“Grey Goo is remarkable not for what it has added to the RTS formula, but what it has stripped away,” PC Gamer wrote in its reveal of Grey Goo, a new real-time strategy game from the veterans at Petroglyph. Perhaps the same could be said of Grey Goo’s recently formed publisher Grey Box, which is seeking to strip away the more negative aspects of game publishing. Suits and creatives typically will bump heads because the two sides are looking at the creation of games from wildly different perspectives. But what if they actually had the same goals?
Ted Morris, executive producer at Petroglyph, felt an immediate kinship with the team at Grey Box. “As a small [studio] – small being 50, 60 people – we are always talking to publishers to see what deals we can put together. But with Grey Box, I think that we meshed better on a personal level with them as a company and as a group of people than we have ever meshed with another group,” he enthused to GamesIndustry International during GDC. “And we’ve worked with Sega and LucasArts – all the big guys – and certainly talked to everybody else, too – the EAs and everybody – and these guys – man, we just gelled with these guys so well.”
Morris said that Grey Box’s approach to publishing was noticeably different from the start. While other, larger publishers may immediately come up with marketing plans and sales targets, Grey Box found itself on the same page with Petroglyph: fun comes first.
“Every meeting that we have is always a sit down and then people open up financial books and they start talking about what the sales figures are going to be like, and when we sit down with [Grey Box], it’s like ‘how can we make a great game?’ We don’t even talk about money, we talk about ‘how good can we make this game?’ and ‘how successful will it be?’ You know, let the game drive the sales, don’t let the marketing drive the sales, don’t let the sales department drive the sales. It’s really about, if you make a great game, they will come,” Morris continued. “They spoke to that so often, so frequently that we thought, ‘man, these guys just want to help us focus on what’s really important.’”
One of the defining traits for publisher Grey Box is that they’re all gamers at heart, noted Josh Maida, executive producer for the publisher.
“I’m not going to pre-judge any of those other publishers – I mean, for all I know they love games as much as we do. And we do. We all love games. We all come from different areas. I lost a whole grade point in college to Street Fighter, and… we want to be fiscally mindful. You need to make money, but with the money we make, we want to make more games,” he remarked.
“So I think at the core of that is we’re not trying to take away from the industry. We want it to feed itself and go bigger. Quality over quantity is something that we’re mindful of. We also just want to make a good working relationship for our partners… everybody’s in here for fulfillment. The talent we work with, they could all be working in private industries for twice the amount they do, but they’re here because they love to make games, and so we want to be mindful of that. And when people die, they want to know they did great things and so we want to create those opportunities for people.”
Tony Medrano, creative director for Grey Box, criticized other publishers for being too quick to just follow another company’s successful formula.
“We’re not chasing a trend, we’re chasing something we believe in, we’re chasing something we like, and we’re not trying to shoehorn a formula or monetization model onto things that just don’t work because they’re popular,” he added. “I think from the get-go, it’s been all about how can we make the best game, and then everything else follows from that. I think a difference structurally [with other publishers] would be that we have a very lean and mean team. We’re not trying to build a skyscraper and have redundant folks. Everybody that’s here really cares, has some bags under their eyes from late nights… I think it is just that we look at all our partners as actual partners. We let them influence and make the product better, whether it’s the IP or the game.”
Speaking of monetization models, Maida commented that there’s no “secret agenda to Zyngafy RTS or anything.” Grey Goo is strictly being made for the PC, but the RTS genre easily lends itself to free-to-play. Upon the mere mention of free-to-play, however, you could almost feel the collective blood pressure in the room rising. It’s clearly not the type of experience that Petroglyph and Grey Box are aiming for.
For Petroglyph’s Morris, in particular, free-to-play hit a nerve. “I’m going to jump in here, sorry. I’m really annoyed!” he began. “There’s been such a gold rush for free-to-play right now that is driving publishers – I mean, there needs to be a good balance. There’s a great place for free-to-play – I play lots of free-to-play games – but it is driving developers like us to focus on money instead of making great game content. I’m not going to name any examples, but I’ve been disappointed with some of the free-to-play offerings because it’s not so much about making a great experience for the player anymore. It’s about ‘how can we squeeze them just a little bit more?’ or annoy them to the point where they just feel like they have to pay.”
Medrano added, “I get frustrated when I play free-to-play games, and if I purchase something, I feel dirty. I feel like ‘oh, I got cheated, I fell for the trap.’ Or even more modern games where they baby you through the whole thing. There’s no more of that, like, ‘this is tough, so that means if I get good at this, there’s reward – there’s something there.’”
Ultimately, while Petroglyph and Grey Box came together thanks to a shared love of the RTS genre, they feel there’s a real opportunity to bring back hardcore, intelligent games.
Andrew Zoboki, lead game designer at Petroglyph, chimed in, “It’s almost as if the industry has forgotten about the intelligent gamer. They feel like that everyone’s going to be shoehorned in there, and I would say even from a design perspective that a lot of design formulas for a lot of things, whether they be free-to-play or what the mainstream is going to, next-gen and such, that all those titles are kind of a little more cookie-cutter than they probably should be. They’ve tried to shoehorn gamers into a formula and say, ‘this is what a gamer is,’ rather than understanding that gamers are a very wide and diverse bunch of individuals, everyone from the sports jock to the highly intellectual, and they all have [different] tastes… there’s different games that will appeal to different demographics… if you make the games that players want to play, they will come.”
And that really is at the heart of it. Morris lamented how business creeps into the games creation equation far too often. “They’re trying to balance the game with Excel spreadsheets instead of sitting down and actually playing it and having focus tests and bringing people in and actually trying to iterate on the fun,” he remarked about other publishers.
For Grey Box at the moment, the focus is on making Grey Goo the best it can be, but the company does have plans for more IP. It’s all under wraps currently, however.
“We do have a roadmap, but it’s not based off of the calendar year. We do have another game in the works right now and we might announce that at E3. And we have a road map for this IP, as well,” Maida said. “Obviously we want to get it in the hands of players and fans to see what they respond to, but we’ve got capital investment in the IP with hopes to not only extend this lineage of RTS’s but possibly grow out that franchise and other genres as well.”
Grey Box plans to release Grey Goo later this year.
In April of 2011, GameStop acquired streaming tech firm Spawn Labs because cloud gaming was the future. Today, the retailer announced it had closed Spawn Labs because cloud gaming is still the future.
Speaking with GameSpot today, the retailer’s vice president of investor relations Matt Hodges said cloud gaming isn’t a good fit for today’s consumers.
“While cloud-based delivery of video games is innovative and potentially revolutionary, the gaming consumer has not yet demonstrated that it is ready to adopt this type of service to the level that a sustainable business can be created around it,” Hodges said.
For the time being, GameStop’s cloud gaming business will be focused on selling subscription cards for programs like PlayStation Now through its retail locations.
Beyond the closure, the specialty retailer also reported its fourth quarter and full-year financial results this morning. The launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 reinvigorated the console market, helping to drive sales and profits growth.
For the year ended February 1, total revenues were up nearly 2 percent to $9.04 billion. At the same time, the company returned to the black, turning the previous year’s $269.7 million net loss into a $354.2 million net profit. The company also underlined the growth of its digital and mobile business, which brought in more than $1 billion for the year.
The fourth quarter saw sales rise more than 3 percent to $3.68 billion, with net income slipping nearly 16 percent to $220.5 million. Those figures include goodwill and asset impairment charges of $28.7 million, “primarily due to the closure of Spawn Labs and store asset impairments.”
GameStop also released its first outlook for the current fiscal year and its first quarter. For the full year, the retailer is expecting total sales to be up 8 to 14 percent, with a net income between $398 million and $433 million. For the current quarter, it has projected year-over-year sales growth between 7 and 10 percent, with profits between $64 million and $70 million.
In a keynote conversation with Entertainment Software Association boss Mike Gallagher at the Digital Entertainment World conference, Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore talked about industry lessons learned as the business transitions more to digital games.
For now, games remain a hybrid of physical and digital, and the quick sales of the new consoles are enabling the industry to coalesce around two great platforms that offer a tremendous competitive environment, which ultimately benefits the market. While he believes the console sector’s in great shape, Moore does see mobile gaming thriving, and digital revenues should surpass that of physical game sales in just two years, he said.
Looking back at the music industry’s transition to digital (which it still hasn’t recovered from), Moore said that the games industry must embrace “creative destruction” – there’s nothing an industry can do to stop a shift in consumer tastes and habits. The most important thing for EA – and much of the industry is headed this way with the digital transition – is that games are becoming live operations. That means they require a massive infrastructure with customer service and global billing. Moore noted that it’s a completely different industry now, with a global network running live ops, and gamers deserve their games to be always up and available, and it’s EA’s job to provide this access. Moore acknowledged that EA is still learning a lot about what that takes.
The online environment has been incredibly valuable to EA in building a direct customer relationship. Moore said that EA’s customers used to be the retailers, but now they’re the gamers. In fact, EA has tripled its customer facing support staff resources in the last five years. It’s changing how the publisher interacts with, and markets to, gamers. He eschews “marketing” and prefers “engaging”. Social media has become crucial to success, and Moore noted that on Twitter a gamer will get a response from EA within 30 minutes to resolve a problem.
On the marketing end, Moore said that EA’s TV spend is down 20 percent while the company has actually doubled its digital spend and engagement. Social media and community management are changing the rules. Don’t spend tens of millions on TV to see if it lifts sales, Moore said; instead game companies can more effectively use digital channels and focus on performance-based marketing.
“TV ads today are chum in the water. It attracts customers, then reel them in with digital media so you can engage instead of pushing a message out,” he remarked.
Gears of War will continue to turn, as Microsoft has acquired the sci-fi shooter franchise from Epic Games. Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer confirmed, saying the deal covers the intellectual property, all existing games and assets, and the rights to continue the franchise in the future.
As for who will make the Gears of War games with Epic out of the picture, that task has been entrusted to Microsoft’s Vancouver-based Black Tusk Studios, under the leadership of the studio’s general manager Hanno Lemke. Spencer called it “a big vote of confidence” for not just the studio but the Vancouver development scene. (Microsoft closed its nearby Victoria development studio last month.)
Future development on the franchise will be led by Rod Fergusson, who was a producer on the first three Gears of War titles. While Fergusson has a long history with Gears of War, his appointment at Black Tusk has to be considered surprising. Just four months ago, Take-Two announced that Fergusson was launching a new Bay Area studio to work on a new project for the publisher.
“It’s kind of nice he can tie the franchise, the culture, bring it all together, and really help with the talent we already have up at Black Tusk to get the franchise going with a new organization,” Spencer said.
Fergusson released a statement on his new appointment, saying, “I’m extremely excited to be joining Black Tusk Studios to oversee development on the Gears of War franchise. I’ve been privileged to work on a lot of great games with a lot of great teams, but Gears has had the most impact on me professionally and personally, so this really feels like a homecoming. I can’t wait to share more with you all soon.”
“[I]f you look at what we did with 343 and getting them up to speed for Halo 4, you can maybe anticipate some things that are similar to that.”
This isn’t the first time Microsoft has had to find a new studio to take over a blockbuster sci-fi shooter IP. In 2007, Bungie struck a deal to split off from the Xbox maker, leaving the Halo franchise in need of a new developer. Spencer said there were lessons to be learned from the successful transition of the Halo series to 343 Industries, and mentioned Lemke would be speaking with 343′s Bonnie Ross about her experiences.
“We’re not announcing anything right now, but I think if you look at what we did with 343 and getting them up to speed for Halo 4, you can maybe anticipate some things that are similar to that,” Spencer said. “But it does give me confidence knowing that we’ve done this once with 343.”
343 cut its teeth on the Halo franchise with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, an Xbox 360 remake of the original Xbox launch title Halo: Combat Evolved.
Whatever else changes with Gears of War, one thing that will likely stay the same is the technology powering the franchise. Spencer declined to say whether the deal requires Microsoft to use the Unreal Engine for future Gears games, but he did say the company was a big fan of the technology.
“We’ve used the Unreal Engine in our development of the Gears franchise and other franchises,” Spencer said. “Unreal is important for us. So I don’t see us moving away from Unreal. I have confidence in the Unreal Engine going forward, and it’s important to the franchise.”
Spencer also noted that a Black Tusk teaser trailer shown at E3 was built using Unreal. And even though that clip–a man rappelling down the side of a present-day skyscraper before swinging in an open window to clobber a gun-toting guard–looked decidedly unlike Gears of War, Spencer called it a concept piece, and not a project that is being shelved as a result of the IP acquisition.
“This obviously isn’t something that started yesterday in terms of our discussions with Epic,” Spencer said. “Hanno’s been involved for quite a while, so he’s known that this is something we could land. And the leadership team there obviously knew as they started to build their road map for what they would be focused on. I wouldn’t say things have been shelved. Obviously, this will become a big focus of the studio and something that will be critical to them driving forward. There’s not really something that was on the road map that all of a sudden goes away.”
When Microsoft opened Black Tusk in 2012, studio representatives said it was not working on an existing franchise, but instead was “looking to build the next Halo” from the ground up.
Financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed.
The Samsung Gamepad is compatible with all Android phones running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and above, though Samsung said that it is specifically optimized for Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and above. It features an eight-way D-Pad, two analogue sticks, four action buttons, two trigger buttons, a Select button and a Play button.
The Play button is a link to the Samsung App Store selling console optimized games at “reasonable prices”. The Gamepad uses Bluetooth 3.0, but can also pair via NFC and even cast gaming onto the big screen using Samsung Allshare. Although there are a number of Chinese imports available, this is the first time a major player has brought an Android game controller to the table.
Samsung said 35 games are available through the Play button at launch with more to come in 2014. Launch titles include Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Asphalt 8, Modern Combat 4, Virtua Tennis Challenge, and Prince of Persia. These are in addition to existing games from Google Play.
Samsung is keen to tout this new device as an alternative to buying a more expensive console such as an Xbox One or Playstation 4 (PS4), and while we’re not really sure if it can match them, we can certainly see the advantages of a device like this over Android game consoles such as the Ouya or Gamestick.
The device is already available for pre-order at Expansys for $125.99. At present there is no date attached to it, and Samsung is only committing to “the coming weeks” as the time-frame for availability.
As it’s a device with a steel casing, Samsung clearly is not aiming this at the budget market, and if its functionality matches its specifications, it could be one to watch in 2014.
The holiday season may have started with a lump of coal in the stockings of EA and Ubisoft. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter sent a note to investors in advance of this week’s November NPD US retail sales announcements, saying that software sales for the month would be down 13 percent due to “far weaker-than-expected debuts” for the heavily hyped Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed IV.
Those games’ troubles are the primary reasons Pachter believes console and handheld sales were down 13 percent to $1.25 billion, but they weren’t the only ones. Call of Duty: Ghosts sales were also lower than expected due to unflattering reviews, Pachter said, and the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launches may have also put a damper on the software sales figures. Pachter reasoned that consumers either devoted their spending money to next-generation hardware launches, or decided to forgo purchasing current-gen versions of titles until they could find one of the supply constrained next-gen systems.
Speaking of the next-gen consoles, Pachter gave a considerable edge to Sony in the November sales race. He believes the PS4 sold 1.25 million units in the US during November, compared to 750,000 for the Xbox One. The PS4 launched November 15, while the Xbox One debuted November 22. The new arrivals also appear to have put a significant dent in the pre-existing competition, as Pachter predicted Wii U sales would be down 65 percent year-over-year, with Xbox 360 and PS3 sales down 44 percent and 28 percent, respectively.
The NPD Group is expected to announce its November US retail sales data this evening.
Sony has promised to have “substantial” resupplies of the PlayStation 4 before the end of the year, but has given no indication as to what qualifies as substantial. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has stepped in to fill that information void, telling investors in a note this morning that he believes Sony is making PS4s at the rate of a million systems per month.
Pachter followed up on Sony’s announcement today that it had sold 2.1 million systems worldwide, saying that number fits well with previous estimates that Sony began manufacturing PS4s for retail on September 1, and that it faces a gap of up to three weeks from a system’s creation to the time it arrives on shelves.
“We expect Sony to continue to ship 1 million consoles per month, so as of the end of January, we believe Sony will have manufactured a cumulative 5 million consoles and will have shipped 4.25 – 4.5 million,” Pachter said. “We expect the 55 percent allocation to North America to continue through January, and then revert to a more normalized 40 percent of units once Sony launches in Japan and other countries. We think that Microsoft is on a similar production schedule, with similar allocations to North America.”
Pachter added that specialty retailer GameStop has been receiving roughly half of the systems shipped to North America, and that it will continue to take up that share of the allocations through December. In the New Year, Pachter expects the company’s share to be dialed back to a “more customary” 30 percent.
If the shipment projections are accurate, the PS4 would be more than holding up its part of publishers’ predictions that Sony and Microsoft would combine to ship 10 million units of their new systems by the end of March.
With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the scene, the next console generation has finally begun. While a new generation usually brings the promise of more graphical power, great graphics are only part of the gaming equation. What will these new consoles allow developers to do creatively?
In its last two titles, Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, independent developer The Chinese Room focused on pushing the first-person game away from the shooting mechanics that usually dominate. The studio’s next title, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, is coming to PlayStation 4 with some help from Sony Computer Entertainment. For The Chinese Room, next-gen helps their creative juices just by being easier to work with.
“The blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity”
The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck
“I think the major thing, from the perspective of actually building games, is less for us about the power – that’s brilliant of course, and having significantly higher budgets makes a big difference – but it’s more about the ease of working with PS4,” The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck told GamesIndustry International. “So far, it’s just been a dream bit of kit to work with. We’ve got the advantage of working with CryEngine, another great piece of tech of course, but even then it’s been remarkably smooth to get things up and running quickly. That’s worth its weight in gold from a production standpoint, and the blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity.”
According to Braid creator Jonathan Blow, aiming for a single, next-generation set of specifications allowed the team behind The Witness to settle on a single visual style for the game. That title is also heading to PlayStation 4 in 2014.
“Creatively, we build and we assume that we have enough power in rendering,” explained Blow. “When we were planning the look of the island, we had a couple of choices. Do we target the PlayStation/Xbox 360 class of machines or do we move to next-generation consoles? Because development was going long, we decided we were going to be in the next console cycle anyways.”
“If we’d ended up on lower-spec machines, it wouldn’t just be that [The Witness] would have lower-poly models. It would’ve affected the style all over the place; the style of the game would’ve been different. I don’t think it would’ve been as nice.”
For Ghost Games, the new shepherd of EA’s Need for Speed franchise, next-gen does come down to “more power”. This power – and the new set of expectations that come with it – frees the team to think outside of the box when it comes to gameplay innovation. A new generation allows developers to think about what’s possible instead of wringing more blood from a worn-out stone.
“It makes us think differently. Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible.”
Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson
“It makes us think differently,” said Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson. “Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible. We are not locked into old boundaries anymore. From that we get great innovations like AllDrive. The systems are giving us power to do more, more AI, more particles etc. Just turning everything up really.”
Nilsson also noted that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One provide other options, including social networking features and second-screen modes, which “opens up creative solutions around cross-platform play.”
One of the highlights of Sony’s launch window slate for the PlayStation 4 is Infamous: Second Son from Sucker Punch. While the game simply looks amazing, improved graphics and horsepower also mean the human element of Infamous can be pushed forward.
“[Infamous: Second Son] is all performance captured,” Sucker Punch co-founder and director of development Chris Zimmerman told us. “We actually use all kinds of cameras, with dots on the actors’ faces getting mapped through 3D scans. As you see people in the game, you’ll see their faces move in realistic ways.”
“See the wrinkles appear?” Zimmerman pointed out in a demo of Second Son, “we are actually animating 15,000 vertexes in his face 30 times a second to get that to happen that well. The thing that really matters for a game like this is you can actually see the characters act. You can read his face. You have a million years of human evolution that’s trained you to read people expressions and their faces; now we can bring that to you. That is the expression that these actors had when they did the scene. If we show you the video of their faces and then show you the in-game feature, you’ll be like ‘that’s the expression that guy had on.’ It seems dumb, but it matters.”
In some case though, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will just allow what previous generations have allowed: more, better-looking things onscreen in our games. And even that can improve the player’s experience. For BioWare Edmonton and Montreal general manager Aaryn Flynn, next-gen means a more immersive and interactive game world for BioWare fans.
“With the next generation of consoles, the most important question we ask ourselves is ‘How does this help our storytelling?’ As we’ve worked with them, we think it starts with a density and dynamism that wasn’t possible previously,” said Flynn. “‘Density’ in the sense of more interesting things on the screen that help immerse you in the game world, and ‘dynamism’ in that they are more interactive than ever before.”
The generation has only just begun. Developers still have plenty of time to learn how to make the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One dance and sing. What’s been shown so far is pretty damn good, so let’s sit back and enjoy the future.
In less than a week, both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One will have launched in the world’s most lucrative console markets. If you had to plant a flag to mark the start of a new generation, you’d do well to find a more appropriate spot.
Well, praise be. Microsoft was justifiably lambasted for its early direction and messaging, but the ill-feeling created by that string of fumbled choices was untroubled by all subsequent attempts to retrench and appease. Since then, Sony has walked a blessed path; not exactly free of mistakes and questionable decisions, but bolstered by the knowledge that the scrutiny of both the press and the forum-dwelling public was focused elsewhere. Perhaps now hard numbers can replace the speculation and supposition. Perhaps now we will be able to see the true measure of the policy reversals and resolution deficiencies.
There is, after all, a bigger picture to consider. It can be fun to get lost in the manufactured rivalry of a console war, but both Sony and Microsoft understand that this generation must be about more than the chips in their little – and not so little – black boxes. Gaming has never been more popular, or more culturally prevalent, but a lot has changed since the console companies last played this billion-dollar crapshoot.
So much of the industry’s recent growth has happened away from the traditional world of AAA blockbusters, where audience gains have been handily outmatched by soaring expenses. The early debate may be dominated by familiar concerns over framerates and dots-per-inch, but the terms of this generation will be different from the last. Sony’s mistakes with the PlayStation 3′s esoteric architecture didn’t go unnoticed by either party, and it shows in the hardware.
“The last generation created a bunch of artificial work. You had to do things in a very different way and, in the end, it wasn’t like you got a massive amount of technical performance out of it. It was time that didn’t go into making the games better,” says Nick Button-Brown, general manager at Crytek.
“I like the fact that, this time, it’s all built on architecture that we can understand. If you look at the PS3, people only started to get the most out of the system at the end of the cycle, but that’s five or six years on. That’s terrible. I want to start getting at the most nearer the start. That’s the advantage with simpler and more similar architecture – we’ll be seeing much more from the first games out.”
Crytek is the studio responsible for Ryse: Son of Rome, a standard-bearer for the Xbox One. Button-Brown admits that, while setting a visual benchmark was the not the main objective of the project, it was a side-mission of sorts, and the pride with which he describes Crytek’s work indicates that he considers the mission very much accomplished. The smoke, the fire, the beads of sweat running down the lined, wrinkled faces of the characters, the way those characters plant their feet; these are, he boldly claims, new heights for console gaming.
“I do think we’re going to set a visual benchmark; it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat our visual performance. We put a lot of work into facial, a lot of work into animation, just making it all feel much more real,” he says. “Is there further we can go? Definitely. We have some high-end cinema tools that don’t run in real-time even on high-end PCs now – we’re talking one, two frames per second. Eventually, we’ll be able to run those in real-time.”
In the absence of stiff competition, Ryse has as strong a claim to the pinnacle of visual excellence as any other launch title, but Button-Brown understands that such victories are short-lived. After all, in blockbuster development, a better looking game is always just over the next hump of the release schedule. Crytek will no doubt persist in that direction, but the impact of this generation’s visual performance will not be as profound as the jump to HD, and the differences between the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hardware will matter less still. This time, exactly what constitutes the “cutting-edge” will be harder to pin down.
“There’s always more we can do [visually], but I do think you reach a point where, for the user, they feel that it looks as good as it’s going to get, and they’re not going to see a huge difference between [the consoles],” he says. “For us, the leap is about the details. It’s not about one or two big things. It’s about being able to do small things much better: more stuff on-screen, more AI, more physics.”
It would be churlish to ignore the fact that Ryse has failed to stir the imaginations of the critics, eliciting unanimous praise for its visual detail and precious little else. My interview with Button-Brown was conducted prior to the publication of those reviews, but even then he was cognisant of the gamble creating a launch title for this particular generation represented. In the past, there were obvious, powerful hooks for developers to work with – the advent of 3D graphics and HD graphics, the availability of a hard-drive, online play as a usable tool – but this generation is more diffuse.
“Going into launch, I don’t know whether we’ve spent the resources in the right place. I don’t know whether we’ve focused our efforts in the right place. I’m only going to know that when people get to buy it,” he says.
“We talk to publishers a lot, and one of the most painful questions is, ‘Tell me what next gen gameplay is gonna be?’ It’s not something you can define. Nobody delivers gameplay because it’s next gen; you’re delivering gameplay because it’s good. That’s one of the things we struggled with [in Ryse's E3 demo]. We showed a cut-down version of the gameplay and we were criticised for that. We didn’t see that coming. We were too close, and we cut it down further than people wanted to see.”
However, while the criticisms leveled at Ryse may well be justified, a part of the problem may be that, at the dawn of a new generation, nobody is quite sure what they want to see. They only know what has gone before, and will resist any attempt to smuggle what are regarded as the bad habits of the past into the $400 future. Ryse signalled its intent with combat that closely resembled a QTE. That was never likely to go down well with the press, who instantly suspected Crytek of trying to coast on graphics alone.
“The generational leap is not as clear cut now,” Button-Brown admits. “Maybe in a year’s time we’ll have a better understanding of what the leap really is this time, as people start playing things and we start to see what really matters. I think with hindsight we’ll be able to look back and see, ‘yeah, that was the big step.’”
Perhaps it’s naive to expect more clarity on what might define this generation from developers working so closely with the hardware, but in any case, that would be no slight against Crytek. Apart from Kinect 2.0 on the Xbox One – which may finally have the hardware to honour some of the promises made four years ago – in terms of new game experiences there isn’t an obvious wellspring for original ideas on either console. Indeed, the most obvious differences in the early days of the generation are likely to be found in the service layer: social integration, voice control, multimedia functions, and other areas often dismissed as secondary to the tasks for a which a console should be designed.
This is one of the key ideas I took away from my conversation with Michiel van de Leeuw, technical director at Guerrilla Games. Essentially, the moment-to-moment experience of established genres will remain the same, but innovation will arise from, “a deeper, underlying layer.”
“It’s not like we have that one gizmo to make everything really good or different, but the way that the operating system and the games work together, it’s much more of a marriage of those two things,” says van de Leeuw. “It’s a much more holistic approach to the console. How do people use it? How do people want to use it? How do we make sure that every hour of using your console is an hour spent having fun? And almost nothing is more fun than sharing experiences with other people. It’s all integrated, and under the hood there’s a lot of complexity to make sure that you don’t notice it. A lot of magic is necessary to make it look simple.”
As a subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment and the developer of a key launch title, Guerrilla Games was part of the inner circle that formed around Mark Cerny during the PlayStation 4′s creation. The most taxing problem, the subject of the most meetings and debates, was how to improve the experience around and outside of the games – streaming, background downloads, switching between applications, and so on. For Cerny, “immediacy” was a watchword.
When it came to the fundamental hardware architecture, however, van de Leeuw says that the directive was relatively simple: “give us more…as many graphical gizmos as you can afford.” The extra power was a given rather than the main focus.
“I like to ask people about what the next generation should be about, and everyone says, ‘it has to be a photo-realistic, and everything has to be more. There has to be thousands of people and blah, blah, blah.’ But why is that fun? If you have 1000 people around you, do you feel more attached to them than if you just had one or two? Technology does not immediately result in a more satisfying experience. The first layer that people think about is better graphics, more of everything. And then they think, ‘What do I need more of? I don’t know, really, but there must be more of something‘.”
There it is again: the great, unknowable ‘something’ that, nevertheless, everyone is waiting impatiently to see. Killzone: Shadow Fall has fared better with the critics than Ryse, but the expectation of clear, identifiable progress is used as ammunition in the majority of its negative reviews. For van de Leeuw – who also spoke to me prior to the publication of his game’s review scores – launch titles are not necessarily supposed to alter the way people look at games as a whole, but he also makes no secret of the increasing complexity of productions on the scale of Killzone. More power can make life easier in some respects, but certainly not all.
“You have to focus on 1000 things at the same time, and at the same time as that you need to grow your company, because you need more people to focus on all of those things. That, by itself, becomes a problem, because it becomes difficult to manage the complexity brought by all of those extra people. It’s very challenging.
“We’re working with first-person shooters, and look at how incredibly complex these things are. You’re not just selling one game: you’re selling a movie, and a game, and a multiplayer experience that needs to fit with eSports, and it’s all packaged together. And it all has to be good, because the competition is incredibly, and increasingly, good.”
Indeed, it is the progress evident in individual games, rather than the super-charged hardware, that truly plants a gauntlet at the feet of the industry’s developers. Umpteen gigabytes of GDDR5 memory is not nearly as powerful a motivator to do better work as the release of, say, The Last of Us or The Walking Dead. New hardware may give developers more options, but the real skill lies in making the right decisions. When there is enough of an installed-base to offer a safety net, van de Leeuw says, the industry’s most talented developers will start taking creative risks, and new genres will emerge.
But will that innovation be exclusive to a specific platform? When a consumer makes their decision to buy either a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One, is the potential for new ideas a relevant factor? From the developer side, ven de Leeuw says, the differences in the hardware of this generation may not offer the sort of rewards that Naughty Dog and Guerrilla wrung out of the PlayStation 3′s distinctive Cell processor. Today, with teams spiralling into the hundreds, budgets on the rise and a dozen other platforms to consider, the emphasis is on efficient tools and flexible engines. Microsoft and Sony made a conscious choice to be more similar than different in terms of architecture, with developers’ needs firmly in mind.
“Being able to squeeze more out of the console by really focusing on it allowed us, in the past, to create experiences that couldn’t be done, or would be much harder to do if we had to split our focus. But I think we’re coming to the day where the amount of effort you have to put in to do that, it’s questionable whether it’s worth it.
“Our games are getting so big. We try to make our experiences richer for gamers, but at some point… there are pros and cons. Sometimes we wished that things were easier. The [PlayStation 3] was difficult to program for, but I still sometimes I miss it because it was also very powerful. You could do a lot of stuff that’s still very difficult to replicate, but the time for bespoke architectures is slowly going away.
“If you look back, raw assembly and raw power were what enabled new experiences. Nowadays, experiences are defined or limited by how efficient our toolsets are, how smooth our workflow is, how quickly we can develop, and how much time we have to spend on mundane distractions… Bespoke architecture allows you to do cool and crazy stuff, and from a technical point-of-view I’m still in love with that sort of thing, but I have a 230-person studio that wants to make a killer title.”
Despite what many executives have claimed in calls to their investors, both van de Leeuw and Button-Brown either strongly imply or directly confirm that the cost of making those “killer titles” will rise this generation – not to the same degree as they did with the Xbox 360 and PS3, perhaps, but certainly beyond the already precarious conditions that exist today. While we pore over screenshot comparisons, declaring winners and losers over slight differences in observable visual performance, it’s worth considering what any third-party would actually stand to gain from making one version of a game significantly better than another. Indeed, at companies like Epic, EA and Crytek, the emphasis has been on creating cost-saving tools that work seamlessly across all platforms, effectively glossing over aspects of the hardware that could lead to substantial gains in performance. First-party developers will still pursue that, of course, but, according to Button-Brown, for everyone else the base-level of AAA acceptability now sits at a daunting height on both platforms.
“If anything is just okay, it’s now terrible. ‘Solid’ is a failure. You now have to be so good,” he says. “The teams are getting larger and the risks are getting higher. We’re trying to do a lot of procedural stuff in this next generation to keep costs under control. It’s one of the ways we’re trying to keep that down, but it’s still a cost increase. Each asset needs to be so much better, so much more defined, than it was in the previous generation. No amount of procedural is going to change the fact that your underlying asset just has to be that much better.”
All of that hard-scrabble at the top end of the industry – essentially, fewer companies using more resources to create and market a smaller number of increasingly large games – will have a clear upside for independent developers. Indeed, right now, the beneficial ramifications of Sony’s decision to court indies as early as possible is arguably the most significant difference between the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. It always felt like a smart move, and that feeling will be further justified as the paucity of $60 blockbuster releases becomes more apparent.
Microsoft’s early digital strategies and the Xbox One’s evidently underpowered hardware may have monopolised the headlines, but Oddworld Inhabitants’ Lorne Lanning believes that it’s Microsoft’s belated effort to secure the diverse, free-flow of content from the indie sector that has truly given Sony the advantage. That reluctance to open up the Xbox platform, he argues, is tied to a big-business mentality that no longer works in a connected entertainment medium – the very same mentality that led to the unanimously derided online check-ins and multimedia focus that dominated the Xbox One’s early messaging.
“ID@Xbox was a bittersweet victory,” Lanning says. “If you have your ear to the ground today, you could see that those policies were going to blow up in its face, particularly when you see what [Sony] was doing. That was an old way of thinking, a way of thinking that was all about control. It’s a trickle down from being a monopoly. There’s a reason there was a class-action suit [against Microsoft]. There’s a reason there was an SEC, antitrust thing. There’s a very good reason for that. They wanted to control everything. The people who made those policies were still thinking very much in that way, and it blew up in their faces.”
For Lanning, this will be a generation defined by consumers getting what they want, rather than what they’re given. The generation where consumers wrest control of gaming back from the companies that have controlled it for so long – platform holders, publishers, retailers – and seek satisfaction from the most agile creative forces. There may be some lingering resistance from those with vested interests in established models, but Lanning believes any company seeking to stand in the way of this intractable change is unlikely to emerge with much credit. There will be more products offering a wider variety of experiences than on any previous generation, with price-points to suit every wallet. The lines of communication are wide open. There is nowhere left to hide.
“As people are becoming more informed and more connected, the shenanigans are becoming more transparent. And with that, what we’ll get is more diversity,” Lanning says. “The industry made up of five publishers really isn’t that long ago, and now what’s going on? How many self-publishing indies are there that can get a 1.5x return on each game and keep building? Maybe they can’t grow and be 500 people by the next year, but they can add 5 more by the next year.”
I mention the prevailing fear that the marketplaces on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will become too crowded – that by making consoles a more accessible place for independent developers, they will lose the focus that created huge successes like Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy and Braid. For Lanning, it’s a worthwhile trade, and one of the most important ways that indies need to “grow up” to take advantage of the incredible opportunity this generation represents. The Battlefields and the Assassin’s Creeds will continue to exist and thrive, but the average consumer knows that already. What they don’t know about are games like Octodad, Below and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and more fool the studio who leaves it up to Microsoft or Sony to raise their profile.
“If we sell a game now for $10, we get $7 on digital networks. Once upon a time, we weren’t even getting $7 on a $60 game,” Lanning says. “It’s a whole different thing, but you have to bring your own visibility. That’s your responsibility. Beyond just designing the game, we have to design how to build the relationship with our audience. People know that they want the GTA and the Call of Duty, and they’re gonna be on both systems. But they also want the surprises, and they want to experiment with those surprises at below the $60 price range. The audience always wants more choice.
“The biggest earners are gonna be the big AAA titles, because they have the $100 million marketing campaigns. You can’t compete with that. But in the years to come, the big properties at E3, the $100 million properties, they will have started off in the indie space. They’re gonna innovate cheaper, faster and more with their audience right away. That’s a guarantee.”
In a full discussion below, you’ll read Yoshida’s thoughts on the launch scores (which he joked afterwards that he was hoping I wouldn’t ask him about), how PlayStation is being redefined in the PS4 era, why Drive Club had to be delayed, why graphics and 1080p resolution absolutely matter, and he explains his skepticism for Xbox One’s cloud computing tech. It’s a lengthy conversation but well worth the read to absorb Yoshida’s refreshingly forthright answers.
Q: You’ve been with PlayStation from the very beginning, you’ve seen it all and played a part in the growth of the games business, so perhaps you’re the best person to answer this question. How would you compare this launch to the previous hardware launches? Has it been harder or easier and why?
Shuhei Yoshida: I think this is the most organized launch we’ve had as a company. The launch of PS4 reminds me a lot of the launch of PlayStation 1 because we were a very small company at that time. We had a small group of people trying to do almost everything. Because we were new, we tried to speak to the people in the industry, our partners and developers, and we tried to learn a lot. So we kind of stopped with that approach as we became successful and larger and more confident. The pace of change was not that fast during PS2 and even PS3. The PS3 era for us was the beginning of the network platform being integrated at a system level… but back then people didn’t really use smartphones and that all changed in three or four years and it was a huge change. That forced us back to basics almost, and it required us to really think through everything that we do from the hardware specifications to services to the overall business plans. We had to think about the use of new devices and what that means for us. When people use mobile devices, is that competition? Or are [mobile devices] tools for us? We had to redefine our platform almost, and we have come to conclude that this is the beginning of a new era of PlayStation, shifting more from a hardware focus to a service focus.
The PS4 generation is going to be the transitional generation. In a sense, it’s the completion of the evolution of the strong 3D capable consoles, but at the same time it’s at the maturing phase of our network platform and the beginning of our new service phase, like our cloud gaming that we are preparing to launch next year. And the use of mobile devices is part of our ecosystem. So all that considered, and the difficulty we had at the launch of the PS3, and very strong competition especially in North America, that made us really revisit everything we’ve been doing and redefine the company, almost like we’re re-entering this industry. Even across our teams, I think you now get more consistent messages [about PlayStation] compared to past generations, because we talk a lot more and get a lot of input [from all the teams] on different decisions.
In the past, it was very much [driven by] Tokyo. And now [Group CEO] Andrew House is playing a major role in getting the US and European groups integrated. And I’ve been playing a major role myself on the development side for the last five years… So, Andy and I can quickly decide for certain projects, “let’s get this person from the US team or this person from the European team” and put someone in charge of a global project. So it’s a much more integrated international team that we have now and we are always communicating. There’s been a great maturing of our organization compared to past generations.
Q: During Sony’s last earnings call, CFO Masaru Kato said that PS4 actually will contribute to the division’s profitability much earlier on than past consoles. How important is this to the continued sustainability of PlayStation as a business, and does this mean we should expect Sony to cut prices on PS4 to make it more affordable sooner?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, I read an article where an executive of a major publisher said something about [prices coming down sooner]… Because Masaru Kato used to be CFO of Sony Computer Entertainment and he was the key guy on the business side when we launched the PS3 – he was the right-hand man for Ken Kutaragi – he had to go through that really tough time. During the PS2 era, we were very proud that we were generating like half the profit of Sony Group or something like that, but with the launch of PS3, we lost billions of dollars and we became a burden for Sony. So Masaru’s comments, comparing to PS3, it’s too easy a benchmark. In a sense, we’re doing great because we’re not losing billions with the launch of PS4 – in fact, we’re pretty much breakeven in this launch year of PS4 – but looking forward, it’s fair that as CFO of Sony, and with his experience with previous PlayStation generations, that he would expect a better financial performance… And of course, he’s in a position to really whip all of the business groups at Sony to get the best performance possible.
On the question of whether costs come down quicker, I think there are a couple ways to answer that question. One is that our hardware teams have chosen more standardized components to create PlayStation 4 and that’s contributing to our launch price of $399 versus $599 for the PS3. When we need to source components to get more supply to the retailers, that approach definitely helps compared to some cutting edge component that only one manufacturer can produce, like Blu-ray or the Cell processor. Those were big bottlenecks. It’s much better this time, and that’s all great, but it might mean that because we’re already using more standardized components, the room for costs to come down might actually be slower than when we were starting with cutting edge stuff.
Q: The PS4 software reviews so far have been average or in some cases, worse than average. As the head of Worldwide Studios, what’s your reaction to this? Are you worried about the impact on PS4? The PS3 suffered from a lack of great software but the system did well in the end, so how important is it to have that “system seller” at launch?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, it’s disappointing to see some of the low scores. I haven’t spent enough time reading reviews, but I would characterize them as mixed. And with this launch there are lots of games coming out, so the media must be very busy going through the games quickly, and especially since the online functionality wasn’t ready until in the last couple days. So we have to look at how much time they spend on what aspect of the games and how that may be contributing to some of the lower scores. It’s disappointing but I don’t think it’s worrisome for the launch of the system. I’ve played through all of our games, Killzone, Knack and Resogun, and I totally enjoyed playing through these games. I’m now on my second run of Knack and Resogun at a higher difficulty – these games really grow on you when you play more. I’m very confident that once you purchase these games and play, you’ll be happy that you’ve done so.
Q: You mentioned Knack, and unfortunately that game got even lower scores than the others, and I’m wondering if that’s more frustrating since it came from Mark Cerny. Was Mark not able to devote his complete attention to Knack because of his responsibilities as PS4 system architect? Was he spread a bit too thin?
Shuhei Yoshida: No, I don’t think that’s right. He spent maybe a quarter of his time during the development of Knack and in his position of giving creative direction and overseeing development, it was appropriate… He was in Japan every month for a week, working with the team, so the communication was very good.
The game wasn’t designed [to meet specific] review scores – I was hoping Knack could score in the mid 70s and last I checked it’s around 59-60, so I’m hoping it goes up. The game uses only three buttons to play, so it’s not the type of game reviewers would score high for the launch of a next-gen system. The game was targeted as what we call a second purchase; you know, people may purchase PS4 for Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed or Killzone, but if they also buy Knack, this is a game that you can play with your family or your significant other. It’s a message that as a platform we are not just trying to cater only to the hardcore, shooter audience – we are looking at all kinds of gamers – but Knack is a great game for core gamers as well because when you up the difficulty level it becomes a really tight, tense action brawler.
But the goal was to design it to be played by anyone, even someone who’s never played before. So it wasn’t aimed at high review scores, even though higher would be appreciated! Killzone is different – it’s definitely targeted to the core gaming audience and we’re still waiting on more reviews because some sites are saying they played single player but not enough multiplayer. So I’ll wait with my personal judgment until I read more reviews.
Q: Regarding the Drive Club delay, considering that the PS4 has been in development for 6 years, it’s odd that an internal studio like Evolution that knew the launch, the specs and everything else well in advance of even the closest third-party partner should miss the launch. Was there some miscommunication or what happened to cause the delay?
Shuhei Yoshida: It’s almost an amazing achievement for any studio to set a release date and achieve it, especially for the launch of a new system because the hardware and software tools are always getting updated. So you always have to work with the moving target, so to speak. That said, PS4 has been praised for the ease of development and the stability of the dev kit by everyone – not just our teams but other developers and publishers. And it’s true that Evolution was also heavily in discussions about PS4 hardware features and network service features. Where the team missed the date and miscalculated the tasks was when they tried to do something they have not done before.
A launch title is especially tricky if you aim too high. When you try new things, you definitely have to prepare for multiple iterations… In order for a title to come out at launch, the ambition level has to kind of be kept in check; the team has to rely on tried and true mechanisms. That I think is the main reason for missing the launch date. Drive Club is exciting because it really goes aggressive into the integration of social features and the second-screen experience, and that’s a new addition for Evolution. The team has been making racing games for a long time, so they’re veterans when it comes to core racing…
Q: So it was the addition of social integration features that set them back?
Shuhei Yoshida: They always planned the game to have these social features but because these features are new, they found some technical matters or flaws in play testing, and that’s the reason we waited until the very end to announce the delay. They might have been able to hit the date, but in terms of both getting technical matters down and getting the game polished enough… we decided we wanted the team to go back to some of the features and spend some more time to get it done.
Q: This is a multi-part question. First, there’s been a lot of noise in the media lately about how Xbox One runs Call of Duty: Ghosts at 720p, not the full 1080p resolution that it plays on PS4. How important is this? Do you think the average consumer would really appreciate the difference? Second, how much will the average consumer notice a difference between last-gen PS3 and Xbox 360 games and what PS4 now offers? PS3 games look very good, so do graphics matter in next-gen? Why should consumers spend $400 on PS4?
Shuhei Yoshida: I can confidently say that graphics matter, because I played through Killzone: Shadow Fall. What I mean is, most people probably can’t tell looking at 720p or 1080p unless you’re in the industry or you’re a hardware nerd, but when you compare a game like Killzone: Shadow Fall to Killzone 3 on PS3, for example, the fact that the game is rendered and displayed at 1080p native means that every pixel is rendered, and in combination with the new Dual Shock 4 analog sticks and triggers, it’s great when you’re playing a shooter and you can see the enemy far away from you and you can move the crosshair to aim with pixel perfect precision.
When you talk to game designers at Guerilla, they would tell you it’s kind of traditional for shooters on consoles to include some aim assist [function] because of the lack of accuracy of the control and the lack of clarity in the graphics, but with 1080p and the power of PS4 you don’t need that. So you actually have more control and the satisfaction level is higher. So when you’re shooting enemies, it’s all you. You don’t need to be able to spot the difference in resolution but it just feels great. That’s the difference; graphics isn’t just about making things look pretty, but it can make the gameplay better. Another example is in racing games, like Gran Turismo, when you see a long road ahead and it curves to the left or right, you can tell what’s coming thanks to the resolution and power of graphics. The improved draw distance gives you anticipation for what’s to come. So the power of hardware and graphics in some areas is actually very related to great gameplay experiences.
Since the beginning of this year when we saw leaks [about the specs] of next-gen platforms, we immediately knew since the tech specs on PS4 were accurate that the Xbox specifications were likely accurate as well. So we knew at that point that we had much more raw power… So I was hoping from earlier this year that when games come out from third-parties – because that’s the best example, to look at the same game on different platforms – if there’s any slight performance difference on the two systems I’ll be very happy. I wasn’t expecting something like [what happened with] Call of Duty, 720p versus 1080p – that’s a significant difference. Or Battlefield 4, which is 900 versus 720 – 900 requires 50 percent more pixels to be rendered. I learned all this from the Digital Foundry site.
There are a lot of hidden powers in our system. You may be familiar with GPGPU and PS4 has a lot more GPGPU processing in it, which is difficult to learn and master, similar to a Cell processor. So every year the games on PS4 will perform better because most of the launch teams probably didn’t use GPGPU – they probably just used core graphics. So when the developers [use more of these] in two to three years the graphics will be really amazing. Resogun, by the way, is already using GPGPU… and that game is getting very good reviews!
Q: That may be the PS4 system seller you were looking for!
Shuhei Yoshida: At least we have one game that’s getting great reviews.
Q: It’s great for Sony to say that PS4 is more powerful than Xbox One, it’s a great marketing point but…
Shuhei Yoshida: Well, I always say “I believe” or “We believe.” I’m not saying that it is.
Q: Ok, but from an industry standpoint, in a way isn’t it good that both consoles are so similar, so that developers can easily create games for both and target a larger combined installed base? I’m wondering – and this may sound like an odd question – does Sony ever communicate with Microsoft to get a sense of where an industry “standard” for consoles might end up for another generation?
Shuhei Yoshida: No, no. We didn’t conspire [laughs]. But it’s very interesting how we came to the same selection of CPU and GPU vendors. It’s not exactly the same as each company customized the processing choices and so we ended up with more processing power but the architecture basically is quite similar. If you talk to any third-party developer, they say it’s a wonderful thing because they really want to make the development process very efficient. So I think it’s great, because learning the Cell processor was very difficult and now with PS4 everything’s much easier – and at the same time, if you’re a multiplatform developer it’s going to be very easy to create PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions of a game because all three share the same kind of roots.
That said, each company, including Nintendo, has some unique additions to the core… So the multiplatform developers do have some decisions about how much customization and additional work they want to do to take advantage of the different unique aspects of the platforms. And by the way, I don’t think developers have to do much more to take advantage of the raw power of PS4, to get games to render at the highest resolution.
Q: Microsoft has talked a lot about their cloud computing and the extra power that gives the Xbox One to offload some of that processing to a server in games like Forza or Titanfall. Is this something Sony can compete with? Can Gaikai be used in a similar way? Is that realistic, or perhaps Sony and Microsoft view the cloud differently?
Shuhei Yoshida: We’ve been clear on what cloud gaming means, and that’s getting games to run on the server and sending that video signal to a distant device. The way they are using cloud computing seems very different and I totally don’t understand what they mean by that. So we can’t react to what they are saying because we don’t understand. The explanation I found personally was, again, an article on Digital Foundry. They went through all the computing tasks a game goes through and for each one they checked off if it can actually be done on the server versus the client, and most of the tasks a game has to perform, they said, cannot be done on the server because of the huge latency and the bandwidth. There’s so much data going back and forth between the CPU and memory and GPU inside the console compared to going through the internet… There were maybe four or five tasks that actually could be done on the server. So that was very educational to me. After reading the article, the Microsoft message was even more confusing to me.
Q: With PS4 launching, we haven’t touched on Vita at all, but I did want to ask if you think those two systems will feed off each other? The Vita business has been slower than Sony would like but do you think the interest in PS4 and features like Remote Play could help boost the Vita sales over the long-term?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, I hope so. It’s been exciting these past couple days when we saw the media experimenting with Remote Play. It’s very impressive. And the use case is if the main TV is occupied, then you can continue the game on Vita. If you live alone, maybe the use case is less, but even if you live alone there’s some value in it. For example, I like to play games before I sleep, so I use Vita in the bed before I sleep and so whether or not the TV is occupied it’s just very convenient for me to be able to continue to play, unless I really need that accuracy with shooting like I talked about earlier, so maybe I wouldn’t play Killzone with Remote Play but I totally enjoy playing Knack on Vita.
So that definitely makes your Vita much more valuable if you already own one, and if you don’t, once you get PS4 the potential value of Vita is much higher. We definitely hope people see that value and have a chance to see PS4 games running on Vita in person, because the combination of PS4′s power and the great display of PS Vita is awesome. It’s like mini cloud gaming, and actually Gaikai has worked on Remote Play. I’m very happy with the implementation – it’s a seamless experience.
A few days ago AMD announced it would extend the Battlefield 4 bundle deal to all R9-series cards, but right now it’s starting to sound like President Obama telling Americans that none of them will lose their healthcare plans.
In theory all R9 cards could get the bundle, but AMD is saying that it is up to AIB partners to decide whether they will offer the game with all cards or just with some. It basically sounds like AIBs could offer pricier SKUs with the BF4 bundles and also plain cards with a discount. It is unclear how much the bundle would affect the retail price.
This is what AMD said to clarify the situation:
An email sent to press that provided details on AMD’s Battlefield 4 promotion was not clear and has led to some confusion in the marketplace. It suggested that all customers who purchased an AMD Radeon R9 series graphics card on or after November 13, 2013 would receive a complimentary copy of Battlefield 4. While all AMD Radeon R9 series cards are theoretically eligible for the promotion (which is administered by AMD’s channel partners), retailers and add-in-board partners ultimately decide which select AMD Radeon R9 SKUs will include a copy of BF4.
In addition, AMD made it clear that customers who purchased R9 cards before November 13 are not eligible for any retroactive bundle deal due to contractual agreements with EA/DICE. However, as a gesture of goodwill AMD plans to hand out 1,000 BF4 codes on social media, although the full details of the giveaway have not been announced yet.
Basically if you are interested in getting an R9 BF4 bundle, it’s probably best to wait for a few days or weeks and see what AMD channel partners plan to offer.
2013 hasn’t painted a pretty picture for the retail sales of console games. With the exception of the big lift the industry received from GTA V’s record-setting launch, generating $1 billion in just three days, console game sales have been consistently down. In fact, there have been nine straight quarters of decline in the video game business.
Over the next two weeks, both the PS4 and Xbox One will finally launch, but will new platforms really change the business? Is the slump just the result of consumers growing tired of the eight-year-old console generation? Is the industry suffering from an emphasis on sequels at the expense of innovation? Have smartphones and tablets fundamentally undermined the market for set-top box gaming?
GameStop president Tony Bartel thinks new consoles will bring about the innovations in gaming that the industry needs. Bartel recently blamed a lack of innovation for the current consoles’ declines, and he’s incredibly encouraged by what Xbox One and PS4 bring to the table.
“There will always be those kinds of gamers that just relish the bleeding edge technology. For them, they’re right. That’s enough for them to pull the trigger on…a new console. But I don’t think that’s enough of a customer base to really explain the lack of financial success that we’re seeing in the console space right now,” said God of War and Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe.
“So I don’t think seeing another batch of specialized hardware is going to move the needle in any permanent way that’s going to rectify what’s not a technological problem. It’s a business model problem and it’s a creativity problem and it’s a fundamental structure problem in terms of the way the industry itself is set up when it comes to decisions that are made for certain games and things like that.”
The variety of platforms at gamers’ fingertips now makes the decision to purchase a new console that much harder for the average person. The hardcore will always invest in a high-end PC rig or the newest, most powerful console, but that’s not the case for the masses.
“I think we’re going to see a huge chunk taken out of the pie for console sales [going forward]. I think they’ll be impressive, cool consoles and I’m excited to play them as a gamer, but I think the days of the traditional console are on the way out,” Jaffe continued. “I think a lot of the people who bought a console this generation or last generation are getting the same meal for substantially less cost on mobile, tablets or on PC with things like Steam and a lot more interesting games and price points. And there are things like Minecraft – people in the past who would have gone out and bought a console in year one are probably just fine playing stuff like Minecraft at this point.”
Tony Goodman, founder of Ensemble Studios (which Microsoft shut down) and mobile studio PeopleFun, largely agrees with Jaffe. At the end of the day, there are only so many entertainment dollars to go around, especially in a difficult economy.
Just a few more days until PS4 launches…
“New consoles will always drive a short term spike in game sales. The bigger issue for consoles is the increasing competition for entertainment dollars from other devices,” he noted. “It’s much like the way the TV network market changed with channel competition introduced by cable and satellite TV. ABC, CBS, and NBC were the places you went to see high quality television just like you used to go to your Xbox, PS3, or Wii for the newest and best gaming experience.”
“Many niche networks sprung up that didn’t spend money like the big networks but they created innovative and focused experiences for television and drew viewers away from the big networks. Some of those smaller networks have gone on to produce incredibly high quality television such as The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, etc. The disruption in television continues today as many are leaving the satellite and cable providers because they can essentially create their own narrowcasted network using Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV and other services.”
“The game industry is progressing down a similar path. The vast majority of revenue in consoles comes from sequels,” Goodman continued, referring to the problems we’ve seen with innovation in AAA. “Most of the innovation is occurring in the mobile and PC market where it’s possible to produce a hit game with a smaller budget. Mobile and social games have dramatically increased the number of ‘gamers’ and also increased the amount of time spent playing games since they can be played almost anytime and anywhere… It will change even more in the future as gamers expect all their games to live in the cloud and they want to be able to play them on whatever screen they have handy.”
But perhaps we’re getting too hung up on what innovation means. There’s nothing wrong with becoming obsessed with a top franchise and wanting more of the same with just some moderate improvements, commented one industry veteran of more than 20 years, who wished to remain anonymous for this story.
“I personally fall in love with some franchises and can’t wait for the sequel. (Like I’m genuinely sad Microsoft stopped making Flight Simulator, even after version TEN!) So in a weird way I want games like FIFA and Battlefield to continue to get better; the innovation comes in making it feel ‘new’ and fresh, just like when Apple releases new iPhones. The upgrades need to be tangible, then I’m OK with that,” he said.
With so many entertainment options available now, however, quality is more important than ever before. If a game is only average or slightly above average, consumers will move on in a heartbeat to something else that captivates them.
“I feel there’s an abundance of things now to grab my entertainment time; the game and its messaging needs to capture us more quickly than ever before. To be clear with so much choice now, if a game isn’t well made, people just move on, time is too valuable. Time really is valuable, it’s why time based items (saving your time) are always the number-one selling micro-transaction,” the industry veteran said. “If too many games look like everything else, then it’s not surprising sales are down. You should urge developers to look at what they are making. If it’s leading a category or genre then great. If it’s looking like lots of other games and isn’t leading any genre or category then it’s time to pivot.”
For Seamus Blackley, co-creator of the original Xbox and a former agent of Creative Artists Agency, it would be wrong to point fingers at the development community for any perceived lack of innovation.
Xbox One ships a week after PS4
“Developers are really creative. It’s not like developers have suddenly become stupid. But developers are also frustrated because a lot of people have great ideas. People with great track records have great ideas. People with no track records have tremendous ideas. The guys at ThatGameCompany. They were students… I think people probably believe that developers have a lot more choice than they do in bringing new ideas to light,” he said, pointing out that business becomes restricting.
“Most developers have two or three really cool things they want to make, and the question is how? If the analysts and guys running the publishing business, and any sort of game financiers, don’t feel comfortable or like there’s a business behind taking a bit of risk at that time, then they won’t. And those ideas will stay on the shelf. So that’s the situation we’re in now,” he lamented.
But whereas Jaffe and others are somewhat pessimistic about consoles, Blackley sees reason to hope. The new consoles will lead to new business and support new ideas, he believes, and on that front, he agrees with GameStop’s Bartel. The new consoles will give the suits an excuse to try out more interesting, creative ideas that the developers are looking to push out there.
“The train track that I got held down to when I realized I wanted to see this Xbox platform happen was that I had to abandon a lot of preconceptions I had about a lot of this stuff – which was, if you want the cool, innovative stuff to happen, somebody somewhere has to put in a terrific amount of business funding in order to enable it to happen. And it’s exhausting,” he said. “What I discovered is that the reason there wasn’t a lot of innovation way back then in the ’90s wasn’t what I thought. It wasn’t because developers weren’t creative, or people didn’t have enough ideas or opportunities, or the technology didn’t exist to bring those ideas to life. That stuff’s all a challenge, but the fact is, to make something innovative requires cash. It requires a financial opportunity to take some risks.”
Ultimately, Blackley believes that the new consoles will create that financial opportunity. It’s what new consoles do best, he said.
“Consoles are not about the television. They’re not about high performance. They’re not about having a consistent controller or any of those things. Those are true, but that’s not the heart of the matter. And this is where there’s an underground reality that people don’t think about. What they’re really about is providing a stable economic base that lets you take risks on games,” he explained. “So we have seen all sorts of big innovation in gameplay on consoles. And sure, we’ve seen a lot of derivative stuff as well because it’s expensive. It’s a hard business. But it has been safe within that environment to take risks.”
“Sometimes those risks are taken by first parties. Sometimes they’re taken by third parties. But we’ve seen whole new genres erupt on the console that wouldn’t have happened other places where there wasn’t a defined, semi-safe business model that was clearly managed in sort of a walled garden way. So you think of Guitar Hero, Gears of War, or any of the console models that are innovative and have driven a lot of the industry, those were possible because the business behind them was possible. And that business was possible because these players, the console providers, created this safe baseline business model.”
New consoles in and of themselves, however, aren’t going to magically solve problems with innovation and industry growth. “What we need is the next generation of business infrastructure to make [innovation] possible. And iOS isn’t doing a great job at that. There needs to be new excitement injected into the console world to provide more infrastructure for that to happen,” Blackley pointed out.
Something definitely needs to happen on consoles to support a business other than massive AAA titles. Perhaps Sony’s indie push and the ID@Xbox program will make a difference, but so far consoles have become tough places to survive for smaller studios. It’s unfortunately led to a loss of the mid-level game, said Alex Hutchinson, creative director at Ubisoft Montreal
“If you talk about big AAA or traditional console games, I think it’s the loss of the middle, the loss of the solid B title. And that’s a shame because there’s a lot of unusual stuff there in the past. But it’s because the cost of development has gone up astronomically. If you think about it, in the last 10 years, development costs have probably gone up 30x, but the cost to the consumer has remained the same. So you’re squeezing more and more out of less and less, and that’s really challenging if you’re a smaller developer,” he noted.
Maybe in the end, the concerns about the future of consoles and whether these new systems spark sales is irrelevant. After all, it’s the games that matter, and those will live on any platform.
“Big hits have never sold more than they do today, and indies have never been as prominent before. Today is the boom of that,” Hutchinson said. “I feel like we’re focusing on a very narrow window and saying it’s all…going down. Games are so wide now. It’s on your phone, your handheld device, your TV, my mom’s playing on Facebook. It’s so big now. It’s bigger than it’s ever been. It’s come out of the bedroom, so to speak.”
While consoles can no longer hog the spotlight, the bottom line is that games and the business around them will continue to grow and evolve. As our anonymous industry veteran said, “I think we need to stop worrying about the games business, it’s growing constantly, there’s more people playing games now than ever before and money is made in so many ways, in so many countries that are not made public. The amount of teams the industry is funding is growing exponentially and so it’s not surprising that the overall wealth of the industry is becoming more distributed. I believe there’s plenty of money out there if you do something innovative.”
That’s according to the publisher, which also highlights the game’s number one ranking on Xbox Live, and the most pre-ordered release at US retailer GameStop.
Activision claims over 15,000 stores opened at midnight on Monday to sell the game across the globe, although it stopped short of revealing unit figures.
“Ghosts is an amazing game which ushers in the next generation of Call of Duty,” commented Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing.
“This is the must have launch title for the next generation of consoles, and we expect Call of Duty: Ghosts to be the most successful launch title for the Xbox One and PS4 by a wide margin. In fact, according to GameStop, Call of Duty: Ghosts is their most pre-reserved next gen title.”
Like all major companies, Electronic Arts from time to time has come under fire from pundits and consumers. In fact, earlier this year, the publisher won the Consumerist poll for “Worst Company in America” for the second straight year. Whether or not there’s any merit to that accusation, rather than simply shrug it off, EA says it’s listening and wants to do even better by its consumers.
In a recent interview with Kotaku, newly minted CEO Andrew Wilson and vice president of the Games Label, Patrick Soderlund, talked at length about making consumers more satisfied than they have been with EA in the last few years.
“There are lots of really big public companies that make a lot of money that are loved by their consumers,” Wilson acknowledged. “That’s because the consumers feel like they get value from that company in the investment in their dollars [and] time.”
To that end, Wilson would like his consumers to really feel like they, not EA, are getting the better end of the deal when they purchase any games from the publisher. “Any time we create something, if you’re asking for an investment from the consumer in dollars and time, make sure they feel like they’re stealing from you and that they are getting the best end of that deal and the rest will follow. And that will be our philosophy,” he continued.
Interestingly, Soderlund admitted that the Consumerist distinction really did give EA pause. The executives have been thinking about what it means and what the company can do to change perceptions around EA.
“We started thinking about how we don’t want to be viewed as the worst company in America. I personally don’t think we’ve ever been the worst company in America, but it says something. The consumers out there are telling us something. And we actually took it very seriously. This was before Andrew was the CEO. We and [EA chief operating officer] Peter Moore and a couple of other guys in the executive company got together to try to understand what caused people to say these things. And there were some things out there that…consumers told us they didn’t like. Online pass was one thing.”
It may sound easy, but one of the best things EA can do for its reputation is to make amazing game experiences. If consumers love the games, the rest should follow. Wilson noted that for as much as EA has tried to raise its own bar on quality, it’s still not enough.
“The demand and expectation on us are higher than they ever have been,” Wilson said. “We need a mechanism and a process which we can get to better games more quickly. If we can be faulted for anything, over the years, it’s kind of hanging on to ideas or concepts of games too long, driving too hard against them, spending too much to the point that we couldn’t invest in other opportunities and ideas. And a big part of what Patrick and [fellow top execs] Frank [Gibeau] and Lucy [Bradshaw] and I committed to is let’s drive a culture of innovation inside the company that actually starts a lot more stuff but at the same time kills a bunch more stuff before it gets to market so that we can give ourselves more short-term goals to get to that next innovative product.”
While EA is still trying to convince investors that profits are coming, its management ultimately sees the consumer perception and game quality issues as the most important to tackle. If it handles those problems with aplomb, the bottom line will take care of itself.
“…whether it’s DLC or something else, as long as we take the approach of being player-[d]riven and not driven by a short-term financial decision, players are telling us that Battlefield Premium is a good thing, because they’re buying it, they like it and they look at this and say, ‘Wow this is a great value proposition. I get four or five expansion packs and all these things for $50 that I can play over two years’ time. That’s worth something. Will Electronic Arts make money out of that? Yes, but will the consumers like it and want it? Yes they do. Wholeheartedly. I think that’s an approach where if we come at it from a consumer perspective and we do things that they tell us they want and we do that well, business will follow,” said Soderlund.
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have yet to hit retail shelves, but over the past few months, lots of people have had a chance to spend significant amount of time with games for both systems. With the hardware locked down and in full production and launch window titles nearing, if not already past, their gold master dates, the new consoles may remain an exciting enigma to consumers but they’ve already been reasonably well explored by plenty of people. Like many, I’ve had some hands-on time with both consoles – both at trade shows and in private meetings. It’ll probably be some time before one of the new consoles finds itself plugged into my TV, since there’s no launch in my territory until 2014 – a fact which I originally found quite annoying, but the more time I spend with the newcomers, the less the delay bothers me.
Why? It’s not that PS4 or Xbox One are bad consoles – far from it. Rather, it’s that I’ve found myself increasingly feeling that I’m not actually done with the previous generation yet. There are plenty of games I haven’t played, or haven’t completed, and a handful more still on the way – especially for the PS3, a late bloomer which had a rocky start but has blossomed into a genuinely fantastic platform over the years. Meanwhile, the stack of games I need to play on the handheld platforms has grown to genuinely embarrassing levels – I’ve not touched anything in Vita’s increasingly impressive portfolio, while the 3DS’ recent releases alone (Pokemon X/Y and Monster Hunter 4) promise tons of entertainment. I’m keenly aware of about half a dozen Wii must-plays that I never-played, and Wii U – a peculiar device bridging the generations rather than a “next-gen” system in the horsepower sense – is looking increasingly appealing as well.
I’m hardly alone in that feeling. Plenty of core gamers are increasingly vocal in their interest in Wii U this Christmas – not, perhaps, enough to drive Nintendo’s sales figures just yet (the sluggish demand for the system is still eating into the firm’s profits, although the 3DS more than balances the picture) but enough to suggest that there’s pent-up demand that will be unleashed when a bit more first-party software turns up. Others are pointing out that the real “winner” of the season in hardware terms is likely to be the PS3, and it’s likely that the Xbox 360 won’t have a shabby Christmas either (although how Microsoft will behave towards the 360 is hard to gauge; it greeted the launch of the 360 itself by loading a shotgun and dragging the original Xbox around the back of the woodshed, but then again, the original Xbox wasn’t an enormously successful device anyway).
This isn’t unfamiliar territory, of course. Sony’s consoles in particular have enjoyed very impressive long-tail sales over the past two generations – PSone sold remarkably through the early years of PS2, and PS2 itself did fantastically well almost the whole way through PS3′s lifespan, with production of the system only ending earlier this year. It’s to be expected that the previous generation of hardware should continue to sell even after the launch of a new generation, not least because its enormous software library and low entry cost opens it up to an entirely new audience. Moreover, the platform holders welcome this fact – old game consoles are sold at fantastic margins, helping to fund the next generation and smoothing over any bumps in the profitability of the new systems.
However, there are a few unique factors about the current generation transition that are important to consider. The first is the longevity of the previous generation. The PlayStation 3 will have celebrated its seventh birthday before the PS4 turns up – the Xbox 360 will be a venerable eight years old. These systems are remarkably long in the tooth and might reasonably be expected to decline fairly quickly after the new systems hit the market. One might also reasonably expect that there would be a huge pent-up demand for new hardware to replace such ageing systems. By the end of the PS1 and PS2 eras, both systems were seriously showing their age – some excellent games turned up late in the day (think Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 and Shadow of the Colossus on the PS2, for example) but by and large the gaming audience was chafing at the technical limitations of these systems and keen to upgrade.
That motivation exists this time as well – but in spite of just how old the PS3 and Xbox 360 are, few would argue that they’ve dated quite as badly as the PS1 or even the PS2 had by the point of their replacement with newer hardware. In fact, games like The Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed 4 or Beyond: Two Souls continue to seriously wow audiences with their visuals, while many other developers are learning to sidestep the graphics arms race entirely by focusing on beautiful, innovative and eye-catching art styles rather than technical prowess. Even with the PS3 entering its eighth year and the 360 about to embark on its ninth, few people feel like these systems have been exhausted of their potential. Nobody – or at least, nobody apart from a very technically aware minority – feels like these are consoles that have been left behind by gaming, too lacking in power to deliver really fantastic experiences.
Playing games on PS4 and Xbox One actually confirms that feeling, rather than confounding it. Launch titles are rarely amazing examples of the potential of a system – those we remember clearly, like Halo or Super Mario 64, are remembered precisely because launch titles of that quality are so rare. All the same, it’s hard to escape the feeling that PS4 and Xbox One games are simply shinier, slightly sharper updates to previous generation games, with better draw distance and more objects on screen. Of course, technically speaking, that’s a major upgrade in and of itself. There’s no question that these games are doing things which the old hardware couldn’t have managed. From the epic battles of Ryse or the sheer detail of Titanfall to the vast numbers of objects being thrown around by Knack – these are genuinely new things and it’s undeniable that there is a wow factor to many of the launch titles at certain moments. All the same, you can trace a clear line from late-stage PS3/360 titles to early PS4/XB1 titles, and it’s a curve that doesn’t rise all that sharply.
The consequence is that having played next-gen games, it’s perfectly possible to go back to last-gen titles and enjoy them. That’s a bigger deal than it sounds. After a while playing PS2 games, it was pretty tough to play most PS1 games without feeling like they’d really dated badly. The transition from PS2 to PS3 was less dramatic, but nonetheless, my huge pile of to-play PS2 games ended up never being played to completion (I think Persona 4 may be the only exception here) largely because going back to the now very dated PS2 catalogue didn’t appeal so much after playing PS3 and 360 games. This time, though, the curve is even shallower. After playing many of the launch titles for the new consoles, I have no problem going back to PS3 and 360 games. They still look and play just great; I’d be happy, in fact, to stick with this level of hardware for another year or two, if I had to.
I don’t believe that this is down to a flaw with the new consoles or their approach. Rather, I think it’s because we’ve seriously started to hit a plateau stage in the progression of 3D graphical quality – a stage which was probably inevitable from the moment we started making 3D games. Ever since the first graphics cards appeared for PCs, I recall people asking at regular intervals, “is this good enough? Do we ever need a more powerful system?” – and the answer was always an eye-rolling and resounding “no, it’s not good enough”. The ideal of photo-realism is always there to be aimed for, after all – until the point where our hardware can genuinely replicate the real world (and indeed all sorts of unreal worlds) to the point where our eyes can’t tell the difference, it’ll be impossible to say that there’s no room for improvement.
There is, however, a serious diminishing returns curve involved in all of this. The progression of 3D graphics technology continues to be absolutely astounding, but it’s undeniable that it’s focused on smaller and smaller things as time goes by. That’s understandable and necessary – the road to better visuals is paved with small innovations – but it does mean that from the standpoint of the average consumer, the actual difference between hardware generations is being diminished. On the PS3 and 360, and indeed on high-end PCs around the era of Half-Life 2 (systems that are now considered effectively obsolete), we hit a point where the hardware allowed developers to create environments that “felt” right to gamers. Advancing beyond that, you seriously diminish your returns. The most beautiful environments in Crytek’s extraordinary game engines running on top-end PCs may, objectively, be enormously more advanced and impressive than those achieved in The Last of Us or other benchmark games on the ageing console hardware, but from the perspective of user experience, it barely matters – both can create believable environments that are of sufficient fidelity to be recognisable and “realistic”, and for many if not most consumers, that’s “good enough” as long as it’s married to a worthwhile game experience.
This is the single biggest challenge the new consoles are going to face – not tablets and smartphones, not the Android-powered microconsoles that are still struggling to explain their raison d’être to the world at large, not the unquestioned resurgence of the PC as a gaming platform. No, the real challenge comes from their older siblings – consoles that are still “good enough” for many, and may well continue being “good enough” for several years to come. If software development jumps en masse to the new platforms, of course, then gamers will eventually have to jump as well – but I suspect that after the initial excitement for next-gen, the process of convincing people that it’s worth making the leap may be much harder than the platform holders expect. PS4 and Xbox One both look like great systems, but greatness alone may not be enough to overcome the sheer inertia of the older hardware – the first generation of consoles for which “good enough” really does seem to have been a fair moniker.