Never more than a stopgap that was hugely inadequate to the gap in question, Steam Greenlight is finally set to disappear entirely later this Spring. The service has been around for almost five years, and while it was largely greeted with enthusiasm, the reality has never justified that optimism. The amassing of community votes for game approval turned out to be no barrier to all manner of grafters who launched unfinished, amateurish games (even using stolen assets in some cases) on the service, but enough of a barrier to be frustrating and annoying for many genuine indie developers. As an attempt to figure out how to prevent a storefront from drowning in the torrent of rubbish that has flooded the likes of the App Store and Google Play, it was a worthy experiment, but not one that ought to have persisted for five years, really.
Moreover, Greenlight isn’t disappearing because Valve has solved this problem to its satisfaction. The replacement, Direct, is in some regards a step backwards; it’ll see developers being able to publish directly on the system simply by confirming their identity (company or personal) through submission of business documents and paying a fee for each game they submit. The fee in question hasn’t been decided yet, but Valve says it’s thinking about everything from $100 to $5000.
The impact of Direct is going to depend heavily on what that fee ends up being. It’s worth noting that developers for iOS, for example, already pay around $100 a year to be part of Apple’s developer programme, and trawling through the oceans of unloved and unwanted apps released on the App Store every day shows just how little that $100 price does to dissuade the worst kind of shovelware. At $5000, meanwhile, quite a lot of indie developers will find themselves priced out of Steam, especially those at the more arthouse end of the scene, or new creators getting started out. Ironically, though, the chances are that many of the cynical types behind borderline-scam games with ripped off assets and design will calculate that $5000 is a small price to pay for a shot at sales on Steam, especially if the high fees are thinning out the number of titles launching.
It’s worth noting that, for the majority of Steam’s consumers, the loss of arthouse indie games and fringe titles from new creators won’t be of huge concern. Steam, like all storefronts, sells huge numbers at the top end and that falls off rapidly as you come down the charts; the number of consumers who are actively engaging with smaller niche titles on the service is pretty small. However, that doesn’t mean that locking out those creators wouldn’t be damaging – both creatively and commercially.
Plenty of creators are actually making a living at the low end of the market; they’re not making fortunes or buying gigantic mansions to hang around being miserable in, but they’re making enough money from their games to sustain themselves and keep up their output. Often, they’re working in niches that have small audiences of devoted fans, and locking them out of Steam with high submission costs would both rob them of their income (there are quite a few creators out there for whom $5000 represents a large proportion of their average revenue from a game) and rob audiences of their output, or at least force them to look elsewhere.
Sometimes, a game from a creator like that becomes a break-out hit, the game the whole world is talking about for months on end – sometimes, but not very often. It’s tempting to argue that Steam should be careful about its “low-end” indies (a term I use in the commercial sense, not as any judgement of quality; there’s great, great stuff lurking around the bottom of the charts) because otherwise it risks missing the Next Big Thing, but that’s not really a good reason. Steam is just about too big to ignore, and the Next Big Thing will almost certainly end up on the platform anyway.
Rather, the question is over what Valve wants Steam to be. If it’s a platform for distributing big games to mainstream consumers, okay; it is what it is. If they’re serious about it being a broad church, though, an all-encompassing platform where you can flick seamlessly between AAA titles with budgets in the tens of millions and arthouse, niche games made as a labour of love by part-timers or indie dreamers, then Direct as described still doesn’t solve the essential conflict in that vision.
In replacing publishers with a storefront through which creators can directly launch products to consumers, Valve and other store operators have asserted the value of pure market forces over curation – the fine but flawed notion of greatness rising to the top while bad quality products sink to the bottom simply through the actions of consumers making buying choices. This, of course, doesn’t work in practice, partially because in the real world free markets are enormously constrained and distorted by factors like the paucity of information (a handful of screenshots and a trailer video doth not a perfectly informed and rational purchasing decision make), and more importantly because free markets can’t actually make effective assessments of something as subjective as the quality of a game.
Thus, even as their stores have become more and more inundated with tides of low quality titles – perhaps even to the extent of snuffing out genuinely good quality games – store operators have tried to apply algorithmic wizardry to shore up marketplaces they’ve created. Users can vote, and rate things; elements of old-fashioned curation have even been attempted, with rather limited success. Tweaks have been applied to the submission process at one end and the discovery process at the other. Nothing, as yet, presents a very satisfying solution.
One interesting possibility is that we’re going to see the pendulum start to swing back a little – from the extreme position of believing that Steam and its ilk would make publishers obsolete, to the as yet untested notion that digital storefronts will ultimately do a better job of democratising publishing than they have done of democratising development. We’ve already seen the rise of a handful of “boutique” publishers who specialise in working with indie developers to get their games onto digital platforms with the appropriate degree of PR and marketing support; if platforms like Steam start to put up barriers to entry, we can expect a lot more companies like that to spring up to act as middlemen.
Like the indie developers themselves, some will cater to specific niches, while others will be more mainstream, but ultimately they will all serve a kind of curation role; their value will lie not just in PR, marketing and finance, but also in the ability to say to platforms and consumers that somewhere along the line, a human being has looked at a game in depth and said “yes, this is a good game and we’re willing to take a risk on it.” There’s a value to that simple function that’s been all too readily dismissed in the excitement over Steam, the App Store and so on, and as issues of discovery and quality continue to plague those storefronts, that value is only becoming greater.
Whatever Valve ultimately decides to do with Direct – whether it sets a low price that essentially opens the floodgates, or a high one that leaves some developers unable to afford the cost of entry – it will not provide a panacea to Steam’s issues. It might, however, lay the ground for a fresh restructuring of the industry, one that returns emphasis to the publishing functions that were trampled underfoot in the initial indie gold-rush and, into the bargain, helps to provide consumers with clearer assurances of quality. A new breed of publisher may be the only answer to the problems created by storefronts we were once told were going to make publishers extinct.
Ever since Nintendo’s shares rocketed after the launch of Pokémon Go – and despite the worldwide phenomenon not being a Nintendo product – and the surprise announcement of Super Mario Run, all eyes have been on the platform holder’s mobile strategy need to be free.
Analysts and even the mainstream media have been quick to comment on the potential for traditional games brands in the mobile space, but in all the excitement some people seem to have forgotten several publishers have already made their mark on smart devices with their best-selling IP.
Square Enix, in particular, has a very healthy mobile business thanks to ports of Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider and Dragon Quest games, new IP such as Heavenstrike Rivals, and the acclaimed Go series that has so far offered new takes on the Hitman, Lara Croft and Deus Ex series. The Go games are developed by the mobile team at Square Enix Montreal, led by head of studio Patrick Naud, who tells GamesIndustry.biz that Nintendo’s determined push into mobile further validates what the Japanese publisher has already been doing for more than half a decade now.
Naud goes on to observe that Nintendo’s efforts also illustrate what Square Enix has long since been exploring with its biggest properties: that these brands can help encourage more core players to investigate the gaming possibilities afforded by smart devices.
“Games like Mario will open the road for other big console IPs and get more core players to give mobile a chance,” he says. “Sadly, mobile doesn’t have the best image for some gamers – and I understand why. I’m one of those guys who plays both console and mobile, but you need to find positives that bring you to mobile and ideally open up your mind to playing more mobile games.
“I hope that Mario did this. It’s sad to see so much negative press around it, particularly around the business model because I feel it’s a clever way to have people try the game first.”
“It’s sad to see so much negative press around Super Mario Run, particularly around the business model because I feel it’s a clever way to have people try the game first”
The backlash against Super Mario Run’s £7.99 price point, prompting scores of one-star reviews when the game launched, seemed baffling to many in the industry – myself included. While it’s undeniably more expensive than most premium games on the App Store, Square Enix had charged more than double that for mobile games. A casual glance through the firm’s catalogue shows ports of the early Final Fantasy games to range from £7.99 for FFII to a whopping £20.49 for FFIX. And its mobile business certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered. Why shouldn’t Nintendo charge that amount for its most valuable of IP?
Naud agrees, adding: “And I’d argue they’ve crafted a new epic Nintendo-like experience specifically for mobile. It’s Mario, and yes it’s inspired by the old Mario games, but there are new rules, new ways to play. In terms of level design and the way you play the game, it’s completely different to anything you’ve seen. You’ve got all the brains at Nintendo finding a way to play a Mario game on a phone, and it works, and it’s deep, it has the depth of all the Mario games. So yeah, it’s potentially worth more than what we usually pay.”
Now deep withing the rabbit hole of mobile pricing, the conversation turns to questioning why so many mobile users are less than keen on investing in quality games for their device. As Naud points out, people have been accustomed to paying £40 or more for new console game for decades, and yet they remain reluctant to spend far less on a mobile game? Why?
“When you go on your phone and you buy a game, you go to the app store, not the games store. They’re presented to people as an app. Apps are free”
“One key thing is mindset,” he suggests. “When you go on your phone and you buy a game, you go to the app store, not the games store. People who are willing to pay £15 for a game on Steam are struggling to pay a couple of quid for on mobile, sometimes for the same game. But what’s the difference? It’s because they’re presented to people as an app. Apps are free.
“We still need great games to push other great games. Whenever you have really good mobile titles, people go back to playing on their phones and realise there is some quality content on there. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re going to keep making great games, hoping that it encourages other studios to celebrate doing the same. If people start demanding better experiences, or raising their standards of what they expect to play, the market can evolve and we’ll have more premium games.”
That’s no small challenge to overcome. In addition to difficulties convincing players to actually pay for their mobile games, there is then the increasingly common expectation that games will be updated and supported for months, if not years to come – and for free. British indie Ustwo Games faced backlash of its own when it dared to charge £1.49 for the expansion to Monument Valley – a high-quality add-on that essentially doubled the game’s content.
But is kowtowing to this attitude, lowering prices to what mobile users expect rather than what publishers would rather charge actually harmful? The Go games Naud and his team have produced are all critical smash hits, so does selling them for less than a fiver not undervalue the work that goes into them?
“The exercise of distilling a brand down to its core essence and making a minimalist game out of it – that’s our big challenge”
“Yeah,” Naud acknowledges. “We could sell it higher, but if the market’s not ready for it… we need to be clever about it, crafting the proper experience and the proper amount of content for the price.
“There’s room for high-quality mobile games and they don’t need to be free-to-play.”
It’s easy to argue that this is why Square Enix, or indeed any other company, turns to ports of earlier releases or scaled-back takes on gameplay such as the Go series when bringing their big console IPs to mobile. Developing more comprehensive titles in the face of such resistance to invest must seem daunting and highly impractical. Square has, of course, dabbled in this with the release of Deus Ex: The Fall – a four to five-hour title that offers almost an identical experience to Human Revolution – but Naud says it is more to do with discerning between what console players think they want on mobile, and what they would actually enjoy.
“I’d argue that people do want to play console games on the go, but they won’t play the same type of experience,” he says. “People that are playing console games or even PC games are seated in their living room, with their nice couch, 7.1 surround sound, 60-inch TV – they’re going to play in a different way than if they were just going to play a five-minute session. So they might not play exactly the same game. That’s why I love the Switch, because it might be the middle ground that finally solves that.
“I assume most of the console players right now are also playing on mobile, but they’re really not playing the same type of experience because they’re not playing it at the same time. If you were to go from playing a first-person shooter on your TV – with that perfect set-up and your super-reactive controllers – to playing a similar game with a thumbstick on a touch screen… it will never be the same experience. Hence why we’re trying to craft experiences that are very much dedicated for mobile audiences and mobile phones.”
Instead, Naud says the key is to “create an experience specifically crafted for mobile” taking into account how smartphone owners interact with their device, their play habits, their usage and so on. In addition to his earlier example of Super Mario Run – offering the depth of a core Mario platformer with a one-touch control system designed for smart devices – he offers Hitman as further proof of how console IP can be re-appropriated for mobile.
Deus Ex Go is the third example of Square Enix Montreal taking a console franchise and distilling its core elements to a mobile-appropriate experience
So far, Square Enix Montreal has taken two approaches with IO Interactive’s flagship IP. Hitman Go focuses on the slow, strategic aspect of planning your kills and utilising any opportunities that present themselves. Hitman Sniper, meanwhile, takes the sniping element along with the sense of puppeteering, manipulating events from afar to set up better kills.
While the latter was partly borne from the popularity of the Hitman: Sniper Challenge digital title that preceded Absolution, Naud reveals the concept also stemmed from the desire to create a new entry in the series “without the constraints of moving in the world”.
“Half the players on Hitman Go, Lara Croft Go and Deus Ex Go discovered the game through the App Store”
“The biggest challenge when playing on your phone is navigation,” he says. “For Hitman, this was by far the smartest way to do it. And we’re still working on Sniper, we’re still updating the game on a regular basis and it’s been a – maybe not as big a critical success as the Go series, but on the financial side it’s been very successful.”
But it’s the Go series that, for Naud, really demonstrates the benefit of bringing blockbuster console IP to mobile devices: introducing the brands to a new audience.
“Half the players on Hitman Go, Lara Croft Go and Deus Ex Go discovered the game through the App Store,” he said. “Regardless of whether they were already fans or not, that’s how they discovered them. They got to them because they were recommended by Apple, or their friends. We actually have way more mainstream players for the Go games than Hitman players.
“Any time we do a Go game, it needs to be a different take [on the series], it needs to feel like the original, big console IP but with its own personality. All the critical acclaim made it clear that we’ve succeeded for a third consecutive time.
“The art direction of all three games is completely different and yet the gameplay is somewhat similar. You understand the rules, you don’t need big tutorials, it’s not that complex. For us, the exercise of distilling a brand down to its core essence and making a minimalist game out of it – that’s our big challenge.”
To date, Square Enix Montreal has only been granted access to Western and former Eidos franchises: Hitman, Tomb Raider, Deus Ex. With Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and even Kingdom Hearts already establishing a foothold on mobile, could we see these Eastern IP receive the Go treatment?
“We’ll see,” says Naud. “Even if anything was in development, I couldn’t say anything – you know that. But we’re constantly thinking about what we could do next, what kind of projects we can work on, what we’ve learned from the Go games that can potentially take us in a new direction.”
The social network has rolled out a feature that allows users to play hugely popular games such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders, the company’s latest attempt to get users spend more time on its messaging app.
The new feature, initially rolled out in 30 countries with 17 games, will be available on the latest versions of iOS and Android operating systems.
Facebook made Messenger a standalone app in 2014, a move that initially irked many users. The app, however, gained popularity after the company added a host of features to it.
The social network has also added instant video and payment facilities to the app.
Facebook boasts of having more than one billion users for its messaging app, making it one top three apps in the world.
Its main Facebook app is the most popular, followed by Messenger and WhatsApp, the messaging service it bought in 2014.
There’s something quite noble about Phil Larsen, Luke Muscat and Hugh Walters, and their reasons for turning their collective backs on Halfbrick.
The trio had been partly responsible for some of the biggest games in the smartphone space, including Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, but they felt they had nothing left to learn working at the developer, so took the gamble to go it alone.
“There weren’t too many more challenges, and the challenge of starting something new and being small and agile seemed like a smart idea,” says Phil Larsen, who is the MD at the studio. “And we are all basically in our early 30s, and we thought that maybe we wouldn’t get another chance. So we decided to go for it.”
The team left Halfbrick at the start of 2015 and attended GDC with “no money, no game, no nothing”. Although Larsen felt the newly formed team, named Prettygreat, had the capacity to pull in some big investors, they instead decided to aim a little lower, and accept funding from the founders of Crossy Road makers Hipster Whale.
“Matt [Hall] and Andy [Sum], being so successful with Crossy Road at the time, wanted to put some investment into other studios, and they were the perfect fit for us,” Larsen explains. “They were other developers who understand what we do, they trust in us as a team because we’ve done it all before, and it just helped us get everything off the ground. It has basically been the best possible decision we could have made.”
Prettygreat has only been going for 18 months, but it’s already created two games, with a third deep in development. The firm initially made the modestly popular smartphone title Landsliders, a casual collect ’em up project that it managed to pull together in just four months.
“Although we’d worked together before, working on our first game is always going to be tricky, you’ll be understanding each other and finding a new approach,” Larsen explains. “The way we did that was to try and create something a little bit unique, a bit weird, with some control innovation… as a game, it was profitable, which is good. It wasn’t the mega hit of the year or anything like that, it wouldn’t have reached any Top Ten charts in terms of downloads, but we made that game in four months, and we supported it for six months after launch, which we wouldn’t have done if there wasn’t profit to be made. The game has about 5m downloads so far, which is not bad. We’ve come from a place where 200m or 300m downloads were the norm, so we’re scaling back, which is fine. But Landsliders is a first game that says: ‘hey, this is what we can do. Make a game fast and make it successful’.”
It may seem like a rapid turnaround, but Prettygreat managed to outpace that with its second game, Slide the Shakes, which was designed and released in just six weeks.
“Basically, we had about three weeks left at the end of last year, because we’d done everything for Land Sliders. So we just decided to make a game. It also made a profit and had 3 or 4m downloads already. That was also a game where we understood its scope and potential, so we invested the appropriate amount of time – which was six weeks, but I think our quality level for that was quite high.
“We are game strategy agnostic, for want of a better way of expressing that. We are not sitting here saying we’re going to make triple-A games on mobile, or make six months projects every time. We are going to pick projects that we like and we are going to develop it to the level that we think it will be successful – and if that means it is six weeks, fine, if it is six months, which is our current project, then we will do that. We just want to make all sorts of crazy ideas. We don’t have any specific business model or genre.”
The Prettygreat team seem to know a thing or two about building sustainable smartphone games, which is difficult in a market where discoverability is difficult and the competition is plentiful. Even some of the world’s biggest mobile developers struggle to enjoy repeat success in this space. It’s a fact that’s not lost on Larsen, but he says if developers are smart, plan carefully and make sure the projects are in tune with the team’s talents, then success is not necessarily that hard to come by.
“A lot of people talk about how competitive it is, which is true. And they talk about how hard it is to make a whole bunch of money, which is true. But a misconception that a lot of people have is that you have to be making Clash Royale money, or you need to be spending loads of money, or you need to take years making the games,” Larsen begins.
“There is a lot of competing factors as to what makes a business successful. For a while it was Angry Birds, and building a brand, and merchandise. Then it was all about free-to-play. We have been through all of that at Halfbrick. Our perspective is, it is competitive but you need to pick the right business model for your team, and you need to pick the right approach for you. With three dudes at the start of a company, we weren’t saying: ‘Let’s do a Candy Crush and make $1m a day.’ No. We will pick something that we know we can get out there in a short amount of time, know generally what monetisation trends that are happening, and what is the easiest way of getting some revenue going for our games.
“Yes it is hard, but it is not impossible. A lot of people say it’s impossible, but no, you just need to be smart about how you approach it for your team specifically. If we had taken AUS$2m in funding when we started, or attacked it in a bigger way, then people would be expecting us to make a Candy Crush. But we didn’t want to do that.
“Our biggest strength as a company is scoping products right, and making them for the right people at the right time. It is very easy for an indie team to say mobile is hard, but that’s possibly because they’ve spent 18 months making the game – that might be hard to recoup as an investment. We would sooner spend four months on a game.
“Having a team that works together really well, and approaching it with a clear focus, then you can make money. We haven’t made millions of dollars yet, but that’s ok, you don’t need millions to pay three people.”
Prettygreat’s next product is currently not announced, although Larsen says it is an online multiplayer project that will be unveiled soon. This title has a much bigger scope and has already been in the works longer than its previous projects. However, Larsen is reluctant to suggest the team will continue to make bigger, more ambitious projects. He tells us that the following game could take six weeks again, or four months.
Yet don’t take this to mean there is a lack of ambition on the part of the former Fruit Ninja makers.
Larsen concludes: “I don’t want to be perceived as just three guys making stuff for the hell of it, and it’s all crazy and whatever happens, happens. That’s true to an extent, and day-to-day things are very fun and casual. But we are very serious about success financially, and our reputation is very high and we want to keep that going. The path we take is sometimes a bit unconventional, and it doesn’t necessarily have a simple six month or 12 month goal, which is what the bigger investors want to see. But we still have our eyes on the prize. We are probably not going to become a 100-person studio anytime soon, but the idea that we can create some of the biggest games in mobile and strategically scale to support them, then that’s fine. If that happens, then we will make that happen.
“We have come from a place where we were working on Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, which were some of the biggest mobile games ever for a few years. We are not strangers to that environment. We haven’t started a studio to figure out how to do mobile, we absolutely already know how to do that. We’ve been through the highs and lows of some of the biggest things out there. We know what to expect and we are definitely aiming for it, but we are not going to compromise quality or our studio culture to get there.”
Sony Corp plans to extend content for its dedicated virtual-reality (VR) headset into non-gaming areas such as TV and film, and has no plans to join the burgeoning market for smartphone-based headsets, its gaming division chief said.
Andrew House, Sony Interactive Entertainment Inc’s chief executive, said in an interview that he was already in talks with media production companies to explore possibilities for the PlayStation VR headset, due for release on Oct. 13.
“We are talking about years into the future, but these are interesting conversations to start having now,” House said.
House’s gaming division has been one of Sony’s main sources of profit in recent years as sales of TV sets and other once-core electronics goods decline in the face of price competition.
As smartphone gaming now encroaches on the console market, Sony has opted to seek growth through innovations such as VR. However, analysts have said non-gaming content is necessary to broaden the appeal – and profitability – of VR.
Sony’s VR headset works in conjunction with its PlayStation 4 games console and will retail at a price lower than Facebook Inc’s Oculus Rift and HTC Corp’s Vive headsets that require more expensive personal computers to run.
But smartphone-powered headsets will be far cheaper and more portable because they use the smartphone screen as the display.
There are well over 100 smartphone-based VR headsets from 65 developers already on the market, according to Lux Research. Alphabet Inc’s Google will add to that number with its Daydream VR platform that works with its Android mobile operating system.
Sony’s House argued that smartphones would not be capable of achieving the highest quality VR experience.
“We are focused on great gaming VR experiences,” he said. “I haven’t seen a cellphone or mobile-based VR experience that really gets our content teams excited.”
House said, beyond gaming, Sony is looking into TV and film and will also concentrate on seeking “ways of bringing much more static experiences to life” in areas such as museums and planetariums.
Sony has said it is working with more than 230 developers globally, and expects over 50 titles by the end of the year, include non-gaming content such as cartoons and music, karaoke and landscape videos.
Nvidia might be getting ready to launch a new Shield Android TV console later this year.
According to a filing to the FCC made public, Nvidia has applied for permission to flog a new console with a model number P2897. Obviously the rest of the filing is time secret but really the only thing that can fit the bill is a new Shield.
Listed under the labeling portion, we see that the device is rectangular and that the console features 802.11ac WiFi. A new shield remote and Controller device also went through the FCC last week.
Since all this is happening at once it seems likely that the new Shield Android TV will be in the shops sometime in autumn. However, Nvidia has applied and obtained FCC approval for things before and we never saw any product in the shops. An updated Shield Tablet went through the FCC and we are still waiting for it to appear.
All this guessing means that it is unclear if the new Shield TV is something new or radical or just a few updated bits stuck inside the existing box. It is also unknown whether Nvidia will launch a new hardware design for the Shield TV or simply stick updated components inside its existing package.
From the advent of what we might consider modern game consoles in the 1980s through to the point when standard budgets for individual games topped $10 million took around 25 years. Budgets spiked significantly when the PlayStation shifted the industry from 2D to 3D, but that merely drove them from six to seven figures; it wasn’t until the last generation, with Xbox 360 and PS3, that $10 million became the baseline for developing a AAA game.
From the advent of modern smartphones, in mid-2007, less than a decade has passed; so when Kabam CEO Kevin Chou talks about budgets of over $10 million for mobile games, and easily twice that when launch marketing costs are taken into account, it’s a sign of how quickly the world has accelerated.
Only a few years ago, mobile was the platform recommended to anyone starting out in game development; it was a new, exciting and fertile land waiting to be discovered by anyone with a smartphone, a copy of Xcode and a flash of genius. The very lure of mobile was that it was fast, it was cheap and it had no gatekeepers; you could prototype an idea, try it out in the marketplace, and either discard it or iterate upon it in a matter of weeks or months, even with a tiny indie team.
It would be wrong to imply that there’s no room in the mobile space for small teams and indies any more – an inspired game and a bolt of astonishing luck could still create a cultural phenomenon and a smash hit for something developed on a shoestring budget. Short of winning the development lottery in this way, though, it’s pretty clear that the big opportunities for smaller developers on mobile aren’t just shrinking; they’re actually gone entirely.
What Chou is saying merely reiterates what’s been clear to those watching the industry carefully for the past few years. Mobile games have become an enormous business, but most of the activity in the sector is no longer focused on game development, per se; it’s an incredibly marketing led business. The games that dominate mobile in 2016 are, with the notable exception of Pokemon Go, the same games that dominated 2015 and 2014. They’ve been updated somewhat and are constantly tweaking their formulas based on the data fed back from the playerbase, but the real efforts that drive consistent chart-toppers like Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga are marketing led – and very, very expensive marketing at that.
Indeed, while Chou’s comments on development budgets may seem intimidating to an indie creator, they’re the part of his message that deserves to be taken with a pinch of salt. Sure, moving to 3D has boosted development costs in mobile, but high quality 3D is not a hard and fast requirement for a successful game – and his claim that mobile games will be running with a graphical quality comparable to today’s home console titles within two years is pure fantasy (and not even desirable, were it possible; any game attempting such graphical quality will crucify its own retention statistics by being an unforgivable battery hog). Mobile development is unquestionably more expensive than it has been in the past and I don’t doubt Kabam’s budget estimations – they’re in line with what I’ve heard from others in the mobile sector recently – but this level of budget is still a nice-to-have, not a must-have.
In two areas, though, budget is non-negotiable. The first is network services. The reality is that even if a small independent developer came along tomorrow with a Pokemon Go beating game (which won’t happen, because Pokemon Go’s primary strength is in its license, but humour me anyway), the game wouldn’t survive a month. Either the game wouldn’t scale to match its audience, and would abruptly fall over and lose all market momentum; or it would scale, but the bills for the cloud services used in the process would reach unsustainable levels before the revenues from players actually started to roll in. Without good financial backing and the ability to sustain some high up-front costs, a runaway hit could be more likely to bankrupt its creator than a mediocre success.
The second area in which budget is non-negotiable, or rapidly becoming that way, is the aforementioned marketing. Chou suggested that Kabam is putting around $10 million in marketing behind its launches, which is a huge figure that’s still dwarfed by the amount big players such as Supercell and King are spending on “player acquisition” (which is just another way of saying marketing, in mobile game parlance) on their behemoth games. The sheer volume of TV, outdoor and online advertising space occupied by mobile games dwarfs the marketing for even the biggest console games, for the simple reason that the equation is different. Mobile game operators know that their existence relies on acquiring lots of players (which costs marketing money), holding on to as many of them as possible for as long as possible, and ultimately making more money out of each player than it cost to acquire them.
As the mobile market has grown, the cost of getting a player to try your game (Cost Per Acquisition, CPA) has risen enormously. That’s a cost that’s right there from day one of a mobile game’s existence; if you don’t have an acquisition strategy, which means expensive, high-profile advertising, you don’t have a mobile game with any chance of commercial success. Far, far more than any boost to development budgets, that’s what’s locking small teams and indies out of the mobile space. There are workarounds to some degree – like getting someone at Apple to love your game and feature it on the App Store frontpage, for example – but they’re a million to one shot.
It is, bluntly, long past time that we called time on the romantic myth of the indie mobile developer. If you’re an indie with good skills and a great idea, you’re far better off peddling that idea elsewhere. PC remains fertile ground for indie developers, of course, but one of the wonderful things that mobile has done for game development is the role it’s played in forcing console platform holders to open up to indies. If you’re talented and creative, getting access to a console development kit has never been easier or cheaper – in some cases, such as Microsoft’s ID@Xbox program, platform holders actually give dev kits away for free to just about anyone who wants one. It’s a far, far cry from the walled gardens of only a few years ago.
At first glance, mobile still looks like a more open platform than console (or even perhaps than PC, where Steam and its dubious Greenlight program act as de facto gatekeepers); everyone has a smartphone, the development tools to make games on them are free and anyone can upload a game to the App Store or the Play Store with ease. In reality, though, the opportunities for a small studio to succeed on mobile have narrowed rapidly to the point of nothingness, while opportunities on PC and on traditionally more “closed” platforms have boomed. Short of finding someone with a genuinely amazing, eye-opening idea for a mobile title, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend mobile development to any indie studio in 2016.
The wheel may yet turn again. Mobile game audiences, if nothing else, are still very new and very fickle; their tastes and desires may well shift, and more commercially viable niches may grow within the mobile space. As these devices get more powerful and capable, they’ll enable new experiences and consumers may come to demand more diversity from their gaming. For now, though, mobile has gone the way of console games around a decade ago; rising costs and an escalating arms race in marketing have killed, or are killing, the low-cost end of the market entirely. Unless you’ve got millions you don’t mind losing on a risky gamble, consider the mobile space closed to new entrants for the time being.
According to leaked FCC documentation, it appears that Nvidia has decided to cancel its new Shield Tablet, that was earlier spotted in the in the FCC filing.
According to a leaked document from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) database, dated August 1st and spotted by Androidpolice.com, Nvidia has decided to cancel the tablet “for business reasons”.
The earlier rumored Shield Tablet refresh, which was spotted at FCC, packed some impressive specifications, including an 8-inch 1920×1200 resolution screen, faster Tegra X1 SoC, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage.
The most probable reason is the decline in tablet sales and Nvidia’s focus on cars.
Hopefully, this doesn’t mean that we won’t see any more tablets or similar devices from Nvidia in future but not the new Shield Tablet.
Not so long ago it was impossible to check up on your ex without getting a Farmville invite, but since then it seems that gaming has moved away from Facebook and onto mobile phones. Speak to the Facebook games team though, and they’ll tell you that Facebook is a bigger part of the gaming industry than ever.
“To answer the broad question of ‘Where is Facebook Games today?’ the right answer is today we’re everywhere. When I say we’re everywhere what I mean is we work with developers on just about any system that they’re on. They’re on mobile devices, PCs, desktops, Macs, whatever it’s going to be, consoles as well,” says director of global games partnerships Leo Olebe, a gaming veteran who’s worked in marketing for BioWare, Kabam, Zynga and more.
“We have a very strong and overall healthy gaming business. There’s a lot of people that are participating in the Facebook Games ecosystem as a whole and we’re just really passionate about making sure that people have the power to share the stuff that they love.”
He points particularly to Facebook’s recent work with Riot and League Of Legends and the simple ability to log into your PlayStation 4 with Facebook and share screenshots and video directly to your Facebook news feed.
League Of Legends saw 4 million players connect their League of Legends account to their Facebook accounts, which resulted in 15 million new friend connections.
“Yes, we have a really incredible and thriving developer and publisher community that’s on Facebook, people playing all sorts of games from Candy Crush to social casino games but then also participating through the rest of the ecosystem as well,” Olebe says.
Facebook also shared some stats with GamesIndustry.biz: over 550 million people play games that are connected with Facebook every month on desktop, mobile and console and more than 30 million people have connected their Facebook account to either PSN or Xbox Live. Of course, Facebook is also the owner of virtual reality pioneers, Oculus VR.
With Facebook Games Arcade, the company is looking at finding new ways for people to discover and access games when they’re using Facebook on desktops. The company pointed out that users currently can choose from over 500 games including Clash of Kings, Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff and Angry Birds Friends to name but a few.
On the development side, it says developers earned over $2.5 billion on Facebook’s web platform in 2015 and 15 per cent of time spent on Facebook.com is gaming.
“What we’ve done is we’ve become even more sophisticated about how to really think about the 1.6 billion people that are on Facebook. What I mean by more sophisticated is we’ve developed a whole suite of products that developers can use to really understand the people who are playing their games and loving their games. Whether that’s Facebook Login and friend finding, analytics, sharing products, a lot of people use our mobile app install ads to do user acquisition, [so] we have audience network tools,” explains Olebe.
“The most sophisticated publishers and developers out there truly understand that Facebook is a global platform”
“There’s no one thing that everybody has to use but there’s a lot of different things that are valuable to different publishers and different developers in different ways so we really wanted to adapt all our platform products to be flexible as their businesses change as well.”
Calvin Grunewald, engineering manager for games at Facebook elaborates:
“One of the goals from an engineering team perspective is that we want to let game developers build, grow and monetize their apps,” he says.
“It’s a really cool time to be a developer and it’s a really cool time to be working in the platform business just because you get to facilitate social connections on all of these platforms and developers are hungry for them.”
So with Facebook playing such a large role on console, PC and mobile what preconceptions do people still have about Facebook and games that are just downright wrong?
“If anything I think it’s that people still have this idea that Facebook’s place in the global games industry and business is somehow limited to games that you play on the web,” says Olebe.
“The most sophisticated publishers and developers out there truly understand that Facebook is a global platform and assists not only with user acquisition but also heavily with sharing and engagement. We really operate everywhere that gamers are.
“There are misconceptions out there, but I think only because people have an old understanding of Facebook as social games on the web and haven’t spent as much time thinking about all the different avenues where we play.”
Nintendo has confirmed that its next-gen console, the Nintendo NX, will launch in March 2017.
Causing many to screw up their Christmas lists, the company told shareholders during its earnings call on Tuesday: “For our dedicated video game platform business, Nintendo is currently developing a gaming platform codenamed ‘NX’ with a brand-new concept. NX will be launched in March 2017 globally.”
Probably also causing some to cancel a trip to Los Angeles, Nintendo said that the NX will not be demonstrated at the upcoming E3 video games conference in June, despite speculation that Sony plans to show off its so-called PlayStation 4.5 console.
Nintendo’s keynote at the games show will focus instead on the next Legend of Zelda game, which will launch simultaneously on the Wii U and Nintendo NX in 2017. Rumour has it that Smash Bros 4, Splatoon and Super Mario Maker are all set to receive an NX makeover too.
A launch is now less than a year away, but we still don’t know much about the Nintendo NX, which Nintendo confirmed this week is just a codename for the incoming console. However, rumour claims that it will arrive as a hybrid between a home console and a mobile games console to sit alongside the New Nintendo 3DS.
Nintendo president and CEO Tatsumi Kimishima reiterated in December last year that the company is “not building the next version of Wii or Wii U” and that the device will be something “unique and different”.
News of the Nintendo NX’s launch date no doubt came as the firm looked to play down the fact that its profits fell 61 per cent year over year. Worked, didn’t it?
Last year, it was loose lips in the supply chain for console manufacture, now it’s seemingly loose lips within Nintendo’s own marketing department, but there’s a common thread to every leak or rumour that spreads about the platform holder these days – they all point to a late 2016 launch for the company’s next console platform, codenamed NX.
The numbers Nintendo was said to be targeting for NX that were floated around from sources at overseas parts suppliers checked out pretty well. Similarly, the more recent marketing leak has lent significant credibility by being on the money regarding the now-announced Pokemon Sun and Moon titles. It’s all still in the realm of rumour – a dedicated faker could have done the maths required to arrive at plausible manufacturing numbers for NX, just as we did when we dissected the claims; someone with knowledge of a soon-to-be-announced Pokemon game could have tacked on fake information about an upcoming console in order to troll gaming forums. It happens.
Besides, in the skeptics’ corner, there are some solid reasons to question the 2016 launch window. For a start, there’s the simple fact that we know nothing about NX. It’s already March, and all we know is a codename and some vague, hand-waving stuff about the console bridging home and handheld paradigms. That’s pretty much it. Assuming a November launch, that would leave Nintendo with a grand total of eight months to unveil, explain, market and promote an entire new console launch – even assuming that they were to start that process tomorrow. It’s not impossible, of course; that eight months would encompass E3, GamesCom, Tokyo Games Show and as many Nintendo Direct shows as the company wanted, so getting the message out there is plausible… But bear in mind that this is also the year in which Nintendo’s mobile gaming partnership with DeNA will bear its first fruit, and while I maintain that the company views that as a support to its console business, not a replacement for it, it’s reasonable to be dubious of the idea that it would willingly completely overshadow the marketing of those games with a blitz of promotion for a new console.
There’s also the simple matter of history to consider. Nintendo has never, as far as I can recall or uncover, announced a console in the same calendar year that it released it. The pattern for its systems’ pre-launch promotion has been fairly consistent since the turn of the millennium; a slow build-up from the reveal of hardware to further details and the introduction of software, with a launch often as much as 18 months after the unveiling. Compressing that into eight months (or seven, or six) might be possible, but it would be totally outside the pattern of what Nintendo has done up until now with its consoles.
On the other hand, Nintendo is in a pretty unique situation right now. It has a new CEO who, although he’s essentially pledged to follow the path Iwata set the company upon, will also have his own way of doing things and his own vision for the firm. It also has an absolute albatross in the form of the Wii U, which has not been saved from commercial disaster even by successful, acclaimed games like Splatoon and Super Mario Maker – and, almost uniquely for the company, it faces giving the Wii U an early bath at the same time that its all-conquering handheld platform, the 3DS (which has done very well despite not matching sales of its predecessor, the DS) is also slowing down significantly. Nintendo does face entering 2016 without a particularly strong handheld or home console platform and only the 3DS’ installed base to keep things ticking over – which might be a significant impetus to speed things up on the introduction of something new.
Let’s think in more details about the factors that would be involved in launching the NX by the end of the year. It would absolutely have benefits; perhaps the most clear one is that it would prevent 2016 being a “wasted” holiday season for Nintendo. The flatlining Wii U and the rapidly slowing 3DS suggest that without the introduction of a new platform this year, holiday 2016 will likely be Nintendo’s worst for many years – arguably not something Kimishima will want on his report card so early in his tenure. A rapid build-up and launch for the NX would give the company a blow-out Christmas, since Nintendo platforms pretty much always do well at launch – and of course, this would also place NX in the window to receive a prettied-up port of the upcoming Zelda title for Wii U at the same time as the Wii U version itself launches, a mirror of the very successful strategy the company used for Twilight Princess across the GameCube and Wii a couple of hardware generations ago. Even if the game isn’t totally exclusive to NX, a Zelda game at launch would be an enormous boon for the new platform and a great way to ensure a solid holiday season.
It’s definitely a short period of time, though, and the window in which Nintendo can announce the console is probably quite limited. It’s highly unlikely that it would wait for E3 to unveil its plans; much as turning up with a brand new console to the show would be a very effective way to “win” E3, it’s probably more sensible to unveil some aspects of the device, at least, in a Nintendo event well ahead of the show. Indeed, if NX details aren’t revealed to some degree either this month or next, I suspect a 2016 launch can be said to be entirely off the cards – although I wouldn’t actually put money on that, since if we’re talking about reducing the pre-launch promotion window from 18 months to 8 or 7 months, why on earth not make it six, or five, or four?
In fact, it might be more instructive to think about that window in terms of how other devices manage it. Consoles are actually quite unusual in having a lengthy, protracted period where everyone is talking about them, everyone is showing off software for them, but nobody can buy them. Compare that to smartphones or tablets, which are generally available to buy within a matter of days or weeks after they’re first unveiled. That short lead time doesn’t seem to stop Apple’s devoted fans from camping out to buy a new iPhone; perhaps a short lead time for a console might actually spur fans to excitement, rather than denying the new system a build-up? If the NX console is really a complex concept that it takes people a while to get their head around, then perhaps that will be problematic – you don’t want to launch a device that hardly anyone actually understands yet – but if it’s merely an interesting twist on the familiar, then perhaps a short, intense few months of promotion is actually a marketing advantage over a year or more of drawn-out arguments regarding the merits of a still-vapourware device.
Whatever Nintendo actually plans for the NX, it will represent a very dramatic choice for the company. A 2016 launch will be an aggressive strategy that overturns its previous approach to console launches and suggests dramatic reforms under Kimishima’s guidance. Pushing its launch out into next year, though, will leave the company facing a bleak holiday season with an ailing, albeit still popular, handheld device and a home console that’s almost totally dead in the water – and even with the prospect of a Zelda swan song on the Wii U, that will be a bitter pill to swallow for Nintendo. The company is, in some regards, painted into a corner – no matter what it does next, it’ll require a very different Nintendo difference.
Nintendo’s finances took a dip in the company’s third quarter report for FY 2015 – sales stayed relatively stable with just 3.9 per cent shrinkage to 427.7 billion Yen ($3.5bn), but profits dropped by 32 per cent year-on-year to 40.5 billion Yen ($336m).
Although the bottom line failed to excite, plenty of familiar faces performed well for the publisher’s software arm, as well as a few new names. Top seller was Child friendly Wii U shooter Splatoon, shifting over four million units. Super Mario maker wasn’t far behind on 3.34 million, whilst Animal Crossing Happy Home Designer reached 2.93 million. Collectively the 3DS family sold 5.88 million units of hardware and 38.87 million games. The Wii U totalled 3.06 million consoles and 22.62 million pieces of software. 20.50 million Amiibo figures were sold, and approximately 21.50 million Amiibo cards.
Those eagerly awaiting news of either the new NX system or the company’s first smartphone game will be disappointed – neither was mentioned in the company’s forward looking statements. Instead, the publisher focused on relatively known quantities.
“For Nintendo 3DS, we will globally release a special edition hardware pre-installed with Pokémon title(s) from the original Pokémon series on February 27 which marks the 20th year since the original Pokémon series release,2 read the accompanying statement.
“Furthermore, Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and key titles from third-party publishers are scheduled for release. For Wii U, we will strive to maintain the attention level of Splatoon and Super Mario Maker, which are continuing to show steady sales, while introducing new titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD. Meanwhile, for Amiibo, we will continue to expand the product lineup in order to maintain momentum. At the same time, we will aim to further expand sales by offering new gaming experiences with the use of Amiibo. In addition, the first application for smart devices, Miitomo, is scheduled for release.”
The company has maintained its full year target of 35 billion Yen in profit.
Facebook has made the switch from Flash to HTML5 for playing video content on the social media website.
Facebook said in a blog post that it has changed to HTML5 for all video content in News Feed, Pages and the Facebook embedded video player.
“From development velocity to accessibility features, HTML5 offers a lot of benefits. Moving to HTML5 best enables us to continue to innovate quickly and at scale, given Facebook’s large size and complex needs,” said the firm’s front-end engineer Daniel Baulig.
“We are continuing to work together with Adobe to deliver a reliable and secure Flash experience for games on our platform, but have shipped the change for video to all browsers by default.”
The move will come as quite a blow for Adobe’s Flash platform, which has been used online for over 10 years. Flash Player, either as an app or plug-in for the browser, became an essential installation for anyone who wanted to see multimedia content or watch video online, but the need for it is slowly fading and Facebook’s decision to change could be the final nail in the coffin.
HTML5 is better as it can now support content such as video without the need for plug-ins like Flash, so many developers and online services have begun to switch to HTML5 for displaying video.
“Using web technologies allows us to tap into the excellent tooling that exists in browsers, among the open source community, and at Facebook in general. Not having to recompile code and being able to apply changes directly in the browser allow us to move fast,” explained Baulig.
Google stopped supporting Flash in its Chrome browser earlier this year, while Amazon recently declared a ban on Flash in advertising content on its site. Facebook seems pretty happy with the move to HTML as it will also improve video performance in general on the site.
“Not only did launching the HTML5 video player make development easier, but it improved the video experience for people on Facebook. Videos now start playing faster. People like, comment and share more on videos after the switch, and users have been reporting fewer bugs,” Baulig added.
“People appear to be spending more time with video because of it. Videos are an enriching way to connect with the world around you, and we’re happy we could make the Facebook video experience better.”
The Nintendo NX may surpass the Wii U’s lifetime installed base in its first year on shelves. According to a Digi-Times report, Nintendo’s upstream component suppliers are expecting to provide the company with enough hardware to ship 10-12 million units in 2016.
That would mark a rebound after the Wii U, which through September had put up lifetime sales of a little under 11 million. However, Nintendo may be expecting even more from its next platform; in July, Digi-Times reported that the company was planning to ship 20 million Nintendo NX systems globally in 2016.
The report states that Foxconn Electronics will manufacture the NX, with mass production beginning at the end of the first quarter. Foxconn Technology, Macronix, Pixart Imaging, Coxon Precise Industrial, Nishoku Technology, Delta Technology, Lingsen Precision Industries and Jentech are expected to be supplying components for the NX.
Activision Blizzard Inc has launched a film and TV studio to develop original content based on its popular videogame franchises such as “Call of Duty” and “Hearthstone” in its latest push to expand beyond console-based games.
Activision Blizzard Studios’ first production will be “Skylanders Academy,” an animated TV series based on the company’s toys-to-life videogame “Skylanders”, the company said in a statement.
A “near-term” project for the videogame maker’s film and TV studio will be to develop a movie franchise based on the hugely successful military first-person shooter “Call of Duty”.
The company said it would also consider adapting the franchise for TV.
“Warcraft”, Activision’s other well-known game franchise, is already being made into a film through a partnership between its Blizzard Entertainment unit and Legendary Pictures, and is slated for a 2016 release.
Activision said last month it would start an e-sports division to tap into the fast-growing competitive gaming market, where gamers play against each other for prize money.
Earlier this week, Activision agreed to buy “Candy Crush” creator King Digital Entertainment Plc for $5.9 billion to sharpen its focus on mobile games.
Activision’s highly anticipated “Call of Duty: Black Ops III” game went on sale earlier on Friday.