How content changes: Games we loved in 2021

How Content Changes: Games We Loved In 2021

Key Findings

- Newcomers Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite saw an early surge in Xbox active players
- Lockdown boosted Fortnite’s growth by 20%
- Rocket League gets a second wind with free-to-play on PlayStation
- Steam sees a steady rise in Fantasy and Horror genres

The games industry is no stranger to change. We’ve seen some of the most significant changes in recent years, with lockdown growth, historic studio acquisitions and shifting macro-level forces driving hardware and digital platforms towards aggressive content acquisition.

In this changing landscape of companies competing for exclusivity opportunities, and growing market demand, it's important to be able to read the shifting sands. We’ve compiled an overview of where Xbox, PlayStation and Steam stand today and sketched out some thoughts on the zeitgeist.


Reports from Industry analyst Piers Harding-Rolls and VGChartz indicate that Xbox is being beaten out of the console market by PlayStation at a ratio of around 2:1. We believe that’s likely to change with Xbox Series console clawing back some market share - perhaps driven by thevalue of the Xbox Game Pass. Undoubtedly though, Microsoft is still running second in a two horse race. (But what about Switch!?)

Our internal analysis of concurrent user trends shows that Xbox’s audience is primarily American. While Steam and PlayStation appear to have a similar global spread in terms of players, Xbox is in a world of its own.

The best indicator of American vs. European playing trends can be seen in the seesawing of NBA 2k22 and Madden versus FIFA.

Madden and NBA rise up through the graph as Americans start their day and peak at around 4am GMT whereas FIFA active players soar during European morning, peaking around early evening European time.

The most likely explanation for these varying peaks throughout the day is vastly different cultural preferences for baseball, basketball and football - or soccer, if you will.

Age is likely also a factor; the sharp and sustained rise of Fortnite players at around 2pm European time coincides with children getting home from school, and continues into the evening as American children arrive home. There’s also an interesting contrast between Fortnite and traditional war shooters - the latter peaks later in the day, when adults are returning from work.


PlayStation has seen significant growth over the last five years, but there are potential challenges ahead. While Microsoft has Minecraft, Halo, and soon(ish) Call of Duty, PlayStation is falling behind in the battle for content.

Though PlayStation will be pleased with Ratchet & Clank and Spider-Man, both of which were solid recent performers, they're unlikely to sustain the monthly active users (MAU) they’ll need to stay competitive in the future - that’s where the recent Bungie acquisition comes in.They’ll be hoping Bungie will deliver the highly retentive multiplayer experience that platforms have been increasingly relying upon over recent years.

Our analysis of the Top 20 games on Playstation over the last five years shows a surge in lockdown gaming March 2020 (at 15s). Games such as Fortnite showed a 20% surge in user acquisition during the six months between March and September 2020, compared to the same period in 2019 . Also note the huge jump in Rocket League (at 13s). Psyonix were struggling to maintain their impressive record on PlayStation as a paid game, so switched Rocket League to a F2P in September 2020 and their users shot up - and beyond - its previous position in the rankings.

The last FIFA game to have a demo available on the PlayStation store was FIFA 20, so we can’t compare FIFA 21 like for like to earlier games. However, our analysis reaffirms the long running strength of the franchise - consistently featuring amongst the top games on the platform.

The Call of Duty Warzone component of the Modern Warfare game keeps the Call of Duty franchise in a very healthy state, our internal analysis showing Warzone players primarily draw from Black Ops III, keeping it in the family. Though the next title in the franchise has reportedly been delayed, we believe the current health of Warzone is such that Activision could tolerate a delay - certainly relative to other games competing for the same market.

FIFA could be a useful licence for a Sony studio to pick up and would redress some of the imbalance. However, EA’s FIFA games require licences from hundreds of clubs and leagues and while the basic gameplay elements might seem relatively straightforward to replicate, any Ultimate Team equivalent would require expertise and experience.

A play for FIFA by Sony would also require serious marketing spend, EA has a considerable marketing budget for it’s sports franchises and will add to it further in the event EA loses its famous franchise name.


Though Stadia is still around and preparing a pivot and rebrand, it has never really troubled Steam. Epic has kept up the pressure on Steam by making its platform lucrative for developers, with generous exclusivity agreements and lower gross cut. Free games have enticed more and more players (and bots) to the Epic Games Store as well.

While Steam’s library grew by an impressive 30% year on year , the shifting nature of the game genres available on Steam demonstrates changes in player preference over time. While Steam is known for tolerating adult themed games on the platform, it remains something of a niche genre. However, Horror games - with crossover into themes of Violence and Gore - have surged up the rankings. Games like Five Nights at Freddy's are icons of the genre, but the huge success of Dead by Daylight, Dying Light and The Forest have pioneered the genre's recent success.

Interestingly, Fantasy has slowly edged out Sci-Fi - perhaps a reflection of the zeitgeist with shows like Game of Thrones, The Witcher and the upcoming Lord of the Rings show (with no season 24 of Stargate SG-1 to balance them out).

It's going to be a big year for video games in wider media. With TV shows on the horizon for titles such as Halo, Last of Us and Cuphead - not to mention the recent box office success of Uncharted - we'll be waiting to see if these have an impact on player numbers, as seen with The Witcher.

We’ve also seen the decline of titles with stylized, pixel and retro themes. While recent pixel-themed titles like Katana Zero, Skul: The Hero Slayer and Noita have landed impressively - and games like Unpacking show the genre is still innovating - it remains to be seen if they'll have the same celebrated legacy of the iconic titles released prior to 2017, such as Undertale, Binding of Isaac, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Terraria and Stardew Valley.


When(if) the Activision Blizzard acquisition is completed, it will reshape the future of the industry. Though Microsoft will be careful not to rush things or risk the scorn of gamers - echoes of 'Xbone' still ringing in their ears. If the content demand continues to accelerate we might see even more acquisition moves, more exclusivity agreements and certainly more competition for studio titles to appear on platforms’ subscription plans. It’s a lucrative time for developers.

With Xbox Game Pass creating increasing value for money for consumers, the PlayStation Spartacus launch will be expected to grab headlines with some impressive titles available. If I had to pick just one thing to keep in mind for this year, it would be this: it's never been easier for developers to make a profit before selling a single copy of the game.

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