According to the provided details, the new HDMI v2.1 specification will be backward compatible with earlier versions and in addition to higher video resolution and refresh rates, including 8K@60Hz and 4K@120Hz, it will also bring support for Dynamic HDR, Game Mode variable refresh rate (VRR), eARC support for advanced audio formats and the new 48G cable that will provide 48Gbps of bandwidth which is a key for 8K HDR support.
The full list of resolutions and refresh rates start with 4K at 50/60Hz and 100/120Hz and climbs all the way up to 10K resolution at both 50/60Hz and 100/120Hz.
The big surprise is the new Game Mode VRR, which is similar with AMD FreeSync and Nvidia G-Sync, and meant to provide stutter-, tearing- and lag-free gaming, on both consoles and the PC.
Another big novelty is the all new 48G cable, which will provide enough bandwidth for higher resolutions with HDR. The old cables will be compatible with some of the new features, but for 8K/10K with HDR, you will need the new HDMI v2.1 cable.
According to HDMI Forum, the new HDMI v2.1 specification will be available to all HDMI 2.0 Adopters which will be notified when it is released in early Q2 2017.
With the exception of the last generation of consoles, which saw a roughly eight-year run on the market, the traditional console cycle has averaged around five to six years. This time around, however, perhaps influenced by the wave of high-end graphics cards necessitated by VR, both Microsoft and Sony are testing the market with so-called mid-cycle upgrades. The PS4 Pro and next year’s Scorpio offer gamers the chance to play in 4K – a resolution that until recently was only possible in the realm of PC gaming. Perhaps more importantly, the inclusion of HDR gaming offers a new level of visual fidelity that brings a much wider color gamut to players.
Factoring in the recent release of the Xbox One S, and the PS4 Slim model as well, we’ve never seen this many new consoles launched to the market so near to the start of a new console cycle – both PS4 and Xbox One released only three years ago – which begs the question: is the traditional console cycle now dead?
2016 and 2017 with Scorpio will certainly prove to be an interesting test for the market. It’s far too early to judge the reception to PS4 Pro, but Xbox One S has been selling moderately well, even allowing Xbox One to outsell PS4 for a few months.
NPD analyst Mat Piscatella, who joined the data firm with years of publishing experience at Activision and WBIE, commented, “I think I’d call it more ‘evolved’ than ‘died’… Nintendo seems to have already been there for years, at least in the portable space. We have to wait and see what they will do with the Switch. But the iterative model certainly will be tested over the next 12-18 months.”
“Nintendo’s past approach in the portable space has proven that the iterative model can be successful,” he continued. “However, the PS4 Pro and Scorpio (we assume) will bring much more significant performance upgrades at higher upfront costs to the consumer.
“Adding iterative hardware into a cycle also creates the need for a much more demanding set of go to market strategies while making successful execution of those strategies more critical than ever before. Balancing game development resources, the hardware R&D challenges surrounding an iterative launch, the detailed planning that will be necessary to properly align the supply chain from production to retail to ensure the proper mix and stock volumes in channel, ensuring the pricing and price promotion programs are right, all while communicating marketing messages that speak to the different customer sets effectively… this will certainly be an ongoing challenge.”
While some have speculated that we’ll now see new consoles literally every year, mimicking the lightspeed pace at which smartphones get upgraded, the market dynamics for consoles and the impact of new hardware on developers makes that a much more difficult proposition.
Consequently, Piscatella doesn’t think we’ll see more than one new console iteration per cycle. “I don’t see a more rapid deployment as feasible due primarily to development challenges. Making video games is hard, and ensuring a game is optimized for two versions of a console is challenging enough. Getting to 3 or 4 versions of the game for the same console base seems to me as though it would bring diminishing returns,” he explained.
SuperData’s Joost van Dreunen believes that the typical console cycle will remain intact, but unlike Piscatella, he sees the platform holders iterating continuously.
The constant technical upgrades that we see in mobile have effectively changed consumer expectations and the broader market for interactive entertainment, he noted. “So as Sony and Microsoft are pursuing their respective long-term VR/AR agendas, they now also have to keep in touch with what’s happening outside of their secret labs. This means we’re probably looking at the release of a new hardware architecture every 5-7 years, and allowing for annual iterations of key components throughout the lifecycle,” he said.
“This blend of internally developing proprietary hardware and adopting externally emerging trends that are popular with consumers is a powerful mix, and has allowed console gaming to thrive when many wrote it off. And given the current success of both platforms, and the imminent arrival of Nintendo’s bid, I don’t expect the console gaming market to soften any time soon.”
While the longstanding five-plus year console cycle was a boon for developers to work with and optimize for a set specification, the iterative approach that we’re likely to see in hardware moving forward brings advantages as well. As Piscatella explained, introducing console iterations can help to reduce cycle stagnation and boost consoles’ cycle tail, while also “encouraging pubs/devs to invest in scalable development environments, to hopefully avoid the dramatic steps up in development costs seen previously with new hardware deployment.”
Furthermore, by offering multiple configurations that still adhere to the same architecture (Xbox One, One S, Scorpio), there’s an opportunity for “price/benefit ratios appealing to both enthusiast and mass market audiences. Marketing approaches no longer have to take a one-size-fits-all approach,” Piscatella said.
The iterative release schedule would appear to make sense for the console manufacturers, enabling them to maximize returns and keep average pricing elevated, and so long as the ecosystem and gaming experiences are kept consistent across the numerous variations of the consoles, Sony and Microsoft don’t really care which version of their hardware a player owns – so long as that player remains invested in Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, that’s a win for Microsoft or Sony. The platform is less important than the digital ecosystem nowadays, especially with digital sales rising rapidly.
“The console market is at its heart a consumer electronics market,” van Dreunen remarked. “But increasingly it is incorporating tactics from the fashion industry, where we see an accelerated adoption of trends that emerged outside of the ateliers and studios of salaried designers. Console manufacturers have been actively pursuing digital distribution and free-to-play, both of which first gained traction on PC and mobile. Full game downloads now represent about 27% of holiday sales, up from just 5% in 2012, adding just under $7 billion a year to the console market. Titles like FIFA, GTA Online, and Call of Duty, do really well in terms of digital sales, and have managed to improve margins and player base longevity. Further facilitating this trend will be as important as making the hardware better.”
With the digital ecosystem taking precedence, it’s no surprise that Sony has made PlayStation Now streaming titles work for Windows PCs, and with the remote play feature, customers can enjoy PS4 titles on a PC or Mac as well. Microsoft, of course, which has a deep investment in the PC space with Windows 10 has extended the Xbox ecosystem across devices with Xbox Play Anywhere, enabling certain titles to be played with progress intact on a PC or Xbox console.
Whether you’re playing on Windows 10 or Xbox One doesn’t matter to Xbox boss Phil Spencer. In fact, he’s not even concerned about whether you upgrade to Scorpio next year.
“For us in the console [industry], the business is not selling the console,” Spencer told me back at E3. “The business is more of an attached business to the console install base. So if you’re an Xbox One customer and you bought that console 3 years ago, I think you’re a great customer. You’re still using the device. That’s why we focus on monthly active users. That’s actually the health of our ecosystem because it’s really you want this large install base of people that are active in your network buying games, playing games… So our model’s not really built around selling you a new console every one or two years. The model is almost the exact opposite. If I can keep you with the console you have, keep you engaged in buying and playing games, that’s a good business.”
If frequent hardware iteration is indeed the new reality for the console market, publishers couldn’t be happier. “I actually see it…as an incredibly positive evolution of the business strategy for players and for our industry and definitely for EA. The idea that we would potentially not have an end of cycle and a beginning of cycle I think is a positive place for our industry to be and for all of the commercial partners as well as players,” EA global publishing chief Laura Miele said during the company’s EA Play conference.
Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick agreed, “It would be a very good thing for us,” not to have to worry about hardware and who owns which console. He likened it to TV. “When you make a television show you don’t ask yourself ‘what monitor is this going to play on?’ It could play on a 1964 color television or it could play on a brand-new 4K television, but you’re still going to make a good television show.”
“We will get to the point where the hardware becomes a backdrop,” he said. That may very well be true. At the point when high fidelity games are playable literally anywhere and on any device, will we even have consoles? Much like Netflix, the networks and content providers/curators will live on, but hardware may not matter.
And as happy as publishers appear to be about the new world of console iteration, NPD’s Piscatella did point to a possible cause for concern. “Here’s the real question. If consumers are purchasing multiple iterations of the same console over the course of a generation, does this potentially increase or decrease the amount of money that consumer will spend on software and associated content?” he asked.
“And I think this is an open question… will they spend more because they’ve reinvested in the ecosystems? Or will they spend less because they’ve just output more money on to the iterative hardware? We’ll see how the market answers that question over the next 12-18 months.”
Dean Hall, CEO of RocketWerkz and previously lead designer of DayZ, has spoken openly on Reddit about the harsh financial realities of VR development, explaining that without the subsidies provided by platform exclusives and other mechanisms, the medium would currently be largely unviable.
In an extended post which has garnered over 200 comments, Hall proclaimed that there was simply “no money” in VR game development, explaining that even though his VR title Out of Ammo had sold better than expected, it remained unprofitable.
Hall believes that many consumer expectations from the mature and well-supported PC market have carried over to VR, with customers not fully comprehending the challenges involved with producing content for such a small install base.
“From our standpoint, Out of Ammo has exceeded our sales predictions and achieved our internal objectives,” Hall explained. “However, it has been very unprofitable. It is extremely unlikely that it will ever be profitable. We are comfortable with this, and approached it as such. We expected to lose money and we had the funding internally to handle this. Consider then that Out of Ammo has sold unusually well compared to many other VR games.”
Pointing out that making cross-platform VR to ameliorate that small install base is not as simple as cross platform console development, Hall went on to talk about the realities of funding VR games, and what that meant for the studios involved.
“Where do you get money to develop your games? How do you keep paying people? The only people who might be profitable will be microteams of one or two people with very popular games. The traditional approach has been to partner with platform developers for several reasons:
“The most common examples of this are the consoles. At launch, they actually have very few customers and the initial games release for them, if not bundled and/or with (timed or otherwise) exclusivity deals – the console would not have the games it does. Developers have relied on this funding in order to make games.
“How are the people who are against timed exclusives proposing that development studios pay for the development of the games?
“There is no money in it. I don’t mean ‘money to go buy a Ferrari’. I mean ‘money to make payroll’. People talk about developers who have taken Oculus/Facebook/Intel money like they’ve sold out and gone off to buy an island somewhere. The reality is these developers made these deals because it is the only way their games could come out.
“Here is an example. We considered doing some timed exclusivity for Out of Ammo, because it was uneconomical to continue development. We decided not to because the money available would just help cover costs. The amount of money was not going to make anyone wealthy. Frankly, I applaud Oculus for fronting up and giving real money out with really very little expectations in return other than some timed-exclusivity. Without this subsidization there is no way a studio can break even, let alone make a profit.
“Some will point to GabeN’s email about fronting costs for developers, however I’ve yet to know anyone who’s got that, has been told about it, or knows how to apply for this. It also means you need to get to a point you can access this. Additionally, HTC’s “accelerator” requires you to set up your studio in specific places – and these specific places are incredibly expensive areas to live and run a studio. I think Valve/HTC’s no subsidy/exclusive approach is good for the consumer in the short term – but terrible for studios.
“As I result I think we will see more and more microprojects, and then more and more criticism that there are not more games with more content.”
In addition to the financial burdens, Hall says that there are other pressures too. For example, in his experience VR development burns people out very quickly indeed, with the enthusiasm of most, including himself, waning after a single project.
“I laugh now when people say or tweet me things like ‘I can’t wait to see what your next VR game will be!’ Honestly, I don’t think I want to make any more VR games. Our staff who work on VR games all want to rotate off after their work is done. Privately, developers have been talking about this but nobody seems to feel comfortable talking about it publicly – which I think will ultimately be bad.”
“For us it became clear that the rise of VR would be gradual rather than explosive when in 2015, it was revealed that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive would be released in 2016 and that the gold rush would be on hold”
Sam Watts, Make Real
It’s not a universal opinion among VR developers, however: there was opposition to Hall’s points both within and beyond the thread. Sam Watts, Operations Lead at Make Real had the following to say.
“I think the reality of that thread is a direct result of a perceived gold rush by developers of all sizes to a degree, since analyst predictions around sales volumes of units were far higher than the reality towards the end of the year. There have been waves of gold rush perceptions with VR over the past few years, mostly around each release of new hardware expecting the next boom to take the technology into the mainstream, which has mostly failed to materialise.
“For us it became clear that the rise of VR would be gradual rather than explosive when in 2015, it was revealed that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive would be released in 2016 and that the gold rush would be on hold.”
Watts also sees a healthier VR ecosystem on the way, one where big publishers might be more willing to invest in the sort of budgets which console games are used to.
“Whilst typical AAA budgets aren’t yet being spent on VR (to our knowledge) it doesn’t mean AAA isn’t dipping their toe in the water. The main leader being Ubisoft who created a small VR R&D team that eventually became the Eagle Flight devs. They have avoided what many early VR developers were worried about AAA approach to VR by prototyping, iterating on design, making mistakes, learning from them and working out what does and doesn’t work in VR, even creating a now widely popular comfort option of the reduced peripheral vision black tunnel effect. They didn’t just storm in late to the party, throwing AAA megabucks around at the problem, assuming money would make great games.
“I know Oculus, Steam, Sony and Razer are still funding games titles for development in 2017, I would hope to see this continue beyond to ensure the continued steady adoption and rise of VR as a new gaming platform moving forwards. This will help continue to improve the quality of content offering on the platforms to ensure full gaming experiences that gamers want to buy and return to, rather than just a series of short tech demos, are available, helping establish the medium and widen the net.”
Nintendo is offering cash rewards for hackers that can expose security weaknesses in its 3DS family of consoles.
Upwards of $20,000 will be made available to successful hackers who can help address the weaknesses in Nintendo’s portable machine. The offer does not extend to Wii U.
It’s part of a program the firm is working on with HackerOne.
The offer is Nintendo’s renewed efforts to reduce piracy (including game application dumping and game copying execution), cheating (which includes game modification and save data modification) and the spreading of inappropriate content to children.
It suggests that Nintendo is true to its statement that it wants to maintain its 3DS business, even after the launch of its Switch console in March. Switch, which doubles as both a home and portable console, is seen as the natural successor to the 3DS, although Nintendo has stated it will continue to release games for the hardware. Over 60m 3DS consoles have been sold worldwide since the machine launched in 2011.
The ‘reward’ for finding vulnerabilities in the 3DS hardware will range from $100 to $20,000, and the amount will be at Nintendo’s discretion. Vulnerabilities that are already known will not be counted. The level of the reward will depend on the importance of information, quality of report and the severity of the vulnerability. Nintendo is looking for reports that include a proof of concept or functional exploit of code.
The number of games on Steam continues to rise at a daunting rate. According to new data from Steam Spy, the number of full games released on the store this year rose 40% over 2015.
Steam Spy founder Sergey Galyonkin published a chart on Twitter that indicated a total of 4207 games launched on Steam in 2016, up from 2964 last year. If accurate, that means 38% of all games on Steam were released within the last 12 months – a sobering thought for any developer trading on Valve’s market leading platform.
Of course, the notion that Steam is crowded with product is hardly new, but Steam Spy’s chart – republished above – clearly illustrates the pace at which the trend is playing out.
The only small consolation is that the 40% rise over last year is actually lower than the 67% increase in new games between 2014 and 2015. Galyonkin noted that the chart doesn’t include movies and non-game software, but it also filters out relevant content like DLC packs and “games without owner data.”
Valve is certainly cognisant of the issues that Steam’s teeming inventory has created for both developers and consumers. It has responded with two “Discovery Updates” that gave more control over the experience to both groups, the first in 2014 and the second little more than a month ago.
Following the second Discovery Update, GamesIndustry.biz talked to developers about the “huge impact” of the changes.
As the numbers from Black Friday and Thanksgiving weekend continue to trickle in, many analysts are examining how the holiday sales picture is coming together this year. While The NPD Group is not ready to give its full assessment just yet, the firm did note to GamesIndustry.biz that digital promotions on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live were much more aggressive this year and may have impacted the retail channel. Digital aside, the sector that seemed to struggle the most is virtual reality, according to SuperData, which said VR has been the “biggest loser.”
Thanks to “notably fewer units sold than expected due to a relatively fragmented title line-up and modest marketing effort,” VR headsets are now expected to sell even fewer than previously thought. SuperData’s revised forecast for 2016 calls for under 750k PlayStation VR units sold (their previous estimate was 2.6 million) with Google’s Daydream selling just 261k (down from 450k). Previous estimates for HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Gear VR remain unchanged at 450k, 355k and 2.3 million, respectively.
As you can see, expectations for PSVR have seen the most dramatic shift. Stephanie Llamas, director of research and insights at SuperData, explained to us, “PSVR had the best opportunity to benefit from the holidays but their supply inconsistencies and lack of marketing have put them behind their potential. They did not offer any first-party deals this weekend, restock bundles or market the device, pushing instead for the PS 4 Pro. They have also pointed out that VR looks even better on a Pro than a standard or slim PS 4, so the message to most gamers is: Get the Pro now, then the PSVR later. As a result, we won’t see them break 1M shipments until well into the new year.”
Llamas added that Sony may be deliberately limiting PSVR supply until it can do a better job with supporting the platform. “Had Sony pushed the PSVR the way they’ve been pushing their other new hardware, the demand would have certainly fulfilled a supply of over 2 million. However, given its quiet release it’s clear they’re being cautious before fully investing in the tech. Without the ‘killer app’ and the slow, steady release of AAA content, they will release less than 1 million devices until they have content they feel confident will bring in the praise they want. They can afford to take it slow since they have no competition for now, so their supply and sales will rise steadily into 2017 as opposed to riding the seasonal wave,” she said.
As for Oculus, Llamas believes they’ve taken a risk by possibly splitting their own user base. “The Rift’s Touch controllers are an opportunity for Oculus to penetrate, but not many headsets have moved, especially with their round-about deal where purchasers earned $100 Oculus credit rather than just getting $100 off. Oculus’s hardware release strategy has also slowed them down and split their user base, so developers are having to make some choices around whether they should develop for both Touch and non-Touch users. This means development has slowed and is becoming another barrier to growth,” she remarked.
Looking at the non-VR games market, Nintendo may actually prove to be the biggest winner, thanks to updates both to Pokémon GO and selling out of its NES mini. “On mobile we recorded a spike in earnings as players made the most of the Thanksgiving special for Pokémon GO. The game’s ability to stay in the forefront of people’s minds as we approach the release date for Super Mario Run may prove beneficial for Nintendo, which has yet to make a convincing claim on the $38 billion mobile games market,” said Joost van Dreunen.
Overall digital game sales this holiday are down 2% from 2015 so far, but the impact of digital has grown tremendously in just a few years. “In 2012 full game downloads accounted for only 6% of total unit sales around the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. For 2016E that number was four times higher at 24%,” van Dreunen said.
The other big contributor to the slow holiday start has been big discounting, according to Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter. “We saw greater discounting of high-profile new video games this Black Friday compared to last year. Last year’s top sellers, Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III , Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 4, and EA’s Star Wars Battlefront, saw sticky pricing on Black Friday, with the $60 price point remaining largely intact. While discounting of sports games happens each year, many other titles that maintain pricing on Black Friday were listed at discounts of 40% or more this weekend,” he observed.
“For example, Walmart had EA’s Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 at $27, and Microsoft’s Gears of War 4 and Take-Two’s Mafia III at $35. Walmart also had Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Legacy Edition, which includes Modern Warfare Remastered , for $57, a $23 discount. Discounting of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare began earlier in the week, with widespread discounts of roughly $20 for the different versions of the game. Hardware discounting for the PS4 and Xbox One was largely consistent with 2015, as $50 discounts were commonplace.”
Pachter also agreed that the “pace of the mix shift to digital full game downloads continues to be brisk,” but we probably won’t know whether digital sales fully made up for retail declines until we get the complete NPD report for 2016 sometime in January.
At a Microsoft event to showcase its Windows 10 Creators Update coming next year, the software giant made it absolutely clear that it has big plans for VR, not just AR and HoloLens. By partnering with HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer and Asus to offer a range of VR headsets that are priced at $299 and feature inside-out tracking, the company has taken an important step towards democratizing VR for the masses. But what’s the larger play here? How will VR headsets like these impact Project Scorpio next year and the Xbox business moving forward?
Tim Merel, founder of Digi-Capital and CEO of Eyetouch Reality, believes the VR news from Microsoft is a true “game changer” and he speculates that the company will look to make Scorpio an even more enticing proposition for gamers by bundling in VR. “The greatest potential for the Microsoft VR headset could come from bundling it with Xbox One Project Scorpio, which Microsoft has already highlighted as supporting next generation VR. With an Xbox One installed base over 20 million users, this might be Microsoft’s silver bullet for both VR specifically and the console market more generally. So Microsoft could be using its new VR headset to leapfrog competitors in two markets at the same time, leveraging for VR some of the great work already done by Phil Spencer, Alex Kipman and Kudo Tsunoda with Windows 10 and HoloLens in the adjacent AR market,” he says.
Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter agrees with Merel, telling GamesIndustry.biz, “Tim is spot on. A standalone headset without a CPU/GPU makes no sense, and if it requires the purchase of a high end PC, it’s not clear that anyone will buy it instead of Oculus/Vive/PSVR. However, if it works with Scorpio, it’s a formidable competitor for PSVR (albeit with a starting installed base of zero). I think that’s probably the plan, and am curious if software for Oculus and Vive will work with the Microsoft headset.”
Other analysts are more skeptical of Microsoft’s chances in VR, however. Stephanie Llamas, Director of Research and Insights at SuperData, still thinks HoloLens and augmented or mixed reality will be more impactful for the company.
“A VR device will not be a silver bullet for any market for a very long time,” she cautions. “First off, Microsoft is banking on consumers they don’t even have yet: Xbox One will not support the line of devices, so they are actually starting from a user base of zero that they hope will buy the Xbox One Project Scorpio. Early VR adopters already bought their PSVR, Vive or Oculus — inside-out tracking alone isn’t going to entice them to spend on another VR device this early in the market’s lifecycle. This product is going to be secondary to a purchaser’s decision to buy Project Scorpio, not the other way around.
“Second, this is just a MS-compatible line of headsets. So Microsoft will have to tout a third-party accessory with a first-party device, which definitely complicates their marketing and potential for bundling. Microsoft should have done this a year ago, or at least given us more promise than including their controller with the Oculus Rift, but they are already too far behind. Where they should continue to focus, and where they have shown a unique value proposition, is with the HoloLens’s potential for augmented and mixed reality.”
EEDAR’s Patrick Walker, on the other hand, is confident that a pivot towards VR is a smart move for Microsoft at this juncture. “While many technology thinkers are significantly more excited about the potential of AR long-term, VR is much closer to reaching a mainstream market,” he remarks. “It is also becoming more and more clear that the line between VR and AR will likely be blurred. Microsoft’s VR initiatives on the Xbox One portfolio also make a lot of sense considering the console’s position in the market. The PS4 has had a much more successful launch than the Xbox One so it is in Microsoft’s interest to push technology initiatives that disrupt the console generation, including the VR headsets and the merger of PC and console gaming.
“The increased VR capability of the Scorpio could provide a compelling reason for PS4 gamers to jump into the Xbox One platform. This creates a nice short term strategy of regaining console share, a mid-term strategy of generating VR revenue across PC and console, and a continued long-term strategy of developing for the future of AR.”
DFC Intelligence’s David Cole falls more in the skeptic’s camp. “The big issue in the VR market is that there needs to be a clear market driver that can package up the experience for the mass consumer. Right now the only one with that solution is PlayStation VR, which has a clear price point and an easy to use solution that is getting out to the masses,” he says. “The problem with the other VR devices is not having that clear distribution or message. Just having a product available doesn’t push it to consumers and that is the big problem Microsoft faces…who is going to communicate that message to consumers? This is still a pitch to the tech elite. There is also going to be a great deal of consumer confusion with multiple devices.
“VR is a new form of entertainment that needs to be introduced as such. The issue is many of these headset manufacturers are not strong at consumer marketing so who is going to get the message out? Right now for 2017 we see PSVR as being far and away the leading high-end VR device. I don’t think these products are launching until later in 2017 so we see a lot of announcements coming in this space.”
Inside-out tracking is important because it means you don’t need sensors all over your room to track your headset and controller motions, but as long as players are tethered to a device the experience will feel somewhat limited. “Losing the wire will be bigger. VR is still in its infancy and we expect even more price reductions and innovation to drive the market,” Cole continues.
“Microsoft has pretty much indicated that they plan for Project Scorpio to work with multiple VR headsets. The real issue will be Project Scorpio is too little, too late. Project Scorpio will actually be starting from a zero install base, not 20 million, so I think Windows VR should move the needle more than Project Scorpio.”
Merel remains more positive, though, and unlike Llamas, does not think that offering third-party VR hardware is a downside. “Microsoft’s new VR headset is the next stage of VR going mass consumer. For consumers, inside-out tracking without the need to buy or set up external sensors in a dedicated VR playroom is huge. The $299 price point is much less expensive than other PC based VR products. Launching with partners HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, and Acer gives Microsoft an accelerated hardware platform and also spreads its market risk,” he notes.
Microsoft has been making some headway in the generation eight console battle, with the Xbox One celebrating a third month running as the best-selling console in the US. The combined sales of the original One and the new S model also put it at the head of the pack in the UK in September.
US figures come from the NPD group and UK numbers from GfK, although no actual unit values were given. The full US sales report from NPD is due next week.
It’s likely that some of that recent lead is a result of a dip in PS4 sales thanks to the imminent launch of the PlayStation Pro, but the One has also been building momentum too, with sales up across many territories.
“Xbox One was the only gen eight console to see year-over-year growth in September in the U.S., Australia, the U.K and many other countries worldwide,” said corporate VP of Xbox marketing Mike Nichols. “This success was driven by our fans and their support for Xbox One S, which is the only console available this holiday with built-in UHD 4K Blu-ray, 4K video streaming and HDR for gaming and video.”
For game critics, loving Gears of War has been problematic since the very beginning. The rippling, testosterone drenched surface of Epic’s franchise served as a distraction from its abundant qualities. Looking back, it’s clear that the first game, released in 2006, provided the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era with the kind of moment that arguably still hasn’t arrived for the current generation. It was a new visual benchmark, its sense of weight and physical force was entirely distinct, and – a year before the launch of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – it introduced the most credible new multiplayer experience since Halo. For those who based their professional integrity on distinguishing good games from bad, to notice and appreciate any of this was to miss the square-jaws and lumpen dialogue that comprised its story.
Looking back now, it’s clear that Gears of War was one of the defining series of the last console generation, influencing the creative direction of a large proportion of action games, driving the development community towards the Unreal Engine in droves, and with Horde mode in Gears of War 2, introducing a multiplayer concept that would be adopted by everything from Uncharted to Mass Effect. Even its marketing was influential: Gears of War’s popular “Mad World” trailer might well be the origin of action games using pained, acoustic covers of popular songs to score their artfully spliced carnage.
Despite this estimable legacy, however, the reviews of Gears of War 4 are shot through with an almost apologetic tone; a need to address the (arguably misplaced) perception of Gears as nothing more than a dude-bro power fantasy. Polygon, which awards the game an impressive 9 out of 10, spends a full third of its review on story and characterisation, opening with a declaration that, “Gears of War 4 is about home and family.”
“Gears of War as a series has dealt with accusations of hyper-masculine excess and an emphasis on gore and violence since it was first announced more than ten years ago. And it’s not that those observations are wrong, exactly – the characters have always been larger than life, the men in particular wide and heavy, and the violence of the series has always been extreme and enthusiastic. But beneath or even in parallel to that aspect, there’s always been consistent themes of friendship, of relationships of support and camaraderie that would seem corny in most other games but, somehow, work in Gears of War for a passionate fanbase.”
This protagonist of this reboot – which was developed by Microsoft’s The Coalition – is J. D. Fenix, the son of the original series’ central character, Marcus Fenix. Both father and son play pivotal roles in the game’s story, which Polygon describes as, “more focused, less sprawling story than the last few entries… A lot of time is spent exploring the strained relationship between Marcus and his son, with a lot of perspective on both sides of the equation.” The game’s various other key characters all have their own emotional journeys, largely relating to those themes of family and friendship. Gears of War 4’s story and character time works as well as it does for several reasons,” Polygon says. “The writing is matter-of-fact, avoiding over-stoicism and also overwrought fluff for the most part.”
If this is an area of weakness that The Coalition sought to address, then the abiding sense from the game’s reviews is that it has made a significant improvement. Whether that’s what the vast majority of Gears of War’s players care about is another matter, of course, but The Coalition hasn’t dropped the ball with the series’ core strengths, either. Polygon praises Gears of War 4 as “simply a joy to play,” and that sentiment echoes throughout the critical discourse.
The Daily Telegraph, which awards four stars, applauds the “muscular and endlessly gratifying thrill” of the gunplay, which carries the game through a slow start that serves, “as an elongated (re)introduction to that well-oiled Gears combat, flashing between cover-to-cover, switching between shotgun and rifle and familiarising yourself with the rattle of an emptying clip and the satisfaction of a well-timed, power-boosting active reload.” There are two new enemy races to fight in place of the original series’ Locust, and “weaponry…as exotic as the bestiary” with which to fight them. The need to switch between distinct weapons to fight equally distinct weapon types has always been central to Gears of War’s appeal. Here, again, The Coalition has honoured its heritage.
The same is true of Gears of War 4 as a spectacle. You won’t find a single review that doesn’t proclaim it to be one of the very best looking games on either Xbox One or PlayStation 4, and the same is true is the PC version. Indeed, PCGamesN calls it “a visual and technical tour de force,” maintaining “searing frame-rates on ‘ultra’ settings during some of the most mind-blowing – if cheesy – set-pieces I’ve seen in games, while also inviting me to appreciate the vivid redness of sycamore leaves lazily billowing on a cracked yellow wall in a medieval town square on some parallel-to-Earth planet.”
That last observation is crucial, because the beauty of Gears 4 goes beyond polygons, framerates and animations, and extends to art direction. “This certainly ain’t the grey-brown Gears of old,” PCGamesN says, before adding, “the diversity of what it shows is stunning… This is a far cry from the game that single-handedly started the stereotype of the ‘murky brown war shooter’, taking us instead on a historical tour of the vestiges of a world parallel to ours, yet still different enough to be mysterious; I almost felt guilty as I stomped around a scenic town as a giant mech, casually calling in airstrikes to smash my way through buildings. Almost.”
Words like “jawdropping,” “stunning,” “incredible” and “breathtaking” are scattered throughout this and many other reviews, to the point where the handful of scores that fall below 8 out of 10 demand close attention. For Jimquisition, the website started by ex-Destructoid personality Jim Sterling, “there’s nothing quite like Gears on the market. The sense of weight, the meaty impact of combat, the gruesomely satisfying way heads pop and bodies burst, any given Gears game has a baseline quality even at its worst thanks to its undeniably unique style.” However, Gears of War 4 relies on that “baseline quality” a little too much, The Coalition happy to make the improvements necessary to maintain relative standards but, “doing very little to rock the boat and making minor improvements and evolving where needed.”
“Such a tactic provides a game that’s decent just because it’s Gears of War, relying on the groundwork established across four older games to maintain the baseline. And that’s most certainly what Gears 4 is. A maintenance of the series as opposed to an injection of fresh blood.”
In a sense, then, the game’s most ardent supporters and most vocal critics are in full agreement: Gears of War 4 absolutely meets the standard set by its forebears, which is either something to praise or lament depending on the individual. One suspects, though, that in the absence of new Gears, the public will be more than happy to settle for more Gears.
In a week’s time, what is arguably the first truly great commercial experiment of the new VR age will begin. For the first time, consumers will be able to go out and buy a VR headset that’s (relatively) inexpensive, that doesn’t require a costly hobbyist PC to operate, and that provides a “good enough” VR experience for gaming and other applications. If there’s to be a sweet spot in the virtual reality market, Sony will be planting its flag firmly in it next Thursday.
Reviews of the device have started to appear and are pretty much what you’d expect. It’s good; we’ve known that from the countless demos and trade show appearances PSVR has made this year. It’s not as technically accomplished as the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, but it’s a far more comfortable, well-designed piece of hardware, and its technical shortfalls are far fewer and less noticeable than you’d expect from such a cheap device running on such comparatively low-powered hardware. It’s certainly an entirely different class of experience than any of the “toy” VR experiences currently offered by mobile tech like Samsung’s Gear VR, a situation which Google’s newly announced Daydream headset seems unlikely to change.
So yes, this is the sweet spot, if such a thing exists. Good enough to actually want to use, unlike current mobile VR devices, cheap enough to be accessible to a wider audience of gamers and enthusiasts, and with common sense (if occasionally frustrating) trade offs between complexity of setup and physical arrangement, and accuracy of control. If a VR headset is to rescue this putative Year of VR from the somewhat disappointing launches of HTC and Oculus’ consumer devices – both of which saw interest plateau in the post-launch period – then it’s going to be PlayStation VR.
Is that what Sony has in mind, though? One peculiarity of the PSVR launch is that beyond the specialist press, it’s something of a non-event. Marketing support for the launch is minimal; there’s far less hype and visibility around the product than there would be around, for example, the launch of a major game. Here in Japan, PSVR barely warrants a mention in Sony’s current barrage of advertising, which is promoting PlayStation 4 with TV and streaming site commercials that highlight the launch of games like Persona 5 and Yakuza 6, the arrival of new console hardware, and oh yeah, PSVR is a thing too.
One could argue that Sony would be foolish to push PSVR too hard given that pretty much the entirety of its early shipments are spoken for by pre-orders. We still don’t know how many units of PSVR will ship for launch, or how many are projected to ship by year-end, but every indication is that the numbers are relatively small, at least by comparison with the PS4’s installed base. It’s not unreasonable to expect that PSVR will be for all intents and purposes supply-constrained through into early 2017, making it comfortably the most commercially successful of the tethered VR platforms – regardless of whether the company spends a single cent on further marketing.
However, the slightest glance back over the history of hardware launches in the games business and beyond would demonstrate that companies generally do not row back their marketing budgets just because of being supply-constrained; if anything, this encourages them to redouble their efforts. That’s because supply constraints act as a multiplier on marketing budgets. When demand is outstripping supply, every extra notch that you can ratchet up that demand through your marketing efforts guarantees more media coverage, more word of mouth and more visibility for your product, creating a halo of desirability around the platform which can give a long-term boost to sales that lasts for months or even years after the initial supply constraints are lifted.
That Sony has seemingly decided to eschew that strategy for PSVR is interesting, but probably speaks to a confluence of a number of different factors. For a start, it’s rare for a platform holder to be putting not one but two major new pieces of hardware on the market at once, which is what Sony is doing with PSVR in October and PS4 Pro in November. A huge marketing push, widespread coverage of shortages and the resulting desirability halo that would build around PSVR would be great for the VR headset, but might negatively impact the now overshadowed PS4 Pro. That would hurt all the more if, as is likely, PS4 Pro is not supply constrained while PSVR is. That’s definitely a factor playing into Sony’s decision making here.
There’s something else in play too, though. Lots of software is on the way for PSVR, and there’s actually a pretty respectable line-up at the outset – but reviews of the system are fairly blunt about the extent to which much of it feels more like it’s demoing the hardware, and the concept of VR itself, rather than being a proper, full-strength VR game experience. The games aren’t just short, they expose kinks in the PS Move control system (which may be fixable or may be an innate problem PSVR just has to work around forever) and sidestep major issues instead of tackling them – for example, the Batman VR title’s decision to make the player jump from location to location, rather than walking between them, to avoid motion sickness.
In short, while there’s interesting and even accomplished stuff in there, it all sounds rather like the kind of thing that you play to show off a new system’s capabilities, rather than the kind of thing that makes you say, “you’ve got to go out and get PSVR so you can play this game”. The enthusiasts and the VR faithful don’t need a killer app – they just need enough of a taster to convince themselves that the killer apps will come, given time – but the general public absolutely does. It’s easy for enthusiasts – a category which, if you’re reading this, probably encompasses you – to underestimate the psychological barrier VR needs to overcome. For many consumers, the prospect of strapping on a headset that looks like a Daft Punk cosplay prop, isolating themselves from the world around them and potentially looking like a complete tool as they flail around with objects nobody else in the room can see is a pretty big ask.
A great killer app game that gets the world gushing will overcome that barrier. That may be on the way; all eyes are on January’s Resident Evil 7, which could potentially be VR’s first truly huge AAA title. Until that kind of game is available, though, Sony may be well advised to focus on the VR faithful and keep its marketing powder dry. That’s certainly what seems to have happened so far; this is entirely anecdotal, but I’ve been surprised at just how few people have asked whether I’m getting a PSVR (and if they can bring an offering of beer around in order to have a go on it). Far fewer people have asked me about PSVR than have asked about PS4 Pro, or even Xbox One S. Enthusiasts know about it; the average gamer simply doesn’t seem to care yet.
Given the hurdles facing mainstream VR adoption, that may be for the best. It’s important that when the majority of consumers start to experience VR, their experience of it is fantastic, not just a demo or a proof of concept but a game that makes them want to own this technology right now. Saving the marketing blitz and letting PSVR’s software library mature first could be the best way to prevent the so-called Year of VR from ending with the Winter of VR Discontent.
Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe has emphasized the freedom that Oculus VR allows its employees to support their personal views, a freedom he said also applied to Palmer Luckey.
In a post on his Facebook page, Iribe spoke about Luckey’s regret at the negative impact the situation had created for “the company, our partners, and the industry.” However, he offered a measure of support for Oculus VR’s founder, citing Luckey’s right to independent political beliefs.
“Everyone at Oculus is free to support the issues or causes that matter to them, whether or not we agree with those views,” he said. “It is important to remember that Palmer acted independently in a personal capacity, and was in no way representing the company.”
Original Story: After numerous publications (GamesIndustry.biz included) no doubt flooded Oculus with requests for comment on Friday, when the story broke that Palmer Luckey allegedly had been funding a pro-Trump “shitposting” group, the man himself took to Facebook (which owns Oculus) to apologize for his actions.
“I am deeply sorry that my actions are negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners.The recent news stories about me do not accurately represent my views,” he wrote. “Here’s more background: I contributed $10,000 to Nimble America because I thought the organization had fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters through the use of several billboards. I am a libertarian who has publicly supported Ron Paul and Gary Johnson in the past, and I plan on voting for Gary in this election as well.”
Luckey went on to deny that he was the author behind the ‘NimbleRichMan’ posts on Reddit and the vice president of Nimble America: “I am committed to the principles of fair play and equal treatment. I did not write the ‘NimbleRichMan’ posts, nor did I delete the account. Reports that I am a founder or employee of Nimble America are false. I don’t have any plans to donate beyond what I have already given to Nimble America. Still, my actions were my own and do not represent Oculus. I’m sorry for the impact my actions are having on the community.”
The original Daily Beast article, however, confirmed that Luckey was indeed the man behind “NimbleRichMan” and author Gideon Resnick reiterated that fact on his Twitter account today.
Here is where I sought that clarification from him and what he said. pic.twitter.com/pPfLKUX5Cg
— Gideon Resnick (@GideonResnick) September 24, 2016
One more email: Luckey clearly states in here that the NimbleRichMan account represents him. pic.twitter.com/RC4mXPFDkM
— Gideon Resnick (@GideonResnick) September 24, 2016
So it’s essentially Resnick’s word against Luckey’s, but Oculus Head of Content Jason Rubin urged people to take Luckey at his word. “I wanted to give @PalmerLuckey a chance to respond before I posted… knowing Palmer, I take him at his word,” Rubin tweeted, adding, “30 years in the Game business I would not work in a place that I thought condoned or spread hate. Nor would I remain silent if I saw it.”
Denials from Luckey and support from Oculus colleagues aside, the development community is already reacting, and some are pulling support for the Rift. Polytron, which is making a VR game called SuperHyperCube, noted on Twitter that it will not be supporting Oculus now. Scruta Games took it one step further, asking that Luckey leave the company he founded: “Until @PalmerLuckey steps down from his position at @oculus, we will be cancelling Oculus support for our games,” the developer said. Tomorrow Today Labs issued a similar sentiment: “Hey @oculus, @PalmerLuckey’s actions are unacceptable. NewtonVR will not be supporting the Oculus Touch as long as he is employed there.”
Edge of Nowhere developer Insomniac Games said it “condemns all forms of hate speech” and issued the following statement to Polygon as well: “While everyone has a right to express his or her political opinion, the behavior and sentiments reported do not reflect the values of our company. We are also confident that this behavior and sentiment does not reflect the values of the many Oculus employees we work with on a daily basis.”
Not all developers are punishing Oculus for Luckey’s actions, however. James Green, co-founder of VR developer Carbon Games, commented to Motherboard, “This backlash is nonsense. I absolutely support him doing whatever he wants politically if it’s legal. To take any other position is against American values.”
Oculus has had a number of obstacles to overcome on its path to retail, with Rift headsets not making it out to Kickstarter backers for months after launch and some consumers feeling that they had been misled on what the actual price of the unit would be. Luckey admitted that he “handled the messaging poorly” back in January, and now just as manufacturing of the headset has finally improved and the flow of software has started to increase as the company prepares to launch its Oculus Touch controllers, this PR storm and accusations that its founder is vice president of a racist, pro-Trump organization could represent a significant setback. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out in the next few weeks and as we head into the holiday shopping season.
MediaTek has some decent network products and Asus and Xiaomi have a few midrange routers based on its SoC (system on a chip). Now it looks likely that Microsoft’s One S will use two MediaTek SoCs for wireless connectivity.
It has been a while since IFIXIT tore apart the Xbox One S but no one really noticed that the wireless component of the console came from MediaTek.
The Xbox One S looks like a nice console, worth the investment and was a good design win for AMD as it has an AMD APU inside. There are two chips from MediaTek, inside – firstly, the MT7632TUN, which is probably a variation of the MT7632 wireless chip supporting 2×2 802.11n + Bluetooth 4.0 Module. It is interesting that Xbox uses a 2×2 MIMO approach as this will make the 801.11n wireless much faster than before.
The second chip is MediaTek’s MT7612UN which is likely a variant of 802.11ac 2×2 MIMO that will again make things much faster in the 5GHz band and getting closer to 1Gbps speeds with the ac.
MediaTek won some business with Amazon tablets last year, and adding Microsoft to its portfolio definitely means a lot for the company and boosts its wireless image.
Xbox One S should be available in the western part of Europe within the next three weeks and Amazon Germany claims to start shipping on the September 22. US customers can get one today and it starts at $269.99 for 500 GB + Halo bundle and it jumps to $349.99 Xbox One S 1TB Console – Madden NFL 17 Bundle or $359.99 for Xbox One S 2TB Console – Launch Edition.
Google is believed to be spending a small fortune getting content ready for the platform, particularly video games and apps, licensing sports leagues and shooting 360-degree videos.
Daydream is being hardwired into Android 7.0 which launched this week. Google says that Samsung, HTC, ZTE, Huawei, Xiaomi, Alcatel, Asus and LG had agreed to make “Daydream ready” smartphones.
Google wants the software to be the Android of VR. It will provide a VR platform and other outfits will create the hardware and its Android chums will configure their smartphones to run the beast. But while the product is nearly good to go, so far no one has put their hand up and said they will be making headsets specifically for the platform.
The VR market is getting crowded from Facebook, Sony, Samsung Electronics and HTC. However there are a limited number of apps and even fewer games. Sony’s Morpheus headset is tethered to its PlayStation video-game console, but Google is focused on lower quality mobile-based VR, whereby consumers snap their phones into a visor or headset. With the headset on, Daydream presents users with an array of apps, from YouTube to HBO Now.
It’s been more than five years since The NPD Group said it would start including digital data in its monthly reports on the US video game business. In those five years, not only has digital grown, but publishers, analysts, press and more have all thrown shade at NPD, questioning the relevancy of a service that only offers physical sales data in an increasingly digital era. Today, NPD is finally taking that first step to offer a more complete picture of the entire games market as it’s unveiled its digital point-of-sale (POS) sourced service, tracking SKU-level sales data on digital games.
“Following several years of beta testing, the Digital Games Tracking Service will allow participating clients to understand the size and growth of the digital market, and analyze attach rates and other important metrics. Combined with physical data available by NPD, these clients can gain a better understanding of the interplay between the physical and digital sales channels,” the firm explained in a press statement.
“As has been experienced across a wide variety of industries, digital has made a big impact on the overall gaming market, and we’ve risen to meet the demand for a reporting mechanism that tracks those sales in a timely and accurate way,” said Joanne Hageman, President, U.S. Toys & Games, The NPD Group. “With the participation and support of leading publishers – whose cooperation makes this possible – we are excited to launch an industry-first service that addresses a long-standing need.”
The usual report on physical sales data will now be combined with digital sales data and issued on July 21 instead of July 14; it’s expected to follow that cadence (the third data Thursday of the month) moving forward. Initially, NPD has gained the support of major publishers like EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Capcom, Square Enix, Take-Two, Deep Silver and Warner Bros. There are notable exceptions, however, like Bethesda as well as first-party publishers like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, but NPD analyst Liam Callahan promised that more publishers would be signing on as the service evolves.
“This has been several years of beta testing and we’ve been doing this in partnership with publishers, shaping the product, encoding the data the way the industry wants to see it. It’s really at the behest of or on the behalf of the publishers that we’re moving forward with this announcement… Really the goal is to bring a new level of transparency never before seen, at least in the US market. This is really the first step. We recognize that there’s still a ways to go, we want more publishers to join, we want to be able to project for people who are not participating. It’s an evolution, it’s something that takes time and our philosophy was really to start – if we waited to have every publisher in the world to sign up it would take forever. We’ll be improving this as time goes on,” he said.
Importantly, NPD will notate next to game titles on the chart that do not include digital data. Callahan wants the service, which is being produced with the assistance of EEDAR, to ultimately be able to project data even for non-participants but NPD isn’t starting with that ability just yet. Instead, it’ll focus on tracking revenue from full-game downloads across Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Steam. Services like Battle.net and Uplay won’t be included at this point.
“EEDAR is excited to be part of this initiative with NPD and the participating publishers. Tracked digital revenues have seen annual growth of over 100% each year since 2012. In 2016, we’ve already tracked more digital revenue than we saw in 2012 and 2013 combined. This initiative is a great milestone for the industry which will allow publishers to make better business decisions with a broader data set,” added EEDAR CEO Rob Liguori.
Add-on content like DLC and microtransactions will be tracked as well, but that data will only be released to participants, not the media and public. “We’re waiting until that’s a little more fully baked for us to roll that out to the media. We’re doing things in stages,” Callahan said.
It may be frustrating for the media to not have a granular breakdown at the SKU level to see what portion of a game’s sales are digital versus physical, but NPD anticipates more openness as the service evolves.
NPD communications chief David Riley commented, “This is a closed service, the detailed data is only available to participants so if you’re a non-participating publisher you cannot see the data. The fact that we’re allowed to go out with something for the media is a huge step in the right direction. I think as the service matures and as the publishers get used to it and we get more on board, we have more history, we do some benchmarking, we can provide that, but what we wanted to do for multiple reasons, including appeasing the publishers was to combine full-game physical with full-game digital, keep away from the DLC, keep PC games separate because that’s a whole different ball of wax. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s the most comprehensive, we’re the first in the market to track this and we’re sort of very cautious.”
He added, “I expect a good old slamming from the industry press because of the limitations here but what we don’t want to do is open ourselves up by separating it at this time. We’ve just opened the gates right now. Just as you’ve seen a withdrawal [of data] on the physical side – we used to give units – this is sort of going to be the reverse I’m hoping and we can provide more over time.”
Working with the publishers is great, but there are numerous digitally released titles from indies which make up a growing piece of the industry pie. Will the service grow to track those titles too? “Indies are a big part of the industry in terms of their innovation and I think when I talk about our projection methodology and assets at NPD, that is part of how we can track everything, not just for publishers, including indie games and everything that’s outside the panel right now,” Callahan said.
“Some of those smaller games are published through a publisher or first-party so there are ways to get some of those with our publisher-sourced methodology, and otherwise we’re approaching it with developing a robust projection methodology. That’s certainly part of our plan, we’re not going to ignore the indie piece.”
In our previous conversations with NPD, the firm had hinted at possibly working towards the goal of global digital reports. That’s not off the table, but it’s not a focus at the moment. “US is our core competency… our vision is to expand this as much as we can in a way that makes sense for our partners. If that’s global that may be what we pursue. But we also want to do the best job that we can in projecting for the market and recruiting as many publishers as we can,” Callahan concluded.
Sony is over the hump. That’s the message that the company wanted investors and market watchers to understand from its presentations earlier this week. Though it expressed it in rather more finessed terms, the core of what Sony wanted to say was that the really hard part is over. Four years after Kaz Hirai took over the corporation; the transition – a grinding, grating process that involved thousands of job losses, the sale or shuttering of entire business units and protracted battles with the firm’s old guard – is over. The restructuring is done. Now it’s time for each business unit to knuckle down and focus on profitability.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, of course; even as Hirai was essentially declaring “Mission Complete” on Sony’s seemingly never-ending restructuring, the company noted that it’s expecting sales in its devices division (largely focused on selling Xperia smartphones) to decline this year, and there are concerns over soft demand for products from the imaging department, which provides the camera components for Apple’s iPhones among others. Overall, though, Sony is in a healthier condition than it’s been in for a long time – and it owes much of that robust health to PlayStation, with the games and network services division’s revenue targets rising by enough to make up for any weakness in other divisions.
When Hirai took over Sony, becoming the first person to complete the leap from running PlayStation to running Sony itself (Ken Kutaragi had long been expected to do so, but dropped the ball badly with PS3 and missed his opportunity as a consequence), it was widely expected that he’d make PlayStation into the core supporting pillar of a restructured Sony. That’s precisely what’s happened – but even Hirai, surely, couldn’t have anticipated the success of the PS4, which has shaved years off the firm’s financial recovery and given it an enviable hit platform exactly when it needed one most.
Looking into the detail of this week’s announcements, there was little that we didn’t already know in terms of actual product, but a lot to be read between the lines in terms of broad strategy. For a start, the extent of PlayStation’s role as the company’s “pillar” is becoming ever clearer. Aside from its importance in financial terms, Sony clearly sees PS4 as being a launchpad for other devices and services. PlayStation VR is the most obvious of those; it will start its lifespan as an added extra being sold to the PS4’s 40 million-odd customer base, and eventually, Sony hopes, will become a driver for additional PS4 sales in its own right. The same virtuous circle effect is hoped for PlayStation Vue, the TV service aimed at PlayStation-owning “cable cutters”, which has surpassed 100,000 subscribers and is said to be rapidly growing since its full-scale launch back in March.
Essentially, this means that two major Sony launches – its first major foray into VR and its first major foray into subscriber TV – are being treated as “PlayStation-first” launches. The company is also talking up non-gaming applications for PSVR, which it sees as a major factor from quite early on in the life cycle of the device, and is rolling out PlayStation Vue clients for other platforms – but it’s still very notable that PlayStation customers are being treated as the ultimate early adopter market for Sony’s new services and products.
To some degree, that explains the company’s desire to get PS4 Neo onto the market – though I maintain that a cross-department effort to boost sales of 4K TVs is also a key driving force there. In a wider sense, though, Neo is designed to make sure that the platform upon which so much of Sony’s future – games, network services, television, VR – is being based doesn’t risk all of those initiatives by falling behind the technology curve. Neo is, of course, a far less dramatic upgrade than Microsoft’s Scorpio; but that’s precisely because Sony has so much of its corporate strategy riding on PS4, while Microsoft, bluntly, has so little riding on Xbox One. Sony needs to keep its installed base happy while encouraging newcomers to buy into the platform in the knowledge that it’s reasonably up-to-date and future proof. Microsoft can afford to be rather more experimental and even reckless in its efforts to leapfrog the competition.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Sony’s manoeuvring thus far is that the company has managed to position the PlayStation as the foundation of such grand plans without making the mistake Microsoft made with the original Xbox One unveiling – ignoring games to the extent that the core audience questioned whether they were still the focus. PSVR is clearly designed for far more than just games, but the early focus on games has brought gamers along for every step of the journey. PlayStation Vue, though a major initiative for Sony as a whole, is a nice extra for PlayStation owners, not something that seems to dilute the brand and its focus. On the whole, there’s no sign that PlayStation’s new role at the heart of Sony is making its core, gaming audience love it any less.
On the contrary; if PlayStation Plus subscriptions are any measure, PlayStation owners seem a pretty happy bunch. Subscriptions topped 20 million recently, according to the firm’s presentation this week, which means that over 50% of PS4’s installed base is now paying a recurring subscription fee to Sony. PlayStation Plus is relatively cheap, but that’s still a pretty big chunk of cash once you add it up – it equates to an additional three or four games in the consoles attach ratio over its lifetime, which is nothing to be sniffed at, and will likely increase the profitability of the console by quite a few percentage points. In Andrew House’s segment of this week’s presentation, he noted that the division is shifting from a packaged model towards a recurring payments model; PlayStation Plus is only one step on that journey and it’s extremely unlikely that the packaged model (be it digital or a physical package) will go away any time soon, but it does suggest a future vision in which a bundle of subscriptions – for games, TV, VR content and perhaps others – makes up the core of many customers’ transactions with Sony.
That the truly painful part of Sony’s transition is over is to be celebrated – a healthy Sony is a very good thing for the games business, and we should all be hoping Nintendo gets back on its feet soon too. The task of the company, however, isn’t necessarily about to get any easier. PS4’s extraordinary success needs to be sustained and grown, and while early signs are good, the whole idea of using PlayStation as a launchpad for Sony’s other businesses remains an unproven model with a shaky track record (anyone remember the ill-fated PSX, a chunky white PVR with a PS2 built into it that was supposed to usher in an era of PlayStation-powered Sony consumer electronics?). But with supportive leadership, strong signs of cooperation from other parts of the company (the first-party Spiderman game unveiled at E3 is exactly the kind of thing the relationship between PlayStation and Sony Pictures should have been yielding for decades) and a pipeline of games that should keep fans delighted along the way, PlayStation is in the strongest place it’s been for over a decade.