In April of 2011, GameStop acquired streaming tech firm Spawn Labs because cloud gaming was the future. Today, the retailer announced it had closed Spawn Labs because cloud gaming is still the future.
Speaking with GameSpot today, the retailer’s vice president of investor relations Matt Hodges said cloud gaming isn’t a good fit for today’s consumers.
“While cloud-based delivery of video games is innovative and potentially revolutionary, the gaming consumer has not yet demonstrated that it is ready to adopt this type of service to the level that a sustainable business can be created around it,” Hodges said.
For the time being, GameStop’s cloud gaming business will be focused on selling subscription cards for programs like PlayStation Now through its retail locations.
Beyond the closure, the specialty retailer also reported its fourth quarter and full-year financial results this morning. The launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 reinvigorated the console market, helping to drive sales and profits growth.
For the year ended February 1, total revenues were up nearly 2 percent to $9.04 billion. At the same time, the company returned to the black, turning the previous year’s $269.7 million net loss into a $354.2 million net profit. The company also underlined the growth of its digital and mobile business, which brought in more than $1 billion for the year.
The fourth quarter saw sales rise more than 3 percent to $3.68 billion, with net income slipping nearly 16 percent to $220.5 million. Those figures include goodwill and asset impairment charges of $28.7 million, “primarily due to the closure of Spawn Labs and store asset impairments.”
GameStop also released its first outlook for the current fiscal year and its first quarter. For the full year, the retailer is expecting total sales to be up 8 to 14 percent, with a net income between $398 million and $433 million. For the current quarter, it has projected year-over-year sales growth between 7 and 10 percent, with profits between $64 million and $70 million.
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.
In a keynote conversation with Entertainment Software Association boss Mike Gallagher at the Digital Entertainment World conference, Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore talked about industry lessons learned as the business transitions more to digital games.
For now, games remain a hybrid of physical and digital, and the quick sales of the new consoles are enabling the industry to coalesce around two great platforms that offer a tremendous competitive environment, which ultimately benefits the market. While he believes the console sector’s in great shape, Moore does see mobile gaming thriving, and digital revenues should surpass that of physical game sales in just two years, he said.
Looking back at the music industry’s transition to digital (which it still hasn’t recovered from), Moore said that the games industry must embrace “creative destruction” – there’s nothing an industry can do to stop a shift in consumer tastes and habits. The most important thing for EA – and much of the industry is headed this way with the digital transition – is that games are becoming live operations. That means they require a massive infrastructure with customer service and global billing. Moore noted that it’s a completely different industry now, with a global network running live ops, and gamers deserve their games to be always up and available, and it’s EA’s job to provide this access. Moore acknowledged that EA is still learning a lot about what that takes.
The online environment has been incredibly valuable to EA in building a direct customer relationship. Moore said that EA’s customers used to be the retailers, but now they’re the gamers. In fact, EA has tripled its customer facing support staff resources in the last five years. It’s changing how the publisher interacts with, and markets to, gamers. He eschews “marketing” and prefers “engaging”. Social media has become crucial to success, and Moore noted that on Twitter a gamer will get a response from EA within 30 minutes to resolve a problem.
On the marketing end, Moore said that EA’s TV spend is down 20 percent while the company has actually doubled its digital spend and engagement. Social media and community management are changing the rules. Don’t spend tens of millions on TV to see if it lifts sales, Moore said; instead game companies can more effectively use digital channels and focus on performance-based marketing.
“TV ads today are chum in the water. It attracts customers, then reel them in with digital media so you can engage instead of pushing a message out,” he remarked.
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.
In a new Wedbush report that spans nearly 170 pages, providing a comprehensive overview of the past, present and future of the video game marketplace, the firm discusses why the next generation “will be as big as ever” and how the industry’s growth actually makes it more appealing to investors than other entertainment businesses.
While analyst Michael Pachter acknowledged that the current console transition is “one of the most difficult” for publishers, he ultimately sees the new consoles spurring big growth for the industry as software sales take off in the next several years. Combined U.S. and European software markets are forecast to grow at a 9 percent CAGR over the 2014 – 2016 period, totaling console software sales of $12 billion in 2014, growing to $14 billion in 2015 and to $15 billion in 2016. Handheld software sales (DS, 3DS and PS Vita) are expected to remain flat at approximately $1.6 billion per year over the three-year period.
The continued growth of the business is another reflection of a maturing industry and a maturing audience that’s growing older, earning more and spending more on games.
“Several demographic trends and market drivers should fuel rapid growth of interactive entertainment software sales. We believe the most compelling of these trends is the expanding age demographic of the interactive game consumer, accompanied by an increasing level of disposable income and the propensity to spend that income on entertainment,” noted Pachter.
Importantly, many of these people are choosing to spend on games above other entertainment, and that’s something investors should pay attention to. “We believe that the interactive entertainment industry offers secular dynamics that will provide extended and sustainable growth. We believe several publishers stand poised to capitalize on this growth, providing investors with an opportunity to participate,” Pachter said.
“Both Sony and Microsoft should deliver substantial profits from their gaming businesses over the next several years”
“Console, handheld and PC video games comprise a significant portion of overall entertainment industry sales, we believe comparing favorably with other mainstream entertainment products such as movies, books, and music. With comparable size and growth at a faster rate than these competing forms of entertainment, we expect the interactive entertainment software sector to present a compelling investment opportunity over the next three to five years.”
Wedbush believes interactive entertainment software sales will grow around four percent annually in the next three years, and the firm expects interactive entertainment to grow faster than other U.S. entertainment sectors over the next five years. Wedbush is modeling growth of just zero to two percent for other entertainment products sales over the same time period.
“Using our projected growth rates, we forecast that the U.S. interactive entertainment industry in 2016 will continue to be larger than books, box office and music… It is important to consider video game software purchases in the context of all entertainment spending. When books, music, movies and video games are added together, total U.S. spending on entertainment content totaled over $65 billion in 2013. The portion spent on video game software, at around 11 percent of the total, has the potential to grow at a faster rate than any of the other entertainment categories for many years to come,” Pachter explained.
For the current year, Wedbush expects PS4 to sell another 12 million units, Xbox One to sell 9 million, and Wii U to sell 3 million. More important than who “wins the console wars,” however, is which companies can maintain profitability. Pachter noted that Microsoft and Sony should do well on that front compared to a struggling Nintendo.
“Given its very slow console sales, Nintendo appears destined to see its console software sales and royalty stream markedly lower than in the last cycle, and we are skeptical that it will make a profit from its console business during the next generation,” he said. “At our projected sell-through rate, we expect both Sony and Microsoft to be very profitable in the next generation. Notwithstanding their relative projected market shares, we expect both companies’ console penetration to substantially exceed their penetration in the current generation console cycle, primarily due to market share gains from Nintendo.”
He continued, “If our estimates are close to the mark, both Sony and Microsoft will likely be profitable on each console sold, and their respective games divisions will at worst break even. More importantly, Sony and ￼￼Microsoft earn royalties on every game sold for their respective consoles; our forecast calls for 294 million cumulative PS4 software units and 227 million cumulative Xbox One software units sold by the end of 2016, with an average of $8 – 10 in profit for each unit booked by each company. Both their multiplayer networks and their royalty businesses will provide a recurring revenue stream at a very high dollar margin (the respective networks require a high level of capital and support spending, while the royalty businesses bear little cost), meaning that both Sony and Microsoft should deliver substantial profits from their gaming businesses over the next several years.”
There’s plenty more in the full report at the link above. It’s an interesting read if you have the time.
Nobody seems to be terribly happy about the new Dungeon Keeper game. That’s a sentence I hoped I’d never write, given how much I loved the original Bullfrog games – but that fact alone places me firmly within the least happy demographic of all: the original fans of the franchise. The rest of the unhappy parties can form an orderly queue behind us; that means you, game critics who think the game is terrible, mobile gamers who think it’s not nearly as good as its most obvious inspiration, Clash of Clans, F2P advocates who could do without another awful example being used to unfairly crucify the entire business model, and, well, EA themselves, I expect.
Lots has been written about Dungeon Keeper in the week since it launched, almost all of it deeply critical and a good deal of it entirely fair. Dungeon Keeper is a nicely presented but mediocre game in the mobile/F2P genre it inhabits. Within the franchise it inhabits, however, it’s a disastrous, idiotic travesty of a thing, a game whose design process wouldn’t be out of place in the imaginative dungeons of the original titles – involving, as it did, the snapping of limbs and crunching of bones in order to stuff the screaming body of a much-loved core gamer title into a box that is distinctly too small and painfully the wrong shape. It’s enough to make a Dark Mistress’ eyes water.
I like the free to play business model, in principle. More than that – I think the free to play business model, still in its infancy and thus still making countless mistakes, is actually an inevitable step for the games industry. It’s not going to replace other business models, which will continue to be a better fit for certain types of game and certain types of audience, but it’ll probably be the most important and profitable business model in future (some would argue, convincingly enough, that it already is). From the moment it became possible to distribute games for free, it was certain that someone would do that, and devise a system for making money later, once an audience had been built up. Under the circumstances, carefully considered and ethically implemented F2P is probably the best, and fairest, system possible.
So I reject the notion that Dungeon Keeper is an illustration of F2P’s intrinsic evils. It’s not, any more than any number of terrible boxed games were an illustration of intrinsic evils of the retail game business model. F2P isn’t intrinsically evil or bad, but it’s open to abuse – just like the old boxed game model was plenty open to abuse, as you’ll know if you’ve ever preordered an expensive game only to find that reviews were withheld until after launch, previews had been based on glimpses of unrepresentative sections of the game, screenshots and trailers were a cocktail of lies and the whole thing is actually a massive stinker. F2P trips up more often because it’s new and many developers are still feeling out the parameters of the business model – and moreover, because it requires developers whose core skill is designing games to also design a business model in tandem with their game, which is a new skill that doesn’t necessarily come naturally.
That means that if we’re being reasonable, rather than just howling pointlessly into the wind because it makes us feel better, we need to consider Dungeon Keeper not as an omen of doom but as a learning exercise. It’s obviously a mess. It’s disappointed lots of people and made a core group of those people – people who ought to have been its most rapt advocates – very very angry indeed. But why is it a mess? What does Dungeon Keeper actually do wrong?
You could say “microtransactions”, and you’d be right in one sense – it does microtransactions wrong, but not because microtransactions themselves are intrinsically wrong. Plenty of games handle them rather nicely and fairly. Supercell’s games are pretty good examples – Hay Day is, I think, the only F2P game I’ve bought premium currency in, and I’m perfectly happy with the few quid I spent there, as I knew perfectly well what my money was buying and what the alternative was to acquire the things I wanted in-game. I mentioned last week my Japanese friend who has spent the equivalent of $500 in Puzzle & Dragons, and doesn’t regret it in the slightest – from my own experience, P&D, the biggest-grossing F2P game in the world, is also scrupulously fair and up-front about its micro-transactions, and generous to a fault at handing out premium currency for free, thus allowing you to save up for things you want instead of feeling forced to fork out.
Those games – and Clash of Clans, the Supercell game to which Dungeon Keeper owes much of its genre heritage – get F2P microtransactions right. Even Candy Crush Saga, a game which I personally dislike quite intently (I think that describing yourself as a puzzle game and then confronting the player with randomly generated levels which are actually impossible to solve is a miserable failure of fundamental game design), is far from being abusive in its approach to microtransactions; a solid majority of players who complete all its levels do so without ever spending any money. I played Clash of Clans for months without spending, and I’m coming up on a year in Puzzle & Dragons without spending – both of which I still find fun, and both of which, I think it’s fair to say, are genuinely living up to the promise inherent in the words “free to play”. I’m quite convinced, incidentally, that they’re among the world’s most profitable games precisely because they allow most players to continue enjoying them for free, rather than in spite of that seemingly foolish generosity.
Dungeon Keeper isn’t a generous game. It’s a grasping, unpleasant game – which is a shame, because with a more likeable, generous approach to its players, it wouldn’t be a terrible game. It’s certainly among the better of the Clash of Clans clones, a multitude of which fill the App Store with game mechanics and art styles shamelessly copied from Supercell’s hit and absolutely zero effort at innovation. Dungeon Keeper – though I say it through gritted teeth, since the franchise abuse still rankles – has the guts of a decent mobile game that builds worthwhile variation onto the Clash of Clans formula. The problem is, you advance through that experience at a snail’s pace, halted every few seconds by a glowing gem icon that invites you to spend expensive premium currency to speed up your progress. That premium currency itself arrives in an absolutely miserable trickle, rendering the notion of saving up to buy things into a sad joke.
Slowing down progress to encourage players who are really engaged with the game to spend a bit of money to advance is a core tenet of F2P design. Some people hate that, which I perfectly understand, but it’s not necessarily the end of all things – it’s worth pointing out that lots of non-F2P games also stretch out tasks artificially for a variety of commercial and gameplay reasons (I’d point to World of Warcraft in the first instance and Animal Crossing in the second as good examples of this). The point is that in doing this, designers need to make sure they’re not compromising the fun of the game, and err on the side of generosity rather than grasping. Dungeon Keeper fails these tests. It starts asking for money almost straight away, long before any player has a chance to become really engaged or engrossed in the game, and continues to wheedle at players to pay up on an ongoing basis, ramping up within a couple of days to the point where it’s taking 24 hours to complete simple tasks like digging out a square of rock, and literally weeks to finish a tunnel or room unaided by a dip in your wallet. Good F2P design is about making people really love your game and then giving them opportunities to spend money on it. Dungeon Keeper is a grubby chancer who tries to steal your wallet before the main course has even arrived on your first – and last – date.
There’s an even more fundamental problem at work here, though. Making a bad, greedy F2P game with the beloved Dungeon Keeper license is inexcusable – but to be honest, making any kind of F2P game with this license was a terrible idea. Dungeon Keeper is an old franchise, one which never came to consoles – making it much loved by a significant group of gamers who are older and significantly more “core” than the primary market for mobile F2P games. If you weren’t a PC gamer in the 1990s, Dungeon Keeper has almost certainly passed you by entirely. On the other hand, if you were a PC gamer in the 1990s, I think it’s fair to generalise and say you’re probably firmly in the camp that by and large dislikes microtransactions and considers F2P in general with suspicion – suspicion which you’ll consider to be all but confirmed by Dungeon Keeper’s many transgressions.
So why did EA do this? What on earth did they believe they stood to gain from resurrecting a franchise like this in a form which would be utterly despised by the only people who recognise it, while the potential audience it might reach successfully – gamers who like mobile F2P and are looking for something different in flavour and approach to Clash of Clans – will have zero brand recognition with Dungeon Keeper, but may be dissuaded by the outpouring of one-star scores on the App Store with which gamers are registering their dislike. Note too that while it’s conventionally and reasonably held that the specialist games media has no impact on mobile game performance, the hatred for Dungeon Keeper has spilled over into the mainstream press – and while “no publicity is bad publicity”, newspaper articles accusing your game of greedy monetisation tactics aren’t the ideal way to introduce it to the public at large, while Google results populated with fiery critique and all manner of accusations don’t help much either.
Ultimately, EA could have avoided this by making essentially the same game (although doing a lot more careful consideration of monetisation tactics and trying not to destroy the game’s hopes of retaining players by being too greedy too early wouldn’t go amiss) without the Dungeon Keeper brand and the vaguely ghoulish overtones of corpse-robbing that go with Dungeon Keeper’s pilfered, ill-matched mechanisms and characters in this game. Alternatively, it could probably have made quite a decent commercial success out of a premium-priced Dungeon Keeper game carefully updating the original and launching on Steam and iPad – a game with a significant built-in audience and a huge store of goodwill, much of which has now been squandered. It could even have included some IAP further down the line for deeply devoted players, although more in the line of cosmetic items and so on than game-changing consumables. Hell, EA could have done both of those things, resuscitating a much-loved franchise and creating a brand new F2P franchise, thus ending up with two successful IPs rather than one battered, bruised and sorely abused one.
This comes back to a point I made earlier – there is an audience for F2P, a huge audience with a significant amount of spending power, but it’s not the only audience (even if it’s the biggest). There are other audiences who crave other genres, other business models, other price points. The notion that the vast expansion in the demographic reach of videogames is going to be attended by an absolute contraction of the possible business models for videogames is a transparent nonsense – F2P is an inevitable and by no means negative consequence of the reduction in distribution costs to (just about) zero, but it’s not the only business model or price point enabled by recent technological change. The first challenge for designers, producers and executives in this new era is to figure out what business model best fits the franchise, the genre and the audience for your project. EA isn’t the first company to fail that challenge, nor is Dungeon Keeper the last game which will do it – but for those of us with fond memories of Bullfrog’s glory days, this is the one that leaves the most bitter taste. The lesson, however, must not be “F2P is bad” – it must be, “Do F2P where appropriate, do it with care, and do it well”.
Steam Music will allow Steam gamers to listen to their own music while gaming, Valve said. Steam users will be able to view and play albums and tracks, manage the queue, and access the Steam Music player by pressing the Guide button on a Steam Machines controller, where they will be presented with an iTunes style interace.
Keyboard and mouse users can access the active player from Big Picture’s main menu, Valve added.
Valve explained in a blog post on Monday, “With Steam Music, you can now listen to your music collection while playing games. Once you’ve pointed Steam to your local music directory, your Steam Library will include Album and Artist views of your collection.
“From there you can view and play albums and tracks, manage your queue, and access the Steam Music player by pressing the Guide button on your controller. (No controller? Keyboard and mouse users can access the active player from Big Picture’s main menu.)
“Once in-game, the music player follows you via the Steam overlay, where you can manage your current playlist, browse your collection and listen to whatever suits your mood.”
Valve will soon launch a beta of Steam Music for Big Picture and Steam OS, with integration in the desktop version of Steam coming in the future. Those who want to try it out in Beta must join the Steam Community, where invitations will be sent out “in waves”.
AMD revealed Mantle to the world at its Hawaii launch event and at the time it promised support for the new API would come to Battlefield 4 sometime in December. In December, AMD said the API would show up in January.
Now though, it appears that the delay may be somewhat longer. Late yesterday Extremetech reported BF4 support would finally land in February. AMD’s Robert Hallock denied the patch is coming in February, but he didn’t say it is coming in January, either. If it is, it’s coming by Thursday. If it is not, that’s very bad news for AMD given the scale of its PR onslaught.
Back at CES the company talked up Mantle in an elaborate demonstration, featuring Oxide Games and DICE products. AMD claimed Mantle would deliver a significant performance boost over DirectX, up to 45 percent in certain scenarios. Since Mantle is not available yet, it is impossible to put these very optimistic claims to the test.
Mantle won’t be a game changer, but if it is embraced by major developers, it could give AMD a competitive edge both in discrete and integrated graphics. Intel has been making headway in the graphics department and it is closing the gap with AMD APUs with its latest Iris series GPUs.
Mantle could be AMD’s trump card, a cheap way of making its APUs more competitive without wasting silicon, but for this to happen Mantle needs to be embraced by developers. It is very promising, but at this point there are quite a few “ifs” associated with Mantle.
Valve is looking to halt its Steam Greenlight process, Gabe Newell revealed today during in an introductory address at Steam Dev Days. Attendees at the developer-only event have been tweeting out bits of news, with Hot Blooded Games CFO Dave Oshry among those sharing updates with the outside world.
“Our goal is to make Greenlight go away,” Oshry quoted Newell as saying. “Not because it’s not useful, but because we’re evolving.”
Oshry said the Valve head had been talking about how he wanted to give developers more control over Steam and how they use it to promote their games. The Greenlight process lets developers post pages for their games on Steam and lets the community give input on whether or not they look like something worth purchasing.
While details about the how and why of Greenlight’s eventual disappearance aren’t known yet, they’ve already been speculated upon. Earlier this week, PC Gamer reported on a translated GameKings.tv interview with Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail in which the Ridiculous Fishing developer guessed that Valve would soon be killing Greenlight.
“I’m thinking that because they’ve been clearing the queue at such a rapid rate,” Ismail said. “They’ve been clearing 100 games every month. . .You don’t do that because there are 100 good games on Greenlight every month. You do that because you want to get rid of everything that isn’t greenlit before you kill it, so you don’t upset developers.”
Ismail then guessed that Valve would replace the program by letting any developer put their game up on Steam and relying on a peer-to-peer recommendation system to solve the issue of content discoverability.
Coinciding with the beginning of Steam Dev Days, Valve also announced that its digital storefront had passed a new milestone with 75 million active users, a 15 percent jump from the 65 million total announced in October. The company also released a geographic breakdown of its sales, with North America and Western Europe accounting for most of its business (41 percent and 40 percent, respectively), but noting that Russia and Brazil have shown tremendous growth in the last year (125 percent and 75 percent, respectively).
Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus, notes that – as a hardware manufacturer – his business has no say in what software companies will charge for Oculus-enhanced games, but admits he would not be surprised to see them come at a premium price.
“It’s going to be up to the developers,” he says. “There will be some who make casual, simpler experiences – maybe bite sized. There are going to be Indie developers that make bigger experiences. And there are going to be bigger teams that make really big experiences. … And some that we’ve seen early prototypes of… Well, we’ve seen some that, boy, would I pay a lot to get that experience in virtual reality.”
Aaron Davies, director of developer relations at Oculus, agrees.
“In VR, suddenly objects have value – and scale and size and depth and I think there will be opportunities for developers to monetize them,” he says.
Noticeably higher retail prices for software could be one of the few things to derail current gamer excitement about VR. Consumers are still smarting from the industry’s move from $50 to $60 in 2005 – and EA incurred player wrath last February by suggesting they might jump to $70 with the launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
“They’d better deliver if they’re going to charge more than $50 or $60 for a game”
Iribe noted that pricing in the game industry tends to swing. Prices spiked with the launch of the last generation consoles, then swung to the other end of the pendulum with the rise of mobile gaming. He sees the rise of virtual reality as not an extension of PC gaming, but something different – which opens the door for them to move back in the opposite direction.
“VR is a fundamentally different experience,” he says. “This is the next generation of computing in a very big way. … This is something that’s going to change so many things.”
However, he notes, raising prices also raises risk for developers.
“They’d better deliver if they’re going to charge more than $50 or $60 for a game,” he says.
Davies notes that the higher prices – if they come at all – may not be done in a clumsy fashion, such as hiking the initial retail price. Instead, he points to the free-to-play model, where microtransactions make it less painful to pay (and the customer may not realize they’re paying more until much later).
“The whole concept of charging a premium is somewhat outdated,” he says. “It’s not to say it’s going to be upfront. It could be this is going to be an experience you get dialed into. We’ll see how it monetizes. … If you create content or an experience that someone is passionate about, you’re creating a lifestyle for them. And they’ll pay for that.”
“If people are willing to spend a lot of money on VR games, it obviously means we’re doing something right,” says Iribe.
Davies and Iribe note that they’re speaking in hypotheticals. At present, the company still isn’t even willing to talk about the Rift as a commercially available product. It’s still in the R&D phase, says Iribe, who won’t even commit to a 2014 release for the product.
The Crystal Cove prototype (which won Best in Show at this year’s CES Awards) does give a few hints as to what we can expect when this thing finally does hit its release milestone, though.
The unit being shown at this year’s CES relied on a camera attached in front of the user to work. And Iribe said barring an unforeseen technological miracle, that’s not likely to change.
“While we’re not talking about the consumer unit, if it does [require the camera], we’ll bundle that in,” he says.
To date, Oculus has shipped more than 50,000 developer kits for the Rift, says Iribe. The company has gone from 7 employees a year ago to more than 70 today. The past year has also brought about several improvements to the unit.
The Crystal Cove prototype, as has been widely reported, offers positional tracking (thanks to that camera), giving users six degrees of visual freedom. And it has significantly reduced motion blur.
Latency has been improved as well. The developer kits in people’s hands have a latency of about 50-60 milliseconds. Crystal Cove got that down to between 30-40 milliseconds. The goal for launch, says Iribe, is 20 – with the hopes of further reducing that in later models.
“We’re not going to ship until we have a version that delivers a highly immersive, comfortable experience at a low price,” says Iribe. “I don’t mean just the foam padding and things like that. The experience of virtual reality has to be comfortable. VR has never been close to comfortable. We’re confident we will deliver a very comfortable experience for version one. It’s my belief that the age of 2D monitors has run its course.”
Steve Jobs was in the habit of describing the Apple TV – the real Apple TV, that is, not the hypothetical uber-device that’s been stalking the imagination of tech pundits and the nightmares of TV manufacturers for years – as the company’s “hobby”. It sells a few million units here and there, but it’s no iPad, no iPhone, not even a Mac. It’s a casually dangled toe in the water of a new market whose primary purpose is to extend the functionality of iTunes and iOS devices, rather than being a significant product category in its own right. “Hobby” summed it up; lots of noise and light around the topic accompanied all of Jobs’ later keynote events, but really, Apple was just dabbling.
Steam Machines, then, are Valve’s hobby. Admittedly, Valve is a company with a lot of hobbies, but Steam Machines fit a similar profile to Apple TV in this regard. The rest of the world, or its more credulous denizens, are waiting with bated breath for Valve to sally forth with a device that’s going to cut a swathe through the games market – yet for all the world, everything Valve does looks like little more than casual dabbling. They’re mucking around with a custom version of Linux (saying “SteamOS” sounds really impressive until you realise that most people’s family pets have their own custom version of Linux at this stage) and experimenting with an intriguing controller design, both of which are fine hobbies – but the much vaunted Steam Machines themselves, thus far, are little more than an underwhelming branding exercise.
Of course, Valve’s not about to get into hardware manufacture any time soon. It’s not what they do and it wouldn’t make sense. However, the company has a deep interest in ensuring that the gaming PC, as a platform, is in robust health. The name “Steam Machine” is a giveaway, if one were required; Valve needs lots of machines out there for Steam to run on. It has, as I’ve argued before, become the de facto champion and caretaker of the PC gaming sector, a role long since abandoned by Microsoft. Steam itself is the biggest pillar of Valve’s support for the PC, and Steam alone has done a great deal to ensure the continued flourishing of this market. The company’s gamepad efforts are an interesting sideline, its dabbling with SteamOS little more than tinkering for now; the Steam Machines, though, we earnestly expected to take a rather more dramatic form when they emerged at CES this week.
In the end, Valve managed scarcely a handful of minutes on stage to introduce the dozen “Steam Machine” manufacturers, each of which is producing its own versions of the system. Gabe Newell deflected all questions to the device manufacturers. Despite carrying the Steam name, it’s almost like Valve isn’t entirely happy to be associated with the project right now – perhaps wincing at the heavy responsibilities which being seen as a platform holder will inevitably bring. Perhaps the Apple TV comparison isn’t fair after all; Apple TV always felt like an under performing but beloved hobby. Not much feels beloved about Steam Machines. Not yet, anyway.
It’s not hard to see why the Steam Machines might be unloved, though. They’re an ugly and rather ramshackle lot. Their prices range from a console-matching $499 up to an eye-watering $5000, while their case designs range from the functionally ugly through to the kind of howlingly awful rig that inspires mass eye-rolling even at LAN parties. The specifications of the devices, which one might have expected to conform to some kind of standard, or a number of standard “steps” at different price points, cover the whole spectrum of PC performance. This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the announced devices – if these were actually meant to attract less hardcore gamers (most core gamers will still build their own systems, of course), then by doing nothing to reduce the mind-numbing complexity of figuring out specifications and component codenames, they have already failed in their most basic task.
If I sound disappointed, it’s because I am. I’m disappointed on an entirely personal level, I confess. 2014 was going to be the year I got myself a gaming PC again. I’ve missed too many games and experiences through not owning one, and I’d love a reasonably small, low-profile box with enough grunt to play PC titles comfortably. I haven’t followed PC specifications and components for about a decade and I’d rather perform my own open-heart surgery than build another of the damned things myself, so a Steam Machine looked perfect; yet after this week’s CES reveal, it appears that the actual advantages of such a system in terms of reducing complexity (let alone cost, which was always unlikely to be a major factor) are negligible. I’m left wondering who exactly these boxes are for – the core audience will ignore them and build their own systems, while the more casual audience who are eager to engage with PC gaming won’t find any advantage in a “Steam Machine” that doesn’t exist at any other pre-built PC box-shifter.
Valve may have reason to wish that it was taking this hobby a bit more seriously. In spite of the robust health of the PC games market right now, there are structural issues with the PC market as a whole which present a major challenge to its continued growth and success in the coming years – structural issues which only Valve is likely to be in a position to solve, and for which a Steam Machine style venture may well be necessary. To wit, a primary advantage of the PC platform, namely its sheer ubiquity, is winding down. It used to be the case that nearly everyone owned a PC and thus, nearly everyone could play games, at least to some extent. In recent years, the PC benefitted even more as a gaming platform from the inverse of that argument. Gaming PC purchases were justified in part by the prowess of the system as a multi-function device. A gaming PC was expensive, but also served as the user’s primary computer.
Today, the desktop computer is an increasingly rare beast. A great many households only have laptops; a great many more are supplementing laptops with tablet computers that perform much of the functionality that once belonged to PCs. Laptops, too, have changed. Apple’s Macbook Air and Google’s Chromebook, followed by a steady parade of Ultrabooks and wafer-thin, solid-state imitators, have refocused the desires of buyers away from power and towards size, weight and battery life. When I bought my last laptop, the ultra-thin one with 10 hours of battery life put forward a case that simply couldn’t be answered by any hankering for a powerful gaming system. Sales figures suggest that I’m far from alone in making this choice. The resulting device can run some games (it’s fine for lots of indie stuff, and Civilization V just about works) but it’s certainly not a gaming system. I’ve never even bothered installing Steam.
I am not, in any sense, predicting the “death of the PC” – to do so would be nonsensical – but there’s no doubt that this switch away from desktops and towards tablets and Ultrabooks presents a challenge to the existing PC market. I believe that gaming PCs will increasingly have to make a case for themselves as gaming devices alone; a subtle but important change from “here’s your next PC, and it’s great at games” to “here’s your next gaming device, and it can do PC stuff too if you want, which you probably don’t”. Core gamers won’t change their outlook at all, of course, but beyond that group there’s a vast hinterland that was once the domain of PC gaming and which now risks disappearing as the technological landscape shifts.
Steam Machines ought to be at the vanguard in terms of counteracting that shift – accessible, attractive, easy to understand gateways to PC gaming designed perfectly to fit into the lives of “lapsed” PC gamers using Ultrabooks, or console gamers looking to branch out, or former core gamers who want to stay in touch but don’t have the time or money any more to be deeply involved. Valve, as the operators of essentially the only PC game software distribution platform that matters a damn, ought to be leading that movement. On the strength of this week, Valve knows it ought to be doing something, but doesn’t have the stomach for doing much of anything – while left to their own devices, it seems, PC manufacturers aren’t capable of seeing beyond their own narrow world of hilariously arcane specifications and desperately ugly boxes. There’s an enormous opportunity waiting here to be grasped; so far, Steam Machines have only fumbled.