IBM has detailed plans to apply its Watson supercomputer the critical development issues facing Africa.
The machine is capable of holding more intelligent conversations than most Big Brother contestants, and in 2011 it beat human contestants on the US TV game show Jeopardy.
However, in Africa it will be used to help solve the pressing problems facing the continent such as agricultural patterns and famine relief.
The initiative, named Project Lucy after the earliest human remains discovered on the continent, will take 10 years and is expected to cost $100m.
“I believe it will spur a whole era of innovation for entrepreneurs here,” IBM CEO Ginni Rometty told delegates at a conference on Wednesday.
“Data… needs to be refined. It will determine undisputed winners and losers across every industry.”
The technology will be used to find ways to enable the developing world to leapfrog over stages of development that have hitherto been too expensive.
One example cited was Nigeria, where two companies have already committed to use Project Lucy to analyse the poorly maintained road system and determine project priorities for repair.
IBM recently announced that it will invest $1bn to spin off Watson into a separate business unit, however this could be quite a gamble as Reuters reported that although Watson has proved to be a quantum leap, it has yet to make any significant money for the company, netting less than $100m in the past three years.
Nintendo has issued a detailed and far-reaching response to the pervasive concerns about its future as a business.
In a meeting with investors, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata outlined the company’s strategy in both the short-term and as far ahead as 2016. From changing the fortunes of the Wii U to evolving the way we think about game consoles as a concept, Nintendo displayed striking candour in its attempt to allay the criticisms it has received since it drastically reduced its sales forecasts earlier this month.
However, Iwata was clear about one thing from the outset: regardless of what followed, there are certain aspects of Nintendo’s business that will not change, namely the frequently proposed idea that it should take its IP stable to new platforms.
“Dedicated video game platforms which integrate hardware and software will remain our core business,” he said. “Naturally, we are moving ahead with research and development efforts for future hardware as we have done before, and we are not planning to give up our own hardware systems and shift our axis toward other platforms.
“Dedicated video game platforms which integrate hardware and software will remain our core business… We are not planning to give up our own hardware systems and shift our axis toward other platforms”
“From a medium- to long-term standpoint…we don’t believe that following trends will lead to a positive outcome for Nintendo as an entertainment company. Instead, we should continue to make our best efforts to seek a blue ocean with no rivals and create a new market with innovative offerings.”
Here are the key points from Iwata’s presentation
The Wii U is Nintendo’s top priority
It is no secret that Nintendo has struggled to repeat the success of the Wii with the Wii U, but Iwata reassured investors that it has no intention of abandoning its ailing console. The possibility of a further reduction in price was ruled out immediately, with Iwata instead emphasising the company’s ongoing failure to adequately demonstrate the value of the GamePad controller, and to distinguish the console from its hugely popular predecessor.
“By looking at the current sales situation, I am aware that this is due to our lack of effort,” he said. “Our top priority task this year is to offer software titles that are made possible because of the GamePad… We have managed to offer several of such software titles for occasions when many people gather in one place to play, but we have not been able to offer a decisive software title that enriches the user’s gameplay experience when playing alone with the GamePad. This will be one of the top priorities of Mr. Miyamoto’s software development department this year.”
Iwata offered a strong first-step by setting an official May release date for the release of Mario Kart 8, but he also indicated that Nintendo’s development teams would focus on the GamePad’s near-field communication (NFC) function – the same basic technology as that used in lucrative franchises like Skylanders and Disney Infinity. Iwata promised more details of its plans for NFC at E3 in June.
The end of “device-based relationships”
While many have cited the Wii U as evidence of Nintendo’s failure to respond to the changes in the games industry since the launch of the Wii, Iwata stated that the company has already laid the foundations for a fundamental shift in the way it thinks about its products.
Before now, Nintendo had “device-based relationships” with its customers. This was mitigated somewhat by the strength of its software IP, but fundamentally the link with any given consumer followed the lifecycle of each piece of hardware. “We became disconnected with our consumers with the launch of each new device as we could only form device-based relationships,” he said.
However, the Wii U saw the introduction of “Nintendo Network IDs,” an attempt to create “account-based” customer relationships that could continue across different hardware platforms and generations. In the future, Iwata said, “connecting with our consumers through NNIDs will precisely be our new definition of a Nintendo platform.”
With this in mind, Iwata was able to put an end to the speculation around Nintendo’s strategy for smartphones and tablets. He made it quite clear that Nintendo has no plans to release its games on smart devices, but it does intend to use them as a way to communicate and build relationships with new audiences. Iwata offered few details of how the company intends to accomplish that goal, but he indicated that it would include a mobile app that leveraged Nintendo’s existing IP to raise awareness of its hardware and software.
“I have not given any restrictions to the development team, even not ruling out the possibility of making games or using our game characters. However, if you report that we will release Mario on smart devices, it would be a completely misleading statement. It is our intention to release some application on smart devices this year that is capable of attracting consumer attention and communicating the value of our entertainment offerings.”
Flexible pricing for existing and emerging markets
The existence of NNIDs and account-based relationships will also give Nintendo the ability to alter the way its products are sold. Iwata highlighted the company’s role in establishing the model of selling a console for several hundred dollars and individual games for fifty or sixty dollars, but Nintendo now recognises that this model is no longer viable in the long-term.
The first aspect of this that Nintendo intends to challenge is the fixed price-point of software. Iwata suggested a system where the price of a games could be tailored to individual customers based on their NNIDs: someone who purchased five games in a year might pay less and less for each one, for example, or there might be incentives tied to recommending a game to a friend.
“If we can achieve such a sales mechanism, we can expect to increase the number of players per title, and the players will play our games with more friends. This can help maintain the high usage ratio of a platform… Nintendo aims to work on this brand-new sales mechanism in the medium term, but we would like to start experimenting with Wii U at an early stage.”
“While we will continue to devote our energy to dedicated video game platforms, our first step into a new business area is the theme of ‘Health’”
This flexibility will also extend to emerging markets for gaming across the world. Nintendo is a globally recognised brand, but Iwata conceded that the price of its products has put them beyond the reach of people in certain countries. While Iwata didn’t mention any specific regions, he is likely referring to countries like Brazil and India, where the interest in gaming has increased in concert with the disposable income available to the population.
“To leverage Nintendo’s strength as an integrated hardware-software business, we will not rule out the idea of offering our own hardware for new markets. But for dramatic expansion of the consumer base there, we require a product family of hardware and software with an entirely different price structure from that of the developed markets.
“We aim to connect with consumers who do not own Nintendo’s video game systems yet, which will play an important role in cultivating new markets. Once we can establish such a connection with consumers in these nations, we will be able to use smart devices to share our information as well as important content distribution infrastructure. We plan to take significant steps toward such a new market approach in the year 2015.
Going beyond games
There may be no chance of playing Super Mario World on an iPad anytime soon, Iwata did state Nintendo’s interest in making money from its IP outside of first-party video games. Nintendo has always been very cautious of damaging its iconic characters through excessive merchandising and licensing, but one need only look at Rovio’s Angry Birds to see how much profitable such deals can be. Indeed, Iwata attributed the strength of Nintendo’s IP stable to that very reluctance, but, he said, “we are going to change our policy going forward.”
“To be more precise, we will actively expand our character licensing business, including proactively finding appropriate partners. In fact, we have been actively selling character merchandise for about a year in the U.S. Also, we will be flexible about forming licensing relationships in areas we did not license in the past, such as digital fields, provided we are not in direct competition and we can form win-win relationships.
“By moving forward with such activities globally, we aim to increase consumer exposure to Nintendo characters by making them appear in places other than on video game platforms.”
Nintendo’s new business idea: Health
Iwata closed the presentation with Nintendo’s planned entry into an entirely new area of business, one that will provide the “blue ocean” the company so desperately needs.
“While we will continue to devote our energy to dedicated video game platforms, what I see as our first step into a new business area in our endeavour to improve [quality of life] is the theme of “Health.” Of course, defining a new entertainment business that seeks to improve [quality of life] creates various possibilities for the future such as “learning” and “lifestyle,” but it is our intention to take “health” as our first step.”
Again, exact details of what this focus on health will entail were not provided, but Iwata described the concept as “an integrated hardware-software platform business” that will use the company’s experience making products like Wii Fit, Brain Age and the Touch Generations series as a springboard for a more pervasive and persistent initiative.
“We will be able to provide feedback to our consumers on a continual basis, and our approach will be to redefine the notion of health-consciousness, and eventually increase the fit population… I feel that not only can this [quality of life]-improving platform utilise our know-how and experience about video game platforms, but also we can expect it to interact with games and create a synergistic effect.
“While we feel that this is going to take two to three years after its launch, we expect the [quality of life]-improving platform to provide us with new themes which we can then turn into games that operate on our future video game platforms, too. Once we have established such a cycle, we will see continuous positive interactions between the two platforms that enable us to make unique propositions.”
Iwata promised to announce more details this year, and confirmed that the new business will officially launch during the fiscal year ending March 2016.
Nintendo blew it. That much is clear, and even Satoru Iwata doesn’t debate it – Nintendo blew it. The financials could be much worse, but the unit sales? Way, way below targets, and in the case of Wii U, way below sustainability. Nintendo blew it! Shout it from the rooftops, if you can find space on a rooftop next to all the people who are already shouting it, with altogether too much peculiar jubilance in their snide, told-you-so voices.
Nintendo blew it. Blew what, though? That’s a tougher question. The company’s year has been a lot more complex than anyone is giving it credit for. In 2013, Nintendo was proud owner of the best-selling console in every major territory worldwide, and launched an enviable range of first-party software titles that sold over a million copies each – more than any other publisher out there. The company retained its crown as the biggest platform holder and the biggest software publisher in the business.
Yet, Nintendo blew it, because it also had a platform that utterly under-performed even the most conservative of estimates – a console that, on its current trajectory, is set to undershoot the low bar set by the GameCube and become the firm’s worst performing home console ever. Moreover, Nintendo blew it in a subtle but crucially important way – with startling incompetence for a company of its size, the firm predicted sales figures for both the 3DS and the Wii U which were absolutely ludicrous and then failed to revise them as the year carried on, meaning that even the solidly performing 3DS has undershot its targets, while the Wii U looks even worse than it ought to (which is pretty bad to begin with).
“Nintendo’s stock didn’t tumble too badly after it revised its guidance, largely since nobody with a clue actually thought the firm was going to hit its targets anyway”
This latter aspect has made the coverage of Nintendo’s situation even more negative than it would already have been (and there are plenty of people waiting to pile onto the company at the slightest provocation), since it covers up the success of the 3DS and its software line-up – seriously, 3DS has had an amazing year for software and is now set up with a library that effectively secures the console’s future – in a heavy smearing of corporate incompetence. It has also, understandably, deeply annoyed shareholders, because they rely on companies making accurate predictions to figure out whether or not to pick up stock in a firm. That said, Nintendo’s stock didn’t tumble too badly after it revised its guidance, largely since nobody with a clue actually thought the firm was going to hit its targets anyway. Incidentally, the company’s stock price is about 50% higher today than it was 12 months ago, in line with the rise in the Nikkei 225 index – which means that Japanese investors, at least, are rating the company as broadly neutral rather than actually negative.
Still, Nintendo blew it, and that means lots of people are making angry noises. Iwata must go, say some; Nintendo must exit hardware, say others; time for Mario on smartphones, say still others. The owners of all of those voices are going to be disappointed – not least, I believe, because very few of them actually understand Nintendo as a company or the Japanese corporate environment in which it operates. They don’t understand that activist shareholders don’t mean a tuppenny damn to a company whose shares are largely held by a combination of the founding family, the senior staff and (more significantly still) the complex web of interrelated share- and debt-holdings that connects Nintendo with Japanese banks and other corporations, none of whom have the slightest concern in being “activist” except in the most extreme of circumstances. An earnings miss? Pah! Japanese corporations routinely missed annual earnings every year for decades after the Asian Financial Crisis of the early 1990s, but shareholder pressure to change top management never materialised then, and it won’t materialise now. Iwata is secure until he does something sufficiently wrong to have a taint of scandal around it, and that’s deeply unlikely to happen.
Exiting hardware? Absolutely no chance. Nintendo’s primary view of itself is as a toy company and its core business model is selling hardware (generally profitably) and then selling software that runs on that hardware (extremely profitably). The synergy between the company’s hardware side and its software side is legendary, as is the extent to which each Nintendo platform is designed with the requirements of planned first-party software in mind. For that reason alone, it’s likely that the Wii U will eventually have a clutch of startlingly excellent games, matching last year’s critically acclaimed Super Mario 3D World in quality – although whether that will actually do anything to resuscitate sales is another question entirely. The point is that this approach isn’t going to change; the inertia behind Nintendo as a hardware company is immense, and moreover, despite this year’s earnings miss, it’s largely working. Nintendo is, pretty much every year, the largest and most successful game software company in the world. Would it retain that crown on someone else’s hardware? If you rush to answer “yes!” to that question, either your crystal ball gazing skills are excellent or you haven’t thought about it hard enough; I don’t think there is a good answer to that question right now, and I know Nintendo will be eyeing Sega’s post-hardware decline and thinking about its own potential fortunes as one-among-many on a smartphone app store. Right now, Nintendo has around 40 million 3DS owners who are keenly anticipating future first-party releases from the company – keenly enough that they start to agitate and make noise if there’s ever a gap in the release schedule. Would that be true on iOS, or Android, or even on a competitor’s console platform?
“one of the company’s failings, in some regards, is that it still doesn’t really have a global outlook, with Nintendo of America and Nintendo Europe being rather stunted”
How about a limited engagement with smartphones, then, even if they wouldn’t make the leap entirely? That’s plausible. Nintendo’s primary point of reference for its product decisions is Japan – one of the company’s failings, in some regards, is that it still doesn’t really have a global outlook, with Nintendo of America and (even more so) Nintendo Europe being rather stunted local offshoots whose actual contribution to the firm’s planning and success is pretty obviously minimal. In Japan, smartphone games are a huge sector, and interestingly, there’s seemingly more of a market for premium-priced games than there is in the west, where free-to-play is increasingly the only show in town (although premium-priced games are carving out an interesting niche there too). There is, I believe, some potential for Nintendo to start putting Virtual Console titles on smartphones, perhaps initially through a tie-up with one of Japan’s carriers. However, I’d expect this roll-out to be slow and careful, with Nintendo incredibly mindful of the possibility of damaging its core brands by launching Mario or Zelda games tainted by emulation problems or crap touchscreen controls. Still – it could happen, and is by far the most likely of the “demands” being made of the firm to actually be met in some limited form.
If Iwata isn’t going to go (he’s not), Nintendo isn’t going to exit hardware (they’re not) and the company’s future isn’t on smartphones (it’s not, although some cautious toes in that water may be seen in time), then what is Nintendo’s reaction to its present situation going to be?
I’ve stated this before, but it bears repeating – Nintendo has incredibly, insanely deep pockets. The firm has set aside a vast war chest over the course of its successful years, and it can easily ride out even the complete failure of a console platform, supporting that platform sufficiently to satisfy consumers while quietly working on a replacement. That’s what Satoru Iwata told me Nintendo would do if the Wii failed completely – they’d make something else and try that instead – and I see no reason why that logic would have changed. If anything, the firm’s financial position is even stronger now than it was then.
What will Nintendo make? There’s a lot of speculation around that, but most of it is evolutionary. A faster, more powerful DS / 3DS style handheld. A Nintendo tablet, capable of handheld gaming and being hooked up to a TV. A full-spec next-gen console built to rival the PS4. All of these are options for the company – the tablet computer one is even an interesting one, combining as it does the handheld market (which Nintendo always dominates) with the home console market (where it’s hit and miss). However, they all miss the crucial ingredient which Nintendo actually requires to bring itself back to success – surprise.
“Nintendo needs the element of surprise. It surprised the hell out of everyone with the DS, it surprised everyone with the Wii”
Nintendo needs the element of surprise. It surprised the hell out of everyone with the DS, a daft, stupid idea for a handheld console that everyone expected to be trounced by the much more comprehensible PSP. It surprised everyone with the Wii, a weird, tiny, underpowered system with a controller that looked nothing like we expected – so odd that it led me to rather bluntly ask Iwata what he planned to do if everyone hated it and the system flopped, hence his comment above. The DS is the best-selling console in history (or at least, tied for that honour with the PS2); the Wii trounced the Xbox 360 and PS3 in the last generation of hardware. Nintendo does exceptionally well when it surprises people. It creates a clear gap between itself and the competition and makes “the Nintendo Difference” into more than just a silly slogan. Even those who own a more “mainstream” console end up wanting a Nintendo one too, because it’s so interesting and different, while those from outside the core gamer market find themselves intrigued by the very peculiarity and curiosity of the devices and their software.
3DS and Wii U fail the surprise test. They’re practically indistinguishable from their predecessors, both in appearance and in branding. 3DS suffered terribly from being mistaken for a new version of the original DS hardware; the Wii U, I suspect, is doing even worse, with many consumers not realising that it’s a new console entirely and not a new controller for the Wii. There’s been a disastrous failure of communication, branding and marketing, which has compounded the more basic error – assuming that the success of the Wii meant people wanted more of that kind of thing. Nintendo’s strength is providing people will surprises, things that look daft to begin with and then turn out to be precisely what we always wanted and never realised. If it’s to successfully come back from its present mess, it needs to do so by surprising us, not by following along the dull path analysts would now demand of it.
That, I earnestly hope, is what the company is working hard on in Kyoto right now. I don’t want Nintendo to abandon the Wii U, and I don’t think that will happen. The installed base is small, but big enough to be worth caring about, and the console still has the makings of a profitable platform, albeit a niche one. However, alongside continued support for the Wii U (and hopefully, a drastic change in marketing and branding), Nintendo is hopefully also working on something else; something more important and simply more Nintendo; its next big surprise.
Nintendo reportedly is looking to mobile devices to save its struggling business, after it admitted last week that the Wii U isn’t selling.
On Thursday, Nintendo slashed its Wii U sales forecast, acknowledging that despite previously expecting to shift nine million units between April 2013 and March this year, it now expects sales of just 2.8 million. Nintendo’s 3DS console isn’t selling well either, leading the firm to admit that it expects to post a $240m annual loss.
These clearly are signs that Nintendo is losing its appeal in the gaming market, and although there are still many dedicated Wii U gamers out there, the firm is struggling to compete against the Sony Playstation 4 (PS4) and Microsoft Xbox One games consoles.
It seems that Nintendo is starting to realize this too, and it admitted over the weekend that it might look to mobiles and tablets to save the future of the company, following rumors that the firm may be planning its own Android tablet for educational use.
Although the company had previous said that you’re unlikely to ever see Mario Kart running on an iPhone, Nintendo president Satoru Itawa hinted that the firm’s stance on mobile devices has changed, with the company exploring the possibility of bringing its titles to smartphones and tablets.
“We are thinking about a new business structure. Given the expansion of smart devices, we are naturally studying how smart devices can be used to grow the game-player business,” Itawa said.
“The way people use their time, their lifestyles, who they are have changed. If we stay in one place, we will become outdated.”
However, Itawa admitted, “It’s not as simple as enabling Mario to move on a smartphone,” hinting that the firm will develop dedicated games for mobile devices, rather than porting those it already has.
While Westerners are shunning Nintendo as if it were a rabid dog, the console maker is hoping to make in roads into China.
China just announced that it was allowing consoles made by western companies to exist in the country for the first time in 14 years. The move could pave the way for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to enter the world’s third-largest video game market in terms of revenue. But it is Nintendo, which is much cheaper, which could be the winner.
The most popular video games in China are often free to play with gamers only paying for add-ons such as weapons or extra lives.
Price may also be a problem for console makers looking to expand in China. More than 70 percent of Chinese gamers earn less than $660 a month. Nintendo, being cheaper, might do better.
With the Xbox One and PS4 fighting over the core gaming crowd this holiday season, Nintendo is targeting its Wii U marketing elsewhere. In an interview with Seattle NBC affiliate King-5, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said the system is enjoying strong holiday momentum, thanks in part to a renewed and refocused marketing push.
“The marketing has tremendously ramped up,” Fils-Aime said. “And really where it comes down to is being crystal clear in who’s your target. For us, this holiday with the Wii U, the target is parents and their kids. So if you’re watching primetime family entertainment, you’re seeing our marketing. If you’re a parent watching morning or daytime media, you’re seeing our content.”
Fils-Aime declined to give specifics about Nintendo’s marketing spend, but did expound on the company’s overall strategy.
“More than just the dollars, we’re putting our product where the consumer can see it, touch it, and feel it,” Fils-Aime said. “We’re in over 20 malls across the country. We’re creating an opportunity for consumers to see the product, because that, for Nintendo, is where the ‘wow’ happens. It’s not when you talk about specs or technology.”
Fils-Aime also addressed continued calls for Nintendo to begin making games for smartphones and tablets. While he stressed a corporate philosophy that Nintendo games are best played on Nintendo devices, Fils-Aime said the company has been doing “experimentation” on mobile platforms. However, he cautioned that experimentation is “largely going to be much more marketing activity oriented,” and designed to push users to experiences on the 3DS or Wii U rather than serve as stand-alone experiences in themselves.
“What drives us is creating fantastic experiences for consumers that in the end we’re able to monetize as a for-profit company,” Fils-Aime said. “The issue is that if you have games out there on all of these smart devices for very small amounts of money, it’s very difficult to monetize. And if you look at all of these companies who are trying to do it, there aren’t many that are doing it long-term, profitably.”
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.
It is starting to look like the Wii is destined to go the way of the Dodo.
Estimated sales figures seem to indicate that 222,700 Wii U consoles were sold in the United States in November and 4.3 million Wii U consoles worldwide to date. This is not to be sneezed at, but given that Nintendo wanted to sell Nine million Wii Us worldwide during its 2014 fiscal year that is disappointing.
Nintendo flogged 160,000 systems in the first quarter and 300,000 units in the second quarter. Added to this new 222,000, this means Nintendo would need to sell an additional 8.3 million Wii Us before the end of March in order to reach its goal, or between 2.0-2.1 million consoles per month in December, January, February and March.
Analysts have already predicted that Nintendo “will likely miss” its profit goals for Wii U. Nintendo is trying to talk up the figures saying that sales of Wii U hardware increased by more than 340 percent over sales in October. Meanwhile sales of Microsoft’s and Sony’s new consoles are going through the roof.
Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter spoke at the Game Monetization USA Summit in San Francisco, and once again made some bold predictions about the future of the game industry. He pulled no punches as he evaluated the current state of affairs in the business, and he had some hard advice for a number of companies.
Pachter noted that more people are playing games on more devices than ever before, but he doesn’t think the console market will be growing. “I don’t think you’re ever going to see 500 million consoles out there,” Pachter said. For lifetime sales, Pachter expects the Wii U will ultimately sell 30 million “or fewer” units, the PS4 will sell 100 to 120 million units, and the Xbox One will sell 90 to 110 million units.
“The reason Sony beats Microsoft is solely the price,” Pachter noted. “Microsoft loses the next generation unless they cut price. If Microsoft drops its price to $399, I expect the sales to be equal to the PS4.”
The lifetime sales Pachter predicts compare to current sales of the PS3 and the Xbox 360 at about 80 million units apiece, but it’s far below some estimates of hundreds of millions of next-gen consoles. “I don’t know where they get those numbers,” Pachter said. He feels that at several hundred dollars, with games costing $60 or more, consoles are just too pricey to ever sell hundreds of millions of units.
The Wii U’s performance so far Pachter characterized as “underwhelming,” but noted it’s possible “but unlikely” that exciting new titles will reinvigorate growth. He believes that Nintendo is missing a huge opportunity to bring new gamers into their brands: Nintendo should put old GameBoy Advance content on phones and tablets for free, and charge $3 to $5 for more recent titles from the DS. Pachter feels this would generate enormous revenue for Nintendo and bring millions of new fans into their brands, and give them a strong way to sell newer titles on the 3DS and Wii U that use those brands.
“I don’t know why Iwata is still employed,” Pachter said, given that he refuses to take advantage of this opportunity while the handheld market continues to shrink and the Wii U has failed so far to catch on in a big way.
Pachter is more positive on the PlayStation 4 – “Sony thrives, Nintendo doesn’t” – saying it’s impressive as a game playing device. “The graphics are phenomenal, and the huge RAM makes future innovation likely,” Pachter pointed out. He noted that the multimedia features remain unclear, but the CPU power of the PS4 allows the potential for huge improvement in the future. As for the Xbox One, Pachter noted it’s impressive as a multimedia device, and the added features of Kinect and Skype give it additional value. “We’re sticking with our prediction of a built-in TV tuner” for the Xbox One, Pachter said, which would simplify the ability of the Xbox One to control your television viewing.
“The next generation of consoles is probably the last,” Pachter said. “We expect frequent model updates instead of new consoles.” Moreover, there’s going to be renewed interest in the PC, he predicted. “I think the PC is going to make a comeback, the PC will be the hub of all this stuff,” he stated. He feels Smart TVs are a dumb idea, noting that you don’t have a smart monitor connected to your computer. He envisions there will be a number of screens around the home, perhaps controlled by a tablet, being driven by a supercomputer in your pocket that we call a smartphone.
The Wii U gets a new system update from Nintendo. While details are a bit vague on what all the new system updates actually does, Nintendo says it “improves overall system stability” and also includes minor adjustments “to enhance the user experience”.
The update comes ahead of a planned Nintendo update for the 3DS that is scheduled to arrive next month. The 3DS update will bring the Miiverse to the 3DS as well as adds the ability to combine eShop balances on both the 3DS and Wii U systems. In addition it will add Network IDs to the 3DS to access the eShop. Apparently 3DS owners will not have to take advantage of using a NNID to combine their eShop purchases and will still be allowed to download software from the eShop without a NNID.
Rumors suggest that another system update for the Wii U is just around the corner, but will likely not arrive till early next year, unless Nintendo has a reason to release it sooner. On the software front, the Wii U is still struggling, but the recent sales boost has helped, but Nintendo needs strong sales for the Wii U this holiday season in order to help get published and developers re-engaged in developing for the console. Whispers suggest that Nintendo expects supplies of the Wii U to be plentiful this holiday season and does not foresee shortages like what has plagued the Wii consoles of the past. The problem is however that the lack of software will likely keep many buyers away.
The company has approached potential buyers about the portfolio of patents, which include those related to webOS – the smartphone and tablet-computer operating system that HP acquired through its 2010 buy of Palm Inc, people told the agency.
HP sold the webOS operating system to South Korea’s LG Electronics Inc earlier this year, but retained the patents and all the technology relating to the cloud service of webOS.
“We don’t comment on rumor and speculation,” Michael Thacker, a spokesperson for Hewlett-Packard told Bloomberg.
HP could not immediately be reached for comment .
The independent gaming scene has been growing by leaps of bounds, so it makes sense that the events designed to celebrate it are keeping step. This weekend’s IndieCade Festival in Culver City, California (on the West side of Los Angeles) is the largest in the event’s seven-year history. IndieCade founder and CEO Stephanie Barish said the event is expecting to draw more than 5,000 people to Culver City, which has a population around 39,000.
Much like the indie scene it promotes, the show has also been getting increased attention from the mainstream gaming industry of late. Sony has been a primary sponsor of the event for years, but the 2013 show sees Nintendo chip in for the first time, with Microsoft returning to the list after taking 2012 off. Activision is also on the list of sponsors, as well as Epic Games (for the Unreal Engine), Unity, and 20 more companies. Barish said some of the event’s more recent sponsors saw how Sony benefitted from its overtures to independent developers and have been following suit.
“[Sony has] put four or five years of effort now into the indie development sector and it’s really paid off for them,” Barish said. “Developers are really interested in meeting with them. They see there are possibilities, that Sony has proven [indies] can do well and are treated well. More and more the fact that independent games are interesting to a broader public is becoming apparent to the larger publishers. As well, there’s a huge creative energy and force and momentum coming out of the independent sector, and they don’t want to not be part of the future.”
That future is a big part of the attraction for IndieCade. Attendees to this year’s show will be able to try out a handful of games on upcoming hardware like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation 4. In all, IndieCade 2013 features 36 “official selections” for the festival, with dozens more games on show. Barish expects that crop of games to not only produce some of the next big hits, but also draw attention to the next crop of important developers. In the past, she said IndieCade has served as a coming out party for indie hits like Braid and Everyday Shooter, or developers like Telltale Games (who would go on to create the multiple Game of the Year award-winning The Walking Dead series). It’s also been a place to debut games that think outside the set-top box, like Johann Sebastian Joust, a six-player game that uses music and PlayStation Move controllers, but no screen.
“It’s really important for the mainstream to see what’s at the cutting edge, and we just continue to bring things in that are more cutting edge, that are more different than publishers or other mainstream things would even think to look at yet,” Barish said. “We’re really a window into what’s going to happen.”
Among this year’s selections are That Dragon, Cancer (a narrative-driven game set in a children’s hospital over three years), Perfect Woman (a “strategic dancing game” for the Kinect), and [code] (a PC game in which players delve into ersatz programming code to solve puzzles). While some of the IndieCade games will almost certainly prove to be lucrative for their creators, Barish stressed that isn't the only way to measure their success.
"There's definitely a desire for the Cinderella story, but having seen so many of the games, they're really good," Barish said. "So even if they're not commercially successful, they're impacting the way mainstream games are designed, the directions and the trends for those."
The trend for IndieCade looks to be continued growth. This year saw the event spawn an IndieCade East sister show in New York City, a second installment of which is confirmed for February 14-16, 2014 at the Museum of the Moving Image. Beyond that, Barish said there has been talk about expanding the festival even further with a European event.
Fans of traditional, “core” games are often extremely hostile towards the new wave of casual and mobile titles, and even towards the people who play them. They’re keen to draw a line in the sand between these titles and “real” games and quick to portray players of Farmville, Candy Crush Saga or Puzzle & Dragons as mindless consumers of low-grade, repetitive entertainment that’s utterly disconnected from and disrespectful of gaming culture and the medium’s development as a form of art and entertainment.
There are good discussions to be had around those topics – not Internet flame-wars, but some interesting if slightly dry academic discussions defining the form and shape of “gaming” as a pastime, a medium and an artform. If we’re very lucky, some of those discussions could even avoid becoming tedious tug-of-war sessions between the “narrative has no place in games!” crowd and the rest of the world. None of them, however, will gain anything from employing “casuals” as a vicious epithet, or deciding to sideline millions of game players as insignificant because they’re “fake” gamers who play the wrong kinds of game.
Why does this kind of knee-jerk unpleasantness get so consistently applied to new, more casual audiences? There are uncharitable explanations which often point to uncomfortable truths – self-styled “gamers” have built something of a boys’ treehouse over the years, and dislike the invasion of new demographics which can include such unwelcome treehouse guests as women, homosexuals, trans people, ethnic and religious minorities, and even – gasp! – their own mothers and relatives. Is nothing sacred?! There’s also a broader sense in which this is not specific to games at all – there’s a more universal knee-jerk reaction which sees adherents of any niche pastime resenting and rejecting the arrival of a mass-market audience and products tailored to them. (“Ugh, you listen to chart music? Are your ears broken?” “You actually like JJ Abrams movies? What’s wrong with you?”)
At the root of much of the dislike of casual games and their players, however, lies a more basic concern – a fear that the rise of this kind of game is going to replace and erase the sorts of games which existing gamers actually enjoy. Watching Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga roll in countless millions in cash is a deeply uncomfortable feeling for the kind of gamer who trekked for tens of hours across Skyrim, who can utterly lose themselves in the flooded corridors of Rapture or the dingy streets of Dunwall, or whose adrenaline pours out when they’re ambushed by the Covenant or surrounded by the Combine. If Candy Crush Saga can make so much money, is that the future? Is that all we’re going to be left with – if not thematically, then as a business model or a creative approach?
That’s the fear that drives the aggression. There’s a hobby which we love, and a wealth of creative works which have given us unforgettable experiences – gamers fear that the new business reality represented by F2P and casual games is an outright threat to that experience and that hobby. In the chase after the new casual audience, game companies will be forced to abandon the pursuit of the kind of experiences which enrapture and delight the existing audience – or at the very least, to turn them all into tawdry fairground toys which demand that you pump coins into them to keep on playing, robbing them utterly of the atmosphere and immersion which is so much of their appeal.
I wonder, then, if the atmosphere of discussion and debate around games might become a little more civil (on this topic, at least) in the wake of two fairly important events in the past week. Firstly, you can’t have failed to notice that GTA V came out and smashed through sales records not only for games, but for just about every entertainment media imaginable. Of course, week-one sales of games surpassed the revenue of blockbuster movies long ago, but GTA V cements games as the dominant entertainment medium of our era by finally silencing the last bastion of naysaying – not only did it make more money in a single weekend than the biggest films in the world make in their entire lifetime, it was also purchased and played by more people in one weekend than the number who bought tickets for any recent movie. Revenue or volume; count it how you like, GTA V is the biggest entertainment property on earth.
Meanwhile, in Japan, another entertainment property went on sale – Monster Hunter 4, Capcom’s latest release. Its figures don’t rival GTA’s, but in the supposedly “declining” Japanese games market, it sold over two million units in its first week and helped to drive hundreds of thousands of sales of the 3DS – a console that’s meant to be a miserable flop thanks to the unstoppable advance of smartphones and tablets. That can’t rival Apple’s 9 million unit sales of the iPhone 5S and 5C, of course, but then again, that’s not a remotely useful comparison, no matter how often blowhard mobile evangelists trot it out – the 3DS purchasers are all confirmed gamers who will go on to spend heavily on expensive game software, while only a certain portion of mobile phone owners play games, a much smaller portion pay any money for them, and the amount of money they pay can be quite small (or quite large, of course, but certainly rarely exceeding the spend of a console owner).
GTA V and Monster Hunter 4; two games which are absolutely squarely aimed at the core gamer who is presently so terrified of being squeezed out by the flood of mobile, casual and social software. Two games which, completely uncoincidentally, have just become the biggest entertainment properties in the world and in Japan over the past few weeks.
There is no threat here. There’s a small and dwindling clique of hardcore evangelists who will try to characterise GTA’s success in particular as an outlier, an erratic piece of data that doesn’t change the overall context of the industry, but they’re absolutely wrong. GTA’s enormous release is actually a perfectly logical and predictable continuation of a curve which has seen the top-rated properties in traditional gaming ranked higher and higher in sales terms over the past decade or two. GTA V is not a last gasp of sales success for a doomed industry; it was inevitable that eventually, a core videogame would achieve this level of sales success, and it is also inevitable that a future franchise will surpass this (although perhaps not for a few years, as the new console generation and the other systems which will play host to the next giant release need to establish themselves first).
Social, mobile and F2P gaming isn’t going anywhere. Developers are going to get better and better at creating and honing those experiences, targeting specific audiences and even creating experiences in those categories that appeal to core gamers – no question. But this isn’t the only way to make a game or to make money from games. There will still be a huge audience who want 8 to 12 hour long amazing narrative-driven interactive experiences. There will still be a core audience for combative multiplayer. Hardcore FPS, long-form RPG, exploration of vast worlds; all of these things have huge audiences which, far from being drawn away by the lure of Hay Day or Bubble Witch Saga, are continuing to grow and expand. Yes, the really impressive expansion right now is at the casual end of the market – but that doesn’t stop core games from selling even more than they used to, as this month’s success stories prove.
This isn’t a zero sum game, and everyone needs to stop talking and acting as though it is. As long as there’s an audience that wants and is willing to pay for core game experiences, there will be companies that provide for that need. Mums playing Candy Crush Saga outside the school gates do not in any way detract from the value of the market that wants a new GTA, a new Monster Hunter or any other core experience. This expansion is not be aimed at core gamers, and a big mistake being made by lots of companies now is trying to apply rational choice models to a fundamentally irrational consumer behaviour and deciding that core gamers actually SHOULD want this kind of business model or game experience. However, that mistake aside (and it’ll stop once a few companies get badly burned for their foolishness), this expansion also does not harm core gamers. Once they realise that, perhaps we can all tone down the rhetoric and instead enjoy the hegemony of videogames as, quite remarkably, this generation’s truly dominant entertainment medium.
The mobile and tablet market has grown tremendously in the last several years. The number of apps on Apple’s App Store and Google Play is downright mind boggling, and if you’re an app developer… well, best of luck to you. As the new survey from App Developer Conference organizers revealed this week, piracy and discoverability are making it incredibly hard to succeed. Nearly half of the app developers surveyed made no profit at all.
So the question has to be asked: after years of flocking to mobile, are developers actually retreating to the PC and console space? “I speak with lots of mobile devs regularly and most are moving away or at least thinking of it, either to other platforms or out of the trade completely,” Paul Johnson, managing director and co-founder of Rubicon, told us. “Having to give your game away for 69 cents a throw (after Apple’s and Google’s cut) and then competing with 1000 new apps each day is hardly a draw for anybody. We’ve reached a point now where even those slow on the uptake have realized the goldrush is over. It’s actually been over for a few years.”
Jeffrey Lim, producer, Wicked Dog Games, agreed: “The mobile space offers certain advantages, like having the largest customer base and relatively low development costs. However, there’s no doubt it is getting harder to be profitable with the ongoing piracy and discoverability issues.”
“So yes, we do think developers (especially indies) are considering going back to develop for the PC – and even game consoles. The cost of self-publishing on these platforms has dropped significantly, and console makers are also making their platforms more indie-friendly now,” he added, alluding to efforts on next-gen systems like Sony’s PS4.
Chillingo COO Ed Rumley isn’t quite of the same mind as Johnson and Lim, but as a publisher, Chillingo has noticed that too many developers simply are failing to make high quality games, so it’s no wonder that their titles are being ignored.
“The number of games being submitted is growing, as is the number of developers contacting us. I’m not sure if some are being scared away, but we know from experience that some developers underestimate the time and quality it takes to make it in mobile now. Consumers are a savvy bunch and spot second rate games a mile off. You can’t just knock something together in your spare time, upload it and wait for the money to roll in anymore,” he warned.
Michael Schade, CEO, Fishlabs Entertainment, acknowledged the big challenge in mobile, but he doesn’t think developers are going to have to look elsewhere.
“Sure, mobile’s not an easy market to breach into, but then again, which market really is? No matter what business you’re in or what product you’re trying to sell, you’ll always have to work hard to gain your ground and make a name for yourself,” he noted. “So that alone shouldn’t scare you away from mobile, especially when you keep in mind that no other platform in the history of digital entertainment has ever evolved faster and born more potential than mobile! With more than a billion smart connected devices in use and hardware capabilities on par with current-gen gaming consoles, today’s smartphones and tablets constitute by far the most widespread, frequently used and innovative gaming platform the world has ever seen.”
Schade also remarked that the last few years of veteran developers getting into the mobile scene has made things more difficult. “The fact that more and more established PC and console veterans open new mobile gaming studios and more and more traditional publishers port their titles to iOS and Android, doesn’t make it easier for one particular company or product to stick out. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it clearly shows that the trend goes towards mobile, rather than away from it,” he said.
For every developer we spoke with, the discoverability issue reared its ugly head. There’s no doubt that this is a major concern. While building a high quality game can help, it’s simply not enough. In the world of apps, you cannot let the game do the talking for you.
“I think many developers have the misconception that it’s simply enough to release the game and let it speak for itself. They underestimate the importance of a marketing/PR campaign leading up to the game’s launch,” Lim stressed. “As a result their games fail commercially; not because of the quality, but due to lack of visibility. Hence the marketing/PR campaign should be seen as an integral part of the game’s development. An appropriate portion of the overall budget and effort should be allocated to increasing the game’s visibility, and if developers do not have the experience or time in marketing/PR they should consider hiring professionals in this area to lend a hand.”
Gree vice president of marketing Sho Masuda concurred that marketing is becoming crucial to mobile success. “They have to spend more time thinking about marketing and post-launch efforts in addition to building the the games. Fortunately, there are a lot of tools and services available for devs of all sizes to ensure that they can get the direction and support they need in these areas. Additionally, the mobile dev community is a very, very tight knit community and there is an amazing level of information sharing and support,” he said. “We encourage mobile devs of all sizes to talk to their peers, take advantage of all the meet-ups and events, and get to know all the services available to help get eyeballs on their games.”
A number of devs also believe that platform holders have a larger responsibility that they’ve been shirking so far. “For platform holders (e.g. Apple’s App Store), they can start to curate apps released on their store because there are too many clones of existing games that are taking up the traffic. They could attempt something like Steam Greenlight; although it is still an imperfect system, it’s better than not having any curation at all,” Lim commented.
Paul Johnson agreed, telling us that he’d really like platform holders to have a much more active role, as the discoverability issue has “about reached terminal” for unknown devs.
“If Apple don’t pick your game out for a feature, and you can’t drum up enough interest before launch yourself, then I’d say you’re pretty much screwed. It doesn’t matter how good your game is if nobody ever sees it and downloads it. They can’t tell their friends about something they themselves don’t know about!” he stated.
“The only thing I think the platform holders could do to help is stop allowing crap to be released. There’s only so much space for features and the end users only have so much effort in them to look under all the categories all the time, so I really don’t think adding more of them would help much. Maybe more apps for shorter times, but this is all a drop in the ocean really.”
“The one thing I’ve come up with that would make a real difference is for the platform owners to charge five grand for a developer license. All the utter crap would disappear and there’d be less apps fighting for space,” he continued. “And the end-users wouldn’t have to waste time downloading the crap as nobody who makes stuff they don’t believe in would dream of fronting that license fee. It’s Draconian but it’s really the only thing I can see having any noticeable effect. Anything else is just lip service.”
Discoverability issues aside, another major – and possibly growing – problem for devs to contend with is piracy. The App Developer Conference survey showed that 26 percent of devs had their apps pirated and a similar amount even had in-app purchases stolen.
James Vaughan told us, “Plague Inc. has a piracy rate of about 30-35 percent, which equals millions and millions of copies, but I don’t consider piracy to be a problem; it is simply a fact of life and I don’t get too worked up about it. Piracy is a byproduct of success and I choose to focus on the success which has resulted in piracy rather than the piracy itself. (The best way to stop your game from being pirated is to make a crap game!) I focus on continually improving and updating Plague Inc. which makes the game even more valuable to the people who have brought it (and encourages pirates to buy it as well).”
For those devs who actually do lose sleep over piracy, there are some ways to combat it, Lim said.
“There’s no question that piracy is prevalent, and I think it will continue to be so for a long time to come. In fact, with high-speed Internet access and the wide spread use of file-sharing software nowadays I think this problem is going to get worse,” he observed.
“The first way to deal with piracy is to implement the appropriate business model, and I think free-to-download with micro-transactions is the right way to go. Making the game free for download can work to our advantage; it allows us to reach out a larger customer base. And if players are hooked by the game, they can be enticed to buy additional high-quality content for a minimal price.”
“The second way would be to build a strong rapport with our customers – e.g. through frequent interactions on social media, events or even email. Developers of notable games (e.g. Hotline Miami and Game Dev Tycoon) have addressed piracy in this manner. By having a loyal customer base which is appreciative of our efforts in delivering quality content, they would empathize with us and be more willing to pay for the games in support of our development efforts.”
The good news for iOS devs, at least according to Schade, is that Apple’s store is less prone to piracy. “Having lived through the ‘dark ages’ of Java and made it out of there with two black eyes rather than one, piracy has been a very delicate topic for us at Fishlabs ever since. Based on our own experience, however, it is not as much of an issue on the App Store as it is on other platforms,” he noted. “I guess that’s mostly because Apple still has a lot of ‘premium’ customers willing to pay for high-quality content. Of course, we’re well aware of the fact that neither the closed iOS environment nor the Free-2-Play model will ever be able to eradicate software piracy entirely, but at least they are doing a comparatively good job at containing it as good as possible.”
If developers can effectively navigate the problems of discoverability and piracy, there’s no doubt that the potential is massive. One look at the overwhelming success of Angry Birds, Temple Run, Clash of Clans and others proves what’s possible. But for the vast, vast majority of devs, that’s a pipe dream.
“From the consumer angle, it’s a golden age. The amount of good quality games that can be bought for laughable prices is fantastic and there’s a ton of money being spent on this platform as a result. The problem for developers is that each individual cut is tiny. This isn’t even remotely sustainable and I don’t know what the future is going to look like. If I was starting again now from a blank slate, without an existing fan base, I wouldn’t touch mobile with a ten foot pole,” said Johnson.
Bethesda’s Pete Hines had some choice words regarding Nintendo’s third-party strategy, suggesting that the time for getting better software support for the Wii U may have already passed.
In an interview with Game Trailers’ Bonus Round, Bethesda’s vice president of PR and marketing underlined the company’s commitment to making its games available on every platform – as long as those platforms don’t require compromise on the original vision.
As far as Bethesda’s games are concerned, that has led to their absence on Nintendo hardware despite their huge popularity. And Hines intimated that the situation is representative of Nintendo’s approach to third-party developers as a whole.
“The time for convincing publishers and developers to support Wii U has long past. The box is out,” Hine said, while sitting on a panel that also included Borderlands 2 lead writer Anthony Burch.
Hines pointed to Sony and Microsoft’s diligent and long-running efforts to communicate with third parties during the hardware design process as a better strategy for most developers.
“It’s not that every time we met with them we got all the answers we wanted, but they involved us very early on, and talking to folks like Bethesda and Gearbox, they say ‘here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re planning, here’s how we think it’s going to work’ to hear what we thought – from our tech guys and from an experience standpoint.
“You have to spend an unbelievable amount of time upfront doing that. If you’re just going, ‘we’re going to make a box and this is how it works and you should make games for it.’ Well, no. No is my answer. I’m going to focus on other ones that better support what it is we’re trying to do.”
This adds colour to comments Hines made in an earlier interview, where he stated that the Wii U was, “not on [Bethesda's] radar.” Nintendo is now attempting to address the Wii U’s less than admirable position by cutting $50 off its price.