteller

The final winner is Modern Storyteller, brainchild of lawyer-turned-developer Nick Pearce and creator of the masterpiece that is The Forgotten City. As I alluded in my review back around launch in July, the first-person time loop game set in an underground Roman city began as a Skyrim mod and blossomed into a daring narrative showcase that offers player choice, political intrigue and major morality conundrums. Pearce and team define and even transcend “walking simulator” genre boundaries with The Forgotten City, a staggering storytelling feat that lands them within this group of best indie studios around.

Shout out to all the developers on this most prestigious list and every indie developer working hard during 2021, a most challenging of years that resulted in some of my favorite projects to date. Bounce over to my megapost for all other Year-in-Review categories, including the impending Game of the Year awards.

Sources: Comic Book Resources (Image Credit), Company Websites & Twitter. YoYo Games (Image Credit).

-Dom

2021 Year-in-Review: Five Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Consistency and quality are the key in this Year-in-Review category.

It rewards those teams at larger publishers or console manufacturers with the most impact on the games industry, whether from a release, investment, expansion, influence or hardware launch standpoint. These are names most will recognize, standing at the top of their respective games. The work of their development teams and publishing arms shaped the broader industry in 2021, resulting in some of the most remarkable experiences of the year.

While I’m celebrating bigger companies here, I want to take a moment to say again how I stand behind workers fighting back against toxic regimes at companies like Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard, both of which (among others like Bungie and Riot Games) will most certainly not make this list right now. I’m excited to see efforts towards collective action and even unionization because these companies are their people, not just their executive teams. There’s no place for harassment here.

Note: My next article will highlight independent creators. This is reserved for publicly-traded or high valuation companies.

Here they are, the top five most impressive companies of 2021, in alphabetical order.

Capcom

The largest third-party Japanese publisher focused on high quality over quantity in 2021. Its two flagship launches in Monster Hunter Rise and Resident Evil Village were among the year’s most critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful, continuing a recent reinvigoration of both franchises. Round out its annual schedule with Monster Hunter Stories 2, Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, a handful of classic game collections plus even Resident Evil 4 for virtual reality (props to anyone who can play that!).

Monster Hunter Rise was made specifically for Nintendo Switch, existing somewhere between Monster Hunter World and earlier franchise titles centered on handheld play. It worked masterfully, an addicting gameplay loop that’s perfect for portable play. After shipping 4 million units in three days back in March 2021, it’s since surpassed 7.5 million units to already become the third best-selling game in series history.

Since its launch in May, Resident Evil Village has shown up on many an award list for its adaptation of the survival horror formula. Perhaps more memorably, the multi-platform follow-up to 2017’s Resident Evil 7 Biohazard spawned the vampire mother and ongoing meme that is Lady Dimitrescu. It was the fastest-selling series launch alongside Resident Evil 6, moving 3 million units across four days. After shipping an additional 2 million since, it now stands at 5 million to date.

I’m fully praising Capcom’s internal teams for adapting in a changing world and producing at least a couple of the year’s most celebrated big budget releases.

Devolver Digital

Devolver is the type of unique game company with a scrappy, start-up mentality that was also valued over $1 billion when its stock listed in London in November making it the largest U.S. company to trade on the stock exchange. Its games are all from smaller teams, and it explicitly makes fun of press conferences from larger counterparts during E3. The portion of its website showing accolades is called Propaganda.

That’s Devolver in a nutshell. And I’d argue 2021 was its best year to date.

It’s a publishing outfit, previously working on re-releases and lately coordinating with tighter-knit independent creators to market their projects around the world. Last year alone it produced the following: Inscryption from Daniel Mullins Games, Loop Hero by Four Quarters, Acid Nerve’s Death’s Door, Boomerang X made by Dang! plus Olija which was created by Skeleton Crew Studio.

These titles, notably the first three, are everywhere this award season and all signs point to solid sales as well. Inscryption is celebrated as one of the best deck-building card games ever, pushing 250K units on Steam alone. Loop Hero, which set its own genre somewhere between idle game and tower defense, has now sold well over a million units. Death’s Door is a critical darling with over 100K copies in a week. The totally rad Boomerang X flew under-the-radar, a quiet yet sensational compact experience.

Devolver is made up of smart, savvy talent finders which led to multiple games that defined the indie space in 2021.

Epic Games

Yes. Epic Games is, at first glance, Fortnite. 2017’s battle royale sensation is still one of the most relevant games because it pushes boundaries of collaboration, creation, intellectual property crossover and live event experimentation. Epic Games has effectively established a “metaverse” at a time when most other companies are talking about doing so. Which is impressive enough on its own.

This year alone, Fortnite added more characters and cosmetics from a range of different brands or gaming franchises: Marvel, Warner Bros, Halo, God of War, Street Fighter, Tomb Raider and others I’m forgetting. It’s probably the only place where Master Chief can have an epic battle with Kratos. Epic moved the game into its third chapter recently while expanding its event approach during 2021, showcasing Ariana Grande’s Rift Tour and the Soundwave Series of concerts headlined by Egyptian singer Mohamed Hamaki.

However Epic is also making deals, investments and partnerships while continuing its Epic Game Store growth with content offerings and major sales. This past year, it purchased Fall Guys creator Mediatonic, RAD Game Tools, ArtStation, Sketchfab and even Rock Band maker Harmonix. That’s not even to talk about its game engine business, moving into Unreal Engine 5 technology which was recently shown off via The Matrix Awakens and is now in the hands of developers making games for the latest generation of consoles like Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II and the next Mass Effect. It’s one of the most popular engines in the world, leveraged by film studios to game designers everywhere.

Epic Games’ valuation is estimated at upwards of $42 billion, up from under $30 billion in April. Its strategy is all-encompassing, with the ongoing, evolving ecosystem of Fortnite supplemented by various other businesses, experiences and its digital storefront.

Square Enix

When talking sheer software output, not many companies rivaled Square Enix during 2021. The Japanese developer-publisher moved a whirlwind of games and expansions, one of which was so successful that it had to stop selling it temporarily.

Its lineup ran the gamut. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Life is Strange: True Colors. Outriders. Bravely Default 2. Balan Wonderworld. Neo: The World Ends With You. Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars. NieR Replicant (insert many numbers here). Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker. Even Final Fantasy VII Remake for PC snuck in during December. Sprinkle in re-releases of catalog titles, and it was a busy time for its teams.

Now some of these were better than others, granted. I’d argue there’s more good than bad. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a sleeper Game of the Year contender and one of the best comic adaptations in recent years. Life is Strange: True Colors continued its franchise’s narrative legacy and produced one of the best main characters of 2021 in Alex Chen. Outriders had a major moment in April, launching simultaneously into Xbox Game Pass to reach 3.5 million players in a month. Bravely Default 2 has sold a million units worldwide.

Then there’s Final Fantasy XIV, one of the sweetest redemption stories in all of gaming since a shaky start over a decade ago. On the strength of its Endwalker expansion this year, the MMORPG became the most profitable game in Final Fantasy history, reached 25 million registered accounts and established a new record for concurrent players. In December, Square Enix had to halt new sales and trials because its servers couldn’t handle player load. If that’s not a good problem to have, I don’t know what is.

Traditional console and PC gaming isn’t the only vertical within its portfolio. Others include mobile, arcade, amusement, film, manga and merchandising of its various brands. While overall sales and profit are currently down slightly from last year’s highs, it expects annual revenue growth of 2% driven by these new launches plus the ongoing momentum of its MMORPG unit.

While I was disappointed to see a New Year’s letter from President Yosuke Matsuda talk mostly about metaverse and NFTs, two questionable corporate buzzwords I mentioned in my Year-in-Review trends post, employees at Square Enix produced several noteworthy games and continued significant ongoing player support in 2021.

Xbox Game Studios

During this same category last year, I awarded Microsoft overall a slot at the top at the start of its new Xbox Series X|S generation. This year, I’m celebrating the individual unit that is Xbox Game Studios for its dazzling array of consistent output. Major internal investment and studio purchases, headlined of course by $7.5 billion ZeniMax deal which closed in March, began bearing fruit. This was perhaps the best year in history for Xbox on the software production side.

Several of its now 23 development teams had banner new releases, even if some of them weren’t technically exclusive to Xbox or platforms where Xbox Game Pass exists. Two of these, Forza Horizon 5 from Playground Games and Double Fine Productions’ Psychonauts 2, were among the year’s five highest-rated on review aggregator OpenCritic. This, hm.. drove Forza Horizon 5 to the largest software launch in Xbox history, attracting a staggering 10 million players its first week alone.

Then there’s Halo Infinite, of course. The one-two punch of multiplayer and campaign are a franchise revitalization. While Xbox hasn’t shared statistics yet, I’m on record betting the latest Halo installment from 343 Industries had even higher engagement. Deathloop from Arkane Studios was a lock for year-end “best of” lists, while Age of Empires IV from Relic Entertainment was one of the premier PC launches of 2021.

On the ongoing support and catalog side, Sea of Thieves from Rare sailed past 25 million players back in October. It’s quietly one of the biggest success stories for Xbox in the last decade. A small team at Obsidian Entertainment released Grounded into early access, plus Microsoft Flight Simulator from Asobo Studio saw its console debut.

Because of contracts signed prior to recent acquisitions, Deathloop was actually a PlayStation 5 exclusive while Psychonauts 2 hit a variety of different platforms. To me, that doesn’t take away from the accomplishments of everyone within Xbox Game Studios whether long-time employees or recent joiners. That’s multiple Game of the Year contenders, if not winners, and major contributions to the industry made or published by Xbox this past year.

This celebration of those working at major gaming companies marks the halfway point of 2021 Year-in-Review here at the site. Check back to the megapost for all articles. Be safe, all!

Sources: Company Investor & Media Sites, Financial Review, Mohamed Hassan (Image Credit).

-Dom

2021 Year-in-Review: Biggest Trends in Gaming, Tech & Media

2021 was defined by a handful of major trends in gaming, technology and media, many of them centered around workplaces, culture and emerging technologies that even those involved might not fully understand.

It was another year of buzzwords within tech, as often happens. Cryptocurrency. Blockchain. Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). Meme Stocks. Metaverse. Within gaming, people spoke out against corporate toxicity and harassment. Mobile’s growth trajectory withstood as other areas cooled from the peaks of quarantine times, especially amidst supply concerns for hardware. For social media, the infamous Facebook Files, TikTok’s dominance and Twitter’s CEO departure hit the headlines.

Time to dig into six of the most significant trends of 2021. Fair warning, it’s not all good!

Workplace Culture & Whistleblowing

This story is a holdover from my 2020 list, and it’s only gained in relevancy this past year. More people were louder than ever on toxic cultures in the workplace or poor actions by executives, especially at big gaming publishers and social media giants. Over the summer, both Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard faced lawsuits related to discrimination and institutional harassment. Employees banded together to fight back against executives, to varying degrees of success.

Then there’s Facebook, now Meta, which saw a September leak reveal its self-realization of the harm it can cause younger users and its contributions to extremist activities worldwide. Not to mention the potential for fake research and incorrect information across its platforms. This is all thanks to whistleblower Frances Haugen and media investigations.

2021 did see some bright spots in these areas. Vodeo Games was the first gaming company in North America to formally unionize in December. Just recently, an IGN article detailed slightly improving conditions at Bungie while the Washington Post reported Riot Games must pay $100 million to settle a 2018 discrimination lawsuit. Toxicity at work and a “boys club” mentality is still prevalent in many industries. The hope is the more people talk about it, the more bad actors depart and these companies clean up their acts.

GameStop & Popularity of Meme Stocks

In a perfect swirl of internet camaraderie, corporate resistance and capitalist tendencies, 2021 became the year of the “meme stock” highlighted by names like GameStop and AMC Entertainment. At one point in January, GameStop closed at almost $350 per share. It opened the year under 20 bucks.

The frenzied swings of stocks like these are mainly due to online communities, especially Reddit’s WallStreetBets, forming narratives and collectively pushing them to historic highs. They tend to target securities with major short interest, which means a lot of other people were betting their prices would decline, to cause a massive upsurge in buying which skyrockets a stock’s intermittent value.

It’s the type of trend amplified these days when everyone is online, with entire sub-sections of the Web dedicated to chest-puffing against retail investors and major investment firms. A super curious phenomenon, especially when the underlying companies aren’t changing in value. It’s all about the market’s short-term perception. We couldn’t go a few days at times in 2021 without hearing about meme stocks, even from people who aren’t usually interested in social media or digital communities.

The Unavoidable Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, NFTs & Play-to-Earn

Apologies. I had to bring it up. It’s everywhere nowadays in tech, impossible to avoid plus impregnable for even those well-versed in the sector.

And that’s the undying realm that is blockchain, crypto and NFTs. Terms that you’ve probably heard numerous times now, whether via online posts or bros at a dinner table, and still find them wholly impenetrable. That’s because they are, plus it’s only getting worse.

These topics aren’t necessarily new at all. And I won’t dig into the specifics, that information is out there. Technologies surrounding digital ownership of goods, alternative forms of currency and decentralized systems have existed for years. It’s just the loudest right now. That’s primarily because of the astronomic popularity of NFTs, which are mainly used to make (or even launder) money under the guise of owning rights to a digital image.

Environmental impact, regulatory ramifications and opportunities for theft take a backseat to profitability in these realms, especially as company management teams start thinking of ways to capitalize and integrate into their products. Within gaming, that’s where areas like “Play-to-Earn” pop up in a ploy to entice people to play for the sake of generating money as opposed to leisure. Ubisoft introduced Quartz within its floundering Ghost Recon Breakpoint while developer GSC Game World tried, and failed, to incorporate NFTs in the forthcoming STALKER 2. This trend isn’t going anywhere, so I wager it could be a part of my 2022 predictions thread soon.

The Buzzword That Is The Metaverse

Every now and again, those at the top run a term into the ground to where it feels old before it’s even realized. That’s how “Metaverse” felt in 2021, a somewhat nebulous term combining aspects of augmented spaces, virtual reality, video connectedness and low quality online avatars to create a digital world where people can exist alongside one another. Lately it’s used by various companies claiming each wants to build the singular place where people can get together virtually.

Shoot. Facebook even changed its name to Meta in an attempt to monopolize the term.

This metaverse is another concept that’s not necessarily brand new. Just that lately, corporations see a clear opportunity to monetize a fancy buzzword and layer it on top of their existing brand identity. The aforementioned Meta, Microsoft, Apple, Alibaba, Epic Games, Roblox, Niantic and plenty more are using this phrase to describe its virtual offerings.

But what the heck is a metaverse and which will be the “one” that works a la the OASIS from Ready Player One? Well, many experts (and writers like yours truly) don’t think it’s possible. The space is too fragmented, companies are inherently driven to differentiate services rather than collaborate and getting all users to agree on a single platform is impractical. If 2021 is any indication, there will be much smaller, less defined metaverses competing for our virtual selves.

Hardware Shortages, Supply Chain & Product Delays

The global semiconductor shortage that heightened in 2020 partly because of coronavirus shutdowns had the carry-on effect of slowing all sorts of consumer industries including consumer technology, video game hardware, mobile phones and automobiles. Anything that used a chipset was more expensive to build and took longer to distribute in 2021, leading to supply shortages everywhere.

A major result is this combination of low availability and launch delays. Using the example of gaming consoles, the latest generation of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S were notoriously difficult to purchase this past year. When retailers did have inventory, it was short-lived and prone to scalping. Then there’s the console delays, including Valve’s Steam Deck and Panic’s Playdate handheld among others were pushed into next year.

Even so, there’s data showing resilience propped up by demand. Sony said PlayStation 5 shipments reached upwards of 13.3 million as of the quarter ending September. Sell-thru to consumers is higher than PlayStation 4. Nintendo Switch reached nearly 93 million sold lifetime, even as the company reduced its annual target for this fiscal year. Microsoft doesn’t share public figures, though anecdotally and from U.S. data, the Xbox Series S is more prevalent likely due to lower input costs. The NPD Group shows hardware sales up 20% in the U.S. through November 2021, even if compared to late console generation cycle the prior year. Unfortunately, many covering the chip industry think the supply chain issues will continue through 2022 and even beyond.

Mobile Driving Increased Global Games Industry Spending

Revenue numbers are in for the global games space, where overall value was up slightly in 2021 on a year-over-year basis. That’s attributable to gains in mobile and digital spending, while areas like console and personal computer (PC) dipped overall. Digital skew leads the charge as downloadable games plus additional content increased in traction and revenue generated.

According to Newzoo, worldwide video games industry value surpassed $180 billion in 2021. That’s up 1.4% since 2020, a durable figure that illustrates consistent spending on mobile experiences. Mobile as a category contributed $93 billion, showcasing 7% growth. Console was the next highest grouping, declining 7% to $50 billion. PC gaming reached $37 billion, down around 1% since 2020.

Overall, digital sources contributed 93% compared to 91% during 2020. Within console gaming, 77% was digital which is up from 72% prior year. Within mobile, Garena Free Fire led downloads with nearly 230 million. Subway Surfers and PUBG Mobile rounded out the Top 3, with 181 million and 172 million respectively. From a revenue standpoint, Honor of Kings, PUBG Mobile and Genshin Impact drove mobile sales.

On Twitter, Genshin Impact was the most-discussed title around the world followed by Final Fantasy XIV and Apex Legends. Looking at Google’s analytics, PopCat, FIFA 22 and Battlefield 2042 were the most searched. The top-selling games in 2021 for the U.S. as of November were topped by the two most recent Call of Duty titles, Black Ops Cold War and Vanguard in that order, followed by Madden NFL 22.

This recap of an eventful, and sometimes disheartening, year marks the first Year-in-Review post for 2021. Pop over to the megapost for more categories!

Sources: Christian Wiediger (Photo Credit), GamesIndustry.Biz, IGN, Marvin Meyer (Photo Credit), Meta Inc, Newzoo, Wall Street Journal (Photo Credit), Washington Post, Ubisoft.

-Dom

2021 Year-in-Review Megapost Is Now Live

The end is only beginning!

2021 is coming to a close. The past 12 months fit with the recent trend of years being difficult, trying and, very occasionally, magnificently rewarding. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which feels like it both started yesterday and has always been a part of our collective lives, continues as the biggest headline, impacting both our physical well-being and mental health. I like to believe humanity is strong enough to push through it, even if 2021 rebutted this theory at every turn.

Major news stories included insurgents at the U.S. Capitol, President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Ever Given disrupting global commerce by getting itself stuck in the Suez, COVID booster availability amidst the widespread omicron variant, an Olympics like none other, plus some rich people throwing money around so they could go to space.

Closer to home within gaming, technology and media, this Year of the Game Delay brought about some of the best content and worst trends ever. The Facebook Files and social media whistleblowers. GameStop as the premier meme stock with the rise of Reddit traders. Executives repeating the word “metaverse” as many times as they possibly can while pretending it’s a new topic. The inscrutable nuisance that is the non-fungible token (NFT) alongside the burgeoning, disheartening “play-to-earn” gaming trend.

Of course, there’s the omnipresent semiconductor shortages and supply chain issues making it near impossible to find a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X. Unless perhaos you happen to be a bot or scalper? Nintendo Switch’s new OLED model launched in the fourth quarter, cementing the hybrid handheld’s momentum on the charts. And, most importantly, the loud, ongoing relevance of challenging toxic workplace culture and harassment practices at companies including Ubisoft, Bungie and Activision Blizzard. (It’s a shame Bobby Kotick still has his job as I write this.)

Over the next few days, I’ll be recapping the year that was 2021. Once I wrap up writing about the biggest trends, it’s time to showcase what I thought was a consistent year in media and gaming especially, with a variety of high quality AAA titles and indie projects. First I’ll talk about larger publishers, then the more tight-knit indie scene before the grand finale: The ten best games I played all year.

This post acts as the central point for all things Year-in-Review here at Working Casual. Our categories are:

Biggest Trends in Gaming, Tech & Media

Five Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Independent Studios of the Year

Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

Set the bookmark and check back often! Happy Holidays and a safe, healthy New Year to all!

-Dom

Seven Major Games Industry Predictions For 2021

Well, it might be a bit late. Yet it’s finally time to look ahead.

So what’s in store during 2021 for the games industry? A whole lot, plus some surprises. It should be another big one for Nintendo, with Zelda’s 35th anniversary plus the potential for a new Switch model on the horizon. In what I’m dubbing the Year of the Delay, better or worse I expect a number of dates to be pushed back amidst the usual challenges of game development compounded by the ongoing impact of a pandemic and remote work scenarios. After Microsoft snagged merger and acquisition headlines last year, my guess is that Sony ramps up its purchasing. Meanwhile, Tencent will continue its takeover.

What about size and spending in the market? I’m calling for double-digit growth both globally and domestically, driven by new consoles, a continued high digital share across the board and steady mobile performance. In a bit of a risk, I’m guessing we see a major collaboration between Marvel and Capcom to rejuvenate the latter’s fighting game history, then I bet we see what Rockstar has been working on besides the online versions of its biggest titles. And it might surprise you!

Finally, we can’t talk modern games without cloud streaming. After making the easiest prediction on the list, I’ll up the stakes by picking which of the major providers could be the winner this year. As long as it executes on a smart business model and expands to new territories.

Where will 2021 take us? For now, it has taken you here. Reading about the future. And a few minutes from now, you’ll know.

Pro Model & Zelda’s 35th Power Switch to Best-Selling Console of 2021

While we’ll get new figures next week, as of right now Nintendo has shipped over 68 million Switch hybrid consoles since its debut in 2017. This year, I not only expect this excellent momentum and the company’s best financial results in a decade to continue, both will actually accelerate with the introduction of a new, higher-powered model. How it manifests, what features it will have and what it will be called is anyone’s guess. (I say go all out. The New Nintendo Switch Pro Plus.) Four years after the original feels like the right time, especially now that other platform holders Microsoft and Sony launched their respective consoles last year.

To go along with a fancy new Switch iteration, I anticipate Nintendo will lean heavily into the 35th anniversary of its The Legend of Zelda franchise. This means I’m calling the launch of the sequel to Breath of the Wild simultaneous with its new Switch, periodic re-releases of classic games in the series throughout the year including Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask plus at least one off-the-wall, patently Nintendo idea. Like a toy Master Sword that somehow interacts with the Switch. It won’t be a surprise when Nintendo dominates headlines and its fiscal guidance again in 2021.

No Game Can Escape The Year of the Delay

While the games industry undoubtedly felt the impact of a global pandemic last year, 2021 will be even trickier when it comes to development challenges and hitting deadlines. It’s going to be like that in many businesses, especially as new projects start during a post-COVID era. We’ve already seen multiple games moved, Outriders and Returnal among them. Additionally, CD Projekt Red’s botched launch of the industry’s biggest game last year in Cyberpunk 2077 shows publishers that it’s better to move a title than risk all built up goodwill with a launch that’s lackluster at best, broken at worst.

What it means here is no game is safe from a delay, and I fully expect almost every single major title to have some sort of release date push, with some even slipping to 2022. And many of those without dates being next year or beyond. Think of a game, and I’m skeptical it meets its initial timeline. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. Horizon Forbidden West. God of War Ragnarok. Resident Evil Village. Far Cry 6. Gotham Knights. Dying Light 2. Hollow Knight: Silksong. Overwatch 2. Elden Ring. Starfield. Bayonetta 3. Metroid Prime 4. Shoot, even something that’s slated for the Fall like Halo Infinite isn’t immune. The only guarantee in 2021 is that teams are going to take their time, and I really can’t blame them.

Sony & Tencent Highlight Another Year of Acquisitions

Mergers, acquisitions, investments and public offerings across the games industry totaled $20.5 billion thru the first three quarters of 2020. Deals like Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of ZeniMax, Tencent’s purchase of Leyou Technologies for $1.4 billion plus Embracer Group’s buy of Saber Interactive among many others headlined a busy year of consolidation. 2021 will be no different, as I believe we’ll see more purchases. Especially at the top-end. And I’m foreseeing a couple major moves from Sony and Tencent, in particular.

I bet Sony invests in at least two development studios to bolster its portfolio, one of them being long time collaborator Bluepoint Games who was responsible for PlayStation 5 launch game Demon’s Souls. When it comes to Tencent, the recent rumor is it may be targeting a major Western or South Korean gaming company. Unlike some, I don’t think publishers like Electronic Arts or even Take-Two Interactive are on the table. I’m putting my money on the latter, like a Pearl Abyss or Smilegate based in Asia. Either of which would still be major news. Otherwise, I think Microsoft solidifies a deal for Moon Studios, the team behind the Ori series, and of course Embracer Group expands its subsidiaries considerably again in 2021 as it continues the path of quantity over anything else.

Double-Digital Consumer Spending Increase Led By 90% Digital

During a time when people stayed at home and played a ton of games together virtually, the games industry expanded nearly 20% to a total $175 billion in consumer spending according to Newzoo. Within the U.S. alone, sales expanded 27% to almost $57 billion per NPD Group as I wrote recently. Not only that, digital accounted for 91% of worldwide spending and 72% of the console market. Sony even reported that more than half of software sales on PlayStation 4 were digital each of the past four fiscal quarters, averaging nearly two-thirds from downloads. In reality, stay-at-home guidelines accelerated a trend that’s been building for years.

With supply issues easing in 2021 for new generation hardware, the potential introduction of a Switch Pro, the continued appeal of mobile even at home on devices like tablets plus the almost guaranteed surprise of another break-out hit like Among Us, I’m betting that both of these figures rise at least double-digits. That would bring global spending to at least $192 billion, with the U.S. generating $63 billion. And digital will account for roughly 90% again. Similar to all the games companies benefiting from this increased spending: take it to the bank.

Capcom Announces Blockbuster Marvel Universe Fighting Game

This is admittedly pure and utter speculation. Let’s have some fun! Marvel Games has already displayed a renewed appetite for video game collaborations. Sony with Spider-Man, Epic Games and Fortnite, Square Enix and Avengers among others. Capcom hasn’t released a fighting game in five years, since the underwhelming Street Fighter V. The brands have assembled in the past for Marvel vs Capcom projects. See where I’m going?

This time, I’m thinking both companies reveal a brand new fighting game this year set in the Marvel universe. One where it starts with a base of characters and villains from the cinematic universe then works over time to include almost everyone it can on its varied roster. It’s the type of game that could rival Capcom’s Monster Hunter series in terms of live offering, establishing an ongoing platform that can evolve, expand and, importantly, earn a steady stream of revenue through cosmetics and micro-transactions. If implemented correctly, a blend of great mechanics and a famous character roster, Capcom could revive its fighting game legacy. With the help of the world’s most recognizable entertainment brand, of course.

Rockstar Reveals Its Next Project, And It Isn’t Grand Theft Auto VI

Ready for another wild one? During 2021, I think we’ll finally know what Rockstar has been working on in between new content drops for the everlasting Grand Theft Auto Online and Red Dead Online. For that reason plus the fact it’s still shipping upwards of 5 million copies per quarter of Grand Theft Auto V nearly eight years after its initial release, not to mention how there’s a next gen version of the open world crime game slated for 2021 already, I don’t know if this next one is another Grand Theft Auto game.

If not, then what could it be? A sequel to Bully? L.A. Noire 2? Agent? More Table Tennis?! How about none of the above, and instead a new IP from one of the most talented and detail-oriented studios in the business. That’s not to say its older franchises aren’t valuable, it’s just I’d love to see them flex their muscles on something else. Imagine what Rockstar could accomplish with its near unlimited budget and time allowance from parent company Take-Two Interactive. The downside is, knowing its culture, staff could be in for even more crunch trying to create something from scratch as opposed to leveraging the familiarity of established brands. If its management could find a balance and ensure the mental and physical health of its employees, I’d always prefer to witness something we’ve never seen before.

Amazon Luna Flies High Above The Clouds

In terms of a general prediction, saying that cloud streaming and related services within the games industry will grow in 2021 is a cop out. That’s a given. It’s currently a small portion of the overall market, there are seemingly new services every other quarter and no one has found the right business model to make a substantial dent when it comes to spending or active players. We know nothing about engagement stats for Google Stadia. Microsoft’s Cloud Gaming is still in beta and leans on its bundling with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. NVIDIA’s GeForce Now is a genius idea, yet faces pressure from publishers that don’t want to participate. Sony’s PlayStation Now had 2.2 million subscribers at last count, a decent start yet nowhere near the market’s potential.

A bolder call is trying to guess which player will win. And I love Amazon Luna’s business model, even if it’s from a company that has yet to successfully break into the behemoth that is the games industry. Announced back in September, Luna uses in-house Amazon Web Services, immediately reducing costs. It boasts over a hundred titles, plus starts at an affordable 6 bucks a month. Not only that, Luna has the easiest path to integration with the most popular game streaming platform Twitch. Because Amazon owns that too. And my favorite feature is publisher “channels,” which is similar to buying HBO for a cable package. Ubisoft Entertainment is already on board, where Luna will boast a channel on which Ubisoft games will release simultaneously as other platforms for an additional per-month fee. It has a long way to go, it’s still in early access and only available in the States, yet I see Luna with the best upside and the most practical of models.

Thus concludes my major predictions for the upcoming year. Am I out of my mind? What about you? Have any predictions of your own? Feel free to drop a line here or Twitter, and we’ll look back a year from now to know just how well we did. Thanks for reading.

Sources: Company Investor Relations/Media Sites, InvestGame, Newzoo, NPD Group.

-Dom