2022 year in review

Maybe there is some sunlight at the end of the road?

Previous yearly reviews: 2021, 20202019201820172015.

Industry stuff

2022 felt like a good time to review some macro trends / predictions / hyperbole, past and present. To start, I’m rather glad that crypto is in a deep winter, and I remain convinced that the whole space is only meaningful for financing criminals and providing endless instruments for speculation. After reading Matt Levine’s entire Bloomberg feature on crypto (it’s loooooong), I have better appreciation for why crypto is intrinsically interesting (fun) to a group of people (especially those in finance / fintech), but more than ever I don’t see the broader opportunity or value. I also hope this winter means that at least I don’t have to listen to people rationalize why Ponzi schemes are not so bad after all.

I also remain heavily skeptical of VR, even with the recent rumors of the upcoming Apple device. Indeed, those Apple rumors illustrate the deep compromises that still need to be made. I also think mass adoption of autonomous driving is still a long time away – say, at least 10 years away before it hits 10% adoption.

On the more upbeat side, it’s been a long time1 since I came across an emerging trend and said “I get it / I see it”, and I’m definitely bullish about the current AI hype. I used Copilot in the summer and absolutely loved it; I also found ChatGPT and AI art mind-blowing in various ways. It’s important to see past the hype – no, I don’t believe AI art is going to replace professional artists, any time soon – but it’s also clear that these tools in their current form already have massive educational value, and have generally lowered the barrier for untrained folks to express their creativity. We are still figuring out how to be truly “productive” with these tools, but the opportunities seem endless.

On a more personal level, I also think this is a good time to reflect on some predictions I’ve made in the past. More than a decade ago, as I was about to join the games industry, I was very bullish on esports; I would now say it hasn’t changed the world as much as I had thought. In the world of sports, esports as a category has established a foothold; but it still feels a long time away to rival the mass popularity and commercial value of the biggest “legacy” products. Some of this is just a factor of time – you can’t have multi-generational fandom/legacy without generations – but some of it are attributable to inherent adoption hurdles.

Similarly, my personal pessimism towards PC gaming has not materialized so far, especially in light of the recent Steam concurrency records. And my fantasy about mobile / console convergence in terms of input paradigm (more adoption of controller peripherals for mobile) has remained just a fantasy.

For the games industry specifically, 2022 was not a great year. There was an industry-wide post-Covid consumer spending/engagement decline. Many studios were impacted by productivity hits and thus shipping delays. And with the macro-economy downturn (the credit squeeze etc.), there has been layoffs and closures.

With regards to the games industry in China, the headline (link in Chinese) was a general revenue decline of 10% in 2022, according to an official industry association. Mobile games (73% of the total industry) led the decline with a 14% drop, while PC games (23% of total) grew 4%. Many big companies had layoffs – Bytedance adjusted their gaming ambitions mid-year, after a crazy ramp-up in the prior years; Garena and miHoYo also downsized later in the year.

There was finally some good news in the last few days of the year – a batch of 44 imported games got approved (along with a batch of domestic titles). To put this into perspective – the number of imported games approved annually from 2017 to 2022 is… 456, 50 (that was the big freeze of 2018-19), 180, 97, 76 and this 44. One can speculate that this 44 was squeezed in to avoid a big 0 in the statistics. For 2023 I don’t expect a huge rebound – I think the 180 in 2020 is the new benchmark in the current regulatory climate.

This ~100 imported games / year ballpark is important for foreign games studios to really examine their China ambitions. The license supply is extremely constrained, with an “unknowable” lead time of at least 2 years (Riot’s Valorant, which is one of the lucky 44, probably filed the initial application in 2019-20). As a parallel, Hollywood studios seem to be going through a correctional phase with regards to how much they cater to China; there can still be lucky darlings like Avatar: The Way of Water, which as of this writing has grossed $230M from China out of its $2B global total, but it’s very much the exception now, with 7 out of the top 10 grossing films in the US last year not having a theatrical run in Chinese cinemas.

Work stuff

2022 was a weird year to work in China. Compared to 2020/21, more people in more places were impacted (severely, sometimes) by Covid regulations. And in December it felt like everyone took a month off, due to a mass re-opening wave.

Covid aside, work was challenging but rewarding in unexpected ways. I had a big project setback in the beginning of the year, but it was also extremely liberating and created new opportunities. Personally this lead to a lot of hard-skills learning throughout the year. This started out with picking up Javascript (really old school, plain JS + jQuery) to make some quick design simulations. One thing led to another, and soon I was coding in React (and the boardgame.io library), and even put together a quick next.js-based internal site (so co-workers can start/stop game-servers for playtesting). And over the last month I started a proper Unreal C++ course. I wouldn’t say the end-goal is to become a full game programmer – but rather, accumulate enough basics to be helpful to the team in various ways. And the AI tools have already made made it much easier for a “novice” programmer to be productive (and “dangerous”).

The year also presented lots of opportunities to practice and grow soft skills. The project setback I alluded to above forced me to go through some difficult decisions, and conversations around those decisions. And later in the year some interpersonal challenges on the team finally came to a head, which spurred some “crucial conversations” (yes, I applied the book’s framework, and found it quite helpful).

This seems like a good place to discuss my experience with the Supercell culture in practice. The core of the culture is empowering small dev teams (“cells”) with (almost) full independence, based on the belief that such cells (if high-functioning) yield the most creative outputs over the long run. And with small teams, people often wear many hats2 and there is a lot of fluidity in how decisions are made. In the happy path, folks who are like-minded (or who’ve built up deep mutual trust to tolerate big creative differences) are able to move rapidly on game ideas they believe in. In the unhappy path, teams can be split creatively and trapped in a constant contest of the “game’s vision”. And in this state, even with a small team there can often feel like there’s too many “cooks” trying to do game design3.

My temporary construct to alleviate this is a circular owner-customer analogy across the major domains of craftsmanship in game dev (typically, game design – art – engineering): the domain experts (e.g. game designers) are the owner of solutions in their domain, but they must somehow address the customers’ problems (e.g. artists’ concerns with the game design). This doesn’t avoid stalemates entirely, but it does seem to both give designers some breathing room to work out possible solutions, while making non-designers feel they are being heard and have real influence on the game’s direction.

Personal stuff

All in all, I’d say life in Shanghai under Covid was great in 2020, acceptable in 2021, and abysmal in 2022. The nationwide Zero-Covid policy became a cruelty with Omicron and later variants.

The Shanghai lockdown of late March to early June was a mix of bizarre, tragic and sometimes uplifting events. Individual experiences varied greatly. In my case, I was fortunate to be living with a lot of support at home, and once the supply of essentials stabilized, it was mostly a mundane 2-month home confinement. Trying to work-from-home was futile with 2 young kids; the biweekly PCR test downstairs became our “yard-time”4.

It was a much worse affair for those that lived alone, whether young or elderly. Several co-workers spent most of their waking hours trying to procure food (through the vastly inefficient group-buy networks that had sprung up in each community), and then cooking them. It was a different sort of subsistence living. And anyone that had any kind of chronic health condition was tormented by the constant worry of running out of medication, or needing to make a difficult trip to the hospital. And there were probably plenty of migrant workers who had no home to go to – from my window I can see this footbridge, and during those months there were signs that someone (or several people) were living in a facility room under the bridge.

Most of the uplifting moments came from ordinary people being wholesome. We got to know the people in our apartment building a lot better. We often exchanged various supplies, and helped the residents who couldn’t speak Chinese. My wife once complained in the building wechat group that we were running out of meat (she had lost the day’s group-buy and online grocery battles); a few hours later a care package arrived, with an assortment of meat and various food, and even a bottle of Coke5.

When the lockdown was finally lifted in June, I experienced some symptoms of what Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption called being “institutionalized”. I wasn’t eager to go out on to the streets; I was angry at the celebrations. And as a tragic epilogue to this whole fiasco, we learnt that the gentleman in his 50s who lived next to us had died, after being rushed to the hospital in that very last week. He never got to see Shanghai free again.

In August, I got the chance to go abroad on an extended business trip, and I wrote down my impressions in an earlier post. I returned to Shanghai in early October, and had an interesting ordeal during the entry quarantine. It was supposed to be 7 days in a hotel + 3 days at home, but on day 6 I got notified that no one would be discharged. The quarantine hotel had gone into further lockdown; I speculated that it was due to hotel staff getting infected (some guests testing positive would be routine and expected – it’s the whole point of entry quarantine). I could do nothing but spend a total of 15 days in that hotel.

November was tempestuous (to put it mildly). It was clear that Covid was spreading, in many different parts of the country. And it was clear that the economy was suffering badly, due to the harsh uncertainties of the “zero-Covid” framework. Even so, I still felt that there would be no significant policy changes until the next summer; imagine my surprise when the big switch was flipped in December. I have gone through a lot of different feelings (anger, schadenfreude, sadness, to name a few) in the past month, but mostly I just feel relieved that my extended family have gone through this with no major incidents.

Media consumed

I played a lot of Elden Ring during the Shanghai lockdown. I wrote about the brief viral sensation Sheep a Sheep. I also played a lot of Returnal late in the year – I really should have wrote a post about it, it’s an excellent roguelite and a great take at a 3rd-person bullet-hell shooter (I recommend their GDC talks). And over the past month I’ve been quite taken with Marvel Snap – I’ve long announced that my gaming sweet spot is fast-paced PVE action games, but somehow this game has reoccupied the casual competitive gamer in me.

I don’t have a great reading habit, but I quite enjoyed some history reading last year6. I found Tower of Skulls, volume 1 of a trilogy on the Asia-Pacific War in WW2, excellent and informative. I’m currently slowly working through American Colonies (also part 1 of a trilogy), after hearing a friend mention it.

For films and TV – I didn’t enjoy Everything Everywhere All at Once; quoting my own Letterboxd comment: “I both appreciate this is a fantastic piece of film-making and feel that it’s not my cup of tea.” Top Gun: Maverick blew past my expectations (I ended up seeing it once in US and a second time in Finland on IMAX), while Avatar: The Way of Water mildly disappointed. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery was the film I didn’t know I needed – it was a real palate cleanser to lift my spirits during a dreadful end-of-year.

Featured image by Pexels

  1. Long enough that I worry that I’m just old and more closed-minded than before.
  2. There are quite a few programmer-designers and designer artists, for example.
  3. This is often a symptom of people pitching and debating solutions when they haven’t agreed on the problem.
  4. The PCR test flow-of-traffic dictated that we walk around the building after testing; nobody enforced how long you took to finish that walk.
  5. Coke was a bit like cigarettes in prison during those months.
  6. This interest was naturally spurred by some current affairs.

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