Blizzard Entertainment has asked for $8.5 million in damages from Bossland, a German company that makes and sells cheats and hacks for its most popular games.
This is the latest and probably final step in a legal complaint Blizzard filed in July 2016, which accused Bossland of copyright infringement and millions of dollars in lost sales, among other charges. Cheat software like Bossland’s Honorbuddy and Demonbuddy, Blizzard argued, ruins the experience of its products for other players.
According to Torrent Freak, Bossland’s attempt to have the case dismissed due to a lack of jurisdiction failed, after which it became unresponsive. It also failed to respond to a 24-hour ultimatum to respond from the court, and so Blizzard has filed a motion for default judgement.
The $8.5 million payment was calculated based on Blizzard’s sales projections for the infringing products. Bossland had previously admitted to selling 118,939 products to people in the United States since July 2013, of which Blizzard believes a minimum of 36% related to its games.
“In this case, Blizzard is only seeking the minimum statutory damages of $200 per infringement, for a total of $8,563,600.00,” the motion document stated. “While Blizzard would surely be entitled to seek a larger amount, Blizzard seeks only minimum statutory damages.
“Notably, $200 approximates the cost of a one-year license for the Bossland Hacks. So, it is very likely that Bossland actually received far more than $8 million in connection with its sale of the Bossland Hacks.”
Update: The court has granted Blizzard’s motion for default judgement, ordering Bossland to pay $8.56 million in damages.
That number was calculated based on 42,818 sales of Bossland’s products in the US. The court ruled that the German company should not be allowed to sell Honornuddy, Demonbuddy, Stormbuddy, Hearthbuddy and Watchover Tyrant in the country from now on, as well as any future products that exploit Blizzard’s games. Bossland will also have to pay $174,872 in attorneys’ fees.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt continues to pay off for CD Projekt. The Polish publisher today reported its financial results for calendar year 2016, and the hit 2015 role-playing game loomed large over another successful campaign for the company.
CD Projekt said its revenues “continued to be dominated by ongoing strong sales” of The Witcher 3 and its two expansions. While the base game and its first expansion debuted in 2015, the second and final expansion pack, Blood and Wine, arrived last May and helped drive revenues of 583.9 million PLN ($148.37 million). That was down almost 27 percent year-over-year, but still well beyond the company’s sales figures prior to 2015. Net profits were likewise down almost 27%, with the company posting a bottom line gain of 250.5 million PLN ($63.65 million).
The company also announced a new milestone for the Witcher franchise, saying the three games have now cumulatively topped 25 millions copies sold, a number that doesn’t include The Witcher 3 expansions packs. That suggests 2016 saw roughly 5 million copies sold over the 20 million reported in CD Projekt’s 2015 year-end financials.
Even if this year saw overall sales take a dip for CD Projekt, its GOG.com online retail storefront still managed to post its best year ever. The company reported GOG.com revenues of 133.5 million PLN ($33.92 million), up 15% year-over-year.
CD Projekt is currently testing its Gwent free-to-play card game in closed beta, and intends to open it up to the public this spring. It is also working on its next AAA game, Cyberpunk 2077, thought it has no release date as yet.
When the original Doom was released in 1993, its unprecedentedly realistic graphic violence fueled a moral panic among parents and educators. Over time, the game’s sprite-based gore has lost a bit of its impact, and that previous sentence likely sounds absurd.
Given what games have depicted in the nearly quarter century since Doom, that level of violence no longer shocking so much as it is quaint, perhaps even endearing. So when it came time for id Software to reboot the series with last year’s critically acclaimed remake of Doom, one of the things the studio had to consider was exactly how violent it should be, and to what end.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference last month, the Doom reboot’s executive producer and game director Marty Stratton and creative director Hugo Martin acknowledged that the context of the first Doom’s violence had changed greatly over the years. And while the original’s violence may have been seen as horrific and shocking, they wanted the reboot to skew closer to cartoonishly entertaining or, as they put it, less Saw and more Evil Dead 2.
“We were going for smiles, not shrieks,” Martin said, adding, “What we found with violence is that more actually makes it safer, I guess, or just more acceptable. It pushes it more into the fun zone. Because if it’s a slow trickle of blood out of a slit wrist, that’s Saw. That’s a little bit unsettling, and sort of a different type of horror. If it’s a comical fountain of Hawaiian Punch-looking blood out of someone’s head that you just shot off, that’s comic book. That’s cartoonish, and that’s what we wanted.”
“They’re demons,” Stratton said. “We don’t kill a single human in all of Doom. No cursing, no nudity. No killing of humans. We’re actually a pretty tame game when you think about it. I’ve played a lot of games where you just slaughter massive amounts of human beings. I think if we had to make some of the decisions we make about violence and the animations we do and if we were doing them to humans, we would have completely different attitudes when we go into those discussions. It’s fun to sit down in a meeting and think about all the ways it would be cool to rip apart a pinky demon or an imp. But if we had the same discussions about, ‘How am I going to rip this person in half?’ or rip his arm off and beat him over the head with it, it takes on a different connotation that I don’t know would be as fun.”
That balancing act between horror and comedy paid off for the reboot, but it was by no means the only line last year’s Doom had to straddle. There was also the question of what a modern Doom game would look like. The first two Doom games were fast-paced shooters, while the third was a much slower horror-tinged game where players had to choose between holding a gun or a flashlight at the ready. Neither really fit into the recent mold of AAA shooters, and the developers knew different people would have very different expectations for a Doom game in 2016.
As Stratton explained, “At that point, we went to, ‘What do we want? What do we think a Doom game should be moving forward?’As much as we always consider how the audience is going to react to the game–what they’re thinking, and what we think they want–back in the very beginning, it was, ‘What do we think Doom should be, and what elements of the game do we want to build the future of Doom on?’ And that’s really where we came back to Doom 1, Doom II, the action, the tone, the attitude, the personality, the character, the irreverence of it… those were all key words that we threw up on the board in those early days. And then mechanically, it was about the speed. It was about unbelievable guns, crazy demons, really being very honest about the fact that it was Doom. It was unapologetic early on, and we built from there.”
It helped that they had a recent example of how not to bring Doom into the current generation. Prior to the Doom reboot, id Software had been working on Doom 4, which Stratton said was a good game, but just didn’t feel like Doom. For one, it cast players as a member of a resistance army rather than a one-marine wrecking crew. It was also slower from a gameplay perspective, utilizing a cover-based system shared by numerous modern shooters designed to make the player feel vulnerable.
“None of us thought that the word ‘vulnerable’ belonged in a proper Doom game,” Martin said. “You should be the scariest thing in the level.”
Doom 4 wasn’t a complete write-off, however. The reboot’s glory kill system of over-the-top executions actually grew out of a Doom 4 feature, although Stratton said they made it “faster and snappier.”
Of course, not everything worked as well. At one point the team tried giving players a voice in their ears to help guide them through the game, a pretty standard first-person shooter device along the lines of Halo’s Cortana. Stratton said while the device works well for other franchises, it just didn’t feel right for Doom, so it was quickly scrapped.
“We didn’t force anything,” Stratton said. “If something didn’t feel like Doom, we got rid of it and tried something that would feel like Doom.”
That approach paid off well for the game’s single-player mode, but Stratton and Martin suggested they weren’t quite as thrilled with multiplayer. Both are proud of the multiplayer (which continues to be worked on) and confident they delivered a high quality experience with it, but they each had their misgivings about it. Stratton said if he could change one thing, it would have been to re-do the multiplayer progression system and give more enticing or better placed “hooks” to keep players coming back for game after game. Martin wished the team had messaged what the multiplayer would be a little more clearly, saying too many expected a pure arena shooter along the lines of Quake 3 Arena, when that was never the development team’s intent.
Those issues aside, it’s clear the pair feel the new wrinkles and changes they made to the classic Doom formula paid off more often than not.
“Lots worked,” Stratton said. “That’s probably the biggest point of pride for us. The game really connected with people. We always said we wanted to make something that was familiar to long-time fans, felt like Doom from a gameplay perspective and from a style and tone and attitude perspective. And I think we really accomplished that at a high level. And I think we made some new fans, which is always what you’re trying to do when you have a game that’s only had a few releases over the course of 25 years… You’re looking to bring new people into the genre, or into the brand, and I think we did that.”
Of all the various innovations we’ve seen in this console generation, it may be the business model changes that have the most lasting impact on the games industry. Though originally introduced in the back half of the previous generation, the notion of giving consumers “free” games on a monthly basis for continuing their subscription to console online services has become a standard part of the model in this hardware generation.
The degree to which this is expected, and to which the perceived quality of each month’s offerings is hotly debated, is a clear signal of how the value relationship between consumers and game software is changing. Now, within the next few months, both Microsoft and Sony will evolve that relationship even further, with services which aim to give consumers access to current-gen game software through a very different transaction model.
Microsoft was first out of the blocks with its announcement, revealing at the end of last month that a large library of software for the Xbox One will be made available for a $9.99 recurring monthly subscription. Sony’s version of the concept is similar in business terms, if dramatically different technologically; it’s going to start adding PS4 titles to PS Now, a game-streaming service which currently offers a huge library of PS3 games for a $20 recurring subscription (or $45 for three months, which gets it a little closer to Microsoft’s pricing).
The goal being pursued by both firms is fairly obvious; paying monthly rather than buying titles outright is the model which has become dominant for both music and video, so it stands to reason that games will follow down the same path, at least to some extent. There’s certainly some appeal to the idea of a “Netflix / Spotify For Games”. From a business perspective, getting $120 (or $180) from consumers in flat monthly fees for games is probably actually a revenue boost if the service is primarily picked up by the kind of consumers who don’t buy a lot of new games – either predominantly buying pre-owned, waiting for titles to hit bargain basement prices, or borrowing games from friends, for example.
On the other hand, there’s an abundance of consumers out there who buy far, far more than the two new games a year that you’d get for that $120 fee – so any of those who stop buying new games in favour of a subscription service will represent a major revenue loss to the industry. Many people will be worried about that possibility, no doubt, but the reality is that there’s plenty of precedent to suggest that a subscription service won’t harm sales of new games.
New titles won’t go directly onto a subscription service; there’ll undoubtedly be a lengthy exclusivity period for people who pay for a physical or digital copy of the game, with titles only appearing for subscribers once their revenue potential in direct sales is already all-but exhausted. Subscription revenue therefore becomes a second bite at the cherry – a way of boosting the industry’s often rather ratty-looking “long tail”.
From a consumer perspective, that’s actually not all that different from the way things are now. If you’re not bothered about playing a game in its first few months on the market, then you’re probably going to end up buying a second-hand copy – or getting it from the bargain bin, or borrowing it from a friend, or perhaps even just waiting for it to pop up on PlayStation Plus at some point.
Game software generally loses value dramatically after the first few months on the market; lots of options exist for picking it up cheap, but decades of experience shows that this doesn’t dissuade fans from buying new games they really care about. Games are a “zeitgeisty” medium; people want to be playing the game everyone else is playing right now (as anyone who’s had to put up with their social media feeds being filled to the brim with Zelda chat while every electronics store in the city remains out of stock of Switch can tell you – not that I’m bitter, of course).
For the industry, however, most of these options aren’t very appealing. Second-hand software sales enrich GameStop, and just about nobody else; there’s an argument that second-hand sales boost new software sales by providing trade-in value, but it’s hard to balance the effects of that against the simple revenue loss game creators suffer from the repeated recycling of second-hand stock through stores that often deliberately push consumers towards used games instead of new ones. Borrowing the game from a friend is arguably preferable to the industry; no money is changing hands at all, so at least potential revenue hasn’t been sucked out by a third party.
Given, then, that we’re already talking about consumers who have a range of options for accessing software which provide no revenue to game creators, something like a Netflix-esque subscription service starts to make a lot of sense. How the revenue works in the back-end will, no doubt, be subject to endless negotiation and dispute, but the point is that at least the revenue exists; games on the service will continue to generate cash for their creators as long as they’re being played, and every cent they receive is a cent they’d never have seen in the currently dominant second-hand models. Moreover, the existence of subscription services could be a net boost for the games industry as a whole; the ability to access a large library of software for an affordable monthly subscription fee is something that will appeal to a lot of consumers, potentially bringing them into the console ecosystem.
If the business case for these services is very clear, however, the question of which technical approach will succeed is rather less so. For now, I think that Microsoft’s model – allowing consumers to download and play locally the software on its subscription service – is comfortably superior to the PS Now streaming system.
Game streaming over the Internet remains a technology that’s arguably ahead of its time; there are question marks over the business case (since the provider needs to pay for racks and racks of hardware which every consumer using the service already possesses in their own home, a duplication of functionality that makes little sense, especially since PS Now recently dropped support for “thin client” platforms like Bravia TVs), but more importantly, a huge number of consumers simply won’t be able to make use of the service because their broadband connections are not up to the standard required for high-quality, real-time gameplay. The demands of real-time game streaming are very different from the demands of watching live streams of video, because you can’t buffer a real-time game stream; when it works, it’s impressive, but the reality is that for a great many consumers it either doesn’t work at all or only works at time when the network isn’t congested.
Given the limitations of PS Now (and I think the dropping of support on Bravia TVs, mobile phones and so on is an ominous sign for the future of the service), Microsoft’s native software approach seems far more likely to be a hit with its consumers – indeed, the company may be hoping to recapture some of the magic of the Xbox 360 era, when its enormous advantage over Sony in online services helped it to maintain a lead over the PS3 for several years.
For Sony’s part, the desire to try to boost PS Now may be its undoing, at least in the short term; but an enhanced version of PS Plus (PS Plus… Plus?) with a library subscription built-in seems like a no-brainer in the medium term. It’s a win-win situation for platform holders and game creators alike. The only really big loser in all of this will be heavily pre-owned reliant retailers like GameStop; if game subscription services truly take off this year, they’ll have to scramble to find a new model before it’s too late.
Washington D.C. intends to become the home of eSports in the United States, with a strategy that includes sponsorship of the NRG Esports team and the construction of a $65 million stadium.
The city’s plans, which were revealed to Mashable, will be executed by Events D.C., the District of Columbia’s convention and sports authority. The deal with NRG Esports is among the first instances of a city sponsoring a pro gaming organisation, and Washington D.C. will now have its logo and branding on NRG teams’ uniforms, livestreams and websites.
NRG, which has teams competing in Overwatch, Counter-Strike: GO, Hearthstone and Rocket League, has roots in the world of traditional sports. It was founded by Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov, the co-owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, and counts the basketball player Shaquille O’Neal and the baseball stars Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins among its investors.
“This is just another prong in our strategic approach to continue to make D.C. a great place to live and work and play,” Events D.C. chairman Max Brown told Mashable, highlighting the number of students attending the city’s many universities.
“There are lots of younger kids who are here and are coming here every year through our universities, so we think it makes a lot of sense for us as a city to plant a flag [for eSports], and ultimately be the capital of eSports like we’re the capital of the United States.”
There are other “prongs” to the city’s strategy, the most notable being the construction of a new stadium. The arena will be used by the WNBA team the Washington Mystics, as well as other events, but it is being built “with eSports in mind.”
“A $65 million 4,200-seat, state-of-the-art arena,” Brown added. “[It will] come online in late-2018, early-2019. Fully tailored and wired for esports.”
In an effort to bolster Total War developer Creative Assembly, Sega Europe today has announced that it’s acquired Crytek Black Sea and added the 60-person team from Bulgaria to the prominent UK developer. Crytek Black Sea has been renamed Creative Assembly Sofia and will be working on a number of unannounced projects.
Tim Heaton, Studio Director at Creative Assembly, commented: “Now in our 30th year of games development, with an army of multi-million selling titles to our name and a history of world-renowned partnerships, Creative Assembly is proof of the UK games industry’s potential for global success. Due to this success, we are further expanding our UK base and developing additional projects overseas, whilst pursuing top talent from across the globe to join us, all in support of our commitment to creating high quality, authentic gaming experiences. Our continued growth allows us to be dynamic with our future projects, constantly seeking new opportunities and reaching a wider audience with our games.”
Jurgen Post, President and COO of Sega Europe, added: “The acquisition of Crytek Black Sea further enhances Sega Europe’s development capabilities and strengthens our ability to output diverse and engaging content for our IP. Creative Assembly Sofia will be working exclusively on content for Creative Assembly and will prove an invaluable asset given the multitude of unannounced titles currently in the works. This acquisition represents another step in the right direction for the growth of our global business, underlining our commitment to add value to our existing studios and our continued support for the UK games industry.”
Fresh off the Halo Wars 2 project, Creative Assembly has been in a growth mode over the last year, as the studio’s headcount has risen by 37% and is now over 500-people strong. The addition of Creative Assembly Sofia comes after the opening of the studio’s third UK site at the end of 2016, which resulted in an 88% increase in development space to its creative footprint (with over 70,000 square feet of in-house development facilities including a 45-camera motion-capture studio and dedicated audio suites).
Creative Assembly is looking to stay ahead in the UK games market, which generated £2.96bn in 2016, 1.3 times the size of the video market (£2.25bn) and 2.6 times the size of music (£1.1bn).
In an email interview prior to the news, Heaton informed GamesIndustry.biz that Creative Assembly has been looking to expand for a while. “[We] have actually been eyeing potential studios specifically to expand CA’s output for some time. Parties have been discussing this deal over the last few months, since the opportunity arose to purchase Crytek Black Sea, and integrate them into CA’s operation,” he explained.
“While Sega are always looking out for acquisitions that fit with the rest of the business, this addition has been motivated by the growing CA output, and the need to support that growth with talented and experienced teams,” Heaton continued. “CA has never had the aim solely to grow big, but our games have given us the opportunity to work on more projects. As we have taken those opportunities, we have needed to seek out more talent who reflect the calibre of our games.”
While Crytek has run into financial troubles and has unfortunately missed payroll at times, Heaton assured us that the new CA studio would not have to worry about its status any longer.
“We’ve been working closely with the CA Sofia team over the last few months to ensure they are setup for success, and have a comfortable and healthy work environment,” he said. “This has included upgrading their IT infrastructure, setting up clear HR support processes and integrating them with our UK teams; in fact, some of the CA Sofia team are with us in the UK at the moment, as part of their ongoing training and development.”
According to details provided over at EA’s Origin site, those looking to play the new Mass Effect game will need at least an Intel Core i5-3570 or AMD FX-6350 CPU, 8GB of RAM and Nvidia Geforce GTX 660 2GB or AMD Radeon HD 7850 2GB graphics card.
The recommended system requirements rise up to an Intel Core i7-4790 or AMD FX-8350 CPU, 16GB of RAM and either an Nvidia GTX 1060 3GB or AMD RX 480 4GB graphics card.
Both minimum and recommended system requirements include at least 55GB of storage space as well as a 64-bit version of Windows 7, Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 OS.
The official release for the game is set for March 21st in the US and March 23rd in Europe and it will be coming to PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One. Those with EA Access and Origin Access should get the game five days earlier.
The virtual reality headset Rift and the motion controllers Touch will together retail for $598, Jason Rubin, Oculus’ vice president of content, said in a statement.
Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus in 2014, believing it to be the next major computing platform. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has said that Oculus would spend $500 million to fund virtual reality content development.
Oculus and other virtual reality makers are struggling to make their products competitive with other gaming systems that sell for much less.
Oculus believes the lower entry price will attract consumers to virtual reality for personal computers at a faster pace, Rubin said. “This price drop was as inevitable as it is beneficial. This is how the technology business works,” he said.
A larger user base would lead to easier player matching, better communities and the ability to invest more in gaming titles, he said, calling those results “a virtuous cycle.”
Rift used to retail for $599 on its own, while Touch sold for $199.
Rival virtual reality company Vive, a unit of HTC Corp, said it would not match Oculus on price and would not change its “strategy of delivering the best and most comprehensive VR product.” Its system is listed at $799 on its website.
“We don’t feel the need to cut the price of Vive, as we’ve had incredible success, and continue to see great momentum in market,” Vive spokesman Patrick Seybold said in a statement.
Sony Corp joined the race for virtual reality dominance in October with a $399 headset, the PlayStation VR, which was the company’s first major product launch since it emerged from years of restructuring.
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.
When I first began my career in the games industry I wrote a story about an impending digital download chart.
It was February 2008 and Dorian Bloch – who was leader of UK physical games data business Chart-Track at the time – vowed to have a download Top 50 by Christmas.
It wasn’t for want of trying. Digital retailers, including Steam, refused to share the figures and insisted it was down to the individual publishers and developers to do the sharing (in contrast to the retail space, where the stores are the ones that do the sharing). This led to an initiative in the UK where trade body UKIE began using its relationships with publishers to pull together a chart. However, after some initial success, the project ultimately fell away once the sheer scale of the work involved became apparent.
Last year in the US, NPD managed to get a similar project going and is thus far the only public chart that combines physical and digital data from accurate sources. However, although many big publishers are contributing to the figures, there remains some notable absentees and a lack of smaller developers and publishers.
In Europe, ISFE is just ramping up its own project and has even began trialling charts in some territories (behind closed doors), however, it currently lacks the physical retail data in most major markets. This overall lack of information has seen a rise in the number of firms trying to plug the hole in our digital data knowledge. Steam Spy uses a Web API to gather data from Steam user profiles to track download numbers – a job it does fairly accurately (albeit not all of the time).
SuperData takes point-of-sale and transaction information from payment service providers, plus some publishers and developers, which means it can track actual spend. It’s strong on console, but again, it’s not 100% accurate. The mobile space has a strong player in App Annie collecting data, although developers in the space find the cost of accessing this information high.
It feels unusual to be having this conversation in 2017. In a market that is now predominantly digital, the fact we have no accurate way of measuring our industry seems absurd. Film has almost daily updates of box office takings, the music market even tracks streams and radio plays… we don’t even know how many people downloaded Overwatch, or where Stardew Valley would have charted. So what is taking so long?
“It took a tremendous amount of time and effort from both the publisher and NPD sides to make digital sales data begin to flow,” says Mat Piscatella, NPD’s US games industry analyst. NPD’s monthly digital chart is the furthest the industry has come to accurate market data in the download space.
“It certainly wasn’t like flipping a switch. Entirely new processes were necessary on both sides – publishers and within NPD. New ways of thinking about sales data had to be derived. And at the publishers, efforts had to be made to identify the investments that would be required in order to participate. And of course, most crucially, getting those investments approved. We all had to learn together, publishers, NPD, EEDAR and others, in ways that met the wants and needs of everyone participating.
“Over time, most of the largest third-party publishers joined the digital panel. It has been a remarkable series of events that have gotten us to where we are today. It hasn’t always been smooth; and keep in mind, at the time the digital initiative began, digital sales were often a very small piece of the business, and one that was often not being actively managed. Back then, publishers may have been letting someone in a first-party operation, or brand marketing role post the box art to the game on the Sony, Microsoft and Steam storefronts, and that would be that. Pricing wouldn’t be actively managed, sales might be looked at every month or quarter, but this information certainly was not being looked at like packaged sales were. The digital business was a smaller, incremental piece of the pie then. Now, of course, that’s certainly changed, and continues to change.”
“For one, the majors are publicly traded firms, which means that any shared data presents a financial liability. Across the board the big publishers have historically sought to protect the sanctity of their internal operations because of the long development cycles and high capital risks involved in AAA game publishing. But, to be honest, it’s only been a few years that especially legacy publishers have started to aggregate and apply digital data, which means that their internal reporting still tends to be relatively underdeveloped. Many of them are only now building the necessary teams and infrastructure around business intelligence.”
Indeed, both SuperData and NPD believe that progress – as slow as it may be – has been happening. And although some publishers are still holding out or refusing to get involved, that resolve is weakening over time. “For us, it’s about proving the value of participation to those publishers that are choosing not to participate at this time,” Piscatella says. “And that can be a challenge for a few reasons. First, some publishers may believe that the data available today is not directly actionable or meaningful to its business. The publisher may offer products that have dominant share in a particular niche, for example, which competitive data as it stands today would not help them improve.
“Second, some publishers may believe that they have some ‘secret sauce’ that sharing digital sales data would expose, and they don’t want to lose that perceived competitive advantage. Third, resources are almost always stretched thin, requiring prioritisation of business initiatives. For the most part, publishers have not expanded their sales planning departments to keep pace with all of the overwhelming amount of new information and data sources that are now available. There simply may not be the people power to effectively participate, forcing some publishers to pass on participating, at least for now.
“So I would certainly not classify this situation as companies ‘holding out’ as you say. It’s that some companies have not yet been convinced that sharing such information is beneficial enough to overcome the business challenges involved. Conceptually, the sharing of such information seems very easy. In reality, participating in an initiative like this takes time, money, energy and trust. I’m encouraged and very happy so much progress has been made with participating publishers, and a tremendous amount of energy is being applied to prove that value to those publishers that are currently not participating.”
NPD’s achievements is significant because it has managed to convince a good number of bigger publishers, and those with particularly successful IP, to share figures. And this has long been seen as a stumbling block, because for those companies performing particularly well, the urge to share data is reduced. I’ve heard countless comments from sales directors who have said that ‘sharing download numbers would just encourage more competitors to try what we’re doing.’ It’s why van Dreunen has noted that “as soon as game companies start to do well, they cease the sharing of their data.”
Indeed, it is often fledgling companies, and indie studios, that need this data more than most. It’s part of the reason behind the rise of Steam Spy, which prides itself on helping smaller outfits.
“I’ve heard many stories about indie teams getting financed because they managed to present market research based on Steam Spy data,” boasts Sergey Galyonkin, the man behind Steam Spy. “Just this week I talked to a team that got funded by Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg based on this. Before Steam Spy it was harder to do a proper market research for people like them.
“Big players know these numbers already and would gain nothing from sharing them with everyone else. Small developers have no access to paid research to publish anything.
“Overall I’d say Steam Spy helped to move the discussion into a more data-based realm and that’s a good thing in my opinion.”
The games industry may be behaving in an unusually backwards capacity when it comes to sharing its digital data, but there are signs of a growing willingness to be more open. A combination of trade body and media pressure has convinced some larger publishers to give it a go. Furthermore, publishers are starting to feel obligated to share figures anyway, especially when the likes of SuperData and Steam Spy are putting out information whether they want them to or not.
Indeed, although the chart Dorian promised me 9 years ago is still AWOL, there are at least some figures out there today that gives us a sense of how things are performing.
“When we first started SuperData six years ago there was exactly zero digital data available,” van Dreunen notes. “Today we track the monthly spending of 78 million digital gamers across platforms, in spite of heavy competition and the reluctance from publishers to share. Creating transparency around digital data is merely a matter of market maturity and executive leadership, and many of our customers and partners have started to realize that.”
He continues: The current inertia comes from middle management that fears new revenue models and industry changes. So we are trying to overcome a mindset rather than a data problem. It is a slow process of winning the confidence and trust of key players, one-at-a-time. We’ve managed to broker partnerships with key industry associations, partner with firms like GfK in Europe and Kadokawa Dwange in Japan, to offer a complete market picture, and win the trust with big publishers. As we all move into the next era of interactive entertainment, the need for market information will only increase, and those that have shown themselves willing to collaborate and take a chance are simply better prepared for the future.”
NPD’s Piscatella concludes: “The one thing I’m most proud of, and impressed by, is the willingness of the participating publishers in our panel to work through issues as they’ve come up. We have a dedicated, positive group of companies working together to get this information flowing. Moving forward, it’s all about helping those publishers that aren’t participating understand how they can benefit through the sharing of digital consumer sales information, and in making that decision to say “yes” as easy as possible.
“Digital selling channels are growing quickly. Digital sales are becoming a bigger piece of the pie across the traditional gaming market. I fully expect participation from the publishing community to continue to grow.”
If you’re someone who makes a living from videogames – as most readers of this site are – then political developments around the world at the moment should deeply concern you. I’m sure, of course, that a great many of you are concerned about things ranging from President Trump’s Muslim travel ban to the UK Parliament’s vote for “Hard Brexit” or the looming elections in Holland and France simply on the basis of being politically aware and engaged. However, there’s a much more practical and direct way in which these developments and the direction of travel which they imply will impact upon us. Regardless of personal ideology or beliefs, there’s no denying that the environment that seems to be forming is one that’s bad for the medium, bad for the industry, and will ultimately be bad for the incomes and job security of everyone who works in this sector.
Video games thrive in broadly the same conditions as any other artistic or creative medium, and those conditions are well known and largely undisputed. Creative mediums benefit from diversity; a wide range of voices, views and backgrounds being represented within a creative industry feeds directly into a diversity of creative output, which in turn allows an industry to grow by addressing new groups of consumers. Moreover, creative mediums benefit from economic stability, because when people’s incomes are low or uncertain, entertainment purchases are often among the first to fall.
Once upon a time, games had such strong underlying growth that they were “recession proof,” but this is no longer the case. Indeed, it was never entirely an accurate reading anyway, since broader recessions undoubtedly did slow down – though not reverse – the industry’s growth. Finally, as a consequence of the industry’s broad demographic reach, expansion overseas is now the industry’s best path to future growth, and that demands continued economic progress in the developing world to open up new markets for game hardware and software.
What is now happening on a global basis threatens all of those conditions, and therefore poses a major commercial threat to the games business. That threat must be taken especially seriously given that many companies and creators are already struggling with the enormous challenges that have been thrown up by the messy and uneven transition towards smart devices, and the increasing need to find new revenue streams to support AAA titles whose audience has remained largely unchanged even as development budgets have risen. Even if the global economic system looked stable and conditions were ideal for creative industries, this would be a tough time for games; the prospect of restrictions on trade and hiring, and the likelihood of yet another deep global recession and a slow-down in the advances being made by developing economies, make this situation outright hazardous.
Consider the UK development industry. Since well over a decade ago, if you asked just about any senior figure in the UK industry what the most pressing problem they faced was, they’d give you the same answer: skills shortages. Hiring talented staff is tough in any industry, but game development demands highly skilled people from across a range of fields, and assembling that kind of talent isn’t cheap or easy – even when you have access to the entire European Union as a hiring base, as UK companies did. Now UK companies face having to fill their positions with a much smaller pool of talent to draw from, and hiring from abroad will be expensive, complex and, in many cases, simply impossible.
The US, too, looks like it may tighten visa regulations for skilled hires from overseas, which will have a hugely negative impact on game development there. There are, of course, many skilled creatives who work within the borders of their own country, but the industry has been built on labour flows; centres of excellence in game development, like the UK and parts of the US, are sustained and bolstered by their ability to attract talent from overseas. Any restriction on that will impact the ability of companies to create world-class games – it will make them poorer creatively and throw hiring roadblocks in the path of timely, well-polished releases.
Then there’s the question of trade barriers; not only tariffs, which seem likely to make a comeback in many places, but non-tariff barriers in terms of diverse regulations and standards that will make it harder for companies to operate across national borders. The vast majority of games are multinational efforts; assets, code, and technology are created in different parts of the world and brought together to create the final product. Sometimes this is because of outsourcing, other times it’s because of staff who work remotely, and very often it’s simply because a certain piece of technology is licensed from a company overseas.
If countries become more hostile to free trade, all of that will become more complex and expensive. And that’s even before we start to think about what happens to game hardware, from consoles that source components from across Asia before assembly in China or Japan, to PC and smart device parts that flow out of China, Korea, Taiwan and, increasingly, from developing nations in South-East Asia. If tariff barriers are raised, all of those things will get a lot more expensive, limiting the industry’s consumer base at the most damaging time possible.
Such trade barriers – be they tariff barriers or non-tarriff barriers – would disproportionately impact developing countries. Free trade and globalisation have had negative externalities, unquestionably, but by and large they have contributed to an extraordinary period of prosperity around the world, with enormous populations of people being lifted out of poverty in recent decades and many developing countries showing clear signs of a large emerging middle class. Those are the markets game companies desperately want to target in the coming decade or so. In order for the industry to continue to grow and prosper, the emerging middle class in countries like India, Brazil and Indonesia needs to cultivated as a new wave of game consumers, just as many markets in Central and Eastern Europe were a decade ago.
The current political attacks on the existing order of world trade threaten to cut those economies off from the system that has allowed them to grow and develop so quickly, potentially hurling them into deep recession before they have an opportunity to cement stable, sustainable long-term economic prosperity. That’s an awful prospect on many levels, of course (it goes without saying that many of the things under discussion threaten human misery and catastrophe that far outweighs the impact on the games business), but one consequence will likely be a hard stop to the games industry’s capacity to grow in the coming years.
It’s not just developing economies whose consumers are at risk from a rise of protectionism and anti-trade sentiments, however. If we learned anything from the 2008 crash and the recession that followed, it should be that the global economy largely runs not on cash, but on confidence. The entire edifice is built on a set of rules and standards that are designed to give investors confidence; the structure changes over time, of course, but only slowly, because stability is required to allow people to invest and to build businesses with confidence that the rug won’t be tugged out from underneath them tomorrow. From the rhetoric of Donald Trump to the hardline Brexit approach of the UK, let alone the extremist ideas of politicians like Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders, the current political movement deeply threatens that confidence. Only too recently we’ve seen what happens to ordinary consumers’ job security and incomes when confidence disappears from the global economy; a repeat performance now seems almost inevitable.
Of course, the games industry isn’t in a position to do anything about these political changes – not alone, at least. The same calculations, however, apply to a wide variety of industries, and they’re all having the same conversations. Creative industries are at the forefront for the simple reason that they will be the first to suffer should the business environment upon which they rely turn negative, but in opposing those changes, creative businesses will find allies across a wide range of industries and sectors.
Any business leader that wants to throw their weight behind opposing these changes on moral or ethical grounds is more than welcome to, of course – that’s a laudable stance – but regardless of personal ideology, the whole industry should be making its voice heard. The livelihoods of everyone working in this industry may depend on the willingness of the industry as a whole to identify these commercial threats and respond to them clearly and powerfully.
Physical retailers are calling for a change in how video game pre-orders are conducted.
They are speaking to publishers and platform holders over the possibility of selling games before the release date. Consumers can pick up the disc 1 to 3 weeks before launch, but it will remain ‘locked’ until launch day.
The whole concept stems from the pre-loading service available in the digital space. Today, consumers can download a game via Steam, Xbox Live and PSN before it’s out, and the game becomes unlocked at midnight on launch day for immediate play (after the obligatory day one patch).
It makes sense to roll this out to other distribution channels. The idea of going into a shop to order a game, and then returning a month later to buy it, always seemed frankly antiquated.
Yet it’s not only consumer friendly, it’s potentially retailer and publisher friendly, too.
For online retailers, the need to hit an embargo is costly – games need to be turned around rapidly to get it into consumers’ hands on day one.
For mainstream retailers, it would clear up a lot of confusion. These stores are not naturally built for pre-ordering product, with staff that are more used to selling bananas than issuing pre-order receipts. The fact you can immediately take the disc home would help – it could even boost impulse sales.
Meanwhile, specialist retailers will be able to make a longer ‘event’ of the game coming out, and avoid the situation of consumers cancelling pre-orders or simply not picking up the game.
Yet when retail association ERA approached some companies about the prospect of doing this, it struggled to find much interest from the publishing community. So what’s the problem?
There are a few challenges.
There are simple logistical obstacles. Games often go Gold just a few weeks before they’re launched, and then it’s over to the disc manufacturers, the printers, the box makers and the distributors to get that completed code onto store shelves. This process can take two weeks in itself. Take the recent Nioh. That game was available to pre-download just a few days before launch – so how difficult would it be to get that into a box, onto a lorry and into a retailer in advance of release?
It also benefits some retailers more than others – particularly online ones, and those with strong distribution channels.
For big games, there’s a potential challenge when it comes to bandwidth. If those that pre-ordered Call of Duty all go online straight away at 12:01, that would put a lot of pressure on servers.
Piracy may also be an issue, because it makes the code available ahead of launch.
The end of the midnight launch may be happening anyway, but not for all games. If consumers can get their game without standing in the cold for 2 hours, then they will. And those lovely marketable pictures of snaking queues will be a thing of the past.
None of these obstacles are insurmountable. Getting the game finished earlier before launch is something that most big games publishers are trying to do, and this mechanism will help force that issue. Of course, the disc doesn’t actually have to contain a game at all. It can be an unlock mechanism for a download, which will allow the discs to be ready far in advance of launch. That strategy is significantly riskier, especially considering the consumer reaction to the same model proposed by Xbox back in 2013.
As for midnight events, there are still ways to generate that big launch ‘moment’. Capcom released Resident Evil 7 with an experiential haunted house experience that generated lots of media attention and attracted a significant number of fans. Pokémon last year ran a big fan event for Sun and Moon, complete with a shop, activities, signing opportunities and the chance to download Mew.
So there are other ways of creating launch theatre than inviting consumers to wait outside a shop. If anything, having the game available in advance of launch will enable these theatrical marketing events to last longer. And coupled with influencer activity, it would actually drive pre-release sales – not just pre-release demand.
However, the reality is this will work for some games and not for others, and here lies the heart of the challenge.
Pre-ordering is already a relatively complex matter, so imagine what it’ll be like if some games can be taken home in advance and others can’t? How many instances can we expect of people complaining that ‘their disc doesn’t work’?
If this is going to work, it needs cross-industry support, which isn’t going to happen. This is a business that can’t even agree on a digital chart, don’t forget.
What we may well see is someone giving this concept a go. Perhaps a digital native publisher, like Blizzard or Valve, who can make it part of their PR activity.
Because if someone like that can make the idea work, then others will follow.
Take-Two today reported its financial results for the three months ended December 31, and they paint a mixed picture of the company’s performance for the holiday season.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Take-Two chairman and CEO Strauss Zelnick touted the company’s holiday slate of releases, mostly updating numbers revealed around Take-Two’s last earnings report. Mafia III has now sold-in approximately 5 million copies, while Civilization VI has surpassed 1.5 million units sold-in. NBA 2K17 has sold-in nearly 7 million units (up about 10% year-over-year), while Grand Theft Auto V continues to move copies, with sell-in now topping 75 million. Its recurrent consumer spending business (virtual currency, microtransactions, and DLC)has also done well, Zelnick said, noting that Grand Theft Auto Online posted a record number of players in December.
Despite some of those gaudy numbers, the quarter was not an unqualified success. The publisher reported GAAP net revenues of $476.5 million, up 15% year-over-year but near the low end of its $475 million to $525 million guidance. Additionally, Take-Two’s guidance called for a net income of $17 million to $30 million, but it ultimately posted a net loss of $29.9 million for the quarter.
“I know it’s a bit clouded by GAAP reporting, which requires us to defer revenues, and requires us to accelerate costs related to those deferred revenues, so we have a mismatch,” Zelnick explained. “It can look like, from a GAAP point of view, that we’re not doing as well as we’re doing from a bookings and cash flow point of view.”
Total bookings for the quarter did indeed jump 51% year-over-year to $719 million, with the aforementioned titles and WWE 2K17 serving as the largest contributors to that number. Bookings from recurrent consumer spending did particularly well, growing 55% year-over-year and making up 23% of the company’s total bookings.
The holiday quarter also saw the release of Take-Two’s first VR efforts, Carnival Games VR and NBA2K VR Experience. The company didn’t provide any performance metrics for those titles, but it’s clear Zelnick wasn’t counting on them to contribute too much.
“We were happy to bring the titles to market because it was a reflection of the fact we have the R&D abilities to address video games in a VR format if and when that’s a meaningful part of the business,” he said. “I have expressed skepticism in the past, and I think that’s been borne out by the fact that the market for VR in video games remains quite small.”
Zelnick also addressed the company’s $250 million acquisition of Social Point, the Barcelona-based mobile developer of Dragon City and Monster Legends. As for how the new studio will be integrated into the company, Zelnick said the goal was more to support them to continue doing what they’ve already been successful doing, while being mindful not to mess with what works.
“What we like about Social Point is they have multiplicity, it’s not just one [hit] and that distinguishes them from a lot of people in this space,” Zelnick said. “And they know how to monetize those hits and interact with their audience. I’m hoping we can help them grow even faster, but minimally, we want to be supportive so they can keep doing what brought them to this place in the first place… the way we tend to integrate new creative acquisitions is we want those companies to retain their identity and their independence, and to continue to do what works in the market.”
That’s not to say the company is abandoning all hope of synergy. Zelnick said he hopes Take-Two can help lend its experience in Asian markets to help Social Point find success in those territories, while acknowledging that Take-Two can probably learn a few things about monetizing in a free-to-play environment that could be brought to bear on titles like NBA 2K Online and WWE Supercard.
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 traditional sports ecosystem is dominated by three models of organisation. The most decentralised sports, like the PGA Tour or NASCAR, consist of largely independently organised competitions, which are sanctioned and governed by an administrative body and are open to any qualifying athlete. From there, we have typical leagues like the NBA or Premiership, which have a set number of recurring teams and players, and are extensively managed by a league front office that’s owned by each team.
eSports are quite different. If you choose to race without NASCAR or play basketball without the NBA, there’s nothing – and no official body – that can prevent you from replicating the experience. No one ‘owns’ racing or basketball, but someone does own Overwatch, and if you want to play you essentially have to go through that company. If you wanted to create your own eSports league, your ability to market or represent it would be entirely dependent on the legal team of the game’s publisher. Furthermore, the core experience is fully controlled by that publisher.
“No one ‘owns’ racing or basketball, but someone does own Overwatch, and if you want to play you essentially have to go through that company”
Leagues that are operated or endorsed by publishers can do unique things – e.g. item drops, exclusive/first-release capabilities, bundled original content – and offer unique monetisation opportunities. Three months before The International, the annual world championship for Dota 2, Valve sells interactive in-game items that directly contribute to the tournament prize pool. This model has been so successful that, in 2016, the prize pool reached $19.17 million.
Most tier-one publishers also handicap the data streams that the public can leverage. Whereas in traditional sports there are multiple providers of a firehose of sports data, game publishers offer barebones APIs that allow access to little more than character information and select match data. Valve offers an open API but, as events this year have demonstrated, it can shut off access and change policy at any time. On the platform side, Twitch is miles ahead of its competitors in terms of creating an external ecosystem thanks to its two year head-start and passionate developer community, but it maintains an ever more precarious balance between build vs. buy.
Because of these walled gardens, the investible opportunities within eSports often end up being features not products, which set them and their investors up for more of an acquihire than a Twitch-esque exit. There’s a strong argument to be made to publishers that working with third-party developers will lead to a stronger overall bottom line, foster innovation and provide defensibility.
It’s no secret that being a top publisher is a lucrative business. Activision reported $1.57 billion in revenue for Q2 of 2016 and EA $1.271 billion. It’s rumoured that Valve’s 2015 revenues reached $3.5 billion in 2015, and Riot Games’ over $1.6 billion. It’s not hard to see why partnerships with third parties and external API infrastructure aren’t a priority with so much money flowing, but that’s shortsighted. As publishers start thinking about how to monetise beyond game licenses and IAP, every moment not spent developing the ecosystem is a wasted one.
This isn’t unparalleled, and we can see examples of where large platforms in other verticals have made the decision to invest in their future, often early on in their company lifecycle. Salesforce, an enterprise software company, has a market cap of $50 billion. A report last year by IDC put the opportunity front and center: the AppExchange currently generates 2.8x the revenue of Salesforce itself and is expected to grow to 3.7x the size of Salesforce.
“As publishers start thinking about how to monetise beyond game licenses and IAP, every moment not spent developing the ecosystem is a wasted one”
Slack, the enterprise collaboration tool darling, also gets it. Even before raising money in April 2016, at a $3.8 billion valuation and boasting over 1.25 million paying users, they announced the Slack fund in December 2015 - an $80 million investment into supporting new integrations. Slack and Salesforce could have gone the closed route and developed these integrations and products internally, but they understood that the immediate revenue trade-off was well worth the ability to focus on creating the best core product possible, in addition to leveraging minimal company resources.
Now to everyone’s favourite eSports comparison : traditional sports. During the height of the daily fantasy sports craze in 2014/15, the NBA entered a multi-year partnership with FanDuel that gave it an ownership stake. The NFL expanded its partnership with Providence Equity in 2013, investing $300 million to participate in, “media and technology deals where it believes the league could help play a strategic role.” And these are just a few examples. Partnering with and investing in new properties allows older, larger establishments to participate in the upside of nascent industries quickly and cheaply.
Publishers are thinking about the shelf-life of games. The NFL and NBA will both be around in 25 years, but what about League of Legends or Counter-Strike? Opening up the ecosystem not only benefits players and fans by allowing them an outlet to interact with their favorite IPs, but ultimately enhances the core value of those IPs and gives publishers an opportunity for additional exposure through revenue share, API fees and strategic investments.
In addition to commercial benefits, let’s look at network effects. Valve is the publisher of both Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (25 million+ copies sold, 8.2 million+ players in the last two weeks), and Dota 2 (87 million+ times downloaded, 11 million+ active players in the last two weeks.) While the titles have richer histories than virtually any other competitive esport, Valve’s open API, developer tools and hands-off approach has contributed to their sustained success and status as two of the top eSports titles.
ELeague, FaceIt Esports Championship Series and Gfinity, ESL One and IEM. These streams of revenue have contributed to a high demand for professional CS:GO players, leading to lucrative contracts and opportunities.
3: The most lucrative has been the in-game skins economy, which allows players to purchase crates that contain different cosmetic versions of CS:GO weapons or Dota 2 items. During major tournaments, Valve has offered exclusive stickers that generate up to high six-figures for qualified teams. Valve has also allowed free reign on opening up use cases within this skins economy, which led to wagering, gambling and marketplaces (Bloomberg estimated yearly transaction volume to be >$7 billion.) Variations of this model have since been followed very conservatively by multiple franchises, including Call of Duty, Halo, H1Z1 and Overwatch.
On the platform side, Twitch’s dominance in livestreaming can largely be credited to going all-in on eSports first, but Twitch also has numerous native or platform exclusive features for its users. Diving deeper, this experience is powered by a blend of features that were built in-house or created by third parties. Examples include:
Bits, preceded by Streamlabs and StreamTip: direct donations from viewers are one of the foundations of a streamer’s income.
Clips, preceded by Oddshot, Plays.tv and Forge: allows viewers and creators to efficiently capture highlights and share to different social media channels.
Subscriptions / Partner Program and 3rd-party services (Revlo, Gamewisp and Curse/Discord integrations): subscriptions are another big source of income for streamers, and the third-party services all add further value to a sub and reduce churn.
TwitchPlays: what started out as a fun social experiment (TwitchPlaysPokemon) is now its own category to interact with potential customers for publishers.
Chatbots (Moobot, Nightbot and Xanbot): automated assistants that help moderate chat to prevent spamming and inappropriate behaviour.
Stream+ currency: Twitch’s new currency announced at TwitchCon 2016, which will allow developers to integrate monetisation options directly into games.
Facebook Live has launched to much fanfare, and given the massive distribution channel it will always be a huge threat. However, until it can get to feature parity Facebook Live will need to rely on traditional media partnerships or viral hits to create consistent content. These types of partnerships don’t scale when we’re talking about the individual streamers and professional players that have played a large part in getting Twitch to 100m+ MAUs, although the signing of G2 and Heroes of the Dorm is a good first step. YouTube Gaming is farther along and is doing a great job of starting to launch some analogous features.
How, then, should publishers look to partner with entrepreneurs and third parties? I’d like to see publishers create a vehicle, individually or collectively, in the model of Disney Accelerator, to offer mentorship, funding and support to kick-start the next generation of eSports businesses. Publishers should be developing their games as platforms, not individual entities - tons of data are being generated and archived and there is a treasure trove of use cases for them.
I’m confident that we’re slowly moving in the right direction. One day we’ll see a truly open ecosystem with publishers and third parties living in harmony.