When I first began my career in the games industry I wrote a story about an impending digital download chart.
It was February 2008 and Dorian Bloch – who was leader of UK physical games data business Chart-Track at the time – vowed to have a download Top 50 by Christmas.
It wasn’t for want of trying. Digital retailers, including Steam, refused to share the figures and insisted it was down to the individual publishers and developers to do the sharing (in contrast to the retail space, where the stores are the ones that do the sharing). This led to an initiative in the UK where trade body UKIE began using its relationships with publishers to pull together a chart. However, after some initial success, the project ultimately fell away once the sheer scale of the work involved became apparent.
Last year in the US, NPD managed to get a similar project going and is thus far the only public chart that combines physical and digital data from accurate sources. However, although many big publishers are contributing to the figures, there remains some notable absentees and a lack of smaller developers and publishers.
In Europe, ISFE is just ramping up its own project and has even began trialling charts in some territories (behind closed doors), however, it currently lacks the physical retail data in most major markets. This overall lack of information has seen a rise in the number of firms trying to plug the hole in our digital data knowledge. Steam Spy uses a Web API to gather data from Steam user profiles to track download numbers – a job it does fairly accurately (albeit not all of the time).
SuperData takes point-of-sale and transaction information from payment service providers, plus some publishers and developers, which means it can track actual spend. It’s strong on console, but again, it’s not 100% accurate. The mobile space has a strong player in App Annie collecting data, although developers in the space find the cost of accessing this information high.
It feels unusual to be having this conversation in 2017. In a market that is now predominantly digital, the fact we have no accurate way of measuring our industry seems absurd. Film has almost daily updates of box office takings, the music market even tracks streams and radio plays… we don’t even know how many people downloaded Overwatch, or where Stardew Valley would have charted. So what is taking so long?
“It took a tremendous amount of time and effort from both the publisher and NPD sides to make digital sales data begin to flow,” says Mat Piscatella, NPD’s US games industry analyst. NPD’s monthly digital chart is the furthest the industry has come to accurate market data in the download space.
“It certainly wasn’t like flipping a switch. Entirely new processes were necessary on both sides – publishers and within NPD. New ways of thinking about sales data had to be derived. And at the publishers, efforts had to be made to identify the investments that would be required in order to participate. And of course, most crucially, getting those investments approved. We all had to learn together, publishers, NPD, EEDAR and others, in ways that met the wants and needs of everyone participating.
“Over time, most of the largest third-party publishers joined the digital panel. It has been a remarkable series of events that have gotten us to where we are today. It hasn’t always been smooth; and keep in mind, at the time the digital initiative began, digital sales were often a very small piece of the business, and one that was often not being actively managed. Back then, publishers may have been letting someone in a first-party operation, or brand marketing role post the box art to the game on the Sony, Microsoft and Steam storefronts, and that would be that. Pricing wouldn’t be actively managed, sales might be looked at every month or quarter, but this information certainly was not being looked at like packaged sales were. The digital business was a smaller, incremental piece of the pie then. Now, of course, that’s certainly changed, and continues to change.”
“For one, the majors are publicly traded firms, which means that any shared data presents a financial liability. Across the board the big publishers have historically sought to protect the sanctity of their internal operations because of the long development cycles and high capital risks involved in AAA game publishing. But, to be honest, it’s only been a few years that especially legacy publishers have started to aggregate and apply digital data, which means that their internal reporting still tends to be relatively underdeveloped. Many of them are only now building the necessary teams and infrastructure around business intelligence.”
Indeed, both SuperData and NPD believe that progress – as slow as it may be – has been happening. And although some publishers are still holding out or refusing to get involved, that resolve is weakening over time. “For us, it’s about proving the value of participation to those publishers that are choosing not to participate at this time,” Piscatella says. “And that can be a challenge for a few reasons. First, some publishers may believe that the data available today is not directly actionable or meaningful to its business. The publisher may offer products that have dominant share in a particular niche, for example, which competitive data as it stands today would not help them improve.
“Second, some publishers may believe that they have some ‘secret sauce’ that sharing digital sales data would expose, and they don’t want to lose that perceived competitive advantage. Third, resources are almost always stretched thin, requiring prioritisation of business initiatives. For the most part, publishers have not expanded their sales planning departments to keep pace with all of the overwhelming amount of new information and data sources that are now available. There simply may not be the people power to effectively participate, forcing some publishers to pass on participating, at least for now.
“So I would certainly not classify this situation as companies ‘holding out’ as you say. It’s that some companies have not yet been convinced that sharing such information is beneficial enough to overcome the business challenges involved. Conceptually, the sharing of such information seems very easy. In reality, participating in an initiative like this takes time, money, energy and trust. I’m encouraged and very happy so much progress has been made with participating publishers, and a tremendous amount of energy is being applied to prove that value to those publishers that are currently not participating.”
NPD’s achievements is significant because it has managed to convince a good number of bigger publishers, and those with particularly successful IP, to share figures. And this has long been seen as a stumbling block, because for those companies performing particularly well, the urge to share data is reduced. I’ve heard countless comments from sales directors who have said that ‘sharing download numbers would just encourage more competitors to try what we’re doing.’ It’s why van Dreunen has noted that “as soon as game companies start to do well, they cease the sharing of their data.”
Indeed, it is often fledgling companies, and indie studios, that need this data more than most. It’s part of the reason behind the rise of Steam Spy, which prides itself on helping smaller outfits.
“I’ve heard many stories about indie teams getting financed because they managed to present market research based on Steam Spy data,” boasts Sergey Galyonkin, the man behind Steam Spy. “Just this week I talked to a team that got funded by Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg based on this. Before Steam Spy it was harder to do a proper market research for people like them.
“Big players know these numbers already and would gain nothing from sharing them with everyone else. Small developers have no access to paid research to publish anything.
“Overall I’d say Steam Spy helped to move the discussion into a more data-based realm and that’s a good thing in my opinion.”
The games industry may be behaving in an unusually backwards capacity when it comes to sharing its digital data, but there are signs of a growing willingness to be more open. A combination of trade body and media pressure has convinced some larger publishers to give it a go. Furthermore, publishers are starting to feel obligated to share figures anyway, especially when the likes of SuperData and Steam Spy are putting out information whether they want them to or not.
Indeed, although the chart Dorian promised me 9 years ago is still AWOL, there are at least some figures out there today that gives us a sense of how things are performing.
“When we first started SuperData six years ago there was exactly zero digital data available,” van Dreunen notes. “Today we track the monthly spending of 78 million digital gamers across platforms, in spite of heavy competition and the reluctance from publishers to share. Creating transparency around digital data is merely a matter of market maturity and executive leadership, and many of our customers and partners have started to realize that.”
He continues: The current inertia comes from middle management that fears new revenue models and industry changes. So we are trying to overcome a mindset rather than a data problem. It is a slow process of winning the confidence and trust of key players, one-at-a-time. We’ve managed to broker partnerships with key industry associations, partner with firms like GfK in Europe and Kadokawa Dwange in Japan, to offer a complete market picture, and win the trust with big publishers. As we all move into the next era of interactive entertainment, the need for market information will only increase, and those that have shown themselves willing to collaborate and take a chance are simply better prepared for the future.”
NPD’s Piscatella concludes: “The one thing I’m most proud of, and impressed by, is the willingness of the participating publishers in our panel to work through issues as they’ve come up. We have a dedicated, positive group of companies working together to get this information flowing. Moving forward, it’s all about helping those publishers that aren’t participating understand how they can benefit through the sharing of digital consumer sales information, and in making that decision to say “yes” as easy as possible.
“Digital selling channels are growing quickly. Digital sales are becoming a bigger piece of the pie across the traditional gaming market. I fully expect participation from the publishing community to continue to grow.”
If you’re someone who makes a living from videogames – as most readers of this site are – then political developments around the world at the moment should deeply concern you. I’m sure, of course, that a great many of you are concerned about things ranging from President Trump’s Muslim travel ban to the UK Parliament’s vote for “Hard Brexit” or the looming elections in Holland and France simply on the basis of being politically aware and engaged. However, there’s a much more practical and direct way in which these developments and the direction of travel which they imply will impact upon us. Regardless of personal ideology or beliefs, there’s no denying that the environment that seems to be forming is one that’s bad for the medium, bad for the industry, and will ultimately be bad for the incomes and job security of everyone who works in this sector.
Video games thrive in broadly the same conditions as any other artistic or creative medium, and those conditions are well known and largely undisputed. Creative mediums benefit from diversity; a wide range of voices, views and backgrounds being represented within a creative industry feeds directly into a diversity of creative output, which in turn allows an industry to grow by addressing new groups of consumers. Moreover, creative mediums benefit from economic stability, because when people’s incomes are low or uncertain, entertainment purchases are often among the first to fall.
Once upon a time, games had such strong underlying growth that they were “recession proof,” but this is no longer the case. Indeed, it was never entirely an accurate reading anyway, since broader recessions undoubtedly did slow down – though not reverse – the industry’s growth. Finally, as a consequence of the industry’s broad demographic reach, expansion overseas is now the industry’s best path to future growth, and that demands continued economic progress in the developing world to open up new markets for game hardware and software.
What is now happening on a global basis threatens all of those conditions, and therefore poses a major commercial threat to the games business. That threat must be taken especially seriously given that many companies and creators are already struggling with the enormous challenges that have been thrown up by the messy and uneven transition towards smart devices, and the increasing need to find new revenue streams to support AAA titles whose audience has remained largely unchanged even as development budgets have risen. Even if the global economic system looked stable and conditions were ideal for creative industries, this would be a tough time for games; the prospect of restrictions on trade and hiring, and the likelihood of yet another deep global recession and a slow-down in the advances being made by developing economies, make this situation outright hazardous.
Consider the UK development industry. Since well over a decade ago, if you asked just about any senior figure in the UK industry what the most pressing problem they faced was, they’d give you the same answer: skills shortages. Hiring talented staff is tough in any industry, but game development demands highly skilled people from across a range of fields, and assembling that kind of talent isn’t cheap or easy – even when you have access to the entire European Union as a hiring base, as UK companies did. Now UK companies face having to fill their positions with a much smaller pool of talent to draw from, and hiring from abroad will be expensive, complex and, in many cases, simply impossible.
The US, too, looks like it may tighten visa regulations for skilled hires from overseas, which will have a hugely negative impact on game development there. There are, of course, many skilled creatives who work within the borders of their own country, but the industry has been built on labour flows; centres of excellence in game development, like the UK and parts of the US, are sustained and bolstered by their ability to attract talent from overseas. Any restriction on that will impact the ability of companies to create world-class games – it will make them poorer creatively and throw hiring roadblocks in the path of timely, well-polished releases.
Then there’s the question of trade barriers; not only tariffs, which seem likely to make a comeback in many places, but non-tariff barriers in terms of diverse regulations and standards that will make it harder for companies to operate across national borders. The vast majority of games are multinational efforts; assets, code, and technology are created in different parts of the world and brought together to create the final product. Sometimes this is because of outsourcing, other times it’s because of staff who work remotely, and very often it’s simply because a certain piece of technology is licensed from a company overseas.
If countries become more hostile to free trade, all of that will become more complex and expensive. And that’s even before we start to think about what happens to game hardware, from consoles that source components from across Asia before assembly in China or Japan, to PC and smart device parts that flow out of China, Korea, Taiwan and, increasingly, from developing nations in South-East Asia. If tariff barriers are raised, all of those things will get a lot more expensive, limiting the industry’s consumer base at the most damaging time possible.
Such trade barriers – be they tariff barriers or non-tarriff barriers – would disproportionately impact developing countries. Free trade and globalisation have had negative externalities, unquestionably, but by and large they have contributed to an extraordinary period of prosperity around the world, with enormous populations of people being lifted out of poverty in recent decades and many developing countries showing clear signs of a large emerging middle class. Those are the markets game companies desperately want to target in the coming decade or so. In order for the industry to continue to grow and prosper, the emerging middle class in countries like India, Brazil and Indonesia needs to cultivated as a new wave of game consumers, just as many markets in Central and Eastern Europe were a decade ago.
The current political attacks on the existing order of world trade threaten to cut those economies off from the system that has allowed them to grow and develop so quickly, potentially hurling them into deep recession before they have an opportunity to cement stable, sustainable long-term economic prosperity. That’s an awful prospect on many levels, of course (it goes without saying that many of the things under discussion threaten human misery and catastrophe that far outweighs the impact on the games business), but one consequence will likely be a hard stop to the games industry’s capacity to grow in the coming years.
It’s not just developing economies whose consumers are at risk from a rise of protectionism and anti-trade sentiments, however. If we learned anything from the 2008 crash and the recession that followed, it should be that the global economy largely runs not on cash, but on confidence. The entire edifice is built on a set of rules and standards that are designed to give investors confidence; the structure changes over time, of course, but only slowly, because stability is required to allow people to invest and to build businesses with confidence that the rug won’t be tugged out from underneath them tomorrow. From the rhetoric of Donald Trump to the hardline Brexit approach of the UK, let alone the extremist ideas of politicians like Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders, the current political movement deeply threatens that confidence. Only too recently we’ve seen what happens to ordinary consumers’ job security and incomes when confidence disappears from the global economy; a repeat performance now seems almost inevitable.
Of course, the games industry isn’t in a position to do anything about these political changes – not alone, at least. The same calculations, however, apply to a wide variety of industries, and they’re all having the same conversations. Creative industries are at the forefront for the simple reason that they will be the first to suffer should the business environment upon which they rely turn negative, but in opposing those changes, creative businesses will find allies across a wide range of industries and sectors.
Any business leader that wants to throw their weight behind opposing these changes on moral or ethical grounds is more than welcome to, of course – that’s a laudable stance – but regardless of personal ideology, the whole industry should be making its voice heard. The livelihoods of everyone working in this industry may depend on the willingness of the industry as a whole to identify these commercial threats and respond to them clearly and powerfully.
Physical retailers are calling for a change in how video game pre-orders are conducted.
They are speaking to publishers and platform holders over the possibility of selling games before the release date. Consumers can pick up the disc 1 to 3 weeks before launch, but it will remain ‘locked’ until launch day.
The whole concept stems from the pre-loading service available in the digital space. Today, consumers can download a game via Steam, Xbox Live and PSN before it’s out, and the game becomes unlocked at midnight on launch day for immediate play (after the obligatory day one patch).
It makes sense to roll this out to other distribution channels. The idea of going into a shop to order a game, and then returning a month later to buy it, always seemed frankly antiquated.
Yet it’s not only consumer friendly, it’s potentially retailer and publisher friendly, too.
For online retailers, the need to hit an embargo is costly – games need to be turned around rapidly to get it into consumers’ hands on day one.
For mainstream retailers, it would clear up a lot of confusion. These stores are not naturally built for pre-ordering product, with staff that are more used to selling bananas than issuing pre-order receipts. The fact you can immediately take the disc home would help – it could even boost impulse sales.
Meanwhile, specialist retailers will be able to make a longer ‘event’ of the game coming out, and avoid the situation of consumers cancelling pre-orders or simply not picking up the game.
Yet when retail association ERA approached some companies about the prospect of doing this, it struggled to find much interest from the publishing community. So what’s the problem?
There are a few challenges.
There are simple logistical obstacles. Games often go Gold just a few weeks before they’re launched, and then it’s over to the disc manufacturers, the printers, the box makers and the distributors to get that completed code onto store shelves. This process can take two weeks in itself. Take the recent Nioh. That game was available to pre-download just a few days before launch – so how difficult would it be to get that into a box, onto a lorry and into a retailer in advance of release?
It also benefits some retailers more than others – particularly online ones, and those with strong distribution channels.
For big games, there’s a potential challenge when it comes to bandwidth. If those that pre-ordered Call of Duty all go online straight away at 12:01, that would put a lot of pressure on servers.
Piracy may also be an issue, because it makes the code available ahead of launch.
The end of the midnight launch may be happening anyway, but not for all games. If consumers can get their game without standing in the cold for 2 hours, then they will. And those lovely marketable pictures of snaking queues will be a thing of the past.
None of these obstacles are insurmountable. Getting the game finished earlier before launch is something that most big games publishers are trying to do, and this mechanism will help force that issue. Of course, the disc doesn’t actually have to contain a game at all. It can be an unlock mechanism for a download, which will allow the discs to be ready far in advance of launch. That strategy is significantly riskier, especially considering the consumer reaction to the same model proposed by Xbox back in 2013.
As for midnight events, there are still ways to generate that big launch ‘moment’. Capcom released Resident Evil 7 with an experiential haunted house experience that generated lots of media attention and attracted a significant number of fans. Pokémon last year ran a big fan event for Sun and Moon, complete with a shop, activities, signing opportunities and the chance to download Mew.
So there are other ways of creating launch theatre than inviting consumers to wait outside a shop. If anything, having the game available in advance of launch will enable these theatrical marketing events to last longer. And coupled with influencer activity, it would actually drive pre-release sales – not just pre-release demand.
However, the reality is this will work for some games and not for others, and here lies the heart of the challenge.
Pre-ordering is already a relatively complex matter, so imagine what it’ll be like if some games can be taken home in advance and others can’t? How many instances can we expect of people complaining that ‘their disc doesn’t work’?
If this is going to work, it needs cross-industry support, which isn’t going to happen. This is a business that can’t even agree on a digital chart, don’t forget.
What we may well see is someone giving this concept a go. Perhaps a digital native publisher, like Blizzard or Valve, who can make it part of their PR activity.
Because if someone like that can make the idea work, then others will follow.
Take-Two today reported its financial results for the three months ended December 31, and they paint a mixed picture of the company’s performance for the holiday season.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Take-Two chairman and CEO Strauss Zelnick touted the company’s holiday slate of releases, mostly updating numbers revealed around Take-Two’s last earnings report. Mafia III has now sold-in approximately 5 million copies, while Civilization VI has surpassed 1.5 million units sold-in. NBA 2K17 has sold-in nearly 7 million units (up about 10% year-over-year), while Grand Theft Auto V continues to move copies, with sell-in now topping 75 million. Its recurrent consumer spending business (virtual currency, microtransactions, and DLC)has also done well, Zelnick said, noting that Grand Theft Auto Online posted a record number of players in December.
Despite some of those gaudy numbers, the quarter was not an unqualified success. The publisher reported GAAP net revenues of $476.5 million, up 15% year-over-year but near the low end of its $475 million to $525 million guidance. Additionally, Take-Two’s guidance called for a net income of $17 million to $30 million, but it ultimately posted a net loss of $29.9 million for the quarter.
“I know it’s a bit clouded by GAAP reporting, which requires us to defer revenues, and requires us to accelerate costs related to those deferred revenues, so we have a mismatch,” Zelnick explained. “It can look like, from a GAAP point of view, that we’re not doing as well as we’re doing from a bookings and cash flow point of view.”
Total bookings for the quarter did indeed jump 51% year-over-year to $719 million, with the aforementioned titles and WWE 2K17 serving as the largest contributors to that number. Bookings from recurrent consumer spending did particularly well, growing 55% year-over-year and making up 23% of the company’s total bookings.
The holiday quarter also saw the release of Take-Two’s first VR efforts, Carnival Games VR and NBA2K VR Experience. The company didn’t provide any performance metrics for those titles, but it’s clear Zelnick wasn’t counting on them to contribute too much.
“We were happy to bring the titles to market because it was a reflection of the fact we have the R&D abilities to address video games in a VR format if and when that’s a meaningful part of the business,” he said. “I have expressed skepticism in the past, and I think that’s been borne out by the fact that the market for VR in video games remains quite small.”
Zelnick also addressed the company’s $250 million acquisition of Social Point, the Barcelona-based mobile developer of Dragon City and Monster Legends. As for how the new studio will be integrated into the company, Zelnick said the goal was more to support them to continue doing what they’ve already been successful doing, while being mindful not to mess with what works.
“What we like about Social Point is they have multiplicity, it’s not just one [hit] and that distinguishes them from a lot of people in this space,” Zelnick said. “And they know how to monetize those hits and interact with their audience. I’m hoping we can help them grow even faster, but minimally, we want to be supportive so they can keep doing what brought them to this place in the first place… the way we tend to integrate new creative acquisitions is we want those companies to retain their identity and their independence, and to continue to do what works in the market.”
That’s not to say the company is abandoning all hope of synergy. Zelnick said he hopes Take-Two can help lend its experience in Asian markets to help Social Point find success in those territories, while acknowledging that Take-Two can probably learn a few things about monetizing in a free-to-play environment that could be brought to bear on titles like NBA 2K Online and WWE Supercard.
Nintendo, is finally getting around to embracing third party development tools including the Unreal Engine.
Nintendo has always had trouble getting third-party developers to make games for its consoles, but the Switch is supposed to show off a new image for the former playing card maker.
Game designer Shigeru Miyamoto has announced that Nintendo engineers have been learning how to use third-party apps and especially the Unreal Engine.
The Switch, like the Wii U, supports the Unreal Engine but has not been particularly enthusiastic about it.
Nintendo’s Shinya Takahashi said Nintendo now wants to develop an environment where “a variety of different third-party developers are able to easily develop compatible software”.
Miyamoto also suggested that Japanese developers no longer are behind their western counterparts when it comes to third-party engines. He added that his engineers’ skill set can “now be compared with those of Western developers”.
While Nintendo will stick to using its own development tools when building games for its new hardware, its engineers are apparently trying to understand one of the most commonly-used game development engines.
You know a company has had a rough set of results when its CEO needs to publicly state that they represent the lowest extent of a slump, with a bounce surely to follow; this being essentially the line that Nintendo boss Tatsumi Kimishima attempted to soothe worried investors with this week. It didn’t exactly work; Nintendo shares, which had been trading at their highest levels in five years, dropped back below the 23,000 Yen mark for the first time since last September. The figures reveal sentiment; investors aren’t sold on the Switch, don’t really know what to make of Super Mario Run, and while they’re generally more positive on Nintendo than they were a couple of years ago, they’re feeling jittery and nervous about the firm’s prospects.
As well they should. In fact, 2017 is likely to be a rollercoaster of a year for Nintendo investors, and those nerves are likely going to get more and more jangled as the year rolls on. The reason for that is simple; Nintendo is taking risks, and they’re not the kind of risks that it’s easy to calculate an over-under on. That makes them into the kind of risks that investors love and hate at the same time – but mostly hate. If Nintendo’s risk-taking pays off, it might soar, but there’s also a strong chance it’ll all come crashing down, and the worst part is, nobody can accurately assess what the risk of either of those scenarios, or anything in between, may be.
There are essentially two major risks Nintendo is taking on. The first, of course, is Switch. The company is hoping for Wii-like sales of the device; almost anything would be an improvement over the Wii U, of course, but in reality it probably needs to hit 40 or 50 million to be considered a genuine success, while anything below 20 million would be enough of a disappointment to cast a pall over the company’s entire future in the home console business. Switch is a high-concept device, quite unlike anything else on the market; from the control system it affords to the mixed-mode portable/home console design of the system, it’s a genuinely unusual piece of kit (far more so than the Wii U was) and that alone will undoubtedly inspire a lot of early adopters to pick one up out of sheer curiosity. It could ignite the imagination of a wide swathe of consumers and become a must-have entertainment device, like the Wii before it. It could equally prove attractive only to Nintendo’s fanbase and sink into much-loved but commercially disastrous obscurity like the Wii U.
My personal guess is that it’ll do far better than the Wii U, but come nowhere close to the success of the Wii, but I’m at pains to call that a guess and nothing more. Anyone demanding that their forecast of the device’s performance is of more worth than mere guesswork is, bluntly, a bit of a charlatan. Not only is the market into which Switch is launching extremely poorly understood at the moment (find me a single soul who predicted pre-launch that PS4, at this point in its lifespan, would be outselling the mighty PS2?), with vast new differences emerging between different global markets and demographic groups, the device itself also has no clear analogues to which we might look for guidance. The strength of the Switch is that it’s Nintendo doing something genuinely different and distinctive from its competition – a metric on which the Wii U, ultimately, failed. The weakness of Switch is that that means success or failure, though clearly influenced greatly by traditional factors like software support, is impossible to pin down with a probability calculation.
Having one big, risky venture on the go would be enough to make investors jumpy, but Nintendo has another one running in parallel. The company has been told for years by its investors that it should be involved in the smartphone market, and indeed its recently relatively buoyant share price is largely the result of its initial announcement of a partnership to do just that with DeNA in 2015, and the launch of Pokemon Go last summer. As the company’s titles roll out, though, things are getting a little more grounded and sober, and investors are perhaps recalling that the market they’ve told Nintendo to dive into is one of the riskiest in the business. The first game title created under the Nintendo-DeNA partnership (discounting Miitomo, which wasn’t considered a game, and Pokemon Go, which was simply Nintendo IP licensed out to a different developer, Niantic) was Super Mario Run, which has been largely well-received critically but hasn’t set the world on fire otherwise. Eschewing the F2P business model and the various hooks and enticements it offers for player retention was taken as reassuring by the company’s vocal core fans, but has seen Super Mario Run fade rapidly from consumer consciousness. After a backlash over its $10 price, which laid out just how uphill the struggle for premium-priced mobile games is, Mario Run has managed around a 5% conversion rate and $53 million in revenue so far.
To be clear – that’s not bad, it’s just unremarkable, and not really what investors had hoped for when they pushed Nintendo towards mobile. The company’s next launch, Fire Emblem Heroes, arrived this week and uses the more established business model for mobile titles; a few months down the line we’ll also have an Animal Crossing title on mobile. The thing is that despite the popularity of these franchises and the pedigree of their development teams, their success simply isn’t assured – even the very best mobile developers have had trouble replicating their greatest successes or even being consistently successful with their titles. Many of the world’s biggest mobile game companies are essentially sustained by one huge, evergreen game, and show no evidence of knowing how to bottle that lightning; the reality is that it’s a hugely fickle, difficult market where, even if you produce a brilliant game, external factors (including a pretty big dose of luck) play an inordinately large role in success. Nobody should doubt the quality of the games Nintendo will launch on smartphones, but nobody should consider a gigantic commercial hit to be a sure thing, either.
All that being said, the point here isn’t that Nintendo is going in the wrong direction; it’s that it’s facing a risky, bumpy year ahead, and that’s going to play merry hell with the firm’s relationship with its investors. Since, unfortunately, the media remains convinced that stock markets are magically possessed of grand insights unattainable to mere humans, like a modern-day Oracle of Delphi – where the reality is that stock markets, in their short-term motions at least, are just the sum total of a load of largely not terribly well informed people charging around in blind mob panics – we’re going to see a lot of context-free stories this year about Nintendo’s share price plunging or recovering as the balance of risk seems to sway one way or the other. The reality behind that is that at least in the next few months, the actual nature of that risk profile is going to be utterly obscure to everyone – even to Nintendo itself.
Right now, the wrong direction for Nintendo would be the direction it was headed in two years ago; competing head-to-head with Sony and Microsoft with a home console that was poorly differentiated from the competition; pretending smartphones hadn’t upended its market; making some of the best software in its history for some of the least-played hardware on the market. The right direction is one that changes that path, and change means risk – especially when the only avenues of change available to you involve innovation, untested ideas, and a tough, poorly understood market.
Buried in Nintendo’s statements this week is cause for great optimism; the success of Pokemon Sun/Moon, which are already among the best-selling installments in the series, was built upon the use of Pokemon Go as a marketing and awareness vehicle, allowing Nintendo to reactivate older consumers of the franchise and change the demographic profile of its audience. As a test run for its future strategy of building struts of mutual support between mobile and console titles, it’s been damned near flawless; sure, it got lucky with a timely implementation of AR tech and a lovely marriage of IP to gameplay, but the underlying business strategy has also played out as well as could be hoped. These are the things to watch for in the next year. Ignore the markets; with any company as highly exposed to risk as Nintendo is right now, share price movements will be exaggerated and hypersensitive, even to rumour and falsehood. Watch, instead, for evidence that Nintendo’s actual plans – the things it wants to sell, the consumers it wants to cultivate and the ways it wants to link together its IPs across platforms and approaches – are coming together or falling apart. Only that will tell us whether Nintendo is really going to bounce back, or if Kimishima’s certainty that it’s already hit rock bottom is going to be tested.
Virtual reality will be coming to the Nintendo Switch – just as soon as the company is convinced people can play it for longer periods of time.
The news comes from an interview between Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima and Nikkei, as translated by Dr Serkan Toto, CEO of Tokyo-based consultancy Kantan Games. According to Toto’s tweets, Kimishima said Nintendo is studying VR now but will hold off until users can “play for hours on end without problems”.
Nintendo has been extremely cautious about virtual reality, partly due to ongoing reports of nausea and headaches among early adopters. The platform holder’s US president Reggie Fils-Aime also said the technology is “not fun” and “not social”.
However, patents emerged back in December for a virtual reality accessory designed to be used with the Nintendo Switch, suggesting the platform holder is at least preparing to make its new console VR-enabled.
Meanwhile, Kimishima has also detailed prices for Switch’s paid online service, suggesting Nintendo plans to ask for 2,000 to 3,000 yen per year.
3) Nintendo plans to introduce yearly and monthly paid plans for the online service. Again, price range is 2-3,000 yen/year (.70-.50).
— Dr. Serkan Toto (@serkantoto) February 2, 2017
As Toto observes, that translates to between $17.70 and $26.50, or £13.95 and £20.89 for the UK.
Little is know about the paid service yet, save that it will be required for online multiplayer titles and that subscribers will receive a free NES or SNES game every month. Some of the latter will also have online multiplayer added.
While the price point makes Switch’s paid service cheaper than those of PlayStation and Xbox, it will be interesting to see whether consumers deem there to be enough value to signing up. Both PlayStation and Xbox also offer free games every month, often major AAA releases from the past year, and thanks to strong third-party support the number of online multiplayer titles subscribers gain access to is much higher.
The Nintendo Switch launches worldwide on March 3rd, and VG247 reports that Kimishima is confident it will reverse the platform holder’s recent fortunes, with the president claiming Nintendo’s fiscal performance will only improve from here.
He said the Switch’s unique features mean it could sell as well as the Wii – which means Nintendo is targeting sales of around 100m. Regardless of whether or not it reaches that, hopes are high that it beats Wii U’s disappointing lifetime sales of 13.5m.
The traditional sports ecosystem is dominated by three models of organisation. The most decentralised sports, like the PGA Tour or NASCAR, consist of largely independently organised competitions, which are sanctioned and governed by an administrative body and are open to any qualifying athlete. From there, we have typical leagues like the NBA or Premiership, which have a set number of recurring teams and players, and are extensively managed by a league front office that’s owned by each team.
eSports are quite different. If you choose to race without NASCAR or play basketball without the NBA, there’s nothing – and no official body – that can prevent you from replicating the experience. No one ‘owns’ racing or basketball, but someone does own Overwatch, and if you want to play you essentially have to go through that company. If you wanted to create your own eSports league, your ability to market or represent it would be entirely dependent on the legal team of the game’s publisher. Furthermore, the core experience is fully controlled by that publisher.
“No one ‘owns’ racing or basketball, but someone does own Overwatch, and if you want to play you essentially have to go through that company”
Leagues that are operated or endorsed by publishers can do unique things – e.g. item drops, exclusive/first-release capabilities, bundled original content – and offer unique monetisation opportunities. Three months before The International, the annual world championship for Dota 2, Valve sells interactive in-game items that directly contribute to the tournament prize pool. This model has been so successful that, in 2016, the prize pool reached $19.17 million.
Most tier-one publishers also handicap the data streams that the public can leverage. Whereas in traditional sports there are multiple providers of a firehose of sports data, game publishers offer barebones APIs that allow access to little more than character information and select match data. Valve offers an open API but, as events this year have demonstrated, it can shut off access and change policy at any time. On the platform side, Twitch is miles ahead of its competitors in terms of creating an external ecosystem thanks to its two year head-start and passionate developer community, but it maintains an ever more precarious balance between build vs. buy.
Because of these walled gardens, the investible opportunities within eSports often end up being features not products, which set them and their investors up for more of an acquihire than a Twitch-esque exit. There’s a strong argument to be made to publishers that working with third-party developers will lead to a stronger overall bottom line, foster innovation and provide defensibility.
It’s no secret that being a top publisher is a lucrative business. Activision reported $1.57 billion in revenue for Q2 of 2016 and EA $1.271 billion. It’s rumoured that Valve’s 2015 revenues reached $3.5 billion in 2015, and Riot Games’ over $1.6 billion. It’s not hard to see why partnerships with third parties and external API infrastructure aren’t a priority with so much money flowing, but that’s shortsighted. As publishers start thinking about how to monetise beyond game licenses and IAP, every moment not spent developing the ecosystem is a wasted one.
This isn’t unparalleled, and we can see examples of where large platforms in other verticals have made the decision to invest in their future, often early on in their company lifecycle. Salesforce, an enterprise software company, has a market cap of $50 billion. A report last year by IDC put the opportunity front and center: the AppExchange currently generates 2.8x the revenue of Salesforce itself and is expected to grow to 3.7x the size of Salesforce.
“As publishers start thinking about how to monetise beyond game licenses and IAP, every moment not spent developing the ecosystem is a wasted one”
Slack, the enterprise collaboration tool darling, also gets it. Even before raising money in April 2016, at a $3.8 billion valuation and boasting over 1.25 million paying users, they announced the Slack fund in December 2015 - an $80 million investment into supporting new integrations. Slack and Salesforce could have gone the closed route and developed these integrations and products internally, but they understood that the immediate revenue trade-off was well worth the ability to focus on creating the best core product possible, in addition to leveraging minimal company resources.
Now to everyone’s favourite eSports comparison : traditional sports. During the height of the daily fantasy sports craze in 2014/15, the NBA entered a multi-year partnership with FanDuel that gave it an ownership stake. The NFL expanded its partnership with Providence Equity in 2013, investing $300 million to participate in, “media and technology deals where it believes the league could help play a strategic role.” And these are just a few examples. Partnering with and investing in new properties allows older, larger establishments to participate in the upside of nascent industries quickly and cheaply.
Publishers are thinking about the shelf-life of games. The NFL and NBA will both be around in 25 years, but what about League of Legends or Counter-Strike? Opening up the ecosystem not only benefits players and fans by allowing them an outlet to interact with their favorite IPs, but ultimately enhances the core value of those IPs and gives publishers an opportunity for additional exposure through revenue share, API fees and strategic investments.
In addition to commercial benefits, let’s look at network effects. Valve is the publisher of both Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (25 million+ copies sold, 8.2 million+ players in the last two weeks), and Dota 2 (87 million+ times downloaded, 11 million+ active players in the last two weeks.) While the titles have richer histories than virtually any other competitive esport, Valve’s open API, developer tools and hands-off approach has contributed to their sustained success and status as two of the top eSports titles.
ELeague, FaceIt Esports Championship Series and Gfinity, ESL One and IEM. These streams of revenue have contributed to a high demand for professional CS:GO players, leading to lucrative contracts and opportunities.
3: The most lucrative has been the in-game skins economy, which allows players to purchase crates that contain different cosmetic versions of CS:GO weapons or Dota 2 items. During major tournaments, Valve has offered exclusive stickers that generate up to high six-figures for qualified teams. Valve has also allowed free reign on opening up use cases within this skins economy, which led to wagering, gambling and marketplaces (Bloomberg estimated yearly transaction volume to be >$7 billion.) Variations of this model have since been followed very conservatively by multiple franchises, including Call of Duty, Halo, H1Z1 and Overwatch.
On the platform side, Twitch’s dominance in livestreaming can largely be credited to going all-in on eSports first, but Twitch also has numerous native or platform exclusive features for its users. Diving deeper, this experience is powered by a blend of features that were built in-house or created by third parties. Examples include:
Bits, preceded by Streamlabs and StreamTip: direct donations from viewers are one of the foundations of a streamer’s income.
Clips, preceded by Oddshot, Plays.tv and Forge: allows viewers and creators to efficiently capture highlights and share to different social media channels.
Subscriptions / Partner Program and 3rd-party services (Revlo, Gamewisp and Curse/Discord integrations): subscriptions are another big source of income for streamers, and the third-party services all add further value to a sub and reduce churn.
TwitchPlays: what started out as a fun social experiment (TwitchPlaysPokemon) is now its own category to interact with potential customers for publishers.
Chatbots (Moobot, Nightbot and Xanbot): automated assistants that help moderate chat to prevent spamming and inappropriate behaviour.
Stream+ currency: Twitch’s new currency announced at TwitchCon 2016, which will allow developers to integrate monetisation options directly into games.
Facebook Live has launched to much fanfare, and given the massive distribution channel it will always be a huge threat. However, until it can get to feature parity Facebook Live will need to rely on traditional media partnerships or viral hits to create consistent content. These types of partnerships don’t scale when we’re talking about the individual streamers and professional players that have played a large part in getting Twitch to 100m+ MAUs, although the signing of G2 and Heroes of the Dorm is a good first step. YouTube Gaming is farther along and is doing a great job of starting to launch some analogous features.
How, then, should publishers look to partner with entrepreneurs and third parties? I’d like to see publishers create a vehicle, individually or collectively, in the model of Disney Accelerator, to offer mentorship, funding and support to kick-start the next generation of eSports businesses. Publishers should be developing their games as platforms, not individual entities - tons of data are being generated and archived and there is a treasure trove of use cases for them.
I’m confident that we’re slowly moving in the right direction. One day we’ll see a truly open ecosystem with publishers and third parties living in harmony.
Former playing card maker Nintendo has managed to make its first profit in four quarters thanks to its mobile gaming division.
For those who came in late, like Nintendo, the game maker did not want to touch mobile gaming with a 10-foot barge pole because it would cannibalise its portable console market. However it looks like it was wrong.
However it warned that there might be trouble ahead as there are lower game downloads for its consoles.
Operating profit reached $284 million in October-December, which is 3.7 percent lower than the same period a year earlier but better than the cocaine nose-jobs of Wall Street expected.
For the year ending March, Nintendo cut its operating profit forecast by a third due to lower game software downloads for its consoles.
Nevertheless, projected income from investments and a weaker yen allowed it to almost double its net profit forecast.
In the nine months through December, the games maker said it earned $93,903,200 from mobile gaming, accessories and related merchandise, including from its first Nintendo-branded mobile game, Super Mario Run. The figure was up from $ 36 million in the same period a year earlier.
Super Mario Run, featuring the princess-rescuing Italian plumber, has reached about 78 million downloads since 15 December, Nintendo said.
But the game has also received a high number of reviews from users complaining mainly about its $9.99 one-time cost, with less than 10 percent of users paying to unlock all features. Most mobile games are free to play and charge small payments for special features.
Nintendo has said it plans to release around 3 mobile games a year, with two titles – Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem – planned for the coming months.
Still, it continues to regard mobile gaming primarily as a means of luring players to its mainstay consoles. Nintendo’s president, Tatsumi Kimishima, said at a news briefing on Tuesday that the games maker plans to move up production plans to meet orders.
Firstly, there is a lot of confusion over what the Nintendo Switch can do. Multiple account support was teased in a photo posted by indie developer Nicalis on Twitter but then this was pulled and people shut up about it.
Now Kotaku have confirmed that the system does support up to eight multiple users but really people should not have to be digging for that information right now.
Nintendo’s colourful Miis will be making a return and Mii characters can be used to represent a user profile, but are not required. They can still be used in games if developers choose to include them.
This is a new detail which for some reason Nintendo forgot to mention at its presentation in Tokyo. Some think this is because they are too closely associated with the Wii era, but others are think Nintendo is daft for forgetting to mention it. After all they are a function which the console will have and a sales point.
But the biggest problem for the console is that for some reason Nintendo forgot to sort out support for video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Video.
Streaming video is available on practically anything and would be an important feature of any entertainment centre, so why did Nintendo forget to include it? Apparenly they were spending all their time “making the Nintendo Switch system an amazing dedicated video game platform, so it will not support any video streaming services at launch,” a spokesperson said.
Such apps are “being considered for a future update.” To be fair the Wii U was not a great video streaming set-top box, but then again that console was also disappointing.
The NPD Group and the Entertainment Software Association both released reports on last year’s sales in the US games business today. While overall game software grew six percent from $23.2 billion to $24.5 billion, the total consumer spend, including revenues from all hardware, software, peripherals, and in-game purchases, came in at $30.4 billion, only slightly better than last year’s $30.2 billion.
“Growth in entertainment software consumer spend was seen across the mobile, PC, virtual reality, subscription, portable and digital console segments,” said Mat Piscatella, industry analyst, The NPD Group. “Consumers have more options to purchase and enjoy entertainment software than ever before, while developers have more and easier ways of delivering that content. No matter the delivery platform, entertainment software has never been more engaging, diverse or accessible.”
While there was softness in the AAA games market, a big factor in 2016’s somewhat flat growth came from the hardware side, as consoles did not generate big spending. “2016 was a tough year for hardware spending,” acknowledged NPD analyst Sam Naji. “The category was down 24 percent as unit sales and the average retail price for consoles declined compared to 2015. On a positive note, Nintendo did shift an additional 4 percent of 3DS systems thanks in large part to the heightened demand for Pokemon.”
He added, “Total hardware spending for 2016 reached $3.7B, a decline of 24 percent versus 2015. Unfortunately the release of the Xbox One S and the PlayStation 4 Pro did not generate dollar spending growth. Although the combined ARP for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 systems decreased by 15 percent, consumers bought 7 percent fewer units.”
The hardware trend continued throughout December too, as total sales slipped 20% to $994.9 million. “The PlayStation 4 was the top-selling hardware system in the month and the PlayStation 4 Slim System 500GB Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Bundle was the month’s top seller,” noted Naji, adding, “Year-on-year there was a 10 percent increase in the number of Xbox One systems sold during December 2016.”
On the software side, total sales of console and portable titles (including digital formats) slipped 12% in December to $1.19 billion, while total PC game sales (including digital) dropped 13% to $45.8 million. The big winners in software were Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Final Fantasy XV and Battlefield 1.
“Although a Call of Duty has now topped the December sales chart for the ninth consecutive year, Final Fantasy XV was the best selling game for the PS4 during the month,” said Naji. “Final Fantasy XV was the second best-selling title for December 2016… Final Fantasy XV experienced the best console launch month in the history of the franchise (since tracking began in 1995) selling 19 percent more new physical units than Final Fantasy XIII in its launch month and 54 percent more in total dollar revenue including digital full game sales.”
As for EA’s World War I-themed shooter, Battlefield 1 actually enjoyed 10% higher dollar spending than last year’s Star Wars Battlefront. And of course, in the portable realm, Pokemon: Sun and Moon reigned supreme, as the combined sales were the best for the franchise since Pokémon Diamond and Pearl in 2007.
Accessories felt the pinch in 2016 as well, dropping six percent, and 21% (excluding game cards) in December. Naji pointed out that this was “driven by a 50 percent decline in Interactive Gaming Toys.” He continued, “The Interactive Gaming Toys segment consumer spend sold half the volume the segment achieved a year ago. The only brand to achieve year-on-year growth was LEGO Dimensions, originally launched in September 2015.”
It would appear that the trend of big publishers hosting their own events will continue in 2017. Last year’s E3 show floor was missing booths from the likes of Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, Disney and Wargaming. For its part, EA decided it could better serve the fans by hosting its own event next door to E3, and now the publisher has confirmed that EA Play will be making a return for the second year in a row, but it won’t be as close to the Los Angeles Convention Center.
EA Play will be held from June 10-12 at the Hollywood Palladium, which is around seven miles away. “Whether in person or online, EA Play 2017 will connect fans around the world to EA’s biggest new games through live broadcasts, community content, competitions and more. Those that can attend in Hollywood will experience hands-on gameplay, live entertainment and much more. For anyone joining digitally around the world, EA Play will feature livestreams, deeper looks into EA’s upcoming games and experiences, and content from some of the best creators in the community,” the company stated in a press release.
Furthermore, a spokesperson confirmed to GamesIndustry.biz that EA will indeed be skipping out on having a major E3 presence. “EA Play was such a powerful platform for us last year to connect with our player community. We learned a ton, and we wanted to build on everything we loved about last year’s event to make EA Play 2017 even better,” EA corporate communications VP John Reseburg said.
“So after an extensive search, we’ve selected the Hollywood Palladium as a place where we can bring our vision of creativity, content and storytelling to life, and build an even more powerful experience to connect with players, community leaders, media and partners. EA Play 2017 will originate from Hollywood, with more ways for players around the world to connect and experience the excitement.”
It’ll be interesting to see what the other major publishers do about E3 this year. We’ll be sure to keep you posted.
As with many game cancellations, it’s likely we’ll never know exactly why Platinum Games’ Xbox One exclusive Scalebound has been dropped by Microsoft. For a game that’s been in development for several years at a top-flight studio, helmed by one of the most accomplished directors working in the industry today, to be cancelled outright is a pretty big deal. Even acknowledging that most of the cost of launching a game lies in marketing budgets, not development costs, this still represents writing off a fairly huge financial investment – not to mention the hard-to-quantify costs to the image and reputation of the Xbox brand. This isn’t the kind of decision that’s made rapidly or taken lightly – and though the reasons remain obscure, we can guess that a mix of factors was considered.
For one thing, it’s fairly likely that the game wasn’t living up to expectations. Scalebound was ambitious, combining unusual RPG aspects with a style of action Platinum Games (usually masters of the action genre) hadn’t attempted before, and throwing four-player co-op into the mix as well. There are a lot of things in that mix that could go wrong; plenty of fundamental elements that just might not gel well, that might look good on paper but ultimately fail to provide the kind of compelling, absorbing experience a AAA console exclusive needs. These things happen, even to the most talented of creative teams and directors.
For another thing, though, it’s equally likely that Microsoft’s decision stems in part from some issues internal to the publisher. Since Scalebound went into development in 2013, the Xbox division has been on a long, strange journey, and has ended up in a very different place to the one it anticipated when it inked its deal with Platinum three years ago. When Microsoft signed on to publish Scalebound, it was gearing up to launch an ambitious successor to the hugely successful Xbox 360 which would, it believed, expand upon the 360’s audience by being an all-purpose entertainment box, a motion-controlled device as much media hub and high-tech TV viewing system as game console.
By the time Scalebound was cancelled this week, much of that ambition had been scrapped, PS4 had soared off into the sunset leaving Microsoft trailing in a very distant second place, and Xbox One has become instead one link in a longer chain, a single component of an Xbox and Xbox Live brand and platform that extends across the Windows 10 ecosystem and which will, later this year, also encompass a vastly upgraded console in the form of Scorpio.
It only stands to reason that the logic which led to the signing of a game before this upheaval would no longer apply in the present environment. While quality issues around Scalebound cannot be dismissed – if Microsoft felt that it had a truly great game on its hands, it would have proceeded with it regardless of any strategic calculation – the implications of Scalebound’s cancellation for the broader Xbox strategy are worthy of some thought. Actually, it’s not so much Scalebound itself – which is just one game, albeit a very high profile one – as the situation in which its cancellation leaves the Xbox in 2017, and the dramatic defocusing of exclusive software which the removal of Scalebound from the release list throws into sharp relief.
A quick glance down 2017’s release calendar suggests that there remain only two major Xbox One exclusive titles due to launch this year – Halo Wars 2 and Crackdown 3. The console remains well supported with cross-platform releases, of course, but in terms of reasons for a player to choose Xbox One over the more successful PS4, or indeed for an existing PS4 owner to invest in an Xbox One as a second console (a vital and often overlooked factor in growing the install base mid-cycle), things are very sparse. By contrast, the PS4 has a high profile exclusive coming out just about every few weeks – many of them from Sony’s first-party studios, but plenty of others coming from third parties. Platinum Games’ fans will note, no doubt, that Sony’s console will be getting a new title from the studio – NieR: Automata – only a few months after Scalebound’s cancellation.
The proliferation of multiplatform games means that Xbox One owners won’t be starved of software – this is no Wii U situation. Existing owners, and those who bought into the platform after the launch of the Xbox One S last year, will probably be quite happy with their system, but the fact remains that with the exception of the two titles mentioned above and a handful of indie games (some of which do look good), the Xbox One this year is going to get by on a subset of the PS4’s release schedule.
That’s not healthy for the future of the platform. The strong impression is that third parties have largely abandoned Xbox One as a platform worth launching exclusive games on, and unlike Sony during the PS3’s catch-up era, Microsoft’s own studios and publishing deals have not come forward to take up the slack in its console’s release schedule. This isn’t all down to Scalebound, of course; Scalebound is just the straw that breaks the camel’s back, making this situation impossible to ignore.
Why have things ended up this way? There are two possible answers, and the reality is probably a little from column A and a little from column B. The first answer is that Microsoft’s strategy for Xbox has changed in a way which makes high-profile (and high-cost) exclusive software less justifiable within the company. That’s especially true of high-profile games that won’t be on Windows 10 as well as Xbox One; one of the ways in which the Xbox division has secured its future within Microsoft in the wake of the company’s reorganisation under CEO Satya Nadella is by positioning itself as a key part of the Windows 10 ecosystem.
Pushing Xbox One exclusive software flies in the face of that strategic positioning; new titles Microsoft lines up for the future will be cross-platform between Windows and Xbox, and that changes publishing priorities. It’s also worth noting that the last attempt Microsoft made to plug the gap in its exclusive software line-up didn’t go down so well and hasn’t been repeated; paying for a 12-month exclusivity window for the sequel to the (multiplatform) Tomb Raider reboot just seems to have annoyed people and didn’t sell a notable number of Xbox Ones.
The second answer, unsurprisingly, revolves around Scorpio. It’s not unusual for a console to suffer a software drought before its successor appears on the market, so with Scorpio presumably being unveiled at E3 this year, the Xbox One release list could be expected to dry up. The wrinkle in this cloth is that Scorpio isn’t meant to be an Xbox One replacement. What little information Microsoft has provided about the console thus far has been careful to position it as an evolution of the Xbox One platform, not a new system. What that means in practice, though, hasn’t been explained or explored. Microsoft’s messaging on Scorpio is similar to the positioning of PS4 Pro – an evolutionary upgrade whose arrival made no difference to software release schedules – but at the same time suggests a vastly more powerful system, one whose capabilities will far outstrip those of Xbox One to an extent more reminiscent of a generational leap than an evolutionary upgrade.
The question is whether Microsoft’s anaemic slate of exclusive releases is down, in part, to a focus on getting big titles ready for Scorpio’s launch window. If so, it feels awfully like confirmation that Scorpio – though no doubt sharing Xbox One’s architecture and thus offering perfect backwards compatibility – is really a new console with new exclusive software to match. If it’s not the case, however, then along with clearing up the details of Scorpio, this year’s E3 will have to answer another big question for Microsoft; where is all your software?
2017 needs to just be a temporary dip in the company’s output, or all its efforts on Scorpio will be for naught. Seamus Blackley, Ed Fries, Kevin Bachus and the rest of the original Xbox launch team understood something crucial all the way back in the late nineties when they were preparing to enter Microsoft into the console business; software sells hardware. If you don’t have the games, nothing else matters. Whatever the reasons for 2017’s weak offering from Xbox, we must firmly hope that that lesson hasn’t been forgotten in the corridors of Redmond.
Games generated $91 billion worldwide in 2016, according to a report from beancounters at SuperData Research who have been adding up some numbers on Christmas Party napkins.
Most of the cash was made in the mobile game segment some $41 billion (up 18 percent), followed by $26 billion for retail games and $19 billion for free-to-play online games.
Beancountrs at SuperData said that the new categories such as virtual reality, esports, and gaming video content were small in size, but they are growing fast and holding promise for next year. Hardware firms like Sony and HTC to take the lead in 2017. Still,
VR grew to $2.7 billion in 2016. Gaming video reached $4.4 billion, up 34 percent.
Mobile gaming was driven by Pokémon Go and Clash Royale. The mobile games market has started to mature and now more closely resembles traditional games publishing, requiring ever higher production values and marketing spend. Monster Strike was the top mobile game, with $1.3 billion in revenue.
The esports market generated $892 million (up 19 percent) in revenue. A string of investments in pursuit of connecting to a new generation of media consumers has built the segment’s momentum, as major publishers like Activision, Riot Games, and EA are exploring new revenue streams for selling media rights, according to the report.
Consumers increasingly download games directly to their consoles, spending $6.6 billion on digital downloads in 2016 which has helped improve margins.
PC gaming continues to do well, earning $34 billion (up 6.7 percent) and driven largely by free-to-play online titles and downloadable games. League of Legends together with newcomers like Overwatch are driving the growth in PC games.
PC gamers also saw a big improvement with the release of a new generation of graphics cards.
With the exception of the last generation of consoles, which saw a roughly eight-year run on the market, the traditional console cycle has averaged around five to six years. This time around, however, perhaps influenced by the wave of high-end graphics cards necessitated by VR, both Microsoft and Sony are testing the market with so-called mid-cycle upgrades. The PS4 Pro and next year’s Scorpio offer gamers the chance to play in 4K – a resolution that until recently was only possible in the realm of PC gaming. Perhaps more importantly, the inclusion of HDR gaming offers a new level of visual fidelity that brings a much wider color gamut to players.
Factoring in the recent release of the Xbox One S, and the PS4 Slim model as well, we’ve never seen this many new consoles launched to the market so near to the start of a new console cycle – both PS4 and Xbox One released only three years ago – which begs the question: is the traditional console cycle now dead?
2016 and 2017 with Scorpio will certainly prove to be an interesting test for the market. It’s far too early to judge the reception to PS4 Pro, but Xbox One S has been selling moderately well, even allowing Xbox One to outsell PS4 for a few months.
NPD analyst Mat Piscatella, who joined the data firm with years of publishing experience at Activision and WBIE, commented, “I think I’d call it more ‘evolved’ than ‘died’… Nintendo seems to have already been there for years, at least in the portable space. We have to wait and see what they will do with the Switch. But the iterative model certainly will be tested over the next 12-18 months.”
“Nintendo’s past approach in the portable space has proven that the iterative model can be successful,” he continued. “However, the PS4 Pro and Scorpio (we assume) will bring much more significant performance upgrades at higher upfront costs to the consumer.
“Adding iterative hardware into a cycle also creates the need for a much more demanding set of go to market strategies while making successful execution of those strategies more critical than ever before. Balancing game development resources, the hardware R&D challenges surrounding an iterative launch, the detailed planning that will be necessary to properly align the supply chain from production to retail to ensure the proper mix and stock volumes in channel, ensuring the pricing and price promotion programs are right, all while communicating marketing messages that speak to the different customer sets effectively… this will certainly be an ongoing challenge.”
While some have speculated that we’ll now see new consoles literally every year, mimicking the lightspeed pace at which smartphones get upgraded, the market dynamics for consoles and the impact of new hardware on developers makes that a much more difficult proposition.
Consequently, Piscatella doesn’t think we’ll see more than one new console iteration per cycle. “I don’t see a more rapid deployment as feasible due primarily to development challenges. Making video games is hard, and ensuring a game is optimized for two versions of a console is challenging enough. Getting to 3 or 4 versions of the game for the same console base seems to me as though it would bring diminishing returns,” he explained.
SuperData’s Joost van Dreunen believes that the typical console cycle will remain intact, but unlike Piscatella, he sees the platform holders iterating continuously.
The constant technical upgrades that we see in mobile have effectively changed consumer expectations and the broader market for interactive entertainment, he noted. “So as Sony and Microsoft are pursuing their respective long-term VR/AR agendas, they now also have to keep in touch with what’s happening outside of their secret labs. This means we’re probably looking at the release of a new hardware architecture every 5-7 years, and allowing for annual iterations of key components throughout the lifecycle,” he said.
“This blend of internally developing proprietary hardware and adopting externally emerging trends that are popular with consumers is a powerful mix, and has allowed console gaming to thrive when many wrote it off. And given the current success of both platforms, and the imminent arrival of Nintendo’s bid, I don’t expect the console gaming market to soften any time soon.”
While the longstanding five-plus year console cycle was a boon for developers to work with and optimize for a set specification, the iterative approach that we’re likely to see in hardware moving forward brings advantages as well. As Piscatella explained, introducing console iterations can help to reduce cycle stagnation and boost consoles’ cycle tail, while also “encouraging pubs/devs to invest in scalable development environments, to hopefully avoid the dramatic steps up in development costs seen previously with new hardware deployment.”
Furthermore, by offering multiple configurations that still adhere to the same architecture (Xbox One, One S, Scorpio), there’s an opportunity for “price/benefit ratios appealing to both enthusiast and mass market audiences. Marketing approaches no longer have to take a one-size-fits-all approach,” Piscatella said.
The iterative release schedule would appear to make sense for the console manufacturers, enabling them to maximize returns and keep average pricing elevated, and so long as the ecosystem and gaming experiences are kept consistent across the numerous variations of the consoles, Sony and Microsoft don’t really care which version of their hardware a player owns – so long as that player remains invested in Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, that’s a win for Microsoft or Sony. The platform is less important than the digital ecosystem nowadays, especially with digital sales rising rapidly.
“The console market is at its heart a consumer electronics market,” van Dreunen remarked. “But increasingly it is incorporating tactics from the fashion industry, where we see an accelerated adoption of trends that emerged outside of the ateliers and studios of salaried designers. Console manufacturers have been actively pursuing digital distribution and free-to-play, both of which first gained traction on PC and mobile. Full game downloads now represent about 27% of holiday sales, up from just 5% in 2012, adding just under $7 billion a year to the console market. Titles like FIFA, GTA Online, and Call of Duty, do really well in terms of digital sales, and have managed to improve margins and player base longevity. Further facilitating this trend will be as important as making the hardware better.”
With the digital ecosystem taking precedence, it’s no surprise that Sony has made PlayStation Now streaming titles work for Windows PCs, and with the remote play feature, customers can enjoy PS4 titles on a PC or Mac as well. Microsoft, of course, which has a deep investment in the PC space with Windows 10 has extended the Xbox ecosystem across devices with Xbox Play Anywhere, enabling certain titles to be played with progress intact on a PC or Xbox console.
Whether you’re playing on Windows 10 or Xbox One doesn’t matter to Xbox boss Phil Spencer. In fact, he’s not even concerned about whether you upgrade to Scorpio next year.
“For us in the console [industry], the business is not selling the console,” Spencer told me back at E3. “The business is more of an attached business to the console install base. So if you’re an Xbox One customer and you bought that console 3 years ago, I think you’re a great customer. You’re still using the device. That’s why we focus on monthly active users. That’s actually the health of our ecosystem because it’s really you want this large install base of people that are active in your network buying games, playing games… So our model’s not really built around selling you a new console every one or two years. The model is almost the exact opposite. If I can keep you with the console you have, keep you engaged in buying and playing games, that’s a good business.”
If frequent hardware iteration is indeed the new reality for the console market, publishers couldn’t be happier. “I actually see it…as an incredibly positive evolution of the business strategy for players and for our industry and definitely for EA. The idea that we would potentially not have an end of cycle and a beginning of cycle I think is a positive place for our industry to be and for all of the commercial partners as well as players,” EA global publishing chief Laura Miele said during the company’s EA Play conference.
Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick agreed, “It would be a very good thing for us,” not to have to worry about hardware and who owns which console. He likened it to TV. “When you make a television show you don’t ask yourself ‘what monitor is this going to play on?’ It could play on a 1964 color television or it could play on a brand-new 4K television, but you’re still going to make a good television show.”
“We will get to the point where the hardware becomes a backdrop,” he said. That may very well be true. At the point when high fidelity games are playable literally anywhere and on any device, will we even have consoles? Much like Netflix, the networks and content providers/curators will live on, but hardware may not matter.
And as happy as publishers appear to be about the new world of console iteration, NPD’s Piscatella did point to a possible cause for concern. “Here’s the real question. If consumers are purchasing multiple iterations of the same console over the course of a generation, does this potentially increase or decrease the amount of money that consumer will spend on software and associated content?” he asked.
“And I think this is an open question… will they spend more because they’ve reinvested in the ecosystems? Or will they spend less because they’ve just output more money on to the iterative hardware? We’ll see how the market answers that question over the next 12-18 months.”