December 18, 2023
This is the final edition of the Axios Gaming newsletter, in more ways than one, as you'll see as you read through.
- Whether you started subscribing two years ago or two days ago, thank you for your support.
I hope you'll sign up for my next gaming newsletter too.
Today's edition: 1,978 words, a 7.5-minute read.
1 big thing: The games go on
I sent out the first Axios Gaming newsletter back on May 3, 2021, co-bylined with Megan Farokhmanesh. This is edition No. 431.
Why it matters: Two and a half years can be an epoch in gaming.
- So, instead of looking at today as an ending, let's use it as a reason to appreciate how ever-changing this scene is — and to notice at least some spots where change is stubbornly slow.
In Axios Gaming's debut edition, Epic Games' antitrust trial against Apple's app store policies had just begun.
- The result that September was a mixed verdict, and both sides appealed. They are still waiting for the Supreme Court to decide if it'll hear the case.
- Epic had also sued Google with similar complaints. The Fortnite maker finally got a jury trial last month, then, last week, a verdict in its favor.
- A subplot that became a trend: In that first edition, we covered some heavily redacted internal Xbox documents that came out in the Epic-Apple trial. In the years that followed, documents from other court cases spilled more industry secrets, like the budgets for the biggest PlayStation games, thanks to poor redaction techniques and accidental attachments.
In May 2021, we called gaming "a field of pioneers." The two and a half years that followed did not make us liars.
- I wrote about developers who turned the cathartic act of power-washing into a video game, about another who is making video games for dogs and another who made a video game you can't see.
- I found developers looking to upend how games are made by rewriting the rules of production or tapping machine learning and generative AI before it was in vogue to do so.
- Games proved to be increasingly inclusive, as teams from the biggest-budget studios loosened character creation tools to let players craft heroes who are nonbinary or transgender and as they expanded notions of accessibility to accommodate players with phobias.
- For all that progress, improvement in diversity at game studios remained slow.
State of play: We didn't get any new consoles these last two and a half years or have a real E3 (RIP), but we got an abundance of incredible games — all-timers like Outer Wilds, Unpacking, Vampire Survivors and the Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
- Beyond hit games, the scene produced one of 2023's most critically acclaimed TV shows ("The Last of Us") and the planet's second-biggest film ("The Super Mario Bros. Movie").
- But the industry also suffered a post-pandemic "correction" and a wave of layoffs.
- Saudi Arabia pledged to spend $38 billion on gaming. Netflix jumped into the scene too. Google, canceling its Stadia service, retreated.
- The Embracer Group bought 30 companies since this newsletter started; by this newsletter's close, it shuttered at least three, canceled at least 15 games and let go of more than 900 workers.
Then there was Activision and Microsoft, whose fortunes dominated the discourse during this newsletter's run. Two months after the start of this newsletter, the state of California sued Activision Blizzard over gender discrimination. They settled for nearly $50 million on Friday.
- In September 2021, Activision Blizzard settled a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. By November, Microsoft was eyeing the weakened company for a takeover and announced its $69 billion bid in January 2022 (they closed the deal two months ago).
- Worker unrest at Activision Blizzard studios led to a wave of unionization efforts. Microsoft's desire to please labor-conscious U.S. senators and close its deal eased the creation of the company's first union — one made of game developers — and now that union is among the first in the nation to protect workers from AI use.
Yes, but in all this time, NFT's failed to revolutionize gaming.
- The "metaverse" is still a maybe (and might have finally arrived two weeks ago).
What's next: More change is coming, no doubt. And for this newsletter, a few more final items …
2. The Final(s) game
Swedish game studio Embark is bucking industry trends around ongoing, live-service games and is not releasing a content road map for The Finals, its popular, new multiplayer first-person shooter.
Why it matters: Much of the games industry has been chasing live-service glory in recent years, seeking the dream of continuously updated games that continuously generate revenue. But developers have often found it tough to stick to their initial plans.
- A common staple is the content road map, a publicly published grid that lays out the new content and modes players can expect for the next year. Many live service developers find themselves having to revise their grids.
What they're saying: "We better hold off with that sort of stuff and make promises we can keep," The Finals' creative director, Gustav Tilleby, tells Axios.
Details: The Finals emphasizes destructible environments and is one of 2023's surprise hits.
- The game's publicly playable beta a month ago drew 7.5 million players.
- After a surprise launch, announced during The Game Awards, the free-to-play game has been peaking at more than 150,000 concurrent players on Steam, charting ahead of juggernauts like Call of Duty.
Between the lines: Embark has been in operation for five years and spent nearly a year developing software tools for its games to allow for more rapid iteration — a key source to finding the fun.
- The game's signature element is that players can destroy most of the structures in the game's levels. The mid-match destruction is reliant on servers that coordinate the spectacle of collapsing buildings and crushed walls for all players at once.
- A small number of objects in The Finals aren't destructible and the ground is impenetrable. "We need to kind of draw the line somewhere," senior environment artist Joakim Stigsson tells Axios. "Otherwise we would have players digging holes."
State of play: Live service game dev remains volatile.
3. A CEO's finale
Outgoing Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney has some searing criticism for the video game industry, but he doesn't want people to think he's being overly negative. It's helpful, he tells Axios, "to be really clear about the things that get in your way."
Why it matters: Mahoney, certainly proud of his own company, nevertheless believes the big-budget gaming business is falling behind on innovation and losing its way.
- Mahoney is worth listening to. Nexon, founded in South Korea and operating out of Japan, is a rising force in gaming, boasting not just extraordinary 20-year franchises like MapleStory but now producing crossover hits like Dave the Diver and The Finals, whose studio Nexon bought in 2019.
- Mahoney ran corporate development at Electronic Arts for nine years, joined Nexon as CFO in 2010, and has been CEO for the last 10 years. He's exiting in March, saying it's time to pass the torch.
What they're saying: "Our industry is in deep trouble right now, I think, because of throwing bodies at the problem of game development," Mahoney says.
- Big-budget games are now made by hundreds of people, sometimes more than 1,000, which Mahoney believes keeps creators too far removed from the creative process. Unsurprisingly, he presents The Finals, built by a core team of 100 people at Embark, as an example of a better approach.
- "Developers making games is what you really want," he added. "You want you guys sitting in front of a whiteboard arguing about a feature. You don't want them sweating about how they're going to hire another 400 people."
- Mahoney laments an industry laden with $100 million projects but won't say just what The Finals cost. His preferred smaller team approach, he hints, is "an additional zero off the top."
Between the lines: Mahoney also takes aim at the industry's preoccupation with better and better visuals, which are one of the reasons for such massive development teams and what he sees as innovation stagnation.
- "We've been talking about cinematic graphics and sound since the days of the PlayStation 2," he says.
- "I would like our industry to come out with more fun.
- "There's a lot of people like me in the industry. So I think we have to fight for that."
4. Need to know
🎮 Voice actor James McCaffrey has died. He played Max Payne in Remedy's game of the same name and Alex Casey in the studio's recent Alan Wake II, has died. Remedy noted: "His remarkable talent gave life to our characters and left an enduring impact on our community."
📰 An insider's postmortem about The Washington Post's shuttered Launcher gaming vertical from ReaderGrev includes an assessment of the endeavor's traffic (good, though heavily helped by Wordle coverage) and an occasionally awkward fit with the Post's senior editors.
🤔 Indie studio Sabotage will rename a character in its recent hit Sea of Stars so that it is no longer associated with Jirard "The Completionist" Khalil, a YouTuber who has faced skepticism over his efforts to fundraise for charities (Khalil has acknowledged that he only recently donated money collected for years).
🎄 Valve is banning players who cheat or otherwise break its conduct rules by giving them virtual lumps of coal, Eurogamer reports.
5. An interview with Axios Gaming's copy editor
I've thanked Kathie Bozanich for copy editing this newsletter hundreds of times. I thought you might also enjoy finally hearing from her:
Stephen: Kathie, you copy edited this newsletter for about two years. I don't think you were much of a gamer before we started. What did you learn about games from the process?
Kathie: I have long contended that only talk of weather and sports (add freeways here in Southern California) can unite people anymore.
- I've added gaming to that list after working on this newsletter. Your institutional knowledge highlights what a community it is, with gamers and gaming industry workers generously and happily sharing their passions, ideas and tips. I was unaware of just how much of a bonding thing it is.
Stephen: You had to learn a lot of jargon and weird video game names for this gig. Any favorites? Any ones you just couldn't stand?
Kathie: My not-so favorites are for pedantic reasons: Take-Two and its hyphen, God of War Ragnarök and its accent, whether a title has a colon and is the number a regular or Roman numeral.
- As for favorites, I love the word "modder." For some reason it reminds me of the "Seinfeld" episode about a racehorse "mudder" that "loves the slop," but I sub in "modder": "His father was a modder. His mother was a modder."
- My other favorite thing is you sharing what it's like to game with your kids and their likes and dislikes. They crack me up, and there's that bonding thing again. I'm going to miss you, buddy, and wish you all the best.
Stephen: I'm going to miss you too. And hope you won't mind if I text if I can't remember whether it's Baldur's Gate 3 or Baldur's Gate III.
Kathie: Bring it.
6. What's next
That's a wrap for Axios Gaming, but if you are as much a fan as I am of Axios reporters' ability to distill the news you need into a brisk, emailed read, check out the full lineup of newsletters.
- Axios Latino, What's Next and our many city-centric editions are among my favorites. For some gaming-adjacent coverage, keep up with AI+. (Also: Axios Crypto does its own courtroom sketches!)
For gaming coverage, as I noted in Thursday's edition, I'll be running a reader-backed newsletter over at Substack. It'll be like this one, with some tweaks.
- You may also see my byline back at Axios as a contributor from time to time. They can't keep me away.
Thank you to Megan Morrone for editing and Kathie Bozanich for copy editing this final newsletter.
And thank you to Megan Farokhmanesh, Peter Allen Clark, Justin Green, Amy Stern, Allison Snyder, Bryan McBournie, Scott Rosenberg and all the other writers, editors, data viz journalists and illustrators who touched this newsletter during its run.
And thank you for reading. See you over at Game File?