Over the last few years, the industry has seen budget polarization on an enormous scale. The cost of AAA development has ballooned, and continues to do so, pricing out all but the biggest warchests, while the indie and mobile explosions are rapidly approaching the point of inevitable over-saturation and consequential contraction. Stories about the plight of mid-tier studios are ten-a-penny, with the gravestones of some notable players lining the way.
For a company like Ninja Theory, in many ways the archetypal mid-tier developer, survival has been a paramount concern. Pumping out great games (Ninja Theory has a collective Metacritic average of 75) isn’t always enough. Revitalizing a popular IP like DMC isn’t always enough. Working on lucrative and successful external IP like Disney Infinity isn’t always enough. When the fence between indie and blockbuster gets thinner and thinner, it becomes ever harder to balance upon.
Last year, Ninja Theory took one more shot at the upper echelons. For months the studio had worked on a big budget concept which would sit comfortably alongside the top-level, cross-platform releases of the age: a massive, multiplayer sci-fi title that would take thousands of combined, collaborative hours to exhaust. Procedurally generated missions and an extensive DLC structure would ensure longevity and engagement. Concept art and pre-vis trailers in place, the team went looking for funding. Razor was on its way.
Except the game never quite made it. Funding failed to materialize, and no publisher would take the project on. It didn’t help that the search for a publishing deal arrived almost simultaneously with the public announcement of Destiny. Facing an impossible task, the team abandoned the project and moved on with other ideas. Razor joined a surprisingly large pile of games that never make it past the concept stage.
Sadly, it’s not a new story. In fact, at the time, it wasn’t even a news story. But this time Ninja Theory’s reaction was different. This was a learning experience, and learning experiences should be shared. Team lead and co-founder Tameem Antoniades turned the disappointment not just into a lesson, but a new company ethos: involve your audience at an early stage, retain control, fund yourself, aim high, and don’t compromise. The concept of the Independent AAA Proposition, enshrined in a GDC presentation give by Antoniades, was born.
Now the team has a new flagship prospect, cemented in this fresh foundation. In keeping with the theme of open development and transparency, Hellblade is being created with the doors to its development held wide open, with community and industry alike invited to bear witness to the minutiae of the process. Hellblade will be a cross-platform game with all of the ambition for which Ninja Theory is known, and yet it is coming from an entirely independent standpoint. Self-published and self-governed, Hellblade is the blueprint for Ninja Theory’s future.
“We found ourselves as being one of those studios that’s in the ‘squeezed middle’,” project lead Dominic Matthews says. “We’re about 100 people, so we kind of fall into that space where we could try to really diversify and work on loads of smaller projects, but indie studios really have an advantage over us, because they can do things with far lower overheads. We have been faced with this choice of, do we go really, really big with our games and become the studio that is 300 people or even higher than that, and try to tick all of these boxes that the blockbuster AAA games need now.
“We don’t really want to do that. We tried to do that. When we pitched Razor, which we pitched to big studios, that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. That was going to be a huge game; a huge game with a service that would go on for years and would be a huge, multiplayer experience. Although I’m sure it would have been really cool to make that, it kind of showed to us that we’re not right to try to make those kinds of games. Games like Enslaved – trying to get a game like that signed now would be impossible. The way that it was signed, there would be too much pressure for it to be…to have the whole feature set that justifies a $60 price-tag.
“That $60 price-tag means games have to add multiplayer, and 40 hours of gameplay minimum, and a set of characters that appeal to as many people as they possibly can. There’s nothing wrong with games that do that. There’s some fantastic games that do, AAA games. Though we do think that there’s another space that sits in-between. I think a lot of indie games are super, super creative, but they can be heavily stylised. They work within the context of the resources that people have.
“We want to create a game that’s like Enslaved, or like DMC, or like Heavenly Sword. That kind of third-person, really high quality action game, but make it work in an independent model.”
Cutting out the middle-man is a key part of the strategy. But if dealing with the multinational machinery of ‘big pubs’ is what drove Ninja Theory to make such widespread changes, there must surly have been some particularly heinous deals that pushed it over the edge?
“I think it’s just a reality of the way that those publisher/developer deals work,” Matthews says. “In order for a publisher to take a gamble on your game and on your idea, you have to give up a lot. That includes the IP rights. It’s just the realities of how things work in that space. For us, I think any developer would say the same thing, being able to retain your IP is a really important thing. So far, we haven’t been out to do that.
“With Hellblade, it’s really nice that we can be comfortable in the fact that we’re not trying to appeal to everyone. We’re not trying to hit unrealistic forecasts. Ultimately, I think a lot of games have unrealistic forecasts. Everyone knows that they’re unrealistic, but they have to have these unrealistic forecasts to justify the investment that’s going into development.
“Ultimately, a lot of games, on paper, fail because they don’t hit those forecasts. Then the studios and the people that made those games, they don’t get the chance to make any more. It’s an incredibly tough market. Yes, we’ve enjoyed working with our publishers, but that’s not to say that the agreements that developed are all ideal, because they’re not. The catalyst to us now being able to do this is really difficult distribution. We can break away from that retail $60 model, where every single game has to be priced that way, regardless of what it is.
Driven into funding only games that will comfortably shift five or six million units, Matthews believes that publishers have no choice but to stick to the safe bets, a path that eventually winnows down diversity to the point of stagnation, where only a few successful genres ever end up getting made: FPS, sports, RPG, maybe racing. Those genres become less and less distinct, while simultaneously shoe-horning in mechanics that prove popular elsewhere and shunning true innovation.
While perhaps briefly sustainable, Matthews sees that as a creative cul-de-sac. Customers, he feels, are too smart to put up with it.
“Consumers are going to get a bit wary of games that have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them”
“I think consumers are going to get a bit wary. Get a bit wary of games that have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them. I think gamers are going to start saying, ‘For what?’
“The pressures are for games to appeal to more and more people. It used to be if you sold a million units, then that was OK. Then it was three million units. Now it’s five million units. Five million units is crazy. We’ve never sold five million units.”
It’s not just consumers who are getting wise, though. Matthews acknowledges that the publishers also see the dead-end approaching.
“I think something has to be said for the platform holders now. Along with digital distribution, the fact that the platform holders are really opening their doors and encouraging self-publishing and helping independent developers to take on some of those publishing responsibilities, has changed things for us. I think it will change things for a lot of other developers. “Hellblade was announced at the GamesCom Playstation 4 press conference. My perception of that press conference was that the real big hitters in that were all independent titles. It’s great that the platform holders have recognised that. There’s a real appetite from their players for innovative, creative games.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to try to do things differently. Like on Hellblade, we’re questioning everything that we do. Not just on development, but also how we do things from a business perspective as well. Normally you would say, ‘Well, you involve these types of agencies, get these people involved in this, and a website will take this long to create.’ The next thing that we’re doing is, we’re saying, ‘Well, is that true? Can we try and do these things a different way,’ because you can.
“There’s definitely pressure for us to fill all those gaps left by a publisher, but it’s a great challenge for us to step up to. Ultimately, we have to transition into a publisher. That’s going to happen at some point, if we want to publish our own games.”
While the Sony PlayStation 4 has been selling very well, it seems that Christmas was not really its season.
Sony said that the PlayStation 4 has sold more than 18.5 million units since the new generation of consoles launched. While that is good and makes the PS4 the fastest selling PlayStation to date, there was no peaking at Christmas.
You would think that the PS4 would sell well at Christmas as parents were forced to do grevious bodily harm to their credit cards to shut their spoilt spawn up during the school holidays. But apparently not.
Apparently, the weapon of choice against precious snowflakes being bored was an Xbox One which saw a Christmas spike in sales.
Sony said that its new numbers are pretty much on target, it sold the expected 2 million sales per month rate.
Redmond will be happy with that result even if it still has a long way to go before it matches the PlayStation 4 on sales.
For independent developers, the last decade has been an endless procession of migratory possibilities. The physical world was defined by compromise, dependence and strategically closed doors, but the rise of digital afforded freedom and flexibility in every direction. New platforms, new business models, new methods of distribution and communication; so many fresh options appeared in such a brief window of time that knowing where and when to place your bet was almost as important as having the best product. For a few years, right around 2008, there was promise almost everywhere you looked.
That has changed. No matter how pregnant with potential they once seemed, virtually every marketplace has proved unable to support the spiralling number of new releases. If the digital world is one with infinite shelf-space for games, it has offered no easy solutions on how to make them visible. Facebook, Android, iOS, Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network; all have proved to be less democratic than they first appeared, their inevitable flaws exposed as the weight of choice became heavier and heavier. As Spil Games’ Eric Goossens explained to me at the very start of 2014: “It just doesn’t pay the bills any more.”
Of course, Goossens was talking specifically about indie development of casual games. And at that point, with 2013 only just receding from view, I would probably have named one exception to the trend, one place where the balance between volume and visibility gave indies the chance to do unique and personal work and still make a decent living. That place would have been Steam, and if I was correct in my assessment for even one second, it wasn’t too long before the harsher reality became clear.
After less than five months of 2014 had passed, Valve’s platform had already added more new games than in the whole of the previous year. Initiatives like Greenlight and Early Access were designed to make Steam a more open and accessible platform, but they were so effective that some of what made it such a positive force for indies was lost in the process. Steam’s culture of deep-discounting has become more pervasive and intense in the face of this chronic overcrowding, stirring up impassioned debate over what some believe will be profound long-term effects for the perceived value of PC games. Every discussion needs balance, but in this case the back-and-forth seemed purely academic: for a lot of developers steep discounts are simply a matter of survival, and precious few could even entertain the notion of focusing on the greater good instead.
And the indie pinch was felt beyond Steam’s deliberately weakened walls. Kickstarter may be a relatively new phenomenon – even for the hyper-evolving landscape of the games industry – but it faced similar problems in 2014, blighted by the twin spectres of too much content and not enough money to go around. Anecdotally, the notion that something had changed was lurking in the back ground at the very start of the year, with several notable figures struggling to find enough backers within the crowd. The latter months of 2014 threw up a few more examples, but they also brought something close to hard evidence that ‘peak Kickstarter’ may already be behind us – fewer successful projects, lower funding targets, and less money flowing through the system in general. None of which was helped by a handful of disappointing failures, each one a blow for the public’s already flagging interest in crowdfunding. Yet another promising road for indies had become more treacherous and uncertain.
So are indies heading towards a “mass extinction event”? Overcrowding is certainly a key aspect of the overall picture, but the act of making and releasing a game is only getting easier, and the allure of development as a career choice seems to grow with each passing month. It stands to reason that there will continue to be a huge number of games jostling for position on every single platform – more than even a growing market can sustain – but there’s only so much to be gained from griping about the few remaining gatekeepers. If the days when simply being on Steam or Kickstarter made a commercial difference are gone, and if existing discovery tools still lack the nuance to deal with all of that choice, then it just shifts the focus back to where it really belongs: talent, originality, and a product worth an investment of time and money.
At GDC Europe this summer, I was involved in a private meeting with a group of Dutch independent game developers, all sharing knowledge and perspective on how to find success. We finished that hour agreeing on much the same thing. There are few guarantees in this or any other business, but the conditions have also never been more appropriate for personality and individuality to be the smartest commercial strategy. The world has a preponderance of puzzle-platformers, but there’s only one Monument Valley. We’re drowning in games about combat, but This War of Mine took a small step to the left and was greeted with every kind of success. Hell, Lucas Pope made an entire game about working as a border control officer and walked away with not just a hit, but a mantelpiece teeming with the highest honours.
No matter how crowded the market has become, strong ideas executed with care are still able to rise above the clamour, no huge marketing spend required. As long as that’s still possible, indies have all of the control they need.
Sony Pictures Entertainment has hired FireEye’s Mandiant forensics unit to clean up a cyber attack that knocked out the studio’s computer network nearly a week ago, and resulted in three movies ending up online.
The FBI is also investigating the incident. Sony went down last Monday after displaying a red skull and the phrase “Hacked By #GOP,” which reportedly stands for Guardians of Peace. Emails to Sony have been bouncing back with messages asking senders to call employees because the system was “experiencing a disruption.”
Mandiant is an incident response firm that helps victims of breaches identify the extent of attacks, clean up networks and restore systems. The firm has handled some of the largest breaches uncovered to date, including the 2013 holiday attack on Target. Sony is investigating to determine whether hackers working on behalf of North Korea have launched the attack in retribution for the studio’s backing of the film “The Interview” which is to be released on Dec. 25 in the United States and Canada.
The movie is a comedy about a CIA attempt to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is such a funny guy. The Pyongyang government denounced the film as “undisguised sponsoring of terrorism, as well as an act of war” in a letter to UN. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The group had published a list of emails and passwords for PSN, Windows Live Mail and 2K Games accounts online, and claimed to be prepared to release more, but Sony says that they’ve come from other sources than hacking.
“We have investigated the claims that our network was breached and have found no evidence that there was any intrusion into our network,” the company wrote in a declaration to Joystiq. “Unfortunately, Internet fraud including phishing and password matching are realities that consumers and online networks face on a regular basis. We take these reports very seriously and will continue to monitor our network closely.”
Microsoft has seen a number of Xbox One exclusive titles already be ported to the PC. Both Dead Rising 3 and Ryse have already made it to the PC, but we are now again hearing that Sunset Overdrive again is heading to the PC and Forza Horizon 2 maybe following as well.
This is not the first time we have heard rumors of Sunset Overdrive coming to the PC. An ad that suggested as much was down played at the time by Insomiac as a mistake. Now Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 showed up on Amazon France as coming for the PC.
While Phil Spencer has suggested that Microsoft will have more to say about the PC in 2015 and that it would be a good thing for PC gamers. The reality is that Microsoft has not pushed PC game development in a longtime as it chose to focus on titles for the Xbox and Xbox 360. With the Xbox One being closer in design to the PC, porting a title to the PC is easier and Microsoft of course wants to be a player in this space.
We will have to wait and see what actually happens, but should Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 make their way to the PC, it will be a good thing for PC gamers. Then again it could just be nothing more than a mistake.
One of the inherent risks of a story-heavy IP is that if you bugger up one of the instalments, your audience skips it, falling out of touch with the series’ story arc and disconnecting from its universe. Such was the fear for Dragon Age, a world which impressed in its opening act, but fell away sharply with what felt like a rushed and uncertain part 2. In acknowledging the shortcomings of the second game, Bioware went some way towards reassuring the faithful, but it was undeniable that nothing less than a resounding crescendo could re-establish the land of Tevinter as an RPG setting of the same calibre as the Tamriel of the Elder Scrolls or The Witcher’s Temeria.
There aren’t many teams you’d rather leave such a task in the hands of than Bioware’s and, judging from review scores, that trust would be well-placed. With a metacritic ranging from 84 for Xbox One, 88 on PC and 89 for PS4, EA and Bioware seem to have established the Dragon Age series as the new gen’s first top-class RPG – stealing a march on 2015′s Witcher 3 and whatever Bethesda may be working on as a follow up to Skyrim.
One of the best-scoring reviews comes from Polygon’s Philip Kollar, who focuses on the game’s scope, characters and sheer wealth of content in his 9.5/10 review. Kollar argues that this is the game where the universe really finds its feet, finally fulfilling the promise it had teased in Origins and its sequel by immersing the player in a sequence of events which incorporates a story far bigger than the perspective you’ll have of it. Nonetheless, says Kollar, it’s still in the details that Bioware’s talents shine brightest – weaving engaging and worthwhile characters as threads in a vast tapestry.
For all its narrative nuance and political intrigue, Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t afraid of a good old slimy monster, either.
“But in true BioWare fashion, that broader story often takes a back seat to smaller character conflicts,” he writes. “The Inquisitor pulls together a huge group of followers, including nine playable party members, and each has reams of dialogue conveying a fully developed personality.”
As well as offering chatter and the opportunity for romance, the player’s extended party brings both questing opportunities and advice on dealing with obstacles, says Kollar, making them more than just talking weapons. In fact, he says, that guidance comes in extremely useful in coping with a game which offers gameplay hours well into triple figures.
“Dragon Age: Inquisition is made up of numerous zones that I could teleport in between at will. However, each of those zones is gigantic in and of itself. In the 80 hours I spent playing Inquisition, I only fully completed two zones, and each of them took me around 20 hours of exploration, questing and monster-bashing.”
“In the 80 hours I spent playing Inquisition, I only fully completed two zones, and each of them took me around 20 hours of exploration, questing and monster-bashing”
Philip Kollar, Polygon
In addition, Bioware has added the simplest of tools as an aide to exploring this vast landscape: the jump button. By doing so, says Kollar, the team has made the world feel more whole and believeable, introducing vertical as well as horizontal scale and a much more convincing sense of exploration. Tie that into the sense of being part of such a huge chain of events that new additions such as the ambassador-lead ‘war table’ missions, says Kollar, and you have a classic perfect for the winter evenings.
In broad agreement is Richard Cobbett at Eurogamer, who awards an 8 to Bioware’s efforts. Whilst full of praise for the lush surroundings of Tevinter and the clear improvements made over the last game, Cobbett finds some concerns over the influence which Inquisition seems to have felt from its contemporaries.
“The role-playing too, pretty as it is, didn’t feel like BioWare. There are straight up MMO style quests, like collecting 10 bits of meat, which at least make sense in context – that you’re helping refugees and refugees need food. Others, however, are thrown in with no finesse whatsoever. You find a letter that says, in about as many words, “Girls really dig people who can kill bears!” and then ping, your Quest Journal suddenly thinks you’re interested in bear-hunting. The first hour of a game is a bad, bad time for it to be resorting to this crap.
“The reason for the sack of activities where normally there’d be more involved quests is that Inquisition takes as many cues from the likes of Assassin’s Creed as other RPGs, with its maps a sack of quests, collectibles, secret bits and general things to do.”
That sense of piecemeal progress and scrappy world building disappears around a fifth of the way into the plot, says Cobbett, allowing the more convincing mechanisms of the plot to take hold. “The stakes become meaningful and dramatic,” he writes. “The mysteries become interesting.” Not as convinced as Kollar by the tasks which can be assigned to your plenipotentiaries, nor the combat which is arguably the game’s key activity, Cobbett finds Inquisition’s approach to less bloodthirsty matters of state a refreshing change from the sword and sorcery.
Bioware’s continued commitment to diversity is apparent, with plenty of deviations from the usual path of straight white male.
“While that side provides most of the raw action,” he says of dragon killing and rift-closing, “it’s the adventure and political parts of the game that make Inquisition work – its understanding that a party in Orlais, where the Great Game is played for the highest stakes, should be just as dangerous as anything that happens in a dungeon. After two games of controlling a ragtag bunch of misfits, it’s also interesting to be in a position of genuine power for once.”
Destructoid’s Chris Carter and Joystiq’s Alexander Sliwinski are similarly impressed, offering scores of 8.8/10 and 5/5, respectively.
Carter praises the RPG tree development of the characters as well as their dialogues, noting that “nothing feels tacked on” in a system which offers some of Origins’ depth, tempered by the streamlining in evidence in the sequel. Overall, he says, the experience is “less nuanced than Origins,” but offers a similar perspective on a living world, the fate of which increasingly lies in your hands.
Political intrigue and the raw sense of exploration garner praise from Carter, too, who also has good things to report about the game’s multiplayer mode – a section of the game which sees you take control of an entirely separate character.
“Multiplayer is the cherry on top, because nothing in the campaign feels like it was compromised for its addition”
Chris Carter, Destructoid.
“Multiplayer is the cherry on top, because nothing in the campaign feels like it was compromised for its addition. In essence, it’s a modified horde mode that operates similar to Uncharted 3′s co-op sections. Four players will be able to select from a host of classes, each with their own skills and abilities, and play through a miniature dungeon together.
“It has that horde feel in terms of fighting wave after wave of enemies, but each stage is an adventure complete with multiple paths, loot to gather, and special doors that can only be opened by certain classes. In that sense, it’s not your typical boring ‘kill kill kill’ mode.”
Sliwinski’s assessment also acknowledges the scope and detail achieved here, as well as the palatable way in which the development team is able to introduce such vast levels of information to the player.
“Inquisition’s immensely helpful in-game codex can introduce or refresh players to some of the characters and socio-political rules of the world,” he writes. “With very few exceptions, long-standing characters are properly reintroduced. There isn’t a ‘previously on Dragon Age…’ within the game, though curious players can cover those gaps with the helpful interactive recap at DragonAgeKeep.com.”
Joystiq’s reviewer also appreciates the switch of pace afforded by the inclusion of Orlais as a destination, a place where court politics partially replace the hew and bellow of the battlefield.
“With the inclusion of The Orlesian Empire, Inquisition delves deep into ‘the game,’ which is how those born into or educated in Orlais refer to the machinations of social politics. Orlais had previously been referenced in the Dragon Age series, but now we get to see this twist on 18th century French court intrigue in all its grandeur. Inquisition explores Thedas’ class and racial politics through a variety of missions and interactions with the game’s companions, who have rich ideological diversity.”
In summarising, Sliwinski makes the key point that so many Bioware fans have been waiting to hear since the Drs Zeschuk and Muzyka departed the company they founded: has Bioware maintained its aims, its ambitions and its quality?
“Dragon Age: Inquisition is BioWare’s reaffirmation of what it’s capable of delivering,” reassures Sliwinski. “It’s a gorgeous game on an epic scale. Rich in character and story, it creates a fantasy world with plausible social rules you can get lost in. It makes you feel that you aren’t just exploring a new world, but helping shape it at various levels of society. Inquisition sets the bar for what a blockbuster RPG should be.”
Sources are telling us that we should expect new skateboarding titles from both Electronic Arts and Activision in 2015. Word is that Activision is preparing a new Tony Hawk title and Electronic Arts will be bring out a new Skate title as well.
While Activision and Electronic Arts have not made the announcements yet, our sources tell us that we should expect both titles to be announced in the near future for a likely late 2015 release. It is unknown who might be handling the development on both titles, but word is that both titles are already deep in development.
With the release of a new Tony Hawk and Skate titles, it will revive the Skateboarding segment that has been dormant for quite some time. EA has not produced a new title in the Skate franchise since Skate 3 and the late couple of Tony Hawk titles didn’t do so well, but the re-issue of original Pro Skater for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 with DLC made up of levels from 2 & 3 have shown that interest does still exist for this segment.
Our hope is that it will be less like what we saw with the SSX revival that EA tried and then realized that it was not really want the people wanted and more like a new next-generation skateboarding title that puts the fun back into skating. We will have to wait and see.
While Grand Theft Auto may remain the industry’s true juggernaut, pretty much the only single franchise whose launch is capable of spiking software sales figures for an entire year and pushing all rivals out of the field in the process, Call of Duty has become the industry’s banner carrier in a different way. GTA’s extraordinary launches are such enormous events precisely because Rockstar wisely chose to avoid the annual update treadmill with the game; Call of Duty, meanwhile, has managed to continue a steady streak of enormous launches despite the punishing requirements of such a schedule.
It’s hard to overstate just how important this difference in approach is to a game franchise. GTA’s main instalments are all developed by the same studio, Rockstar North, meaning that each subsequent game begins its lengthy gestation after the launch of the previous title. The result is that the ball is rarely if ever dropped in terms of quality; no untested team gets to mess things up in an “off-year”. Each new GTA game follows a clear evolutionary path from the previous game, as the studio learns and develops its approach; a major advantage over the “three steps forward, two steps back” games that result from an annual update cycle with different teams working on different schedules. Finally, GTA’s spaced out launches give each one the sense of being a genuinely enormous event, and the games continue to sell at a solid price point for many months after launch, a feat which is otherwise only achieved in this industry by Nintendo’s key titles.
“The sheer scale of GTA’s success has made it into an unbalancing factor in the publisher’s figures”
Again, this contrasts with the annual update cycle for games like Call of Duty; on a couple of occasions, new CoD games have arguably truncated the sales of their predecessors when they launched. All of these benefits, however, are outweighed by the big problem with such an irregular launch cycle, namely that it plays merry hell with Take Two’s financial performance. The sheer scale of GTA’s success has made it into an unbalancing factor in the publisher’s figures; it means that from the perspective of the markets, everything else Take Two does is relegated to being a “snack between GTAs”. The “snack” quarters in the company’s financials are by no means bad, but they end up being compared, desperately unfairly, to the GTA quarters, and analysts fret endlessly over whether the company is a one-trick pony and how far down the tubes it will go if GTA ever falters. Of course, annual updates also make more money – in the short term, arguably; GTA may be genuinely evergreen due to its slow update cycle, where annually updated games, apart from sports titles, tend inevitably to lose steam). But even if they didn’t, it’s hard to imagine a company like Activision risking a “spiky” set of financial results. Huge companies don’t just want to make more money; they want to make more money in a predictable way, with a nice growth curve and no nasty dips that make shareholders lose confidence.
Thus we end up with the situation now facing the Call of Duty franchise. We’re a long day from the heady days of Infinity Ward’s groundbreaking CoD 4: Modern Warfare. As of this year, there are now three separate studios working on the franchise, with the instalment that launched this week, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (“CODAW”, which is fun to say but not remotely as fun as “CODBLOPS” was a few years back) being the first full game in the franchise from Sledgehammer. This is one interesting approach to keeping the quality of the games high in spite of the annual treadmill; the other key approach being employed by Activision is to throw money at the franchise like confetti at a particularly exuberant wedding, with CODAW’s most eye-opening use of cash being the suitcases full of it which were presumably delivered to Kevin Spacey’s door in order to persuade him to dress up in a motion capture gimp suit and deliver a villainous performance that’s at times delightfully Frank Underwood but all too often disappointingly Lex Luthor.
Keeping the quality bar high is an extraordinarily important task for Activision – be it through giving studios the time they need to genuinely polish their franchise instalments, or hiring famous faces to do their best with the games’ B-movie scripts (seriously, CODAW’s singleplayer campaign was apparently written by a 15 year old off his tits on Mountain Dew and Doritos who had just watched Michael Bay’s Transformers movies back-to-back and emerged with the sole complaint that “there weren’t enough explosions”). Last year’s CoD: Ghosts was judged both critically and commercially as a slip for the series, which may be partially responsible for the lower pre-orders for this year’s instalment which have been tracked by many analysts.
This year’s game has had great critical response thus far, so it represents an important test – given that the quality bar has arguably been returned to a solid level (it’s all subjective, of course, but the overall tenor of the coverage is positive), will sales also get back to an even keel? Or was CoD Ghosts’ weak commercial showing the start of a slide for the series which can only be reversed by a truly radical reinvention? Consumer fatigue, after all, is absolutely a real thing. It’s even tougher for games that for movies; the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies could probably continue for many years to come, since they only ask consumers for a couple of hours of time every few months. CoD players invest dozens upon dozens of hours in each game (in some cases, hundreds), which makes it much more likely that they’ll burn out; that at some point, they’ll reach an annual update that’s just a step too far for them. The best defence against this is keeping the franchise fresh, consistently reinvigorated with new ideas, and of course, keeping the quality bar high; but even that may not halt the slow decline
This year could go either way for COD. Pre-orders are definitely down on the previous year, which does not bode well, but that doesn’t take into account digital pre-orders – and it’s worth noting that on the new-gen consoles there appears to be a very strong trend towards digital pre-orders and first week digital purchases. Activision claims that purchase intent is tracking high, although that’s Schrödinger’s Statistic to a large extent – you don’t know for sure if it’s remotely accurate or not until you open the box with the sales figures inside.
Still, all in all there are some reasons to be There are also reasons to be cautiously pessimistic. One of the biggest problems facing COD this year is, oddly, one of Activision’s own successes – Destiny, which has attracted and continues to enthral a very large number of the core FPS fans who might otherwise be expected to devote themselves to CODAW. It seems plausible that the long gap between Destiny’s launch and the appearance of the first content pack, The Dark Below, is at least partially in order to give players a lull in which investing in COD will seem appealing; it will be interesting to see if that actually works.
The single biggest challenge, however, lies within COD itself. It’s a remarkably successful game and will continue to sell well for years to come, but if this year’s numbers can’t match last year’s (even in spite of much more positive critical reception and consumer word-of-mouth), it will be taken as clear evidence that a peak has been passed. Consumer fatigue, high competition and perhaps a lingering sense of being burned by Ghosts are all potentially damaging factors for the franchise this year; should they conspire to push sales down even by a few percentage points year-on-year, tough questions will have to be asked about the future of Activision’s annual cash- Indeed, in that instance, one might ask some tough questions about Activision itself.
It’s odd, perhaps, to question a company’s prospects when it has just announced record financials, but it’s entirely possible that this is a peak for the publisher. World of Warcraft is far from its peak figures, in spite of occasional bumps when expansions are launched, and Blizzard’s putative replacement, Titan, has been cancelled. Destiny has yet to prove itself as a franchise despite an amazing launch, and as I indicated last year, I’m not sure that Activision and the game’s fanbase see eye-to-eye on how it’s going to develop over the coming years. If Call of Duty also shows itself to be coming off the boil, then only Hearthstone will remain as a truly unblemished bright spot in Activision’s line-up. The markets will, no doubt, have noticed this already; Call of Duty Advanced Warfare’s performance is going to be subjected to intense scrutiny over the coming weeks and months, as analysts and investors attempt to divine Activision’s future from this crucial data point.
Increased violent video game consumption correlates with declines in youth violence, according to a new study. A recent study published in the Journal of Communication by a researcher at Stetson University found that there were no associations between media violence consumption in society and societal violence.
Christopher Ferguson (Stetson University) published his findings in the Journal of Communication after carrying out two studies to see if the incidence of violence in media correlates with actual violence rates in society. The first study looked at movie violence and homicide rates between 1920 and 2005. The second study looked at videogame violence consumption and its relationship to youth violence rates from 1996-2011. He found that societal consumption of media violence is not predictive of increased violence rates in society.
In the first study independent raters evaluated the frequency and graphicness of violence in popular movies from 1920-2005. These were correlated to homicide rates for the same years. During the mid-20th century, movie violence and homicide rates did appear to correlate slightly, which may have led some to believe a larger trend was at play. That correlation reversed after 1990 so that movie violence became correlated with fewer homicides. Before the 1940s, movie violence was similarly related to fewer homicides, not more.
In the second study on video game violence, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) ratings were used to estimate the violent content of the most popular video games for the years 1996-2011. These estimates of societal video game violence consumption were correlated against federal data on youth violence rates during the same years.
Violent video games were correlated with declines in youth violence. However, it was concluded that such a correlation was due to chance and did not indicate video games caused the decline in youth violence. So far studies have focused on laboratory experiments and aggression as a response to movie and videogame violence, and this is the first one which looked at real-life exposure.
The internet has just received the first surge of what will be a raging tide of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare reviews, but several key outlets will be lagging behind the others.
As is tradition by now, Activision chose to restrict press access to a fleet of new generation consoles set up in hotel rooms around the world. This has happened with pretty much every major Call of Duty release since Modern Warfare 2, but it’s only in the last year or two that disclaimers have become a common feature of the subsequent reviews. Polygon went to a review event, for example, but it paid for its writer’s accommodation. Kotaku makes no mention of any event despite having played through the entire campaign (presumably in an Xbox One bedecked hotel room), but it is nevertheless holding off publishing a scored review until it has the opportunity to play the game’s multiplayer in a live setting – “the way it was intended.”
Eurogamer took a third route, attending the review event on Activision’s dime but relaxing its critical trigger-finger until Advanced Warfare was released to the public and its true online mettle could be tested. Which is the right approach? Should a review prioritise accuracy or punctuality? No one person can provide a sensible answer to that question, but it seems that the task of the video game critic becomes thornier and more thankless with every AAA release.
One thing is roundly agreed upon, though: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is definitely better than Call of Duty: Ghosts, and most outlets believe that it’s an improvement on Black Ops II. Indeed, even though Eurogamer’s full review won’t be published until later this week, it was enthusiastic enough to publish a score-free recommendation of what it did have a chance to play in the meantime.
Advanced Warfare, the first full COD title from Sledgehammer Games, is, “the biggest shift for the series since the original Modern Warfare, and…easily the best entry since Modern Warfare’s ceasefire.” Here, Eurogamer argues, the series shrugs off the weighty, pained influence of films like Black Hawk Down and turns instead to science fiction romps like Star Wars and Halo, all exotic cityscapes, flying vehicles and elaborate weaponry – “Advanced Warfare impresses you with just how much fun war can be.”
Polygon is with Eurogamer in spirit, but it’s appraisal – based on a private playthrough of the campaign and closed multiplayer sessions hosted by Activision – has a 9.0 waiting at the end. This is exactly the sort of score that Activision and Sledgehammer have been working towards, and Polygon leaves little room for doubt that, this time out, Call of Duty has really earned whatever accolades it receives.
Key to it all are various “Exosuits,” which imbue the player with a range of abilities that the (more or less) contemporary and (in a manner of speaking) historical settings of previous Call of Duty games didn’t allow. For the most part, that means double-jump and boost mechanics, though there are different contextual uses for the suits throughout the game’s campaign.
“All of this makes moment-to-moment navigation much more interesting in Advanced Warfare than previous entries in the series or its imitators have managed,” Polygon’s review states. “The exo conceit also allows Sledgehammer to vary up the single-player campaign’s format and ideas in some exciting new ways.
“In fact, speaking strictly from level and encounter design and mission variety, Advanced Warfare is the best campaign the series has seen since Infinity Ward re-imagined the franchise with Modern Warfare in 2007. There’s no muddy objectives to get stuck on, and at least on my playthrough on the “hardened” difficulty setting, there were very few cheap-feeling death loops to get stuck in. It balances fairness with enough challenge and sophistication to make success feel worth it, and I never felt like any one part overstayed its welcome.”
Joystiq – which has yet another distinct mix of review conditions to consider – is similarly impressed with the way Advanced Warfare enlivens the core mechanics of the Call of Duty series with its new bag of tricks, awarding the game a commendable four-stars. However, there is also the lingering sense that Sledgehammer didn’t go far enough, assembling a clutch of innovative and empowering ideas but leaving most of them to bit-parts, cameos and walk-ons.
“On the one hand, you have the multi-function tactical grenade, which can either down drones with an EMP blast, stun enemies in a burst of light or paint targets through walls,” Joystiq states. “Selecting the right option is a rewarding decision, and not always easy to do quickly under fire. It’s a meaningful part of your arsenal.
“Less dependable are abilities like cloaking or a sonic pulse that disorients nearby enemies, which only appear for some missions. More exotic still are things like the grappling hook, a thrilling device that is first used in an awkward stealth mission. There’s a brilliant urban level later where these futuristic devices open the game up: You grapple between terraces and a central train track, yank enemies out of their power suits and launch yourself into massive, emplaced turrets to tear things up. It’s exciting, dynamic and as bombastic as any Call of Duty.
“It’s a shame these mechanisms come across as guest stars, because their use feels so fitting with Advanced Warfare’s unabashed science fiction shooting gallery… It just doesn’t have the power to break through the expectations of the brand, often coming across as an expertly played round of Call of Duty Mad Libs.”
This speaks to the concerns voiced by US Gamer, Advanced Warfare’s harshest critic at present with a score of 7 out of 10. There are inventive touches here, the sort that Call of Duty’s last few iterations have lacked, but this is innovation only in context. Advanced Warfare feels original in comparison to the series’ previous entries, but Sledgehammer is only reinventing the bubble in which these games exist. US Gamer acknowledges the delight that will bring to, “those who view gaming through the prism of Call of Duty and little else,” but the creative compromises made in the name of protecting the brand are all too clear.
“In a setting rife with possibilities, Advanced Warfare proves surprisingly short on imagination… In terms of design, there’s little to separate Advanced Warfare’s campaign from previous games in the series; and indeed, it frequently recycles tropes from previous games.
“After all these years of playing Call of Duty, the tweaks in Advanced Warfare just don’t do enough to mix up the formula, which is quietly becoming stale … There was a time not so long ago when ‘No Russian’ was on everyone’s lips, and Call of Duty was lauded for its daring and ambition in bringing RPG elements to multiplayer-a controversial choice back in 2007, when conventional wisdom ruled that XP would dramatically unbalance the action in favour of experienced players.
“There is a danger, however, in striving only to keep your core fans happy. Too often, it is easy for development teams to get lost in the echo chamber created by their game’s most vocal fans, which has the effect of encouraging them to prioritise balance changes over more ambitious endeavours. That is what I feel has happened with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which tries very hard to capture the essence and the flavour of the series, and is ultimately a little too successful.”
Sony has admitted that its recent 2.0 PS4 firmware update is a nightmare.
Users who updated are experiencing frequent network errors and issues including consoles not turning on once in Sleep mode, broken Music player, borked PSN and loss of themes for those in the UK.
The reports started emerging just after the update went live on Tuesday and Sony has said that it is aware of the issues.
It said its engineers are investigating.
The software update was supposed to add new features, including YouTube integration and themes. It also unlocked Share Play, Sony’s new system for allowing users to share their games to other players, over the internet.
Of course this is meaningless if your console is broken.
After releasing a string of AAA console titles to varying levels of commercial success, the UK-based studio is attempting to establish what it describes as a “third way” of making games – one that falls somewhere between what we have traditionally called AAA and Indie. Smaller scale, lower cost, with no sacrifices made in terms of creative risks and quality of execution.
“We’re taking our work on Hellblade as an opportunity to question the way the games industry has always done things,” said product development manager Dominic Matthews in a recent developer diary. “To see if there’s a better way, a more streamlined way. To create amazing quality on a smaller budget.”
As a result, Hellblade has a core team of 12 people, with a single person working in the majority of discipline areas. Ninja Theory is committed to finding affordable or homebrew alternatives to the high-end processes associated with its previous games – the performance capture used in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, for example – but its sales target will remain eminently achievable: between 200,000 and 300,000 units.
“[Hellblade] is about what we feel passionate about, what we’re good at, and what we think our fans and supporters want from a game,” said Tameem Antoniades, Ninja Theory’s co-founder. “But it comes at a price. We have to self-fund this game, and we have to work within the restrictions that that means for us.”
To be more specific, that’s a difference of 3 million units, with Advanced Warfare expected to sell around 17 million. Obviously, that’s still a very healthy number, and the sort of success that most publishers rarely experience, but nevertheless it would be ill news for what remains Activision’s most important franchise.
Ghosts was, in itself, markedly less successful than Black Ops II, and a second year of decline will be enough to cause concern within Activision. When pre-orders for Ghosts were lower than expected, Eric Hirshberg attributed it to the transition to a new generation of consoles. With a minimum of 15 million PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones now in the wild, that explanation would not stand up quite as well with Advanced Warfare.
In a note given to Cinema Blend, Sterne Agee’s Arvind Bhatia gave several reasons for the possibility of ongoing decline, one of which was the number of people who are still waiting to upgrade to new generation hardware, and may not buy any new software until they do. The others were sharply declining sales of Xbox 360 and PS3 software, and the fact that some Call of Duty fans may have been disappointed with Ghosts.
A significant counter to that is the positioning of Battlefield: Hardline, which slipped to March 2015 release and left Activision’s franchise free of its fiercest competitor.
Given its huge investment in Bungie’s Destiny and the relatively cool critical response that greeted the game, Activision will be hoping that Sterne Agee’s research is not an indicator of Call of Duty’s long-term health.
EA is considering developing games for wearables. The company already has two teams on the job, looking for ways to make wearable games. Their efforts are focused on the Apple Watch for now.
EA told CNET that the company has quite a relationship with Apple and Frank Gibeau, head of EA’s mobile gaming arm, said he is impressed with the new Apple A8 SoC. Gibeau added that Apple’s decision to include 128GB storage in flagship models is more good news for gamers, as it raises the bar for developers and gives them more room to play around with.
Gibeau said EA’s mobile division is “intrigued” by the prospect of gaming on wearables. He said wearables are eventually going to offer more performance and capability, thus enabling new gaming experiences. However, he cautioned that “it’s very early days” for wearable gaming.
“In fact, we have two teams prototyping wearable experiences that are not only standalone, but also some ideas where you can actually use the fitness component in the watch that can unlock capabilities in the game that might be on your iPhone. Or you could do crafting or some other auction trading on your watch that goes back into your tablet game that you might check out later when you get home,” he told CNET.