Halfway through Sony’s announcement event for its new consoles – the redesigned, slimmer PS4 and the new, more powerful PS4 Pro – I found myself thinking about the optics of these events. I’ve seen the announcement events for every console since the PS2, and of them all, this was by far the most muted. The lack of bombast and braggadocio could speak to a quietly understated confidence, or to uncertainty, depending on where you’re standing. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle – Sony, achieving success it hasn’t seen since the PS2’s halcyon days, is certainly confident, but is also walking out onto uncertain territory with the PS4 Pro. The ground underfoot is no longer familiar.
The slim PS4, of course – perhaps the worst-kept secret in the history of the industry, given the appearance of functioning models on auction websites prior to the announcement – is nothing unexpected. Three years into the PS4’s lifespan, a slimmed down redesign was inevitable; it joins the (arguably rather more attractive) Xbox One S on the shelves as a sleeker model whose launch is somewhat overshadowed by impending obsolescence. Xbox One S, at least, has a year to run before the hugely more powerful Scorpio appears on the market. The new PS4 suffered the ignominy of being quickly announced and forgotten just moments before the unveiling of PS4 Pro, the device destined to replace it.
PS4 Pro, though, is a curious beast. It’ll run you $100 more than the slim PS4, it plays the same games and connects to the same online services. Sony has bent over backwards to avoid fragmenting their playerbase, and in theory, PS4 Pro is really designed only for the small minority of consumers with 4K displays in their living rooms. Yet the company must know the psychology of its consumers; it must know that for a large proportion of them, playing a game on a regular PS4 in the knowledge that an upgrade would make it that little bit sharper, that little bit smoother, is like Chinese water torture. That will only be exacerbated by the “Pro” moniker; so much of the market will feel an involuntary twitch of consumer desire at the very notion of their existing hardware being “amateur” or, god help us all, “noob”.
Ultimately, though, Sony’s cautious approach seems to be pitched just right. Those who will find themselves discombobulated by the notion of a needlessly dropped frame or a disappointingly undetailed hair strand, or quietly fuming at being branded a non-Pro, are precisely the audience expected to upgrade anyway. The benefits of PS4 Pro will be sufficient to keep them satisfied; while for pretty much everyone else, for the enormous audience of more casual consumers that Sony must access in the coming years in order to maintain the PS4’s sales trajectory, the benefits of the Pro seem minor enough not to bother with. The stroke of genius, perhaps, is that every upgrading gamer will release a second-hand PS4 into the market – handed off to a younger sibling or cousin, perhaps, or sold to a late upgrader from the last generation. That ought to do wonders to kick-start the PS4’s demographic expansion.
That’s not an easy balance to strike, and while it feels like it’s been skilfully done, only time and market data will tell. Sony enters Winter 2016 in a position of almost unprecedented strength; Nintendo’s NX won’t launch until next spring (and nobody really knows what it is), while Microsoft’s lovely Xbox One S is overshadowed by the plan to entirely outclass it with Scorpio next year. Both PS4 and PS4 Pro will do great guns this year (while PSVR, about which more in a moment, will undoubtedly be supply constrained). That’s not the real test; the test is how this line-up can fare against 2017’s launches, NX and Scorpio. Sony’s cards are now on the table for the next couple of years of the console war.
The other test, of course, is how this evolves. Much has been made of PS4 Pro representing the end of the console model; a final nail in the coffin of the five, seven or even ten year hardware cycle which has defined game consoles since the 1980s. Incremental updates like the PS4 Pro, maintaining compatibility and continuity while keeping pace with hardware advancements, are the future.
Well, perhaps they’re part of the future. Scorpio, with its dramatic upgrade over the Xbox One – so dramatic that the notion of Xbox One remaining fully capable of playing Scorpio titles seems ridiculous – suggests a somewhat different future. Equally, the muted nature of this week’s launch is suggestive of somewhat different thinking. Sony didn’t want to come out all guns blazing, shouting in triumph about its new hardware, because it cannot afford to alienate the 40 million existing owners of PS4 by implying that their consoles are obsolete. That’s a radical difference from console launches of old precisely because the whole purpose of those launches was to declare everything which came before obsolete. “Here, here is the new thing! All singing, all dancing, making the singing and dancing your existing console is capable of look merely like painful hopping and wheezing! Buy the new thing!” You can’t do that with an incremental upgrade; you can’t alienate your existing market in that way. Even smartphone makers have more freedom in their messaging, knowing that their hardware is expected to run on an 18 to 24 month upgrade cycle; consoles, though, you expect to remain “current” for four years, five years or more.
Incremental upgrades, then, lock us to a much more muted kind of message about new hardware. Does anyone really believe, though, that there’s no PS5 in the works? No grand, sweeping upgrade, that will be unveiled with bombast, and fireworks, and promises of walking on water and improbable feats of catering involving bread and fish? Of course that’s in the works. If PS4 Pro points us at something, it’s at the possibility of compatibility across generations in the very broad sense – perhaps, at last, we have entered a generation of consoles whose games will remain playable pretty much forever, or at least for as long as the capricious DRM gods smile upon us. The reverse, however, cannot remain true forever. Console generations will continue to roll past; it’s just that now, perhaps, there will be more mezzanines and landings between the floors.
Notably absent from Sony’s quiet little event was PlayStation VR. Oh, there was a logo, and there were a few words said, but you’d hardly imagine that this was a massive product launch that’s happening in just a few months’ time. Perhaps that’s because the aspect of PS4 Pro Sony is most anxious about is what impact it’s going to have on PSVR, and vice versa. Ever since the first leaks about PS4 Neo, as then was, hit the wild, there’s been a widespread assumption that part of the raison d’être for the new hardware was to drive PSVR headsets – with the existing PS4 simply being underpowered as a VR device.
If that’s not the case, Sony could have done a better job of pointing it out. Throwaway comments about the PS4 Pro yielding better frame rates for VR software sit uncomfortably with the company’s earlier pronouncements about 120Hz rendering for PSVR. Everything we’ve seen and learned about VR thus far suggests that this tech is all about framerate; if you can’t hit a consistent, high frame rate, users start to get severe motion sickness. If it’s the case that PS4 can hit those frame rates consistently, but PS4 Pro allows more visual finesse at the same frame rate, that’s great. If, on the other hand, PS4 is struggling with frame rate and PS4 Pro smoothes things out, that’s a big problem. PSVR cannot afford to be a poor experience on the existing PS4 installed base; if it is to be a success, it needs to work superbly on the 40 million PS4s already in the wild, not just on the fraction of the installed base which will be PS4 Pro.
Perhaps it does. Certainly, the demos of PSVR to date – all presumably running on PS4 standard hardware – have been fine, for the most part. Again, though, the optics are problematic; if you’re launching a VR headset within weeks of launching more powerful hardware, people are going to assume, not unreasonably, that they’re meant to complement each other. If that translates into users of the headset on stock PS4s getting physically ill where users on PS4 Pro do not, that’s a very big problem – and if that’s absolutely not the case, and there are procedures in place to prevent it, Sony needs to be discussing those things candidly and openly. (If it is the case, they might have been best served by doing something radical like only taking PSVR pre-orders alongside PS4 Pro pre-orders; let VR be the USP of PS4 Pro, and avoid the possibility of backlash from underpowered VR entirely.)
With the cards on the table, now we see how the hand plays. PS4 Pro is undoubtedly a shake-up to how the console business works. It’s one step closer to a world where console hardware is essentially a fixed-spec PC in a nice box that’s updated every few years – but we’re not in that world yet, and whether we ever arrive there will be determined by how Sony and its rivals fare in the coming 18 months.
Electronic Arts has one of the deepest back catalogs in the industry, but to date it has steered clear of mining it for new revenue through remastered and HD editions. That’s likely to change soon, according to a Game Informer interview with EA Studios executive VP Patrick Soderlund from last week at Gamescom. When asked if anything in EA’s stance on remasters had evolved in the last year, Soderlund tipped the publisher’s hand.
“What’s changed is that there is proof in the market that people want it, maybe more than there was when we spoke [previously],” Soderlund said. “There were some that did it before, but I think there is even more clear evidence that this is something that people really want. The honest answer is that we are absolutely actively looking at it. I can’t announce anything today, but you can expect us most likely to follow our fellow partners in Activision and other companies that have done this successfully.”
Soderlund added that if EA were to remaster games, it would “have to be careful in choosing the right brands for the right reasons at the right time.” Part of that would be ensuring the company handles the remasters properly instead of just selling quick and dirty ports.
That attitude is a pretty clear pivot from where the company’s thinking was just a year ago. Last October, Peter Moore said EA wasn’t interested in remakes and remasters because “it feels like pushing stuff out because you’ve run out of ideas,” adding, “I don’t know where we find the time to do remakes. We’re a company that just likes to push forward.”
While EA hasn’t been especially aggressive with remastered games, it has produced HD versions of older games like American McGee’s Alice and Crysis, primarily as preorder incentives for sequels in those series.
While some publishers establish their own eSports divisions and appoint chief competition officers, Take-Two is approaching the competitive gaming trend with a bit more caution. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz in advance of the company’s financial earnings report today, CEO and chairman Strauss Zelnick said the field was promising, but still unproven.
“eSports we find very interesting,” Zelnick said. “It is, however, still more a promotional tool than anything else. And most people see eSports as an opportunity to increase consumer engagement in their titles, and depending on the title, to increase consumer spending within the title.”
To date, Take-Two’s biggest eSports endeavor has been an NBA 2K tournament with 92,000 teams competing for a $250,000 prize. The final 16 teams are set to compete in a single-elimination tournament this weekend, with the finals taking place during the NBA Finals next month.
“It’s just the beginning for us,” Zelnick said of the tournament. “It’s very gratifying so far, but we have yet to see it as a stand-alone profitable business. We see it more as an adjunct to consumer engagement in our titles.”
Zelnick also addressed the company’s digital revenues, which for the first time made up more than half of its revenues for the year. While the industry has shifted heavily toward digital in recent years, Zelnick doesn’t see this as some sort of tipping point or a harbinger that physical goods are in for declines from here on out.
“This year was a little different because we had a very significant portion of this year’s revenue through digital distribution,” Zelnick said. “And that’s a reflection of the power of titles like Grand Theft Auto Online as well as PC titles, 90 percent of which are digitally delivered. With frontline console releases, your numbers are more like 20 percent from digital distribution. So physical distribution remains the lion’s share of our revenue.”
While Zelnick acknowledged the growth of digital distribution is a good thing for Take-Two, he specified that it wasn’t a strategy for the company because it’s ultimately out of his hands.
“We want to be where the consumer is, and we’re not really the ones who vote,” Zelnick said.
EA is telling the world that it wants into the third-person action market with an open world game, but it does not appear to be happening any time soon.
EA Studios VP Patrick Söderlund told us in 2015 that EA wanted to expand its portfolio into gigantic action games like Assassin’s Creed or Batman or GTA and CFO Blake Jorgensen said something similar.
“We feel like there’s a huge opportunity for us to continue to invest in new areas of the business like the action genre where we haven’t competed historically. There’s a very ripe opportunity for us to invest in and we’ve been able to bring great talent in to build out that part of the business.”
But according to Game Radar it is not going to happen any time soon. Blake is quoted as saying that the outfit was building an action genre product that’s probably will appear in three or four years.
We can expect something new from EA next year which has not been announced, Blake said. But this will not be anything like the big games which have captured popular attention.
According to Newzoo’s 2016 Global eSports Market Report, this year is expected to be a “pivotal” one for the eSports sector. The firm said that last year’s tally for worldwide eSports revenues came to $325 million, and this year the full eSports economy should grow 43 percent to $463 million; Newzoo said this correlates with an audience of 131 million eSports enthusiasts and another 125 million “occasional viewers who tune in mainly for the big international events.” Overall, Newzoo’s report states that global and local eSports markets should jointly generate $1.1 billion in 2019.
Looking a bit deeper, Newzoo found that investment into and advertising associated with eSports continue to grow at a rapid clip. “This year has been dominated by the amount of investors getting involved in eSports. An increasing amount of traditional media companies have become aware of the value of the eSports sphere and have launched their first eSports initiatives. With these parties getting involved, there will be an increased focus on content and media rights. All major publishers have increased their investment into the space, realizing that convergence of video, live events and the game itself are providing consumers the cross-screen entertainment they desire from their favorite franchises,” Newzoo commented.
Online advertising in particular is the fastest growing revenue segment within eSports, jumping up 99.6 percent on a global scale compared to 2014. North America is expected to lead the charge worldwide.
“In 2016, North America will strengthen its lead in terms of revenues with an anticipated $175 million generated through merchandise, event tickets, sponsorships, online advertising and media rights. A significant part of these revenues flows back to the game publisher, but across all publishers, more money is invested into the eSports economy than is directly recouped by their eSports activities,” said Newzoo’s eSports Analyst, Pieter van den Heuvel.
“China and Korea together will represent 23 percent of global esports revenues, totalling $106 million in 2016. Audience-wise, the situation is different, with Asia contributing 44 percent of global eSports enthusiasts. Growth in this region is, for a large part, fuelled by an explosive uptake in Southeast Asia.”
While eSports is certainly on a good path for growth, game companies would be wise to not get too caught up by the hype. The average annual revenue per eSports enthusiast was $2.83 in 2015 and is expected to grow to $3.53 this year, Newzoo said, but that’s still a factor four lower than a mainstream sport such as basketball, which generates revenues of $15 per fan per year.
Peter Warman, CEO at Newzoo added, “The initial buzz will settle down and the way forward on several key factors, such as regulations, content rights and involvement of traditional media, will become more clear. The collapse of MLG was a reminder that this market still has a long road to maturity and we need to be realistic about the opportunities it provides. In that respect, it is in nobody’s interest that current market estimates differ so strongly. Luckily, when zooming in on the highest market estimates of more than $700 million, the difference is explainable by an in-depth look. This estimate only differs in the revenues generated in Asia (Korea in particular), and by taking betting revenues into account. At Newzoo, we believe betting on eSports should not be mixed into direct eSports revenues as the money does not flow into the eSports economy. Similarly, sports betting is not reported in sports market reports.”
On February 16, Street Fighter V will launch on PlayStation 4 and PC. It will not be launching to Xbox One thanks to an exclusivity deal signed with Sony. And as Capcom director of brand marketing and eSports Matt Dahlgren told GamesIndustry.biz recently, there are a few reasons for that.
Dahlgren called the deal “the largest strategic partnership that fighting games have ever seen,” and said it addressed several problems the publisher has had surrounding its fighting games for years.
“Basically every SKU of a game we released had its own segmented community,” he said. “No one was really able to play together and online leaderboards were always segmented, so it was very difficult to find out who would be the best online and compare everybody across the board.”
Street Fighter V should alleviate that problem as it’s only on two platforms, and gamers on each will be able to play with those on the other. Dahlgren said it will also help salt away problems that stemmed from differences between platforms. For example, the Xbox 360 version of Street Fighter IV had less input lag than the PS3 version. That fraction of a second difference between button press and action on-screen might have been unnoticeable to most casual players, but it was felt by high-level players who know the game down to the last frame of animation.
“There were varying degrees of input lag, so when those players ended up playing each other, it wasn’t necessarily on an equal playing field,” Dahlgren said. “This time around, by standardizing the platform and making everyone play together, there will be a tournament standard and everyone is on an equal playing field.”
Finally, Dahlgren said the deal with Sony will help take Street Fighter to the next level when it comes to eSports. In some ways, it’s a wonder it’s not there already.
“I think fighting games are one of the purest forms of 1v1 competition,” Dahlgren said. “A lot of the other eSports games out there are team-based, and while there’s an appeal to those, there’s something about having a single champion and having that 1v1 showdown that’s just inherently easy for people to understand.”
Street Fighter has a competitive gaming legacy longer than League of Legends or DOTA, but isn’t mentioned in the same breath as those hits on the eSports scene. In some ways, that legacy might have stymied the franchise’s growth in eSports.
“A lot of our community was really built by the fans themselves,” Dahlgren said. “Our tournament scene was built by grassroots tournament organizers, really without the help of Capcom throughout the years. And I would say a lot of those fans have been somewhat defensive [about expanding the game’s appeal to new audiences]. It hasn’t been as inclusive as it could have been. With that said, I do definitely feel a shift in our community. There’s always been a talking point with our hardcore fans as to whether or not Street Fighter is an eSport, and what eSports could do for the scene. Could it potentially hurt it? There’s been all this controversy behind it.”
Even Capcom has shifted stances on how to handle Street Fighter as an eSport.
“In the past, we were actually against partnering up with any sort of corporations or companies out there that were treating eSports more like a business,” Dahlgren said. “And that has to do out of respect for some of our long-term tournament organizers… Our fear was that if we go out and partner up with companies concerned more about making a profit off the scene instead of the values that drive the community, then it could end up stomping out all these tournament organizers who are very passionate and have done so much for our franchise.”
“In the past, we were actually against partnering up with any sort of corporations or companies out there that were treating eSports more like a business.”
So instead of teaming with the MLGs or ESLs of the world, Capcom teamed with Twitch and formed its own Pro Tour in 2014. Local tournament organizers handle the logistics of the shows and retain the rights to their brands, while Capcom provides marketing support and helps with production values.
“I can’t say Capcom wouldn’t partner up with some of the other, more established eSports leagues out there,” Dahlgren said. “I do think there’s a way to make both of them exist, but our priority in the beginning was paying homage to our hardcore fans that helped build the scene, protecting them and allowing them to still have the entrepreneurial spirit to grow their own events. That comes first, before partnering with larger organizations.”
Just as Capcom’s stance toward tournaments has changed to better suit Street Fighter’s growth as an eSport, so too has the business model behind the game. The company has clearly looked at the success of many free-to-play eSports favorites and incorporated elements of them (except the whole “free-to-play” thing) into Street Fighter V. Previously, Capcom would release a core Street Fighter game, followed by annual or bi-annual updates with a handful of new fighters and balancing tweaks. Street Fighter V will have no such “Super” versions, with all new content and tweaks made to the game on a rolling basis.
“We are treating the game now more as a platform and a service, and are going to be continually adding new content post-launch,” Dahlgren said. “This is the first time we’re actually having our own in-game economy and in-game currency. So the more you play the game online, you’re going to generate fight money, and then you can use that fight money to earn DLC content post-launch free of charge, which is a first in our franchise. So essentially we’re looking at an approach that takes the best of both worlds. It’s not too far away from what our players really expect from a SF game, yet we get some of the benefits of continually releasing content post-launch and giving fans more of what they want to increase engagement long-term.”
Even if it’s not quite free-to-play, Street Fighter V may at least be cheaper to play. Dahlgren said that pricey arcade stick peripherals are not as essential for dedicated players as they might have seemed in the past.
“Since Street Fighter comes from an arcade heritage, a lot of people have this general belief that arcade sticks are the premier way of playing,” Dahlgren said. “I think now that the platform choice has moved more towards consoles, pad play has definitely become much more prevalent. I would believe that at launch you’re probably going to have more pad players than you actually have stick players. And in the competitive scene, we’ve seen the rise of a lot of very impressive pad players, which has pretty much shown that Street Fighter is a game that’s not necessarily dictated by the controller you play with; it’s the strategies and tactics you employ. And both of them are essentially on equal playing ground.”
Electronic Arts is the latest publisher to add a dedicated eSports group to its business, as CEO Andrew Wilson today announced the formation of the EA Competitive Gaming Division.
“As the latest step in our journey to put our players first, this group will enable global eSports competitions in our biggest franchises including FIFA, Madden NFL, Battlefield and more,” Wilson said, adding, “EA’s CGD will seek to build a best-in-class program to centralize our efforts with new events, as well as the infrastructure to bring you the world’s preeminent EA competitive experiences.”
Wilson said the CGD will foster competition and community around EA’s games, creating official tournaments and live broadcasts to entertain millions.
Leading up the new CGD will be Peter Moore, who will step down from his role as chief operating officer of EA at the end of the fiscal year to assume a new role as executive vice president and chief competition officer. Moore is well acquainted with EA’s key competitive gaming franchises like FIFA and Madden; prior to assuming his current role in 2011, Moore spent almost four years as president of EA Sports. An EA representative said the company has not yet announced a successor to Moore in the COO position, with details on those plans to come in the weeks and months ahead.
Moore seems excited to lead a burgeoning field for EA. “As a longtime champion of competitive gaming, bringing this to life at EA is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me,” he said in a tweet. He also told IGN that this is something that EA has been thinking about for some time.
“We’re already very engaged with our development teams around the world to make sure our games have got modes that lend themselves very well to competitive gaming, built-in from the get-go. Not as something that’s put in as an add-on mode or a last-minute afterthought,” he explained.
“Prior to the formation of this division, conversations have been had, not just within the last few weeks but in the last couple years, about how we’ve got games that are coming to market in FY17, FY18, and FY19, and making darn sure that if you’re in a genre that lends itself to competitive gaming, you better have those modes built in.”
Wilson also named Todd Sitrin as the division’s senior vice president and general manager. Sitrin started with the company 14 years ago, leading product marketing at EA Tiburon for projects like Madden NFL and NASCAR Racing. Over the next decade, he worked his way up to senior vice president of marketing for all EA Sports, and has spent the last few years overseeing global marketing and product marketing for EA as a whole.
EA is by no means the only traditional publisher to identify an opportunity in the eSports market. In October, Activision Blizzard established its own eSports division. Unlike EA, Activision Blizzard looked outside its own walls for leadership of the group, tapping former ESPN CEO Steve Bornstein and MLG co-founder Mike Sepso to handle the new division.
Over the last few years, competitive gaming has made huge strides, building a massive fanbase, supporting the rise of entire genres of games and attracting vast prize pots for the discipline’s very best. Almost across the board, the phenomenon has also seen its revenues gaining, as new sponsors come on board, including some major household names. Sustaining the rapidity of the growth of eSports is going to be key to its long term success, maintaining momentum and pushing it ever further into the public consciousness.
In order to do that, according to Newzoo, eSports need to learn some lessons from their more traditional athletic counterparts. Right now, the research firm puts a pin in eSports revenues of $2.40 per enthusiast per year, a number which is expected to bring the total revenue for the industry to $275 million for 2015 – a 43 per cent increase on last year. By 2018, the firm expects that per user number to almost double, reaching $4.63.
That’s a decent number, representing very rapid growth, but it pales in comparison to Newzoo’s estimates on the average earning per fan for a sport like Basketball, which represents a $14 per fan revenue – rising to $19 where only the major league NBA is a factor. To catch up to numbers like this is going to take some time, but Newzoo’s research has listed five factors it considers vital to achieving that aim.
Right now, MOBAs are undeniably the king of the eSports scene, and one of the biggest genres in gaming. The king of MOBAs, League of Legends, is the highest earning game in the world, whilst others like Valve’s DOTA 2 are also represent huge audiences and revenues, including the prestigious annual International tournament. Shooters are also still big business here, with Activision Blizzard recently announcing the formation of a new Call of Duty League.
Nonetheless, MOBAs are still the mainstay and if you don’t like them, you’re not going to get too deeply into competitive gaming as a fan. Although their popularity with the athletes is going to make them a difficult genre to shift, Newzoo says that broadening the slate is a key factor to growth.
The major tournaments bring players, and audiences, from all over the world, but it’s often only the very top tier of players who can find themselves a foothold in regular competition. Major territories like the US, South Korea and Europe have some local structure, but again League of Legends stands almost alone in its provision of local infrastructure. By expanding a network of regular leagues and competitions to more countries, eSports stands a much better chance of building a grassroots movement and capturing more fans.
Already a problem very much on the radar of official bodies and players around the world, the introduction of regulation is always a tough transition for any industry. However, when you’re putting up millions of dollars in prize money, you can’t have any grey areas around doping, match fixing and player behaviour at events. These young players are frequently thrust into a very rapid acceleration of lifestyle, fame and responsibility – a heady mixture which can prove to be a damaging influence on many. Just like in other sports, stars need protecting and nurturing – and the competitions careful monitoring – in order for growth to occur without scandal and harm to its stars.
Dishing out the rights to broadcast, promote and profit from eSports is a complex issue. Whilst games like football are worldwide concerns, with media rights a hotly contested and constantly shifting field, nobody owns the games themselves. With eSports, every single aspect of the games being played is a trademark in itself, with its owners understandably keen to protect them. However, with fan promotion such a key part of the sport’s growth, and services like Twitch a massive factor in organic promotion, governing the rights of distribution is only going to become a murkier and more complex business as time goes on. With major TV networks, well used to exclusivity, now starting to show an interest, expect this to become a hot topic.
Conflict between new and old media
That clash of worlds, between the fresh and agile formats of digital user-sourced broadcasting and the old network model is also going to be source of many of its own problems. One or the other, or even both, is going to have to adapt fast for there to be a convivial agreement which betters the industry as a whole. There’s currently considerable pushback from established media against the idea of eSports becoming accepted as a mainstream activity, fuelled in no small part by their audiences themselves, so a lo of attitudes need to change. Add to that the links between these media giants and many of the world’s richest advertisers and you can start to see the problem.
The PlayStation business has had another phenomenal quarter in the first four months of 2015, selling three million PS4 units and turning in an operating income of $160 million from revenues of $2.365 billion. There are now 25.3 million PlayStation 4 units in the hands of players worldwide – a number achieved in less than two full years.
The console continues to be the company’s fastest seller – outpacing the PS2, which took two years and eight months to reach the 20 million mark. Furthermore, thanks to dropping production costs for PS4 hardware, a 12 per cent increase in sales from the same quarter last year translated to a massive 350 per cent rise in operating income.
A strengthening dollar again hurt Sony’s bottom line, having an estimated impact of 15.6 billion Yen on the revenue total of 288.6 billion Yen, but this was massively outweighed by the increase in sales and the efficiency gains of Sony’s operation. On the strength of the results, Sony has added another 20 billion Yen in operating income to the sector’s full year forecast.
The sales rate of PS4 shows a healthily steady growth in player base, returning to a gradual upswing after a huge blip in Q3, 2014. Sony has upgraded it full year forecast from 16 million units to 16.5 as a result – a figure which would show a substantial increase on 2014’s 14.8 million total. By Sony’s own reckoning, the end of Q1 2016 will see nigh on 40 million of the consoles in homes. Vita sales once again went unmentioned in the report, whilst the gradual decline of PS3 continued.
Hardware wasn’t the only success story. Network, (“Network includes network services relating to game, video, and music content provided by Sony Network Entertainment Inc.”) mad almost as much in revenues, netting around 105.8 billion Yen compared to Hardware’s 129.5 billion. The Other category (Other includes packaged software and peripheral devices) brought in 30.6 billion.
Overall, the corporation turned a healthy profit, banking $676 million in net from sales of nearly $15 billion. Whilst the PlayStation business is very healthy indeed, it’s far from Sony’s only, or even biggest, success story: Devices, Imaging, Financial Services and Music all continue to return a higher operating income.
Last week it was reported how Geeknet Inc. was in the process of being bought out by retailer Hot Topic for $16 a share or $37 million in cash.
However we have just discovered that deal was squashed because Thinkgeek got a better deal from Gamestop.
GameStop offered $20 per share and Hot Topic wanted away. GameStop’s $20 per share deal also includes $37 million in cash and comes out to a total valuation of $140 million.
Geeknet must pay Hot Topic a three percent “break-up fee,” which GameStop has agreed to reimburse.
What this will mean is that ThinkGeek customers can pick up ThinkGeek merchandise in GameStop stores.
The press release also mentions the potential of offering GameStop PowerUp Rewards members “exclusive, unique and cutting edge merchandise related to their favorite entertainment.”
The deal should be concluded by the end of GameStop’s second financial quarter of 2015, which will happen in August.
At Sony’s 2015 Investor Relations Day today, Sony Computer Entertainment president and global CEO Andrew House detailed the company’s strategy for the coming year, including how it will address some shortcomings.
House began his presentation on a positive note, talking up PlayStation 4 as “the fastest selling hardware platform in our history,” showing better-than expected growth and pushing PlayStation Plus subscriptions to twice what they were in fiscal year 2013. He said the company has a competitive advantage for the moment, and laid out three ways it hopes to maintain that. In addition to next year’s launch of the Project Morpheus virtual reality headset and continued cost reduction efforts, House said the company needs quality software.
“We are working very hard to continue very strong support from third-party pubs and devs,” House said. “Our first-party lineup is a little sparse this year, so I think this places even greater emphasis on getting good third-party support.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean exclusive third-party support. To date, House said Sony has been primarily trying to get multiplatform developers to simply take advantage of features the PS4 has over the competition, like SharePlay, or maybe include extra content in the PS4 version or give players early access to add-on content. Third-party exclusives are still an option, just not a frequently used one.
“I will admit that these are, in the current publishing landscape, few and far between, but we were able to announce a full exclusive around a franchise like Street Fighter so that Street Fighter 5 is a complete exclusive for PlayStation 4,” House said, adding, “Although given publishing dynamics and development costs, those are increasingly difficult to secure.”
House also talked about the decline in Sony’s other platforms. As much as the PS4’s growth has exceeded expectations, so too has the PlayStation 3’s decline. House said the system’s price simply isn’t as competitive in the market as the PlayStation 2 and PSone were after their successors launched, and added that the shift toward more connected console experiences has also made less capable offerings less attractive.
House also cast a dim view of the company’s handheld business. While he noted that the Vita platform remains “strong and vibrant” in Asia and Japan, his outlook for the current fiscal year included declines in the US and Europe. Additionally, he referred to the PlayStation Vita and its microconsole counterpart the PlayStation TV as “legacy platforms” when discussing a write-off of hardware components for the two.
“I would characterize 2015 as the beginning of a harvest period for the PlayStation 4 platform,” House said. “The beginning of a harvest period. That being said, we are also undertaking to invest in the future, and 2015 will also be a year of investment.”
That investment will be focused on a few areas. There’s the Morpheus, of course, as well as continued spend on original PlayStation entertainment content like the TV show Powers (which was recently greenlit for a second season). On top of that, House said Sony would be investing in the expansion of its PlayStation Vue television streaming platform and a continued re-architecture of its PlayStation Network with an eye toward increasing stability and reducing maintenance downtime.
Hackers from Brazil have managed to discover a new exploit for the PS4 which enables them to bypass the DRM on any software and games.
A couple of weeks ago, a number of electronic stores in Brazil had been advertising the means to copy and run a series of ripped retail games on the console.
At the time little was known about the hack back then, but information gradually began to trickle out from customers and make its way around the web. Please see below for commentary from Lancope.
Gavin Reid, VP of threat intelligence, Lancope said that Sony was playing an arms race against groups that benefit from the abilities to copy and share games.
The hack originates from a Russian website and has been pushed into the public by Brasilian retailers. The hack isn’t necessarily a jailbreak for the PS4, nor is it really a homebrew technique.
What they did was use a retail PS4, with several games installed on it, with it’s entire game database and operating system (including NAN/BIOS). This was then dumped onto a hacked PS4 via Raspberry Pi.
The entire process costs about $100 to $150 to install 10 games and $15 per additional game.
“Open source groups like Homebrew with more altruistic motivations of extending the functionality of the console alongside groups selling modified consoles specifically to play copied games and of course the resell of the games themselves at fraction of the actuals costs. This has happened historically with all of the major consoles. It would be highly unlikely not to continue with the PS4,” he said.
Over the last few years, the industry has seen budget polarization on an enormous scale. The cost of AAA development has ballooned, and continues to do so, pricing out all but the biggest warchests, while the indie and mobile explosions are rapidly approaching the point of inevitable over-saturation and consequential contraction. Stories about the plight of mid-tier studios are ten-a-penny, with the gravestones of some notable players lining the way.
For a company like Ninja Theory, in many ways the archetypal mid-tier developer, survival has been a paramount concern. Pumping out great games (Ninja Theory has a collective Metacritic average of 75) isn’t always enough. Revitalizing a popular IP like DMC isn’t always enough. Working on lucrative and successful external IP like Disney Infinity isn’t always enough. When the fence between indie and blockbuster gets thinner and thinner, it becomes ever harder to balance upon.
Last year, Ninja Theory took one more shot at the upper echelons. For months the studio had worked on a big budget concept which would sit comfortably alongside the top-level, cross-platform releases of the age: a massive, multiplayer sci-fi title that would take thousands of combined, collaborative hours to exhaust. Procedurally generated missions and an extensive DLC structure would ensure longevity and engagement. Concept art and pre-vis trailers in place, the team went looking for funding. Razor was on its way.
Except the game never quite made it. Funding failed to materialize, and no publisher would take the project on. It didn’t help that the search for a publishing deal arrived almost simultaneously with the public announcement of Destiny. Facing an impossible task, the team abandoned the project and moved on with other ideas. Razor joined a surprisingly large pile of games that never make it past the concept stage.
Sadly, it’s not a new story. In fact, at the time, it wasn’t even a news story. But this time Ninja Theory’s reaction was different. This was a learning experience, and learning experiences should be shared. Team lead and co-founder Tameem Antoniades turned the disappointment not just into a lesson, but a new company ethos: involve your audience at an early stage, retain control, fund yourself, aim high, and don’t compromise. The concept of the Independent AAA Proposition, enshrined in a GDC presentation give by Antoniades, was born.
Now the team has a new flagship prospect, cemented in this fresh foundation. In keeping with the theme of open development and transparency, Hellblade is being created with the doors to its development held wide open, with community and industry alike invited to bear witness to the minutiae of the process. Hellblade will be a cross-platform game with all of the ambition for which Ninja Theory is known, and yet it is coming from an entirely independent standpoint. Self-published and self-governed, Hellblade is the blueprint for Ninja Theory’s future.
“We found ourselves as being one of those studios that’s in the ‘squeezed middle’,” project lead Dominic Matthews says. “We’re about 100 people, so we kind of fall into that space where we could try to really diversify and work on loads of smaller projects, but indie studios really have an advantage over us, because they can do things with far lower overheads. We have been faced with this choice of, do we go really, really big with our games and become the studio that is 300 people or even higher than that, and try to tick all of these boxes that the blockbuster AAA games need now.
“We don’t really want to do that. We tried to do that. When we pitched Razor, which we pitched to big studios, that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. That was going to be a huge game; a huge game with a service that would go on for years and would be a huge, multiplayer experience. Although I’m sure it would have been really cool to make that, it kind of showed to us that we’re not right to try to make those kinds of games. Games like Enslaved – trying to get a game like that signed now would be impossible. The way that it was signed, there would be too much pressure for it to be…to have the whole feature set that justifies a $60 price-tag.
“That $60 price-tag means games have to add multiplayer, and 40 hours of gameplay minimum, and a set of characters that appeal to as many people as they possibly can. There’s nothing wrong with games that do that. There’s some fantastic games that do, AAA games. Though we do think that there’s another space that sits in-between. I think a lot of indie games are super, super creative, but they can be heavily stylised. They work within the context of the resources that people have.
“We want to create a game that’s like Enslaved, or like DMC, or like Heavenly Sword. That kind of third-person, really high quality action game, but make it work in an independent model.”
Cutting out the middle-man is a key part of the strategy. But if dealing with the multinational machinery of ‘big pubs’ is what drove Ninja Theory to make such widespread changes, there must surly have been some particularly heinous deals that pushed it over the edge?
“I think it’s just a reality of the way that those publisher/developer deals work,” Matthews says. “In order for a publisher to take a gamble on your game and on your idea, you have to give up a lot. That includes the IP rights. It’s just the realities of how things work in that space. For us, I think any developer would say the same thing, being able to retain your IP is a really important thing. So far, we haven’t been out to do that.
“With Hellblade, it’s really nice that we can be comfortable in the fact that we’re not trying to appeal to everyone. We’re not trying to hit unrealistic forecasts. Ultimately, I think a lot of games have unrealistic forecasts. Everyone knows that they’re unrealistic, but they have to have these unrealistic forecasts to justify the investment that’s going into development.
“Ultimately, a lot of games, on paper, fail because they don’t hit those forecasts. Then the studios and the people that made those games, they don’t get the chance to make any more. It’s an incredibly tough market. Yes, we’ve enjoyed working with our publishers, but that’s not to say that the agreements that developed are all ideal, because they’re not. The catalyst to us now being able to do this is really difficult distribution. We can break away from that retail $60 model, where every single game has to be priced that way, regardless of what it is.
Driven into funding only games that will comfortably shift five or six million units, Matthews believes that publishers have no choice but to stick to the safe bets, a path that eventually winnows down diversity to the point of stagnation, where only a few successful genres ever end up getting made: FPS, sports, RPG, maybe racing. Those genres become less and less distinct, while simultaneously shoe-horning in mechanics that prove popular elsewhere and shunning true innovation.
While perhaps briefly sustainable, Matthews sees that as a creative cul-de-sac. Customers, he feels, are too smart to put up with it.
“Consumers are going to get a bit wary of games that have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them”
“I think consumers are going to get a bit wary. Get a bit wary of games that have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them. I think gamers are going to start saying, ‘For what?’
“The pressures are for games to appeal to more and more people. It used to be if you sold a million units, then that was OK. Then it was three million units. Now it’s five million units. Five million units is crazy. We’ve never sold five million units.”
It’s not just consumers who are getting wise, though. Matthews acknowledges that the publishers also see the dead-end approaching.
“I think something has to be said for the platform holders now. Along with digital distribution, the fact that the platform holders are really opening their doors and encouraging self-publishing and helping independent developers to take on some of those publishing responsibilities, has changed things for us. I think it will change things for a lot of other developers. “Hellblade was announced at the GamesCom Playstation 4 press conference. My perception of that press conference was that the real big hitters in that were all independent titles. It’s great that the platform holders have recognised that. There’s a real appetite from their players for innovative, creative games.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to try to do things differently. Like on Hellblade, we’re questioning everything that we do. Not just on development, but also how we do things from a business perspective as well. Normally you would say, ‘Well, you involve these types of agencies, get these people involved in this, and a website will take this long to create.’ The next thing that we’re doing is, we’re saying, ‘Well, is that true? Can we try and do these things a different way,’ because you can.
“There’s definitely pressure for us to fill all those gaps left by a publisher, but it’s a great challenge for us to step up to. Ultimately, we have to transition into a publisher. That’s going to happen at some point, if we want to publish our own games.”
While the Sony PlayStation 4 has been selling very well, it seems that Christmas was not really its season.
Sony said that the PlayStation 4 has sold more than 18.5 million units since the new generation of consoles launched. While that is good and makes the PS4 the fastest selling PlayStation to date, there was no peaking at Christmas.
You would think that the PS4 would sell well at Christmas as parents were forced to do grevious bodily harm to their credit cards to shut their spoilt spawn up during the school holidays. But apparently not.
Apparently, the weapon of choice against precious snowflakes being bored was an Xbox One which saw a Christmas spike in sales.
Sony said that its new numbers are pretty much on target, it sold the expected 2 million sales per month rate.
Redmond will be happy with that result even if it still has a long way to go before it matches the PlayStation 4 on sales.
For independent developers, the last decade has been an endless procession of migratory possibilities. The physical world was defined by compromise, dependence and strategically closed doors, but the rise of digital afforded freedom and flexibility in every direction. New platforms, new business models, new methods of distribution and communication; so many fresh options appeared in such a brief window of time that knowing where and when to place your bet was almost as important as having the best product. For a few years, right around 2008, there was promise almost everywhere you looked.
That has changed. No matter how pregnant with potential they once seemed, virtually every marketplace has proved unable to support the spiralling number of new releases. If the digital world is one with infinite shelf-space for games, it has offered no easy solutions on how to make them visible. Facebook, Android, iOS, Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network; all have proved to be less democratic than they first appeared, their inevitable flaws exposed as the weight of choice became heavier and heavier. As Spil Games’ Eric Goossens explained to me at the very start of 2014: “It just doesn’t pay the bills any more.”
Of course, Goossens was talking specifically about indie development of casual games. And at that point, with 2013 only just receding from view, I would probably have named one exception to the trend, one place where the balance between volume and visibility gave indies the chance to do unique and personal work and still make a decent living. That place would have been Steam, and if I was correct in my assessment for even one second, it wasn’t too long before the harsher reality became clear.
After less than five months of 2014 had passed, Valve’s platform had already added more new games than in the whole of the previous year. Initiatives like Greenlight and Early Access were designed to make Steam a more open and accessible platform, but they were so effective that some of what made it such a positive force for indies was lost in the process. Steam’s culture of deep-discounting has become more pervasive and intense in the face of this chronic overcrowding, stirring up impassioned debate over what some believe will be profound long-term effects for the perceived value of PC games. Every discussion needs balance, but in this case the back-and-forth seemed purely academic: for a lot of developers steep discounts are simply a matter of survival, and precious few could even entertain the notion of focusing on the greater good instead.
And the indie pinch was felt beyond Steam’s deliberately weakened walls. Kickstarter may be a relatively new phenomenon – even for the hyper-evolving landscape of the games industry – but it faced similar problems in 2014, blighted by the twin spectres of too much content and not enough money to go around. Anecdotally, the notion that something had changed was lurking in the back ground at the very start of the year, with several notable figures struggling to find enough backers within the crowd. The latter months of 2014 threw up a few more examples, but they also brought something close to hard evidence that ‘peak Kickstarter’ may already be behind us – fewer successful projects, lower funding targets, and less money flowing through the system in general. None of which was helped by a handful of disappointing failures, each one a blow for the public’s already flagging interest in crowdfunding. Yet another promising road for indies had become more treacherous and uncertain.
So are indies heading towards a “mass extinction event”? Overcrowding is certainly a key aspect of the overall picture, but the act of making and releasing a game is only getting easier, and the allure of development as a career choice seems to grow with each passing month. It stands to reason that there will continue to be a huge number of games jostling for position on every single platform – more than even a growing market can sustain – but there’s only so much to be gained from griping about the few remaining gatekeepers. If the days when simply being on Steam or Kickstarter made a commercial difference are gone, and if existing discovery tools still lack the nuance to deal with all of that choice, then it just shifts the focus back to where it really belongs: talent, originality, and a product worth an investment of time and money.
At GDC Europe this summer, I was involved in a private meeting with a group of Dutch independent game developers, all sharing knowledge and perspective on how to find success. We finished that hour agreeing on much the same thing. There are few guarantees in this or any other business, but the conditions have also never been more appropriate for personality and individuality to be the smartest commercial strategy. The world has a preponderance of puzzle-platformers, but there’s only one Monument Valley. We’re drowning in games about combat, but This War of Mine took a small step to the left and was greeted with every kind of success. Hell, Lucas Pope made an entire game about working as a border control officer and walked away with not just a hit, but a mantelpiece teeming with the highest honours.
No matter how crowded the market has become, strong ideas executed with care are still able to rise above the clamour, no huge marketing spend required. As long as that’s still possible, indies have all of the control they need.