It will be impossible to avoid controversy while handing out game of the year awards for 2017, and the winners may as well be listed with an asterisk beside them. What is arguably the best game of the year may be disqualified by many publications due to a technicality.
But the question of whether Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds can be considered the game of the year despite being technically “unreleased” and “incomplete” is less important than the conversations we should have about what it even means to release a game anymore.
The idea that development is done at some arbitrary time is, for lack of a better term, done.
Battlefront 2 launched in early access
PUBG is technically in early access, which means the developer is selling it on Steam before reaching the artificial designation of version 1.0. Meanwhile, Star Wars Battlefront 2 was officially released while EA was flailing with the game’s economy after intense player backlash. Battlefront 2 was “done,” and it had been “released,” but whether or not it was finished at release — using all definitions of that word — can be debated for a very long time.
The publisher and developer continue to tinker with the game’s economy, although there is no debate about whether it’s eligible for awards. Outlets struggled to figure out how to review a game in which so many things were being changed on a nearly day-to-day basis, and yet somehow we consider the game to be completed in a way that PUBG is not. Does it really just come down to what the developer tells us about the state of the game at launch, despite the state of the game itself?
Publishers can pretend that going gold still means the game is done, or that being in early access means it hasn’t been released, but the press shouldn't go along with that particular fiction. Those terms have become more useful for marketing than passing along any accurate information.
Video games have always been iterative, whether that means an older game being re-released on another platform or even arcade machines being updated with newer versions of games complete with changes to the rules or re-balanced characters. But the pace of that iteration has sped up considerably, to the point that every aspect of award eligibility has become arguable.
Grand Theft Auto 5 was released on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2013, on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2014 and the PC in 2015 ... so you tell me which years it’s fair to consider it valid for game of the year awards on each platform.
Let’s take that question a step further: despite not receiving a numbered sequel, the game has found extended life with Grand Theft Auto Online. A huge number of players continue to enjoy frequent updates to the online game’s modes, challenges and activities. It’s a living world, and how it exists today barely resembles the state in which it was released. Rockstar has successfully made what used to be known as a single-player, story-based series a multiplayer game that never has to end for its massive online audience.
Leaving aside what genre to even call such a versatile online mode grafted onto a game that’s now a port of a title released years ago, is Grand Theft Auto Online as it exists at the moment in the running for game of the year? As what, an MMO, or an action title? Is it nominated for the entirety of the experience? Or is it judged purely off additions from the past twelve months?
GTA Online has been out for years, and it took some time to find its identity. Is becoming the best game of the year over time a valid way to earn the award?
Warframe was released in 2013 — a weird theme in this piece — and Polygon gave it a five when we reviewed it in 2014. “You could play literally any other competent third person shooter from this or the last generation, and have a comparable — and very likely better — experience,” we stated at the time.
The game has been in constant development since, and has seen consistent and surprising player growth. It is now one of the best free-to-play games on the market, complete with a transparent and equitable monetization strategy. Warframe has even figured out how to keep players engaged no matter how often they log in, an issue with which Destiny 2 continues to struggle.
Warframe is a wonderful game, but it took a while to get there. You can also look at Dota 2, which is an online title that was released in 2013 and has grown to become one of the most-played games in the world, as well as a spectator sport with huge cash prizes and millions of viewers. We reviewed Dota 2 this year, and liked it. Is it in the running for game of the year?
Can PUBG be game of the year?
Warframe took years to become the game it is today, while PUBG is a masterpiece before official release. But version number is a silly thing to use when determining whether a game is “out” or not, as PUBG is a game you can buy on Steam. If someone is accepting money in exchange for a game you can play right now, it has been released.
But even that metric is flawed, as Warframe is a free-to-play game that doesn’t ask for money upfront nor does it ever require money to continue to progress. So where does that leave us?
Many games that are released in a certain year will grow and change into new, exciting and different things, learning from their players and borrowing from industry trends. These awards are meant to celebrate the best of what gaming has to offer, to call attention to games people may have missed or help curate an overwhelming selection of games into a list of what people should play.
Limiting which games can win which awards using technicalities, or trusting publishers to tell us when a game is finished when they haven’t even figured that out themselves is negligent. Dogmatic approaches to what it means for a game to be “finished” limits our abilities as critics and takes away from why we take part in these awards in the first place. This should be a joyful process that looks at the whole picture, not an industry artificially cut into 12 month chunks.
Some of the best games of the year weren’t released in 2017, and they may not even be finished in 2017 by traditional metrics. Every “winner” will look, and feel, like a runner-up if we ignore that reality of our industry when rewarding excellence.