The 11 biggest gaming innovations of the 2010s

The last decade has been a renaissance for interactive entertainment. 

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Life comes at you fast, and perhaps nowhere in pop culture is that more true than with gaming. Since the first home console launched in the 1970s, we’ve seen eight generations of video games, and the industry shows no signs of contracting. Despite still being thought of as a niche hobby by some, the 2019 global gaming market is estimated to be worth $152 billion. Last year, The Game Awards, which broadcasts exclusively online, drew an audience comparable to that of the Oscars.

The last ten years have seen dozens of watershed moments for the industry, from the latest stage of the console wars, to Nintendo’s return to dominance, and the rise of mobile gaming. Here’s our take on some of the most important innovations in the space since 2010. We’ve numbered the entries here, but this isn’t a ranking so much as a loosely chronological rundown.

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11. The release of PlayStation 4

Sony came into the latest console generation on its back heel. Though the PlayStation 3 wasn’t a Wii U-level disaster, the platform got off to a wobbly start. For one, it was outrageously expensive: the 60 GB model was priced at a whopping $599. (Now, a hard drive that size is barely big enough for one triple-A game.) Developers also complained that the hardware was too difficult to work with.

The PS4 was an instant success when it hit stores in November 2013, and went on to sell more than 100 million units faster than any other console. It consolidated Sony’s position as the dominant player in console gaming and made streaming games easier than ever. Boasting a remarkably impressive stable of exclusives, including Uncharted 4, God of War, Persona 5 and Marvel’s Spider-Man, the console boasts one of the best game libraries of all time.

Can Sony repeat the magic with PS5? We’ll find out at the end of 2020.

Jen Glennon

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10. Gaming goes mobile

The proliferation of smartphones and tablets has fundamentally changed gaming. Consoles and PCs are no longer a requirement thanks to iOS and Android apps like Pokémon Go, Candy Crush, and Call of Duty: Mobile that took the world by storm this decade.

About 93 percent of American households in 2019 own a smartphone, and half of those users play video games on them, according to a study by the Entertainment Software Association. The 2019 global gaming market is estimated to be worth $152 billion. A whopping $68.5 billion of that comes straight from mobile games, reported gaming market analytics firm Newzoo.

This ballooning segment of the industry has led major publishers to make their games mobile-friendly to rake in fans and cash. Apple launched a curated library of premium mobile games — Apple Arcade — making iPhones and iPads into hybrid mobile consoles. Cloud-gaming services like Google Stadia and xCloud aspire to deliver AAA gaming experiences on tablets and phones, even if they’re not quite there yet.

Danny Paez

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9. The rise of games-as-service

Barely more than a decade after Halo revolutionized first-person shooter combat in video games, developer Bungie pivoted to a new kind of game called Destiny. It fused together fast-paced FPS sci-fi action with MMO-inspired elements, similar to World of Warcraft. In a 2013 interview, Bungie COO Pete Parsons said their aim was “to put the Destiny universe on the same shelf they put Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Star Wars.

While the reality of what Bungie produced fell short of such lofty aspirations, the fact remains that Destiny and its successor Destiny 2 helped establish a new type of live-service style of game that has become prominent in the video game industry today. An extensive report from Kotaku’s Jason Schreier chronicles the “messy” true story behind the game’s development woes.

As a Day One Destiny player, I can say that the early days were more a repetitive space farming simulator than a hardcore sci-fi story. The beauty of Destiny’s format, however, allow the game to grow and evolve over a series of several major updates a year. Today, Destiny 2 is perhaps the best the franchise has ever been. Earlier this year, it peaked around 1 million players concurrently, and it’s still going strong.

Corey Plante

Grillby's in Undertale

8. The indie revolution

While the 2010’s saw the development of many phenomenal AAA titles, it was also a renaissance for smaller independent titles. Whether platformers with a modern twist like Cuphead and Celeste, ambitious narrative-driven games like What Remains of Edith Finch and Doki Doki Literature Club and one-man-band smash hits like Stardew Valley, this was the first decade in which developers truly could find stratospheric success by going it alone — often with a little help from crowdfunding.

Few games exemplify the explosion of the indie space in recent years quite like Undertale. Inspired in many respects by the SNES cult classic Earthbound, it brings a unique bullet-hell mechanic to a turn-based RPG where you don’t have to hurt anyone, and your decisions dramatically change the outcome of the story. Creator Toby Fox launched a Kickstarter campaign for the game in June 2013, setting a target of $5,000. The game debuted in September 2015 to critical acclaim, and spread like wildfire online thanks to YouTube “let’s play” videos.

By summer 2018, Undertale had sold more than three million copies on Steam alone. In 2019, a popular supporting character from the game, Sans the skeleton, joined the Smash Ultimate roster as a Mii Fighter. Fox is currently working on a follow-up set in the Undertale universe, titled Deltarune.

Jen Glennon

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7. Digital announcements take over

Everyone’s favorite gaming executive, Nintendo’s now-retired Reggie Fils-Aime dropped the first Nintendo Direct way back in October 2011. Since then, these streamed, pre-recorded presentations have become the gaming stalwart’s go-to method of revealing new games and updates for existing titles. Microsoft started doing Inside Xbox videos in a similar vein in 2019, and Sony rolled out State of Play this summer. Presumably, the big three companies like that this format allows them to make announcements on their own schedule, and diminishes the chances of leaks, which have become endemic at big conventions like E3 in recent years.

E3 got hit with a bad-news double whammy in 2019. Not only did PlayStation bow out of the show for the first time since Sony entered the console game, but the events organizers accidentally doxxed thousands of members of the press and social media influencer, by leaving the event’s full press list — which in some cases included personal addresses and phone numbers — freely accessible for anyone to find on its website. Games journalists have been crowing about the imminent death of E3 for years now, but this might finally be the beginning of the end. For real this time.

Jen Glennon

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6. Microtransactions come to consoles

Laugh off mobile and social media gaming much as you want, their economic models of microtransactions — paying for in-game items, sometimes through a randomized “loot box” system — came to dominate mainstream gaming throughout the 2010s. And it was almost never pretty.

Games like 2017’s Star Wars: Battlefront II and 2016’s Overwatch came under heavy scrutiny from the Netherlands and Belgium, inspiring those countries to outright ban loot box transactions. The United States has had a similar, if slower response to protecting consumers.

One of the earliest examples in a console game was the infamous “horse armor” of 2006’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, where players shelled out five whole bucks to armor up horses in Bethesda’s open-world fantasy game. But it was in the 2010s when publishers harnessed the full might of microtransactions. In 2016 alone, gaming giant EA made $1.3 billion from microtransactions.

Eric Francisco

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5. Nintendo releases the Switch

In early 2017, Nintendo was in a dangerous position. It’s previous home console, the Wii U was a total flop and the video games pioneer was quickly losing ground to Sony and Microsoft as third-party developers fled in droves. Sure, the 3DS was still printing money, but for an entire console generation, Nintendo just felt… irrelevant.

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Then, in March 2017, everything changed with the release of the Nintendo Switch and its marquee launch title The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. As impressive as the modular console itself, the first open-world Zelda game also served as a perfect selling point for the Switch. Aside from its minimal plot, Breath of the Wild felt as expansive and engrossing as any big-budget console title, but this was a game you could play just as easily on an airplane as on the couch.

In the years since, the Switch has become a huge money-maker for Nintendo, recently outpacing the sales of the Xbox One, which has been on the market for three years longer. Nintendo’s vision for the future of gaming that appeals to hardcore fans and “filthy casuals” alike. It’s easy to forget that none of that might have happened if it wasn’t for the system’s one major launch title: Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Jake Kleinman

4. Streaming becomes enormously popular

Gen-X had MTV VJs. Millennials had YouTube vloggers. Gen Z has streamers. The internet’s personality-driven culture economy evolved in the 2010s as Twitch, launched in 2011 and acquired by Amazon for $970 million in 2014, became the premier platform for gamers who stopped yelling about their K/D spread privately and began yelling about their K/D spread to a live audience of dozens, of hundreds, of thousands.

It was this environment that saw the rise of Richard “Ninja” Blevins. Emerging first as a Halo 3 and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds pro, Ninja began streaming sessions of the mega-popular battle royale shooter Fortnite in September 2017. He amassed a live audience of two million viewers within six months, became the face of pro gaming and internet fame.

Ninja would later break Twitch livestream records when he played Fortnite with pop megastar Drake in March 2018, visible evidence of the blurred lines that separate gaming from mainstream mass culture. Two years earlier, rap star Lupe Fiasco skipped the Grammy Awards to play Street Fighter V against pro Umehara Daigo. But Ninja vs. Drake was the single crystallization of 2010s youth culture, distilled to a single moment caught on camera for the world to see.

Eric Francisco

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3. VR establishes a niche

In 2012, Palmer Lucky launched his company Oculus VR with a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise $250,000 and build a working prototype. He ended up raising over $2 million, and that was just the beginning. As excitement built and virtual reality started to seem like more than just a pipe dream, Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion.

By the end of the decade, VR still hasn’t really caught on with a mainstream audience, but it feels closer than ever. Hardware prices keep dropping and the software keeps getting better — or at least more tantalizing. Titles like Super Hot and Job Simulator blur the lines between tech demo and video game, but perhaps the best example is Beat Saber, a Star Wars-Dance Dance Revolution mashup so popular it even appeared on Jimmy Fallon. In November 2019, Facebook bought Beat Games, the company behind Beat Saber.

As the decade ends, VR still isn’t mainstream, but it no longer feels as out of reach as it did back in 2012.

Jake Kleinman

2. Crossplay finally becomes a reality

Since the early days of online gaming, the dream was to allow players on one console to play with and against those of another. It wasn’t until late in 2019, however, that true cross-platform functionality became a reality.

Final Fantasy XI may hold the Guinness record for first cross-platform video game in 2002, but it’s the popularity of competitive online games like Rocket League and Fortnite: Battle Royale that made it a reality. It wasn’t until late 2018 that, under pressure from Fortnite developer Epic Games, Sony caved and allowed crossplay on PS4.

We’ll always have Fortnite to thank for crossplay finally becoming a reality, even if the game’s players hate the imbalance between PC, console and mobile players.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare may have perfected crossplay by allowing players to customize cross-console matchmaking. As we head into the 2020s, crossplay will be essential to most online games.

Corey Plante

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1. Remakes and reboots revitalize classic franchises

Innovation isn’t always about looking to the future. The games industry also made waves throughout the 2010s by embracing the fan demand to remake and remaster some of the most iconic titles of all time.

Publishers tapped into nostalgia and introduced a new generation to classics like Resident Evil 2, Yakuza, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Crash Bandicoot, and more. These releases improved upon the originals thanks to the capabilities of modern technology, while retaining the fantastic gameplay that made them slap so hard all those years ago.

The Resident Evil 2 remake sold more than 5 million copies as of December 2019, outselling the 1997 release. It was so successful that Capcom announced a remake for Resident Evil 3: Nemesis will release in early 2020.

Final Fantasy VII, Destroy All Humans!, and System Shock remakes are all set to launch in 2020.

Danny Paez