Detractors of free-to-play have been having a good few weeks, on the surface at least. There’s been a steady drip-feed of articles and statements implying that premium-priced games are gaining ground on mobile and tablet devices, with parents in particular increasingly wary of F2P game mechanics; a suggestion from SuperData CEO Joost van Dreunen that the F2P audience has reached its limits; and, to top it off, a move by Apple to replace the word “Free” with a button labelled “Get” in the App Store, a response to EU criticism of the word Free being applied to games with in-app purchases.
Taken individually, each of these things may well be true. Premium-priced games may indeed be doing better on mobile devices than before; parents may indeed be demonstrating a more advanced understanding of the costs of “free” games, and reacting negatively to them. Van Dreunen’s assertion that the audience for F2P has plateaued may well be correct, in some sense; and of course, the EU’s action and Apple’s reaction is unquestionable. Yet to collect these together, as some have attempted, and present them as evidence of a turning tide in the “battle” between premium and free games, is little more than twisting the facts to suit a narrative in which you desperately want to believe.
Here’s another much-reported incident which upsets the apple cart; the launch of an add-on level pack for ustwo’s beautiful, critically acclaimed and much-loved mobile game Monument Valley. The game is a premium title, and its level pack, which added almost as much content as the original game again, cost $2. This charge unleashed a tide of furious one-star reviews slamming the developers for their greed and hubris in daring to charge $2 for a pack of painstakingly crafted levels.
This is a timely and sobering reminder of just how deeply ingrained the “content is free” ethos has become on mobile and tablet and platforms. To remind you; Monument Valley was a premium game. The furious consumers who viewed charging for additional content as a heinous act of money-grubbing were people who had already paid money for the game, and thus belong to the minority of mobile app customers willing to pay for stuff up front; yet even within this group the scope of their willingness to countenance paying for content is extremely limited (and their ire at being forced to do so is extraordinary).
Is this right? Are these consumers desperately wrong? It doesn’t matter, to be honest; it’s reality, and every amateur philosopher who fancies himself the Internet’s Immanuel Kant can talk about their theories of “right” pricing and value in comment threads all day long without making a whit of difference to the reality. Mobile consumers (and increasingly, consumers on other platforms) are used to the idea that they get content for free, through fair means or foul. We could argue the piece about whether this is an economic inevitability in an era of almost-zero reproduction and distribution costs, as some commentators believe, but the ultimate outcome is no longer in question. Consumers, the majority of them at least, expect content to be free.
F2P, for all that its practitioners have misjudged and overstepped on many occasions, is a fumbling attempt to answer an absolutely essential question that arises from that reality; if consumers expect content to be free, what will they pay for? The answer, it transpires, is quite a lot of things. Among the customers who wouldn’t pay $2 for a level pack are probably a small but significant number who wouldn’t have blinked an eye at dropping $100 on in-game currency to speed up their ability to access and complete much the same levels, and a much more significant percentage who would certainly have spent roughly that $2 or more on various in-game purchases which didn’t unlock content, per se, but rather smoothed a progression curve that allowed access to that content. Still others might have paid for customisation or for merchandise, digital or physical, confirming their status as a fan of the game.
I’m not saying necessarily that ustwo should have done any of those things; their approach to their game is undoubtedly grounded in an understanding of their market and their customers, and I hope that the expansion was ultimately successful despite all the griping. What I am saying is that this episode shows that the problem F2P seeks to solve is real, and the notion that F2P itself is creating the problem is naive; if games can be distributed for free, of course someone will work out a way to leverage that in order to build audience, and of course consumers will become accustomed to the idea that paying up front is a mugs’ game.
If some audiences are tiring of F2P’s present approach, that doesn’t actually remove the problem; it simply means that we need new solutions, better ways to make money from free games. Talking to developers of applications and games aimed at kids reveals that while there’s a sense that parents are indeed becoming very wary of F2P – both negative media coverage and strong anti-F2P word of mouth among parents seem to be major contributing factors – they have not, as some commentators suggest, responded by wanting to buy premium software. Instead, they want free games without any in-app purchases; they don’t buy premium games and either avoid or complain bitterly about in-app purchases. Is this reasonable? Again, it barely matters; in a business sense, what matters is figuring out how to make money from this audience, not questioning their philosophy of value.
Free has changed everything, yet that’s not to argue with the continued importance of premium software either. I agree with SuperData’s van Dreunen that there’s a growing cleavage between premium and free markets, although I suspect that the audience itself overlaps significantly. I don’t think, however, that purchasers of premium games are buying quite the same thing they once were. Free has changed this as well; the emergence and rapid rise of “free” as the default price point has meant that choosing to pay for software is an action that exists in the context of abundant free alternatives.
On a practical level, those who buy games are paying for content; in reality, though, that’s not why they choose to pay. There are lots of psychological reasons why people buy media (often it’s to do with self-image and self-presentation to peers), and now there’s a new one; by buying a game, I’m consciously choosing to pay for the privilege of not being subjected to free software monetisation techniques. If I pay $5 for a game, a big part of the motivation for that transaction is the knowledge that I’ll get to enjoy it without F2P mechanisms popping up. Thus, even the absence of F2P has changed the market.
This is the paradigm that developers at all levels of the industry need to come to terms with. Charging people for content is an easy model to understand, but it’s a mistaken one; people don’t really buy access to content. People buy all sorts of other things that are wrapped up, psychologically, in a content purchase, but are remarkably resistant to simply buying content itself.
“I think there’s a bright future for charging premium prices for games – even on platforms where Free otherwise dominates, although it will always be niche there”
There’s so much of it out there for free – sure, only some through legitimate means, but again, this barely matters. The act of purchase is a complex net of emotions, from convenience (I could pirate this but buying it is easier) and perceived risk (what if I get caught pirating? What if it’s got a virus?), through to self-identity (I buy this because this is the kind of game people like me play) and broadcast identity (I buy this because I want people to know I play this kind of game), through to peer group membership (I buy this because it’s in my friends’ Steam libraries and I want to fit in) or community loyalty (I buy this because I’m involved with a community around the developer and wish to support it); and yes, avoidance of free-game monetisation strategies is a new arrow in that quiver. Again, actually accessing content is low on the list, if it’s even there at all, because even if that specific content isn’t available for free somewhere (which it probably is), there’s so much other free content out there that anyone could be entertained endlessly without spending a cent.
In this context, I think there’s a bright future for charging premium prices for games – even on platforms where Free otherwise dominates, although it will always be niche there – but to harness this, developers should try to understand what actually motivates people to buy and recognise the disconnect between what the developer sees as value (“this took me ages to make, that’s why it’s got a price tag on it”) and what the consumer actually values – which could be anything from the above list, or a host of other things, but almost certainly won’t be the developer’s sweat and tears.
That might be tough to accept; but like the inexorable rise of free games and the continuing development of better ways to monetise them, it’s a commercial reality that defies amateur philosophising. You may not like the audience’s attitude to the value of content and unwillingness to pay for things you consider to be valuable – but between a developer that accepts reality and finds a way to make money from the audience they actually have, and the developer who instead ploughs ahead complaining bitterly about the lack of the ideal, grateful audience they dream of, I know which is going to be able to pay the bills at the end of the month.
Blizzard is happy and why shouldn’t they be as World of Warcraft subscriptions are up. The reason for the increase can be traced to the release of the latest expansion pack which was recently released. The latest WOW expansion pack is called Warlords of Draeno and its release has driven subscriptions to 10 million.
Selling over 3.3 million copies of the Warlords of Draenor on the first day alone, growth has been seen in all major territories since release. The numbers do include those players that are using the 1 month free subscription that comes with the expansion pack. WoW subscriptions had climbed to 7.4 million last quarter after being down.
Of course the release of Warlords of Draenor has not been without its problems. Still Blizzard says that they are working around the clock to address them. Owners have been offered free play time as compensation.
Microsoft has seen a number of Xbox One exclusive titles already be ported to the PC. Both Dead Rising 3 and Ryse have already made it to the PC, but we are now again hearing that Sunset Overdrive again is heading to the PC and Forza Horizon 2 maybe following as well.
This is not the first time we have heard rumors of Sunset Overdrive coming to the PC. An ad that suggested as much was down played at the time by Insomiac as a mistake. Now Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 showed up on Amazon France as coming for the PC.
While Phil Spencer has suggested that Microsoft will have more to say about the PC in 2015 and that it would be a good thing for PC gamers. The reality is that Microsoft has not pushed PC game development in a longtime as it chose to focus on titles for the Xbox and Xbox 360. With the Xbox One being closer in design to the PC, porting a title to the PC is easier and Microsoft of course wants to be a player in this space.
We will have to wait and see what actually happens, but should Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 make their way to the PC, it will be a good thing for PC gamers. Then again it could just be nothing more than a mistake.
Ubisoft is claiming that the reason that its latest Assassin’s Creed game was so bad was because of AMD and Nvidia configurations. Last week the Ubisoft was panned for releasing a game which was clearly not ready and Ubisoft originally blamed AMD for its faulty game. Now Ubisoft has amended an original forum post to include and acknowledge problems on Nvidia hardware as well.
Originally the post read “We are aware that the graphics performance of Assassin’s Creed Unity on PC may be adversely affected by certain AMD CPU and GPU configurations. This should not affect the vast majority of PC players, but rest assured that AMD and Ubisoft are continuing to work together closely to resolve the issue, and will provide more information as soon as it is available.”
However there is no equivalent Nvidia-centric post on the main forum, and no mention of the fact that if you own any Nvidia card which is not a GTX 970 or 980. What is amazing is that with the problems so widespread, Ubisoft did not see them in its own testing before sending it out to the shops. Unless they only played the game on an Nvidia GTX 970 and did not bother to test it on a console, it is inconceivable that they could not have seen it.
Mozilla is continuing its 10th birthday celebrations with the launch of a virtual reality (VR) website.
MozVR will be a portal to sites compatible with the Oculus Rift VR helmet, accessible by a VR-enabled version of the Firefox browser.
The site is designed to act as a sharing platform for VR web experiences as well as a place where developers can get hold of resources to help create their own.
MozVR has been built to be a “native VR” site and navigating around from site to site is completely immersive, described by the developers as like being teleported from place to place.
All the tools to create VR websites are open source, as you would expect from Mozilla, and have been posted to Github, including the full source code, a collection of tools and a range of tutorials.
Mozilla has contributed its own experience to the site in the form of Talk Chat Show Thing, the world’s first VR talk show, presented from the roof of Mozilla’s offices in San Francisco.
MozVR will also render correctly in VR versions of Chromium, the open source version of Google Chrome, giving Mozilla a significant foothold in a burgeoning early-adopter market.
In March of this year, Facebook purchased Oculus Rift maker Oculus VR, which continues to be run as a separate subsidiary.
The move caused animosity between developers and early adopters who felt that Facebook was an inappropriate home for the cutting edge device which had been originally crowdfunded through Kickstarter.
One of the inherent risks of a story-heavy IP is that if you bugger up one of the instalments, your audience skips it, falling out of touch with the series’ story arc and disconnecting from its universe. Such was the fear for Dragon Age, a world which impressed in its opening act, but fell away sharply with what felt like a rushed and uncertain part 2. In acknowledging the shortcomings of the second game, Bioware went some way towards reassuring the faithful, but it was undeniable that nothing less than a resounding crescendo could re-establish the land of Tevinter as an RPG setting of the same calibre as the Tamriel of the Elder Scrolls or The Witcher’s Temeria.
There aren’t many teams you’d rather leave such a task in the hands of than Bioware’s and, judging from review scores, that trust would be well-placed. With a metacritic ranging from 84 for Xbox One, 88 on PC and 89 for PS4, EA and Bioware seem to have established the Dragon Age series as the new gen’s first top-class RPG – stealing a march on 2015′s Witcher 3 and whatever Bethesda may be working on as a follow up to Skyrim.
One of the best-scoring reviews comes from Polygon’s Philip Kollar, who focuses on the game’s scope, characters and sheer wealth of content in his 9.5/10 review. Kollar argues that this is the game where the universe really finds its feet, finally fulfilling the promise it had teased in Origins and its sequel by immersing the player in a sequence of events which incorporates a story far bigger than the perspective you’ll have of it. Nonetheless, says Kollar, it’s still in the details that Bioware’s talents shine brightest – weaving engaging and worthwhile characters as threads in a vast tapestry.
For all its narrative nuance and political intrigue, Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t afraid of a good old slimy monster, either.
“But in true BioWare fashion, that broader story often takes a back seat to smaller character conflicts,” he writes. “The Inquisitor pulls together a huge group of followers, including nine playable party members, and each has reams of dialogue conveying a fully developed personality.”
As well as offering chatter and the opportunity for romance, the player’s extended party brings both questing opportunities and advice on dealing with obstacles, says Kollar, making them more than just talking weapons. In fact, he says, that guidance comes in extremely useful in coping with a game which offers gameplay hours well into triple figures.
“Dragon Age: Inquisition is made up of numerous zones that I could teleport in between at will. However, each of those zones is gigantic in and of itself. In the 80 hours I spent playing Inquisition, I only fully completed two zones, and each of them took me around 20 hours of exploration, questing and monster-bashing.”
“In the 80 hours I spent playing Inquisition, I only fully completed two zones, and each of them took me around 20 hours of exploration, questing and monster-bashing”
Philip Kollar, Polygon
In addition, Bioware has added the simplest of tools as an aide to exploring this vast landscape: the jump button. By doing so, says Kollar, the team has made the world feel more whole and believeable, introducing vertical as well as horizontal scale and a much more convincing sense of exploration. Tie that into the sense of being part of such a huge chain of events that new additions such as the ambassador-lead ‘war table’ missions, says Kollar, and you have a classic perfect for the winter evenings.
In broad agreement is Richard Cobbett at Eurogamer, who awards an 8 to Bioware’s efforts. Whilst full of praise for the lush surroundings of Tevinter and the clear improvements made over the last game, Cobbett finds some concerns over the influence which Inquisition seems to have felt from its contemporaries.
“The role-playing too, pretty as it is, didn’t feel like BioWare. There are straight up MMO style quests, like collecting 10 bits of meat, which at least make sense in context – that you’re helping refugees and refugees need food. Others, however, are thrown in with no finesse whatsoever. You find a letter that says, in about as many words, “Girls really dig people who can kill bears!” and then ping, your Quest Journal suddenly thinks you’re interested in bear-hunting. The first hour of a game is a bad, bad time for it to be resorting to this crap.
“The reason for the sack of activities where normally there’d be more involved quests is that Inquisition takes as many cues from the likes of Assassin’s Creed as other RPGs, with its maps a sack of quests, collectibles, secret bits and general things to do.”
That sense of piecemeal progress and scrappy world building disappears around a fifth of the way into the plot, says Cobbett, allowing the more convincing mechanisms of the plot to take hold. “The stakes become meaningful and dramatic,” he writes. “The mysteries become interesting.” Not as convinced as Kollar by the tasks which can be assigned to your plenipotentiaries, nor the combat which is arguably the game’s key activity, Cobbett finds Inquisition’s approach to less bloodthirsty matters of state a refreshing change from the sword and sorcery.
Bioware’s continued commitment to diversity is apparent, with plenty of deviations from the usual path of straight white male.
“While that side provides most of the raw action,” he says of dragon killing and rift-closing, “it’s the adventure and political parts of the game that make Inquisition work – its understanding that a party in Orlais, where the Great Game is played for the highest stakes, should be just as dangerous as anything that happens in a dungeon. After two games of controlling a ragtag bunch of misfits, it’s also interesting to be in a position of genuine power for once.”
Destructoid’s Chris Carter and Joystiq’s Alexander Sliwinski are similarly impressed, offering scores of 8.8/10 and 5/5, respectively.
Carter praises the RPG tree development of the characters as well as their dialogues, noting that “nothing feels tacked on” in a system which offers some of Origins’ depth, tempered by the streamlining in evidence in the sequel. Overall, he says, the experience is “less nuanced than Origins,” but offers a similar perspective on a living world, the fate of which increasingly lies in your hands.
Political intrigue and the raw sense of exploration garner praise from Carter, too, who also has good things to report about the game’s multiplayer mode – a section of the game which sees you take control of an entirely separate character.
“Multiplayer is the cherry on top, because nothing in the campaign feels like it was compromised for its addition”
Chris Carter, Destructoid.
“Multiplayer is the cherry on top, because nothing in the campaign feels like it was compromised for its addition. In essence, it’s a modified horde mode that operates similar to Uncharted 3′s co-op sections. Four players will be able to select from a host of classes, each with their own skills and abilities, and play through a miniature dungeon together.
“It has that horde feel in terms of fighting wave after wave of enemies, but each stage is an adventure complete with multiple paths, loot to gather, and special doors that can only be opened by certain classes. In that sense, it’s not your typical boring ‘kill kill kill’ mode.”
Sliwinski’s assessment also acknowledges the scope and detail achieved here, as well as the palatable way in which the development team is able to introduce such vast levels of information to the player.
“Inquisition’s immensely helpful in-game codex can introduce or refresh players to some of the characters and socio-political rules of the world,” he writes. “With very few exceptions, long-standing characters are properly reintroduced. There isn’t a ‘previously on Dragon Age…’ within the game, though curious players can cover those gaps with the helpful interactive recap at DragonAgeKeep.com.”
Joystiq’s reviewer also appreciates the switch of pace afforded by the inclusion of Orlais as a destination, a place where court politics partially replace the hew and bellow of the battlefield.
“With the inclusion of The Orlesian Empire, Inquisition delves deep into ‘the game,’ which is how those born into or educated in Orlais refer to the machinations of social politics. Orlais had previously been referenced in the Dragon Age series, but now we get to see this twist on 18th century French court intrigue in all its grandeur. Inquisition explores Thedas’ class and racial politics through a variety of missions and interactions with the game’s companions, who have rich ideological diversity.”
In summarising, Sliwinski makes the key point that so many Bioware fans have been waiting to hear since the Drs Zeschuk and Muzyka departed the company they founded: has Bioware maintained its aims, its ambitions and its quality?
“Dragon Age: Inquisition is BioWare’s reaffirmation of what it’s capable of delivering,” reassures Sliwinski. “It’s a gorgeous game on an epic scale. Rich in character and story, it creates a fantasy world with plausible social rules you can get lost in. It makes you feel that you aren’t just exploring a new world, but helping shape it at various levels of society. Inquisition sets the bar for what a blockbuster RPG should be.”
Sources are telling us that we should expect new skateboarding titles from both Electronic Arts and Activision in 2015. Word is that Activision is preparing a new Tony Hawk title and Electronic Arts will be bring out a new Skate title as well.
While Activision and Electronic Arts have not made the announcements yet, our sources tell us that we should expect both titles to be announced in the near future for a likely late 2015 release. It is unknown who might be handling the development on both titles, but word is that both titles are already deep in development.
With the release of a new Tony Hawk and Skate titles, it will revive the Skateboarding segment that has been dormant for quite some time. EA has not produced a new title in the Skate franchise since Skate 3 and the late couple of Tony Hawk titles didn’t do so well, but the re-issue of original Pro Skater for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 with DLC made up of levels from 2 & 3 have shown that interest does still exist for this segment.
Our hope is that it will be less like what we saw with the SSX revival that EA tried and then realized that it was not really want the people wanted and more like a new next-generation skateboarding title that puts the fun back into skating. We will have to wait and see.
After releasing a string of AAA console titles to varying levels of commercial success, the UK-based studio is attempting to establish what it describes as a “third way” of making games – one that falls somewhere between what we have traditionally called AAA and Indie. Smaller scale, lower cost, with no sacrifices made in terms of creative risks and quality of execution.
“We’re taking our work on Hellblade as an opportunity to question the way the games industry has always done things,” said product development manager Dominic Matthews in a recent developer diary. “To see if there’s a better way, a more streamlined way. To create amazing quality on a smaller budget.”
As a result, Hellblade has a core team of 12 people, with a single person working in the majority of discipline areas. Ninja Theory is committed to finding affordable or homebrew alternatives to the high-end processes associated with its previous games – the performance capture used in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, for example – but its sales target will remain eminently achievable: between 200,000 and 300,000 units.
“[Hellblade] is about what we feel passionate about, what we’re good at, and what we think our fans and supporters want from a game,” said Tameem Antoniades, Ninja Theory’s co-founder. “But it comes at a price. We have to self-fund this game, and we have to work within the restrictions that that means for us.”
The game might be inspired by a lot of games, but the basic idea is that you are the leader of a Stone Age tribe and you have guide your tribe through civilization and human history. The ability exists for you to form alliances, trade with friends, and raid your enemies.
Reynolds has not said what is next for the new Big Huge Games, but if DomiNations is successful, it could fund more complex projects for console or PC according to our sources.
PS4 is going gangbusters, 3DS continues to impress, Steam and Kickstarter have between them overseen an extraordinary revitalisation of PC gaming, and mobile gaming goes from strength to strength; yet it’s absolutely clear where the eager eyes of most gamers are turned right now. Virtual reality headsets are, not for the first time, the single most exciting thing in interactive entertainment. At the Tokyo Game Show and its surrounding events, the strongest contrast to the huge number of mobile titles on display was the seemingly boundless enthusiasm for Sony’s Morpheus and Oculus’ Rift headsets; at Oculus’ own conference in California the same week, developers were entranced by the hardware and its promise.
VR is coming; this time, it’s for real. Decades of false starts, disappointments and dodgy Hollywood depictions will finally be left behind. The tech and the know-how have finally caught up with the dreams. Immersion and realism are almost within touching distance, a deep, involved experience that will fulfil the childhood wishes of just about every gamer and SF aficionado while also putting clear blue water between core games and more casual entertainment. The graphical fidelity of mobile devices may be rapidly catching up to consoles, but the sheer gulf between a VR experience and a mobile experience will be unmistakeable.
That’s the promise, anyway. There’s no question that it’s a promise which feels closer to fulfilment than ever before. Even in the absence of a final consumer product or even a release date, let alone a killer app, the prototypes and demos we’ve seen thus far are closer to “true” virtual reality than many of us had dared to hope. Some concerns remain; how mainstream can a product that relies on strapping on a headset to the exclusion of the real world actually become? (I wouldn’t care to guess on this front, but would note that we already use technology in countless ways that would have seemed alien, anti-social or downright weird to people only a generation ago.) Won’t an appreciable portion of people get motion sickness? (Perhaps; only widespread adoption will show us how widespread this problem really is.) There’s plenty to ponder even as the technology marches inexorably closer.
One thing I found myself pondering around TGS and Oculus Connect was the slightly worrying divergence in the strategies of Sony and Oculus. A year or even six months ago, it felt like these companies, although rivals, were broadly marching in lock step. Morpheus and Rift felt like very similar devices – Rift was more “hobbyist” yet a little more technically impressive, while Morpheus was more clearly the product of an experienced consumer products company, but in essence they shared much of the same DNA.
Now, however, there’s a clear divergence in strategy, and it’s something of a concern. Shuhei Yoshida says that Morpheus is 85% complete (although anyone who has worked in product development knows that the last 10% can take a hell of a lot more than 10% of the effort to get right); Sony is seemingly feeling reasonably confident about its device and has worked out various cunning approaches to make it cost effective, from using mobile phone components through to repurposing PlayStation Move as a surprisingly effective VR control mechanism.
By contrast, Oculus Connect showed off a new prototype of Rift which is still clearly in a process of evolution. The new hardware is lighter and more comfortable – closer to being a final product, in short – but it’s also still adding new features and functionality to the basic unit. Oculus, unlike Sony, still doesn’t feel like a company that’s anywhere close to having a consumer product ready to launch. It’s still hunting for the “right” level of hardware capabilities and functionality to make VR really work.
I could be wrong; Oculus could be within a year of shipping something to consumers, but if so, they’ve got a damned funny way of showing it. Based on the tone of Oculus Connect, the firm’s hugely impressive technology is still in a process of evolution and development. It barely feels any closer to being a consumer product this year than it did last year, and its increasingly complex functionality implies a product which, when it finally arrives, will command a premium price point. This is still a tech company in a process of iteration, discovering the product they actually want to launch; for Luckey, Carmack and the rest of the dream team assembled at Oculus, their VR just isn’t good enough yet, even though it’s moving in the right direction fast.
Sony, by contrast, now feels like it’s about to try something disruptive. It’s seemingly pretty happy with where Morpheus stands as a VR device; now the challenge is getting the design and software right, and pushing the price down to a consumer friendly level by doing market-disruptive things like repurposing components from its (actually pretty impressive) smartphones. Again, it’s possible that the mood music from both companies is misleading, but right now it feels like Sony is going to launch a reasonably cost-effective VR headset while Oculus is still in the prototyping phase.
These are two very different strategic approaches to the market. The worrying thing is that they can’t both be right. If Oculus is correct and VR still needs a lot of fine-tuning, prototyping and figuring out before it’s ready for the market, then Sony is rushing in too quickly and risks seriously damaging the market potential of VR as a whole with an underwhelming product. This risk can’t be overstated; if Morpheus launches first and it makes everyone seasick, or is uncomfortable to use for more than a short period of time, or simply doesn’t impress people with its fidelity and immersion, then it could see VR being written off for another decade in spite of Oculus’ best efforts. The public are fickle and VR has cried wolf too many times already.
If, on the other hand, Sony is correct and “good enough” VR tech is pretty much ready to go, then that’s great for VR and for PS4, but potentially very worrying for Oculus, who risk their careful, evolutionary, prototype after prototype approach being upended by an unusually nimble and disruptive challenge from Sony. If this is the case (and I’ve heard little but good things about Morpheus, which suggests Sony’s gamble may indeed pay off) then the Facebook deal could be either a blessing or a curse. A blessing, if it allows Oculus to continue to work on evolving and developing VR tech, shielding them from the impact of losing first-mover advantage to Sony; a curse, if that failure to score a clear win in the first round spooks Facebook’s management and investors and causes them to pull the plug. That’s one that could go either way; given the quality of the innovative work Oculus is doing, even if Sony’s approach proves victorious, everyone should hope that the Oculus team gets an opportunity to keep plugging away.
It’s exciting and interesting to see Sony taking this kind of risk. These gambles don’t always pay off, of course – the company placed bets on 3D TV in the PS3 era which never came to fruition, for example – but that’s the nature of innovation and we should never criticise a company for attempting something truly interesting, innovative and even disruptive, as long as it passes the most basic of Devil’s Advocate tests. Sony has desperately needed a Devil’s Advocate in the past – Rolly, anyone? UMD? – but Morpheus is a clear pass, an interesting and exciting product with the potential to truly turn around the company’s fortunes.
I just hope that in the company’s enthusiasm, it understands the absolute importance of getting this right, not just being first. This is a quality Sony was famed for in the past; rather than trying to be first to market in new sectors, it would ensure that it had by far the best product when it launched. This is one of the things which Steve Jobs, a huge fan of Sony, copied from the company when he created the philosophies which still guide Apple (a company that rarely innovates first, but almost always leapfrogs the competition in quality and usability when it does adopt new technology and features). For an experience as intimate as VR – complete immersion in a headset, screens mere centimetres from your eyes – that’s a philosophy which must be followed. When these headsets reach the market, what will be most important isn’t who is first; it isn’t even who is cheapest. The consumer’s first experience must be excellent – nothing less will do. Oculus seems to get that. Sony, in its enthusiasm to disrupt, must not lose sight of the same goal.
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.
We attended the first ever Oculus Connect conference, the beats and chatter of a cocktail reception just next door, Max Cohen is being brutally honest about the company’s mobile-based virtual reality headset.
“I can spend ten minutes talking about the problems with this device. We’re not afraid of them,” the VP of mobile says with a smile.
“It overheats if you run it too long. It is 60 Hertz low persistence, which means some people will notice flicker. The graphical quality is obviously a lot less than the PC. Battery life is a concern. There’s no positional tracking.
“We could try to say this is the be-all end-all of VR. We’d be lying. That’s a bad thing. We would hurt where we can get to the be-all end-all of VR. Everyone, Samsung, Facebook, Oculus, we’re all aligned with making a damn good product that we put out in the market and then working on improving it. Really soon, maybe even sooner than you think, we’ll get to that amazing VR experience for everyone.”
“Samsung, Facebook, Oculus, we’re all aligned with making a damn good product”
Cohen’s talking about the Gear VR, the Samsung backed headset that offers a more portable and accessible entry into the virtual reality world for developers and users alike. It’s John Carmack’s passion project at the company and clearly it’s Cohen’s too.
“The first thing they did was to put me in the HD prototype with the Tuscany demo. I was floored, of course,” he remembers.
“Then I got to see the Valve room and then he showed me this mobile project. It was running on a Galaxy S4 at the time. It crashed a little bit. There were a lot of problems with it, but I just thought this was so amazing. I went back and was talking to a friend of mine who’s an entrepreneur. He said it’s rare that you have the opportunity to work on transformational hardware, and that’s really what this was.”
The story of the Gear VR is a simple one; Oculus went to the Korean company hoping to work with them on screens for the PC-based Rift and found Samsung had been working on a headset you could simply slide a Samsung Galaxy phone into to experience virtual reality. Now the companies are working together on both devices, with Samsung fielding calls from Carmack on a regular basis.
“It’s a collaboration. It’s not we tell them what to do or they tell us what to do,” Cohen continues. “We’re the software platform, so when you put that on, you’re in Oculus, but that wouldn’t be possible without maximizing the hardware. Carmack and our team works very closely with their engineering team. They make suggestions about UI as well. We’re working together to make the best possible experience. If it wasn’t collaborative, this thing just honestly wouldn’t function because this is really hard to do.”
The focus of Oculus Connect isn’t the media or sales or even recruitment, but developers. Supporting them, showing them the technology, offering them advice on the new territory that is virtual reality. Cohen, like everyone else I speak to at the weekend, believes developers and their content is absolutely key to the success of the hardware.
“At the end of the day, we want to make the developers’ lives as easy as possible so they can make cool content.”
“Facebook invested in the platform. They didn’t buy it. What they did is they’re also committing money to make sure it’s successful on an ongoing basis”
That content will be supported by an app store, and Cohen wants it to be a place where developers can make a living, rather than just a showcase of free demos. Jason Holtman, former director of business development at Valve, is overseeing its creation.
“We’re going to launch initially with a free store, but maybe a month later, follow along with commerce,” says Cohen.
“At the end of the day, as great as doing the art for free and sharing that is, we will have a hundred times more content when people can actually monetize it. This is a business. There’s nothing wrong with that. People need to be able to feed themselves. Our job is to make the platform as friendly for developers as we can so that it’s painless. You don’t have to worry about a bunch of overhead.”
There’s a sense that the Facebook money, that headline-grabbing $2 billion, has given the team the luxury of time and the chance to recruit the people they need to make sure this time virtual reality lives up to its promises. Other than that, Facebook seems to be letting Oculus just get on with it.
“That’s the thing… a lot of people, with the Facebook acquisition, asked how that would impact us and the answer is it hasn’t, in terms of our culture, and Facebook’s actually supportive of the way Oculus is because we know that content makes or breaks a platform,” says Cohen.
“They invested in the platform. They didn’t buy it. What they did is they’re also committing money to make sure it’s successful on an ongoing basis. We could have continued to raise a lot of venture capital. It would have been very expensive to do it right. Now we have replaced our board of directors with Facebook, but that’s completely fine. They are helping us. They are accelerating our efforts.”
No one at Oculus is talking about release dates for consumer units yet, and Cohen is no different. It’s clear that he and the team are hungry for progress as he talks about skipping minor updates and making major advances. He talks about “awesome” ideas that he’s desperate to get to, and pushing the envelope, but what matters most is getting it right.
“I think everyone understands that with a little bit more magic, VR can be ubiquitous. Everyone needs it. I think a lot of people understand what we need to do to get there, but it takes hard work to actually solve those things. Oculus and Facebook have lined up the right team to do it, but I want us to actually have time to do that,” says Cohen.
“We’re not trying to sell millions now. We’re trying to get people and early adopters, tech enthusiasts and all that interested in it.”
EA is considering developing games for wearables. The company already has two teams on the job, looking for ways to make wearable games. Their efforts are focused on the Apple Watch for now.
EA told CNET that the company has quite a relationship with Apple and Frank Gibeau, head of EA’s mobile gaming arm, said he is impressed with the new Apple A8 SoC. Gibeau added that Apple’s decision to include 128GB storage in flagship models is more good news for gamers, as it raises the bar for developers and gives them more room to play around with.
Gibeau said EA’s mobile division is “intrigued” by the prospect of gaming on wearables. He said wearables are eventually going to offer more performance and capability, thus enabling new gaming experiences. However, he cautioned that “it’s very early days” for wearable gaming.
“In fact, we have two teams prototyping wearable experiences that are not only standalone, but also some ideas where you can actually use the fitness component in the watch that can unlock capabilities in the game that might be on your iPhone. Or you could do crafting or some other auction trading on your watch that goes back into your tablet game that you might check out later when you get home,” he told CNET.
Finally, Ubisoft has a release date for the Wii U version of Watch Dogs. While we don’t know if that many people are waiting for the Wii U version, when it does release it could very well end up being one of the last M rated titles for the Wii U console.
The release date for the Wii U version of Watch Dogs appears to be November 18th in North America and November 21st in Europe. This ends the original release delay that Ubisoft announced for the Wii U version as resources were moved to prepare the other versions of the game for release.
Ubisoft has been one of the strongest supports of software for the Wii U, but recently it announced that it was done producing titles like Assassins Creed and Watch Dogs for the Wii U because the sales of these M rated titles are just not there on the Wii U platform. It did indicate that it would focus on some of its other Wii U titles that continue to be popular on the console.
The news is good that they are getting Watch Dogs, but it looks like we will not see many more games like this on the Wii U.
You can’t accuse eSports League CEO Ralf Reichert of always telling people what they want to hear. At last month’s FanExpo Canada in Toronto, Ontario, just a few blocks away from the Hockey Hall of Fame, Reichert told GamesIndustry.biz that he saw competitive gaming overtaking the local pastime.
“Our honest belief is it’s going to be a top 5 sport in the world,” Reichert said. “If you compare it to the NHL, to ice hockey, that’s not a first row sport, but a very good second-row sport. [eSports] should be ahead of that… It’s already huge, it’s already comparable to these traditional sports. Not the Super Bowl, but the NHL [Stanley Cup Finals].”
Each game of this year’s Stanley Cup Finals averaged 5 million viewers on NBC and the NBC Sports Network. The finals of the ESL Intel Extreme Masters’ eighth season, held in March in Katowice, Poland, drew 1 million peak concurrent viewers, and 10 million unique viewers over the course of the weekend. That’s comparing the US audience for hockey to a global audience for the IEM series, but Reichert said the events are getting larger all the time.
As for how eSports have grown in recent years, the executive characterized it as a mostly organic process, and one that sometimes happens in spite of the major players. One mistake he’s seen eSports promoters make time and again is trying to be too far ahead of the curve.
“There have been numerous attempts to do celebrity leagues as a way to grow eSports, to make it more accessible,” Reichert said. “And rather than focusing on the core of eSports, the Starcrafts and League of Legends of the world, people tried to use easy games, put celebrities on it, and make a classic TV format out of it.”
One such effort, DirecTV’s Championship Gaming Series, held an “inaugural draft” at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills and featured traditional eSports staples like Counter-Strike: Source alongside arguably more accessible fare like Dead or Alive 4, FIFA 07, and Project Gotham Racing 3.
“They put in tens of millions of dollars in trying to build up a simplified eSports league, and it was just doomed because they tried to simplify it rather than embrace the beauty of the apparent complexity.”
Complexity is what gives established sports their longevity, Reichert said. And while he dismisses the idea that eSports are any more complex than American football or baseball, he also acknowledged there is a learning curve involved, and it’s steep enough that ESL isn’t worrying about bringing new people on board.
“It’s tough for generations who didn’t grow up with gaming to get what Starcraft is,” Reichert said. “They need to spend 2-10 hours with it, in terms of watching it, getting it explained, and getting educated around it, or else they still might have that opinion. Our focus is more to have the generations who grew up with it as true fans, rather than trying to educate people who are outside of this conglomerate… There have been numerous attempts to make European soccer easier to approach, or American football, or baseball, but they all kill the soul of the actual sport. Every attempt to do that is just doomed.”
Authenticity is what keeps the core of the audience engaged, Reichert said. And even though there will always be purists who fuss over every change–Reichert said changing competitive maps in Starcraft could spark a debate like instant replay in baseball–being true to the core of the original sport has been key for snowboarding, mixed martial arts, and every other successful upstart sport of the last 15 years.
“Like with every new sport, the biggest obstacle has been people not believing in it,” Reichert said. “And it goes across media, sponsorships, game developers, press, everyone. The acceptance of eSports was a hard fought battle over a long, long time, and there’s a tipping point where it goes beyond people looking at it like ‘what the hell is this?’ And to reach that point was the big battle for eSports… The thing is, once we started to fill these stadiums, everyone looking at the space instantly gets it. Games, stadiums, this is a sport. It’s such a simple messaging that no one denies it anymore who knows about the facts.”
That’s not to say everybody is convinced. ESPN president John Skipper recently dismissed eSports as “not a sport,” even though his network streamed coverage of Valve’s signature Dota 2 tournament earlier this year. Reichert admitted that mainstream institutions seem to be lagging behind when it comes to acceptance, particularly with sponsors. While companies within the game industry are sold on eSports, non-endemic advertisers are only beginning to get it.
“The very, let’s say progressive ones, like Red Bull, are already involved,” Reichert said. “But to get it into the T-Mobiles and other companies as a strategy piece, that will still take some time. The market in terms of the size and quality of events is still ahead of the sponsorship, but that’s very typical.”
Toronto was the second stop for ESL’s IEM Season 9 after launching in Shenzhen July 16. The league is placing an international emphasis on this year’s competition, with additional stops planned in the US, Europe, and Southeast Asia.