When was the last time you played as a black character in a game who wasn’t either a) the sidekick to a strapping white dude or b) a stereotypical gang member? We Are Chicago, from Indie studio Culture Shock, offers something different: a realistic representation of the life of a person of color in Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods.
“It was interesting to think about how you make a game about something that’s actually happened, a true story, and still give the player agency,” explains studio founder Michael Block.
“So we were talking about those ideas. We’re from Chicago and at the time we had started doing some volunteer stuff and talking to some people on the South Side, a very racially-segregated section of the city, very poor and has a lot of issues with gangs and violence. We realized it’s a really interesting story and nobody is talking about this stuff.”
This was the moment that led to the game I played a few weeks ago at GDC, which Block calls a documentary game, a game which gives players an insight into the world of high school student Aaron. During the very first scene, Aaron’s family sits down to dinner, only to hear the sound of gunshots. It’s shocking not because I’ve never heard a gunshot in a game before, but because the family carries on with dinner, discussing their situation but accepting the violence as part of the background to their lives.
“We brought on a writer from one of the neighborhoods to write the actual dialogue”
Scenes like this aren’t just based on Culture Shock’s preconceived ideas about the South Side, but on the sort of research that would make any journalist proud.
The growth of narrative games
“Part of it comes to down to places like Telltale, I think what they were able to do which has been super helpful, and they’ve been paving the way for everyone else to do all this stuff, is because they had this tie-in to an IP that people really liked and then they were able to tell a really compelling story with that IP. I think that got people into that genre.
“That has benefited us in unimaginable ways because it allows people to come into it with an open mind and know what they’re getting.”
“At the beginning we did interviews. We actually got really lucky: there was a non-profit group that we were volunteering with that basically blanketed the city with volunteers and they had a survey that could have been written for our game. Things like, what are you seeing in your neighbourhood that could be problematic? What are the things that you’re seeing are really good? Are you seeing any solutions that are working well? What do you wish was there?”
“From that we were doing interviews with people at bus stops on the South Side and we just asked a bunch of people all these questions and then gave that all back to the non-profit. Then we met a whole bunch of people who we were volunteering and people that they knew and put us in touch with and we did more in-depth interviews.”
As well as researching their subject matter, We Are Chicago took their commitment to representing the stories into the studio via recruitment.
“We brought on a writer from one of the neighborhoods to write the actual dialogue. So we had the outline in place, we had the ideas that we wanted to talk about and we went to him and said ‘let’s figure out how to make this into a narrative arc’. Then we brought on environment artists as well from the neighborhoods that we were looking at to work on the content of the game and they’ve also looked over the script and made sure everything makes sense to them as well.”
Block and his team also plan to continue working with the non-profits of Chicago, taking a build of the game to a couple of schools in Chicago to do play-testing with young kids and to make sure that the game is true to their experiences. He also reveals that he plans to do a revenue share with some of the non-profits, as a way of giving back.
That’s Block’s motivation here, and it’s a noble one. We Are Chicago is a difficult game to make and difficult game to sell, but its importance to its creators goes beyond simple profit and loss.
“I’m working on this project because for all of my career – I’ve worked on Organ Trail and I’ve worked at mid-sized studios before and released other games – I didn’t really feel like they were having the impact I wanted to have. I wanted to do something that was positive for our society and our community and so this feels very important to me personally because it feels like I’m able to achieve that,” says Block.
“We’ve had some really great responses from people. Seeing some people express more racist sentiments and ideas and then after playing the game actually not express those things is really validating and really satisfying, to think that we might actually be able to have that impact. It’s a very strong connection for me because I’m hoping that we can prove that this is possible with games and that we’re doing it.”
We Are Chicago will be released this year on PC, Mac and Linux.
In an age of viral media and ubiquitous social networks, it’s rare to encounter a major AAA release surrounded by so much uncertainty. Quantum Break has likely been in full development since 2012, when Remedy Entertainment launched Alan Wake: American Nightmare, and it has been a shining beacon in the Xbox One’s line-up since Microsoft unveiled the console a year later. Was Microsoft bankrolling an exclusive answer to Uncharted’s slick, story-driven adventure? Was its furtive marriage of live-action TV series and third-person action the result of unrevealed brilliance, or the unfortunate by-product of a now defunct product strategy? Or was it all just a logical evolution of the slick production and metatextual noodling found in all of Remedy’s previous games?
Reading through the myriad reviews that are now setting the record straight, the answer may be that Quantum Break is all of these things. Unfortunately for Remedy and Microsoft, there’s no consensus on just how capably it delivers on any one.
With a score of 8.5 out of 10, Polygon is among Quantum Break’s more ardent admirers, praising Remedy for mostly fulfilling what seemed to be the loftiest of the game’s many promises: a marriage of action game and TV series that both works and satisfies.
“The way Quantum Break handles story is, easily, the most interesting, successful thing about it… Remedy accomplishes something no one has really tried, much less successfully executed on: The studio has integrated the game of Quantum Break with a fully live-action episodic component.
“This is no half-measure: Four out of five of Quantum Break’s in-game acts are followed by half-hour live-action episodes using the same actors cast within the game proper. Other narrative-heavy games that take the reins from the player for minutes or even hours at a time have often jokingly been criticized with the suggestion that their creators should “go make a movie” – I’m looking at you, Mr. Kojima – but Remedy has actually done it.
“Even more surprisingly … it’s pretty good? There’s a question mark there because I’m still surprised to be saying it.”
While the player spends the majority of the game controlling a conventional hero character, Jack Joyce, it also allows them to influence the actions of the antagonist, Paul Serene, in a series of playable bookends. Choices made in these sections influence the content of the story told through both the live-action episodes and the remaining game.
“These present an interesting conceit that I’ve never seen in any choice-driven game,” Polygon notes. “You’re making decisions as a villain, and are given the option to see the direct consequences of your actions – but the events that unfold after that are impossible to know. Some characters may vanish from the story entirely, or take on new roles or sides depending on these choices. They also managed to humanize Paul in a way that the game otherwise doesn’t accomplish, adding a tragic spin to the story.”
And it does this with no shortage of style. Indeed, Eurogamer’s review – which does not find Quantum Break to be good enough for Recommended or Essential, nor bad enough to be Avoided – reserves most of its praise for the game’s splendidly polished surface, particularly the impressive way the game, “shares the look and feel of the TV series.”
“Quantum Break is primarily a shooter with little depth or nuance. What it boasts instead is an impeccable sense of style… An explosion in a university grounds, say, or a cruiser ship crashing noisily into a bridge; at these points there’s a deliciously perverse fetishisation of twisting metal and shattered glass that would have done dear Ballard proud, and a phenomenal visualisation of it all, told in countless particles and streaks of expressive light.
“It’s as a spectacle that Quantum Break really triumphs, a showcase of excellence on Remedy’s behalf as it creates an experience that’s aggressively handsome, delivered with great visual flair. When those firefights break out into noisy showers of sparks, pockets of fractured time and splinters of scenery, Quantum Break shows the magic that can happen when you give a handful of demoscene veterans a Hollywood budget.”
All of which sounds promising, but one cannot simply gloss over Eurogamer’s comment that, “Quantum Break is primarily a shooter with little depth or nuance.” Though other outlets might disagree on the use of the word “primarily” in that context, the criticism that Remedy has prioritised style over substance is relatively common. Indeed, Quantum Break’s staunchest critics seem to be those who lacked enthusiasm for its game/TV hybrid elements, leaving its mechanical weaknesses all the more exposed. Giant Bomb, for example, which will settle somewhere towards the bottom of Quantum Break’s Metacritic page with its two star review.
“Actually playing Quantum Break means you’ll engage in a lot of third-person cover shooting and some ill-conceived platforming,” Giant Bomb states, before describing a set of player abilities that are tied to the plot’s time manipulation conceit in name alone. “It feels like the developers just came up with a set of abilities and slapped the word ‘time’ on the front of each one.
“The gun handling in Quantum Break is pretty underwhelming and the powers at your disposal don’t feel as cool as they probably should. In some alternate timeline, this game has abilities that work together and chain off of each other, creating a more satisfying feeling of flow in combat. Instead it’s simple cooldown management as each of your powers is just about as good as every other one at taking down one or two enemies at a time… Remedy has delivered fantastic action games with exciting shooting components in the past, and it’s a real shame that Quantum Break doesn’t follow in those footsteps.
“Overall, the gameplay feels like it needs more variety, which makes the TV show side of things frustrating, since it features a car chase and other things that probably would’ve been more engaging if they were in the video game portion of the product.”
And that leads into the single most divisive aspect of Quantum Break, the apparent reason why its review percentages roam from 40 per cent all the way up to 90: the live-action episodes, and not the concept, but the reality. For Wired, they are “well-acted and tightly paced” enough to save Remedy’s, “radical concept from total disaster… They look and feel exactly like… well, like a mid-season replacement on the USA Network, if we’re being honest. But the action is just intriguing enough that you won’t mind being asked to watch a 20-minute cut scene before beginning the next level.
“[Quantum Break] will be remembered for blending game and live-action in a formula that actually kinda worked, not for its gameplay, which feels unambitious, half-baked.”
Ars Technica, on the other hand, takes a very different view, lambasting the, “excruciatingly average live-action TV show” for interfering with the “many strong elements” elsewhere. Ultimately, that could just be evidence that one person’s Breaking Bad is another’s Brady Bunch, but with a package as lavishly and expensively assembled as Quantum Break, it’s worth contemplating whether it’s a result Remedy and Microsoft will be happy to accept.
“Rather than make room in the live-action show for…character development, that show’s director wastes our time with overlong, poorly shot action sequences,” Ars Technica states. “Microsoft and Remedy’s experiment with live-action TV in a game is a horrible failure of management and execution. It’s as if someone let Xzibit into an Xbox conference room so that he could shout, ‘Yo dawg, I heard you like Netflix on your Xbox’-and totally missed the point of why and how we consume stories within our favorite games. Press Y to skip.”
The next installment of first-person shoot-and-crouch game Call of Duty will take place in space, according to reports, and will not be a direct sequel to Ghosts.
Reports from as far and wide as Eurogamer and Shinobi have this as a pretty sure thing, and we do not consider it an unbelievable proposition.
There have been a few Call of Duty games so far and they have all been terrestrial. The canon has strayed into the near future, but has not yet gone the extra mile into the far future.
Going into space opens Call of Duty to aliens and lasers, and could make the game much more like Halo or any other popular punch-space-aliens-in-the-face games.
Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward is mute, and Activision declined to comment when Eurogamer called at its door. The last time we considered Activision was when the firm was expanding his horizons, and its coffers, by acquiring pastel coloured smartphone crack maker King Digital Entertainment, and taking on Candy Crush and mobile gaming to increase its roster.
The internet has taken the space story and run with it. Twitter is the scene of a lot of Buzz Lightyear memes already, while some people just hope that the incoming title has a bit of the charm and playability of earlier titles like Modern Warfare.
Let us all hope that, at the very least, players will not be charged with shooting and securing garish candies in a nightmare pastel world for the sake of the galaxy. Oh, and let’s also hope that Call of Duty retains the dog feature that everyone liked in the last one.
Software giant Microsoft is planning to get its Xbox business back in gear by making it follow the same sort of business model which worked for it on Microsoft office.
CEO Satya Nadella said that Microsoft has shifted its focus away from trying to strong-arm competitors out of the market, and towards a future of providing apps and services on the iPhones, Android phones, and Macs.
For example Microsoft Office is already on a subscription-based service available via the Internet. With the Office 365 service, customers pay their $10/month (or more if they’re a business) and get access to all the Office apps they can eat.
Redmond recently announced that it had 48 million monthly active users of its Xbox Live gaming service, across both the last-generation (but still popular) Xbox 360 console and the newer Xbox One.
Redmond sells this in two subscription tiers: Silver, which is free, and Gold, which is $60 per year. Silver subscribers can buy games, movies, and TV shows from the Xbox’s digital store they are also expected to swim while wearing pajamas. But subscribing at the Gold level gets you some crucial perks, including the ability to play multiplayer games online and a handful of “free” games every month. Gold subscription will also mean that people start calling you ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ and take their hats off when they talk to you.
What is different is that the new Windows 10 operating system can push Microsoft’s subscription services on you including the Xbox live. It has all been dubbed as “Xbox as a service.”
The latest game from Microsoft “Quantum Break,” was supposed to be an Xbox exclusive. It was announced that there also be a PC version, which buyers of “Quantum Break” for the Xbox One get for free. Most important, you also can sync your saved games across the two via the cloud.
Xbox boss Phil Spencer said that this would be a “platform feature” for the Xbox and Windows 10. Basically it means you buy the game once, get two copies that you can play anywhere.
Sony is behind in this because it does not have Windows 10 as its trump card. It offers “cross-buy support” for some while on select games, letting you buy a game once and play it on your PlayStation 4 or the handheld PlayStation Vita console.
Nintendo’s finances took a dip in the company’s third quarter report for FY 2015 – sales stayed relatively stable with just 3.9 per cent shrinkage to 427.7 billion Yen ($3.5bn), but profits dropped by 32 per cent year-on-year to 40.5 billion Yen ($336m).
Although the bottom line failed to excite, plenty of familiar faces performed well for the publisher’s software arm, as well as a few new names. Top seller was Child friendly Wii U shooter Splatoon, shifting over four million units. Super Mario maker wasn’t far behind on 3.34 million, whilst Animal Crossing Happy Home Designer reached 2.93 million. Collectively the 3DS family sold 5.88 million units of hardware and 38.87 million games. The Wii U totalled 3.06 million consoles and 22.62 million pieces of software. 20.50 million Amiibo figures were sold, and approximately 21.50 million Amiibo cards.
Those eagerly awaiting news of either the new NX system or the company’s first smartphone game will be disappointed – neither was mentioned in the company’s forward looking statements. Instead, the publisher focused on relatively known quantities.
“For Nintendo 3DS, we will globally release a special edition hardware pre-installed with Pokémon title(s) from the original Pokémon series on February 27 which marks the 20th year since the original Pokémon series release,2 read the accompanying statement.
“Furthermore, Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and key titles from third-party publishers are scheduled for release. For Wii U, we will strive to maintain the attention level of Splatoon and Super Mario Maker, which are continuing to show steady sales, while introducing new titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD. Meanwhile, for Amiibo, we will continue to expand the product lineup in order to maintain momentum. At the same time, we will aim to further expand sales by offering new gaming experiences with the use of Amiibo. In addition, the first application for smart devices, Miitomo, is scheduled for release.”
The company has maintained its full year target of 35 billion Yen in profit.
According to Newzoo’s 2016 Global eSports Market Report, this year is expected to be a “pivotal” one for the eSports sector. The firm said that last year’s tally for worldwide eSports revenues came to $325 million, and this year the full eSports economy should grow 43 percent to $463 million; Newzoo said this correlates with an audience of 131 million eSports enthusiasts and another 125 million “occasional viewers who tune in mainly for the big international events.” Overall, Newzoo’s report states that global and local eSports markets should jointly generate $1.1 billion in 2019.
Looking a bit deeper, Newzoo found that investment into and advertising associated with eSports continue to grow at a rapid clip. “This year has been dominated by the amount of investors getting involved in eSports. An increasing amount of traditional media companies have become aware of the value of the eSports sphere and have launched their first eSports initiatives. With these parties getting involved, there will be an increased focus on content and media rights. All major publishers have increased their investment into the space, realizing that convergence of video, live events and the game itself are providing consumers the cross-screen entertainment they desire from their favorite franchises,” Newzoo commented.
Online advertising in particular is the fastest growing revenue segment within eSports, jumping up 99.6 percent on a global scale compared to 2014. North America is expected to lead the charge worldwide.
“In 2016, North America will strengthen its lead in terms of revenues with an anticipated $175 million generated through merchandise, event tickets, sponsorships, online advertising and media rights. A significant part of these revenues flows back to the game publisher, but across all publishers, more money is invested into the eSports economy than is directly recouped by their eSports activities,” said Newzoo’s eSports Analyst, Pieter van den Heuvel.
“China and Korea together will represent 23 percent of global esports revenues, totalling $106 million in 2016. Audience-wise, the situation is different, with Asia contributing 44 percent of global eSports enthusiasts. Growth in this region is, for a large part, fuelled by an explosive uptake in Southeast Asia.”
While eSports is certainly on a good path for growth, game companies would be wise to not get too caught up by the hype. The average annual revenue per eSports enthusiast was $2.83 in 2015 and is expected to grow to $3.53 this year, Newzoo said, but that’s still a factor four lower than a mainstream sport such as basketball, which generates revenues of $15 per fan per year.
Peter Warman, CEO at Newzoo added, “The initial buzz will settle down and the way forward on several key factors, such as regulations, content rights and involvement of traditional media, will become more clear. The collapse of MLG was a reminder that this market still has a long road to maturity and we need to be realistic about the opportunities it provides. In that respect, it is in nobody’s interest that current market estimates differ so strongly. Luckily, when zooming in on the highest market estimates of more than $700 million, the difference is explainable by an in-depth look. This estimate only differs in the revenues generated in Asia (Korea in particular), and by taking betting revenues into account. At Newzoo, we believe betting on eSports should not be mixed into direct eSports revenues as the money does not flow into the eSports economy. Similarly, sports betting is not reported in sports market reports.”
On February 16, Street Fighter V will launch on PlayStation 4 and PC. It will not be launching to Xbox One thanks to an exclusivity deal signed with Sony. And as Capcom director of brand marketing and eSports Matt Dahlgren told GamesIndustry.biz recently, there are a few reasons for that.
Dahlgren called the deal “the largest strategic partnership that fighting games have ever seen,” and said it addressed several problems the publisher has had surrounding its fighting games for years.
“Basically every SKU of a game we released had its own segmented community,” he said. “No one was really able to play together and online leaderboards were always segmented, so it was very difficult to find out who would be the best online and compare everybody across the board.”
Street Fighter V should alleviate that problem as it’s only on two platforms, and gamers on each will be able to play with those on the other. Dahlgren said it will also help salt away problems that stemmed from differences between platforms. For example, the Xbox 360 version of Street Fighter IV had less input lag than the PS3 version. That fraction of a second difference between button press and action on-screen might have been unnoticeable to most casual players, but it was felt by high-level players who know the game down to the last frame of animation.
“There were varying degrees of input lag, so when those players ended up playing each other, it wasn’t necessarily on an equal playing field,” Dahlgren said. “This time around, by standardizing the platform and making everyone play together, there will be a tournament standard and everyone is on an equal playing field.”
Finally, Dahlgren said the deal with Sony will help take Street Fighter to the next level when it comes to eSports. In some ways, it’s a wonder it’s not there already.
“I think fighting games are one of the purest forms of 1v1 competition,” Dahlgren said. “A lot of the other eSports games out there are team-based, and while there’s an appeal to those, there’s something about having a single champion and having that 1v1 showdown that’s just inherently easy for people to understand.”
Street Fighter has a competitive gaming legacy longer than League of Legends or DOTA, but isn’t mentioned in the same breath as those hits on the eSports scene. In some ways, that legacy might have stymied the franchise’s growth in eSports.
“A lot of our community was really built by the fans themselves,” Dahlgren said. “Our tournament scene was built by grassroots tournament organizers, really without the help of Capcom throughout the years. And I would say a lot of those fans have been somewhat defensive [about expanding the game's appeal to new audiences]. It hasn’t been as inclusive as it could have been. With that said, I do definitely feel a shift in our community. There’s always been a talking point with our hardcore fans as to whether or not Street Fighter is an eSport, and what eSports could do for the scene. Could it potentially hurt it? There’s been all this controversy behind it.”
Even Capcom has shifted stances on how to handle Street Fighter as an eSport.
“In the past, we were actually against partnering up with any sort of corporations or companies out there that were treating eSports more like a business,” Dahlgren said. “And that has to do out of respect for some of our long-term tournament organizers… Our fear was that if we go out and partner up with companies concerned more about making a profit off the scene instead of the values that drive the community, then it could end up stomping out all these tournament organizers who are very passionate and have done so much for our franchise.”
“In the past, we were actually against partnering up with any sort of corporations or companies out there that were treating eSports more like a business.”
So instead of teaming with the MLGs or ESLs of the world, Capcom teamed with Twitch and formed its own Pro Tour in 2014. Local tournament organizers handle the logistics of the shows and retain the rights to their brands, while Capcom provides marketing support and helps with production values.
“I can’t say Capcom wouldn’t partner up with some of the other, more established eSports leagues out there,” Dahlgren said. “I do think there’s a way to make both of them exist, but our priority in the beginning was paying homage to our hardcore fans that helped build the scene, protecting them and allowing them to still have the entrepreneurial spirit to grow their own events. That comes first, before partnering with larger organizations.”
Just as Capcom’s stance toward tournaments has changed to better suit Street Fighter’s growth as an eSport, so too has the business model behind the game. The company has clearly looked at the success of many free-to-play eSports favorites and incorporated elements of them (except the whole “free-to-play” thing) into Street Fighter V. Previously, Capcom would release a core Street Fighter game, followed by annual or bi-annual updates with a handful of new fighters and balancing tweaks. Street Fighter V will have no such “Super” versions, with all new content and tweaks made to the game on a rolling basis.
“We are treating the game now more as a platform and a service, and are going to be continually adding new content post-launch,” Dahlgren said. “This is the first time we’re actually having our own in-game economy and in-game currency. So the more you play the game online, you’re going to generate fight money, and then you can use that fight money to earn DLC content post-launch free of charge, which is a first in our franchise. So essentially we’re looking at an approach that takes the best of both worlds. It’s not too far away from what our players really expect from a SF game, yet we get some of the benefits of continually releasing content post-launch and giving fans more of what they want to increase engagement long-term.”
Even if it’s not quite free-to-play, Street Fighter V may at least be cheaper to play. Dahlgren said that pricey arcade stick peripherals are not as essential for dedicated players as they might have seemed in the past.
“Since Street Fighter comes from an arcade heritage, a lot of people have this general belief that arcade sticks are the premier way of playing,” Dahlgren said. “I think now that the platform choice has moved more towards consoles, pad play has definitely become much more prevalent. I would believe that at launch you’re probably going to have more pad players than you actually have stick players. And in the competitive scene, we’ve seen the rise of a lot of very impressive pad players, which has pretty much shown that Street Fighter is a game that’s not necessarily dictated by the controller you play with; it’s the strategies and tactics you employ. And both of them are essentially on equal playing ground.”
Electronic Arts is the latest publisher to add a dedicated eSports group to its business, as CEO Andrew Wilson today announced the formation of the EA Competitive Gaming Division.
“As the latest step in our journey to put our players first, this group will enable global eSports competitions in our biggest franchises including FIFA, Madden NFL, Battlefield and more,” Wilson said, adding, “EA’s CGD will seek to build a best-in-class program to centralize our efforts with new events, as well as the infrastructure to bring you the world’s preeminent EA competitive experiences.”
Wilson said the CGD will foster competition and community around EA’s games, creating official tournaments and live broadcasts to entertain millions.
Leading up the new CGD will be Peter Moore, who will step down from his role as chief operating officer of EA at the end of the fiscal year to assume a new role as executive vice president and chief competition officer. Moore is well acquainted with EA’s key competitive gaming franchises like FIFA and Madden; prior to assuming his current role in 2011, Moore spent almost four years as president of EA Sports. An EA representative said the company has not yet announced a successor to Moore in the COO position, with details on those plans to come in the weeks and months ahead.
Moore seems excited to lead a burgeoning field for EA. “As a longtime champion of competitive gaming, bringing this to life at EA is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me,” he said in a tweet. He also told IGN that this is something that EA has been thinking about for some time.
“We’re already very engaged with our development teams around the world to make sure our games have got modes that lend themselves very well to competitive gaming, built-in from the get-go. Not as something that’s put in as an add-on mode or a last-minute afterthought,” he explained.
“Prior to the formation of this division, conversations have been had, not just within the last few weeks but in the last couple years, about how we’ve got games that are coming to market in FY17, FY18, and FY19, and making darn sure that if you’re in a genre that lends itself to competitive gaming, you better have those modes built in.”
Wilson also named Todd Sitrin as the division’s senior vice president and general manager. Sitrin started with the company 14 years ago, leading product marketing at EA Tiburon for projects like Madden NFL and NASCAR Racing. Over the next decade, he worked his way up to senior vice president of marketing for all EA Sports, and has spent the last few years overseeing global marketing and product marketing for EA as a whole.
EA is by no means the only traditional publisher to identify an opportunity in the eSports market. In October, Activision Blizzard established its own eSports division. Unlike EA, Activision Blizzard looked outside its own walls for leadership of the group, tapping former ESPN CEO Steve Bornstein and MLG co-founder Mike Sepso to handle the new division.
Given the soaraway success of the PlayStation 4, the none-too-shabby success of the Xbox One (eclipsed by the PS4, sure, but doing fine by its own rights) and the continued meteoric rise of mobile and digital game revenues, it probably won’t surprise you that this has been a banner year for videogame stocks. The success hasn’t been evenly spread around – and there have been some notable failures this year, too – but as the end of 2015 approaches, several videogame companies are trading at prices they haven’t seen in almost a decade, and others are exploring historic highs in their valuations. It’s not unreasonable to say that for the first time in a while, videogames are back to being investors’ darlings.
For this year-end round up of stocks in recognition of the extremely large number of publicly listed Japanese game companies, we’ve divided them off into a feature of their own; the trials and tribulations of the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2015 were very different from those of American or European markets, so it makes more sense to analyse those stocks separately (that’ll be in Part 2 later this week). In this feature, you’ll find a round-up of all the major stocks from the US and Europe throughout 2015 to date, so without further ado, to the charts.
Our first chart gives you a quick overview of just how great this year has been for the major publishers. The black line is the NASDAQ index, representing the average performance of US tech stocks during 2015; as you can see, it’s been a reasonably torpid year overall, which puts the excellent performance of the game publisher stocks in sharp relief. Take-Two, absent a major GTA release in the year, is the weakest of the bunch, but even at that it’s almost doubled the NASDAQ’s gains since the start of January – while at the top of the chart, Electronic Arts and Activision have soared, with Activision in particular up almost 90 percent for the year, setting brand new heights for its share price. The company’s expansion of its business, especially the acquisition of King, is undoubtedly responsible for some of the late gains – but its investors have clearly been taken with its overall performance over the year as a whole, including the entrenchment of Destiny as a major franchise and the marked excitement over the new Call of Duty (though we’re still waiting to see if its sales have halted the series’ slow decline).
Looking a little more deeply at the contest between Activision and EA, the very early lead which EA took in January was down to a fantastic earnings report and bullish new guidance from the company; but Activision reported its own excellent earnings in August, beating its guidance and reassuring investors with a move towards digital revenues, which allowed it to catch up with and eventually outpace EA’s growth. As the year ended, Activision announced a bevy of strategic moves (the acquisition of King, filling a major hole in its product portfolio, being a major one) which boosted its growth towards a spectacular year-end. Depending on how sales figures for Call of Duty hold up in December, it’s not impossible that the company will finish 2015 with double the valuation it had at the start of the year – but EA, with nearly 50 percent price growth, is far from shabby.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the only major publicly listed “traditional” publisher is Ubisoft on the Paris Exchange – and here we can see that while, again, the exchange wasn’t a dramatic performer for the year (up around 20 percent overall), Ubisoft’s value increase since September has been incredibly dramatic. Why? It’s not that Ubisoft has anything particularly dramatic on the market right now – Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, its biggest game for this autumn, is doing fine but hardly driving the kind of business that would see stock prices leap so high. No, that valuation leap has everything to do with corporate machinations, specifically the acquisition of shares in the firm by Vivendi – a move that was greeted with anger by Ubisoft boss Yves Guillemot, who views Vivendi as a predatory firm whose potential takeover is far from welcome. His shareholders, apparently, do not agree; interest from Vivendi (which also owned a majority stake in Activision Blizzard until the subsidiary bought out the bulk of its own shares in 2013) sent prices rocketing.
As a general rule we don’t put stock prices from different indices alongside one another, as the fundamentals of the markets are very different and the comparisons unfair, but with both the NASDAQ and the CAC-40 index of Parisian shares rolling along at a low, steady rate this year, Ubisoft’s performance is actually broadly comparable with the US publishers – so here’s a quick graph showing where the French firm now sits in context, in the wake of rumours of aggressive take-over. Yves Guillemot may not like it, but rumours of a takeover have propelled his firm into second place among the traditional publishers for 2015 share price growth.
How about Microsoft, the US’ console platform holder? In truth, there’s not much to be gleaned about Microsoft’s gaming business from its share price movements; the company’s expansive businesses in operating systems, office software and cloud computing are far more relevant to its share price than the Xbox. Apple, on the other hand, finds its share price almost directly wired to the iPhone, or at least to sentiment around the iPhone; this year its share price hasn’t moved much, despite setting new records with the iPhone division, suggesting that as with Microsoft, there’s not really a whole lot of connection between the parts of the business relevant to videogames in any way, and the share price itself. In Apple’s case, there’s a compelling case that the share price isn’t really wired to anything real or sensible whatsoever, seemingly jolting around on whims, rumours and idiocy – but for the sake of completeness, we’ve included a graph of the two “platform holders”, so feast your eyes before we move on to the mobile space.
If 2015 has been a great year for traditional publishers, it’s been – once again – an unassuming year at best for mobile-first companies. The biggest mover is Gameloft, which also belongs to the Guillemot family and is essentially a sister company to Ubisoft. There’s a theory that in the event of a genuinely hostile takeover effort, Ubisoft could quickly merge with Gameloft and thus dilute its shares and boost the Guillemots’ control – a strategy called a “poison pill” approach, although that may be neutered by Vivendi’s decision to buy large tranches of shares in both companies at the same time.
Aside from Gameloft, the biggest performer is King – which plateaus in early November with the announcement of Activision’s buyout, and will of course not feature in any charts for the coming year. The premium Activision is paying for the company means that its shares, moribund for most of the year, will end up doubling the gains of the NASDAQ in 2015; a nice bonus for its long-suffering shareholders, though if you’d held on to your shares since the IPO, you’d still be making a loss. Zynga, a company struggling to retain its once-held lustre, underperformed again this year, losing money both in dollar terms and against the NASDAQ index, while Glu Mobile, last year’s top mobile performer off the back of its success with the Kim Kardashian brand, had a very bumpy year. Its growth in 2014 carried on to the middle of 2015, with new celebrity licensing deals and good financials helping to nudge the stock price ever higher, but the market soured on Glu in August after a double whammy of reality check – poor quarterly earnings and weaker than expected projections perhaps reminded investors of what Glu’s management will have known all along – that the Kardashian success might not be as easy to replicate as simply sticking Britney Spears’ or Nicki Minaj’s face on the loading screen and rolling in the money all over again. Turning celebrity mobile games into a sustainable business is a tough ask, and fears over the risks involved saw the firm’s shares cancelling out their 2015 gains, and then some, in the back half of the year.
With the removal of King from the charts, that leaves only Gameloft, Glu and Zynga as publicly traded mobile publishers in the west – and while the huge number of Japanese mobile publishers on the Tokyo exchange do make up the numbers, the absence in the stock markets of top mobile players like Game of War publisher Machine Zone is very notable. Of course, to some degree that’s due to the blurring of the lines with traditional publishers; buying King makes Activision a major mobile publisher overnight, while Electronic Arts has also consistently done pretty well in mobile. Incidentally, it’s not just mobile which lacks some major players on the markets – Bethesda, one of 2015′s biggest publishers in traditional gaming, is a subsidiary of the privately held ZeniMax.
Contrasting the performance of mobile with traditional publishers suggests that in the US, at least, there’s little sign of the “biggest names in gaming” changing any time soon; mobile threats have been met or absorbed by the dominant publishers, and they’ve come out of a tough transition looking more healthy, and certainly more valuable, than ever before. That’s a very different story from the other side of the Pacific, as we’ll see when we get around to tackling Japan’s stocks later this week.
Activision Blizzard has bought King Digital Entertainment for $5.9 billion, marking not only one of the largest acquisitions in videogame history but one of the largest deals ever made in the entertainment business. Comparing this to previous entertainment deals highlights just how extraordinary the figures involved are; the purchase price values King at significantly more than Marvel Entertainment (acquired by Disney for $4.2 billion), Star Wars owner Lucasfilm (Disney again, for $4.1 billion) and movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (acquired by Sony for almost $5 billion). The price dwarfs the $1.5 billion paid by Japanese network SoftBank and mobile publisher GungHo for Supercell back in 2013 – though it’s not quite on the same scale as the $7.4 billion price tag Disney paid for Pixar, or in the same ballpark as the $18 billion-odd involved in the merger that originally created Activision Blizzard itself.
How is $5.9 billion justified? Well, it’s a fairly reasonable premium of 20% over the company’s share price – though if you’ve been holding on to King shares since its IPO in 2014, you’ll still be disappointed, as it’s far short of the $22.50 IPO price, or even the $20.50 that the shares traded at on their first day on the open market. The company’s share price has been more or less stable this year, but Activision’s offer still doesn’t make up for the various tumbles shares took through 2014.
A better justification, perhaps, lies in the scale of King’s mobile game business. The company is a little off its peak at the moment. Candy Crush Saga, its biggest title, is on a slow decline from an extraordinary peak of success, and other titles aren’t growing fast enough to make up for that decline, but it still recorded over half a billion monthly active users (MAUs) in its recently reported second quarter figures. In terms of paying users, the company had 7.6 million paying users each month – more than Blizzard’s cash cow, World of Warcraft, and moreover, the average revenue from each of those users was $23.26, far more than a World of Warcraft subscriber pays. King took in $529 million in bookings during the quarter, 81 per cent of it from mobile devices – a seriously appealing set of figures for a company like Activision, which struggles to get even 10 per cent of its revenues from mobile despite its constant lip-service to the platform.
In buying King, Activision instantly makes itself into one of the biggest players in the mobile space, albeit simply by absorbing the company that is presently at the top of the heap. It diversifies its bottom line in a way that investors and analysts have been crying out for it to do, reducing its reliance on console (still damn near half of its revenues) and on the remarkable-but-fading World of Warcraft, and bulking up its anaemic mobile revenues to the point of respectability. On paper, this deal turns Activision into a much more broad-based company that’s far more in line with the present trajectory of the market at large, and should assuage the fears of those who think Activision’s over-reliance on a small number of core franchises leaves it far more vulnerable than rivals like Electronic Arts.
That’s on paper. In practice, though, what has Activision just bought for $5.9 billion? That’s a slightly trickier question. The company is, unquestionably, now the proud owner of one of the most talented and accomplished creators and operators of mobile games in the world. King’s experience of developing, marketing and, crucially, running mobile games at enormous scale, and the team that accomplished all of that, is undoubtedly valuable in its own right. Those are talents that Activision didn’t have yesterday, but will have tomorrow. Are those talents worth $5.9 billion, though? Without wishing for a moment to cast doubt on the skills of those who work at King, no, they’re not. $5.9 billion isn’t “acquihire” money, and when that’s the kind of cash involved we simply can’t think of this as an “acquihire” deal. Activision didn’t pay that kind of money in order to get access to the talent and experience assembled at King. It paid for King itself, for its ongoing businesses and its IP.
Open the shopping bag, and you might struggle to understand how the contents reach $5.9 billion at the till. King has one remarkable, breakthrough, enormously successful IP – Candy Crush Saga, which still accounts (not including heavily marketed spin-off title Candy Crush Soda Saga) for 39 per cent of the company’s gross bookings. No doubt deeply aware of the danger of being over-reliant on revenues from this single title, King has worked incredibly hard to find success for other games in its portfolio. But even its great efforts in this regard have failed to compensate for falling revenues from Candy Crush, and it’s notable that a fair amount of the “non-Candy Crush Saga” revenue that the company boasts actually comes from Candy Crush Soda Saga. Other titles like Farm Heroes Saga and Pet Rescue Saga are no doubt profitable and successful in their own right, and King would be a sustainable business even without Candy Crush. But it would be a much, much smaller business, and certainly not a $5.9 billion business.
Despite being generally bullish about King’s prospects, then, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the company has done incredibly well out of this acquisition. The undoubted talent and experience of its teams aside, this is, realistically, a company with one IP worth paying for, and unlike Star Wars or the Avengers, Candy Crush is a very new IP whose longevity is entirely untested and whose potential for merchandising or cross-media ventures is dubious at best. King has done better than most of its rivals in the mobile space at applying some of the lessons of its biggest hit to subsequent games and making them successful, but it shares with every other mobile developer the same fundamental problem: none of them has ever worked out how to bottle the lightning that creates a mega-hit and repeat the success down the line. Absent of another Candy Crush game, the odds are that King’s business would slowly deflate as the air escaped from the Candy Crush bubble, until the company’s sustainable (and undoubtedly profitable) core was what was left. Selling up to Activision at a healthy premium while the company is still “inflated” by the likely unrepeatable success of Candy Crush is a fantastic move for the company’s management and investors, but rather less so for Activision.
Perhaps, though, the whole might be more than the sum of its parts? Couldn’t Activision, holders of some of the world’s favourite console and PC game IP, work with King to leverage that IP and the firm’s reach in traditional games, creating new business at the interaction of their respective specialisations? That’s a big part of what made Pixar so valuable to Disney, for example; the match between their businesses was of vital importance to that deal, and the same can broadly be said for Disney’s other huge acquisitions, Lucasfilm and Marvel. (SoftBank’s purchase of Supercell, by comparison, was rather more of a straightforward market-share land grab.) What could this new hybrid, Activision Blizzard King, hope to achieve in terms of overlap that enhances the value of its various component parts?
Certainly, Activision has some properties that could work on mobile (I’m thinking specifically of Skylanders here, though others may also fit); some Blizzard properties could also probably work on mobile, though I very much doubt that Blizzard (which retains a strong degree of independence within the group) is a good cultural fit for King, and is deeply unlikely to work with it in any manner which gives up the slightest creative control over its properties. King’s properties, meanwhile, don’t look terribly enticing as console or PC games, and conversions done this way would almost certainly defeat the entire purpose of the deal anyway, since the objective is to bolster Activision’s mobile business. The prospect of a mobile game based on Call of Duty or another major console IP may seem superficially interesting, but we’ve been down this road before and it didn’t lead anywhere impressive. Sure, core gamers are on mobile too, but they’ve by and large been nonplussed at best and outraged at worst by the notion of engaging with mobile versions of their console favourites. It’s genuinely hard to piece together the various IPs and franchises owned by King and Activision and see how there’s any winning interaction between them on the table.
This is what makes me keep returning to those other mega-deals – to Star Wars, to Marvel, to Pixar – and finding the contrast between them and Activision / King so extraordinary. Each of those multi-billion dollar deals was carried out by Disney with a very specific, long-term plan in mind that would leverage the abilities of both acquirer and acquired to create something far more than the sum of its parts. Each of those deals had a very clear raison d’être beyond simply “it’ll make us bigger.” Each of those companies fitted with the new parent like a piece of a puzzle. King’s only role in Activision’s “puzzle” is that they do mobile, and Activision sucks at mobile; there’s no sense of any grand plan that will play out.
In all likelihood, Activision has just paid a huge premium for a company which is past the peak of its greatest hit title and into a period of managed decline, not to mention a company with which its core businesses simply don’t fit in any meaningful way. King’s a great company in many respects, but its acquisition isn’t going to go down as a great deal for Activision – and we can expect to see plenty of that $5.9 billion being frittered away in goodwill write-downs over the coming few years.
Apparenlty, the total gaming hardware marker in 2014 was more than $24,936 billion in 2014 and it slightly declined in 2015 to $24,684 billion. However, in 2016 it looks like that the gaming hardware market will increase to $26.118 billion and it will reach $28.253 billion in 2017.
However the record year for gaming hardware will be three years from now as in 2018 JPR believes that the gaming hardware market is set to grow to $30.092. Of course by then we will have forgotten that Mr Peddie made his prediction so if he gets it wrong no one will remember.
|PC Gaming Hardware Market||2014||2015||2016||2017||2018|
|Total – numbers in millions||$24,936||$24,684||$26,118||$28,253||$30,092|
In his report, Ted Pollak, Senior Analyst at JPR wrote
“This cycle, unlike any for the past 15 years, will inspire gamers to upgrade their displays. 27 inch and larger 4K/UHD displays are reaching mass market pricing levels and produce an incredible experience allowing much wider field of view and greater detail. The financial outlay for these display upgrades alone is billions of dollars over the coming years”.
Jon Peddie, President of JPR adds
“In addition to the cost of the new display technology, gamers are going to need the computing muscle to drive Triple A game engines at over 60 frames per second, and that horsepower comes at a premium”. Sixty frames per second is considered the gold standard in PC gaming and many prefer even faster speeds, at least twice that number if VR is involved. ”
It is interesting to note that the PC gaming peripherals market is projected to make $3.6 billion in 2015. These are cheaper and easier to change and gamers wear out mice, keyboards and headset much faster than other components.
JPR believes that mainstream gaming notebook and desktop will have to fight with TV gaming optimised PCs including the ones from Alienware iBuyPower and a few others. We do agree that many gamers will be changing their monitors to at least 25×14 or the full 4K experience. To run high end triple A games at 4K you would need a lot of gaming power and a card such as Greenland with HBM 2 from AMD or Pascal high end class from Nvidia. Both of these will arrive in 2016. Gamers who want over 60 FPS in current high end titles might want to get two of the Geforce GTX 980 or higher end cards or a dual Fury from AMD.
If you want the VR glasses in 2016 you will need double the power but we will have to see the adoption rate of these gaming devices before we think that will take off. VR gaming will become significant segment eventually but definitely not overnight.
Over the last few years, competitive gaming has made huge strides, building a massive fanbase, supporting the rise of entire genres of games and attracting vast prize pots for the discipline’s very best. Almost across the board, the phenomenon has also seen its revenues gaining, as new sponsors come on board, including some major household names. Sustaining the rapidity of the growth of eSports is going to be key to its long term success, maintaining momentum and pushing it ever further into the public consciousness.
In order to do that, according to Newzoo, eSports need to learn some lessons from their more traditional athletic counterparts. Right now, the research firm puts a pin in eSports revenues of $2.40 per enthusiast per year, a number which is expected to bring the total revenue for the industry to $275 million for 2015 – a 43 per cent increase on last year. By 2018, the firm expects that per user number to almost double, reaching $4.63.
That’s a decent number, representing very rapid growth, but it pales in comparison to Newzoo’s estimates on the average earning per fan for a sport like Basketball, which represents a $14 per fan revenue – rising to $19 where only the major league NBA is a factor. To catch up to numbers like this is going to take some time, but Newzoo’s research has listed five factors it considers vital to achieving that aim.
Right now, MOBAs are undeniably the king of the eSports scene, and one of the biggest genres in gaming. The king of MOBAs, League of Legends, is the highest earning game in the world, whilst others like Valve’s DOTA 2 are also represent huge audiences and revenues, including the prestigious annual International tournament. Shooters are also still big business here, with Activision Blizzard recently announcing the formation of a new Call of Duty League.
Nonetheless, MOBAs are still the mainstay and if you don’t like them, you’re not going to get too deeply into competitive gaming as a fan. Although their popularity with the athletes is going to make them a difficult genre to shift, Newzoo says that broadening the slate is a key factor to growth.
The major tournaments bring players, and audiences, from all over the world, but it’s often only the very top tier of players who can find themselves a foothold in regular competition. Major territories like the US, South Korea and Europe have some local structure, but again League of Legends stands almost alone in its provision of local infrastructure. By expanding a network of regular leagues and competitions to more countries, eSports stands a much better chance of building a grassroots movement and capturing more fans.
Already a problem very much on the radar of official bodies and players around the world, the introduction of regulation is always a tough transition for any industry. However, when you’re putting up millions of dollars in prize money, you can’t have any grey areas around doping, match fixing and player behaviour at events. These young players are frequently thrust into a very rapid acceleration of lifestyle, fame and responsibility – a heady mixture which can prove to be a damaging influence on many. Just like in other sports, stars need protecting and nurturing – and the competitions careful monitoring – in order for growth to occur without scandal and harm to its stars.
Dishing out the rights to broadcast, promote and profit from eSports is a complex issue. Whilst games like football are worldwide concerns, with media rights a hotly contested and constantly shifting field, nobody owns the games themselves. With eSports, every single aspect of the games being played is a trademark in itself, with its owners understandably keen to protect them. However, with fan promotion such a key part of the sport’s growth, and services like Twitch a massive factor in organic promotion, governing the rights of distribution is only going to become a murkier and more complex business as time goes on. With major TV networks, well used to exclusivity, now starting to show an interest, expect this to become a hot topic.
Conflict between new and old media
That clash of worlds, between the fresh and agile formats of digital user-sourced broadcasting and the old network model is also going to be source of many of its own problems. One or the other, or even both, is going to have to adapt fast for there to be a convivial agreement which betters the industry as a whole. There’s currently considerable pushback from established media against the idea of eSports becoming accepted as a mainstream activity, fuelled in no small part by their audiences themselves, so a lo of attitudes need to change. Add to that the links between these media giants and many of the world’s richest advertisers and you can start to see the problem.
The console business will hit a wall in terms of sales in this generation, and that’s okay. According to Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter, the subsequent shift away from the traditional console model will be a catalyst for even more growth.
Speaking at DICE Europe last week, Pachter discussed a provocative and divisive topic: the end of the console era.
“The console installed base is as big as it’s ever going to get,” he said. “[This] generation is not going to be bigger than the last generation. We’re going to be about the same.
“The Wii U is going to sell 20 million units compared to 100 million for the Wii. The PlayStation 4 is going to sell 120 million or 130 million – that’s great. The Xbox One will sell 100 million to 110 million – that’s great. Add it all together and it’s 260 million units, maybe, and the last cycle was 270 million.”
This take on the trajectory of the PS4 / Xbox One generation must be assessed in the context of a world that contains far more people who play games than at any time in history – thanks in part to the impact of the Wii, and in larger part to the rapid emergence of smartphones and the app economy. If Pachter’s analysis proves to be accurate, it would suggest that consoles are a limiting factor on the growth potential of the games industry, putting some of the medium’s best and most alluring products beyond the reach of the vast majority of people.
“This is the last real console cycle,” Pachter continued. “I don’t mean that Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo will go bankrupt and shut down – they will not. Each of them will make another console, some people will buy them, and the next console cycle will be to this console cycle what the 3DS is to the DS. The 3DS is selling about 15 million units a year, the DS had five consecutive years where it sold more than 26 million. So about half as big.
“So when I say that this console cycle is the last console cycle, the reason is that console games shouldn’t require a console. And I’m not talking about the cloud.”
What games require, Pachter said, is a CPU, a GPU, storage, a controller, and a display. In the coming years, the need to purchase a console to access the first four will be diminished as smartphone and set-top box hardware becomes more sophisticated. By the time this console generation nears its end, “you’re going to have a CPU/GPU in your house that is connected to your television,” whether that be the latest model of the iPhone or a Fire TV box from Amazon.
The switch, Pachter suggested, was simply a matter of the hardware reaching a certain degree of technical sophistication; to use one of his own examples, the point when an affordable set-top box from Amazon can run Call of Duty, a brand chosen by Pachter due to its popularity among online console players. For a publisher like Activision that switch would be easy to justify, opening up the possibility of controlling the multiplayer revenues that currently go to Microsoft and Sony in the form of Xbox Live and PSN subscription fees.
For the consumer, the benefit is the removal of the need to purchase a console, and the ability to exert more control over their gaming habits.
“What happens when you lower the entry so nobody has to buy a console?” Pachter asked. “If Activision sells 20 million copies of Call of Duty to people with a console, how many people would buy it who don’t have a console? I’m guessing 20 million more. To make it easier for the Europeans in the room, how many more people would play FIFA if a console wasn’t required? Another 20 million.
Pachter shared some detailed speculation on how this structure might work, from a publisher charging a dollar or two for monthly access to its biggest online game, to the major publishers forming a consortium that charges one fee and portions out revenue according to which games received the most play. The point, though, is that console publishers have a clear incentive to work out the details, and the consumer has every reason to embrace the change.
“There’s plenty of 30 or 40-somethings who would like to play FIFA or Call of Duty, but they can’t,” Pachter continued. “They’re not going to buy a console for one game, and I’d say that’s true of every single [console] game made. There’s a market of probably several million people who would never buy a console to play the game, but would absolutely buy the game.”
This could be a solution to the problem that flat console hardware sales in a world crammed with gamers highlights. As the number of players on mobile and other accessible platforms continues to grow, making the biggest brands in gaming available to people who see no value in a $400 box makes a great deal of sense.
“I think the traditional gamer market – which has high standards – does broaden. But the only way you actually see a step function change in that is to pull the console out of the equation, and make it open to people who can’t afford or won’t buy a console,” Pachter said.
“I think this shift to full-game digital downloads, where everybody has the opportunity to play a game without having to invest $399 is a huge opportunity. It’s an opportunity for everyone in the value chain, except the retailer and maybe the console manufacturer.”
The rumor mill might have been a bit broken when it was announced that Microsoft was about to launch an Xbox-mini.
The rumor claimed that Microsoft would be holding a launch event in October where people could expect the company to launch the Surface Pro 4, Lumia flagships and an “Xbox One Mini.”
It was claimed that the X-box mini would be third the size of the current console and lack a Blu-Ray drive.
However Microsoft’s Phil Spencer has now debunked this theory, stating that the rumors are simply “not real”. Although he didn’t say the project didn’t exist just that the rumor that it was coming out in October was “not real.”
Given the nature of reality, and theories that the universe is a holographic game being played two-dimensional gods, we are not ready to dismiss out of hand yet.
While the Xbox One Mini definitely won’t be happening the Lumia flagships; Cityman and Talkman, new Surface tablets including the Surface Pro 4, the eagerly awaited Band 2 and perhaps even a slimmer Xbox One is still a possibility at the event.
The validity of framing the console market as a ‘race’ or a ‘war’ is open to question, but there’s no doubt that it’s a lot more fun when you do. The notion that there is a hard, immovable line between winning and losing simply doesn’t make much sense from a business perspective, but it makes for lively debate and – from an entirely selfish perspective – good copy.
For the first six months of this console generation that was certainly the case: the Xbox One tripping, stumbling and backtracking, with the PlayStation 4 marketing department lying in wait, pointed comments at the ready. Microsoft is dealing with the fallout from that disastrous period even now, its own reluctance to disclose hardware sales figures compounded by Sony’s eagerness to provide an update at every opportunity. At the last count, in July, the PlayStation 4 had sold more than 25 million units. The Xbox One, on the other hand, has sold…. well, we haven’t been given an official worldwide figure in 2015 so far.
In terms of sales, then, it’s very clear which console is ‘winning’ the generation, and it has been from the very first day. In terms of content, though, the debate is more nuanced, the outcome far less certain. Sony’s development resources have long been regarded as a unique strength when compared to Microsoft, effectively guaranteeing a superior crop of exclusive games regardless of how well the PlayStation hardware is selling. Whether that’s still true in terms of first-party studios is almost besides the point, because in terms of available, exclusive games there’s a strong argument that the Xbox has been a more attractive platform since the launch of Titanfall more than a year ago. By the end of this year, that point may well be beyond debate.
“I wouldn’t even say the gap has closed,” says Kudo Tsunoda, one of the leading executives in the Xbox games business. “We’ve got a lot more exclusive games than any other platform.”
Tsunoda and the various studios he oversees are celebrating the second Xbox showcase in less than two months. The first, at E3, is generally regarded as a key battleground within the console war, and a significant proportion of those who watched this year believed that Microsoft emerged victorious despite an impressive showing from Sony. The second, at Gamescom, was an Xbox victory by default, with Sony electing to steer clear of the event for the first time in years. Even so, Microsoft presided over 90 minutes of new games, not all of which were exclusive to the Xbox One, but none of which were on show at E3. Whether those exclusives came from first-party studios (Halo and Gears of War) or via chequebook-and-pen (Tomb Raider and Quantum Break) is largely irrelevant. For perhaps the first time in this console generation Xbox owners have an undeniable right to feel smug.
“There’s a reason we’re able to put on two shows of content together,” Tsunoda continues. “We’ve got seven exclusives coming this holiday, and then everything coming in 2016. Not just the blockbusters, but the ID@Xbox games, the indie games. We’re giving people a lot more.”
Microsoft’s early mistakes have been formative for the Xbox One, its underlying strategy switching from closed and controlled to open and inclusive. Sony recorded several huge PR victories by simply responding to those initial bad choices, but Microsoft has since proved more committed to the stance that Sony initially claimed as its own. An early indicator was Sony’s refusal to allow EA Access onto the PlayStation Network due to stated concerns that it didn’t offer “good value” to the consumer, but just as likely down to competition with its own planned streaming service, PlayStation Now. Microsoft allowed its customers to make that choice for themselves. Had you been asked to guess the stance each company would adopt even a few months before, it’s likely those roles would have been reversed.
Tsunoda repeats the idea that MIcrosoft is ‘listening to the fans’ throughout our interview, making it quite clear that it’s a message the company wants us to hear. However, while it would be naive to believe that any multinational corporation is motivated principally by altruism, the strategy for Xbox One is increasingly guided by consumer demand.
Two incoming services perfectly illustrate the degree to which Microsoft has pivoted since the days of mandatory online checks and a prohibition on used games. Xbox Preview is a more tightly controlled version of Steam Early Access, and just the sort of concept that walled gardens were formed to exclude. Backwards compatibility, meanwhile, demands little in the way of explanation. Equally, its importance cannot be overstated, to the consumers who spend so much on games every console generation, and to those who believe that companies like Microsoft should be treating their creative heritage with more respect.
“With backwards compatibility, it isn’t something that we just think gamers might want,” Tsunoda says. “We know. We’re looking for and soliciting that feedback. It was the number one most requested feature for Xbox One by far.”
Sony has no plans to match Microsoft in this respect, and the possibility of monetising those games through PlayStation Now makes it very unlikely that it ever will. For Microsoft, it’s part of a broader view of gaming with Windows 10 at its core, which should, in theory, unite the previously disparate tendrils of Microsoft’s sprawling organisation. PC and console, past and present, existing in harmony, each interacting with and complementing the other. Cross-Buy, Cross-Play, console to PC streaming; one might say that Microsoft should have been doing this for years already. According to Tsunoda, this is a first step.
“For a long time we’ve had PC gamers and console gamers who weren’t really able to play together,” Tsunoda says. “That’s why Cross-Play is still such a powerful idea. You should be able to play what you love, and play together, regardless of what device you’re playing on. It’s about connecting people.
“With backwards compatibility, it isn’t something that we just think gamers might want. We know”
“It’s a really unique value that only we can offer. You still need very gamer-focused values, but there are lots of things you can do with our technology. We’ve really got a lot more going on [than our competitors]. We’re doing things that can’t be done on any other console.
If Microsoft is pushing towards a more holistic approach to its games business, then a few reminders of its clumsier past still remain. One is perched just below the television directly to our left: Kinect, a device once positioned as an integral part of the future of Xbox, a future that Tsunoda was instrumental in selling to the press and public. These days, though, it feels additive, and that’s being kind. In more than 150 minutes of press conferences across E3 and Gamescom Kinect barely merited a single mention, while a new announcement, the Chatpad, offered a core-friendly alternative to the search and chat functions that represent a huge chunk of why anyone might still use it.
“I don’t think it’s an alternative [to Kinect]. It’s just about giving people a choice in how they can do things,” Tsunoda replies. “There’s still a lot of great voice capabilities that you can use with Kinect, but there’s also a lot of great possibilities for communication with the Chatpad. You can also customise a lot, with specific buttons for specific functions. With everything we do, we’re trying to give people the choice.”
In terms of games, though, Tsunoda offers only Just Dance 2016 as a specific example – which is developed and published by Ubisoft – accompanied by the vague promise that, “There’s still Kinect games coming as well.” This may be what ‘choice’ starts to look like when Microsoft loses faith in one of its possible futures. It should be noted that Kinect is now listed under the “More” section on the Xbox One Accessories page, beneath “Controllers,” beneath “Headsets and Communication,” grouped in the same vague category as the Xbox One Digital TV Tuner and the Xbox One Media Remote.
The fear of obsolescence created by the doldrum in which Kinect now resides also haunts the HoloLens, another promising device that Microsoft has just finished thrusting into the public eye. It stole the show at E3 with an immaculately orchestrated Minecraft demo, only for its limited field-of-view to be scrutinised by the press, and its early utility as gaming hardware to be questioned by none other than the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella.
For Tsunoda, who is also closely involved with the development of HoloLens, the difference between watching a demonstration and actually experiencing it first-hand is more pronounced than any product he’s ever worked on – including Kinect. However, there is more common ground between the two devices than one might think.
“You should think about it in the same way that you would a phone or your computer. It does a lot of things,” Tsunoda says. “Obviously, gaming is a big part of what you do on those machines as well. But that’s what it is: an untethered holographic computer. You can do a lot in the gaming and entertainment space, but it has a lot of other functionality as well.
“Microsoft is a leader in depth-sensing technology: with Kinect, but also the stuff we’re doing with HoloLens as well. A big part of what we’re doing there is an environmental understanding that comes from having pushed our knowledge in depth-sensing. That’s what you’ll see us do as a company. [Kinect] is still a part of the platform, and there’s still Kinect games coming of course, but then also we’re pushing that depth-sensing technology forward with what we’re doing with HoloLens.”
It’s all a part of Microsoft’s future of gaming, whatever that turns out to be. Right now, though, Xbox might finally have emerged from PlayStation’s shadow.