2017: Celebrating the bright spots
It may not have been a superb year overall, but expectations were defied and challenges overcome with creativity and passion in 2017
Personal ups and downs aside - and I hope that for most of you there were far more of the former than the latter - most people have a strong sense that 2017 has not exactly distinguished itself as a fantastic year overall.
Even as developments in the political and economic climate (not to mention the actual climate itself) have looked bleak, closer to home in the games business we've also been wracked by angry vitriol over everything from loot boxes to minority representation to unethical practices on YouTube. Looking back over the past 12 months, it wouldn't be hard to imagine this being a year primarily remembered for the over-reach of corporations trying to crowbar new business models into the medium, and the malign influence of angry online mobs in pushing developers and creators away from public engagement of any kind.
"There are several key areas where 2017 denied the naysayers and jabbed a finger in the eye of its prophets of doom"
Before the year ends, though, I'd like to present the case in defence of 2017. We've had our issues this year; there's no doubt that we've ended 2017 with more creators keeping their heads below the parapet, with more distrust between consumers and the companies that make and publish games, and with no clearer an idea of how to fend off the toxic overspill from the right-wing assault on minority representation or participation in media than we had at the start of the year. Those problems have been pushed into 2018; hopefully we'll find better and wiser solutions in the coming 12 months than we did in the past 12.
2017, though, has been far from a year of failure. In fact, there are several key areas where 2017 outright denied the naysayers and jabbed a finger in the eye of its prophets of doom; points of outright positivity that show how bright the future for the medium can be, and just how the creativity and passion of the people working in games can overcome even seemingly insurmountable challenges.
The most obvious example here, of course, is the success of Nintendo's Switch, a console that has had analysts and commentators eating multiple servings of humble pie all year around. After the commercially disastrous Wii U, Switch was a remarkable gamble; doubling down on the Wii U's "second screen" concept rather than abandoning it entirely, its development was Nintendo stubbornness writ large. The company firmly believed that Wii U's core idea was good, in spite of its shockingly poor market performance. It was the execution that was the problem, so the right execution, the right approach, and the right games would make it second time lucky for the concept.
"That the Switch happened at all is remarkable in an age where market data rules and the space for faith and vision often feels limited"
That the Switch happened at all - rather than a sharp U-turn back towards a more 'traditional' console - is remarkable in an age where market data rules so much business decision-making and the space for faith and vision often feels limited. That it has been such an enormous success that even Nintendo itself has been broadsided by demand is a testament to the importance of that kind of process; of a willingness, sometimes, to stick by your guns, pick yourself up from a monumental failure, and try again, but try better.
With 10 million sold and demand still strong, Switch is now placed to blow the console market wide open; proving that there's demand for innovation, not just cyclical GPU upgrades, and re-establishing Nintendo as a top-class competitor just in time to rescue Sony from any danger of falling back on its PS3-era complacency.
Speaking of Sony, though, that's another company that has defied expectations in an enormously positive way this year. PlayStation 4 itself has trotted along reliably and effectively; a steady diet of great exclusive software has kept the machine well fed and consumers happy, but there were no real surprises there. The expectation-defying move was the company's doubling down on support for PSVR, a platform which most people basically expected to go the way of so many Sony peripheral experiments of the past - launched to grand fanfare and then left out in the cold to die unsupported after a few months. Instead, Sony has kept up a steady and unwavering focus on the headset, announcing several waves of software over the course of the year and even making a few small but welcome revisions in a hardware update a few months ago.
There are now two million PSVR headsets on the market; a small installed base by console standards, certainly, but a hugely promising market for game creators given the relative lack of competition and the high attention paid to VR titles. VR overall is still waiting for its killer app but Sony has kept the flame alive this year; a few more stand-out titles (especially in terms of full-size experiences like Resident Evil 7 or Skyrim) and perhaps a little judicious price-cutting on the hardware could well push this from being a curiosity to a must-have device for a lot of PS4 owners next year.
"Personally I'm still reeling from the fact that Final Fantasy XV not only exists, but is actually good"
It's not just Sony and Nintendo that have stood in defiance of low expectations this year, though. Who would have guessed at the start of the year that the Assassin's Creed franchise would be revived and overhauled to the extent that the team behind Assassin's Creed Origins managed? Personally I'm still reeling from the fact that Final Fantasy XV not only exists, but is actually good; let alone the superb job that Square Enix has done in supporting and keeping the game vital through 2017 with a set of largely excellent updates and DLC episodes.
To see another great franchise that had languished so badly recently restored to top form at the end of 2017 has been a timely reminder of the genuine passion and care game creators take with even the most well-worn of blockbuster franchises, and the great things they're capable of when given the breathing space to work their magic. (That neither Zelda nor Mario, both of which enjoyed franchise reinventing high points this year, is mentioned in this context is a testament to Nintendo's success in never really allowing its treasured franchises to sink to low points in the first place.)
We could talk about purely commercial bright points; the industry's c.10 per cent annual growth (now worth around $116 billion annually in software and services alone, according to Newzoo), or the even more startling c.26 per cent growth in the smartphone game market. We could even talk about ethical bright points, in a year which didn't seem great on that front; a good example is Blizzard's stoic commitment to making the Overwatch community as welcoming and positive a place as possible, even at the cost of attracting ire from the outspoken minority of players who mistake abuse and intolerance for gaming culture.
Or how about the utterly unexpected longevity of Pokémon Go, a game almost nobody expected we'd still be playing and talking about by the end of 2017 - and one whose long-term success opens the door to plenty more experimentation with GPS, AR and other new technologies that start to blur the lines between games and the real world?
Perhaps 2017 has not been a banner year overall; but from market leaders defying expectations to once-loved franchises being given new leases of life, from green shoots in new and exciting areas (hell, even Magic Leap now actually seems like it might have a product some time soon) to groundwork being laid for major breakthroughs in years to come, there's been a lot to celebrate this year as well. The industry heads into 2018 with plenty of challenges on its mind, but 2017 has been, if nothing else, a year in which game creators showed their capacity to rise to challenges and defy expectations for the better.