In July, Gamasutra’s annual developer salary survey reported that the best compensated job for hands-on game creators wasn’t programmer or producer, but audio professional. That didn’t sound right to the organizers of audio conference GameSoundCon, so they conducted their own survey aimed squarely at audio specialists in the gaming industry, the results of which they released today.
Gamasutra acknowledged its own numbers on audio professionals were likely skewed by a few factors. They only had 33 respondents, they only counted full-time professionals even though audio work is frequently done on a freelance basis, and their survey base of Game Developer Conference attendees was likely skewed to more senior people, as developers might not invest in sending fresh recruits to the show. GameSoundCon’s survey drew 514 responses, and as might be expected, painted a less lucrative picture of the field.
“Most game audio jobs, whether they are composers or sound designers, are freelance,” said GameSoundCon executive director Brian Schmidt. “Game audio is increasingly an outsourced industry.”
According to the survey, the average salaried audio professional position in the game industry pays $70,532. However, only 37 percent of those who took the survey were salaried employees. About 12 percent of respondents said they were paid by the hour, day, or week.
For freelance work, the average project fee was $28,091. However, that number was skewed significantly by big-budget games, where per-project fees could come in greater than $250,000. For indie or casual games, the average project fee dropped to just $9,830. For projects where the audio contractor retained rights to their work, the average fee dipped still lower, to $4,481, with as many projects paying $1,500 or less as there were paying more.
“There does seem to be a good ‘career path’ in game audio,” Schmidt added. “You can start out as a composer for indie games, and end up with a 6-figure salary as an audio director. Being able to get technical definitely gives you a leg up; more than 60 percent of responders say they provided audio content as well as technical services for implementation of the audio.”
The survey also underscored some rarities in the field. Gender diversity is lacking among audio professionals, as 96 percent of respondents were male. Royalties are also rare, with only 2 percent of composers per-unit payments for big-budget titles. Royalties were somewhat more common among indie and casual projects, with 17 percent reporting per-unit payments.
Soundtrack sales also didn’t do much to pad composers’ pockets, as 5 percent of large-budget games included a clause paying out for soundtrack sales. However, that number increased to 18 percent for indie or casual titles.
You’re sitting at home, watching one of the major E3 presentations. A brand-new AAA video game has just been revealed and the teaser trailer actually makes it look pretty hot. You’re halfway through watching the trailer, interest piqued, and now you’re wondering, “When’s this coming out?” Now you see it; it’s slated for the holiday season… of the following year. You’re going to be waiting a solid 18 months, and that’s assuming the project doesn’t encounter delays.
Such is the way of the modern AAA console and PC business, but it wasn’t always like this. While the industry never really saw Apple-like announcements when you could practically buy the product immediately after, recent history shows that game announcements used to happen more regularly around six months prior to shipping.
“Back in the PS2 days…if it was shipping in the fall, you usually would see it for the first time at E3. That’s if everything went according to plan. The running joke was if you saw it for two E3s, development was a problem,” noted industry veteran and consultant Christian Svensson.
So what happened? With the success of the PS2 and the continued boom in the industry, retail became increasingly more important, and pre-orders started driving everything. And naturally, more time before release meant more time for marketing and more time to drive pre-sales.
“Around the time that Xbox 360 and PS3 came to market, the investments and risks were so high you had to do everything you can to build awareness earlier,” Svensson said. “You had to build in more beats for your PR earlier, you had more shows to attend to drive hands-on and media exposure, and all of that was ultimately in the name of driving up your pre-order numbers… everyone was trying to lock down the day one consumer. That drove all of that mania where you had to announce 18 months to two years out.”
While pre-orders were a primary factor in the ever-lengthening lead time to a launch, there were other factors as well. Svensson pointed out that companies have always worried about early leaks twisting their messaging. “If we announced it first, at least we controlled the message. Announcing it early lets you prep all of your partners earlier without fear that there are leaks out there,” he said.
Beyond that, development cycles on big budget titles just grew longer and longer. Announcing earlier enabled teams to adequately judge and react to feedback.
Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Epic Mickey), Director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas at Austin, remarked, “Talking about a game early is a double-edged sword, no doubt about it. On the one hand, it can lead to unrealistic expectations about ‘promised’ features that ultimately fail to make the shipping game (as inevitably happens). And there’s no doubt, public clamor can amp up the pressure on a team On the flip side, seeing public excitement about what you’re doing can get a team ’psyched and cranking’ as we used to say. It’s nice when people express enthusiasm for what you’re doing. Also, early reveals can help you gauge public opinion, which can be useful in weeding out undesirable features as well as ones you might want to focus on more. Early reveals cut both ways.”
Dominic Matthews, product development manager for Ninja Theory, added, “The risk with announcing too early is that you make a first impression that is very, very hard to change. You can say as many times as you like that the game is very early in development, or this isn’t finished or is work in progress, but players understandably don’t hear it. They just see what you’re showing and take it as representative of the finished game. Personally, I would have kept all of the games I worked on under wraps for longer.”
That said, Matthews acknowledges that most developers are very excited to be able to discuss their projects usually. “It’s actually a really positive thing for a developer to be able to share their work outside of the studio. The announcement of the game allows everyone in the team to be able to share what they are doing with friends, family and industry peers. It can be frustrating having to say ‘I’m working on something really cool, but I just can’t talk about it yet’,” he said.
There’s also the very tangible benefit that by announcing earlier, teams should have an easier time adding talent to make a project go more smoothly.
Gearbox Software boss Randy Pitchford commented, “It’s not merely about attracting future customers, but communicating about the effort to the industry itself. When your in-development project is known, some activities including recruiting or attracting business partners or other activities becomes much easier than when you’re silent under the radar.”
Svensson agreed: “[If] you’ve created some assets, you think you know what you’re going to build, but you still need some very key roles to be filled and/or just body count to do the work, when it’s known that a particular studio is working on that franchise then recruitment becomes an easier task than, ‘hey we’d like to call you in but we can’t tell you what we’re working on’.”
Of course, there’s another benefit to announcing early that some developers would be very keen on: once a project is revealed there’s a better chance it won’t be canceled. “One of the things people forget is that not every game put in development always ships. A reason a lot of teams would want to announce earlier is that it’s harder to kill a product that’s been announced because it’s very public and for it to not come out after it’s been announced is a difficult thing for a company to suffer. It raises questions about if the company knows what it’s doing,” pointed out Svensson.
Once the announcement gets out there, the pressure definitely ramps up on a development team. But that’s not necessarily a terrible thing. After all, it takes an intense amount of pressure to create a diamond.
“Sometimes pressure is a good thing on the development process,” said Pitchford. “The best amongst us game makers exist to try to entertain people and whenever we have a deadline we work crazy hard to do the best job we can as we know that once the deadline is up, there’s no more time to do any better.”
“In my experience a lot of that magic that just sort of works out is the result of trying to adapt to some kind pressure on the situation. It often turns out that the pressure forces some of these things to happen that ultimately make games not only better, but shippable. The point is that while pressure always feels stressful, there are often a lot of positive aspects to pressure from a development point of view.”
Pitchford also noted that some of that pressure should be alleviated by a good publisher: “I think the only really negative consequence is about expectation management and that’s where the best publishers are really worth their value. The best publishers have a knack for managing customer expectations positively while projects unfold during the development and marketing phases of a project and that’s where you get the best feelings and results from a project.”
So if you’re planning a big budget game right now, when’s the right time to announce? How much lead time do you really need?
“I think it varies from product to product as far as what’s appropriate. An enormous AAA game that is new IP aimed at a monster retail release, a longer lead time, certainly north of a year, is still warranted,” advised Svensson. “When you start to get into north of 18 months, you get diminishing returns, even on something like that… When people have short attention spans, it’s hard to stay on people’s radar at a high level. I think the industry went too far for a period of time on that front and I think the economics of it are changing.”
Pitchford agrees that if you’re looking to sell something new, having that extra lead time is beneficial. “I’ve worked on games that have gone a long time in silence before being announced and I’ve worked on games that have had public announcements that were way too early. I think both approaches can be made to work, but both also bring their own set of challenges. My preference on which way to go depends on the game. The more inventive the game is and the more education required to communicate what is being promised, the more time is useful to master that communication before going wide,” he said.
It’s a fluid process, however, and the marketing teams have to be ready to adapt. Pitchford continued, “Part of the value of the early marketing campaign is to actually learn how to market the title to a wider audience. You’ll notice if you look at campaigns from start to finish that everything from logo designs to key messaging points to front-of-box and key art content evolves and iterates over the course of a project. This is a very tangible manifestation of the marketing team actually learning how to sell the thing they are selling through a careful process of testing and iterating.”
While early reveals can certainly be beneficial for both the marketing side and development side, it’s clear that the digital revolution is having an impact, noted Ninja Theory’s Matthews.
“I think the transition into digital gaming will shorten the window between announcement and release. There won’t be such pressure to drive pre-orders as there is in the retail space,” he said.
Another wrinkle in the digital space is the rise of self-publishing. Under that scenario, announcing earlier remains quite valuable.
“Ordinarily I would say that you should wait to announce as long as you can to make sure you have the best possible assets to make a first impression with: An amazing trailer or a rock-solid gameplay demo. Having said that, we’ve just announced our new game Hellblade at the very beginning of development – in other words incredibly early. We’ve done this because we’re self-publishing and actually want to build a community behind the game by sharing the development process,” Matthews continued. “By announcing now, we can share development right from the start. If we waited, we’d be retrospectively looking back at development which would feel less real, less here and now. This type of approach, or funding a game through crowdfunding, or Steam Greenlight might result in more games actually being announced even earlier.”
“The digital share of sales is climbing up and the need for that pre-order drive is slipping a little bit in the sense that you don’t have to have this crescendo to launch to necessarily find success with the right product, especially when you have live teams creating content post-launch; it’s not the put everything in the box and ship it mentality anymore,” he explained. “It is the, ‘hey we’re going to create a minimum viable product (MVP) and we’re going to bring it to market and support it’ … In some cases you might not even really ramp the marketing until you feel you’ve got a good product to promote.
“To some degree, I think the pressure to announce early across the industry as a whole is being reduced because of the proliferation of digital, the adoption of games as service, and quite frankly, the other part of it is it’s really fucking expensive to have an 18-month or two-year marketing cycle for a game. It’s really hard to do, and not every game has the right kind of content to support that longevity. You can’t go dark, otherwise you lose people’s attention, you have to have a consistent set of beats all the way through from announcement to launch, otherwise why announce early? You’ve lost that benefit. It’s hard on production teams because they have to create assets to support these beats, it’s hard on marketing teams because it’s a long, hard slog.”
And with the rise of indies and smaller games published on platforms like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, huge lead times make even less sense. For smaller digital projects, three months might be more than enough time to spread the word.
“One of the things we’ve learned doing digital products, announcing more than three months out to build awareness just really doesn’t make a lot of sense. A lot of those titles are smaller, they don’t necessarily have a lot of features to drive a six-month or nine-month campaign… They’re focused. The level of touch is very high in a short period, and I’d love to see the business get back to a lot more of that,” Svensson said.
“What I do think we’re going to see is a lot of normalization again for the average product probably around six to nine months again, kind of where we were in ’99 and 2000. And I don’t think that’s bad.”
At present, that applies to the Unity Test Tools and the engine’s new graphical user interface system, which was demonstrated in the opening keynote of Unite 2014. The features will be available under the MIT/X11 license, giving users the freedom to “control, customise and extend” their functionality.
The source code for the components will be hosted on BitBucket, and Unity has prepared a guide for any interested open source contributors. The source for the Unity Test Tools is already available, with the GUI to follow.
“Beyond that, we don’t have a concrete plan, but we have a lot of things in the pipeline,” the company said in a statement. “These components will all be isolated from Unity in such a way that you can modify them and use your own modified version with the official public Unity release.
“Although Unity Technologies has been active in the open-source community for quite some time, this is the first time we’ll be opening the source to components of Unity itself.
“We’re excited to see what you do with it.”
Sources are suggesting that Activision is planning to launch an entertainment division that would be responsible for creating movies and TV shows based on Activision intellectual properties. The move might leave many scratching their heads if true since so many others have failed at trying to turn video game IP into gold.
Word is that CEO Bobby Kotick is taking to folks in an effort to secure the right talent to make this happen. Kotick has to be aware that this has not gone well for its competitors, but he apparently thinks that Activision IP is different and they will have no problem giving the people want they want.
Our take on this is that we will wait and see what happens, but it will not be easy to be successful, regardless of the IP that you have in your stable. The bigger question might be is it really worth the money and effort to try and make it work?
According to DFC, 92 per cent of PC game sales in 2013 were digital and it thinks this trend will continue and rise in 2014.
Gamers are starting to favour digital downloads over physical copies of the game, which is not really surprising given that who actually wants to own boxes and DVDs and manuals when all you really need is the game.
DFC Intelligence goes on to add that PC games outsold console games in terms of revenue so it means that channel is not the way gamers are playing. But then again the specs of consoles are well below PCs.
By his own admission, Andrew Wilson still “geeks out” at EA’s press conferences, despite his position as the company’s CEO demanding that he take centre stage. When we meet after the Gamescom media briefing, he enthuses in great detail and at considerable length about a FIFA 15 video demonstrating the capabilities of the new game’s goalkeepers. What that team has accomplished since he ascended to executive level, Wilson says, never fails to make him smile.
And Wilson has spent his first year in charge identifying the ways to spread that enthusiasm to EA’s customers. That hasn’t always resulted in success, of course: with Battlefield 4 the company stumbled once again on the unpredictable landscape of online gaming, and with EA Access it met with resistance from Sony on the grounds of value. In this interview, Wilson discusses both of these issues, and outlines EA’s renewed dedication to listening to its customers and following wherever that might lead.
Q: The last time we spoke you were still with EA Sports, and you’ve had a promotion since then – quite a big one, in fact. You’re coming up on a year as CEO now. Have we started to see evidence of the mark you wanted to make on the company?
AW: I think…no, I know that I didn’t approach this role thinking about making a mark or leaving a legacy. It wasn’t personal in nature. I took on the role because of how I feel about the company. This company has been very good to me and my family over the years, I loved the people I worked with inside the company and I loved the games we made together.
“Financial return is an outcome, but it shouldn’t be the objective. We’ve made a lot of decisions based on that over the last 12 months”
As I worked in the company in a variety of different roles, it became apparent to me that in some areas we’d lost our way a little bit. When I came in [as CEO] I really wanted to bring to the forefront the things that I thought made the company great, things that had delivered for us over the years. That really meant building this foundation of ‘player first’. I get that there are things we have to think about: we’re a big company, we’re a public company, we have shareholders, we have 8,000 people working for us. But all of that is for nothing unless you deliver for your number one constituency: the players. Without that, it’s for nothing.
Q: So the idea that the CEO is stuck trying to serve two masters, the shareholder and the customer, that isn’t how you see it, then?
AW: Financial return is an outcome, but it shouldn’t be the objective. Financial return is what happens when you achieve the right objectives. We’ve made a lot of decisions based on that over the last 12 months. We are engaging with our player-base more regularly, through more platforms to ensure that we’re doing what they want, and to make sure that we’re listening to them when we’re doing something that they don’t want. It’s as much about eliminating what doesn’t inspire or entertain as it is about the stuff that does.
Q: Is that how we should think about the problems that Battlefield 4 faced? You’ve publicly addressed the complaints already, but was that just a consequence of trying to deliver on an ambitious objective?
AW: If I promised you that nothing would ever go wrong [on future projects], that would be very disingenuous of me. The reality is that we come to work every day and challenge ourselves and our teams to do creative and innovative things. What I can say, however, is that living up to that commitment to engagement and action I mentioned before means that we will make tough decisions in service of the player.
Titanfall for Xbox 360 was coming in hot, it needed a few more weeks, and we moved it out of the fiscal year to get a great game. I don’t think we would have done that before. Need for Speed is a franchise we’ve released every year for 17 years – it’s as sure a thing as FIFA. But the team said that they couldn’t do what we challenged them to do in a year. It wasn’t possible, so for the first time in 17 years we decided not to launch a Need For Speed.
More recently, Battlefield: Hardline, moving out of the holiday quarter would traditionally be seen as catastrophic in this industry.
Q: Particularly that franchise. Battlefield 3 and 4 were both holiday releases.
AW: Yes, but it was the feedback. We brought gamers in earlier, we let them play the beta earlier. And the beta was very stable, so we’d solved a bunch of the problems that existed in Battlefield 4. But what people said to us was, ‘This is pretty cool, but we think you should go deeper. We want more out of this.’ So we’ve given the team more time. That’s a tough decision to make, and it has a financial impact in the near-term, but long-term, for the player and the franchise, that’s the right decision.
Q: Do you see EA Access in the same way? You’re the first publisher to pull the trigger on something like this on console. I remember a talk you gave at the Develop conference a few years back, where you held up services like Netflix as a model for the games industry to emulate. Was this idea in your mind all the way back then?
AW: It’s not completely the same, but yes. But, again, I wouldn’t take credit for that programme in its entirety. I’ve been involved in that programme, but we’ve got a great team that’s been looking at challenging the standard by which certain people access products. It’s early days – we launched it yesterday – but for what it’s worth all the positive intent is there. It will evolve, but what we’ve come to understand – and what I believed back then – is that this concept of, ‘I want to give you an amount of money each month that makes sense, and for that I want a bunch of cool stuff’, we want to live up to that.
Does that mean people will stop paying $60 for games? No, but there’s a big part of the population for whom that [EA Access] is the right context, that’s the right way for them to engage with games.
“There’s a big part of the population for whom EA Access is the right context, that’s the right way for them to engage with games”
Q: And potentially it’s a way for people who wouldn’t ordinarily play, say, Madden to get acquainted with the franchise. For a lot of people, FIFA and Battlefield would be enough to justify for the annual fee, and anything else is a bonus.
AW: Yes, but there will be many different types of players. For some people that will be how they want to play all content, for others it will form some part of it. There’ll be others who might use it just to trial games. Again, the price point is low enough that it’s pretty cool as a trial mechanism. We want to build a service that players can use in a way that makes sense to them.
Q: It gives the catalogue longevity, too, which is something that the games industry hasn’t been particularly good at.
AW: EA makes great games. Stuff that we made ten years ago is still good, and so in ten years time the games we’re making now will still be good.
Q: It’s early days, as you point out, but even in the near term are you planning to grow the selection on EA Access, to be additive?
AW: Absolutely. We wanted to launch it at a point where we could put things into the catalogue, into The Vault, and it would have value. We thought that four [games] was the minimum for the price-point, but we want to get to a place where you could play any number of games for that price-point. Over time, the value will just get better and better and better, in much the same way that Netflix does. When I started subscribing to Netflix, there was no House Of Cards, there was no Orange Is The New Black – there is now.
Q: I have been surprised at my preference for buying games digitally in the generation so far. I thought it would take a bit more time.
AW: Convenience is a wonderful thing.
Q: Is that sort of behaviour behind the decision to get EA Access out there now, this year? Is that transition happening faster than you expected?
AW: No. Listen, we – and certainly myself – have matured in the understanding over the years about how people consume content, irrespective of the industry. One of the stats that I hear frequently is that 40 per cent of music is still bought on CD. Now, I haven’t bought a CD in 14 years. I’ve bought vinyl, by the way, a bunch in the last 14 years, so I consume media in different ways through different business models based on what I’m looking for. The way my view has evolved, I’m a bit like you: I haven’t bought a disc for my PS4 or my Xbox One; I click a button and it turns up, and that’s good for me. But that doesn’t mean that everyone wants it the same way. I’ve moved from a belief that there will be one access model to rule them all, to the belief that our objective as a company is to provide access to our entertainment in ways that make sense to the growing population of players.
Q: Services like EA Access to make sense in the context of this generation, which seems to largely about choice, whether that’s variety of games, how you want to buy, how you want communicate with other players. The experience is very open now.
AW: One of the things that we’re learning as we make the digital transformation is that we don’t need to guess what players want any more. For the longest time we had to guess, and the first opportunity to find out whether you got it right or not was when you saw the game on the shelf. Now, we’re getting better at listening. We haven’t always been great listeners, but we’re getting better, and what that’s telling us is that people want choice. They want to be able to choose what’s right for them at a given moment in time. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all any longer. We’ve got to build a core platform, game engines and games that facilitate that.
Q: Are you concerned that Access will alter your customer’s perception of value? FIFA 14 is still a game that can be played all year whether the new one is out or not. That $60 has got to feel like a better decision than before, surely.
“We thought that four games was the minimum for the price-point, but we want to get to a place where you could play any number of games for that price-point”
AW: It doesn’t matter whether you spend a $1, $10 or $100,000, as long as you’re getting value from what you’ve spent then you’ll feel good about that. EA Access feels like tremendous value, and whether you continue to feel good about paying whatever it is for a frontline product comes down to our ability to to deliver value.
The commitment that we’re making to those frontline products is that they will be bigger, more engaging, service oriented, with new and dynamic content every time you log in. People are now playing FIFA and Battlefield all year round. When I started a game would get played for four weeks, and then it was on to the next one. The value that we deliver today, we have games that can be the only thing you play for an entire year.
Q: Certain products have started to feel out of time to me. I won’t mention the name, but I bought a game digitally that cost the same amount as, for example, FIFA, and it took me six or seven hours to finish and that was it. I felt cheated in a way that I wouldn’t have with the exact same game at this point in the last generation.
AW: That understanding of value is really, really important, and I’m trying to push that into the organisation – irrespective of business model. Back in the day it was all about delivering $60 of value; now, I want to deliver $1 of value if you want to spend $1, I want to deliver $10 of value if you want to spend $10. I want to deliver value on your investment and on your investment of time. As you get older you realise that time is the most important resource. Part of your issue with that other game is that it took six hours, and you didn’t feel the value returned. We should think about the investment of money, but also the investment of time.
Q: You’ve mentioned the value of EA Access several times, and obviously Sony came out and disagreed on that point. For now, at least, Access won’t be available to PlayStation customers. Was that disappointing, particularly with the reason Sony gave?
AW: What I can say is that we launched it yesterday. We believed when we launched it that it was great value, and gamers, for the most part, have fed back that it’s great value. We’re going to continue to put things into that service that make it even better value. It will evolve and go through lots of permutations over time as we listen and learn from players who engage with it. My hope is that we can deliver that kind of service to many millions of players for years to come.
Word is circulating that the new BioWare IP which is rumored to be called Shadow Realms could be on EA’s agenda to finally be revealed at Gamescom. While rumors have been making the rounds for some time, so far EA has been mum about its existence.
We do know that EA’s is planning to provide more details on FIFA 15, Battlefield: Hardline, The Sims 4, Dragon Age Inquisition, and Dawngate at its Gamescom presser which will take place on Wednesday, August 13th at 9am BST.
While EA might reveal Shadow Realms, it is likely that BioWare has it on the release schedule for late 2015 at the soonest, but it is possible that it could even be a 2016 title. Let’s hope EA puts some of these rumors to bed and tells us what Shadow Realms is all about.
Activision Blizzard reported its financial results for the quarter ended June 30 today, revealing an unprecedented reliance on digital revenues.
The publisher reported revenues of $970 million in sales on a GAAP basis, 49 percent of which came from digital channels. On a non-GAAP basis (excluding the impact of changes in deferred revenues), the digital percentage was actually 73 percent of the company’s $658 million in sales. Activision attributed the digital strength to Blizzard’s lineup of titles (World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Diablo III), combined with digital sales for Call of Duty.
However, not all of those digital sales drivers posted strong numbers for the quarter. World of Warcraft in particular lost about 800,000 subscribers over the period, and as of the end of June was down to a paying player base of 6.8 million gamers. However, Activision Blizzard characterized this decline as a “seasonal” dip in advance of the next expansion, Warlords of Draenor, which is set to launch later this year. The publisher likened the downturn to the subscriber losses that happened in 2012 ahead of the Mists of Panderia launch.
On a GAAP basis, Activision Blizzard revenues were down nearly 8 percent, with net income down 37 percent to $204 million. However, the publisher still beat its previous guidance. On a non-GAAP basis, revenues were up about 10 percent to $658 million, while non-GAAP net income was reported at $45 million, down 50 percent year-over-year.
The quarter’s performance gave Activision Blizzard enough confidence to update its previous guidance for the full year. For calendar year 2014, the publisher had previously forecast total GAAP revenues of $4.22 billion, but moved that up to $4.24 billion today. The company also projected earnings per share of $0.91, up from $0.89.
Whether you think it’s a fad or the next big thing, there’s no denying that the return of virtual reality, this time backed up by competent technology and plausible price-points, has caught the imagination of developers and their customers alike. Projects for Sony’s Morpheus and the Oculus Rift are popping up everywhere, from the modest to the monumental.
As of yet, though, none of the major publishers have publicly committed much to the new platforms, leaving it to smaller studios to test the waters of what could potentially form an entirely new frontier for games. Many of those smaller studios are changing their models and work-methods entirely to focus on the new technology, preparing to hit the ground running once consumers are finally able to get their hands on the headsets.
One of those studios is Patrick O’Luanaigh’s nDreams. A studio which has always enjoyed a broad remit, nDreams now has “around five [VR] projects on the go”, including forthcoming title The Assembly: a 3D VR adventure game which will see players investigating a ground-breaking scientific organisation which has started to push some ethical boundaries.
“We decided that an adventure game would make sense because we don’t have the budget to draw tons of environments that you run through at top speed,” Patrick tells me. “Adventure games work well because we’ve found that, when people play with VR, they want to really look around and explore. They want to examine the walls, everything, in a way you might not in a FPS.
“The game is split into sections of about 10-15 minutes long, which we thought makes sense for VR. We still don’t know what the final consumer versions will be like, but 10-15 minutes seems sensible. People can either do a chapter then take a break, or they can play through the entire game.
“We spent around six months prototyping lots of experiments with VR. What happens when your avatar wears glasses? What would it be like if it’s cold and you have frosty breath? What about different sized characters? That tested really nicely – Madeline is 5’1″ and Joel is 6 foot and you really notice that. You notice the breathing, the speed they walk at, the perspective. It’s all very different. You feel like you’re playing those roles.
“We’ve also got lots of specific things for VR, microscopes, binoculars, night vision goggles, things like that. They work really well. We’ve also got plenty of puzzles and other bits like vertigo and fear sections that we think are great for VR, so it’s a real medley.”
The Assembly is a definite step up for the developer in terms of scope and ambition, so I ask O’Luanaigh if the resource costs were pushed up even further by the technology they’re working with. In short, is making a VR game more expensive?
“I don’t know, honestly,” he admits. “It’s probably slightly more for VR, but there’s not a lot of difference. We’ve kind of picked our battle here and chosen a game we think would be great for VR, but one that we can also afford to make. This seemed like the right genre and approach. We’re taking influence from games like Gone Home and Dear Esther – with more puzzles, but still about exploring a great environment. I guess if we’d just done it as a Steam game it might have been a bit cheaper, but not a big difference.
The Shahid Effect: Sony’s indie push & VR
Being PC-based, the Oculus Rift has a clear advantage in attracting indie developers: working on an open platform with little or no restriction. That said, Sony has made a very strong argument to small studios this generation, something it will need to continue if it wants to recruit the most exciting VR ideas. O’Luanaigh agrees, and says that there’s no need for concern on that front.
“Sony has been fantastic,” he says, enthusiastically. “We’re very lucky in that we’ve been working on Home for a number of years, so we have a good relationship with Sony. Our account manager happens to be the evangelist for Morpheus as well, so they’ve been great. They’ve been very supportive.
“We saw the Morpheus very early, it was one of the things that persuaded us to pivot away from what we were doing and spend so much time and money on VR. They’ve been really open, really helpful. I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Sony. I can’t wait to see the final hardware that’s going to launch to consumers.”
“It’s more about the design, doing things the right way. There are a lot of ways you can mess up VR really easily. We’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t and designed the game with that in mind. It’s working really nicely.”
The Assembly is due for release on both the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus headset, currently the two mindshare leaders of virtual reality tech. Whilst neither is likely to admit it, each has a vested interest in the success of the other – a reason which was floated to explain Valve passing on some of its own VR research to Oculus last year: if the tech is to succeed it needs to attract developers. To do that, a rough ‘gold standard’ needs to be established, giving developers a technological target to aim at for cross-platform games. Having used both the Oculus and Morpheus and found them to be roughly equivalent, I’m interested to know if O’Luanaigh sees parity in the two visors.
“They are very, very similar, technology-wise,” he confirms. “Obviously with Oculus being on PC it’s a lot more open, there’s more freedom to mess around, but it’s also easier for people to just stick stuff out, to make bad VR. That’s one of the big risks – it’s very easy make people feel ill. You have to have good software as well as hardware. I think it’s easier for Sony to control that, because it’s a closed platform. They can say, do this, do that; to make sure people don’t do stupid stuff. I suspect that Oculus will do something similar, but obviously it’s open, so people can put what they want up online.
“In terms of specs, though, they’re really very similar. We’re creating this game for both and there’s not a big difference. There are a few little things involved in supporting the PS4: the Dualshock and some of the ways that PSN works, but by and large they’re very similar.”
Moving away from comfortable ground is an essential part of growing almost any company, but when you’re relying on a third party, such as a platform holder, for your success, there’s an additional risk. nDreams must be confident about the future of virtual reality to put such stake in it, so I ask Patrick if there’s a sales point when they’ll breathe a little more easily.
“We’ve kind of come at it the other way,” he counters. “We believe it will work. We’ve got financial models and projections but it’s all a bit finger-in-the-air, it’s very hard to know. We’re committed to doing it though, we’ve got a lot of launch titles and we’re going to be pushing and growing those. We’re lucky in that we’re financially secure enough to do that without too much stress.
“We’ve been looking at things like previous install bases of hardware on consoles. If you look at the Kinect install base, which was amazing, really – something like 35-40 per cent on the 360 – we’ve made projections on a conservative install base over time. I actually think that it’s going to be better than that, given the excitement around VR and the customer reaction when they see it, but we’re being fairly conservative. With Oculus they’ve spoken about trying to sell a million, by a set point. We’ve been working along those lines. Again, we think it’s going to do really well.
“There’s going to be other headsets out there as well, that haven’t been announced, we think those are going to be very exciting. There’s not going to just be two headsets, there’ll be a number of things over the next few years. We’re going to try and work out as best we can what we think they can sell, but we want to be there at launch with products so we can build and learn what people like and don’t like.
“It’s definitely going to be more of a core audience at launch, but I think Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus means that it’s going to be a bit cheaper than it would have been. I think they can afford to give it away at cost, which is brilliant. But it’s really hard to put a finger on how much that market is going to be worth. We think it’s going to be a couple of billion within two years, but we’ll see. We may be massively over-egging, or hugely under-estimating it. What’s clear is that there’s massive potential here, it could really explode. When you get a great VR experience it’s really special.
“I was at E3 playing Alien Isolation on Oculus and, although I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, when it came to the end I ripped my headset off because I was so scared. You really feel like the Alien is there and actually attacking you. I’ve never done that with Dead Space or Resident Evil or anything. It really heightens your emotions.”
I can attest to just how absorbing that experience can be, having lost myself in the Morpheus demo at GDC in March. Even surrounded by other gawking journalists and nervous PR, dropping that helmet on was, in many sense, completely akin to teleportation. That demonstration wasn’t exactly a road-test, though. These were first-party, highly polished demonstrations designed to show off the potential for the new technology in a short, well-controlled session. Had my first experience been a shoddy, half-finished or poorly-executed demo instead, I might never have been interested at all. For O’Luanaigh, the responsibility for audience growth is firmly on the shoulders of developers.
“For me, it’s really important,” he tells me when I ask whether VR needs to get it right this time around. “I’m utterly convinced that VR is now a technology that’s caught up to an amazing idea and can make it work. The only thing that can ruin that is dreadful games. It’s easy to make a rubbish VR game with a bad framerate that takes control of the camera and does stupid things. That’s the worst thing that could happen, and I think that both Oculus and Sony get that. I think everyone entering the VR space gets it, but we just need to keep an eye on it.
“At least one or two of the projects we’re working on are non-traditional games, it’s definitely quite different. You’ll see VR spread into different areas over the next few years”
“I hope that the press plays its part as well and makes sure that, if there’s one rogue VR game that’s snuck out and it’s dreadful, that they won’t use that to argue that VR is awful.”
Good games might be the things that get people queuing in the shops, or, more likely, clicking online, but there are clear possibilities for virtual reality which fall well outside our sphere, particularly for Oculus’ Rift. Will nDreams being dipping a toe in those waters?
“At least one or two of the projects we’re working on are non-traditional games, it’s definitely quite different. You’ll see VR spread into different areas over the next few years, although it’ll definitely start with games. Oculus aren’t showing off Facebook social pop-up sims, they’re showing off great games.
“I don’t think Facebook has changed that but I think you’ll notice them start to add stuff in over the next few years. You might see spaces where people can hang out with their friends, stuff like that. If you’ve ever read Snowcrash, I think that sort of thing is why Facebook bought Oculus. They’ve got more money now, but it’s the same people with the same values. It’s very cool to be rude about Facebook, but I think a lot of the people who were being rude about Facebook when it bought Oculus were doing it on Facebook, which is pretty ironic.”
The new generation of consoles and booming category of free-to-play PC games won’t be enough to keep the market growing indefinitely. According to a Juniper Research report, the market will soon turn south, falling from $46.5 billion worldwide this year to $41 billion in 2019.
Despite that 12 percent drop, the PC and console segment will still account for more than half of all gaming revenues through 2019. Additionally, Juniper said software sales on PC and console “will remain relatively healthy,” with PC revenues topping those of its console counterparts.
The PC & Console Games: Trends, Opportunities, and Vendor Strategies 2014-2019 report also predicts the console cycle to continue as in generations past. That means the new systems will spark sales in the short-term, with growth slowing and then turning negative as the new platforms age. Juniper also expects another generation of consoles likely arriving around 2019, with the new platforms having a similar lifespan to the their predecessors.
Dedicated gaming handhelds will continue to play a part in the industry, with Juniper penciling them in for about $2.2 billion in revenues in 2019. (Handhelds were not included in the console/PC figures above.) And while cloud gaming is going to receive a boost this year with the launch of PlayStation Now, it won’t upend the status quo just yet. Juniper expects the cloud gaming market to rise from $281 million this year to $1 billion by 2019.
Quantum Break is said to feature television segments that will be part of the main game with players unlocking new segments at the end of some gameplay segments. The live action television segments can we watched right away or they can be viewed later on mobile devices such as a smart phone or tablet.
The run here is that originally we assumed that these live action segments to be integrated with the game were being produced by Remedy, but word is now that this may not actually be the case and that the Microsoft Xbox Entertainment Studios division might actually be responsible for delivering this content.
So far, no one at Microsoft or Remedy will confirm what if any the impact of closing Xbox Entertainment Studios may have on the Quantum Break project if any. Sources we have spoken with seem to think that the recording of all of this live action segments is already done and finished. So there is nothing to worry about, but other think that it will be difficult to scrap Quantum Break this far into the development, but a redesign that does not use the television segments might be likely.
To hear the likes of Electronic Arts and Gameloft tell it, premium apps are all but a relic of the past, the obsolete progenitor to mobile’s free-to-play future. But some smaller developers have found that future isn’t all it’s made out to be, and have been finding more success back on the premium side of the fence.
Kitfox Games and Double Stallion, two Montreal studios from Jason Della Rocca’s Execution Labs incubator, launched Shattered Planet and Big Action Mega Fight, respectively, on mobile in the last year. However, both titles struggled to rake in revenue, and the studios have since released more successful premium versions of the two. Kitfox’s Tanya X. Short and Double Stallion’s Nicolas Barrière-Kucharski spoke with GamesIndustry International this week to discuss their forays into free-to-play, and why more traditional business models worked better for them.
In Double Stallion’s case, part of the problem was that Big Action Mega Fight proved an awkward fit for the free-to-play format.
“We picked a genre, fighting, that was very content-driven,” Barrière-Kucharski said. “It was really very arduous to keep up and engage the audience with new levels, new enemies, and new types of content. We couldn’t compete at our size and budget with other, more established free-to-play studios and games.”
Beyond that, the genre may have been a poor fit for the audience. Barrière-Kucharski said that the people who would appreciate Big Action Mega Fight’s skill-based gameplay and faithful take on the beat-’em-up genre simply weren’t the same people interested in free-to-play games.
“I think the overlap between audiences was just too small to sustain a thriving community around the game,” Barrière-Kucharski said.
With Shattered Planet, Short said genre wasn’t a problem. She thinks the games-as-a-service model is actually a perfect fit for roguelikes like Shattered Planet, where a few new items and systems can exponentially increase the potential content for players to experience. However, Shattered Planet still didn’t fit the free-to-play mold for a few reasons.
“Free-to-play is not always suitable to single-player games,” Short said. “I think it’s best suited to multiplayer games in which it being free is actually of value to players because they can have more people to play with. That’s one philosophy we’ve developed, that if we ever do free-to-play again, we would only do it for multiplayer.”
On top of that, Shattered Planet was designed to be a tough game for players. But Short said in the free-to-play business model, difficulty can be “a dangerous thing.”
“We made a difficult game, and the fact that it was free made people suspicious, and rightfully so,” Short said. “I think they had every right to be a little bit paranoid about why the game was difficult. And in a business model where difficulty generally does often make people spend more, I think a designer’s hands are tied as to how and when a game can be difficult and when it’s ethical. So we felt a lot more comfortable about making a premium game, and me as the designer, I was happier because we could say sincerely that it’s exactly as difficult as we wanted it to be and you can’t say it was greedy or whatever.
Both games have found more success since they were released as premium versions. Big Action Mega Fight was re-launched last month as a $3 app ($2 during a first-week sale); those who downloaded the free-to-play version received the upgrade to the premium version as a free title update. Even though the free version of the game was downloaded about 400,000 times, Barrière-Kucharski said the revenues from Big Action Mega Fight’s first week as a paid app topped the total lifetime income from the free-to-play version since its November debut. To date the company has sold about 3,600 copies of Big Action Mega Fight on iOS, Android, Amazon Fire, and Ouya.
Kitfox took a different approach to premium the switch, continuing to run the free-to-play Shattered Planet mobile app alone, but also releasing a premium PC version on Steam with a $15 price tag and no monetization beyond that. The results were similarly positive, as Short said the studio made as much on Steam in one day as it had on mobile in two months. In its first week, Shattered Planet sold 2,500 copies on Steam. Short is happy to see the game bringing in more money, but she confessed to being a little bit torn on the trade-off it required.
“It really was great seeing that we had 300,000 downloads on mobile,” Short said. “We had 300,000 people play Shattered Planet on iOS and Android, and that’s amazing. Sure, it looks like we’re going to make two to five to 10 times more money on Steam, but it’s only going to be 1 percent of the amount of people that could see it if we tried to release it free, in theory… It’s a little bit sad that you monetize better with fewer people. When you’re trying to get your brand and your name out there, it is sad we couldn’t have another few hundred thousand people.”
Beyond the trade-off of settling for a smaller but more supportive audience, Kitfox has encountered some negative effects of releasing Shattered Planet as a free-to-play mobile title and then as a PC premium game.
“For us, a lot of people remained skeptical of the quality of the game if they knew the mobile version existed,” Short said. “I don’t think that really has that much to do with free-to-play and more to do with platform snobbery. It’s just kind of a general feeling of console and PC gamers that if a game was ever on mobile, it couldn’t possibly be as feature-rich or as deep, as strategic or anything like that.”
On top of that, there was some customer confusion over the game and its business model. Short said the game’s forums on Steam had some angry users saying they wouldn’t buy the game because it had in-app purchases (which it didn’t). Although the developers were able to post in the threads and clear things up, that sort of inconsistency has convinced them that if they ever do return to mobile platforms, they will stick to a free demo or companion app rather than something monetized.
“It’s just so dominated by giant players,” Short said of the mobile scene. “It’s such a completely different market that I think you really have to focus on it, and that’s not my team’s expertise. For us, we’re definitely going to be focus on PC and console; I think that’s where our talents are.”
Barrière-Kucharski agreed, saying that even if a niche audience is willing to pay for a certain experience, there just aren’t good ways for developers to connect to that audience.
“It’s really hard to be found or be discovered by players,” Barrière-Kucharski said. “I’m really looking forward to all the curation issues that are going to be tackled in the next year or so on iOS 8 and the Steam Greenlight update.”
But even if those initiatives follow through on their promises of improving discoverability, Barrière-Kucharski worries that the problem could still get worse as the gains made won’t be enough to offset the flood of new developers entering the field. Short also saw discoverability as a key problem facing developers right now, but stressed that finding a solution is in the best interests of the platform holders.
“Whatever platform figures out discoverability first will have a huge advantage because there are these thousands of developers that as soon as they hear there is any discoverability, that’s where they’re going to flood for sure,” Short said. “So it is almost a race at the moment between Steam and Apple and Google.”
There’s a popular narrative about Japan’s game development industry: it’s an industry in trouble, lagging behind the West and running out of ideas. If any Japanese developer wants to get themselves splashed into the headlines, all they need do is trot out a soundbite disparaging their own industry; in a world of click bait headlines, the fall of Japanese development is a sure-fire winner. The apparent decline of Japan’s game developers is linked to a secondary narrative as well, namely the decline of Japan’s internal market for videogames. Once the undisputed gaming capital of the world, Japan seems to be falling out of love with the pastime – at least on consoles, and at least according to some rather unusual readings of the data.
There’s a nugget of truth to both of these stories; just enough to make them worth considering, yet certainly not enough to prevent the majority of reporting and discussion on them from being a torrent of absolute nonsense. Japanese game development is somewhat troubled, but it’s troubled by exactly the same factors that are giving sleepless nights to Western game developers – skyrocketing AAA budgets, new business models, a diversification of platforms and the globalisation of the audience. Japanese development studios remain perfectly capable of making superb games that delight their fans; their problem, just as everywhere else, is figuring out how to make money from those games in a new world where profitability escapes everything but the million-selling megahit.
That links back to the second narrative; Japan is falling out of love with games. On the surface, it’s hard to see this alleged decline. The country’s arcades may not be what they once were, but they’re still far more numerous and spacious, not to mention well-attended, than any such establishments in the west. Dedicated videogame stores remain a fixture of shopping districts, while every large electronics store (and there are plenty of those, dominating most city centre areas) has a large videogames section – a stark contrast with, for example, central London, where actually going out and buying a videogame in a shop is an increasingly difficult task. Food courts and fast-food joints still play host to groups of children and teenagers engaged in the likes of Pokemon and Monster Hunter, and a trip outside in an urban area with a 3DS in your pocket will bag a full complement of Street Pass hits in no time flat.
Where’s the decline, then? Well, as figures released earlier this week by Japanese magazine publisher and industry data agency Enterbrain confirm, it’s not actually a decline so much as a stagnation. Enterbrain’s report, widely reported online after being translated in part by Kantan Games’ boss Serkan Toto on the company’s blog, showed that combined hardware and software sales in the first half of 2014 were almost exactly the same as the first half of 2013 – showing growth of just 0.1%. Toto’s entirely reasonable point was that this is much, much lower growth than Japan’s booming smartphone game market, yet this seems to have been picked up by many outlets as further confirmation of a Japanese gaming decline and specifically of a failure to ignite interest in the PS4.
Let’s be clear – the Japanese smartphone game market is in extraordinarily rude health. Revenues from mobile games, by some measures, surpassed packaged game revenue about three years ago and haven’t looked back since. For every person you see playing a 3DS or a Vita (the latter, I note, becoming vastly more commonplace on trains in recent months), you see dozens engrossed in mobile games. Puzzle & Dragons remains the clear favourite, but a trip on a busy Tokyo commuter line will turn up any number of different games gracing the ubiquitous smartphones. The industry’s revenues are clear to see, too; the vast majority of expensive marketing campaigns for games here are for mobile games, not console titles. Only last week I walked onto a train carriage on the phenomenally busy Yamanote loop line in central Tokyo to find that every advertising space in the carriage was full of Clash of Clans marketing; the huge billboard near my apartment, meanwhile, alternates fortnightly between ads for hopeful Puzzle & Dragons clones and ads for new singles by terrible boybands. There’s a huge amount of cash flowing through mobile games in Japan right now, and from a business perspective, that makes it a more interesting (if vastly more challenging) space than the console market.
Yet that doesn’t change the slowdown of Japan’s console market into a “decline” or a “crisis”. We all know that Japan has been ahead of the curve in terms of the adoption of videogames since the 1980s. 30 years down the line, is it surprising that it has hit a plateau? Gaming as a whole – including mobile, browser and online gaming – continues to grow at a massive rate, but in Japan at least, the console space has reached a point where there simply isn’t much new market to conquer. That may change in future as new devices open up new audiences, but console games as they stand don’t seem to have much further to go in Japan. That doesn’t make them a bad business. It means that if you want to make huge bucks and impress shareholders with your growth figures, you probably want to place your investments elsewhere – but if you want to make great games and make money selling them, a mature, stable market is no worse a place to do that than a growing one.
Moreover, when you consider the underlying factors in Japan’s economy, maintaining a steady market size is actually quite impressive. Japan’s population peaked in 2008 and has slowly declined since then; the most rapid decline being the proportion of young people (the most avid consumers of videogames). So this is a market with less “core” consumers of videogames than before; moreover, a series of ill-targeted reforms and a few decades of economic slump have meant that a very large proportion of those young people are trapped in low-paying work with no job security. Furthermore, Japan’s prices have been in slow but steady decline since the early 1990s. Yes, unlike most western economies, Japanese prices aren’t slowly rising due to inflation – rather, they’re falling due to deflation. This has supposedly been reversed in the past 12 months or so, with tiny inflation figures finally showing up, but most of the change so far has been down to a sharp rise in energy costs (a consequence of expensive imported fuels replacing Japan’s still-offline nuclear power plants) and it generally hasn’t been reflected in consumer goods.
One other economic factor has been mentioned by a handful of writers this week. They pointed out that Japan’s consumption tax went up from 5 per cent to 8 per cent in April, in the middle of this reporting period; if that 3 per cent hike were included in Enterbrain’s figures, it would mean industry revenues actually fell. However, to my knowledge Enterbrain’s numbers are based on pre-tax figures, much as US market data is, and thus the consumption tax rise isn’t a factor – except in that it would have been expected to push videogame sales down, thus making the rise slightly more impressive.
In short – Japan has less consumers for games and it’s charging less for things than it used to. Under those circumstances, a market which was performing precisely as well this year as it did last year would be expected to show a modest decline. Just staying still would mean you’d actually grown by a few percent in relative to offset the underlying audience decline and price deflation. Growing by 0.1% in Japan is comparable to growing by a couple of percent in the USA or much of Europe, where population is still generally growing and prices are being inflated, not deflated.
These factors don’t combine to mean that Japan is magically showing strong growth in defiance of the figures, but they are important to understanding what the figures mean. Japan’s “decline” is more like stagnation, and in the past year, even that stagnation has showed a positive trend. The market for consoles and games remains big and pretty healthy even as the market for smartphone games shoots through the roof; both of them clearly have an important place in the future of the country’s games industry.
As for the supposedly “disappointing” impact of the PlayStation 4? There’s no doubt that the performance of the console has slowed down significantly since a very strong launch, but it’s worth noting that sales of hardware were actually up nearly 7% year-on-year, with the PS4 and the resurgent Vita picking up slack from slower sales of the 3DS. PS4′s software line-up in Japan is still largely composed of western titles with limited appeal to the local audience, and the console probably won’t pick up significantly until more local software is available later this year – it’s notable that the PS Vita’s success in the first half of 2014 is largely attributable to the sudden arrival of software titles that match local tastes, and not (as some commentators would have it) to an upsurge of interest in PS4 Remote Play functionality. Overall, PS4 in Japan continues to perform as you’d expect for a new console with limited software – a great launch, followed by slow but steady sales while it awaits new software to spark purchases from new audiences. It’s done well, but it hasn’t “rescued” the Japanese market; but then again, if you take the time to understand the figures, it should be pretty clear that the Japanese market doesn’t actually need rescuing.
Late last year, Frank Gibeau switched roles at Electronic Arts, moving from president of the PC and console-focused EA Labels to be the executive vice president of EA Mobile. Speaking with GamesIndustry International at E3 last month, Gibeau said he was enticed by the vast opportunity for growth in the mobile world, and the chance to shape the publisher’s efforts in the space.
“One of the things I enjoy doing is building new groups, new teams and taking on cool missions,” Gibeau said. “The idea was that EA is known as a console company, and for our PC business. We’re not particularly well known for our mobile efforts, and I thought it would be an awesome challenge to go in and marshal all the talent and assets of EA and, frankly, build a mobile game company.”
It might sound a little odd to hear Gibeau speaking of building a mobile game company at EA. After all, he described EA as “the king of the premium business model” in the mobile world not too long ago, when the company was topping charts with $7 apps like The Sims 3 or raking it in with paid offerings like Tetris, Monopoly, or Scrabble.
“Two years ago, we were number one on feature phones with the premium business model,” Gibeau said. “Smart devices come in, freemium comes in, and we’re rebuilding our business. I think we’ve successfully gotten back into position and we see a lot of opportunity to grow the business going forward, but if you had talked to me about two years ago and tried to speculate there would be a company called Supercell with that much share and that many games, we wouldn’t even have come close.”
Gibeau expects that pace of upheaval to continue in the mobile market, but some things seem set in stone. For example, Gibeau is so convinced that the days of premium apps are done, he has EA Mobile working exclusively on freemium these days.
“If you look at how Asia operates, premium just doesn’t exist as a business model for interactive games, whether it’s on PC or mobile devices. If you look at the opportunity set, if you’re thinking globally, you want to go freemium so you can capture the widest possible audience in Japan, Korea, China, and so on… With premium games, you just don’t get the downloads you do with a free game. It’s better to get as many people into your experience and trying it. If they connect with it, that’s great, then you can carry them for very long periods of time. With premium, given that there are so many free offerings out there, it’s very difficult to break through.”
Unfortunately for EA, its prior expertise is only so relevant in the new mobile marketplace. Its decades of work on PCs and consoles translated well to premium apps that didn’t require constant updating, but Gibeau said running live services is a very different task – one EA needs to get better at.
“Our challenge frankly is just mastering the freemium live service component of what’s happening in mobile,” Gibeau said. “That’s where we’re spending a lot of our time right now. We think we have the right IP. We have the right talent. We’ve got great production values. Our scores from users are pretty high. It’s really about being able to be as good as Supercell, King, Gungho, or some of these other companies at sustained live services for long periods of time. We have a couple games that are doing really well on that front, like The Simpsons, Sims Freeplay, and Real Racing, but in general I think that’s where we need to spend most of our time.”
As Gibeau mentioned, EA has already had some successes on that front, but its record isn’t exactly unblemished. The company launched a freemium reboot of Dungeon Keeper earlier this year and the game was heavily criticized for its aggressive monetization approach. In May, EA shuttered original developer Mythic.
“Dungeon Keeper suffered from a few things,” Gibeau said. “I don’t think we did a particularly good job marketing it or talking to fans about their expectations for what Dungeon Keeper was going to be or ultimately should be. Brands ultimately have a certain amount of permission that you can make changes to, and I think we might have innovated too much or tried some different things that people just weren’t ready for. Or, frankly, were not in tune with what the brand would have allowed us to do. We like the idea that you can bring back a brand at EA and express it in a new way. We’ve had some successes on that front, but in the case of Dungeon Keeper, that just didn’t connect with an audience for a variety of reasons.”
The Dungeon Keeper reboot wasn’t successful, but EA continues to keep the game up and running, having passed the live service responsibilities to another studio. It’s not because the company is hoping for a turnaround story so much as it’s just one more adaptation to running games with a live service model.
“If you watch some of the things we’ve been doing over the last eight or nine months, we’ve made a commitment to players,” Gibeau said. “We’re sincere and committed to that. So when you bring in a group of people to Dungeon Keeper and you serve them, create a live service, a relationship and a connection, you just can’t pull the rug out from under them. That’s just not fair. We can sustain the Dungeon Keeper business at its level for a very long time. We have a committed group of people who are playing the game and enjoying it. So our view is going to be that we’ll keep Dungeon Keeper going as long as there’s a committed and connected audience to that game. Are we going to sequel it? Probably not. [Laughs] But we don’t want to just shut stuff off and walk away. You can’t do that in a live service environment.”
Much like EA’s institutional experience, there’s only so much of Gibeau’s past in the console and PC core gaming world that is directly relevant to today’s mobile space. But as the segment grows out of what he calls the “two guys in a garage” stage, EA’s organizational expertise will be increasingly beneficial.
“These teams are starting to become fairly sizeable,” Gibeau said, “and the teams and investment going into these games is starting to become much greater. Now they’re much, much less than you see on the console side, but there’s a certain rigor and discipline in approach from a technology and talent standpoint that’s very applicable… If you look at these devices, they will refresh their hardware and their computing power multiple times before you see a PlayStation 5. And as you see that hardware get increasing power and capability on GPU and CPU levels, our technology that we set up for gen 4 will be very applicable there. We’re going to be building technologies like Frostbite that operate on mobile devices so we can create richer, more immersive experiences on mobile.”
Even if mobile blockbusters like Candy Crush Saga aren’t exactly pushing the hardware, Gibeau said there’s still a need for all that extra horsepower. With the increased capabilities of multitasking on phones, he sees plenty of room for improvement before the industry runs up against diminishing returns on the CPU and GPU front. He likens today’s mobile titles to late-generation PS2 games, with PS3 and Xbox 360-level games just around the corner.
“As it relates to games, this is like black and white movies with no sound at this point, in terms of the type of games we’ve created,” Gibeau said. “We’re just starting to break through on the really big ideas is my personal view. If you look at games like Clash of Clans, Real Racing, even Candy Crush, they’re breaking through in new ways and spawning all types of new products that are opening up creativity and opportunities here. So I think computing power is just something we’ll continue to leverage.”
The best part for Gibeau is that the hard work of convincing people to buy these more powerful devices isn’t falling solely on the shoulders of game developers.
“The beauty of it is it’s not a single-use device,” Gibeau said, “so people will be upgrading them for a better camera, better video capability, different form factor, different user inputs, as a wearable… I think there’s so much pressure from an innovation standpoint between Samsung, Apple, Google, and Windows coming in, that they’ll continue to one up each other and there will be a very vibrant refresh cycle for a very long period of time. The screens get better, the computing power gets better, and I don’t have to worry about just games doing it like we were in the console business. Those were pretty much just games consoles; these are multi-use devices. And the beauty of it is there will be lots of different types of applications coming in and pushing that upgrade path.”
Gran Turismo 7 had been rumored to already have been in development, but now Kazunori Yamauchi, CEO of Polyphony Digital has now confirmed officially that this is the case. Yamauchi revealed to Eurogamer that “we are working on the title, but added that he doesn’t think it will make it this year.”
In addition we learned that Gran Turismo 7 will not be getting a Prologue release this time around with the development team instead focusing on the full release. PS2 ear cars are likely to be included with Gran Turismo 7, but they may be upgraded to Premium, highly detailed models for this release. It is unlikely that they will be getting rid of any of the standard cars because each car has its own fans.
Sony has not officially announced Gran Turismo 7, but Yamauchi already had told fans back in September to expect a Gran Turismo release on the PlayStation 4 in a year or two.