The TV vendors are under pressure to come up with new reasons for consumers to buy new sets, as global LCD TV shipments declined for the first time ever in 2012, according to NPD DisplaySearch. Along with developments such as smart TVs and 4K resolution, LG is hoping the curved screen will differentiate its products from the competition and help build its brand.
LG has been developing the underlying technology for more than five years to get the curvature right. The entire screen surface on the 55EA9800 can be equidistant from viewers eyes if they sit in exactly the right spot, “eliminating the problem of screen-edge visual distortion and loss of detail,” according to LG.
The set is only 4.3 millimeters thick and and weighs about 17 kilograms. But all that comes at a price: the TV will cost about $13,500, according to LG.
The set will become available in other parts of the world, as well. Timing and pricing in markets outside of South Korea will be announced in the months ahead, the company said.
The market for OLED TVs is will be small one, according to NPD DisplaySearch. The company expects it will take until 2015 before more that 2 million sets are shipped, and in 2016 about 7 million [m] units are expected to be shipped. That compares to the 233 million TVs that were shipped worldwide last year.
Amazon.com Inc has managed to snag more than a fifth of the market for digital music downloads, helped by the launch of its own tablet computers and aggressive pricing, according to an industry study released on Tuesday.
AmazonMP3, the online retailer’s digital music business, had 22 percent of the market for music downloads in the United States in last year’s fourth quarter, research firm the NPD Group said in its Annual Music Study.
That compares with 15 percent in 2011, 13 percent in 2010, 10 percent in 2009 and 7 percent in 2008, NPD data showed.
Apple Inc’s iTunes store, which turns 10 years old on April 28, was still dominant with 63 percent of the market in the fourth quarter of 2012. But that was down from 68 percent in 2011 and 69 percent in 2009, according to NPD.
“Amazon’s entry into tablets probably helped,” said Russ Crupnick, senior vice president, industry analysis, at NPD Group.
Amazon launched its own tablet, the Kindle Fire, in 2011, and last year the company rolled out larger versions of the device to compete more with Apple’s iPad.
Amazon is using the Kindle Fire to try to sell more digital goods, such as music, video, apps and games, where iTunes leads.
Amazon, known for low prices, has also taken that approach in music downloads, running frequent price promotions to spur more sales. In 2011, the company offered Lady Gaga’s album “Born This Way” for 99 cents in MP3 format. Demand was so strong that Amazon’s computer servers stalled, forcing the company to run the promotion again a few days later.
Amazon has also benefited from a large base of consumers who buy physical CDs from the retailer. As those shoppers switch to digital music, the company has managed to keep many of them as customers, Crupnick explained.
Amazon sells digital music without Digital Rights Management, or DRM, a technology that limits how people can consume such content. The company’s DRM-free approach boosted demand because it let consumers listen to music on any devices, including Apple devices like iPods and iPhones, Crupnick said.
Video game research firm EEDAR, which already has a proprietary database of over 100 million internally researched data points from more than 90,000 physical, digital, mobile, and social game products, is gearing up for the launch of a new service to assist mobile and social developers. EEDAR said that its new suite of mobile. Tablet and social products will aim “to improve sales potential and game quality for titles utilizing in-app monetization.”
EEDAR said that one of the most important things a developer can do is to optimize a game before launch. “EEDAR is able to provide an assessment at any point during the development cycle and accurately project key performance measurements of the final product, in addition to a qualitative assessment that provides feedback from the perspective of a professional game critic and consumers,” the company said about its new product suite.
Jesse Divnich, VP of Insights at EEDAR, to get an overview of the key takeaways from the firm’s research on the mobile and social markets. Divnich stressed that developers must be prepared with their in-game monetization strategy for retention and boosting conversion rates before a title is released into an app store.
“When the mobile game market was emerging, developers could optimize key monetization features after a game’s launch. The onboarding acquisition process had a long tail. Today, due to competition and larger consumer awareness, the time to peak engagement is rapidly shortening,” he noted.
“Facebook/Social games are a perfect example. Games like Farmville took nearly a year before they reached their peak users. It gave Zynga ample enough time to adjust game features to increase engagement monetization rates. Now, Social games are peaking within weeks and this idea of always being in ‘beta’ quickly shows its weaknesses when you are onboarding the majority of your lifetime users in only a few weeks,” he continued. “The mobile market is beginning to reach that point. Mobile games are making more headlines, consumers are becoming aware of hit titles faster. Simply put, consumers are engaging mobile games closer to a game’s release date and sleeper hits are becoming less prevalent.”
Even getting highlighted by Apple doesn’t mean what it used to. Developers can squander a great opportunity if they don’t make an effort to optimize. “Being featured by Apple no longer means weeks or months on the top charts. At most you have seven days and if your title is not fully optimized, you will leave money on the table,” Divnich added. “Going forward, developers must ensure they’re launching with maximum optimization, both from an artistic and scientific perspective. This means dedicating more resources to pre-launch analytics and qualitative testing.”
So what are some other notable mistakes developers are making? Well, mimicry certainly isn’t helping. Just because something works in one game doesn’t mean it can be successfully “borrowed” for a different game.
“There are still a large chunk of developers that are still too short-sighted. Clash of Clans has been a top seller for a few months and nearly 50 percent of the concepts and vertical slices that come across my desk in some way or another have an 80 percent overlap of Clash of Clans’ engagement loop. After we perform our assessments, some developers are disappointed to learn their retention, conversion, and monetization rates potential are a fraction of the results Clash of Clans has produced,” observed Divnich.
Even if your game is successful at the start, retention is a real problem, as it’s hard to create a game that has legs. “Competition within the mobile markets is at its fiercest, and every week there are at least seven high-quality releases trying to fight for our attention. The increase in competition, media coverage, and consumer awareness has driven down retention rates, for some genres, to dangerously low levels,” Divnich explained.
The key, he said, is to drive connectivity with a very attractive multiplayer component. “Right now, the tried and true method for improving retention has been multiplayer and social features. The correlation between retention rates and the inclusion of multiplayer and social features is ridiculously high,” Divnich noted. “We do issue caution, however. Just because games with strong multiplayer and social support sell well doesn’t mean slapping on a multiplayer component will automatically make your game a success.”
“We’ve seen this trend occur in the traditional HD gaming space. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare created a multiplayer frenzy and everyone thought by cuffing on a multiplayer component their game, too, would be a success. While it helped for some, those that tacked it on were met with lukewarm or disappointing reception. We still encourage our developers to implement new ways of approaching multiplayer and social features, but how they are implemented is key to improving retention rates,” he continued.
While the mobile/tablet space is getting all the attention these days, and social gaming on Facebook has seen sharp declines, that doesn’t mean developers should automatically ignore the social space. There can be opportunities there as well, especially if developers optimize their titles.
“The social platform is still viable and profitable for many developers,” Divnich remarked. “Two years ago developers were fanatic about releasing on the social platform, but they oversaturated the market. There was too much choice in a market, there were no switching barriers for consumers, and there existed too many rip-offs of the standard Farmville or Bejeweled engagement loop. Additionally, Facebook couldn’t keep up with the demand for innovation. Being a platform where consumers violently resist change (e.g. Timeline), it’s difficult to support new tools and back-end features for developers without changing the whole experience altogether.”
“Developers can still be profitable on social platforms, but we certainly approach that space more cautiously,” he concluded.
It was a better than expected quarter that capped off a record year for Activision. The fourth quarter brought in $2.6 billion in revenue, compared to analyst estimates of $2.44 billion. The company came within spitting distance of $5 billion in revenue for the year ($4.987 billion, to be precise), which is amazing for a company that’s not manufacturing console hardware. The downside of this performance: Activision is already telling us it won’t happen again in 2013, with the company projecting results substantially lower for this year (at $4.175 billion). Will the company see growth again, or was 2012 the highest point it will ever reach?
CEO Bobby Kotick praised the company’s performance: “We achieved record fourth quarter and annual results. And in 2012, on a non-GAAP basis, we generated approximately $5 billion in revenues, a 34 per cent operating margin and EPS growth of 27 per cent over the prior year. We increased our operating cash flow by 41 percent.” It’s extremely impressive; Activision continues to manage its properties well in a horrible retail environment.
Kotick also provided some other info to show Activision’s dominance. “In the US and Europe, we were the #1 video game publisher at retail, we’re the #1 title overall, the #1 console title and the #1 PC title.” Kotick also threw in the following: “We’re also the #1 independent Western Digital game publisher and had the #1 subscription-based MMORPG.”
Notice the exceptionally careful phrasing here, to conveniently exclude Chinese, Korean and Japanese publishers, as well as Russia’s Wargaming.net. And being the #1 subscription-based MMORPG isn’t saying much, given that almost every other MMORPG these days is free-to-play. The lily is already pretty damn impressive; there’s really no need to add gilding.
The rapid growth of Skylanders was given some special attention. “Skylanders, our newest franchise, which is both toys and video games, has life-to-date sold in excess of $100 million toys and generated revenues of approximately $1 billion. This week, Activision Publishing revealed the third game in the Skylanders franchise for holiday 2013. And while there are new entrants in the category and challenges from slower than expected adoption of the Wii U, we remain enthusiastic about Skylanders’ future prospects.”
First we had EA’s CEO saying the Wii U wasn’t a next-generation console, and now Activision’s CEO is calling out the Wii U for slow sales. Nintendo doesn’t appear to be getting much love from third-party publishers in the West.
Kotick then sounded a cautionary note: “We recognized that 2013 is a transition year, as we enter the ninth year of the current generation of console video game systems. We encounter new threats from unproven business models, and we compete against new category entrants. We aren’t immune to unfavorable market dynamics, but we have navigated through the transitions many times before, and we are well prepared to do so again.”
If a business model is unproven, how is it a threat exactly? Isn’t it a threat if it’s doing really well, which in some sense proves that it (or at least that instantiation) works, doesn’t it? Perhaps what Kotick is saying is that there are business models (like free-to-play) which are working damnably well, but unfortunately Activision hasn’t used those models, so they (to Activision’s experience) are unproven. Let’s simplify this: If it’s working well enough to be a threat, shouldn’t Activision at least be experimenting with it?
CFO Dennis Durkin looked ahead to this year’s prospects: “Our product lineup is expected to be anchored by 4 of our top franchises: Call of Duty, Skylanders, World of Warcraft and StarCraft. It will also be a year of significant continued investment in several new properties with long-term potential that are not factored into our 2013 financial outlook, including Activision Publishing’s new Bungie universe, Call of Duty Online for China and the new Blizzard MMO.” That could mean none of those new titles will ship this year. Or perhaps one or more might ship, but Activision isn’t sure, and doesn’t want to count revenue that may not materialize.
Durkin went on to say: “For the full year 2012, Diablo III contributed more than $0.20 of EPS on a standalone basis. This year, our outlook for Blizzard includes the release of the StarCraft II expansion pack, Heart of the Swarm, in March and one additional title. For Call of Duty, consistent with our past practices, we are planning for the mainline release in Q4 to be down versus 2012.”
Activision reached peak sales of Call of Duty two years ago, and expects this year to be lower once again than last year. When you’re coming out with a new version of the game every year, it’s hard to keep posting record numbers. New consoles might help, but they will probably be too late in the year to matter much even if Activision does have a version of Call of Duty ready for them.
Why won’t new consoles matter much for 2013? Let’s look at the numbers. Assuming a new console ships in November, it’s unlikely to sell more than a couple of million units by the end of the year; let’s say it’s an amazing success and sells 5 million. Selling a game to half of those buyers would be incredible; that would be 2.5 million units. When a Call of Duty title can sell nearly ten times that amount, you can see why it’s not reasonable to expect new consoles to help Activision’s numbers significantly. Sure, they might, if absolutely everything goes well. But companies like to be a little conservative on their projections to give themselves a good chance to beat the numbers. Investors like it when companies beat their numbers.
Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime then gave some color on his products: “World of Warcraft added more than 9.6 million players, down slightly from the previous quarter. The majority of the decline came from China, while subscribership in the West was relatively more stable.” Later, Morhaime added: “With respect to China, in spite of the decline in subscribership, it is important to note that the engagement levels of the core items did increase with the launch of the expansions and I think that, that suggests increased engagement by our core players.”
So WoW subscriber numbers are shrinking, but the remaining players are more engaged. To some extent, this is acceptable if overall revenue can remain constant or even rise if virtual goods sales are high enough among the remaining players, and they stay subscribed longer. At some point, though, if subscriber numbers keep falling overall revenue will drop. The key information here is that World of Warcraft has apparently already burned through the boost it got from Mists of Pandaria, and is back to losing subscribers (at least in China), but the rate of erosion isn’t too alarming. Yet.
One of the analysts asked whether development costs will rise for titles destined for next-gen consoles. Kotick was straightforward: “This is my 22nd year doing this, and in every single console transition, we’ve seen an increase in development costs.” Margin improvement for next-gen titles is going to depend on selling more DLC, not on reducing development costs. Until next-gen consoles are in tens of millions of households, revenue from next-gen titles will be lower than current-gen titles – and development costs will be higher. That’s not a good combination.
Activision’s stock has mostly hovered between $10.50 and $12.50 for the past several years, though after yesterday’s report it’s shot up to $13.41, a gain of over 11 per cent. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has a long-term target of $19 for Activision stock, which is above the stock’s high point five years ago. It’s difficult to see how the stock gets there unless gaming stocks in general become more well-received by investors. Perhaps if new consoles launch strongly, and Bungie’s new game is a smash hit, and everything goes well…
Meanwhile the general message of this earnings report is that Activision is being careful with major strategy moves. Activision is still merely dabbling in mobile games, and doesn’t expect them to be a significant contribution to the company in the coming year. So far, the company is resisting moving World of Warcraft over to a free-to-play model; that may be wise given that such a changeover doesn’t always work well. Where’s the chance for major growth? Bungie’s new title, the new Blizzard MMO, and Call of Duty in China, that’s where. There are questions about all of them, of course. Will Bungie’s title pull in a significantly different audience than Call of Duty, or will it cannibalize that game’s players? Will Blizzard’s MMO merely move players over from World of Warcraft, or will it attract a significant new audience? Will Chinese players really turn out in big numbers for Call of Duty Online?
Looming over all of these questions is the long-term viability of the console market, and whether the new consoles coming from Sony and Microsoft will revive the console game business to the heights of 2008. Activision is in great shape right now, with billions of dollars in cash and four great brands that generate amazing sales. Of those four brands, three are getting pretty long in the tooth; can they perform at their current levels, or will they continue to decline slowly? The success of new consoles may be critical to Activision’s future. The company may choose to diversify with acquisitions, or it may keep the cash tucked away for a rainy day or a larger strategic acqusition.
Activision’s had a great 2012, and 2013 looks pretty good. The company’s longer-term picture depends mostly on how the console market continues, and how the MMOG market evolves along with Activision’s products in that area. Mobile doesn’t appear to have big potential for Activision yet. The other potential big mover for Activision is a major acquisition, like, say, Take-Two. Activision has enough cash to make such a purchase, or some other large strategic move. We’ll have to keep watching to see how that strategy game might play out.
For now, at least, Activision expects to have sales lower than last year’s level. Growth is only going to happen in 2014 and beyond if Activision’s new projects can do well, and new consoles do well, and existing brands don’t fade too quickly. When you’re at the top of the mountain, climbing higher is difficult. Perhaps the Skylands offer a path higher…
There is no “perfect answer” to doing business with video games. Let’s call a halt to the pointless “zero-sum” debates that blighted 2012
A day in which you learn nothing is a day wasted; by which standard, a year in which we learned nothing would be a pointless waste of time indeed. It’s worth, as 2012 draws to a close (all that’s left now is the few days of indulgence before the year, in harmony with our waistbands, croaks its last), thinking about what we’ve learned. What did 2012 teach us that we did not before? Never mind, for a moment, the money we earned or lost, the games we played or made; did we grow? Did we advance? Did we learn?
From a business standpoint, certainly, we learned a great deal. 2012 cemented the place of mobile in the gaming ecosystem, forcing all but the most ardent refuseniks (so Nintendo and… er… that’s about it) to recognise mobile as an important part of their business – and even those who were slow to react to the rise of mobile gaming seem determined not to be left behind as tablets gain steam, with 2012 having shown us pretty clearly that the iPad and its myriad imitators are on track to become the primary data device of many consumers in the coming years.
We also learned some things – although not enough, I reckon – about where price points are heading. Freed of the artificial barriers to entry which define console platforms and physical retail, the App Store and Google Play have shown us where prices for digital content will inevitably trend towards – zero. In 2012, more entertaining, successful games than ever before launched at the princely price point of absolutely nothing. Plenty of others didn’t debut at far above 99p, and several of my favourite games of the year would have given me change from a £10 note. Free to play, with all that it entails, remains in its infancy, but is clearly going to be with us for the long haul; hopefully 2013 might be the year when the industry stops having ill-tempered hissy fits about this fact, and starts engaging with making F2P work better rather than loudly and pointlessly damning or exalting it at every turn.
That, perhaps, is a reasonable lead-in to something that I don’t think we learned this year, as an industry – we didn’t learn to stop being afraid of zero-sum games that don’t really exist. Discussions about mobile gaming, even among supposed professionals and experts, often descend into abject ridiculousness due to an insistence that mobile games will come to replace all other kinds of games, or that they are doomed to be a cynical, low-quality niche – neither of which position stands up to the slightest moment of intellectual scrutiny. The same applies to the vitriolic arguments about free-to-play which have washed over and back across 2012 like a stinking, polluted tide – when one side insists that everything will eventually be F2P, and the other insists that F2P is intrinsically evil and wrong, you’re no longer dealing with professional debate, but with dumb fanaticism.
I’m not saying, by the way, that we should all be cautious fence-sitters – there’s no virtue to sitting on the fence simply because it’s comfortable. Strong beliefs are good, but meaningless unless tempered by reason and fact. The fact is that cinema did not kill theatre, television did not kill cinema, video games have yet to viciously murder books, home recording did not kill music and video did not kill the radio star. Media and entertainment industries are ecosystems that accommodate an extraordinary range of different kinds of product and different business models – and that is not ever going to change. The idea that one form of entertainment, one form of business model or even one form of distribution will emerge to Rule Them All, is simply an idiot’s fantasy.
I say that with absolute confidence, not just because it is supported by countless years of history and the sheer wealth of culture and entertainment they have bequeathed to us, but because I recognise where the belief springs from. It’s the unique curse and blessing of the games industry that it teems with “left-brained” people – logical, analytical, mathematical, and quite different from the “right-brained” people who often dominate other creative industries. Video games were born with both feet firmly in the sphere of technology, only gradually moving to straddle the worlds of both technology and art – a marriage which is superbly creative but often fraught, as evidenced by the hissing recoil of many gamers and industry types alike when presented with the (stonkingly obvious) fact that games are an artform.
Left-brain people (yes, modern psychology dismisses this terminology, but it’s so much more polite than grouping you all as “geeks” and “arty types”, isn’t it?) love perfect answers. They like problems which have a correct solution, and see the world in those terms. In many industries, they’re perfect business leaders – there absolutely is a single most efficient way to extract oil or metal from the ground, to build an aircraft, to lay out a road or rail network. In entertainment, though, the idea of a “perfect” solution runs into a huge set of problems which utterly stump the left-brained – sentiment. Emotion. Irrationality. Sheer outright bloody-mindedness.
The fact is – nobody needs entertainment. Not really. If video games, films, books, music, plays, TV shows, paintings and sculptures all disappeared tomorrow, we’d be a much diminished species, but nobody would die. People need shelter, food, clothing, transport, protection, fuel – but entertainment is “discretionary”. It says so right there in your accounts. It’s spending at your discretion – and what that means is that it’s spending guided not by optimisation, but by sentiment.
Is free-to-play the most efficient way for money and experiences to change hands between developer and player? Is mobile or tablet gaming the most cost-effective route for consumers to engage with video games? Yeah, maybe – but what so few of us seem to really grasp is that this doesn’t actually matter. Is MP3 music the perfect balance of quality, convenience and file size? Probably – but vinyl shops thrive and specialist services offering “lossless” quality music files are on the rise. Is Kindle the best way to consume books? Yes, undoubtedly – but I don’t think of myself “consuming” books. Some books I just read; some I own; some I treasure. Sentiment; emotion; irrationality. I went to a shop and bought a leather-backed volume of a book I already own in paperback and Kindle alike. I’ll probably never read it. I love it. Am I an idiot, failing to see that this is not the optimal consumption path and bound to realise the error of my ways eventually? No, because this is my discretion; this is how I choose to enjoy and to spend on my pastime.
That’s why the zero-sum game will never come to pass – not as the strident debaters of 2012 believed. A very large number of consumers will still want things like dedicated gaming hardware, expensive full-price releases and physical products, not because this makes “sense” in an economic or logical way, but because they love those things and because, beyond straightforward questions of affordability, “economic sense” isn’t a welcome guest in deliberations about your hobbies and your passions.
The industry evolves and changes – never as rapidly as it did in 2012, though 2013 will probably make our heads spin just as fast – but little is truly lost. We don’t sell petrol, or sliced bread, or concrete, or train tickets. We sell experiences and emotions, and people will choose to consume those in the way that makes them feel best, not the way that is most coldly, mathematically efficient. Nobody fears that releasing Shakespeare adaptations on DVD will shut down theatres, or that allowing buskers onto the streets will eventually lead to concert halls being demolished. It’s time that we, too, learned that the expansion of the games business leads to more opportunities and more diversity, not to an existential threat to things we love – or worse, a chance to gloat over the imagined demise of things we hate. If you’ve got one new years resolution to make for 2013, make it this one – no more zero-sum arguments. Mobile won’t kill console. F2P won’t kill full-price. Cloud won’t kill local. The forest grows ever bigger; the old tree doesn’t block the sunlight from the new trees, the new trees do not strangle the roots of the old.
It appears that Activision, too, is suffering from a leak before its planned release. The Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has started showing up in all of the usual places in advance of the title’s upcoming official release. The title’s leak onto the Internet is similar to what we saw with Halo 4; and once again, we can expect Microsoft to come down hard on those who are playing the game early.
As with Halo 4, we are also seeing live streams of Black Ops 2. While Activision isn’t talking, sources tell us that the company is actively engaged in seeking out who might have been responsible for the leak. In addition, word of early sales of the game has also been talked about, with consumers saying they have been able to purchase the game ahead of its release in Slovakia.
The studio, which will be run under the Microsoft Studio’s banner, will report into Phil Harrison, corporate VP of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business in the EMEA region, and will have a focus on developing for Windows 8 tablets. Apparently because, well, someone has to.
“I’m hugely excited by this new venture,” said Schuneman. “Adding a fourth UK based studio to the incredible roster of talent already in place across Rare, Soho Productions and Lionhead not only increases our in-region studio presence, but will allow Microsoft Studios to explore the many creative and business opportunities that developing new games and entertainment experiences on Windows 8 tablet devices and platforms will afford.”
Schuneman will not be the only person working there of course, and Microsoft said that it is running a recruitment drive for other staffers. Anyone that is hired will work on “entertainment as a service” releases, which should fun, and focus on the aforementioned Windows 8 on tablets.
Work at the studio is expected to start in November.
The NPD Group has sent its August retail sales report for the US market, and once again it was not a pretty sight, as total industry sales dropped 20 percent to $515.6 million. Total software sales (including PC retail software) dropped 11 percent to $252.8 million while hardware sales declined a sizable 39 percent to $150.6 million. Accessories were also down seven percent to $127.3 million.
“The current hardware systems are showing their age, so it goes without saying that it would be great to have new systems breathe life into traditional retail industry sales,” said NPD industry analyst Anita Frazier. “I am anxious to learn more about the Wii U launch later this month. And with any luck we will hear news about other systems on the horizon.”
While software sales weren’t good, Frazier noted some encouraging news about the market starting to stabilize.
“Within software, the high definition platforms posted only a slight 1 percent decline in dollar sales as compared to last August, pointing to a stabilization in that portion of the retail market for games content,” she said.
“One factor contributing to the softness we have seen in retail content sales so far in 2012 has been the decline in the sheer number of new titles. This, however, was not the case in August because there were more new titles when compared to last year; titles with sales that were significantly better than last year’s launches. So, what we’re seeing impact August results is the domino effect of the light release schedule from earlier in the year. That lack of new releases has had a significant impact on subsequent month’s sales,” she continued.
As NPD now does every month, the firm reminded us that this report is only one piece of the total games industry revenue pie.
“These sales figures represent new physical retail sales of hardware, software and accessories, which account for roughly 50% of the total consumer spend on games,” Frazier noted.
“When you consider our preliminary estimate for other physical format sales in August such as used and rentals at $104MM, and our estimate for digital format sales including full game and add-on content downloads including microtransactions, subscriptions, mobile apps and the consumer spend on social network games at $391MM, we would estimate the total consumer spend in August to be $989MM. Our final assessment of the consumer spend in these areas outside of new physical retail sales will be reported in November in our Q3 Games Market Dynamics: U.S. report.”
“The CPU and GPU capabilities of mobile devices will reach Xbox 360 levels of graphical fidelity and processing power within the next generation,” Canessa said.
“Activision will be creating a mix of casual and immersive gaming experiences on mobile, but as I say smartphones are more and more allowing for us to create those kinds of experiences. The games that Activision publishes on console, the games it publishes on PC, pretty soon we’ll be publishing those kinds of experiences on tablets and smartphones.”
Canessa explained that Activision is all-in when it comes to mobile development and is bringing some of its biggest IP to the table.
“We have about 350 different brands and IPs to work with. That’s legacy IP, that’s triple-A IP and that’s licences with other companies. We want to create mobile games from all of these aspects of the Activision portfolio, and build a variety of experiences,” he said.
“I would definitely say that one of our competitive advantages is the strength of our brands. The creation of new IP is expensive, and when you consider how much money we spend on marketing our IP, we can apply that halo effect to our mobile properties. You are going to continue to see us take advantage of our big marketing campaigns to help our mobile products too.”
Activision is also betting big on mobile development talent in the UK.
“What I will say is that we are in the UK to hire the best talent in the mobile space. If you look at the UK development community, some of the world’s best handheld and mobile game developers are there. That’s the talent we want to hire.”
In an interesting turn of events, it would appear that Need for Speed: Most Wanted, due to be released soon from Electronic Arts and developer Criterion, will apparently offer more than just Kinect support.
The latest box art that we are seeing for the PlayStation 3 version of the game indicates that it also offers Move support. The box art indicates that it is “PlayStation Move Compatible,” which seems to indicate that it has been included.
While the Kinect support was indicated in the first wave of box art for the game, we were unable to see indications of support for PlayStation Move. So far, Electronic Arts and Criterion have remained quiet on what support might be included beyond the typical use of the controller. We suspect that we will hear something more official when we get a little closer to release.
According to The NPD Group, US games business continued its downward slide for 2012 during the month of July. Total game industry sales diminished 20 percent to $548.4 million and software sales (including PC) were down 23 percent to $278.2 million.
“These sales figures represent new physical retail sales of hardware, software and accessories, which account for roughly 50 percent of the total consumer spend on games. When you consider our preliminary estimate for other physical format sales in July such as used and rentals at $117MM, and our estimate for digital format sales including full game and add-on content downloads including microtransactions, subscriptions, mobile apps and the consumer spend on social network games at $439MM, we would estimate the total consumer spend in July to be $1.1B,” said NPD industry analyst Anita Frazier.
“Our final assessment of the consumer spend in these areas outside of new physical retail sales will be reported in November in our Q3 Games Market Dynamics: U.S. report.”
While July was a down month in what has been a down year, Frazier says there’s reason to be optimistic in the near term.
“Looking forward to August, the launch of the 3DS XL coupled with New Super Mario Bros. 2 should bring a nice boost to the performance of the new physical retail channel. While August is typically ‘Madden Month’, Madden NFL ’13 launches on August 28th which falls into the September reporting period. So, like last year, Madden will impact September results instead of August,” she said.
“New physical retail sales of games hardware, software and accessories traditionally follows a very reliable seasonality pattern. Based on year to date sales, and taking into account the release slate for the back five months of the year as well as the anticipated launch of the Wii U, annual sales for the new physical channel should come in around $14.5B for the year.”
Hardware shrunk 32 percent year-on-year to $150.7 million and Frazier noted that it affected almost every piece of hardware across the board.
“Of the hardware platforms that were on the market last July, only one, the 3DS, realized a unit sales increase over last year. Both the DS and the 3DS, however, realized a month-over-month unit sales increase over June 2012 while the other platforms declined,” she said.
As expected, NCAA Football 13 was the leading seller for the month that saw few new releases. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, The Amazing Spider-Man and Batman: Arkham City were all in the top five, showing the boost the Summer movies The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises are giving to their complementary video games. Just Dance 3 reentered the top five at number four, while Diablo III (a top seller the past two months) fell completely out of the top 10.
“On a SKU ranking, Pokemon Conquest is among the top 10 in sales for the month of July,” noted Frazier. “The top ten games ranking includes several games that launched a number of months ago such as Batman Arkham City and Dead Island, which both received a boost in sales due to the release of Game of the Year editions. Looking forward to August, besides the launch of New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the 3DS, it will be interesting to see the performance of Sleeping Dogs which is new IP that has garnered a fair amount of buzz.”
Accessories are bucking the overall trend of the industry, up 8 percent to $136.9 million.
“Accessories was the only category up in both dollars and units for the month, driven by increases in points and subscriptions game cards as well as the Skylanders character packs,” she said. “Between the characters that are packaged with the Skylanders game and the sales of the separate character packs, over 25 million individual Skylanders figures have been sold through at retail in the U.S. since the launch of the game in October 2011.”
EA has settled a class action lawsuit that claimed its exclusive rights to NFL Football were an illegal monopoly. The $27 million settlement means a restriction on further exclusive deals between EA and the NCAA, and a minimal refund for consumers.
Kotaku reports EA now has a five year ban on signing another exclusive deal with the NCAA. This doesn’t mean that when its current deal ends in 2014 EA can’t continue to make titles like its mega hit Madden, it just can’t do it exclusively.
Meanwhile the $27 million will go to consumers who bought an NFL, NFLPA. NCAA or AFL title after 2005, and on Xbox 360, Wii or PS3 and those who bought a game on PS2, GameCube or Xbox, who can claim either $1.95 or $6.79 respectively.
Analyst Michael Pachter thought it seemed unlikely this would mean a sudden surge in new American sports titles from other publishers.
“Take-Two Interactive was burned by Major League Baseball, and only Konami and Take-Two make sports games (soccer and NBA, respectively),” he told GamesBeat.
“Nobody wants to compete with [Electronic Arts].”
The lawsuit was filed in July 2008, and open to all who had purchased a Madden NFL, NCAA Football, or Arena Football League between January 1 2005 and the present.
“Plaintiffs in the case are purchasers of Electronic Arts football video games, and they claim that Defendant Electronic Arts entered into a series of exclusive licenses with the National Football League (NFL), National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), and Arena Football League (AFL), which plaintiffs claim foreclosed competition in an alleged football video game market.”
In 2011 EA renegotiated its exclusive NFL Madden deal, reportedly requesting a $30 million reduction in the price because of disputes between the NFL and its players.
Vivendi chief executive Jean-Bernard Levy stepped down last month amidst growing concerns about the company’s debt and flagging share price. One of the rumored ways that Vivendi could bolster its financial position is to sell off its 60 percent stake in video game behemoth Activision Blizzard, and today more fuel has been added to that fire, as Reuters has reported that Vivendi is now actively testing the waters.
“It’s nothing official yet, but they’ve asked a bank to go and talk to possible buyers for Activision,” said a source close to the Vivendi board, according to the report.
The idea is that by selling Activision Blizzard the French media conglomerate could raise about $10 billion. Those who may be interested include cash-rich firms like China’s Tencent, media giant Time Warner, Microsoft, as well as private-equity heavyweights KKR, Providence and Blackstone, according to banking sources.
There already is an existing relationship between Tencent and Activision as the two recently announced a partnership to offer Call of Duty as a free-to-play online game in China. The report notes, however, that buying Activision outright may not make sense for Tencent and its very different business model.
“They have two big franchises, Call of Duty on the console side and World of Warcraft on the MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) side. And China is not a big market for console businesses; online games are much bigger for various reasons,” said a banker.
Microsoft, on the other hand, may want to add some more blockbuster IP to its arsenal on Xbox, and making Call of Duty 100 percent Xbox exclusive is likely appealing, but the company may not want to invest so much when it’s gearing up to launch a next-gen console in the next year or so.
“They probably don’t want to distract themselves too much, but they are the ones who, if they want to stay in games, would think about owning some of these big franchises, not just providing the consoles,” a banker source said.
Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter recently said that Vivendi is more likely to spin off Activision than selling the gaming firm outright.
For over three years, only one tablet product has gained traction with the mainstream: Apple’s phenomenal iPad. Niche challengers have come and gone, while heavyweights including RIM, Sony, Samsung and Motorola have all singularly failed to make any kind of impact on Apple’s stranglehold on the market. Now the Cupertino giant’s closest rivals have finally woken up: Microsoft and Google are both rolling out the big guns with the upcoming releases of Surface and the Nexus 7.
There’s little doubt that the iPad has defined the prerequisites of a mainstream-focused tablet, and to a certain extent both of these challengers are “me too” products. Each is based on the notions of a slick, user-friendly interface, capacitive touch-screens, and low-power integrated processors paired with large batteries to provide stamina in the 8-10 hour range – the defining elements of the iPad.
However, the differences between the products are interesting in that they illustrate exactly where Apple’s challengers believe its weaknesses are: the question really is whether these perceived deficiencies are enough to really open up the market.
Google’s approach is intriguing: with the Nexus 7, it has staked a claim to the value end of the market, looking to offer an approximate high-end experience in a package that is a fraction of the cost of the $500 top-end “New iPad” and half the price of the $400 iPad 2. Google’s tablet miniaturises the experience onto a 7-inch, IPS 1280×800 screen that cuts some corners on brightness and colour reproduction but crams a lot of pixels into a small enough area to give something approaching Retina fidelity.
Elsewhere, all the core functionality you would expect from a tablet is present and correct, while more extravagant elements that have somehow become a standard on more expensive tablets have been stripped out – so there is no rear-mounted camera for example, no HDMI output – and only a single microUSB port.
Only 8GB and 16GB SKUs are planned and there is no support at all for cellular connectivity – Google’s strategy seems to be in attracting the value-conscious and tablet newcomers, and perhaps convince them to upgrade when the time is right to another Android tablet. The Nexus 7 is produced by Asus, and the Nexus 7 comes across to a certain extent as a “gateway” product to the firm’s more expensive offerings.
Microsoft’s Surface has no pretensions in masking the “me too” elements of its design. Although it has opted for a widescreen display over the iPad’s 4:3 screen, there’s little doubt that it aims for the premium side of the market in exactly the same way as the Apple tablet, with its high-end magnesium finish and weight/dimension advantages over the current generation iPad. At its presentation for the device, a huge amount of focus was put into the kickstand – curious, as it suggests that Microsoft believes that a great deal of tablet-time is spent near some kind of static, flat surface that it can rest upon.
But the true point of difference that Microsoft is banking on is Windows 8 and everything it represents: specifically functionality, productivity and the ubiquity of the OS on other devices. A fully featured USB port means that virtually any peripheral can be run from the tablet – printers, storage drives – with standard Windows drivers being used to run them. The Touch and Type covers in combination with Microsoft Office potentially offer Surface RT a level of functionality well beyond what the iPad offers, in a pleasingly integrated manner.
Traditional, native x86 Windows programs won’t work on the Surface RT however, and therein lies one of Microsoft’s biggest challenges: building its own version of Apple’s walled garden app store. Having failed comprehensively with Windows Phone 7, Microsoft desperately needs to create transaction infrastructure that rivals Google Play and iTunes. Just a couple of months from launch, there are still some question marks over the Metro marketplace and the level of support it will attract.
Of course, the advantage Microsoft has is the sheer proliferation of Windows on traditional computers and laptops. The next version of the desktop OS features support for Metro apps, along with the compatibility with traditional x86 binaries missing from the RT tablet. The same core kernel is deployed on all devices, be they tablet, smartphone, laptop or desktop – representing an unprecedented level of convergence.
In this respect, Microsoft is well ahead of Apple: there have been rumours for some time that iOS and OSX would merge, or overlap more overtly at some point, but Windows 8 manages to pull that off successfully in the here and now. It’s a state of affairs reflected in the Surface hardware too. While the RT tablet has access to Metro apps only, the Surface Pro – running Intel ultra-low voltage CPUs – is effectively an Ultrabook class PC squeezed down into a tablet form factor just a little heavier and thicker than the New iPad. It supports Metro while running traditional apps and games (albeit less demanding ones owing to the Intel integrated GPU). Most tantalising of all, the integration of powerful x86 hardware into the tablet form factor is hugely compelling – in a stroke, Microsoft not only provides an intriguing alternative to the iPad, but it is also taking on the Macbook Air too.
All of which suggests that maybe – just maybe – Apple will be facing its first serious challenges: Google with its value approach on one side and a direct attack from the full power of the Windows brand on the other. It’ll certainly make life interesting – definitely from a tech writer’s point of view – but it’s difficult to place any kind of bet against the company that has essentially defined this fledgling market. Apple wins not only through its combination of a power brand, product quality and a beautiful user interface, but also in terms of the most crucial factor of all: content.
In this regard, Android still falls short, while Windows 8 – in terms of Metro apps, at least – remains a completely unknown quantity. From a gaming perspective, Apple has invested significantly in creating the most attractive ecosystem for games developers. Market fragmentation is an issue (New iPad is immensely more powerful than the original, 4S vs. 3GS likewise), but it’s nowhere near as bad as Android where virtually every hardware manufacturer rolls their own combination of processor, RAM, GPU and display, and where take-up of the latest version of the OS is minimal, to say the least. Perhaps the Nexus 7 can change that.
Microsoft’s shot at the title is a two-pronged assault not just on the iPad, but on the Macbook Air too. The ARM-based Surface RT features all of the strengths of Windows 8 – aside from native x86 program support – while the Surface Pro is essentially a complete PC housed in iPad-style casing. As this photo amply demonstrates, Microsoft believes that productivity is the key to taking on Apple’s phenomenal tablet.
In terms of our industry, there’s also the small matter of Apple having invested most heavily in the most games-capable hardware. The PowerVR SGX543 in the iPad 2 still comfortably outpaces Tegra 3 in most GPU applications, and when comparing the size of the silicon that’s no real surprise at all. With a 163mm2 die-size, the New iPad’s main processor occupies twice the space of Tegra 3 and even iPad 2′s processor remains a good 50 per cent larger.
The Nexus 7 uses a lower-binned version of the Tegra 3 chip that can’t run quite as quickly as the top-end version found in the Transformer Prime, but Surface appears to be using a revised Tegra 3+ – a more powerful version of the chip that hasn’t been benchmarked as of yet. NVIDIA describes it as a significant bump, but it will take more than that to get anywhere near top-end PowerVR performance. Apple’s investment in this hardware obviously makes iPad more expensive, but it’s a direct investment into the quality of the slick user-interface and the gaming credentials of the platform.
It’s also difficult to avoid the conclusion that Apple’s competitors are still playing catch-up, and in this regard, while Microsoft is bringing something tangibly new to the table with Windows integration, it still has some clear UI weaknesses. Android 4.1′s “Project Butter” finally sees Google addressing the stuttering interface issues that have plagued its OS, but there are still some serious question marks over just how intuitive Microsoft’s Metro interface actually is – especially so in the desktop iteration. Not only that, but the OS actually seemed to crash during the media playback demo during the Surface keynote, and even the creators of the device appeared to be having issues navigating around the interface – something that doesn’t fill us with confidence.
There’s also the fact that Apple remains the trailblazer in the tablet sector. It has the cash, the will, the infrastructure and the guaranteed launch success – not to mention the software support – to drive the products forward into territory that its competitors fear to tread. Take the New iPad for example – it is defined by its Retina screen, which in turn required enormous battery and processor upgrades. Remarkably, Apple’s latest tablet has battery capacity around 20 per cent higher than that of the 11-inch Macbook Air. In short, the firm targeted the display upgrade as the defining element of its third-gen tablet and moved heaven and earth to make it happen.
In a market sector defined to a great extent by technological advancement, it’s hard to imagine any of Apple’s rivals pushing back new frontiers with anything like the same kind of zeal – and there is perhaps a sense that, as games machines at least, there is some missed potential here. Even though Tegra 3 lacks 3D performance compared to the IMG tech in the iPad, it is clearly capable enough for current mobile gaming – but next year, everything changes. The same 28nm chip production technology that makes the next-gen consoles possible, and that has made NVIDIA’s Kepler GPUs so powerful and efficient, will also reach mainstream mobile production.
Tegra 3 will be superseded by NVIDIA’s Project Wayne – said to offer a whole new level of graphical performance, offering a real challenge to performance leaders IMG. At the higher end of the scale, Intel’s next CPU – which could well end up in a second-gen Surface Pro – is believed to offer a 2x to 3x graphical boost over the current HD4000 tech. Based on our recent integrated graphics testing, conceivably we could see Battlefield 3 and Crysis 2 running at 60 frames per second – on a tablet.
But it’s almost certain that Apple will take point on this new gaming revolution. Next year’s iPad – hotly tipped to incorporate the new ARM Cortex A15 architecture and IMG’s PowerVR Rogue chipset sees a leap in performance that should see the tablet’s raw gaming potential reach and even exceed current-gen console levels, with the added benefit of DirectX 11-level GPU features. At that point, the platform becomes a viable target for AAA games development. Remember the first time you saw Infinity Blade on mobile? That is just a hint of where the platform could be heading – and while Google and Microsoft race to catch up with the current-gen iPad, once again it’ll be Apple that pushes the game to the next level.
Amazon is working with manufacturer Foxconn to develop the smartphone, according to a Bloomberg.com report that cited two informed sources. Last November, an analyst at Citigroup said that an Amazon smartphone was in the works.
If the reports are true, Amazon would compete against a flooded market that saw nearly 400 million smartphones shipped in the first quarter of 2012, according to IDC. The top selling phones in the period were Android-based smartphones from Samsung and Apple’s iPhone.
Four new Amazon Kindle Fire tablets are also set to go into production in August or later this year, according to an NPD Display Search analyst who cites unnamed components suppliers.
The tech rumor mill has suggested that Amazon will unveil a second-generation Kindle Fire in July, and now the NPD analyst Richard Shim says three 7-in. Kindle Fire 2 models and one 8.9-in. Kindle Fire 2 model are going into production in August.
Amazon could not be reached to comment on the tablet and smartphone reports. It has declined to comment on such reports in the past.
NPD has said it expects that that tablet shipments will outpace laptops in 2016. Laptop shipments will go from 208 million in 2012 to 393 million by 2017, while tablet shipments will grow from 80 million in 2012 to 254 million by 2017, the research firm said.