Quantum Break is said to feature television segments that will be part of the main game with players unlocking new segments at the end of some gameplay segments. The live action television segments can we watched right away or they can be viewed later on mobile devices such as a smart phone or tablet.
The run here is that originally we assumed that these live action segments to be integrated with the game were being produced by Remedy, but word is now that this may not actually be the case and that the Microsoft Xbox Entertainment Studios division might actually be responsible for delivering this content.
So far, no one at Microsoft or Remedy will confirm what if any the impact of closing Xbox Entertainment Studios may have on the Quantum Break project if any. Sources we have spoken with seem to think that the recording of all of this live action segments is already done and finished. So there is nothing to worry about, but other think that it will be difficult to scrap Quantum Break this far into the development, but a redesign that does not use the television segments might be likely.
To hear the likes of Electronic Arts and Gameloft tell it, premium apps are all but a relic of the past, the obsolete progenitor to mobile’s free-to-play future. But some smaller developers have found that future isn’t all it’s made out to be, and have been finding more success back on the premium side of the fence.
Kitfox Games and Double Stallion, two Montreal studios from Jason Della Rocca’s Execution Labs incubator, launched Shattered Planet and Big Action Mega Fight, respectively, on mobile in the last year. However, both titles struggled to rake in revenue, and the studios have since released more successful premium versions of the two. Kitfox’s Tanya X. Short and Double Stallion’s Nicolas Barrière-Kucharski spoke with GamesIndustry International this week to discuss their forays into free-to-play, and why more traditional business models worked better for them.
In Double Stallion’s case, part of the problem was that Big Action Mega Fight proved an awkward fit for the free-to-play format.
“We picked a genre, fighting, that was very content-driven,” Barrière-Kucharski said. “It was really very arduous to keep up and engage the audience with new levels, new enemies, and new types of content. We couldn’t compete at our size and budget with other, more established free-to-play studios and games.”
Beyond that, the genre may have been a poor fit for the audience. Barrière-Kucharski said that the people who would appreciate Big Action Mega Fight’s skill-based gameplay and faithful take on the beat-’em-up genre simply weren’t the same people interested in free-to-play games.
“I think the overlap between audiences was just too small to sustain a thriving community around the game,” Barrière-Kucharski said.
With Shattered Planet, Short said genre wasn’t a problem. She thinks the games-as-a-service model is actually a perfect fit for roguelikes like Shattered Planet, where a few new items and systems can exponentially increase the potential content for players to experience. However, Shattered Planet still didn’t fit the free-to-play mold for a few reasons.
“Free-to-play is not always suitable to single-player games,” Short said. “I think it’s best suited to multiplayer games in which it being free is actually of value to players because they can have more people to play with. That’s one philosophy we’ve developed, that if we ever do free-to-play again, we would only do it for multiplayer.”
On top of that, Shattered Planet was designed to be a tough game for players. But Short said in the free-to-play business model, difficulty can be “a dangerous thing.”
“We made a difficult game, and the fact that it was free made people suspicious, and rightfully so,” Short said. “I think they had every right to be a little bit paranoid about why the game was difficult. And in a business model where difficulty generally does often make people spend more, I think a designer’s hands are tied as to how and when a game can be difficult and when it’s ethical. So we felt a lot more comfortable about making a premium game, and me as the designer, I was happier because we could say sincerely that it’s exactly as difficult as we wanted it to be and you can’t say it was greedy or whatever.
Both games have found more success since they were released as premium versions. Big Action Mega Fight was re-launched last month as a $3 app ($2 during a first-week sale); those who downloaded the free-to-play version received the upgrade to the premium version as a free title update. Even though the free version of the game was downloaded about 400,000 times, Barrière-Kucharski said the revenues from Big Action Mega Fight’s first week as a paid app topped the total lifetime income from the free-to-play version since its November debut. To date the company has sold about 3,600 copies of Big Action Mega Fight on iOS, Android, Amazon Fire, and Ouya.
Kitfox took a different approach to premium the switch, continuing to run the free-to-play Shattered Planet mobile app alone, but also releasing a premium PC version on Steam with a $15 price tag and no monetization beyond that. The results were similarly positive, as Short said the studio made as much on Steam in one day as it had on mobile in two months. In its first week, Shattered Planet sold 2,500 copies on Steam. Short is happy to see the game bringing in more money, but she confessed to being a little bit torn on the trade-off it required.
“It really was great seeing that we had 300,000 downloads on mobile,” Short said. “We had 300,000 people play Shattered Planet on iOS and Android, and that’s amazing. Sure, it looks like we’re going to make two to five to 10 times more money on Steam, but it’s only going to be 1 percent of the amount of people that could see it if we tried to release it free, in theory… It’s a little bit sad that you monetize better with fewer people. When you’re trying to get your brand and your name out there, it is sad we couldn’t have another few hundred thousand people.”
Beyond the trade-off of settling for a smaller but more supportive audience, Kitfox has encountered some negative effects of releasing Shattered Planet as a free-to-play mobile title and then as a PC premium game.
“For us, a lot of people remained skeptical of the quality of the game if they knew the mobile version existed,” Short said. “I don’t think that really has that much to do with free-to-play and more to do with platform snobbery. It’s just kind of a general feeling of console and PC gamers that if a game was ever on mobile, it couldn’t possibly be as feature-rich or as deep, as strategic or anything like that.”
On top of that, there was some customer confusion over the game and its business model. Short said the game’s forums on Steam had some angry users saying they wouldn’t buy the game because it had in-app purchases (which it didn’t). Although the developers were able to post in the threads and clear things up, that sort of inconsistency has convinced them that if they ever do return to mobile platforms, they will stick to a free demo or companion app rather than something monetized.
“It’s just so dominated by giant players,” Short said of the mobile scene. “It’s such a completely different market that I think you really have to focus on it, and that’s not my team’s expertise. For us, we’re definitely going to be focus on PC and console; I think that’s where our talents are.”
Barrière-Kucharski agreed, saying that even if a niche audience is willing to pay for a certain experience, there just aren’t good ways for developers to connect to that audience.
“It’s really hard to be found or be discovered by players,” Barrière-Kucharski said. “I’m really looking forward to all the curation issues that are going to be tackled in the next year or so on iOS 8 and the Steam Greenlight update.”
But even if those initiatives follow through on their promises of improving discoverability, Barrière-Kucharski worries that the problem could still get worse as the gains made won’t be enough to offset the flood of new developers entering the field. Short also saw discoverability as a key problem facing developers right now, but stressed that finding a solution is in the best interests of the platform holders.
“Whatever platform figures out discoverability first will have a huge advantage because there are these thousands of developers that as soon as they hear there is any discoverability, that’s where they’re going to flood for sure,” Short said. “So it is almost a race at the moment between Steam and Apple and Google.”
Late last year, Frank Gibeau switched roles at Electronic Arts, moving from president of the PC and console-focused EA Labels to be the executive vice president of EA Mobile. Speaking with GamesIndustry International at E3 last month, Gibeau said he was enticed by the vast opportunity for growth in the mobile world, and the chance to shape the publisher’s efforts in the space.
“One of the things I enjoy doing is building new groups, new teams and taking on cool missions,” Gibeau said. “The idea was that EA is known as a console company, and for our PC business. We’re not particularly well known for our mobile efforts, and I thought it would be an awesome challenge to go in and marshal all the talent and assets of EA and, frankly, build a mobile game company.”
It might sound a little odd to hear Gibeau speaking of building a mobile game company at EA. After all, he described EA as “the king of the premium business model” in the mobile world not too long ago, when the company was topping charts with $7 apps like The Sims 3 or raking it in with paid offerings like Tetris, Monopoly, or Scrabble.
“Two years ago, we were number one on feature phones with the premium business model,” Gibeau said. “Smart devices come in, freemium comes in, and we’re rebuilding our business. I think we’ve successfully gotten back into position and we see a lot of opportunity to grow the business going forward, but if you had talked to me about two years ago and tried to speculate there would be a company called Supercell with that much share and that many games, we wouldn’t even have come close.”
Gibeau expects that pace of upheaval to continue in the mobile market, but some things seem set in stone. For example, Gibeau is so convinced that the days of premium apps are done, he has EA Mobile working exclusively on freemium these days.
“If you look at how Asia operates, premium just doesn’t exist as a business model for interactive games, whether it’s on PC or mobile devices. If you look at the opportunity set, if you’re thinking globally, you want to go freemium so you can capture the widest possible audience in Japan, Korea, China, and so on… With premium games, you just don’t get the downloads you do with a free game. It’s better to get as many people into your experience and trying it. If they connect with it, that’s great, then you can carry them for very long periods of time. With premium, given that there are so many free offerings out there, it’s very difficult to break through.”
Unfortunately for EA, its prior expertise is only so relevant in the new mobile marketplace. Its decades of work on PCs and consoles translated well to premium apps that didn’t require constant updating, but Gibeau said running live services is a very different task – one EA needs to get better at.
“Our challenge frankly is just mastering the freemium live service component of what’s happening in mobile,” Gibeau said. “That’s where we’re spending a lot of our time right now. We think we have the right IP. We have the right talent. We’ve got great production values. Our scores from users are pretty high. It’s really about being able to be as good as Supercell, King, Gungho, or some of these other companies at sustained live services for long periods of time. We have a couple games that are doing really well on that front, like The Simpsons, Sims Freeplay, and Real Racing, but in general I think that’s where we need to spend most of our time.”
As Gibeau mentioned, EA has already had some successes on that front, but its record isn’t exactly unblemished. The company launched a freemium reboot of Dungeon Keeper earlier this year and the game was heavily criticized for its aggressive monetization approach. In May, EA shuttered original developer Mythic.
“Dungeon Keeper suffered from a few things,” Gibeau said. “I don’t think we did a particularly good job marketing it or talking to fans about their expectations for what Dungeon Keeper was going to be or ultimately should be. Brands ultimately have a certain amount of permission that you can make changes to, and I think we might have innovated too much or tried some different things that people just weren’t ready for. Or, frankly, were not in tune with what the brand would have allowed us to do. We like the idea that you can bring back a brand at EA and express it in a new way. We’ve had some successes on that front, but in the case of Dungeon Keeper, that just didn’t connect with an audience for a variety of reasons.”
The Dungeon Keeper reboot wasn’t successful, but EA continues to keep the game up and running, having passed the live service responsibilities to another studio. It’s not because the company is hoping for a turnaround story so much as it’s just one more adaptation to running games with a live service model.
“If you watch some of the things we’ve been doing over the last eight or nine months, we’ve made a commitment to players,” Gibeau said. “We’re sincere and committed to that. So when you bring in a group of people to Dungeon Keeper and you serve them, create a live service, a relationship and a connection, you just can’t pull the rug out from under them. That’s just not fair. We can sustain the Dungeon Keeper business at its level for a very long time. We have a committed group of people who are playing the game and enjoying it. So our view is going to be that we’ll keep Dungeon Keeper going as long as there’s a committed and connected audience to that game. Are we going to sequel it? Probably not. [Laughs] But we don’t want to just shut stuff off and walk away. You can’t do that in a live service environment.”
Much like EA’s institutional experience, there’s only so much of Gibeau’s past in the console and PC core gaming world that is directly relevant to today’s mobile space. But as the segment grows out of what he calls the “two guys in a garage” stage, EA’s organizational expertise will be increasingly beneficial.
“These teams are starting to become fairly sizeable,” Gibeau said, “and the teams and investment going into these games is starting to become much greater. Now they’re much, much less than you see on the console side, but there’s a certain rigor and discipline in approach from a technology and talent standpoint that’s very applicable… If you look at these devices, they will refresh their hardware and their computing power multiple times before you see a PlayStation 5. And as you see that hardware get increasing power and capability on GPU and CPU levels, our technology that we set up for gen 4 will be very applicable there. We’re going to be building technologies like Frostbite that operate on mobile devices so we can create richer, more immersive experiences on mobile.”
Even if mobile blockbusters like Candy Crush Saga aren’t exactly pushing the hardware, Gibeau said there’s still a need for all that extra horsepower. With the increased capabilities of multitasking on phones, he sees plenty of room for improvement before the industry runs up against diminishing returns on the CPU and GPU front. He likens today’s mobile titles to late-generation PS2 games, with PS3 and Xbox 360-level games just around the corner.
“As it relates to games, this is like black and white movies with no sound at this point, in terms of the type of games we’ve created,” Gibeau said. “We’re just starting to break through on the really big ideas is my personal view. If you look at games like Clash of Clans, Real Racing, even Candy Crush, they’re breaking through in new ways and spawning all types of new products that are opening up creativity and opportunities here. So I think computing power is just something we’ll continue to leverage.”
The best part for Gibeau is that the hard work of convincing people to buy these more powerful devices isn’t falling solely on the shoulders of game developers.
“The beauty of it is it’s not a single-use device,” Gibeau said, “so people will be upgrading them for a better camera, better video capability, different form factor, different user inputs, as a wearable… I think there’s so much pressure from an innovation standpoint between Samsung, Apple, Google, and Windows coming in, that they’ll continue to one up each other and there will be a very vibrant refresh cycle for a very long period of time. The screens get better, the computing power gets better, and I don’t have to worry about just games doing it like we were in the console business. Those were pretty much just games consoles; these are multi-use devices. And the beauty of it is there will be lots of different types of applications coming in and pushing that upgrade path.”
Breaking up is hard to do, as the Carpenters famously crooned; right now, Microsoft is discovering, not for the first time this generation, that dumping your old ideas is just as tough as dumping your clingy ex. It may be the right thing to do, but it’s a fraught process and one that it’s tough to emerge from without attracting plenty of ire along the way.
Kinect 2.0 and Xbox One were, after all, meant to be married for life. The expensive sensor was bundled with the console from day one. Its functionality was deeply ingrained in the design of the system’s user interface, and a whole 10% of GPU resources were permanently devoted to it. Originally, Xbox One wasn’t even capable of booting up without a Kinect plugged in; it was an intrinsic and inseparable part of the console. In sickness and health, till death do they part.
Well, like so many relationships and marriages, it turned out that there were plenty of good reasons to break up long before the Grim Reaper raised a bony hand. Kinect has been at the root of many of Microsoft’s woes with Xbox One. It raised the price of the system, making the console $100 more expensive than the more technically impressive and well-liked PS4. It seemed to imply that Xbox One was a console aimed at casual gamers (with whom motion controls are now, fairly or unfairly, strongly associated) at the expense of the core gamers who made Xbox 360 successful. Moreover, in an age of actually rather justifiable paranoia about privacy, a camera in your living room that never turned off made plenty of people downright uncomfortable.
Worst of all, up to this point, Kinect just hasn’t justified its own existence. There aren’t any great games on the Xbox One that use Kinect extensively; there’s simply nothing there to make people think, “wow, this is something you couldn’t do on PS4 because it doesn’t have Kinect”. After 12 months of doggedly repeating the party line that Kinect was a great unique selling point for Xbox One, Microsoft’s decision to unbundle the peripheral from the console is a tacit admission that it wasn’t a selling point at all. Innovative hardware is meaningless if nobody builds must-have games to exploit the functionality.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that the decision to bring Kinect around the back of the woodshed and put a bullet in it was announced shortly after Phil Spencer took over Xbox. Spencer understands games in a way that his immediate predecessors did not; he would have an innate understanding of the fact that games sell consoles, and untapped potential in hardware is not exciting to consumers, it’s simply wasteful. An expensive peripheral that doesn’t drive great software isn’t a USP, it’s a ball and chain around the ankle of the console. It had to go.
It’s a little disingenuous, then, to see Spencer trying to claim that everything is fine in the land of Kinect. Speaking to GamesIndustry International at E3, he simultaneously acknowledged that Kinect was dragging the console down (noting that Kinect couldn’t succeed if Xbox One itself failed, which is a tacit admission that bundling Kinect with the console was risking a huge failure) while also claiming that plenty of consumers will buy the Kinect peripheral separately, and it’ll continue to be a big part of the Xbox One offering.
Not an unexpected claim, of course; but also patently not a true one. Kinect wasn’t supported strongly by developers even when it was bundled with every Xbox One. Now that it’s been dropped to the status of “expensive peripheral with no good games”, developer support will entirely dry up. Just like its predecessor on the Xbox 360, Xbox One Kinect is going to be relegated to lip-service support (“jump around to avoid enemy attacks, or just press B… Huh, you pressed B? Not up for jumping around? Surprising…”) and a handful of dancing or exercise titles. Not that there’s anything wrong with dancing or exercise titles, but you don’t get platform-defining tech from them; if you did, the world would have changed a hell of a lot more when Dance Dance Revolution mats came out for the PS1.
I don’t want to give Microsoft too much of a hard time for its decision with Kinect, not least because it’s the right decision. It gives them price parity with Sony and might help to fix some of the perception problems Xbox One faces. On the other hand, while Kinect was a failed USP – and thus deserved to be ditched – it was at least an attempt at a USP. With the right software and services backing it up, it could have given the Xbox One an offer different enough from Sony’s to be very interesting indeed – but building that software would have taken time, effort and attention. Spencer, with full visibility of the firm’s software pipeline, chose instead to amputate the limb and cauterise the wound. Painful, but mercifully quick; definitely a vote of no confidence in whatever Kinect software is still under development; possibly a move that will make Xbox One walk with a limp for the rest of its life.
What I hope the Xbox team recognises is that ditching Kinect isn’t enough – and hollow platitudes about how important the peripheral remains to the company’s strategy certainly aren’t enough either. What Xbox One needs is something to replace Kinect, a new USP; one that isn’t rubbish, this time. That USP could just be software, with Microsoft doubling down on its internal studios and building its relationships with third-parties to produce genuine exclusives (as opposed to timed-release DLC exclusives, which just look desperate and annoying no matter which platform is involved in them). It could be services, as the company attempts to leapfrog Sony and regain the lead Xbox Live once had over PSN’s services; what form that might take is tough to say, but there’s certainly still headway to be made in the provision of online services, and right now Microsoft lags behind, which makes this into an area brimming with opportunity. Most likely, a combination of both great games and great new services will be needed to make Xbox One attractive to consumers; to give it the USP that Kinect was supposed to be, but never was.
There’s an interesting comparison, of course, to be made with Nintendo’s difficulties with Wii U. I observed some time ago that both Microsoft and Nintendo had made the same basic error with their new consoles – they launched with expensive peripherals that boosted the cost of the console but had yet to show any dividends in terms of unique, must-have software. In Microsoft’s case, Kinect has now been ditched; losing the millstone, but with no sign yet of a new USP to replace it. Nintendo, however, has taken quite the opposite approach. Gamepad remains firmly bundled with the Wii U, and while software for the Gamepad still doesn’t impress, there’s obviously potential there; the short, cryptic videos of Miyamoto Shigeru working up gameplay demos using the pad which was shown at the end of Nintendo’s E3 broadcast was a statement of intent. Rather than ditching its white elephant, Nintendo is trying to figure out how to put it to work.
So, over the next year, we’re going to get to see how two diametrically opposed solutions to the same problem work out. Microsoft, making the latest of several U-turns, has gone back to square one and now needs to find a new selling point for the Xbox One. Nintendo has doubled down on the Gamepad, and needs to convince consumers of the worth of its innovation – not to mention the worth of the Wii U overall. Different challenges with similar requirements; they both need great games to prove their point. The consumer wins, in this situation, but it will be interesting to see which company, if either, can emerge victorious from these trials.
In the Far Cry games, fire is a wonderful tool. It spreads dynamically, opening up a wealth of creative and strategic possibilities for players to achieve their goals. However, it also gets out of control in a hurry, potentially coming back to hurt the player in sometimes unpredictable ways.
It’s an appropriate metaphor for the series’ approach to controversial subject matter. Last week, Ubisoft announced the development of Far Cry 4, showing off some key art in the process. The picture depicts a blonde light-skinned man in a shiny pink suit against the backdrop of the Himalayas, smirking as he uses a defaced statue as a throne. His right hand rests on the head of a darker skinned man who is kneeling before him, clutching a grenade with the pin pulled. Though we know very little about the characters depicted, their backgrounds, or their motivations, the art got people talking (and tweeting). Some were concerned about racism. Others were worried about homophobia. Many saw neither. At the same time, details about the game are so scant that it’s entirely possible the problematic elements here are properly addressed within the context of the game itself.
But at the moment, we don’t have that context. It’s promotional art, so to a certain extent, it’s designed to exist out of context, to catch the eye of someone on a store shelf, even if they’ve never heard of the series before. And while we lack the context the actual game would provide, there’s no such thing as “without context.” Here, the context we have is that this is a Far Cry game, the latest entry in a series that has been earning a reputation for boldly storming into narrative territory where other games fear to tread (often with good reason).
Like the fire propagation mechanic, this narrative ambition was introduced to the series with Far Cry 2. What had previously been just another shooter (albeit one in a tropical setting more attractive than most) became a series that embedded its stories within thorny issues. Far Cry 2 cast players as a mercenary in a fictitious African country’s prolonged civil unrest, using blood diamonds, malaria, and Western imperialism as texture in a story emphasizing the moral vacuum of war. Far Cry 3 took things a step further, with players controlling a spoiled rich white kid on a tropical island vacation who suddenly must deal with nefariously swarthy pirates and intentionally stereotypical natives. And just in case that didn’t stir up any controversy, the story also weaves in rape, sex, drugs, and torture. In both cases, some critics and players felt the games offensively trivialized important or tragic subjects.
Given this history, it’s not surprising that Far Cry 4 would not universally receive the benefit of the doubt. Much more surprising (to me, at least) is that Ubisoft is continuing down this path with the franchise. Far Cry 3 sold a staggering 9 million units, putting it in the same class of blockbuster as Assassin’s Creed (last year’s version of which sold 11 million units). However, the publisher’s narrative approach to the two games could not be more different.
Assassin’s Creed is a fascinating case study for dealing with touchy subjects in AAA video games. It wasn’t long after the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq that work on the first Assassin’s Creed started. You know, the one set in the middle of a holy war between Christians and Muslims. Assassin’s Creed II had players attempt to assassinate the pope. Assassin’s Creed III put players in control of a Native American protagonist during the Revolutionary War. Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry saw the gamification of emancipation.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise draws some criticism from time to time for its handling of these subjects, but the series has rarely found itself at the flashpoint of controversy. Part of the reason for that is the Assassin’s Creed developers research their subjects thoroughly. They understand what the concerns surrounding the sensitive topics are, and by virtue of the games’ historical settings, they can point to factual evidence of certain people’s actions, or common situations of each era.
When it comes to dealing with controversy, Assassin’s Creed is much like its stealthy protagonists are imagined to be: quiet, cautious, and efficient. Far Cry, on the other hand, deals with these topics more like the way Assassin’s Creed protagonists behave when I play them: recklessly uncoordinated and endlessly destructive. Even when it’s clear Far Cry’s developers have put plenty of thought into what they’re saying, it’s not always clear they’ve put much thought into what people will hear them saying through their games.
It speaks volumes about how Ubisoft perceives the long-term value of the two series. Assassin’s Creed is the company’s biggest and most adaptable blockbuster, an annual gaming event based on a premise that can be mined and iterated on endlessly in almost any medium, a recurring revenue stream to be nurtured over time. Far Cry, this key art release suggests, is just another first-person shooter, a brand defined primarily by how hard it works to shock people, perhaps because the company doesn’t have faith that it can sell on its other merits. One of them is the kind of project you make a Michael Fassbender film around. The other might be more of an Uwe Boll joint.
I’m not saying that Far Cry should avoid these subjects. I actually love to see games of all sizes attempting to tackle topics and themes often ignored by the industry. But the right to explore those subjects should come with a responsibility to do so with care. These are legitimately painful subjects for many people. If developers want to force players to confront them, they should have a good reason for it that goes beyond pushing people’s buttons, exploiting tragedy for shock value and an early preorder campaign. In video games, we don’t push buttons for the sake of pushing buttons. We push them to do things.
Ubisoft announced that Watch Dogs is setting pre-order records for the publisher. The company said that it’s the most pre-ordered new IP in Ubisoft’s history, the second-highest pre-ordered Ubisoft game ever, and the most pre-ordered new IP in the industry this year. Moreover, retailer GameStop confirmed that Watch Dogs is the most pre-ordered next-gen game to date.
All that said, Ubisoft actually did not disclose how many units were pre-ordered. GamesIndustry International pinged Ubisoft to ask for a pre-sales figure and we’ll be sure to let you know if we get one.
[Update: On the company's earnings conference call, executives said that they fully expect Watch Dogs to perform better than the first Assassin's Creed, meaning it should exceed 6.3 million in lifetime sales. "We expect it to become a major heavyweight of the industry," said CEO Yves Guillemot.]
“These strong pre-orders are a clear indication of players’ anticipation and excitement for Watch Dogs,” said Geoffroy Sardin, Senior VP Sales and Marketing at Ubisoft. “The teams have worked tirelessly to ensure that players will enjoy a top quality game with enormous scope, and we can’t wait to get the game into their hands.”
“We are seeing tremendous excitement for the new Watch Dogs game… It is on track to be one of the top selling video games across all consoles in 2014,” added Michael van den Berg, vice president of Merchandising at GameStop International.
Watch Dogs development is being led by Ubisoft Montreal, but similar to other massive AAA projects in the industry it’s been a collaborative effort with assistance from teams at Ubisoft Bucharest, Ubisoft Paris, Ubisoft Quebec and Reflections. The game will release on May 27 for current-gen and next-gen consoles, PC and it’s coming to Wii U “at a later date.”
Fireproof Games’s Barry Meade has issued a blunt jeremiad to what he sees as a mobile gaming industry hurtling towards creative irrelevance due to its reliance on data.
In an article published on Polygon, Meade lamented the reality that Fireproof’s The Room franchise is an extremely rare exception in mobile gaming: standalone experiences that earn good revenue from paid downloads.
“In a market as huge as mobile how the fuck are Fireproof among the only makers of premium games that saw this kind of success?” Meade asked, citing data indicating low levels of engagement (66 per cent of mobile games are not played beyond the first 24 hours) and incredibly small numbers of paying customers (two to three per cent) as evidence that the dominant free-to-play model is not providing quality entertainment to the market
“This is a statistically insignificant amount of happy gamers and nothing that gives you a basis to make claims about ‘what people want’. I think it just as likely that mobile’s orgy of casual titles is due to simple bandwagon-ism or, in other words, not knowing what people want.
“This is a statistically insignificant amount of happy gamers and nothing that gives you a basis to make claims about ‘what people want’”
“So it bothers me to hear game developers talking as if casual games are the new paradigm on mobile when so very few developers are actually happy with the games as they are, and mobile gamers clearly seem to “care” least of all. Free-to-play and casual titles should be a part of a greater gaming ecosystem, but right now they are the entirety of it on mobile.”
For further evidence, Meade pointed towards the top-ten grossing charts, which are dominated by an unchanging crop of huge titles that do little more than trade their relative positions of dominance. To the public, however, these “ten cute grinding games that are clones of each other” seem like the best the industry has to offer, and continue to reap the vast majority of the rewards.
“The free-to-play model itself serves a million uses to developers and gamers, I’ve chucked lots of time and money into World of Tanks, Warhammer Quest and many others myself – the model is not the problem,” Meade continued.
“The problem is more general, that taken as a whole the games industry is making mobile games that nobody cares about available to millions of players for nothing. Free-to-play producers chime that quality levels are obviously fine, ‘If it’s making money it’s objectively good, see?’
“Well no, not quite, shit sells by the ton every day. In the real world Burger King doesn’t get three Michelin stars. Burger King gets to be happy with its revenue not its reviews, and our industry’s inability to see the difference will only pull us further into our creative vacuum.”
The dominance of the free-to-play model in mobile continues to be divisive, and there are certainly counterpoints to Meade’s take on the matter – most notably from Ben Cousins, who has argued the relative merits of free-to-play both at conferences and in the press. However, Meade is far from alone in his doubt, and that includes developers who have spent years working with the free-to-play model.
At Casual Connect Europe this year, The Workshop’s Laralyn McWilliams gave a talk in which she warned the industry about mistaking data for an emotional connection. “There’s no measuring spoon for love. You can’t quantify it,” she said. “Retention is not the same as happiness.”
Meeting with GamesIndustry International after her talk, McWilliams expressed very real concern that the amount of money being made is masking the negative connections created by free-to-play games, and the possible long-term damage that could result from that relationship.
“The moment that you monetise in Candy Crush you’re probably extremely frustrated. You want to get past this level you’ve failed to complete 40 or 50 times, and that’s the moment you spend. But mixed into that moment where you spend is that frustration. It’s building a bad connection. I’m not monetising at a positive moment.”
Meade concludes his argument with perhaps the most salient point of all: “The audience knows better than all of us and if our mobile public truly does signal ‘I care’ through purchasing, I don’t think its radical for the industry to start listening to the 98 per cent of mobile gamers out there saying ‘I don’t care’.”
The full version of the article is over on Polygon, and it’s well worth your time.
It became apparent many years ago that much of the games industry’s future growth was going to come from new markets; new platforms, new demographics and new business models. Right from the outset, that undeniable reality has been hanging over the industry’s formerly dominant companies like Edgar Allan Poe’s slowly descending pendulum blade. Most senior people in any business like this know, or at least think they know, how this part of the innovator’s dilemma works; it means that the companies most successful in the old paradigm hang on for too long, too afraid of damaging their doomed old businesses to really push forward with new ideas, eventually being rendered obsolete by new, hungry firms with no stake in the old order of things to hold them back.
Lots of commentators see that happening to Nintendo right now. The company that effectively invented the modern console is so tied to the old model (which served it superbly with the Wii and DS, and continues to serve well on the 3DS) that it can’t let go, and will be outpaced by innovative new companies with no console fiefdom to defend. I don’t entirely agree; Nintendo is certainly conservative, but I don’t think it’s bound so much by the innovator’s dilemma as by a sense of long-termism that makes it deeply suspicious of possibly faddish trends. That suspicion could sink the company, or keep it swimming for a very long time; anyone claiming to know for sure how this plays out is welcome to email me next week’s lottery numbers while they’re at it.
“For all the dextrous footwork in their business planning, both companies can equally put their success at present down to a much more straightforward factor: fantastic core games”
After all, it’s not so long since plenty of other games companies were posited as dinosaurs who were about to be rendered extinct by the impact of new business models and technologies. Certainly, a fair few publishers have foundered in recent years, largely crushed by the implosion of the sub-AAA console space, but this week saw a twist to the narrative for the industry’s two largest publishers. Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard announced their financial results in quick succession; both firms significantly exceeded market expectations. You wouldn’t call either set of figures amazing, but there were few holes to be picked; they were solid figures, reflecting good, sustainable and growing businesses.
Part of that is down to flexibility. The two firms have leapt over the industry’s long and tortuous transition period in very different ways. EA embarked upon a long-term restructuring program under former boss John Riccitiello, ensuring that it would have a strong presence in new mobile and social gaming markets while retaining its powerful core franchises. Activision, on the other hand, doubled down on core gaming before branching out into the social and mobile spaces from that stronghold. You could reasonably posit that Activision is now stronger in the core space, and EA stronger in the new markets, but the reality is that both companies have ended up in broadly the same place, albeit through different routes, and both look very different to how they looked five years ago.
All the same, for all the dextrous footwork in their business planning, both companies can equally put their success at present down to a much more straightforward factor: fantastic core games. EA’s revenue was driven strongly by Titanfall, and positive forecasts for the coming year are thought to be largely based on forthcoming updates to the Battlefield franchise. Activision’s strong financial backbone is Blizzard, which continues to generate mountains of money from World of Warcraft (slowly declining, but still bigger than any MMO in history) and Diablo. Call of Duty and Skylanders are its other cash cows; its big hope for next year is Destiny, the new title from Halo creators Bungie.
These core franchises are not immune from the lure of new business models, and nor should they be. Activision, for instance, has high hopes for free-to-play mechanisms in its new Blizzard title, Hearthstone, and its forthcoming version of Call of Duty for the Chinese market. Yet most of the money coming from these games and services is in the form of up-front purchases or subscriptions. The introduction of new business models hasn’t killed off the old ones, it seems; plenty of consumers still prefer the traditional way of doing things, and are happy to pour money into it. EA and Activision have both made errors of judgment regarding which business model best suits which product in the past, and will do so again in the future, no doubt, but both firms recognise that the new models are additional options, not straight-up replacements, for the old way of doing things.
In that regard, although it’s just a single quarter’s data points, the positive results for these two leading publishers (and the stock market rally which followed) are good news for the industry overall. It’s been my thesis for some time that the market for core games is not in any kind of decline at all, but merely seems thus because of a combination of rapid growth elsewhere (which overshadows the now slow-but-steady growth of the much more mature core sector) and the obfuscation of revenues due to the digital transition. I suggest that EA and Activision’s results are further confirmation of that hypothesis; at the very least, even if they’re far from being “proof”, they’re good news for those whose businesses or careers are still pinned to the core sector and its traditional (but evolving!) business models.
“If budgets do soar in this direction and consumers decide that this level of investment is what “AAA games” ought to be, then AAA games will contract to an even smaller subset of what they already are”
Which is not to say that there was no shadow cast by this week’s financial announcements. If you didn’t raise your eyebrows at Activision’s admission that Destiny’s development and launch is going to cost around $500 million, then you’re either a lot wealthier than most people, or a lot worse at processing very large numbers than most people. For all the talk and worry among core gamers and the developers who serve them about the rise of mobile, social and F2P, I can’t help but feel that the only real threat to AAA gaming right now is not external at all. It’s in this kind of madness, half-billion dollar gambles on single AAA titles, that the seeds of AAA’s own destruction may lie.
Sure, Destiny isn’t going to cost half a billion to develop; much of that money will go to the marketing budget and the expensive infrastructure required for the game, no doubt. Yet such specifics barely matter. Activision is making a half-billion-dollar punt on the game, and that in itself is inherently destructive. Imagine being a manager or creative at almost any level within such a project. Creative projects are inherently risky; nobody truly, honestly knows whether the public will love or hate (or worst of all, simply feel indifferent about) a new game, movie, song or book when it appears on the market. A $500 million creative project, therefore, must compensate for such inherent risk by trying to cut down risk in every other way possible; or to be more precise, everyone involved in such a project, aware of the enormous dollar-sign floating above, will reduce the risk of their own specific part of the project as much as possible, such that in the event of failure, nobody will blame them.
I’m not saying that Bungie, or any part of Activision itself, is necessarily pursuing such a strategy; merely that such a strategy naturally emerges from the awareness of such an enormous level of investment and the potential for such a damaging failure. People cover their own backsides; they do things that are solid and proven rather than things that are new and interesting, because new and interesting things are risky. It’s my firm hope and desire that Destiny ends up being a fantastic game, but I never really expected it to be a surprising game, and the $500 million price tag all but guarantees that I’m right about that. Surprises are risky. You can surprise people at low cost and hope for the best, but for $500 million, you don’t dare surprise anyone, least of all the fickle consumer.
I said previously that EA and Activision have ended up in the same place by walking different paths; I wonder, worriedly, if Destiny might be a part of the journey Activision has yet to complete, but which EA experienced rather painfully with the also hugely expensive Star Wars: The Old Republic. Once executives start talking about such huge amounts of money, seemingly oblivious to the inherent, essential riskiness of any new creative endeavour, it’s hard not to see shades of previous vainglorious failures. If budgets do soar in this direction and consumers decide that this level of investment is what “AAA games” ought to be, then AAA games will contract to an even smaller subset of what they already are. $500 million may be an impressive boast for Activision, but it’s not good news for the industry at large.
The IDC is preparing to publish its latest console forecast and the research firm has given GamesIndustry International an exclusive preview of the report. There are several key takeaways to note, including Sony’s dominance of the new console cycle, Microsoft’s need to unbundle Kinect, and a general decline in the physical retail side of the games business.
IDC predicts that Sony’s PlayStation 4 will have the single biggest share of the market in 2016 with 51 million sold globally. Microsoft hasn’t been faring quite as well, but IDC believes Xbox One will make a serious comeback, particularly in North America where it’s forecasted to take the lead. This will be spurred on by unbundling Kinect, IDC said.
“The presumed unbundling of Kinect and Xbox One, which should facilitate rough price parity between it and the PS4, should lead to a spike in Xbox One sales; assuming the console and sensor are unbundled in 2015, IDC expects Xbox One to recover and emerge with the largest installed base of any console in North America by the end of 2016,” the firm explained.
Meanwhile, Nintendo’s Wii U is expected to finally receive “the equivalent of a $50 price cut worldwide in late 2014 or early 2015,” but it won’t make a serious dent in the installed base gap between Wii U and the competition.
Looking at the bigger picture, the retail component of the video game business is expected to see continued declines, IDC said. IDC’s forecast states that, together, eighth generation consoles will generate about 10 percent less retail revenue from console hardware and disc-based games than seventh generation (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) consoles did combined through their first six years on the market.
That being said, total eighth generation console hardware revenue actually is projected to come in above the comparable seventh generation total thanks to higher average selling prices (ASPs). It’s a different story, however, for the physical disc business, which IDC forecasts will see 45 percent fewer discs sold to retailers in the first six years compared to the seventh generation physical games sales.
It’s clear that more and more games are being purchased digitally, and the good news is that digital sales will keep the industry healthy. “Given current trends, more than 50 percent of total game and direct app/service spending across all consoles will come through digital channels by 2019 (just over the edge of our forecast window),” said Lewis Ward, IDC research manager. “Microsoft and Sony will get there faster than Nintendo; the projection mixes all game/service spending on big 3 OEM platforms.”
In order for the industry to match the sales of the seventh generation, digital will have to continue to grow – and it appears that it will. “If digital games and related online console revenue streams are included in the picture… the outlook for eighth generation consoles improves substantially. The inclusion of digital console game spending, subscription revenue and other content/service/app purchases billed through online eighth generation console stores pushes total revenue up to within a few percent of the seventh gen total through the first six years of availability,” noted IDC. “Rising digital revenue is forecast to nearly offset the fall in disc-based revenue.”
IDC’s 73-page report, Worldwide Video Game and Entertainment Console Hardware and Packaged Software 2014-2018 Forecast, will be available this week.
When the Xbox One finally rolls out in Asian territories this September, almost a year after its western debut, all eyes will be on its performance in one key territory. Not Japan, where expectations for the console’s performance are about as close to absolute zero as you can imagine, but rather China; a late, and somewhat surprising, addition to Microsoft’s launch plans.
You’d think that China, the world’s most populous nation and second-largest economy, would be an obvious and attractive target for a console platform holder. Indeed, China is on track to be the world’s top economy within the coming years (perhaps even next year, according to recent projections in the Financial Times); corporations around the globe are eyeing the nation’s rapid growth and swelling middle class as a huge opportunity. Games on PC and mobile phones are already big business in China; why shouldn’t console platform holders take a piece of that pie?
Yet in September, when Microsoft introduces Xbox One to the Chinese market, it will be the first platform holder to attempt such a launch for many years. Neither Nintendo nor Sony has shown any indication that they intend to bring their present home console platforms to China, and despite the apparent potential of the market, you’d struggle to find any serious analyst who expects Xbox One’s performance there to be anything more than an interesting experiment. Chinese news site QQ reports that Microsoft is only planning to ship 100,000 units of the console in the region; Microsoft denies that rumour, but only does so in pointless newspeak. It’s “a figure which does not reflect Microsoft’s vision,” apparently, which translates into actual human language as “we can’t deny it, we just don’t want you to say it out loud”.
“Chinese gamers have mostly grown up without consoles and are used to mobiles and PCs as their gaming platforms, so the level of demand is questionable”
So what’s the problem with China? Why isn’t the world’s largest economy in waiting an open goal for console manufacturers? The problems are actually summed up quite well by the very circumstances which have allowed Microsoft to launch Xbox One in the market – namely the partial repeal of a rule dating back to 2000 which quite simply banned the sale of any foreign-made games console in China. Sony tried to flout the rule by marketing the PS2 as a more generalised home entertainment device, but even after trying to accommodate the thoroughly unimpressed Chinese authorities, found itself subject to a ban. Nintendo had a little more success, creating a joint venture called iQue which marketed a heavily modified N64 (the iQue Player) with a very limited range of software, but since since 2003 has focused solely on handheld consoles.
The recent expansion of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone has brought with it a change to this rule, along with many other liberalisations of trade within a specific zone around Shanghai. This has allowed Microsoft to establish a partnership with local firm BesTV – not just for Xbox One, but a more broad partnership aimed at extending Microsoft’s media interests into China.
Note two things about the above narrative. Firstly, for all its rapid growth and development as a marketplace, China was as recently as 2000 and beyond still establishing strict new rules prohibiting overseas countries from bringing consoles and games to the country. These rules were justified largely on cultural grounds; the authorities were apparently concerned that console games were bad for the development of children and would violate the cultural norms which the country’s censors wish to enforce. Concerns for childhood development, however, seemed not to apply to the country’s homegrown games industry, which has boomed in recent years. China now has a huge market for mobile and PC games, largely served by domestic companies, with only occasional success stories for western companies who manage to navigate the nation’s tough regulatory environment; Blizzard being the obvious example.
I don’t doubt that Chinese concern over the cultural aspects of games was real. The Chinese authorities believe strongly in the power of media and communication to impact upon their populace, and have a particularly deep-seated fear of external influences which might loosen their grasp on power within the country. Console games, a creative industry dominated by America and Japan – nations seen as rivals at best, as enemies at worst – would certainly appear suspect to those authorities, and a belief that games are bad for children’s development, albeit unsupported by research, does seem commonplace among Chinese parents. The justifications weren’t untrue, then; they were just very, very convenient, since they allowed the authorities to enact trade rules that very effectively protected a burgeoning local industry from international rivalry. This kind of protectionism is not unique to China, nor is it necessarily a bad thing, but the government’s willingness to wield this weapon in its economic battles around the media industries is a major concern for any new player in the marketplace.
This is far from being the only protectionist measure with which console manufacturers – Microsoft included – must contend. The second thing that’s notable about the narrative is that Microsoft is to launch the Xbox One in China not by itself, but in partnership with a local company, BesTV. This is not because of any particular desire to tap into local knowledge and experience, but rather because of legal requirement; doing business in China requires a local partner. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, a rare foreign success story in the market, is presently operated in China by local firm NetEase, and as mentioned, Nintendo’s foray into the market also takes the form of a joint venture.
This naturally reduces both the profitability of any operation in China, since the overseas parent company simply receives a royalty payment rather than the full profits of its operations, and also reduces control over Chinese operations in a potentially frustrating manner. Blizzard notably ran into major difficulties with the launch of World of Warcraft expansion packs in China, with the nation’s censors objecting to large swathes of content; the launch of Wrath of the Lich King in particular seems to have been delayed far, far longer than the company would have wished as a consequence of switching Chinese partners (from The9 to NetEase) during the negotiation process with the authorities.
“None of this is to say that console success in China is impossible; merely that it is very, very unlikely”
Such problems are, of course, surmountable, especially if the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is big enough. Certainly, there is some audience for consoles in China; grey imports from Hong Kong are openly sold in Chinese stores, albeit at pretty high prices which are only appealing to the most devoted of enthusiasts. However, Chinese gamers have mostly grown up without consoles and are used to mobiles and PCs as their gaming platforms, so the level of demand is questionable. Moreover, those platforms are where Chinese game developers publish their work, tailor-made for their own audience. Software in a market like this is chicken-and-egg; no console platform will succeed without software that appeals to the local audience, yet no local developer will work on a new platform without a decent installed base. Microsoft’s dollars could intervene to help, but that would require a very major financial commitment to a market in which success is a very, very slim possibility.
There is, of course, an appetite for content from overseas within China, which could help to drive uptake of consoles like the Xbox One. In this, however, the hand of China’s censors remains a serious issue. Although the Shanghai Free Trade Zone regulations finally permit the sale of consoles, they do not free platform holders and publishers from the onerous requirement of passing their software under the watchful eye of the censorious authorities before release. In the past, the changes to software demanded by those authorities have been very significant; even small graphical elements which are seen as running counter to traditional Chinese culture in some manner are forbidden in many cases (although they pass without mention in locally developed software), while any game with an overtly political message will simply never be released. You may not think that terribly many games have an overtly political message, but then again, you’re (presumably) not a member of any of China’s censorship authorities, who have a penchant for seeing threats to the nation’s civil order around every corner.
None of this is to say that console success in China is impossible; merely that it is very, very unlikely. I haven’t even mentioned the issue of piracy, which remains rampant in the country, and means that many game consumers have become accustomed to paying incredibly low prices for software, while games companies have largely switched to business models like subscriptions and F2P for their wares. This is just another problem sitting in Microsoft’s way; adding pricing and business model to a list which already contains major cultural, legal and censorship hurdles.
It’s easy to see, I think, why Microsoft is alone in taking advantage of the newly liberalised Shanghai Free Trade Zone; why Sony is holding back from further engagement with the nation (although it does a fine trade in Hong Kong) while Nintendo is keeping its engagement low-level through its existing iQue partnership. Both firms actually have major business interests in China; like Microsoft, they manufacture their consoles there. Yet neither is keen to throw good money after bad in the hostile and difficult Chinese market. No doubt, they will watch Microsoft’s experiment carefully – they would be foolish not to – but nobody should hold out serious hope for consoles in China. There are new markets to be tapped all around the world for videogames and consoles, but for all its growing wealth and success, China is about as far from being low-hanging fruit as you can imagine.
Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning has never played well with big corporations. In 2005, following a particularly vicious quarrel with Electronic Arts, his studio Oddworld Inhabitants seemed all but dead, taking the beloved franchise with it. Now it’s back, and barrelling towards a bright new future. At GDC earlier this year, Lanning was keen to explain to GamesIndustry International his new approach to the business – and why he trusts major publishers less than ever.
“I don’t want to be a slave to the big ships, and that’s what was happening with AAA, with publishing and with game devs,” he explained. “Every game dev that I know that’s still doing AAA retail products is trying to figure out a way to get out of it.
“Those deals are just getting worse and worse, even though your expectation of the money is getting higher and higher. Labour’s getting more expensive and the rewards are getting smaller. So that’s why we decided to stop playing for a while until we could start getting our games up digitally, see if we could build our own business. It’s working, it’s funding new content.”
The success of HD re-releases of Stranger’s Wrath and Munch’s Oddysee has provided the resources to create a full remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee, titled Abe’s Oddysee: New ‘N’ Tasty. Lanning hopes that the sales of this latest offering will, in turn, open up further new opportunities. Ultimately the goal is to get Oddworld Inhabitants to a place where it can create a new AAA IP totally independently.
“We’re spending cold cash on this, a couple of million. Not a public company partner. Ourselves. If we lose, we lose big. But if we can get it to that next level where we’re spending five or six million on content, we can do a new IP,” he said.
“It’s not money we’re sticking in our pockets, it’s money we’re leaving in the bank to fund new stuff”
It’s the sort of money he doesn’t think could be raised through crowd-funding – he’s dismissed suggestions that he should run an Oddworld Kickstarter. He’s determined to live up to the “AAA expectations” of Oddworld, and he’s confident that with a cycle of game releases followed by re-investment in the business, they’ll get the funds they need.
“I do think success in the product can raise that money. It’s not money we’re sticking in our pockets, it’s money we’re leaving in the bank to fund new stuff,” he explained. “It’d be nice to be getting paid again! [laughs] That hasn’t been happening for me. It’s all going into the product.”
For Lanning, going independent doesn’t mean going it alone. None of Oddworld Inhabitants’ progress so far would have been possible without their partnership with Just Add Water. The small, Yorkshire-based company has been responsible for the development of all three remakes, with Oddworld Inhabitants taking on a supervisory role and handling publishing. Now Lanning is working with a second studio, mobile developer Square One, who will be producing a port of Stranger’s Wrath to iOS and Android devices.
“What’s nice, working with other indie guys, is that they believe that quality is going to be their lifeline,” he said of his partner studios. “These guys are like, ‘if we’re going to succeed it’s because we build really superb quality products’.”
The indie community as a whole is something he’s keen to embrace. He spoke enthusiastically about cross-promotion plans with developers 17-BIT (Skulls Of The Shogun, Galak-Z: The Dimensional) and Switchblade Monkeys (Secret Ponchos), pointing to an almost union-like spirit of mutual co-operation and support among independent studios. The sort of interactions, he pointed out, that are impossible for studios hitched to major publishers. Among indies, he says, it’s not about competition.
“It’s funny, because people ask me, for New ‘N’ Tasty, ‘who do you see as your competition out there, what titles?’,” he said. “It’s interesting, because if you’d have asked me that for an Xbox release it would be a very specific answer and I’d be trying to convince you why we’re a better offer for your money. But we’re not looking at it that way anymore. We’re looking at it like if you like this type of game, and there’s another type of game like this, we want to be recommending it to you!”
Of course, Lanning’s glowing positivity about the indie community is always framed as a contrast with his misgivings about the past and current actions of major publishers. He pointed to Battlefield 4 as an example of how wrong he feels the developer-publisher relationship can go.
“Why did a title that was so incredible ship prematurely?” he asked. “Now I know, without talking to anyone, if you look at the quality of that title, and if you know how games are built, you know how much hard work went into that, you know how much love and pain and sleepless nights the developers put into it. And you know they were devastated when someone made the decision to release that project before it was ready. Because they’re smart enough not to do that.”
He speaks from personal experience too; the original release of Abe’s Oddysee was criticised for its buggy state, and Lanning places the blame firmly on now-defunct publisher GT Interactive.
“A gold master with all the bugs fixed was in Fed-Ex while someone else made the decision to release a buggy game, because they’re in the sales department and they thought ‘Hey that’s enough time, I don’t need to wait til tomorrow, it’s good enough’,” he recalled. “And then you get stung by the hardcore gamers asking ‘why did you f**k this game up?’. I know what a heartbreak that is.”
In his eyes, it’s the need to impress shareholders taking priority over the need to satisfy customers. “When shareholders are more important than the customers, how long is your business really going to last?” he asks.
Lanning points to the level of trust and transparency indie developers have with their audience, and the more direct relationship that creates. It’s already affecting the way Oddworld Inhabitants do business in a significant way – following the re-release of Munch’s Oddysee, the company polled their audience as to what title they’d like to see developed next. Abe’s Oddysee: New ‘N’ Tasty was the winner. “When creators can go directly to the audience it’s a much better existence,” said Lanning.
“Trust is the most endangered commodity, it’s the rarest commodity today,” he pointed out, referring to the lack of trust consumers have in large businesses. Indie developers, he believes, are in a unique position to gain that customer trust, but it takes a leap of faith. It means being honest even when you don’t know that things are going to go your way.
“You’ve got to answer their questions in a sincere way, even if it’s not what they want to hear. You have to say ‘you know what? You’re right, we f****d up like this or we f****d up like that, but this is where we’re at, this is why we’re doing it, this is what we’re trying to achieve,” he explains.
For Lanning, however, the benefits are absolutely worth the risk. It’s that direct relationship with the fans that has allowed Oddworld Inhabitants to revive itself in the way it has, and will allow it to continue moving forward. Without the resources behind them to do large-scale marketing, they’re relying on word-of-mouth to sell units.
As ever, Lanning is supremely confident, convinced that the fans will come through for him. So far, they have, with the two remakes to date generating impressive figures. Strikingly, Stranger’s Wrath HD has actually out-sold the original, perhaps finally vindicating Lanning’s claims that he was failed by publisher EA’s marketing department when it was first released. He’s enthusiastic about the future, talking excitedly about potential future projects, even mentioning in passing developing something for VR devices.
He’s also convinced he knows where the industry is headed.
“High-end AAA isn’t going away, but within 5 years, I think what we’re going to see is high-end AAAs competing against indies. The indies will be rising up,” he predicted. “More and more sales will be digital and the retailers are going to have a harder and harder time. Some more retail businesses will go out.
Double Fine has warned indies of the dangers of devaluing their products, citing its new publishing initiative as a way of protecting against that outcome.
In an interview with USgamer, COO Justin Bailey expressed concern over the harmful side-effects of low price-points and deep discounting for indie games. By giving away too much for too little, he warned, indie developers could reach a similar situation as that found in the casual market.
“I think what indies really need to watch out for is not becoming the new casual games,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a problem from the development side. Indies are approaching it as an artform and they’re trying to be innovative, but what’s happening in the marketplace is indies are being pushed more and more to have a lower price or have a bunch of games bundled together.”
Double Fine is publishing MagicalTimeBean’s Escape Goat 2, the first occasion it has assisted another developer in that way, and it won’t be the last. According to Bailey, what seems to be a purely business decision on the surface has a strong altruistic undercurrent.
“Double Fine wants to keep indies premium. You see that in our own games and how we’re positioning them. We fight the urge to just completely drop the price. That’s one of the things we want to encourage in this program. Getting people to stick to a premium price point and to the platforms that allow you to do that.”
“We’re not looking to replace… we’re trying to augment the system,” he replies. “We’re making small strides right now. Costume Quest 2 is a high-budget game. It’s one that I thought it was best to have a publishing partner who can also spend some marketing funds around it.”
Double Fine is not the first developer to express concern over the tendency among indies to drastically lower prices.
In January, Jason Rohrer published an article imploring developers to consider the loyal fans who buy their games full-price only to see them on sale at a huge discount just a few weeks or months later. Last month, Positech Games’ Cliff Harris went further, suggesting that low price-points actually change the way players see and interact with the games they purchase.
Microsoft is using this year’s Game Developers Conference as a platform to push ID@Xbox, with the company yesterday announcing dozens of titles headed for the console under the indie self-publishing program. Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison sat down with GI discuss the reasons behind the initiative and where the company hopes to take it in the future.
“A lot of the platform decisions we made in previous generations have really been around the fact we had a predominantly retail business model,” Harrison said. “You don’t want to be pressing millions of discs only to find they don’t work. Those are expensive investments that are difficult to retract from. But in a digital world, those constraints go away. In the previous generation, all console companies had walled gardens with pretty high walls. And now we’ve got gardens with small fences around them, or maybe a hedge. The barrier to entry has definitely come down, and that is a really positive trend for gamers, but also for creating an on-ramp for developers looking to get into our industry.”
Harrison acknowledged that a platform holder could run into problems by taking that approach too far, but suggested that the ID@Xbox program isn’t in any danger of that situation just yet.
“There’s always a balance to be had, but right now our push–and we’ll continue for the foreseeable future–is to democratize access to our platform,” Harrison said. “As you know, we have an intention that every retail Xbox One can become a dev kit, and we want to open up the platform to as many people as possible.”
The company has also set up some of the Xbox One’s core feature set specifically to address some of the potential problems of being overly open, Harrison said. Social features like user recommendations and trending offerings will help, but the Twitch streaming and ability to upload screens and gameplay to video are expected to really help games attract more attention from the wider community.
“We think those platform features will help the best games connect with the biggest audience, and the biggest audience can find the best games,” Harrison said. “It’s a virtuous cycle. We’re probably just scratching the surface of what’s possible with that, but I really like where it’s headed.”
Early results from Microsoft’s indie outreach are promising. Harrison said in the ID@Xbox program’s first four months, it has already attracted 250 developers, more indies than the Xbox 360 has drawn in its eight years on sale.
User acquisition is a big buzz word in the mobile games space nowadays. But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Acquiring users has gotten expensive, and it won’t matter how many you acquire if the churn is so high that they’re all leaving your game in a few days. That’s why player retention is so important and it’s how Yvolver, a new Dallas-based startup, hopes to make a difference.
CEO Steve Nix, former executive at id software and GameStop, believes that most developers should stop paying for user acquisition. It costs more than $3.00 per install to acquire customers and that’s only increasing.
“Lately the trend is that costs for paid user acquisition are increasingly prohibitive, especially for mid- and smaller-sized developers. There is a point where paid user acquisition doesn’t make good economic sense for some games anymore,” Nix told GamesIndustry International. “Hopefully developers are also going to acquire players organically through typical paths like word of mouth, social and online discovery or digital store search.
“The big difference that Yvolver brings to the table – we are much more concerned about the behaviors and value perceived by users already in the game. This makes any users acquired more likely to return to the game, more likely to make a first or second in-app purchase and much more likely to recommend the game to a friend. Every customer acquired, regardless of how they got there, will be that much more valuable to the developer. So to a large degree, we are not replacing acquisition services or methods, we are just making them much more cost effective or viable for the developer.”
Nix added that the problem for many developers is that they’ve become far too concerned with the acquisition part of the equation rather than focusing on engagement.
“Right now, many developers are focused on acquisition as the only tool in their toolbox outside of the gameplay mechanics and changes to their economies that they can directly control themselves. Gameplay mechanics may be difficult to iterate upon quickly or the developer may just not have the resources to make all of the changes that they would like. We know that these same developers are increasingly viewing their acquisition programs as dumping money into a giant leaky budget. Yvolver helps plug the leaky money bucket that acquisition dollars are being poured into by encouraging retention, engagement and in-app spend for those users once acquired,” Nix continued.
“There are also a lot of great developers out there that are fantastic at creating a fun, gorgeously crafted games, but they do not have the resources to study user engagement and spending behaviors the way that the major studios can with their dedicated teams. That is all we focus on at Yvolver, so we are excited about improving the health of the business model for developers that may not have the capabilities that our laser-focused team of veteran data science and loyalty experts can quickly bring to their games.”
The crux of Yvolver is a loyalty rewards program. In fact, Yvolver teamed with Hal Brierley, who’s serving as a key investor and providing counsel on the design of its loyalty services. Brierley is an expert when it comes to loyalty rewards, having been a pioneer in the design of major loyalty programs, including American Airlines AAdvantage, Hilton HHonors and GameStop Power-Up Rewards.
So how does it work? Essentially, Yvolver users are able to build up a monthly Yvolver Score by completing events that are set by the developer in combination with making in-game purchases. Users can then convert their monthly score into prizes – both digital in-game items or power-ups and physical real-world rewards, like electronics, clothing or other goods. The score is persistent across games/apps and different platforms.
And while you might think that a program like this would be intrusive or take away from the experience for some players, Nix insists that it’s been designed in a way that won’t push away players – besides, that goes against the very thing the company was built for.
“The core premise of Yvolver is that we only have value for developers if we are creating value for the gamers playing their games. Most of the team here came out of game development and we have been critically focused on every detail of the user experience and making sure that we only add to the enjoyment of the game,” Nix said. “We should never be throwing confusing pop-ups out, blocking the user’s progression, making them think they have somehow left the game, or all of the distracting stuff that you see in a lot of the ad and offer platforms that are integrated into so many games now. We have worked closely with our game developer partners to make sure that we are respecting their game, and the response so far has been that we are firmly on the right path.”
The supporting cast around Nix and Brierley is strong as well, coming from companies like id, GameStop, Zynga, Apple and more. Former Apple App Store games manager Cory Lewis is a co-founder and is leading biz dev, former id lead programmer Jah Raphael is a co-founder and is serving as CTO, and Matt Himelfarb, a managing partner at Dallas Venture Partners is a co-founder and acting as CFO. You can read more about the entire team here.
On the business side of things, Yvolver believes its own interests run in parallel to the developers it’s looking to help. Much like a sales associate on a commission, Yvolver only benefits when the developer starts seeing sales.
“We work with our developer partners to build loyalty-driven events and programs that add value for their users and incentivize the behaviors that are most important to the developer. When users engage with the game in these desired ways, combined with that user’s in-app spend, they will receive an Yvolver score. The more the desired behaviors and in-app spend happen, the higher the user’s score will be. Our revenue is based directly on the Yvolver scores generated in an app in a month. The beauty of this model is that we only make money if the developer is making money through these in-app purchases. We are completely aligned with our development partners, which is important to us,” explained Nix.
Yvolver has been in private testing with a number of apps so far, but the company isn’t worried about signing tons of developers right away.
“We are not concerned about integrating with two-thousand apps the first year and game count is really a meaningless metric for us… Our data science and account teams are working continuously to become more creative and efficient in the programs that we develop with our partners, and that is how we really think about our progress. We believe gamers will quickly start seeking out titles that have integrated with Yvolver, and gamers will ultimately tell us if we are successful through their behaviors,” Nix said.
To kick things off, a beta version of the Yvolver service will launch exclusively with Zombie Gunship Zero from Limbic. The game will be available for download on March 13 and the beta service will follow in the “near future.”
Limbic CEO Arash Keshmirian commented, “Running a successful independent mobile games studio has become an increasingly complex challenge during the past two years. Market competition is at an all-time high, and marketing resources are becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. We couldn’t be more excited to partner with the Yvolver team to not only help engage and retain our current fan base, but to bring those fans real, added value within the Zombie Gunship Zero experience. It’s a win-win for us.”
It is, for the moment, just a conspiracy theory, and it goes something like this: Microsoft wants to get out of the games console business. It’s planning to package up the Xbox part of the Devices & Studios division and separate it off from the rest of the company, so it can be sold as a going concern. Who’s buying? Amazon, which views acquiring Xbox as a step towards dominance of the living room. If there’s anything to this theory at all, the coming year or two could see the end of Microsoft Xbox and a warm welcome for Amazon Xbox.
Let’s lay all the cards on the table. The evidence is sketchy and circumstantial. We know that Microsoft is looking at some pretty major strategic changes in the wake of the appointment of new CEO Satya Nadella. Nadella’s focus throughout his career has been on the business end of Microsoft – servers, cloud services and enterprise tools – which remains in robust health compared to the troubled state of the firm’s consumer divisions. Choosing him as CEO could suggest that the company is aiming for a future focused on enterprise tools and platforms, not consumer products.
Then there’s the man who wasn’t chosen as CEO, Stephen Elop. Elop used to work at Microsoft, then became CEO of Nokia. Now that Nokia is selling its mobile phone division to Microsoft, Elop is back where he started. Moreover, he saw himself as a strong candidate for the CEO job when Steve Ballmer resigned. With Nadella in the CEO’s chair, Elop’s consolation prize is that he’s taking over as head of Devices & Studios. That’s a logical choice, since Devices & Studios will include Nokia under its umbrella, at least to some extent, so Elop will continue running his old Nokia team alongside the Xbox and Surface teams at Microsoft.
Given that, it would perhaps be more surprising if Elop wasn’t put in charge of Devices & Studios. His presence ought to ease the transition as Nokia is absorbed into Microsoft, a major acquisition that’s likely to cause some indigestion along the way. However, during the CEO selection process, while Elop was still in the running, Bloomberg reported that he had some very interesting plans for the company if he was running it. The reported plans included, notably, a willingness to sell off business units Elop viewed as distractions from Microsoft’s main goals – business units including the Bing search engine and the Xbox. As logical as his new job at Devices & Studios may seem, you can’t blame people for raising an eyebrow when a man who supposedly wanted to sell off the Xbox division is put in charge of the Xbox division.
It takes two to tango, so how about the Amazon side of the deal? Well, whispers of Amazon’s keen interest in the games market have flown around for months now, including rumours that the company has discreetly hired a number of veterans from the games industry while keeping their involvement quiet – for now. Last month, Amazon bought games studio Double Helix, fresh from working closely with Microsoft to prepare Killer Instinct as a launch title for Xbox One. Something is afoot. Occam’s Razor suggests a “Kindle” console, an Ouya-style box under the TV linked to Amazon’s digital content platform, but given the plethora of Android consoles currently underwhelming the market and failing to gain a foothold, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Amazon would want to make a much bolder move into the console space. Plus, Amazon certainly isn’t scared of making big acquisitions when it wants to open up a new market opportunity for itself – it’s hard to conceive of a cash value for Xbox, not least given how obfuscated the financials of the console business are, but I don’t doubt that Amazon could afford it if it really wanted to.
That’s it – that’s the conspiracy theory. I don’t deny for a second that the evidence, if you can call it that, is pretty thin. Microsoft is probably going to refocus on enterprise; a guy who wanted to sell Xbox is the new boss of that division, but he’s also the most logical choice for the job. Amazon is setting itself up for a big move into the games space and may (or may not) have hired some senior games people on the down-low. That’s the sum total of the evidence, and we should all bear that in mind. Even this article exists not to promote this theory, which I view as interesting but unsupported by the available information, but rather to evaluate, hypothetically, whether there is any real possibility of an Xbox spin-off and sale. In short, there’s no real evidence that Microsoft is going to do this thing, but it’s an interesting academic exercise to evaluate whether they could do it if they wanted, and whether a motivation to do so might exist.
So how hard, in theory, would it be to spin off and sell Xbox? The answer to that depends on what exactly Microsoft is proposing to sell. Xbox, as mentioned earlier, is part of the Devices & Studios division, which also houses Surface and will shortly be joined by Nokia. Some other odd things are rolled into this division, apparently. It was claimed last year that the patents which force Android device makers to cough up a fee to Microsoft for every handset they sell are held, for financial purposes, in Devices & Studios, thus accounting for a big chunk of the division’s revenue.
If Microsoft’s new management had come to view Xbox as a distraction that doesn’t fit with their new enterprise focus, one might reasonably ask if they’ll take the same view of Surface. That product which hasn’t performed well and has reportedly soured relationships between Microsoft and other hardware vendors, who aren’t terribly happy with the company from whom they license the Windows operating system suddenly being in direct competition with them. The company wouldn’t be happy about losing the patents related to Android, not least since Windows and Windows Phone presumably use the technology described by those patents as well, so that probably wouldn’t be included in any sale, but aside from that it’s plausible that Microsoft could sell the entire Devices & Studios operation, thus putting itself out of the hardware business entirely.
Alternatively, Microsoft could decide to hold on to Surface and simply divest itself of Xbox and the various Microsoft Game Studios operations. Surface would then be joined by Nokia in the much-reduced Devices division (no more studios!), which would be entirely focused on tablets and smartphones without the “distraction” of games. Such a disentanglement wouldn’t be terribly difficult, either. Xbox is actually fairly well divorced from the rest of Microsoft’s operations. Its operating system shares a visual language with the “Metro” interface of Windows 8 and Windows Phone, while various game-related elements of Microsoft’s other operating systems have also been given the “Xbox” and “Live” monikers. Bing, of course, runs on the Xbox dashboard. By and large, though, the technology and services which drive Xbox are divorced from the rest of Microsoft – although it’s worth noting that the much-vaunted Cloud functionality of Xbox One relies in part on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud services platform. Any buyout of Xbox would include various contracts ensuring that any Microsoft technologies or services upon which the console relies would continue to be provided to the new owner, so this would not be a major stumbling block.
A bigger question might be, would Microsoft even want to do this? That really depends how seriously you take the idea of “distraction”. Xbox One has had its thunder stolen by PS4, but is still selling well – and Xbox 360 was a major success. In fact, it’s the only success Microsoft has ever had in the consumer hardware space. Xbox proved Microsoft’s ability to create a great consumer brand and sell hardware to people. It’s a real bright spot in a few tough years for the company – especially compared to everything else it has attempted in the consumer space, from Zune and Surface to its latest operating system, Windows 8.
Why would you get rid of that? Well, you probably wouldn’t – but let’s brainstorm a motive. You could argue that Xbox is a bright spot that doesn’t have any real relevance to the rest of the company. Microsoft in the early 2000s wanted to reinvent itself as a consumer-facing company, but with Xbox being the only success in a small sea of failures, Satya Nadella is likely to try to bring the firm back to focusing on the enterprise market. As the oil tanker slowly turns around to head into more corporate seas, Xbox will be more and more at odds with the culture and mission of the rest of the company. It will arguably be a distraction both internally, where it won’t fit with Microsoft’s culture, and externally, where it will detract from a brand message that promotes Microsoft as a serious, corporate, business-focused partner for enterprise (as distinct from the more consumer-led branding of rivals Apple and Google). Selling off Xbox would generate cash (not that Microsoft needs it), streamline the company and start the new CEO’s tenure with a dramatic gesture that sets out his vision more clearly than any speech or press release.
In short, Microsoft could do this and, if we assume that upper management take the notion of “distraction” seriously and are genuinely willing to abandon the firm’s ambitions in the consumer devices space, there’s a motive for doing it. How about Amazon’s side of the table? This deal would cost billions; would Amazon stand to gain enough to justify that kind of outlay? After all, aren’t consoles a dying space? Plenty of pundits seem to expect that PS4 and XB1 will be the last generation of consoles. Would a company as smart as Amazon get sucked into a market that’s about to collapse?
Amazon, like Microsoft a decade ago, has major ambitions in the consumer devices space. The company built itself on the back of selling physical goods but has neatly sidestepped the so-called “innovator’s dilemma” by being more than willing to disrupt its own business. The world’s biggest seller of physical books became the world’s biggest promoter of ebook readers. Music downloads, streaming video, cloud services; Amazon has taken an active and enthusiastic interest in every field that might disrupt its existing businesses, seeking not to shut down threats but to be the biggest player in whatever comes next. It supplemented the Kindle e-reader with Kindle tablet devices whose market performance is largely unknown, but is thought by analysts to be one of the only genuine competitors to the iPad’s sales dominance. Anyone who owns a Kindle device knows that they are designed from the ground up to be a great interface to accessing and buying content from Amazon’s ecosystem. That’s Amazon’s play; own the media ecosystem, building the devices themselves if that’s what it takes.
That ambition is a pretty solid fit for the console business. Moreover, it can’t have escaped Amazon’s notice that Steam, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live together make up a big area of digital content provision in which it has no involvement right now. Amazon will also be paying careful attention to the interest around set-top boxes (like AppleTV and Google’s TV efforts) and Smart TVs. Here there’s huge potential for consumers to be accessing media ecosystems directly from their TVs and connected devices – again, a game in which Amazon has no skin. For Amazon, the ideal would be that when you want to watch or play something on your TV, you do so through Kindle interface that links right into Amazon’s digital library, just like the Kindle tablets work. Of course, an Android microconsole would achieve that goal, but it wouldn’t be of much interest to gamers – at best, it would capture a fringe of the market who engage with Kindle tablets.
Is appealing to gamers important? This comes back to the question of whether consoles are really dying – and honestly, who knows better about that question than Amazon? Amazon is the largest retailer in many countries. Not only does it see how many consoles and console games are sold, it also sees loads of connected information which is hidden from even game publishers. It knows how high-spending gamers are in other areas – whether they’re likely to buy a lot of gadgets, a lot of books, a lot of movies or albums. It knows how much they engage with the brands they love, whether they cross-promote to friends resulting in more sales, whether they leave reviews and promote products on social media. Amazon can make an estimation of the actual value of the core gamer market more accurately than any other company.
What is that estimate looking like? I don’t know, of course, but Amazon’s actions in the coming months are going to tell us a lot about it. Regardless of whether the Xbox conspiracy theory pans out, Amazon is going to make some kind of game-related move relatively soon. It will be interesting to see how much importance and focus the company places on the games space at that time.
Until we see more evidence, though, it’s impossible to construct a fully credible argument which places the future of Xbox anywhere but Microsoft. There’s simply not enough information out there to support that kind of conclusion. That said, there is a possible motive to sell on the part of Microsoft, and a possible motive to buy for Amazon. If I had to pin my colours to a mast on this, I’d say Microsoft is probably discussing a sale with interested parties, including Amazon, but hasn’t made a final decision on whether to start sale proceedings as yet. I also wouldn’t read too much into that, given that it’s the responsibility of management to consider such possibilities as part of their duty to the shareholders. Then again, under Microsoft’s new management, perhaps such things are being considered rather more seriously than before.