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.
Sony’s Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida was only stating the obvious when he told the audience at EGX that the “climate is not healthy” for a successor to the company’s struggling handheld console, the PlayStation Vita, but sometimes even the obvious makes for an interesting statement, depending upon who’s stating it.
The likelihood of another handheld console from Sony turning up in the foreseeable future is considered to be incredibly low by almost everyone, and it’s notable that there’s never been so much as a whisper about what such a successor might look like or comprise; it’s so vanishingly unlikely to come to pass, why even bother speculating on what might be? Yet for commentators and analysts to dismiss the notion of Sony carrying on in handheld is one thing; for such a senior figure at the company to seemingly join in that dismissal is another. The final step of the long and strange handheld journey which Sony started with the announcement of the PSP’s development all the way back in 2003 won’t come until the Vita reaches its official end-of-life, but Yoshida’s statement is the moment when we learned for certain that the company itself reckons the handheld market is past saving.
It’s not that there’s any lack of affection for the Vita within Sony, including Yoshida himself, whose Twitter feed confirms that he is an avid player of the system. Even as weak sales have essentially rendered AAA development for the Vita financially unsustainable, the firm has done a great job of turning it into one of the platforms of choice for break-out indie hits, and much of the success of the PS4 as a platform for indie games can be traced back to the sterling work Sony’s team did on building relationships and services for indies on the Vita. For that alone, it’s a shame that the console will apparently be the last of its line; there are some games that simply work better on handhelds than on home consoles, and some developers who are more comfortable working within the limitations of handheld systems.
Yoshida is right, though; mobile phones are the handheld killer. They may not be as good at controlling the kind of games that the PSP and Vita excelled at, but mobile devices are more powerful, more frequently updated, carried everywhere and heavily subsidised by networks for most users. Buttons and sticks make for wonderful game controllers, as Yoshida noted, but when the competition has a great multi-touch screen and accelerometer, a processor faster than most laptops only a few years ago, and is replaced every couple of years with a better model, the best set of buttons and sticks on earth just can’t compete for most consumers. Even if Sony could release a Vita 2 tomorrow which leapfrogged the iPhone 6S, within a year Apple, Samsung and others would be back out in front.
That’s not to say that this battle can’t be won. Nintendo has still managed to shift a dramatic number of 3DS consoles despite the advent of the smartphone era – though in typically Nintendo style, it chose not to play the competition at their own game, favouring a continuation of the DS’ odd form-factor, a 3D screen and a low-cost, low-power chipset over an arms race with smartphones (and, indeed, with the Vita). Crucially, Nintendo also pumped out high quality software on the 3DS at a breathtaking pace, at one point coming close to having a must-buy title on the system every month. Nintendo’s advantage, as ever, is its software – and at least in part, its longevity in the handheld market is down to the family-friendly nature of that software, which has made the 3DS popular with kids, who usually (at least in Japan, the 3DS’ best performing market) do not carry smartphones and generally can’t engage with F2P-style transactions even if they do. Vita, by comparison, aimed itself at a more adult market which has now become saturated with phones and tablets.
So; is that the end of Sony’s handheld adventure? Trounced by Nintendo twice over, first with the DS’ incredibly surprising (if utterly obvious in hindsight) dominance over the PSP, then with the 3DS’ success over the Vita, Sony nonetheless carved out an impressive little market for the PSP, at least. Vita has failed to replicate that success, despite being an excellent piece of hardware, and 12 years after news of the PSP first reached gamers’ eager ears, it looks like that failure and the shifting sands of the market mean Sony’s ready to bail out of handhelds. With the stunning success of PS4 and the upcoming PlayStation VR launch keeping the company busy, there’s seemingly neither time, nor inclination, nor resources to try to drive a comeback for the Vita – and any such effort would be swimming against the tide anyway.
I would not go so far as to say that Sony is dropping out of handheld and portable gaming entirely, though. I think it’s interesting, in the context of Yoshida’s comments, to note what the company did at TGS last month – where a large stand directly facing the main PlayStation booth was entirely devoted to the Sony Xperia range of phones and tablets, and more specifically to demonstrating their prowess when it comes to interacting with a PS4. The devices can be hooked up to a PS4 controller and used for remote play on the console; it’s an excellent play experience, actually significantly better in some games than using the Vita (whose controls do not perfectly map to the controller). I use my Vita to do simple tasks in Final Fantasy XIV on my PS4 while the TV is in use, but it wouldn’t be up to the task of more complex battles or dungeons; I’d happily do those on an Xperia device with a proper controller, though.
Remember when the Vita launched and much of the buzz Sony tried to create was about how it was going to interact with the PS4? That functionality, a key selling point of the Vita, is now on Xperia, and it’s even better than it was on the devoted handheld. Sony’s phones also play Android games well and will undoubtedly be well-optimized for PlayStation Now, which means that full-strength console games will be playable on them. In short, though the Vita may be the last dedicated handheld to carry the Sony brand, the company has come a long way towards putting the core functions of Vita into its other devices. It’s not abandoning handheld gaming; it’s just trying to evolve its approach to match what handheld gaming has become.
It’s not a perfect solution. Not everyone has or wants an Xperia device – Japan is the best performing market for Sony phones and even here, Apple is absolutely dominant, with iPhones holding more than half of the market share for smartphones. If Sony is being clever, though, it will recognize that the success of the PS4 is a great basis from which to build smartphone success; if the Xperia devices can massively improve the user experience of the PS4, many owners of those devices may well consider a switch, if not to a new phone then at least to one of the Xperia tablets. It might also be worth the company’s time to think a little about the controllers people will hook up to the Xperia to play games; I love the PS4 controller, but it’s bulky to carry in a bag, let alone a pocket. If the firm is serious about its phones and tablets filling the handheld gap, a more svelte controller designed specifically for Xperia (but still recognizably and functionally a PS4 pad) would be an interesting and worthwhile addition to the line-up.
Nonetheless, what’s happening with Xperia – in terms of remote play, PS Now, and so on – is an interesting look at how consoles and smartphones might co-exist in the near future. The broad assumption that smart devices will kill off consoles doesn’t show any sign of coming true; PS4 and Xbox One are doing far, far better than PS3 and Xbox 360 did, and while the AAA market is struggling a little with its margins, the rapid rise of very high quality indie titles to fill the gap left by the decline of mid-range games in the previous generation means the software market is healthier than it’s been for years. If consoles aren’t going away, then we need to be thinking about how they’ll interact with smart devices – and if that’s what Sony’s doing with Xperia and PlayStation, it’s a strategy that could pay off handsomely down the line.
If Hideo Kojima really is on the outs at Konami, he’s at least going out with a bang. The embargo for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain coverage hit last night, and the first batch of reviews are glowing.
IGN’s Vince Ingenito gave the game a 10 out of 10, lavishing praise on the way it adapted the series’ stealth-action formula to an open-world environment.
“Right from the moment you’re told to get on your horse and explore the Afghan countryside, Phantom Pain feels intimidating, almost overwhelming in terms of the freedom its open world affords and the number of concepts it expects you to grasp,” Ingenito said. “It’s almost too much, especially given the relative linearity of previous Metal Gears. But what initially appeared to be an overly dense tangle of features to fiddle with instead unraveled into a well-integrated set of meaningful gameplay systems that provided me with a wealth of interesting decisions to make.”
Whether players choose to sneak their way to victory or go in guns blazing, The Phantom Pain affords them a number of avenues to do so. The game’s day/night cycle and changing weather systems can make certain strategies viable (or not) at any given time. At the same time, a private army management meta-game lets players raid battlefields for resources and new recruits, which can then be put to use researching new technologies or using their skills to open up a variety of other strategic alternatives.
However, a perfect score doesn’t mean a perfect game, and Ingenito does identify at least one weak point in the game.
It’s a somewhat surprising criticism of the game, given Metal Gear Solid 4′s penchant for frequent and extended cutscenes larding the action with exposition and plot twists. While The Phantom Pain shows flashes of that approach (Ingenito noted the “spectacular” opening sequence), it ultimately produces a narrative he found “rushed and unsatisfying.”
Obviously, that failing was not enough to tarnish an otherwise fantastic game in Ingenito’s eyes.
“There have certainly been sandbox action games that have given me a bigger world to roam, or more little icons to chase on my minimap, but none have pushed me to plan, adapt, and improvise the way this one does,” he said. “Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain doesn’t just respect my intelligence as a player, it expects it of me, putting it in a league that few others occupy.”
GameSpot’s Peter Brown likewise gave the game a 10 and praised its adaptable approach to missions, but enjoyed the story considerably more than his counterpart at IGN.
“After dozens of hours sneaking in the dirt, choking out enemies in silence, and bantering with madmen who wish to cleanse the world, The Phantom Pain delivers an impactful finale befitting the journey that preceded it,” Brown said. “It punches you in the gut and tears open your heart. The high-caliber cutscenes, filled with breathtaking shots and rousing speeches, tease you along the way. Your fight in the vast, beautiful, and dangerous open world gives you a sense of purpose. The story is dished out in morsels, so you’ll have to work for the full meal, but it’s hard to call it ‘work’ when controlling Big Boss feels so good, with so many possibilities at your fingertips.”
Brown said prior knowledge of the series isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying The Phantom Pain, but added that “Fans of the series will find their diligence rewarded in ways that newcomers can’t begin to imagine.” They’ll also, in his estimation, be enjoying the pinnacle of the franchise.
“There has never been a game in the series with such depth to its gameplay, or so much volume in content,” Brown said. “The best elements from the past games are here, and the new open-world gameplay adds more to love on top. When it comes to storytelling, there has never been a Metal Gear game that’s so consistent in tone, daring in subject matter, and so captivating in presentation. The Phantom Pain may be a contender for one of the best action games ever made, but is undoubtedly the best Metal Gear game there is.”
Eurogamer hasn’t published its full review yet, but Matt Wales weighed in with his impressions to date. Like Brown and Ingenito, Wales underscored the narrative approach as a major departure for the series.
“Beyond an outlandish, action-packed opening sequence… The Phantom Pain is a remarkably economical affair, telling its tale of ’80s cold war subterfuge through snatches of radio dialogue (courtesy of Ocelot), and the occasional return to Mother Base between missions,” Wales said. “It’s fascinating to see such restraint from Kojima, a man well known for his self-indulgence and excess, especially considering that The Phantom Pain is likely his Metal Gear swan song.”
On the gameplay side, Wales said The Phantom Pain “isn’t exactly a radical reinvention of the stealth genre,” but acknowledged the increased freedom players are given to accomplish the familiar assortment of objectives.
“Metal Gear Solid 5′s open world might not be vast, varied or stuffed full of things to do, but it’s a place of constant movement,” Wales said. “Night falls, day breaks, sandstorms sweep in, patrols come and go – and this organic sense of life means that missions are never predictable (no matter how often you play them) with tactical possibilities arising all the time. It’s a game of planning and reacting in a world that refuses to stand still, making every minute matter and every success feel earned.”
“The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima’s ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged.”
He also applauded the way The Phantom Pain managed to adopt an open-world design without the genre’s standard glut of padding.
“[E]verything you do feels meaningful and consequential,” Wales said. “Guard posts and roaming patrols aren’t simply there for colour as you traverse the world: one careless move into hostile territory and every single enemy on the map will know you’re coming, with more search parties and increased security radically altering the way a mission unfolds. And while other games tout choice and consequence as a headline feature, the Phantom Pain just gets on with it. Even the smallest action can have unexpected consequences – some significant and others barely perceptible.”
Game Informer’s Joe Juba gave the game a 9.25, currently one of the lowest scores the game has received on Metacritic (where it has a 95 average based on 15 critic reviews). Like some of the above reviewers, Juba was a bit disappointed at The Phantom Pain’s approach to storytelling, but noted that having the narrative take a step in to the background puts the focus on the game’s strongest point, its open-ended gameplay.
“A series can’t survive this long without evolving, and The Phantom Pain is a testament to the importance of taking risks,” Juba said. “An open world, a customizable base, a variable mission structure – these are not traditional aspects of Metal Gear, but they are what makes The Phantom Pain such an exceptional game. The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima’s ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged.”
Sony is denying that its PlayStation Vita is dead in the water, despite ignoring it during its E3 2015 presentation.
Slim PlayStation Vita went on sale in February and was greeted by a loud sounding yawn by the hand-held game community. Since then we have heard very little about it, and like most of the world, including Sony, did not really care.
PlayStation Europe boss Jim Ryan insisted to Gamespot that the system is still selling well and has “hundreds” of games in development.
“We’re still selling respectable quantities. We have a hundred games in development, and you might say, ‘Well yeah but they’re all indie games’, but many of these games review very highly. Also the PS4′s Remote Play feature is something that is valued a lot.”
Ryan also insists that the handheld market still exists, despite being gutted by tablets and smartphones.
He admitted that it was not as big as it used to be, but hell what these days is.
” A much smaller market than when the DS and PSP were in their glory days. But that market still does exist,” he added.
Despite his enthusiasm we don’t hold out much hope.
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.
Video game maker Nintendo Co Ltd will develop a device to monitor a user’s fatigue and map their sleep, Chief Executive Satoru Iwata said on Thursday, the first offering from the company’s newly created healthcare division.
The device will be co-created with U.S. firm ResMed Inc, which currently makes products to treat sleep disorders, and will be available in the financial year ending March 2016.
“By using our know-how in gaming… to analyse sleep and fatigue, we can create something fun,” Iwata said.
Nintendo, better known for its Mario video game franchise and Wii and Wii U consoles, has said it expects its healthcare division to turn a profit in 2015/2016. The company already offers fitness games on its Wii console, played with a motion sensor controller.
According to an image Iwata shared at a media conference, the device will be about the size of a hand and can be placed on a user’s bedside table. It will use microwave transmission sensors to track sleep, with the data collected used to help users cultivate healthy sleeping habits.
Iwata refused to discuss the company’s sales expectations for the new device beyond saying that it may be offered via a subscription service rather than a one-off purchase.
“We only start something new if we think we will be able to create a big market, but as I’m not able to discuss pricing plans and other details today I don’t think there’s much point in giving a figure for our projected scale,” he said.
The device was launched a day after Nintendo reported an unexpected quarterly profit, after hit games gave a boost to sales of its Wii U console.
As the market for games has grown and diversified, it’s become increasingly important to take any headline figures you might read with a grain of salt. Every time an analyst or a research firm announces that the games business has reached such and such a size, or that monthly revenues compare thusly with previous figures, or that a certain product or company has over- or under-performed projections, their august pronouncement isn’t so much an answer as a source of more questions. What exactly are you defining as the “games business”? Which sectors have you included? How did you measure digital revenues? What about IAP? Are your figures global, regional, merely covering the increasingly unrepresentative US market or “global” for a narrow definition of “global” which means “markets we could find data for with a quick Google search, and to hell with the rest of them”? And as for projections, whose projections, arrived at through which logic and with which agenda?
In short: with a very, very few notable exceptions, most of the sector analysis and research conducted on this industry is awful. It’s under-informed, narrow and rarely exposes its methodology well enough to understand and account for its flaws. It’s also the best thing we’ve got, unfortunately, which is why sites (including this one) continue to publish this research as it becomes available, although all of it should probably carry a large flashing warning to remind readers that an infant let loose with coloured crayons and some graph paper would probably have a similar margin of error to their data.
Yet this is only when we’re talking about data about what’s going on right now. Start to project forward, into crystal-ball-gazing questions like “where will the market be in five years”, and you’re into the realms where the real nonsense starts. Models and figures are pulled out of analyst’s backsides with wild abandon. Rationales and factual grounds are nowhere to be found, but incredibly slick charts and graphs abound; it’s a little like astrology, except that rather than blathering about Saturn being in Capricorn and whatnot, analysts seek to bamboozle everyone with charts and then deeply, fervently hope that when the time period they’re predicting actually arrives nobody will remember how wrong they were.
Even so, when all of the world’s analysts start to point in the same direction – the good, the bad and the bluffing – it’s worth taking note. That’s the context in which the headline figures from research firm Newzoo’s latest report are interesting; headline figures which, in a nutshell, suggest that 2015 will be the tipping point at which revenues from mobile game software surpass revenues from console game software.
“What’s happened to consoles as mobiles have taken over? Not much, as it happens”
Newzoo, like most research firms focusing on this industry, doesn’t provide sufficient detail to back up or verify its sweeping and grandiose claims, because apparently a really pretty graph with a swish background ought to suffice. They would argue, no doubt, that all the juicy detail which would explain their peculiarly high figures is what they charge clients lots of money for, an argument which is entirely true and still leaves them in the position of peddling figures while failing to show their workings. Nevertheless, Newzoo is not alone in its prediction. It’s not even a particularly novel prediction, actually; research firms have been pointing at this tipping point for several years, although when exactly the graph lines would intersect has been a subject of some debate. With mobile growth still strong and the next-gen consoles performing excellently but remaining largely constrained within the core market (rather than seeing another Wii-style breakout success story), the lines are converging a little more evenly and the soothsayers are in accord; next year is the year.
So what happens then? Do burning stones rain from an angry sky to smash all our PlayStation 4s? Will a horde of rampant mobile gamers, driven to murderous insanity by Candy Crush Saga, rip the 3DS’ from our hands and beat us to death with them? Shall E3 be swallowed by a lake of fire, and every presentation at GDC be replaced by an ominous looping video of Zynga founder Mark Pincus laughing savagely at the audience?
Perhaps rather than stockpiling tinned foods, filling the bath with potable water and tearfully locking away your beloved RPGs and FPS games in a lead-lined safe, it might be instructive to take a look at a market where this transition has already happened. There is, you see, a place where revenues from mobile games overtook revenues from console games several years ago – as early as 2011, according to some figures, although the safe money is on 2012/13 being the tipping point. Now, in this market, mobile games are the unquestioned market leader in revenue.
The market in question is Japan, where a well-developed market for mobile gaming on existing “feature phone” devices was supercharged by the arrival of the smartphone. Now mobile game revenues have soared well clear of console games. Unlike in the 1990s, Japan’s mobile phones aren’t vastly advanced compared to those overseas – they queue up here for iPhones just like everywhere else, with Apple’s devices being by far the dominant player in the smartphone market, so it’s not that games they’re playing are technologically advanced compared to those in the west. Rather, it’s that the market itself was further down the path than the west, with a wider swathe of consumers familiar and comfortable with mobile gaming, F2P models and in-game transactions.
What’s happened to consoles as mobiles have taken over? Not much, as it happens. The softness of PS4′s sales in Japan since the stellar launch last spring has been well noted, but it’s not a meaningful indicator of an overall problem with the console market; anecdotally, I get the impression that PS4 is extremely desired but still lacks the killer apps which will actually drive Japanese gamers to go out and buy one. Indeed, the line-up of software that appeals to the local market is still weak; a few big titles will shift the needle significantly, just as Mario Kart 8 did for the Wii U (which is now back in a slump awaiting the arrival of Smash Bros; software sells hardware, as ever).
Handhelds, meanwhile, are what you’d expect to suffer most from the triumph of mobile, yet the 3DS is going gangbusters in Japan and the PS Vita is stronger in this market than anywhere else in the world. The rise of mobile to take the crown of most lucrative and expansive market hasn’t even impacted the ability of Japanese publishers to launch genuinely massive new franchises on handheld consoles; Yokai Watch may not have made it to the west yet, but if it’s half as pervasive over there once it launches, it’ll be the biggest new gaming franchise in years.
So the consoles are still pretty healthy, especially the handheld devices. They play to their strengths, for the most part; it’s notable that the biggest handheld games around at the moment, games like Smash Bros and Monster Hunter, really wouldn’t work on a mobile phone as they rely on accurate, pinpoint controls that couldn’t be replicated on a touchscreen to any degree of satisfaction. Other games that work well are those designed for long sessions of play; mobile devices still suffer badly from rapidly draining batteries when playing games, and while a dead battery in your 3DS is a little annoying, a dead battery in your mobile phone is a disaster, meaning few people are willing to put in significant play sessions in GPU-intensive mobile titles.
“If 2015 does see mobile overtaking console worldwide, it may be the best thing to happen to games in years; it won’t hurt console, at least not for a long while yet, and it’ll allow us to finally turn a corner towards mobile being seen as a platform for everyone”
What’s actually more interesting than what’s happened to console, though, is what’s happened to mobile itself. The mobile game market in Japan is nothing short of fascinating. Ever since its meteoric growth, it’s become a hugely expansive market that caters to an enormous range of tastes and demographics, as you’d expect – but the core demographic, the heart of the market for which every company seems to be competing… Well, that’s oddly familiar, as it happens.
Every time you see a commuter train festooned with ads for a new mobile title, or a lengthy TV commercial promoting the latest smartphone release, or even the huge screens at Shibuya’s scramble crossing taken over with a video of a mobile game, they always have something in common. Their visual language, their core mechanisms and their basic appeal is absolutely in tune with core gamers. Mobile’s new position on top of the heap has opened the door to games with higher production values and more depth, aimed at the market that has always played the most and paid the most; the core.
The results aren’t always appealing; mobile games launch fast and fail fast, and that’s fine. When things do work out, though, they create some pretty amazing hits. Puzzle & Dragons, as you probably know by now, was the biggest-grossing game on any platform in 2013 (probably; analyst figures, you know?), and it’s also incredibly deep, compelling and fun. Publisher GungHo advertises the game on trains and TV over here with videos showing advanced techniques for building chain combos in the game; just consider that for a moment, a game so successful that your advertising isn’t even “here’s why this game is great”, it’s “we know you already play, here’s a tip so you can play better”, displayed on evening TV across the nation. Puzzle & Dragons is far from being Japan’s only “mobile core” hit, though. RPGs have been rapidly rising in prominence on mobile platforms, and now appear to be even more popular than the collect ‘em up titles (mostly card battlers) which dominated up until this point; the latest big title is Mistwalker-developed RPG Terra Battle, a game which I’m resigned to installing on my phone this week because literally everyone around me doesn’t talk about anything else any more.
In short, the Japanese market may be peculiar by comparison with the rest of the world, but sometimes that’s simply because it’s still a couple of years ahead of the western market in a few regards. Not in every regard; Japan is a very retrograde nation in terms of certain tech advances (it’s worth noting that streaming video services like Netflix are an absolute disaster here, and let’s not even talk about online banking), but in gaming, the market if not the technology is a little in advance of most western countries. Japan crossed the line between console-as-number-one and mobile-as-number-one a couple of years ago, and the world did not end. Console and handheld are doing fine; mobile is doing better than fine, and most excitingly of all, the new titles coming to mobile are better than ever, driven by a strong desire to get the most lucrative market in gaming, the core gamers themselves, playing. If 2015 does see mobile overtaking console worldwide, it may be the best thing to happen to games in years; it won’t hurt console, at least not for a long while yet, and it’ll allow us to finally turn a corner towards mobile being seen as a platform for everyone – core, casual, and everyone in between.
Although has not been publicly confirmed that Google’s latest Android 5.0 Lolipop will be coming to its Nvidia Shield tablet, Nvidia was pretty quiet about the Shield Portable handheld console, so we asked around. It appears that the update will indeed be coming to Shield Portable as well.
The first devices on the list to receive the Android 5.0 Lolipop update will be Google’s own Nexus devices, starting with the Nexus 4, Nexus 7 2012 and Nexus 10 as the oldest devices, followed by Google Play Edition devices and LTE-enabled products. Most smartphone and tablet manufacturers have also confirmed that the new Android 5.0 Lolipop will be coming to their recent devices.
One of the companies on the list is also Nvidia, which has announced that it “ultimate tablet for gamers” also known as the Nvidia Shield Tablet will be getting the Android 5.0 Lolipop update soon. The update for Shield Tablet does not come as a surprise considering that it is based on the speedy Tegra K1 32-bit chipset.
While it did not give out any details regarding Android 5.0 Lolipop update for the Shield Portable handheld console, we sent out a quick email to Nvidia and managed to confirm that the update will indeed be coming to the Shield Portable as well. Unfortunately, Nvidia did not give any precise date for this device either.
There’s a popular narrative about Japan’s game development industry: it’s an industry in trouble, lagging behind the West and running out of ideas. If any Japanese developer wants to get themselves splashed into the headlines, all they need do is trot out a soundbite disparaging their own industry; in a world of click bait headlines, the fall of Japanese development is a sure-fire winner. The apparent decline of Japan’s game developers is linked to a secondary narrative as well, namely the decline of Japan’s internal market for videogames. Once the undisputed gaming capital of the world, Japan seems to be falling out of love with the pastime – at least on consoles, and at least according to some rather unusual readings of the data.
There’s a nugget of truth to both of these stories; just enough to make them worth considering, yet certainly not enough to prevent the majority of reporting and discussion on them from being a torrent of absolute nonsense. Japanese game development is somewhat troubled, but it’s troubled by exactly the same factors that are giving sleepless nights to Western game developers – skyrocketing AAA budgets, new business models, a diversification of platforms and the globalisation of the audience. Japanese development studios remain perfectly capable of making superb games that delight their fans; their problem, just as everywhere else, is figuring out how to make money from those games in a new world where profitability escapes everything but the million-selling megahit.
That links back to the second narrative; Japan is falling out of love with games. On the surface, it’s hard to see this alleged decline. The country’s arcades may not be what they once were, but they’re still far more numerous and spacious, not to mention well-attended, than any such establishments in the west. Dedicated videogame stores remain a fixture of shopping districts, while every large electronics store (and there are plenty of those, dominating most city centre areas) has a large videogames section – a stark contrast with, for example, central London, where actually going out and buying a videogame in a shop is an increasingly difficult task. Food courts and fast-food joints still play host to groups of children and teenagers engaged in the likes of Pokemon and Monster Hunter, and a trip outside in an urban area with a 3DS in your pocket will bag a full complement of Street Pass hits in no time flat.
Where’s the decline, then? Well, as figures released earlier this week by Japanese magazine publisher and industry data agency Enterbrain confirm, it’s not actually a decline so much as a stagnation. Enterbrain’s report, widely reported online after being translated in part by Kantan Games’ boss Serkan Toto on the company’s blog, showed that combined hardware and software sales in the first half of 2014 were almost exactly the same as the first half of 2013 – showing growth of just 0.1%. Toto’s entirely reasonable point was that this is much, much lower growth than Japan’s booming smartphone game market, yet this seems to have been picked up by many outlets as further confirmation of a Japanese gaming decline and specifically of a failure to ignite interest in the PS4.
Let’s be clear – the Japanese smartphone game market is in extraordinarily rude health. Revenues from mobile games, by some measures, surpassed packaged game revenue about three years ago and haven’t looked back since. For every person you see playing a 3DS or a Vita (the latter, I note, becoming vastly more commonplace on trains in recent months), you see dozens engrossed in mobile games. Puzzle & Dragons remains the clear favourite, but a trip on a busy Tokyo commuter line will turn up any number of different games gracing the ubiquitous smartphones. The industry’s revenues are clear to see, too; the vast majority of expensive marketing campaigns for games here are for mobile games, not console titles. Only last week I walked onto a train carriage on the phenomenally busy Yamanote loop line in central Tokyo to find that every advertising space in the carriage was full of Clash of Clans marketing; the huge billboard near my apartment, meanwhile, alternates fortnightly between ads for hopeful Puzzle & Dragons clones and ads for new singles by terrible boybands. There’s a huge amount of cash flowing through mobile games in Japan right now, and from a business perspective, that makes it a more interesting (if vastly more challenging) space than the console market.
Yet that doesn’t change the slowdown of Japan’s console market into a “decline” or a “crisis”. We all know that Japan has been ahead of the curve in terms of the adoption of videogames since the 1980s. 30 years down the line, is it surprising that it has hit a plateau? Gaming as a whole – including mobile, browser and online gaming – continues to grow at a massive rate, but in Japan at least, the console space has reached a point where there simply isn’t much new market to conquer. That may change in future as new devices open up new audiences, but console games as they stand don’t seem to have much further to go in Japan. That doesn’t make them a bad business. It means that if you want to make huge bucks and impress shareholders with your growth figures, you probably want to place your investments elsewhere – but if you want to make great games and make money selling them, a mature, stable market is no worse a place to do that than a growing one.
Moreover, when you consider the underlying factors in Japan’s economy, maintaining a steady market size is actually quite impressive. Japan’s population peaked in 2008 and has slowly declined since then; the most rapid decline being the proportion of young people (the most avid consumers of videogames). So this is a market with less “core” consumers of videogames than before; moreover, a series of ill-targeted reforms and a few decades of economic slump have meant that a very large proportion of those young people are trapped in low-paying work with no job security. Furthermore, Japan’s prices have been in slow but steady decline since the early 1990s. Yes, unlike most western economies, Japanese prices aren’t slowly rising due to inflation – rather, they’re falling due to deflation. This has supposedly been reversed in the past 12 months or so, with tiny inflation figures finally showing up, but most of the change so far has been down to a sharp rise in energy costs (a consequence of expensive imported fuels replacing Japan’s still-offline nuclear power plants) and it generally hasn’t been reflected in consumer goods.
One other economic factor has been mentioned by a handful of writers this week. They pointed out that Japan’s consumption tax went up from 5 per cent to 8 per cent in April, in the middle of this reporting period; if that 3 per cent hike were included in Enterbrain’s figures, it would mean industry revenues actually fell. However, to my knowledge Enterbrain’s numbers are based on pre-tax figures, much as US market data is, and thus the consumption tax rise isn’t a factor – except in that it would have been expected to push videogame sales down, thus making the rise slightly more impressive.
In short – Japan has less consumers for games and it’s charging less for things than it used to. Under those circumstances, a market which was performing precisely as well this year as it did last year would be expected to show a modest decline. Just staying still would mean you’d actually grown by a few percent in relative to offset the underlying audience decline and price deflation. Growing by 0.1% in Japan is comparable to growing by a couple of percent in the USA or much of Europe, where population is still generally growing and prices are being inflated, not deflated.
These factors don’t combine to mean that Japan is magically showing strong growth in defiance of the figures, but they are important to understanding what the figures mean. Japan’s “decline” is more like stagnation, and in the past year, even that stagnation has showed a positive trend. The market for consoles and games remains big and pretty healthy even as the market for smartphone games shoots through the roof; both of them clearly have an important place in the future of the country’s games industry.
As for the supposedly “disappointing” impact of the PlayStation 4? There’s no doubt that the performance of the console has slowed down significantly since a very strong launch, but it’s worth noting that sales of hardware were actually up nearly 7% year-on-year, with the PS4 and the resurgent Vita picking up slack from slower sales of the 3DS. PS4′s software line-up in Japan is still largely composed of western titles with limited appeal to the local audience, and the console probably won’t pick up significantly until more local software is available later this year – it’s notable that the PS Vita’s success in the first half of 2014 is largely attributable to the sudden arrival of software titles that match local tastes, and not (as some commentators would have it) to an upsurge of interest in PS4 Remote Play functionality. Overall, PS4 in Japan continues to perform as you’d expect for a new console with limited software – a great launch, followed by slow but steady sales while it awaits new software to spark purchases from new audiences. It’s done well, but it hasn’t “rescued” the Japanese market; but then again, if you take the time to understand the figures, it should be pretty clear that the Japanese market doesn’t actually need rescuing.
By 2017, mobile and online games could push worldwide gaming software revenues to $100 billion. That’s according to Digi-Capital’s latest Global Games Investment Review report, which said the mobile/online game market could make up a whopping 60 percent ($60 billion) of that total thanks to a compound annual growth rate of nearly 24 percent since 2011.
The firm found mobile was the main driver of record mergers and acquisitions activity in the last year, accounting for $4.6 billion of a record $12.5 billion in games M&A. The free-to-play MMO market was the next biggest driver with $4 billion in M&A business, followed by tech interests with $2.8 billion.
That total covers the last year, but most of it has come in 2014, with gaming M&A accounting for a record $6.6 billion in the first six months of the year alone. Even if 2014 didn’t see another penny added to that total, it would be a new full-year record as well, having already eclipsed the $5.6 billion in mergers and acquisitions recorded for the entirety of 2013.
Digi-Capital offered a number of reasons for the increase of M&A activity beyond the simple attraction of massive growth in the field. The firm also said some acquirers were interested in “stopping mobile insurgents from eating their lunch,” indicating the Zynga pick-up of Natural Motion would fall under that category. It also said companies established in one region are looking to buy strength in a different part of the world (as with Softbank’s majority stake acquisition of Supercell), and lukewarm or delayed IPOs for a handful of companies in the market have made recent valuations seem like good bargains.