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Should Nintendo Drop E3?

June 24, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Computing

You know a company has had a particularly miserable E3 when, before the show is even over, one senior executive finds himself having to officially deny that another senior executive has apologized for the state of their E3 offerings. That’s exactly the situation Reggie Fils-Aime found himself in earlier this week, as the disappointment at Nintendo’s extremely weak showing crystallized around a single tweet sent by company president Satoru Iwata. The tweet was in Japanese; various translations floated around, some more accurate than others, and the media gleefully seized on an interpretation which had Iwata promising to “do better” at E3 in future. It was the perfect stick with which to beat Nintendo for failing to live up to the standards accomplished by Microsoft and, even more spectacularly, by Sony on the previous day; look, even the company’s own president thinks it was rubbish!

As it happens, Fils-Aime is quite right; Iwata did not apologize for Nintendo’s conference. He said that the company was listening closely to feedback and would work hard, in future, to meet the expectations of even more people. This was prefaced with a comment related to the extremely late hour at which the show was broadcast in Japan (it didn’t start until 1am JST; the Sony conference the previous day was at a rather more comfortable 10am JST, and nobody in Japan really cares about the Microsoft conference). In context (and context is king in the Japanese language), Iwata’s comment is clearly a generic “thanks for your feedback, we’ll work hard in future too”, coupled with a tacit promise to try not to mess up the scheduling for Japanese viewers in future.

Iwata didn’t apologize. Of course he bloody didn’t; the Nintendo boss is often frank and refreshingly direct in his manner, but the content of his statements is always, always on-message. The idea that he was going to take to Twitter to say “sorry, that was a load of old bollocks wasn’t it?” after his company’s event is ludicrous. Yet, at the same time, the fact that it seemed plausible to so many people is a reflection of something troubling; Nintendo’s event was genuinely bad enough to make an apology from Iwata himself seem, if not realistic, then at least not ridiculous.

Nintendo, or at least a part of Nintendo – perhaps the Japanese part – didn’t want to be at E3. That’s partially related to NX; the company is the only platform holder which has acknowledged that it’s working on future hardware, but isn’t going to say anything further about it until 2016. It’s also too early to talk about its mobile titles (and E3 probably isn’t the venue for that anyway), and Iwata confirmed prior to the event that it wouldn’t talk about its health, lifestyle and education related projects at a purely gaming event like E3. Nonetheless, there’s plenty that Nintendo could have talked about but didn’t. The choice to reveal only games that are locked in for release within the next 10 months or so isn’t confirmation of a time-of-death being decided for Wii U (they did the same thing for 3DS, which has an installed base twice the size of the PS4 and isn’t going anywhere any time soon), it’s a decision which was taken, along with the decision to do an online broadcast rather than a live event – cutting out the whooping crowds and the spectacle that usually defines an E3 conference.

These are decisions which say, “we’re not playing your game” – the game in question being E3 itself. Nintendo doesn’t feel like it fits well with E3 right now. It’s not just troubled by the dismal sales of the Wii U, it’s also deeply uncomfortable with being the only major company in the industry that’s still seriously committed to family entertainment. It knows that no matter how wonderful its software and franchises are – and I maintain that Nintendo is in a genuine golden age regarding the quality of its games – they make problematic bedfellows for the mainstream of distinctly adult-focused games and the monetization of violent nostalgia for thirty-somethings. I think it’s genuinely wonderful that the games industry’s wings are spread so wide, even in the AAA space, that it can accommodate both the charming, gentle fun of Yoshi’s Wooly World and the gut-wrenching, visceral violence of the Doom reboot; at the same time, I can understand why the creators of the former don’t see much value in investing heavily in promoting it alongside the latter. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong audience. It’s no accident that one of the very few third-party games to appear in the Nintendo event was Skylanders, a hugely successful franchise that’s equally uncomfortable standing shoulder to shoulder with Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.

By going digital rather than having a staged event, by replacing its executives with loveable puppets, by giving developers lengthy, meandering videos to chat about their creative process after showing off their new trailers, by refusing to talk about anything but the immediate future of its software line-up – by all these decisions and more, Nintendo said “we’re not playing the E3 game” and attempted to dodge the inevitably negative contrasts with Sony and Microsoft.

It didn’t work. It didn’t work because it’s an intrinsically dishonest approach, one which not only failed to establish a “Nintendo difference” that denied negative contrasts, but which also robbed the company of the chance to make a decent fist out of its showing. Nintendo hobbled its own event, making it even more disappointing than it needed to be, and all it achieved was to make itself look even weaker, even more troubled, next to the might of Sony and Microsoft.

Here’s what Nintendo should have done – should have had the courage to do – nothing. They should have held no digital event. Some of Nintendo of America’s activities, like the entertaining and light-hearted Nintendo World Championships, fit nicely with the week, but the digital event shouldn’t have happened at all. The company is absolutely correct to think that its approach and its products don’t fit E3 as it stands, but absolutely wrong to think that it can avoid the resulting negativity by just down-scaling its involvement. Pick a lane and stick with it; given the choice to go big or go home, Nintendo’s decision ought to have been “go home”, not “can’t we just go a bit small and hope for the best?”

This would not be unprecedented. Faced with a similar disconnect between their games and much of the rest of the industry’s direction, Nintendo – by far the largest games company in Japan – has spurned involvement in the Tokyo Game Show for many, many years. Being at TGS makes no sense for the company. It can achieve better exposure for its games in a more positive environment by holding its own event, digital or otherwise, at a different time; a month or two before the show, or after the show. This decision has never hurt Nintendo one jot – not in the way that a rubbish, half-hearted TGS conference every year would have.

Precisely the same logic applies to E3. Imagine if Nintendo had skipped E3 entirely; sure, there would have been a bit of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching in the media over it, but it would have been over soon, and a few people writing “Nintendo were conspicuous by their absence” in their show reports is hardly the end of the world. Then this week’s digital event could have been held as an ordinary digital event a month or six weeks later; call it “Nintendo’s preview of the next six months”, or whatever. In that context, it would actually have been a pretty great show. Tack on a few seconds of new footage from the upcoming open-world Zelda game and one of Miyamoto’s work-in-progress Gamepad titles, and you’d have a digital event that everyone would consider pretty strong, instead of an E3 show that everyone considered awful and weak.

To make this work, though, Nintendo needs to commit to the strategy. This year, it tried to have its cake and eat it; to participate in E3 without committing to it, without making a big deal of it. It failed so miserably that the Internet spent a few hours genuinely believing that Iwata had apologized for the whole sorry affair. Skipping E3 entirely – or at the very least, dropping all pretense of holding a conference during E3 week – would have been preferable, and ought to be the company’s strategy for the future.

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Digital Games On Consoles Growing Rapidly

June 12, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

By examining trends between the digital and physical ecosystem, EEDAR has found the digital space to be increasingly driving the future of new console game publishers.

In recent years, the physical games market on consoles has been experiencing a consolidation of publishers and a downturn in the number of games released. From 2008 to 2014, the number of games released on the physical format across Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony consoles declined from 383 (in 2008) to 145 (in 2014).

Conversely to the physical games’ market, the digital space has been growing considerably within this same time frame. Thanks to the growing focus of online digital ecosystems on consoles, more publishers than ever are releasing console games. In 2008, there were 102 digital-only games released across all consoles; in 2014, there were 279 digital-only games released, according to release data taken from EEDAR’s internal database which tracks all physically and digitally released games on these platforms.

EEDAR defines the Digital Only category as games that do not have a simultaneous (within 90 days) physical release. The Physical + Digital category encompasses most AAA game releases which see simultaneous physical and digital releases, and the Physical Only category consists of games that do not also appear on digital storefronts. Nearly every title released today on consoles also makes an appearance on the console’s digital storefront. The Digital Only category by itself accounts for 66 percent of total game releases. This digital ecosystem is not only reinvigorating game releases, but the number of active publishers has been increasing considerably.

Since 2011, the Traditional Market (defined as Physical + Digital and Physical Only releases) has seen a decline in the number of active publishers. In 2014, there were only 46 different publishers releasing new games compared to the 82 publishers active in 2011. While the traditional market continues to be more dominated by the few larger AAA publishers, the digital space has become a hotspot for numerous smaller publishing companies.

The 8th generation of consoles has caused a resurgence in publisher activity in the digital-only space. Thanks to the growing digital ecosystem and more robust digital storefront experiences on the 8th-gen consoles, publishers continue to flock to the digital games space. In 2014, the total count of publishers releasing digital-only games in the console gaming space was the highest in history at over 146 different publishers.

In the Digital Only market, game releases are more spread across the active publishers. For each active yearly publisher, games released per publisher has been decreasing within the digital-only space. This represents a market with a diverse range of publishers where the larger, more established publishers do not overshadow the presence of other publishers.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Amazon Serious About PC Gaming?

June 9, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Around The Net

Amazon has looked at the gaming market and felt that it is an area it can make a pile of dosh.

So far its games have been restricted to mobile devices. But it looks like that’s about to change: Amazon Game Studios is currently hiring for what it describes as an “ambitious new PC game project using the latest technology.”

It looks like this will be Amazon’s first ever PC release. Amazon hired notable developers like Kim Swift, designer of Portal, as well as Clint Hocking, who previously worked on franchises like Far Cry and Splinter Cell.
It has spent a small fortune licensing the CryEngine, the same one used to make high-end PC games like Crysis 3 and bought the game streaming service Twitch last August for $970 million, and made gaming a big focus for its Fire TV media box.

In a statement Amazon said: “We believe that games have just scratched the surface in their power to unite players,” the job posting reads, “and will produce some of the future’s most influential voices in media and art.”

Courtesy-Fud

Will Region Locking Cost Nintendo In The Long Run?

June 2, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

There’s something genuinely surreal about sitting down to write an article about region locking in 2015. It feels archaic and almost nostalgic; I might as well be writing something about blowing into cartridge ports to get games to work, or bemoaning the long load times for cassettes. Yet here we are. Years into the era of digital distribution, long after we reached the point where it became technically harder to prevent customers from accessing games from anywhere in the world than it is to permit the same, region locking is back in the news. Thanks, Nintendo.

The focus of this week’s headlines is the Humble Bundle promotion which Nintendo is running for a number of indie titles on 3DS and Wii U. It’s a great deal for some excellent games and is raising money for a solid cause; plus it’s wonderful to see console platform holders engaging with the Humble Bundle approach, which has been so successful at bringing indie games (and other creative works) to wider audiences on the PC. It ought to be a win, win, win for Nintendo, gamers and indie developers alike.

Unfortunately, though, the bundle only works in the Americas; North America and some bits of Central and South America. Customers elsewhere are entirely locked out, a matter which has been a source of deep frustration not only to those customers, but also seemingly to Nintendo’s own staff working on the project. The result is that what ought to have been a straightforward PR win for the company has turned bittersweet; there has been more widespread news coverage of the region locking debacle in the past few days than there has been for the bundle itself.

Although this is a terrible shame for the developers involved – and I sincerely hope that Nintendo can pull its thumb out of its backside and launch an international version of the bundle in short order – no sympathy is due to Nintendo in this situation. It’s a problem entirely of the company’s own making; the firm made a deliberate and conscious decision to embrace region locking even as the internationalisation of digital distribution made that look increasingly ridiculous, and until that stubbornly backwards piece of decision making is reversed, it’s going to continue causing PR problems for the firm, not to mention genuine problems for its most devoted customers.

Remember, after all, that the rest of the gaming world has ditched region locking en masse – Sony gave it up with the PS3, even making it painless to use digital content from different regions by creating multiple accounts on the same console, while Microsoft made region locking optional on Xbox 360 (making a bit of a mess where some publishers enforced it and others didn’t) before ditching it entirely on the Xbox One. At the same time Nintendo, ever the merry contrarians, went the opposite direction, not only maintaining region locking on the Wii and Wii U, but even extending it to the 3DS – in contrast to the company’s prior handheld consoles, which had been region free.

The idiocy of a region locked handheld is staggering; these are systems which are quite simply at their best when you’re traveling, yet lo and behold, Nintendo don’t want you to buy any games if you go on holiday or on a business trip. The excuses trotted out were mealy-mouthed corporate dishonesty from start to finish; it was all about protecting customers, honest, and respecting local customs and laws. Utter tosh. Had those things been a genuine issue, they would have been an issue in the previous decades when Nintendo managed to sell handheld consoles without region locking; they would also have been an issue for Sony and Microsoft when they removed region locking from their systems.

In truth, there’s only one reason for region locking in this day and age – price control – and Nintendo’s calculation must have been that they had more to lose from the possibility, real or imagined, of people buying cheaper 3DS games from countries overseas, than they had to lose from annoying a chunk of their customer base, be they keen gamers who wanted to try out titles unlikely to be released in their regions, expats who want to play games brought from their home countries or parents who find that a game bought in the airport on the way home from holiday results not in a pacified, happy child on the flight but in an angry, upset child with a game that won’t work.

In Nintendo’s defence, Satoru Iwata has recently been musing publicly about dropping region locking from the Nintendo NX, whenever that turns up. That the company is clearly planning to move down that path does rather confirm that it’s been fibbing about its motivations for region locking all along, of course, which might be why Iwata is being cautious in his statements; it’s a shame if such face-saving is the reason for Nintendo failing to keep up with industry moves in this regard, because the company is going to keep being periodically beaten with this stick until the problem is fixed.

Admittedly, there would be problems with removing region locking from its existing consoles – not least that Nintendo’s agreements with publishers probably guarantee the region locking system, so even if it could be patched out of the 3DS and Wii U with a software update, that can’t happen legally due to the contracts it would breach. What Nintendo could and should do, however, is to offer gamers a gesture of good faith on the matter by dropping region locking from all its first-party software from now on – and perhaps emulating Xbox 360 era Microsoft by making it optional for third-party publishers as well. I can envisage no legal barrier to that approach; it would earn the company enormous kudos for responding to its audience and dealing with the problem, and would cost them precisely nothing. There aren’t that many easy PR wins floating around the industry right now; Nintendo should leap on this chance to show itself to be on the customers’ side.

Wheels turn slowly in Kyoto, though, and it’s probably too much to expect the company to react in a startup-like way to the region locking issue. In some ways it’s Nintendo’s strength that it reacts slowly and thoughtfully rather than jumping on every bandwagon, but in recent years, it’s also been a weakness far too many times – and the thoroughly wonderful software that the company has been turning out in the past few years, perhaps the finest line-up it’s produced in decades, has been regularly undermined by bad decisions in marketing and positioning of its platforms, many of which can be traced to a failure to understand where the market is and where it’s moving.

Region locking isn’t the biggest problem. Fixing it would be cheap and easy but would hardly be a panacea for Nintendo’s issues – but it’s a problem that’s symptomatic, emblematic even, of the broader problems Nintendo has with putting its customers first and applying the same care and attention to its corporate aspects which it always applies to its software development. Fix a problem like this in a proactive, rapid way, and we might all start to believe that the company has what it takes to get back on top.

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Does The PS4 Have a Weak First Party Fall Line-up?

May 29, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

At Sony’s 2015 Investor Relations Day today, Sony Computer Entertainment president and global CEO Andrew House detailed the company’s strategy for the coming year, including how it will address some shortcomings.

House began his presentation on a positive note, talking up PlayStation 4 as “the fastest selling hardware platform in our history,” showing better-than expected growth and pushing PlayStation Plus subscriptions to twice what they were in fiscal year 2013. He said the company has a competitive advantage for the moment, and laid out three ways it hopes to maintain that. In addition to next year’s launch of the Project Morpheus virtual reality headset and continued cost reduction efforts, House said the company needs quality software.

“We are working very hard to continue very strong support from third-party pubs and devs,” House said. “Our first-party lineup is a little sparse this year, so I think this places even greater emphasis on getting good third-party support.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean exclusive third-party support. To date, House said Sony has been primarily trying to get multiplatform developers to simply take advantage of features the PS4 has over the competition, like SharePlay, or maybe include extra content in the PS4 version or give players early access to add-on content. Third-party exclusives are still an option, just not a frequently used one.

“I will admit that these are, in the current publishing landscape, few and far between, but we were able to announce a full exclusive around a franchise like Street Fighter so that Street Fighter 5 is a complete exclusive for PlayStation 4,” House said, adding, “Although given publishing dynamics and development costs, those are increasingly difficult to secure.”

House also talked about the decline in Sony’s other platforms. As much as the PS4′s growth has exceeded expectations, so too has the PlayStation 3′s decline. House said the system’s price simply isn’t as competitive in the market as the PlayStation 2 and PSone were after their successors launched, and added that the shift toward more connected console experiences has also made less capable offerings less attractive.

House also cast a dim view of the company’s handheld business. While he noted that the Vita platform remains “strong and vibrant” in Asia and Japan, his outlook for the current fiscal year included declines in the US and Europe. Additionally, he referred to the PlayStation Vita and its microconsole counterpart the PlayStation TV as “legacy platforms” when discussing a write-off of hardware components for the two.

“I would characterize 2015 as the beginning of a harvest period for the PlayStation 4 platform,” House said. “The beginning of a harvest period. That being said, we are also undertaking to invest in the future, and 2015 will also be a year of investment.”

That investment will be focused on a few areas. There’s the Morpheus, of course, as well as continued spend on original PlayStation entertainment content like the TV show Powers (which was recently greenlit for a second season). On top of that, House said Sony would be investing in the expansion of its PlayStation Vue television streaming platform and a continued re-architecture of its PlayStation Network with an eye toward increasing stability and reducing maintenance downtime.

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Is the PS4 Open To Pirating

May 18, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Hackers from Brazil have managed to discover a new exploit for the PS4 which enables them to bypass the DRM on any software and games.

A couple of weeks ago, a number of electronic stores in Brazil had been advertising the means to copy and run a series of ripped retail games on the console.

At the time little was known about the hack back then, but information gradually began to trickle out from customers and make its way around the web. Please see below for commentary from Lancope.

Gavin Reid, VP of threat intelligence, Lancope said that Sony was playing an arms race against groups that benefit from the abilities to copy and share games.

The hack originates from a Russian website and has been pushed into the public by Brasilian retailers. The hack isn’t necessarily a jailbreak for the PS4, nor is it really a homebrew technique.

What they did was use a retail PS4, with several games installed on it, with it’s entire game database and operating system (including NAN/BIOS).  This was then dumped onto a hacked PS4 via Raspberry Pi.

The entire process costs about $100 to $150 to install 10 games and $15 per additional game.

“Open source groups like Homebrew with more altruistic motivations of extending the functionality of the console alongside groups selling modified consoles specifically to play copied games and of course the resell of the games themselves at fraction of the actuals costs. This has happened historically with all of the major consoles. It would be highly unlikely not to continue with the PS4,” he said.

Courtesy-Fud

Are Paid Mods On The Horizon For Gamers?

May 5, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Valve is no stranger to its ventures having a somewhat rocky start. Remember when the now-beloved Steam first appeared, all those years ago? Everyone absolutely loathed it; it only ever really got off the ground because you needed to install it if you wanted to play Half-Life 2. It’s hard now to imagine what the PC games market would look like if Valve hadn’t persisted with their idea; there was never any guarantee that a dominant digital distribution platform would appear, and it’s entirely plausible that a messy collection of publisher-owned storefronts would instead loom over the landscape, with the indie and small developer games that have so benefited from Steam’s independence being squeezed like grass between paving stones.

That isn’t to say that Valve always get things right; most of the criticisms leveled at Steam in those early days weren’t just Luddite complaints, but were indeed things that needed to be fixed before the system could go on to be a world-beater. Similarly, there have been huge problems that needed ironing out with Valve’s other large feature launches over the years, with Steam Greenlight being a good example of a fantastic idea that has needed (and still needs) a lot of tweaking before the balance between creators and consumers is effectively achieved.

You know where this is leading. Steam Workshop, the longstanding program allowing people to create mods (or other user-generated content) for games on Steam, opened up the possibility of charging for Skyrim mods earlier this month. It’s been a bit of a disaster, to the extent that Valve and Skyrim publisher Bethesda ended up shutting down the service after, as Gabe Newell succinctly phrased it, “pissing off the Internet”.

There were two major camps of those who complained about the paid mods system for Skyrim; those who objected to the botched implementation (there were cases of people who didn’t own the rights to mod content putting it up for sale, of daft pricing, and a questionable revenue model that awarded only 25% to the creators), and those who object in principle to the very concept of charging for mods. The latter argument, the more purist of the two, sees mods as a labour of love that should be shared freely with “the community”, and objects to the intrusion of commerce, of revenue shares and of “greedy” publishers and storefronts into this traditionally fan-dominated area. Those who support that point of view have, understandably, been celebrating the forced retreat of Valve and Bethesda.

Their celebrations will be short-lived. Valve’s retreat is a tactical move, not a strategic one; the intention absolutely remains to extend the commercial model across Steam Workshop generally. Valve acknowledges that the Skyrim modding community, which is pretty well established (you’ve been able to release Steam Workshop content for Skyrim since 2012), was the wrong place to roll out new commercial features – you can’t take a content creating community that’s been doing things for free for three years, suddenly introduce experimental and very rough payment systems, and not expect a hell of a backlash. The retreat from the Skyrim experiment was inevitable, with hindsight. With foresight, the adoption of paid mods more broadly is equally inevitable.

Why? Why must an area which has thrived for so long without being a commercial field suddenly start being about money? There are a few reasons for the inevitability of this change – and, indeed, for its desirability – but it’s worth saying from the outset that it’s pretty unlikely that the introduction of commercial models is going to impact upon the vast majority of mod content. The vast majority of mods will continue to be made and distributed for free, for the same reasons as previously; because the creator loves the game in question and wants to play around with its systems; because a budding developer wants a sandbox in which to learn and show off their skills to potential employers; because making things is fun. Most mods will remain small-scale and will, simply, not be of commercial value; a few creators will chance their arm by sticking a price tag on such things, but the market will quickly dispose of such behaviour.

Some mods, though, are much more involved and in-depth; to realise their potential, they impact materially and financially upon the working and personal lives of their creators. For that small slice out of the top of the mod world, the introduction of commercial options will give creators the possibility of justifying their work and focus financially. It won’t make a difference at all to very many, but to the few talented creative people who will be impacted, the change to their lives could be immense.

This is, after all, not a new rule that’s being introduced, but an old, restrictive one that’s being lifted. Up until now, it’s effectively been impossible to make money from the majority of mods. They rely upon someone else’s commercial, copyrighted content; while not outright impossible technically, the task of building a mod that’s sufficiently unencumbered with stuff you don’t own for it to be sold legally is daunting at best. As such, the rule up until now has been – you have to give away your mod for free. The rule that we’ll gradually see introduced over the coming years will be – you can still give away your mod for free, but if it’s good enough to be paid for, you can put a price tag on it and split the revenue with the creator of the game.

That’s not a bad deal. The percentages certainly need tweaking; I’ve seen some not unreasonable defences of the 25% share which Bethesda offered to mod creators, but with 30% being the standard share taken by stores and other “involved but not active” parties in digital distribution deals, I expect that something like 30% for Steam, 30% for the publisher and 40% for the mod creator will end up being the standard. Price points will need to be thrashed out, and the market will undoubtedly be brutal to those who overstep the mark. There’s a deeply thorny discussion about the role of F2P to be had somewhere down the line. Overall, though, it’s a reasonable and helpful freedom to introduce to the market.

It’s also one which PC game developers are thirsting for. Supporting mod communities is something they’ve always done, on the understanding that a healthy mod scene supports sales of the game itself and that this should be reward enough. By and large, this will remain the rationale; but the market is changing, and the rising development costs of the sort of big, AAA games that attract modding communities are no longer being matched by the swelling of the audience. Margins are being squeezed and new revenue streams are essential if AAA games are going to continue to be sustainable. It won’t solve the problems by itself, or overnight; but for some games, creating a healthy after-market in user-generated content, with the developer taking a slice off the top of the economy that develops, could be enough to secure the developer’s future.

Hence the inevitability. Developers need the possibility of an extra revenue stream (preferably without having to compromise the design of their games). A small group of “elite” mod creators need the possibility of supporting themselves through their work, especially as the one-time goal of a studio job at a developer has lost its lustre as the Holy Grail of a modder’s work. The vast majority of gamers will be pretty happy to pay a little money to support the work of someone creating content they love, just as it’s transpired that most music, film and book fans are perfectly happy to pay a reasonable amount of money for content they love when they’re given flexible opportunities to do so.

Paid mods are coming, then; not to Skyrim and probably not to any other game that’s already got an established and thriving mod community, but certainly to future games with ambitions of being the next modding platform. Valve and its partners will have to learn fast to avoid “pissing off the Internet” again; but for those whose vehement arguments are based on the non-commercial “purity” of this corner of the gaming world, enjoy it while it lasts; the reprieve won this week is a temporary one.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will The Gaming Industry Pass $90 Billion In Sales This Year?

April 27, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

It’s going to be another big year for games, as Newzoo is projecting that 2015 will see global gaming revenues jump 9.4 percent year-over-year to $91.5 billion. The future looks bright as well, with the research firm’s upcoming Global Games Market Report projecting worldwide revenues to reach $107 billion in 2017.

As the overall market grows, the distribution of where that money is coming from will also shift. Newzoo’s projections for this year have a surging Chinese market narrowly overtaking the US as the single biggest revenue contributor, bringing in $22.2 billion (up 23 percent) compared to the American market’s $22 billion (up 3 percent). As far as regions go, Asia-Pacific is far and away the largest source of gaming revenue, accounting for $43.1 billion (up 15 percent). Latin America is the smallest of the four major markets with just $4 billion in revenues, but it is also growing the quickest, up 18 percent year-over-year.

The platforms on which people spend money gaming are also in flux. Tablet revenues are expected to be up 27 percent year-over-year to $9.4 billion, with smartphone and watch revenues jumping 21 percent to $20.6 billion. However, PCs are the most popular platform for games, bringing in $27.1 billion (up 8 percent) from standard titles and MMOs, while casual webgames will draw an additional $6.6 billion (up 2 percent). Newzoo grouped TV, consoles, and VR devices into their own category, projecting them to bring in $25.1 billion (up 2 percent) in game revenues. The only market segment not seeing growth at the moment is the dedicated handheld, which Newzoo expects to bring in $2.7 billion in revenue this year (down 16 percent).

While the firm’s grouping of VR and smartwatch revenues in other categories may be unusual, it said both segments are too small to report for now.

“Short- to medium-term VR revenues will be limited and largely cannibalize on current console and PC game spending as a share of game enthusiasts invest in the latest technology and richest experience that VR offers,” Newzoo said. “Smartwatches will be a success but not add significant ‘new’ revenues to the $20.6 billion spent on smartphones this year.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is EA Shuttering It’s Free To Play Model?

April 20, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

EA is shuttering four high-profile free-to-play games, all of them allied to popular IP like Battlefield and FIFA.

Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield Play4Free, Need for Speed World and FIFA World will all continue for another 90 days, at which point they will be taken offline for good. Further development on the games has stopped already.

“In more than five years since most of these titles launched, how we play games has changed dramatically,” said Patrick Soderlund, EVP of EA Games, in a statement. “These were pioneering experiences, and we’re humbled that, over the years, so many of you joined us to enjoy the games and the community.”

In terms of EA’s growing interest in free-to-play models, the real pioneer among that group is Battlefield Heroes, which was pitched at “frustrated, restricted” gamers back in 2008. Need for Speed World and Battlefield Play4Free followed, launching over the second half of 2010.

By the start of 2012, EA was reporting a combined total of 25 million players across the six games in its “Play4Free” initiative, with Battlefield Heroes and Need for Speed World contributing 10 million players each.

However, FIFA World is by no means a forerunner. It only reaching open beta late in 2013, and so it is being shuttered after substantially less than two years of public availability. This wouldn’t imply a slow decline in interest, but a lack of interest in the first place.

That’s in stark contrast to FIFA Online, the free-to-play version of the game made specifically for markets in Asia. In 2012, EA’s Andrew Wilson claimed that FIFA Online was making $100 million a year in revenue. A year later, FIFA Online 3, the most recent iteration, was the leading online sports game in both traffic and revenue in Korea.

One thing is certain, take these four titles away from EA’s free-to-play games on Origin, and you’re left with only Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances and Star Wars: The Old Republic – in his statement, Soderlund stressed the latter’s “enthusiastic and growing” community, and reiterated EA’s commitment to providing new content.

The remainder of the company’s free-to-play catalog is composed of games like Outernauts, The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Bejeweled Blitz. Casual, social, call them what you will, but they are intended for a very different audience to Need for Speed World and Battlefield Play4Free, and that audience has just lost two-thirds of the games EA had made to satisfy its needs.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Was Crytek Saved By Amazon?

April 9, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The deal that helped Crytek recover from its recent financial difficulties was Amazon, according to a report from Kotaku.

The online retail giant signed a licensing deal for CryEngine, Crytek’s proprietary game engine. Sources within the company put the deal’s value at between $50 million and $70 million, and suggested that Amazon may be using it as the bedrock for a proprietary engine of its own.

However Amazon uses the technology, though, the importance of the deal for Crytek cannot be overstated. Last year, during the summer, it became apparent that all was not well at the German developer. Employees hadn’t been fully paid in months, leading to an alleged staff walkout in its UK office, where a sequel to Homefront was in development. Koch Media acquired the Homefront IP and its team shortly after.

When the company’s management eventually addressed the rumors, it had already secured the financing necessary to take the company forward. No details of the deal were offered, but it’s very likely that Crytek got the money it needed from Amazon.

We have contacted Crytek to confirm the details, but it certainly fits with the perception that Amazon could emerge as a major creator of game content. It has snapped up some elite talent to do just that, it acquired Twitch for a huge sum of money, and it has been very open about where it plans to fit into the overall market.

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Are Free-To-Play Games Still In Its Infancy

March 30, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

During a presentation at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, Boss Fight Entertainment’s Damion Schubert suggested the industry to drop the term “whales,” calling it disrespectful to the heavy spenders that make the free-to-play business model possible. As an alternative, he proposed calling them “patrons,” as their largesse allows the masses to enjoy these works that otherwise could not be made and maintained.

After his talk, Schubert spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about his own experiences with heavy spending customers. During his stint at BioWare Austin, Schubert was a lead designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic as it transitioned from its original subscription-based business model to a free-to-play format.

“I think the issue with whales is that most developers don’t actually psychologically get into the head of whales,” Schubert said. “And as a result, they don’t actually empathize with those players, because most developers aren’t the kind of person that would shell out $30,000 to get a cool speeder bike or whatnot… I think your average developer feels way more empathy for the free players and the light spenders than the whales because the whales are kind of exotic creatures if you think about them. They’re really unusual.”

Schubert said whales, at least those he saw on The Old Republic, don’t have uniform behavior patterns. They weren’t necessarily heavy raiders, or big into player-vs-player competition. They were just a different class of customer, with the only common attribute being that they apparently liked to spend money. Some free-to-play games have producers whose entire job is to try to understand those customers, Schubert said, setting up special message boards for that sub-community of player, or letting them vote on what content should be added to a game next.

“When you start working with these [customers], there’s a lot of concern that they are people who have gambling problems, or kids who have no idea of the concept of money,” Schubert said.

But from his experience on The Old Republic, Schubert came to understand that most of that heavy spending population is simply people who are legitimately rich and don’t have a problem with devoting money to something they see as a hobby. Schubert said The Old Republic team was particular mindful of free-to-play abuse, and had spending limits placed to protect people from credit card fraud or kids racking up unauthorized charges. If someone wanted to be a heavy spender on the game, they had to call up customer service and specifically ask for those limits to be removed.

“If you think about it, they wanted to spend money so much that they were willing to endure what was probably a really annoying customer service call so they could spend money,” Schubert said.

The Old Republic’s transition from a subscription-based model to free-to-play followed a wider shift in the massively multiplayer online genre. Schubert expects many of the traditional PC and console gaming genres like fighting games and first-person shooters to follow suit, one at a time. That said, free-to-play is not the business model of the future. Not the only one, at least.

“I think the only constant in the industry is change,” Schubert said when asked if the current free-to-play model will eventually fall out of favor. “So yeah, it will shift. And it will always shift because people find a more effective billing model. And the thing to keep in mind is that a more effective billing model will come from customers finding something they like better… I think there is always someone waiting in the wings with a new way of how you monetize it. But I do think that anything we’re going to see in the short term, at least, is probably going to start with a great free experience. It’s just so hard to catch fire; there are too many competitive options that are free right now.”

Two upstart business models Schubert is not yet sold on are crowdfunding and alpha-funding. As a consumer, he has reservations about both.

“The Wild West right now is the Kickstarter stuff, which is a whole bunch of companies that are making their best guess about what they can do,” Schubert said. “Many of them are doing it very, very poorly, because it turns out project management in games is something the big boys don’t do very well, much less these guys making their first game and trying to do it on a shoestring budget. I think that’s a place where there’s a lot more caveat emptor going on.”

Schubert’s golden rule for anyone thinking of supporting a Kickstarter is to only pledge an amount of money you would be OK losing forever with nothing to show for it.

“At the end of the day, you’re investing on a hope and a dream, and by definition, a lot of those are just going to fail or stall,” Schubert said. “Game development is by definition R&D. Every single game that gets developed is trying to find a core game loop, trying to find the magic, trying to find the thing that will make it stand out from the 100 other games that are in that same genre. And a lot of them fail. You’ve played 1,000 crappy games. Teams didn’t get out to make crappy games; they just got there and they couldn’t find the ‘there’ there.”

He wasn’t much kinder to the idea of charging people for games still in an early stage of development.

“I’m not a huge fan of Early Access, although ironically, I think the MMO genre invented it,” Schubert said. “But on the MMOs, we needed it because there are things on an MMO that you cannot test without a population. You cannot test a 40-man raid internally. You cannot test large-scale political systems. You cannot test login servers with real problems from different countries, server load and things like that. Early Access actually started in my opinion, with MMOs, with the brightest of hopes and completely and totally clean ideals.”

Schubert has funded a few projects in Early Access, but said he wound up getting unfinished games in return. Considering he works on unfinished games for a living, he doesn’t have much patience for them in his spare time, and has since refrained from supporting games in Early Access.

“I genuinely think there are very few people in either Kickstarter or Early Access that are trying to screw customers,” Schubert said. “I think people in both those spaces are doing it because they love games and want to be part of it, and it’s hard for me to find fault in that at the end of the day.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will Microsoft Dump It’s XBOX Division?

March 23, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Microsoft’s Xbox division is in a much healthier state today than it was a year ago. It’s had a tough time of it; forced to reinvent itself in an excruciating, public way as the original design philosophy and marketing message for the Xbox One transpired to be about as popular as breaking wind in a crowded lift, resulting in executive reshuffles and a tricky refocus of the variety that would ordinarily be carried out pre-launch and behind closed doors. Even now, Xbox One remains lumbered with the fossilised detritus of its abortive original vision; Kinect 2.0 has been shed, freeing up system resources and marking a clear departure for the console, but other legacy items like the expensive hardware required for HDMI input and TV processing are stuck right there in the system’s hardware and cannot be extracted until the inevitable redesign of the box rolls around.

All the same, under Phil Spencer’s tenure as Xbox boss, the console has achieved a better turnaround than any of us would have dared to expect – but that, perhaps, speaks to the low expectations everyone had. In truth, despite the sterling efforts of Spencer and his team, Xbox One is still a console in trouble. A great holiday sales season was widely reported, but actually only happened in one territory (the USA, home turf that was utterly dominated by Xbox in the previous generation), was largely predicated on a temporary price-cut and was somewhat marred by serious technical issues that dogged the console’s headline title for the season, the Master Chief Collection.

Since the start of 2015, things have settled down to a more familiar pattern once more; PS4 consistently outsells Xbox One, even in the USA, generally racking up more than double the sales of its competitor in global terms. Xbox One sells better month-on-month than the Wii U, but that’s cold comfort indeed given that Nintendo’s console is widely seen as an outright commercial failure, and Nintendo has all but confirmed that it will receive an early bath, with a replacement in the form of Nintendo NX set to be announced in 2016. Microsoft isn’t anywhere near that level of crisis, but nor are its sales in 2015 thus far outside the realms of comparison with Wii U – and their installed bases are nigh-on identical.

The odd thing about all of this, and the really positive thing that Microsoft and its collaborators like to focus on, is that while the Xbox One looks like it’s struggling, it’s actually doing markedly better than the Xbox 360 was at the same point in its lifespan – by my rough calculations, Xbox One is about 2.5 million units north of the installed base of Xbox 360 at the same point. Oddly, that makes it more comparable with PS3, which was, in spite of its controversy-dogged early years, a much faster seller out the door than Microsoft’s console. The point stands, though, that in simple commercial terms Xbox One is doing better than Xbox 360 did – it just happens that PS4 is doing better than any console has ever done, and casting a long shadow over Microsoft’s efforts in the process.

The problem with this is that I don’t think very many people are under the impression that Microsoft, whose primary businesses lie in the sale of office and enterprise software, cloud services and operating systems, is in the videogames business just in order to turn a little profit. Ever since the departure of Steve Ballmer and the appointment of the much more business-focused Satya Nadella as CEO, Xbox has looked increasingly out of place at Microsoft, especially as projects like Surface and Windows Phone have been de-emphasised. If Xbox still has an important role, it’s as the flag-bearer for Microsoft’s brand in the consumer space; but even at that, the “beach-head in the living room” is far less important now that Sony no longer really looks like a competitor to Microsoft, the two companies having streamlined themselves to a point where they don’t really focus on the same things any more. Besides, Xbox One is being left behind in PS4′s dust; even if Microsoft felt like it needed a beach-head in the living room, Xbox wouldn’t exactly be doing the job any more.

But wait, we’ve been here before, right? All those rumours about Microsoft talking to Amazon about unloading the Xbox division came to nothing only a few short months ago, after all. GDC saw all manner of talk about Xbox One’s place in the Windows 10 ecosystem; Spencer repeatedly mentioned the division having Nadella’s backing, and then there’s the recent acquisition of Minecraft, which surely seems like an odd thing to take place if the position of Xbox within the Microsoft family is still up in the air. Isn’t this all settled now?

Perhaps not, because the rumours just won’t stop swirling that Microsoft had quietly put Xbox on the market and is actively hunting for a buyer. During GDC and ever since, the question of who will come to own Xbox has been posed and speculated upon endlessly. The console’s interactions with Windows 10, including the eventual transition of its own internal OS to the Windows 10 kernel; the supposed backing of Nadella; the acquisition of Minecraft; none of these things have really deterred the talk that Microsoft doesn’t see Xbox as a core part of its business any more and would be happy to see it gone. The peculiar shake-up of the firm’s executive team recently, with Phil Harrison quietly departing and Kudo Tsunoda stepping up to share management of some of Microsoft Game Studios’ teams with Phil Spencer, has added fuel to the fire; if you hold it up at a certain angle to the light, this decision could look like it’s creating an internal dividing line that would make a possible divestment easier.

Could it happen? Well, yes, it could – if Microsoft is really determined to sell Xbox and can find a suitable bidder, it could all go far more smoothly than you may imagine. Xbox One would continue to be a part of the Windows 10 vision to some extent, and would probably get its upgrade to the Windows 10 kernel as well, but would no longer be Microsoft hardware – not an unfamiliar situation for a company whose existence has mostly been predicated on selling operating systems for other people’s hardware. Nobody would buy Xbox without getting Halo, Forza and various other titles into the bargain, but Microsoft’s newly rediscovered enthusiasm for Windows gaming would suggest a complex deal wherein certain franchises (probably including Minecraft) remain with Microsoft, while others went off with the Xbox division. HoloLens would remain a Microsoft project; it’s not an Xbox project right now and has never really been pushed as an Xbox One add-on, despite the immediate comparisons it prompted with Sony’s Morpheus. Xbox games would still keep working with the Azure cloud services (Microsoft will happily sell access to that to anyone, on any platform), on which framework Xbox Live would continue to operate. So yes, Xbox could be divorced from Microsoft, maintaining a close and amiable relationship with the requisite parts of the company while taking up residence in another firm’s stable – a firm with a business that’s much more in line with the objectives of Xbox than Microsoft now finds itself to be.

“None of Xbox’ rivals would be in the market to buy such a large division, and no game company would wish to lumber itself with a platform holder business. Neither Apple nor Google make the slightest sense as a new home for Xbox either”

This, I think, is the stumbling block. I’m actually quite convinced that Microsoft would like to sell the Xbox division and has held exploratory talks to that end; I’m somewhat less convinced, but prepared to believe, that those talks are continuing even now. However, I’m struggling to imagine a buyer. None of Xbox’ rivals would be in the market to buy such a large division, and no game company would wish to lumber itself with a platform holder business. Neither Apple nor Google make the slightest sense as a new home for Xbox either; the whole product is distinctly “un-Apple” in its ethos and approach, while Google is broadly wary of hardware and almost entirely disinterested in games.

Amazon was the previously mentioned suitor, and to my mind, remains the most likely purchaser – but it’s seemingly decided to pursue its own strategy for living room devices for now, albeit with quite limited success. I could see Amazon still “exploring options” in this regard with Microsoft, but if that deal was going to happen, I would have expected it to happen last year. Who else is out there, then? Netflix, perhaps, is an interesting outside possibility – the company’s branching out into creating original TV content as well as being a platform for third-party content would be a reasonably good cultural match for the Game Studios aspect of Xbox, but it’s hard to imagine a company that has worked so hard to divorce itself from the entire physical product market suddenly leaping back into it with a large, expensive piece of hardware.

This, I think, is what ultimately convinces me that Xbox is staying at Microsoft – for better or worse. It might be much better for Xbox if it was a centrepiece project for a company whose business objectives matched its strengths; but I don’t think any such company exists to take the division off Microsoft’s hands. Instead, Spencer and his talented team will have to fight to ensure that Xbox remains relevant and important within Microsoft. Building its recognition as a Windows 10 platform is a good start; figuring out other ways in which Xbox can continue to be a great game platform while also bringing value to the other things that Microsoft does is the next challenge. Having turned around public perception of the console to a remarkable degree, the next big task for the Xbox team will be to change perceptions within Microsoft itself and within the investor community – if Xbox is stuck at Microsoft for the long haul, it needs to carve itself a new niche within a business vision that isn’t really about the living room any more.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Nintendo Going Mobile?

March 18, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Mobile

Nintendo has formed a comprehensive new alliance with DeNA that will make every one of the company’s famous IPs available for mobile development.

The bedrock of the deal is a dual stock purchase, with each company buying ¥22 billion ($181 million) of the other’s treasury shares. That’s equivalent to 10 per cent of DeNA’s stock, and 1.24 per cent of Nintendo. The payments will complete on April 2, 2015.

What this will ultimately mean for the consumer is Nintendo IP on mobile, “extending Nintendo’s reach into the vast market of smart device users worldwide.” There will be no ports of existing Nintendo games, according to information released today, but, “all Nintendo IP will be eligible for development and exploration by the alliance.” That includes the “iconic characters” that the company has guarded for so long.

No details on the business model that these games and apps will be released under were offered, though Nintendo may well be reluctant to adopt free-to-play at first. The information provided to the press emphasised the “premium” experiences Nintendo currently offers on platforms like Wii U and 3DS. Admittedly, that could be interpreted in either direction.

However, Nintendo and DeNA are planning an online membership service that will span Nintendo consoles, PC and smart devices. That will launch in the autumn this year.

This marks a significant change in strategy for Nintendo, which has been the subject of reports about plans to take its famous IPs to mobile for at least a year. Indeed, the company has denied the suggestion on several occasions, even as it indicated that it did have plans to make mobile a part of its core strategy in other ways.

Analysts have been offering their reflections on the deal, with the response from most being largely positive.

“Nintendo’s decision to partner with DeNA is a recognition of the importance of the games app audience to the future of its business,” said IHS head of gaming Piers Harding-Rolls. “Not only is there significant revenue to be made directly from smartphone and tablet consumers for Nintendo, app ecosystems are also very important in reaching new customers to make them aware of the Nintendo brand and to drive a new and broader audience to its dedicated console business. Last year IHS data shows that games apps were worth $26 billion in consumer spending globally, with handheld console games worth only 13 per cent of that total at $3.3 billion.

“The Nintendo-DeNA alliance is a good fit and offers up a number of important synergies for two companies that are no longer leaders in their respective segments.

“DeNA remains one of the leading mobile games company’s in Japan and, we believe, shares cultural similarities with Nintendo, especially across its most popular big-brand content. The alliance gives Nintendo access to a large audience in its home market, which remains very important to its overall financial performance. Japanese consumers spend significantly more per capita on mobile games than in any other country and it remains the biggest market for both smartphone and handheld gaming. While the partnership gives Nintendo immediate potential to grow its domestic revenues through this audience, gaining access to DeNA’s mobile expertise is important too to realise this potential.

“This alliance makes commercial sense on many levels – the main challenge will be knitting together the cultures of both companies and aligning the speed of development and iteration that is needed in the mobile space with Nintendo’s more patient and systematic approach to games content production. How the new games are monetised may also provide a challenge considering the general differences in models used in retail for Nintendo and through in-app purchases for DeNA.”

In a livestreamed press conference regarding the DeNA deal, Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata reassured those in attendance that the company was still committed to “dedicated video game systems” as its core business. To do that, he confirmed that the company was working on a new console, codenamed “NX”.

“As proof that Nintendo maintains strong enthusiasm for the dedicated game system business let me confirm that Nintendo is currently developing a dedicated game platform with a brand new concept under the development codename NX,” he said.

“It is too early to elaborate on the details of this project but we hope to share more information with you next year.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

 

Will Free-To-Play Hurt The Gaming Industry?

March 3, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Free to play has an image problem. It’s the most influential and arguably important development in the business of games in decades, a stratospherically successful innovation which has enabled the opening up of games to a wider audience than ever before. Implemented well, with clear understanding of its principles and proper respect afforded to players and creativity alike, it’s more fair and even, in a sense, democratic than old-fashioned models of up-front payment; in theory, players pay in proportion to their enjoyment, handing over money in small transactions for a continued or deepened relationship with a game they already love, rather than giving a large amount of cash up-front for a game they’ve only ever seen in (possibly doctored) screenshots and videos.

While that is a fair description, I think, of the potential of free-to-play, it’s quite clearly not the image that the business model bears right now. You probably scoffed about half a dozen times reading the above paragraph – it may be a fair description of free-to-play at its hypothetical best, but it’s almost certainly at odds with your perceptions.

How, then, might we describe the perception of F2P? Greedy, exploitative, unfair, cheating… Once these adjectives start rolling, it’s hard to get them to stop. The negative view of F2P is that it’s a series of cheap psychological tricks designed to get people to spend money compulsively without ever realising quite how much cash they’re wasting on what is ultimately a very shallow and cynical game experience.

I don’t think it’s entirely unsurprising or unexpected that this perception should be held by “core” gamers or those enamoured of existing styles of game. Although F2P has proven very successful for games like MMOs and MOBAs, it’s by no means universally applicable, either across game types or across audience types; some blundering attempts by publishers to add micro-transactions to premium console and PC titles, combined with deep misgivings over the complete domination of F2P in the mobile game market, have left plenty of more traditional gamers with a very negative and extremely defensive attitude regarding the new business model. That’s fine, though; F2P isn’t for that audience (though it’s a little more complex than that in reality; many players will happily tap away at an F2P mobile game while waiting for matchmaking in a premium console game).

What’s increasingly clear, however, is that there’s an image problem for F2P right in the midst of the audience at whom it’s actually aimed. The negative perception of F2P is becoming increasingly mainstream. It gets mass-media coverage on occasion; recently, it spurred Apple to create a promotion specifically pointing App Store customers to games with no in-app purchases. I happen to think that’s a great idea personally, but what does it say about the feedback from Apple’s customers regarding F2P games, that promotion of non-F2P titles was even a consideration?

Even some of the most successful F2P developers now seem to want to distance themselves from the business model; this week’s interview with Crossy Road developers Hipster Whale saw the team performing linguistic somersaults to avoid labelling their free-to-play game as being free-to-play. Crossy Road is a brilliant, fun, interesting F2P game that hits pretty much all of the positive notes I laid out up in the first paragraph; that even its own developers seem to view “free-to-play” as an overtly negative phrase is deeply concerning.

The problem is that the negativity has a fair basis; there’s a lot of absolute guff out there, with the App Store utterly teeming with F2P games that genuinely are exploitative and unfair; worst of all, the bad games tend to be stupid, mean-spirited and grasping, attempting to suck money out of easily tricked customers (and let’s be blunt here: we’re talking, in no small measure, about kids) rather than undertaking the harder but vastly more rewarding task of actually entertaining and enthralling people until they feel perfectly happy with parting with a little cash to see more, do more or just to deepen their connection to the game.

Such awfulness, though, is not universal by any measure. There are tons of good F2P games out there; games that are creative and interesting (albeit often within a template of sorts; F2P was quick to split off into slowly evolving genre-types, though nobody who’s played PC or console games for very long can reasonably criticise that particular development), games that give you weeks or months of enjoyment without ever forcing a penny from your pocket unless you’re actually deeply engaged enough to want to pay up to get something more. Most of F2P’s bone fide hits fit into this category, in fact; games like Supercell’s Clash of Clans or Hay Day, GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragons and, yes, even King’s Candy Crush Saga, which is held aloft unfairly as an example of F2P scurrilousness, yet has never extracted a penny from 70 percent of the people who have finished (finished!) the game. That’s an absolutely enormous amount of shiny candy-matching enjoyment (while I don’t like the game personally, I don’t question that it’s enjoyment for those who play it so devotedly) for free.

Unfortunately, the negative image that has been built up by free-to-play threatens not just the nasty, exploitative games, but all the perfectly decent ones as well – from billion-grossing phenomena like Puzzle & Dragons to indie wunderkind like Crossy Road. If free-to-play as a “brand” becomes irreparably damaged, the consequences may be far-reaching.

A year ago, I’d have envisaged that the most dangerous consequence on the horizon was heavy-handed legislation – with the EU, or perhaps the USA, clamping down on F2P mechanisms in a half-understood way that ended up damaging perfectly honest developers along with two-bit scam merchants. I still think that’s possible; companies have ducked and dived around small bits of legislation (or the threat of small bits of legislation) in territories including Japan and the EU, but the hammer could still fall in this regard. However, I no longer consider that the largest threat. No, the largest threat is Apple; the company which did more than any other to establish F2P as a viable market remains the company that could pull the carpet out from underneath it entirely, and while I doubt that’s on the cards right now, the wind is certainly turning in that direction.

Apple’s decision to promote non-F2P titles on its store may simply be an editor’s preference; but given the growing negativity around F2P, it may also be a sign that customer anger over F2P titles on iOS is reaching receptive ears at Apple. Apple originally permitted free apps (with IAP or otherwise) for the simple reason that having a huge library of free software available to customers was a brilliant selling point for the iPhone and iPad. At present, that remains the case; but if the negativity around the perception of F2P games were ever to start to outweigh the positive benefits of all that free software, do not doubt that Apple would reverse course fast enough to make your head spin. Reckon that its 30 percent share of all those Puzzle & Dragons and Candy Crush Saga revenues would be enough to make it think twice? Reckon again; App Store revenue is a drop in the ocean for Apple, and if abusive F2P ever starts to significantly damage the public perception of Apple’s devices, it will ban the model (in part, at least) without a second thought to revenue.

Some of you, those who fully buy into the negative image of F2P, might think that would be a thing to celebrate; ding, dong, the witch is dead! That’s a remarkably short-sighted view, however. In truth, F2P has been the saviour of a huge number of game development jobs and studios that would otherwise have been lost entirely in the implosion of smaller publishers and developers over the past five years; it’s provided a path into the industry for a great many talented creative people, grown the audience for games unimaginably and has provided a boost not only to mobile and casual titles, but to core games as well – especially in territories like East Asia. Wishing harm on F2P is wishing harm on many thousands of industry jobs; so don’t wish F2P harm. Wish that it would be better; that way, everyone wins.

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Do “CORE” Gamers Exist?

February 10, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

A year or two ago, it seemed that doom and gloom reigned over the prospects for “core” gaming. With smartphones and tablets becoming this decade’s ubiquitous gaming devices, casual and social games ascendant and free-to-play established as just about the only effective way to make money from the teeming masses swarming to gaming for the first time, dire predictions abounded about the death of game consoles, the decline of paid-for games and the dwindling importance of “core” gamers to the games industry at large.

This week’s headlines speak of a different narrative – one that’s become increasingly strong as we’ve delved into what 2015 has to offer. Sony’s financial figures look pretty good, buoyed partially by the weakness of the Yen but notably also by the incredible success of the PlayStation 4 – a console which more aggressive commentators were reading funeral rites for before it was even announced. Both of the PS4′s competitors, incidentally, ended 2014 (and began 2015) in a stronger sales position than they were in 12 months previously, with next-gen home consoles overall heading for the 40 million sales mark in pretty much record time.

Then there’s the software story of the week; the startling sales of Grand Theft Auto V, which thanks to ten million sales of the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game, have now topped 45 million units. That’s an incredible figure, one which suggests that this single game has generated well over $2 billion in revenue thus far; the GTA franchise as a whole must, at this point, be one of the most valuable entertainment franchises in existence, comparable in revenue terms to the likes of Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Look, this is basically feel-good stuff for the games business; “hey guys, we’re doing great, our biggest franchise is right up there with Hollywood’s finest and these console sales are a promise of a solid future”. Stories like this used to turn up all the time back when games were genuinely struggling to be recognised as a valid and important industry alongside TV, music and film. Nowadays, that struggle has been internalised; it’s worth stepping back every now and then from the sheer enormity of figures like Apple and Samsung’s smartphone sales, or Puzzle & Dragons’ revenue (comparable to GTAV’s, but whether that means the game can birth a successful franchise or sustain itself long-term is another question entirely), or the number of players engaged with top F2P games, to remind ourselves that there’s still huge success happening in the “traditional” end of the market.

The take-away, perhaps, is that this isn’t a zero-sum game. The great success of casual and social games, first on Facebook and now on smartphones, isn’t that they’ve replaced core games, cannibalising the existing high-value market; it’s that they’ve acquired a whole new audience for themselves. Sure, there’s overlap, but there’s little evidence to suggest that this overlap results in people engaging less with core games; I, for one, have discovered that many smartphone F2P games have a core loop that fits nicely into the match-making and loading delays for Destiny’s Crucible.

That’s not to say that changes to the wider business haven’t resonated back through the “core” games space. The massive success of a game like GTAV has a dark side; it reflects the increasing polarisation of the high-end games market, in which successful games win bigger than ever, but games which fail to become enormous hits find themselves failing utterly. There’s no mid-market any more; you’re either a complete hit or a total miss. Developers have lamented the loss of the “AA” market (as distinct from the “AAA” space) for some time; that loss is becoming increasingly keenly felt as enormous budgets, production values and financial pressures come to bear on a smaller and smaller line-up of top-tier titles. Several factors drove the death of AA, with production costs and team sizes being major issues, but the rise of casual games and even of increasingly high-quality indie titles undoubtedly played a role – creating whole new market sectors that cost far less to consumers than AA titles had done.

It’s not just success that’s been polarised by this process; it’s also risk. At the high-end of the market, risk is simply unacceptable, such are the enormous financial figures at play. Thus it’s largely left to the low-end – the indie scene, the flood of titles appearing on the App Store, on Steam and even on the likes of PlayStation Vita – to take interesting risks and challenge gaming conventions. Along the way, some of the talented creators involved in these scenes are either trying to engage new audiences, or to engage existing audiences in new ways; sometimes experimenting with gameplay and interactive, sometimes with narrative and art style, sometimes with business model or distribution.

All of which leads me to explain why I keep writing “core” games, with inverted commas around “core”; because honestly, I’m increasingly uncertain what this term means. It used to refer to specific genres, largely speaking those considered to have special resonance for geeky guys; gory science fiction FPS games, high fantasy RPGs, complex beat-’em-ups and shoot-’em-ups, graphic survival horror titles, war-torn action games. Then, for a while, the rise of F2P seemed to make the definition of “core” shimmer and reform itself; now it meant “games people pay for up front, and the kind of people who pay for those games”.

Now? Now, who knows what “core” really means? League of Legends is certainly something you have to be pretty damn deeply involved with to enjoy, but it’s free-to-play; so is Hearthstone, which is arguably not quite so “core” but still demands a lot of attention and focus. There are great games on consoles – systems whose owners paid hundreds of dollars for a devoted gaming machine – which are free-to-play. There are games on mobile phones that cost money up front and are intricate and engrossing. There are games you can download for free on your PC, or pick up for a few dollars on Steam, that explore all sorts of interesting and complex niches of narrative, of human experience and of the far-flung corners of what it means to play a “game”. Someone who sits down for hours unravelling the strands of a text adventure written in Twine; are they “core”? Someone who treats retro gaming like a history project, travelling back through the medium’s tropes and concepts to find their origin points; are they “core”? How about Frank Underwood in House of Cards, largely disinterested in games but picking up a violent shooter to work out frustrations on his Xbox in the evenings; is he a “core gamer”?

Don’t get me wrong; this fuzzing of the lines around the concept of “core” is, to my mind, a vital step in the evolution of our medium. That the so-called “battle” between traditional business models and F2P, between AAA studios and indies, between casual and core, was not a zero-sum game and could result in the expansion of the entire industry, not the destruction of one side or another, has been obvious from the outset. What was less obvious and took a little more time to come to pass was that not only would each of those sides not detract from the others; they would actually learn from one another and help to fuel one another’s development. New creative outlooks, new approaches to interactivity, new thoughts on social and community aspects of gaming, new ideas about business models and monetisation; these all mingle with one another and help to make up for the creative drought at the top of the AAA industry (and increasingly, at the top of the F2P industry, too) by providing a steady feed of new concepts and ideas from below.

It’s fantastic and very positive that the next-gen consoles are doing well and that GTAV has sold so many copies (dark thoughts regarding the polarisation of AAA success aside); but it’s wrong, I think, to just look at this as being “hey, core gaming is doing fine”. Games aren’t made up of opposed factions, casual at war with core; it’s a spectrum, attracting relevant audiences from across the board. Rather than pitting GTAV against Puzzle and Dragons, I’d rather look at the enormous success of both games as being a sign of how well games are doing overall; rather than stacking sales of next-gen consoles against sales of smartphones and reheating old arguments about dedicated game devices vs multi-purpose devices, I’d rather think about the enormous addressable audience that represents overall. As the arguments about casual or F2P gaming “destroying” core games start to fade out, let’s take this opportunity to rid ourselves of some of our more meaningless distinctions and categories for good.

Courtesy-GI.biz