With the end of the decade comes the end of another generation of consoles, one that revealed how the digital entertainment industry dealt with the rapid tech changes the rest of the world is also trying to keep pace with. The trend was no exception in 2019.
The Xbox One stumbled out of the gate in 2013 with much-derided, always-online features as Microsoft prepped for a streaming video game future — a few years too early. But now with Project xCloud on the horizon and the existence of PlayStation Now, Google Stadia, and Apple Arcade, it demonstrates that the Netflix-style subscription streaming model is still very much considered a next step.
As 2019 puts a bow on the teens, highlights from the year showed fans that the industry is ready and willing to adapt to upheavals in technology and politics while still having some fun along the way.
Reggie Fils-Aime, the first American to hold the position of president and chief operating officer at Nintendo of America, became the brash, aggressive face of the family-friendly gaming company. Fils-Aime joined the house of Mario and Zelda in 2003 but quickly rose through the ranks. From his in-your-face presentation at E3 2004 to his heartfelt video farewell to fans, Fils-Aime represented Nintendo with infectious enthusiasm. The popular executive retired this past April.
At the other Japanese games powerhouse, Sony, Kaz Hirai retired as chairman in June. Hirai joined the tech giant in 1984 but entered the gaming world at Sony Computer Entertainment America in 1995. He would go on to be a part of a remarkable run in the industry from the original PlayStation console to the PlayStation 4, becoming president and CEO of the parent Sony Corp. in 2012 before stepping down in April of 2018 and taking on the role of chairman. He plans on remaining as an adviser to the board.
Last year, Riot Games, the developers of the esports competition League of Legends, found itself mired in controversy over allegations of gender discrimination and a toxic workplace culture lasting well into 2019. After a 2018 report by Kotaku revealed multiple employee accounts, which showed examples of entrenched sexism, the company struggled to update its policies and practices. Employees walked off the job briefly in May when it appeared Riot was using its arbitration clause coercively in its ongoing litigation. Eventually, Riot Games would sign a massive settlement on December 2, creating a $10 million fund to pay every female employee who worked for the company since 2014.
Esports also found itself embroiled in the anti-government protests that began in Hong Kong over the spring. As the protesters, hostile to China's accelerating influence over the city, clashed with police throughout the summer, the Grandmaster champion of the Blizzard game Hearthstone who went by the handle "blitzchung" (aka Ng Wai Chung) allegedly shouted, "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age" at the end of a live-streamed victory on October 4. Blizzard, a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard, reacted by suspending blitzchung and withholding his winnings (while also firing the two broadcasters on the stream he was with as well) under pressure from the Chinese government. The sharp backlash from its fans, however, prompted the company to rethink its reaction and ended up reducing the suspension and releasing the prize money to the Hong Kong native. In November, Blizzard held its Blizzcon event with protests outside but with little reference to the controversy from the stage inside.
It was Ikumi Nakamura's moment to shine at the Bethesda Conference. The creative and art director for upcoming horror game GhostWire: Tokyo became an instant meme and beloved figure among fans after giving a heartfelt and quirky preview of her game during the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) in June. Many were surprised when the game designer left the development studio, Tango Gameworks, in September, well before the game's completion, but judging by her Twitter account, Nakamura is keeping quite busy.
Another figure at E3 who made a splash was already quite famous. John Wick star Keanu Reeves first appeared as a character in a trailer for the highly-anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 — then appeared live on stage as well. As the actor began his pitch for how "breathtaking" the sci-fi role-playing game is going to be, someone in the audience shouted "you're breathtaking!" at Reeves, who chuckled, pointed back at the crowd, and responded in kind: "YOU'RE breathtaking!" An instant meme was born.
Apple Arcade was announced and launched this year — to some mixed reactions. While more than 60 games were made available with an unlimited access subscription of $5 per month, for iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Mac, the service has since grown to 100 plus games and will be adding an annual $50 subscription price point, essentially providing two free months for the upfront cost. Arcade, which has since its launch received a warmer reception, may run up against subscription fatigue and the "walled garden" of the iOS in 2020, but the user-friendly service, the variety of games, and the popularity of Apple's hardware platforms could be the key to long-term success.
Muted reviews also marred Google's launch of its streaming games service Stadia. While the tech giant is banking on the streaming subscription model to be the gaming platform of the future (along with Microsoft and Sony), the early offerings haven't moved the needle very far.
Traditional console-maker Nintendo, which found success with its hybrid Switch device that docks at home and can be played on the go, announced a new SKU (stock keeping unit) in July. The new Switch Lite, however, is portable only, eschewing the ability to play games on a house-bound flatscreen. The cheaper model took off after it was released in September, and has reportedly sold more than 800,000 units in the U.S. to date.
After falling behind Sony's PlayStation 4, Microsoft took the opportunity at E3 (an event skipped by its console rival) to announce its next-generation platform: Project Scarlett. The souped-up gaming machine is slated to launch in the fall of 2020 alongside a new entry in the classic Halo franchise. Microsoft then surprisingly announced at the Game Awards that the system would continue on as "Xbox Series X"
As for Sony, its followup to the wildly successful PlayStation 4 was revealed to be in development back in April, but it wasn't until October that the world learned it would be called the familiar PlayStation 5. Skipping E3 as the current top dog of the video games industry probably didn't hurt it, but not much is known about the console other than a promise of new controller features, leaps forward in power and speed, and a release date going head-to-head with Microsoft in 2020.