“Grey Goo is remarkable not for what it has added to the RTS formula, but what it has stripped away,” PC Gamer wrote in its reveal of Grey Goo, a new real-time strategy game from the veterans at Petroglyph. Perhaps the same could be said of Grey Goo’s recently formed publisher Grey Box, which is seeking to strip away the more negative aspects of game publishing. Suits and creatives typically will bump heads because the two sides are looking at the creation of games from wildly different perspectives. But what if they actually had the same goals?
Ted Morris, executive producer at Petroglyph, felt an immediate kinship with the team at Grey Box. “As a small [studio] – small being 50, 60 people – we are always talking to publishers to see what deals we can put together. But with Grey Box, I think that we meshed better on a personal level with them as a company and as a group of people than we have ever meshed with another group,” he enthused to GamesIndustry International during GDC. “And we’ve worked with Sega and LucasArts – all the big guys – and certainly talked to everybody else, too – the EAs and everybody – and these guys – man, we just gelled with these guys so well.”
Morris said that Grey Box’s approach to publishing was noticeably different from the start. While other, larger publishers may immediately come up with marketing plans and sales targets, Grey Box found itself on the same page with Petroglyph: fun comes first.
“Every meeting that we have is always a sit down and then people open up financial books and they start talking about what the sales figures are going to be like, and when we sit down with [Grey Box], it’s like ‘how can we make a great game?’ We don’t even talk about money, we talk about ‘how good can we make this game?’ and ‘how successful will it be?’ You know, let the game drive the sales, don’t let the marketing drive the sales, don’t let the sales department drive the sales. It’s really about, if you make a great game, they will come,” Morris continued. “They spoke to that so often, so frequently that we thought, ‘man, these guys just want to help us focus on what’s really important.’”
One of the defining traits for publisher Grey Box is that they’re all gamers at heart, noted Josh Maida, executive producer for the publisher.
“I’m not going to pre-judge any of those other publishers – I mean, for all I know they love games as much as we do. And we do. We all love games. We all come from different areas. I lost a whole grade point in college to Street Fighter, and… we want to be fiscally mindful. You need to make money, but with the money we make, we want to make more games,” he remarked.
“So I think at the core of that is we’re not trying to take away from the industry. We want it to feed itself and go bigger. Quality over quantity is something that we’re mindful of. We also just want to make a good working relationship for our partners… everybody’s in here for fulfillment. The talent we work with, they could all be working in private industries for twice the amount they do, but they’re here because they love to make games, and so we want to be mindful of that. And when people die, they want to know they did great things and so we want to create those opportunities for people.”
Tony Medrano, creative director for Grey Box, criticized other publishers for being too quick to just follow another company’s successful formula.
“We’re not chasing a trend, we’re chasing something we believe in, we’re chasing something we like, and we’re not trying to shoehorn a formula or monetization model onto things that just don’t work because they’re popular,” he added. “I think from the get-go, it’s been all about how can we make the best game, and then everything else follows from that. I think a difference structurally [with other publishers] would be that we have a very lean and mean team. We’re not trying to build a skyscraper and have redundant folks. Everybody that’s here really cares, has some bags under their eyes from late nights… I think it is just that we look at all our partners as actual partners. We let them influence and make the product better, whether it’s the IP or the game.”
Speaking of monetization models, Maida commented that there’s no “secret agenda to Zyngafy RTS or anything.” Grey Goo is strictly being made for the PC, but the RTS genre easily lends itself to free-to-play. Upon the mere mention of free-to-play, however, you could almost feel the collective blood pressure in the room rising. It’s clearly not the type of experience that Petroglyph and Grey Box are aiming for.
For Petroglyph’s Morris, in particular, free-to-play hit a nerve. “I’m going to jump in here, sorry. I’m really annoyed!” he began. “There’s been such a gold rush for free-to-play right now that is driving publishers – I mean, there needs to be a good balance. There’s a great place for free-to-play – I play lots of free-to-play games – but it is driving developers like us to focus on money instead of making great game content. I’m not going to name any examples, but I’ve been disappointed with some of the free-to-play offerings because it’s not so much about making a great experience for the player anymore. It’s about ‘how can we squeeze them just a little bit more?’ or annoy them to the point where they just feel like they have to pay.”
Medrano added, “I get frustrated when I play free-to-play games, and if I purchase something, I feel dirty. I feel like ‘oh, I got cheated, I fell for the trap.’ Or even more modern games where they baby you through the whole thing. There’s no more of that, like, ‘this is tough, so that means if I get good at this, there’s reward – there’s something there.’”
Ultimately, while Petroglyph and Grey Box came together thanks to a shared love of the RTS genre, they feel there’s a real opportunity to bring back hardcore, intelligent games.
Andrew Zoboki, lead game designer at Petroglyph, chimed in, “It’s almost as if the industry has forgotten about the intelligent gamer. They feel like that everyone’s going to be shoehorned in there, and I would say even from a design perspective that a lot of design formulas for a lot of things, whether they be free-to-play or what the mainstream is going to, next-gen and such, that all those titles are kind of a little more cookie-cutter than they probably should be. They’ve tried to shoehorn gamers into a formula and say, ‘this is what a gamer is,’ rather than understanding that gamers are a very wide and diverse bunch of individuals, everyone from the sports jock to the highly intellectual, and they all have [different] tastes… there’s different games that will appeal to different demographics… if you make the games that players want to play, they will come.”
And that really is at the heart of it. Morris lamented how business creeps into the games creation equation far too often. “They’re trying to balance the game with Excel spreadsheets instead of sitting down and actually playing it and having focus tests and bringing people in and actually trying to iterate on the fun,” he remarked about other publishers.
For Grey Box at the moment, the focus is on making Grey Goo the best it can be, but the company does have plans for more IP. It’s all under wraps currently, however.
“We do have a roadmap, but it’s not based off of the calendar year. We do have another game in the works right now and we might announce that at E3. And we have a road map for this IP, as well,” Maida said. “Obviously we want to get it in the hands of players and fans to see what they respond to, but we’ve got capital investment in the IP with hopes to not only extend this lineage of RTS’s but possibly grow out that franchise and other genres as well.”
Grey Box plans to release Grey Goo later this year.
Thanks to Silicon Valley, there’s no shortage of tech companies hosting meetings or conferences in the Bay Area, but when it comes specifically to the business of games, there are few conferences in San Francisco that can rival the annual Game Developers Conference. For most in the industry (or those looking to enter the industry) it’s one of the few must attend events each year. And you can bet the city of San Francisco is happy to host GDC, as the financial benefit to local businesses is substantial.
“GDC is the highlight of March for the San Francisco hospitality community – everyone knows when GDC is here judging from the packed bars, restaurants, and streets. I love that turning any given corner in or near the convention center, one will hear an international language spoken. Their current financial impact is estimated at over $46 million,” Leonie Patrick, senior director for Moscone Expansion Sales at the San Francisco Travel Association.
“Although San Francisco is fortunate to have several large conventions, the demographic of GDC is unique and high energy. GDC is a valued, annual group and we do our best to assist with their success every year. When they thrive, we thrive,” she continued.
While GDC used to take place in San Jose, the conference quite simply outgrew the city, and San Francisco became its new home, offering more convention space and hotel accommodations. The conference has been consistently growing along with the industry itself, and it’s definitely been a boon to San Francisco.
“GDC has been with us since 2005, with the exception of 2006. They have demonstrated tremendous growth. They started off with 10,000 people crammed into Moscone West, and they have more than doubled their attendance in 8 years,” Patrick said. “GDC has also had extreme room growth, starting at 1,900 on peak to almost quadrupling that number.”
While some locals have resented the impact that highly-paid tech sector employees have had on San Francisco’s cost of living, San Francisco Travel Association isn’t concerned that GDC will be affected by any of this sentiment. “We have no concerns about how the GDC attendees will be received by San Francisco. San Franciscans know that tourism is our number one industry and conventions are a different issue from residency issues. We welcome GDC happily each year,” Patrick added.
Indeed, tourism is a wonderful thing for the great city of San Francisco. From the sights and sounds to the places to eat, there’s plenty to enjoy for GDC attendees who might want to nip out of Moscone for some downtime as well.
“Many attendees have been here repeated times so they want more than the typical icons. They may want to explore the more offbeat neighborhoods like the Castro, Union & Fillmore Streets, eat a great meal in the Mission, or walk around Noe Valley. For the first and second timers, they should see the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, ride a cable car, go down Lombard Street, sit in a café in North Beach, walk along the Wharf, visit the Ferry Building, or window shop in the Haight,” Patrick recommended. “And I can’t forget about Golden Gate Park, or maybe see the Pacific Ocean if they have not before. And if they really have time visit one of the many neighboring cities. Sausalito, Tiburon, Monterey/Carmel, Lake Tahoe… the list goes on.”
And even if you don’t have a car, it’s thankfully not too difficult to get around San Francisco (unlike Los Angeles, for example).
“Luckily, San Francisco is a large city contained in a small footprint. It is an extremely easy city for walking. Despite its reputation for having many hills, which it does, take a walk along the waterfront in order to get you from the convention center to the Wharf – you will avoid them all,” Patrick noted. “We also have great public transportation that can take you to outlying areas of San Francisco as well as outlying cities very economically.”
While it’s a bit late now, her advice for future GDC attendees should definitely be heeded: “Use the hotels that the event staff at GDC recommends since they are all vetted and reviewed by the GDC staff. And try not to book your hotel too late since rates are likely to get higher closer to the event date.”
User acquisition is a big buzz word in the mobile games space nowadays. But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Acquiring users has gotten expensive, and it won’t matter how many you acquire if the churn is so high that they’re all leaving your game in a few days. That’s why player retention is so important and it’s how Yvolver, a new Dallas-based startup, hopes to make a difference.
CEO Steve Nix, former executive at id software and GameStop, believes that most developers should stop paying for user acquisition. It costs more than $3.00 per install to acquire customers and that’s only increasing.
“Lately the trend is that costs for paid user acquisition are increasingly prohibitive, especially for mid- and smaller-sized developers. There is a point where paid user acquisition doesn’t make good economic sense for some games anymore,” Nix told GamesIndustry International. “Hopefully developers are also going to acquire players organically through typical paths like word of mouth, social and online discovery or digital store search.
“The big difference that Yvolver brings to the table – we are much more concerned about the behaviors and value perceived by users already in the game. This makes any users acquired more likely to return to the game, more likely to make a first or second in-app purchase and much more likely to recommend the game to a friend. Every customer acquired, regardless of how they got there, will be that much more valuable to the developer. So to a large degree, we are not replacing acquisition services or methods, we are just making them much more cost effective or viable for the developer.”
Nix added that the problem for many developers is that they’ve become far too concerned with the acquisition part of the equation rather than focusing on engagement.
“Right now, many developers are focused on acquisition as the only tool in their toolbox outside of the gameplay mechanics and changes to their economies that they can directly control themselves. Gameplay mechanics may be difficult to iterate upon quickly or the developer may just not have the resources to make all of the changes that they would like. We know that these same developers are increasingly viewing their acquisition programs as dumping money into a giant leaky budget. Yvolver helps plug the leaky money bucket that acquisition dollars are being poured into by encouraging retention, engagement and in-app spend for those users once acquired,” Nix continued.
“There are also a lot of great developers out there that are fantastic at creating a fun, gorgeously crafted games, but they do not have the resources to study user engagement and spending behaviors the way that the major studios can with their dedicated teams. That is all we focus on at Yvolver, so we are excited about improving the health of the business model for developers that may not have the capabilities that our laser-focused team of veteran data science and loyalty experts can quickly bring to their games.”
The crux of Yvolver is a loyalty rewards program. In fact, Yvolver teamed with Hal Brierley, who’s serving as a key investor and providing counsel on the design of its loyalty services. Brierley is an expert when it comes to loyalty rewards, having been a pioneer in the design of major loyalty programs, including American Airlines AAdvantage, Hilton HHonors and GameStop Power-Up Rewards.
So how does it work? Essentially, Yvolver users are able to build up a monthly Yvolver Score by completing events that are set by the developer in combination with making in-game purchases. Users can then convert their monthly score into prizes – both digital in-game items or power-ups and physical real-world rewards, like electronics, clothing or other goods. The score is persistent across games/apps and different platforms.
And while you might think that a program like this would be intrusive or take away from the experience for some players, Nix insists that it’s been designed in a way that won’t push away players – besides, that goes against the very thing the company was built for.
“The core premise of Yvolver is that we only have value for developers if we are creating value for the gamers playing their games. Most of the team here came out of game development and we have been critically focused on every detail of the user experience and making sure that we only add to the enjoyment of the game,” Nix said. “We should never be throwing confusing pop-ups out, blocking the user’s progression, making them think they have somehow left the game, or all of the distracting stuff that you see in a lot of the ad and offer platforms that are integrated into so many games now. We have worked closely with our game developer partners to make sure that we are respecting their game, and the response so far has been that we are firmly on the right path.”
The supporting cast around Nix and Brierley is strong as well, coming from companies like id, GameStop, Zynga, Apple and more. Former Apple App Store games manager Cory Lewis is a co-founder and is leading biz dev, former id lead programmer Jah Raphael is a co-founder and is serving as CTO, and Matt Himelfarb, a managing partner at Dallas Venture Partners is a co-founder and acting as CFO. You can read more about the entire team here.
On the business side of things, Yvolver believes its own interests run in parallel to the developers it’s looking to help. Much like a sales associate on a commission, Yvolver only benefits when the developer starts seeing sales.
“We work with our developer partners to build loyalty-driven events and programs that add value for their users and incentivize the behaviors that are most important to the developer. When users engage with the game in these desired ways, combined with that user’s in-app spend, they will receive an Yvolver score. The more the desired behaviors and in-app spend happen, the higher the user’s score will be. Our revenue is based directly on the Yvolver scores generated in an app in a month. The beauty of this model is that we only make money if the developer is making money through these in-app purchases. We are completely aligned with our development partners, which is important to us,” explained Nix.
Yvolver has been in private testing with a number of apps so far, but the company isn’t worried about signing tons of developers right away.
“We are not concerned about integrating with two-thousand apps the first year and game count is really a meaningless metric for us… Our data science and account teams are working continuously to become more creative and efficient in the programs that we develop with our partners, and that is how we really think about our progress. We believe gamers will quickly start seeking out titles that have integrated with Yvolver, and gamers will ultimately tell us if we are successful through their behaviors,” Nix said.
To kick things off, a beta version of the Yvolver service will launch exclusively with Zombie Gunship Zero from Limbic. The game will be available for download on March 13 and the beta service will follow in the “near future.”
Limbic CEO Arash Keshmirian commented, “Running a successful independent mobile games studio has become an increasingly complex challenge during the past two years. Market competition is at an all-time high, and marketing resources are becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. We couldn’t be more excited to partner with the Yvolver team to not only help engage and retain our current fan base, but to bring those fans real, added value within the Zombie Gunship Zero experience. It’s a win-win for us.”
In a new Wedbush report that spans nearly 170 pages, providing a comprehensive overview of the past, present and future of the video game marketplace, the firm discusses why the next generation “will be as big as ever” and how the industry’s growth actually makes it more appealing to investors than other entertainment businesses.
While analyst Michael Pachter acknowledged that the current console transition is “one of the most difficult” for publishers, he ultimately sees the new consoles spurring big growth for the industry as software sales take off in the next several years. Combined U.S. and European software markets are forecast to grow at a 9 percent CAGR over the 2014 – 2016 period, totaling console software sales of $12 billion in 2014, growing to $14 billion in 2015 and to $15 billion in 2016. Handheld software sales (DS, 3DS and PS Vita) are expected to remain flat at approximately $1.6 billion per year over the three-year period.
The continued growth of the business is another reflection of a maturing industry and a maturing audience that’s growing older, earning more and spending more on games.
“Several demographic trends and market drivers should fuel rapid growth of interactive entertainment software sales. We believe the most compelling of these trends is the expanding age demographic of the interactive game consumer, accompanied by an increasing level of disposable income and the propensity to spend that income on entertainment,” noted Pachter.
Importantly, many of these people are choosing to spend on games above other entertainment, and that’s something investors should pay attention to. “We believe that the interactive entertainment industry offers secular dynamics that will provide extended and sustainable growth. We believe several publishers stand poised to capitalize on this growth, providing investors with an opportunity to participate,” Pachter said.
“Both Sony and Microsoft should deliver substantial profits from their gaming businesses over the next several years”
“Console, handheld and PC video games comprise a significant portion of overall entertainment industry sales, we believe comparing favorably with other mainstream entertainment products such as movies, books, and music. With comparable size and growth at a faster rate than these competing forms of entertainment, we expect the interactive entertainment software sector to present a compelling investment opportunity over the next three to five years.”
Wedbush believes interactive entertainment software sales will grow around four percent annually in the next three years, and the firm expects interactive entertainment to grow faster than other U.S. entertainment sectors over the next five years. Wedbush is modeling growth of just zero to two percent for other entertainment products sales over the same time period.
“Using our projected growth rates, we forecast that the U.S. interactive entertainment industry in 2016 will continue to be larger than books, box office and music… It is important to consider video game software purchases in the context of all entertainment spending. When books, music, movies and video games are added together, total U.S. spending on entertainment content totaled over $65 billion in 2013. The portion spent on video game software, at around 11 percent of the total, has the potential to grow at a faster rate than any of the other entertainment categories for many years to come,” Pachter explained.
For the current year, Wedbush expects PS4 to sell another 12 million units, Xbox One to sell 9 million, and Wii U to sell 3 million. More important than who “wins the console wars,” however, is which companies can maintain profitability. Pachter noted that Microsoft and Sony should do well on that front compared to a struggling Nintendo.
“Given its very slow console sales, Nintendo appears destined to see its console software sales and royalty stream markedly lower than in the last cycle, and we are skeptical that it will make a profit from its console business during the next generation,” he said. “At our projected sell-through rate, we expect both Sony and Microsoft to be very profitable in the next generation. Notwithstanding their relative projected market shares, we expect both companies’ console penetration to substantially exceed their penetration in the current generation console cycle, primarily due to market share gains from Nintendo.”
He continued, “If our estimates are close to the mark, both Sony and Microsoft will likely be profitable on each console sold, and their respective games divisions will at worst break even. More importantly, Sony and ￼￼Microsoft earn royalties on every game sold for their respective consoles; our forecast calls for 294 million cumulative PS4 software units and 227 million cumulative Xbox One software units sold by the end of 2016, with an average of $8 – 10 in profit for each unit booked by each company. Both their multiplayer networks and their royalty businesses will provide a recurring revenue stream at a very high dollar margin (the respective networks require a high level of capital and support spending, while the royalty businesses bear little cost), meaning that both Sony and Microsoft should deliver substantial profits from their gaming businesses over the next several years.”
There’s plenty more in the full report at the link above. It’s an interesting read if you have the time.
Nintendo has issued a detailed and far-reaching response to the pervasive concerns about its future as a business.
In a meeting with investors, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata outlined the company’s strategy in both the short-term and as far ahead as 2016. From changing the fortunes of the Wii U to evolving the way we think about game consoles as a concept, Nintendo displayed striking candour in its attempt to allay the criticisms it has received since it drastically reduced its sales forecasts earlier this month.
However, Iwata was clear about one thing from the outset: regardless of what followed, there are certain aspects of Nintendo’s business that will not change, namely the frequently proposed idea that it should take its IP stable to new platforms.
“Dedicated video game platforms which integrate hardware and software will remain our core business,” he said. “Naturally, we are moving ahead with research and development efforts for future hardware as we have done before, and we are not planning to give up our own hardware systems and shift our axis toward other platforms.
“Dedicated video game platforms which integrate hardware and software will remain our core business… We are not planning to give up our own hardware systems and shift our axis toward other platforms”
“From a medium- to long-term standpoint…we don’t believe that following trends will lead to a positive outcome for Nintendo as an entertainment company. Instead, we should continue to make our best efforts to seek a blue ocean with no rivals and create a new market with innovative offerings.”
Here are the key points from Iwata’s presentation
The Wii U is Nintendo’s top priority
It is no secret that Nintendo has struggled to repeat the success of the Wii with the Wii U, but Iwata reassured investors that it has no intention of abandoning its ailing console. The possibility of a further reduction in price was ruled out immediately, with Iwata instead emphasising the company’s ongoing failure to adequately demonstrate the value of the GamePad controller, and to distinguish the console from its hugely popular predecessor.
“By looking at the current sales situation, I am aware that this is due to our lack of effort,” he said. “Our top priority task this year is to offer software titles that are made possible because of the GamePad… We have managed to offer several of such software titles for occasions when many people gather in one place to play, but we have not been able to offer a decisive software title that enriches the user’s gameplay experience when playing alone with the GamePad. This will be one of the top priorities of Mr. Miyamoto’s software development department this year.”
Iwata offered a strong first-step by setting an official May release date for the release of Mario Kart 8, but he also indicated that Nintendo’s development teams would focus on the GamePad’s near-field communication (NFC) function – the same basic technology as that used in lucrative franchises like Skylanders and Disney Infinity. Iwata promised more details of its plans for NFC at E3 in June.
The end of “device-based relationships”
While many have cited the Wii U as evidence of Nintendo’s failure to respond to the changes in the games industry since the launch of the Wii, Iwata stated that the company has already laid the foundations for a fundamental shift in the way it thinks about its products.
Before now, Nintendo had “device-based relationships” with its customers. This was mitigated somewhat by the strength of its software IP, but fundamentally the link with any given consumer followed the lifecycle of each piece of hardware. “We became disconnected with our consumers with the launch of each new device as we could only form device-based relationships,” he said.
However, the Wii U saw the introduction of “Nintendo Network IDs,” an attempt to create “account-based” customer relationships that could continue across different hardware platforms and generations. In the future, Iwata said, “connecting with our consumers through NNIDs will precisely be our new definition of a Nintendo platform.”
With this in mind, Iwata was able to put an end to the speculation around Nintendo’s strategy for smartphones and tablets. He made it quite clear that Nintendo has no plans to release its games on smart devices, but it does intend to use them as a way to communicate and build relationships with new audiences. Iwata offered few details of how the company intends to accomplish that goal, but he indicated that it would include a mobile app that leveraged Nintendo’s existing IP to raise awareness of its hardware and software.
“I have not given any restrictions to the development team, even not ruling out the possibility of making games or using our game characters. However, if you report that we will release Mario on smart devices, it would be a completely misleading statement. It is our intention to release some application on smart devices this year that is capable of attracting consumer attention and communicating the value of our entertainment offerings.”
Flexible pricing for existing and emerging markets
The existence of NNIDs and account-based relationships will also give Nintendo the ability to alter the way its products are sold. Iwata highlighted the company’s role in establishing the model of selling a console for several hundred dollars and individual games for fifty or sixty dollars, but Nintendo now recognises that this model is no longer viable in the long-term.
The first aspect of this that Nintendo intends to challenge is the fixed price-point of software. Iwata suggested a system where the price of a games could be tailored to individual customers based on their NNIDs: someone who purchased five games in a year might pay less and less for each one, for example, or there might be incentives tied to recommending a game to a friend.
“If we can achieve such a sales mechanism, we can expect to increase the number of players per title, and the players will play our games with more friends. This can help maintain the high usage ratio of a platform… Nintendo aims to work on this brand-new sales mechanism in the medium term, but we would like to start experimenting with Wii U at an early stage.”
“While we will continue to devote our energy to dedicated video game platforms, our first step into a new business area is the theme of ‘Health’”
This flexibility will also extend to emerging markets for gaming across the world. Nintendo is a globally recognised brand, but Iwata conceded that the price of its products has put them beyond the reach of people in certain countries. While Iwata didn’t mention any specific regions, he is likely referring to countries like Brazil and India, where the interest in gaming has increased in concert with the disposable income available to the population.
“To leverage Nintendo’s strength as an integrated hardware-software business, we will not rule out the idea of offering our own hardware for new markets. But for dramatic expansion of the consumer base there, we require a product family of hardware and software with an entirely different price structure from that of the developed markets.
“We aim to connect with consumers who do not own Nintendo’s video game systems yet, which will play an important role in cultivating new markets. Once we can establish such a connection with consumers in these nations, we will be able to use smart devices to share our information as well as important content distribution infrastructure. We plan to take significant steps toward such a new market approach in the year 2015.
Going beyond games
There may be no chance of playing Super Mario World on an iPad anytime soon, Iwata did state Nintendo’s interest in making money from its IP outside of first-party video games. Nintendo has always been very cautious of damaging its iconic characters through excessive merchandising and licensing, but one need only look at Rovio’s Angry Birds to see how much profitable such deals can be. Indeed, Iwata attributed the strength of Nintendo’s IP stable to that very reluctance, but, he said, “we are going to change our policy going forward.”
“To be more precise, we will actively expand our character licensing business, including proactively finding appropriate partners. In fact, we have been actively selling character merchandise for about a year in the U.S. Also, we will be flexible about forming licensing relationships in areas we did not license in the past, such as digital fields, provided we are not in direct competition and we can form win-win relationships.
“By moving forward with such activities globally, we aim to increase consumer exposure to Nintendo characters by making them appear in places other than on video game platforms.”
Nintendo’s new business idea: Health
Iwata closed the presentation with Nintendo’s planned entry into an entirely new area of business, one that will provide the “blue ocean” the company so desperately needs.
“While we will continue to devote our energy to dedicated video game platforms, what I see as our first step into a new business area in our endeavour to improve [quality of life] is the theme of “Health.” Of course, defining a new entertainment business that seeks to improve [quality of life] creates various possibilities for the future such as “learning” and “lifestyle,” but it is our intention to take “health” as our first step.”
Again, exact details of what this focus on health will entail were not provided, but Iwata described the concept as “an integrated hardware-software platform business” that will use the company’s experience making products like Wii Fit, Brain Age and the Touch Generations series as a springboard for a more pervasive and persistent initiative.
“We will be able to provide feedback to our consumers on a continual basis, and our approach will be to redefine the notion of health-consciousness, and eventually increase the fit population… I feel that not only can this [quality of life]-improving platform utilise our know-how and experience about video game platforms, but also we can expect it to interact with games and create a synergistic effect.
“While we feel that this is going to take two to three years after its launch, we expect the [quality of life]-improving platform to provide us with new themes which we can then turn into games that operate on our future video game platforms, too. Once we have established such a cycle, we will see continuous positive interactions between the two platforms that enable us to make unique propositions.”
Iwata promised to announce more details this year, and confirmed that the new business will officially launch during the fiscal year ending March 2016.
Gears of War will continue to turn, as Microsoft has acquired the sci-fi shooter franchise from Epic Games. Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer confirmed, saying the deal covers the intellectual property, all existing games and assets, and the rights to continue the franchise in the future.
As for who will make the Gears of War games with Epic out of the picture, that task has been entrusted to Microsoft’s Vancouver-based Black Tusk Studios, under the leadership of the studio’s general manager Hanno Lemke. Spencer called it “a big vote of confidence” for not just the studio but the Vancouver development scene. (Microsoft closed its nearby Victoria development studio last month.)
Future development on the franchise will be led by Rod Fergusson, who was a producer on the first three Gears of War titles. While Fergusson has a long history with Gears of War, his appointment at Black Tusk has to be considered surprising. Just four months ago, Take-Two announced that Fergusson was launching a new Bay Area studio to work on a new project for the publisher.
“It’s kind of nice he can tie the franchise, the culture, bring it all together, and really help with the talent we already have up at Black Tusk to get the franchise going with a new organization,” Spencer said.
Fergusson released a statement on his new appointment, saying, “I’m extremely excited to be joining Black Tusk Studios to oversee development on the Gears of War franchise. I’ve been privileged to work on a lot of great games with a lot of great teams, but Gears has had the most impact on me professionally and personally, so this really feels like a homecoming. I can’t wait to share more with you all soon.”
“[I]f you look at what we did with 343 and getting them up to speed for Halo 4, you can maybe anticipate some things that are similar to that.”
This isn’t the first time Microsoft has had to find a new studio to take over a blockbuster sci-fi shooter IP. In 2007, Bungie struck a deal to split off from the Xbox maker, leaving the Halo franchise in need of a new developer. Spencer said there were lessons to be learned from the successful transition of the Halo series to 343 Industries, and mentioned Lemke would be speaking with 343′s Bonnie Ross about her experiences.
“We’re not announcing anything right now, but I think if you look at what we did with 343 and getting them up to speed for Halo 4, you can maybe anticipate some things that are similar to that,” Spencer said. “But it does give me confidence knowing that we’ve done this once with 343.”
343 cut its teeth on the Halo franchise with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, an Xbox 360 remake of the original Xbox launch title Halo: Combat Evolved.
Whatever else changes with Gears of War, one thing that will likely stay the same is the technology powering the franchise. Spencer declined to say whether the deal requires Microsoft to use the Unreal Engine for future Gears games, but he did say the company was a big fan of the technology.
“We’ve used the Unreal Engine in our development of the Gears franchise and other franchises,” Spencer said. “Unreal is important for us. So I don’t see us moving away from Unreal. I have confidence in the Unreal Engine going forward, and it’s important to the franchise.”
Spencer also noted that a Black Tusk teaser trailer shown at E3 was built using Unreal. And even though that clip–a man rappelling down the side of a present-day skyscraper before swinging in an open window to clobber a gun-toting guard–looked decidedly unlike Gears of War, Spencer called it a concept piece, and not a project that is being shelved as a result of the IP acquisition.
“This obviously isn’t something that started yesterday in terms of our discussions with Epic,” Spencer said. “Hanno’s been involved for quite a while, so he’s known that this is something we could land. And the leadership team there obviously knew as they started to build their road map for what they would be focused on. I wouldn’t say things have been shelved. Obviously, this will become a big focus of the studio and something that will be critical to them driving forward. There’s not really something that was on the road map that all of a sudden goes away.”
When Microsoft opened Black Tusk in 2012, studio representatives said it was not working on an existing franchise, but instead was “looking to build the next Halo” from the ground up.
Financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed.
Nintendo reportedly is looking to mobile devices to save its struggling business, after it admitted last week that the Wii U isn’t selling.
On Thursday, Nintendo slashed its Wii U sales forecast, acknowledging that despite previously expecting to shift nine million units between April 2013 and March this year, it now expects sales of just 2.8 million. Nintendo’s 3DS console isn’t selling well either, leading the firm to admit that it expects to post a $240m annual loss.
These clearly are signs that Nintendo is losing its appeal in the gaming market, and although there are still many dedicated Wii U gamers out there, the firm is struggling to compete against the Sony Playstation 4 (PS4) and Microsoft Xbox One games consoles.
It seems that Nintendo is starting to realize this too, and it admitted over the weekend that it might look to mobiles and tablets to save the future of the company, following rumors that the firm may be planning its own Android tablet for educational use.
Although the company had previous said that you’re unlikely to ever see Mario Kart running on an iPhone, Nintendo president Satoru Itawa hinted that the firm’s stance on mobile devices has changed, with the company exploring the possibility of bringing its titles to smartphones and tablets.
“We are thinking about a new business structure. Given the expansion of smart devices, we are naturally studying how smart devices can be used to grow the game-player business,” Itawa said.
“The way people use their time, their lifestyles, who they are have changed. If we stay in one place, we will become outdated.”
However, Itawa admitted, “It’s not as simple as enabling Mario to move on a smartphone,” hinting that the firm will develop dedicated games for mobile devices, rather than porting those it already has.
Valve is looking to halt its Steam Greenlight process, Gabe Newell revealed today during in an introductory address at Steam Dev Days. Attendees at the developer-only event have been tweeting out bits of news, with Hot Blooded Games CFO Dave Oshry among those sharing updates with the outside world.
“Our goal is to make Greenlight go away,” Oshry quoted Newell as saying. “Not because it’s not useful, but because we’re evolving.”
Oshry said the Valve head had been talking about how he wanted to give developers more control over Steam and how they use it to promote their games. The Greenlight process lets developers post pages for their games on Steam and lets the community give input on whether or not they look like something worth purchasing.
While details about the how and why of Greenlight’s eventual disappearance aren’t known yet, they’ve already been speculated upon. Earlier this week, PC Gamer reported on a translated GameKings.tv interview with Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail in which the Ridiculous Fishing developer guessed that Valve would soon be killing Greenlight.
“I’m thinking that because they’ve been clearing the queue at such a rapid rate,” Ismail said. “They’ve been clearing 100 games every month. . .You don’t do that because there are 100 good games on Greenlight every month. You do that because you want to get rid of everything that isn’t greenlit before you kill it, so you don’t upset developers.”
Ismail then guessed that Valve would replace the program by letting any developer put their game up on Steam and relying on a peer-to-peer recommendation system to solve the issue of content discoverability.
Coinciding with the beginning of Steam Dev Days, Valve also announced that its digital storefront had passed a new milestone with 75 million active users, a 15 percent jump from the 65 million total announced in October. The company also released a geographic breakdown of its sales, with North America and Western Europe accounting for most of its business (41 percent and 40 percent, respectively), but noting that Russia and Brazil have shown tremendous growth in the last year (125 percent and 75 percent, respectively).
Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus, notes that – as a hardware manufacturer – his business has no say in what software companies will charge for Oculus-enhanced games, but admits he would not be surprised to see them come at a premium price.
“It’s going to be up to the developers,” he says. “There will be some who make casual, simpler experiences – maybe bite sized. There are going to be Indie developers that make bigger experiences. And there are going to be bigger teams that make really big experiences. … And some that we’ve seen early prototypes of… Well, we’ve seen some that, boy, would I pay a lot to get that experience in virtual reality.”
Aaron Davies, director of developer relations at Oculus, agrees.
“In VR, suddenly objects have value – and scale and size and depth and I think there will be opportunities for developers to monetize them,” he says.
Noticeably higher retail prices for software could be one of the few things to derail current gamer excitement about VR. Consumers are still smarting from the industry’s move from $50 to $60 in 2005 – and EA incurred player wrath last February by suggesting they might jump to $70 with the launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
“They’d better deliver if they’re going to charge more than $50 or $60 for a game”
Iribe noted that pricing in the game industry tends to swing. Prices spiked with the launch of the last generation consoles, then swung to the other end of the pendulum with the rise of mobile gaming. He sees the rise of virtual reality as not an extension of PC gaming, but something different – which opens the door for them to move back in the opposite direction.
“VR is a fundamentally different experience,” he says. “This is the next generation of computing in a very big way. … This is something that’s going to change so many things.”
However, he notes, raising prices also raises risk for developers.
“They’d better deliver if they’re going to charge more than $50 or $60 for a game,” he says.
Davies notes that the higher prices – if they come at all – may not be done in a clumsy fashion, such as hiking the initial retail price. Instead, he points to the free-to-play model, where microtransactions make it less painful to pay (and the customer may not realize they’re paying more until much later).
“The whole concept of charging a premium is somewhat outdated,” he says. “It’s not to say it’s going to be upfront. It could be this is going to be an experience you get dialed into. We’ll see how it monetizes. … If you create content or an experience that someone is passionate about, you’re creating a lifestyle for them. And they’ll pay for that.”
“If people are willing to spend a lot of money on VR games, it obviously means we’re doing something right,” says Iribe.
Davies and Iribe note that they’re speaking in hypotheticals. At present, the company still isn’t even willing to talk about the Rift as a commercially available product. It’s still in the R&D phase, says Iribe, who won’t even commit to a 2014 release for the product.
The Crystal Cove prototype (which won Best in Show at this year’s CES Awards) does give a few hints as to what we can expect when this thing finally does hit its release milestone, though.
The unit being shown at this year’s CES relied on a camera attached in front of the user to work. And Iribe said barring an unforeseen technological miracle, that’s not likely to change.
“While we’re not talking about the consumer unit, if it does [require the camera], we’ll bundle that in,” he says.
To date, Oculus has shipped more than 50,000 developer kits for the Rift, says Iribe. The company has gone from 7 employees a year ago to more than 70 today. The past year has also brought about several improvements to the unit.
The Crystal Cove prototype, as has been widely reported, offers positional tracking (thanks to that camera), giving users six degrees of visual freedom. And it has significantly reduced motion blur.
Latency has been improved as well. The developer kits in people’s hands have a latency of about 50-60 milliseconds. Crystal Cove got that down to between 30-40 milliseconds. The goal for launch, says Iribe, is 20 – with the hopes of further reducing that in later models.
“We’re not going to ship until we have a version that delivers a highly immersive, comfortable experience at a low price,” says Iribe. “I don’t mean just the foam padding and things like that. The experience of virtual reality has to be comfortable. VR has never been close to comfortable. We’re confident we will deliver a very comfortable experience for version one. It’s my belief that the age of 2D monitors has run its course.”
Steve Jobs was in the habit of describing the Apple TV – the real Apple TV, that is, not the hypothetical uber-device that’s been stalking the imagination of tech pundits and the nightmares of TV manufacturers for years – as the company’s “hobby”. It sells a few million units here and there, but it’s no iPad, no iPhone, not even a Mac. It’s a casually dangled toe in the water of a new market whose primary purpose is to extend the functionality of iTunes and iOS devices, rather than being a significant product category in its own right. “Hobby” summed it up; lots of noise and light around the topic accompanied all of Jobs’ later keynote events, but really, Apple was just dabbling.
Steam Machines, then, are Valve’s hobby. Admittedly, Valve is a company with a lot of hobbies, but Steam Machines fit a similar profile to Apple TV in this regard. The rest of the world, or its more credulous denizens, are waiting with bated breath for Valve to sally forth with a device that’s going to cut a swathe through the games market – yet for all the world, everything Valve does looks like little more than casual dabbling. They’re mucking around with a custom version of Linux (saying “SteamOS” sounds really impressive until you realise that most people’s family pets have their own custom version of Linux at this stage) and experimenting with an intriguing controller design, both of which are fine hobbies – but the much vaunted Steam Machines themselves, thus far, are little more than an underwhelming branding exercise.
Of course, Valve’s not about to get into hardware manufacture any time soon. It’s not what they do and it wouldn’t make sense. However, the company has a deep interest in ensuring that the gaming PC, as a platform, is in robust health. The name “Steam Machine” is a giveaway, if one were required; Valve needs lots of machines out there for Steam to run on. It has, as I’ve argued before, become the de facto champion and caretaker of the PC gaming sector, a role long since abandoned by Microsoft. Steam itself is the biggest pillar of Valve’s support for the PC, and Steam alone has done a great deal to ensure the continued flourishing of this market. The company’s gamepad efforts are an interesting sideline, its dabbling with SteamOS little more than tinkering for now; the Steam Machines, though, we earnestly expected to take a rather more dramatic form when they emerged at CES this week.
In the end, Valve managed scarcely a handful of minutes on stage to introduce the dozen “Steam Machine” manufacturers, each of which is producing its own versions of the system. Gabe Newell deflected all questions to the device manufacturers. Despite carrying the Steam name, it’s almost like Valve isn’t entirely happy to be associated with the project right now – perhaps wincing at the heavy responsibilities which being seen as a platform holder will inevitably bring. Perhaps the Apple TV comparison isn’t fair after all; Apple TV always felt like an under performing but beloved hobby. Not much feels beloved about Steam Machines. Not yet, anyway.
It’s not hard to see why the Steam Machines might be unloved, though. They’re an ugly and rather ramshackle lot. Their prices range from a console-matching $499 up to an eye-watering $5000, while their case designs range from the functionally ugly through to the kind of howlingly awful rig that inspires mass eye-rolling even at LAN parties. The specifications of the devices, which one might have expected to conform to some kind of standard, or a number of standard “steps” at different price points, cover the whole spectrum of PC performance. This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the announced devices – if these were actually meant to attract less hardcore gamers (most core gamers will still build their own systems, of course), then by doing nothing to reduce the mind-numbing complexity of figuring out specifications and component codenames, they have already failed in their most basic task.
If I sound disappointed, it’s because I am. I’m disappointed on an entirely personal level, I confess. 2014 was going to be the year I got myself a gaming PC again. I’ve missed too many games and experiences through not owning one, and I’d love a reasonably small, low-profile box with enough grunt to play PC titles comfortably. I haven’t followed PC specifications and components for about a decade and I’d rather perform my own open-heart surgery than build another of the damned things myself, so a Steam Machine looked perfect; yet after this week’s CES reveal, it appears that the actual advantages of such a system in terms of reducing complexity (let alone cost, which was always unlikely to be a major factor) are negligible. I’m left wondering who exactly these boxes are for – the core audience will ignore them and build their own systems, while the more casual audience who are eager to engage with PC gaming won’t find any advantage in a “Steam Machine” that doesn’t exist at any other pre-built PC box-shifter.
Valve may have reason to wish that it was taking this hobby a bit more seriously. In spite of the robust health of the PC games market right now, there are structural issues with the PC market as a whole which present a major challenge to its continued growth and success in the coming years – structural issues which only Valve is likely to be in a position to solve, and for which a Steam Machine style venture may well be necessary. To wit, a primary advantage of the PC platform, namely its sheer ubiquity, is winding down. It used to be the case that nearly everyone owned a PC and thus, nearly everyone could play games, at least to some extent. In recent years, the PC benefitted even more as a gaming platform from the inverse of that argument. Gaming PC purchases were justified in part by the prowess of the system as a multi-function device. A gaming PC was expensive, but also served as the user’s primary computer.
Today, the desktop computer is an increasingly rare beast. A great many households only have laptops; a great many more are supplementing laptops with tablet computers that perform much of the functionality that once belonged to PCs. Laptops, too, have changed. Apple’s Macbook Air and Google’s Chromebook, followed by a steady parade of Ultrabooks and wafer-thin, solid-state imitators, have refocused the desires of buyers away from power and towards size, weight and battery life. When I bought my last laptop, the ultra-thin one with 10 hours of battery life put forward a case that simply couldn’t be answered by any hankering for a powerful gaming system. Sales figures suggest that I’m far from alone in making this choice. The resulting device can run some games (it’s fine for lots of indie stuff, and Civilization V just about works) but it’s certainly not a gaming system. I’ve never even bothered installing Steam.
I am not, in any sense, predicting the “death of the PC” – to do so would be nonsensical – but there’s no doubt that this switch away from desktops and towards tablets and Ultrabooks presents a challenge to the existing PC market. I believe that gaming PCs will increasingly have to make a case for themselves as gaming devices alone; a subtle but important change from “here’s your next PC, and it’s great at games” to “here’s your next gaming device, and it can do PC stuff too if you want, which you probably don’t”. Core gamers won’t change their outlook at all, of course, but beyond that group there’s a vast hinterland that was once the domain of PC gaming and which now risks disappearing as the technological landscape shifts.
Steam Machines ought to be at the vanguard in terms of counteracting that shift – accessible, attractive, easy to understand gateways to PC gaming designed perfectly to fit into the lives of “lapsed” PC gamers using Ultrabooks, or console gamers looking to branch out, or former core gamers who want to stay in touch but don’t have the time or money any more to be deeply involved. Valve, as the operators of essentially the only PC game software distribution platform that matters a damn, ought to be leading that movement. On the strength of this week, Valve knows it ought to be doing something, but doesn’t have the stomach for doing much of anything – while left to their own devices, it seems, PC manufacturers aren’t capable of seeing beyond their own narrow world of hilariously arcane specifications and desperately ugly boxes. There’s an enormous opportunity waiting here to be grasped; so far, Steam Machines have only fumbled.
While Westerners are shunning Nintendo as if it were a rabid dog, the console maker is hoping to make in roads into China.
China just announced that it was allowing consoles made by western companies to exist in the country for the first time in 14 years. The move could pave the way for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to enter the world’s third-largest video game market in terms of revenue. But it is Nintendo, which is much cheaper, which could be the winner.
The most popular video games in China are often free to play with gamers only paying for add-ons such as weapons or extra lives.
Price may also be a problem for console makers looking to expand in China. More than 70 percent of Chinese gamers earn less than $660 a month. Nintendo, being cheaper, might do better.
A beta of the title Starbound has appeared on the Steam download website and the Chucklefish developer website. It obviously has impressed gamers as one million units have moved.
The sales were revealed in a Twitter message from Chucklefish last night. It’s a pretty blank statement and we don’t know whether it reflects a combination of sales from both of the websites.
“We’ve just passed a MILLION copies sold. Keeping with the Keanu Reeves theme…,” it said, along with a picture of the actor looking surprised and, well, stupid.
The game looks like a cute affair with endless possibilities. Recently the firm announced a raft of updates that make the most of user mods and add fresh features and developer tools to them.
“In Starbound, you take on the role of a character who’s just fled from their home planet, only to crash-land on another,” goes the game’s promotional blurb. “From there you’ll embark on a quest to survive, discover, explore and fight your way across an infinite universe.”
On the Steam website the information about Starbound says that the game, which is described as “early access” and “indie”, was released on 4 December.
Chucklefish says that the game is a work in progress that will grow with its fans, adding that it is already huge.
“Starbound is already extremely playable and contains a vast amount of content, however we decided to release the game as a beta through early access to ensure the community gets a chance to help us shape the game,” it explains.
“In this first stage of the beta process you may experience some bugs, crashes or compatibility issues. Updates will come thick and fast, though, as we listen to your feedback, push fixes and add new content.”
In case those who committed to becoming an early adopter of either the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 have not noticed, there isn’t much new content coming for your new console to play till early February. That’s right; if you get sick of playing the games that have already been released for the two consoles and the limited amount of downloadable titles, you are out of luck.
It always takes a while for developers and publishers to crank up production for the new systems, but the unprecedented lack of titles being released till February has many owners of the new consoles shaking their heads. Not that the number of games released around the launch of the two consoles was small, but December and January didn’t offer much in the way of new games to play.
When February rolls around it will see the new LEGO Movie game, Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare, Rayman legends, and Thief all get released; as long as none of them end up being delayed. March looks much better, with release (of course) of Titanfall for the Xbox One and Xbox 360, as well as Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and LEGO The Hobbit already slated to drop. PS4 fans can to look forward to Driveclub and iNFAMOU Second in March, as well as exclusives to that platform. We are not sure if those two titles will address the disappointment of not getting Titanfall on the PS4, but it can’t hurt.
One very interesting offering coming at the end of January is Tomb Raider – The Definitive Edition, which could end up being an excellent seller just by virtue of its release date. The Definitive Edition which will be available for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is said to be re-mastered to deliver a next-generation gaming experience on both platforms. It will deliver 1080p graphics, enhanced physics, all of the previously released DLC content, as well as a number of subtle improvements over the original release. The reboot of the franchise was very good, and the re-release for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 looks to be a worthy pickup if you didn’t play it first time around.
For those wondering what the future really holds, you are going to have to wait till E3 in June when the publishers and developers let us in on their schedule for releases for the rest of the year. While we expect the number of releases overall this year for both platforms to be rather thin, we do think that both companies have a number of surprises in the pipeline; but it is doubtful that we are going to hear much about them for a while.
After stretches in which Nintendo and Microsoft dominated the console market, Sony is in position to reclaim the sales throne in the coming years, according to Michael Pachter. Over the holiday break, the Wedbush analyst released his industry forecast for the next three years, saying, “we expect Sony’s PS4 to ‘win’ the next console generation,” while noting the PS4 and Xbox One should both thrive through the end of 2016.
Pachter projects the PS4 to post cumulative worldwide sales of 37.7 million systems by the end of 2016, 30 percent higher than his expectation of 29 million Xbox One’s sold. Bringing up the rear will be the Nintendo Wii U, for which Pachter projected worldwide sales of 20 million units through 2016. He said a “disproportionately high percentage of Nintendo customers play more casual games,” which leaves the company vulnerable to competition from mobile and tablet games.
Pachter’s projections included a few assumptions about the retail prices of the consoles, specifically that they will experience only modest cuts over the next three years. Pachter expects the Wii U to drop 50 percent to $150 by the end of 2016, but acknowledges a possibility of Nintendo discontinuing production on the console entirely if sales lag. Meanwhile, Pachter expects the PS4 to drop $100 to $299 over the next three years, with Microsoft narrowing the cost gap of the consoles by dropping the Xbox One $150 to $349 over the same period. While Pachter has the PS4 “winning” the console generation (putting quotes around all uses of the word), aggressive pricing from Microsoft could throw a wrench into that prediction.
“We think ‘winning’ is important to both companies,” Pachter said, “and it is possible that Microsoft will reduce Xbox One pricing far faster than we have forecasted. Should hardware prices come down faster than we have modeled, it is likely that hardware and software sales will grow faster.”
Regardless, Pachter paints a brighter picture of industry software sales than seen in some time. In the US and Europe, Pachter believes gaming software sales will jump 10 percent this year, 7 percent next year, and 6 percent in 2016. Microsoft and Sony platforms will account for much of that growth, with Pachter expecting the two companies’ various platforms to grow by a combined 50 percent in the next three years. As a result, the real winners may not just be Sony and Microsoft, but core gaming publishers as well. Pachter noted that the highest-rated stocks in Wedbush’s gaming coverage–Electronic Arts, Activision, Take-Two, Ubisoft, and GameStop–all focus on core gamer audiences.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened to games during 2013? There are lots of candidates, all of them equally valid depending on your perspective and personal interests. The launch of new console hardware, perhaps; or the continuing meteoric rise of tablet and smartphone gaming. The deluge of microconsoles perhaps, none terribly successful but their very profusion pointing the way to the future ubiquity of game hardware (maybe). Oculus Rift, the really rather effective realisation of so many virtual reality fantasies; perhaps even Google Glass, which could open a doorway to new kinds of play if it doesn’t fall victim to a social backlash before it even gets off the ground.
For myself, forced to pick a single thing, I’d probably go with the bedding in of crowd funding as “part of the furniture” of the games business – indeed, of creative businesses in general. 2012 may have been the year when crowdfunding captured all the headlines, but in 2013 we started to see the wheels turning – projects completed, projects underway, projects stalled, projects failing.
After the initial hype, the reality of what it means for a wide group of interested individuals to fund a creative endeavour has bedded in. There has been disappointment, certainly, and some even bigger disappointments will probably follow down the line – but this is a learning process for creators and funders alike, and the lessons being learned are incredibly valuable. Why is crowdfunding still so exciting, despite all the hiccups? Because, quite simply, it removes one of the most infuriating and ridiculous barriers in the creative industry – the financial middlemen who must be convinced of the market value of a creative idea before they will fund it to completion.
In theory, this is not a terrible idea, even acting as a useful filter of quality in some instances – and in practice, it will continue to be how a great deal of creative work is funded. However, these gatekeepers have also slammed down the door on a vast, uncounted number of perfectly valid projects – labours of love or wonderful ideas which have been rejected because they don’t conform to a financier’s specific notion of what’s popular in the market, or because their commercial potential, while significant, is overshadowed by another more overtly commercial project.
In this way, we’ve lost not only countless games but entire genres. Adventure games are the most often lamented, having disappeared almost entirely in the 1990s, though I’d contend that the best features of the adventure genre were moulded into other game genres, survival horror being a key one, while the worst features of adventures really ought to stay dead – but I know the genre has plenty of hardcore fans who would probably do something awful to me for such blasphemy, perhaps even something as awful as making me play a load of old adventure games. Other genres, too, have declined to a huge degree, while whole swathes of game themes or approaches are simply deemed non-commercial and will never be funded by a major publisher.
Crowdfunding changes the rules, and in doing so, may help to rescue the creative and artistic continuity of the games medium. By allowing a creator to run up a flag and say “I’m going to make this; who’s up for it?”, it shares the enormous risk of creation around a vast audience, while empowering them directly to make choices about what gets made. It’s no accident that many of the most funded Kickstarter games are adventure games – after years of lamenting the lack of new titles in the genre, its fans were finally given a chance to prove the commercial viability of adventure games by putting their money where their mouths were, and they responded admirably.
As crowd funding moves into its next wave, I think that an audience of more savvy and slightly more cynical funders will interact with a group of very switched-on creators to start doing more and more interesting things. Up to now, crowd funding has been an orgy of nostalgia – long-dead genres, dusty old franchises, half-forgotten characters and worlds, all wiped down for Kickstarter in anticipation of fistfuls of dollars from men wearing the world’s rosiest spectacles. Some of the resulting games will probably be excellent (Wasteland 2 is a particular favourite at the moment) and it is certainly nice to see much-loved older genres and titles being treated with care and respect, mostly by their original creators. However, I submit that crowd funding can, and must, achieve so much more than this.
Crowd funding is about tapping into the collective power of a minority audience. The majority of the game purchasing audience don’t know or care about Double Fine, or Wasteland, or Leisure Suit Larry, or any of the other crowd funded titles to date – arguably the most “commercial” of which is the now incredibly well funded Star Citizen, and even that is a space simulation game, a genre which effectively breathed its last many years ago. These are all minority audience games, their success a testament to the fact that in the age of the internet, even the smallest niche can turn out to be a commercially viable audience. At a time when commercially backed games need to find some way to “prove” that they’ll be of interest to an audience of millions, crowd funded games need only gain the interest and affection of an audience of a few thousand to make them into viable, funded projects. So far, those minority audiences have largely been exactly what you’d expect from early adopters. They’ve been, by and large, people like me – proudly geeky guys in their thirties and forties who have some games and genres from the past they absolutely love, and who have a decent amount of disposable income in their pockets that they’re willing to delve into for the sake of nostalgia.
There’s not a damn thing wrong with that, and long may it last. However, it should be immediately apparent that there’s a much wider range of minority audiences who are deeply involved with, indeed, deeply in love with, video games. They’re largely not addressed by existing commercial games. The depiction of women in games isn’t great to begin with, but once you get into the realms of racial or sexual minorities, depictions of disability or mental illness and a whole host of other issues, games either don’t deal with them at all – or, when they do, you really, really wish they hadn’t. If you’re rolling your eyes right now, grow the hell up. Every medium invented by humanity is used by minority groups as a way of exploring and sharing their life experiences, and every medium in which this has occurred has benefited hugely from this process, the creative exploration of minorities at the margins feeding back into the mainstream and advancing the artistry and possibilities for everyone.
So here’s where I see crowd funding going in 2014 – a trend whose origins, tiny, hopeful green shoots, we can see in 2013. Crowd funding of nostalgia projects and well-loved developers breaking out of the publisher model will continue, of course. Some high profile projects will be released and people will love them. Some will be released and they’ll suck, others will fail, and there’ll be fresh bursts of enthusiasm and cynicism which will eventually start to look like a standing wave, a background pattern that’s actually stable when you look at it for long enough. Crowdfunding will be part of the furniture – and around its margins, amazing things will be occurring. Powerful voices will be tapping into the collective power of minority groups and using their input and their resources to make new kinds of games that would never, ever, in a million years, make sense to a game financier in a suit behind a boardroom table, but which engage small yet powerful niche audiences in fresh and wonderful ways.
In some regards, we can view the entire course of video game creativity over the past few years as being a process of learning how not to ask permission. It used to be that you had to ask permission from a whole lot of people before you could make a video game. Today, anyone can sit down with a copy of Unity, some time, some talent and a lot of coffee and make a video game; but of course, apart from the occasional lone genius, the investment of time and money required to make something on a large scale is still denied to those who cannot receive permission to create. Crowd funding succeeded in 2013 and will continue to succeed in the coming years because it changes the terms of that conversation. Once, creators had to find a grim-looking man with a fat wallet and say “please sir, may I be allowed to create?”; our future is a world where a creator instead stands up in a crowd and says “here’s what I’m going to create; who’s with me?”. This is no utopian vision, because the judgment of the crowd will often be as harsh and unforgiving as the besuited financier ever would be – but there are many, many crowds, and they ultimately offer a chance for a lot more voices to be heard in a medium that has all too often spoken in monotone.