The games of the decade

A decade is a very long time. Even longer than it used to be.

Time moves faster than ever these days. Thanks to social media, trends ignite, burn up, and are run into the ground in a day or two. Memes that used to take months to reach mainstream awareness now get there in days. And more games than ever are released, faster than ever before. For those of us who live our lives Extremely Online, it's hard to fight the feeling that the past ten years were more jam packed with stuff happening than should be possible.

And, of course, this is just how things are going to be now. 2020-2029 will be even faster and crazier. The pace of entertainment, discourse, and information will just keep picking up speed until it all comes tumbling down into the blissful reset of a new Dark Age, most likely brought about by brutal climate disasters. Finally, there won't be too many videogames to actually play them all.

But until that happens, here we are. Standing at the end of the fastest decade ever, looking backwards because we can't stand the sight of the future. And the past decade was full of wonderful distractions, with games leading the way.

When videogames became everything

2010-2019 was the age when videogames weren't just the most popular form of entertainment - at times they felt like they were the only entertainment. The rise of Twitch, e-sports, and smart phones showed that games were ready to absorb and replace TV, traditional sports, and the very concept of boredom. Some time during this past decade the tipping point occurred, and after that making jokes about how dumb it is to spend time "watching someone else play videogames" started sounded exactly like a dusty old man complaining about how "talkies" ruined motion pictures.

This article isn't going to attempt to name the "best" game of the past ten years. Instead, our angle on "games of the decade" will be to pick the games that best sum up the whirlwind that was the 2010s. People can and will argue, loudly and at length, about the relative quality of different games, but it's impossible to deny that Minecraft, Fortnite, and Skyrim capture a lot of what gaming meant in the decade that is now concluding.

In terms of impact, longevity, critical and audience acclaim, fandom, and cultural influence: these were the games that defined the decade that was.

Runner-up: Minecraft

Though versions of Minecraft were playable in 2009, the game's actual release was in 2010 or 2011, depending on your thoughts on alpha and beta versions of games. And right away, we're off to the races with something that became a huge trend in the past decade: games that were out and that everyone was playing before they were officially "finished."

Phrases like "open beta" and "early access" were everywhere in the 2010s, and like so many trends of the decade the phenomenon was a double-edged sword. Players have had unprecedented access to the early stages of development, making their voices heard and committing their money early to help bring the games they are excited about to life. But for every major success story like Minecraft there are a hundred troubled games that never leave "early access," a term that at its worst can feel like a never-ending excuse for leaving a game in a broken and unfinished state.

Minecraft has had surges of popularity over the years, growing in parallel along with YouTube gameplay videos. Steady improvements to the game and an even higher profile for it after Microsoft's purchase of Mojang in 2014 have kept the game relevant across a huge variety of platforms. It's also a massive hit with younger gamers and parents, and as a genuinely family friendly experience that can feel pretty educational and wholesome if you squint just the right way.

Interestingly for the best-selling videogame of all time, Minecraft isn't a game with universal appeal. Everyone out there reading this probably has a friend who just doesn't enjoy the open, freeform nature of Minecraft-style games. Some people need concrete goals and clear win/loss conditions, and that's just fine. Minecraft will always be there for people who are happy making their own fun.

Runner-up: Fortnite

Everyone has heard of Fortnite. It's the most popular game in the world by many metrics, and it has so completely come to dominate youth culture that it's now common for children to have Fortnite-themed birthday parties even if they don't play the game. Fortnite is a dance, it's a thing you watch, and it's a place you hang out.

It's also a complete rip-off full of stolen references that has come to be far, far more popular than any of the things it copied. As a phenomenon it's colorful and obnoxious and impervious to criticism in the way of so much of children's entertainment. It's a shooting game with a heavy luck component and an ever-changing map and arsenal. It's a game that has crossed over with the Marvel Cinematic Universe multiple times.

On the business side, Fortnite is a triumph of free-to-play monetization elements, a phenomenon that really came into its own over the past ten years. Fortnite has made billions of dollars by selling digital banana suits, and reinvested a lot of that money into the game, creating a juggernaut capable of quickly evolving and outflanking its competitors. If you're a rival who wants to come for the battle royale crown, you have to be ready for Epic to put some of the most talented developers in the world to work distilling the best elements of your game and implementing them into Fortnite in the space of a few weeks.

The Fortnite money train is also having an enormous impact across broader game development. Just as Valve did with Half-Life 2, Epic has leveraged its breakout hit to launch a digital storefront, posing the most serious competition to Steam in at least a decade. The Epic Game Store and the battle to claim exclusives has been controversial, but has resulted in extra cash to power the development of acclaimed games like Control and Outer Wilds. It's frustrating some gamers, but it's also channeling Fortnite dollars into high-quality games.

Epic's massive financial warchest has resulted in more resources pouring in to the Unreal Engine that powers it and so many other games. Case in point: at the annual Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, after years of the Unreal and Unity engines having comparable, modest booths, 2018 saw Unreal and Fortnite take over a huge chunk of the show floor, handing out free t-shirts, food, and drinks at a convention not at all known for its swag. That's the kind of ground game that converts up-and-coming developers to your engine.

Even though it has only been around for a few years, Fortnite is certainly one of the most important games of this past decade. It's also well positioned to continue to dominate for years to come.

Winner: Skyrim

This decade might be the last in history in which we could plausibly claim that the definitive game of the era was not a multiplayer or online experience. Skyrim is truly representative of the 2010-2019 era in gaming, because even though the game itself wasn't played online, it benefited greatly from our connected age.

Like so many of Bethesda's sandbox games, it had plenty of bugs at launch - but this was the decade of the patch, an era when problems could be fixed with hefty downloads, sometimes even on launch day itself. This is far from ideal, especially for those with limited internet connections, but it's better than being stuck with a broken game - and it's just how things are these days.

Skyrim has also soared to greater and greater heights since its release in 2011 thanks to the wonderful world of mods. Dedicated fans have made Skyrim into Bloodborne, Batman, and whatever the hell else they want. Case in point:

Mods were popular - and free - on PC for years, giving Skyrim fantastic replay value and customization options for those willing to wade through the technical challenges involved. The mod scene was a proving ground for many who would go on to be professional developers, and it became so big that it's really no surprise at all that Bethesda eventually tried to get more directly involved. Mods made the jump to consoles and, much less popularly, monetized mods emerged. In a cycle that would repeat itself over and over again throughout the decade, business decisions warred with player sentiment, and a series of walk-backs, course corrections, and semi-apologies followed.

But Skyrim was also a game that showed that companies like Bethesda can actually learn from their mistakes. After the extremely negative fan reaction to horse armor DLC in Oblivion, Skyrim's predecessor, Bethesda planned to make Skyrim's downloadable content "less frequent and more substantial" - and they actually did that, for the most part. Skyrim really did feel like a giant world that you could fully explore for the price of a single admission ticket, without being constantly pestered for additional cash. If only that had become the rule in gaming, rather than the exception. 

Skyrim is one of the best-selling games of all time, and it's also a game you can play on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC, and it's also playable in VR for PSVR, Oculus, Vive, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets. One of the definitive AAA games of 2011 was playable both on a colorful Nintendo portable system and in full-fledged home virtual reality before the end of the decade. That's the kind of madness we have dealt with constantly in the 2010s. Warcraft is a card game now. You can play Mario on your dang phone.

Despite its massive success, Bethesda still hasn't released a single-player follow-up to Skyrim. Instead we've gotten remasters and ports of the original game, an Elder Scrolls MMO, a card game, and whatever the heck Blades is. It's almost certainly going to be a full ten years between Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls VI - and the gaming world will have become a very different place. Can we really ever get another game like Skyrim? And will the generation of gamers growing up with Fortnite even want one?

The best game of the decade

If what you're looking for is the best game of this past decade, well, that's not what we've set out to do here. Properly judging hundreds of high-quality games released over a period of ten years, across more than a dozen different platforms, spanning an enormous gulf of technological and cultural development...it's an impossible and foolish undertaking. It's challenging enough identifying the "best" game within a single calendar year, but the task becomes infinitely more complex when stretched to encompass a whole decade.

With all that said, the best game released this decade was Mass Effect 2.