Here’s a fun question for you: What’s the difference between the biggest surprises of a year and the biggest stories of the year? The answer, in short, is that it’s something we actually debate and discuss a lot here as well because there isn’t a very clear dividing line and we’re doing our best to find a consensus. However, the general look at least from my end is that surprises are things you didn’t expect to happen at all, while stories are things that have far-reaching impacts beyond the immediate moment.
None of this is to say that there’s no overlap, and you’ll find some familiar friends in this particular list from the last listing of the biggest surprises of the year. But there are also some major differences, and it’s important to note these stories that have a larger impact beyond the immediate moments of “wait, what?” So without further ado, let’s take a gander at the big stuff of 2020.
1. Epic Games vs. Apple
In another somewhat more sane year, this would be the sort of thing that would stick in everyone’s mind. It’s a challenge to an enormously powerful company by another powerful company that might actually be able to make it stick, and the stakes are the future of proprietary control of an entire popular platform’s gaming library. That’s a big deal! It’d be kind of cooler on a personal note if it were a game I liked instead of Fortnite, but let’s not quibble.
2. Microsoft buys Bethesda
The funny thing about this particular acquisition is that we all know it’s a big deal, but it’s also something we all know will be a bigger deal in the future. Not much is going to change for The Elder Scrolls Online or Fallout 76 in the immediate or (likely) more distant future, but subsequent games might have a very different launch setup based on the ownership. It’s a big acquisition for the company, but it’s hard to guess at the impact just now.
3. Tencent buys (all of) Funcom
This one wasn’t really a surprise, since Tencent had been buying up bits of Funcom already. But it does mean that a company with a solid stable of online titles is now under Tencent’s control, and it’s also hardly the first online studio in the company’s wheelhouse. Part of me wonders if this is a nail in the coffin for any hopes of Secret World Legends managing a comeback given Tencent’s focus, which would make this particularly tragic.
4. EG7 Global buys Daybreak
Daybreak even partitioned itself for a piecemeal buyout, and yet it didn’t happen! All of Daybreak is still together, and now owned by an organization at least somewhat less shady than its prior ownership. Considering the pedigree and the titles still maintained by Daybreak, this has the potential for some major impacts down the line for MMOs… hopefully positive ones, as it might lead to some actual development of long-languishing concepts and plans.
5. En Masse buys the farm
It’s always sad to say goodbye to a studio in this subgenre, but it’s doubly so when by all visible accounts the studio seemed to be doing fine. That’s what made this such a surprise, of course. But it also means that there’s going to be a knock-on effect for the games that En Masse was managing and a certain amount of player confusion as well as differences in management. It’s substantial, and even though the assets and games were merged back into the parent coming, it did apparently lead to a ripple effect of skilled people losing their jobs here in the US branch.
6. Ubisoft shows its rear
It’s funny how Ubisoft has quietly slid its way into the online game space over the past several years, but it’s not funny at all when it turns out that Ubisoft’s upper management was full of grotesque and disgusting people. This is a big deal in the larger gaming industry as well as online games specifically.
At the same time, though, this is something that’s actually worth being happy about. Yes, it’s a shame that so many people making decisions at Ubisoft were kind of awful. But the fact that this year those same people faced a reckoning and that it mattered was itself kind of a new thing. So it’s upsetting, but hopefully one that will lead to better things down the line.
7. Solidarity for Black Lives Matter
Speaking of upsetting things that will hopefully lead to a better world, this summer saw an immense amount of racial unrest in the United States and increased prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Not only did major gaming companies from Sony to Microsoft take the opportunity to cede the stage to BLM voices, most of them voiced support and solidarity for the protesters. Another moment when hopefully things will get better moving forward.
8. City State Entertainment’s second game
Yes, CSE’s reveal of a second title engendered a fair amount of ire from fans, to the point that back in January this looked like it was going to be a big deal. (2020 had other ideas, obviously.) But it still is a big deal insofar as it served as a reminder of how much it really costs to develop these games, the complex road ahead of these projects, and just how much needs to be done – as well as what happens when a studio tries to focus on long-term viability contrary to the wishes of its fans.
9. Guild Wars 2 is going to Cantha
This year made it very clear that Guild Wars 2 needed an expansion. That’s not half a patch on the updates it did get, just a statement that it was clear pretty early on that a full expansion really was a needed feature for the game. Fortunately, we know that one is in the works now, and it’s one that fans have been asking for more or less since the game’s launch. It’s a good sign that the game still has life in it, even if some of the decisions along the way might have been questionable.
10. New World keeps delaying and improving
So, uh… is New World actually good now? It sure seemed that way the last time I played it, as this title becomes more of an MMO and more worthy of play even as its earlier releases seemed to be resolutely devoted to downplaying the game’s MMO aspects. Sure, it’s kind of a shame that the game got delayed yet again… but it’s also kind of excellent that after all those delays the title looks to be on track for a full MMO release next year, and hopefully it’ll be as solid and fun as it has looked through the previews and testing events.
11. So many event cancellations
Oh, right, the world was covered in death this year. That one got noted as a surprise because if anyone had predicted that before 2020 we should probably hook them up in a tank and start making the pre-crime unit from Minority Report happen. But the tangible effect on our sphere was that basically every major event after March got cancelled, with the anemic studio offerings of PAX East being pretty much it for the year.
This is personally sad for me, since I had been really looking forward to the Final Fantasy XIV fan festival. I recognize that it is perhaps the smallest thing to be worried about and definitely less important than the people who have lost their lives as a result of the virus. But sometimes it’s enough to just be sad for something lost.