“Grey Goo is remarkable not for what it has added to the RTS formula, but what it has stripped away,” PC Gamer wrote in its reveal of Grey Goo, a new real-time strategy game from the veterans at Petroglyph. Perhaps the same could be said of Grey Goo’s recently formed publisher Grey Box, which is seeking to strip away the more negative aspects of game publishing. Suits and creatives typically will bump heads because the two sides are looking at the creation of games from wildly different perspectives. But what if they actually had the same goals?
Ted Morris, executive producer at Petroglyph, felt an immediate kinship with the team at Grey Box. “As a small [studio] – small being 50, 60 people – we are always talking to publishers to see what deals we can put together. But with Grey Box, I think that we meshed better on a personal level with them as a company and as a group of people than we have ever meshed with another group,” he enthused to GamesIndustry International during GDC. “And we’ve worked with Sega and LucasArts – all the big guys – and certainly talked to everybody else, too – the EAs and everybody – and these guys – man, we just gelled with these guys so well.”
Morris said that Grey Box’s approach to publishing was noticeably different from the start. While other, larger publishers may immediately come up with marketing plans and sales targets, Grey Box found itself on the same page with Petroglyph: fun comes first.
“Every meeting that we have is always a sit down and then people open up financial books and they start talking about what the sales figures are going to be like, and when we sit down with [Grey Box], it’s like ‘how can we make a great game?’ We don’t even talk about money, we talk about ‘how good can we make this game?’ and ‘how successful will it be?’ You know, let the game drive the sales, don’t let the marketing drive the sales, don’t let the sales department drive the sales. It’s really about, if you make a great game, they will come,” Morris continued. “They spoke to that so often, so frequently that we thought, ‘man, these guys just want to help us focus on what’s really important.’”
One of the defining traits for publisher Grey Box is that they’re all gamers at heart, noted Josh Maida, executive producer for the publisher.
“I’m not going to pre-judge any of those other publishers – I mean, for all I know they love games as much as we do. And we do. We all love games. We all come from different areas. I lost a whole grade point in college to Street Fighter, and… we want to be fiscally mindful. You need to make money, but with the money we make, we want to make more games,” he remarked.
“So I think at the core of that is we’re not trying to take away from the industry. We want it to feed itself and go bigger. Quality over quantity is something that we’re mindful of. We also just want to make a good working relationship for our partners… everybody’s in here for fulfillment. The talent we work with, they could all be working in private industries for twice the amount they do, but they’re here because they love to make games, and so we want to be mindful of that. And when people die, they want to know they did great things and so we want to create those opportunities for people.”
Tony Medrano, creative director for Grey Box, criticized other publishers for being too quick to just follow another company’s successful formula.
“We’re not chasing a trend, we’re chasing something we believe in, we’re chasing something we like, and we’re not trying to shoehorn a formula or monetization model onto things that just don’t work because they’re popular,” he added. “I think from the get-go, it’s been all about how can we make the best game, and then everything else follows from that. I think a difference structurally [with other publishers] would be that we have a very lean and mean team. We’re not trying to build a skyscraper and have redundant folks. Everybody that’s here really cares, has some bags under their eyes from late nights… I think it is just that we look at all our partners as actual partners. We let them influence and make the product better, whether it’s the IP or the game.”
Speaking of monetization models, Maida commented that there’s no “secret agenda to Zyngafy RTS or anything.” Grey Goo is strictly being made for the PC, but the RTS genre easily lends itself to free-to-play. Upon the mere mention of free-to-play, however, you could almost feel the collective blood pressure in the room rising. It’s clearly not the type of experience that Petroglyph and Grey Box are aiming for.
For Petroglyph’s Morris, in particular, free-to-play hit a nerve. “I’m going to jump in here, sorry. I’m really annoyed!” he began. “There’s been such a gold rush for free-to-play right now that is driving publishers – I mean, there needs to be a good balance. There’s a great place for free-to-play – I play lots of free-to-play games – but it is driving developers like us to focus on money instead of making great game content. I’m not going to name any examples, but I’ve been disappointed with some of the free-to-play offerings because it’s not so much about making a great experience for the player anymore. It’s about ‘how can we squeeze them just a little bit more?’ or annoy them to the point where they just feel like they have to pay.”
Medrano added, “I get frustrated when I play free-to-play games, and if I purchase something, I feel dirty. I feel like ‘oh, I got cheated, I fell for the trap.’ Or even more modern games where they baby you through the whole thing. There’s no more of that, like, ‘this is tough, so that means if I get good at this, there’s reward – there’s something there.’”
Ultimately, while Petroglyph and Grey Box came together thanks to a shared love of the RTS genre, they feel there’s a real opportunity to bring back hardcore, intelligent games.
Andrew Zoboki, lead game designer at Petroglyph, chimed in, “It’s almost as if the industry has forgotten about the intelligent gamer. They feel like that everyone’s going to be shoehorned in there, and I would say even from a design perspective that a lot of design formulas for a lot of things, whether they be free-to-play or what the mainstream is going to, next-gen and such, that all those titles are kind of a little more cookie-cutter than they probably should be. They’ve tried to shoehorn gamers into a formula and say, ‘this is what a gamer is,’ rather than understanding that gamers are a very wide and diverse bunch of individuals, everyone from the sports jock to the highly intellectual, and they all have [different] tastes… there’s different games that will appeal to different demographics… if you make the games that players want to play, they will come.”
And that really is at the heart of it. Morris lamented how business creeps into the games creation equation far too often. “They’re trying to balance the game with Excel spreadsheets instead of sitting down and actually playing it and having focus tests and bringing people in and actually trying to iterate on the fun,” he remarked about other publishers.
For Grey Box at the moment, the focus is on making Grey Goo the best it can be, but the company does have plans for more IP. It’s all under wraps currently, however.
“We do have a roadmap, but it’s not based off of the calendar year. We do have another game in the works right now and we might announce that at E3. And we have a road map for this IP, as well,” Maida said. “Obviously we want to get it in the hands of players and fans to see what they respond to, but we’ve got capital investment in the IP with hopes to not only extend this lineage of RTS’s but possibly grow out that franchise and other genres as well.”
Grey Box plans to release Grey Goo later this year.
Microsoft is using this year’s Game Developers Conference as a platform to push ID@Xbox, with the company yesterday announcing dozens of titles headed for the console under the indie self-publishing program. Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison sat down with GI discuss the reasons behind the initiative and where the company hopes to take it in the future.
“A lot of the platform decisions we made in previous generations have really been around the fact we had a predominantly retail business model,” Harrison said. “You don’t want to be pressing millions of discs only to find they don’t work. Those are expensive investments that are difficult to retract from. But in a digital world, those constraints go away. In the previous generation, all console companies had walled gardens with pretty high walls. And now we’ve got gardens with small fences around them, or maybe a hedge. The barrier to entry has definitely come down, and that is a really positive trend for gamers, but also for creating an on-ramp for developers looking to get into our industry.”
Harrison acknowledged that a platform holder could run into problems by taking that approach too far, but suggested that the ID@Xbox program isn’t in any danger of that situation just yet.
“There’s always a balance to be had, but right now our push–and we’ll continue for the foreseeable future–is to democratize access to our platform,” Harrison said. “As you know, we have an intention that every retail Xbox One can become a dev kit, and we want to open up the platform to as many people as possible.”
The company has also set up some of the Xbox One’s core feature set specifically to address some of the potential problems of being overly open, Harrison said. Social features like user recommendations and trending offerings will help, but the Twitch streaming and ability to upload screens and gameplay to video are expected to really help games attract more attention from the wider community.
“We think those platform features will help the best games connect with the biggest audience, and the biggest audience can find the best games,” Harrison said. “It’s a virtuous cycle. We’re probably just scratching the surface of what’s possible with that, but I really like where it’s headed.”
Early results from Microsoft’s indie outreach are promising. Harrison said in the ID@Xbox program’s first four months, it has already attracted 250 developers, more indies than the Xbox 360 has drawn in its eight years on sale.
Thanks to Silicon Valley, there’s no shortage of tech companies hosting meetings or conferences in the Bay Area, but when it comes specifically to the business of games, there are few conferences in San Francisco that can rival the annual Game Developers Conference. For most in the industry (or those looking to enter the industry) it’s one of the few must attend events each year. And you can bet the city of San Francisco is happy to host GDC, as the financial benefit to local businesses is substantial.
“GDC is the highlight of March for the San Francisco hospitality community – everyone knows when GDC is here judging from the packed bars, restaurants, and streets. I love that turning any given corner in or near the convention center, one will hear an international language spoken. Their current financial impact is estimated at over $46 million,” Leonie Patrick, senior director for Moscone Expansion Sales at the San Francisco Travel Association.
“Although San Francisco is fortunate to have several large conventions, the demographic of GDC is unique and high energy. GDC is a valued, annual group and we do our best to assist with their success every year. When they thrive, we thrive,” she continued.
While GDC used to take place in San Jose, the conference quite simply outgrew the city, and San Francisco became its new home, offering more convention space and hotel accommodations. The conference has been consistently growing along with the industry itself, and it’s definitely been a boon to San Francisco.
“GDC has been with us since 2005, with the exception of 2006. They have demonstrated tremendous growth. They started off with 10,000 people crammed into Moscone West, and they have more than doubled their attendance in 8 years,” Patrick said. “GDC has also had extreme room growth, starting at 1,900 on peak to almost quadrupling that number.”
While some locals have resented the impact that highly-paid tech sector employees have had on San Francisco’s cost of living, San Francisco Travel Association isn’t concerned that GDC will be affected by any of this sentiment. “We have no concerns about how the GDC attendees will be received by San Francisco. San Franciscans know that tourism is our number one industry and conventions are a different issue from residency issues. We welcome GDC happily each year,” Patrick added.
Indeed, tourism is a wonderful thing for the great city of San Francisco. From the sights and sounds to the places to eat, there’s plenty to enjoy for GDC attendees who might want to nip out of Moscone for some downtime as well.
“Many attendees have been here repeated times so they want more than the typical icons. They may want to explore the more offbeat neighborhoods like the Castro, Union & Fillmore Streets, eat a great meal in the Mission, or walk around Noe Valley. For the first and second timers, they should see the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, ride a cable car, go down Lombard Street, sit in a café in North Beach, walk along the Wharf, visit the Ferry Building, or window shop in the Haight,” Patrick recommended. “And I can’t forget about Golden Gate Park, or maybe see the Pacific Ocean if they have not before. And if they really have time visit one of the many neighboring cities. Sausalito, Tiburon, Monterey/Carmel, Lake Tahoe… the list goes on.”
And even if you don’t have a car, it’s thankfully not too difficult to get around San Francisco (unlike Los Angeles, for example).
“Luckily, San Francisco is a large city contained in a small footprint. It is an extremely easy city for walking. Despite its reputation for having many hills, which it does, take a walk along the waterfront in order to get you from the convention center to the Wharf – you will avoid them all,” Patrick noted. “We also have great public transportation that can take you to outlying areas of San Francisco as well as outlying cities very economically.”
While it’s a bit late now, her advice for future GDC attendees should definitely be heeded: “Use the hotels that the event staff at GDC recommends since they are all vetted and reviewed by the GDC staff. And try not to book your hotel too late since rates are likely to get higher closer to the event date.”
User acquisition is a big buzz word in the mobile games space nowadays. But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Acquiring users has gotten expensive, and it won’t matter how many you acquire if the churn is so high that they’re all leaving your game in a few days. That’s why player retention is so important and it’s how Yvolver, a new Dallas-based startup, hopes to make a difference.
CEO Steve Nix, former executive at id software and GameStop, believes that most developers should stop paying for user acquisition. It costs more than $3.00 per install to acquire customers and that’s only increasing.
“Lately the trend is that costs for paid user acquisition are increasingly prohibitive, especially for mid- and smaller-sized developers. There is a point where paid user acquisition doesn’t make good economic sense for some games anymore,” Nix told GamesIndustry International. “Hopefully developers are also going to acquire players organically through typical paths like word of mouth, social and online discovery or digital store search.
“The big difference that Yvolver brings to the table – we are much more concerned about the behaviors and value perceived by users already in the game. This makes any users acquired more likely to return to the game, more likely to make a first or second in-app purchase and much more likely to recommend the game to a friend. Every customer acquired, regardless of how they got there, will be that much more valuable to the developer. So to a large degree, we are not replacing acquisition services or methods, we are just making them much more cost effective or viable for the developer.”
Nix added that the problem for many developers is that they’ve become far too concerned with the acquisition part of the equation rather than focusing on engagement.
“Right now, many developers are focused on acquisition as the only tool in their toolbox outside of the gameplay mechanics and changes to their economies that they can directly control themselves. Gameplay mechanics may be difficult to iterate upon quickly or the developer may just not have the resources to make all of the changes that they would like. We know that these same developers are increasingly viewing their acquisition programs as dumping money into a giant leaky budget. Yvolver helps plug the leaky money bucket that acquisition dollars are being poured into by encouraging retention, engagement and in-app spend for those users once acquired,” Nix continued.
“There are also a lot of great developers out there that are fantastic at creating a fun, gorgeously crafted games, but they do not have the resources to study user engagement and spending behaviors the way that the major studios can with their dedicated teams. That is all we focus on at Yvolver, so we are excited about improving the health of the business model for developers that may not have the capabilities that our laser-focused team of veteran data science and loyalty experts can quickly bring to their games.”
The crux of Yvolver is a loyalty rewards program. In fact, Yvolver teamed with Hal Brierley, who’s serving as a key investor and providing counsel on the design of its loyalty services. Brierley is an expert when it comes to loyalty rewards, having been a pioneer in the design of major loyalty programs, including American Airlines AAdvantage, Hilton HHonors and GameStop Power-Up Rewards.
So how does it work? Essentially, Yvolver users are able to build up a monthly Yvolver Score by completing events that are set by the developer in combination with making in-game purchases. Users can then convert their monthly score into prizes – both digital in-game items or power-ups and physical real-world rewards, like electronics, clothing or other goods. The score is persistent across games/apps and different platforms.
And while you might think that a program like this would be intrusive or take away from the experience for some players, Nix insists that it’s been designed in a way that won’t push away players – besides, that goes against the very thing the company was built for.
“The core premise of Yvolver is that we only have value for developers if we are creating value for the gamers playing their games. Most of the team here came out of game development and we have been critically focused on every detail of the user experience and making sure that we only add to the enjoyment of the game,” Nix said. “We should never be throwing confusing pop-ups out, blocking the user’s progression, making them think they have somehow left the game, or all of the distracting stuff that you see in a lot of the ad and offer platforms that are integrated into so many games now. We have worked closely with our game developer partners to make sure that we are respecting their game, and the response so far has been that we are firmly on the right path.”
The supporting cast around Nix and Brierley is strong as well, coming from companies like id, GameStop, Zynga, Apple and more. Former Apple App Store games manager Cory Lewis is a co-founder and is leading biz dev, former id lead programmer Jah Raphael is a co-founder and is serving as CTO, and Matt Himelfarb, a managing partner at Dallas Venture Partners is a co-founder and acting as CFO. You can read more about the entire team here.
On the business side of things, Yvolver believes its own interests run in parallel to the developers it’s looking to help. Much like a sales associate on a commission, Yvolver only benefits when the developer starts seeing sales.
“We work with our developer partners to build loyalty-driven events and programs that add value for their users and incentivize the behaviors that are most important to the developer. When users engage with the game in these desired ways, combined with that user’s in-app spend, they will receive an Yvolver score. The more the desired behaviors and in-app spend happen, the higher the user’s score will be. Our revenue is based directly on the Yvolver scores generated in an app in a month. The beauty of this model is that we only make money if the developer is making money through these in-app purchases. We are completely aligned with our development partners, which is important to us,” explained Nix.
Yvolver has been in private testing with a number of apps so far, but the company isn’t worried about signing tons of developers right away.
“We are not concerned about integrating with two-thousand apps the first year and game count is really a meaningless metric for us… Our data science and account teams are working continuously to become more creative and efficient in the programs that we develop with our partners, and that is how we really think about our progress. We believe gamers will quickly start seeking out titles that have integrated with Yvolver, and gamers will ultimately tell us if we are successful through their behaviors,” Nix said.
To kick things off, a beta version of the Yvolver service will launch exclusively with Zombie Gunship Zero from Limbic. The game will be available for download on March 13 and the beta service will follow in the “near future.”
Limbic CEO Arash Keshmirian commented, “Running a successful independent mobile games studio has become an increasingly complex challenge during the past two years. Market competition is at an all-time high, and marketing resources are becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. We couldn’t be more excited to partner with the Yvolver team to not only help engage and retain our current fan base, but to bring those fans real, added value within the Zombie Gunship Zero experience. It’s a win-win for us.”
It is, for the moment, just a conspiracy theory, and it goes something like this: Microsoft wants to get out of the games console business. It’s planning to package up the Xbox part of the Devices & Studios division and separate it off from the rest of the company, so it can be sold as a going concern. Who’s buying? Amazon, which views acquiring Xbox as a step towards dominance of the living room. If there’s anything to this theory at all, the coming year or two could see the end of Microsoft Xbox and a warm welcome for Amazon Xbox.
Let’s lay all the cards on the table. The evidence is sketchy and circumstantial. We know that Microsoft is looking at some pretty major strategic changes in the wake of the appointment of new CEO Satya Nadella. Nadella’s focus throughout his career has been on the business end of Microsoft – servers, cloud services and enterprise tools – which remains in robust health compared to the troubled state of the firm’s consumer divisions. Choosing him as CEO could suggest that the company is aiming for a future focused on enterprise tools and platforms, not consumer products.
Then there’s the man who wasn’t chosen as CEO, Stephen Elop. Elop used to work at Microsoft, then became CEO of Nokia. Now that Nokia is selling its mobile phone division to Microsoft, Elop is back where he started. Moreover, he saw himself as a strong candidate for the CEO job when Steve Ballmer resigned. With Nadella in the CEO’s chair, Elop’s consolation prize is that he’s taking over as head of Devices & Studios. That’s a logical choice, since Devices & Studios will include Nokia under its umbrella, at least to some extent, so Elop will continue running his old Nokia team alongside the Xbox and Surface teams at Microsoft.
Given that, it would perhaps be more surprising if Elop wasn’t put in charge of Devices & Studios. His presence ought to ease the transition as Nokia is absorbed into Microsoft, a major acquisition that’s likely to cause some indigestion along the way. However, during the CEO selection process, while Elop was still in the running, Bloomberg reported that he had some very interesting plans for the company if he was running it. The reported plans included, notably, a willingness to sell off business units Elop viewed as distractions from Microsoft’s main goals – business units including the Bing search engine and the Xbox. As logical as his new job at Devices & Studios may seem, you can’t blame people for raising an eyebrow when a man who supposedly wanted to sell off the Xbox division is put in charge of the Xbox division.
It takes two to tango, so how about the Amazon side of the deal? Well, whispers of Amazon’s keen interest in the games market have flown around for months now, including rumours that the company has discreetly hired a number of veterans from the games industry while keeping their involvement quiet – for now. Last month, Amazon bought games studio Double Helix, fresh from working closely with Microsoft to prepare Killer Instinct as a launch title for Xbox One. Something is afoot. Occam’s Razor suggests a “Kindle” console, an Ouya-style box under the TV linked to Amazon’s digital content platform, but given the plethora of Android consoles currently underwhelming the market and failing to gain a foothold, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Amazon would want to make a much bolder move into the console space. Plus, Amazon certainly isn’t scared of making big acquisitions when it wants to open up a new market opportunity for itself – it’s hard to conceive of a cash value for Xbox, not least given how obfuscated the financials of the console business are, but I don’t doubt that Amazon could afford it if it really wanted to.
That’s it – that’s the conspiracy theory. I don’t deny for a second that the evidence, if you can call it that, is pretty thin. Microsoft is probably going to refocus on enterprise; a guy who wanted to sell Xbox is the new boss of that division, but he’s also the most logical choice for the job. Amazon is setting itself up for a big move into the games space and may (or may not) have hired some senior games people on the down-low. That’s the sum total of the evidence, and we should all bear that in mind. Even this article exists not to promote this theory, which I view as interesting but unsupported by the available information, but rather to evaluate, hypothetically, whether there is any real possibility of an Xbox spin-off and sale. In short, there’s no real evidence that Microsoft is going to do this thing, but it’s an interesting academic exercise to evaluate whether they could do it if they wanted, and whether a motivation to do so might exist.
So how hard, in theory, would it be to spin off and sell Xbox? The answer to that depends on what exactly Microsoft is proposing to sell. Xbox, as mentioned earlier, is part of the Devices & Studios division, which also houses Surface and will shortly be joined by Nokia. Some other odd things are rolled into this division, apparently. It was claimed last year that the patents which force Android device makers to cough up a fee to Microsoft for every handset they sell are held, for financial purposes, in Devices & Studios, thus accounting for a big chunk of the division’s revenue.
If Microsoft’s new management had come to view Xbox as a distraction that doesn’t fit with their new enterprise focus, one might reasonably ask if they’ll take the same view of Surface. That product which hasn’t performed well and has reportedly soured relationships between Microsoft and other hardware vendors, who aren’t terribly happy with the company from whom they license the Windows operating system suddenly being in direct competition with them. The company wouldn’t be happy about losing the patents related to Android, not least since Windows and Windows Phone presumably use the technology described by those patents as well, so that probably wouldn’t be included in any sale, but aside from that it’s plausible that Microsoft could sell the entire Devices & Studios operation, thus putting itself out of the hardware business entirely.
Alternatively, Microsoft could decide to hold on to Surface and simply divest itself of Xbox and the various Microsoft Game Studios operations. Surface would then be joined by Nokia in the much-reduced Devices division (no more studios!), which would be entirely focused on tablets and smartphones without the “distraction” of games. Such a disentanglement wouldn’t be terribly difficult, either. Xbox is actually fairly well divorced from the rest of Microsoft’s operations. Its operating system shares a visual language with the “Metro” interface of Windows 8 and Windows Phone, while various game-related elements of Microsoft’s other operating systems have also been given the “Xbox” and “Live” monikers. Bing, of course, runs on the Xbox dashboard. By and large, though, the technology and services which drive Xbox are divorced from the rest of Microsoft – although it’s worth noting that the much-vaunted Cloud functionality of Xbox One relies in part on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud services platform. Any buyout of Xbox would include various contracts ensuring that any Microsoft technologies or services upon which the console relies would continue to be provided to the new owner, so this would not be a major stumbling block.
A bigger question might be, would Microsoft even want to do this? That really depends how seriously you take the idea of “distraction”. Xbox One has had its thunder stolen by PS4, but is still selling well – and Xbox 360 was a major success. In fact, it’s the only success Microsoft has ever had in the consumer hardware space. Xbox proved Microsoft’s ability to create a great consumer brand and sell hardware to people. It’s a real bright spot in a few tough years for the company – especially compared to everything else it has attempted in the consumer space, from Zune and Surface to its latest operating system, Windows 8.
Why would you get rid of that? Well, you probably wouldn’t – but let’s brainstorm a motive. You could argue that Xbox is a bright spot that doesn’t have any real relevance to the rest of the company. Microsoft in the early 2000s wanted to reinvent itself as a consumer-facing company, but with Xbox being the only success in a small sea of failures, Satya Nadella is likely to try to bring the firm back to focusing on the enterprise market. As the oil tanker slowly turns around to head into more corporate seas, Xbox will be more and more at odds with the culture and mission of the rest of the company. It will arguably be a distraction both internally, where it won’t fit with Microsoft’s culture, and externally, where it will detract from a brand message that promotes Microsoft as a serious, corporate, business-focused partner for enterprise (as distinct from the more consumer-led branding of rivals Apple and Google). Selling off Xbox would generate cash (not that Microsoft needs it), streamline the company and start the new CEO’s tenure with a dramatic gesture that sets out his vision more clearly than any speech or press release.
In short, Microsoft could do this and, if we assume that upper management take the notion of “distraction” seriously and are genuinely willing to abandon the firm’s ambitions in the consumer devices space, there’s a motive for doing it. How about Amazon’s side of the table? This deal would cost billions; would Amazon stand to gain enough to justify that kind of outlay? After all, aren’t consoles a dying space? Plenty of pundits seem to expect that PS4 and XB1 will be the last generation of consoles. Would a company as smart as Amazon get sucked into a market that’s about to collapse?
Amazon, like Microsoft a decade ago, has major ambitions in the consumer devices space. The company built itself on the back of selling physical goods but has neatly sidestepped the so-called “innovator’s dilemma” by being more than willing to disrupt its own business. The world’s biggest seller of physical books became the world’s biggest promoter of ebook readers. Music downloads, streaming video, cloud services; Amazon has taken an active and enthusiastic interest in every field that might disrupt its existing businesses, seeking not to shut down threats but to be the biggest player in whatever comes next. It supplemented the Kindle e-reader with Kindle tablet devices whose market performance is largely unknown, but is thought by analysts to be one of the only genuine competitors to the iPad’s sales dominance. Anyone who owns a Kindle device knows that they are designed from the ground up to be a great interface to accessing and buying content from Amazon’s ecosystem. That’s Amazon’s play; own the media ecosystem, building the devices themselves if that’s what it takes.
That ambition is a pretty solid fit for the console business. Moreover, it can’t have escaped Amazon’s notice that Steam, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live together make up a big area of digital content provision in which it has no involvement right now. Amazon will also be paying careful attention to the interest around set-top boxes (like AppleTV and Google’s TV efforts) and Smart TVs. Here there’s huge potential for consumers to be accessing media ecosystems directly from their TVs and connected devices – again, a game in which Amazon has no skin. For Amazon, the ideal would be that when you want to watch or play something on your TV, you do so through Kindle interface that links right into Amazon’s digital library, just like the Kindle tablets work. Of course, an Android microconsole would achieve that goal, but it wouldn’t be of much interest to gamers – at best, it would capture a fringe of the market who engage with Kindle tablets.
Is appealing to gamers important? This comes back to the question of whether consoles are really dying – and honestly, who knows better about that question than Amazon? Amazon is the largest retailer in many countries. Not only does it see how many consoles and console games are sold, it also sees loads of connected information which is hidden from even game publishers. It knows how high-spending gamers are in other areas – whether they’re likely to buy a lot of gadgets, a lot of books, a lot of movies or albums. It knows how much they engage with the brands they love, whether they cross-promote to friends resulting in more sales, whether they leave reviews and promote products on social media. Amazon can make an estimation of the actual value of the core gamer market more accurately than any other company.
What is that estimate looking like? I don’t know, of course, but Amazon’s actions in the coming months are going to tell us a lot about it. Regardless of whether the Xbox conspiracy theory pans out, Amazon is going to make some kind of game-related move relatively soon. It will be interesting to see how much importance and focus the company places on the games space at that time.
Until we see more evidence, though, it’s impossible to construct a fully credible argument which places the future of Xbox anywhere but Microsoft. There’s simply not enough information out there to support that kind of conclusion. That said, there is a possible motive to sell on the part of Microsoft, and a possible motive to buy for Amazon. If I had to pin my colours to a mast on this, I’d say Microsoft is probably discussing a sale with interested parties, including Amazon, but hasn’t made a final decision on whether to start sale proceedings as yet. I also wouldn’t read too much into that, given that it’s the responsibility of management to consider such possibilities as part of their duty to the shareholders. Then again, under Microsoft’s new management, perhaps such things are being considered rather more seriously than before.
The change was initially published to Steam’s private developer forums, but was ultimately leaked by a Reddit user known as “Sharkiller.”
The new Steamworks tools cover both fixed weeklong promotions, which developers can decide to join and then set a percentage discount, and custom promotions, where the price and duration can be decided up to a two-week maximum. Prior to this change, pricing in Steam sales was worked out in collaboration with Valve.
“As with the addition of a ‘Recently Updated’ section to Steam, this is another effort to shorten the distance between developers and customers,” Valve’s Alden Kroll said in a statement issued to Ars Technica.
“This new Steamworks tool allows developers to configure discounts for their own products, on their own schedules. They can define custom sale periods or opt in to regularly scheduled sales. This will enable developers to better coordinate their promotions with events, announcements, or major updates they are planning for their products.”
While there have been arguments both for and against the short, deeply discounted sales on Valve’s digital distribution platform, from a consumer perspective they have been instrumental in allowing Steam to become such a force in retail.
These new tools, and the freedom they give developers to control their own inventories, represent another bold step from Valve.
It’s pretty hard to figure out exactly where the new generation of consoles stand in terms of sales right now, but the general picture is clear. PS4, still supply constrained in many markets, leads Xbox One by at least a million consoles sold, possibly as much as two million – so the oft-cited ratio of 1.5:1 seems to be holding. Assuming little else changes, that ratio will tip even further in Sony’s favour in the coming weeks, with the PS4 finally launching in Japan, a market where it can expect to sell very strongly – although I wouldn’t expect to see the dominant 3DS removed from the top of the hardware charts for too many weeks. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s rather less successful console, the Wii U, continues to lose ground to both of the newcomers and will likely be surpassed in overall sales by Sony sometime this month (if it has not been so already) and by Microsoft within the next quarter.
It’s important to put this in some context – the Xbox One would look like a pretty successful console launch if it wasn’t stacked up against the PS4, but eyebrows would still be raised over the slackness in demand for what would be expected to be a fully supply constrained launch. Meanwhile, Wii U’s performance wouldn’t look great in any reality, but certainly wouldn’t be attracting the current degree of fainting and pearl-grasping were it not being compared to the extraordinary success of its own predecessor, the Wii.
“I’d argue that the real problem with these innovative pieces of kit isn’t that they’re inflating the price – the real problem is that they are, so far, utterly pointless”
The only console among them which resists any attempt at contextual negativity is the PS4, which is performing incredibly well. Hardly anyone has a bad word to say about the PS4, other than “I can’t find one to buy” – the hardware has turned out to be very solid; the online services (PS Plus in particular) are well-liked; and Sony’s approach of wooing key indie developers to the console for launch period has helped to stock the console with early adopter friendly titles which generate plenty of goodwill as the wider market waits for big AAA hits to filter through. Giving several of these games away on PS Plus, especially while new owners are in their freebie period, has also been a great move.
It’s hard to argue against a surface reading of this situation which says that Sony has executed superbly on its product while Microsoft and Nintendo have stumbled. Nintendo dropped the ball on Wii U software for its first year, arguably at least, and made a mess of marketing its new console – just as it initially did with the 3DS, which makes me wonder exactly what compromising pictures of Iwata the firm’s amazingly still-not-fired marketing bosses are keeping in a concrete bunker somewhere. Microsoft lost the trust and goodwill of a huge swathe of the early adopter audience, especially outside the USA, when it announced the Xbox One as a TV-watching box, compounded its error with a horribly anti-consumer policy on used software, then changed its mind on the latter (a good thing, but much damage was already done) and botched the execution of the former. Now it’s got a mountain to climb to restore goodwill, a console that’s $100 more expensive than its well-liked rival and a fresh salvo of unflattering technical comparisons between the systems emerging each week – a tough position, to say the least.
I think that beyond that surface reading, there’s something more fundamental at work – a level on which both Nintendo and Microsoft made the same mistake. Sony’s PS4 isn’t just superbly executed, it’s also conservative. It’s a powerful console with great engineering behind it, a great OS and network services, and a superb messaging strategy in which Mark Cerny and Shuhei Yoshida, who are actually at the coalface of developing the system and its software, have been allowed to take very public roles and to speak openly and honestly. That’s all fantastic, but PS4 is also very clearly an evolution of what came before. In architectural terms it’s vastly different from PS3, of course, but from a consumer standpoint – here’s a black box that you stick discs into and then play them with a Dual Shock pad. You can play with your friends online, and even buy games online, but arguably the only real departures from the traditional console model lie with the online services – PS Plus (which existed on PS3 as well, of course) and video streaming.
Xbox One and Wii U are less conservative, because both of them make some effort to change the interface and context of videogames. Xbox One includes a vastly updated and improved Kinect motion sensor, which shoulders the brunt of the blame for the console’s inflated price tag. The sensor, like its predecessor, is designed to map and understand the movement of human bodies around the room in front of it – unlike its predecessor, it actually appears to be capable of doing so very well. The Wii U, meanwhile, includes the GamePad, a touchscreen controller that lets you play games even while others are watching something else on TV, but more interestingly, also creates a second screen for gameplay and has potential uses in asymmetric multiplayer, wherein one player uses the screen to set up a game while others use Wii Remotes to tackle the challenges being created.
Both of these things are interesting. Both of these things, inevitably, inflate the price of the console to which they’re attached. Both Wii U and Xbox One could seriously do with being $100 cheaper than they are right now – such a price cut wouldn’t be the end of their woes, especially in the case of Wii U, but it would level the playing field and make everything much more interesting. Yet I’d argue that the real problem with these innovative pieces of kit isn’t that they’re inflating the price – the real problem is that they are, so far, utterly pointless. Not only have both Microsoft and Nintendo failed to create software that effectively capitalises on the potential of Kinect or the GamePad, both firms have also completely failed to explain the devices to consumers in a way that stands any hope of making them excited about such potential. The very fact that the first reaction of many consumers and commentators to weak sales from these consoles is “get rid of Kinect / the GamePad!” is a demonstration of just how badly communication, explanation and demonstration of these features has failed.
It could be, of course, that the features themselves just aren’t much good. I think the potential of the GamePad remains to be tapped, but have some sympathy with the argument that Kinect, even in its vastly upgraded Xbox One incarnation, is a solution for which no readily apparent problem can be found. Certainly its present function, as an utterly sub-par way of controlling the console’s menu functions and an occasional shoehorned annoyance in games, does little to explain why this expensive piece of hardware is a mandatory part of Xbox One – yet I know that there are plenty of enthusiastic and intelligent games people at Microsoft, and there must be a genuine belief that Kinect 2 can deliver unique and worthwhile experiences that won’t be possible on other consoles. The problem is that, just as with the thus-far largely meaningless GamePad, Microsoft has failed to demonstrate or articulate just what those experiences will be.
In short, I think consumers are confused about what exactly Nintendo and Microsoft want to sell them. Sony’s proposition is clear – it’s a much-upgraded and improved successor to the PS3, which was a much-upgraded and improved successor to the PS2, and so on. Nintendo and Microsoft make claim to be something more than that, then mumble incoherently when asked what exactly they mean, or what precisely they’re proposing to achieve.
It feels like both companies want to bottle some of the magic which fuelled the Wii to such great heights in the last generation, but they’ve forgotten that the real magic of the Wii wasn’t actually the Wiimote – it was Wii Sports. In one superbly crafted game, bundled free with the console in many territories, Nintendo explained exactly what the Wii was for. A few minutes with Wii Sports showed anyone and everyone what the Wiimote was designed to do and how it would change the game experience. Moreover, it set out a clear agenda for the console as a whole – a social machine, a family machine, an accessible machine. Wii Sports wasn’t just a game, it was a powerful demonstration, a mission statement and perhaps the greatest piece of marketing anyone in the games industry has ever crafted.
The Xbox One and the Wii U both have their Wiimote, but neither has their Wii Sports. One of Satoru Iwata’s big pledges in his mea culpa speech after Nintendo’s projections were downgraded was that the firm would double down on the GamePad, creating software and marketing that would explain the controller better to the public. If that means finding the Wii U’s Wii Sports, it will absolutely be a worthwhile effort – it doesn’t have to mean establishing the Wii U in the same market as the Wii, but making a clear mission statement for the console would definitely help. Microsoft, too, needs some of that focus. Right now, Kinect 2 is not differentiating Xbox One in the marketplace – it’s just hanging around the console’s neck like a deadweight. Unless Microsoft can find the software and the messaging required to make Kinect into a real system-seller, its mandatory inclusion may go down as one of the worst self-inflicted wounds of any console battle in history.
Steam Music will allow Steam gamers to listen to their own music while gaming, Valve said. Steam users will be able to view and play albums and tracks, manage the queue, and access the Steam Music player by pressing the Guide button on a Steam Machines controller, where they will be presented with an iTunes style interace.
Keyboard and mouse users can access the active player from Big Picture’s main menu, Valve added.
Valve explained in a blog post on Monday, “With Steam Music, you can now listen to your music collection while playing games. Once you’ve pointed Steam to your local music directory, your Steam Library will include Album and Artist views of your collection.
“From there you can view and play albums and tracks, manage your queue, and access the Steam Music player by pressing the Guide button on your controller. (No controller? Keyboard and mouse users can access the active player from Big Picture’s main menu.)
“Once in-game, the music player follows you via the Steam overlay, where you can manage your current playlist, browse your collection and listen to whatever suits your mood.”
Valve will soon launch a beta of Steam Music for Big Picture and Steam OS, with integration in the desktop version of Steam coming in the future. Those who want to try it out in Beta must join the Steam Community, where invitations will be sent out “in waves”.
Valve is looking to halt its Steam Greenlight process, Gabe Newell revealed today during in an introductory address at Steam Dev Days. Attendees at the developer-only event have been tweeting out bits of news, with Hot Blooded Games CFO Dave Oshry among those sharing updates with the outside world.
“Our goal is to make Greenlight go away,” Oshry quoted Newell as saying. “Not because it’s not useful, but because we’re evolving.”
Oshry said the Valve head had been talking about how he wanted to give developers more control over Steam and how they use it to promote their games. The Greenlight process lets developers post pages for their games on Steam and lets the community give input on whether or not they look like something worth purchasing.
While details about the how and why of Greenlight’s eventual disappearance aren’t known yet, they’ve already been speculated upon. Earlier this week, PC Gamer reported on a translated GameKings.tv interview with Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail in which the Ridiculous Fishing developer guessed that Valve would soon be killing Greenlight.
“I’m thinking that because they’ve been clearing the queue at such a rapid rate,” Ismail said. “They’ve been clearing 100 games every month. . .You don’t do that because there are 100 good games on Greenlight every month. You do that because you want to get rid of everything that isn’t greenlit before you kill it, so you don’t upset developers.”
Ismail then guessed that Valve would replace the program by letting any developer put their game up on Steam and relying on a peer-to-peer recommendation system to solve the issue of content discoverability.
Coinciding with the beginning of Steam Dev Days, Valve also announced that its digital storefront had passed a new milestone with 75 million active users, a 15 percent jump from the 65 million total announced in October. The company also released a geographic breakdown of its sales, with North America and Western Europe accounting for most of its business (41 percent and 40 percent, respectively), but noting that Russia and Brazil have shown tremendous growth in the last year (125 percent and 75 percent, respectively).
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened to games during 2013? There are lots of candidates, all of them equally valid depending on your perspective and personal interests. The launch of new console hardware, perhaps; or the continuing meteoric rise of tablet and smartphone gaming. The deluge of microconsoles perhaps, none terribly successful but their very profusion pointing the way to the future ubiquity of game hardware (maybe). Oculus Rift, the really rather effective realisation of so many virtual reality fantasies; perhaps even Google Glass, which could open a doorway to new kinds of play if it doesn’t fall victim to a social backlash before it even gets off the ground.
For myself, forced to pick a single thing, I’d probably go with the bedding in of crowd funding as “part of the furniture” of the games business – indeed, of creative businesses in general. 2012 may have been the year when crowdfunding captured all the headlines, but in 2013 we started to see the wheels turning – projects completed, projects underway, projects stalled, projects failing.
After the initial hype, the reality of what it means for a wide group of interested individuals to fund a creative endeavour has bedded in. There has been disappointment, certainly, and some even bigger disappointments will probably follow down the line – but this is a learning process for creators and funders alike, and the lessons being learned are incredibly valuable. Why is crowdfunding still so exciting, despite all the hiccups? Because, quite simply, it removes one of the most infuriating and ridiculous barriers in the creative industry – the financial middlemen who must be convinced of the market value of a creative idea before they will fund it to completion.
In theory, this is not a terrible idea, even acting as a useful filter of quality in some instances – and in practice, it will continue to be how a great deal of creative work is funded. However, these gatekeepers have also slammed down the door on a vast, uncounted number of perfectly valid projects – labours of love or wonderful ideas which have been rejected because they don’t conform to a financier’s specific notion of what’s popular in the market, or because their commercial potential, while significant, is overshadowed by another more overtly commercial project.
In this way, we’ve lost not only countless games but entire genres. Adventure games are the most often lamented, having disappeared almost entirely in the 1990s, though I’d contend that the best features of the adventure genre were moulded into other game genres, survival horror being a key one, while the worst features of adventures really ought to stay dead – but I know the genre has plenty of hardcore fans who would probably do something awful to me for such blasphemy, perhaps even something as awful as making me play a load of old adventure games. Other genres, too, have declined to a huge degree, while whole swathes of game themes or approaches are simply deemed non-commercial and will never be funded by a major publisher.
Crowdfunding changes the rules, and in doing so, may help to rescue the creative and artistic continuity of the games medium. By allowing a creator to run up a flag and say “I’m going to make this; who’s up for it?”, it shares the enormous risk of creation around a vast audience, while empowering them directly to make choices about what gets made. It’s no accident that many of the most funded Kickstarter games are adventure games – after years of lamenting the lack of new titles in the genre, its fans were finally given a chance to prove the commercial viability of adventure games by putting their money where their mouths were, and they responded admirably.
As crowd funding moves into its next wave, I think that an audience of more savvy and slightly more cynical funders will interact with a group of very switched-on creators to start doing more and more interesting things. Up to now, crowd funding has been an orgy of nostalgia – long-dead genres, dusty old franchises, half-forgotten characters and worlds, all wiped down for Kickstarter in anticipation of fistfuls of dollars from men wearing the world’s rosiest spectacles. Some of the resulting games will probably be excellent (Wasteland 2 is a particular favourite at the moment) and it is certainly nice to see much-loved older genres and titles being treated with care and respect, mostly by their original creators. However, I submit that crowd funding can, and must, achieve so much more than this.
Crowd funding is about tapping into the collective power of a minority audience. The majority of the game purchasing audience don’t know or care about Double Fine, or Wasteland, or Leisure Suit Larry, or any of the other crowd funded titles to date – arguably the most “commercial” of which is the now incredibly well funded Star Citizen, and even that is a space simulation game, a genre which effectively breathed its last many years ago. These are all minority audience games, their success a testament to the fact that in the age of the internet, even the smallest niche can turn out to be a commercially viable audience. At a time when commercially backed games need to find some way to “prove” that they’ll be of interest to an audience of millions, crowd funded games need only gain the interest and affection of an audience of a few thousand to make them into viable, funded projects. So far, those minority audiences have largely been exactly what you’d expect from early adopters. They’ve been, by and large, people like me – proudly geeky guys in their thirties and forties who have some games and genres from the past they absolutely love, and who have a decent amount of disposable income in their pockets that they’re willing to delve into for the sake of nostalgia.
There’s not a damn thing wrong with that, and long may it last. However, it should be immediately apparent that there’s a much wider range of minority audiences who are deeply involved with, indeed, deeply in love with, video games. They’re largely not addressed by existing commercial games. The depiction of women in games isn’t great to begin with, but once you get into the realms of racial or sexual minorities, depictions of disability or mental illness and a whole host of other issues, games either don’t deal with them at all – or, when they do, you really, really wish they hadn’t. If you’re rolling your eyes right now, grow the hell up. Every medium invented by humanity is used by minority groups as a way of exploring and sharing their life experiences, and every medium in which this has occurred has benefited hugely from this process, the creative exploration of minorities at the margins feeding back into the mainstream and advancing the artistry and possibilities for everyone.
So here’s where I see crowd funding going in 2014 – a trend whose origins, tiny, hopeful green shoots, we can see in 2013. Crowd funding of nostalgia projects and well-loved developers breaking out of the publisher model will continue, of course. Some high profile projects will be released and people will love them. Some will be released and they’ll suck, others will fail, and there’ll be fresh bursts of enthusiasm and cynicism which will eventually start to look like a standing wave, a background pattern that’s actually stable when you look at it for long enough. Crowdfunding will be part of the furniture – and around its margins, amazing things will be occurring. Powerful voices will be tapping into the collective power of minority groups and using their input and their resources to make new kinds of games that would never, ever, in a million years, make sense to a game financier in a suit behind a boardroom table, but which engage small yet powerful niche audiences in fresh and wonderful ways.
In some regards, we can view the entire course of video game creativity over the past few years as being a process of learning how not to ask permission. It used to be that you had to ask permission from a whole lot of people before you could make a video game. Today, anyone can sit down with a copy of Unity, some time, some talent and a lot of coffee and make a video game; but of course, apart from the occasional lone genius, the investment of time and money required to make something on a large scale is still denied to those who cannot receive permission to create. Crowd funding succeeded in 2013 and will continue to succeed in the coming years because it changes the terms of that conversation. Once, creators had to find a grim-looking man with a fat wallet and say “please sir, may I be allowed to create?”; our future is a world where a creator instead stands up in a crowd and says “here’s what I’m going to create; who’s with me?”. This is no utopian vision, because the judgment of the crowd will often be as harsh and unforgiving as the besuited financier ever would be – but there are many, many crowds, and they ultimately offer a chance for a lot more voices to be heard in a medium that has all too often spoken in monotone.
Rockstar has teased some updates for Grand Theft Auto, its carjacking, torture, bank heist and crime simulatiion game franchise.
Content updates for GTA Online are coming, including a Deathmatch option, and a race creation tool. Further away, and hinted at by Rockstar are even more mysterious updates that it does not intend to talk about at the moment.
“This week, we will give you the first chance to build your own content in GTA Online (and play content others have made) with the release of the Deathmatch & Race Creators Beta. With access to some of the same tools as our own game design and development team, you can craft your own custom blood-soaked gunfights, high-octane street races, screaming jet dogfights and more,” it said about its upcoming update due out later this week.
“You’ll also be able to publish your original Deathmatches and Races via the Rockstar Games Social Club for the whole community to discover, download, play, rate and share. The Deathmatch and Race Creators will come to you via a free update, and you’ll need to have a Social Club account that is linked to your Xbox Live Gamertag or Playstation Network ID to use them.”
The firm added that these will be in beta for now, so they might include flaws. GTA gamers should perhaps be used to that sort of thing. The beta should be released tomorrow.
Later this month the firm will bring in team based games including a variation on capture the flag.
Flags are not the target in these so-called Capture games, but contraband and vehicles are. These are likely to be highly tactical games and come under four game types called Raid, Contend, Hold and GTA.
The long expected Heists feature is still to come, as Rockstar said that it is still working on getting this right. It also promised story updates for Michael, Trevor and Franklin. These are expected in 2014.
Sony has promised to have “substantial” resupplies of the PlayStation 4 before the end of the year, but has given no indication as to what qualifies as substantial. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has stepped in to fill that information void, telling investors in a note this morning that he believes Sony is making PS4s at the rate of a million systems per month.
Pachter followed up on Sony’s announcement today that it had sold 2.1 million systems worldwide, saying that number fits well with previous estimates that Sony began manufacturing PS4s for retail on September 1, and that it faces a gap of up to three weeks from a system’s creation to the time it arrives on shelves.
“We expect Sony to continue to ship 1 million consoles per month, so as of the end of January, we believe Sony will have manufactured a cumulative 5 million consoles and will have shipped 4.25 – 4.5 million,” Pachter said. “We expect the 55 percent allocation to North America to continue through January, and then revert to a more normalized 40 percent of units once Sony launches in Japan and other countries. We think that Microsoft is on a similar production schedule, with similar allocations to North America.”
Pachter added that specialty retailer GameStop has been receiving roughly half of the systems shipped to North America, and that it will continue to take up that share of the allocations through December. In the New Year, Pachter expects the company’s share to be dialed back to a “more customary” 30 percent.
If the shipment projections are accurate, the PS4 would be more than holding up its part of publishers’ predictions that Sony and Microsoft would combine to ship 10 million units of their new systems by the end of March.
With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the scene, the next console generation has finally begun. While a new generation usually brings the promise of more graphical power, great graphics are only part of the gaming equation. What will these new consoles allow developers to do creatively?
In its last two titles, Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, independent developer The Chinese Room focused on pushing the first-person game away from the shooting mechanics that usually dominate. The studio’s next title, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, is coming to PlayStation 4 with some help from Sony Computer Entertainment. For The Chinese Room, next-gen helps their creative juices just by being easier to work with.
“The blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity”
The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck
“I think the major thing, from the perspective of actually building games, is less for us about the power – that’s brilliant of course, and having significantly higher budgets makes a big difference – but it’s more about the ease of working with PS4,” The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck told GamesIndustry International. “So far, it’s just been a dream bit of kit to work with. We’ve got the advantage of working with CryEngine, another great piece of tech of course, but even then it’s been remarkably smooth to get things up and running quickly. That’s worth its weight in gold from a production standpoint, and the blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity.”
According to Braid creator Jonathan Blow, aiming for a single, next-generation set of specifications allowed the team behind The Witness to settle on a single visual style for the game. That title is also heading to PlayStation 4 in 2014.
“Creatively, we build and we assume that we have enough power in rendering,” explained Blow. “When we were planning the look of the island, we had a couple of choices. Do we target the PlayStation/Xbox 360 class of machines or do we move to next-generation consoles? Because development was going long, we decided we were going to be in the next console cycle anyways.”
“If we’d ended up on lower-spec machines, it wouldn’t just be that [The Witness] would have lower-poly models. It would’ve affected the style all over the place; the style of the game would’ve been different. I don’t think it would’ve been as nice.”
For Ghost Games, the new shepherd of EA’s Need for Speed franchise, next-gen does come down to “more power”. This power – and the new set of expectations that come with it – frees the team to think outside of the box when it comes to gameplay innovation. A new generation allows developers to think about what’s possible instead of wringing more blood from a worn-out stone.
“It makes us think differently. Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible.”
Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson
“It makes us think differently,” said Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson. “Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible. We are not locked into old boundaries anymore. From that we get great innovations like AllDrive. The systems are giving us power to do more, more AI, more particles etc. Just turning everything up really.”
Nilsson also noted that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One provide other options, including social networking features and second-screen modes, which “opens up creative solutions around cross-platform play.”
One of the highlights of Sony’s launch window slate for the PlayStation 4 is Infamous: Second Son from Sucker Punch. While the game simply looks amazing, improved graphics and horsepower also mean the human element of Infamous can be pushed forward.
“[Infamous: Second Son] is all performance captured,” Sucker Punch co-founder and director of development Chris Zimmerman told us. “We actually use all kinds of cameras, with dots on the actors’ faces getting mapped through 3D scans. As you see people in the game, you’ll see their faces move in realistic ways.”
“See the wrinkles appear?” Zimmerman pointed out in a demo of Second Son, “we are actually animating 15,000 vertexes in his face 30 times a second to get that to happen that well. The thing that really matters for a game like this is you can actually see the characters act. You can read his face. You have a million years of human evolution that’s trained you to read people expressions and their faces; now we can bring that to you. That is the expression that these actors had when they did the scene. If we show you the video of their faces and then show you the in-game feature, you’ll be like ‘that’s the expression that guy had on.’ It seems dumb, but it matters.”
In some case though, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will just allow what previous generations have allowed: more, better-looking things onscreen in our games. And even that can improve the player’s experience. For BioWare Edmonton and Montreal general manager Aaryn Flynn, next-gen means a more immersive and interactive game world for BioWare fans.
“With the next generation of consoles, the most important question we ask ourselves is ‘How does this help our storytelling?’ As we’ve worked with them, we think it starts with a density and dynamism that wasn’t possible previously,” said Flynn. “‘Density’ in the sense of more interesting things on the screen that help immerse you in the game world, and ‘dynamism’ in that they are more interactive than ever before.”
The generation has only just begun. Developers still have plenty of time to learn how to make the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One dance and sing. What’s been shown so far is pretty damn good, so let’s sit back and enjoy the future.
Take-Two Interactive Software has repurchased all of the Icahn Group’s stock, a deal worth $203.5 million and involving 12.02 million shares.
“This share repurchase reflects our confidence in the Company’s outlook for record results in fiscal 2014 and continued Non-GAAP profitability every year for the foreseeable future,” said Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick.
“With our ample cash and strong expected cash flow, we are able to pursue a variety of investment opportunities, including repurchasing our Company’s stock. On behalf of our board and management team, I would like to thank Brett, James and Sung for their support, dedication and service to our organisation. They leave Take-Two better positioned than ever for continued success.”
The move was funded by cash and cash equivalents on hand and Take-Two explained the move is “part of an ongoing strategy to buy back its shares.”
Take-Two and Icahn gave no reason for the sale of the shares, but as previously agreed, Icahn’s Brett Icahn, Jim Nelson, and SungHwan Cho and have resigned from the Take-Two board.
The Icahn Group is overseen by activist investor Carl Icahn and this year Forbes named him one of its 40 Highest-Earning hedge fund managers. In the past he’s tried to acquire Dell, Marvel Comics and owns a ten percent stake in Netflix.
[UPDATE]: Investors did not greet the news warmly, as Take-Two shares traded at twice their average volume and ended the trading day down 5.49 percent to $16.
In less than a week, both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One will have launched in the world’s most lucrative console markets. If you had to plant a flag to mark the start of a new generation, you’d do well to find a more appropriate spot.
Well, praise be. Microsoft was justifiably lambasted for its early direction and messaging, but the ill-feeling created by that string of fumbled choices was untroubled by all subsequent attempts to retrench and appease. Since then, Sony has walked a blessed path; not exactly free of mistakes and questionable decisions, but bolstered by the knowledge that the scrutiny of both the press and the forum-dwelling public was focused elsewhere. Perhaps now hard numbers can replace the speculation and supposition. Perhaps now we will be able to see the true measure of the policy reversals and resolution deficiencies.
There is, after all, a bigger picture to consider. It can be fun to get lost in the manufactured rivalry of a console war, but both Sony and Microsoft understand that this generation must be about more than the chips in their little – and not so little – black boxes. Gaming has never been more popular, or more culturally prevalent, but a lot has changed since the console companies last played this billion-dollar crapshoot.
So much of the industry’s recent growth has happened away from the traditional world of AAA blockbusters, where audience gains have been handily outmatched by soaring expenses. The early debate may be dominated by familiar concerns over framerates and dots-per-inch, but the terms of this generation will be different from the last. Sony’s mistakes with the PlayStation 3′s esoteric architecture didn’t go unnoticed by either party, and it shows in the hardware.
“The last generation created a bunch of artificial work. You had to do things in a very different way and, in the end, it wasn’t like you got a massive amount of technical performance out of it. It was time that didn’t go into making the games better,” says Nick Button-Brown, general manager at Crytek.
“I like the fact that, this time, it’s all built on architecture that we can understand. If you look at the PS3, people only started to get the most out of the system at the end of the cycle, but that’s five or six years on. That’s terrible. I want to start getting at the most nearer the start. That’s the advantage with simpler and more similar architecture – we’ll be seeing much more from the first games out.”
Crytek is the studio responsible for Ryse: Son of Rome, a standard-bearer for the Xbox One. Button-Brown admits that, while setting a visual benchmark was the not the main objective of the project, it was a side-mission of sorts, and the pride with which he describes Crytek’s work indicates that he considers the mission very much accomplished. The smoke, the fire, the beads of sweat running down the lined, wrinkled faces of the characters, the way those characters plant their feet; these are, he boldly claims, new heights for console gaming.
“I do think we’re going to set a visual benchmark; it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat our visual performance. We put a lot of work into facial, a lot of work into animation, just making it all feel much more real,” he says. “Is there further we can go? Definitely. We have some high-end cinema tools that don’t run in real-time even on high-end PCs now – we’re talking one, two frames per second. Eventually, we’ll be able to run those in real-time.”
In the absence of stiff competition, Ryse has as strong a claim to the pinnacle of visual excellence as any other launch title, but Button-Brown understands that such victories are short-lived. After all, in blockbuster development, a better looking game is always just over the next hump of the release schedule. Crytek will no doubt persist in that direction, but the impact of this generation’s visual performance will not be as profound as the jump to HD, and the differences between the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hardware will matter less still. This time, exactly what constitutes the “cutting-edge” will be harder to pin down.
“There’s always more we can do [visually], but I do think you reach a point where, for the user, they feel that it looks as good as it’s going to get, and they’re not going to see a huge difference between [the consoles],” he says. “For us, the leap is about the details. It’s not about one or two big things. It’s about being able to do small things much better: more stuff on-screen, more AI, more physics.”
It would be churlish to ignore the fact that Ryse has failed to stir the imaginations of the critics, eliciting unanimous praise for its visual detail and precious little else. My interview with Button-Brown was conducted prior to the publication of those reviews, but even then he was cognisant of the gamble creating a launch title for this particular generation represented. In the past, there were obvious, powerful hooks for developers to work with – the advent of 3D graphics and HD graphics, the availability of a hard-drive, online play as a usable tool – but this generation is more diffuse.
“Going into launch, I don’t know whether we’ve spent the resources in the right place. I don’t know whether we’ve focused our efforts in the right place. I’m only going to know that when people get to buy it,” he says.
“We talk to publishers a lot, and one of the most painful questions is, ‘Tell me what next gen gameplay is gonna be?’ It’s not something you can define. Nobody delivers gameplay because it’s next gen; you’re delivering gameplay because it’s good. That’s one of the things we struggled with [in Ryse's E3 demo]. We showed a cut-down version of the gameplay and we were criticised for that. We didn’t see that coming. We were too close, and we cut it down further than people wanted to see.”
However, while the criticisms leveled at Ryse may well be justified, a part of the problem may be that, at the dawn of a new generation, nobody is quite sure what they want to see. They only know what has gone before, and will resist any attempt to smuggle what are regarded as the bad habits of the past into the $400 future. Ryse signalled its intent with combat that closely resembled a QTE. That was never likely to go down well with the press, who instantly suspected Crytek of trying to coast on graphics alone.
“The generational leap is not as clear cut now,” Button-Brown admits. “Maybe in a year’s time we’ll have a better understanding of what the leap really is this time, as people start playing things and we start to see what really matters. I think with hindsight we’ll be able to look back and see, ‘yeah, that was the big step.’”
Perhaps it’s naive to expect more clarity on what might define this generation from developers working so closely with the hardware, but in any case, that would be no slight against Crytek. Apart from Kinect 2.0 on the Xbox One – which may finally have the hardware to honour some of the promises made four years ago – in terms of new game experiences there isn’t an obvious wellspring for original ideas on either console. Indeed, the most obvious differences in the early days of the generation are likely to be found in the service layer: social integration, voice control, multimedia functions, and other areas often dismissed as secondary to the tasks for a which a console should be designed.
This is one of the key ideas I took away from my conversation with Michiel van de Leeuw, technical director at Guerrilla Games. Essentially, the moment-to-moment experience of established genres will remain the same, but innovation will arise from, “a deeper, underlying layer.”
“It’s not like we have that one gizmo to make everything really good or different, but the way that the operating system and the games work together, it’s much more of a marriage of those two things,” says van de Leeuw. “It’s a much more holistic approach to the console. How do people use it? How do people want to use it? How do we make sure that every hour of using your console is an hour spent having fun? And almost nothing is more fun than sharing experiences with other people. It’s all integrated, and under the hood there’s a lot of complexity to make sure that you don’t notice it. A lot of magic is necessary to make it look simple.”
As a subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment and the developer of a key launch title, Guerrilla Games was part of the inner circle that formed around Mark Cerny during the PlayStation 4′s creation. The most taxing problem, the subject of the most meetings and debates, was how to improve the experience around and outside of the games – streaming, background downloads, switching between applications, and so on. For Cerny, “immediacy” was a watchword.
When it came to the fundamental hardware architecture, however, van de Leeuw says that the directive was relatively simple: “give us more…as many graphical gizmos as you can afford.” The extra power was a given rather than the main focus.
“I like to ask people about what the next generation should be about, and everyone says, ‘it has to be a photo-realistic, and everything has to be more. There has to be thousands of people and blah, blah, blah.’ But why is that fun? If you have 1000 people around you, do you feel more attached to them than if you just had one or two? Technology does not immediately result in a more satisfying experience. The first layer that people think about is better graphics, more of everything. And then they think, ‘What do I need more of? I don’t know, really, but there must be more of something‘.”
There it is again: the great, unknowable ‘something’ that, nevertheless, everyone is waiting impatiently to see. Killzone: Shadow Fall has fared better with the critics than Ryse, but the expectation of clear, identifiable progress is used as ammunition in the majority of its negative reviews. For van de Leeuw – who also spoke to me prior to the publication of his game’s review scores – launch titles are not necessarily supposed to alter the way people look at games as a whole, but he also makes no secret of the increasing complexity of productions on the scale of Killzone. More power can make life easier in some respects, but certainly not all.
“You have to focus on 1000 things at the same time, and at the same time as that you need to grow your company, because you need more people to focus on all of those things. That, by itself, becomes a problem, because it becomes difficult to manage the complexity brought by all of those extra people. It’s very challenging.
“We’re working with first-person shooters, and look at how incredibly complex these things are. You’re not just selling one game: you’re selling a movie, and a game, and a multiplayer experience that needs to fit with eSports, and it’s all packaged together. And it all has to be good, because the competition is incredibly, and increasingly, good.”
Indeed, it is the progress evident in individual games, rather than the super-charged hardware, that truly plants a gauntlet at the feet of the industry’s developers. Umpteen gigabytes of GDDR5 memory is not nearly as powerful a motivator to do better work as the release of, say, The Last of Us or The Walking Dead. New hardware may give developers more options, but the real skill lies in making the right decisions. When there is enough of an installed-base to offer a safety net, van de Leeuw says, the industry’s most talented developers will start taking creative risks, and new genres will emerge.
But will that innovation be exclusive to a specific platform? When a consumer makes their decision to buy either a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One, is the potential for new ideas a relevant factor? From the developer side, ven de Leeuw says, the differences in the hardware of this generation may not offer the sort of rewards that Naughty Dog and Guerrilla wrung out of the PlayStation 3′s distinctive Cell processor. Today, with teams spiralling into the hundreds, budgets on the rise and a dozen other platforms to consider, the emphasis is on efficient tools and flexible engines. Microsoft and Sony made a conscious choice to be more similar than different in terms of architecture, with developers’ needs firmly in mind.
“Being able to squeeze more out of the console by really focusing on it allowed us, in the past, to create experiences that couldn’t be done, or would be much harder to do if we had to split our focus. But I think we’re coming to the day where the amount of effort you have to put in to do that, it’s questionable whether it’s worth it.
“Our games are getting so big. We try to make our experiences richer for gamers, but at some point… there are pros and cons. Sometimes we wished that things were easier. The [PlayStation 3] was difficult to program for, but I still sometimes I miss it because it was also very powerful. You could do a lot of stuff that’s still very difficult to replicate, but the time for bespoke architectures is slowly going away.
“If you look back, raw assembly and raw power were what enabled new experiences. Nowadays, experiences are defined or limited by how efficient our toolsets are, how smooth our workflow is, how quickly we can develop, and how much time we have to spend on mundane distractions… Bespoke architecture allows you to do cool and crazy stuff, and from a technical point-of-view I’m still in love with that sort of thing, but I have a 230-person studio that wants to make a killer title.”
Despite what many executives have claimed in calls to their investors, both van de Leeuw and Button-Brown either strongly imply or directly confirm that the cost of making those “killer titles” will rise this generation – not to the same degree as they did with the Xbox 360 and PS3, perhaps, but certainly beyond the already precarious conditions that exist today. While we pore over screenshot comparisons, declaring winners and losers over slight differences in observable visual performance, it’s worth considering what any third-party would actually stand to gain from making one version of a game significantly better than another. Indeed, at companies like Epic, EA and Crytek, the emphasis has been on creating cost-saving tools that work seamlessly across all platforms, effectively glossing over aspects of the hardware that could lead to substantial gains in performance. First-party developers will still pursue that, of course, but, according to Button-Brown, for everyone else the base-level of AAA acceptability now sits at a daunting height on both platforms.
“If anything is just okay, it’s now terrible. ‘Solid’ is a failure. You now have to be so good,” he says. “The teams are getting larger and the risks are getting higher. We’re trying to do a lot of procedural stuff in this next generation to keep costs under control. It’s one of the ways we’re trying to keep that down, but it’s still a cost increase. Each asset needs to be so much better, so much more defined, than it was in the previous generation. No amount of procedural is going to change the fact that your underlying asset just has to be that much better.”
All of that hard-scrabble at the top end of the industry – essentially, fewer companies using more resources to create and market a smaller number of increasingly large games – will have a clear upside for independent developers. Indeed, right now, the beneficial ramifications of Sony’s decision to court indies as early as possible is arguably the most significant difference between the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. It always felt like a smart move, and that feeling will be further justified as the paucity of $60 blockbuster releases becomes more apparent.
Microsoft’s early digital strategies and the Xbox One’s evidently underpowered hardware may have monopolised the headlines, but Oddworld Inhabitants’ Lorne Lanning believes that it’s Microsoft’s belated effort to secure the diverse, free-flow of content from the indie sector that has truly given Sony the advantage. That reluctance to open up the Xbox platform, he argues, is tied to a big-business mentality that no longer works in a connected entertainment medium – the very same mentality that led to the unanimously derided online check-ins and multimedia focus that dominated the Xbox One’s early messaging.
“ID@Xbox was a bittersweet victory,” Lanning says. “If you have your ear to the ground today, you could see that those policies were going to blow up in its face, particularly when you see what [Sony] was doing. That was an old way of thinking, a way of thinking that was all about control. It’s a trickle down from being a monopoly. There’s a reason there was a class-action suit [against Microsoft]. There’s a reason there was an SEC, antitrust thing. There’s a very good reason for that. They wanted to control everything. The people who made those policies were still thinking very much in that way, and it blew up in their faces.”
For Lanning, this will be a generation defined by consumers getting what they want, rather than what they’re given. The generation where consumers wrest control of gaming back from the companies that have controlled it for so long – platform holders, publishers, retailers – and seek satisfaction from the most agile creative forces. There may be some lingering resistance from those with vested interests in established models, but Lanning believes any company seeking to stand in the way of this intractable change is unlikely to emerge with much credit. There will be more products offering a wider variety of experiences than on any previous generation, with price-points to suit every wallet. The lines of communication are wide open. There is nowhere left to hide.
“As people are becoming more informed and more connected, the shenanigans are becoming more transparent. And with that, what we’ll get is more diversity,” Lanning says. “The industry made up of five publishers really isn’t that long ago, and now what’s going on? How many self-publishing indies are there that can get a 1.5x return on each game and keep building? Maybe they can’t grow and be 500 people by the next year, but they can add 5 more by the next year.”
I mention the prevailing fear that the marketplaces on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will become too crowded – that by making consoles a more accessible place for independent developers, they will lose the focus that created huge successes like Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy and Braid. For Lanning, it’s a worthwhile trade, and one of the most important ways that indies need to “grow up” to take advantage of the incredible opportunity this generation represents. The Battlefields and the Assassin’s Creeds will continue to exist and thrive, but the average consumer knows that already. What they don’t know about are games like Octodad, Below and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and more fool the studio who leaves it up to Microsoft or Sony to raise their profile.
“If we sell a game now for $10, we get $7 on digital networks. Once upon a time, we weren’t even getting $7 on a $60 game,” Lanning says. “It’s a whole different thing, but you have to bring your own visibility. That’s your responsibility. Beyond just designing the game, we have to design how to build the relationship with our audience. People know that they want the GTA and the Call of Duty, and they’re gonna be on both systems. But they also want the surprises, and they want to experiment with those surprises at below the $60 price range. The audience always wants more choice.
“The biggest earners are gonna be the big AAA titles, because they have the $100 million marketing campaigns. You can’t compete with that. But in the years to come, the big properties at E3, the $100 million properties, they will have started off in the indie space. They’re gonna innovate cheaper, faster and more with their audience right away. That’s a guarantee.”