First, The Overhyped AAA Disappointments
The last couple of years have been a remarkable time for the video game industry. A lot of highly-anticipated games hit the market, and a lot of games became runaway successes ... but there has been surprisingly little overlap in those two groups. A lot of those anticipated AAA games were flops, and the biggest success stories were from indie games that almost no one had heard of until they randomly surged in popularity.
The video game industry keeps growing every year. Developers get more skilled, their tools get refined, and their budgets get bigger. This includes marketing budgets, too, which means that AAA games are released with a lot of hype from the media. In the end, most games make a credible attempt to give you the gameplay you paid for. But there are always some disappointments, and there have certainly been some doozies recently.
Cyberpunk 2077: After All Those Delays, Still Broken at Release
Cyberpunk 2077 was the most-anticipated game of 2020 for a lot of good reasons. CD Projekt Red, was fresh off its success with the popular and critically acclaimed The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. Development had a large, talented staff and a generous budget of over $300 million US. The trailers, featuring Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand, drew rave reviews at E3 in 2018 and 2019.
Cyberpunk 2077 did not make its announced release date of April 2020. In the end, the game was a good 8 months later than that. CDPR assured fans that the delays - and the controversial “crunch” of mandatory overtime for developers - were necessary in order to make sure that Cyberpunk 2077 was fully finished and ready to play when it was released.
The PC version was a buggy mess at release, barely playable on the most high-end machines. The console versions were worse.
Critics and gamers have praised a lot of aspects of Cyberpunk 2077 - the cutting-edge graphics, the soundtracks, the design, the story. But few would dare to claim that it was ready to play in December. The PC version was a buggy mess at release, barely playable on the most high-end machines. The console versions were worse. Sony removed the game from the PlayStation store after a week. CDPR has been hard at work fixing the game since release, but the launch of Cyberpunk 2077 has become notorious as one of the biggest disappointments in gaming history. The big question is can CD Projekt Red salvage Cyberpunk 2077?
Marvel’s Avengers: Superheroes Not Familiar Enough, Gameplay Too Familiar
The Avengers movie introduced the world to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2012, and we’ve all been hungry for new MCU content ever since. If the Marvel’s Avengers video game received the same sort of enthusiasm and resources that the movies did, then it would be an amazing experience.
Fans were disappointed to discover that the characters of the video game wouldn’t look much like the movie characters. It turned out that the video game developers had the rights to the characters, but not to the likenesses of the actors. But would the gameplay capture the thrill of the movies?
Unfortunately, the gameplay of Marvel’s Avengers turned out to be ... just okay. It’s not a bad game by any means, but it feels a lot like a typical brawler. It quickly gets grindy and repetitive. Updates are adding more content and gameplay features, but the latest - starring nobody’s favorite Avenger, Hawkeye - was a little thin on both counts.
Now, The Unexpected Indie Hits
Then there are the indie games that came out of nowhere and turned out to be unexpectedly good. Games like Fall Guys, Among Us, and Valheim moved rapidly from obscurity to must-play gaming experiences, enriching our shared experience as gamers and bringing us together.
Fall Guys: The Cutest Battle Royale
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, released by Mediatonic in August of 2020, leans against the violence implicit in the battle royale genre. Rather than trying to kill one another, your avatars compete in elaborate obstacle courses. They climb, jump, dodge moving obstacles, and - like the name says - they fall. A lot.
The eponymous Fall Guys look kind of like jelly-bean people. They’re small, rounded, shiny, and brightly colored. They’re designed to do funny things when they fall down, based on the game’s rag doll physics engine. They’re clumsy, but in a deliberately-designed way that’s part of the challenge and makes the gameplay unique.
Fall Guys took off quickly after becoming Twitch’s most-watched game during closed beta.
Fall Guys took off quickly after becoming Twitch’s most-watched game during closed beta. Fortunately, Mediatonic had already added new designers to the team and streamlined its level design process. On 2 March 2021, Epic Games purchased Mediatonic. The makers of Fortnite are world champions at handling the runaway success of a video game, so Fall Guys seems to be in good hands.
Among Us: You’ve Seen the Memes, Now Play the Game!
Innersloth released Among Us in 2018, but it went relatively unnoticed until 2020, when it began to feature prominently in the streams of popular YouTubers and Twitch streamers. The game’s low price made it easy to start playing, and its distinctive look proved to be great meme material.
Among Us is a multiplayer social deduction game modeled after games like Mafia and Werewolf. You play diminutive astronauts running around a spaceship attempting to accomplish various tasks. But some crewmates are impostors whose real goal is to murder the real crew members. Players can accuse one another of being imposters, leading to spirited discussions and a vote on whom to eject. Dead crewmates become ghosts and can still contribute to victory by completing their tasks from the afterlife.
Innersloth released Among Us in 2018, but it went relatively unnoticed until 2020, when it began to feature prominently in the streams of popular YouTubers and Twitch streamers.
Innersloth has continued to add new regions and servers to make the game available to its growing fan base. They added two maps in 2019 - the sky base Mira HQ and the arctic camp Polus, inspired by the movie, The Thing. In 2020 they stopped working on the sequel in order to support the hit game they already had. In March of 2021, they launched the game’s fourth and most ambitious map called "Airship" - a Steampunk airship, a tribute to the Henry Stickmin games.
Valheim: Valhalla With Crafting
Valheim is a true indie success story. A game created by a team of five people sold over 1 million copies in its first week and five million copies within a month of release. Released February 2, 2021 on Early Access, it’s already one of the most-played and best-rated games on Steam.
As a Viking slain in battle, you start with nothing in the new world of Valheim. You have to hunt and gather and craft your supplies in order to survive. You had better make some weapons, too, because you’ll be fighting Odin’s enemies.
A game created by a team of five people sold over 1 million copies in its first week and five million copies within a month of release.
The procedurally generated worlds of Valheim are astonishingly dense and lush. The crafting mechanics are intuitive but have a distinctive feel. Reviewers often express a sense of wonder, feeling like they did when they first discovered Minecraft.
Iron Gate AB still only has five people on the Valheim team, and they’re hustling to keep up. But they have support from Coffee Stain Publishing, and they’re hiring more people - definitely including a dedicated QA manager for bug reports.
Make Room For the Little Guy
We rely on AAA games to provide us with a consistent source of high-resolution, big-budget thrills. And, while they do stumble occasionally, they’re pretty reliable overall. But part of the joy of gaming is discovering odd little games made as passion projects by tiny teams. Every now and then, one of these little indie games becomes the next unexpected smash hit. Then, we get to see developers become rich and famous by bringing joy to millions of people.
Keep up the good work, indie developers!