In a keynote conversation with Entertainment Software Association boss Mike Gallagher at the Digital Entertainment World conference, Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore talked about industry lessons learned as the business transitions more to digital games.
For now, games remain a hybrid of physical and digital, and the quick sales of the new consoles are enabling the industry to coalesce around two great platforms that offer a tremendous competitive environment, which ultimately benefits the market. While he believes the console sector’s in great shape, Moore does see mobile gaming thriving, and digital revenues should surpass that of physical game sales in just two years, he said.
Looking back at the music industry’s transition to digital (which it still hasn’t recovered from), Moore said that the games industry must embrace “creative destruction” – there’s nothing an industry can do to stop a shift in consumer tastes and habits. The most important thing for EA – and much of the industry is headed this way with the digital transition – is that games are becoming live operations. That means they require a massive infrastructure with customer service and global billing. Moore noted that it’s a completely different industry now, with a global network running live ops, and gamers deserve their games to be always up and available, and it’s EA’s job to provide this access. Moore acknowledged that EA is still learning a lot about what that takes.
The online environment has been incredibly valuable to EA in building a direct customer relationship. Moore said that EA’s customers used to be the retailers, but now they’re the gamers. In fact, EA has tripled its customer facing support staff resources in the last five years. It’s changing how the publisher interacts with, and markets to, gamers. He eschews “marketing” and prefers “engaging”. Social media has become crucial to success, and Moore noted that on Twitter a gamer will get a response from EA within 30 minutes to resolve a problem.
On the marketing end, Moore said that EA’s TV spend is down 20 percent while the company has actually doubled its digital spend and engagement. Social media and community management are changing the rules. Don’t spend tens of millions on TV to see if it lifts sales, Moore said; instead game companies can more effectively use digital channels and focus on performance-based marketing.
“TV ads today are chum in the water. It attracts customers, then reel them in with digital media so you can engage instead of pushing a message out,” he remarked.
Nobody seems to be terribly happy about the new Dungeon Keeper game. That’s a sentence I hoped I’d never write, given how much I loved the original Bullfrog games – but that fact alone places me firmly within the least happy demographic of all: the original fans of the franchise. The rest of the unhappy parties can form an orderly queue behind us; that means you, game critics who think the game is terrible, mobile gamers who think it’s not nearly as good as its most obvious inspiration, Clash of Clans, F2P advocates who could do without another awful example being used to unfairly crucify the entire business model, and, well, EA themselves, I expect.
Lots has been written about Dungeon Keeper in the week since it launched, almost all of it deeply critical and a good deal of it entirely fair. Dungeon Keeper is a nicely presented but mediocre game in the mobile/F2P genre it inhabits. Within the franchise it inhabits, however, it’s a disastrous, idiotic travesty of a thing, a game whose design process wouldn’t be out of place in the imaginative dungeons of the original titles – involving, as it did, the snapping of limbs and crunching of bones in order to stuff the screaming body of a much-loved core gamer title into a box that is distinctly too small and painfully the wrong shape. It’s enough to make a Dark Mistress’ eyes water.
I like the free to play business model, in principle. More than that – I think the free to play business model, still in its infancy and thus still making countless mistakes, is actually an inevitable step for the games industry. It’s not going to replace other business models, which will continue to be a better fit for certain types of game and certain types of audience, but it’ll probably be the most important and profitable business model in future (some would argue, convincingly enough, that it already is). From the moment it became possible to distribute games for free, it was certain that someone would do that, and devise a system for making money later, once an audience had been built up. Under the circumstances, carefully considered and ethically implemented F2P is probably the best, and fairest, system possible.
So I reject the notion that Dungeon Keeper is an illustration of F2P’s intrinsic evils. It’s not, any more than any number of terrible boxed games were an illustration of intrinsic evils of the retail game business model. F2P isn’t intrinsically evil or bad, but it’s open to abuse – just like the old boxed game model was plenty open to abuse, as you’ll know if you’ve ever preordered an expensive game only to find that reviews were withheld until after launch, previews had been based on glimpses of unrepresentative sections of the game, screenshots and trailers were a cocktail of lies and the whole thing is actually a massive stinker. F2P trips up more often because it’s new and many developers are still feeling out the parameters of the business model – and moreover, because it requires developers whose core skill is designing games to also design a business model in tandem with their game, which is a new skill that doesn’t necessarily come naturally.
That means that if we’re being reasonable, rather than just howling pointlessly into the wind because it makes us feel better, we need to consider Dungeon Keeper not as an omen of doom but as a learning exercise. It’s obviously a mess. It’s disappointed lots of people and made a core group of those people – people who ought to have been its most rapt advocates – very very angry indeed. But why is it a mess? What does Dungeon Keeper actually do wrong?
You could say “microtransactions”, and you’d be right in one sense – it does microtransactions wrong, but not because microtransactions themselves are intrinsically wrong. Plenty of games handle them rather nicely and fairly. Supercell’s games are pretty good examples – Hay Day is, I think, the only F2P game I’ve bought premium currency in, and I’m perfectly happy with the few quid I spent there, as I knew perfectly well what my money was buying and what the alternative was to acquire the things I wanted in-game. I mentioned last week my Japanese friend who has spent the equivalent of $500 in Puzzle & Dragons, and doesn’t regret it in the slightest – from my own experience, P&D, the biggest-grossing F2P game in the world, is also scrupulously fair and up-front about its micro-transactions, and generous to a fault at handing out premium currency for free, thus allowing you to save up for things you want instead of feeling forced to fork out.
Those games – and Clash of Clans, the Supercell game to which Dungeon Keeper owes much of its genre heritage – get F2P microtransactions right. Even Candy Crush Saga, a game which I personally dislike quite intently (I think that describing yourself as a puzzle game and then confronting the player with randomly generated levels which are actually impossible to solve is a miserable failure of fundamental game design), is far from being abusive in its approach to microtransactions; a solid majority of players who complete all its levels do so without ever spending any money. I played Clash of Clans for months without spending, and I’m coming up on a year in Puzzle & Dragons without spending – both of which I still find fun, and both of which, I think it’s fair to say, are genuinely living up to the promise inherent in the words “free to play”. I’m quite convinced, incidentally, that they’re among the world’s most profitable games precisely because they allow most players to continue enjoying them for free, rather than in spite of that seemingly foolish generosity.
Dungeon Keeper isn’t a generous game. It’s a grasping, unpleasant game – which is a shame, because with a more likeable, generous approach to its players, it wouldn’t be a terrible game. It’s certainly among the better of the Clash of Clans clones, a multitude of which fill the App Store with game mechanics and art styles shamelessly copied from Supercell’s hit and absolutely zero effort at innovation. Dungeon Keeper – though I say it through gritted teeth, since the franchise abuse still rankles – has the guts of a decent mobile game that builds worthwhile variation onto the Clash of Clans formula. The problem is, you advance through that experience at a snail’s pace, halted every few seconds by a glowing gem icon that invites you to spend expensive premium currency to speed up your progress. That premium currency itself arrives in an absolutely miserable trickle, rendering the notion of saving up to buy things into a sad joke.
Slowing down progress to encourage players who are really engaged with the game to spend a bit of money to advance is a core tenet of F2P design. Some people hate that, which I perfectly understand, but it’s not necessarily the end of all things – it’s worth pointing out that lots of non-F2P games also stretch out tasks artificially for a variety of commercial and gameplay reasons (I’d point to World of Warcraft in the first instance and Animal Crossing in the second as good examples of this). The point is that in doing this, designers need to make sure they’re not compromising the fun of the game, and err on the side of generosity rather than grasping. Dungeon Keeper fails these tests. It starts asking for money almost straight away, long before any player has a chance to become really engaged or engrossed in the game, and continues to wheedle at players to pay up on an ongoing basis, ramping up within a couple of days to the point where it’s taking 24 hours to complete simple tasks like digging out a square of rock, and literally weeks to finish a tunnel or room unaided by a dip in your wallet. Good F2P design is about making people really love your game and then giving them opportunities to spend money on it. Dungeon Keeper is a grubby chancer who tries to steal your wallet before the main course has even arrived on your first – and last – date.
There’s an even more fundamental problem at work here, though. Making a bad, greedy F2P game with the beloved Dungeon Keeper license is inexcusable – but to be honest, making any kind of F2P game with this license was a terrible idea. Dungeon Keeper is an old franchise, one which never came to consoles – making it much loved by a significant group of gamers who are older and significantly more “core” than the primary market for mobile F2P games. If you weren’t a PC gamer in the 1990s, Dungeon Keeper has almost certainly passed you by entirely. On the other hand, if you were a PC gamer in the 1990s, I think it’s fair to generalise and say you’re probably firmly in the camp that by and large dislikes microtransactions and considers F2P in general with suspicion – suspicion which you’ll consider to be all but confirmed by Dungeon Keeper’s many transgressions.
So why did EA do this? What on earth did they believe they stood to gain from resurrecting a franchise like this in a form which would be utterly despised by the only people who recognise it, while the potential audience it might reach successfully – gamers who like mobile F2P and are looking for something different in flavour and approach to Clash of Clans – will have zero brand recognition with Dungeon Keeper, but may be dissuaded by the outpouring of one-star scores on the App Store with which gamers are registering their dislike. Note too that while it’s conventionally and reasonably held that the specialist games media has no impact on mobile game performance, the hatred for Dungeon Keeper has spilled over into the mainstream press – and while “no publicity is bad publicity”, newspaper articles accusing your game of greedy monetisation tactics aren’t the ideal way to introduce it to the public at large, while Google results populated with fiery critique and all manner of accusations don’t help much either.
Ultimately, EA could have avoided this by making essentially the same game (although doing a lot more careful consideration of monetisation tactics and trying not to destroy the game’s hopes of retaining players by being too greedy too early wouldn’t go amiss) without the Dungeon Keeper brand and the vaguely ghoulish overtones of corpse-robbing that go with Dungeon Keeper’s pilfered, ill-matched mechanisms and characters in this game. Alternatively, it could probably have made quite a decent commercial success out of a premium-priced Dungeon Keeper game carefully updating the original and launching on Steam and iPad – a game with a significant built-in audience and a huge store of goodwill, much of which has now been squandered. It could even have included some IAP further down the line for deeply devoted players, although more in the line of cosmetic items and so on than game-changing consumables. Hell, EA could have done both of those things, resuscitating a much-loved franchise and creating a brand new F2P franchise, thus ending up with two successful IPs rather than one battered, bruised and sorely abused one.
This comes back to a point I made earlier – there is an audience for F2P, a huge audience with a significant amount of spending power, but it’s not the only audience (even if it’s the biggest). There are other audiences who crave other genres, other business models, other price points. The notion that the vast expansion in the demographic reach of videogames is going to be attended by an absolute contraction of the possible business models for videogames is a transparent nonsense – F2P is an inevitable and by no means negative consequence of the reduction in distribution costs to (just about) zero, but it’s not the only business model or price point enabled by recent technological change. The first challenge for designers, producers and executives in this new era is to figure out what business model best fits the franchise, the genre and the audience for your project. EA isn’t the first company to fail that challenge, nor is Dungeon Keeper the last game which will do it – but for those of us with fond memories of Bullfrog’s glory days, this is the one that leaves the most bitter taste. The lesson, however, must not be “F2P is bad” – it must be, “Do F2P where appropriate, do it with care, and do it well”.
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.
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.
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.
Thirteen people have been indicted, accused of being members of the Anonymous hacktivist group and allegedly involved in Operation Payback.
Operation Payback was the retaliation against payment firms that Anonymous put in motion following their blocking of Wikileaks donations.
The 13 are accused of taking part in a series of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, and the US Department of Justice filed a federal grand jury indictment in US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia. The indictment charges them with conspiracy to intentionally cause damage to protected computers.
Anonymous is a loosely linked digital rights collective. In its early days it pulled together volunteers from all walks of life.
Operation Payback struck a number of organisations including Mastercard, Visa, Paypal and the Motion Picture Association of America. The attacks lasted between September 2010 and January 2011. As well as retaliating against payment providers, part of Operation Payback was aimed at parties thought to be involved in a campaign against The Pirate Bay.
Agence France Presse (AFP) has seen the indictment and named those indicted in it. They are Dennis Owen Collins, Jeremy Leroy Heller, Chen Zhiwei, Joshua Phy, Ryan Russel Gubele, Robert Audubon Whitfield, Anthony Tadros, Geoffrey Kenneth Commander, Austen Stamm, Timothy Robert McLain, Wade Carl Williams and Thomas Bell.
According to AFP the 13 alleged Anonymous members “planned and executed a coordinated series of cyber-attacks against victim websites by flooding those websites with a huge volume of irrelevant internet traffic with the intent to make the resources on the websites unavailable to customers and users of those websites.”
In short, they are accused of having conducted a digital sit-in protest
Multiple sources have told us that AMD spent between $5 and $8 million to secure the Battlefield 4 deal.
The part of the deal was to make Battlefield 4 as a part of AMD exclusive bundle, only available to select AMD partners, as well as to make sure that showcases of the game are done on AMD hardware.
This is a big commitment for EA, AMD and Dice, but all sides will benefit from it. AMD will also gave the exclusive right to Dice to play with Mantle, a new AMD API that is set to become a third player in gaming APIs next to OpenGL and DirectX.
Dice has promised to bring a Mantle update to BF4 in December 2013 and we will have to wait and see if this brings any performance increase on the existing game. Mantle is supposed to talk to “metal” directly on the transistor level, potentially making everything faster and delivering some new effects that are outside DirectX 11.2 specification.
The deal that is said to be worth between $5 million and $8 million will give AMD a new “face” in the eyes of gamers and with very good Hawaii R9 and R7 cards to launch just in time for the game, this has a chance to become quite successful PR stunt for AMD.
The question if you can really make that money on the Battlefield 4 deal and justify and a sizable investment remains to be seen, but new way of doing marketing and PR for AMD is a refreshing and brings about some much needed change.
While much of the attention this holiday season will be the start of the “next-gen console war,” on the software side there may be no bigger showdown than Call of Duty: Ghosts vs. Battlefield 4. During his days as EA CEO, John Riccitiello seemed to be obsessed with dethroning Call of Duty from the shooter market, and even after leaving the company Riccitiello still felt strongly that Battlefield would achieve that goal this year. If you ask Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin, however, that’s really just an executive and marketing perspective.
Rubin said he actually very much enjoys seeing what other high-profile shooters are doing. It’s more about developer camaraderie and elevating games as a medium together than it is a competition.
“It’s less antagonistic, from a developer’s side – sure marketing and stuff is all [about that] but on a developer’s side it’s like, ‘Oh, did you see that stuff they’re doing? That’s so cool!’ We could do something that’s like this and that and we get excited about seeing that kind of stuff. So from a developer’s side, it definitely pushes us [to do better]. But it pushes us in a – I don’t know if other studios feel this way – but I hope in a sort of camaraderie type sense. ‘Oh, those guys are doing awesome stuff. Let’s jack up our game.’ But not like two opposing teams. Rather, like the same team pushing in the same direction,” he explained.
“I think that the intellectual realization is we want everyone to be successful because if gaming is successful then we’re all successful”
“We all want gaming, in general to be awesome, because if gaming isn’t good, then we all lose our jobs in a sense. So for us, I think that the intellectual realization is we want everyone to be successful because if gaming is successful then we’re all successful.”
Interestingly, Infinity Ward plays psychological games with itself, so the studio doesn’t rest on its laurels. When a big franchises repeatedly breaks sales records, it’s easy to become self-assured, but Rubin wants to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“Every year, every time we made a new one it was the same thing [in terms of competition], and I like that. I think that’s the part that keeps us hungry, that keeps us… we don’t want to feel like the top dog, necessarily. We want to feel like it’s a struggle every time. We want to feel that almost ‘Rocky moment’, which is kind of a weird thing to say, but we do want to feel like that. We want to feel like we’ve got a huge challenge in front of us. We can’t just phone this in and ship a game and expect it to sell. We actually really have to do harder work this year than we did last year,” Rubin stressed.
One of the big things EA DICE has been stressing with Battlefield 4 is how next-gen is going to drive emotions and connect players with the in-game characters. Rubin agrees that this is a key element and he said that Ghosts will seek to offer that emotional connection on a couple fronts, with the military dog and the two brothers in the game.
“We actually didn’t make that big of a deal about the dog – it was just in a trailer and all of a sudden the internet blew up and made the dog became this sensation… People are so in love with the dog. They’re already emotionally invested. It’s amazing how many Twitter messages I get saying – in all caps – if you guys kill the dog, I will never play another…and I’m like, ooh, you’re emotionally attached…”
As for the two brothers in the game, Rubin noted, “We’re really trying to push – paying attention to just those two guys the whole story through and their emotional story and have the world have an emotional impact on it.” Rubin emphasized that the storyline has benefited enormously from Hollywood veteran Stephen Gaghan, who’s completely embraced the video game medium.
“He really is looking at this in a way that I’ve never seen a Hollywood writer look at it. He looks at writing for a game as an amazing chance at an artistic challenge as a writer,” Rubin said. “One of the things he described was… he goes, ‘As a writer, this is like art film. Basically, think about it. Your main character, your main star of your movie, is never seen and never talks. And so you have to craft a story that deals with that.’ Think about it. If you took a game, our game, and you put it into a film where the main character never talked, never spoke, you never saw him – it would be like one of those black and white crazy French films. So he really loves the challenge of it and he’s been really engaged with everything.”
“There’s a disconnect between Hollywood and the game industry. They have two different languages. And they haven’t in the past talked very well. And I think that’s changing,” he added.
One of the big challenges for Infinity Ward this year is not only to launch another top selling Call of Duty experience, but also to ensure the current-gen versions are just as impressive as the next-gen SKUs. After all, the bulk of sales this holiday will still be for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
“Having an agnostic start, even before next-gen came out, really helped us get into this. We’re not making one platform and then porting. All the platforms are actually made at the same time. When somebody checks some work in, they have to make sure every platform works and that that check doesn’t break on one platform… The other part of it is, the new engine that we created is across all platforms. It’s not just next-gen. So the current-gen is actually getting a lot of benefit out of this new engine,” he said.
“I think we are better future proofed for making Call of Duty going forward. And we may or may not have done this if not for that [tumultuous] event.”
Rubin also described how Infinity Ward made “a semi-dramatic change on our pipeline internally” when it comes to art assets. “What we’ve done with this generation change, especially for the art pipeline, that being the biggest difference, is we’re making our big art assets at cinema quality, not even PC quality, but above next-gen. It’s at this really amazing looking cinema quality asset. What we’re doing, we use that and we create assets for each platform that are the best for the platform. So now every platform, instead of having a sort of average art asset, they’re getting the best asset for that platform,” he said.
A project the size of Call of Duty requires a massive amount of resources, but Infinity Ward likes to keep its size fairly small for a AAA studio. Rubin explained how the difficult past with Vince Zampella and Jason West leaving (followed by around half of the staff) actually forced Infinity Ward to reevaluate its ways and in the end, the entire studio is stronger for it.
“I’ve been at the studio since Call of Duty 2. It was, on a personal level, a pretty rough time. And the cool thing was for those of us who decided to stay, we were looking at having to do a new game with Modern Warfare 3 and to rebuild the studio, so we had to figure out how to do that,” he said. “It could have gone in any number of directions. We could have hired on a bunch of people quickly, just really mass higher and bulk up. We could have grown slowly and hired a bunch of art outsourcing companies and outsource a lot of the work. But these outside companies aren’t personally invested in the game; you give them a list of stuff to do, they do it and send it back. What we decided on – and Activision was great about supporting what we wanted to do – we found a studio in Sledgehammer who could be as passionate about the game as we would be if we did co-development. That actually worked out really well for us.”
“We were able to make Modern Warfare 3, and make it at the level and quality that we would expect, and not have to do the ballooning growth, and instead we were able to hire over time. That hiring process continued throughout Modern Warfare 3 and into Ghosts, and now we’re at the largest we have ever been. We are at 125 people, which is actually a medium to small studio nowadays for the size of the title. If you look at most other studios they are around 300 or 400 people. We feel 125 is the culturally right number to be at.”
Rubin said that the slow rehiring process actually let Infinity Ward tap into some Hollywood CG talent, and it also made the studio realize that for the long-term, working with other studios is ultimately beneficial.
“When we set out to rehire, and we said let’s make sure that bar is really high, it actually opened some interesting new doors for us, and particularly in art, animation and effects. By being in LA, we’ve ended up having to really tap into the Hollywood CG talent, and we’ve actually gotten a number of guys who’ve never done games – they’re all film guys – but they bring just a different level of quality and some new tech ideas. A lot of the tech that you see in the new engine is based on feedback from them with things like Sub-D (subdivision modeling), which is something that Pixar developed years ago and Hollywood’s been using for years but always in a pre-rendered state. For us, having it real-time in engine was a big feat for us and something we’re really happy with,” he said.
“And from an industry standpoint games are getting harder to make and they’re taking bigger and bigger budgets and bigger teams, and so this gave us an opportunity to sort of retool some of the structure internally. I think we are better future proofed for making Call of Duty going forward. And we may or may not have done this if not for that [tumultuous] event. It forced our hand to go down that route, which in the long run turned out to be good for us. I think we are much more capable now of doing these big projects. We are only 125 people and it does take more than that to make these big games, so one of the things we learned from MW3 is how to work with outside studios. That’s something we’ve never done the past. The previous games were all very insular, and that’s not really possible now. Working with outside studios like Sledgehammer was a difficult transition but now we’ve gotten past that learning phase, and so on this game we’re getting a lot of help from other studios, Raven and Neversoft.”
For those like us who are excited about the DICE reboot of Star Wars: Battlefront, EA revealed during a stockholders call that everyone is going to have a bit of a wait. The new rebooted Star Wars: Battlefront is targeted for release around the summer of 2015, but that date could change.
During the call EA also talked about the fact that Star Wars: Battlefront would be the first of a number of Star Wars titles that the company is planning. EA also said that it is planning Star Wars releases for mobile and handheld devices as well as the console systems.
While the summer of 2015 is a long way off, we want DICE to get it right. Everyone needs to be patient and wait, but we do have a good feeling about a DICE developed Battlefront title that is for sure.
After much protest from consumers, Microsoft decided to change its Xbox One policies: used games will be playable just as they were on the Xbox 360, without any additional fees imposed on the retailer or player. Used games continue to be a huge part of the AAA console market, making up around half of GameStop’s gross profit, but developers often have a lot of disdain for the practice, which doesn’t yield them one penny.
Ready at Dawn boss Ru Weerasuriya is definitely one who falls in the anti-used games camp, but he doesn’t want to see them disappear. He simply believes developers need to get a piece of the revenues.
“I think the problem is right now there are retail outlets that are really taking everybody for a ride. You can’t make a living at the expense of everybody else. Unfortunately, they’re not just making a living at the expense of developers but also the consumers because the consumers will see less and less games come out if developers can’t get revenue to make more new titles and keep going as a business,” he lamented to GamesIndustry International.
“I think this is something we need to curb on the retail side. We’re putting the consumers in an awkward spot and we shouldn’t have to,” he continued. “Why should they be the ones to deal with a flawed system? They are the guys we do this for. They are the ones who should be able to benefit the most from being able to buy it.”
“I don’t think we should stop used games, but we should do something about getting part of the revenue back from GameStop and places like that”
Weerasuriya went on to describe the anger he felt during a recent experience he had at a GameStop store. “I walked into a GameStop, asked for a new copy of a game and without telling me he tried to slip me a used copy and wanted to sell it to me for $5 less. I flipped out in front of the guy. I was like, ‘Dude, wrong guy… You’re doing this to the wrong guy.’ I don’t think people realize, and the guy was trying to justify it to me. I was like, ‘You have no idea.’ There are developers out there who are making games for [years] and some of them will go down purely because the revenue stream is basically flawed and creating this place where developers don’t see even a little part of it,” he said.
“I don’t think we should stop used games, but we should do something about getting part of the revenue back from GameStop and places like that. That’s not penalizing the consumers; they’ll still get what they want. But I don’t know who’s going to address it.”
Of course, the fact that the pre-owned business is thriving is a symptom of a larger issue: game pricing. For the average consumer, buying a console for several hundred dollars followed by numerous $60 games is simply not feasible. The game has to be a true blockbuster to be worth 60 bucks for many gamers, and that means that a lot of AAA developers are feeling the pressure. Wouldn’t it be easier for consumers if they could buy a much shorter AAA experience for $20 or less? Telltale has certainly shown that episodic games like The Walking Dead can be hugely appealing and successful.
“Think about it this way. What the consumer wants is choice. It doesn’t mean we have to kill the $60 game, but you should have the choice for other price points. I would love to go home and play a two-hour game at night right before I go to bed. You play the game, get a full experience and a full story and go to sleep afterwards. I love that idea, but I also love the idea of playing the 15-hour game that I have to pay more for. I think there’s room for different tiers. And I think the market is already breaking those out,” Weerasuriya commented.
Just like summer blockbusters in Hollywood, there will always be a desire for thrill rides like Call of Duty, he added: “We can make the indie game just like there are indie movies, or we can make the summer blockbuster. The beauty of our ecosystem is that it continues to grow and is getting stronger to be able to allow for all these tiers to exist, and for them to balance out. For every big, Titanic-type thing you can have a bunch of projects that are smaller and that’s the beauty of the ecosystem. We need them for each other. We can’t dismiss one and hope to have just the other.”
Weerasuriya hopes his new, first-ever console IP, The Order 1886, will fall into the blockbuster category. It’s an idea that he’s been percolating for many, many years, and Ready at Dawn is finally prepared to tell the story… with a little help from history.
“One of the things I love about storytelling is some of the best stories ever told are the ones we’ve actually lived. You can create all these crazy worlds and stuff but sometimes they’re not believable. If you really think about it, our history is the most amazing place to find stories,” he said, conjuring up ideas of Assassin’s Creed for us.
“The funny thing is we started our ideas on this even before we heard about [Assassin's Creed]…This IP is really a recreation of the world and how the world would have evolved into something slightly different, and we really catch it in that moment of post-industrial revolution London. And you still get to experience a lot of the things that really happened in the [real] world. You’ll interact with real people that lived in our world. The idea of all of this is imagine you created something where you didn’t have to explain everything to people. If people wanted to find out something about a character they could just look it up in Wikipedia.”
Some gamers instantly labeled the game as Steampunk, but Weerasuriya would classify it as anything but that actually. “Steampunk is usually not believable. We call it neo-Victorian London… For us, it was how real can we keep it, and what can we do to make people believe this really existed? So if you push a weapon or something too far to make it unbelievable, then we dial it back. And then it could be a weapon that Edison put together using technology that he invented at the time… that’s what was important for us, that believability,” he said.
Most developers today are platform agnostic. Financially, it just makes sense to get your game to as large a base of consumers as possible. Ready at Dawn is taking a risk by staying exclusive to PS4, but Weerasuriya is completely confident in his decision to stay loyal to Sony.
“We saw the initial talks about PS4 and what it was going to be and we’ve had a relationship with Sony for 10 years, so we felt it was the right time to not only move but to move to a single platform again where we could bring our expertise to something that could make us realize the game we wanted. Once we knew that internally, we approached Sony and said this is what we have and here’s where we want to go, and they listened to us and we had a great discussion about how big it was going to be, and it turned out to be bigger than expected. So it’s a good conscious decision from us to target a platform that we could make the most of,” he explained.
We pressed Weerasuriya on the financial aspect of being PS4-exclusive, and he acknowledged that his studio often is guilty of putting creative needs ahead of fiscal ones.
“You have to be willing to give part of that financial aspect up to see your vision through”
“For us, the number one factor in making our decision was always creative. And to a fault over the last 10 years, we sometimes chose creative over a lot of other things. Yes, of course, there’s an opportunity to make a dual-platform game and there are third-party publishers we can go to, and it’s not something we’ll ever dismiss, but for now since we’ve been so targeted towards working on a single platform it felt natural for us to make that decision regardless of the financial hit we would take,” he said.
“In the future, who knows? I can only imagine that if the platforms get more and more similar in the future, maybe hardware manufacturers will only make hardware. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen because you still need to support your hardware. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo still need to support their platforms. And Sony always takes chances on their hardware to make very, very risky games as far as ideas and content is concerned, but it pays off. You have to be willing to give part of that financial aspect up to see your vision through.”
Part of the creative vision for Ready at Dawn is to enhance games’ believability. “Everything you saw in the trailer was in-game, and it was important for us to create something that we call filmic. A lot of the effort that went into it was to emulate a lot of things people are familiar with today,” Weerasuriya said. “You don’t have to tell someone who’s watching a movie if something looks odd if it’s filmed the wrong way. They know it because for their whole lives they’ve been watching movies.”
“So we strive to emulate glass and how it looks looking through a lens with real depth of field and chromatic aberration – everything that we could do to basically build the correct physical aspects of a real lens, we tried to do in the game. Giving people that experience, you’re not going to have a disconnect; it’s really about climbing out of the uncanny valley to the other side. I think this is the hardware that’s going to do that,” he asserted.
If The Order 1886 is successful, Ready at Dawn could be looking at much more than video games. Weerasuriya noted that his team definitely has big transmedia ambitions.
“I will tell you, the franchise was created not as a game franchise. It lived its life before it became a game as a world, as an IP. You can imagine now that the game is a window into that IP, so yes, I want to have a lot of windows into that IP, and hopefully that’ll come in many different forms,” he said.
Next gen hacker SuperDaeE, who breached Sony, Microsoft, Epic, Valve, Blizzard and other gaming companies, has released an encrypted 1.7TB FTP download of source code.
SuperDaE said he would release the files, which are believed to contain sensitive information about unreleased games, should he be arrested. SuperDaE, whose real name is “Dylan” and who is an Australian citizen, was the bloke who leaked loads of accurate new info to Kotaku about the then unnamed Xbox One and PS4 earlier this year. When the FTP went life, SuperDaE tweeted, “Insurance up.”
The “insurance file” supposedly contains material grabbed by SuperDaE’s hacks into Gears of War and Unreal Engine developer Epic, World of Warcraft studio Blizzard, Sleeping Dogs dev house United Front Games and the now-shuttered publisher THQ.
The FTP also apparently contains software development kits for the PS4, Xbox One and Wii U as well as possible old code for unreleased games such as Company of Heroes 2 and WWE 14. He said that the FTP had enough files to change the video game industry for better.
The encrypted file is currently live on SuperDaE’s site SuperDaE’s website also has an Australian bank transfer number and a BitCoin link. Currently, it’s unclear how the downloader gets the seemingly necessary key to open the file. It is possible that SuperDaE, a 17 year-old minor, is facing a few charges which are not hacker related. These include “possession of cannabis and drug paraphernalia”, “possession of a prohibited weapon”, “possession of identification material with intent to commit an offence”, and “possessing and copying an indecent or obscene article, possession of child exploitation material”.
Games publisher EA believes things will turn around for the company next year. This year has been pretty unpleasant for the company after its trusted DRM sunk its flagship SimCity release.
But Electronic Arts seems to think that is all behind it and has forecast fiscal 2014 earnings above Wall Street’s expectations. EA has been cutting staff and reorganizing studios in recent months to embrace new game platforms. It is preparing a new batch of games including the latest installment of its “Battlefield” shooter game franchise.
Digital revenue, from mobile games, online offerings and other newer sales channels, rose 45 percent year-over-year to $618 million, larger than EA’s packaged goods business in the fourth quarter ended on March 31. It thinks that consumers have held back from buying hardware and software as they await new versions of Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox expected later this year.
The video game maker forecast revenue of $4 billion, in line with Wall Street’s expectations. Weakness in the packaged games market dented revenue, but EA recognized $120 million of deferred payments from its “Battlefield Premium” service in the fourth quarter.
For the latest quarter, total revenue declined to $1.2 billion from $1.37 billion a year ago. Adjusted revenue rose 6.4 percent to $1.04 billion over the same period, barely beating analysts’ average estimate of $1.03 billion.
Net income fell to $323 million from $400 million last year.
As anyone who has accidentally walked into a room full of children can tell you, they’re good at asking the kinds of questions that just keep drilling down. “Why is the sky blue? So why does blue light get scattered more? Then why is the sky red at sunset? Where are you going?”
And although I don’t recommend it, if you were to sit one of these little buggers down with a quarterly earnings reports from EA or Activision, they might soon start asking “Why are violent video games so much more popular than other games?” It’s a tricky question to answer without falling down the why hole. Because shooting stuff is fun. Why is it fun? Because people like military themes where they can be the hero. Okay, but why is that? Because players like feeling ridiculously powerful and enormous guns let them do that. But why is that appealing? Why, why, why?
Well, some psychologists are trying to tease apart the reasons why violence sells without throwing their hands up and shouting “Just because! And I’m not even your real dad!” Researchers Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan describe how they think that the design of violent games – especially shooters – naturally does a pretty good job of satisfying some very basic psychological needs. But not in the way you may be thinking.
In their book, Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, Rigby and Ryan describe “self-determination theory,” a fairly well established framework that aims to describe why people pursue certain voluntary activities. In part, self-determination theory says that people are motivated to engage in activities to the extent that they satisfy three psychological needs:
- 1. Competence – progressing in skill and power.
- 2. Autonomy – being able to choose from multiple, meaningful options.
- 3. Relatedness – feeling important to others.
What does this have to do with violent shooters? Rigby, Ryan, and their colleagues argue that many of the design principles of good shooters also happen to follow well worn paths to satisfying these three psychological needs. Let’s take a closer look.
Competence is communicated by immediate and unambiguous positive feedback in response to your actions – you see opponents stagger, see blood fly off them, and ultimately see them collapse. The beloved headshot is particularly effective in this regard. Scott Rigby notes, “I’ll often put up a slide with a great screenshot of a headshot, and it always elicits smiles. The smiles here aren’t because everyone is sadistic – they are because this is a moment of mastery satisfaction that all gamers can relate to. The blood may not be the value component, but really is just a traditional way dense informational feedback on mastery is provided.” Information about competence in shooters is also thrown at you in the form of scoreboards, rankings, weapon unlocks, and eventually the outcome of every (relatively short) match.
Autonomy, the second motivator in self-determination theory, is also well served by the design of most popular shooters. Having the option to choose many different paths through a level satisfies autonomy, as does choosing between different classes, different loadouts, or different tactics. In a lot of games you can even choose between different modes, modifiers, or maps, allowing you to satisfy the need to play a game how you please. And if that’s not enough, custom character or weapon skins or models also fit in here.
Finally, relatedness is most obviously important in multiplayer games where you can feel like part of a successful (or, perhaps more likely of pickup games, incompetent) team bound together by opposition to a common foe. To the extent that shooters communicate your contributions in the forms of scores, points, server-wide notifications, or MVP awards, relatedness will be satisfied – to say nothing of what you can get out of text and voice chat. But even most modern shooters have single player campaigns that somewhat mimic this and put you in the role of someone important to those around you.
Of course, none of these motivators is unique to shooters. They show up in good game design across all genres and themes. But violent shooters usually hit on all three, and Rigby and Ryan believe that’s there’s a big overlap between what makes an effective shooter and what satisfies multiple facets of all three of these psychological needs. So while RPGs might nail autonomy, platformers may demand competence, and MMOs may allow the most relatedness, violent shooters fire on all three cylinders.
“[Violent games] are fun not because of the blood and gore,” write Rigby and Ryan, “but because games of war and combat offer so many opportunities to feel autonomy, competence, and the relatedness of camaraderie rolled up into an epic heroic experience.” But, that all said, do shooters satisfy all these motivators so well because they’re violent?
It’s an important question, and Ryan, Rigby, and their colleague Andrew Przybylski published a 2009 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that addresses it. Part of their research involved a clever experiment where they modified Half-Life 2 to create a high-violence version of the game’s multiplayer and a low-violence version. The high violence version is pretty much what you’d expect. The low violence one, though, was created by changing the bullet-spewing guns into “tag” tools that players would use to zap opponents. Once tagged, foes would freeze and float up into the air for a second before being harmlessly teleported to a “penalty box” where they would wait to respawn into the game. So the main difference – arguably the only difference – between the two groups was how much violence there was in the game. Everything else was the same: the level layouts, the controls, and all the other stuff that satisfied competence and autonomy (unfortunately they didn’t examine relatedness). Only the violence was teased out of the equation
What did they find? Well, a lot of things. But one interesting finding was that the games in either condition were found enjoyable and both games satisfied the basic psychological needs of competence and autonomy. Even whether or not a person was naturally aggressive and normally enjoyed violent games didn’t matter once you accounted for competence and autonomy.
To me, this is vastly interesting and argues for alternatives to the go-to trope of violence and gore if you’re looking to draw people to games. It’s not the bloodshed as much as it is feeling like you’re able to make what you want happen on-screen. It’s not fetishising guns and explosions as much as it is the ability to use tactics and choose among meaningful options on the road to victory. It’s not the military themes as much as it is feeling like you’re an important part of a team.
Sure, war and military heroism are themes and experiences worthy of exploration, but there are other options that can be just as effective. Gamers may be happy to just keep buying the same game over and over again without understanding a thing about self determination theory, and publishers may only want to greenlight games that look like smash hits from the past without caring about mechanisms for satisfying psychological needs, but developers who think about these things and play around with them can definitely do something both great and different.
I haven’t played any of the Dead Space games, so I can’t comment on the criticisms that Dead Space 3 sold poorly because of game content or the way in which it dumbed down the gameplay experience to appeal to a broader audience. I can talk about how I see the microtransaction and other changes that vocal fans derided fit in with Electronic Arts’ broader strategy.
The games market is polarizing. The big are getting bigger (see Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty beating first week sales records year after year) while the niche is becoming more viable (see every indie game on Steam) while the middle is getting squeezed (see THQ, Eurocom and dozens of other midsize developers). The emergence of digital distribution has brought along a bigger change than many people realized, driven by two different properties:
- It is cheaper than ever before to distribute content
- It is possible to have unique, personal, one-to-one relationships with every customer
The strategies that EA are putting in place reflect this reality.
The variable demand curve
The past 30 years were about putting games in boxes, shoving them in shops and trying to sell as many as possible. The price was basically fixed at around £30-40, so the only way you could make more money was to do more volume, i.e. sell more copies. You could also try to maintain the price for as long as possible by restricting price reductions and limiting trade-ins. What you couldn’t do was to connect with your fans in any meaningful way.
We no longer live in that world, except perhaps for the very biggest blockbusters. We live in the world where there is a bewildering choice and variety of games available to us. At the same time, development costs for AAA games are enormous and rising, while the market is not getting bigger. In fact, that subset of the market is shrinking as players are distracted by the many different ways, times and devices they can play games on.
There is only one solution. It is to find a way to use the initial launch of AAA game as a starting point in your relationship with fans. It is to start the long process of turning games from one-off purchases to long-term relationships. It is about using games to engage with and retain players, to convert some of those players into fans and to convert some of those fans into superfans. In the process, niche AAA games that are not viable using the blockbuster, fixed-price-massive-volume model can become successful long-term businesses.
Viewed through that lens, everything that EA is doing makes sense. It is trying to use its games as the starting point of the relationship. Sometimes those games are free (as in most of its mobile, tablet and online strategy). Sometimes they are paid (as in its console strategy). What they are trying to achieve is a revenue model which means that those people who love their games, who keep playing, who are vocal and demanding, are given an opportunity to spend lots of money on the products that they love. It is the only way for niche AAA games to survive.
I don’t know why Dead Space 3 didn’t do well. I don’t know if it was about poor design decisions, a change of focus or gamers voting with their wallets and not supporting a game with microtransactions on principle (EA will have data on how many users engaged with microtransactions. Answering the other questions will be harder).
But I don’t think gamers should view any rumored cancellations of blockbuster projects as a victory against microtransactions. Finding a way for the biggest fans to pay lots of money to get things they truly value is the only way to support niche AAA games (and by niche, I mean anything outside the top 4 or 5 games released every year). EA may not have got the exact model right yet, but they are experimenting. The failure of the experiment does not mean that EA will abandon microtransactions: it means that it will abandon anything other than blockbuster games and tablet games.
Is that what you really want?
Nicholas Lovell is director at GAMESbrief, a blog about the business of games. He provides business advice on free-to-play and paymium design. He will be giving a masterclass on how to make money from free-to-play games in San Francisco on Sunday March 24, just before GDC. You can also book one-to-one surgeries.