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5 events that shaped the game industry in 2017

5 events that shaped the game industry in 2017

December 19, 2017 | By Alex Wawro

Gamasutra editor Alex Wawro continues our yearly series of year-end roundups by looking back at some of the biggest events that influenced the shape of the game industry in 2017.

As the year winds down around us, it's nice to pause for a moment, take a breath, and reflect on what we've come through.

So much happened in 2017 that many weeks felt like months, and some months felt like years. Within the game industry we saw grand openings, grand closings, big debuts and seismic shifts in the business of making games. 

In looking back over Gamasutra's coverage of 2017, we found five big events that seem likely to influence the shape of the game industry for years to come. Many were key parts of larger trends that defined the game industry in 2017, and so here we give them their due and reflect on what effect they've had on how people make and sell games.

Nintendo makes a big splash with the Switch

Nintendo's Switch wasn't the only new console to launch this year, but it was the only one most devs were talking about. This time last year a lot of industry analysts were cautiously optimistic about the Switch's potential, and that was borne out in spades as Nintendo proceeded to sell out stock and ship over 10 million units worldwide to date.

The Switch's popularity is a big deal for Nintendo, and it's proven to be a boon (thanks in part to the relatively straightforward porting process) for developers looking to get their games in front of an audience.

The #1 way to get your game played at cool rooftop parties

As it grows ever more difficult to get noticed on overcrowded game markets like Steam, PSN/Xbox Live, and Apple's App Store, the Switch's barren storefront has given devs room to shine. At least one game sold more on Switch at launch than on all other platforms (PC/PS4/Xbox One) combined,  and many devs report outsized success on the system. 

It's unclear how long this can continue. The number of Switch game releases seems to grow larger every week, even as big-budget game companies like Square Enix, Bandai Namco, and (presumably) Electronic Arts slowly turn to focus more heavily on Nintendo's latest.

But in 2017, at least, the outstanding success of the Switch (which Grasshopper's Goichi "Suda51" Suda called "a punk console" made by someone who "must have something wrong with them") seems to have been nothing but good news for the industry at large. 

Goodbye Steam Greenlight, Hello Steam Direct

Valve made some significant changes to Steam this year, and one of the most impactful seems to have been replacing the community-powered Steam Greenlight with a new, fee-based submission system: Steam Direct.

The announcement alone provoked a lot of important discussion among devs about what a game distribution platform should be in 2017. Ought it cost a fee to put your game on the market? How much do you charge to dissuade the smallest share of devs and the largest number of asset-flippers and copycats? Should market submissions require approval by paid evaluators? By the public? By anyone at all?    

Rest in peace Steam Greenlight

For Valve, the respective answers seem to be: yes, $100 per game (recoupable), and a submissions process that involves a bit of paperwork and a cursory review by Valve. The (relatively) modest submission fee seems to have mollified many devs who got spooked by talk the Steam Direct fee could be as high as $5,000, but it's not clear that it's had much effect on the "noise" in Steam's submission pipeline.

Steam Direct has been live for five months, and while Valve seems to have achieved its stated goal of making the process of getting on Steam more straightforward, it's hard to say whether Direct has done (or will do) much to quiet the cacophony of games screaming for attention and money on Steam's storefront.

IGN buys Humble Bundle

The folks at Humble Bundle surprised many of us this year by announcing that, after seven years in business, the bundle company built by indies would be acquired by IGN for a (still) undisclosed sum.

This is a big deal because shake-ups at Humble are likely to reverberate through the indie game industry. The company has expanded well beyond its (still significant) bundling business to now publish gamespay devs to make games for its subscription-based monthly game club, operate a subscription-based online game trove, and run an online game marketplace. 

One question remains: Did IGN pay what it wanted?

However, when the deal was announced back in October IGN exec Mitch Galbraith told Gamasutra that "the idea is just to feed [Humble] with the resources they need to keep doing what they're doing." Meanwhile, Humble cofounder John Graham suggested the company -- and perhaps, by extension, the devs it works with -- would benefit from having the support of IGN.

We'll see how that bears out in the year ahead. Regardless, editorial types at IGN now have more to worry about when it comes to disclosures -- and a longstanding pillar of the indie game dev industry now has new owners. 

After nearly 20 years, Visceral Games shuts down

Many good studios met their end this year, but Electronic Arts' decision to close Visceral Games and overhaul its big Star Wars project was especially notable because of how it prompted the game industry to ask: are single-player games dying?

The answer, of course, is no. You can't kill an idea. But you definitely can kill a project because you think it won't work out the way you want it to, which is basically what EA seemed to do when it announced back in October that it was changing the Star Wars game Visceral had been working on from a "story-based, linear adventure game" to more of "an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come." 

With that, a studio that had been in business of making games (Future Cop: LAPDDead SpaceBattlefield Hardline) since 1998 was effectively shut down as its big project was handed over to a network of EA teams led by EA Vancouver.

Dead Space protagonist Isaac Clarke demonstrating the grim work of carving up an unfinished project

Only those involved know all the reasons why, but from outside it sure looks like one of the big ones was the rampant success of Destiny 2Overwatch, and other $60 "games-as-a-service" titles. These are games that keep players coming back, keep players paying, and as they (alongside other live game mainstays like Dota 2 and the newly ascendant PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds) dominate headlines and earnings calls it's hard not to see the death of Visceral Games and its planned big-budget single-player adventure as a portent of things to come.

Electronic Arts drops a cool half-billion on Titanfall dev Respawn

Electronic Arts' decision to close Visceral Games may also have been influenced by the fact that it apparently put up as much as $455 million this year to acquire Titanfall creator (and longtime EA partner) Respawn Entertainment. 

The game industry runs on money, and while EA's decision to spend roughly half a billion to snap up Respawn isn't quite as hefty as some big buys in previous years (Tencent spending ~$8.6 billion on Supercell last year, Activision buying King for ~$6 billion the year prior), it's enough to make us sit up and take notice.

The fact that EA reportedly made the decision after Nexon first offered to buy Respawn is even more intriguing; what do these big companies, which seem ever more focused on games as a service, see in a studio whose latest game appears to have been critically acclaimed but commercially overlooked? A game that (unlike its predecessor and most triple-A games) shipped with a critically-lauded single-player campaign packed with interesting, one-off mechanics?

The answer, at least for EA, may be as simple as Star Wars. Respawn has been working on a Star Wars project with EA for some time, and here at the end of the year it sure looks as though EA has moved heaven and earth (and budgets, and projects, and people) to make sure its Star Wars ducks are all in a row.

These shifts affected scores of developers across multiple studios this year. What effect they'll have on the industry going forward remains to be seen.

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