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.
While Sony wowed gamers at its E3 press conference this year with a barrage of impressive content, some would argue that it was Microsoft that made the biggest splash by choosing its press conference to announce not one, but two distinct console hardware upgrades that would be hitting the market in consecutive years (Xbox One S this year, Scorpio in 2017). Years from now, this may be the grand moment that we all point to as forever changing the evolution of the console business. Sony, too, is preparing a slight upgrade to PS4 with the still-to-be-unveiled Neo, and while it won’t be as powerful as Scorpio, it’s not a stretch to assume that Sony is already working on the next, more powerful PlayStation iteration as well. We can all kiss the five or six-year console cycle goodbye now, but the publishers we spoke to at E3 all believe that this is ultimately great for the console industry and the players.
The most important aspect of all of this is the way in which Sony and Microsoft intend to handle their respective audiences. Both companies have already said that players of the older hardware will not be left behind. The ecosystem will carry on, and that to EA global publishing chief Laura Miele is a very good thing, indeed.
“I perceive it as upgrades to the hardware that will actually extend the cycle,” she told me. “I actually see it more 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.
“I have an 11-year-old son who plays a lot of games. We changed consoles and there are games and game communities that he has to leave behind and go to a different one. So he plays on multiple platforms depending on what friends he’s playing with and which game he’s going to play. So the idea that you have a more streamlined thoroughfare transition I think is a big win… things like backwards compatibility and the evolution,” she continued.
“So it’s not my perception that the hardware manufacturers are going to be forcing upgrades. I really see that they’re trying to hold on and bring players along. If players want to upgrade, they can. There will be benefit to that. But it’s not going to be punitive if they hold on to the older hardware… So we’re thrilled with these announcements. We’re thrilled with the evolution. We’re thrilled with what Sony’s doing, what Microsoft’s doing and we think it’s phenomenal. I think that is good for players. It’ll be great for us as a publisher about how they’re treating it.”
Ubisoft’s head of EMEA Alain Corre is a fan of the faster upgrade approach as well. “The beautiful thing is it will not split the communities. And I think it’s important that when you’ve been playing a game for a lot of years and invested a lot of time that you can carry on without having to start over completely again. I think with the evolution of technology it’s better than what we had to do before, doing a game for next-gen and a different game from scratch for the former hardware. Now we can take the best of the next console but still have super good quality for the current console, without breaking the community up. We are quite big fans of this approach,” he said.
Corre also noted that Ubisoft loves to jump on board new technologies early (as it’s done for Wii, Kinect, VR and now Nintendo NX with Just Dance), and its studios enjoy being able to work with the newest tech out there. Not only that, but the new consoles often afford publishers the opportunity to build out new IP like Steep, he said.
“Each time there’s a new machine with more memory then our creators are able to bring something new and fresh and innovate, and that’s exciting for our fans who always want to be surprised. So the fact that Microsoft announced that they want to move forward to push the boundaries of technology again is fantastic news. Our creators want to go to the limit of technology to make the best games they can… so the games will be better in the years to come which is fantastic for this industry. And at Ubisoft, it’s also in our DNA to be [supportive] early on with new technology. We like taking some risks in that respect… We believe in new technology and breaking the frontiers and potentially attracting new fans and gamers into our ecosystem and into our brands,” Corre continued.
Take-Two boss Strauss Zelnick pointed out the continuity in the communities as well. “The ecosystems aren’t shifting as much. We essentially have a common development architecture now that’s essentially a PC architecture,” he said. And if the console market truly is entering an almost smartphone like upgrade curve, “It would be very good for us obviously. To have a landscape…where you put a game out and you don’t worry about it,” he commented, “the same way that 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.
“So we will for sure get there as an industry. We will get to the point where the hardware becomes a backdrop. And sure, constantly more powerful hardware gives us an opportunity but it would be great to get to a place where we don’t have a sine curve anymore, and I do see the sine curve flattening but I’m not sure I agree it’s going away yet… That doesn’t change any of our activities; we still have to make the very best products in the market and we have to push technology to its absolute limit to do so.”
E3 2016 has officially come to a close, and despite the fact that Activision and EA were absent from the show floor, my experience of the show was that it was actually quite vibrant and filled with plenty of intricate booth displays and compelling new games to play. The same cannot be said for the ESA’s first ever public satellite event, E3 Live, which took place next door at the LA Live complex. The ESA managed to give away 20,000 tickets in the first 24 hours after announcing the show in late May. But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for…
The fact that it was a free event, however, does not excuse just how poor this show really was. Fans were promised by ESA head Mike Gallagher in the show’s initial announcement “the chance to test-drive exciting new games, interact with some of their favorite developers, and be among the first in the world to enjoy groundbreaking game experiences.”
I spent maybe an hour there, and when I first arrived, I genuinely questioned whether I was in the right place. But to my disbelief, the small area (maybe the size of two tennis courts) was just filled with a few tents, barely any games, and a bunch of merchandise (t-shirts and the like) being marketed to attendees. The fans I spoke with felt like they had been duped. At least they didn’t pay for their tickets…
“When we found out it was the first public event, we thought, ‘Cool we can finally go to something E3 related’ because we don’t work for any of the companies and we’re not exhibitors, and I was excited for that but then we got here and we were like ‘Uh oh, is this it?’ So we got worried and we’re a little bit upset,” he continued. Malcolm added that he thought it was going to be in one of the buildings right in the middle of the LA Live complex, rather than a siphoned off section outside with tents.
As I walked around, it was the same story from attendees. Jose, who came with his son, felt similarly to Malcolm. “It’s not that big. I expected a lot of demos, but they only had the Lego Dimensions demo. I expected something bigger where we could play some of the big, upcoming titles. All it is is some demo area with Lego and some VR stuff,” he told me.
When I asked him if he got what he thought would be an E3 experience, he continued, “Not even close, this is really disappointing. It’s really small and it’s just here. I expected more, at least to play some more. And the VR, I’m not even interested in VR. Me and my son have an Xbox One and we wanted to play Battlefield 1 or Titanfall 2 and we didn’t get that opportunity. I was like c’mon man, I didn’t come here to buy stuff. I came here to enjoy games.”
By cobbling together such a poor experience for gamers, while 50,000 people enjoy the real E3 next door, organizers risk turning off the very audience that they should be welcoming into the show with open arms. As the major publishers told me this week, E3 is in a transitional period and needs to put players first. That’s why EA ultimately hosted its own event, EA Play. “We’re hoping the industry will shift towards players. This is where everything begins and ends for all of us,” said EA global publishing chief Laura Miele.
It seems like a no-brainer to start inviting the public, and that’s what we all thought was happening with E3 Live, but in reality they were invited to an atmosphere and an “experience” – one that barely contained games. The good news, as the quickly sold out E3 Live tickets indicated, is that there is a big demand for a public event. And it shouldn’t be very complicated to pull off. If the ESA sells tickets, rather than giving them away, they can generate a rather healthy revenue stream. Give fans an opportunity to check out the games for a couple days and let the real industry conduct its business on a separate 2-3 days. That way, the ESA will be serving both constituents and E3 will get a healthy boost. And beyond that, real professionals won’t have to worry anymore about getting shoved or trampled, which nearly happened to me when a legion of frenzied gamers literally all started running into West Hall as the show floor opened at 10AM. Many of these people are clearly not qualified and yet E3 allows them to register. It’s time to make E3 more public and more professional. It’s your move ESA.
We asked the ESA to provide comment on the reception to E3 Live but have not received a response. We’ll update this story if we get a statement.
This weeks E3 won’t be entirely dominated by VR, as some events over the past year have been; there’s too much interest in the prospect of new console hardware from all the major players and in the AAA line-up as this generation hits its stride for VR to grab all the headlines. Nonetheless, with both Rift and Vive on the market and PSVR building up to an autumn launch, VR is still likely to be the focus of a huge amount of attention and excitement at and around E3.
Part of that is because everyone is still waiting to see exactly what VR is going to be. We know the broad parameters of what the hardware is and what it can do – the earliest of early adopters even have their hands on it already – but the kind of experiences it will enable, the audiences it will reach and the way it will change the market are still totally unknown. The heightened interest in VR isn’t just because it’s exciting in its own right; it’s because it’s unknown, and because we all want to see the flashes of inspiration that will come to define the space.
One undercurrent to look out for at E3 is one that the most devoted fans of VR will be deeply unhappy with, but one which has been growing in strength and confidence in recent months. There’s a strong view among quite a few people in the industry (both in games and in the broader tech sector) that VR isn’t going to be an important sector in its own right. Rather, its importance will be as a stepping stone to the real holy grail – Augmented or Mixed Reality (AR / MR), a technology that’s a couple of years further down the line but which will, in this vision of the future, finally reach the mainstream consumer audience that VR will never attain.
The two technologies are related but, in practical usage, very different. VR removes the user from the physical world and immerses them entirely in a virtual world, taking over their visual senses entirely with closed, opaque goggles. AR, on the other hand, projects additional visual information onto transparent goggles or glasses; the user still sees the real world around them, but an AR headset adds an extra, virtual layer, ranging from something as simple as a heads-up display (Google’s ill-fated Glass was a somewhat clunky attempt at this) to something as complex as 3D objects that fit seamlessly into your reality, interacting realistically with the real objects in your field of vision. Secretive AR headset firm Magic Leap, which has raised $1.4 billion in funding but remains tight-lipped about its plans, prefers to divide the AR space into Augmented Reality (adding informational labels or heads-up display information to your vision) and Mixed Reality (which adds 3D objects that sit seamlessly alongside real objects in your environment).
The argument I’m hearing increasingly often is that while VR is exciting and interesting, it’s much too limited to ever be a mainstream consumer product – but the technology it has enabled and advanced is going to feed into the much bigger and more important AR revolution, which will change how we all interact with the world. It’s not what those who have committed huge resources to VR necessarily want to hear, but it’s a compelling argument, and one that’s worthy of consideration as we approach another week of VR hype.
The reasoning has two basis. The first is that VR isn’t going to become a mainstream consumer product any time soon, a conclusion based off a number of well-worn arguments that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the VR resurgence and which have yet to receive a convincing rebuttal – other than an optimistic “wait and see”. The first is that VR simply doesn’t work well enough for a large enough proportion of the population for it to become a mainstream technology. Even with great frame-rate and lag-free movement tracking, some aspects of VR simply make it induce nausea and dizziness for a decent proportion of people. One theory is that it’s down to the fact that VR only emulates stereoscopic depth perception, i.e. the difference in the image perceived by each eye, and can’t emulate focal depth perception, i.e. the physical focusing of your eye on objects different distances from you; for some people the disparity between those two focusing mechanisms isn’t a problem, while for others, it makes them feel extremely sick.
Another theory is that it’s down to a proportion of the population getting nauseous from physical acceleration and movement not matching up with visual input, rather like getting motion sick in a car or bus. In fact, both of those things probably play a role; either way, the result is that a sizeable minority of people feel ill almost instantly when using VR headsets, and a rather more sizeable number feel dizzy and unwell after playing for extended periods of time. We won’t know just how sizeable the latter minority is until more people actually get a chance to play VR for extended periods; it’s worth bearing in mind once again that the actual VR experiences most people have had to date have been extremely short demos, on the order of 3 to 5 minutes long.
The second issue is simply a social one. VR is intrinsically designed around blocking out the world around you, and that limits the contexts in which it can be used. Being absorbed in a videogame while still aware of the world and the people around you is one thing; actually blocking out that world and those people is a fairly big step. In some contexts it simply won’t work at all; for others, we’re just going to have to wait and see how many consumers are actually willing to take that step on a regular basis, and your take on whether it’ll become a widespread, mainstream behaviour or not really is down to your optimism about the technology.
With AR, though, both of these problems are solved to some extent. You’re still viewing the real world, just with extra information in it, which ought to make the system far more usable even for those who experience motion sickness or nausea from VR (though I do wonder what happens regarding focal distance when some objects appear to be at a certain position in your visual field, yet exist at an entirely different focal distance from your eyes; perhaps that’s part of what Magic Leap’s secretive technology solves). Moreover, you’re not removed from the world any more than you would be when using a smartphone – you can still see and interact with the people and objects around you, while also interacting with virtual information. It may look a little bit odd in some situations, since you’ll be interacting with and looking at objects that don’t exist for other people, but that’s a far easier awkwardness to overcome than actually blocking off the entire physical world.
What’s perhaps more important than this, though, is what AR enables. VR lets us move into virtual worlds, sure; but AR will allow us to overlay vast amounts of data and virtual objects onto the real world, the world that actually matters and in which we actually live. One can think of AR as finally allowing the huge amounts of data we work with each day to break free of the confines of the screens in which they are presently trapped; both adding virtual objects to our environments, and tagging physical objects with virtual data, is a logical and perhaps inevitable evolution of the way we now work with data and communications.
While the first AR headsets will undoubtedly be a bit clunky (the narrow field of view of Microsoft’s Hololens effort being a rather off-putting example), the evolutionary path towards smaller, sleeker and more functional headsets is clear – and once they pass a tipping point of functionality, the question of “VR or AR” will be moot. VR is, at best, a technology that you dip into for entertainment for an hour here and there; AR, at its full potential, is something as transformative as PCs or smartphones, fundamentally changing how pretty much everyone interacts with technology and information on a constant, hourly, daily basis.
Of course, it’s not a zero sum game – far from it. The success of AR will probably be very good for VR in the long term; but if we see VR now as a stepping stone to the greater goal of AR, then we can imagine a future for VR itself only as a niche within AR. AR stands to replace and re imagine much of the technology we use today; VR will be one thing that AR hardware is capable of, perhaps, but one that appeals only to a select audience within the broad, almost universal adoption of AR-like technologies.
This is the vision of the future that’s being articulated more and more often by those who work most closely with these technologies – and while it won’t (and shouldn’t) dampen enthusiasm for VR in the short term, it’s worth bearing in mind that VR isn’t the end-point of technological evolution. It may, in fact, just be the starting point for something much bigger and more revolutionary – something that will impact the games and tech industries in a way even more profound than the introduction of smartphones.
What is the point of E3? I ask not in a snarky tone, but one of genuine curiosity, tinged with concern. I’m simply not sure what exactly the show’s organizers, the ESA, think E3 is for any more. Over the years, what was once by far the largest date in the industry’s annual calendar has stuck out in various new directions as it sought to remain relevant, but it’s always ended up falling back to the path of least resistance – the familiar halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center, the habitual routine of allowing only those who can prove some industry affiliation to attend. For all that the show’s organizers regularly tout minor tweaks to the formula as earth-shattering innovation, E3 today is pretty much exactly the same beast as it was when I first attended 15 years ago – and by that point, the show’s format was already well-established.
There’s one major difference, though; E3 today is smaller. It now struggles to fill the convention center’s halls, and a while back ditched the Kentia Hall – which for years promised the discovery of unknown gems to anyone willing to sift through its morass of terrible ideas. Kentia refugees now fill gaps in the cavernous South Hall’s floor plan, elevated to sit alongside a roster of the industry’s greats that gets more meagre with each passing year. This year, attendees at E3 will find it hard not to notice a number of key absences. The loss of Konami’s once huge booth was inevitable given the company’s U-turn away from console publishing, but the decisions of EA and Activision to pull out of the show this year will be felt far more keenly.
Hence the question; what’s the point? Who, or what, is E3 actually meant to be for? It’s not for consumers, of course – they’re not allowed in, in theory, though the ESA has come up with various pointlessly convoluted ways of letting a handful of them in anyway. It’s for business, yet big players in the industry seem deeply dissatisfied with it. It’s not just EA and Activision, either; even the companies who are actually exhibiting on the show floor seem to have taken to viewing it as an addendum to the actually important part of the week, namely their live-broadcast press conferences. Once the realm only of platform holders, now every major publisher has their own – and if EA and Activision’s decision to go their own way entirely, leaving the E3 show floor, has no major negative consequences for them this year, you can be damned sure others will question the show’s cost-value next year.
The problem is that the world has changed and E3 has not. Once, it was the only truly global event on the calendar; back then, London had ECTS and Tokyo had TGS, but there was no question of them truly challenging E3’s dominance. The world was a very different place back then, though. It was a time before streaming high resolution video, a time before the Internet both made the world a much smaller place, and made the hyper-local all the more relevant. Today, E3 sits in a landscape of events most of which, bluntly, justify their existence far better than the ESA’s effort does. Huge local events in major markets around the world serve their audiences better than a remote event in LA; GamesCom in Germany and TGS in Tokyo remain the biggest of those, but there are also major events in other European, Asian and Latin American countries that balance serving the business community in their regions with putting on a huge show for local consumers.
In the United States, meanwhile, E3 finds itself assailed on two sides. The PAX events have become the region’s go-to consumer shows, and a flotilla of smaller shows cater well to specific business and social niches. GDC, meanwhile, has become the de facto place to do business and for the industry to engage in conversation and debate with itself. The margin in between those two for a “showcase show that’s not actually for consumers but sort-of lets some in and is a place for the industry to do business but also please spend a fortune on a gigantic impressive stand” is an increasingly narrow piece of ground to stand on, and E3 is quite distinctly losing its balance.
A big part of the reason for that is simply that E3 has an identity crisis. It wants to be a global show in the age of the local, in an age where “global” is accomplished by pointing a camera at a stage, not by flying people from around the world to sit in the audience. It wants to be a spectacle, and a place to do business, and ends up being dissatisfying at both; it wants to excite and intrigue consumers, but it doesn’t want to let them in. The half-measures attempted over the years to square these circles have done nothing to convince anyone that E3 knows how to stay relevant; slackening ties to allow more consumers into the show simply annoys people who are there for work, and annoys the huge audience of consumers who remain excluded. The proposed consumer showcase satellite event, too, will simply annoy companies who have to divide their attention, and annoy consumers who still feel like they’re not being let in to the “real thing”. Meanwhile the show itself feels more and more like the hole in the middle of a doughnut – all these huge conferences, showcases and events are arranged around E3’s dates, but people spend less and less time at the show proper, and with EA and Activision go two of the major reasons to do so. (It’s also hard not to note, though I can’t quantify it in figures, that more industry people each year seem to stay home and watch the conferences online rather than travelling to LA.)
The answer to E3’s problems has to be an update to its objectives; it has to be for the ESA to sit down with its membership (including those who have already effectively abandoned the show) and figure out what the point of the show is, and what it’s meant to accomplish. The E3 brand has enormous cachet and appeal among consumers; it’s hard to believe that there’s no demand for a massive showcase event at the LA Convention Center that actually threw its doors open to consumers, it’s simply a question of whether ESA members think that’s something they’d like to participate in. From a business perspective, I think they’d be mad not to; the week of E3, loaded with conferences and announcements, drives the industry’s most devoted fans wild, and getting a few hundred thousand of them to pass through a show floor on that week would be one of the most powerful drivers of early sentiment and word of mouth imaginable.
As for business; it’s not like there isn’t a tried, tested and long-standing model for combining business and consumer shows that doesn’t involve a half-baked compromise. Tons of shows around the world, in games and in other fields, open for a couple of trade days before throwing the doors open to consumers over the weekend. Other approaches may also be valid, but the point is that there’s a simple and much more satisfying answer than the daft, weak-kneed reforms the ESA has attempted (“let’s let exhibitors give show passes to a certain number of super-fan consumers” – really? Really?).
E3 week remains a big deal; E3 itself may be faltering and a bit unloved, but the week around it is pretty much the only truly global showcase the industry has created for itself. That week deserves to be served by a better core event, rather than inexorably moving towards being a ton of media events orbiting a show nobody can really be bothered with. The organizers at the ESA need to be brave, bold and aggressive with what they do with E3 in future – because just falling back on the comfortable old format is starting to show diminishing returns at an alarming rate.
Orcs Must Die! Studio Robot Entertainment is a rare breed nowadays – in an age where you’re either indie or AAA, the Plano, Texas-based company (one of several Texas developers that rose from the ashes of Age of Empires studio Ensemble) has managed to succeed as a mid-sized outfit. When Robot was formed in 2009, the company operated on a small scale, but things really changed when it landed a major investment from Chinese media giant Tencent in 2014. That enabled Robot to scale up and to benefit from Tencent’s knowledge at the same time.
“We made the first Orcs Must Die! as a semi-indie studio. We were about 40-45 people. We’re about twice that size now. And we were able to do Orcs Must Die! and Orcs Must Die! 2 with that. We kind of kept following the franchise and following what the fans were asking for in that game and we knew the next version was going to be bigger. We had to make a strategic decision – were we going to stay small and try to do another small version of that game or did we want to be ambitious and try to do something a little bit bigger? And that was going to necessitate a different type of arrangement for us to find financing. Because, you know, just selling a $15 or $20 game on Steam over and over is tough to support a studio to make a bigger game,” Robot CEO Patrick Hudson told GamesIndustry.biz.
“We also did some licensing deals for this game. As an online game, we didn’t necessarily have an ambition of setting up a European publishing office or an Asian publishing office. So we went to Europe and we partnered up with GameForge and licensed the rights for them to publish the game for us. And that comes with some advances and license fees, which help us make the game. We did the same thing with Tencent in China and that led to an investment. So we are in that mid-space. I think you’re right that there are fewer people in that space right now. It would probably be harder for us to stay in that space if we didn’t have really strong partnerships with folks like GameForge and Tencent.”
Investments and partnerships can clearly make a difference to any game company, but it’s also easy to mismanage a studio’s growth. Before you know it, one department doesn’t know what the other is doing, and things spiral out of control.
“It’s all in how you manage it. You’re either afraid of that growth or you embrace it, put a process and structure in place to allow for that. There’s no question we have to run our studio differently at 90 people than we did at 45. There’s more structure in place, there are more layers of leadership to help the project along. We’ve done a decent job of managing the growth… We went through the same kind of growth curve at Ensemble and we actually spent a lot of time talking about what went well, what didn’t go well, ‘What did we learn from that experience that we could have managed the growth better, how do we apply that to Robot?’ So we try to be a little bit smarter about that. Talking to other friendly studios [helps also] – ‘Hey, what did you guys do through this kind of growth? What pains did you experience? What did you learn?’ So we’ll grow as much as it takes to support Orcs Must Die! or as little to support it,” Hudson continued.
While everyone was devastated when Microsoft seemingly shut down a successful Ensemble Studios for no good reason, Hudson takes it as a learning experience.
In Ensemble’s case, Hudson discovered that scale ultimately held back some of its better talent. “Age of Empires attracted a lot of really good game talent to the studio, either people who were starting fresh in the games industry and learned how to make great games inside of Ensemble or we recruited really talented people to Dallas to work on the Empires franchise and, ultimately, Halo Wars. So we had just a tremendous amount of pent up talent in what was not a huge studio. At its peak it was 120 people. So it was very densely populated with talent. When you’re a studio that size, you have a lead structure within each department, but not everybody gets a chance to take those leadership positions and do their own games. Once Ensemble went away, you saw all these talented people go off in different places and show what they were capable of,” he remarked.
Working at Ensemble instilled a certain level of dedication to quality in all the developers who worked there too. “We held ourselves to a really high standard of making games that everyone took with them to their next places. I would say, in addition to that… all of us worked for another six years for Microsoft post-acquisition, so we got to learn the industry as both indie developers and inside a publisher. We got to learn the entire space, how the whole ecosystem is close to the publishing side. So that was a very valuable experience that maybe a lot of other devs don’t get,” Hudson said.
There’s no animosity or regret about Ensemble either, as far as Hudson is concerned: “Six years is a long time to be with a company post-acquisition. It was actually, for the most part, six good years. Microsoft treated us well. I think we worked well with the people we worked with at Microsoft. You do see some [studios] that get acquired and they’re gone within a year or two. We didn’t have that experience. I kind of view six years as a nice success.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson that Hudson and Robot have learned, even before the rise of Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, is that listening and responding to a vibrant community is critical. Discoverability has become a nuisance to deal with, and you need the fans behind you in order to succeed. If you have expectations that a platform holder will feature you, your marketing strategy needs an overhaul.
“As some of those previous PC developers that came into mobile are now migrating back to PC, discoverability on PC has become not quite as bad as mobile, but it’s not easy. There’s a lot of content on Steam now. There’s no easy space. Games is more competitive and a harder business than it’s probably ever been. There’s just a lot of great developers out there making a lot of great content and there’s just no barriers to putting your content out there to players, and players move quickly from game to game. They’re going to seek the best content,” Hudson noted.
He continued, “When I talk to the Valve or Apple or Google folks, they know the problem. They see it. But it’s an almost impossible problem to solve… Everyone wants to be featured, right? It’s funny, when you talk to a new mobile developer and be like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna make this great game. We’re gonna be featured.’ Probably not. You’re probably not going to be featured. Unless you’re doing something really cool and innovative and very different that really shows off the platform.
“They all have different programs to try and help you get noticed but you can’t make that the core of your strategy. It’s really up to you to make a great game. If you don’t have a marketing budget to cultivate a community, start with a small community, really cultivate it and listen to them and speak to them and let them organically grow. It’s not the platform holder’s job to make it successful.”
Beyond building a robust community, selecting the right business model for your game is crucial. While free-to-play is almost the default option in today’s market, Hudson said that premium games are coming back too.
“We really do think of it as a case-by-case. There are interesting trends in the market where you’re seeing paid games come back in certain areas – even in China where we’re seeing an uptick in paid games, customers in China buying paid games. [That’s] never happened before. So it’s really going to depend on the game, the needs of the game,” he commented.
For Orcs Must Die! Unchained, which just entered an open beta about a month ago, free-to-play just made sense for Robot, as it’s a big multiplayer MOBA-style tower defense game; Robot wants as many people online for matchmaking as possible. Hudson and Robot have tried free-to-play before with Hero Academy in 2012, but he fully admitted, “We made a ton of mistakes, we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was a very successful game critically. It probably should’ve been a little more successful for us commercially, but we learned those lessons and hopefully we’re applying some of those.
“[Unchained] will be our first big free-to-play PC title. And we get a lot out of our partners too. GameForge has been operating free-to-play titles forever. Tencent has been operating free-to-play titles forever and we really lean on their expertise and we ask them to be involved with us as we design the game. The nice thing about both of those partners is… monetization follows. They start with making a great game, get the players around, keep the players around, [and then] hopefully they’ll pay you down the road. But don’t solve for money up front. So we’ll see. This will be our first foray into it. We’ll make a few more mistakes I’m sure but hopefully we learn quickly.”
Right now Robot remains 100 percent committed to Orcs Must Die! and the studio is bringing the game to PS4 later this year, but that doesn’t mean it expects to be pigeonholed with that one franchise. Hudson said that Robot continues to brainstorm new IP ideas, but nothing has made it too far along in development to warrant a release. “We’ll definitely do a new IP again. We started a couple of prototypes in the past few years that haven’t panned out. It happens all the time, right?” he said, adding that the company also remains interested in mobile but is “very cautious.”
“I think what’s interesting about mobile over the last couple of years is how non-dynamic the market is as far as the top games. The games that have lived in the top charts have been there now for 2 or 3 years. They get there and they stay there and they’re really good at staying there and it’s hard to break in and become the new thing. There are some good case studies for that. Certainly not nearly as many as there are on PC,” he said.
Hudson on VR
Likewise, virtual reality, although enticing, is just too risky for a studio like Robot, Hudson noted.
“It comes back to a company our size and where we sit. For us to overinvest in a market where it’s hard to know what the growth curve is going to be would be pretty risky at our size. We can’t afford to be wrong on something this new and this different… We love the options it provides for new and compelling experiences in games. We’ve brainstormed plenty of ideas for Orcs Must Die! in VR and we’ve got some pretty good ones, but it’ll be a while before we seriously invest in it,” he said.
Hudson joked that Robot is “living vicariously” though a couple of ex-Ensemble studios in Dallas that are working on VR now.
A conservative and cautious approach is probably one of the reasons Robot has managed to survive in an increasingly challenging environment. Even for eSports – an area of the industry that Orcs Must Die! clearly could excel in – Hudson isn’t jumping in headfirst.
That being said, Hudson is definitely optimistic about eSports as a sector. “I think it’s going to become an increasingly large aspect of the industry. And there will be the games that work and the games that don’t work for it. There will be a lot of companies chasing it and probably crash on the rocks trying to get there, but it’s going to continue to grow. I think you’ll see it across platforms too. I think you’ll continue to see eSports be popular in mobile. It’ll continue to grow there. You think of it as a PC thing now but it’s not. I think it’s going to encompass all aspects of games,” he said.
Steam saved PC gaming. As retailers aggressively reduced the shelf space afforded to PC titles – blaming piracy, but equally motivated, no doubt, by the proliferation of MMO and other online titles which had little or no resale value – Valve took matters into its own hands and delivered on the long-empty promises of digital distribution. It was a bumpy ride at first, but the service Valve created ushered in a new and exciting era for games on the PC. Freed from the shackles of traditional publishing and retail, it’s become a thriving platform that teems with creativity and experimentation. Steam still isn’t all things to all people, but it saved PC gaming.
Sometimes, though, you look at Steam and wonder if PC gaming was worth saving. All too often, browsing through Steam to look for interesting things to try out leaves you feeling not so much that you want to close the application in disgust, but that you’d like to set the whole damned thing on fire. The reason isn’t usability, or bugginess, or anything like that – Steam has its issues, but by and large it’s a solid piece of technology – but rather the “community” that Valve has allowed to thrive on its platform. On a platform that aims to expose and promote great games from newcomers and relatively unknown indies, community feedback, reviews and recommendations are vital components, but a legacy of poor and deeply misguided decision making from Valve has meant that engaging with those aspects of Steam can all too often feel like swimming through hot sewerage.
The problem is this; Steam is almost entirely unmoderated, and Valve makes pretty much zero effort to reign in any behaviour on its platform that isn’t outright illegal. As a consequence, it’s open season for the worst behaviours and tactics of the Internet’s reactionary malcontents – the weapon of choice being brigading, whereby huge numbers of users from one of the Internet’s cesspits are sent to downvote, post terrible reviews or simply fill content pages with bile. Targets are chosen for daring to include content that doesn’t please the reactionary hordes, or for being made by a developer who once said a vaguely liberal thing on Twitter, or – of course – for being made by a woman, or for whatever other thing simply doesn’t please the trolls on any given day. The reviews on almost any game on Steam will often contain some pretty choice language and viewpoints, but hitting upon a game that’s been targeted for brigading is like running headlong into a wall of pure, frothing hatred.
Of course, Steam’s not the worst of it in most regards; the places that spawn these brigades in the first place, places like Reddit and 4chan, are far, far worse, and concoct many other malicious ways to hurt and harass their targets. That Steam permits this behaviour on an ongoing basis is, however, a huge problem – not least because Steam is a commercial platform, and provides harassers and trolls with an opportunity to directly damage the income of the developers they target.
It’s not that Valve doesn’t care about the quality of its platform. Just this week, it implemented a new feature allowing customers to see scores from recent reviews, rather than overall scores, so you can get a sense of how a game has changed since its original launch. It’s a good, pretty well considered feature. Yet its arrival really just highlights how little Valve seems to care that its storefront is being used as a tool by harassers, and filled up on a regular basis with vicious, abusive reviews and comments that no customer wants to be confronted with when browsing. Sure, traditional retail may have been hanging PC gaming out to dry all those years ago, but at least I’m reasonably sure that most traditional retail stores would have kicked out anyone who ran into their store and started screaming obscenities in the face of the first girl they saw.
“traditional retail may have been hanging PC gaming out to dry all those years ago, but at least I’m reasonably sure that most traditional retail stores would have kicked out anyone who ran into their store and started screaming obscenities in the face of the first girl they saw”
And look – I get that community moderation is hard. It’s really hard. Much harder than throwing in a quick algorithm to compute review scores from recent reviews only, which is why that got tackled first; but harassment and brigading isn’t a new problem on Steam, or on the Internet in general, and there are only so many times that you can claim to simply be picking low-hanging fruit before someone points out that you haven’t even brought a ladder to the orchard. You’re not even trying. You don’t even want to try. I stated earlier on that Steam ended up this way because of bad decision making down the years, and this is what I meant; there has never been a sense that Valve wants to tackle this problem. Rather, they’ve given the impression that they hope they can fix it with some clever engineering tweak, some genius little bit of code that’ll somehow balance the need for community feedback to expose good games against the need to stop harassers and trolls from treating the platform as a 24 hour public toilet.
That’s not how community moderation works. It’s a fundamental, obtuse misunderstanding of how any sort of system designed to manage, build and support a community works – from statecraft right on down to housemate meetings to discuss unwashed dishes. You need people; you need actual people doing actual moderation jobs, granted the training and the authority to step in and put the community back on the rails when it falls off. It’s hard, and it’s actually pretty expensive, and it takes a lot of care and attention – but it’s not impossible. Look at the progress Riot Games has made in turning around the community of League of Legends, which was formerly one of the most grossly toxic communities in gaming. It’s still by no means perfect, but Riot has shown that it cares, and that it’s willing to fight to improve things, and LoL is by far a better, more welcoming and more fun game for it. Some of that was achieved with tweaks to systems and protocols; but in the end, it takes a real, breathing, thinking human to counteract attempts by other humans to be unpleasant to one another, because if there’s one thing our species has demonstrated extraordinary affinity for over the centuries, it’s finding creative ways to skirt around rules in pursuit of being unpleasant to other people.
Riot’s done a good job of this because, I believe, Riot genuinely believes that it’s the right thing to do. Therein lies the rub; I don’t think Valve cares. It should care. It has a damn-near monopoly on PC game distribution through its storefront, and that gives it responsibilities – if it doesn’t like or want those responsibilities, that’s sad in and of itself, but I’m sure a quick dip in the swimming pools they’re filling with money from Steam might take the edge off the pain. It should also care, though, because there’s a hard limit on how much a business can grow if it permits abusive behaviour towards whole classes of customers or clients. Anyone making a game that tackles a tough subject, or aims at a non-traditional audience, or who is themselves a member of a minority group; well, they’d probably love to be on Steam, but they’re thinking twice about whether it’s a good move. That’s not conjecture – it’s something I hear almost every week from developers in that position, developers whose starry-eyed view of Steam from only a few years ago has been replaced with absolute trepidation or even outright rejection of the idea of exposing themselves to the storefront’s warped excuse for a “community”.
Today, that might just mean Steam is losing out on a few bucks here and there from creators and customers who have had enough of the toxic environment it permits; but markets diversify as they grow. Steam took over when retailers failed to serve customers with an appetite for PC games. What, then, will happen to Steam if new waves of customers – younger and more diverse – find that games and creators they like are treated abysmally by the service? Valve shouldn’t need a commercial incentive to fix this problem; they should fix it because it’s the right thing to do, because tacitly enabling and permitting abuse is really little better than engaging in harassment yourself. If that’s not enough, though, there absolutely is a commercial incentive too; Steam may be dominant, but it’s not the only option for either consumers or creators. There are far more sales to be lost from permitting abuse than from telling harassers they’re no longer welcome. Valve should give the latter a try.
Researchers at Oxford University think that virtual reality could soon be being used to treat psychological disorders such as paranoia.
In the British Journal of Psychiatry, which we get for the horoscope, the researchers explained who they stuck paranoid people into virtual social situations. Through interacting with the VR experience, subjects were able to safely experience situations that might otherwise have made them anxious. We would have thought that paranoid people would not even have put on the glasses, but apparently they did.
By the end of the day more than half of the 30 participants no longer suffered from severe paranoia. This positive impact carried through into real world situations, such as visiting a local shop.
Paranoia causes acute anxiety in social situations – after all they believe that everyone is out to get them. About two percent of the population suffer from paranoia which is sometimes connected to schizophrenia.
Treatment methods for anxiety often involve slowly introducing the source of anxiety in a way that allows the patient to learn that this event is safe rather than dangerous. The VR experiment, used a train ride and a lift scene taught subjects to relearn that they were really safe.
The VR simulation did not use very photo-realistic graphics, which raises another question about if realism is important to have a positive impact.