2023 was a roller coaster for the video games industry. On the software side, it was a historic year for new releases. We got everything from big success stories like Baldur’s Gate 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom to memorable indies in Venba and Chants of Sennaar. But from the business side, 2023 was a lot more tumultuous. While some notable studio acquisitions and game announcements happened, thousands of developers were laid off, entire studios were shut down or hacked, and the provider of one of the most popular game engines landed in hot water after trying to roll out a controversial change.
The most notable gaming news stories of 2023 run the gamut from genuinely exciting to thoroughly disappointed. That speaks to a video game industry bound to head into an odd 2024 that lacks the known quantity bombshells of this year and continues to reel from layoffs. In last year’s iteration of this article, my editor said that the 2020s are shaping up to be “the most pivotal decade in gaming history when all is said and done.” If this year is anything to go by, that will almost certainly be true. These were the gaming stories that defined 2023, for better and much worse.
On March 27, Nintendo shut the eShops of the Wii U and 3DS down. Doing so left over a thousand games unpurchaseable on those older Nintendo systems. It was a deep blow to game preservation that Nintendo moved forward with despite complaints, leaving a sour taste with fans during what was an otherwise outstanding year for Nintendo. The drama is poised to continue in 2024 as online services for Wii U and 3DS also shut down.
Whether the deal went through or not, there was no doubt that this would be one of the year’s biggest gaming headlines of 2023. Microsoft was certainly put through the wringer, fighting an extended court battle with the FTC that resulted in confidential documents leaking and many concessions for Microsoft in the cloud gaming space. Fortunately for Microsoft, this struggle paid off as the acquisition was approved in October, and it seems doubtful that it will be undone. Bobby Kotick just left Activision Blizzard, too, putting one last major cap on the story.
Unity is an approachable video game engine used by developers of all shapes and sizes. In an attempt to make even more money off its massive user base, Unity announced it would introduce a new Runtime Fee program. That would charge developers for every install of their game, impacting smaller developers who don’t make as much money but give their games away in bundles. The backlash to this initiative was severe; Unity’s CEO stepped down, and the company backtracked, only applying these runtime fees to previous versions of Unity. Unity followed up that controversy by laying off almost 4% of its staff.
At the start of the year, it finally seemed like E3 would make a comeback. Ultimately, the support for E3 just wasn’t there in the wider game industry anymore, so the Entertainment Software Association canceled E3 2023. Over the next several months, The ESA and ReedPop would end their partnership to bring the event back, and government documents indicated that E3 2024 and E3 2025 would not be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. In December, The ESA outright confirmed that E3 is now officially retired, saying the event was no longer necessary because “companies now have access to consumers and business relations through a variety of means, including their own individual showcases.”
A singular game trailer would rarely make a list like this, but the official reveal of Grand Theft Auto 6 is worthy of recognition. It has been over a decade since the last Grand Theft Auto, which was primarily supported via updates to its online mode. As such, hype for the sequel was at an all-time high in November when Rockstar Games confirmed it would release a trailer for Grand Theft Auto 6 soon. While the trailer leaked, forcing Rockstar to release it earlier than expected, Grand Theft Auto 6‘s Trailer 1 became one of the most-viewed videos in under 24 hours ever on YouTube. We will have to wait until 2025 before we can actually play the game, though.
A flurry of layoffs defined the video game industry in 2023, and the massive Embracer Group led that charge. Embracer Group entered 2023 strong, anticipating a $2 billion deal with an unnamed company (Axios reports it was Saudi Arabia’s Savvy Games). That deal fell through, though, and Embracer Group had no backup plan as it came time for its acquisition spree debts to be paid. It began a restructuring plan to make some money back. The result was layoffs at many of its acquired developers and the closure of studios like Campfire Cabal, Volition, and Free Radical. Embracer Group is a fascinating case study of how a game company can falter in a year where mainstream interest in the industry seems to be at an all-time high.
2023 couldn’t end without one more bombshell of a news story. That came in the form of an Insomniac Games hack, where ransomware group Rhysida released around 1.67 terabytes of private data after Sony and Insomniac Games failed to pay a $2 million ransom. In-development materials for Marvel’s Wolverine, information about Sony’s deal with Marvel, and even sales data on titles not meant to be shared publicly were released. Most critically, though, the personal data of Insomniac Games employees was comprised. It was a major escalation of a growing trend in the past few years, as hacks and ransomware attacks on major studios are on the rise.
While some leaks, like Microsoft accidentally spilling the beans on years of future plans, were due to clerical eras, Insomniac Games’ hack came from an illegal attack that put the livelihood of game makers at risk. In the wake of those events, video game fans may want to take some time to reassess their relationship with leaks and how far they are willing to go to get data on unannounced projects — especially if it comes at the cost of the safety of the developers who make the games they love.