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These were the biggest stories in video games in 2017

Highlights of the past 12 months

Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images

At Polygon, we write and read thousands of news stories each year. There’s a value in revisiting them, examining them not just as stand-alone events but part of a whole. Collectively, these stories tell us about where games have been, where they’re going, how the form grows and stumbles — sometimes both at once.

It takes time to really understand what these stories have to teach us. But I think that an accumulation of 2017 news is already yielding useful lessons, possibly even revelations, about gaming’s future.

Nintendo Switch handheld with Zelda main menu Austin Pikulski/Vox Studios

CONSOLES

The single biggest event that established 2017’s significance was the launch of Nintendo’s Switch. Never before have we seen a successful home console that is also a handheld.

Following the shambles of the Wii U, Nintendo showed enormous determination to bet again on the concept of a tablet console. This time, it found a formula that the public likes, even if the company tripped up on its own rush to market along the way.

As we stated in our review, it is “wholly unlike the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The Switch is fully its own thing.’ How this shapes the responses of competitors remains to be seen. The last time Nintendo shook up gaming, with the Wii, both Sony and Microsoft shifted direction, albeit with mixed results.

Xbox One X angle view of corner with power button Austin Pikulski/Vox Studios

Another console arrived this year, touted as the “most powerful” the world has ever seen. The Xbox One X is undoubtedly a beast, something for the discerning, wealthy gamer. But it’s also a confirmation that the era of hard generational resets is being replaced by something more nuanced. The PlayStation 4 Pro came out last year, but as we stated in our review, Microsoft has released a superior package, albeit with a more expensive price tag. Unlike the PS4 Pro, the Xbox One X has extensive backward compatibility features and a UHD Blu-ray player. (Then again, the cheaper Xbox One S has the same features, too.)

It is, of course, in Microsoft’s interest to take risks. This generation, it has been outgunned by Sony. The PS4 recently passed the 70 million sales mark.

Microsoft has been reticent about sharing sales numbers, but it’s definitely well behind, and the Xbox One may never recover. Sony took its own risk late last year with PlayStation VR, which has proven to be a steady seller and is currently on offer at a highly attractive price.

Elsewhere on the VR front, Oculus announced a new stand-alone headset, due for launch next year. Called Oculus Go, it’s priced at $199. The current Rift received a price cut this year, to $399. We still haven’t heard the boom of afterburners in the VR sector, but it’s been a steady, encouraging year.

The launch of Nintendo’s SNES Classic Edition demonstrated, once again, that gamers are just as enamored of the past as we are of the future. The retro console launched in the fall, and it has been a highly sought-after purchase ever since. They made pretty good games back in the ’90s.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds - man crossing a road PUBG Corp.

BIG GAMES

If we had to choose one single gaming story that stood out this year, it’s the astounding success of PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds.

As we recently noted, it’s “a buggy, half-done mess, horribly optimized, crashes frequently and, at present, has just one playable map.” Yet it’s attracting amazing numbers. It’s common to see around 3 million people playing on Steam at the same time. Nothing else comes close.

PUBG took something that people like — in this case, the shooting game — and gave it a tweak. It’s a last-man-standing game in which 100 players fight one another in an ever-decreasing geographic area. Simple is best.

This was also a year in which a Zelda and a Mario game arrived, a blessed alignment that gave us two of the most brilliant games ever made. Nintendo’s Switch success was propelled by these two games, which progressed open-world role-playing and the platformer genre, respectively.

Breath of the Wild can already lay claim to being perhaps the best game ever made, a classic that offers something for everyone, and yet retains a coherence that merges old-school Nintendo with genuine newness.

Super Mario Odyssey returned us to the much-maligned genre of 3D platforming in a way we haven’t seen in years. It honored the world’s most famous gaming mascot, while daring to lay aside some of his most well-worn tricks.

Mario’s return seems to have prompted a resurgence of some old video game mascots. Sonic Mania took us back to the glory days of this most tortured of franchises.

Mega Man will soon be making a comeback. Crash Bandicoot and Bubsy got new games. Then there was Yooka-Laylee and A Hat in Time, which paid homage to the great platformers of the ’90s.

Overwatch - Moira
Moira, the newest character in Overwatch.
Blizzard Entertainment

In 2017, some big-name games turned out to be disappointments. Mass Effect: Andromeda looked rushed at launch. It later emerged that much of the game had been made in one year.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War failed to capture the essence of the original, with a faulty loot box system (more on that later) and a discomforting line around slavery.

On the other hand, Overwatch went from strength to strength. It was already six months old when the year began and a major success. And yet it’s made enormous strides forward in the past 12 months, making more than a billion dollars and passing the 35 million players mark.

It’s received new heroes and maps, regular updates and fresh skins, as well as esports and multiplayer events. Blizzard has demonstrated an ability to support and promote a game as a living entity, while recognizing that it is also a community, with a social and cultural role to play.

Indie developers offered new ways to connect with players at deep emotional layers. Some of the most rewarding games of the year included Rakuen, Stories Untold, Blackwood Crossing, Last Day of June, Everything and Night in the Woods. If you want a game to really make you feel something, play one of them.

Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot crate
A loot crate in Star Wars Battlefront 2.
EA DICE, Motive Studios, Criterion Games/Electronic Arts

CONTROVERSIES

Like the dog that broke into a butcher’s fridge, Electronic Arts has a problem with moderation. Having coined a fortune from its sports games’ Ultimate Team modes, the company proceeded to graft similar “loot crates” onto other kinds of games.

Loot boxes energize in-game economies, offering companies new ways to make money. They are sometimes a fun way to engage with games. But EA’s Star Wars Battlefront 2 annoyed players, because the game felt like it was designed around its economy and not the other way around.

EA wasn’t the only company to go too far with loot boxes. But messing up a Star Wars game launch made EA the most prominent target of blame.

The company was forced to pull back its cynical microtransaction policy, prompting a stock price fall. Lawmakers are beginning to take an interest in the issue.

It’s likely that this fiasco will lead to more sensible implementations of loot boxes. But recent events with games like Destiny 2 prove discouraging.

Game companies finally ended a protracted labor dispute with voice actors, who went on strike over residual payments.

Games retailer GameStop decided that it might be funny to release a commercial that made fun of gouging pre-order tactics used by game publishers and ... game retailers.

Game forum NeoGAF went offline for a while after allegations of serious sexual misconduct were leveled against the site’s owner, Tyler Malka. Moderators left their posts. The site later returned, with Malka denying the allegations, but much of its audience had left for a new forum called ResetEra.

Polygon faced controversy when the misconduct of one of our video producers, Nick Robinson, came to light. Polygon “parted ways” with Robinson soon afterward, and he offered an apology for his actions.

Naughty Dog released a violent trailer for next year’s The Last of Us 2, including images of torture and gratuitous violence against women.

Elsewhere, Oculus found itself in a nasty legal battle with ZeniMax over the Rift’s intellectual property. In the end, the courts found that Oculus (and its founder Palmer Luckey) had not abided by non-disclosure agreements. ZeniMax was awarded $500 million. Luckey later departed Oculus owner Facebook.

A Pokémon Go festival went badly when thousands of players showed up in Chicago hoping to find rare Pokémon. They were unable to play the game due to server overloads.

Valve stepped in to fix Steam’s trading card system, announcing that it would kill “fake” games from its online retail hub, which it said were being used to generate trading cards for the gray market, thus spinning quick and shady profits. Silicon Echo, the company behind those games, later withdrew from game development.

Meanwhile, the game industry fielded some losses from the new Trump administration. Some companies were angry about Trump’s racist muslim ban, arguing that it impeded recruitment of key talent.

The games industry’s D.C.-based lobbying firm, the Entertainment Software Association, was, perhaps unsurprisingly, exultant about proposed tax cuts for corporations. But the International Game Developers Association expressed concern that changes to health care law could have a negative impact on indies.

PewDiePie on the set of Scare PewDiePie
Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg.
Maker Studios/YouTube

TOXICITY

Game companies are showing their teeth when it comes to toxicity, at least on those occasions when it affects their products. Epic filed a lawsuit against cheaters in its highly successful game Fortnite.

Niantic found new ways to shame Pokémon Go cheaters. The company announced that Pokémon obtained through unofficial means would now be marked as such in-game, and would start acting weirdly, too.

Blizzard won an $8 million judgment against a company in Germany, which was profiting from a cheating tool.

Certain YouTubers had a bad year. Disney severed ties with PewDiePie after he made anti-Semitic “jokes” in his videos. PewDiePie later blamed the media.

Kinda Funny co-founder Colin Moriarty quit the channel a few days after making a tired Twitter gag about women. Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller said that he and his partner had been “moving in two directions.”

JonTron came out in support of anti-immigrant policies. In the aftermath, he lost thousands of subscribers and was cut as a voice actor in Yooka-Laylee. He later said that the comments were “a bad look.”

But the biggest self-own of the year came from the loathsome Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin, who has spent years making money spouting drivel about feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian. Benjamin and allies showed up to a Sarkeesian panel at VidCon in a clear attempt to intimidate her. Sarkeesian was not intimidated. She called him out as “a garbage human.”

Zoe Quinn, a favorite target of gaming’s misogynists, published an excellent book on GamerGate. One memorable line: “Online abuse is kind of like finding shit in your food. It doesn’t much matter if it’s a little turd or an entire shit sandwich.”

Club Penguin central square
Farewell, Club Penguin.
Disney Interactive Studios

FAREWELLS

Gaming is forever in flux. Every year, things come, and things go.

This year, we said goodbye to Kinect, Microsoft’s motion-control gadget that never quite lived up to expectations. The company confirmed the end of manufacturing, but warned that it might come back.

Companies including Runic, Visceral, CastAR, Mad Catz and Gazillion closed their doors. Warner Bros. called it a day on the Lego Dimensions series.

Peter Moore, a lively game industry exec who played up to an image of showmanship, moved on from Electronic Arts to become chairman of one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world.

Yet for many people of a certain age, the closure of Club Penguin caused the most anguish. The browser-based MMO had been a much-loved diversion for millions of kids in the last decade.

But then, that’s the way things roll in games. Success is short-lived. Failure tends to be enduring. We’ll be doing all this again next year. Should be fun.

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