I feel like I’m complaining a lot to start the year. Last week I said that the start of 2021 looks a little yawn-inducing, and now I’m about to name and shame genres that aren’t pulling their weight on PC.
Don’t get me wrong: overall, things have never been more vibrant on PC. Flight sims and flight combat enjoyed a big comeback in 2020, and there are plenty of survival, battle royale, deckbuilders, roguelikes, and competitive FPS options to go around. But there are a few genres that have gone quiet, or even outright dormant.
What was a charming RTS subgenre in the days of Defense Grid in retrospect now looks like a faded fad. They Are Billions left early access six months ago and remains the recent favorite, with massive enemy accounts, a steampunk theme, and familiar Command & Conquer-style base building. But for a genre that was once invigorated by a few standout indies years ago, there aren’t many towers dotting the PC gaming landscape in 2021.
The big fighting games tend to be known franchises that arrive every three or four years. 2020 was a dormant year for the genre, with only character updates to Mortal Kombat 11, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and five-year-old Street Fighter V to keep our joysticks clicking. It’s a small industry; I don’t think we’ll see any unexpected fighting games duckroll onto the scene, especially after the unfortunate closure of Skullgirls studio Lab Zero Games. But in the absence of clear release dates to look forward to, I’m anticipating Injustice 3 from NetherRealm and Riot Games’ “Project L,” which could be the first PC-centric fighting game in the history of the genre.
Like fighting games, only a small group of studios are servicing this category, so this is mostly me casting a hopeful eye at Bohemia Interactive and asking “Arma 4 when?”
It was nice that Squad marched out of early access last year, and obviously Arma 3 itself continues to have a healthy following. On the aerospace side we’ve seen DCS move to a Train Sim-style DLC model that I don’t find especially inviting, and Microsoft Flight Sim apparently can’t keep up with the Mach 1-plus speeds of fighter jets.
It’s not as bad as it was in the 2010s, for most of which Madden wasn’t available on PC. But why do sports games feel so niche after being some of the most widely-played games a decade ago? I can’t remember the last time I saw a friend playing NBA 2K or WWE on Steam (perhaps I need more British Steam friends, where Football Manager is plenty popular).
We did like Super Mega Baseball 3, and by all accounts Sony’s excellent MLB The Show series will make its way to PC, so that’s good. But I’d love to see EA finally bring NHL to PC, or in its absence for a smaller studio to resurrect NHL ’94 in the way Legend Bowl is evoking Tecmo Bowl. Racing is a well-tread subgenre of course, and we’ve had several entries in skateboarding over the last year, so maybe I’m overstating the absence of good sports. It just feels like there’s some lost opportunity here—if EA and other studios wanted, their sports games could be exciting showcases for raytracing and other GPU tech.
Colony sims / base building
I hesitate to call out this genre, but it’s such an exciting and PC-specific one that I’m convinced we haven’t seen its ceiling. Obviously there’s a group of great, established games here: RimWorld, Oxygen Not Included, Frostpunk, Surviving Mars, and more recently Per Aspera. But beyond that? Not much in sight. The Steam edition of Dwarf Fortress doesn’t have a firm date. Starmancer is one I’m keeping a close eye on—its isometric, 16-bit art style is super charming. Still, there’s lots of room for expansion in this brainy, sandboxy space.
Hope you’re ready for an avalanche of imitators. After the mark Among Us left on 2020, we’re going to see dozens of small and big swings at multiplayer accusation. Modes in existing games like Fortnite have already acknowledged the enthusiasm for this style of game, and there’ve been plenty of low-effort attempts to duplicate the formula.
But we’re yet to see a fully-featured new game that advances this nascent genre. Given the room for new ideas, I think it’s likely that some upstart could leapfrog Among Us entirely (remember when PUBG rendered H1Z1 obsolete?), though the simplicity and $0 cost to entry on mobile helped Among Us rise out of nowhere. I’d guess we’ll see something hit early access by June from an aggressive mid-size studio. In the meantime Project Winter‘s just sitting there as a more complex and more interesting gaming expression of The Thing.
This emerging theme is one of my favorites. We’re blessed with several games that explore the fantasy of labor: MudRunner, Euro Truck Sim, Fishing: North Atlantic, zany stuff like Totally Reliable Delivery Service, and engineering platforms like Factorio. In 2020, Teardown and Hardspace: Shipbreaker were the standouts, games that melded satisfying, simulated physical work with interesting themes like crime and capitalism. We’re yet to see one of these simmy experiences go all-in on story, so there’s plenty of creativity to tap.
We’re pretty well served by two titans: Civilization and Stellaris. And Humankind (from Amplitude, creators of Endless Legend and Endless Space) is the biggest 4X on the horizon, due at the end of April. But there aren’t enough new faces in this boardgamey space. 2019’s At The Gates is one of the only recent newcomers.
Historical 4X is neat and all, but where’s the unexpected takes on this longstanding and legendary genre? Let’s have a cowboy 4X, a dinosaur 4X, a drug kingpin 4X. If a tech tree can include something as mundane as “refrigeration,” it can definitely have “Ankylosaurus.”
Global crisis management
A year into this lame-ass pandemic, I think we all deserve a cathartic swing at saving the world. With most US states currently sitting around 5 percent of their population vaccinated, it’d be nice to have something that simulates the logistics, decision-making, and science that goes into combating a worldwide crisis. We’re still waiting on Plague Inc.’s “The Cure” update to arrive sometime in early 2021, but considering this is a shared experience that practically every human being is living through, it seems like something games should be exploring too.