The company will make existing and new 4K products the focus of its presentation at the event as it gears up for a major push of the technology in 2014, Phil Molyneux, president of Sony Electronics, told reporters in a recent briefing in San Francisco.
“We’re the only company in the world that allows you to shoot 4K content, edit it on our computers, play it back on our 4K TVs via HDMI,” he said. “We’ve built that eco-system out together with Vegas Pro so that people can come to Sony and have that unique experience.”
Sony is the only consumer electronics company to touch so many areas of the broadcast, movie and TV content chain. Through Sony Pictures it makes movies, its television arm produces several popular TV shows, it produces video hardware from professional through consumer for capturing content, and sells the televisions used to watch it.
But that doesn’t necessarily make Sony into a winner when it comes to 4K. In the portable audio market, it managed to cede the lead to Apple’s iPod despite having led the market for years with the Walkman, beaten Apple to market with a digital music player and had the backing of Sony Music.
Sony has spent the last few years trying to learn from those mistakes and says it’s in a much stronger position now.
What’s clear with 4K is that consumer demand is increasing, said Molyneux.
“When you see HD and you compare it with 4K, it’s a remarkable difference,” he said. “So you have to see it to really engage and believe it. If you look at the forecasted adoption rate of 4K over the last year, every three months the take-up rate on these reports have gone up and up and up.”
He attributed the rising consumer demand to falling prices of 4K televisions.
The holiday season may have started with a lump of coal in the stockings of EA and Ubisoft. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter sent a note to investors in advance of this week’s November NPD US retail sales announcements, saying that software sales for the month would be down 13 percent due to “far weaker-than-expected debuts” for the heavily hyped Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed IV.
Those games’ troubles are the primary reasons Pachter believes console and handheld sales were down 13 percent to $1.25 billion, but they weren’t the only ones. Call of Duty: Ghosts sales were also lower than expected due to unflattering reviews, Pachter said, and the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launches may have also put a damper on the software sales figures. Pachter reasoned that consumers either devoted their spending money to next-generation hardware launches, or decided to forgo purchasing current-gen versions of titles until they could find one of the supply constrained next-gen systems.
Speaking of the next-gen consoles, Pachter gave a considerable edge to Sony in the November sales race. He believes the PS4 sold 1.25 million units in the US during November, compared to 750,000 for the Xbox One. The PS4 launched November 15, while the Xbox One debuted November 22. The new arrivals also appear to have put a significant dent in the pre-existing competition, as Pachter predicted Wii U sales would be down 65 percent year-over-year, with Xbox 360 and PS3 sales down 44 percent and 28 percent, respectively.
The NPD Group is expected to announce its November US retail sales data this evening.
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 release of Grand Theft Auto Online, Rockstar has taken its blockbuster franchise in an ambitious new direction. The multiplayer world, complete with in-game economy, certainly has many of the hallmarks of a Free-2-Play title, but could GTA Online actually make it as a standalone F2P game?
Given the seismic shift the games industry has already made towards F2P, no one would be surprised if Rockstar made this next step. However, there is a lot a stake and creating a successful F2P isn’t simply a case of throwing in some in-app purchases and giving a £40 game away for free.
F2P is already established as the dominant business model for mobile and PC games. Reasons for this include the prevalence of micro-transactions and because these platforms make it relatively easy for publishers and developers to integrate analytics and use that data to make informed real-time game design changes to keep players engaged and increase retention. The transition onto console has been a slower burn – designing successful F2P games requires an understanding and skill set which isn’t necessarily native to publishers with a long heritage in designing games to ship in a box.
“Many F2P console games have come up short, offering a poor tutorial and on boarding process, plus a monetisation structure that is much closer to a used car sales man than an enjoyable experience that puts the control in the users’ hands”
As a result, many F2P console games have come up short, offering a poor tutorial and on boarding process, plus a monetisation structure that is much closer to a used car sales man than an enjoyable experience that puts the control in the users’ hands. However, the data capabilities of the Xbox One and PS4 means that F2P on console finally looks set to take off, with an impressive list of F2P titles already set for release including Little Big Planet, Planetside 2 and War Thunder.
To better understand the potential of console transition we thought we’d take a theoretical look at GTA Online as a standalone F2P title.
Our in-house design team applied GamesAnalytics’ proprietary evidenced based research methodology to benchmark key aspects of its game design against best practice F2P game design from over 80 titles.
Focusing on six main categories including Monetisation, Retention, Engagement and Virality and analysing 50 key criteria the team found unsurprisingly that GTA Online surpassed the best in genre score for Retention, Game Mechanics, Engagement and Game Overview, clearly reflecting the high quality of the game. However, if GTA Online was going F2P it would need to look at mechanics around Monetisation and Virality.
Based on these data findings, here are five recommendations to improve the F2P potential of GTA Online:
1. Improve the currency structure
Currently GTA Online has a single currency, this is fine when the game is not relying on this currency as a part of the monetisation, but for a true F2P game you would want to extend this to provide greater flexibility. Adding in a premium currency is generally the way of giving games more flexibility in delivering the F2P mechanic. Making the currency a part of the world so it feels natural is vital in making sure the monetisation doesn’t jar with the game surrounding.
There are a number of ways that people are encouraged to spend money both in the real and the virtual world. Especially for a game like GTA, it is vital that it feels natural and intuitive. Discounts and bundles are obvious incentives for getting people to invest in in-game economies, but rental and test drives are also a good way of letting players get a taste for the high life and incentivising them to keep grinding or splash the cash.
These ‘try before you buy’ mechanics are good ways of easing players onto the paying path while keeping the barrier low and the incentive high.
Giving players the ability to buy luxury vanity items using a premium currency is exactly the way you would expect Rockstar to monetise its players. The game has always been about getting rich quick and showing off the proceeds of your crimes. This is not about honest hard slog, so it’s fitting that players should be given a quick route to the high life through whatever means at their disposal. A successfully free-to-play GTA Online should also include consumables: things that the player will spend money on that give them a short term advantage or simply let them show off.
2. Introduce a VIP structure to fast track progress and reward members
“This is not about honest hard slog, so it’s fitting that players should be given a quick route to the high life through whatever means at their disposal”
There is no game that is more about being king of the hill than GTA, so a full VIP structure is essential. Imagine the retention value of being the only player that can drive around the hills of Los Santos in a purple Ferrari with gold trim.
VIP membership could offer:
Rank Point/Job Point boosts
Monthly $/Gold allowance
Access to premium clothes, vehicle paint jobs and vanity items
Special members store accessible through the iFruit with daily/weekly member offers
3. Utilise no lose gambling
We’ve already touched on the repetition which exists within GTA Online – completing mission after mission to build up your cash and accessory stockpiles. One alternative to a life of hard graft and long hours is gambling, an easy to implement F2P mechanic which fits with Rockstar’s vision and GTA’s ‘feel’. Mechanics such as magic boxes offer players a no lose gamble: spending some money guarantees something cool. There can be no better way of taking the easy route than making sure the odds are stacked.
4. Introduce a trading mechanism to help increase community aspects
If gambling isn’t your thing then a bit of business on the side can help you make it to the top. Trading in F2P games inevitably encourages a black market, but unlike other F2P games where there is a clear split between grind currency and premium currency, GTA Online F2P should allow this secondary market to exist.
Letting players trade whatever they want will encourage a free-form economy that will favour the adventurous, the ruthless and the downright corrupt. The mechanic will drive the economy and build player loyalty.
Players will buy and sell from each other, and using rare items it is also possible to use data analytics to monitor the price elasticity of items as players bid for certain items. Items can trade for 100x their original value in F2P games and can be useful to define pricing as well as delivering value and incentivising players.
5. Build in reward mechanics for better social sharing
GTA is such a well-known franchise, it pretty much sells itself. However, giving players rewards for inviting other players to join is a well-structured mechanism and can help to double your player base for little or no cost.
Giving players an incentive to invite is key, there would be nothing better than being able to pimp your friends by taking a cut of the money they spend as their due deserves for getting them in to the game in the first place.
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.
Take-Two Interactive Software has repurchased all of the Icahn Group’s stock, a deal worth $203.5 million and involving 12.02 million shares.
“This share repurchase reflects our confidence in the Company’s outlook for record results in fiscal 2014 and continued Non-GAAP profitability every year for the foreseeable future,” said Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick.
“With our ample cash and strong expected cash flow, we are able to pursue a variety of investment opportunities, including repurchasing our Company’s stock. On behalf of our board and management team, I would like to thank Brett, James and Sung for their support, dedication and service to our organisation. They leave Take-Two better positioned than ever for continued success.”
The move was funded by cash and cash equivalents on hand and Take-Two explained the move is “part of an ongoing strategy to buy back its shares.”
Take-Two and Icahn gave no reason for the sale of the shares, but as previously agreed, Icahn’s Brett Icahn, Jim Nelson, and SungHwan Cho and have resigned from the Take-Two board.
The Icahn Group is overseen by activist investor Carl Icahn and this year Forbes named him one of its 40 Highest-Earning hedge fund managers. In the past he’s tried to acquire Dell, Marvel Comics and owns a ten percent stake in Netflix.
[UPDATE]: Investors did not greet the news warmly, as Take-Two shares traded at twice their average volume and ended the trading day down 5.49 percent to $16.
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.”
Sony is looking to make $250 million worth of cuts in its entertainment business, including shifting movie investment to TV production and media networks, and reducing the output of Columbia Pictures.
The company’s largest investor has suggested Sony should consider selling-off parts of its business, but at a meeting of investors yesterday CEO Kaz Hirai made the case for keeping its entertainment divisions as one.
“I know that the whole of Sony is greater than the sum of its parts,” he said, as reported by Bloomberg. “Sony Entertainment is a core part of Sony and is crucial to our future growth.”
He pointed to the introduction of exclusive Sony content for the PlayStation 4 and the adoption of Blu-ray in the PS3 as examples of synergy in the business.
But according to CEO of the entertainment division Michael Lynton, “no cost is too sacred to cut”.
The business is currently looking at $150 million of overhead and operational efficiencies and $100 million of procurement savings, according to the report.
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.
ZTE said on Monday that it was preparing the device, and pointed to the first quarter as a probable date for its arrival. However, it gave no further details.
The company is better known in its home country of China as a low-price smartphone maker, but ZTE also has its eyes on the U.S. market, and wants to introduce more high-end phones while building up its brand recognition.
ZTE’s development of a smartwatch is no surprise, considering that many tech vendors are also coming out with rival devices. Samsung and Sony both have smartwatches on the market, at prices of $299 and $199, respectively. Apple has also long been rumored to be working on a watch.
The gadgets, however, still have some way to go before they catch on among consumers. Over 30 smartwatches are in development, according to research firm Gartner’s count, but the devices have yet to reach mass market appeal.
Current smartwatches are either priced too high, come in bulky designs, or don’t offer enough battery life, Gartner said in an October report. Vendors still need to offer a clear message about the advantages of owning a smartwatch.
In the year-end holiday shopping season, Gartner expects consumers to buy tablets over smartwatches. But over time, demand for the devices will grow, especially from health conscious users, the research firm predicted.
In the fitness and health segment, the wearable devices market is projected to reach US$5 billion in revenue by 2016, according to Gartner, and smartwatches will continue to remain “companion” devices to smartphones at least until 2017.
A few days ago AMD announced it would extend the Battlefield 4 bundle deal to all R9-series cards, but right now it’s starting to sound like President Obama telling Americans that none of them will lose their healthcare plans.
In theory all R9 cards could get the bundle, but AMD is saying that it is up to AIB partners to decide whether they will offer the game with all cards or just with some. It basically sounds like AIBs could offer pricier SKUs with the BF4 bundles and also plain cards with a discount. It is unclear how much the bundle would affect the retail price.
This is what AMD said to clarify the situation:
An email sent to press that provided details on AMD’s Battlefield 4 promotion was not clear and has led to some confusion in the marketplace. It suggested that all customers who purchased an AMD Radeon R9 series graphics card on or after November 13, 2013 would receive a complimentary copy of Battlefield 4. While all AMD Radeon R9 series cards are theoretically eligible for the promotion (which is administered by AMD’s channel partners), retailers and add-in-board partners ultimately decide which select AMD Radeon R9 SKUs will include a copy of BF4.
In addition, AMD made it clear that customers who purchased R9 cards before November 13 are not eligible for any retroactive bundle deal due to contractual agreements with EA/DICE. However, as a gesture of goodwill AMD plans to hand out 1,000 BF4 codes on social media, although the full details of the giveaway have not been announced yet.
Basically if you are interested in getting an R9 BF4 bundle, it’s probably best to wait for a few days or weeks and see what AMD channel partners plan to offer.
The PS4 and Xbox One are about to go on sale and both consoles are powered by custom AMD silicon. Analysts are expecting strong sales and AMD is bound to ship millions of Jaguar-based custom parts for Sony’s and Redmond’s latest consoles.
As a result, AMD is gaining market share in the x86 space. This is hardly surprising given the sheer volume of next-gen consoles that will be produced over the next few quarters, although AMD still lacks competitive x86 parts in the mid-range and high-end segments.
Mercury Research principal analyst Den McCarron told IDG that millions of new consoles will sell in the coming weeks, boosting AMD’s numbers in the process. Intel on the other hand still relies on shipments of PC and server parts, so the PC slump is taking its toll.
McCarron argues AMD’s long-term goal is to get outside the PC market. AMD is already seeing growth thanks to custom chips in the non-PC space. Meanwhile Intel is hoping to seize more tablet market share with Bay Trail parts. Neither AMD nor Intel have any smartphone at this point, although Intel is slowly getting there.
Intel ended Q3 with an 80.2 percent market share, down from 83.3 percent a year ago. AMD went up to 19.3 percent, up from 16.1 percent. However, in the PC space Intel actually gained share, while AMD’s share dropped from 16.1 to 15.8 percent.
AMD is unlikely to score big design wins for custom chips in the short run, but with emerging technologies like HSA its upcoming APU-based server parts and their custom derivatives could become a bit more interesting.
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.”
As evidenced by the 40-foot console constructed in a Vancouver parking lot recently, Microsoft expects Xbox One to be big. Microsoft Canada’s Xbox director of marketing Craig Flannagan put the November 22 launch into perspective.
“I’ve been here for the launch of Xbox 360. I was here for the launch of Kinect. This is far and away the biggest launch we’ve ever done,” Flannagan said. “It’s the most hardware we’ve ever produced. It’s the most we’ve ever pre-sold. We’re preselling a little over 2-to-1 from what we did with Xbox 360. The momentum on launch has been really good. And we didn’t have a 40-foot console at the launch of the 360, either.”
As for how Xbox One will fare against the PlayStation 4 and Wii U, Flannagan pointed to Xbox Live and the company’s focus on social integration as two differentiating factors that will give it the edge. He also said he was proud of the game lineup, saying Xbox One exclusives walked out of E3 with twice the awards of both competitors.
“Xbox One is going to start ahead, in terms of the experience we can deliver,” Flannagan said. “And because we’re built for the future, we’re going to stay ahead. I think there is not a better experience you can buy this holiday, and there will not be a time this generation where there’s a better experience you can buy than Xbox One…And it’s probably going to be a pretty long generation. We’re probably here for a while because we’re built for the future. This is a console that will last you, conservatively a decade, if I had to put a bet down today.”
The idea of a launch Xbox One lasting a decade brings to mind the Red Ring of Death and Microsoft’s notoriously unreliable Xbox 360 launch hardware. When asked if he’s heard consumers expressing concerns about the Xbox One’s durability, Flannagan said, “Not really.”
“We feel great about where the hardware is at right now,” Flanagan said. “Our yields are good. It’s allowing us to produce more consoles than we ever have for a launch. We feel great about how the hardware is performing.”
While Flannagan expects the hardware purchased this month to keep running years into the future, he doesn’t expect it to offer the same experience. Just as the Xbox One went through multiple different dashboards and overhauled feature sets over the course of the last eight years, so too will the Xbox One evolve.
“Much like 360, Xbox One’s not going to look a whole lot five years from now like it does on November 22, 2013. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but that’s kind of fun because we’re built for the future. We do have a connection; we can change what things look like and how it performs.”
Like all major companies, Electronic Arts from time to time has come under fire from pundits and consumers. In fact, earlier this year, the publisher won the Consumerist poll for “Worst Company in America” for the second straight year. Whether or not there’s any merit to that accusation, rather than simply shrug it off, EA says it’s listening and wants to do even better by its consumers.
In a recent interview with Kotaku, newly minted CEO Andrew Wilson and vice president of the Games Label, Patrick Soderlund, talked at length about making consumers more satisfied than they have been with EA in the last few years.
“There are lots of really big public companies that make a lot of money that are loved by their consumers,” Wilson acknowledged. “That’s because the consumers feel like they get value from that company in the investment in their dollars [and] time.”
To that end, Wilson would like his consumers to really feel like they, not EA, are getting the better end of the deal when they purchase any games from the publisher. “Any time we create something, if you’re asking for an investment from the consumer in dollars and time, make sure they feel like they’re stealing from you and that they are getting the best end of that deal and the rest will follow. And that will be our philosophy,” he continued.
Interestingly, Soderlund admitted that the Consumerist distinction really did give EA pause. The executives have been thinking about what it means and what the company can do to change perceptions around EA.
“We started thinking about how we don’t want to be viewed as the worst company in America. I personally don’t think we’ve ever been the worst company in America, but it says something. The consumers out there are telling us something. And we actually took it very seriously. This was before Andrew was the CEO. We and [EA chief operating officer] Peter Moore and a couple of other guys in the executive company got together to try to understand what caused people to say these things. And there were some things out there that…consumers told us they didn’t like. Online pass was one thing.”
It may sound easy, but one of the best things EA can do for its reputation is to make amazing game experiences. If consumers love the games, the rest should follow. Wilson noted that for as much as EA has tried to raise its own bar on quality, it’s still not enough.
“The demand and expectation on us are higher than they ever have been,” Wilson said. “We need a mechanism and a process which we can get to better games more quickly. If we can be faulted for anything, over the years, it’s kind of hanging on to ideas or concepts of games too long, driving too hard against them, spending too much to the point that we couldn’t invest in other opportunities and ideas. And a big part of what Patrick and [fellow top execs] Frank [Gibeau] and Lucy [Bradshaw] and I committed to is let’s drive a culture of innovation inside the company that actually starts a lot more stuff but at the same time kills a bunch more stuff before it gets to market so that we can give ourselves more short-term goals to get to that next innovative product.”
While EA is still trying to convince investors that profits are coming, its management ultimately sees the consumer perception and game quality issues as the most important to tackle. If it handles those problems with aplomb, the bottom line will take care of itself.
“…whether it’s DLC or something else, as long as we take the approach of being player-[d]riven and not driven by a short-term financial decision, players are telling us that Battlefield Premium is a good thing, because they’re buying it, they like it and they look at this and say, ‘Wow this is a great value proposition. I get four or five expansion packs and all these things for $50 that I can play over two years’ time. That’s worth something. Will Electronic Arts make money out of that? Yes, but will the consumers like it and want it? Yes they do. Wholeheartedly. I think that’s an approach where if we come at it from a consumer perspective and we do things that they tell us they want and we do that well, business will follow,” said Soderlund.