Games Retrospective – 2019

I loved the gaming year of 2019. It was an in-between year for me where I worked on many different things, and very different than the intense 2018 (which was all about Yoku’s Island Express release). But quite a lot of games played:

To start, my game of the year was Subnautica. Released on consoles in December 2018, I played it obsessively in January and was already quite certain the experience would be unmatched for the rest of the year. There are so many things in that game that inspires me as a game-designer: An amazing combination of open-world gameplay with a steady trickle of smart narrative to advance the story. Great balance of deep and accessible base-building. Gameplay progression that isn’t afraid to hold back some of the best (and probably most expensive) features until late – all the way up to the final sequence. Using depth as a soft progression blocker was super-effective and gave many wonderful tense moments. And doing all this as a small team using early access is such an impressive achievement. I’m struggling every day to stop myself from playing the upcoming expansion until it’s out of early access.

The runner-up for me was Outer Wilds (no, not The Outer Worlds). This incredible game is almost perfect and a tremendous achievement in design. It has a narrower focus and sometimes wonky controls but what it accomplishes with its self-imposed restrictions on player progression is nothing short of astonishing. I’m especially impressed with the many learning-based obstacles/puzzles that once solved are removed as an obstacle, where rather than mastering a skill or gaining an ability, it’s all about having understood something . Once you’ve finished the game, you could restart it and know exactly how to complete the game in a matter of minutes. That requires true confidence in your own design. It’s also the best example of non-linear storytelling in games I’ve seen, and a leap compared to the rest of the industry comparable to what Half-Life and Deus Ex did for story-telling back in their days.

There are many other notable games as well, but I wanted to talk a little bit about some interesting trends instead. 2019 was huge year for game subscription services. I used the $1 trick to sign up for Game Pass all the way to 2021 and it’s an excellent service (it even has Yoku on it!). Great games like Outer Worlds, which I was on the unsure if I would commit to, easily slipped into my evenings. Apple also launched their Apple Arcade, which is also very good, with several lovely games on it, my favorite being the beautiful Sayonara Wild Hearts. I’m in disagreement with some of my game-dev friends how good subscription services will be for indie-devs (I think it’s a good thing), but time will tell!

In parallel, I should mention game-streaming. Stadia’s less than stellar launch aside, it doesn’t look like the idea of cloud-rendered games are going away. Stadia main problem is its value-proposition, so it will be very interesting to see if what happens when Microsoft’s is ready to release xCloud. There’s a big difference when you have thousands of games compatible with your hardware, and already-in-place agreements with all major publishers through Game Pass. Perhaps they’ll just turn on access for all Game Pass subscribers one day (E3 2020?) and everyone can suddenly play all those games on their phones and on their browsers. I’m most interested in who and when people will use game-streaming, as I don’t think 4G/5G will work for this anytime soon. And what type of games are a good match for game-streaming? Surprisingly I don’t hear people talk about Streaming and VR together, but technically they should be ideal for each other, right?

Another fun trend is something I thought of when I played Sneaky Sasquatch on Apple Arcade. This cute game is a little bit hard to describe. It’s an adventure that takes place is a small but fairly open world and it’s very light on core gameplay. Instead, there is a wealth of side-activities – you can ski, canoe, golf, race etc. I almost feel it’s a part of a new genre, one shared with the excellent A Short Hike and to some extent 2018’s wonderful Minit. Perhaps we can call them small-worlds? I think we’ll see more of these bit-sized small-world adventure games with simple but varied gameplay during 2020.

Before going onto the last couple of thoughts, I need to have a “List of Shame” paragraph. Games I have not played yet, but really should. First is Control, for overall excellency and for just being the next Remedy game. Disco Elysium for further pushing the boundaries in storytelling in games and for developing such a massive title on a small team, and Concrete Genie for being a wonderful product from wonderful people (the delayed EU launch tripped me up!). I have not played these yet, and I hereby promise to be better.

Another fun-fun trend is the auto-battler. I think the lightning rise of the auto-battler to the Twitch top positions is telling for the future. How quickly can you leverage an IP to capitalized on the latest gameplay trend when it makes sense? Apparently very quick. I spend a good amount of time on both DOTA Underlords and Hearthstone Battlegrounds last year and I really like the genre – and I think it’s a new genre. I also think it’s niche, but apparently, it’s very Twitch friendly, which seems to equal success right now. I bet they will have an audience, but my guess it’ll be of the magnitude of the card-battler and not of the MOBA.

Closing out this retrospective is just some praise about Minecraft. I like Minecraft. I’ve played Minecraft before. I’ve built houses, tunnels, crafted and explored. This year I played Minecraft with my kids. I was stunned. I was obsessed. I HAD NO IDEA! It’s such a great game.

Games played

Switch

  • Baba is You
  • Forager *
  • Rayman Legends
  • Oxenfree
  • The Way Remastered
  • Tetris 99
  • Axiom Verge
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer

Xbox One Game Pass

  • Outer Wilds *
  • The Outer Worlds
  • Moonlighter
  • Apex Legends
  • ARK: Survival Evolved
  • DOOM
  • Outcast: Second Contact
  • Bad North
  • Wargrove
  • A world of Keflings (revisited)
  • Sheltered

Xbox One

  • Subnautica *
  • Witcher 3
  • No Man’s Sky (revisited)
  • Anthem

iPad Apple Arcade

  • Card of Darkness
  • Sayonara Wild Hearts *
  • Sneaky Sasquatch *
  • Grindstone
  • What the Golf?
  • Rayman Mini
  • Assemble with Care
  • Overland
  • Explokittens
  • Cat Quest II
  • Bleak Sword
  • Exit the Gungeon
  • Lego Brawls

iPad

  • Hearthstone (ongoing)
  • Cultist simulator
  • Hearthstone Battlegrounds
  • Texas Hold’em (revisited)
  • DOTA Underlords
  • Sky (revisisted)
  • Minecraft Earth

iPhone

  • Pokemon Go (ongoing)

PC

  • Minecraft (revisited)
  • Spore (revisited)
  • Slay the Spire
  • Oxygen Not Included
  • XCOM2 (revisited)
  • A Short Hike *
  • Mutant Road to Eden
  • Slime Rancher
  • Divinity Original Sin (revisited)
  • Kerbal Space Program
  • Amarello (revisited)
  • Pendula Swing
  • Stellaris
  • Road not Taken (revisited)

Oculus Quest

  • Super Hot
  • Beat Saber

PS VR

  • Astro Bot Rescue Mission

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