A little bit of clarity can go a long way. A few weeks ago at the reveal of the PS4 Pro, in a staff roundtable I questioned whether Sony’s new console would hurt Microsoft’s chances with the more powerful Scorpio. I also gave Sony an edge because of its HDR rollout to all PS4s. As it turns out, the HDR update is practically useless (no games supported yet and no video streaming) and the PS4 Pro itself will see most games upscaled, according to Sony Interactive boss Andrew House.
While PS4 architect Mark Cerny did make it clear during the conference that the Pro does not render games in true 4K resolution, many fans had no doubt assumed it would and likely glossed over his technical explanation of the Pro’s “streamlined rendering techniques” and “temporal and spatial anti-aliasing.” It’s hard to say how much consumers will care when the Pro goes on sale in November, but Microsoft wasted no time in puffing up its chest to declare its superiority with a console that won’t ship for many, many months.
Microsoft Studios Publishing general manager Shannon Loftis told USA Today, “Any games we’re making that we’re launching in the Scorpio time frame, we’re making sure they can natively render at 4K.” Moreover, Albert Penello, senior director of product management and planning at Xbox, hammered home the point with our sister site Eurogamer, commenting, “I think there are a lot of caveats they’re giving customers right now around 4K. They’re talking about checkerboard rendering and up-scaling and things like that. There are just a lot of asterisks in their marketing around 4K, which is interesting because when we thought about what spec we wanted for Scorpio, we were very clear we wanted developers to take their Xbox One engines and render them in native, true 4K. That was why we picked the number, that’s why we have the memory bandwidth we have, that’s why we have the teraflops we have, because it’s what we heard from game developers was required to achieve native 4K.”
That’s a punch to the gut in true console war fashion, and one that Microsoft is no doubt happy to get in during a console cycle which has seen PS4 dominate. It may not seem like a big deal right now, as 4K TV sales are still relatively minor, but the prices are falling and interest in 4K and HDR is picking up, not only with consumers, but also with game developers and content providers for streaming services like Netflix. This could be a decent holiday for the 4K TV market, and by the time Scorpio actually does launch there will be that many more 4K TV owners to target with the only console that renders 4K natively. That’s a nice feather in Microsoft’s cap.
This week we also featured an interesting writeup on VR and AR from DICE Europe. While VR proponents like Unity’s Clive Downie said there will be over a billion people using VR in the next 10 years, others such as Niantic’s John Hanke and Apple boss Tim Cook cast doubt on the long-term appeal and commerical success of VR. Of course, this isn’t the first time that people have wondered whether VR will ever move beyond a niche category – and indeed, our Rob Fahey talks about the over-investment in the space in his column today – but the idea that VR is merely an intermediary step before AR comes into its own is the wrong way to think about these technologies in my view.
Just because they both offer altered realities and utilize headsets does not mean they should be lumped together. The use cases and experiences are vastly different for VR and AR, and while I agree that AR likely is the better bet from a commercial standpoint, I don’t underestimate VR for one second. I’ve had way too many fun game sessions using the tech already, and it’s early days. Beyond that, serious movie makers are starting to leverage the great potential of the medium. Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Jungle Book), for example, is working on a VR film called Gnomes and Goblins and he’s even brought on veteran game designer Doug Church (System Shock, Thief) to fine tune the VR interactions.
The fact is VR has enormous storytelling potential and can immerse its users in ways that we’ve never experienced before. “As I work in film, so much has been done,” Favreau commented. “There are technological breakthroughs but there is less and less up in the air. You’re really writing a song in the same format that has been going on for at least a hundred years. And what’s interesting about VR is that, although I really don’t know where it’s going or if it’s going to catch on in a significant way culturally, I do know that there is a lot of unexplored territory and a lot of fun things as a storyteller for me to experiment with. It’s exciting to have so much fresh snow that nobody has walked through yet. There’s been no medium that I’ve felt that way since I’ve come into the business, where it feels like you can really be a pioneer.”
AR will be tremendously exciting in its own right, and I can’t wait for Magic Leap, HoloLens and castAR, but to think that VR will be cast aside to make way for AR’s ascendancy is totally off base.
Nvidia might be getting ready to launch a new Shield Android TV console later this year.
According to a filing to the FCC made public, Nvidia has applied for permission to flog a new console with a model number P2897. Obviously the rest of the filing is time secret but really the only thing that can fit the bill is a new Shield.
Listed under the labeling portion, we see that the device is rectangular and that the console features 802.11ac WiFi. A new shield remote and Controller device also went through the FCC last week.
Since all this is happening at once it seems likely that the new Shield Android TV will be in the shops sometime in autumn. However, Nvidia has applied and obtained FCC approval for things before and we never saw any product in the shops. An updated Shield Tablet went through the FCC and we are still waiting for it to appear.
All this guessing means that it is unclear if the new Shield TV is something new or radical or just a few updated bits stuck inside the existing box. It is also unknown whether Nvidia will launch a new hardware design for the Shield TV or simply stick updated components inside its existing package.
From the advent of what we might consider modern game consoles in the 1980s through to the point when standard budgets for individual games topped $10 million took around 25 years. Budgets spiked significantly when the PlayStation shifted the industry from 2D to 3D, but that merely drove them from six to seven figures; it wasn’t until the last generation, with Xbox 360 and PS3, that $10 million became the baseline for developing a AAA game.
From the advent of modern smartphones, in mid-2007, less than a decade has passed; so when Kabam CEO Kevin Chou talks about budgets of over $10 million for mobile games, and easily twice that when launch marketing costs are taken into account, it’s a sign of how quickly the world has accelerated.
Only a few years ago, mobile was the platform recommended to anyone starting out in game development; it was a new, exciting and fertile land waiting to be discovered by anyone with a smartphone, a copy of Xcode and a flash of genius. The very lure of mobile was that it was fast, it was cheap and it had no gatekeepers; you could prototype an idea, try it out in the marketplace, and either discard it or iterate upon it in a matter of weeks or months, even with a tiny indie team.
It would be wrong to imply that there’s no room in the mobile space for small teams and indies any more – an inspired game and a bolt of astonishing luck could still create a cultural phenomenon and a smash hit for something developed on a shoestring budget. Short of winning the development lottery in this way, though, it’s pretty clear that the big opportunities for smaller developers on mobile aren’t just shrinking; they’re actually gone entirely.
What Chou is saying merely reiterates what’s been clear to those watching the industry carefully for the past few years. Mobile games have become an enormous business, but most of the activity in the sector is no longer focused on game development, per se; it’s an incredibly marketing led business. The games that dominate mobile in 2016 are, with the notable exception of Pokemon Go, the same games that dominated 2015 and 2014. They’ve been updated somewhat and are constantly tweaking their formulas based on the data fed back from the playerbase, but the real efforts that drive consistent chart-toppers like Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga are marketing led – and very, very expensive marketing at that.
Indeed, while Chou’s comments on development budgets may seem intimidating to an indie creator, they’re the part of his message that deserves to be taken with a pinch of salt. Sure, moving to 3D has boosted development costs in mobile, but high quality 3D is not a hard and fast requirement for a successful game – and his claim that mobile games will be running with a graphical quality comparable to today’s home console titles within two years is pure fantasy (and not even desirable, were it possible; any game attempting such graphical quality will crucify its own retention statistics by being an unforgivable battery hog). Mobile development is unquestionably more expensive than it has been in the past and I don’t doubt Kabam’s budget estimations – they’re in line with what I’ve heard from others in the mobile sector recently – but this level of budget is still a nice-to-have, not a must-have.
In two areas, though, budget is non-negotiable. The first is network services. The reality is that even if a small independent developer came along tomorrow with a Pokemon Go beating game (which won’t happen, because Pokemon Go’s primary strength is in its license, but humour me anyway), the game wouldn’t survive a month. Either the game wouldn’t scale to match its audience, and would abruptly fall over and lose all market momentum; or it would scale, but the bills for the cloud services used in the process would reach unsustainable levels before the revenues from players actually started to roll in. Without good financial backing and the ability to sustain some high up-front costs, a runaway hit could be more likely to bankrupt its creator than a mediocre success.
The second area in which budget is non-negotiable, or rapidly becoming that way, is the aforementioned marketing. Chou suggested that Kabam is putting around $10 million in marketing behind its launches, which is a huge figure that’s still dwarfed by the amount big players such as Supercell and King are spending on “player acquisition” (which is just another way of saying marketing, in mobile game parlance) on their behemoth games. The sheer volume of TV, outdoor and online advertising space occupied by mobile games dwarfs the marketing for even the biggest console games, for the simple reason that the equation is different. Mobile game operators know that their existence relies on acquiring lots of players (which costs marketing money), holding on to as many of them as possible for as long as possible, and ultimately making more money out of each player than it cost to acquire them.
As the mobile market has grown, the cost of getting a player to try your game (Cost Per Acquisition, CPA) has risen enormously. That’s a cost that’s right there from day one of a mobile game’s existence; if you don’t have an acquisition strategy, which means expensive, high-profile advertising, you don’t have a mobile game with any chance of commercial success. Far, far more than any boost to development budgets, that’s what’s locking small teams and indies out of the mobile space. There are workarounds to some degree – like getting someone at Apple to love your game and feature it on the App Store frontpage, for example – but they’re a million to one shot.
It is, bluntly, long past time that we called time on the romantic myth of the indie mobile developer. If you’re an indie with good skills and a great idea, you’re far better off peddling that idea elsewhere. PC remains fertile ground for indie developers, of course, but one of the wonderful things that mobile has done for game development is the role it’s played in forcing console platform holders to open up to indies. If you’re talented and creative, getting access to a console development kit has never been easier or cheaper – in some cases, such as Microsoft’s ID@Xbox program, platform holders actually give dev kits away for free to just about anyone who wants one. It’s a far, far cry from the walled gardens of only a few years ago.
At first glance, mobile still looks like a more open platform than console (or even perhaps than PC, where Steam and its dubious Greenlight program act as de facto gatekeepers); everyone has a smartphone, the development tools to make games on them are free and anyone can upload a game to the App Store or the Play Store with ease. In reality, though, the opportunities for a small studio to succeed on mobile have narrowed rapidly to the point of nothingness, while opportunities on PC and on traditionally more “closed” platforms have boomed. Short of finding someone with a genuinely amazing, eye-opening idea for a mobile title, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend mobile development to any indie studio in 2016.
The wheel may yet turn again. Mobile game audiences, if nothing else, are still very new and very fickle; their tastes and desires may well shift, and more commercially viable niches may grow within the mobile space. As these devices get more powerful and capable, they’ll enable new experiences and consumers may come to demand more diversity from their gaming. For now, though, mobile has gone the way of console games around a decade ago; rising costs and an escalating arms race in marketing have killed, or are killing, the low-cost end of the market entirely. Unless you’ve got millions you don’t mind losing on a risky gamble, consider the mobile space closed to new entrants for the time being.
According to leaked FCC documentation, it appears that Nvidia has decided to cancel its new Shield Tablet, that was earlier spotted in the in the FCC filing.
According to a leaked document from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) database, dated August 1st and spotted by Androidpolice.com, Nvidia has decided to cancel the tablet “for business reasons”.
The earlier rumored Shield Tablet refresh, which was spotted at FCC, packed some impressive specifications, including an 8-inch 1920×1200 resolution screen, faster Tegra X1 SoC, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage.
The most probable reason is the decline in tablet sales and Nvidia’s focus on cars.
Hopefully, this doesn’t mean that we won’t see any more tablets or similar devices from Nvidia in future but not the new Shield Tablet.
It’s been more than five years since The NPD Group said it would start including digital data in its monthly reports on the US video game business. In those five years, not only has digital grown, but publishers, analysts, press and more have all thrown shade at NPD, questioning the relevancy of a service that only offers physical sales data in an increasingly digital era. Today, NPD is finally taking that first step to offer a more complete picture of the entire games market as it’s unveiled its digital point-of-sale (POS) sourced service, tracking SKU-level sales data on digital games.
“Following several years of beta testing, the Digital Games Tracking Service will allow participating clients to understand the size and growth of the digital market, and analyze attach rates and other important metrics. Combined with physical data available by NPD, these clients can gain a better understanding of the interplay between the physical and digital sales channels,” the firm explained in a press statement.
“As has been experienced across a wide variety of industries, digital has made a big impact on the overall gaming market, and we’ve risen to meet the demand for a reporting mechanism that tracks those sales in a timely and accurate way,” said Joanne Hageman, President, U.S. Toys & Games, The NPD Group. “With the participation and support of leading publishers – whose cooperation makes this possible – we are excited to launch an industry-first service that addresses a long-standing need.”
The usual report on physical sales data will now be combined with digital sales data and issued on July 21 instead of July 14; it’s expected to follow that cadence (the third data Thursday of the month) moving forward. Initially, NPD has gained the support of major publishers like EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Capcom, Square Enix, Take-Two, Deep Silver and Warner Bros. There are notable exceptions, however, like Bethesda as well as first-party publishers like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, but NPD analyst Liam Callahan promised that more publishers would be signing on as the service evolves.
“This has been several years of beta testing and we’ve been doing this in partnership with publishers, shaping the product, encoding the data the way the industry wants to see it. It’s really at the behest of or on the behalf of the publishers that we’re moving forward with this announcement… Really the goal is to bring a new level of transparency never before seen, at least in the US market. This is really the first step. We recognize that there’s still a ways to go, we want more publishers to join, we want to be able to project for people who are not participating. It’s an evolution, it’s something that takes time and our philosophy was really to start – if we waited to have every publisher in the world to sign up it would take forever. We’ll be improving this as time goes on,” he said.
Importantly, NPD will notate next to game titles on the chart that do not include digital data. Callahan wants the service, which is being produced with the assistance of EEDAR, to ultimately be able to project data even for non-participants but NPD isn’t starting with that ability just yet. Instead, it’ll focus on tracking revenue from full-game downloads across Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Steam. Services like Battle.net and Uplay won’t be included at this point.
“EEDAR is excited to be part of this initiative with NPD and the participating publishers. Tracked digital revenues have seen annual growth of over 100% each year since 2012. In 2016, we’ve already tracked more digital revenue than we saw in 2012 and 2013 combined. This initiative is a great milestone for the industry which will allow publishers to make better business decisions with a broader data set,” added EEDAR CEO Rob Liguori.
Add-on content like DLC and microtransactions will be tracked as well, but that data will only be released to participants, not the media and public. “We’re waiting until that’s a little more fully baked for us to roll that out to the media. We’re doing things in stages,” Callahan said.
It may be frustrating for the media to not have a granular breakdown at the SKU level to see what portion of a game’s sales are digital versus physical, but NPD anticipates more openness as the service evolves.
NPD communications chief David Riley commented, “This is a closed service, the detailed data is only available to participants so if you’re a non-participating publisher you cannot see the data. The fact that we’re allowed to go out with something for the media is a huge step in the right direction. I think as the service matures and as the publishers get used to it and we get more on board, we have more history, we do some benchmarking, we can provide that, but what we wanted to do for multiple reasons, including appeasing the publishers was to combine full-game physical with full-game digital, keep away from the DLC, keep PC games separate because that’s a whole different ball of wax. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s the most comprehensive, we’re the first in the market to track this and we’re sort of very cautious.”
He added, “I expect a good old slamming from the industry press because of the limitations here but what we don’t want to do is open ourselves up by separating it at this time. We’ve just opened the gates right now. Just as you’ve seen a withdrawal [of data] on the physical side – we used to give units – this is sort of going to be the reverse I’m hoping and we can provide more over time.”
Working with the publishers is great, but there are numerous digitally released titles from indies which make up a growing piece of the industry pie. Will the service grow to track those titles too? “Indies are a big part of the industry in terms of their innovation and I think when I talk about our projection methodology and assets at NPD, that is part of how we can track everything, not just for publishers, including indie games and everything that’s outside the panel right now,” Callahan said.
“Some of those smaller games are published through a publisher or first-party so there are ways to get some of those with our publisher-sourced methodology, and otherwise we’re approaching it with developing a robust projection methodology. That’s certainly part of our plan, we’re not going to ignore the indie piece.”
In our previous conversations with NPD, the firm had hinted at possibly working towards the goal of global digital reports. That’s not off the table, but it’s not a focus at the moment. “US is our core competency… our vision is to expand this as much as we can in a way that makes sense for our partners. If that’s global that may be what we pursue. But we also want to do the best job that we can in projecting for the market and recruiting as many publishers as we can,” Callahan concluded.
A Democratic U.S. senator requested the software developer behind Nintendo Co Ltd’s Pokemon GO to clarify the mobile game’s data privacy protections, amid concerns the augmented reality hit was unnecessarily collecting vast swaths of sensitive user data.
Senator Al Franken of Minnesota sent a letter to Niantic Chief Executive John Hanke asking what user data Pokemon GO collects, how the data is used and with what third party service providers that data may be shared.
The game, which marries Pokemon, the classic 20-year-old cartoon franchise, with augmented reality, allows players to walk around real-life neighborhoods while seeking virtual Pokemon game characters on their smartphone screens – a scavenger hunt that has earned enthusiastic early reviews.
Franken also asked Niantic to describe how it ensures parents give “meaningful consent” to a child’s use of the game and subsequent collection of his or her personal information.
“I am concerned about the extent to which Niantic may be unnecessarily collecting, using, and sharing a wide range of users’ personal information without their appropriate consent,” Franken wrote.
“As the augmented reality market evolves, I ask that you provide greater clarity on how Niantic is addressing issues of user privacy and security, particularly that of its younger players,” he added.
Franken additionally asked Niantic to provide an update on a vulnerability detected on Monday by security researchers who found Pokemon GO players signing into the game via a Google account on an Apple iOS device unwittingly gave “full access permission” to the person’s Google account.
Pokemon GO on Tuesday released an updated version on iOS to reduce the number of data permissions it sought from Google account users.
Niantic did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Franken’s inquiry.
The company, spun off by Google last year, created the game in tandem with Pokemon Co, a third of which is owned by Nintendo.
Nintendo is keeping fairly quiet about its VR plans, although a system is clearly on the drawing board.
The rumor mill suggests that the former playing card maker is determined to fix a problem which has dogged other VR machines on the market. Basically after you have worn a headset for half-an-hour you get tired and a bit sick.
Nintendo’s acting representative director Shigeru Miyamoto told shareholders that the company was “researching VR” – but didn’t want to show off the NX at E3 as they wanted to “avoid imitators.”
The research appears to be focused on coming up with a way that the headsets can be deeply immersive without turning the player into Linda Blair from the Exorcist. But it is clear that Nintendo does want to incorporate VR into its hardware once more.
It must think that it is likely to do better now than when it tried to in 1995 to run the Virtual Boy.
Apparently it will have a machine ready to show off in March next year. If it manages to avoid the VR fatigue then it might be onto a winner.
Not so long ago it was impossible to check up on your ex without getting a Farmville invite, but since then it seems that gaming has moved away from Facebook and onto mobile phones. Speak to the Facebook games team though, and they’ll tell you that Facebook is a bigger part of the gaming industry than ever.
“To answer the broad question of ‘Where is Facebook Games today?’ the right answer is today we’re everywhere. When I say we’re everywhere what I mean is we work with developers on just about any system that they’re on. They’re on mobile devices, PCs, desktops, Macs, whatever it’s going to be, consoles as well,” says director of global games partnerships Leo Olebe, a gaming veteran who’s worked in marketing for BioWare, Kabam, Zynga and more.
“We have a very strong and overall healthy gaming business. There’s a lot of people that are participating in the Facebook Games ecosystem as a whole and we’re just really passionate about making sure that people have the power to share the stuff that they love.”
He points particularly to Facebook’s recent work with Riot and League Of Legends and the simple ability to log into your PlayStation 4 with Facebook and share screenshots and video directly to your Facebook news feed.
League Of Legends saw 4 million players connect their League of Legends account to their Facebook accounts, which resulted in 15 million new friend connections.
“Yes, we have a really incredible and thriving developer and publisher community that’s on Facebook, people playing all sorts of games from Candy Crush to social casino games but then also participating through the rest of the ecosystem as well,” Olebe says.
Facebook also shared some stats with GamesIndustry.biz: over 550 million people play games that are connected with Facebook every month on desktop, mobile and console and more than 30 million people have connected their Facebook account to either PSN or Xbox Live. Of course, Facebook is also the owner of virtual reality pioneers, Oculus VR.
With Facebook Games Arcade, the company is looking at finding new ways for people to discover and access games when they’re using Facebook on desktops. The company pointed out that users currently can choose from over 500 games including Clash of Kings, Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff and Angry Birds Friends to name but a few.
On the development side, it says developers earned over $2.5 billion on Facebook’s web platform in 2015 and 15 per cent of time spent on Facebook.com is gaming.
“What we’ve done is we’ve become even more sophisticated about how to really think about the 1.6 billion people that are on Facebook. What I mean by more sophisticated is we’ve developed a whole suite of products that developers can use to really understand the people who are playing their games and loving their games. Whether that’s Facebook Login and friend finding, analytics, sharing products, a lot of people use our mobile app install ads to do user acquisition, [so] we have audience network tools,” explains Olebe.
“The most sophisticated publishers and developers out there truly understand that Facebook is a global platform”
“There’s no one thing that everybody has to use but there’s a lot of different things that are valuable to different publishers and different developers in different ways so we really wanted to adapt all our platform products to be flexible as their businesses change as well.”
Calvin Grunewald, engineering manager for games at Facebook elaborates:
“One of the goals from an engineering team perspective is that we want to let game developers build, grow and monetize their apps,” he says.
“It’s a really cool time to be a developer and it’s a really cool time to be working in the platform business just because you get to facilitate social connections on all of these platforms and developers are hungry for them.”
So with Facebook playing such a large role on console, PC and mobile what preconceptions do people still have about Facebook and games that are just downright wrong?
“If anything I think it’s that people still have this idea that Facebook’s place in the global games industry and business is somehow limited to games that you play on the web,” says Olebe.
“The most sophisticated publishers and developers out there truly understand that Facebook is a global platform and assists not only with user acquisition but also heavily with sharing and engagement. We really operate everywhere that gamers are.
“There are misconceptions out there, but I think only because people have an old understanding of Facebook as social games on the web and haven’t spent as much time thinking about all the different avenues where we play.”
Nintendo Co Ltd is holding discussions with several global production companies about expanding its video content business, including making movies, said Tatsumi Kimishima, president of the Japanese videogame maker.
The move is aimed at strengthening Nintendo’s character business and expanding the global gaming population, he told the Asahi newspaper in an interview published Monday.
“We’re talking with various partners. I think we’ll be able to decide something in the not-too-distant future,” Kimishima told the Japanese daily.
Kimishima declined to say when any projects would be announced but said it would not be as far off as five years. He would not say which of Nintendo’s popular characters were being considered for use.
A Nintendo spokesman told Reuters that Kimishima’s comments referred to “video content” but did not deny the possibility of making movies.
Nintendo is diversifying its operations to counter a shrinking console business. It has entered the fast-growing mobile game segment and reached a deal with NBCUniversal to develop theme-park attractions.
In fact, Nintendo already allows film companies to use its characters through licensing agreements, such as for the “Pokemon” franchise. There was also a Hollywood live-action movie based on “Super Mario” in 1993 but it was a box office and critical bomb.
But Kimishima told the Asahi that this time, Nintendo would like to do things itself as much as possible, rather than just licensing out its content, and said it was unlikely to be live-action.
In 2014, “Super Mario” creator Shigeru Miyamoto screened a 3D short-animation film based on Nintendo’s Pikmin characters at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and in an interview with Reuters left the door open to future film projects.
Nintendo has confirmed that its next-gen console, the Nintendo NX, will launch in March 2017.
Causing many to screw up their Christmas lists, the company told shareholders during its earnings call on Tuesday: “For our dedicated video game platform business, Nintendo is currently developing a gaming platform codenamed ‘NX’ with a brand-new concept. NX will be launched in March 2017 globally.”
Probably also causing some to cancel a trip to Los Angeles, Nintendo said that the NX will not be demonstrated at the upcoming E3 video games conference in June, despite speculation that Sony plans to show off its so-called PlayStation 4.5 console.
Nintendo’s keynote at the games show will focus instead on the next Legend of Zelda game, which will launch simultaneously on the Wii U and Nintendo NX in 2017. Rumour has it that Smash Bros 4, Splatoon and Super Mario Maker are all set to receive an NX makeover too.
A launch is now less than a year away, but we still don’t know much about the Nintendo NX, which Nintendo confirmed this week is just a codename for the incoming console. However, rumour claims that it will arrive as a hybrid between a home console and a mobile games console to sit alongside the New Nintendo 3DS.
Nintendo president and CEO Tatsumi Kimishima reiterated in December last year that the company is “not building the next version of Wii or Wii U” and that the device will be something “unique and different”.
News of the Nintendo NX’s launch date no doubt came as the firm looked to play down the fact that its profits fell 61 per cent year over year. Worked, didn’t it?
Last year, it was loose lips in the supply chain for console manufacture, now it’s seemingly loose lips within Nintendo’s own marketing department, but there’s a common thread to every leak or rumour that spreads about the platform holder these days – they all point to a late 2016 launch for the company’s next console platform, codenamed NX.
The numbers Nintendo was said to be targeting for NX that were floated around from sources at overseas parts suppliers checked out pretty well. Similarly, the more recent marketing leak has lent significant credibility by being on the money regarding the now-announced Pokemon Sun and Moon titles. It’s all still in the realm of rumour – a dedicated faker could have done the maths required to arrive at plausible manufacturing numbers for NX, just as we did when we dissected the claims; someone with knowledge of a soon-to-be-announced Pokemon game could have tacked on fake information about an upcoming console in order to troll gaming forums. It happens.
Besides, in the skeptics’ corner, there are some solid reasons to question the 2016 launch window. For a start, there’s the simple fact that we know nothing about NX. It’s already March, and all we know is a codename and some vague, hand-waving stuff about the console bridging home and handheld paradigms. That’s pretty much it. Assuming a November launch, that would leave Nintendo with a grand total of eight months to unveil, explain, market and promote an entire new console launch – even assuming that they were to start that process tomorrow. It’s not impossible, of course; that eight months would encompass E3, GamesCom, Tokyo Games Show and as many Nintendo Direct shows as the company wanted, so getting the message out there is plausible… But bear in mind that this is also the year in which Nintendo’s mobile gaming partnership with DeNA will bear its first fruit, and while I maintain that the company views that as a support to its console business, not a replacement for it, it’s reasonable to be dubious of the idea that it would willingly completely overshadow the marketing of those games with a blitz of promotion for a new console.
There’s also the simple matter of history to consider. Nintendo has never, as far as I can recall or uncover, announced a console in the same calendar year that it released it. The pattern for its systems’ pre-launch promotion has been fairly consistent since the turn of the millennium; a slow build-up from the reveal of hardware to further details and the introduction of software, with a launch often as much as 18 months after the unveiling. Compressing that into eight months (or seven, or six) might be possible, but it would be totally outside the pattern of what Nintendo has done up until now with its consoles.
On the other hand, Nintendo is in a pretty unique situation right now. It has a new CEO who, although he’s essentially pledged to follow the path Iwata set the company upon, will also have his own way of doing things and his own vision for the firm. It also has an absolute albatross in the form of the Wii U, which has not been saved from commercial disaster even by successful, acclaimed games like Splatoon and Super Mario Maker – and, almost uniquely for the company, it faces giving the Wii U an early bath at the same time that its all-conquering handheld platform, the 3DS (which has done very well despite not matching sales of its predecessor, the DS) is also slowing down significantly. Nintendo does face entering 2016 without a particularly strong handheld or home console platform and only the 3DS’ installed base to keep things ticking over – which might be a significant impetus to speed things up on the introduction of something new.
Let’s think in more details about the factors that would be involved in launching the NX by the end of the year. It would absolutely have benefits; perhaps the most clear one is that it would prevent 2016 being a “wasted” holiday season for Nintendo. The flatlining Wii U and the rapidly slowing 3DS suggest that without the introduction of a new platform this year, holiday 2016 will likely be Nintendo’s worst for many years – arguably not something Kimishima will want on his report card so early in his tenure. A rapid build-up and launch for the NX would give the company a blow-out Christmas, since Nintendo platforms pretty much always do well at launch – and of course, this would also place NX in the window to receive a prettied-up port of the upcoming Zelda title for Wii U at the same time as the Wii U version itself launches, a mirror of the very successful strategy the company used for Twilight Princess across the GameCube and Wii a couple of hardware generations ago. Even if the game isn’t totally exclusive to NX, a Zelda game at launch would be an enormous boon for the new platform and a great way to ensure a solid holiday season.
It’s definitely a short period of time, though, and the window in which Nintendo can announce the console is probably quite limited. It’s highly unlikely that it would wait for E3 to unveil its plans; much as turning up with a brand new console to the show would be a very effective way to “win” E3, it’s probably more sensible to unveil some aspects of the device, at least, in a Nintendo event well ahead of the show. Indeed, if NX details aren’t revealed to some degree either this month or next, I suspect a 2016 launch can be said to be entirely off the cards – although I wouldn’t actually put money on that, since if we’re talking about reducing the pre-launch promotion window from 18 months to 8 or 7 months, why on earth not make it six, or five, or four?
In fact, it might be more instructive to think about that window in terms of how other devices manage it. Consoles are actually quite unusual in having a lengthy, protracted period where everyone is talking about them, everyone is showing off software for them, but nobody can buy them. Compare that to smartphones or tablets, which are generally available to buy within a matter of days or weeks after they’re first unveiled. That short lead time doesn’t seem to stop Apple’s devoted fans from camping out to buy a new iPhone; perhaps a short lead time for a console might actually spur fans to excitement, rather than denying the new system a build-up? If the NX console is really a complex concept that it takes people a while to get their head around, then perhaps that will be problematic – you don’t want to launch a device that hardly anyone actually understands yet – but if it’s merely an interesting twist on the familiar, then perhaps a short, intense few months of promotion is actually a marketing advantage over a year or more of drawn-out arguments regarding the merits of a still-vapourware device.
Whatever Nintendo actually plans for the NX, it will represent a very dramatic choice for the company. A 2016 launch will be an aggressive strategy that overturns its previous approach to console launches and suggests dramatic reforms under Kimishima’s guidance. Pushing its launch out into next year, though, will leave the company facing a bleak holiday season with an ailing, albeit still popular, handheld device and a home console that’s almost totally dead in the water – and even with the prospect of a Zelda swan song on the Wii U, that will be a bitter pill to swallow for Nintendo. The company is, in some regards, painted into a corner – no matter what it does next, it’ll require a very different Nintendo difference.
The Nintendo NX may surpass the Wii U’s lifetime installed base in its first year on shelves. According to a Digi-Times report, Nintendo’s upstream component suppliers are expecting to provide the company with enough hardware to ship 10-12 million units in 2016.
That would mark a rebound after the Wii U, which through September had put up lifetime sales of a little under 11 million. However, Nintendo may be expecting even more from its next platform; in July, Digi-Times reported that the company was planning to ship 20 million Nintendo NX systems globally in 2016.
The report states that Foxconn Electronics will manufacture the NX, with mass production beginning at the end of the first quarter. Foxconn Technology, Macronix, Pixart Imaging, Coxon Precise Industrial, Nishoku Technology, Delta Technology, Lingsen Precision Industries and Jentech are expected to be supplying components for the NX.
In the mobile gaming space, change occurs quickly and often. In the seven years since the App Store revitalised a previously disjointed and granular market, almost every important aspect of production, distribution, marketing and consumption has been upturned several times. Smart developers learned to move quickly, primed for instant response and rapid iteration, in order to keep pace with a constantly shifting environment.
For mobile’s biggest companies, Kabam’s Aaron Loeb says, this way of thinking no longer suits the marketplace. “Five years ago mobile could best be characterised as a market where the best attribute you could have as a developer was speed. Today, the best attribute you can have as a developer is reliability. That requires different studios, that requires different leadership, and that requires different ways of thinking about steering development.”
Loeb left a senior position at Electronic Arts for Kabam in June 2014, the first in a run of major hires that also saw Zynga’s Mike Verdu and EA’s Nick Earl arrive at the company. Kevin Chou, Kabam’s CEO, had steered the company from a dependence on Facebook to its own web platform, Kabam.com, and then from there to mobile, the company emerging stronger and more successful each time. Loeb, Verdu and Early were hired in a conscious attempt to pivot once again, preparation for what Chou believed soon become a more settled and predictable place to do business.
Broader product strategies used to work, Loeb says, echoing an idea he expressed in a talk that proved to be the highlight of DICE Europe last month. Ever since the first games with in-app purchases appeared on the App Store in North America and Europe five years ago, the collective confusion over what constituted a ‘good’ product encouraged a “throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks” culture. Player taste and behaviour has changed, Loeb says, and the companies with the will – and the resources – to monitor and understand those factors have a clearer idea about the qualities necessary for success in mobile.
A company like Kabam can now place its bets with greater confidence than ever before. Those bets will be fewer, bolder and bigger, and they will ultimately lead to what Loeb has called – on his Linkedin profile, no less – “the next generation of free-to-play games.”
“Players are demanding games with more compelling loops, a richer sense of gameplay satisfaction,” he says. “The historical notion of what that means – from the console industry – is deep immersion, 80-hours of gameplay, you can disappear into your man or woman cave and never come up for air. That is not great mobile gameplay.
“Games that are purely versions of Solitaire – minimal attention, brain-clearing exercises – will always have their place in mobile, but more sophisticated mobile consumers want games they can have meaningful relationships with. So characters they care about, and other players they can care about, in ways both good and ill.
“The other thing that will be really prevalent will be an emerging and changing sense of what people will pay for, and what works in free-to-play… I can’t give you an exact answer to [what that will be], and not because I secretly know the answer and won’t tell you. It’s because it’s happening right now, and it is one of the most interesting things happening right now.”
Certain aspects of the answer can be found in two Kabam releases from the recent past: Marvel Contest of Champions, which is still among the top-grossing iOS games almost a year after launch, and Spirit Lords, which launched to considerable fanfare in May this year. Spirit Lords, in particular, displayed an uncommon degree of ambition: a new IP with lavish production values, an all-star development team, and no pre-existing brand awareness to use as a crutch.
“The point is that we’re taking the best design elements of those traditional games that our team members have been building for years – Diablo, Dragon Age, real classics – and bring them truly into mobile,” Loeb says. “We’re not trying to recreate your love of Diablo in the Nineties. We’re trying to create a new language of games for mobile.”
Such things don’t come cheap, of course, and that kind of investment demands a successful launch. Only two or three years ago, I heard very smart people advise mobile developers to launch a minimum viable product; to use the live, reactive nature of the App Store to shape what those games would become. With a game like Spirit Lords, however, there isn’t even a hint of uncertainty, no optimistic air of ‘we’ll see how it goes.’ To use Loeb’s own comparison, Kabam wasn’t throwing spaghetti at the wall with this one.
“That’s 100 per cent accurate. Kabam has engaged in a significant shift, and I believe that the whole industry will engage in that shift,” he says. “It is these launches that set the trajectory of a title. The launch is a big deal in mobile now, in a way that it wasn’t a few years ago. You had the sense then that you could build a business over two years. You still can do that, by the way, but you don’t get two chances to make a first impression.
“We are certainly thinking about how to make a very compelling, very satisfying experience at launch, which then continues to grow after launch… We don’t agree with [MVP strategy] any more. We believe we can look at the market now, and see the tastes of the customer and the player, and we can determine at some root level what is a good game and what is a bad game. That doesn’t mean that if you release a good game it will succeed – it’s still an incredibly competitive market – but at the very least you can have more influence on the outcome than treating it all like a coin toss.”
This kind of thinking is now commonplace among the big mobile developers. Earlier this month, Machine Zone’s Gabriel Leydon predicted that the most successful companies would soon be releasing just one or two games a year, with more and more money coming from an ever decreasing slate of products. The market remains crowded and chaotic, but the way Kabam, Machine Zone and others like them are setting up for the future will impose a kind of order – one not dissimilar to that which arose due to the rocketing costs of AAA console development, when many so studios discovered that they could no longer compete on such an uneven field of play.
“The launch is a big deal in mobile now, in a way that it wasn’t a few years ago”
“It is too early to say it’s gonna be the exact same phenomenon as console, and the economic factors of the industry are different enough that I don’t think it will be the exact same,” Loeb says. “In part, the middle fell out of console because the consumer for small and mid-sized games left to go to mobile and free-to-play. That was a pretty big part of that phenomenon.”
Whether those developers left through choice or necessity is a crucial distinction, of course. As is the question of where, exactly, those developers will turn if this age of “fewer, bigger and bolder games” has a similar fallout to the consolidation of high-end development in the last console generation. Loeb certainly doesn’t dismiss it as a possibility, and he admits that the companies worst affected by the shift will be further down the chain. With console, the middle of the market dropped away. With this next phase of mobile, it will be the little guys.
“The way that mobile and free-to-play as they currently stand will be disrupted is not completely clear,” he says. “The very low end of mobile game development seems likely to go away, or it will truly become like hoping to get hit by lightning. The developer who spends $20,000 throwing something on the marketplace really ought to put that $20,000 in a mutual fund. That’s just not very likely to produce any outcome.
“There’s so much competition, and so much quality product being created, that it will be very, very hard for those games. Harder than it has ever been.”
Japan’s Nintendo Co announced that it is delaying the much-awaited launch of its videogame service for smartphones by a few months to March 2016, disappointing gaming fans as well as investors who drove its shares down by more than 10 percent.
Under a strategy announced by its previous chief executive, who died of cancer earlier this year, Nintendo had said it would introduce its first smartphone games by the end of 2015. Fans and investors had hoped it would include its best-selling videogame franchise Mario in the first lineup.
Chief Executive Tatsumi Kimishima, a former banker who succeeded Satoru Iwata, said the delay would help Nintendo concentrate on selling its existing consoles and game software during the year-end holiday season.
“The year-end is traditionally our peak season for sales,” told a packed news conference, when asked about the delay. “This way, we’d be able to introduce our new applications after the holiday season is over.”
He avoided commenting on whether Mario would come to smartphones, instead introducing a new social networking service-style application called “Miitomo” which would be available in March.
The news knocked Nintendo’s shares down more than 10 percent in morning trade, erasing earlier gains. DeNA Co, Nintendo’s mobile gaming partner, fell as much as 19 percent.
Kimishima must avoid cannibalizing traditional console sales at the same time as pushing aggressively into the rapidly growing mobile gaming segment. On Wednesday, Nintendo reported a weaker-than-expected operating profit for the July-September quarter on tepid sales of game software.
“This (move into mobile gaming) is a sea change for them and there may be some growing pains like this along the way,” said Gavin Parry, managing director of Hong Kong-based brokerage Parry International Trade.
Former CEO Iwata, credited with broadening the appeal of videogames, died of cancer in July just months after deciding to enter mobile gaming despite years of resisting investor calls for such a move.
Hideo Kojima has left the building. The New Yorker has confirmed that the famous game creator’s last day at Konami has come and gone, with a farewell party attended by colleagues from within and without the country – but not, notably, by Konami’s top brass. Only a couple of months after his latest game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, clocked up the most commercially successful opening day’s sales of any media product in 2015, Kojima has left a studio facing shutdown – its extraordinary technology effectively abandoned, its talent scattered, seemingly unwanted, by a company whose abusive and aggressive treatment of its staff has now entered the annals of industry legend.
It’s not exaggerating to say that an era came to a close as Kojima walked out the door of the studio that bore his name for the last time. For all of Konami’s the-lady-doth-protest-too-much claims that it’s not abandoning the console market, actions matter far more than PR-moderated words, and shutting down your most famous studio, severing ties with your most successful creator in the process, is an action that shouts from the rooftops. Still, there’s some truth to Konami’s statements; it’s unlikely to abandon the console versions of Winning Eleven / Pro Evolution Soccer, or of Power Pro Baseball, any time soon, though more and more of the firm’s focus will be on the mobile incarnations of those franchises. The big, expensive, risky and crowd-pleasing AAA titles, though? Those are dead in the water. Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill (whose reincarnation, with acclaimed horror director Guillermo del Toro teaming up with Kojima at the helm, is a casualty of this change of focus), Suikoden, Castlevania, Contra… Any AAA title in those franchises from now on will almost certainly be the result of a licensing deal, not a Konami game.
One can criticise the company endlessly for how this transition has been handled; Konami has shown nigh-on endless disrespect and contempt for its creative staff and, Kojima himself aside, for talented, loyal workers who have stuck by the firm for years if not decades. It richly deserves every brickbat it’s getting for how unprofessionally and unpleasantly it’s dealt with the present situation. It’s much, much harder to criticise the company for the broader strokes of the decisions being made. Mobile games based on F2P models are enormous in Japan, not just with casual players but with the core audience that used to consume console games. The transition to the “mid-core” that mobile companies talk about in western territories is a reality in Japan, and has been for years; impressively deep, complex and involved games boast startling player numbers and vastly higher revenue-per-user figures than most western mobile games could even dream of. Konami, like a lot of other companies, probably expects that western markets will follow the same path, and sees a focus on Japan’s mobile space today as a reasonable long-term strategy that will position it well for tomorrow’s mobile space in the west.
Mobile is the right business to be in if you’re a major publisher in Japan right now. It’s where the audience has gone, it’s where the revenues are coming from, and almost all of the cost of a mobile hit is marketing, not development. Look at this from a business perspective; if you want to develop a game on the scale of Metal Gear Solid V, you have to sink tens of millions of dollars (the oft-cited figure for MGSV is $80 million) into it before it’s even ready to be promoted and sold to consumers. That’s an enormous, terrifying risk profile; while the studio next door is working on mobile games that cost a fraction of that money to get ready for launch, with the bulk of the spend being in marketing and post-launch development, which can be stemmed rapidly if the game is underperforming badly. Sure, mobile games are risky as all hell and nobody really knows what the parameters for success and failure are just yet, but with the time and money taken to make a Metal Gear Solid, you can throw ten, twenty or thirty mobile games at the wall and see which one sticks. The logic is compelling, whether you like the outcome or not.
Here’s what nobody, honestly, wants to hear – that logic isn’t just compelling for Konami. Other Japanese publishers are perhaps being more circumspect about their transitions, but don’t kid yourself; those transitions are happening, and Konami will not be the last of the famous old publishers to excuse itself and slip away from the console market entirely. When Square Enix surveys the tortured, vastly expensive and time-consuming development process of its still-unfinished white elephant Final Fantasy XV, and then looks at the startling success it’s enjoyed with games like Final Fantasy Record Keeper or Heavenstrike Rivals on mobile, what thoughts do you think run through the heads of its executives and managers? Do you think Sega hasn’t noticed that its classic franchises are mostly critically eviscerated when they turn up as AAA console releases, but perform very solidly as mobile titles? Has Namco Bandai, a firm increasingly tightly focused on delivering tie-in videogames for Bandai’s media franchises, not noticed the disparity between costs and earnings on its console games as against its mobile titles? And haven’t all of these, and others besides, looked across from their TGS stands to see the gigantic, expensive, airship-adorned stands of games like mobile RPG GranBlue Fantasy and thought, “we’re in the wrong line of work”?
Kojima isn’t the first significant Japanese developer to walk out of a publisher that no longer wants his kind of game – but he’s the most significant thus far, and he’s certainly not going to be the last. The change that’s sweeping through the Japanese industry now is accelerating as traditional game companies react to the emergence of upstarts grabbing huge slices of market share; DeNA and Gree were only the first wave, followed now by the likes of GungHo, CyGames, Mixi and Colopl. If you’re an executive at a Japanese publisher right now, you probably feel like your company is already behind the curve. You’ve studied plenty of cases in business school in which dominant companies who appeared unassailable ended up disappearing entirely as newcomers took the lion’s share of an emerging market whose importance wasn’t recognised by the old firms until it was too late. You go home every evening (probably around midnight – it’s a Japanese company, after all) and eat your microwave dinner in front of TV shows whose ad breaks are packed with expensive commercials for mobile games from companies that hadn’t even appeared on your radar until a year or two ago, and none from the companies you’d always considered the “key players” in the industry. You’re more than a little bit scared, and you really, really want your company to be up to speed in mobile, like, yesterday – even if that means bulldozing what you’re doing on console in the process.
This is not entirely a bleak picture for fans of console-style games. Japanese mobile games really are pushing more and more towards mid-core and even hardcore experiences which, though the monetisation model may be a little uncomfortable, are very satisfying for most gamers; the evolution of those kinds of games in the coming years will be interesting to watch. Still, it will be a very long time before there’s a mobile Metal Gear Solid or a mobile Silent Hill; some experiences just don’t make sense in the context of mobile gaming, and there is a great deal of justification to the fears of gamers that this kind of game is threatened by the transition we’re seeing right now.
I would offer up two potential silver linings. The first is that not all companies are in a position to break away from console (and PC) development quite as dramatically as Konami has done. Sega, for example, is tied to those markets not least by its significant (and very successful) investments in overseas development studios, many of which have come about under the auspices of the firm’s overseas offices. Square Enix is in a similar position due to its ownership of the old Eidos studios and franchises, along with other western properties. Besides, despite the seemingly permanent state of crisis surrounding Final Fantasy XV, the firm likely recognises that the Final Fantasy franchise requires occasional major, high-profile console releases to keep it relevant, even if much of its profit is found in nostalgic retreads of past glories. Capcom, meanwhile, is deeply wedded to console development – it’s a much smaller company than the others and perhaps more content to stick to what it knows and does well, even if console ends up as a (large) niche market. (Having said that, if a mobile version of Monster Hunter springs to the top of the App Store charts, all bets are probably off.)
“Hideo Kojima left Konami because he wants to make a style of game that doesn’t fit on mobile F2P – and that’s, in the long run, probably a good thing”
The other silver lining is perhaps more substantial and less like cold comfort. Hideo Kojima left Konami because he wants to make a style of game that doesn’t fit on mobile F2P – and that’s, in the long run, probably a good thing. He joins a slow but steady exodus of talent from major Japanese studios over the past five years or more. The kind of games which people like Kojima – deeply involved with and influenced by literature, film and critical theory – want to make don’t fit with publishers terribly well any more, but that doesn’t mean those people have to stop making those games. It just means they have to find a new place to make them and a new way to fund them. Kojima’s non-compete with Konami supposedly ends in a few months and then I suspect we’ll hear more about what he plans; but plenty of former star developers from publishers’ internal studios have ended up creating their own independent studios and funding themselves either through publisher deals or, more recently, through crowdfunding. Konami’s never likely to make another game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but that doesn’t stop Koji Igarashi from putting Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on Kickstarter. Sega knocked Shenmue on the head, but a combination of Sony and Kickstarter has sent Yu Suzuki back to work on the franchise. Keiji Inafune also combined crowdfunding money with publisher funding for Mighty No. 9. Perhaps the most famous and successful of all breakaways from the traditional publishing world, though, is of a very different kind; Platinum Games, which has worked with many of the world’s top publishers in recent years while retaining its independence, is largely made up of veterans of Capcom’s internal studios.
Whichever of those avenues Kojima ends up following – the project-funding style approach of combining crowdfunding and publisher investment, or the Platinum Games approach of founding a studio and working for multiple publishers – there is no question of him walking away from making the kind of games he loves. Not every developer has his sway, of course, and many will probably end up working on mobile titles regardless of personal preference – but the creation of Japanese-style console and PC games isn’t about to end just because publishers are falling over themselves to transition to mobile. As long as the creators want to make this kind of game, and enough consumers are willing to pay for them (or even to fund their development), there’s a market and its demands will be filled. The words “A Hideo Kojima Game” will never appear on the front of a Konami title again; but they’ll appear somewhere, and that’s what’s truly important in the final analysis.