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2023 Recap: The Most Important Tech Releases & Events of the Year

With New Year 2024 just around the corner, let's revisit the most significant software releases and events that shook the game industry in 2023 and made the passing year truly memorable.

Hello, and welcome to the final 80 Level Digest of 2023! As per our yearly tradition, we dedicated the past couple of weeks to revisiting some of the most memorable 3D environments and characters that inspired us throughout the year. With New Year 2024 just around the corner and the festive spirit getting stronger as we speak, we'd like to conclude the series by taking a look back at the year as a whole and reviewing the most significant tech releases, software updates, and events that shook the game industry in 2023 and made the passing year truly memorable.

HBO Launches Its "The Last of Us" Series

The gaming industry's 2023 began on a positive note with the debut of HBO's The Last of Us, a record-breaking TV series based on Naughty Dog's legendary 2013 action-adventure video game. While not without its flaws, it was and still is one of the best and most faithful video game adaptations ever produced, all thanks to the creators' decision to simply stick to the original game's story as closely as possible, a simple yet often overlooked approach that, for some inexplicable reason, eludes many filmmakers to this day. For four entire days, from January 15 to January 19, the gaming community came together in shared joy and eagerly anticipated what the rest of the year held in store, up until...

...The Layoffs Began

Where do I even begin? On January 19, Microsoft let go of 10,000 employees as part of its cost-cutting campaign, kicking off a massive wave of layoffs that has been affecting the tech and game development industries throughout the year, standing out as one of the saddest and, unfortunately, most notable events of 2023.

While it's best left to people smarter than myself to explain the exact reasons behind the widespread workforce reductions across so many companies, the most apparent cause seems to be the post-pandemic economic slowdown brought about by countries lifting their stay-at-home orders and drawing people away from their computers.

Although Microsoft was most certainly not the first company to get hit by this wave, its layoffs were among the largest at the time, serving as the best example of when the trend truly began. The roster of companies that fired numerous employees in 2023 would be too extensive to list in full, but some notable examples include Activision Blizzard, Amazon, BioWare, Disney, DNEG, Epic Games, Intel, Meta, Riot Games, Ubisoft, and Unity, just to name a few.

Substance 3D Gets Photogrammetry Capabilities

Now that we've addressed that, let's move on to something more positive. In early February, Adobe shipped Substance 3D Sampler 4.0, a massive update to the company's picture-to-3D material tool, adding 3D Capture, a brand-new photogrammetry feature. Thanks to this update, Substance 3D Sampler users can now easily transform real-world images into appealing 3D objects, complete with automatic subject masking, texture mapping, and geometry decimation. To get started, all you need is a series of photos of an object taken with a smartphone or a DSLR camera.

Wonder Dynamic Ships a New Tool for Adding CG Characters Into Live-Action Scenes

The early days of March were marked by not just one, but two great AI-related releases. The first one was the launch of Wonder Dynamics' Wonder Studio, a web-based tool that lets you automatically animate, light, and compose any 3D character model directly into a live-action scene.

Powered by AI, the application allows you to upload a CG character, whether it is your own or one of the free models provided by Wonder Studio itself, to one shot or an entire scene. Additionally, the tool is compatible with existing pipelines, allowing creators to export the results into 3D programs they already use, such as Maya, Blender, Unreal Engine, and such.


The second one was the release of OpenAI's GPT-4, an upgraded AI model used by the company's chatbot, ChatGPT. Trained on publicly available data and human feedback, GPT-4 was introduced as a multimodal model, able to understand and respond to both text and image inputs and produce text outputs based on them. This was a notable advancement from its predecessor, GPT-3.5, which could only comprehend text.

Unreal Editor for Fortnite Gets Released

Throughout the second half of March 2023, Epic Games was all over the news with the debut of Unreal Editor for Fortnite (UEFN), a robust toolset that brings some of Unreal Engine 5's capabilities directly into Fortnite. With UEFN, creators got access to Fortnite's assets, the Megascans library, a new programming language Verse, and UE5's tools, allowing them to create new AAA games and experiences directly in Fortnite. Developers can also use Niagara to create visual effects, Control Rig and Sequencer to animate their custom characters, and more. 

Mario Movie Makes Its Debut

Shifting our focus from significant tech releases to something more lighthearted, on April 5, Universal Pictures, Illumination, and Nintendo released The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a family-friendly adventure film based on the legendary Super Mario video game franchise.

Much like this digest's previous entry related to video game adaptations, the Mario Movie won the hearts of millions of fans and broke multiple records, even becoming the highest-grossing video game-based movie ever created, raking in nearly $1.4 billion.

The only category of people that seems to have hated the movie were the critics, who, in their infinite wisdom, criticized a jovial film for children and Nintendo fans for lacking any wit or clever dialogue and using references to Nintendo games. Even now, the movie maintains a 59% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while its audience score stands at a commendable 95%. With that in mind, the best way for you to decide whether The Super Mario Bros. Movie deserves praise or condemnation would be to just watch it yourself.

NVIDIA Ships Its Toolset For Remastering Old Games

In mid-April, NVIDIA stole the headlines with the launch of RTX Remix, a modding platform that enables developers to easily create remasters of classic games by enhancing the graphics with robust AI tools and quickly implementing RTX with ray tracing and DLSS. Created with NVIDIA Omniverse, the toolset can be used to remaster old-school DirectX 8 and 9 games and add path tracing to them. Previously, the platform was used to develop Portal with RTX, a DLC for Valve's original Portal that reimagines the game's graphics with full ray tracing and DLSS 3.

The Birth of Photorealistic UE5 Shooters

When discussing the game industry's 2023 highlights, it would be a crime not to mention DRAMA's announcement of Unrecord, a UE5-powered single-player first-person shooter with arguably the most photorealistic graphics in a video game to date. Upon its announcement, Unrecord has not only soared to become one of the most wishlisted titles on Steam but has also given birth to a brand-new video game genre – a photorealistic UE5 shooter – with many developers getting inspired by the reveal trailer and trying to achieve a similar graphic fidelity in their projects.

As for DRAMA themselves, the team has seemingly decided on a respectable approach to only share updates when they actually have something to show, and as such, new demos for Unrecord have been few and far between. We can, however, look forward to more updates in the future, as according to the studio's Co-Director Alexandre "esankiy" Spindler, they have significant showcases planned for 2024.

Major Unreal Engine Releases

Speaking of Unreal Engine, in 2023, Epic Games' renowned game engine saw two major updates – UE5.2 and UE5.3. With the Unreal Engine 5.2 update, the team added a brand-new Procedural Content Generation (PCG) framework, which included both in-editor tools and a runtime component, allowing the user to quickly populate large scenes with assets, and Substrate, a new way of authoring materials that replaces the fixed suite of shading models with a more expressive and modular multi-lobe framework, granting users greater control over the appearance and feel of objects in real-time applications.

The Unreal Engine 5.3 update, released later in the year, brought a slew of improvements to UE5's Nanite and Lumen tools, as well as tons of cool new experimental features for rendering, animation, and simulation, such as Skeletal Editor, enhanced ML Deformer, Cine Cam Rig Rail, new tools for grooming hair and fur, updates for large landscape import/export, new world-building tools, and much more.

Adobe Makes Generative AI Tools Easily Accessible

By late May 2023, generative AIs, although no longer considered cutting-edge, were still predominantly used by tech-savvy individuals, with many casual users remaining hesitant to explore this technology. It all changed, however, when Adobe integrated Firefly, its family of generative AI models, into Photoshop, granting every Photoshop user easy access to Generative Fill, an AI-powered tool that allows users to extend images and manipulate photo elements using simple text prompts. According to Adobe, the goal of the release was to "expand creative expression and productivity and enhance creative confidence of creators with the use of natural language and concepts to generate digital content in seconds".

Unity 2022 LTS Gets Released

This year's Summer kicked off with a bang as Unity introduced Unity 2022 LTS, a new long-term support version of their cross-platform game engine. Described as the most stable Unity release to date, Unity 2022 LTS brought in tons of notable improvements, including a multi-process AssetBundle pipeline, a more efficient Package Manager, and accelerated compilation thanks to a Burst compiler-optimized engine. The highlight of this release, however, was the integration of the Entity Component System (ECS) into the Data-Oriented Technology Stack (DOTS), which enabled the integration of Entity-based development into GameObject-based code.

Epic Adds a New Animation Toolset to MetaHuman

Another of June's noteworthy releases was Epic Games' MetaHuman Animator, a novel toolset designed to help digital creators and animators set up high-quality facial animations in minutes. With MetaHuman Animator, users can easily capture an actor's performance using an iPhone or a stereo head-mounted camera system and then apply this captured data to any MetaHuman character, resulting in high-quality facial animations without the need for manual editing.

Blender 3.6 LTS & Blender 4.0

Much like the previously mentioned Unreal Engine 5, Blender received two massive updates this year, each bringing its own incredible new tools and workflows. The first one, Blender 3.6 Long-Term Support, introduced Simulation Nodes, a support for simulations added to the software's Geometry Nodes toolset. Controlling them through a new Simulation Nodes panel, users can cache or bake the simulation results to storage, visualize them in the Timeline editor, and even interact with them in real-time.

The second one, Blender 4.0, enhanced the software's rigging and animation pipelines, improved the modeling and UV toolsets, and added the ability to set up custom operators using the software's Geometry Nodes toolset, simplifying the creation of custom tools. With the introduction of Node-based tools in version 4.0, Blender now allows users to expand and customize tools without the necessity of Python scripting.

Zuckerberg Launches Meta's "Twitter Killer" App

Oh yes, we're talking about that one too. In early July, the tech community was shaken by the launch of Threads, Meta's social media platform positioned as a direct rival to Elon Musk's Twitter. Upon its launch, the new app truly took the world by storm, attracting 10 million users within a few hours and hitting 100 million in a matter of days. Interpreting these numbers as a sign of things to come, many even went so far as to consider Threads an actual "Twitter killer" that would finally finish off Musk's turbulent app.

Of course, as the initial hype died down, many people started to see Threads for what it actually was – a largely half-baked attempt to capitalize on the exodus of users from Twitter, with fewer functionalities and tons of limitations. By the end of the month, the app experienced an 80% drop in its active userbase, fading into obscurity in the eyes of many. While it would be unfair to call Threads a dead platform, nowadays, it serves a role similar to Mastodon and Bluesky, mostly attracting overzealous anti-Twitter individuals still upset about Musk's takeover.

Unity Introduces Its Runtime Fees

Skipping over the uneventful August, when everyone was too busy playing Baldur's Gate 3, we go straight to September, when Unity wrote its name into the history books by alienating numerous developers and artists with just one announcement. I am, of course, referring to the introduction of Unity's new Runtime Fee program for game creators, which essentially obligated developers to pay an additional "tax" to the company based on how often their games get downloaded.

Following the announcement, thousands of developers, Unity users, and others interested in the game industry voiced their criticism, forcing the team to issue another announcement to provide further clarity on the matter. Ultimately, the widespread disapproval made the company tweak parts of the new pricing policy, without, regrettably, scrapping it altogether.

The introduction of new fees eventually led to the departure of John Riccitiello, who served as Unity President, CEO, Chairman, and member of the Board of Directors, and made the company experience "some revenue softness" in Q3 2023. Although Unity claims that the backlash caused by the policy is now mostly behind and won't affect them in 2024, their to-do list for the coming year includes company-wide restructuring, which most likely entails layoffs and discontinuation of certain products. As it stands, whether this planned restructuring is a response to the same issues that caused the aforementioned wave of layoffs or is a consequence of the damage inflicted on Unity's reputation due to the fee policy remains undisclosed.

ZBrush Is Coming To iPad

With that out of the way, let's turn our attention to a more uplifting subject. In early October, Maxon delighted 3D Sculptors from all over the world by announcing that ZBrush will soon be available for iPad. Announced during the ZBrush Summit 2023, the tablet edition of the renowned 3D sculpting tool is slated to arrive on Apple devices in 2024. Unfortunately, apart from the release window, no additional details have been disclosed, with both the price and feature list of the upcoming tablet version remaining a mystery. One thing is certain – the software will be released for iPad in the coming year, so stay tuned for future updates.

Microsoft Finally Acquires Activision Blizzard

Another noteworthy event of the passing year was Microsoft's successful acquisition of Activision Blizzard, which was finally greenlit by a UK regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), in mid-October. Before the record-breaking $69 billion deal could be finalized, Microsoft had to spend 20 long months fighting its way through numerous legal battles and court hearings over alleged anti-monopoly violations. Despite these obstacles, the company emerged victorious in the end, becoming the official owner of Activision, Blizzard, and mobile division King, as well as their respective IPs, including Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, Diablo, Candy Crush, and countless others.

RealityCapture 1.3 Goes Live

November 2023 was all about significant software releases, beginning with the launch of RealityCapture 1.3, a new and improved version of Capturing Reality's flagship photogrammetry software for creating 3D models out of photos. The update brought faster model reconstruction and texturing, improved one-click model generation, and introduced an experimental new mosaicing-based UV unwrap process. Additionally, it added the capability to directly upload models to Nira, a collaborative platform for real-time rendering of massive 3D assets, where users can easily edit RealityCapture models, optimizing and cleaning each element individually.

SideFX Releases Houdini 20

A few days later, the trend continued with SideFX's official launch of Houdini 20, an extensive upgrade to the company's flagship procedural 3D software. With this update, the team greatly enhanced the software's Karma renderer, adding a new fur shader with medulla support, hex tiling, physical sky, and more, bolstered its support for MaterialX, brought in numerous new animation features, upgraded Pyro, introduced a new feather system and several new nodes, and much more.

Subscription-Only ZBrush 2024 Update Launches

Moving past Blender 4.0, which was also shipped in November but has already been featured on this list, we arrive at the final November release – ZBrush 2024. Available as a subscriber-only release, ZBrush 2024 introduced several new functionalities, including the novel Repeat to Similar feature that repeats changes on a mesh with the same polygon count as the source mesh being edited, enhanced the app's Anchors Brush, introduced Cinema 4D noises to the ZBrush Surface Noise library, and brought Grow All Mask and Shrink All Mask capabilities. Notably, version 2024 also marked a historic milestone as the first major ZBrush update available exclusively through a subscription model.

Godot 4.2 Brings Over a Thousand Improvements

Surprisingly, the typically slow December became the passing year's most eventful month, starting with the release of Godot 4.2, a sizeable update to the free and open-source game engine. With Godot 4.2, the team improved upon the previous version, Godot 4.1, introducing over a thousand new features, improvements, and bug fixes. Based on the feedback from more than 350 Godot contributors, the release enhanced the engine's core, 2D and 3D features, editor, rendering, porting, and scripting capabilities, asset pipeline, and much more.

Grand Theft Auto VI Gets Its First Trailer

Without a doubt, a list like this would not be complete without mentioning the reveal of the first official trailer for what is likely the most anticipated video game of all time – Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto VI. Unfortunately, due to an unexpected leak, the developer had to unveil the trailer nearly half a day earlier than planned, revealing that the upcoming sequel takes place in Vice City and has two playable protagonists. Additionally, a related press release has confirmed that GTA 6 is set to launch in 2025 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S.

The Game Awards 2023

One of the final noteworthy events of the passing year was, of course, The Game Awards, an annual event dedicated to celebrating the biggest achievements in the video game industry. Initially promising to be bigger and better than TGA 2022, this year's ceremony somehow became one of the most controversial ones, with the community's opinion on it being largely divided. While some argue that The Game Awards team succeeded in delivering the best experience to date, others criticize the organizers for allocating too much time to commercials and musical numbers, revealing major award winners with short 10-second announcements, and, as per the yearly tradition, giving awards to undeserving contestants.

The main controversy, however, stems from the organizers' somewhat outlandish decision to impose stricter time limits on developers' speeches, presumably in an attempt to dedicate more time to game trailers and aforementioned advertisements. The situation got so bad, in fact, that several developers ended up sharing their speeches after the event simply because they were given zero screen time during it.

And if you think that those developers who did manage to make it to the stage were given ample time to express their thoughts and emotions, think again. Even Swen Vincke, the head of Larian Studios and a key figure in the development of Baldur's Gate 3, the winner of this year's The Game Awards, was not an exception and got less than a minute to conclude his speech. To add insult to injury, the "please, wrap it up" warning appeared on the teleprompter right at the moment when Vincke tried to honor the memory of Jim Southworth, Larian's Cinematic Animation Lead, who passed away in November, a fact that infuriated the community when it was discovered.

E3 Is Dead

And finally, we've got the last major announcement of the passing year, which, despite casting a somewhat somber shadow on our list, fills us with optimism for the future and the things to come. After several years of cancellations, the Entertainment Software Association officially declared E3, once the world's largest gaming and game showcase event, dead, confirming that it will not be making a return in the upcoming years. While the exact reasons for its cancellation were not explicitly stated by the team, the primary factors can be attributed to a diminishing interest from game developers and publishers, a lack of enthusiasm from gamers, and the rise of numerous other game industry events serving the same purpose as E3 once did.

And on that note, the list of 2023's most important tech and software releases and notable events comes to a close. I would like to thank you all for being with us throughout this year and wish you a wonderful holiday season filled with joy, cheer, and laughter. The 80 Level team will be back shortly to continue providing you with insightful breakdowns, amazing artworks, the latest news, and more.

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