Overall, 2016 was a pretty great year for video games. We got to play some awesome new titles such as Uncharted 4, Overwatch, and the Doom revival, Sony and Microsoft both released updated versions of their home consoles, while Nintendo announced a new and exciting successor to the Wii U, and VR headsets such as the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PlayStation VR finally made it to retail. Like any year though, we have to take the good with the bad, and there were quite a few stories that made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Here are some of the most controversial, disappointing, and downright worst things to happen in the gaming industry in 2016.
10. The Wii U’s Slow, Painful Death
2016 was an excruciating year for Wii U owners, as Nintendo pretty much acted like their current home console didn’t exist for most of it. Of course, the writing had been on the wall for the Wii U for quite some time, but 2016 was the year when it became crystal clear that Nintendo was quietly winding down support for their ill-fated console. Software support was practically non-existent, with the only “big” releases being a Twilight Princess HD remake, a terrible new Star Fox game, and a milquetoast entry in the Paper Mario series — although the surprisingly great JRPG Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE was an unexpected treat and seems destined for cult classic status.
With the Nintendo Switch on the horizon and production soon to be ending in Japan, the Wii U will almost certainly be declared officially dead in 2017, although much like the GameCube did a decade ago, it will have one last gasp of life in the form of a new Zelda game before it gets put in the ground.
9. Overwatch’s Tracer is a Lightning Rod For Sexual Controversy
As one of 2016’s best and most popular games, it makes sense that Blizzard’s new first-person shooter would be mired in some sort of silly controversy, because there will always be those in the gaming community who love nothing more than to see what’s popular crash and burn. The surprising thing is that two of 2016’s bigger gaming controversies both revolved around the character Tracer, one of Overwatch’s many heroes who is also the game’s quasi-mascot (she is on the cover, after all). The first instance happened months before the game was even released, as some players who participated in Overwatch’s closed beta took issue with one of Tracer’s victory poses, arguing that it oversexualized the character. Blizzard ended up removing the pose, which naturally grew drew plenty of ire from other members of the fan community, who decried the decision as “censorship” and an affront on Blizzard’s vision for the game.
After a while, everyone just sort of forgot about this issue and all was quiet on the Overwatch outrage front until this December when Blizzard released a tie-in comic book that features Tracer kissing her same-sex partner as the pair exchange gifts, thus making Tracer Overwatch’s first canonically queer character. While most of the game’s fan community were happy about this revelation, others were not as pleased, with criticisms ranging from people not wanting to jump to conclusions until Blizzard confirmed Tracer’s orientation, to others being just plain sexist, including the entire country of Russia, which banned the comic book outright, labeling it as “gay propaganda.’ For demonstrating that the games industry still has a long way to go before people can just accept one another as they are, including a video game character, Overwatch’s pair of controversies were one of the biggest disappointments in gaming this year.
8. The NES Classic Comes Out … And No One Can Find One
If you ignore the dismal state of the Wii U, Nintendo had a pretty strong 2016 overall: the 3DS continued to stay relevant, Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run represented a bold first step into the mobile space, and the company put out one of the hottest toys of the holidays with the NES Classic, a miniature $60 re-release of one of the most iconic video game consoles of all time. Naturally, millions of people wanted to get their hands on one and Nintendo responded in kind by manufacturing too few of them to meet demand and/or deliberately withholding supply to artificially trump up demand.
Honestly, it’s hard to know with Nintendo because one need only look at the amiibo shortages from just a few years ago, and the Wii launch back in 2006 to see that they’re historically really bad at product launches. Although the company promised that they would have regular shipments of the system between its Nov 6th launch date and Christmas, thus ensuring that customers who wanted one would be able to get one in time, numerous reports have indicated that this hasn’t really been the case, with stores receiving very few units if and when Nintendo decides to actually send them. Assuming Nintendo ships a mini version of the Super Nintendo next year — and really, they’d be foolish not to — they should use 2016 as an example of what not to do when its comes time for that product launch.
7. People Ignore Great Games
Every year there are games that receive heaps of praise from critics but go largely ignored by the public, but 2016 felt especially noteworthy in terms of the number of high profile games that didn’t end up selling very well. It was even more shocking when you consider that a fair number of these games — including Titanfall 2, Dishonored 2, and Watch Dogs 2 — were sequels to commercially successful titles that were considered superior to their predecessors (well, the jury’s still out on Dishonored 2, but it’s still an excellent game regardless). Titanfall 2 was a particularly disappointing situation, as EA essentially sent the game out to die, releasing it right in-between its two biggest competitors: Battlefield 1 (another EA-published title) and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
Although those who gave Titanfall 2 a shot discovered a title with a surprisingly good single player campaign, low sales translated into fewer people playing its fantastic online multiplayer, which is a real shame considering it wiped the floor with Call of Duty’s competitive mode this year. Of course, gamers only have so much disposable income and time to devote to games, so there are always going to be titles that don’t get the attention they deserve, but hopefully publishers learned some painful lessons this year that result in smarter release scheduling in 2017. We really don’t want to see another Titanfall 2 situation next year.
6. Steam is Drowning in Terrible Games
Both the iOS and Google Play stores receive quite a bit of flak for their lack of curation, as both online platforms are drowning in crappy software that interferes with the visibility of actual quality content. While they’re not quite at that level yet, game store platforms such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Store are starting to become crowded with bad games, with Steam in particular having a legitimate quality control problem, with a recent report revealing that 40% of all games on Steam were released in 2016 alone. That is a frightening statistic that prompted calls from industry observers for Valve to institute better quality control (read: any quality control) into its Steam approval process, to better manage the service’s shovelware problem.
While services such as Steam allow creators to easily make their games available to a wide audience, the sheer volume of titles occupying the store’s new release list on a weekly basis is making it more difficult than ever for consumers to wade through the crap and actually find games worth playing. Although Valve implemented a few features to help address the problem, such as the Steam Curators concept and a redesigned storefront to help users filter out bad games, this issue is only likely to intensify in 2017 as digital storefronts continue to replace traditional retail as the main thing for game purchases.
5. Bad Video Game Movies
While terrible movies based on video games are nothing new, 2016 was arguably the first year in which it looked like we might actually see a legitimately good adaptation. First there was Warcraft, which not only had a ton of money behind it, but was a labor of love for director Duncan Jones, who had previously proven himself to be a filmmaker of note thanks to his first two excellent feature releases, 2009’s Moon and 2011’s Source Code. Unfortunately, Warcraft had little going for it other than impressive visuals, as critics blasted it for its derivative, uninteresting plot and audiences largely ignored it, at least in North America (the film made nearly 90% of its $433 million gross overseas).
Then came Assassin’s Creed in December, which truly looked like it could have been the first great video game movie, with the film representing a passion project for star Michael Fassbender, who also served as a producer. Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed fared even worse than Warcraft in some ways, as it was thrashed by critics for being boring and joyless. At this rate, studios should probably just throw in the towel altogether when it comes to video game adaptations because if two of the biggest, most popular franchises in gaming can’t muster up a decent movie, what can?
4. Pretty Much Everything Involving No Man’s Sky
Although we already declared No Man’s Sky to be the most disappointing game of 2016, we thought it best to elaborate on why the latest title from Hello Games was one of 2016’s biggest disappointments, in general. The game itself was pretty disappointing across the board, as it was very difficult to separate the failed promises and years of hype that led most to believe that this ambitious space exploration game would be more groundbreaking than it was. That’s not to say that No Man’s Sky isn’t a decent, even good game in its own right, but its promise of infinite worlds to discover ended up just being a shiny distraction to disguise what was really just another in a long line of survival games that the industry has been drowning in ever since Arma II’s DayZ mod became popular.
While the game’s many failings were certainly noteworthy, the truly fascinating part of this story was arguably the fallout that took place once gamers realized they had been duped into buying a game that may or may not have outright lied in its marketing. Hello Games went on radio silence in the wake of massive fan outcry, with lead designer Sean Murray in particular quickly becoming a scapegoat for the game’s failings (Murray had essentially been the game’s PR man in the years leading up to release). Although the game has been marginally improved thanks to a big update released in early December, you never get a second chance to make a first impression and No Man Sky will likely never be able to regain the goodwill it once enjoyed.
3. Publishers Controlling Game Reviews
The relationship between publishers and journalists has always been a bit of a strained one, as publishers are understandably a bit miffed when one of their games receives negative press from critics. At the same time, reviews are often an invaluable tool for consumers to help determine whether or not a particular game is worth their hard-earned money, so the argument goes both ways. That being said, 2016 saw some publishers try to diminish the influence of critics to a worrying degree, even going so far as to blacklist certain critics they felt wouldn’t give their games positive reviews. In the case of Jim Sterling, a talented and influential figure in the industry known for his outspoken views, some publishers, including Electronic Arts, labelled him a “wild card” and have stopped sending him review copies altogether because he’s not a “safe” reviewer. As Sterling rather humorously points out, if you’re a reviewer and are still receiving games from EA, it probably means you’re not a very good critic since the company assumes you’ll give their games a good score.
This effort from publishers to control the messaging surrounding their games took other forms as well, as Bethesda made headlines with its updated review copy policy that withholds games from critics until one day before launch. According to the company, this was done in an effort to have all of Bethesda’s games enjoyed by everyone, including the media, “at the same time” but in reality, it means that consumers effectively have less information available to them when a game launches. We saw this occur with Dishonored 2, a Bethesda-published title, which suffered from numerous issues on the PC side at launch; issues that didn’t become apparent until after launch because critics didn’t have enough time to get reviews up to warn people. All in all, both EA and Bethesda’s policies set bad precedents and only benefit them, not the consumer.
2. Oculus Rift Founder’s Pro-Trump Shenanigans
2016 was, in many ways, the year of VR, with the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PlayStation VR all launching their first wave headsets and while each company had their own share of problems throughout the year, it was arguably the Oculus Rift that fared the poorest. The Rift endured a botched product launch earlier in the year that saw many pre-orders shipping to customers weeks, even months after they were supposed to, but the real controversy wouldn’t come until September when it was revealed that Oculus creator/founder Palmer Luckey had been using his enormous wealth to fund billboards featuring anti-Hillary Clinton memes.
Luckey later admitted to making a $10,000 donation to the pro-Trump nonprofit Nimble America, but claimed to not be a Trump supporter himself, saying that he would vote for Litertarian Gary Johnson in the November election. Unfortunately for Luckey and especially the Oculus Rift, the damage was already done. Many developers, including Ratchet & Clank creator Insomniac Games, publicly denounced Luckey’s actions, and several teams even went so far as to pull Oculus support entirely. Although Luckey has stepped back from the public spotlight in recent months, his actions were nonetheless poorly timed, damaging a brand that was already struggling to gain traction in a competitive, niche market.
1. CS: Go Gambling Scandal
To an outsider, the fact games such as the eternally popular competitive shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have an entire sub-community of players betting real money on in-game items might sound absurd, but with some estimates putting the size of the CS:GO gambling market as high as $7 billion, it’s a lucrative market that can’t be ignored. Unsurprisingly, much like with traditional gambling, the CS: GO community is littered with people who have lost thousands of dollars — many of them kids too young to legally gamble in the first place — and this particular gambling ring came to be the subject of one of gaming’s biggest scandals.
In early July, it was discovered that two of the CS:GO community’s most popular YouTube personalities — Trevor “Tmartn” Martin and Tom “Syndicate” Cassel — failed to disclose that they owned the gambling site they repeatedly showed themselves “winning” money on in their videos. A class-action lawsuit was filed against Martin and Cassel and CS: Go publisher Valve took steps to take down gambling sites such as the one owned by Martin and Cassel, but the company’s reputation took a hit after it was discovered that they had known about such gambling rings — and that many of its users were under 18 — long before the scandal broke and had failed to do anything about them. For an in-depth look at the CS:GO betting craze, be sure to read Colin Campbell’s excellent piece over on Polygon.