Let’s get right down to brass tacks: 2016 has easily been one of the most embarassing and disheartening years for the gaming industry in recent memory. Flop after flop after flop has steadily helped erode any goodwill the industry had earned over the past couple of years, and at the moment it’s hard to look past the armies of naysayers that have always saturated the hobby.
We’ll talk about software first, since there’s no shortage of material. 2016 has been defined by a series of high-profile releases that dropped with all the impact of a wet fart. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the past year is that the industry and consumers alike haven’t really learned much of anything from the controversies of the past few years. Games keep coming out in unfinished or incomplete states, gamers keep on preordering them like zombies, the cycle continues.
It’s difficult to select a single game that epitomizes the Year of Disappointment since there were so many shining examples of ineptitude, but for my money the award goes to No Man’s Sky. This is a space exploration game that’s been fueled with raw hype since the 2013 VGX Awards. Interview after interview with lead developer Sean Murphy led to plenty of awkward, geeky sound clips about the wide and varied things you’d be able to do. You could explore an entire procedural universe! Wars would rage through the stars and you could choose a side and take part! There were secrets to discover that nobody would ever find! If you ever met another player it would be a miracle, but you’d be able to see and interact with each other!
Then August 9 rolls around and the game launches to near-universal derision. You can read my review if you’d like, even after a recent large-scale patch it’s still largely accurate. No Man’s Sky, at its heart, is painfully dull. Despite (or maybe because of) the much-vaunted procedural generation technology, planets are all essentially the same with a different coat of paint slapped on here and there. The gameplay consists of wandering aimlessly and shooting rocks to gather resources that fuel your wandering; it’s the worst sort of nag-meter-based indie survival game, and in 2016 we were already sick of those. It’s hideously buggy, even on console: the entire system will lock up on the regular, requiring you to unplug the device to get it started again – something that the PS4 constantly reminds you not to do as it can damage the internal storage.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is the deception inherent in No Man’s Sky’s nonstop hype train. Many of the features and content we saw in pre-release material isn’t just rare, it was discovered to literally be nonexistent after data miners started digging around in the game’s innards. The giant sandworm that shows up in one of the game’s trailers? Not real. Battles between factions that you could get involved in? Nope. Multiplayer? Absolutely not real, as we saw when two players found each other on launch day. Sean Murphy sat on stage after stage selling things that didn’t exist. When the game launched, he vanished. And all throughout the debacle, gamers embarrassed themselves, first by sending death threats before the game launched and later by desperately trying to defend a horribly unfinished game once it dropped.
What do we take away from this debacle? Well, go on most sites and you’ll find that discussion of No Man’s Sky is taboo, since it’s time to “let it go.” If you’re not allowed to talk about something, it tends to fade from memory over time. We’ll all soon forget, a new game will take up the hype torch and, again, the cycle will continue. Welcome to video games in 2016.
Let’s continue by talking about one of my pet topics: crowdfunding. Crowdfunding’s been an institution of gaming ever since 2012, when Tim Schafer of Double Fine proved that you can become rich by just asking nicely for money. The concepts of accountability and prudence were rapidly flushed down the drain as gamers got out their wallets and bought promises like nobody’s business. Saying anything against crowdfunding was absolutely taboo four years ago; impugning the motives of a mighty and sacred Game Developer was unthinkable and would quickly lead to backlash.
So it’s no surprise that we’ve seen crowdfunded project after crowdfunded project bite the dust in hilarious ways – hilarious unless you threw some cash at one of the projects in question, I guess. Double Fine Adventure suffered from funding issues and mismanagement before releasing (in halves) to tepid reviews. The OUYA, supposedly the next great console, launched and promptly exploded in a bright show of failure in 2013 after a troubled development and several scandals. Peter Molyneux’s Godus launched in a half-finished state, remains unfinished to this day, and even hosted a gimmicky app-based “contest” whose winner never actually received anything.
The most relevant project when it comes to 2016, though, is Mighty No. 9, a “spiritual sequel” to the Mega Man series produced by Capcom vet Keiji Inafune originally announced in 2013. As with most crowdfunded projects, Mighty No. 9 was sold mostly on Inafune’s name, and as with most early crowdfunded projects, it raked in the cash hand over fist, earning over $4 million in free money. Financed by fans with no managerial oversight weighing them down, Comcept was able to produce a high-quality project on time and with no serious iss…no, wait, the game was delayed multiple times, pushing it back to a June 2016 release date. What’s more, Comcept had found they liked the taste of money and actually attempted to crowdfund a second game, Red Ash, before Mighty No. 9 was done (to the credit of gamers’ karma, this campaign failed.)
Anyway, June 2016 rolls around and Mighty No. 9, the poster child for what crowdfunding can do, launched and promptly earned a pathetic 52 on Metacritic. No Man’s Sky, for reference, a game sold almost entirely on the basis of literal lies, is sitting a little over 70. The gameplay was dull and trite, many design decisions were nonsensical, the voice acting was flat out horrendous…if this was supposed to be Mega Man, maybe it’s a good thing the Blue Bomber went to the scrap heap. Even Inafune himself admitted the launch was “better than nothing.” $4 million in no-strings-attached funding could only produce results that were “better than nothing.” That was the death knell for crowdfunding and the industry started to return to a traditional publisher-focused model with inherent accountability and quality control…right?
Nope. Star Citizen, the most successful crowdfunded gaming project in history, continues to slowly trundle along, amassing mind-boggling piles of cash over the course of four years despite having yet to produce anything but very pretty pictures of spaceships, a series of highly questionable alpha builds and an embarrassing/hilarious feud with notorious game developer Derek Smart. Star Citizen didn’t release in 2016, so we can’t go into it too deeply here, but I’m sure it’ll make a great subject for one of these pieces when it finally drops in 2020 or so.
Finally, let’s talk about heritage. You’d think the latest iteration of a long-running and iconic series would be a cause for celebration, right? As it turns out, Capcom’s Street Fighter V Dragon Punched that thought straight into the stratosphere when it dropped in February. The fighting was great, but there just weren’t many streets to do it on; SFV released with extremely little content and was plagued with server issues preventing the game’s multiplayer component from working as expected for days following its launch. In particular, SFV had extremely little single-player content; it had no story mode at launch aside from some laughable character prologues, and despite some appreciated updates, still lacks a traditional Arcade mode.
One would assume that casual single-player content doesn’t generate the same kind of money and attention that glitzy high-level tournament play does, so from a financial perspective it’s not surprising that Capcom decided to drop a half-baked version of SFV that would only appeal to competitive players onto store shelves. The idea that SFV was released with little care for non-competitive players was reinforced by the game’s vast array of multiplayer stat-tracking options designed to appeal to elite players. For those of us who aren’t quite as dedicated, though, this certainly felt like a betrayal. Updates eventually added a much-needed cinematic story mode and other single-player options, but it’s still hard to come back to a game that launched in such an embarrassing state.
These aren’t all the disappointments that 2016 smacked us with, of course. Mafia III was a buggy mess. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst was also buggy but fairly bland and generic besides. Homefront: The Revolution was a dry Far Cry clone that choked on even the most powerful PCs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan tarnished Platinum Games’ near-spotless reputation. Resident Evil-led Umbrella Corps reached for eSports fame and ended up devoured by zombies. Armello introduced indie developers to the wonders of platform-exclusive DLC. That’s not to say that there weren’t some solid titles released in 2016 as well…but you should probably check the other article in this series for those.
So yeah. 2016 was awful, and we’re only talking about gaming; if we got into the real-world events of the past year it would probably be even worse, no matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on. There’s one silver lining in these dark clouds, though; that’s the fact that 2017 would have to try really, really hard to be any worse.