At GamesBeat, we like to focus on the business, innovation, and technology of games. So we’re bringing that approach to our games of the decade list. You won’t find just a list of the games we thought were the best from a critical standpoint (sorry, as much as I love you, Obsidian Entertainment, Pillars of Eternity isn’t here). What you will find are the games we believe tell the story of this decade’s industry, setting up where we believe gaming will go in the 2020s.
When we consider the games that define the 2010s, we must look at the 2000s, for three of the games that frame the decade’s innovation, be it in design, economic models, or technology: Dwarf Fortress, League of Legends, and Minecraft.
The mechanics of one of these would filter into a number of genres, and believe it or not, it still hasn’t seen its first retail release. Another would redefine both strategy games and esports, building a massive company, following, and genre … and paving the way for Riot Games to thrive in the 2020s. And our final pick helped usher in the user-generated content revolution of this decade, turning mod makers on PC into well-known names in a community that numbers in the millions … and showing, for the first time, that the idea of a walls were falling down around the game industry.
Please enjoy this journey with us, and again, thank you for supporting the independent journalism of GamesBeat and VentureBeat. We do not have a corporate owner. We’re our own thing, and that you take the time to read us and support us means more to me, Dean, Jeff, and Mike than any of you will ever realize.
–Jason Wilson, GamesBeat managing editor
Late 2000s: A decade’s foundation
Dwarf Fortress’ initial release on the internet was years before the 2010s, and its full publication on Steam won’t happen until the 2020s. Yet it’s been one of the defining games of the decade despite this, alongside other 2000s games like Minecraft and League of Legends. The idea of the living game, one that resides on the internet, where content is continually added, and fans of the game can play it for years, has been possibly the biggest story of the 2010s, from mobile to blockbuster games.
That’s not the only way that Dwarf Fortress helped define the 2010s. “Losing is fun” went the tagline, which is a way of saying it’s a game about stories. It’s a game that’s as or more fun to experience other people playing, whether on forums, or via social media, or streaming. The 2010s were also about games becoming a group experience, blurring the lines between player and viewer. The rise of the roguelike generally, and survival strategy specifically, are directly tied to the idea of games as a shared experience.
Perhaps more than anything, the fact that Dwarf Fortress, a legendarily weird game, could end the decade being one of the most wishlisted games on Steam shows that the idea of what a game is — and especially what a hit game is — has changed dramatically. At the start of the decade, you’d go to a store and pay $60 for a box with a completed game inside was still a default understanding of how games worked, with digital distribution starting to open other models up. By the end of the decade, that door is wide open, and what it means to have a hit game has totally changed. — Rowan Kaiser
League of Legends
I remember the first time I saw Riot Games’ League of Legends in 2009. I had no idea what to make of it. It was confusing. It was different. And I knew that I was looking at something that would change the way we play strategy games.
But I had no idea it would revolutionize esports as well.
Before League of Legends, strategy games came in two stripes: real time, where you’re building your bases, gathering resources, and constructing an army as your opponent does the same. You scout, you probe defenses while coming up with a plan of attack, and you may also deal with some neutrals running around the map. You might even have hero units as well Or you played a turn-based game, which comes in many stripes, may have you working on economies, social agendas, and more as you build up a grand civilization, researching tech-tree upgrades, and so much more.
Warcraft III’s Defense of the Ancients mod took all of this and made something new, something different, in 2003. And while others beat Riot into turning this style into a full game, Riot was the first to emerge with a smash hit. And we’ve seen League ripple through the game industry. Valve and Blizzard followed with their own takes, a genre we’d come to call MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena). A host of others followed, with many of them failing. The rush came to mobile, with varying degrees of adaptation and success. New twists emerged, such as Clash Royale (combining MOBAs and card games), and it later gave birth to a new genre that’s on the rise at the end of the decade — the auto-battler (think Auto Chess, Teamflight Tactics, and its ilk).
And as League of Legends gained traction, it found players … and Twitch. Here, it continues to be a dominant force. Every day, tens of thousands of people watch top players defend the lanes or push for the goal. And as this viewership grew on Twitch, it changed esports. Before, competitive gaming was the realm of StarCraft and South Korea, along with Evo and a host of smaller fighting game tournaments. But as League of Legends grew, so did its competitive scene. And folks then realized that these viewers represented millions in untapped dollars.
I don’t play Minecraft. My kids do. Every day they get video game time, they spend some of it playing Minecraft on our Nintendo Switch. And what they create is amazing — castles, forts, houses and farms. And as they create, they talk about what they’re doing, trying to figure out how to get the designs from their imagination on the screen.
Now, that alone makes Minecraft innovative. We’ve had builders before, but none of them could match Minecraft in its limitlessness. Earlier in the decade, I remember how so many publications covered the amazing creations folks were making inside Minecraft. Someone did a computer in the game that works! And as Minecraft expanded, it knocked down the walled gardens, coming to just about every device that runs games — be it a PC, a home console, or a smartphone or tablet. I’m kinda surprised the screen on my fridge isn’t running it yet. With more than 176 million copies sold, Minecraft’s expanding to other genres and augmented reality.
But it’s done more than knock down walled gardens. In doing so, it heralded how corporate parent Microsoft was looking to get its games on new platforms. But it also showed a new way creators could make money — selling things they make in the store. It built on how folks were selling hats and other materials for games like Team Fortress 2 on Valve’s Steam PC store, and now, people are selling millions of dollars worth on content there.
Minecraft shows how giving people the tools to create and smashing those walls between platforms can pay off not just for a corporate parent — but for everyone. — Jason Wilson
2010: A decade launches
Super Mario Galaxy 2
In 2010, many of us were still in the middle of the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii era. It was a time of transition. The Wii was a huge success, but it was becoming apparent that its motion-control focus was not going to be the future of the industry, especially with casual gaming taking off in the mobile world.
But for console players, one game defined 2010 better than any: Super Mario Galaxy 2. That may seem like a strange claim. In many ways, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a safe sequel. It looks and plays a lot like the first Super Mario Galaxy.
Galaxy 2 is just better in every way. Nintendo gave a master class on how to create a traditional sequel. The levels were more creative and the experience was tighter. Even today, when it comes time to praise a sequel, you often hear people compare it to Super Mario Galaxy. And in the midst of the Wii era and stuff like Wii Fit, Super Mario Galaxy 2 reminded us that few are better than Nintendo when it comes to making fun video games. — Jeff Grubb
Before it came out, you would have thought that StarCraft II would be one of the biggest hits ever. Instead, it did fine. Blizzard Entertainment’s real-time strategy game sequel showed us how times were changing. The original StarCraft was a dominant force in the world of esports, but MOBAs like League of Legends had taken over. This set a trend for RTS for the rest of the decade, as the genre saw a huge decline in the 2010s. — Mike Minotti
Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption could be the most impressive game of the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 era. Its detailed world, convincing acting, and engaging story set a precedent for triple-A games ahead of the launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. It’s still a standard that few have matched. — Mike Minotti
2011: Indelible influences
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was omnipresent throughout the entire 2010s. Bethesda’s role-playing game came out early in the decade, and we’re still talking about it.
For one thing, it’s very good. Skyrim offers players a giant, detailed world that’s worthy of exploration. It began to influence other open world games, even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the VR game Asgard’s Wrath.
And then there were all those ports. Skyrim was originally out for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. Throughout the decade, it would come to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, VR, and even Amazon Alexa (well, kind of). — Mike Minotti
Skyrim wasn’t the only game we talked about during the entire decade. While its predecessor, 2009’s Demon’s Souls, was technically the first in the series, Dark Souls established a new kind of action-RPG formula that focused on slower combat, tough boss fights, and punishing penalties for death.
And just like with Skyrim, Dark Souls would come to every platform imaginable. But while Bethesda has been slow to make a sequel for Skyrim, Dark Souls turned into a trilogy in the 2010s, and developer FromSoftware used its formula to make other hit games: Bloodbourne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Dark Souls would prove influential, as even Star Wars looked to it for inspiration in 2019 with Jedi: Fallen Order. In the 2000s, action role-playing games were all about fast-paced fighting and combos. Dark Souls changed that. — Mike Minotti
2012: Midsized merit, a galactic riot
Crusader Kings 2
By all logic of how video games should work before 2012, Crusader Kings 2 was a disaster. Here was an incredibly niche strategy game, well outside the Civilization or RTS style that made for a hit, and in its first month? It sold a mere 20,000 copies. And yet, persistence across digital distribution, word-of-mouth, and good reviews kept Crusader Kings 2 going. This game’s combination of strategy and character relationships was special. And that specialness … was rewarded, eventually, as CK2 became a hit and an inspiration.
If any game exemplifies the Steam era of PC gaming, it’s hard not to pick Crusader Kings 2. Beyond that constant availability, Paradox kept it alive by keeping it alive with expansions, add-ons, and patches. The new model for the living strategy game wasn’t a giant expansion or two then a sequel, but a steady flow of new content with new ways of playing the game, and patches to support the people who weren’t buying. The model proved sustainable as well — Paradox used variations on it to prop up both their publishing and their development sides, becoming an ideal form of the new middle class of PC gaming enabled by digital distribution. — Rowan Kaiser
The Walking Dead
Crusader Kings wasn’t the only “middle-class” game to succeed in 2012, a year that also saw the release of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The adventure genre, long-dormant in the mainstream, got new life with The Walking Dead’s moral choices, major intellectual property, and most important, the connection of those choices with an episodic release structure enabled by digital distribution. Telltale itself would become a cautionary tale more than Paradox’s success, but both companies felt a rush of success in 2012 because they used digital as more than simply a distribution method, instead seeing it as a way to creatively develop new types of gaming experiences. — Rowan Kaiser
Mass Effect 3
Also in 2012, we have Mass Effect 3, which is unfortunately best known for its grand ending controversy, a firestorm of fans, press, and developers converging into an absolute mess of internet culture. This masks that ME3 is a great game. But also lost in the storm and fury was that the game’s multiplayer, a remarkable critical success, was also a remarkable success monetarily, as EA started added FIFA Ultimate Team-style lootboxes to more and different kinds of games.
2013: A tale of tails
Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto V was a massive game in 2013. And everyone knew it would be. What we didn’t know is that in 2019, it would still be a massive game. GTA V is an enormous success due in large part to the GTA: Online mode. This takes the gameplay into a shared multiplayer world where you can compete in quests, do online heists, and purchase digital items with a currency that you can get using real money.
I think the best way to put GTA V’s success into context is like this: During the decade leading up to 2013, Rockstar released one major new game per year. That included Manhunt, The Warriors, Bully, Manhunt 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, and Max Payne 3. But since releasing GTA V in 2013, Rockstar has only released one game, 2018’s Red Dead Redemption II.
Instead of putting out new games, Rockstar began working on new content for GTA: Online. That content is cheaper to produce because the studio is mostly just adding new stuff to a gameplay and design infrastructure that already exists. And unlike a new game that might make a lot of money on its first day of release, GTA: Online makes a steady stream of revenue. This makes tricky things like revenues and staffing needs much more predictable and easier to manage.
Maintaining GTA: Online with regular updates is a much less risky proposition than making a new game. And that is GTA: Online’s legacy — especially in the 2010s. Every game developer and publisher wants their own GTA: Online. They want a game that can last for years with regular updates that brings in a steady flow of money. And based on its popularity and the popularity of other live-service games, it’s what consumers want as well. — Jeff Grubb
In the same way that Rockstar made fewer games after Grand Theft Auto V, Half-Life developer Valve has made very few new games since launching Dota 2 in 2013 (after a lengthy beta). And Valve’s reasons are similar to Rockstar’s. But we’re including this MOBA because of how it shaped so much of the business of games.
Dota 2 popularized community items that people could design and sell on Steam’s marketplace. This is also the game that introduced the idea of battle passes or premium progressions passes. Players could buy an item called the Compendium that you would earn levels for by playing Dota 2 matches. And that process would unlock items over time. You could, of course, buy levels if you have more cash than time. Now, battle passes are a common feature in a wide variety of games.
The Compendium revenue, however, didn’t just go into Valve’s pocket. Instead, the company contributed a portion to the prize pool for The International. This immediately turned Dota 2 into one of the premiere esports games in the world. Other studios have since mimicked this practice as well. — Jeff Grubb
In trying to tell the story of the decade, it’s almost serendipitous that Grand Theft Auto V, Dota 2, and BioShock Infinite all came out the same year. They so encapsulate what happened over the last 10 years. Sure, every studio wants to have their own live-service game that generates profits for years. But what is so wrong with the old way of making a game as a product? Well, BioShock Infinite is what is wrong.
BioShock Infinite was the highly anticipated sequel to 2007’s breakout hit BioShock. Developer Irrational Games started work in February 2008, and it took five long years to get the game out to fans. But more than the time, those were also expensive years. The game was so costly that even after selling 11 million copies, publisher 2K Games obviously didn’t consider the game a success.
Suddenly, we were living in a world where a game could sell better than almost any other game and still end up as a failure. Following BioShock Infinite, almost no publisher wanted to fund a massive single-player narrative-based game — especially in a world where mobile games that cost a fraction to make were generating $1 billion in revenues per year. — Jeff Grubb