By examining trends between the digital and physical ecosystem, EEDAR has found the digital space to be increasingly driving the future of new console game publishers.
In recent years, the physical games market on consoles has been experiencing a consolidation of publishers and a downturn in the number of games released. From 2008 to 2014, the number of games released on the physical format across Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony consoles declined from 383 (in 2008) to 145 (in 2014).
Conversely to the physical games’ market, the digital space has been growing considerably within this same time frame. Thanks to the growing focus of online digital ecosystems on consoles, more publishers than ever are releasing console games. In 2008, there were 102 digital-only games released across all consoles; in 2014, there were 279 digital-only games released, according to release data taken from EEDAR’s internal database which tracks all physically and digitally released games on these platforms.
EEDAR defines the Digital Only category as games that do not have a simultaneous (within 90 days) physical release. The Physical + Digital category encompasses most AAA game releases which see simultaneous physical and digital releases, and the Physical Only category consists of games that do not also appear on digital storefronts. Nearly every title released today on consoles also makes an appearance on the console’s digital storefront. The Digital Only category by itself accounts for 66 percent of total game releases. This digital ecosystem is not only reinvigorating game releases, but the number of active publishers has been increasing considerably.
Since 2011, the Traditional Market (defined as Physical + Digital and Physical Only releases) has seen a decline in the number of active publishers. In 2014, there were only 46 different publishers releasing new games compared to the 82 publishers active in 2011. While the traditional market continues to be more dominated by the few larger AAA publishers, the digital space has become a hotspot for numerous smaller publishing companies.
The 8th generation of consoles has caused a resurgence in publisher activity in the digital-only space. Thanks to the growing digital ecosystem and more robust digital storefront experiences on the 8th-gen consoles, publishers continue to flock to the digital games space. In 2014, the total count of publishers releasing digital-only games in the console gaming space was the highest in history at over 146 different publishers.
In the Digital Only market, game releases are more spread across the active publishers. For each active yearly publisher, games released per publisher has been decreasing within the digital-only space. This represents a market with a diverse range of publishers where the larger, more established publishers do not overshadow the presence of other publishers.
Amazon has looked at the gaming market and felt that it is an area it can make a pile of dosh.
So far its games have been restricted to mobile devices. But it looks like that’s about to change: Amazon Game Studios is currently hiring for what it describes as an “ambitious new PC game project using the latest technology.”
It looks like this will be Amazon’s first ever PC release. Amazon hired notable developers like Kim Swift, designer of Portal, as well as Clint Hocking, who previously worked on franchises like Far Cry and Splinter Cell.
It has spent a small fortune licensing the CryEngine, the same one used to make high-end PC games like Crysis 3 and bought the game streaming service Twitch last August for $970 million, and made gaming a big focus for its Fire TV media box.
In a statement Amazon said: “We believe that games have just scratched the surface in their power to unite players,” the job posting reads, “and will produce some of the future’s most influential voices in media and art.”
Last week it was reported how Geeknet Inc. was in the process of being bought out by retailer Hot Topic for $16 a share or $37 million in cash.
However we have just discovered that deal was squashed because Thinkgeek got a better deal from Gamestop.
GameStop offered $20 per share and Hot Topic wanted away. GameStop’s $20 per share deal also includes $37 million in cash and comes out to a total valuation of $140 million.
Geeknet must pay Hot Topic a three percent “break-up fee,” which GameStop has agreed to reimburse.
What this will mean is that ThinkGeek customers can pick up ThinkGeek merchandise in GameStop stores.
The press release also mentions the potential of offering GameStop PowerUp Rewards members “exclusive, unique and cutting edge merchandise related to their favorite entertainment.”
The deal should be concluded by the end of GameStop’s second financial quarter of 2015, which will happen in August.
At Sony’s 2015 Investor Relations Day today, Sony Computer Entertainment president and global CEO Andrew House detailed the company’s strategy for the coming year, including how it will address some shortcomings.
House began his presentation on a positive note, talking up PlayStation 4 as “the fastest selling hardware platform in our history,” showing better-than expected growth and pushing PlayStation Plus subscriptions to twice what they were in fiscal year 2013. He said the company has a competitive advantage for the moment, and laid out three ways it hopes to maintain that. In addition to next year’s launch of the Project Morpheus virtual reality headset and continued cost reduction efforts, House said the company needs quality software.
“We are working very hard to continue very strong support from third-party pubs and devs,” House said. “Our first-party lineup is a little sparse this year, so I think this places even greater emphasis on getting good third-party support.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean exclusive third-party support. To date, House said Sony has been primarily trying to get multiplatform developers to simply take advantage of features the PS4 has over the competition, like SharePlay, or maybe include extra content in the PS4 version or give players early access to add-on content. Third-party exclusives are still an option, just not a frequently used one.
“I will admit that these are, in the current publishing landscape, few and far between, but we were able to announce a full exclusive around a franchise like Street Fighter so that Street Fighter 5 is a complete exclusive for PlayStation 4,” House said, adding, “Although given publishing dynamics and development costs, those are increasingly difficult to secure.”
House also talked about the decline in Sony’s other platforms. As much as the PS4′s growth has exceeded expectations, so too has the PlayStation 3′s decline. House said the system’s price simply isn’t as competitive in the market as the PlayStation 2 and PSone were after their successors launched, and added that the shift toward more connected console experiences has also made less capable offerings less attractive.
House also cast a dim view of the company’s handheld business. While he noted that the Vita platform remains “strong and vibrant” in Asia and Japan, his outlook for the current fiscal year included declines in the US and Europe. Additionally, he referred to the PlayStation Vita and its microconsole counterpart the PlayStation TV as “legacy platforms” when discussing a write-off of hardware components for the two.
“I would characterize 2015 as the beginning of a harvest period for the PlayStation 4 platform,” House said. “The beginning of a harvest period. That being said, we are also undertaking to invest in the future, and 2015 will also be a year of investment.”
That investment will be focused on a few areas. There’s the Morpheus, of course, as well as continued spend on original PlayStation entertainment content like the TV show Powers (which was recently greenlit for a second season). On top of that, House said Sony would be investing in the expansion of its PlayStation Vue television streaming platform and a continued re-architecture of its PlayStation Network with an eye toward increasing stability and reducing maintenance downtime.
Valve is no stranger to its ventures having a somewhat rocky start. Remember when the now-beloved Steam first appeared, all those years ago? Everyone absolutely loathed it; it only ever really got off the ground because you needed to install it if you wanted to play Half-Life 2. It’s hard now to imagine what the PC games market would look like if Valve hadn’t persisted with their idea; there was never any guarantee that a dominant digital distribution platform would appear, and it’s entirely plausible that a messy collection of publisher-owned storefronts would instead loom over the landscape, with the indie and small developer games that have so benefited from Steam’s independence being squeezed like grass between paving stones.
That isn’t to say that Valve always get things right; most of the criticisms leveled at Steam in those early days weren’t just Luddite complaints, but were indeed things that needed to be fixed before the system could go on to be a world-beater. Similarly, there have been huge problems that needed ironing out with Valve’s other large feature launches over the years, with Steam Greenlight being a good example of a fantastic idea that has needed (and still needs) a lot of tweaking before the balance between creators and consumers is effectively achieved.
You know where this is leading. Steam Workshop, the longstanding program allowing people to create mods (or other user-generated content) for games on Steam, opened up the possibility of charging for Skyrim mods earlier this month. It’s been a bit of a disaster, to the extent that Valve and Skyrim publisher Bethesda ended up shutting down the service after, as Gabe Newell succinctly phrased it, “pissing off the Internet”.
There were two major camps of those who complained about the paid mods system for Skyrim; those who objected to the botched implementation (there were cases of people who didn’t own the rights to mod content putting it up for sale, of daft pricing, and a questionable revenue model that awarded only 25% to the creators), and those who object in principle to the very concept of charging for mods. The latter argument, the more purist of the two, sees mods as a labour of love that should be shared freely with “the community”, and objects to the intrusion of commerce, of revenue shares and of “greedy” publishers and storefronts into this traditionally fan-dominated area. Those who support that point of view have, understandably, been celebrating the forced retreat of Valve and Bethesda.
Their celebrations will be short-lived. Valve’s retreat is a tactical move, not a strategic one; the intention absolutely remains to extend the commercial model across Steam Workshop generally. Valve acknowledges that the Skyrim modding community, which is pretty well established (you’ve been able to release Steam Workshop content for Skyrim since 2012), was the wrong place to roll out new commercial features – you can’t take a content creating community that’s been doing things for free for three years, suddenly introduce experimental and very rough payment systems, and not expect a hell of a backlash. The retreat from the Skyrim experiment was inevitable, with hindsight. With foresight, the adoption of paid mods more broadly is equally inevitable.
Why? Why must an area which has thrived for so long without being a commercial field suddenly start being about money? There are a few reasons for the inevitability of this change – and, indeed, for its desirability – but it’s worth saying from the outset that it’s pretty unlikely that the introduction of commercial models is going to impact upon the vast majority of mod content. The vast majority of mods will continue to be made and distributed for free, for the same reasons as previously; because the creator loves the game in question and wants to play around with its systems; because a budding developer wants a sandbox in which to learn and show off their skills to potential employers; because making things is fun. Most mods will remain small-scale and will, simply, not be of commercial value; a few creators will chance their arm by sticking a price tag on such things, but the market will quickly dispose of such behaviour.
Some mods, though, are much more involved and in-depth; to realise their potential, they impact materially and financially upon the working and personal lives of their creators. For that small slice out of the top of the mod world, the introduction of commercial options will give creators the possibility of justifying their work and focus financially. It won’t make a difference at all to very many, but to the few talented creative people who will be impacted, the change to their lives could be immense.
This is, after all, not a new rule that’s being introduced, but an old, restrictive one that’s being lifted. Up until now, it’s effectively been impossible to make money from the majority of mods. They rely upon someone else’s commercial, copyrighted content; while not outright impossible technically, the task of building a mod that’s sufficiently unencumbered with stuff you don’t own for it to be sold legally is daunting at best. As such, the rule up until now has been – you have to give away your mod for free. The rule that we’ll gradually see introduced over the coming years will be – you can still give away your mod for free, but if it’s good enough to be paid for, you can put a price tag on it and split the revenue with the creator of the game.
That’s not a bad deal. The percentages certainly need tweaking; I’ve seen some not unreasonable defences of the 25% share which Bethesda offered to mod creators, but with 30% being the standard share taken by stores and other “involved but not active” parties in digital distribution deals, I expect that something like 30% for Steam, 30% for the publisher and 40% for the mod creator will end up being the standard. Price points will need to be thrashed out, and the market will undoubtedly be brutal to those who overstep the mark. There’s a deeply thorny discussion about the role of F2P to be had somewhere down the line. Overall, though, it’s a reasonable and helpful freedom to introduce to the market.
It’s also one which PC game developers are thirsting for. Supporting mod communities is something they’ve always done, on the understanding that a healthy mod scene supports sales of the game itself and that this should be reward enough. By and large, this will remain the rationale; but the market is changing, and the rising development costs of the sort of big, AAA games that attract modding communities are no longer being matched by the swelling of the audience. Margins are being squeezed and new revenue streams are essential if AAA games are going to continue to be sustainable. It won’t solve the problems by itself, or overnight; but for some games, creating a healthy after-market in user-generated content, with the developer taking a slice off the top of the economy that develops, could be enough to secure the developer’s future.
Hence the inevitability. Developers need the possibility of an extra revenue stream (preferably without having to compromise the design of their games). A small group of “elite” mod creators need the possibility of supporting themselves through their work, especially as the one-time goal of a studio job at a developer has lost its lustre as the Holy Grail of a modder’s work. The vast majority of gamers will be pretty happy to pay a little money to support the work of someone creating content they love, just as it’s transpired that most music, film and book fans are perfectly happy to pay a reasonable amount of money for content they love when they’re given flexible opportunities to do so.
Paid mods are coming, then; not to Skyrim and probably not to any other game that’s already got an established and thriving mod community, but certainly to future games with ambitions of being the next modding platform. Valve and its partners will have to learn fast to avoid “pissing off the Internet” again; but for those whose vehement arguments are based on the non-commercial “purity” of this corner of the gaming world, enjoy it while it lasts; the reprieve won this week is a temporary one.
It’s going to be another big year for games, as Newzoo is projecting that 2015 will see global gaming revenues jump 9.4 percent year-over-year to $91.5 billion. The future looks bright as well, with the research firm’s upcoming Global Games Market Report projecting worldwide revenues to reach $107 billion in 2017.
As the overall market grows, the distribution of where that money is coming from will also shift. Newzoo’s projections for this year have a surging Chinese market narrowly overtaking the US as the single biggest revenue contributor, bringing in $22.2 billion (up 23 percent) compared to the American market’s $22 billion (up 3 percent). As far as regions go, Asia-Pacific is far and away the largest source of gaming revenue, accounting for $43.1 billion (up 15 percent). Latin America is the smallest of the four major markets with just $4 billion in revenues, but it is also growing the quickest, up 18 percent year-over-year.
The platforms on which people spend money gaming are also in flux. Tablet revenues are expected to be up 27 percent year-over-year to $9.4 billion, with smartphone and watch revenues jumping 21 percent to $20.6 billion. However, PCs are the most popular platform for games, bringing in $27.1 billion (up 8 percent) from standard titles and MMOs, while casual webgames will draw an additional $6.6 billion (up 2 percent). Newzoo grouped TV, consoles, and VR devices into their own category, projecting them to bring in $25.1 billion (up 2 percent) in game revenues. The only market segment not seeing growth at the moment is the dedicated handheld, which Newzoo expects to bring in $2.7 billion in revenue this year (down 16 percent).
While the firm’s grouping of VR and smartwatch revenues in other categories may be unusual, it said both segments are too small to report for now.
“Short- to medium-term VR revenues will be limited and largely cannibalize on current console and PC game spending as a share of game enthusiasts invest in the latest technology and richest experience that VR offers,” Newzoo said. “Smartwatches will be a success but not add significant ‘new’ revenues to the $20.6 billion spent on smartphones this year.”
EA is shuttering four high-profile free-to-play games, all of them allied to popular IP like Battlefield and FIFA.
Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield Play4Free, Need for Speed World and FIFA World will all continue for another 90 days, at which point they will be taken offline for good. Further development on the games has stopped already.
“In more than five years since most of these titles launched, how we play games has changed dramatically,” said Patrick Soderlund, EVP of EA Games, in a statement. “These were pioneering experiences, and we’re humbled that, over the years, so many of you joined us to enjoy the games and the community.”
In terms of EA’s growing interest in free-to-play models, the real pioneer among that group is Battlefield Heroes, which was pitched at “frustrated, restricted” gamers back in 2008. Need for Speed World and Battlefield Play4Free followed, launching over the second half of 2010.
By the start of 2012, EA was reporting a combined total of 25 million players across the six games in its “Play4Free” initiative, with Battlefield Heroes and Need for Speed World contributing 10 million players each.
However, FIFA World is by no means a forerunner. It only reaching open beta late in 2013, and so it is being shuttered after substantially less than two years of public availability. This wouldn’t imply a slow decline in interest, but a lack of interest in the first place.
That’s in stark contrast to FIFA Online, the free-to-play version of the game made specifically for markets in Asia. In 2012, EA’s Andrew Wilson claimed that FIFA Online was making $100 million a year in revenue. A year later, FIFA Online 3, the most recent iteration, was the leading online sports game in both traffic and revenue in Korea.
One thing is certain, take these four titles away from EA’s free-to-play games on Origin, and you’re left with only Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances and Star Wars: The Old Republic – in his statement, Soderlund stressed the latter’s “enthusiastic and growing” community, and reiterated EA’s commitment to providing new content.
The remainder of the company’s free-to-play catalog is composed of games like Outernauts, The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Bejeweled Blitz. Casual, social, call them what you will, but they are intended for a very different audience to Need for Speed World and Battlefield Play4Free, and that audience has just lost two-thirds of the games EA had made to satisfy its needs.
The deal that helped Crytek recover from its recent financial difficulties was Amazon, according to a report from Kotaku.
The online retail giant signed a licensing deal for CryEngine, Crytek’s proprietary game engine. Sources within the company put the deal’s value at between $50 million and $70 million, and suggested that Amazon may be using it as the bedrock for a proprietary engine of its own.
However Amazon uses the technology, though, the importance of the deal for Crytek cannot be overstated. Last year, during the summer, it became apparent that all was not well at the German developer. Employees hadn’t been fully paid in months, leading to an alleged staff walkout in its UK office, where a sequel to Homefront was in development. Koch Media acquired the Homefront IP and its team shortly after.
When the company’s management eventually addressed the rumors, it had already secured the financing necessary to take the company forward. No details of the deal were offered, but it’s very likely that Crytek got the money it needed from Amazon.
We have contacted Crytek to confirm the details, but it certainly fits with the perception that Amazon could emerge as a major creator of game content. It has snapped up some elite talent to do just that, it acquired Twitch for a huge sum of money, and it has been very open about where it plans to fit into the overall market.
During a presentation at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, Boss Fight Entertainment’s Damion Schubert suggested the industry to drop the term “whales,” calling it disrespectful to the heavy spenders that make the free-to-play business model possible. As an alternative, he proposed calling them “patrons,” as their largesse allows the masses to enjoy these works that otherwise could not be made and maintained.
After his talk, Schubert spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about his own experiences with heavy spending customers. During his stint at BioWare Austin, Schubert was a lead designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic as it transitioned from its original subscription-based business model to a free-to-play format.
“I think the issue with whales is that most developers don’t actually psychologically get into the head of whales,” Schubert said. “And as a result, they don’t actually empathize with those players, because most developers aren’t the kind of person that would shell out $30,000 to get a cool speeder bike or whatnot… I think your average developer feels way more empathy for the free players and the light spenders than the whales because the whales are kind of exotic creatures if you think about them. They’re really unusual.”
Schubert said whales, at least those he saw on The Old Republic, don’t have uniform behavior patterns. They weren’t necessarily heavy raiders, or big into player-vs-player competition. They were just a different class of customer, with the only common attribute being that they apparently liked to spend money. Some free-to-play games have producers whose entire job is to try to understand those customers, Schubert said, setting up special message boards for that sub-community of player, or letting them vote on what content should be added to a game next.
“When you start working with these [customers], there’s a lot of concern that they are people who have gambling problems, or kids who have no idea of the concept of money,” Schubert said.
But from his experience on The Old Republic, Schubert came to understand that most of that heavy spending population is simply people who are legitimately rich and don’t have a problem with devoting money to something they see as a hobby. Schubert said The Old Republic team was particular mindful of free-to-play abuse, and had spending limits placed to protect people from credit card fraud or kids racking up unauthorized charges. If someone wanted to be a heavy spender on the game, they had to call up customer service and specifically ask for those limits to be removed.
“If you think about it, they wanted to spend money so much that they were willing to endure what was probably a really annoying customer service call so they could spend money,” Schubert said.
The Old Republic’s transition from a subscription-based model to free-to-play followed a wider shift in the massively multiplayer online genre. Schubert expects many of the traditional PC and console gaming genres like fighting games and first-person shooters to follow suit, one at a time. That said, free-to-play is not the business model of the future. Not the only one, at least.
“I think the only constant in the industry is change,” Schubert said when asked if the current free-to-play model will eventually fall out of favor. “So yeah, it will shift. And it will always shift because people find a more effective billing model. And the thing to keep in mind is that a more effective billing model will come from customers finding something they like better… I think there is always someone waiting in the wings with a new way of how you monetize it. But I do think that anything we’re going to see in the short term, at least, is probably going to start with a great free experience. It’s just so hard to catch fire; there are too many competitive options that are free right now.”
Two upstart business models Schubert is not yet sold on are crowdfunding and alpha-funding. As a consumer, he has reservations about both.
“The Wild West right now is the Kickstarter stuff, which is a whole bunch of companies that are making their best guess about what they can do,” Schubert said. “Many of them are doing it very, very poorly, because it turns out project management in games is something the big boys don’t do very well, much less these guys making their first game and trying to do it on a shoestring budget. I think that’s a place where there’s a lot more caveat emptor going on.”
Schubert’s golden rule for anyone thinking of supporting a Kickstarter is to only pledge an amount of money you would be OK losing forever with nothing to show for it.
“At the end of the day, you’re investing on a hope and a dream, and by definition, a lot of those are just going to fail or stall,” Schubert said. “Game development is by definition R&D. Every single game that gets developed is trying to find a core game loop, trying to find the magic, trying to find the thing that will make it stand out from the 100 other games that are in that same genre. And a lot of them fail. You’ve played 1,000 crappy games. Teams didn’t get out to make crappy games; they just got there and they couldn’t find the ‘there’ there.”
He wasn’t much kinder to the idea of charging people for games still in an early stage of development.
“I’m not a huge fan of Early Access, although ironically, I think the MMO genre invented it,” Schubert said. “But on the MMOs, we needed it because there are things on an MMO that you cannot test without a population. You cannot test a 40-man raid internally. You cannot test large-scale political systems. You cannot test login servers with real problems from different countries, server load and things like that. Early Access actually started in my opinion, with MMOs, with the brightest of hopes and completely and totally clean ideals.”
Schubert has funded a few projects in Early Access, but said he wound up getting unfinished games in return. Considering he works on unfinished games for a living, he doesn’t have much patience for them in his spare time, and has since refrained from supporting games in Early Access.
“I genuinely think there are very few people in either Kickstarter or Early Access that are trying to screw customers,” Schubert said. “I think people in both those spaces are doing it because they love games and want to be part of it, and it’s hard for me to find fault in that at the end of the day.”
Microsoft’s Xbox division is in a much healthier state today than it was a year ago. It’s had a tough time of it; forced to reinvent itself in an excruciating, public way as the original design philosophy and marketing message for the Xbox One transpired to be about as popular as breaking wind in a crowded lift, resulting in executive reshuffles and a tricky refocus of the variety that would ordinarily be carried out pre-launch and behind closed doors. Even now, Xbox One remains lumbered with the fossilised detritus of its abortive original vision; Kinect 2.0 has been shed, freeing up system resources and marking a clear departure for the console, but other legacy items like the expensive hardware required for HDMI input and TV processing are stuck right there in the system’s hardware and cannot be extracted until the inevitable redesign of the box rolls around.
All the same, under Phil Spencer’s tenure as Xbox boss, the console has achieved a better turnaround than any of us would have dared to expect – but that, perhaps, speaks to the low expectations everyone had. In truth, despite the sterling efforts of Spencer and his team, Xbox One is still a console in trouble. A great holiday sales season was widely reported, but actually only happened in one territory (the USA, home turf that was utterly dominated by Xbox in the previous generation), was largely predicated on a temporary price-cut and was somewhat marred by serious technical issues that dogged the console’s headline title for the season, the Master Chief Collection.
Since the start of 2015, things have settled down to a more familiar pattern once more; PS4 consistently outsells Xbox One, even in the USA, generally racking up more than double the sales of its competitor in global terms. Xbox One sells better month-on-month than the Wii U, but that’s cold comfort indeed given that Nintendo’s console is widely seen as an outright commercial failure, and Nintendo has all but confirmed that it will receive an early bath, with a replacement in the form of Nintendo NX set to be announced in 2016. Microsoft isn’t anywhere near that level of crisis, but nor are its sales in 2015 thus far outside the realms of comparison with Wii U – and their installed bases are nigh-on identical.
The odd thing about all of this, and the really positive thing that Microsoft and its collaborators like to focus on, is that while the Xbox One looks like it’s struggling, it’s actually doing markedly better than the Xbox 360 was at the same point in its lifespan – by my rough calculations, Xbox One is about 2.5 million units north of the installed base of Xbox 360 at the same point. Oddly, that makes it more comparable with PS3, which was, in spite of its controversy-dogged early years, a much faster seller out the door than Microsoft’s console. The point stands, though, that in simple commercial terms Xbox One is doing better than Xbox 360 did – it just happens that PS4 is doing better than any console has ever done, and casting a long shadow over Microsoft’s efforts in the process.
The problem with this is that I don’t think very many people are under the impression that Microsoft, whose primary businesses lie in the sale of office and enterprise software, cloud services and operating systems, is in the videogames business just in order to turn a little profit. Ever since the departure of Steve Ballmer and the appointment of the much more business-focused Satya Nadella as CEO, Xbox has looked increasingly out of place at Microsoft, especially as projects like Surface and Windows Phone have been de-emphasised. If Xbox still has an important role, it’s as the flag-bearer for Microsoft’s brand in the consumer space; but even at that, the “beach-head in the living room” is far less important now that Sony no longer really looks like a competitor to Microsoft, the two companies having streamlined themselves to a point where they don’t really focus on the same things any more. Besides, Xbox One is being left behind in PS4′s dust; even if Microsoft felt like it needed a beach-head in the living room, Xbox wouldn’t exactly be doing the job any more.
But wait, we’ve been here before, right? All those rumours about Microsoft talking to Amazon about unloading the Xbox division came to nothing only a few short months ago, after all. GDC saw all manner of talk about Xbox One’s place in the Windows 10 ecosystem; Spencer repeatedly mentioned the division having Nadella’s backing, and then there’s the recent acquisition of Minecraft, which surely seems like an odd thing to take place if the position of Xbox within the Microsoft family is still up in the air. Isn’t this all settled now?
Perhaps not, because the rumours just won’t stop swirling that Microsoft had quietly put Xbox on the market and is actively hunting for a buyer. During GDC and ever since, the question of who will come to own Xbox has been posed and speculated upon endlessly. The console’s interactions with Windows 10, including the eventual transition of its own internal OS to the Windows 10 kernel; the supposed backing of Nadella; the acquisition of Minecraft; none of these things have really deterred the talk that Microsoft doesn’t see Xbox as a core part of its business any more and would be happy to see it gone. The peculiar shake-up of the firm’s executive team recently, with Phil Harrison quietly departing and Kudo Tsunoda stepping up to share management of some of Microsoft Game Studios’ teams with Phil Spencer, has added fuel to the fire; if you hold it up at a certain angle to the light, this decision could look like it’s creating an internal dividing line that would make a possible divestment easier.
Could it happen? Well, yes, it could – if Microsoft is really determined to sell Xbox and can find a suitable bidder, it could all go far more smoothly than you may imagine. Xbox One would continue to be a part of the Windows 10 vision to some extent, and would probably get its upgrade to the Windows 10 kernel as well, but would no longer be Microsoft hardware – not an unfamiliar situation for a company whose existence has mostly been predicated on selling operating systems for other people’s hardware. Nobody would buy Xbox without getting Halo, Forza and various other titles into the bargain, but Microsoft’s newly rediscovered enthusiasm for Windows gaming would suggest a complex deal wherein certain franchises (probably including Minecraft) remain with Microsoft, while others went off with the Xbox division. HoloLens would remain a Microsoft project; it’s not an Xbox project right now and has never really been pushed as an Xbox One add-on, despite the immediate comparisons it prompted with Sony’s Morpheus. Xbox games would still keep working with the Azure cloud services (Microsoft will happily sell access to that to anyone, on any platform), on which framework Xbox Live would continue to operate. So yes, Xbox could be divorced from Microsoft, maintaining a close and amiable relationship with the requisite parts of the company while taking up residence in another firm’s stable – a firm with a business that’s much more in line with the objectives of Xbox than Microsoft now finds itself to be.
“None of Xbox’ rivals would be in the market to buy such a large division, and no game company would wish to lumber itself with a platform holder business. Neither Apple nor Google make the slightest sense as a new home for Xbox either”
This, I think, is the stumbling block. I’m actually quite convinced that Microsoft would like to sell the Xbox division and has held exploratory talks to that end; I’m somewhat less convinced, but prepared to believe, that those talks are continuing even now. However, I’m struggling to imagine a buyer. None of Xbox’ rivals would be in the market to buy such a large division, and no game company would wish to lumber itself with a platform holder business. Neither Apple nor Google make the slightest sense as a new home for Xbox either; the whole product is distinctly “un-Apple” in its ethos and approach, while Google is broadly wary of hardware and almost entirely disinterested in games.
Amazon was the previously mentioned suitor, and to my mind, remains the most likely purchaser – but it’s seemingly decided to pursue its own strategy for living room devices for now, albeit with quite limited success. I could see Amazon still “exploring options” in this regard with Microsoft, but if that deal was going to happen, I would have expected it to happen last year. Who else is out there, then? Netflix, perhaps, is an interesting outside possibility – the company’s branching out into creating original TV content as well as being a platform for third-party content would be a reasonably good cultural match for the Game Studios aspect of Xbox, but it’s hard to imagine a company that has worked so hard to divorce itself from the entire physical product market suddenly leaping back into it with a large, expensive piece of hardware.
This, I think, is what ultimately convinces me that Xbox is staying at Microsoft – for better or worse. It might be much better for Xbox if it was a centrepiece project for a company whose business objectives matched its strengths; but I don’t think any such company exists to take the division off Microsoft’s hands. Instead, Spencer and his talented team will have to fight to ensure that Xbox remains relevant and important within Microsoft. Building its recognition as a Windows 10 platform is a good start; figuring out other ways in which Xbox can continue to be a great game platform while also bringing value to the other things that Microsoft does is the next challenge. Having turned around public perception of the console to a remarkable degree, the next big task for the Xbox team will be to change perceptions within Microsoft itself and within the investor community – if Xbox is stuck at Microsoft for the long haul, it needs to carve itself a new niche within a business vision that isn’t really about the living room any more.
There’s not a lot to argue with the consensus view that Valve had the biggest and most exciting announcement of GDC this year, in the form of the Vive VR headset it’s producing with hardware partner HTC. It may not be the ultimate “winner” of the battle between VR technologies, but it’s done more than most to push the whole field forwards – and it clearly sparked the imaginations of both developers and media in San Francisco earlier this month. Few of those who attended GDC seem particularly keen to talk about anything other than Vive.
From Valve’s perspective, that might be just as well – the incredibly strong buzz around Vive meant that it eclipsed Valve’s other hardware-related announcement at GDC, the unveiling of new details of the Steam Machines initiative. Ordinarily, it might be an annoying (albeit very high-quality) problem to have one of your announcements completely dampen enthusiasm for the other; in this instance, it’s probably welcome, because what trickled out of GDC regarding Steam Machines is making this look like a very stunted, unloved and disappointing project indeed.
To recap briefly; Steam Machines is Valve’s attempt to create a range of attractive, small-form-factor PC hardware from top manufacturers carrying Valve’s seal of approval (hence being called “Steam Machines” and quite distinctly not “PCs”), running Valve’s own gaming-friendly flavour of the Linux OS, set up to connect to your living room TV and controlled with Valve’s custom joypad device. From a consumer standpoint, they’re Steam consoles; a way to access the enormous library of Steam content (at least the Linux-friendly parts of it) through a device that’s easy to buy, set up and control, and designed from the ground up for the living room.
That’s a really great idea, but one which requires careful execution. Most of all, if it’s going to work, it needs a fairly careful degree of control; Valve isn’t building the machines itself, but since it’s putting its seal of approval on them (allowing them to use the Steam trademark and promoting them through the Steam service), it ought to have the power to enforce various standards related to specification and performance, ensuring that buyers of Steam Machines get a clear, simple, transparent way to understand the calibre of machine they’re purchasing and the gaming performance they can expect as a result.
Since the announcement of the Steam Machines initiative, various ways of implementing this have been imagined; perhaps a numeric score assigned to each Machine allowing buyers to easily understand the price to performance ratio on offer? Perhaps a few distinct “levels” of Steam Machine, with some wiggle room for manufacturers to distinguish themselves, but essentially giving buyers a “Good – Better – Best” set of options that can be followed easily? Any such rating system could be tied in to the Steam store itself, so you could easily cross-reference and find out which system is most appropriate for the kind of games you actually want to play.
In the final analysis, it would appear that Valve’s decision on the myriad possibilities available to it in this regard is the worst possible cop-out, from a consumer standpoint; the company’s decided to do absolutely none of them. The Steam Machines page launched on the Steam website during GDC lists 15 manufacturers building the boxes; many of those manufacturers are offering three models or more at different price and performance levels. There is absolutely no way to compare or even understand performance across the different Steam Machines on offer, short of cross-referencing the graphics cards, processors, memory types and capacities and drive types and capacities used in each one – and if you’ve got the up-to-date technical knowledge to accurately balance those specifications across a few dozen different machines and figure out which one is the best, then you’re quite blatantly going to be the sort of person who saves money by buying the components separately and wouldn’t buy a Steam Machine in a lifetime.
“Valve seems to have copped out entirely from the idea of using its new systems to make the process of buying a gaming PC easier or more welcoming for consumers”
In short, unless there’s a pretty big rabbit that’s going to be pulled out of a hat between now and the launch of the first Steam Machines in the autumn, Valve seems to have copped out entirely from the idea of using its new systems to make the process of buying a gaming PC easier or more welcoming for consumers – and in the process, appears to have removed pretty much the entire raison d’etre of Steam Machines. The opportunity for the PC market to be grown significantly by becoming more “console-like” isn’t to do with shoving PC components into smaller boxes; that’s been happening for years, occasionally with pretty impressive results. Nor is it necessarily about reducing the price, which has also been happening for some years (and which was never going to happen with Steam Machines anyway, as Valve is of no mind to step in and become a loss-leading platform holder).
Rather, it’s about lowering the bar to entry, which remains dizzyingly high for PC gaming – not financially, but in knowledge terms. A combination of relatively high-end technical knowledge and of deliberate and cynical marketing-led obfuscation of technical terminology and product numbering has meant that the actual process of figuring out what you need to buy in order to play the games you want at a degree of quality that’s acceptable is no mean feat for an outsider wanting to engage (or re-engage) with PC games; it’s in this area, the simplicity and confidence of buying a system that you know will play all the games marketed for it, that consoles have an enormous advantage over the daunting task of becoming a PC gamer.
Lacking any guarantee of performance or simple way of understanding what sort of system you’re buying, the Steam Machines as they stand don’t do anything to make that process easier. Personally, I ought to be slap bang in the middle of the market for a Steam Machine; I’m a lapsed PC gamer with a decent disposable income who is really keen to engage with some of the games coming out in the coming year (especially some of the Kickstarted titles which hark back to RPGs I used to absolutely adore), but I’m totally out of touch with what the various specifications and numbers mean. A Steam Machine that I could buy with the confidence that it would play the games I want at decent quality would be a really easy purchase to justify; yet after an hour flicking over and back between the Steam Machines page launched during GDC and various tech websites (most of which assume a baseline of knowledge which, in my case, is a good seven or eight years out of date), I am no closer to understanding which machine I would need or what kind of price point is likely to be right for me. Balls to it; browser window full of tabs looking at tech spec mumbo-jumbo closed, PS4 booted up. Sale lost.
This would be merely a disappointment – a missed opportunity to lower the fence and let a lot more people enjoy PC gaming – were it not for the extra frisson of difficulty posed by none other than Valve’s more successful GDC announcement, the Vive VR headset. You see, one of the things that’s coming across really clearly from all the VR technology arriving on the market is that frame-rate – silky-smooth frame-rate, at least 60FPS and preferably more if the tech can manage it – is utterly vital to the VR experience, making the difference between a nauseating, headache-inducing mess and a Holodeck wet dream. Suddenly, the question of PC specifications has become even more important than before, because PCs incapable of delivering content of sufficient quality simply won’t work for VR. One of the appealing things about a Steam Machine ought to be the guarantee that I’ll be able to plug in a Vive headset and enjoy Valve’s VR, if not this year then at some point down the line; yet lacking any kind of certification that says “yes, this machine is going to be A-OK for VR experiences for now”, the risk of an expensive screw-up in the choice of machine to buy seems greater than ever before.
I may be giving Steam Machines a hard time unfairly; it may be that Valve is actually going to slap the manufacturers into line and impose a clear, transparent way of measuring and certifying performance on the devices, giving consumers confidence in their purchases and lowering the bar to entry to PC gaming. I hope so; this is something that only Valve is in a position to accomplish and that is more important than ever with VR on the horizon and approaching fast. The lack of any such system in the details announced thus far is bitterly disappointing, though. Without it, Steam Machines are nothing more than a handful of small form-factor PCs running a slightly off-kilter OS; of no interest to hobbyists, inaccessible to anyone else, and completely lacking a compelling reason to exist.
Valve has developed its own Intel Vulkan GPU graphics driver for Linux that they intend to open-source.
The Vulkan API is still being argued about and will not be finalized until later this year, but Valve has been developing their own Intel GPU reference driver for Vulkan to help early adopter’s boot-strap their code.
During their presentation at GDC2015 Valve announced that its Intel Linux driver will be open-sourced, but they haven’t provided a time-frame for doing so.
Valve also confirmed that the Source 2 Engine supports the alpha Vulkan API today and that Vulkan will be supported across the board on Steam Machines.
Intel graphics hardware might not be the sexiest, but there is a lot of it out there. It is also easy to target for an open-source driver given Intel’s extensive hardware specifications / programming documentation.
A Vulkan Intel Linux graphics driver used by game developers sounds very promising for having good support for this new API and most likely high-performance was a priority in the development of this driver by Valve and likely their partners at LunarG.
Free to play has an image problem. It’s the most influential and arguably important development in the business of games in decades, a stratospherically successful innovation which has enabled the opening up of games to a wider audience than ever before. Implemented well, with clear understanding of its principles and proper respect afforded to players and creativity alike, it’s more fair and even, in a sense, democratic than old-fashioned models of up-front payment; in theory, players pay in proportion to their enjoyment, handing over money in small transactions for a continued or deepened relationship with a game they already love, rather than giving a large amount of cash up-front for a game they’ve only ever seen in (possibly doctored) screenshots and videos.
While that is a fair description, I think, of the potential of free-to-play, it’s quite clearly not the image that the business model bears right now. You probably scoffed about half a dozen times reading the above paragraph – it may be a fair description of free-to-play at its hypothetical best, but it’s almost certainly at odds with your perceptions.
How, then, might we describe the perception of F2P? Greedy, exploitative, unfair, cheating… Once these adjectives start rolling, it’s hard to get them to stop. The negative view of F2P is that it’s a series of cheap psychological tricks designed to get people to spend money compulsively without ever realising quite how much cash they’re wasting on what is ultimately a very shallow and cynical game experience.
I don’t think it’s entirely unsurprising or unexpected that this perception should be held by “core” gamers or those enamoured of existing styles of game. Although F2P has proven very successful for games like MMOs and MOBAs, it’s by no means universally applicable, either across game types or across audience types; some blundering attempts by publishers to add micro-transactions to premium console and PC titles, combined with deep misgivings over the complete domination of F2P in the mobile game market, have left plenty of more traditional gamers with a very negative and extremely defensive attitude regarding the new business model. That’s fine, though; F2P isn’t for that audience (though it’s a little more complex than that in reality; many players will happily tap away at an F2P mobile game while waiting for matchmaking in a premium console game).
What’s increasingly clear, however, is that there’s an image problem for F2P right in the midst of the audience at whom it’s actually aimed. The negative perception of F2P is becoming increasingly mainstream. It gets mass-media coverage on occasion; recently, it spurred Apple to create a promotion specifically pointing App Store customers to games with no in-app purchases. I happen to think that’s a great idea personally, but what does it say about the feedback from Apple’s customers regarding F2P games, that promotion of non-F2P titles was even a consideration?
Even some of the most successful F2P developers now seem to want to distance themselves from the business model; this week’s interview with Crossy Road developers Hipster Whale saw the team performing linguistic somersaults to avoid labelling their free-to-play game as being free-to-play. Crossy Road is a brilliant, fun, interesting F2P game that hits pretty much all of the positive notes I laid out up in the first paragraph; that even its own developers seem to view “free-to-play” as an overtly negative phrase is deeply concerning.
The problem is that the negativity has a fair basis; there’s a lot of absolute guff out there, with the App Store utterly teeming with F2P games that genuinely are exploitative and unfair; worst of all, the bad games tend to be stupid, mean-spirited and grasping, attempting to suck money out of easily tricked customers (and let’s be blunt here: we’re talking, in no small measure, about kids) rather than undertaking the harder but vastly more rewarding task of actually entertaining and enthralling people until they feel perfectly happy with parting with a little cash to see more, do more or just to deepen their connection to the game.
Such awfulness, though, is not universal by any measure. There are tons of good F2P games out there; games that are creative and interesting (albeit often within a template of sorts; F2P was quick to split off into slowly evolving genre-types, though nobody who’s played PC or console games for very long can reasonably criticise that particular development), games that give you weeks or months of enjoyment without ever forcing a penny from your pocket unless you’re actually deeply engaged enough to want to pay up to get something more. Most of F2P’s bone fide hits fit into this category, in fact; games like Supercell’s Clash of Clans or Hay Day, GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragons and, yes, even King’s Candy Crush Saga, which is held aloft unfairly as an example of F2P scurrilousness, yet has never extracted a penny from 70 percent of the people who have finished (finished!) the game. That’s an absolutely enormous amount of shiny candy-matching enjoyment (while I don’t like the game personally, I don’t question that it’s enjoyment for those who play it so devotedly) for free.
Unfortunately, the negative image that has been built up by free-to-play threatens not just the nasty, exploitative games, but all the perfectly decent ones as well – from billion-grossing phenomena like Puzzle & Dragons to indie wunderkind like Crossy Road. If free-to-play as a “brand” becomes irreparably damaged, the consequences may be far-reaching.
A year ago, I’d have envisaged that the most dangerous consequence on the horizon was heavy-handed legislation – with the EU, or perhaps the USA, clamping down on F2P mechanisms in a half-understood way that ended up damaging perfectly honest developers along with two-bit scam merchants. I still think that’s possible; companies have ducked and dived around small bits of legislation (or the threat of small bits of legislation) in territories including Japan and the EU, but the hammer could still fall in this regard. However, I no longer consider that the largest threat. No, the largest threat is Apple; the company which did more than any other to establish F2P as a viable market remains the company that could pull the carpet out from underneath it entirely, and while I doubt that’s on the cards right now, the wind is certainly turning in that direction.
Apple’s decision to promote non-F2P titles on its store may simply be an editor’s preference; but given the growing negativity around F2P, it may also be a sign that customer anger over F2P titles on iOS is reaching receptive ears at Apple. Apple originally permitted free apps (with IAP or otherwise) for the simple reason that having a huge library of free software available to customers was a brilliant selling point for the iPhone and iPad. At present, that remains the case; but if the negativity around the perception of F2P games were ever to start to outweigh the positive benefits of all that free software, do not doubt that Apple would reverse course fast enough to make your head spin. Reckon that its 30 percent share of all those Puzzle & Dragons and Candy Crush Saga revenues would be enough to make it think twice? Reckon again; App Store revenue is a drop in the ocean for Apple, and if abusive F2P ever starts to significantly damage the public perception of Apple’s devices, it will ban the model (in part, at least) without a second thought to revenue.
Some of you, those who fully buy into the negative image of F2P, might think that would be a thing to celebrate; ding, dong, the witch is dead! That’s a remarkably short-sighted view, however. In truth, F2P has been the saviour of a huge number of game development jobs and studios that would otherwise have been lost entirely in the implosion of smaller publishers and developers over the past five years; it’s provided a path into the industry for a great many talented creative people, grown the audience for games unimaginably and has provided a boost not only to mobile and casual titles, but to core games as well – especially in territories like East Asia. Wishing harm on F2P is wishing harm on many thousands of industry jobs; so don’t wish F2P harm. Wish that it would be better; that way, everyone wins.
The security of the employees of Phantom Dust developer Darkside Game Studios is in doubt, after Microsoft decided to sever all professional ties to the studio.
Phantom Dust is a remake of an Xbox game from 2004, which was designed by Yukio Futatsugi, the creator of Panzer Dragoon. Darkside’s project was unveiled at E3 last year as an exclusive title for the Xbox One, but whatever agreement existed between the studio and Microsoft has been terminated.
Here’s the official line: “Microsoft partnered with Darkside Game Studios in the development of Phantom Dust, but our working relationship has now ended. We have great respect for their studio and their work in the industry.
“While we do not have anything new to share on Phantom Dust at this time, we can confirm that development of the title continues. We look forward to sharing more details on the game as we get closer to release.”
Darkside, which is based in Florida, has contributed to the development of a host of major releases, including a couple of Xbox exclusives: Sunset Overdrive, Gears of War: Judgment, the Borderlands franchise, the Bioshock franchise; it’s a solid track record, albeit entirely composed of contract work, and Phantom Dust was to be its first solo project.
However, the “respect” Microsoft has for that track record is now the subject of suspicion, with several sources from within Darkside claiming that the company has been forced to layoff its entire staff – around 50 people.
“The executives who saw it were impressed and as late as this morning gave our team every indication that the project was on solid ground,” one of the sources said to Kotaku. “Yet we got the phone call today that someone up on high who in all likelihood wasn’t even aware of the game in detail shut it down.”
The notion that the alleged termination of Darkside’s working relationship with Microsoft was sudden is reinforced by the studio’s recruitment page, which advertised six open positions as recently as the start of January. Among the perks listed there, one stands out: “Working with major publishers.”
Microsoft offered no comment on the situation at Darkside, but we are pursuing the studio’s management for clarification.
A year or two ago, it seemed that doom and gloom reigned over the prospects for “core” gaming. With smartphones and tablets becoming this decade’s ubiquitous gaming devices, casual and social games ascendant and free-to-play established as just about the only effective way to make money from the teeming masses swarming to gaming for the first time, dire predictions abounded about the death of game consoles, the decline of paid-for games and the dwindling importance of “core” gamers to the games industry at large.
This week’s headlines speak of a different narrative – one that’s become increasingly strong as we’ve delved into what 2015 has to offer. Sony’s financial figures look pretty good, buoyed partially by the weakness of the Yen but notably also by the incredible success of the PlayStation 4 – a console which more aggressive commentators were reading funeral rites for before it was even announced. Both of the PS4′s competitors, incidentally, ended 2014 (and began 2015) in a stronger sales position than they were in 12 months previously, with next-gen home consoles overall heading for the 40 million sales mark in pretty much record time.
Then there’s the software story of the week; the startling sales of Grand Theft Auto V, which thanks to ten million sales of the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game, have now topped 45 million units. That’s an incredible figure, one which suggests that this single game has generated well over $2 billion in revenue thus far; the GTA franchise as a whole must, at this point, be one of the most valuable entertainment franchises in existence, comparable in revenue terms to the likes of Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Look, this is basically feel-good stuff for the games business; “hey guys, we’re doing great, our biggest franchise is right up there with Hollywood’s finest and these console sales are a promise of a solid future”. Stories like this used to turn up all the time back when games were genuinely struggling to be recognised as a valid and important industry alongside TV, music and film. Nowadays, that struggle has been internalised; it’s worth stepping back every now and then from the sheer enormity of figures like Apple and Samsung’s smartphone sales, or Puzzle & Dragons’ revenue (comparable to GTAV’s, but whether that means the game can birth a successful franchise or sustain itself long-term is another question entirely), or the number of players engaged with top F2P games, to remind ourselves that there’s still huge success happening in the “traditional” end of the market.
The take-away, perhaps, is that this isn’t a zero-sum game. The great success of casual and social games, first on Facebook and now on smartphones, isn’t that they’ve replaced core games, cannibalising the existing high-value market; it’s that they’ve acquired a whole new audience for themselves. Sure, there’s overlap, but there’s little evidence to suggest that this overlap results in people engaging less with core games; I, for one, have discovered that many smartphone F2P games have a core loop that fits nicely into the match-making and loading delays for Destiny’s Crucible.
That’s not to say that changes to the wider business haven’t resonated back through the “core” games space. The massive success of a game like GTAV has a dark side; it reflects the increasing polarisation of the high-end games market, in which successful games win bigger than ever, but games which fail to become enormous hits find themselves failing utterly. There’s no mid-market any more; you’re either a complete hit or a total miss. Developers have lamented the loss of the “AA” market (as distinct from the “AAA” space) for some time; that loss is becoming increasingly keenly felt as enormous budgets, production values and financial pressures come to bear on a smaller and smaller line-up of top-tier titles. Several factors drove the death of AA, with production costs and team sizes being major issues, but the rise of casual games and even of increasingly high-quality indie titles undoubtedly played a role – creating whole new market sectors that cost far less to consumers than AA titles had done.
It’s not just success that’s been polarised by this process; it’s also risk. At the high-end of the market, risk is simply unacceptable, such are the enormous financial figures at play. Thus it’s largely left to the low-end – the indie scene, the flood of titles appearing on the App Store, on Steam and even on the likes of PlayStation Vita – to take interesting risks and challenge gaming conventions. Along the way, some of the talented creators involved in these scenes are either trying to engage new audiences, or to engage existing audiences in new ways; sometimes experimenting with gameplay and interactive, sometimes with narrative and art style, sometimes with business model or distribution.
All of which leads me to explain why I keep writing “core” games, with inverted commas around “core”; because honestly, I’m increasingly uncertain what this term means. It used to refer to specific genres, largely speaking those considered to have special resonance for geeky guys; gory science fiction FPS games, high fantasy RPGs, complex beat-’em-ups and shoot-’em-ups, graphic survival horror titles, war-torn action games. Then, for a while, the rise of F2P seemed to make the definition of “core” shimmer and reform itself; now it meant “games people pay for up front, and the kind of people who pay for those games”.
Now? Now, who knows what “core” really means? League of Legends is certainly something you have to be pretty damn deeply involved with to enjoy, but it’s free-to-play; so is Hearthstone, which is arguably not quite so “core” but still demands a lot of attention and focus. There are great games on consoles – systems whose owners paid hundreds of dollars for a devoted gaming machine – which are free-to-play. There are games on mobile phones that cost money up front and are intricate and engrossing. There are games you can download for free on your PC, or pick up for a few dollars on Steam, that explore all sorts of interesting and complex niches of narrative, of human experience and of the far-flung corners of what it means to play a “game”. Someone who sits down for hours unravelling the strands of a text adventure written in Twine; are they “core”? Someone who treats retro gaming like a history project, travelling back through the medium’s tropes and concepts to find their origin points; are they “core”? How about Frank Underwood in House of Cards, largely disinterested in games but picking up a violent shooter to work out frustrations on his Xbox in the evenings; is he a “core gamer”?
Don’t get me wrong; this fuzzing of the lines around the concept of “core” is, to my mind, a vital step in the evolution of our medium. That the so-called “battle” between traditional business models and F2P, between AAA studios and indies, between casual and core, was not a zero-sum game and could result in the expansion of the entire industry, not the destruction of one side or another, has been obvious from the outset. What was less obvious and took a little more time to come to pass was that not only would each of those sides not detract from the others; they would actually learn from one another and help to fuel one another’s development. New creative outlooks, new approaches to interactivity, new thoughts on social and community aspects of gaming, new ideas about business models and monetisation; these all mingle with one another and help to make up for the creative drought at the top of the AAA industry (and increasingly, at the top of the F2P industry, too) by providing a steady feed of new concepts and ideas from below.
It’s fantastic and very positive that the next-gen consoles are doing well and that GTAV has sold so many copies (dark thoughts regarding the polarisation of AAA success aside); but it’s wrong, I think, to just look at this as being “hey, core gaming is doing fine”. Games aren’t made up of opposed factions, casual at war with core; it’s a spectrum, attracting relevant audiences from across the board. Rather than pitting GTAV against Puzzle and Dragons, I’d rather look at the enormous success of both games as being a sign of how well games are doing overall; rather than stacking sales of next-gen consoles against sales of smartphones and reheating old arguments about dedicated game devices vs multi-purpose devices, I’d rather think about the enormous addressable audience that represents overall. As the arguments about casual or F2P gaming “destroying” core games start to fade out, let’s take this opportunity to rid ourselves of some of our more meaningless distinctions and categories for good.