Sony has promised to have “substantial” resupplies of the PlayStation 4 before the end of the year, but has given no indication as to what qualifies as substantial. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has stepped in to fill that information void, telling investors in a note this morning that he believes Sony is making PS4s at the rate of a million systems per month.
Pachter followed up on Sony’s announcement today that it had sold 2.1 million systems worldwide, saying that number fits well with previous estimates that Sony began manufacturing PS4s for retail on September 1, and that it faces a gap of up to three weeks from a system’s creation to the time it arrives on shelves.
“We expect Sony to continue to ship 1 million consoles per month, so as of the end of January, we believe Sony will have manufactured a cumulative 5 million consoles and will have shipped 4.25 – 4.5 million,” Pachter said. “We expect the 55 percent allocation to North America to continue through January, and then revert to a more normalized 40 percent of units once Sony launches in Japan and other countries. We think that Microsoft is on a similar production schedule, with similar allocations to North America.”
Pachter added that specialty retailer GameStop has been receiving roughly half of the systems shipped to North America, and that it will continue to take up that share of the allocations through December. In the New Year, Pachter expects the company’s share to be dialed back to a “more customary” 30 percent.
If the shipment projections are accurate, the PS4 would be more than holding up its part of publishers’ predictions that Sony and Microsoft would combine to ship 10 million units of their new systems by the end of March.
With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the scene, the next console generation has finally begun. While a new generation usually brings the promise of more graphical power, great graphics are only part of the gaming equation. What will these new consoles allow developers to do creatively?
In its last two titles, Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, independent developer The Chinese Room focused on pushing the first-person game away from the shooting mechanics that usually dominate. The studio’s next title, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, is coming to PlayStation 4 with some help from Sony Computer Entertainment. For The Chinese Room, next-gen helps their creative juices just by being easier to work with.
“The blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity”
The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck
“I think the major thing, from the perspective of actually building games, is less for us about the power – that’s brilliant of course, and having significantly higher budgets makes a big difference – but it’s more about the ease of working with PS4,” The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck told GamesIndustry International. “So far, it’s just been a dream bit of kit to work with. We’ve got the advantage of working with CryEngine, another great piece of tech of course, but even then it’s been remarkably smooth to get things up and running quickly. That’s worth its weight in gold from a production standpoint, and the blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity.”
According to Braid creator Jonathan Blow, aiming for a single, next-generation set of specifications allowed the team behind The Witness to settle on a single visual style for the game. That title is also heading to PlayStation 4 in 2014.
“Creatively, we build and we assume that we have enough power in rendering,” explained Blow. “When we were planning the look of the island, we had a couple of choices. Do we target the PlayStation/Xbox 360 class of machines or do we move to next-generation consoles? Because development was going long, we decided we were going to be in the next console cycle anyways.”
“If we’d ended up on lower-spec machines, it wouldn’t just be that [The Witness] would have lower-poly models. It would’ve affected the style all over the place; the style of the game would’ve been different. I don’t think it would’ve been as nice.”
For Ghost Games, the new shepherd of EA’s Need for Speed franchise, next-gen does come down to “more power”. This power – and the new set of expectations that come with it – frees the team to think outside of the box when it comes to gameplay innovation. A new generation allows developers to think about what’s possible instead of wringing more blood from a worn-out stone.
“It makes us think differently. Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible.”
Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson
“It makes us think differently,” said Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson. “Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible. We are not locked into old boundaries anymore. From that we get great innovations like AllDrive. The systems are giving us power to do more, more AI, more particles etc. Just turning everything up really.”
Nilsson also noted that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One provide other options, including social networking features and second-screen modes, which “opens up creative solutions around cross-platform play.”
One of the highlights of Sony’s launch window slate for the PlayStation 4 is Infamous: Second Son from Sucker Punch. While the game simply looks amazing, improved graphics and horsepower also mean the human element of Infamous can be pushed forward.
“[Infamous: Second Son] is all performance captured,” Sucker Punch co-founder and director of development Chris Zimmerman told us. “We actually use all kinds of cameras, with dots on the actors’ faces getting mapped through 3D scans. As you see people in the game, you’ll see their faces move in realistic ways.”
“See the wrinkles appear?” Zimmerman pointed out in a demo of Second Son, “we are actually animating 15,000 vertexes in his face 30 times a second to get that to happen that well. The thing that really matters for a game like this is you can actually see the characters act. You can read his face. You have a million years of human evolution that’s trained you to read people expressions and their faces; now we can bring that to you. That is the expression that these actors had when they did the scene. If we show you the video of their faces and then show you the in-game feature, you’ll be like ‘that’s the expression that guy had on.’ It seems dumb, but it matters.”
In some case though, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will just allow what previous generations have allowed: more, better-looking things onscreen in our games. And even that can improve the player’s experience. For BioWare Edmonton and Montreal general manager Aaryn Flynn, next-gen means a more immersive and interactive game world for BioWare fans.
“With the next generation of consoles, the most important question we ask ourselves is ‘How does this help our storytelling?’ As we’ve worked with them, we think it starts with a density and dynamism that wasn’t possible previously,” said Flynn. “‘Density’ in the sense of more interesting things on the screen that help immerse you in the game world, and ‘dynamism’ in that they are more interactive than ever before.”
The generation has only just begun. Developers still have plenty of time to learn how to make the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One dance and sing. What’s been shown so far is pretty damn good, so let’s sit back and enjoy the future.
In less than a week, both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One will have launched in the world’s most lucrative console markets. If you had to plant a flag to mark the start of a new generation, you’d do well to find a more appropriate spot.
Well, praise be. Microsoft was justifiably lambasted for its early direction and messaging, but the ill-feeling created by that string of fumbled choices was untroubled by all subsequent attempts to retrench and appease. Since then, Sony has walked a blessed path; not exactly free of mistakes and questionable decisions, but bolstered by the knowledge that the scrutiny of both the press and the forum-dwelling public was focused elsewhere. Perhaps now hard numbers can replace the speculation and supposition. Perhaps now we will be able to see the true measure of the policy reversals and resolution deficiencies.
There is, after all, a bigger picture to consider. It can be fun to get lost in the manufactured rivalry of a console war, but both Sony and Microsoft understand that this generation must be about more than the chips in their little – and not so little – black boxes. Gaming has never been more popular, or more culturally prevalent, but a lot has changed since the console companies last played this billion-dollar crapshoot.
So much of the industry’s recent growth has happened away from the traditional world of AAA blockbusters, where audience gains have been handily outmatched by soaring expenses. The early debate may be dominated by familiar concerns over framerates and dots-per-inch, but the terms of this generation will be different from the last. Sony’s mistakes with the PlayStation 3′s esoteric architecture didn’t go unnoticed by either party, and it shows in the hardware.
“The last generation created a bunch of artificial work. You had to do things in a very different way and, in the end, it wasn’t like you got a massive amount of technical performance out of it. It was time that didn’t go into making the games better,” says Nick Button-Brown, general manager at Crytek.
“I like the fact that, this time, it’s all built on architecture that we can understand. If you look at the PS3, people only started to get the most out of the system at the end of the cycle, but that’s five or six years on. That’s terrible. I want to start getting at the most nearer the start. That’s the advantage with simpler and more similar architecture – we’ll be seeing much more from the first games out.”
Crytek is the studio responsible for Ryse: Son of Rome, a standard-bearer for the Xbox One. Button-Brown admits that, while setting a visual benchmark was the not the main objective of the project, it was a side-mission of sorts, and the pride with which he describes Crytek’s work indicates that he considers the mission very much accomplished. The smoke, the fire, the beads of sweat running down the lined, wrinkled faces of the characters, the way those characters plant their feet; these are, he boldly claims, new heights for console gaming.
“I do think we’re going to set a visual benchmark; it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat our visual performance. We put a lot of work into facial, a lot of work into animation, just making it all feel much more real,” he says. “Is there further we can go? Definitely. We have some high-end cinema tools that don’t run in real-time even on high-end PCs now – we’re talking one, two frames per second. Eventually, we’ll be able to run those in real-time.”
In the absence of stiff competition, Ryse has as strong a claim to the pinnacle of visual excellence as any other launch title, but Button-Brown understands that such victories are short-lived. After all, in blockbuster development, a better looking game is always just over the next hump of the release schedule. Crytek will no doubt persist in that direction, but the impact of this generation’s visual performance will not be as profound as the jump to HD, and the differences between the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hardware will matter less still. This time, exactly what constitutes the “cutting-edge” will be harder to pin down.
“There’s always more we can do [visually], but I do think you reach a point where, for the user, they feel that it looks as good as it’s going to get, and they’re not going to see a huge difference between [the consoles],” he says. “For us, the leap is about the details. It’s not about one or two big things. It’s about being able to do small things much better: more stuff on-screen, more AI, more physics.”
It would be churlish to ignore the fact that Ryse has failed to stir the imaginations of the critics, eliciting unanimous praise for its visual detail and precious little else. My interview with Button-Brown was conducted prior to the publication of those reviews, but even then he was cognisant of the gamble creating a launch title for this particular generation represented. In the past, there were obvious, powerful hooks for developers to work with – the advent of 3D graphics and HD graphics, the availability of a hard-drive, online play as a usable tool – but this generation is more diffuse.
“Going into launch, I don’t know whether we’ve spent the resources in the right place. I don’t know whether we’ve focused our efforts in the right place. I’m only going to know that when people get to buy it,” he says.
“We talk to publishers a lot, and one of the most painful questions is, ‘Tell me what next gen gameplay is gonna be?’ It’s not something you can define. Nobody delivers gameplay because it’s next gen; you’re delivering gameplay because it’s good. That’s one of the things we struggled with [in Ryse's E3 demo]. We showed a cut-down version of the gameplay and we were criticised for that. We didn’t see that coming. We were too close, and we cut it down further than people wanted to see.”
However, while the criticisms leveled at Ryse may well be justified, a part of the problem may be that, at the dawn of a new generation, nobody is quite sure what they want to see. They only know what has gone before, and will resist any attempt to smuggle what are regarded as the bad habits of the past into the $400 future. Ryse signalled its intent with combat that closely resembled a QTE. That was never likely to go down well with the press, who instantly suspected Crytek of trying to coast on graphics alone.
“The generational leap is not as clear cut now,” Button-Brown admits. “Maybe in a year’s time we’ll have a better understanding of what the leap really is this time, as people start playing things and we start to see what really matters. I think with hindsight we’ll be able to look back and see, ‘yeah, that was the big step.’”
Perhaps it’s naive to expect more clarity on what might define this generation from developers working so closely with the hardware, but in any case, that would be no slight against Crytek. Apart from Kinect 2.0 on the Xbox One – which may finally have the hardware to honour some of the promises made four years ago – in terms of new game experiences there isn’t an obvious wellspring for original ideas on either console. Indeed, the most obvious differences in the early days of the generation are likely to be found in the service layer: social integration, voice control, multimedia functions, and other areas often dismissed as secondary to the tasks for a which a console should be designed.
This is one of the key ideas I took away from my conversation with Michiel van de Leeuw, technical director at Guerrilla Games. Essentially, the moment-to-moment experience of established genres will remain the same, but innovation will arise from, “a deeper, underlying layer.”
“It’s not like we have that one gizmo to make everything really good or different, but the way that the operating system and the games work together, it’s much more of a marriage of those two things,” says van de Leeuw. “It’s a much more holistic approach to the console. How do people use it? How do people want to use it? How do we make sure that every hour of using your console is an hour spent having fun? And almost nothing is more fun than sharing experiences with other people. It’s all integrated, and under the hood there’s a lot of complexity to make sure that you don’t notice it. A lot of magic is necessary to make it look simple.”
As a subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment and the developer of a key launch title, Guerrilla Games was part of the inner circle that formed around Mark Cerny during the PlayStation 4′s creation. The most taxing problem, the subject of the most meetings and debates, was how to improve the experience around and outside of the games – streaming, background downloads, switching between applications, and so on. For Cerny, “immediacy” was a watchword.
When it came to the fundamental hardware architecture, however, van de Leeuw says that the directive was relatively simple: “give us more…as many graphical gizmos as you can afford.” The extra power was a given rather than the main focus.
“I like to ask people about what the next generation should be about, and everyone says, ‘it has to be a photo-realistic, and everything has to be more. There has to be thousands of people and blah, blah, blah.’ But why is that fun? If you have 1000 people around you, do you feel more attached to them than if you just had one or two? Technology does not immediately result in a more satisfying experience. The first layer that people think about is better graphics, more of everything. And then they think, ‘What do I need more of? I don’t know, really, but there must be more of something‘.”
There it is again: the great, unknowable ‘something’ that, nevertheless, everyone is waiting impatiently to see. Killzone: Shadow Fall has fared better with the critics than Ryse, but the expectation of clear, identifiable progress is used as ammunition in the majority of its negative reviews. For van de Leeuw – who also spoke to me prior to the publication of his game’s review scores – launch titles are not necessarily supposed to alter the way people look at games as a whole, but he also makes no secret of the increasing complexity of productions on the scale of Killzone. More power can make life easier in some respects, but certainly not all.
“You have to focus on 1000 things at the same time, and at the same time as that you need to grow your company, because you need more people to focus on all of those things. That, by itself, becomes a problem, because it becomes difficult to manage the complexity brought by all of those extra people. It’s very challenging.
“We’re working with first-person shooters, and look at how incredibly complex these things are. You’re not just selling one game: you’re selling a movie, and a game, and a multiplayer experience that needs to fit with eSports, and it’s all packaged together. And it all has to be good, because the competition is incredibly, and increasingly, good.”
Indeed, it is the progress evident in individual games, rather than the super-charged hardware, that truly plants a gauntlet at the feet of the industry’s developers. Umpteen gigabytes of GDDR5 memory is not nearly as powerful a motivator to do better work as the release of, say, The Last of Us or The Walking Dead. New hardware may give developers more options, but the real skill lies in making the right decisions. When there is enough of an installed-base to offer a safety net, van de Leeuw says, the industry’s most talented developers will start taking creative risks, and new genres will emerge.
But will that innovation be exclusive to a specific platform? When a consumer makes their decision to buy either a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One, is the potential for new ideas a relevant factor? From the developer side, ven de Leeuw says, the differences in the hardware of this generation may not offer the sort of rewards that Naughty Dog and Guerrilla wrung out of the PlayStation 3′s distinctive Cell processor. Today, with teams spiralling into the hundreds, budgets on the rise and a dozen other platforms to consider, the emphasis is on efficient tools and flexible engines. Microsoft and Sony made a conscious choice to be more similar than different in terms of architecture, with developers’ needs firmly in mind.
“Being able to squeeze more out of the console by really focusing on it allowed us, in the past, to create experiences that couldn’t be done, or would be much harder to do if we had to split our focus. But I think we’re coming to the day where the amount of effort you have to put in to do that, it’s questionable whether it’s worth it.
“Our games are getting so big. We try to make our experiences richer for gamers, but at some point… there are pros and cons. Sometimes we wished that things were easier. The [PlayStation 3] was difficult to program for, but I still sometimes I miss it because it was also very powerful. You could do a lot of stuff that’s still very difficult to replicate, but the time for bespoke architectures is slowly going away.
“If you look back, raw assembly and raw power were what enabled new experiences. Nowadays, experiences are defined or limited by how efficient our toolsets are, how smooth our workflow is, how quickly we can develop, and how much time we have to spend on mundane distractions… Bespoke architecture allows you to do cool and crazy stuff, and from a technical point-of-view I’m still in love with that sort of thing, but I have a 230-person studio that wants to make a killer title.”
Despite what many executives have claimed in calls to their investors, both van de Leeuw and Button-Brown either strongly imply or directly confirm that the cost of making those “killer titles” will rise this generation – not to the same degree as they did with the Xbox 360 and PS3, perhaps, but certainly beyond the already precarious conditions that exist today. While we pore over screenshot comparisons, declaring winners and losers over slight differences in observable visual performance, it’s worth considering what any third-party would actually stand to gain from making one version of a game significantly better than another. Indeed, at companies like Epic, EA and Crytek, the emphasis has been on creating cost-saving tools that work seamlessly across all platforms, effectively glossing over aspects of the hardware that could lead to substantial gains in performance. First-party developers will still pursue that, of course, but, according to Button-Brown, for everyone else the base-level of AAA acceptability now sits at a daunting height on both platforms.
“If anything is just okay, it’s now terrible. ‘Solid’ is a failure. You now have to be so good,” he says. “The teams are getting larger and the risks are getting higher. We’re trying to do a lot of procedural stuff in this next generation to keep costs under control. It’s one of the ways we’re trying to keep that down, but it’s still a cost increase. Each asset needs to be so much better, so much more defined, than it was in the previous generation. No amount of procedural is going to change the fact that your underlying asset just has to be that much better.”
All of that hard-scrabble at the top end of the industry – essentially, fewer companies using more resources to create and market a smaller number of increasingly large games – will have a clear upside for independent developers. Indeed, right now, the beneficial ramifications of Sony’s decision to court indies as early as possible is arguably the most significant difference between the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. It always felt like a smart move, and that feeling will be further justified as the paucity of $60 blockbuster releases becomes more apparent.
Microsoft’s early digital strategies and the Xbox One’s evidently underpowered hardware may have monopolised the headlines, but Oddworld Inhabitants’ Lorne Lanning believes that it’s Microsoft’s belated effort to secure the diverse, free-flow of content from the indie sector that has truly given Sony the advantage. That reluctance to open up the Xbox platform, he argues, is tied to a big-business mentality that no longer works in a connected entertainment medium – the very same mentality that led to the unanimously derided online check-ins and multimedia focus that dominated the Xbox One’s early messaging.
“ID@Xbox was a bittersweet victory,” Lanning says. “If you have your ear to the ground today, you could see that those policies were going to blow up in its face, particularly when you see what [Sony] was doing. That was an old way of thinking, a way of thinking that was all about control. It’s a trickle down from being a monopoly. There’s a reason there was a class-action suit [against Microsoft]. There’s a reason there was an SEC, antitrust thing. There’s a very good reason for that. They wanted to control everything. The people who made those policies were still thinking very much in that way, and it blew up in their faces.”
For Lanning, this will be a generation defined by consumers getting what they want, rather than what they’re given. The generation where consumers wrest control of gaming back from the companies that have controlled it for so long – platform holders, publishers, retailers – and seek satisfaction from the most agile creative forces. There may be some lingering resistance from those with vested interests in established models, but Lanning believes any company seeking to stand in the way of this intractable change is unlikely to emerge with much credit. There will be more products offering a wider variety of experiences than on any previous generation, with price-points to suit every wallet. The lines of communication are wide open. There is nowhere left to hide.
“As people are becoming more informed and more connected, the shenanigans are becoming more transparent. And with that, what we’ll get is more diversity,” Lanning says. “The industry made up of five publishers really isn’t that long ago, and now what’s going on? How many self-publishing indies are there that can get a 1.5x return on each game and keep building? Maybe they can’t grow and be 500 people by the next year, but they can add 5 more by the next year.”
I mention the prevailing fear that the marketplaces on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will become too crowded – that by making consoles a more accessible place for independent developers, they will lose the focus that created huge successes like Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy and Braid. For Lanning, it’s a worthwhile trade, and one of the most important ways that indies need to “grow up” to take advantage of the incredible opportunity this generation represents. The Battlefields and the Assassin’s Creeds will continue to exist and thrive, but the average consumer knows that already. What they don’t know about are games like Octodad, Below and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and more fool the studio who leaves it up to Microsoft or Sony to raise their profile.
“If we sell a game now for $10, we get $7 on digital networks. Once upon a time, we weren’t even getting $7 on a $60 game,” Lanning says. “It’s a whole different thing, but you have to bring your own visibility. That’s your responsibility. Beyond just designing the game, we have to design how to build the relationship with our audience. People know that they want the GTA and the Call of Duty, and they’re gonna be on both systems. But they also want the surprises, and they want to experiment with those surprises at below the $60 price range. The audience always wants more choice.
“The biggest earners are gonna be the big AAA titles, because they have the $100 million marketing campaigns. You can’t compete with that. But in the years to come, the big properties at E3, the $100 million properties, they will have started off in the indie space. They’re gonna innovate cheaper, faster and more with their audience right away. That’s a guarantee.”
The Wii U gets a new system update from Nintendo. While details are a bit vague on what all the new system updates actually does, Nintendo says it “improves overall system stability” and also includes minor adjustments “to enhance the user experience”.
The update comes ahead of a planned Nintendo update for the 3DS that is scheduled to arrive next month. The 3DS update will bring the Miiverse to the 3DS as well as adds the ability to combine eShop balances on both the 3DS and Wii U systems. In addition it will add Network IDs to the 3DS to access the eShop. Apparently 3DS owners will not have to take advantage of using a NNID to combine their eShop purchases and will still be allowed to download software from the eShop without a NNID.
Rumors suggest that another system update for the Wii U is just around the corner, but will likely not arrive till early next year, unless Nintendo has a reason to release it sooner. On the software front, the Wii U is still struggling, but the recent sales boost has helped, but Nintendo needs strong sales for the Wii U this holiday season in order to help get published and developers re-engaged in developing for the console. Whispers suggest that Nintendo expects supplies of the Wii U to be plentiful this holiday season and does not foresee shortages like what has plagued the Wii consoles of the past. The problem is however that the lack of software will likely keep many buyers away.
In a full discussion below, you’ll read Yoshida’s thoughts on the launch scores (which he joked afterwards that he was hoping I wouldn’t ask him about), how PlayStation is being redefined in the PS4 era, why Drive Club had to be delayed, why graphics and 1080p resolution absolutely matter, and he explains his skepticism for Xbox One’s cloud computing tech. It’s a lengthy conversation but well worth the read to absorb Yoshida’s refreshingly forthright answers.
Q: You’ve been with PlayStation from the very beginning, you’ve seen it all and played a part in the growth of the games business, so perhaps you’re the best person to answer this question. How would you compare this launch to the previous hardware launches? Has it been harder or easier and why?
Shuhei Yoshida: I think this is the most organized launch we’ve had as a company. The launch of PS4 reminds me a lot of the launch of PlayStation 1 because we were a very small company at that time. We had a small group of people trying to do almost everything. Because we were new, we tried to speak to the people in the industry, our partners and developers, and we tried to learn a lot. So we kind of stopped with that approach as we became successful and larger and more confident. The pace of change was not that fast during PS2 and even PS3. The PS3 era for us was the beginning of the network platform being integrated at a system level… but back then people didn’t really use smartphones and that all changed in three or four years and it was a huge change. That forced us back to basics almost, and it required us to really think through everything that we do from the hardware specifications to services to the overall business plans. We had to think about the use of new devices and what that means for us. When people use mobile devices, is that competition? Or are [mobile devices] tools for us? We had to redefine our platform almost, and we have come to conclude that this is the beginning of a new era of PlayStation, shifting more from a hardware focus to a service focus.
The PS4 generation is going to be the transitional generation. In a sense, it’s the completion of the evolution of the strong 3D capable consoles, but at the same time it’s at the maturing phase of our network platform and the beginning of our new service phase, like our cloud gaming that we are preparing to launch next year. And the use of mobile devices is part of our ecosystem. So all that considered, and the difficulty we had at the launch of the PS3, and very strong competition especially in North America, that made us really revisit everything we’ve been doing and redefine the company, almost like we’re re-entering this industry. Even across our teams, I think you now get more consistent messages [about PlayStation] compared to past generations, because we talk a lot more and get a lot of input [from all the teams] on different decisions.
In the past, it was very much [driven by] Tokyo. And now [Group CEO] Andrew House is playing a major role in getting the US and European groups integrated. And I’ve been playing a major role myself on the development side for the last five years… So, Andy and I can quickly decide for certain projects, “let’s get this person from the US team or this person from the European team” and put someone in charge of a global project. So it’s a much more integrated international team that we have now and we are always communicating. There’s been a great maturing of our organization compared to past generations.
Q: During Sony’s last earnings call, CFO Masaru Kato said that PS4 actually will contribute to the division’s profitability much earlier on than past consoles. How important is this to the continued sustainability of PlayStation as a business, and does this mean we should expect Sony to cut prices on PS4 to make it more affordable sooner?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, I read an article where an executive of a major publisher said something about [prices coming down sooner]… Because Masaru Kato used to be CFO of Sony Computer Entertainment and he was the key guy on the business side when we launched the PS3 – he was the right-hand man for Ken Kutaragi – he had to go through that really tough time. During the PS2 era, we were very proud that we were generating like half the profit of Sony Group or something like that, but with the launch of PS3, we lost billions of dollars and we became a burden for Sony. So Masaru’s comments, comparing to PS3, it’s too easy a benchmark. In a sense, we’re doing great because we’re not losing billions with the launch of PS4 – in fact, we’re pretty much breakeven in this launch year of PS4 – but looking forward, it’s fair that as CFO of Sony, and with his experience with previous PlayStation generations, that he would expect a better financial performance… And of course, he’s in a position to really whip all of the business groups at Sony to get the best performance possible.
On the question of whether costs come down quicker, I think there are a couple ways to answer that question. One is that our hardware teams have chosen more standardized components to create PlayStation 4 and that’s contributing to our launch price of $399 versus $599 for the PS3. When we need to source components to get more supply to the retailers, that approach definitely helps compared to some cutting edge component that only one manufacturer can produce, like Blu-ray or the Cell processor. Those were big bottlenecks. It’s much better this time, and that’s all great, but it might mean that because we’re already using more standardized components, the room for costs to come down might actually be slower than when we were starting with cutting edge stuff.
Q: The PS4 software reviews so far have been average or in some cases, worse than average. As the head of Worldwide Studios, what’s your reaction to this? Are you worried about the impact on PS4? The PS3 suffered from a lack of great software but the system did well in the end, so how important is it to have that “system seller” at launch?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, it’s disappointing to see some of the low scores. I haven’t spent enough time reading reviews, but I would characterize them as mixed. And with this launch there are lots of games coming out, so the media must be very busy going through the games quickly, and especially since the online functionality wasn’t ready until in the last couple days. So we have to look at how much time they spend on what aspect of the games and how that may be contributing to some of the lower scores. It’s disappointing but I don’t think it’s worrisome for the launch of the system. I’ve played through all of our games, Killzone, Knack and Resogun, and I totally enjoyed playing through these games. I’m now on my second run of Knack and Resogun at a higher difficulty – these games really grow on you when you play more. I’m very confident that once you purchase these games and play, you’ll be happy that you’ve done so.
Q: You mentioned Knack, and unfortunately that game got even lower scores than the others, and I’m wondering if that’s more frustrating since it came from Mark Cerny. Was Mark not able to devote his complete attention to Knack because of his responsibilities as PS4 system architect? Was he spread a bit too thin?
Shuhei Yoshida: No, I don’t think that’s right. He spent maybe a quarter of his time during the development of Knack and in his position of giving creative direction and overseeing development, it was appropriate… He was in Japan every month for a week, working with the team, so the communication was very good.
The game wasn’t designed [to meet specific] review scores – I was hoping Knack could score in the mid 70s and last I checked it’s around 59-60, so I’m hoping it goes up. The game uses only three buttons to play, so it’s not the type of game reviewers would score high for the launch of a next-gen system. The game was targeted as what we call a second purchase; you know, people may purchase PS4 for Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed or Killzone, but if they also buy Knack, this is a game that you can play with your family or your significant other. It’s a message that as a platform we are not just trying to cater only to the hardcore, shooter audience – we are looking at all kinds of gamers – but Knack is a great game for core gamers as well because when you up the difficulty level it becomes a really tight, tense action brawler.
But the goal was to design it to be played by anyone, even someone who’s never played before. So it wasn’t aimed at high review scores, even though higher would be appreciated! Killzone is different – it’s definitely targeted to the core gaming audience and we’re still waiting on more reviews because some sites are saying they played single player but not enough multiplayer. So I’ll wait with my personal judgment until I read more reviews.
Q: Regarding the Drive Club delay, considering that the PS4 has been in development for 6 years, it’s odd that an internal studio like Evolution that knew the launch, the specs and everything else well in advance of even the closest third-party partner should miss the launch. Was there some miscommunication or what happened to cause the delay?
Shuhei Yoshida: It’s almost an amazing achievement for any studio to set a release date and achieve it, especially for the launch of a new system because the hardware and software tools are always getting updated. So you always have to work with the moving target, so to speak. That said, PS4 has been praised for the ease of development and the stability of the dev kit by everyone – not just our teams but other developers and publishers. And it’s true that Evolution was also heavily in discussions about PS4 hardware features and network service features. Where the team missed the date and miscalculated the tasks was when they tried to do something they have not done before.
A launch title is especially tricky if you aim too high. When you try new things, you definitely have to prepare for multiple iterations… In order for a title to come out at launch, the ambition level has to kind of be kept in check; the team has to rely on tried and true mechanisms. That I think is the main reason for missing the launch date. Drive Club is exciting because it really goes aggressive into the integration of social features and the second-screen experience, and that’s a new addition for Evolution. The team has been making racing games for a long time, so they’re veterans when it comes to core racing…
Q: So it was the addition of social integration features that set them back?
Shuhei Yoshida: They always planned the game to have these social features but because these features are new, they found some technical matters or flaws in play testing, and that’s the reason we waited until the very end to announce the delay. They might have been able to hit the date, but in terms of both getting technical matters down and getting the game polished enough… we decided we wanted the team to go back to some of the features and spend some more time to get it done.
Q: This is a multi-part question. First, there’s been a lot of noise in the media lately about how Xbox One runs Call of Duty: Ghosts at 720p, not the full 1080p resolution that it plays on PS4. How important is this? Do you think the average consumer would really appreciate the difference? Second, how much will the average consumer notice a difference between last-gen PS3 and Xbox 360 games and what PS4 now offers? PS3 games look very good, so do graphics matter in next-gen? Why should consumers spend $400 on PS4?
Shuhei Yoshida: I can confidently say that graphics matter, because I played through Killzone: Shadow Fall. What I mean is, most people probably can’t tell looking at 720p or 1080p unless you’re in the industry or you’re a hardware nerd, but when you compare a game like Killzone: Shadow Fall to Killzone 3 on PS3, for example, the fact that the game is rendered and displayed at 1080p native means that every pixel is rendered, and in combination with the new Dual Shock 4 analog sticks and triggers, it’s great when you’re playing a shooter and you can see the enemy far away from you and you can move the crosshair to aim with pixel perfect precision.
When you talk to game designers at Guerilla, they would tell you it’s kind of traditional for shooters on consoles to include some aim assist [function] because of the lack of accuracy of the control and the lack of clarity in the graphics, but with 1080p and the power of PS4 you don’t need that. So you actually have more control and the satisfaction level is higher. So when you’re shooting enemies, it’s all you. You don’t need to be able to spot the difference in resolution but it just feels great. That’s the difference; graphics isn’t just about making things look pretty, but it can make the gameplay better. Another example is in racing games, like Gran Turismo, when you see a long road ahead and it curves to the left or right, you can tell what’s coming thanks to the resolution and power of graphics. The improved draw distance gives you anticipation for what’s to come. So the power of hardware and graphics in some areas is actually very related to great gameplay experiences.
Since the beginning of this year when we saw leaks [about the specs] of next-gen platforms, we immediately knew since the tech specs on PS4 were accurate that the Xbox specifications were likely accurate as well. So we knew at that point that we had much more raw power… So I was hoping from earlier this year that when games come out from third-parties – because that’s the best example, to look at the same game on different platforms – if there’s any slight performance difference on the two systems I’ll be very happy. I wasn’t expecting something like [what happened with] Call of Duty, 720p versus 1080p – that’s a significant difference. Or Battlefield 4, which is 900 versus 720 – 900 requires 50 percent more pixels to be rendered. I learned all this from the Digital Foundry site.
There are a lot of hidden powers in our system. You may be familiar with GPGPU and PS4 has a lot more GPGPU processing in it, which is difficult to learn and master, similar to a Cell processor. So every year the games on PS4 will perform better because most of the launch teams probably didn’t use GPGPU – they probably just used core graphics. So when the developers [use more of these] in two to three years the graphics will be really amazing. Resogun, by the way, is already using GPGPU… and that game is getting very good reviews!
Q: That may be the PS4 system seller you were looking for!
Shuhei Yoshida: At least we have one game that’s getting great reviews.
Q: It’s great for Sony to say that PS4 is more powerful than Xbox One, it’s a great marketing point but…
Shuhei Yoshida: Well, I always say “I believe” or “We believe.” I’m not saying that it is.
Q: Ok, but from an industry standpoint, in a way isn’t it good that both consoles are so similar, so that developers can easily create games for both and target a larger combined installed base? I’m wondering – and this may sound like an odd question – does Sony ever communicate with Microsoft to get a sense of where an industry “standard” for consoles might end up for another generation?
Shuhei Yoshida: No, no. We didn’t conspire [laughs]. But it’s very interesting how we came to the same selection of CPU and GPU vendors. It’s not exactly the same as each company customized the processing choices and so we ended up with more processing power but the architecture basically is quite similar. If you talk to any third-party developer, they say it’s a wonderful thing because they really want to make the development process very efficient. So I think it’s great, because learning the Cell processor was very difficult and now with PS4 everything’s much easier – and at the same time, if you’re a multiplatform developer it’s going to be very easy to create PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions of a game because all three share the same kind of roots.
That said, each company, including Nintendo, has some unique additions to the core… So the multiplatform developers do have some decisions about how much customization and additional work they want to do to take advantage of the different unique aspects of the platforms. And by the way, I don’t think developers have to do much more to take advantage of the raw power of PS4, to get games to render at the highest resolution.
Q: Microsoft has talked a lot about their cloud computing and the extra power that gives the Xbox One to offload some of that processing to a server in games like Forza or Titanfall. Is this something Sony can compete with? Can Gaikai be used in a similar way? Is that realistic, or perhaps Sony and Microsoft view the cloud differently?
Shuhei Yoshida: We’ve been clear on what cloud gaming means, and that’s getting games to run on the server and sending that video signal to a distant device. The way they are using cloud computing seems very different and I totally don’t understand what they mean by that. So we can’t react to what they are saying because we don’t understand. The explanation I found personally was, again, an article on Digital Foundry. They went through all the computing tasks a game goes through and for each one they checked off if it can actually be done on the server versus the client, and most of the tasks a game has to perform, they said, cannot be done on the server because of the huge latency and the bandwidth. There’s so much data going back and forth between the CPU and memory and GPU inside the console compared to going through the internet… There were maybe four or five tasks that actually could be done on the server. So that was very educational to me. After reading the article, the Microsoft message was even more confusing to me.
Q: With PS4 launching, we haven’t touched on Vita at all, but I did want to ask if you think those two systems will feed off each other? The Vita business has been slower than Sony would like but do you think the interest in PS4 and features like Remote Play could help boost the Vita sales over the long-term?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, I hope so. It’s been exciting these past couple days when we saw the media experimenting with Remote Play. It’s very impressive. And the use case is if the main TV is occupied, then you can continue the game on Vita. If you live alone, maybe the use case is less, but even if you live alone there’s some value in it. For example, I like to play games before I sleep, so I use Vita in the bed before I sleep and so whether or not the TV is occupied it’s just very convenient for me to be able to continue to play, unless I really need that accuracy with shooting like I talked about earlier, so maybe I wouldn’t play Killzone with Remote Play but I totally enjoy playing Knack on Vita.
So that definitely makes your Vita much more valuable if you already own one, and if you don’t, once you get PS4 the potential value of Vita is much higher. We definitely hope people see that value and have a chance to see PS4 games running on Vita in person, because the combination of PS4′s power and the great display of PS Vita is awesome. It’s like mini cloud gaming, and actually Gaikai has worked on Remote Play. I’m very happy with the implementation – it’s a seamless experience.
The Delaware Supreme Court has overturned a preliminary injunction preventing Activision Blizzard from buying Vivendi’s stake in the company. In September, the Delaware Court of Chancery blocked the sale due to a lawsuit filed against Activision by shareholder Douglas Hayes. Hayes argues that the sale requires the approval of shareholders to proceed. Vivendi filed an emergency appeal against the ruling in late September, attempting to remove the injunction before the October 15 termination date on the agreement.
The Delaware Supreme Court agreed with Activision’s assertion that the sale was a stock repurchase and did not require the approval of minority shareholders.
With the injunction gone, Vivendi and Activision expect the deal to close by October 15. The deal will have ASAC II, an investment group led by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, buying 172 million shares from Vivendi for $2.34 billion and Activision Blizzard buying 429 million shares for $5.83 billion. The two transactions would give Activision control over Vivendi’s 61 percent stake.
Wedbush Securities expects Activision’s stock to outperform once the deal is completed, with a 12-month price target of $22 per share.
“While some investors may have concerns about declines for the company’s core businesses, we remain fans of Activision Blizzard. The company communicates clearly, executes well, and its management appears to truly understand how to make money,” said Wedbush is a recently released note.
The independent gaming scene has been growing by leaps of bounds, so it makes sense that the events designed to celebrate it are keeping step. This weekend’s IndieCade Festival in Culver City, California (on the West side of Los Angeles) is the largest in the event’s seven-year history. IndieCade founder and CEO Stephanie Barish said the event is expecting to draw more than 5,000 people to Culver City, which has a population around 39,000.
Much like the indie scene it promotes, the show has also been getting increased attention from the mainstream gaming industry of late. Sony has been a primary sponsor of the event for years, but the 2013 show sees Nintendo chip in for the first time, with Microsoft returning to the list after taking 2012 off. Activision is also on the list of sponsors, as well as Epic Games (for the Unreal Engine), Unity, and 20 more companies. Barish said some of the event’s more recent sponsors saw how Sony benefitted from its overtures to independent developers and have been following suit.
“[Sony has] put four or five years of effort now into the indie development sector and it’s really paid off for them,” Barish said. “Developers are really interested in meeting with them. They see there are possibilities, that Sony has proven [indies] can do well and are treated well. More and more the fact that independent games are interesting to a broader public is becoming apparent to the larger publishers. As well, there’s a huge creative energy and force and momentum coming out of the independent sector, and they don’t want to not be part of the future.”
That future is a big part of the attraction for IndieCade. Attendees to this year’s show will be able to try out a handful of games on upcoming hardware like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation 4. In all, IndieCade 2013 features 36 “official selections” for the festival, with dozens more games on show. Barish expects that crop of games to not only produce some of the next big hits, but also draw attention to the next crop of important developers. In the past, she said IndieCade has served as a coming out party for indie hits like Braid and Everyday Shooter, or developers like Telltale Games (who would go on to create the multiple Game of the Year award-winning The Walking Dead series). It’s also been a place to debut games that think outside the set-top box, like Johann Sebastian Joust, a six-player game that uses music and PlayStation Move controllers, but no screen.
“It’s really important for the mainstream to see what’s at the cutting edge, and we just continue to bring things in that are more cutting edge, that are more different than publishers or other mainstream things would even think to look at yet,” Barish said. “We’re really a window into what’s going to happen.”
Among this year’s selections are That Dragon, Cancer (a narrative-driven game set in a children’s hospital over three years), Perfect Woman (a “strategic dancing game” for the Kinect), and [code] (a PC game in which players delve into ersatz programming code to solve puzzles). While some of the IndieCade games will almost certainly prove to be lucrative for their creators, Barish stressed that isn't the only way to measure their success.
"There's definitely a desire for the Cinderella story, but having seen so many of the games, they're really good," Barish said. "So even if they're not commercially successful, they're impacting the way mainstream games are designed, the directions and the trends for those."
The trend for IndieCade looks to be continued growth. This year saw the event spawn an IndieCade East sister show in New York City, a second installment of which is confirmed for February 14-16, 2014 at the Museum of the Moving Image. Beyond that, Barish said there has been talk about expanding the festival even further with a European event.
Fans of traditional, “core” games are often extremely hostile towards the new wave of casual and mobile titles, and even towards the people who play them. They’re keen to draw a line in the sand between these titles and “real” games and quick to portray players of Farmville, Candy Crush Saga or Puzzle & Dragons as mindless consumers of low-grade, repetitive entertainment that’s utterly disconnected from and disrespectful of gaming culture and the medium’s development as a form of art and entertainment.
There are good discussions to be had around those topics – not Internet flame-wars, but some interesting if slightly dry academic discussions defining the form and shape of “gaming” as a pastime, a medium and an artform. If we’re very lucky, some of those discussions could even avoid becoming tedious tug-of-war sessions between the “narrative has no place in games!” crowd and the rest of the world. None of them, however, will gain anything from employing “casuals” as a vicious epithet, or deciding to sideline millions of game players as insignificant because they’re “fake” gamers who play the wrong kinds of game.
Why does this kind of knee-jerk unpleasantness get so consistently applied to new, more casual audiences? There are uncharitable explanations which often point to uncomfortable truths – self-styled “gamers” have built something of a boys’ treehouse over the years, and dislike the invasion of new demographics which can include such unwelcome treehouse guests as women, homosexuals, trans people, ethnic and religious minorities, and even – gasp! – their own mothers and relatives. Is nothing sacred?! There’s also a broader sense in which this is not specific to games at all – there’s a more universal knee-jerk reaction which sees adherents of any niche pastime resenting and rejecting the arrival of a mass-market audience and products tailored to them. (“Ugh, you listen to chart music? Are your ears broken?” “You actually like JJ Abrams movies? What’s wrong with you?”)
At the root of much of the dislike of casual games and their players, however, lies a more basic concern – a fear that the rise of this kind of game is going to replace and erase the sorts of games which existing gamers actually enjoy. Watching Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga roll in countless millions in cash is a deeply uncomfortable feeling for the kind of gamer who trekked for tens of hours across Skyrim, who can utterly lose themselves in the flooded corridors of Rapture or the dingy streets of Dunwall, or whose adrenaline pours out when they’re ambushed by the Covenant or surrounded by the Combine. If Candy Crush Saga can make so much money, is that the future? Is that all we’re going to be left with – if not thematically, then as a business model or a creative approach?
That’s the fear that drives the aggression. There’s a hobby which we love, and a wealth of creative works which have given us unforgettable experiences – gamers fear that the new business reality represented by F2P and casual games is an outright threat to that experience and that hobby. In the chase after the new casual audience, game companies will be forced to abandon the pursuit of the kind of experiences which enrapture and delight the existing audience – or at the very least, to turn them all into tawdry fairground toys which demand that you pump coins into them to keep on playing, robbing them utterly of the atmosphere and immersion which is so much of their appeal.
I wonder, then, if the atmosphere of discussion and debate around games might become a little more civil (on this topic, at least) in the wake of two fairly important events in the past week. Firstly, you can’t have failed to notice that GTA V came out and smashed through sales records not only for games, but for just about every entertainment media imaginable. Of course, week-one sales of games surpassed the revenue of blockbuster movies long ago, but GTA V cements games as the dominant entertainment medium of our era by finally silencing the last bastion of naysaying – not only did it make more money in a single weekend than the biggest films in the world make in their entire lifetime, it was also purchased and played by more people in one weekend than the number who bought tickets for any recent movie. Revenue or volume; count it how you like, GTA V is the biggest entertainment property on earth.
Meanwhile, in Japan, another entertainment property went on sale – Monster Hunter 4, Capcom’s latest release. Its figures don’t rival GTA’s, but in the supposedly “declining” Japanese games market, it sold over two million units in its first week and helped to drive hundreds of thousands of sales of the 3DS – a console that’s meant to be a miserable flop thanks to the unstoppable advance of smartphones and tablets. That can’t rival Apple’s 9 million unit sales of the iPhone 5S and 5C, of course, but then again, that’s not a remotely useful comparison, no matter how often blowhard mobile evangelists trot it out – the 3DS purchasers are all confirmed gamers who will go on to spend heavily on expensive game software, while only a certain portion of mobile phone owners play games, a much smaller portion pay any money for them, and the amount of money they pay can be quite small (or quite large, of course, but certainly rarely exceeding the spend of a console owner).
GTA V and Monster Hunter 4; two games which are absolutely squarely aimed at the core gamer who is presently so terrified of being squeezed out by the flood of mobile, casual and social software. Two games which, completely uncoincidentally, have just become the biggest entertainment properties in the world and in Japan over the past few weeks.
There is no threat here. There’s a small and dwindling clique of hardcore evangelists who will try to characterise GTA’s success in particular as an outlier, an erratic piece of data that doesn’t change the overall context of the industry, but they’re absolutely wrong. GTA’s enormous release is actually a perfectly logical and predictable continuation of a curve which has seen the top-rated properties in traditional gaming ranked higher and higher in sales terms over the past decade or two. GTA V is not a last gasp of sales success for a doomed industry; it was inevitable that eventually, a core videogame would achieve this level of sales success, and it is also inevitable that a future franchise will surpass this (although perhaps not for a few years, as the new console generation and the other systems which will play host to the next giant release need to establish themselves first).
Social, mobile and F2P gaming isn’t going anywhere. Developers are going to get better and better at creating and honing those experiences, targeting specific audiences and even creating experiences in those categories that appeal to core gamers – no question. But this isn’t the only way to make a game or to make money from games. There will still be a huge audience who want 8 to 12 hour long amazing narrative-driven interactive experiences. There will still be a core audience for combative multiplayer. Hardcore FPS, long-form RPG, exploration of vast worlds; all of these things have huge audiences which, far from being drawn away by the lure of Hay Day or Bubble Witch Saga, are continuing to grow and expand. Yes, the really impressive expansion right now is at the casual end of the market – but that doesn’t stop core games from selling even more than they used to, as this month’s success stories prove.
This isn’t a zero sum game, and everyone needs to stop talking and acting as though it is. As long as there’s an audience that wants and is willing to pay for core game experiences, there will be companies that provide for that need. Mums playing Candy Crush Saga outside the school gates do not in any way detract from the value of the market that wants a new GTA, a new Monster Hunter or any other core experience. This expansion is not be aimed at core gamers, and a big mistake being made by lots of companies now is trying to apply rational choice models to a fundamentally irrational consumer behaviour and deciding that core gamers actually SHOULD want this kind of business model or game experience. However, that mistake aside (and it’ll stop once a few companies get badly burned for their foolishness), this expansion also does not harm core gamers. Once they realise that, perhaps we can all tone down the rhetoric and instead enjoy the hegemony of videogames as, quite remarkably, this generation’s truly dominant entertainment medium.
Though just a concept, the idea has been put forward as part of the IC Tomorrow’s Digital Innovation games contest, a program launched by the UK Technology Strategy Board, which is offering five businesses up to £25,000 each to develop innovative digital applications and meet the objectives of five prolific technology companies, including Crytek, Sony and Google.
Crytek’s technical director of research and development Jake Turner spoke at the programmer’s launch event on Thursday, challenging developers to help integrate the free map data with existing games engines such as Crytek’s Cryengine 3 Sandbox.
Turner said, “We had probably spent a year making a city in America of our games and it’s taken a year to before we could actually start to play the game and experience it, involving how big that city should be, how detailed that city should be, so one of the challenges here is ‘how can we do this instantly?’”
“Why do we have to use people to make a city when there’s consistent open source street data out there which is very detailed, it’s got buildings, lights, it’s got streets – material data. Why can’t we just press a button and instantly see that?”
The challenge Crytek is putting forward is for developers to built an app so that we can “instantly drop into any part of the world” and see, in 3D, data being streamed in from the open source street map data.
“One of the ultimate goals, we would like to start an office in the UK and be able to fly at the press of a button all the way to the office in Frankfurt, and drive around Frankfurt, or any place in the world,” Turner added.
“Aimed primarily to purpose-make these virtual worlds based on real world environments, opened instantaneously without processing, we’d be able to see it instantly streamed over the cloud.”
Turner revealed that if successful, the project could be made part of future games, where users themselves can decide which city in the world they would like to play in, simply jumping from one to another with the scenery being generated instantly for the player.
However, he did add that this is still “a very long way away”.
Activision Blizzard’s moves to separate from its parent company Vivendi has been put on hold. The move, which surprised many, angered one shareholder that he sued to prevent this from happening.
Delaware Chancery Court was told that the whole move is a huge waste meant to cover a power grab. But now the court has put the move on hold until it can be argued in court. In order for the separation to continue, either the injunction must be modified on appeal or a majority vote by non-Vivendi stockholders must come down in favor of continuing the process.
Activision Blizzard said it was exploring options to ensure it still takes place. Vivendi has been trying to get rid of Activision Blizzard for nearly a year now in hopes of boosting its shares.
That estimate puts considerable pressure on the PS4, meaning it would have to outsell its predecessor by 1.5 million in its opening year. The PS3 had a similar global window to hit that 3.5 million target, although it focused on different launch territories. Last time round, Sony opted to leave Europe waiting, dropping the PS3 in the US and Japan in November 2006 but waiting until March 2007 for a European launch. This time, the US remains the first market to be served, launching on November 15, with Europe following a fortnight later. Sony’s home territory, where it will be virtually unopposed by Microsoft, has to wait a further three months until February 22, 2014.
Numbers are already looking good, however, with pre-orders already in excess of those for the PS3, likely aided by the new machine’s lower price point. Because of its PC-based hardware, meaning lower R&D costs, the PS4 likely costs less to produce than the PS3. Some of that saving is clearly being passed on to consumers, but many analysts feel that Sony’s precarious financial situation demands that the machine still be sold at a profit, something that the PS3 didn’t achieve until quite late in its lifecycle.
“I think they are almost certainly making a profit there,” industry analyst Michael Pachter explained. “A $399 retail price tag is about $370-375 at wholesale… our add up on the costs of materials is about $325, so I think they make a little bit of money, $25-55. And I think Sony has to make a profit, the corporation is not doing well financially, I don’t think there’d be any tolerance internally to sell anything at a loss.”
In a sense, a whole generation has already grown up with virtual reality. The technology was a staple of science fiction films of the 1980s and 1990s, from the neon dreamscapes of Tron via the squishy organic ickiness of Cronenberg’s eXistenZ to the slick totalitarian nightmare of The Matrix. Even in films where it wasn’t a core story element, VR headsets or virtual worlds were movie shorthand for “hey, we’re in the future”.
Hey – we’re in the future. It’s now clear that Sony is working seriously on a VR headset for PlayStation 4, which will compete with the Kickstarter sensation that is Oculus Rift – the HD version of which has been wowing almost everyone who tries it out. After countless abortive attempts at VR tech, laid low by poor framerates, awful resolution, glitchy head tracking and, in many cases, the sheer discomfort of wearing the heavy headsets themselves, the message from both Oculus and Sony seems to be “this time it actually works” – a message borne out from personal brief experience, and more usefully from acres of positive coverage of more long-term testing.
In the midst of the warranted enthusiasm about these strides forward in a technology many of us have dreamed about since childhood, there’s a question nobody seems particularly keen to ask. Is this a mainstream technology, or simply a sideshow for a dedicated band of early adopters? VR unquestionably has applications in a host of serious fields – medical treatment, military training, search and rescue and many others – but does it have a future as a well-supported entertainment device? Can anyone really picture a time when a couple of VR headsets snuggle on charging cradles below the living room TV?
” We don’t want to ask those questions, I suspect because we fear that we already know what the answers are. A world that has heavily adopted VR in the home genuinely is quite hard to envisage. The technology is, by its nature, antisocial – as long as you assume that “social” is confined to real rather than virtual environments, of course. It’s designed from first principles to exclude the world around you in favour of a constructed virtual world. Where something like Google Glass augments reality (and plenty of people find that creepy enough in itself), Oculus Rift and its ilk replace reality outright. That’s an intriguing prospect but one which seems, at least to most people, like one with a very limited set of usage scenarios.
After all, think about how the “dream” of VR was presented in all of those movies of the 80s and 90s. We may have watched them as children and thought about how cool it would be to step into a virtual environment – but even if you leave aside the scary hand-waving “dangers of the virtual world” storylines (seriously, if you’ve written the line “if we die in the game, we die in reality!” in a story or script, go out, get some fresh air, and consider a career change), the depiction of VR was never all that positive. Science fiction is generally a moral tale about today dressed in the speculative clothing of tomorrow – within those parables, VR mostly served as a warning about how isolated and confined technology could make us. VR users were at best, drooling vegetables whose minds were engaged far away from the people around them; at worst, withered tube-fed husks who didn’t even know the real world existed.
These depictions were contemporary comment more than anything else – a statement about fears that we were becoming more and more absorbed in technology and media to the exclusion of the real world and those around us. VR was the ultimate expression of that fear – a technology which would entirely replace the real world. To those of us who view games as escapist fantasy, that’s beguiling, but it’s easy to see how such complete escapism can be no different to isolation or disconnection. For exactly the same reason that film makers of previous decades used VR to express their fears about technology, I’m not convinced that VR has a place as a mainstream entertainment device – it’s simply a step too far in disconnection from your surroundings. It will undoubtedly find a great niche market among a specific class of core gamer (and I’ll be happy to be among them), but ultimately, it is a class of device that belongs in the den or the bedroom, not the living room, and it will concern and disturb enough people to keep it locked out of many homes for years to come.
There is a counter-argument to this, if I may be permitted to play my own Devil’s Advocate – smartphones. If you had made a film in the 1980s in which everyone on a train carriage stared and tapped on panes of glass, unspeaking, for the duration of their journeys, or in which a family sat around a television engaging with the black slabs in their hands rather than in conversation with one another, it would have looked like a dystopian nightmare. “Nobody will ever permit that to happen to society,” you might have thought – yet here we are, a nation of people who decry those who can’t stop checking their phones while out for a dinner date, yet secretly can’t wait for our date to take a bathroom break so we can reach into our pockets.
It’s not a dystopian nightmare, unless you’re a utterly miserable luddite – the kind of person who sniffs at smartphones and honks out “well mine makes phonecalls just fine!”, as if a completely bone-headed misunderstanding of technological progress makes you into the smartest guy in the room and not just an earth-shattering bore. It’s just a bit socially annoying. We got used to this new reality in small steps – it’s the new normal. Who is to say, then, that VR headsets won’t also become the New Normal?
In the very long term, I think that reasoning is probably sound. I buy it with regards to Google Glass style HUD systems, a product I don’t like very much right now but which I fully expect will become normal for us all within the coming decade, just as smartphones did this decade. As VR headsets become smaller, lighter and less intrusive – ultimately, a few decades down the line, probably being built into contact lenses or something of that sort – they will indeed become the new normal, at least for some people. In the medium term, though, VR seems destined to be an exciting niche, at best. I personally can’t wait to see what kind of experiences we can have on future versions of Oculus Rift and Sony’s headset, but I have no expectation that this will break out of the core gamer market (a few tens of millions of consumers, which is admittedly not to be sniffed at) for years to come.
One of the most sensible rules that anyone talking about the future – be it serious speculation or pure science fiction – ought to follow is “never say never”; the best way to look like a fool down the line is to proclaim anything to be impossible. With regard to mainstream adoption of VR, then, I’m certainly not prepared to say “never” – but with a slightly heavy heart, I’m definitely prepared to say “not yet”.
Bethesda’s Pete Hines had some choice words regarding Nintendo’s third-party strategy, suggesting that the time for getting better software support for the Wii U may have already passed.
In an interview with Game Trailers’ Bonus Round, Bethesda’s vice president of PR and marketing underlined the company’s commitment to making its games available on every platform – as long as those platforms don’t require compromise on the original vision.
As far as Bethesda’s games are concerned, that has led to their absence on Nintendo hardware despite their huge popularity. And Hines intimated that the situation is representative of Nintendo’s approach to third-party developers as a whole.
“The time for convincing publishers and developers to support Wii U has long past. The box is out,” Hine said, while sitting on a panel that also included Borderlands 2 lead writer Anthony Burch.
Hines pointed to Sony and Microsoft’s diligent and long-running efforts to communicate with third parties during the hardware design process as a better strategy for most developers.
“It’s not that every time we met with them we got all the answers we wanted, but they involved us very early on, and talking to folks like Bethesda and Gearbox, they say ‘here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re planning, here’s how we think it’s going to work’ to hear what we thought – from our tech guys and from an experience standpoint.
“You have to spend an unbelievable amount of time upfront doing that. If you’re just going, ‘we’re going to make a box and this is how it works and you should make games for it.’ Well, no. No is my answer. I’m going to focus on other ones that better support what it is we’re trying to do.”
This adds colour to comments Hines made in an earlier interview, where he stated that the Wii U was, “not on [Bethesda's] radar.” Nintendo is now attempting to address the Wii U’s less than admirable position by cutting $50 off its price.
With the rise in digital distribution and robust game creation tools like Unity, veteran developers are finding themselves returning to titles they’ve felt passionate about or worked on in the past. Those developers are planning new versions of those games, but without the brands they so love. This has led to the rise in ‘spiritual successors’: games that recall older titles, but without the original IP behind them. InXile’s Torment: Tides of Numenera, Chris Robert’s Star Citizen, Precursor’s Shadow of the Eternals, and Keiji Inafune’s recently-announced Mighty No. 9 have all banked on fan’s love and a creator’s previous work on an older title.
One of these spiritual successors was Hardware: Shipbreakers, an RTS title being developed at Blackbird Interactive. Blackbird is comprised of former Relic members who worked on the original Homeworld games and Shipbreakers was their chance to make a fresh start for the ideas that made Homeworld a fan-favorite.
This weekend, Blackbird Interactive and new Homeworld IP owner Gearbox Software announced a partnership, which sees Hardware: Shipbreakers become Homeworld: Shipbreakers. What once was a spiritual successor is now simply a successor. GamesIndustry International sat down and spoke with Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford, Blackbird Interactive chief executive officer Rob Cunningham and Blackbird chief creative officer Aaron Kambeitz to dig deeper into how Gearbox put on its new publisher’s hat and made this deal happen.
Pitchford told us that Gearbox chief creative officer Brian Martel was instrumental in the acquisition of the Homeworld IP. Martel had a deep love for the property and he convinced the rest of Gearbox executive team to bid on the assets when they went up in THQ’s auction.
“THQ acquired Relic and they also ended up having the Homeworld property, but they weren’t doing anything with it,” Pitchford told us. “THQ went away and the assets were put up for auction. There was a lot of folks who were interested in Homeworld. What was clear is one of the pseudo-publishers or smaller publishers was just going to grab it, exploit the back catalog, and not be in a position to invest more. It’s a cool property, what you can do in the space is cool, but it needs investment. We ended up winning the bid on that and it went for $1.35 million just to acquire the franchise.”
Gearbox is already hard at work on getting the original Homeworld games out into the world. The games are coming in their classic untouched states, but there are also HD remakes coming to PC. Pitchford admitted that the studio didn’t have a long-term plan for the series when it first acquired Homeworld and the executive team knew that Gearbox didn’t have the ability to begin work on a sequel immediately.
“We didn’t have a clear long-range plan when we started,” said Pitchford. “The other folks that were bidding are great people, but their interests were different. Knowing how important it was to Brian, we had to know that it was not going to end up with folks who were treating it like a commodity. Even if we might not be optimal to make the next game, there’s a whole body of very talented, very creative people. The right kind of team can be put together to do something wonderful. Even though we had no clear path, we had a lot of trust and confidence that the plan would appear.”
“We’re kind of busy. Borderlands became a massive thing. We’ve put a huge amount of our mindshare and effort into that. Also the next-generation of console is really exciting to us,” he added. “So, Gearbox has begun developing two original properties. Two new original things for the next-generation. We haven’t announced what those are yet, but the consequences of all that is that our internal mindshare has been very tapped. For us to internally start an effort to make a sequel to Homeworld would have wait.”
Prior to Gearbox’s acquisition, Cunningham and his team at Blackbird had already started work on Hardware: Shipbreakers. The game wasn’t intended to be a Homeworld title, but Blackbird still approached rights holder THQ to see if the publisher was interested in the title. Cunningham said that talks went nowhere.
“We did approach THQ, but it was very, very early on,” Cunningham explained. “It was before we had a prototype, it was before we had a game. We weren’t talking about it being Homeworld obviously. I think not only were we a very quiet voice because we were so small, we were also so far away and speaking in a different language. I don’t think the message really got through. Even if we did have a strong enough message, we weren’t far enough along for them to take us seriously.”
“We didn’t have a clear long-range plan when we started. Even though we had no clear path, we had a lot of trust and confidence that the plan would appear”
Gearbox president Randy Pitchford.
“We had financed the game up until this point with private equity,” added Cunningham. “And then we realized at a certain point that to really do this thing justice we need a lot more money. That’s when we started looking for partners.”
During the THQ auction, both Gearbox and Blackbird made offers on the Homeworld assets, but Gearbox came out on top. Blackbird congratulated Homeworld’s new owners at the auction, a move Cunningham said “started the dialog.”
“These guys had a project that they had already started talking about right around the time that we were going through the acquisition process,” said Pitchford. “These guys were making a Homeworld game, but they didn’t have Homeworld. I’m also not sure we’re the best people in the world to do it. We haven’t made RTS games before. We love the property and we want great things to happen, but it’s not our property.”
“These guys were going to fight that fight without Homeworld. We hadn’t even finished the acquisition process when we first started talking,” he said.
Gearbox is investing in Blackbird’s title, not just loaning them the IP. The deal took six weeks from start to finish, according to Martel. Pitchford said it was a situation where “we needed them and they needed us.” In fact, the paperwork for the deal was signed live onstage at PAX Dev, during Pitchford’s keynote.
“I did the opening keynote on Wednesday morning and we actually signed the agreement. It happened to be finished the night before,” said Pitchford.
“These guys phoned me up the night before and said ‘can you please make it to Seattle?’” Cunningham laughed.
“We’re not a publisher, which is maybe why we were able to go so fast,” said Pitchford. “The mission that Rob presented to me is going to be wonderful, but these guys needed millions of dollars to achieve it. So it takes an investment. I’m really glad we’re in a spot where we’re able to do that.”
Gearbox’s success has allowed the developer to collect a sizable warchest, and the Blackbird partnership is part of paying that success forward.
“We’ve done really well with a lot of our games, so we’re at a spot where out limiting factor isn’t ‘what can we do,’ it’s talent to execute on the opportunities,” said Pitchford. “We have resources. We can take what we’ve earned and apply towards why we got into this industry to begin with. It feels really good to create cool shit. You always want to try to make the world more interesting by adding entertainment that can create joy and happiness for people.”
“These guys have an amazing team, but the mission they have is larger than what their team is. There’s a opportunity for people to join them and be a part of it. They’ve got a foundation of talent that knows how to make and ship games.”
For Blackbird, it’s a chance to finally continue what began in Homeworld 1 and 2. The studio has the chance to make a full-fledged successor – Homeworld: Shipbreakers will actually be a prequel to the previous Homeworld titles – without having to worry about changing designs to avoid calling back to Homeworld too closely. It’s a chance a number of other developers can only hope to have.
“It felt like reuniting the brands was something that was in the future. I won’t say that I designed [Hardware: Shipbreakers] as a Homeworld property, but I will say that I made sure that it wasn’t designing it out. The number one thing that fits [Homeworld and Shipbreakers] together is the relationship we built with Gearbox: we share the same values in what we believe makes a great game,” said Kambeitz. “We have an attachment to Homeworld because we see what it is and what it could be in the future. Our fear was that someone would pick it up and exploit it for the back catalog or do something strange like make an MMO. It was a delight to find out that [Gearbox was] interested in collaborating with us and helping us. It was meant to be.”
“It’s divine intervention. It’s not a brilliant business strategy or anything, it’s just blind, fantastic luck. It feels great. When something is meant to be and happens, you have this relaxed feeling,” said Cunningham.
Gearbox is still figuring out how Homeworld: Shipbreakers will be released. The deal came together quickly because the studio isn’t a publisher, but that lack of experience means it will have to learn to navigate in new territory.
“When people are passionate about it, they have talent and capability, and there are resources there: shit, there’s going to be cool stuff. Just let it happen”
Gearbox president Randy Pitchford.
“We can do right by the brand, we can certainly promote it, but we’re going to have to figure out the publishing path for this game,” said Pitchford. “There’s a lot of options. Digital is a nice, clean, easy option, but there’s still a lot of value in retail. That’ll be fun to navigate. There’s a lot of interesting, stimulating problems in the business of [making games].”
Pitchford is glad the situation came together the way it did, putting talented developers together with available resources. Instead of the Homeworld IP continuing to sit stagnant, Gearbox and Blackbird have a chance to evolve the series.
“I wish this happened more. I don’t know why it doesn’t happen more, because to me, it’s always obvious that the best stuff comes when capable talent is very passionate about what they’re trying to do,” said Pitchford. “You never get a win unless you start with people that really fucking care. As developers ourselves, we’ve always been very pro talent. I’m the president of Gearbox, but I did not come at this industry as a business guy. There’s a lot of people in our industry on the business side where it’s a means to an end. To me, games are the end. In the whole of human purpose, there’s no greater thing than the experience of joy and happiness. I’m so grateful for people that become doctors and police officers, but I want to dedicate my life to creating happiness and joy.”
“When people are passionate about it, they have talent and capability, and there are resources there: shit, there’s going to be cool stuff. Just let it happen.”
Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has attributed slow sales of the Wii U to the available games, rather than the price of the console, in his most recent interview.
“I understand that the real issue is the lack of software, and the only solution is to provide the mass-market with a number of quality software titles,” he told CVG.
“If the price is actually an issue [with Wii U], then there is some contradiction between the current sales balance between the Basic and Premium versions of the Wii U. The basic version should have sold a lot, but the fact of the matter is that people are buying more of the premium version. So the issue is not there.”
Last week a Nintendo representative confirmed that the Wii U console was still being sold at a loss, making it a price cut in the near future unlikely.
Recent financial results also revealed that in the past three months the machine had only sold 160,000 units worldwide.