Activision Blizzard has bought King Digital Entertainment for $5.9 billion, marking not only one of the largest acquisitions in videogame history but one of the largest deals ever made in the entertainment business. Comparing this to previous entertainment deals highlights just how extraordinary the figures involved are; the purchase price values King at significantly more than Marvel Entertainment (acquired by Disney for $4.2 billion), Star Wars owner Lucasfilm (Disney again, for $4.1 billion) and movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (acquired by Sony for almost $5 billion). The price dwarfs the $1.5 billion paid by Japanese network SoftBank and mobile publisher GungHo for Supercell back in 2013 – though it’s not quite on the same scale as the $7.4 billion price tag Disney paid for Pixar, or in the same ballpark as the $18 billion-odd involved in the merger that originally created Activision Blizzard itself.
How is $5.9 billion justified? Well, it’s a fairly reasonable premium of 20% over the company’s share price – though if you’ve been holding on to King shares since its IPO in 2014, you’ll still be disappointed, as it’s far short of the $22.50 IPO price, or even the $20.50 that the shares traded at on their first day on the open market. The company’s share price has been more or less stable this year, but Activision’s offer still doesn’t make up for the various tumbles shares took through 2014.
A better justification, perhaps, lies in the scale of King’s mobile game business. The company is a little off its peak at the moment. Candy Crush Saga, its biggest title, is on a slow decline from an extraordinary peak of success, and other titles aren’t growing fast enough to make up for that decline, but it still recorded over half a billion monthly active users (MAUs) in its recently reported second quarter figures. In terms of paying users, the company had 7.6 million paying users each month – more than Blizzard’s cash cow, World of Warcraft, and moreover, the average revenue from each of those users was $23.26, far more than a World of Warcraft subscriber pays. King took in $529 million in bookings during the quarter, 81 per cent of it from mobile devices – a seriously appealing set of figures for a company like Activision, which struggles to get even 10 per cent of its revenues from mobile despite its constant lip-service to the platform.
In buying King, Activision instantly makes itself into one of the biggest players in the mobile space, albeit simply by absorbing the company that is presently at the top of the heap. It diversifies its bottom line in a way that investors and analysts have been crying out for it to do, reducing its reliance on console (still damn near half of its revenues) and on the remarkable-but-fading World of Warcraft, and bulking up its anaemic mobile revenues to the point of respectability. On paper, this deal turns Activision into a much more broad-based company that’s far more in line with the present trajectory of the market at large, and should assuage the fears of those who think Activision’s over-reliance on a small number of core franchises leaves it far more vulnerable than rivals like Electronic Arts.
That’s on paper. In practice, though, what has Activision just bought for $5.9 billion? That’s a slightly trickier question. The company is, unquestionably, now the proud owner of one of the most talented and accomplished creators and operators of mobile games in the world. King’s experience of developing, marketing and, crucially, running mobile games at enormous scale, and the team that accomplished all of that, is undoubtedly valuable in its own right. Those are talents that Activision didn’t have yesterday, but will have tomorrow. Are those talents worth $5.9 billion, though? Without wishing for a moment to cast doubt on the skills of those who work at King, no, they’re not. $5.9 billion isn’t “acquihire” money, and when that’s the kind of cash involved we simply can’t think of this as an “acquihire” deal. Activision didn’t pay that kind of money in order to get access to the talent and experience assembled at King. It paid for King itself, for its ongoing businesses and its IP.
Open the shopping bag, and you might struggle to understand how the contents reach $5.9 billion at the till. King has one remarkable, breakthrough, enormously successful IP – Candy Crush Saga, which still accounts (not including heavily marketed spin-off title Candy Crush Soda Saga) for 39 per cent of the company’s gross bookings. No doubt deeply aware of the danger of being over-reliant on revenues from this single title, King has worked incredibly hard to find success for other games in its portfolio. But even its great efforts in this regard have failed to compensate for falling revenues from Candy Crush, and it’s notable that a fair amount of the “non-Candy Crush Saga” revenue that the company boasts actually comes from Candy Crush Soda Saga. Other titles like Farm Heroes Saga and Pet Rescue Saga are no doubt profitable and successful in their own right, and King would be a sustainable business even without Candy Crush. But it would be a much, much smaller business, and certainly not a $5.9 billion business.
Despite being generally bullish about King’s prospects, then, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the company has done incredibly well out of this acquisition. The undoubted talent and experience of its teams aside, this is, realistically, a company with one IP worth paying for, and unlike Star Wars or the Avengers, Candy Crush is a very new IP whose longevity is entirely untested and whose potential for merchandising or cross-media ventures is dubious at best. King has done better than most of its rivals in the mobile space at applying some of the lessons of its biggest hit to subsequent games and making them successful, but it shares with every other mobile developer the same fundamental problem: none of them has ever worked out how to bottle the lightning that creates a mega-hit and repeat the success down the line. Absent of another Candy Crush game, the odds are that King’s business would slowly deflate as the air escaped from the Candy Crush bubble, until the company’s sustainable (and undoubtedly profitable) core was what was left. Selling up to Activision at a healthy premium while the company is still “inflated” by the likely unrepeatable success of Candy Crush is a fantastic move for the company’s management and investors, but rather less so for Activision.
Perhaps, though, the whole might be more than the sum of its parts? Couldn’t Activision, holders of some of the world’s favourite console and PC game IP, work with King to leverage that IP and the firm’s reach in traditional games, creating new business at the interaction of their respective specialisations? That’s a big part of what made Pixar so valuable to Disney, for example; the match between their businesses was of vital importance to that deal, and the same can broadly be said for Disney’s other huge acquisitions, Lucasfilm and Marvel. (SoftBank’s purchase of Supercell, by comparison, was rather more of a straightforward market-share land grab.) What could this new hybrid, Activision Blizzard King, hope to achieve in terms of overlap that enhances the value of its various component parts?
Certainly, Activision has some properties that could work on mobile (I’m thinking specifically of Skylanders here, though others may also fit); some Blizzard properties could also probably work on mobile, though I very much doubt that Blizzard (which retains a strong degree of independence within the group) is a good cultural fit for King, and is deeply unlikely to work with it in any manner which gives up the slightest creative control over its properties. King’s properties, meanwhile, don’t look terribly enticing as console or PC games, and conversions done this way would almost certainly defeat the entire purpose of the deal anyway, since the objective is to bolster Activision’s mobile business. The prospect of a mobile game based on Call of Duty or another major console IP may seem superficially interesting, but we’ve been down this road before and it didn’t lead anywhere impressive. Sure, core gamers are on mobile too, but they’ve by and large been nonplussed at best and outraged at worst by the notion of engaging with mobile versions of their console favourites. It’s genuinely hard to piece together the various IPs and franchises owned by King and Activision and see how there’s any winning interaction between them on the table.
This is what makes me keep returning to those other mega-deals – to Star Wars, to Marvel, to Pixar – and finding the contrast between them and Activision / King so extraordinary. Each of those multi-billion dollar deals was carried out by Disney with a very specific, long-term plan in mind that would leverage the abilities of both acquirer and acquired to create something far more than the sum of its parts. Each of those deals had a very clear raison d’être beyond simply “it’ll make us bigger.” Each of those companies fitted with the new parent like a piece of a puzzle. King’s only role in Activision’s “puzzle” is that they do mobile, and Activision sucks at mobile; there’s no sense of any grand plan that will play out.
In all likelihood, Activision has just paid a huge premium for a company which is past the peak of its greatest hit title and into a period of managed decline, not to mention a company with which its core businesses simply don’t fit in any meaningful way. King’s a great company in many respects, but its acquisition isn’t going to go down as a great deal for Activision – and we can expect to see plenty of that $5.9 billion being frittered away in goodwill write-downs over the coming few years.
Valve has developed its own Intel Vulkan GPU graphics driver for Linux that they intend to open-source.
The Vulkan API is still being argued about and will not be finalized until later this year, but Valve has been developing their own Intel GPU reference driver for Vulkan to help early adopter’s boot-strap their code.
During their presentation at GDC2015 Valve announced that its Intel Linux driver will be open-sourced, but they haven’t provided a time-frame for doing so.
Valve also confirmed that the Source 2 Engine supports the alpha Vulkan API today and that Vulkan will be supported across the board on Steam Machines.
Intel graphics hardware might not be the sexiest, but there is a lot of it out there. It is also easy to target for an open-source driver given Intel’s extensive hardware specifications / programming documentation.
A Vulkan Intel Linux graphics driver used by game developers sounds very promising for having good support for this new API and most likely high-performance was a priority in the development of this driver by Valve and likely their partners at LunarG.
Sony has admitted that its recent 2.0 PS4 firmware update is a nightmare.
Users who updated are experiencing frequent network errors and issues including consoles not turning on once in Sleep mode, broken Music player, borked PSN and loss of themes for those in the UK.
The reports started emerging just after the update went live on Tuesday and Sony has said that it is aware of the issues.
It said its engineers are investigating.
The software update was supposed to add new features, including YouTube integration and themes. It also unlocked Share Play, Sony’s new system for allowing users to share their games to other players, over the internet.
Of course this is meaningless if your console is broken.
When Titan first came to light in 2007, most people assumed it would be Blizzard’s next big thing, ultimately taking the place of World of Warcraft which was likely to see further declines in the years ahead. Fast forward seven years, WoW clearly has been fading (down to 6.8 million subs as of June 30) but Blizzard has no MMO lined up to replace it, and that fact was really hammered home today with the surprise cancellation of Titan. In fact, the developer stressed that it didn’t want to be known as an MMO company and one may not be in its future. Cancelling the project this late in the game may have cost Blizzard several tens of millions of dollars, analysts told GamesIndustry.biz.
“Development costs for Titan may have amounted to tens of millions, perhaps $50 million or more. This is not an unusual event, however. Blizzard has cancelled several games in various stages of development in the past. Costs for unreleased games can be significant, but launching substandard games can harm the reputation of a successful publisher such as Blizzard. Expenses for development can be considered R&D, and benefits can include invaluable training, IP and technology that can be applied to other games,” explained independent analyst Billy Pidgeon.
Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter estimated an even higher amount lost: “My guess is 100 – 200 people at $100,000 per year, so $70 – 140 million sunk cost. It’s pretty sad that it took so long to figure out how bad the game was. I expect them to go back to the drawing board.”
Indeed, the market has changed considerably in the last seven years, and while MMOs like EA’s Star Wars: The Old Republic struggle to find a large audience, free-to-play games and tablet games like Blizzard’s own Hearthstone are finding success. Blizzard has no doubt been keenly aware of the market realities too.
“As far back as 2013, they had already stated Titan was not likely to be a subscription-based MMORPG. This is consistent with a market that is increasingly dominated by multiplayer games that are either free to play or are an expected feature included with triple-A games such as Call of Duty. Titanfall and Destiny sold as standalone games supplemented by paid downloadable add-ons. Blizzard maintains very high standards of quality, so expectations will be steep for new franchises as well as for sequels,” Pidgeon continued.
DFC Intelligence’s David Cole agreed, noting that after seven years of development in an industry where trends and technologies change at a rapid pace, Blizzard simply had to pull the plug on Titan.
“They realized that unless a big MMO is out-of-this-world unbelievable it won’t work in today’s market where it competes against a bunch of low cost options. If they felt that it just wasn’t getting to that point it makes sense to cut your losses,” he noted. “Also, you see games like League of Legends and their own Hearthstone which are doing very well on a much lower budget.”
“For Blizzard, I am expecting to see them continue to focus on high quality products but also focus on products with shorter development cycles and less cost. The market is just not in a place where you can have games with 7+ year development. It is changing too fast.”
For most developers, junking a seven-year long project would instantly spell turmoil, but thankfully for Blizzard, it’s part of the Activision Blizzard behemoth, which has a market cap of over $15 billion and, as of June 30, cash and cash equivalents of over $4 billion on hand. It’s a nice luxury to have.
Sources are suggesting that Activision is planning to launch an entertainment division that would be responsible for creating movies and TV shows based on Activision intellectual properties. The move might leave many scratching their heads if true since so many others have failed at trying to turn video game IP into gold.
Word is that CEO Bobby Kotick is taking to folks in an effort to secure the right talent to make this happen. Kotick has to be aware that this has not gone well for its competitors, but he apparently thinks that Activision IP is different and they will have no problem giving the people want they want.
Our take on this is that we will wait and see what happens, but it will not be easy to be successful, regardless of the IP that you have in your stable. The bigger question might be is it really worth the money and effort to try and make it work?
Activision Blizzard reported its financial results for the quarter ended June 30 today, revealing an unprecedented reliance on digital revenues.
The publisher reported revenues of $970 million in sales on a GAAP basis, 49 percent of which came from digital channels. On a non-GAAP basis (excluding the impact of changes in deferred revenues), the digital percentage was actually 73 percent of the company’s $658 million in sales. Activision attributed the digital strength to Blizzard’s lineup of titles (World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Diablo III), combined with digital sales for Call of Duty.
However, not all of those digital sales drivers posted strong numbers for the quarter. World of Warcraft in particular lost about 800,000 subscribers over the period, and as of the end of June was down to a paying player base of 6.8 million gamers. However, Activision Blizzard characterized this decline as a “seasonal” dip in advance of the next expansion, Warlords of Draenor, which is set to launch later this year. The publisher likened the downturn to the subscriber losses that happened in 2012 ahead of the Mists of Panderia launch.
On a GAAP basis, Activision Blizzard revenues were down nearly 8 percent, with net income down 37 percent to $204 million. However, the publisher still beat its previous guidance. On a non-GAAP basis, revenues were up about 10 percent to $658 million, while non-GAAP net income was reported at $45 million, down 50 percent year-over-year.
The quarter’s performance gave Activision Blizzard enough confidence to update its previous guidance for the full year. For calendar year 2014, the publisher had previously forecast total GAAP revenues of $4.22 billion, but moved that up to $4.24 billion today. The company also projected earnings per share of $0.91, up from $0.89.
There’s a popular narrative about Japan’s game development industry: it’s an industry in trouble, lagging behind the West and running out of ideas. If any Japanese developer wants to get themselves splashed into the headlines, all they need do is trot out a soundbite disparaging their own industry; in a world of click bait headlines, the fall of Japanese development is a sure-fire winner. The apparent decline of Japan’s game developers is linked to a secondary narrative as well, namely the decline of Japan’s internal market for videogames. Once the undisputed gaming capital of the world, Japan seems to be falling out of love with the pastime – at least on consoles, and at least according to some rather unusual readings of the data.
There’s a nugget of truth to both of these stories; just enough to make them worth considering, yet certainly not enough to prevent the majority of reporting and discussion on them from being a torrent of absolute nonsense. Japanese game development is somewhat troubled, but it’s troubled by exactly the same factors that are giving sleepless nights to Western game developers – skyrocketing AAA budgets, new business models, a diversification of platforms and the globalisation of the audience. Japanese development studios remain perfectly capable of making superb games that delight their fans; their problem, just as everywhere else, is figuring out how to make money from those games in a new world where profitability escapes everything but the million-selling megahit.
That links back to the second narrative; Japan is falling out of love with games. On the surface, it’s hard to see this alleged decline. The country’s arcades may not be what they once were, but they’re still far more numerous and spacious, not to mention well-attended, than any such establishments in the west. Dedicated videogame stores remain a fixture of shopping districts, while every large electronics store (and there are plenty of those, dominating most city centre areas) has a large videogames section – a stark contrast with, for example, central London, where actually going out and buying a videogame in a shop is an increasingly difficult task. Food courts and fast-food joints still play host to groups of children and teenagers engaged in the likes of Pokemon and Monster Hunter, and a trip outside in an urban area with a 3DS in your pocket will bag a full complement of Street Pass hits in no time flat.
Where’s the decline, then? Well, as figures released earlier this week by Japanese magazine publisher and industry data agency Enterbrain confirm, it’s not actually a decline so much as a stagnation. Enterbrain’s report, widely reported online after being translated in part by Kantan Games’ boss Serkan Toto on the company’s blog, showed that combined hardware and software sales in the first half of 2014 were almost exactly the same as the first half of 2013 – showing growth of just 0.1%. Toto’s entirely reasonable point was that this is much, much lower growth than Japan’s booming smartphone game market, yet this seems to have been picked up by many outlets as further confirmation of a Japanese gaming decline and specifically of a failure to ignite interest in the PS4.
Let’s be clear – the Japanese smartphone game market is in extraordinarily rude health. Revenues from mobile games, by some measures, surpassed packaged game revenue about three years ago and haven’t looked back since. For every person you see playing a 3DS or a Vita (the latter, I note, becoming vastly more commonplace on trains in recent months), you see dozens engrossed in mobile games. Puzzle & Dragons remains the clear favourite, but a trip on a busy Tokyo commuter line will turn up any number of different games gracing the ubiquitous smartphones. The industry’s revenues are clear to see, too; the vast majority of expensive marketing campaigns for games here are for mobile games, not console titles. Only last week I walked onto a train carriage on the phenomenally busy Yamanote loop line in central Tokyo to find that every advertising space in the carriage was full of Clash of Clans marketing; the huge billboard near my apartment, meanwhile, alternates fortnightly between ads for hopeful Puzzle & Dragons clones and ads for new singles by terrible boybands. There’s a huge amount of cash flowing through mobile games in Japan right now, and from a business perspective, that makes it a more interesting (if vastly more challenging) space than the console market.
Yet that doesn’t change the slowdown of Japan’s console market into a “decline” or a “crisis”. We all know that Japan has been ahead of the curve in terms of the adoption of videogames since the 1980s. 30 years down the line, is it surprising that it has hit a plateau? Gaming as a whole – including mobile, browser and online gaming – continues to grow at a massive rate, but in Japan at least, the console space has reached a point where there simply isn’t much new market to conquer. That may change in future as new devices open up new audiences, but console games as they stand don’t seem to have much further to go in Japan. That doesn’t make them a bad business. It means that if you want to make huge bucks and impress shareholders with your growth figures, you probably want to place your investments elsewhere – but if you want to make great games and make money selling them, a mature, stable market is no worse a place to do that than a growing one.
Moreover, when you consider the underlying factors in Japan’s economy, maintaining a steady market size is actually quite impressive. Japan’s population peaked in 2008 and has slowly declined since then; the most rapid decline being the proportion of young people (the most avid consumers of videogames). So this is a market with less “core” consumers of videogames than before; moreover, a series of ill-targeted reforms and a few decades of economic slump have meant that a very large proportion of those young people are trapped in low-paying work with no job security. Furthermore, Japan’s prices have been in slow but steady decline since the early 1990s. Yes, unlike most western economies, Japanese prices aren’t slowly rising due to inflation – rather, they’re falling due to deflation. This has supposedly been reversed in the past 12 months or so, with tiny inflation figures finally showing up, but most of the change so far has been down to a sharp rise in energy costs (a consequence of expensive imported fuels replacing Japan’s still-offline nuclear power plants) and it generally hasn’t been reflected in consumer goods.
One other economic factor has been mentioned by a handful of writers this week. They pointed out that Japan’s consumption tax went up from 5 per cent to 8 per cent in April, in the middle of this reporting period; if that 3 per cent hike were included in Enterbrain’s figures, it would mean industry revenues actually fell. However, to my knowledge Enterbrain’s numbers are based on pre-tax figures, much as US market data is, and thus the consumption tax rise isn’t a factor – except in that it would have been expected to push videogame sales down, thus making the rise slightly more impressive.
In short – Japan has less consumers for games and it’s charging less for things than it used to. Under those circumstances, a market which was performing precisely as well this year as it did last year would be expected to show a modest decline. Just staying still would mean you’d actually grown by a few percent in relative to offset the underlying audience decline and price deflation. Growing by 0.1% in Japan is comparable to growing by a couple of percent in the USA or much of Europe, where population is still generally growing and prices are being inflated, not deflated.
These factors don’t combine to mean that Japan is magically showing strong growth in defiance of the figures, but they are important to understanding what the figures mean. Japan’s “decline” is more like stagnation, and in the past year, even that stagnation has showed a positive trend. The market for consoles and games remains big and pretty healthy even as the market for smartphone games shoots through the roof; both of them clearly have an important place in the future of the country’s games industry.
As for the supposedly “disappointing” impact of the PlayStation 4? There’s no doubt that the performance of the console has slowed down significantly since a very strong launch, but it’s worth noting that sales of hardware were actually up nearly 7% year-on-year, with the PS4 and the resurgent Vita picking up slack from slower sales of the 3DS. PS4′s software line-up in Japan is still largely composed of western titles with limited appeal to the local audience, and the console probably won’t pick up significantly until more local software is available later this year – it’s notable that the PS Vita’s success in the first half of 2014 is largely attributable to the sudden arrival of software titles that match local tastes, and not (as some commentators would have it) to an upsurge of interest in PS4 Remote Play functionality. Overall, PS4 in Japan continues to perform as you’d expect for a new console with limited software – a great launch, followed by slow but steady sales while it awaits new software to spark purchases from new audiences. It’s done well, but it hasn’t “rescued” the Japanese market; but then again, if you take the time to understand the figures, it should be pretty clear that the Japanese market doesn’t actually need rescuing.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; while I hesitate to apply Dickens’ immortal words to something as fleetingly temporal as Sony’s financial woes, it’s a quote I couldn’t quite shake as I digested this week’s results statement. Here is a company that has just launched one of its most important products in years, the PlayStation 4, to almost universal fanfare and massive sales; whose reputation has risen remarkably in its core markets and whose overseas sales are, finally, being buoyed once more by a sensibly-priced Yen. The best of times! And yet; here is a company whose computer entertainment division can’t turn a profit, a company posting huge losses against all expectations, a company whose already-interminable restructuring is set to last another year. The worst of times.
Sony lost over $1.2 billion last year. Revenues were up, though; over $75 billion poured through the company during the year, a 14.3% increase on the previous year. That’s important context for the scale of the loss, but it doesn’t make the loss itself any smaller. Market analysts expected a small profit. Instead, they got not only a loss overall, but a loss in the videogames division specifically, whose seemingly stellar performance recently could not plug the $78 million gap in its finances.
To add to the company’s woes, its new CFO – the commendably straight-talking Yoshida Kenichiro – says that next year will be another loss. There’s more restructuring ahead, he told analysts at a briefing this week, and it’s going to hit the company’s balance sheet hard in the next 12 months. Yoshida simultaneously promises light at the end of the tunnel, and a rocky road ahead; a travel-related mixed metaphor that probably doesn’t fill any veteran Sony-watchers with confidence.
It’s worth digging a little deeper into Sony’s results to try and understand what’s actually happening here. For all that it has trimmed its operations over the past decade, Sony remains a pretty enormous sprawl of a company, with interests that extend far beyond the consumer electronics for which western consumers recognise the firm. Sony Music and Sony Pictures, of course, are major parts of the business; Sony Computer Entertainment we all know and love; cameras and TVs we understand; but how about Sony’s life insurance businesses, or its banking efforts? How about its semiconductor operations, or its sidelines in making camera components for other firms’ smartphones? How about its fabrication plants for CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, responsible for a huge proportion of the discs on sale around the world today?
The challenge in interpreting Sony results lies in trying to understand the full scale of those business interests and then in trying to figure out where negative results really stem from. We know, for instance, that Sony is taking on major costs in winding down disc fabrication plants in some parts of the world. We know that the television division has been in trouble for years thanks to competition (some of it state-backed) from Asian rivals, and will finally be spun off and left to sink or swim in a major swathe of restructuring this year. That won’t be without its own costs, of course. Other costs or profits may be harder to discern. Clients for component businesses are generally somewhat anonymous; it’s considered an open secret that Sony provides the camera for recent iPhones, but few component contracts are quite so well-known, and thus, their bottom line impact is harder to discern.
What I’m saying is that Sony (and to an even greater extent, its rival Microsoft) is a bloody hard business to read and understand on the basis of financial reports. Companies like Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard really just do videogames, so when their results are poor, it’s easy to discern what’s going on. We know their products, we know their markets and we can usually quite easily discern the weaknesses causing difficulties (although seeing the difficulty and suggesting an effective prescription are two very different talents). Sony, however, is big, complex and obfuscated to no small degree. We get broad outlines; a big loss is a big loss; but the fine detail is hard to get a grasp upon.
None of which is to say we shouldn’t try. Sony is one of the most important companies in the games business; with the success of the PS4 over the past six months, it’s arguably the most important company in the business right now. Hence, yes, it’s a concern that it’s making big losses. It’s doubly concerning that some of those losses are coming out of the seemingly successful computer entertainment division, but we can make some educated guesses at what’s happening here. Firstly, the extremely high sales of the PS4 in its early months are actually a short-term negative to the company’s figures. Sony’s console business is a razor-and-razorblades model, selling hardware at a loss initially but recouping this money through software sales and, ultimately, through more profitable hardware sales down the line when manufacturing costs have fallen. Thus, the more units PS4 sold in its launch period, the more money Sony would lose – but this lost money is really more of an investment, since the firm is betting on getting it back in software sales down the line.
High early sales also contribute to losses in other ways. Sony’s launch plans for PS4 were hugely ambitious in terms of the number of units shipped to each territory; the company did end up somewhat supply-constrained, but it aimed to avoid such constraints where possible with enormous shipments and rapid resupply of inventory. This strategy may have been partially aimed at capitalising on Microsoft’s launch weakness before strategic changes could be made to the Xbox One’s product or pricing, but I’m sure that a wider goal was also in mind. Rapid sales of a new home console would silence some critics expecting tablets and smartphones to destroy this market sector entirely; such rapid sales would require a good supply chain, and those don’t come cheap. The exceptional ramp-up of Sony’s PS4 manufacturing capabilities won’t have been cheap, an expense compounded by the loss the firm will have registered on manufacturing every PS4 shipped to date.
In the short term, that means a loss for SCE; but CFO Yoshida seemed pretty blase about that, and rightly so. In the medium term, it’s a good investment. Sony has a great track record of strong attach rates for its consoles, meaning it will get its money back with interest. Moreover, it has a truly fantastic track record of cost-cutting on console manufacture, even managing to get the tricky Cell-based PS3 into a vastly smaller and cheaper casing in the end. The faster the installed base grows, the faster the bulk discounts to manufacturing costs can be realised; with PS4 selling far faster than PS3 or Xbox 360 did before it, Sony can expect its new console to be in the black well ahead of schedule.
As for the rest of the company; I reiterate my position that Kaz Hirai’s job is not an enviable one. It was said of John Riccitiello’s tenure at EA that he faced the task of trying to explain to shareholders why his company was in the fifth year of a three-year restructuring that was going to take seven years. Hirai’s task is even more tricky, in some regards. He’s only been in the top job for two years, so if his ambitious restructuring can truly be completed by next year (as Yoshida claims, with some authority) then it will actually have been a rather fast turnaround. However, Sony is already restructure-weary; seven years of turmoil under former CEO Howard Stringer left the company and its commentators skeptical of any claims regarding light at the end of the restructuring tunnel. Stringer did many good things and helped to move Sony’s culture to a point where Hirai’s ideas could find fertile soil, but he also permitted (or felt that he could not fight) all manner of poor strategy in core divisions, most notably television, where Sony has stumbled from disastrous strategy to doubly disastrous strategy on a near-annual basis for the past decade.
Hirai, at least, appears to have the confidence and the clout to make his plans work where Stringer’s did not. Separating the almost certainly doomed TV business from the rest of Sony is a good plan, but one that required extraordinary political capital within the firm. Having the respected Yoshida as CFO is also a good move, since it’s given Hirai the cover he needs to bring all of the financial pain of his restructuring plans into the current year and the following year. The temptation would have been to spread things out, but the markets seem to respect Hirai and Yoshida’s honesty in front-loading the costs, anticipating a return to profitability in two years’ time.
That, perhaps, is the big difference between Sony and Nintendo – two companies that have been compared heavily in discussion over their recent financial results. Both have some very profitable divisions (3DS does well for Nintendo, while movies and finance, in particular, are solid performers for Sony), but both have just recorded financial results well below expectations and triggered alarm among market commentators. Nintendo, though, can only suggest vague directions it might take to exit its current situation; it will take a major new product announcement to see whether the company can get back on track, and that’s not likely for a couple of years. Until then, Nintendo’s financial health is largely a matter of faith.
Sony, on the other hand, has a plan. It’s a tough plan, but a solid one; the divestment of loss-making businesses, the refocus on core pillars that actually make money, and more specifically to our industry, the tried-and-tested approach to bringing the PS4 into profitability as rapidly as possible. A CFO like Yoshida can speak plainly about how Sony is going to change, what it’s going to cost and when it’s going to start making money; Nintendo, relying on products still under wraps to give it a relevant future, lacks the ability to be so blunt and straightforward about how it will build future success.
Even the rather tolerant Japanese stock market and its very patient institutional investors have limits, and Sony could yet reach those limits. The company’s restructuring to date would try the patience of even someone playing a very long game; but Yoshida is a credible figure, Hirai seemingly retains the ability to carry out the reforms he plans, and the company’s generally profitable divisions, including games, are still in good shape. Even if another year of pain does loom for Sony, the end might finally be in sight; in 12 months time we can hope to hear of a leaner, tighter and more focused Sony, with black ink finally starting to crop up on its accounts.
“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.