The Delaware Supreme Court has overturned a preliminary injunction preventing Activision Blizzard from buying Vivendi’s stake in the company. In September, the Delaware Court of Chancery blocked the sale due to a lawsuit filed against Activision by shareholder Douglas Hayes. Hayes argues that the sale requires the approval of shareholders to proceed. Vivendi filed an emergency appeal against the ruling in late September, attempting to remove the injunction before the October 15 termination date on the agreement.
The Delaware Supreme Court agreed with Activision’s assertion that the sale was a stock repurchase and did not require the approval of minority shareholders.
With the injunction gone, Vivendi and Activision expect the deal to close by October 15. The deal will have ASAC II, an investment group led by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, buying 172 million shares from Vivendi for $2.34 billion and Activision Blizzard buying 429 million shares for $5.83 billion. The two transactions would give Activision control over Vivendi’s 61 percent stake.
Wedbush Securities expects Activision’s stock to outperform once the deal is completed, with a 12-month price target of $22 per share.
“While some investors may have concerns about declines for the company’s core businesses, we remain fans of Activision Blizzard. The company communicates clearly, executes well, and its management appears to truly understand how to make money,” said Wedbush is a recently released note.
The independent gaming scene has been growing by leaps of bounds, so it makes sense that the events designed to celebrate it are keeping step. This weekend’s IndieCade Festival in Culver City, California (on the West side of Los Angeles) is the largest in the event’s seven-year history. IndieCade founder and CEO Stephanie Barish said the event is expecting to draw more than 5,000 people to Culver City, which has a population around 39,000.
Much like the indie scene it promotes, the show has also been getting increased attention from the mainstream gaming industry of late. Sony has been a primary sponsor of the event for years, but the 2013 show sees Nintendo chip in for the first time, with Microsoft returning to the list after taking 2012 off. Activision is also on the list of sponsors, as well as Epic Games (for the Unreal Engine), Unity, and 20 more companies. Barish said some of the event’s more recent sponsors saw how Sony benefitted from its overtures to independent developers and have been following suit.
“[Sony has] put four or five years of effort now into the indie development sector and it’s really paid off for them,” Barish said. “Developers are really interested in meeting with them. They see there are possibilities, that Sony has proven [indies] can do well and are treated well. More and more the fact that independent games are interesting to a broader public is becoming apparent to the larger publishers. As well, there’s a huge creative energy and force and momentum coming out of the independent sector, and they don’t want to not be part of the future.”
That future is a big part of the attraction for IndieCade. Attendees to this year’s show will be able to try out a handful of games on upcoming hardware like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation 4. In all, IndieCade 2013 features 36 “official selections” for the festival, with dozens more games on show. Barish expects that crop of games to not only produce some of the next big hits, but also draw attention to the next crop of important developers. In the past, she said IndieCade has served as a coming out party for indie hits like Braid and Everyday Shooter, or developers like Telltale Games (who would go on to create the multiple Game of the Year award-winning The Walking Dead series). It’s also been a place to debut games that think outside the set-top box, like Johann Sebastian Joust, a six-player game that uses music and PlayStation Move controllers, but no screen.
“It’s really important for the mainstream to see what’s at the cutting edge, and we just continue to bring things in that are more cutting edge, that are more different than publishers or other mainstream things would even think to look at yet,” Barish said. “We’re really a window into what’s going to happen.”
Among this year’s selections are That Dragon, Cancer (a narrative-driven game set in a children’s hospital over three years), Perfect Woman (a “strategic dancing game” for the Kinect), and [code] (a PC game in which players delve into ersatz programming code to solve puzzles). While some of the IndieCade games will almost certainly prove to be lucrative for their creators, Barish stressed that isn't the only way to measure their success.
"There's definitely a desire for the Cinderella story, but having seen so many of the games, they're really good," Barish said. "So even if they're not commercially successful, they're impacting the way mainstream games are designed, the directions and the trends for those."
The trend for IndieCade looks to be continued growth. This year saw the event spawn an IndieCade East sister show in New York City, a second installment of which is confirmed for February 14-16, 2014 at the Museum of the Moving Image. Beyond that, Barish said there has been talk about expanding the festival even further with a European event.
Fans of traditional, “core” games are often extremely hostile towards the new wave of casual and mobile titles, and even towards the people who play them. They’re keen to draw a line in the sand between these titles and “real” games and quick to portray players of Farmville, Candy Crush Saga or Puzzle & Dragons as mindless consumers of low-grade, repetitive entertainment that’s utterly disconnected from and disrespectful of gaming culture and the medium’s development as a form of art and entertainment.
There are good discussions to be had around those topics – not Internet flame-wars, but some interesting if slightly dry academic discussions defining the form and shape of “gaming” as a pastime, a medium and an artform. If we’re very lucky, some of those discussions could even avoid becoming tedious tug-of-war sessions between the “narrative has no place in games!” crowd and the rest of the world. None of them, however, will gain anything from employing “casuals” as a vicious epithet, or deciding to sideline millions of game players as insignificant because they’re “fake” gamers who play the wrong kinds of game.
Why does this kind of knee-jerk unpleasantness get so consistently applied to new, more casual audiences? There are uncharitable explanations which often point to uncomfortable truths – self-styled “gamers” have built something of a boys’ treehouse over the years, and dislike the invasion of new demographics which can include such unwelcome treehouse guests as women, homosexuals, trans people, ethnic and religious minorities, and even – gasp! – their own mothers and relatives. Is nothing sacred?! There’s also a broader sense in which this is not specific to games at all – there’s a more universal knee-jerk reaction which sees adherents of any niche pastime resenting and rejecting the arrival of a mass-market audience and products tailored to them. (“Ugh, you listen to chart music? Are your ears broken?” “You actually like JJ Abrams movies? What’s wrong with you?”)
At the root of much of the dislike of casual games and their players, however, lies a more basic concern – a fear that the rise of this kind of game is going to replace and erase the sorts of games which existing gamers actually enjoy. Watching Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga roll in countless millions in cash is a deeply uncomfortable feeling for the kind of gamer who trekked for tens of hours across Skyrim, who can utterly lose themselves in the flooded corridors of Rapture or the dingy streets of Dunwall, or whose adrenaline pours out when they’re ambushed by the Covenant or surrounded by the Combine. If Candy Crush Saga can make so much money, is that the future? Is that all we’re going to be left with – if not thematically, then as a business model or a creative approach?
That’s the fear that drives the aggression. There’s a hobby which we love, and a wealth of creative works which have given us unforgettable experiences – gamers fear that the new business reality represented by F2P and casual games is an outright threat to that experience and that hobby. In the chase after the new casual audience, game companies will be forced to abandon the pursuit of the kind of experiences which enrapture and delight the existing audience – or at the very least, to turn them all into tawdry fairground toys which demand that you pump coins into them to keep on playing, robbing them utterly of the atmosphere and immersion which is so much of their appeal.
I wonder, then, if the atmosphere of discussion and debate around games might become a little more civil (on this topic, at least) in the wake of two fairly important events in the past week. Firstly, you can’t have failed to notice that GTA V came out and smashed through sales records not only for games, but for just about every entertainment media imaginable. Of course, week-one sales of games surpassed the revenue of blockbuster movies long ago, but GTA V cements games as the dominant entertainment medium of our era by finally silencing the last bastion of naysaying – not only did it make more money in a single weekend than the biggest films in the world make in their entire lifetime, it was also purchased and played by more people in one weekend than the number who bought tickets for any recent movie. Revenue or volume; count it how you like, GTA V is the biggest entertainment property on earth.
Meanwhile, in Japan, another entertainment property went on sale – Monster Hunter 4, Capcom’s latest release. Its figures don’t rival GTA’s, but in the supposedly “declining” Japanese games market, it sold over two million units in its first week and helped to drive hundreds of thousands of sales of the 3DS – a console that’s meant to be a miserable flop thanks to the unstoppable advance of smartphones and tablets. That can’t rival Apple’s 9 million unit sales of the iPhone 5S and 5C, of course, but then again, that’s not a remotely useful comparison, no matter how often blowhard mobile evangelists trot it out – the 3DS purchasers are all confirmed gamers who will go on to spend heavily on expensive game software, while only a certain portion of mobile phone owners play games, a much smaller portion pay any money for them, and the amount of money they pay can be quite small (or quite large, of course, but certainly rarely exceeding the spend of a console owner).
GTA V and Monster Hunter 4; two games which are absolutely squarely aimed at the core gamer who is presently so terrified of being squeezed out by the flood of mobile, casual and social software. Two games which, completely uncoincidentally, have just become the biggest entertainment properties in the world and in Japan over the past few weeks.
There is no threat here. There’s a small and dwindling clique of hardcore evangelists who will try to characterise GTA’s success in particular as an outlier, an erratic piece of data that doesn’t change the overall context of the industry, but they’re absolutely wrong. GTA’s enormous release is actually a perfectly logical and predictable continuation of a curve which has seen the top-rated properties in traditional gaming ranked higher and higher in sales terms over the past decade or two. GTA V is not a last gasp of sales success for a doomed industry; it was inevitable that eventually, a core videogame would achieve this level of sales success, and it is also inevitable that a future franchise will surpass this (although perhaps not for a few years, as the new console generation and the other systems which will play host to the next giant release need to establish themselves first).
Social, mobile and F2P gaming isn’t going anywhere. Developers are going to get better and better at creating and honing those experiences, targeting specific audiences and even creating experiences in those categories that appeal to core gamers – no question. But this isn’t the only way to make a game or to make money from games. There will still be a huge audience who want 8 to 12 hour long amazing narrative-driven interactive experiences. There will still be a core audience for combative multiplayer. Hardcore FPS, long-form RPG, exploration of vast worlds; all of these things have huge audiences which, far from being drawn away by the lure of Hay Day or Bubble Witch Saga, are continuing to grow and expand. Yes, the really impressive expansion right now is at the casual end of the market – but that doesn’t stop core games from selling even more than they used to, as this month’s success stories prove.
This isn’t a zero sum game, and everyone needs to stop talking and acting as though it is. As long as there’s an audience that wants and is willing to pay for core game experiences, there will be companies that provide for that need. Mums playing Candy Crush Saga outside the school gates do not in any way detract from the value of the market that wants a new GTA, a new Monster Hunter or any other core experience. This expansion is not be aimed at core gamers, and a big mistake being made by lots of companies now is trying to apply rational choice models to a fundamentally irrational consumer behaviour and deciding that core gamers actually SHOULD want this kind of business model or game experience. However, that mistake aside (and it’ll stop once a few companies get badly burned for their foolishness), this expansion also does not harm core gamers. Once they realise that, perhaps we can all tone down the rhetoric and instead enjoy the hegemony of videogames as, quite remarkably, this generation’s truly dominant entertainment medium.
The mobile and tablet market has grown tremendously in the last several years. The number of apps on Apple’s App Store and Google Play is downright mind boggling, and if you’re an app developer… well, best of luck to you. As the new survey from App Developer Conference organizers revealed this week, piracy and discoverability are making it incredibly hard to succeed. Nearly half of the app developers surveyed made no profit at all.
So the question has to be asked: after years of flocking to mobile, are developers actually retreating to the PC and console space? “I speak with lots of mobile devs regularly and most are moving away or at least thinking of it, either to other platforms or out of the trade completely,” Paul Johnson, managing director and co-founder of Rubicon, told us. “Having to give your game away for 69 cents a throw (after Apple’s and Google’s cut) and then competing with 1000 new apps each day is hardly a draw for anybody. We’ve reached a point now where even those slow on the uptake have realized the goldrush is over. It’s actually been over for a few years.”
Jeffrey Lim, producer, Wicked Dog Games, agreed: “The mobile space offers certain advantages, like having the largest customer base and relatively low development costs. However, there’s no doubt it is getting harder to be profitable with the ongoing piracy and discoverability issues.”
“So yes, we do think developers (especially indies) are considering going back to develop for the PC – and even game consoles. The cost of self-publishing on these platforms has dropped significantly, and console makers are also making their platforms more indie-friendly now,” he added, alluding to efforts on next-gen systems like Sony’s PS4.
Chillingo COO Ed Rumley isn’t quite of the same mind as Johnson and Lim, but as a publisher, Chillingo has noticed that too many developers simply are failing to make high quality games, so it’s no wonder that their titles are being ignored.
“The number of games being submitted is growing, as is the number of developers contacting us. I’m not sure if some are being scared away, but we know from experience that some developers underestimate the time and quality it takes to make it in mobile now. Consumers are a savvy bunch and spot second rate games a mile off. You can’t just knock something together in your spare time, upload it and wait for the money to roll in anymore,” he warned.
Michael Schade, CEO, Fishlabs Entertainment, acknowledged the big challenge in mobile, but he doesn’t think developers are going to have to look elsewhere.
“Sure, mobile’s not an easy market to breach into, but then again, which market really is? No matter what business you’re in or what product you’re trying to sell, you’ll always have to work hard to gain your ground and make a name for yourself,” he noted. “So that alone shouldn’t scare you away from mobile, especially when you keep in mind that no other platform in the history of digital entertainment has ever evolved faster and born more potential than mobile! With more than a billion smart connected devices in use and hardware capabilities on par with current-gen gaming consoles, today’s smartphones and tablets constitute by far the most widespread, frequently used and innovative gaming platform the world has ever seen.”
Schade also remarked that the last few years of veteran developers getting into the mobile scene has made things more difficult. “The fact that more and more established PC and console veterans open new mobile gaming studios and more and more traditional publishers port their titles to iOS and Android, doesn’t make it easier for one particular company or product to stick out. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it clearly shows that the trend goes towards mobile, rather than away from it,” he said.
For every developer we spoke with, the discoverability issue reared its ugly head. There’s no doubt that this is a major concern. While building a high quality game can help, it’s simply not enough. In the world of apps, you cannot let the game do the talking for you.
“I think many developers have the misconception that it’s simply enough to release the game and let it speak for itself. They underestimate the importance of a marketing/PR campaign leading up to the game’s launch,” Lim stressed. “As a result their games fail commercially; not because of the quality, but due to lack of visibility. Hence the marketing/PR campaign should be seen as an integral part of the game’s development. An appropriate portion of the overall budget and effort should be allocated to increasing the game’s visibility, and if developers do not have the experience or time in marketing/PR they should consider hiring professionals in this area to lend a hand.”
Gree vice president of marketing Sho Masuda concurred that marketing is becoming crucial to mobile success. “They have to spend more time thinking about marketing and post-launch efforts in addition to building the the games. Fortunately, there are a lot of tools and services available for devs of all sizes to ensure that they can get the direction and support they need in these areas. Additionally, the mobile dev community is a very, very tight knit community and there is an amazing level of information sharing and support,” he said. “We encourage mobile devs of all sizes to talk to their peers, take advantage of all the meet-ups and events, and get to know all the services available to help get eyeballs on their games.”
A number of devs also believe that platform holders have a larger responsibility that they’ve been shirking so far. “For platform holders (e.g. Apple’s App Store), they can start to curate apps released on their store because there are too many clones of existing games that are taking up the traffic. They could attempt something like Steam Greenlight; although it is still an imperfect system, it’s better than not having any curation at all,” Lim commented.
Paul Johnson agreed, telling us that he’d really like platform holders to have a much more active role, as the discoverability issue has “about reached terminal” for unknown devs.
“If Apple don’t pick your game out for a feature, and you can’t drum up enough interest before launch yourself, then I’d say you’re pretty much screwed. It doesn’t matter how good your game is if nobody ever sees it and downloads it. They can’t tell their friends about something they themselves don’t know about!” he stated.
“The only thing I think the platform holders could do to help is stop allowing crap to be released. There’s only so much space for features and the end users only have so much effort in them to look under all the categories all the time, so I really don’t think adding more of them would help much. Maybe more apps for shorter times, but this is all a drop in the ocean really.”
“The one thing I’ve come up with that would make a real difference is for the platform owners to charge five grand for a developer license. All the utter crap would disappear and there’d be less apps fighting for space,” he continued. “And the end-users wouldn’t have to waste time downloading the crap as nobody who makes stuff they don’t believe in would dream of fronting that license fee. It’s Draconian but it’s really the only thing I can see having any noticeable effect. Anything else is just lip service.”
Discoverability issues aside, another major – and possibly growing – problem for devs to contend with is piracy. The App Developer Conference survey showed that 26 percent of devs had their apps pirated and a similar amount even had in-app purchases stolen.
James Vaughan told us, “Plague Inc. has a piracy rate of about 30-35 percent, which equals millions and millions of copies, but I don’t consider piracy to be a problem; it is simply a fact of life and I don’t get too worked up about it. Piracy is a byproduct of success and I choose to focus on the success which has resulted in piracy rather than the piracy itself. (The best way to stop your game from being pirated is to make a crap game!) I focus on continually improving and updating Plague Inc. which makes the game even more valuable to the people who have brought it (and encourages pirates to buy it as well).”
For those devs who actually do lose sleep over piracy, there are some ways to combat it, Lim said.
“There’s no question that piracy is prevalent, and I think it will continue to be so for a long time to come. In fact, with high-speed Internet access and the wide spread use of file-sharing software nowadays I think this problem is going to get worse,” he observed.
“The first way to deal with piracy is to implement the appropriate business model, and I think free-to-download with micro-transactions is the right way to go. Making the game free for download can work to our advantage; it allows us to reach out a larger customer base. And if players are hooked by the game, they can be enticed to buy additional high-quality content for a minimal price.”
“The second way would be to build a strong rapport with our customers – e.g. through frequent interactions on social media, events or even email. Developers of notable games (e.g. Hotline Miami and Game Dev Tycoon) have addressed piracy in this manner. By having a loyal customer base which is appreciative of our efforts in delivering quality content, they would empathize with us and be more willing to pay for the games in support of our development efforts.”
The good news for iOS devs, at least according to Schade, is that Apple’s store is less prone to piracy. “Having lived through the ‘dark ages’ of Java and made it out of there with two black eyes rather than one, piracy has been a very delicate topic for us at Fishlabs ever since. Based on our own experience, however, it is not as much of an issue on the App Store as it is on other platforms,” he noted. “I guess that’s mostly because Apple still has a lot of ‘premium’ customers willing to pay for high-quality content. Of course, we’re well aware of the fact that neither the closed iOS environment nor the Free-2-Play model will ever be able to eradicate software piracy entirely, but at least they are doing a comparatively good job at containing it as good as possible.”
If developers can effectively navigate the problems of discoverability and piracy, there’s no doubt that the potential is massive. One look at the overwhelming success of Angry Birds, Temple Run, Clash of Clans and others proves what’s possible. But for the vast, vast majority of devs, that’s a pipe dream.
“From the consumer angle, it’s a golden age. The amount of good quality games that can be bought for laughable prices is fantastic and there’s a ton of money being spent on this platform as a result. The problem for developers is that each individual cut is tiny. This isn’t even remotely sustainable and I don’t know what the future is going to look like. If I was starting again now from a blank slate, without an existing fan base, I wouldn’t touch mobile with a ten foot pole,” said Johnson.
Activision Blizzard’s moves to separate from its parent company Vivendi has been put on hold. The move, which surprised many, angered one shareholder that he sued to prevent this from happening.
Delaware Chancery Court was told that the whole move is a huge waste meant to cover a power grab. But now the court has put the move on hold until it can be argued in court. In order for the separation to continue, either the injunction must be modified on appeal or a majority vote by non-Vivendi stockholders must come down in favor of continuing the process.
Activision Blizzard said it was exploring options to ensure it still takes place. Vivendi has been trying to get rid of Activision Blizzard for nearly a year now in hopes of boosting its shares.
In a “fireside chat” at Casual Connect, ex-EA CEO John Riccitiello sat down with journalist John Gaudiosi to talk about the state of the business.
Gaudiosi asked what Riccitiello thinks of the state of the industry today and who the winners are in mobile. “It’s shocking how long titles stay in the Top Fifty,” Riccitiello said. He also noted that there’s no publisher with broad, long-term success on mobile. “Most publishers have only one or two titles in the Top Fifty,” said RIccitiello. “Almost no one has a title with more than a year in the Top Fifty, and there’s never been a successful sequel.”
Riccitiello’s solution? “Mobile needs to build brands,” he said. “Madden is in its 25th year. So far there’s precious little to indicate mobile is building long-term brands.” The touchstone for Riccitiello is how well people do version 2.0 of a successful mobile game. Can publishers create brands that will last for multiple years? He feels that is going to be a key towards creating a valuable mobile publisher for the long term.
Gaudiosi asked what the role of a publisher is in mobile games, and Riccitiello said that’s still developing. Classically, he explained, publishers do three things: Provide capital, turn content into money (transactions), and provide editorial service. Mobile developers still need capital (especially as budgets increase), and help improving a game (both technical and design help) is always useful. What’s not clear, according to Riccitiello, is how helpful publishers can be in handling transactions when the platforms provide much of that mechanical assistance. The conversion of content into money is a mix of technology, marketing, and design, and mobile games are showing themselves to be different in many ways than games on other platforms.
What needs to change, according to Riccitiello, is the balance of revenue between the distribution platforms and the content providers. “For Apple and Google over the last five years, perhaps half or two thirds of their increase in shareholder value is directly from mobile products. That’s about $300 billion of capital created by the distribution platform,” said Riccitiello. On the other side is content. “Games are about 75 percent of all mobile app monetization; perhaps $25 billion of shareholder value has been created by content. That’s ten times more value created by the platform creator. That wasn’t the case in console.” Riccitiello feels that there’s great potential for game creators to change that equation and generate a lot more value from the content than from the platform.
Gaudiosi then asked Riccitiello what mobile can learn from console. “I’ve visited with many developers since I left EA,” Riccitiello said. “Many have told me they want to bring console level graphics to mobile, and that will make them better. I tell them investing in better graphics without a better game is a road to ruin.” Riccitiello feels that while mobile power is increasing, the rewards will go to developers that generate more satisfying games, not just better-looking games. “One bit of advice as you’re looking at more powerful mobile,” said Riccitiello. “Think about how that allows you to create an experience you haven’t seen before. What game mechanic wasn’t possible before?” Developers that find good answers to that question will do well.
Finally, Gaudiosi asked if Riccitello had any thoughts on how second screen gaming is impacting the business. “No one really knows the answer,” said Riccitiello. “I sit on my couch looking at my email, playing a game on console, and playing Candy Crush on my tablet. I’m using mobile screens all the time. I have seen some absolutely stupendous dual screen experiences with console and mobile. I don’t think we’re scratching the surface so much as we’re waving our hand above a surface that we’re yet to scratch.”
Riccitiello said that some of us would argue that all you need is a tablet or a phone and wireless HDMI out, but he disagrees. “TV is going be used for mobile games and dual screen will be a really big idea when you figure out a gameplay experience that is better.”
Activision Blizzard is to become an independent company as CEO Bobby Kotick leads an investor buyout from Vivendi worth $8.2 billion.
The publisher of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty will buy 439 million shares from Vivendi for $5.83 billion. In addition, an investment group lead by Kotick and co-chairman Brian Kelly, will purchase 172 million shares worth $2.34 billion.
With Vivendi no longer a major stakeholder, Activision Blizzard becomes an independent company led by Kotick and Kelly, whose investment group also includes Chinese operator Tencent, Davis Advisors and Leonard Green & Partners.
“These transactions together represent a tremendous opportunity for Activision Blizzard and all its shareholders, including Vivendi,” said Kotick.
“We should emerge even stronger-an independent company with a best-in-class franchise portfolio and the focus and flexibility to drive long-term shareholder value and expand our leadership position as one of the world’s most important entertainment companies. The transactions announced today will allow us to take advantage of attractive financing markets while still retaining more than $3 billion cash on hand to preserve financial stability.”
Kotick added, “Our successful combination with Blizzard Entertainment five years ago brought together some of the best creative and business talent in the industry and some of the most beloved entertainment franchises in the world, including Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. Since that time, we have generated over $5.4 billion in operating cash flow and returned more than $4 billion of that to shareholders via buybacks and dividends. We are grateful for Vivendi’s partnership through this period, and we look forward to their continued support.”
Kotick’s investment group will hold around 24.9 per cent of the company, with Kotick and Kelly investing $100 million combined of their own cash. Vivendi will continue to hold around 12 per cent of shares.
IO Interactive made the surprising announcement that they have cancelled all other projects that the developer had in development. The studio will be only focused on Hitman going forward, and because of this the developer has cut its staff in half.
The developer claims the decision was necessary for the studio to focus on the next version of Hitman in a changing market space. To that , IO has also taken the very bold and difficult step to cancel all other projects that the studio had in development; but other than a new Kane & Lynch title, it isn’t yet clear what else they were working on.
The studio is going to try to relocate staff if possible to other studios within the group. It isn’t clear how much of a role Square Enix played in this decision, but it is possible that IO’s IP could end up with another developer down the road; but in the meantime at least work on Hitman will continue. No official word yet on when we might expect the new Hitman title to be released.
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.