Below, I’ve compiled some of the most controversial decisions, situations, and topics from the past year, with a rating that approximates how widespread the discourse was, and the severity of the controversy’s cause.
For more 2020 reflections, check out our Game of the Year Awards, which we’re posting throughout the holidays.
Valorant’s aggressive anti-cheat system
What started it? Riot packaged its new CS:GO-like shooter Valorant with an aggressive anti-cheat system called Vanguard. It’s so aggressive that it runs at Windows startup, and requires kernel-level access—that is, access to a PC’s core functions.
What happened? There was a good deal of backlash, and Riot made a few adjustments to ease fears that Vanguard was a security vulnerability, adding a tray icon so that players can see that the software is running and disable or uninstall it if they want to. (After disabling Vanguard, players have to reenable it and restart their PC if they want to play Valorant.)
Riot mostly stuck to its guns, though, pointing out that other popular anti-cheat systems also use kernel drivers, and that if it can’t take on cheaters on their turf, its anti-cheat efforts won’t be nearly as effective. It put up several blog posts from anti-cheat lead Paul “Arkem” Chamberlain explaining his reasoning and Riot’s strategies for stopping cheaters. Vanguard has not completely stopped Valorant cheating, but complaints about cheaters in that game are not nearly as common as complaints about cheaters in Warzone and other shooters, so it’s at least somewhat effective.
Call of Duty: Warzone’s less aggressive anti-cheat system
What started it? Cheaters are a problem in just about every competitive game, but they were especially bad in Warzone this year. Activision was not seen as being very proactive about the problem, and when the company gently asked players to “please” not use cheat software, it was given a hard time.
What happened? Warzone still has cheaters. Recently, for instance, a new exploit briefly caused a rash of players turning invisible, and back in November, an infinite stim glitch reappeared. Activision and its studios have been handing out bans—20,000 back in September—but glitches and hacks definitely remain a big part of the Warzone experience.
Kaceytron gets suspended from Twitch
What started it? In March, popular streamer Kaceytron joked on someone else’s stream that she wanted to spread the coronavirus, because “we would leave quarantine, and we would try to spread it as much as possible because the world would be a better place without old and poor people.”
What happened? Kaceytron was suspended from Twitch and apologized for the statement. Her suspension ended ten days later.
It’s a pretty standard story of a streamer saying something cruel for laughs and then apologizing, but it is noteworthy as an early reaction to the coronavirus pandemic which, incredibly, has led to actual moral debates at the level of world governments regarding exactly what Kaceytron joked about. According to some reports, for example, a Trump US Health and Human Services Department appointee actually pushed for people to be infected. Worldwide, over 1.7 million deaths have been attributed to the pandemic.
Epic enlists Fortnite teens in its fight with Apple
What started it? Epic isn’t happy with Apple’s insistence that it not only sell Fortnite on iOS devices through the official App Store, but also give Apple 30 percent of the revenue it earns through in-game purchases on iOS. It protested the policy by subverting Apple’s payment system (knowing that Apple would then enforce its rules), launching a lawsuit, and playing a parody of a classic Apple ad within Fortnite to recruit players to its cause. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney also drew a comparison between the his company’s actions and the civil rights movement in the US, in that it isn’t always right to abide by the law if you believe the law to be unjust.
What happened? Epic was criticized (including by us) for drafting its young Fortnite audience to its defense. Sue Apple if you want, was the message, but maybe leave your players, many of whom can’t possibly understand what it means that billionaires are fighting over App Store payments, out of it. Sweeney was also criticized for invoking civil rights to defend Epic’s actions.
The lawsuit is ongoing, and we won’t know how that turns out for a while.
Ubisoft’s whole year
What started it? A lot of things. So many that I made a list, and this is just the big ones:
- Accusations of abuse: A number of leaders at the company were accused of abusive behavior, including sexual misconduct. A toxic environment was alleged.
- Pressure to prioritize male leads: It was reported that Ubisoft upper management has, over the years, pressured dev teams minimize female characters.
- Raised fist imagery: Mobile game Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad portrayed protestors raising their fists as brainwashed villains. This was noticed during summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
- Watch Dogs Legion podcast: Legion included an in-game podcast with the voice of Helen Lewis, a UK journalist whose statements about transgender people have been heavily criticized.
- Assassin’s Creed Valhalla ableism: Valhalla was criticized by Can I Play That? founder Courtney Craven for menu text which describes a character with burn scars as being “disfigured.” The word is considered derogatory by the National Center on Disability and Journalism.
- Accusations of abuse: Multiple Ubisoft executives stepped down, including vice president Maxime Beland, while some others in leadership positions were let go. CEO Yves Guillemot, who didn’t exactly take personal responsibility for the misconduct accused of high-level employees (his trust was betrayed, he says), declared that he is “personally committed” to making fundamental changes at the company, and announced some programs to that effect, including a “transformation” of the company’s HR processes.
- Pressure to prioritize male leads: Chief creative officer Serge Hascoët, who was allegedly one of the prime people at Ubisoft who pushed creative teams away from female protagonists, was one of the employees who resigned.
- Raised fist imagery: Ubisoft apologized for the raised fist imagery in Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad, calling it “insensitive and harmful,” and removed it.
- Watch Dogs Legion podcast: The in-game Watch Dogs Legion podcasts that featured Helen Lewis were removed.
- Assassin’s Creed Valhalla ableism: Ubisoft apologized for “unintentionally reinforcing ableism” with its “disfigured” character description, and changed the language.
Dr Disrespect gets banned from Twitch
What started it? Controversial streamer Dr Disrespect (who’d previously been in trouble for streaming in a public bathroom, among other things) was permanently banned from Twitch. According to Dr Disrespect, he has no idea why he was banned. Twitch didn’t say why he was banned, either.
What happened? We still don’t know why Dr Disrespect was banned from Twitch, and although some have claimed to know the reason, they haven’t spilled the beans. Dr Disrespect, aka Guy Beahm, has maintained in and out of character (the line is blurred) that he has nothing to hide. “Honestly, I don’t know,” he said in an interview with PC Gamer when asked if he thought his overall behavior led Twitch to ban him. (He’d recently talked up coronavirus conspiracy theories on stream.) At the time, he also said he was considering legal action, but we haven’t heard anything about that.
Dr Disrespect now streams on YouTube. “We didn’t do anything to warrant a ban,” he said during his first stream back.
Call of Duty’s enormous file size
What started it? Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is very big. Call of Duty: Warzone is very big. Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War is very big. All together, they are massive: Just over 200GB with MW and Warzone, and over 292GB if you add in Cold War.
What happened? You can now tweak your Call of Duty installs so that you’re only storing the modes you want, and that has helped a bit. Otherwise, the result has been lots of memes, mostly. I wouldn’t say people are happy that Call of Duty games are devouring their SSDs, but there’s some amount of resignation. Back in 2012, I remember being appalled back that Max Payne 3 was 35GB. Now that feels small. Games keep getting bigger, and there’s no stopping them. The good news is that SSDs keep getting cheaper.
League of Legends’ new pop star, Seraphine
What started it? Some League of Legends fans were unhappy with the game’s new character and KD/A pop star Seraphine, saying that she too closely resembled one of the game’s oldest champions, Sona, and that her expensive Ultimate-tier skin was confusing. A person also claimed that Seraphine was based on her likeness because of circumstances related to a brief relationship she’d had with a Riot employee during the character’s development.
What happened? Riot defended the character, pointing out that her musical theming isn’t identical to Sona’s. (I’d add that the game has over 140 champions, so some overlap might be expected.) Regarding the claim about Seraphine’s inspiration, Riot denied that the character was based on any person, and nothing has come of it since.
Halo Infinite gets delayed
PS5 vs Xbox Series X pic.twitter.com/IJftiUOjiEJuly 23, 2020
What started it? Halo Infinite was supposed to release this year, coinciding with the launch of the new Xbox Series X console. However, the big gameplay reveal didn’t go over quite as well as Microsoft might have hoped. Some thought the game looked fine—like more Halo, which lots of people want—but most agreed that parts of it looked quite dated for a game that was supposedly going to show off the power of Microsoft’s latest hardware. (We discussed our reactions to it here.)
What happened? People made fun of stills from the gameplay video and official screenshots, particularly some unfortunate closeups (see tweet above). I made fun of it, too, though I noted that it was nice to see some honest marketing for once.
In the end, Microsoft decided that maybe Halo Infinite should bake a little longer, and delayed it. I expected the delay to be for a few months, but then Microsoft announced that Infinite had been pushed back a whole year. It won’t release until fall of 2021.
Hearthstone’s new monetization scheme
What started it? Blizzard changed the way its free-to-play card game Hearthstone is monetized with a new progression system, and players who crunched the math found it to be stingier than the old system.
What happened? Total combustion: Parts of the community have been absolutely furious. Luke Winkie explained it all in a recent feature.
A family’s Warzone lie goes viral
What started it? The parents of a six-year-old gaming “prodigy” made a video showing him being banned from Warzone, presumably due to his age. In reality, he hadn’t been banned at all. The whole thing was faked.
What happened? It turned out that the family had set up the stunt in an attempt to go viral to get the kid into FaZe Clan. The video and story did go viral, but at last check, FaZe didn’t seem especially excited by the stunt.
The development and launch of Cyberpunk 2077
What started it? After its massive critical and commercial success with The Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red spent years developing an enormous sci-fi RPG: Cyberpunk 2077. As Cyberpunk 2077 approached release, reports of crunch at the studio—mandatory overtime in the lead up to release—resulted in widespread criticism, especially as CD Projekt expressed in 2019 that it wanted to be held publicly accountable for how it treats employees. A piece of art from the game was also criticized as transphobic, and tweets that mocked trans identities led to a GOG community manager being fired.
When Cyberpunk 2077 neared its release date in early 2020, it was delayed. It was delayed again after that, and then again—even after CD Projekt had assured a fan that no more delays were coming—and it finally released on December 10. Prior to release, it received more or less positive reviews, and a warning from Game Informer’s Liana Ruppert that it lacked a proper warning for people with epilepsy despite containing scenes that mimicked patterns doctors use to induce seizures.
In his 78% review, James suggested that interested readers wait a few months before playing Cyberpunk 2077 because of the large number of bugs. Despite the day one patch (which there was loads of confusion over), there were a lot of bugs, and the PC version is also quite demanding on our hardware. It wasn’t the end of the world for us—waiting for patches to fix up a janky open world game is a common experience—but things were really bad on the original Xbox One and PlayStation 4. They got a glitchy, downresed version of the game that, in some videos, almost looks like a parody de-make of the Cyberpunk 2077 we’re playing on PC.
What happened? “To ensure a high level of customer satisfaction,” Sony delisted Cyberpunk 2077 from the PlayStation Store and offered refunds. Microsoft also offered refunds. CD Projekt has apologized—multiple times, for different things—and as you’d expect, says it’s committed to improving the game with patches.
Opinions on the game itself are mixed. The PC Gamer staff who are playing it more or less think it’s alright, but disappointing compared to The Witcher 3 and its fantastic sidequests and characters. Andy Kelly was generally disappointed by Night City. Broadly in gaming communities, criticism of Cyberpunk 2077’s story and themes has continued, with an itch.io “Be a Better Cyberpunk” bundle offering alternative indie perspectives on the cyberpunk genre.
As for CD Projekt Red’s employees, one report suggests that some of them aren’t too happy about the launch, either, and have been frustrated by unrealistic deadlines throughout the project.
Despite this unprecedentedly bad launch (there was a week there when CD Projekt just couldn’t get anything right), James feels cautiously optimistic about Cyberpunk 2077’s future. What’s there may not be the accomplishment many were hoping for, but CDPR isn’t known for walking away from games once they’re out. Night City could be a very different place in a year. And, despite all this, Cyberpunk 2077 has made a ton of money, and lots of players are happy to say that they’re having a great time.