Hideo Kojima has left the building. The New Yorker has confirmed that the famous game creator’s last day at Konami has come and gone, with a farewell party attended by colleagues from within and without the country – but not, notably, by Konami’s top brass. Only a couple of months after his latest game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, clocked up the most commercially successful opening day’s sales of any media product in 2015, Kojima has left a studio facing shutdown – its extraordinary technology effectively abandoned, its talent scattered, seemingly unwanted, by a company whose abusive and aggressive treatment of its staff has now entered the annals of industry legend.
It’s not exaggerating to say that an era came to a close as Kojima walked out the door of the studio that bore his name for the last time. For all of Konami’s the-lady-doth-protest-too-much claims that it’s not abandoning the console market, actions matter far more than PR-moderated words, and shutting down your most famous studio, severing ties with your most successful creator in the process, is an action that shouts from the rooftops. Still, there’s some truth to Konami’s statements; it’s unlikely to abandon the console versions of Winning Eleven / Pro Evolution Soccer, or of Power Pro Baseball, any time soon, though more and more of the firm’s focus will be on the mobile incarnations of those franchises. The big, expensive, risky and crowd-pleasing AAA titles, though? Those are dead in the water. Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill (whose reincarnation, with acclaimed horror director Guillermo del Toro teaming up with Kojima at the helm, is a casualty of this change of focus), Suikoden, Castlevania, Contra… Any AAA title in those franchises from now on will almost certainly be the result of a licensing deal, not a Konami game.
One can criticise the company endlessly for how this transition has been handled; Konami has shown nigh-on endless disrespect and contempt for its creative staff and, Kojima himself aside, for talented, loyal workers who have stuck by the firm for years if not decades. It richly deserves every brickbat it’s getting for how unprofessionally and unpleasantly it’s dealt with the present situation. It’s much, much harder to criticise the company for the broader strokes of the decisions being made. Mobile games based on F2P models are enormous in Japan, not just with casual players but with the core audience that used to consume console games. The transition to the “mid-core” that mobile companies talk about in western territories is a reality in Japan, and has been for years; impressively deep, complex and involved games boast startling player numbers and vastly higher revenue-per-user figures than most western mobile games could even dream of. Konami, like a lot of other companies, probably expects that western markets will follow the same path, and sees a focus on Japan’s mobile space today as a reasonable long-term strategy that will position it well for tomorrow’s mobile space in the west.
Mobile is the right business to be in if you’re a major publisher in Japan right now. It’s where the audience has gone, it’s where the revenues are coming from, and almost all of the cost of a mobile hit is marketing, not development. Look at this from a business perspective; if you want to develop a game on the scale of Metal Gear Solid V, you have to sink tens of millions of dollars (the oft-cited figure for MGSV is $80 million) into it before it’s even ready to be promoted and sold to consumers. That’s an enormous, terrifying risk profile; while the studio next door is working on mobile games that cost a fraction of that money to get ready for launch, with the bulk of the spend being in marketing and post-launch development, which can be stemmed rapidly if the game is underperforming badly. Sure, mobile games are risky as all hell and nobody really knows what the parameters for success and failure are just yet, but with the time and money taken to make a Metal Gear Solid, you can throw ten, twenty or thirty mobile games at the wall and see which one sticks. The logic is compelling, whether you like the outcome or not.
Here’s what nobody, honestly, wants to hear – that logic isn’t just compelling for Konami. Other Japanese publishers are perhaps being more circumspect about their transitions, but don’t kid yourself; those transitions are happening, and Konami will not be the last of the famous old publishers to excuse itself and slip away from the console market entirely. When Square Enix surveys the tortured, vastly expensive and time-consuming development process of its still-unfinished white elephant Final Fantasy XV, and then looks at the startling success it’s enjoyed with games like Final Fantasy Record Keeper or Heavenstrike Rivals on mobile, what thoughts do you think run through the heads of its executives and managers? Do you think Sega hasn’t noticed that its classic franchises are mostly critically eviscerated when they turn up as AAA console releases, but perform very solidly as mobile titles? Has Namco Bandai, a firm increasingly tightly focused on delivering tie-in videogames for Bandai’s media franchises, not noticed the disparity between costs and earnings on its console games as against its mobile titles? And haven’t all of these, and others besides, looked across from their TGS stands to see the gigantic, expensive, airship-adorned stands of games like mobile RPG GranBlue Fantasy and thought, “we’re in the wrong line of work”?
Kojima isn’t the first significant Japanese developer to walk out of a publisher that no longer wants his kind of game – but he’s the most significant thus far, and he’s certainly not going to be the last. The change that’s sweeping through the Japanese industry now is accelerating as traditional game companies react to the emergence of upstarts grabbing huge slices of market share; DeNA and Gree were only the first wave, followed now by the likes of GungHo, CyGames, Mixi and Colopl. If you’re an executive at a Japanese publisher right now, you probably feel like your company is already behind the curve. You’ve studied plenty of cases in business school in which dominant companies who appeared unassailable ended up disappearing entirely as newcomers took the lion’s share of an emerging market whose importance wasn’t recognised by the old firms until it was too late. You go home every evening (probably around midnight – it’s a Japanese company, after all) and eat your microwave dinner in front of TV shows whose ad breaks are packed with expensive commercials for mobile games from companies that hadn’t even appeared on your radar until a year or two ago, and none from the companies you’d always considered the “key players” in the industry. You’re more than a little bit scared, and you really, really want your company to be up to speed in mobile, like, yesterday – even if that means bulldozing what you’re doing on console in the process.
This is not entirely a bleak picture for fans of console-style games. Japanese mobile games really are pushing more and more towards mid-core and even hardcore experiences which, though the monetisation model may be a little uncomfortable, are very satisfying for most gamers; the evolution of those kinds of games in the coming years will be interesting to watch. Still, it will be a very long time before there’s a mobile Metal Gear Solid or a mobile Silent Hill; some experiences just don’t make sense in the context of mobile gaming, and there is a great deal of justification to the fears of gamers that this kind of game is threatened by the transition we’re seeing right now.
I would offer up two potential silver linings. The first is that not all companies are in a position to break away from console (and PC) development quite as dramatically as Konami has done. Sega, for example, is tied to those markets not least by its significant (and very successful) investments in overseas development studios, many of which have come about under the auspices of the firm’s overseas offices. Square Enix is in a similar position due to its ownership of the old Eidos studios and franchises, along with other western properties. Besides, despite the seemingly permanent state of crisis surrounding Final Fantasy XV, the firm likely recognises that the Final Fantasy franchise requires occasional major, high-profile console releases to keep it relevant, even if much of its profit is found in nostalgic retreads of past glories. Capcom, meanwhile, is deeply wedded to console development – it’s a much smaller company than the others and perhaps more content to stick to what it knows and does well, even if console ends up as a (large) niche market. (Having said that, if a mobile version of Monster Hunter springs to the top of the App Store charts, all bets are probably off.)
“Hideo Kojima left Konami because he wants to make a style of game that doesn’t fit on mobile F2P – and that’s, in the long run, probably a good thing”
The other silver lining is perhaps more substantial and less like cold comfort. Hideo Kojima left Konami because he wants to make a style of game that doesn’t fit on mobile F2P – and that’s, in the long run, probably a good thing. He joins a slow but steady exodus of talent from major Japanese studios over the past five years or more. The kind of games which people like Kojima – deeply involved with and influenced by literature, film and critical theory – want to make don’t fit with publishers terribly well any more, but that doesn’t mean those people have to stop making those games. It just means they have to find a new place to make them and a new way to fund them. Kojima’s non-compete with Konami supposedly ends in a few months and then I suspect we’ll hear more about what he plans; but plenty of former star developers from publishers’ internal studios have ended up creating their own independent studios and funding themselves either through publisher deals or, more recently, through crowdfunding. Konami’s never likely to make another game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but that doesn’t stop Koji Igarashi from putting Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on Kickstarter. Sega knocked Shenmue on the head, but a combination of Sony and Kickstarter has sent Yu Suzuki back to work on the franchise. Keiji Inafune also combined crowdfunding money with publisher funding for Mighty No. 9. Perhaps the most famous and successful of all breakaways from the traditional publishing world, though, is of a very different kind; Platinum Games, which has worked with many of the world’s top publishers in recent years while retaining its independence, is largely made up of veterans of Capcom’s internal studios.
Whichever of those avenues Kojima ends up following – the project-funding style approach of combining crowdfunding and publisher investment, or the Platinum Games approach of founding a studio and working for multiple publishers – there is no question of him walking away from making the kind of games he loves. Not every developer has his sway, of course, and many will probably end up working on mobile titles regardless of personal preference – but the creation of Japanese-style console and PC games isn’t about to end just because publishers are falling over themselves to transition to mobile. As long as the creators want to make this kind of game, and enough consumers are willing to pay for them (or even to fund their development), there’s a market and its demands will be filled. The words “A Hideo Kojima Game” will never appear on the front of a Konami title again; but they’ll appear somewhere, and that’s what’s truly important in the final analysis.
If Hideo Kojima really is on the outs at Konami, he’s at least going out with a bang. The embargo for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain coverage hit last night, and the first batch of reviews are glowing.
IGN’s Vince Ingenito gave the game a 10 out of 10, lavishing praise on the way it adapted the series’ stealth-action formula to an open-world environment.
“Right from the moment you’re told to get on your horse and explore the Afghan countryside, Phantom Pain feels intimidating, almost overwhelming in terms of the freedom its open world affords and the number of concepts it expects you to grasp,” Ingenito said. “It’s almost too much, especially given the relative linearity of previous Metal Gears. But what initially appeared to be an overly dense tangle of features to fiddle with instead unraveled into a well-integrated set of meaningful gameplay systems that provided me with a wealth of interesting decisions to make.”
Whether players choose to sneak their way to victory or go in guns blazing, The Phantom Pain affords them a number of avenues to do so. The game’s day/night cycle and changing weather systems can make certain strategies viable (or not) at any given time. At the same time, a private army management meta-game lets players raid battlefields for resources and new recruits, which can then be put to use researching new technologies or using their skills to open up a variety of other strategic alternatives.
However, a perfect score doesn’t mean a perfect game, and Ingenito does identify at least one weak point in the game.
It’s a somewhat surprising criticism of the game, given Metal Gear Solid 4’s penchant for frequent and extended cutscenes larding the action with exposition and plot twists. While The Phantom Pain shows flashes of that approach (Ingenito noted the “spectacular” opening sequence), it ultimately produces a narrative he found “rushed and unsatisfying.”
Obviously, that failing was not enough to tarnish an otherwise fantastic game in Ingenito’s eyes.
“There have certainly been sandbox action games that have given me a bigger world to roam, or more little icons to chase on my minimap, but none have pushed me to plan, adapt, and improvise the way this one does,” he said. “Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain doesn’t just respect my intelligence as a player, it expects it of me, putting it in a league that few others occupy.”
GameSpot’s Peter Brown likewise gave the game a 10 and praised its adaptable approach to missions, but enjoyed the story considerably more than his counterpart at IGN.
“After dozens of hours sneaking in the dirt, choking out enemies in silence, and bantering with madmen who wish to cleanse the world, The Phantom Pain delivers an impactful finale befitting the journey that preceded it,” Brown said. “It punches you in the gut and tears open your heart. The high-caliber cutscenes, filled with breathtaking shots and rousing speeches, tease you along the way. Your fight in the vast, beautiful, and dangerous open world gives you a sense of purpose. The story is dished out in morsels, so you’ll have to work for the full meal, but it’s hard to call it ‘work’ when controlling Big Boss feels so good, with so many possibilities at your fingertips.”
Brown said prior knowledge of the series isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying The Phantom Pain, but added that “Fans of the series will find their diligence rewarded in ways that newcomers can’t begin to imagine.” They’ll also, in his estimation, be enjoying the pinnacle of the franchise.
“There has never been a game in the series with such depth to its gameplay, or so much volume in content,” Brown said. “The best elements from the past games are here, and the new open-world gameplay adds more to love on top. When it comes to storytelling, there has never been a Metal Gear game that’s so consistent in tone, daring in subject matter, and so captivating in presentation. The Phantom Pain may be a contender for one of the best action games ever made, but is undoubtedly the best Metal Gear game there is.”
Eurogamer hasn’t published its full review yet, but Matt Wales weighed in with his impressions to date. Like Brown and Ingenito, Wales underscored the narrative approach as a major departure for the series.
“Beyond an outlandish, action-packed opening sequence… The Phantom Pain is a remarkably economical affair, telling its tale of ’80s cold war subterfuge through snatches of radio dialogue (courtesy of Ocelot), and the occasional return to Mother Base between missions,” Wales said. “It’s fascinating to see such restraint from Kojima, a man well known for his self-indulgence and excess, especially considering that The Phantom Pain is likely his Metal Gear swan song.”
On the gameplay side, Wales said The Phantom Pain “isn’t exactly a radical reinvention of the stealth genre,” but acknowledged the increased freedom players are given to accomplish the familiar assortment of objectives.
“Metal Gear Solid 5’s open world might not be vast, varied or stuffed full of things to do, but it’s a place of constant movement,” Wales said. “Night falls, day breaks, sandstorms sweep in, patrols come and go – and this organic sense of life means that missions are never predictable (no matter how often you play them) with tactical possibilities arising all the time. It’s a game of planning and reacting in a world that refuses to stand still, making every minute matter and every success feel earned.”
“The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima’s ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged.”
He also applauded the way The Phantom Pain managed to adopt an open-world design without the genre’s standard glut of padding.
“[E]verything you do feels meaningful and consequential,” Wales said. “Guard posts and roaming patrols aren’t simply there for colour as you traverse the world: one careless move into hostile territory and every single enemy on the map will know you’re coming, with more search parties and increased security radically altering the way a mission unfolds. And while other games tout choice and consequence as a headline feature, the Phantom Pain just gets on with it. Even the smallest action can have unexpected consequences – some significant and others barely perceptible.”
Game Informer’s Joe Juba gave the game a 9.25, currently one of the lowest scores the game has received on Metacritic (where it has a 95 average based on 15 critic reviews). Like some of the above reviewers, Juba was a bit disappointed at The Phantom Pain’s approach to storytelling, but noted that having the narrative take a step in to the background puts the focus on the game’s strongest point, its open-ended gameplay.
“A series can’t survive this long without evolving, and The Phantom Pain is a testament to the importance of taking risks,” Juba said. “An open world, a customizable base, a variable mission structure – these are not traditional aspects of Metal Gear, but they are what makes The Phantom Pain such an exceptional game. The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima’s ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged.”
Blizzard is happy and why shouldn’t they be as World of Warcraft subscriptions are up. The reason for the increase can be traced to the release of the latest expansion pack which was recently released. The latest WOW expansion pack is called Warlords of Draeno and its release has driven subscriptions to 10 million.
Selling over 3.3 million copies of the Warlords of Draenor on the first day alone, growth has been seen in all major territories since release. The numbers do include those players that are using the 1 month free subscription that comes with the expansion pack. WoW subscriptions had climbed to 7.4 million last quarter after being down.
Of course the release of Warlords of Draenor has not been without its problems. Still Blizzard says that they are working around the clock to address them. Owners have been offered free play time as compensation.
There’s a popular narrative about Japan’s game development industry: it’s an industry in trouble, lagging behind the West and running out of ideas. If any Japanese developer wants to get themselves splashed into the headlines, all they need do is trot out a soundbite disparaging their own industry; in a world of click bait headlines, the fall of Japanese development is a sure-fire winner. The apparent decline of Japan’s game developers is linked to a secondary narrative as well, namely the decline of Japan’s internal market for videogames. Once the undisputed gaming capital of the world, Japan seems to be falling out of love with the pastime – at least on consoles, and at least according to some rather unusual readings of the data.
There’s a nugget of truth to both of these stories; just enough to make them worth considering, yet certainly not enough to prevent the majority of reporting and discussion on them from being a torrent of absolute nonsense. Japanese game development is somewhat troubled, but it’s troubled by exactly the same factors that are giving sleepless nights to Western game developers – skyrocketing AAA budgets, new business models, a diversification of platforms and the globalisation of the audience. Japanese development studios remain perfectly capable of making superb games that delight their fans; their problem, just as everywhere else, is figuring out how to make money from those games in a new world where profitability escapes everything but the million-selling megahit.
That links back to the second narrative; Japan is falling out of love with games. On the surface, it’s hard to see this alleged decline. The country’s arcades may not be what they once were, but they’re still far more numerous and spacious, not to mention well-attended, than any such establishments in the west. Dedicated videogame stores remain a fixture of shopping districts, while every large electronics store (and there are plenty of those, dominating most city centre areas) has a large videogames section – a stark contrast with, for example, central London, where actually going out and buying a videogame in a shop is an increasingly difficult task. Food courts and fast-food joints still play host to groups of children and teenagers engaged in the likes of Pokemon and Monster Hunter, and a trip outside in an urban area with a 3DS in your pocket will bag a full complement of Street Pass hits in no time flat.
Where’s the decline, then? Well, as figures released earlier this week by Japanese magazine publisher and industry data agency Enterbrain confirm, it’s not actually a decline so much as a stagnation. Enterbrain’s report, widely reported online after being translated in part by Kantan Games’ boss Serkan Toto on the company’s blog, showed that combined hardware and software sales in the first half of 2014 were almost exactly the same as the first half of 2013 – showing growth of just 0.1%. Toto’s entirely reasonable point was that this is much, much lower growth than Japan’s booming smartphone game market, yet this seems to have been picked up by many outlets as further confirmation of a Japanese gaming decline and specifically of a failure to ignite interest in the PS4.
Let’s be clear – the Japanese smartphone game market is in extraordinarily rude health. Revenues from mobile games, by some measures, surpassed packaged game revenue about three years ago and haven’t looked back since. For every person you see playing a 3DS or a Vita (the latter, I note, becoming vastly more commonplace on trains in recent months), you see dozens engrossed in mobile games. Puzzle & Dragons remains the clear favourite, but a trip on a busy Tokyo commuter line will turn up any number of different games gracing the ubiquitous smartphones. The industry’s revenues are clear to see, too; the vast majority of expensive marketing campaigns for games here are for mobile games, not console titles. Only last week I walked onto a train carriage on the phenomenally busy Yamanote loop line in central Tokyo to find that every advertising space in the carriage was full of Clash of Clans marketing; the huge billboard near my apartment, meanwhile, alternates fortnightly between ads for hopeful Puzzle & Dragons clones and ads for new singles by terrible boybands. There’s a huge amount of cash flowing through mobile games in Japan right now, and from a business perspective, that makes it a more interesting (if vastly more challenging) space than the console market.
Yet that doesn’t change the slowdown of Japan’s console market into a “decline” or a “crisis”. We all know that Japan has been ahead of the curve in terms of the adoption of videogames since the 1980s. 30 years down the line, is it surprising that it has hit a plateau? Gaming as a whole – including mobile, browser and online gaming – continues to grow at a massive rate, but in Japan at least, the console space has reached a point where there simply isn’t much new market to conquer. That may change in future as new devices open up new audiences, but console games as they stand don’t seem to have much further to go in Japan. That doesn’t make them a bad business. It means that if you want to make huge bucks and impress shareholders with your growth figures, you probably want to place your investments elsewhere – but if you want to make great games and make money selling them, a mature, stable market is no worse a place to do that than a growing one.
Moreover, when you consider the underlying factors in Japan’s economy, maintaining a steady market size is actually quite impressive. Japan’s population peaked in 2008 and has slowly declined since then; the most rapid decline being the proportion of young people (the most avid consumers of videogames). So this is a market with less “core” consumers of videogames than before; moreover, a series of ill-targeted reforms and a few decades of economic slump have meant that a very large proportion of those young people are trapped in low-paying work with no job security. Furthermore, Japan’s prices have been in slow but steady decline since the early 1990s. Yes, unlike most western economies, Japanese prices aren’t slowly rising due to inflation – rather, they’re falling due to deflation. This has supposedly been reversed in the past 12 months or so, with tiny inflation figures finally showing up, but most of the change so far has been down to a sharp rise in energy costs (a consequence of expensive imported fuels replacing Japan’s still-offline nuclear power plants) and it generally hasn’t been reflected in consumer goods.
One other economic factor has been mentioned by a handful of writers this week. They pointed out that Japan’s consumption tax went up from 5 per cent to 8 per cent in April, in the middle of this reporting period; if that 3 per cent hike were included in Enterbrain’s figures, it would mean industry revenues actually fell. However, to my knowledge Enterbrain’s numbers are based on pre-tax figures, much as US market data is, and thus the consumption tax rise isn’t a factor – except in that it would have been expected to push videogame sales down, thus making the rise slightly more impressive.
In short – Japan has less consumers for games and it’s charging less for things than it used to. Under those circumstances, a market which was performing precisely as well this year as it did last year would be expected to show a modest decline. Just staying still would mean you’d actually grown by a few percent in relative to offset the underlying audience decline and price deflation. Growing by 0.1% in Japan is comparable to growing by a couple of percent in the USA or much of Europe, where population is still generally growing and prices are being inflated, not deflated.
These factors don’t combine to mean that Japan is magically showing strong growth in defiance of the figures, but they are important to understanding what the figures mean. Japan’s “decline” is more like stagnation, and in the past year, even that stagnation has showed a positive trend. The market for consoles and games remains big and pretty healthy even as the market for smartphone games shoots through the roof; both of them clearly have an important place in the future of the country’s games industry.
As for the supposedly “disappointing” impact of the PlayStation 4? There’s no doubt that the performance of the console has slowed down significantly since a very strong launch, but it’s worth noting that sales of hardware were actually up nearly 7% year-on-year, with the PS4 and the resurgent Vita picking up slack from slower sales of the 3DS. PS4’s software line-up in Japan is still largely composed of western titles with limited appeal to the local audience, and the console probably won’t pick up significantly until more local software is available later this year – it’s notable that the PS Vita’s success in the first half of 2014 is largely attributable to the sudden arrival of software titles that match local tastes, and not (as some commentators would have it) to an upsurge of interest in PS4 Remote Play functionality. Overall, PS4 in Japan continues to perform as you’d expect for a new console with limited software – a great launch, followed by slow but steady sales while it awaits new software to spark purchases from new audiences. It’s done well, but it hasn’t “rescued” the Japanese market; but then again, if you take the time to understand the figures, it should be pretty clear that the Japanese market doesn’t actually need rescuing.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; while I hesitate to apply Dickens’ immortal words to something as fleetingly temporal as Sony’s financial woes, it’s a quote I couldn’t quite shake as I digested this week’s results statement. Here is a company that has just launched one of its most important products in years, the PlayStation 4, to almost universal fanfare and massive sales; whose reputation has risen remarkably in its core markets and whose overseas sales are, finally, being buoyed once more by a sensibly-priced Yen. The best of times! And yet; here is a company whose computer entertainment division can’t turn a profit, a company posting huge losses against all expectations, a company whose already-interminable restructuring is set to last another year. The worst of times.
Sony lost over $1.2 billion last year. Revenues were up, though; over $75 billion poured through the company during the year, a 14.3% increase on the previous year. That’s important context for the scale of the loss, but it doesn’t make the loss itself any smaller. Market analysts expected a small profit. Instead, they got not only a loss overall, but a loss in the videogames division specifically, whose seemingly stellar performance recently could not plug the $78 million gap in its finances.
To add to the company’s woes, its new CFO – the commendably straight-talking Yoshida Kenichiro – says that next year will be another loss. There’s more restructuring ahead, he told analysts at a briefing this week, and it’s going to hit the company’s balance sheet hard in the next 12 months. Yoshida simultaneously promises light at the end of the tunnel, and a rocky road ahead; a travel-related mixed metaphor that probably doesn’t fill any veteran Sony-watchers with confidence.
It’s worth digging a little deeper into Sony’s results to try and understand what’s actually happening here. For all that it has trimmed its operations over the past decade, Sony remains a pretty enormous sprawl of a company, with interests that extend far beyond the consumer electronics for which western consumers recognise the firm. Sony Music and Sony Pictures, of course, are major parts of the business; Sony Computer Entertainment we all know and love; cameras and TVs we understand; but how about Sony’s life insurance businesses, or its banking efforts? How about its semiconductor operations, or its sidelines in making camera components for other firms’ smartphones? How about its fabrication plants for CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, responsible for a huge proportion of the discs on sale around the world today?
The challenge in interpreting Sony results lies in trying to understand the full scale of those business interests and then in trying to figure out where negative results really stem from. We know, for instance, that Sony is taking on major costs in winding down disc fabrication plants in some parts of the world. We know that the television division has been in trouble for years thanks to competition (some of it state-backed) from Asian rivals, and will finally be spun off and left to sink or swim in a major swathe of restructuring this year. That won’t be without its own costs, of course. Other costs or profits may be harder to discern. Clients for component businesses are generally somewhat anonymous; it’s considered an open secret that Sony provides the camera for recent iPhones, but few component contracts are quite so well-known, and thus, their bottom line impact is harder to discern.
What I’m saying is that Sony (and to an even greater extent, its rival Microsoft) is a bloody hard business to read and understand on the basis of financial reports. Companies like Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard really just do videogames, so when their results are poor, it’s easy to discern what’s going on. We know their products, we know their markets and we can usually quite easily discern the weaknesses causing difficulties (although seeing the difficulty and suggesting an effective prescription are two very different talents). Sony, however, is big, complex and obfuscated to no small degree. We get broad outlines; a big loss is a big loss; but the fine detail is hard to get a grasp upon.
None of which is to say we shouldn’t try. Sony is one of the most important companies in the games business; with the success of the PS4 over the past six months, it’s arguably the most important company in the business right now. Hence, yes, it’s a concern that it’s making big losses. It’s doubly concerning that some of those losses are coming out of the seemingly successful computer entertainment division, but we can make some educated guesses at what’s happening here. Firstly, the extremely high sales of the PS4 in its early months are actually a short-term negative to the company’s figures. Sony’s console business is a razor-and-razorblades model, selling hardware at a loss initially but recouping this money through software sales and, ultimately, through more profitable hardware sales down the line when manufacturing costs have fallen. Thus, the more units PS4 sold in its launch period, the more money Sony would lose – but this lost money is really more of an investment, since the firm is betting on getting it back in software sales down the line.
High early sales also contribute to losses in other ways. Sony’s launch plans for PS4 were hugely ambitious in terms of the number of units shipped to each territory; the company did end up somewhat supply-constrained, but it aimed to avoid such constraints where possible with enormous shipments and rapid resupply of inventory. This strategy may have been partially aimed at capitalising on Microsoft’s launch weakness before strategic changes could be made to the Xbox One’s product or pricing, but I’m sure that a wider goal was also in mind. Rapid sales of a new home console would silence some critics expecting tablets and smartphones to destroy this market sector entirely; such rapid sales would require a good supply chain, and those don’t come cheap. The exceptional ramp-up of Sony’s PS4 manufacturing capabilities won’t have been cheap, an expense compounded by the loss the firm will have registered on manufacturing every PS4 shipped to date.
In the short term, that means a loss for SCE; but CFO Yoshida seemed pretty blase about that, and rightly so. In the medium term, it’s a good investment. Sony has a great track record of strong attach rates for its consoles, meaning it will get its money back with interest. Moreover, it has a truly fantastic track record of cost-cutting on console manufacture, even managing to get the tricky Cell-based PS3 into a vastly smaller and cheaper casing in the end. The faster the installed base grows, the faster the bulk discounts to manufacturing costs can be realised; with PS4 selling far faster than PS3 or Xbox 360 did before it, Sony can expect its new console to be in the black well ahead of schedule.
As for the rest of the company; I reiterate my position that Kaz Hirai’s job is not an enviable one. It was said of John Riccitiello’s tenure at EA that he faced the task of trying to explain to shareholders why his company was in the fifth year of a three-year restructuring that was going to take seven years. Hirai’s task is even more tricky, in some regards. He’s only been in the top job for two years, so if his ambitious restructuring can truly be completed by next year (as Yoshida claims, with some authority) then it will actually have been a rather fast turnaround. However, Sony is already restructure-weary; seven years of turmoil under former CEO Howard Stringer left the company and its commentators skeptical of any claims regarding light at the end of the restructuring tunnel. Stringer did many good things and helped to move Sony’s culture to a point where Hirai’s ideas could find fertile soil, but he also permitted (or felt that he could not fight) all manner of poor strategy in core divisions, most notably television, where Sony has stumbled from disastrous strategy to doubly disastrous strategy on a near-annual basis for the past decade.
Hirai, at least, appears to have the confidence and the clout to make his plans work where Stringer’s did not. Separating the almost certainly doomed TV business from the rest of Sony is a good plan, but one that required extraordinary political capital within the firm. Having the respected Yoshida as CFO is also a good move, since it’s given Hirai the cover he needs to bring all of the financial pain of his restructuring plans into the current year and the following year. The temptation would have been to spread things out, but the markets seem to respect Hirai and Yoshida’s honesty in front-loading the costs, anticipating a return to profitability in two years’ time.
That, perhaps, is the big difference between Sony and Nintendo – two companies that have been compared heavily in discussion over their recent financial results. Both have some very profitable divisions (3DS does well for Nintendo, while movies and finance, in particular, are solid performers for Sony), but both have just recorded financial results well below expectations and triggered alarm among market commentators. Nintendo, though, can only suggest vague directions it might take to exit its current situation; it will take a major new product announcement to see whether the company can get back on track, and that’s not likely for a couple of years. Until then, Nintendo’s financial health is largely a matter of faith.
Sony, on the other hand, has a plan. It’s a tough plan, but a solid one; the divestment of loss-making businesses, the refocus on core pillars that actually make money, and more specifically to our industry, the tried-and-tested approach to bringing the PS4 into profitability as rapidly as possible. A CFO like Yoshida can speak plainly about how Sony is going to change, what it’s going to cost and when it’s going to start making money; Nintendo, relying on products still under wraps to give it a relevant future, lacks the ability to be so blunt and straightforward about how it will build future success.
Even the rather tolerant Japanese stock market and its very patient institutional investors have limits, and Sony could yet reach those limits. The company’s restructuring to date would try the patience of even someone playing a very long game; but Yoshida is a credible figure, Hirai seemingly retains the ability to carry out the reforms he plans, and the company’s generally profitable divisions, including games, are still in good shape. Even if another year of pain does loom for Sony, the end might finally be in sight; in 12 months time we can hope to hear of a leaner, tighter and more focused Sony, with black ink finally starting to crop up on its accounts.
“Grey Goo is remarkable not for what it has added to the RTS formula, but what it has stripped away,” PC Gamer wrote in its reveal of Grey Goo, a new real-time strategy game from the veterans at Petroglyph. Perhaps the same could be said of Grey Goo’s recently formed publisher Grey Box, which is seeking to strip away the more negative aspects of game publishing. Suits and creatives typically will bump heads because the two sides are looking at the creation of games from wildly different perspectives. But what if they actually had the same goals?
Ted Morris, executive producer at Petroglyph, felt an immediate kinship with the team at Grey Box. “As a small [studio] – small being 50, 60 people – we are always talking to publishers to see what deals we can put together. But with Grey Box, I think that we meshed better on a personal level with them as a company and as a group of people than we have ever meshed with another group,” he enthused to GamesIndustry International during GDC. “And we’ve worked with Sega and LucasArts – all the big guys – and certainly talked to everybody else, too – the EAs and everybody – and these guys – man, we just gelled with these guys so well.”
Morris said that Grey Box’s approach to publishing was noticeably different from the start. While other, larger publishers may immediately come up with marketing plans and sales targets, Grey Box found itself on the same page with Petroglyph: fun comes first.
“Every meeting that we have is always a sit down and then people open up financial books and they start talking about what the sales figures are going to be like, and when we sit down with [Grey Box], it’s like ‘how can we make a great game?’ We don’t even talk about money, we talk about ‘how good can we make this game?’ and ‘how successful will it be?’ You know, let the game drive the sales, don’t let the marketing drive the sales, don’t let the sales department drive the sales. It’s really about, if you make a great game, they will come,” Morris continued. “They spoke to that so often, so frequently that we thought, ‘man, these guys just want to help us focus on what’s really important.'”
One of the defining traits for publisher Grey Box is that they’re all gamers at heart, noted Josh Maida, executive producer for the publisher.
“I’m not going to pre-judge any of those other publishers – I mean, for all I know they love games as much as we do. And we do. We all love games. We all come from different areas. I lost a whole grade point in college to Street Fighter, and… we want to be fiscally mindful. You need to make money, but with the money we make, we want to make more games,” he remarked.
“So I think at the core of that is we’re not trying to take away from the industry. We want it to feed itself and go bigger. Quality over quantity is something that we’re mindful of. We also just want to make a good working relationship for our partners… everybody’s in here for fulfillment. The talent we work with, they could all be working in private industries for twice the amount they do, but they’re here because they love to make games, and so we want to be mindful of that. And when people die, they want to know they did great things and so we want to create those opportunities for people.”
Tony Medrano, creative director for Grey Box, criticized other publishers for being too quick to just follow another company’s successful formula.
“We’re not chasing a trend, we’re chasing something we believe in, we’re chasing something we like, and we’re not trying to shoehorn a formula or monetization model onto things that just don’t work because they’re popular,” he added. “I think from the get-go, it’s been all about how can we make the best game, and then everything else follows from that. I think a difference structurally [with other publishers] would be that we have a very lean and mean team. We’re not trying to build a skyscraper and have redundant folks. Everybody that’s here really cares, has some bags under their eyes from late nights… I think it is just that we look at all our partners as actual partners. We let them influence and make the product better, whether it’s the IP or the game.”
Speaking of monetization models, Maida commented that there’s no “secret agenda to Zyngafy RTS or anything.” Grey Goo is strictly being made for the PC, but the RTS genre easily lends itself to free-to-play. Upon the mere mention of free-to-play, however, you could almost feel the collective blood pressure in the room rising. It’s clearly not the type of experience that Petroglyph and Grey Box are aiming for.
For Petroglyph’s Morris, in particular, free-to-play hit a nerve. “I’m going to jump in here, sorry. I’m really annoyed!” he began. “There’s been such a gold rush for free-to-play right now that is driving publishers – I mean, there needs to be a good balance. There’s a great place for free-to-play – I play lots of free-to-play games – but it is driving developers like us to focus on money instead of making great game content. I’m not going to name any examples, but I’ve been disappointed with some of the free-to-play offerings because it’s not so much about making a great experience for the player anymore. It’s about ‘how can we squeeze them just a little bit more?’ or annoy them to the point where they just feel like they have to pay.”
Medrano added, “I get frustrated when I play free-to-play games, and if I purchase something, I feel dirty. I feel like ‘oh, I got cheated, I fell for the trap.’ Or even more modern games where they baby you through the whole thing. There’s no more of that, like, ‘this is tough, so that means if I get good at this, there’s reward – there’s something there.'”
Ultimately, while Petroglyph and Grey Box came together thanks to a shared love of the RTS genre, they feel there’s a real opportunity to bring back hardcore, intelligent games.
Andrew Zoboki, lead game designer at Petroglyph, chimed in, “It’s almost as if the industry has forgotten about the intelligent gamer. They feel like that everyone’s going to be shoehorned in there, and I would say even from a design perspective that a lot of design formulas for a lot of things, whether they be free-to-play or what the mainstream is going to, next-gen and such, that all those titles are kind of a little more cookie-cutter than they probably should be. They’ve tried to shoehorn gamers into a formula and say, ‘this is what a gamer is,’ rather than understanding that gamers are a very wide and diverse bunch of individuals, everyone from the sports jock to the highly intellectual, and they all have [different] tastes… there’s different games that will appeal to different demographics… if you make the games that players want to play, they will come.”
And that really is at the heart of it. Morris lamented how business creeps into the games creation equation far too often. “They’re trying to balance the game with Excel spreadsheets instead of sitting down and actually playing it and having focus tests and bringing people in and actually trying to iterate on the fun,” he remarked about other publishers.
For Grey Box at the moment, the focus is on making Grey Goo the best it can be, but the company does have plans for more IP. It’s all under wraps currently, however.
“We do have a roadmap, but it’s not based off of the calendar year. We do have another game in the works right now and we might announce that at E3. And we have a road map for this IP, as well,” Maida said. “Obviously we want to get it in the hands of players and fans to see what they respond to, but we’ve got capital investment in the IP with hopes to not only extend this lineage of RTS’s but possibly grow out that franchise and other genres as well.”
Grey Box plans to release Grey Goo later this year.
Sony has promised to have “substantial” resupplies of the PlayStation 4 before the end of the year, but has given no indication as to what qualifies as substantial. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has stepped in to fill that information void, telling investors in a note this morning that he believes Sony is making PS4s at the rate of a million systems per month.
Pachter followed up on Sony’s announcement today that it had sold 2.1 million systems worldwide, saying that number fits well with previous estimates that Sony began manufacturing PS4s for retail on September 1, and that it faces a gap of up to three weeks from a system’s creation to the time it arrives on shelves.
“We expect Sony to continue to ship 1 million consoles per month, so as of the end of January, we believe Sony will have manufactured a cumulative 5 million consoles and will have shipped 4.25 – 4.5 million,” Pachter said. “We expect the 55 percent allocation to North America to continue through January, and then revert to a more normalized 40 percent of units once Sony launches in Japan and other countries. We think that Microsoft is on a similar production schedule, with similar allocations to North America.”
Pachter added that specialty retailer GameStop has been receiving roughly half of the systems shipped to North America, and that it will continue to take up that share of the allocations through December. In the New Year, Pachter expects the company’s share to be dialed back to a “more customary” 30 percent.
If the shipment projections are accurate, the PS4 would be more than holding up its part of publishers’ predictions that Sony and Microsoft would combine to ship 10 million units of their new systems by the end of March.
With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the scene, the next console generation has finally begun. While a new generation usually brings the promise of more graphical power, great graphics are only part of the gaming equation. What will these new consoles allow developers to do creatively?
In its last two titles, Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, independent developer The Chinese Room focused on pushing the first-person game away from the shooting mechanics that usually dominate. The studio’s next title, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, is coming to PlayStation 4 with some help from Sony Computer Entertainment. For The Chinese Room, next-gen helps their creative juices just by being easier to work with.
“The blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity”
The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck
“I think the major thing, from the perspective of actually building games, is less for us about the power – that’s brilliant of course, and having significantly higher budgets makes a big difference – but it’s more about the ease of working with PS4,” The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck told GamesIndustry International. “So far, it’s just been a dream bit of kit to work with. We’ve got the advantage of working with CryEngine, another great piece of tech of course, but even then it’s been remarkably smooth to get things up and running quickly. That’s worth its weight in gold from a production standpoint, and the blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity.”
According to Braid creator Jonathan Blow, aiming for a single, next-generation set of specifications allowed the team behind The Witness to settle on a single visual style for the game. That title is also heading to PlayStation 4 in 2014.
“Creatively, we build and we assume that we have enough power in rendering,” explained Blow. “When we were planning the look of the island, we had a couple of choices. Do we target the PlayStation/Xbox 360 class of machines or do we move to next-generation consoles? Because development was going long, we decided we were going to be in the next console cycle anyways.”
“If we’d ended up on lower-spec machines, it wouldn’t just be that [The Witness] would have lower-poly models. It would’ve affected the style all over the place; the style of the game would’ve been different. I don’t think it would’ve been as nice.”
For Ghost Games, the new shepherd of EA’s Need for Speed franchise, next-gen does come down to “more power”. This power – and the new set of expectations that come with it – frees the team to think outside of the box when it comes to gameplay innovation. A new generation allows developers to think about what’s possible instead of wringing more blood from a worn-out stone.
“It makes us think differently. Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible.”
Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson
“It makes us think differently,” said Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson. “Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible. We are not locked into old boundaries anymore. From that we get great innovations like AllDrive. The systems are giving us power to do more, more AI, more particles etc. Just turning everything up really.”
Nilsson also noted that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One provide other options, including social networking features and second-screen modes, which “opens up creative solutions around cross-platform play.”
One of the highlights of Sony’s launch window slate for the PlayStation 4 is Infamous: Second Son from Sucker Punch. While the game simply looks amazing, improved graphics and horsepower also mean the human element of Infamous can be pushed forward.
“[Infamous: Second Son] is all performance captured,” Sucker Punch co-founder and director of development Chris Zimmerman told us. “We actually use all kinds of cameras, with dots on the actors’ faces getting mapped through 3D scans. As you see people in the game, you’ll see their faces move in realistic ways.”
“See the wrinkles appear?” Zimmerman pointed out in a demo of Second Son, “we are actually animating 15,000 vertexes in his face 30 times a second to get that to happen that well. The thing that really matters for a game like this is you can actually see the characters act. You can read his face. You have a million years of human evolution that’s trained you to read people expressions and their faces; now we can bring that to you. That is the expression that these actors had when they did the scene. If we show you the video of their faces and then show you the in-game feature, you’ll be like ‘that’s the expression that guy had on.’ It seems dumb, but it matters.”
In some case though, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will just allow what previous generations have allowed: more, better-looking things onscreen in our games. And even that can improve the player’s experience. For BioWare Edmonton and Montreal general manager Aaryn Flynn, next-gen means a more immersive and interactive game world for BioWare fans.
“With the next generation of consoles, the most important question we ask ourselves is ‘How does this help our storytelling?’ As we’ve worked with them, we think it starts with a density and dynamism that wasn’t possible previously,” said Flynn. “‘Density’ in the sense of more interesting things on the screen that help immerse you in the game world, and ‘dynamism’ in that they are more interactive than ever before.”
The generation has only just begun. Developers still have plenty of time to learn how to make the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One dance and sing. What’s been shown so far is pretty damn good, so let’s sit back and enjoy the future.
In less than a week, both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One will have launched in the world’s most lucrative console markets. If you had to plant a flag to mark the start of a new generation, you’d do well to find a more appropriate spot.
Well, praise be. Microsoft was justifiably lambasted for its early direction and messaging, but the ill-feeling created by that string of fumbled choices was untroubled by all subsequent attempts to retrench and appease. Since then, Sony has walked a blessed path; not exactly free of mistakes and questionable decisions, but bolstered by the knowledge that the scrutiny of both the press and the forum-dwelling public was focused elsewhere. Perhaps now hard numbers can replace the speculation and supposition. Perhaps now we will be able to see the true measure of the policy reversals and resolution deficiencies.
There is, after all, a bigger picture to consider. It can be fun to get lost in the manufactured rivalry of a console war, but both Sony and Microsoft understand that this generation must be about more than the chips in their little – and not so little – black boxes. Gaming has never been more popular, or more culturally prevalent, but a lot has changed since the console companies last played this billion-dollar crapshoot.
So much of the industry’s recent growth has happened away from the traditional world of AAA blockbusters, where audience gains have been handily outmatched by soaring expenses. The early debate may be dominated by familiar concerns over framerates and dots-per-inch, but the terms of this generation will be different from the last. Sony’s mistakes with the PlayStation 3’s esoteric architecture didn’t go unnoticed by either party, and it shows in the hardware.
“The last generation created a bunch of artificial work. You had to do things in a very different way and, in the end, it wasn’t like you got a massive amount of technical performance out of it. It was time that didn’t go into making the games better,” says Nick Button-Brown, general manager at Crytek.
“I like the fact that, this time, it’s all built on architecture that we can understand. If you look at the PS3, people only started to get the most out of the system at the end of the cycle, but that’s five or six years on. That’s terrible. I want to start getting at the most nearer the start. That’s the advantage with simpler and more similar architecture – we’ll be seeing much more from the first games out.”
Crytek is the studio responsible for Ryse: Son of Rome, a standard-bearer for the Xbox One. Button-Brown admits that, while setting a visual benchmark was the not the main objective of the project, it was a side-mission of sorts, and the pride with which he describes Crytek’s work indicates that he considers the mission very much accomplished. The smoke, the fire, the beads of sweat running down the lined, wrinkled faces of the characters, the way those characters plant their feet; these are, he boldly claims, new heights for console gaming.
“I do think we’re going to set a visual benchmark; it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat our visual performance. We put a lot of work into facial, a lot of work into animation, just making it all feel much more real,” he says. “Is there further we can go? Definitely. We have some high-end cinema tools that don’t run in real-time even on high-end PCs now – we’re talking one, two frames per second. Eventually, we’ll be able to run those in real-time.”
In the absence of stiff competition, Ryse has as strong a claim to the pinnacle of visual excellence as any other launch title, but Button-Brown understands that such victories are short-lived. After all, in blockbuster development, a better looking game is always just over the next hump of the release schedule. Crytek will no doubt persist in that direction, but the impact of this generation’s visual performance will not be as profound as the jump to HD, and the differences between the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hardware will matter less still. This time, exactly what constitutes the “cutting-edge” will be harder to pin down.
“There’s always more we can do [visually], but I do think you reach a point where, for the user, they feel that it looks as good as it’s going to get, and they’re not going to see a huge difference between [the consoles],” he says. “For us, the leap is about the details. It’s not about one or two big things. It’s about being able to do small things much better: more stuff on-screen, more AI, more physics.”
It would be churlish to ignore the fact that Ryse has failed to stir the imaginations of the critics, eliciting unanimous praise for its visual detail and precious little else. My interview with Button-Brown was conducted prior to the publication of those reviews, but even then he was cognisant of the gamble creating a launch title for this particular generation represented. In the past, there were obvious, powerful hooks for developers to work with – the advent of 3D graphics and HD graphics, the availability of a hard-drive, online play as a usable tool – but this generation is more diffuse.
“Going into launch, I don’t know whether we’ve spent the resources in the right place. I don’t know whether we’ve focused our efforts in the right place. I’m only going to know that when people get to buy it,” he says.
“We talk to publishers a lot, and one of the most painful questions is, ‘Tell me what next gen gameplay is gonna be?’ It’s not something you can define. Nobody delivers gameplay because it’s next gen; you’re delivering gameplay because it’s good. That’s one of the things we struggled with [in Ryse’s E3 demo]. We showed a cut-down version of the gameplay and we were criticised for that. We didn’t see that coming. We were too close, and we cut it down further than people wanted to see.”
However, while the criticisms leveled at Ryse may well be justified, a part of the problem may be that, at the dawn of a new generation, nobody is quite sure what they want to see. They only know what has gone before, and will resist any attempt to smuggle what are regarded as the bad habits of the past into the $400 future. Ryse signalled its intent with combat that closely resembled a QTE. That was never likely to go down well with the press, who instantly suspected Crytek of trying to coast on graphics alone.
“The generational leap is not as clear cut now,” Button-Brown admits. “Maybe in a year’s time we’ll have a better understanding of what the leap really is this time, as people start playing things and we start to see what really matters. I think with hindsight we’ll be able to look back and see, ‘yeah, that was the big step.'”
Perhaps it’s naive to expect more clarity on what might define this generation from developers working so closely with the hardware, but in any case, that would be no slight against Crytek. Apart from Kinect 2.0 on the Xbox One – which may finally have the hardware to honour some of the promises made four years ago – in terms of new game experiences there isn’t an obvious wellspring for original ideas on either console. Indeed, the most obvious differences in the early days of the generation are likely to be found in the service layer: social integration, voice control, multimedia functions, and other areas often dismissed as secondary to the tasks for a which a console should be designed.
This is one of the key ideas I took away from my conversation with Michiel van de Leeuw, technical director at Guerrilla Games. Essentially, the moment-to-moment experience of established genres will remain the same, but innovation will arise from, “a deeper, underlying layer.”
“It’s not like we have that one gizmo to make everything really good or different, but the way that the operating system and the games work together, it’s much more of a marriage of those two things,” says van de Leeuw. “It’s a much more holistic approach to the console. How do people use it? How do people want to use it? How do we make sure that every hour of using your console is an hour spent having fun? And almost nothing is more fun than sharing experiences with other people. It’s all integrated, and under the hood there’s a lot of complexity to make sure that you don’t notice it. A lot of magic is necessary to make it look simple.”
As a subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment and the developer of a key launch title, Guerrilla Games was part of the inner circle that formed around Mark Cerny during the PlayStation 4’s creation. The most taxing problem, the subject of the most meetings and debates, was how to improve the experience around and outside of the games – streaming, background downloads, switching between applications, and so on. For Cerny, “immediacy” was a watchword.
When it came to the fundamental hardware architecture, however, van de Leeuw says that the directive was relatively simple: “give us more…as many graphical gizmos as you can afford.” The extra power was a given rather than the main focus.
“I like to ask people about what the next generation should be about, and everyone says, ‘it has to be a photo-realistic, and everything has to be more. There has to be thousands of people and blah, blah, blah.’ But why is that fun? If you have 1000 people around you, do you feel more attached to them than if you just had one or two? Technology does not immediately result in a more satisfying experience. The first layer that people think about is better graphics, more of everything. And then they think, ‘What do I need more of? I don’t know, really, but there must be more of something‘.”
There it is again: the great, unknowable ‘something’ that, nevertheless, everyone is waiting impatiently to see. Killzone: Shadow Fall has fared better with the critics than Ryse, but the expectation of clear, identifiable progress is used as ammunition in the majority of its negative reviews. For van de Leeuw – who also spoke to me prior to the publication of his game’s review scores – launch titles are not necessarily supposed to alter the way people look at games as a whole, but he also makes no secret of the increasing complexity of productions on the scale of Killzone. More power can make life easier in some respects, but certainly not all.
“You have to focus on 1000 things at the same time, and at the same time as that you need to grow your company, because you need more people to focus on all of those things. That, by itself, becomes a problem, because it becomes difficult to manage the complexity brought by all of those extra people. It’s very challenging.
“We’re working with first-person shooters, and look at how incredibly complex these things are. You’re not just selling one game: you’re selling a movie, and a game, and a multiplayer experience that needs to fit with eSports, and it’s all packaged together. And it all has to be good, because the competition is incredibly, and increasingly, good.”
Indeed, it is the progress evident in individual games, rather than the super-charged hardware, that truly plants a gauntlet at the feet of the industry’s developers. Umpteen gigabytes of GDDR5 memory is not nearly as powerful a motivator to do better work as the release of, say, The Last of Us or The Walking Dead. New hardware may give developers more options, but the real skill lies in making the right decisions. When there is enough of an installed-base to offer a safety net, van de Leeuw says, the industry’s most talented developers will start taking creative risks, and new genres will emerge.
But will that innovation be exclusive to a specific platform? When a consumer makes their decision to buy either a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One, is the potential for new ideas a relevant factor? From the developer side, ven de Leeuw says, the differences in the hardware of this generation may not offer the sort of rewards that Naughty Dog and Guerrilla wrung out of the PlayStation 3’s distinctive Cell processor. Today, with teams spiralling into the hundreds, budgets on the rise and a dozen other platforms to consider, the emphasis is on efficient tools and flexible engines. Microsoft and Sony made a conscious choice to be more similar than different in terms of architecture, with developers’ needs firmly in mind.
“Being able to squeeze more out of the console by really focusing on it allowed us, in the past, to create experiences that couldn’t be done, or would be much harder to do if we had to split our focus. But I think we’re coming to the day where the amount of effort you have to put in to do that, it’s questionable whether it’s worth it.
“Our games are getting so big. We try to make our experiences richer for gamers, but at some point… there are pros and cons. Sometimes we wished that things were easier. The [PlayStation 3] was difficult to program for, but I still sometimes I miss it because it was also very powerful. You could do a lot of stuff that’s still very difficult to replicate, but the time for bespoke architectures is slowly going away.
“If you look back, raw assembly and raw power were what enabled new experiences. Nowadays, experiences are defined or limited by how efficient our toolsets are, how smooth our workflow is, how quickly we can develop, and how much time we have to spend on mundane distractions… Bespoke architecture allows you to do cool and crazy stuff, and from a technical point-of-view I’m still in love with that sort of thing, but I have a 230-person studio that wants to make a killer title.”
Despite what many executives have claimed in calls to their investors, both van de Leeuw and Button-Brown either strongly imply or directly confirm that the cost of making those “killer titles” will rise this generation – not to the same degree as they did with the Xbox 360 and PS3, perhaps, but certainly beyond the already precarious conditions that exist today. While we pore over screenshot comparisons, declaring winners and losers over slight differences in observable visual performance, it’s worth considering what any third-party would actually stand to gain from making one version of a game significantly better than another. Indeed, at companies like Epic, EA and Crytek, the emphasis has been on creating cost-saving tools that work seamlessly across all platforms, effectively glossing over aspects of the hardware that could lead to substantial gains in performance. First-party developers will still pursue that, of course, but, according to Button-Brown, for everyone else the base-level of AAA acceptability now sits at a daunting height on both platforms.
“If anything is just okay, it’s now terrible. ‘Solid’ is a failure. You now have to be so good,” he says. “The teams are getting larger and the risks are getting higher. We’re trying to do a lot of procedural stuff in this next generation to keep costs under control. It’s one of the ways we’re trying to keep that down, but it’s still a cost increase. Each asset needs to be so much better, so much more defined, than it was in the previous generation. No amount of procedural is going to change the fact that your underlying asset just has to be that much better.”
All of that hard-scrabble at the top end of the industry – essentially, fewer companies using more resources to create and market a smaller number of increasingly large games – will have a clear upside for independent developers. Indeed, right now, the beneficial ramifications of Sony’s decision to court indies as early as possible is arguably the most significant difference between the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. It always felt like a smart move, and that feeling will be further justified as the paucity of $60 blockbuster releases becomes more apparent.
Microsoft’s early digital strategies and the Xbox One’s evidently underpowered hardware may have monopolised the headlines, but Oddworld Inhabitants’ Lorne Lanning believes that it’s Microsoft’s belated effort to secure the diverse, free-flow of content from the indie sector that has truly given Sony the advantage. That reluctance to open up the Xbox platform, he argues, is tied to a big-business mentality that no longer works in a connected entertainment medium – the very same mentality that led to the unanimously derided online check-ins and multimedia focus that dominated the Xbox One’s early messaging.
“ID@Xbox was a bittersweet victory,” Lanning says. “If you have your ear to the ground today, you could see that those policies were going to blow up in its face, particularly when you see what [Sony] was doing. That was an old way of thinking, a way of thinking that was all about control. It’s a trickle down from being a monopoly. There’s a reason there was a class-action suit [against Microsoft]. There’s a reason there was an SEC, antitrust thing. There’s a very good reason for that. They wanted to control everything. The people who made those policies were still thinking very much in that way, and it blew up in their faces.”
For Lanning, this will be a generation defined by consumers getting what they want, rather than what they’re given. The generation where consumers wrest control of gaming back from the companies that have controlled it for so long – platform holders, publishers, retailers – and seek satisfaction from the most agile creative forces. There may be some lingering resistance from those with vested interests in established models, but Lanning believes any company seeking to stand in the way of this intractable change is unlikely to emerge with much credit. There will be more products offering a wider variety of experiences than on any previous generation, with price-points to suit every wallet. The lines of communication are wide open. There is nowhere left to hide.
“As people are becoming more informed and more connected, the shenanigans are becoming more transparent. And with that, what we’ll get is more diversity,” Lanning says. “The industry made up of five publishers really isn’t that long ago, and now what’s going on? How many self-publishing indies are there that can get a 1.5x return on each game and keep building? Maybe they can’t grow and be 500 people by the next year, but they can add 5 more by the next year.”
I mention the prevailing fear that the marketplaces on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will become too crowded – that by making consoles a more accessible place for independent developers, they will lose the focus that created huge successes like Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy and Braid. For Lanning, it’s a worthwhile trade, and one of the most important ways that indies need to “grow up” to take advantage of the incredible opportunity this generation represents. The Battlefields and the Assassin’s Creeds will continue to exist and thrive, but the average consumer knows that already. What they don’t know about are games like Octodad, Below and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and more fool the studio who leaves it up to Microsoft or Sony to raise their profile.
“If we sell a game now for $10, we get $7 on digital networks. Once upon a time, we weren’t even getting $7 on a $60 game,” Lanning says. “It’s a whole different thing, but you have to bring your own visibility. That’s your responsibility. Beyond just designing the game, we have to design how to build the relationship with our audience. People know that they want the GTA and the Call of Duty, and they’re gonna be on both systems. But they also want the surprises, and they want to experiment with those surprises at below the $60 price range. The audience always wants more choice.
“The biggest earners are gonna be the big AAA titles, because they have the $100 million marketing campaigns. You can’t compete with that. But in the years to come, the big properties at E3, the $100 million properties, they will have started off in the indie space. They’re gonna innovate cheaper, faster and more with their audience right away. That’s a guarantee.”
In a full discussion below, you’ll read Yoshida’s thoughts on the launch scores (which he joked afterwards that he was hoping I wouldn’t ask him about), how PlayStation is being redefined in the PS4 era, why Drive Club had to be delayed, why graphics and 1080p resolution absolutely matter, and he explains his skepticism for Xbox One’s cloud computing tech. It’s a lengthy conversation but well worth the read to absorb Yoshida’s refreshingly forthright answers.
Q: You’ve been with PlayStation from the very beginning, you’ve seen it all and played a part in the growth of the games business, so perhaps you’re the best person to answer this question. How would you compare this launch to the previous hardware launches? Has it been harder or easier and why?
Shuhei Yoshida: I think this is the most organized launch we’ve had as a company. The launch of PS4 reminds me a lot of the launch of PlayStation 1 because we were a very small company at that time. We had a small group of people trying to do almost everything. Because we were new, we tried to speak to the people in the industry, our partners and developers, and we tried to learn a lot. So we kind of stopped with that approach as we became successful and larger and more confident. The pace of change was not that fast during PS2 and even PS3. The PS3 era for us was the beginning of the network platform being integrated at a system level… but back then people didn’t really use smartphones and that all changed in three or four years and it was a huge change. That forced us back to basics almost, and it required us to really think through everything that we do from the hardware specifications to services to the overall business plans. We had to think about the use of new devices and what that means for us. When people use mobile devices, is that competition? Or are [mobile devices] tools for us? We had to redefine our platform almost, and we have come to conclude that this is the beginning of a new era of PlayStation, shifting more from a hardware focus to a service focus.
The PS4 generation is going to be the transitional generation. In a sense, it’s the completion of the evolution of the strong 3D capable consoles, but at the same time it’s at the maturing phase of our network platform and the beginning of our new service phase, like our cloud gaming that we are preparing to launch next year. And the use of mobile devices is part of our ecosystem. So all that considered, and the difficulty we had at the launch of the PS3, and very strong competition especially in North America, that made us really revisit everything we’ve been doing and redefine the company, almost like we’re re-entering this industry. Even across our teams, I think you now get more consistent messages [about PlayStation] compared to past generations, because we talk a lot more and get a lot of input [from all the teams] on different decisions.
In the past, it was very much [driven by] Tokyo. And now [Group CEO] Andrew House is playing a major role in getting the US and European groups integrated. And I’ve been playing a major role myself on the development side for the last five years… So, Andy and I can quickly decide for certain projects, “let’s get this person from the US team or this person from the European team” and put someone in charge of a global project. So it’s a much more integrated international team that we have now and we are always communicating. There’s been a great maturing of our organization compared to past generations.
Q: During Sony’s last earnings call, CFO Masaru Kato said that PS4 actually will contribute to the division’s profitability much earlier on than past consoles. How important is this to the continued sustainability of PlayStation as a business, and does this mean we should expect Sony to cut prices on PS4 to make it more affordable sooner?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, I read an article where an executive of a major publisher said something about [prices coming down sooner]… Because Masaru Kato used to be CFO of Sony Computer Entertainment and he was the key guy on the business side when we launched the PS3 – he was the right-hand man for Ken Kutaragi – he had to go through that really tough time. During the PS2 era, we were very proud that we were generating like half the profit of Sony Group or something like that, but with the launch of PS3, we lost billions of dollars and we became a burden for Sony. So Masaru’s comments, comparing to PS3, it’s too easy a benchmark. In a sense, we’re doing great because we’re not losing billions with the launch of PS4 – in fact, we’re pretty much breakeven in this launch year of PS4 – but looking forward, it’s fair that as CFO of Sony, and with his experience with previous PlayStation generations, that he would expect a better financial performance… And of course, he’s in a position to really whip all of the business groups at Sony to get the best performance possible.
On the question of whether costs come down quicker, I think there are a couple ways to answer that question. One is that our hardware teams have chosen more standardized components to create PlayStation 4 and that’s contributing to our launch price of $399 versus $599 for the PS3. When we need to source components to get more supply to the retailers, that approach definitely helps compared to some cutting edge component that only one manufacturer can produce, like Blu-ray or the Cell processor. Those were big bottlenecks. It’s much better this time, and that’s all great, but it might mean that because we’re already using more standardized components, the room for costs to come down might actually be slower than when we were starting with cutting edge stuff.
Q: The PS4 software reviews so far have been average or in some cases, worse than average. As the head of Worldwide Studios, what’s your reaction to this? Are you worried about the impact on PS4? The PS3 suffered from a lack of great software but the system did well in the end, so how important is it to have that “system seller” at launch?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, it’s disappointing to see some of the low scores. I haven’t spent enough time reading reviews, but I would characterize them as mixed. And with this launch there are lots of games coming out, so the media must be very busy going through the games quickly, and especially since the online functionality wasn’t ready until in the last couple days. So we have to look at how much time they spend on what aspect of the games and how that may be contributing to some of the lower scores. It’s disappointing but I don’t think it’s worrisome for the launch of the system. I’ve played through all of our games, Killzone, Knack and Resogun, and I totally enjoyed playing through these games. I’m now on my second run of Knack and Resogun at a higher difficulty – these games really grow on you when you play more. I’m very confident that once you purchase these games and play, you’ll be happy that you’ve done so.
Q: You mentioned Knack, and unfortunately that game got even lower scores than the others, and I’m wondering if that’s more frustrating since it came from Mark Cerny. Was Mark not able to devote his complete attention to Knack because of his responsibilities as PS4 system architect? Was he spread a bit too thin?
Shuhei Yoshida: No, I don’t think that’s right. He spent maybe a quarter of his time during the development of Knack and in his position of giving creative direction and overseeing development, it was appropriate… He was in Japan every month for a week, working with the team, so the communication was very good.
The game wasn’t designed [to meet specific] review scores – I was hoping Knack could score in the mid 70s and last I checked it’s around 59-60, so I’m hoping it goes up. The game uses only three buttons to play, so it’s not the type of game reviewers would score high for the launch of a next-gen system. The game was targeted as what we call a second purchase; you know, people may purchase PS4 for Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed or Killzone, but if they also buy Knack, this is a game that you can play with your family or your significant other. It’s a message that as a platform we are not just trying to cater only to the hardcore, shooter audience – we are looking at all kinds of gamers – but Knack is a great game for core gamers as well because when you up the difficulty level it becomes a really tight, tense action brawler.
But the goal was to design it to be played by anyone, even someone who’s never played before. So it wasn’t aimed at high review scores, even though higher would be appreciated! Killzone is different – it’s definitely targeted to the core gaming audience and we’re still waiting on more reviews because some sites are saying they played single player but not enough multiplayer. So I’ll wait with my personal judgment until I read more reviews.
Q: Regarding the Drive Club delay, considering that the PS4 has been in development for 6 years, it’s odd that an internal studio like Evolution that knew the launch, the specs and everything else well in advance of even the closest third-party partner should miss the launch. Was there some miscommunication or what happened to cause the delay?
Shuhei Yoshida: It’s almost an amazing achievement for any studio to set a release date and achieve it, especially for the launch of a new system because the hardware and software tools are always getting updated. So you always have to work with the moving target, so to speak. That said, PS4 has been praised for the ease of development and the stability of the dev kit by everyone – not just our teams but other developers and publishers. And it’s true that Evolution was also heavily in discussions about PS4 hardware features and network service features. Where the team missed the date and miscalculated the tasks was when they tried to do something they have not done before.
A launch title is especially tricky if you aim too high. When you try new things, you definitely have to prepare for multiple iterations… In order for a title to come out at launch, the ambition level has to kind of be kept in check; the team has to rely on tried and true mechanisms. That I think is the main reason for missing the launch date. Drive Club is exciting because it really goes aggressive into the integration of social features and the second-screen experience, and that’s a new addition for Evolution. The team has been making racing games for a long time, so they’re veterans when it comes to core racing…
Q: So it was the addition of social integration features that set them back?
Shuhei Yoshida: They always planned the game to have these social features but because these features are new, they found some technical matters or flaws in play testing, and that’s the reason we waited until the very end to announce the delay. They might have been able to hit the date, but in terms of both getting technical matters down and getting the game polished enough… we decided we wanted the team to go back to some of the features and spend some more time to get it done.
Q: This is a multi-part question. First, there’s been a lot of noise in the media lately about how Xbox One runs Call of Duty: Ghosts at 720p, not the full 1080p resolution that it plays on PS4. How important is this? Do you think the average consumer would really appreciate the difference? Second, how much will the average consumer notice a difference between last-gen PS3 and Xbox 360 games and what PS4 now offers? PS3 games look very good, so do graphics matter in next-gen? Why should consumers spend $400 on PS4?
Shuhei Yoshida: I can confidently say that graphics matter, because I played through Killzone: Shadow Fall. What I mean is, most people probably can’t tell looking at 720p or 1080p unless you’re in the industry or you’re a hardware nerd, but when you compare a game like Killzone: Shadow Fall to Killzone 3 on PS3, for example, the fact that the game is rendered and displayed at 1080p native means that every pixel is rendered, and in combination with the new Dual Shock 4 analog sticks and triggers, it’s great when you’re playing a shooter and you can see the enemy far away from you and you can move the crosshair to aim with pixel perfect precision.
When you talk to game designers at Guerilla, they would tell you it’s kind of traditional for shooters on consoles to include some aim assist [function] because of the lack of accuracy of the control and the lack of clarity in the graphics, but with 1080p and the power of PS4 you don’t need that. So you actually have more control and the satisfaction level is higher. So when you’re shooting enemies, it’s all you. You don’t need to be able to spot the difference in resolution but it just feels great. That’s the difference; graphics isn’t just about making things look pretty, but it can make the gameplay better. Another example is in racing games, like Gran Turismo, when you see a long road ahead and it curves to the left or right, you can tell what’s coming thanks to the resolution and power of graphics. The improved draw distance gives you anticipation for what’s to come. So the power of hardware and graphics in some areas is actually very related to great gameplay experiences.
Since the beginning of this year when we saw leaks [about the specs] of next-gen platforms, we immediately knew since the tech specs on PS4 were accurate that the Xbox specifications were likely accurate as well. So we knew at that point that we had much more raw power… So I was hoping from earlier this year that when games come out from third-parties – because that’s the best example, to look at the same game on different platforms – if there’s any slight performance difference on the two systems I’ll be very happy. I wasn’t expecting something like [what happened with] Call of Duty, 720p versus 1080p – that’s a significant difference. Or Battlefield 4, which is 900 versus 720 – 900 requires 50 percent more pixels to be rendered. I learned all this from the Digital Foundry site.
There are a lot of hidden powers in our system. You may be familiar with GPGPU and PS4 has a lot more GPGPU processing in it, which is difficult to learn and master, similar to a Cell processor. So every year the games on PS4 will perform better because most of the launch teams probably didn’t use GPGPU – they probably just used core graphics. So when the developers [use more of these] in two to three years the graphics will be really amazing. Resogun, by the way, is already using GPGPU… and that game is getting very good reviews!
Q: That may be the PS4 system seller you were looking for!
Shuhei Yoshida: At least we have one game that’s getting great reviews.
Q: It’s great for Sony to say that PS4 is more powerful than Xbox One, it’s a great marketing point but…
Shuhei Yoshida: Well, I always say “I believe” or “We believe.” I’m not saying that it is.
Q: Ok, but from an industry standpoint, in a way isn’t it good that both consoles are so similar, so that developers can easily create games for both and target a larger combined installed base? I’m wondering – and this may sound like an odd question – does Sony ever communicate with Microsoft to get a sense of where an industry “standard” for consoles might end up for another generation?
Shuhei Yoshida: No, no. We didn’t conspire [laughs]. But it’s very interesting how we came to the same selection of CPU and GPU vendors. It’s not exactly the same as each company customized the processing choices and so we ended up with more processing power but the architecture basically is quite similar. If you talk to any third-party developer, they say it’s a wonderful thing because they really want to make the development process very efficient. So I think it’s great, because learning the Cell processor was very difficult and now with PS4 everything’s much easier – and at the same time, if you’re a multiplatform developer it’s going to be very easy to create PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions of a game because all three share the same kind of roots.
That said, each company, including Nintendo, has some unique additions to the core… So the multiplatform developers do have some decisions about how much customization and additional work they want to do to take advantage of the different unique aspects of the platforms. And by the way, I don’t think developers have to do much more to take advantage of the raw power of PS4, to get games to render at the highest resolution.
Q: Microsoft has talked a lot about their cloud computing and the extra power that gives the Xbox One to offload some of that processing to a server in games like Forza or Titanfall. Is this something Sony can compete with? Can Gaikai be used in a similar way? Is that realistic, or perhaps Sony and Microsoft view the cloud differently?
Shuhei Yoshida: We’ve been clear on what cloud gaming means, and that’s getting games to run on the server and sending that video signal to a distant device. The way they are using cloud computing seems very different and I totally don’t understand what they mean by that. So we can’t react to what they are saying because we don’t understand. The explanation I found personally was, again, an article on Digital Foundry. They went through all the computing tasks a game goes through and for each one they checked off if it can actually be done on the server versus the client, and most of the tasks a game has to perform, they said, cannot be done on the server because of the huge latency and the bandwidth. There’s so much data going back and forth between the CPU and memory and GPU inside the console compared to going through the internet… There were maybe four or five tasks that actually could be done on the server. So that was very educational to me. After reading the article, the Microsoft message was even more confusing to me.
Q: With PS4 launching, we haven’t touched on Vita at all, but I did want to ask if you think those two systems will feed off each other? The Vita business has been slower than Sony would like but do you think the interest in PS4 and features like Remote Play could help boost the Vita sales over the long-term?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, I hope so. It’s been exciting these past couple days when we saw the media experimenting with Remote Play. It’s very impressive. And the use case is if the main TV is occupied, then you can continue the game on Vita. If you live alone, maybe the use case is less, but even if you live alone there’s some value in it. For example, I like to play games before I sleep, so I use Vita in the bed before I sleep and so whether or not the TV is occupied it’s just very convenient for me to be able to continue to play, unless I really need that accuracy with shooting like I talked about earlier, so maybe I wouldn’t play Killzone with Remote Play but I totally enjoy playing Knack on Vita.
So that definitely makes your Vita much more valuable if you already own one, and if you don’t, once you get PS4 the potential value of Vita is much higher. We definitely hope people see that value and have a chance to see PS4 games running on Vita in person, because the combination of PS4’s power and the great display of PS Vita is awesome. It’s like mini cloud gaming, and actually Gaikai has worked on Remote Play. I’m very happy with the implementation – it’s a seamless experience.
2013 hasn’t painted a pretty picture for the retail sales of console games. With the exception of the big lift the industry received from GTA V’s record-setting launch, generating $1 billion in just three days, console game sales have been consistently down. In fact, there have been nine straight quarters of decline in the video game business.
Over the next two weeks, both the PS4 and Xbox One will finally launch, but will new platforms really change the business? Is the slump just the result of consumers growing tired of the eight-year-old console generation? Is the industry suffering from an emphasis on sequels at the expense of innovation? Have smartphones and tablets fundamentally undermined the market for set-top box gaming?
GameStop president Tony Bartel thinks new consoles will bring about the innovations in gaming that the industry needs. Bartel recently blamed a lack of innovation for the current consoles’ declines, and he’s incredibly encouraged by what Xbox One and PS4 bring to the table.
“There will always be those kinds of gamers that just relish the bleeding edge technology. For them, they’re right. That’s enough for them to pull the trigger on…a new console. But I don’t think that’s enough of a customer base to really explain the lack of financial success that we’re seeing in the console space right now,” said God of War and Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe.
“So I don’t think seeing another batch of specialized hardware is going to move the needle in any permanent way that’s going to rectify what’s not a technological problem. It’s a business model problem and it’s a creativity problem and it’s a fundamental structure problem in terms of the way the industry itself is set up when it comes to decisions that are made for certain games and things like that.”
The variety of platforms at gamers’ fingertips now makes the decision to purchase a new console that much harder for the average person. The hardcore will always invest in a high-end PC rig or the newest, most powerful console, but that’s not the case for the masses.
“I think we’re going to see a huge chunk taken out of the pie for console sales [going forward]. I think they’ll be impressive, cool consoles and I’m excited to play them as a gamer, but I think the days of the traditional console are on the way out,” Jaffe continued. “I think a lot of the people who bought a console this generation or last generation are getting the same meal for substantially less cost on mobile, tablets or on PC with things like Steam and a lot more interesting games and price points. And there are things like Minecraft – people in the past who would have gone out and bought a console in year one are probably just fine playing stuff like Minecraft at this point.”
Tony Goodman, founder of Ensemble Studios (which Microsoft shut down) and mobile studio PeopleFun, largely agrees with Jaffe. At the end of the day, there are only so many entertainment dollars to go around, especially in a difficult economy.
Just a few more days until PS4 launches…
“New consoles will always drive a short term spike in game sales. The bigger issue for consoles is the increasing competition for entertainment dollars from other devices,” he noted. “It’s much like the way the TV network market changed with channel competition introduced by cable and satellite TV. ABC, CBS, and NBC were the places you went to see high quality television just like you used to go to your Xbox, PS3, or Wii for the newest and best gaming experience.”
“Many niche networks sprung up that didn’t spend money like the big networks but they created innovative and focused experiences for television and drew viewers away from the big networks. Some of those smaller networks have gone on to produce incredibly high quality television such as The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, etc. The disruption in television continues today as many are leaving the satellite and cable providers because they can essentially create their own narrowcasted network using Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV and other services.”
“The game industry is progressing down a similar path. The vast majority of revenue in consoles comes from sequels,” Goodman continued, referring to the problems we’ve seen with innovation in AAA. “Most of the innovation is occurring in the mobile and PC market where it’s possible to produce a hit game with a smaller budget. Mobile and social games have dramatically increased the number of ‘gamers’ and also increased the amount of time spent playing games since they can be played almost anytime and anywhere… It will change even more in the future as gamers expect all their games to live in the cloud and they want to be able to play them on whatever screen they have handy.”
But perhaps we’re getting too hung up on what innovation means. There’s nothing wrong with becoming obsessed with a top franchise and wanting more of the same with just some moderate improvements, commented one industry veteran of more than 20 years, who wished to remain anonymous for this story.
“I personally fall in love with some franchises and can’t wait for the sequel. (Like I’m genuinely sad Microsoft stopped making Flight Simulator, even after version TEN!) So in a weird way I want games like FIFA and Battlefield to continue to get better; the innovation comes in making it feel ‘new’ and fresh, just like when Apple releases new iPhones. The upgrades need to be tangible, then I’m OK with that,” he said.
With so many entertainment options available now, however, quality is more important than ever before. If a game is only average or slightly above average, consumers will move on in a heartbeat to something else that captivates them.
“I feel there’s an abundance of things now to grab my entertainment time; the game and its messaging needs to capture us more quickly than ever before. To be clear with so much choice now, if a game isn’t well made, people just move on, time is too valuable. Time really is valuable, it’s why time based items (saving your time) are always the number-one selling micro-transaction,” the industry veteran said. “If too many games look like everything else, then it’s not surprising sales are down. You should urge developers to look at what they are making. If it’s leading a category or genre then great. If it’s looking like lots of other games and isn’t leading any genre or category then it’s time to pivot.”
For Seamus Blackley, co-creator of the original Xbox and a former agent of Creative Artists Agency, it would be wrong to point fingers at the development community for any perceived lack of innovation.
Xbox One ships a week after PS4
“Developers are really creative. It’s not like developers have suddenly become stupid. But developers are also frustrated because a lot of people have great ideas. People with great track records have great ideas. People with no track records have tremendous ideas. The guys at ThatGameCompany. They were students… I think people probably believe that developers have a lot more choice than they do in bringing new ideas to light,” he said, pointing out that business becomes restricting.
“Most developers have two or three really cool things they want to make, and the question is how? If the analysts and guys running the publishing business, and any sort of game financiers, don’t feel comfortable or like there’s a business behind taking a bit of risk at that time, then they won’t. And those ideas will stay on the shelf. So that’s the situation we’re in now,” he lamented.
But whereas Jaffe and others are somewhat pessimistic about consoles, Blackley sees reason to hope. The new consoles will lead to new business and support new ideas, he believes, and on that front, he agrees with GameStop’s Bartel. The new consoles will give the suits an excuse to try out more interesting, creative ideas that the developers are looking to push out there.
“The train track that I got held down to when I realized I wanted to see this Xbox platform happen was that I had to abandon a lot of preconceptions I had about a lot of this stuff – which was, if you want the cool, innovative stuff to happen, somebody somewhere has to put in a terrific amount of business funding in order to enable it to happen. And it’s exhausting,” he said. “What I discovered is that the reason there wasn’t a lot of innovation way back then in the ’90s wasn’t what I thought. It wasn’t because developers weren’t creative, or people didn’t have enough ideas or opportunities, or the technology didn’t exist to bring those ideas to life. That stuff’s all a challenge, but the fact is, to make something innovative requires cash. It requires a financial opportunity to take some risks.”
Ultimately, Blackley believes that the new consoles will create that financial opportunity. It’s what new consoles do best, he said.
“Consoles are not about the television. They’re not about high performance. They’re not about having a consistent controller or any of those things. Those are true, but that’s not the heart of the matter. And this is where there’s an underground reality that people don’t think about. What they’re really about is providing a stable economic base that lets you take risks on games,” he explained. “So we have seen all sorts of big innovation in gameplay on consoles. And sure, we’ve seen a lot of derivative stuff as well because it’s expensive. It’s a hard business. But it has been safe within that environment to take risks.”
“Sometimes those risks are taken by first parties. Sometimes they’re taken by third parties. But we’ve seen whole new genres erupt on the console that wouldn’t have happened other places where there wasn’t a defined, semi-safe business model that was clearly managed in sort of a walled garden way. So you think of Guitar Hero, Gears of War, or any of the console models that are innovative and have driven a lot of the industry, those were possible because the business behind them was possible. And that business was possible because these players, the console providers, created this safe baseline business model.”
New consoles in and of themselves, however, aren’t going to magically solve problems with innovation and industry growth. “What we need is the next generation of business infrastructure to make [innovation] possible. And iOS isn’t doing a great job at that. There needs to be new excitement injected into the console world to provide more infrastructure for that to happen,” Blackley pointed out.
Something definitely needs to happen on consoles to support a business other than massive AAA titles. Perhaps Sony’s indie push and the ID@Xbox program will make a difference, but so far consoles have become tough places to survive for smaller studios. It’s unfortunately led to a loss of the mid-level game, said Alex Hutchinson, creative director at Ubisoft Montreal
“If you talk about big AAA or traditional console games, I think it’s the loss of the middle, the loss of the solid B title. And that’s a shame because there’s a lot of unusual stuff there in the past. But it’s because the cost of development has gone up astronomically. If you think about it, in the last 10 years, development costs have probably gone up 30x, but the cost to the consumer has remained the same. So you’re squeezing more and more out of less and less, and that’s really challenging if you’re a smaller developer,” he noted.
Maybe in the end, the concerns about the future of consoles and whether these new systems spark sales is irrelevant. After all, it’s the games that matter, and those will live on any platform.
“Big hits have never sold more than they do today, and indies have never been as prominent before. Today is the boom of that,” Hutchinson said. “I feel like we’re focusing on a very narrow window and saying it’s all…going down. Games are so wide now. It’s on your phone, your handheld device, your TV, my mom’s playing on Facebook. It’s so big now. It’s bigger than it’s ever been. It’s come out of the bedroom, so to speak.”
While consoles can no longer hog the spotlight, the bottom line is that games and the business around them will continue to grow and evolve. As our anonymous industry veteran said, “I think we need to stop worrying about the games business, it’s growing constantly, there’s more people playing games now than ever before and money is made in so many ways, in so many countries that are not made public. The amount of teams the industry is funding is growing exponentially and so it’s not surprising that the overall wealth of the industry is becoming more distributed. I believe there’s plenty of money out there if you do something innovative.”
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have yet to hit retail shelves, but over the past few months, lots of people have had a chance to spend significant amount of time with games for both systems. With the hardware locked down and in full production and launch window titles nearing, if not already past, their gold master dates, the new consoles may remain an exciting enigma to consumers but they’ve already been reasonably well explored by plenty of people. Like many, I’ve had some hands-on time with both consoles – both at trade shows and in private meetings. It’ll probably be some time before one of the new consoles finds itself plugged into my TV, since there’s no launch in my territory until 2014 – a fact which I originally found quite annoying, but the more time I spend with the newcomers, the less the delay bothers me.
Why? It’s not that PS4 or Xbox One are bad consoles – far from it. Rather, it’s that I’ve found myself increasingly feeling that I’m not actually done with the previous generation yet. There are plenty of games I haven’t played, or haven’t completed, and a handful more still on the way – especially for the PS3, a late bloomer which had a rocky start but has blossomed into a genuinely fantastic platform over the years. Meanwhile, the stack of games I need to play on the handheld platforms has grown to genuinely embarrassing levels – I’ve not touched anything in Vita’s increasingly impressive portfolio, while the 3DS’ recent releases alone (Pokemon X/Y and Monster Hunter 4) promise tons of entertainment. I’m keenly aware of about half a dozen Wii must-plays that I never-played, and Wii U – a peculiar device bridging the generations rather than a “next-gen” system in the horsepower sense – is looking increasingly appealing as well.
I’m hardly alone in that feeling. Plenty of core gamers are increasingly vocal in their interest in Wii U this Christmas – not, perhaps, enough to drive Nintendo’s sales figures just yet (the sluggish demand for the system is still eating into the firm’s profits, although the 3DS more than balances the picture) but enough to suggest that there’s pent-up demand that will be unleashed when a bit more first-party software turns up. Others are pointing out that the real “winner” of the season in hardware terms is likely to be the PS3, and it’s likely that the Xbox 360 won’t have a shabby Christmas either (although how Microsoft will behave towards the 360 is hard to gauge; it greeted the launch of the 360 itself by loading a shotgun and dragging the original Xbox around the back of the woodshed, but then again, the original Xbox wasn’t an enormously successful device anyway).
This isn’t unfamiliar territory, of course. Sony’s consoles in particular have enjoyed very impressive long-tail sales over the past two generations – PSone sold remarkably through the early years of PS2, and PS2 itself did fantastically well almost the whole way through PS3’s lifespan, with production of the system only ending earlier this year. It’s to be expected that the previous generation of hardware should continue to sell even after the launch of a new generation, not least because its enormous software library and low entry cost opens it up to an entirely new audience. Moreover, the platform holders welcome this fact – old game consoles are sold at fantastic margins, helping to fund the next generation and smoothing over any bumps in the profitability of the new systems.
However, there are a few unique factors about the current generation transition that are important to consider. The first is the longevity of the previous generation. The PlayStation 3 will have celebrated its seventh birthday before the PS4 turns up – the Xbox 360 will be a venerable eight years old. These systems are remarkably long in the tooth and might reasonably be expected to decline fairly quickly after the new systems hit the market. One might also reasonably expect that there would be a huge pent-up demand for new hardware to replace such ageing systems. By the end of the PS1 and PS2 eras, both systems were seriously showing their age – some excellent games turned up late in the day (think Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 and Shadow of the Colossus on the PS2, for example) but by and large the gaming audience was chafing at the technical limitations of these systems and keen to upgrade.
That motivation exists this time as well – but in spite of just how old the PS3 and Xbox 360 are, few would argue that they’ve dated quite as badly as the PS1 or even the PS2 had by the point of their replacement with newer hardware. In fact, games like The Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed 4 or Beyond: Two Souls continue to seriously wow audiences with their visuals, while many other developers are learning to sidestep the graphics arms race entirely by focusing on beautiful, innovative and eye-catching art styles rather than technical prowess. Even with the PS3 entering its eighth year and the 360 about to embark on its ninth, few people feel like these systems have been exhausted of their potential. Nobody – or at least, nobody apart from a very technically aware minority – feels like these are consoles that have been left behind by gaming, too lacking in power to deliver really fantastic experiences.
Playing games on PS4 and Xbox One actually confirms that feeling, rather than confounding it. Launch titles are rarely amazing examples of the potential of a system – those we remember clearly, like Halo or Super Mario 64, are remembered precisely because launch titles of that quality are so rare. All the same, it’s hard to escape the feeling that PS4 and Xbox One games are simply shinier, slightly sharper updates to previous generation games, with better draw distance and more objects on screen. Of course, technically speaking, that’s a major upgrade in and of itself. There’s no question that these games are doing things which the old hardware couldn’t have managed. From the epic battles of Ryse or the sheer detail of Titanfall to the vast numbers of objects being thrown around by Knack – these are genuinely new things and it’s undeniable that there is a wow factor to many of the launch titles at certain moments. All the same, you can trace a clear line from late-stage PS3/360 titles to early PS4/XB1 titles, and it’s a curve that doesn’t rise all that sharply.
The consequence is that having played next-gen games, it’s perfectly possible to go back to last-gen titles and enjoy them. That’s a bigger deal than it sounds. After a while playing PS2 games, it was pretty tough to play most PS1 games without feeling like they’d really dated badly. The transition from PS2 to PS3 was less dramatic, but nonetheless, my huge pile of to-play PS2 games ended up never being played to completion (I think Persona 4 may be the only exception here) largely because going back to the now very dated PS2 catalogue didn’t appeal so much after playing PS3 and 360 games. This time, though, the curve is even shallower. After playing many of the launch titles for the new consoles, I have no problem going back to PS3 and 360 games. They still look and play just great; I’d be happy, in fact, to stick with this level of hardware for another year or two, if I had to.
I don’t believe that this is down to a flaw with the new consoles or their approach. Rather, I think it’s because we’ve seriously started to hit a plateau stage in the progression of 3D graphical quality – a stage which was probably inevitable from the moment we started making 3D games. Ever since the first graphics cards appeared for PCs, I recall people asking at regular intervals, “is this good enough? Do we ever need a more powerful system?” – and the answer was always an eye-rolling and resounding “no, it’s not good enough”. The ideal of photo-realism is always there to be aimed for, after all – until the point where our hardware can genuinely replicate the real world (and indeed all sorts of unreal worlds) to the point where our eyes can’t tell the difference, it’ll be impossible to say that there’s no room for improvement.
There is, however, a serious diminishing returns curve involved in all of this. The progression of 3D graphics technology continues to be absolutely astounding, but it’s undeniable that it’s focused on smaller and smaller things as time goes by. That’s understandable and necessary – the road to better visuals is paved with small innovations – but it does mean that from the standpoint of the average consumer, the actual difference between hardware generations is being diminished. On the PS3 and 360, and indeed on high-end PCs around the era of Half-Life 2 (systems that are now considered effectively obsolete), we hit a point where the hardware allowed developers to create environments that “felt” right to gamers. Advancing beyond that, you seriously diminish your returns. The most beautiful environments in Crytek’s extraordinary game engines running on top-end PCs may, objectively, be enormously more advanced and impressive than those achieved in The Last of Us or other benchmark games on the ageing console hardware, but from the perspective of user experience, it barely matters – both can create believable environments that are of sufficient fidelity to be recognisable and “realistic”, and for many if not most consumers, that’s “good enough” as long as it’s married to a worthwhile game experience.
This is the single biggest challenge the new consoles are going to face – not tablets and smartphones, not the Android-powered microconsoles that are still struggling to explain their raison d’être to the world at large, not the unquestioned resurgence of the PC as a gaming platform. No, the real challenge comes from their older siblings – consoles that are still “good enough” for many, and may well continue being “good enough” for several years to come. If software development jumps en masse to the new platforms, of course, then gamers will eventually have to jump as well – but I suspect that after the initial excitement for next-gen, the process of convincing people that it’s worth making the leap may be much harder than the platform holders expect. PS4 and Xbox One both look like great systems, but greatness alone may not be enough to overcome the sheer inertia of the older hardware – the first generation of consoles for which “good enough” really does seem to have been a fair moniker.
That estimate puts considerable pressure on the PS4, meaning it would have to outsell its predecessor by 1.5 million in its opening year. The PS3 had a similar global window to hit that 3.5 million target, although it focused on different launch territories. Last time round, Sony opted to leave Europe waiting, dropping the PS3 in the US and Japan in November 2006 but waiting until March 2007 for a European launch. This time, the US remains the first market to be served, launching on November 15, with Europe following a fortnight later. Sony’s home territory, where it will be virtually unopposed by Microsoft, has to wait a further three months until February 22, 2014.
Numbers are already looking good, however, with pre-orders already in excess of those for the PS3, likely aided by the new machine’s lower price point. Because of its PC-based hardware, meaning lower R&D costs, the PS4 likely costs less to produce than the PS3. Some of that saving is clearly being passed on to consumers, but many analysts feel that Sony’s precarious financial situation demands that the machine still be sold at a profit, something that the PS3 didn’t achieve until quite late in its lifecycle.
“I think they are almost certainly making a profit there,” industry analyst Michael Pachter explained. “A $399 retail price tag is about $370-375 at wholesale… our add up on the costs of materials is about $325, so I think they make a little bit of money, $25-55. And I think Sony has to make a profit, the corporation is not doing well financially, I don’t think there’d be any tolerance internally to sell anything at a loss.”
The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are roughly a couple months away from launch, but many still aren’t sure what to expect from the next-gen systems. One such person is Raptr CEO Dennis Fong, who said “it’s just too early to tell” how the new consoles will work with the community-focused cross-platform gaming service.
Known as Thresh in the competitive Quake and Doom scenes, Fong was a pro gamer from 1995 until his “retirement” in 2001. At the time, he didn’t believe competitive gaming was a viable career field, but a couple things have since changed his mind: free-to-play games and livestreaming.
The livestreaming helps educate people on the games, which they can then try out on their own, which increases the player base, which makes the whole prospect of professional gamers more viable.
“For a sport to really be considered a sport, you need spectators,” Fong said. “And for spectators to appreciate what people are doing, they have to really understand the game itself.”
He added, “Excitement is infectious and the low barrier of entry for free-to-play means new people can try it out and get right into it,” Fong said.
Whatever policies the two companies adopt regarding their online service’s player profiles, Fong suggested they could represent Raptr’s biggest strength or greatest challenge when it comes to the new consoles. One of Raptr’s primary functions is to provide its 18 million users with a cross-platform profile that collects all of their Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Steam achievements and trophies in the same place, something which is only possible if the platform holders have set their user profiles up to be somehow accessible by a third party.
With Microsoft and Sony increasingly embracing social functions, live-streaming, and even things like self-publishing for independent developers, there seems to be a trend toward increased openness of all kinds in the console world. One might think that bodes well for Raptr, but Fong isn’t about to assume their cooperation.
“It seems like it would be a no-brainer, but you just never know with big companies,” Fong said. “Especially big companies that are going through massive upheaval, which I think both PlayStation and Xbox to some extent are going through that right now.”
“I think overall Xbox has been way more progressive and open, just in general.”
If history is any indication, Fong has reason to be optimistic about Xbox One.
“I think overall Xbox has been way more progressive and open, just in general,” Fong said.
The executive said he’d met most of the key people behind Xbox Live, and said Microsoft as a whole tends to be more open, likely as a result of its history in the PC platform. Microsoft also provides Raptr with direct feeds of data to help them streamline the integration of Xbox Live information into the service.
“PlayStation on the other hand, has been very, very closed, almost to the point of ignorance, in terms of trying to control every little thing that goes through PlayStation and what their users see,” Fong said. “So getting them to release any kind of data, user profile data and such, has been a lot like pulling teeth.”
In the past, Fong said Raptr dealt with Sony through various committees including people from around the world. The result was a very slow process in which nothing ever got done, he said. Fong also chalked it up in part to Japanese Internet culture, which he described as different from the rest of the world, “less open, more controlling.”
Despite that, there may be hope for increased cooperation with Sony on the PS4. Fong noted that Sony seems to have given its American arm, particularly Gaikai, more influence regarding the system’s online elements this time around, “so it definitely seems more open.”
One platform that seems a long shot for full support from Raptr is the Wii U. Fong said he’s had discussions with Nintendo, but that the company’s audience skews considerably younger than Raptr’s target demographic. Where Raptr wants to increase the social connectivity of gamers, Fong said Nintendo has almost been discouraging interactions with strangers, pointing to the deliberately clunky Wii friend code system as evidence.
Sony’s Jack Tretton doesn’t believe that the PlayStation 4’s price will be decisive in the outcome of the next generation, arguing that there are more important factors at play in winning over the consumer.
Speaking to Bloomberg, the SCEA president claimed that the PS4’s one million global pre-orders represent “just a fraction” of the actual demand for the console. However, while Tretton believes that its release in November this year will be the biggest launch in Sony Computer Entertainment’s history, the $399/€399/£349 will not be the deciding factor in who emerges as the victor.
“Obviously you’d like your competitor at a higher price than a lower price, and I’ve lived on both sides of that spectrum,” he said. “I think, ultimately, the gamer looks at 10-year product life-cycles, they look at the software offerings, they look at the value proposition. The lowest priced system isn’t always successful.”
The Xbox One will retail for $499/€499/£429, and the gulf between its prices and those of its rival is widely seen as the most significant competitive difference that remains following Microsoft’s various policy amendments. Public perception of Xbox One has improved dramatically in recent weeks, and Gamescom has been largely positive for Microsoft: it detailed its policies around indie self-publishing, announced a deal that will see FIFA 14 bundled for free with Xbox One pre-orders, and the exclusive Titanfall looks likely to be the most admired game at the show – just as it was at E3.
Certainly, Sony is clear about where the battle-lines have been drawn, shifting its focus away from its home territory – where PlayStation platforms have traditionally launched first – and towards Xbox strongholds in North America and Europe.
“[PlayStation 4’s launch in] Japan is to be determined,” Tretton said. “It’s obviously a really important market for us – it’s the home market – but the battle for next generation hearts and minds is being waged in the west right now.
“Historically, we’ve launched in japan first, so this is a pretty big change for us, but it’s indicative of where gaming has the most heat right now.”