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Will Microsoft’s Cuts Impact Quantum Break?

July 22, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Neither Microsoft of developer Remedy is talking about the effect that the upcoming staff reductions at Microsoft might impact the already deep in development title know as Quantum Break.

Quantum Break is said to feature television segments that will be part of the main game with players unlocking new segments at the end of some gameplay segments. The live action television segments can we watched right away or they can be viewed later on mobile devices such as a smart phone or tablet.

The run here is that originally we assumed that these live action segments to be integrated with the game were being produced by Remedy, but word is now that this may not actually be the case and that the Microsoft Xbox Entertainment Studios division might actually be responsible for delivering this content.

So far, no one at Microsoft or Remedy will confirm what if any the impact of closing Xbox Entertainment Studios may have on the Quantum Break project if any. Sources we have spoken with seem to think that the recording of all of this live action segments is already done and finished. So there is nothing to worry about, but other think that it will be difficult to scrap Quantum Break this far into the development, but a redesign that does not use the television segments might be likely.

Courtesy-Fud

Is Free-To-Play Always The Best Bet?

July 18, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

To hear the likes of Electronic Arts and Gameloft tell it, premium apps are all but a relic of the past, the obsolete progenitor to mobile’s free-to-play future. But some smaller developers have found that future isn’t all it’s made out to be, and have been finding more success back on the premium side of the fence.

Kitfox Games and Double Stallion, two Montreal studios from Jason Della Rocca’s Execution Labs incubator, launched Shattered Planet and Big Action Mega Fight, respectively, on mobile in the last year. However, both titles struggled to rake in revenue, and the studios have since released more successful premium versions of the two. Kitfox’s Tanya X. Short and Double Stallion’s Nicolas Barrière-Kucharski spoke with GamesIndustry International this week to discuss their forays into free-to-play, and why more traditional business models worked better for them.

In Double Stallion’s case, part of the problem was that Big Action Mega Fight proved an awkward fit for the free-to-play format.

“We picked a genre, fighting, that was very content-driven,” Barrière-Kucharski said. “It was really very arduous to keep up and engage the audience with new levels, new enemies, and new types of content. We couldn’t compete at our size and budget with other, more established free-to-play studios and games.”

Beyond that, the genre may have been a poor fit for the audience. Barrière-Kucharski said that the people who would appreciate Big Action Mega Fight’s skill-based gameplay and faithful take on the beat-’em-up genre simply weren’t the same people interested in free-to-play games.

“I think the overlap between audiences was just too small to sustain a thriving community around the game,” Barrière-Kucharski said.

With Shattered Planet, Short said genre wasn’t a problem. She thinks the games-as-a-service model is actually a perfect fit for roguelikes like Shattered Planet, where a few new items and systems can exponentially increase the potential content for players to experience. However, Shattered Planet still didn’t fit the free-to-play mold for a few reasons.

“Free-to-play is not always suitable to single-player games,” Short said. “I think it’s best suited to multiplayer games in which it being free is actually of value to players because they can have more people to play with. That’s one philosophy we’ve developed, that if we ever do free-to-play again, we would only do it for multiplayer.”

On top of that, Shattered Planet was designed to be a tough game for players. But Short said in the free-to-play business model, difficulty can be “a dangerous thing.”

“We made a difficult game, and the fact that it was free made people suspicious, and rightfully so,” Short said. “I think they had every right to be a little bit paranoid about why the game was difficult. And in a business model where difficulty generally does often make people spend more, I think a designer’s hands are tied as to how and when a game can be difficult and when it’s ethical. So we felt a lot more comfortable about making a premium game, and me as the designer, I was happier because we could say sincerely that it’s exactly as difficult as we wanted it to be and you can’t say it was greedy or whatever.

Both games have found more success since they were released as premium versions. Big Action Mega Fight was re-launched last month as a $3 app ($2 during a first-week sale); those who downloaded the free-to-play version received the upgrade to the premium version as a free title update. Even though the free version of the game was downloaded about 400,000 times, Barrière-Kucharski said the revenues from Big Action Mega Fight’s first week as a paid app topped the total lifetime income from the free-to-play version since its November debut. To date the company has sold about 3,600 copies of Big Action Mega Fight on iOS, Android, Amazon Fire, and Ouya.

Kitfox took a different approach to premium the switch, continuing to run the free-to-play Shattered Planet mobile app alone, but also releasing a premium PC version on Steam with a $15 price tag and no monetization beyond that. The results were similarly positive, as Short said the studio made as much on Steam in one day as it had on mobile in two months. In its first week, Shattered Planet sold 2,500 copies on Steam. Short is happy to see the game bringing in more money, but she confessed to being a little bit torn on the trade-off it required.

“It really was great seeing that we had 300,000 downloads on mobile,” Short said. “We had 300,000 people play Shattered Planet on iOS and Android, and that’s amazing. Sure, it looks like we’re going to make two to five to 10 times more money on Steam, but it’s only going to be 1 percent of the amount of people that could see it if we tried to release it free, in theory… It’s a little bit sad that you monetize better with fewer people. When you’re trying to get your brand and your name out there, it is sad we couldn’t have another few hundred thousand people.”

Beyond the trade-off of settling for a smaller but more supportive audience, Kitfox has encountered some negative effects of releasing Shattered Planet as a free-to-play mobile title and then as a PC premium game.

“For us, a lot of people remained skeptical of the quality of the game if they knew the mobile version existed,” Short said. “I don’t think that really has that much to do with free-to-play and more to do with platform snobbery. It’s just kind of a general feeling of console and PC gamers that if a game was ever on mobile, it couldn’t possibly be as feature-rich or as deep, as strategic or anything like that.”

Nicolas Barrière-Kucharski

On top of that, there was some customer confusion over the game and its business model. Short said the game’s forums on Steam had some angry users saying they wouldn’t buy the game because it had in-app purchases (which it didn’t). Although the developers were able to post in the threads and clear things up, that sort of inconsistency has convinced them that if they ever do return to mobile platforms, they will stick to a free demo or companion app rather than something monetized.

“It’s just so dominated by giant players,” Short said of the mobile scene. “It’s such a completely different market that I think you really have to focus on it, and that’s not my team’s expertise. For us, we’re definitely going to be focus on PC and console; I think that’s where our talents are.”

Barrière-Kucharski agreed, saying that even if a niche audience is willing to pay for a certain experience, there just aren’t good ways for developers to connect to that audience.

“It’s really hard to be found or be discovered by players,” Barrière-Kucharski said. “I’m really looking forward to all the curation issues that are going to be tackled in the next year or so on iOS 8 and the Steam Greenlight update.”

But even if those initiatives follow through on their promises of improving discoverability, Barrière-Kucharski worries that the problem could still get worse as the gains made won’t be enough to offset the flood of new developers entering the field. Short also saw discoverability as a key problem facing developers right now, but stressed that finding a solution is in the best interests of the platform holders.

“Whatever platform figures out discoverability first will have a huge advantage because there are these thousands of developers that as soon as they hear there is any discoverability, that’s where they’re going to flood for sure,” Short said. “So it is almost a race at the moment between Steam and Apple and Google.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Are Japanese Gamer’s Disappearing?

July 15, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

There’s a popular narrative about Japan’s game development industry: it’s an industry in trouble, lagging behind the West and running out of ideas. If any Japanese developer wants to get themselves splashed into the headlines, all they need do is trot out a soundbite disparaging their own industry; in a world of click bait headlines, the fall of Japanese development is a sure-fire winner. The apparent decline of Japan’s game developers is linked to a secondary narrative as well, namely the decline of Japan’s internal market for videogames. Once the undisputed gaming capital of the world, Japan seems to be falling out of love with the pastime – at least on consoles, and at least according to some rather unusual readings of the data.

There’s a nugget of truth to both of these stories; just enough to make them worth considering, yet certainly not enough to prevent the majority of reporting and discussion on them from being a torrent of absolute nonsense. Japanese game development is somewhat troubled, but it’s troubled by exactly the same factors that are giving sleepless nights to Western game developers – skyrocketing AAA budgets, new business models, a diversification of platforms and the globalisation of the audience. Japanese development studios remain perfectly capable of making superb games that delight their fans; their problem, just as everywhere else, is figuring out how to make money from those games in a new world where profitability escapes everything but the million-selling megahit.

That links back to the second narrative; Japan is falling out of love with games. On the surface, it’s hard to see this alleged decline. The country’s arcades may not be what they once were, but they’re still far more numerous and spacious, not to mention well-attended, than any such establishments in the west. Dedicated videogame stores remain a fixture of shopping districts, while every large electronics store (and there are plenty of those, dominating most city centre areas) has a large videogames section – a stark contrast with, for example, central London, where actually going out and buying a videogame in a shop is an increasingly difficult task. Food courts and fast-food joints still play host to groups of children and teenagers engaged in the likes of Pokemon and Monster Hunter, and a trip outside in an urban area with a 3DS in your pocket will bag a full complement of Street Pass hits in no time flat.

Where’s the decline, then? Well, as figures released earlier this week by Japanese magazine publisher and industry data agency Enterbrain confirm, it’s not actually a decline so much as a stagnation. Enterbrain’s report, widely reported online after being translated in part by Kantan Games’ boss Serkan Toto on the company’s blog, showed that combined hardware and software sales in the first half of 2014 were almost exactly the same as the first half of 2013 – showing growth of just 0.1%. Toto’s entirely reasonable point was that this is much, much lower growth than Japan’s booming smartphone game market, yet this seems to have been picked up by many outlets as further confirmation of a Japanese gaming decline and specifically of a failure to ignite interest in the PS4.

Let’s be clear – the Japanese smartphone game market is in extraordinarily rude health. Revenues from mobile games, by some measures, surpassed packaged game revenue about three years ago and haven’t looked back since. For every person you see playing a 3DS or a Vita (the latter, I note, becoming vastly more commonplace on trains in recent months), you see dozens engrossed in mobile games. Puzzle & Dragons remains the clear favourite, but a trip on a busy Tokyo commuter line will turn up any number of different games gracing the ubiquitous smartphones. The industry’s revenues are clear to see, too; the vast majority of expensive marketing campaigns for games here are for mobile games, not console titles. Only last week I walked onto a train carriage on the phenomenally busy Yamanote loop line in central Tokyo to find that every advertising space in the carriage was full of Clash of Clans marketing; the huge billboard near my apartment, meanwhile, alternates fortnightly between ads for hopeful Puzzle & Dragons clones and ads for new singles by terrible boybands. There’s a huge amount of cash flowing through mobile games in Japan right now, and from a business perspective, that makes it a more interesting (if vastly more challenging) space than the console market.

Yet that doesn’t change the slowdown of Japan’s console market into a “decline” or a “crisis”. We all know that Japan has been ahead of the curve in terms of the adoption of videogames since the 1980s. 30 years down the line, is it surprising that it has hit a plateau? Gaming as a whole – including mobile, browser and online gaming – continues to grow at a massive rate, but in Japan at least, the console space has reached a point where there simply isn’t much new market to conquer. That may change in future as new devices open up new audiences, but console games as they stand don’t seem to have much further to go in Japan. That doesn’t make them a bad business. It means that if you want to make huge bucks and impress shareholders with your growth figures, you probably want to place your investments elsewhere – but if you want to make great games and make money selling them, a mature, stable market is no worse a place to do that than a growing one.

Moreover, when you consider the underlying factors in Japan’s economy, maintaining a steady market size is actually quite impressive. Japan’s population peaked in 2008 and has slowly declined since then; the most rapid decline being the proportion of young people (the most avid consumers of videogames). So this is a market with less “core” consumers of videogames than before; moreover, a series of ill-targeted reforms and a few decades of economic slump have meant that a very large proportion of those young people are trapped in low-paying work with no job security. Furthermore, Japan’s prices have been in slow but steady decline since the early 1990s. Yes, unlike most western economies, Japanese prices aren’t slowly rising due to inflation – rather, they’re falling due to deflation. This has supposedly been reversed in the past 12 months or so, with tiny inflation figures finally showing up, but most of the change so far has been down to a sharp rise in energy costs (a consequence of expensive imported fuels replacing Japan’s still-offline nuclear power plants) and it generally hasn’t been reflected in consumer goods.

One other economic factor has been mentioned by a handful of writers this week. They pointed out that Japan’s consumption tax went up from 5 per cent to 8 per cent in April, in the middle of this reporting period; if that 3 per cent hike were included in Enterbrain’s figures, it would mean industry revenues actually fell. However, to my knowledge Enterbrain’s numbers are based on pre-tax figures, much as US market data is, and thus the consumption tax rise isn’t a factor – except in that it would have been expected to push videogame sales down, thus making the rise slightly more impressive.

In short – Japan has less consumers for games and it’s charging less for things than it used to. Under those circumstances, a market which was performing precisely as well this year as it did last year would be expected to show a modest decline. Just staying still would mean you’d actually grown by a few percent in relative to offset the underlying audience decline and price deflation. Growing by 0.1% in Japan is comparable to growing by a couple of percent in the USA or much of Europe, where population is still generally growing and prices are being inflated, not deflated.

These factors don’t combine to mean that Japan is magically showing strong growth in defiance of the figures, but they are important to understanding what the figures mean. Japan’s “decline” is more like stagnation, and in the past year, even that stagnation has showed a positive trend. The market for consoles and games remains big and pretty healthy even as the market for smartphone games shoots through the roof; both of them clearly have an important place in the future of the country’s games industry.

As for the supposedly “disappointing” impact of the PlayStation 4? There’s no doubt that the performance of the console has slowed down significantly since a very strong launch, but it’s worth noting that sales of hardware were actually up nearly 7% year-on-year, with the PS4 and the resurgent Vita picking up slack from slower sales of the 3DS. PS4′s software line-up in Japan is still largely composed of western titles with limited appeal to the local audience, and the console probably won’t pick up significantly until more local software is available later this year – it’s notable that the PS Vita’s success in the first half of 2014 is largely attributable to the sudden arrival of software titles that match local tastes, and not (as some commentators would have it) to an upsurge of interest in PS4 Remote Play functionality. Overall, PS4 in Japan continues to perform as you’d expect for a new console with limited software – a great launch, followed by slow but steady sales while it awaits new software to spark purchases from new audiences. It’s done well, but it hasn’t “rescued” the Japanese market; but then again, if you take the time to understand the figures, it should be pretty clear that the Japanese market doesn’t actually need rescuing.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will The Xbox One’s Kinect Survive?

July 1, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Breaking up is hard to do, as the Carpenters famously crooned; right now, Microsoft is discovering, not for the first time this generation, that dumping your old ideas is just as tough as dumping your clingy ex. It may be the right thing to do, but it’s a fraught process and one that it’s tough to emerge from without attracting plenty of ire along the way.

Kinect 2.0 and Xbox One were, after all, meant to be married for life. The expensive sensor was bundled with the console from day one. Its functionality was deeply ingrained in the design of the system’s user interface, and a whole 10% of GPU resources were permanently devoted to it. Originally, Xbox One wasn’t even capable of booting up without a Kinect plugged in; it was an intrinsic and inseparable part of the console. In sickness and health, till death do they part.

Well, like so many relationships and marriages, it turned out that there were plenty of good reasons to break up long before the Grim Reaper raised a bony hand. Kinect has been at the root of many of Microsoft’s woes with Xbox One. It raised the price of the system, making the console $100 more expensive than the more technically impressive and well-liked PS4. It seemed to imply that Xbox One was a console aimed at casual gamers (with whom motion controls are now, fairly or unfairly, strongly associated) at the expense of the core gamers who made Xbox 360 successful. Moreover, in an age of actually rather justifiable paranoia about privacy, a camera in your living room that never turned off made plenty of people downright uncomfortable.

Worst of all, up to this point, Kinect just hasn’t justified its own existence. There aren’t any great games on the Xbox One that use Kinect extensively; there’s simply nothing there to make people think, “wow, this is something you couldn’t do on PS4 because it doesn’t have Kinect”. After 12 months of doggedly repeating the party line that Kinect was a great unique selling point for Xbox One, Microsoft’s decision to unbundle the peripheral from the console is a tacit admission that it wasn’t a selling point at all. Innovative hardware is meaningless if nobody builds must-have games to exploit the functionality.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that the decision to bring Kinect around the back of the woodshed and put a bullet in it was announced shortly after Phil Spencer took over Xbox. Spencer understands games in a way that his immediate predecessors did not; he would have an innate understanding of the fact that games sell consoles, and untapped potential in hardware is not exciting to consumers, it’s simply wasteful. An expensive peripheral that doesn’t drive great software isn’t a USP, it’s a ball and chain around the ankle of the console. It had to go.

It’s a little disingenuous, then, to see Spencer trying to claim that everything is fine in the land of Kinect. Speaking to GamesIndustry International at E3, he simultaneously acknowledged that Kinect was dragging the console down (noting that Kinect couldn’t succeed if Xbox One itself failed, which is a tacit admission that bundling Kinect with the console was risking a huge failure) while also claiming that plenty of consumers will buy the Kinect peripheral separately, and it’ll continue to be a big part of the Xbox One offering.

Not an unexpected claim, of course; but also patently not a true one. Kinect wasn’t supported strongly by developers even when it was bundled with every Xbox One. Now that it’s been dropped to the status of “expensive peripheral with no good games”, developer support will entirely dry up. Just like its predecessor on the Xbox 360, Xbox One Kinect is going to be relegated to lip-service support (“jump around to avoid enemy attacks, or just press B… Huh, you pressed B? Not up for jumping around? Surprising…”) and a handful of dancing or exercise titles. Not that there’s anything wrong with dancing or exercise titles, but you don’t get platform-defining tech from them; if you did, the world would have changed a hell of a lot more when Dance Dance Revolution mats came out for the PS1.

I don’t want to give Microsoft too much of a hard time for its decision with Kinect, not least because it’s the right decision. It gives them price parity with Sony and might help to fix some of the perception problems Xbox One faces. On the other hand, while Kinect was a failed USP – and thus deserved to be ditched – it was at least an attempt at a USP. With the right software and services backing it up, it could have given the Xbox One an offer different enough from Sony’s to be very interesting indeed – but building that software would have taken time, effort and attention. Spencer, with full visibility of the firm’s software pipeline, chose instead to amputate the limb and cauterise the wound. Painful, but mercifully quick; definitely a vote of no confidence in whatever Kinect software is still under development; possibly a move that will make Xbox One walk with a limp for the rest of its life.

What I hope the Xbox team recognises is that ditching Kinect isn’t enough – and hollow platitudes about how important the peripheral remains to the company’s strategy certainly aren’t enough either. What Xbox One needs is something to replace Kinect, a new USP; one that isn’t rubbish, this time. That USP could just be software, with Microsoft doubling down on its internal studios and building its relationships with third-parties to produce genuine exclusives (as opposed to timed-release DLC exclusives, which just look desperate and annoying no matter which platform is involved in them). It could be services, as the company attempts to leapfrog Sony and regain the lead Xbox Live once had over PSN’s services; what form that might take is tough to say, but there’s certainly still headway to be made in the provision of online services, and right now Microsoft lags behind, which makes this into an area brimming with opportunity. Most likely, a combination of both great games and great new services will be needed to make Xbox One attractive to consumers; to give it the USP that Kinect was supposed to be, but never was.

There’s an interesting comparison, of course, to be made with Nintendo’s difficulties with Wii U. I observed some time ago that both Microsoft and Nintendo had made the same basic error with their new consoles – they launched with expensive peripherals that boosted the cost of the console but had yet to show any dividends in terms of unique, must-have software. In Microsoft’s case, Kinect has now been ditched; losing the millstone, but with no sign yet of a new USP to replace it. Nintendo, however, has taken quite the opposite approach. Gamepad remains firmly bundled with the Wii U, and while software for the Gamepad still doesn’t impress, there’s obviously potential there; the short, cryptic videos of Miyamoto Shigeru working up gameplay demos using the pad which was shown at the end of Nintendo’s E3 broadcast was a statement of intent. Rather than ditching its white elephant, Nintendo is trying to figure out how to put it to work.

So, over the next year, we’re going to get to see how two diametrically opposed solutions to the same problem work out. Microsoft, making the latest of several U-turns, has gone back to square one and now needs to find a new selling point for the Xbox One. Nintendo has doubled down on the Gamepad, and needs to convince consumers of the worth of its innovation – not to mention the worth of the Wii U overall. Different challenges with similar requirements; they both need great games to prove their point. The consumer wins, in this situation, but it will be interesting to see which company, if either, can emerge victorious from these trials.

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Do Game Developers Want A Union?

June 27, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Support for a union among game developers has grown, according to survey results released today by the International Game Developers Association. The group today announced the result of its Developers Satisfaction Survey from earlier this year, which found that more than half of respondents were in favor of unionization.

Of the more than 2,200 developers surveyed, 56 percent said yes when asked if they would vote to form a national union of game developers in their own countries today. That’s up from the group’s 2009 Quality of Life Survey, where just 35 percent of more than 3,300 developers said they would vote in favor of unionizing at that time.

As for whether the IGDA was considering a move in that direction, the group’s executive director Kate Edwards dismissed the notion.

“For the IGDA, we will always be a professional association,” Edwards told GamesIndustry International. “That’s what we exist for, and what we’ll always be. But if we are seeing that developers feel unionization is what they perceive to be a solution, then that’s something we’re going to pay attention to and see where it goes for them.”

“When we asked people how many jobs they’d had in the last five years and the average number was four, that was pretty eye-opening for us.”

IGDA head Kate Edwards

The survey also yielded new findings on gender diversity. While the group determined that men still “dominate” the industry, it isn’t to the same degree as before. The IGDA found 22 percent of respondents identified as female, up from 11.5 percent in 2009. Additionally, the 2009 survey only included “male” and “female” designations; this year’s poll found 2 percent of respondents identifying as male-to-female transgender, male-to female transgender or “other.”

Edwards also found responses on the lack of job security in the industry notable, if not exactly surprising.

“When we asked people how many jobs they’d had in the last five years and the average number was four, that was pretty eye-opening for us,” Edwards said. “But I do think it basically confirms what a lot of us have sort of known and have been hearing anecdotally for a while now.”

The Developers Satisfaction Survey also polled people on their salary, and found that nearly half of developers earn less than $50,000 annually. That stands in stark contrast to the Gamasutra annual Game Developer Salary Survey, which found that last year the average developer made more than $84,000, with QA being the only discipline with a sub-$50,000 average salary (and even that was a little shy of $49,000). Edwards chalked the difference up to a high percentage of the IGDA survey respondents who identified themselves as independent developers, saying they were likely working in freelance or start-up capacities.

A little less than two-thirds of respondents (61 percent) said they planned to work in games indefinitely. Of those who saw themselves leaving at some point, the most frequently given reason (39 percent) was a desire for a better quality of life.

The IGDA will release a summary report of the survey next month, followed up by reports focusing on specific topics within the survey, like diversity, quality of life, and employment practices. The group has said it will use the findings to help identify what its members care about and prioritize its initiatives and advocacy efforts around those subjects. To keep up with members’ needs as they change, the IGDA is planning the Developer Satisfaction Survey as an annual exercise.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Did Mario Kart Save The Wii U?

June 23, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Uncategorized

The Wii U has struggled since its launch nearly two years ago, but the console is ready to pull a 3DS-like resurrection, Nintendo of America executive VP of sales and marketing Scott Moffitt stated.

The 3DS stumbled at launch, enduring sluggish sales until Nintendo instituted a drastic price cut on the hardware. While Moffitt noted the impact of the price cut, he said a pair of first-party releases was another key driver in reversing the handheld’s fortunes.

“We had the price cut in August [2011], and then we had Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land, which really drove sales that first holiday, and on 3DS we haven’t looked back,” Moffitt said. “So we’ve had momentum ever since that first holiday and we’ve got now 260 some games in the library and some of the best, most highest rated, most highest quality content we’ve ever had on that platform. Everything we launched seems to do above forecast and surprises us on the positive side.”

The situation with the Wii U is similar, Moffitt said, adding that the console is about to reach a very similar tipping point.

“As I look at what we have coming this holiday, now with Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, plus the innovation of Amiibo, I think we are right at that tipping point where we have a lot of great content that is about to be released for that platform that’s going to tempt gamers into buying the system,” Moffitt said. “From the comments I’m reading online, and following gamers’ comments, I think there are a lot of people that are going to have a hard time resisting buying a Wii U once Smash Bros comes out. I think that’s going to be a major hardware driver for us. So that’s the narrative we hope that plays out and that I think we are starting to see play out.”

One avenue that Nintendo won’t be pursuing to spike Wii U sales is an unbundling of the GamePad, Xbox One Kinect-style. Both companies pitched the peripherals as essential components of their visions, but when Xbox One sales lagged, Microsoft found the demands of potential customers more convincing than their original plans. While Moffitt said Nintendo is still working to create gameplay experiences that demonstrate the true benefits of the Wii U GamePad, he said removing it from the hardware bundle is not in consideration.

“We think GamePad is the only innovation that’s come in this new generation of consoles. So we have the only real point of difference. Certainly graphics are faster, graphics are better. This is not a real innovation for gamers. We are fully committed to leveraging the GamePad, to keeping it bundled with the system.”

As for the problem of third-party support for Wii U, Moffitt namechecked the continued efforts of partners like Sega, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and Activision. While some big companies who have dropped the system, Moffitt understood why that would have happened and acknowledged it was Nintendo’s problem to fix.

“It’s all about driving the install base and so that’s our work to do, right? We need to get to a critical mass where it makes financial sense for them,” he said.

Moffitt added that third-party games don’t all come from the big AAA publishers. He touted the company’s efforts in lowering the barriers to entry for indie developers looking to publish on Nintendo platforms.

“We talked to a lot of them before launching the Wii U and we addressed some of the issues that really were holding some of them back from developing realistic content on our platform,” Moffitt said. “At least for the indie community, we’ve become a lot easier to do business with and we’re seeing a steady flow of content now.”

However, those efforts were largely invisible at E3. Where Microsoft and Sony devoted sections of their booths to indie developers working on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 respectively, there was no such equivalent in Nintendo’s booth.

“With any show, you have choices to make,” Moffitt said. “Every time I go down to our booth floor and see how many people are waiting to play Super Smash Bros, when I look outside at the Best Buys… Last night we had four hours of game play on Super Smash Bros. and we had 1,000 people in line. We had to turn people away. So it’s a tough choice for us as a platform holder. We don’t have enough game stations down there on Smash Bros. We try to feature as much content as we can in the limited space that we have. Right now we just have a lot of demand for Super Smash Bros. We could have used 10 more game stations on that game alone. Choices have to be made.”

Finally, Moffitt weighed in on the VR trend. While Nintendo has a distant history in the field with the Virtual Boy headset, Moffitt suggested Nintendo was taking a wait-and-see approach toward returning to it

“What I’d say is it’s appealing technology,” Moffitt said. “It’s interesting. We’re going to follow it closely to see where it goes. It’s got a lot of advantages. It’s got one disadvantage relative to what we know is often very fun for gamers, which is playing games socially in a living room. This is a very single player solitary gaming experience. Not all of our games are fun to play with multiple people in a living room in front of a game console but it doesn’t lend itself to that kind of an experience as well as what Wii U does now. That would be a disadvantage of going in that direction. Could it be a nice addition to our hardware platform? Sure.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Sony Still On Track?

May 21, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; while I hesitate to apply Dickens’ immortal words to something as fleetingly temporal as Sony’s financial woes, it’s a quote I couldn’t quite shake as I digested this week’s results statement. Here is a company that has just launched one of its most important products in years, the PlayStation 4, to almost universal fanfare and massive sales; whose reputation has risen remarkably in its core markets and whose overseas sales are, finally, being buoyed once more by a sensibly-priced Yen. The best of times! And yet; here is a company whose computer entertainment division can’t turn a profit, a company posting huge losses against all expectations, a company whose already-interminable restructuring is set to last another year. The worst of times.

Sony lost over $1.2 billion last year. Revenues were up, though; over $75 billion poured through the company during the year, a 14.3% increase on the previous year. That’s important context for the scale of the loss, but it doesn’t make the loss itself any smaller. Market analysts expected a small profit. Instead, they got not only a loss overall, but a loss in the videogames division specifically, whose seemingly stellar performance recently could not plug the $78 million gap in its finances.

To add to the company’s woes, its new CFO – the commendably straight-talking Yoshida Kenichiro – says that next year will be another loss. There’s more restructuring ahead, he told analysts at a briefing this week, and it’s going to hit the company’s balance sheet hard in the next 12 months. Yoshida simultaneously promises light at the end of the tunnel, and a rocky road ahead; a travel-related mixed metaphor that probably doesn’t fill any veteran Sony-watchers with confidence.

It’s worth digging a little deeper into Sony’s results to try and understand what’s actually happening here. For all that it has trimmed its operations over the past decade, Sony remains a pretty enormous sprawl of a company, with interests that extend far beyond the consumer electronics for which western consumers recognise the firm. Sony Music and Sony Pictures, of course, are major parts of the business; Sony Computer Entertainment we all know and love; cameras and TVs we understand; but how about Sony’s life insurance businesses, or its banking efforts? How about its semiconductor operations, or its sidelines in making camera components for other firms’ smartphones? How about its fabrication plants for CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, responsible for a huge proportion of the discs on sale around the world today?

The challenge in interpreting Sony results lies in trying to understand the full scale of those business interests and then in trying to figure out where negative results really stem from. We know, for instance, that Sony is taking on major costs in winding down disc fabrication plants in some parts of the world. We know that the television division has been in trouble for years thanks to competition (some of it state-backed) from Asian rivals, and will finally be spun off and left to sink or swim in a major swathe of restructuring this year. That won’t be without its own costs, of course. Other costs or profits may be harder to discern. Clients for component businesses are generally somewhat anonymous; it’s considered an open secret that Sony provides the camera for recent iPhones, but few component contracts are quite so well-known, and thus, their bottom line impact is harder to discern.

What I’m saying is that Sony (and to an even greater extent, its rival Microsoft) is a bloody hard business to read and understand on the basis of financial reports. Companies like Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard really just do videogames, so when their results are poor, it’s easy to discern what’s going on. We know their products, we know their markets and we can usually quite easily discern the weaknesses causing difficulties (although seeing the difficulty and suggesting an effective prescription are two very different talents). Sony, however, is big, complex and obfuscated to no small degree. We get broad outlines; a big loss is a big loss; but the fine detail is hard to get a grasp upon.

None of which is to say we shouldn’t try. Sony is one of the most important companies in the games business; with the success of the PS4 over the past six months, it’s arguably the most important company in the business right now. Hence, yes, it’s a concern that it’s making big losses. It’s doubly concerning that some of those losses are coming out of the seemingly successful computer entertainment division, but we can make some educated guesses at what’s happening here. Firstly, the extremely high sales of the PS4 in its early months are actually a short-term negative to the company’s figures. Sony’s console business is a razor-and-razorblades model, selling hardware at a loss initially but recouping this money through software sales and, ultimately, through more profitable hardware sales down the line when manufacturing costs have fallen. Thus, the more units PS4 sold in its launch period, the more money Sony would lose – but this lost money is really more of an investment, since the firm is betting on getting it back in software sales down the line.

High early sales also contribute to losses in other ways. Sony’s launch plans for PS4 were hugely ambitious in terms of the number of units shipped to each territory; the company did end up somewhat supply-constrained, but it aimed to avoid such constraints where possible with enormous shipments and rapid resupply of inventory. This strategy may have been partially aimed at capitalising on Microsoft’s launch weakness before strategic changes could be made to the Xbox One’s product or pricing, but I’m sure that a wider goal was also in mind. Rapid sales of a new home console would silence some critics expecting tablets and smartphones to destroy this market sector entirely; such rapid sales would require a good supply chain, and those don’t come cheap. The exceptional ramp-up of Sony’s PS4 manufacturing capabilities won’t have been cheap, an expense compounded by the loss the firm will have registered on manufacturing every PS4 shipped to date.

In the short term, that means a loss for SCE; but CFO Yoshida seemed pretty blase about that, and rightly so. In the medium term, it’s a good investment. Sony has a great track record of strong attach rates for its consoles, meaning it will get its money back with interest. Moreover, it has a truly fantastic track record of cost-cutting on console manufacture, even managing to get the tricky Cell-based PS3 into a vastly smaller and cheaper casing in the end. The faster the installed base grows, the faster the bulk discounts to manufacturing costs can be realised; with PS4 selling far faster than PS3 or Xbox 360 did before it, Sony can expect its new console to be in the black well ahead of schedule.

As for the rest of the company; I reiterate my position that Kaz Hirai’s job is not an enviable one. It was said of John Riccitiello’s tenure at EA that he faced the task of trying to explain to shareholders why his company was in the fifth year of a three-year restructuring that was going to take seven years. Hirai’s task is even more tricky, in some regards. He’s only been in the top job for two years, so if his ambitious restructuring can truly be completed by next year (as Yoshida claims, with some authority) then it will actually have been a rather fast turnaround. However, Sony is already restructure-weary; seven years of turmoil under former CEO Howard Stringer left the company and its commentators skeptical of any claims regarding light at the end of the restructuring tunnel. Stringer did many good things and helped to move Sony’s culture to a point where Hirai’s ideas could find fertile soil, but he also permitted (or felt that he could not fight) all manner of poor strategy in core divisions, most notably television, where Sony has stumbled from disastrous strategy to doubly disastrous strategy on a near-annual basis for the past decade.

Hirai, at least, appears to have the confidence and the clout to make his plans work where Stringer’s did not. Separating the almost certainly doomed TV business from the rest of Sony is a good plan, but one that required extraordinary political capital within the firm. Having the respected Yoshida as CFO is also a good move, since it’s given Hirai the cover he needs to bring all of the financial pain of his restructuring plans into the current year and the following year. The temptation would have been to spread things out, but the markets seem to respect Hirai and Yoshida’s honesty in front-loading the costs, anticipating a return to profitability in two years’ time.

That, perhaps, is the big difference between Sony and Nintendo – two companies that have been compared heavily in discussion over their recent financial results. Both have some very profitable divisions (3DS does well for Nintendo, while movies and finance, in particular, are solid performers for Sony), but both have just recorded financial results well below expectations and triggered alarm among market commentators. Nintendo, though, can only suggest vague directions it might take to exit its current situation; it will take a major new product announcement to see whether the company can get back on track, and that’s not likely for a couple of years. Until then, Nintendo’s financial health is largely a matter of faith.

Sony, on the other hand, has a plan. It’s a tough plan, but a solid one; the divestment of loss-making businesses, the refocus on core pillars that actually make money, and more specifically to our industry, the tried-and-tested approach to bringing the PS4 into profitability as rapidly as possible. A CFO like Yoshida can speak plainly about how Sony is going to change, what it’s going to cost and when it’s going to start making money; Nintendo, relying on products still under wraps to give it a relevant future, lacks the ability to be so blunt and straightforward about how it will build future success.

Even the rather tolerant Japanese stock market and its very patient institutional investors have limits, and Sony could yet reach those limits. The company’s restructuring to date would try the patience of even someone playing a very long game; but Yoshida is a credible figure, Hirai seemingly retains the ability to carry out the reforms he plans, and the company’s generally profitable divisions, including games, are still in good shape. Even if another year of pain does loom for Sony, the end might finally be in sight; in 12 months time we can hope to hear of a leaner, tighter and more focused Sony, with black ink finally starting to crop up on its accounts.

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Philips Electronics Wants The Wii U Banned

May 19, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Philips is looking to get Nintendo’s Wii U games consoles banned in the US.

Philips has patents in its sights and it said that those patents belong to it and are being used without permission.

The firm has filed a complaint for patent infringement with the US District Court for the District of Delaware, and that has been published on Scribd.

The complaint accuses Nintendo of infringing two Philips patents, and Philips said that they are used in the Wii console and its peripherals. It is pushing for a US sales ban.

The patent numbers at issue end in 379 and 231. Philips claims that it alerted Nintendo to its infringing use of 379 as early as 2011. It registered patent 231 last year and the patent covers interactive device pointing, which is rather a key element of the Wii experience.

Philips is asking for a ban on Wii U sales in the US and monetary damages. The impact on Nintendo could be significant if a sales ban in put in place. So far we have not been able to get a response from the company.

The Philips complaint identifies a long list of infringing hardware. “The infringing interactive virtual modeling products of Nintendo include but are not limited to motion-controlled gaming consoles and motion-detecting devices such as the Wii video gaming systems and related software and accessories including, for example, the Wii console, Wii Remote Plus Controller, Wii Remote Controller, Wii Nunchuk Controller, Wii MotionPlus, Wii Balance Board, Wii U console, Wii U GamePad, and Wii Mini,” it says. “The infringement by Nintendo has been deliberate and willful.”

Philips has requested a jury trial.

Courtesy-TheInq

Are Free-To-Play Games Satisfying Gamers Needs?

May 15, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Fireproof Games’s Barry Meade has issued a blunt jeremiad to what he sees as a mobile gaming industry hurtling towards creative irrelevance due to its reliance on data.

In an article published on Polygon, Meade lamented the reality that Fireproof’s The Room franchise is an extremely rare exception in mobile gaming: standalone experiences that earn good revenue from paid downloads.

“In a market as huge as mobile how the fuck are Fireproof among the only makers of premium games that saw this kind of success?” Meade asked, citing data indicating low levels of engagement (66 per cent of mobile games are not played beyond the first 24 hours) and incredibly small numbers of paying customers (two to three per cent) as evidence that the dominant free-to-play model is not providing quality entertainment to the market

“This is a statistically insignificant amount of happy gamers and nothing that gives you a basis to make claims about ‘what people want’. I think it just as likely that mobile’s orgy of casual titles is due to simple bandwagon-ism or, in other words, not knowing what people want.

“This is a statistically insignificant amount of happy gamers and nothing that gives you a basis to make claims about ‘what people want’”

“So it bothers me to hear game developers talking as if casual games are the new paradigm on mobile when so very few developers are actually happy with the games as they are, and mobile gamers clearly seem to “care” least of all. Free-to-play and casual titles should be a part of a greater gaming ecosystem, but right now they are the entirety of it on mobile.”

For further evidence, Meade pointed towards the top-ten grossing charts, which are dominated by an unchanging crop of huge titles that do little more than trade their relative positions of dominance. To the public, however, these “ten cute grinding games that are clones of each other” seem like the best the industry has to offer, and continue to reap the vast majority of the rewards.

“The free-to-play model itself serves a million uses to developers and gamers, I’ve chucked lots of time and money into World of Tanks, Warhammer Quest and many others myself – the model is not the problem,” Meade continued.

“The problem is more general, that taken as a whole the games industry is making mobile games that nobody cares about available to millions of players for nothing. Free-to-play producers chime that quality levels are obviously fine, ‘If it’s making money it’s objectively good, see?’

“Well no, not quite, shit sells by the ton every day. In the real world Burger King doesn’t get three Michelin stars. Burger King gets to be happy with its revenue not its reviews, and our industry’s inability to see the difference will only pull us further into our creative vacuum.”

The dominance of the free-to-play model in mobile continues to be divisive, and there are certainly counterpoints to Meade’s take on the matter – most notably from Ben Cousins, who has argued the relative merits of free-to-play both at conferences and in the press. However, Meade is far from alone in his doubt, and that includes developers who have spent years working with the free-to-play model.

At Casual Connect Europe this year, The Workshop’s Laralyn McWilliams gave a talk in which she warned the industry about mistaking data for an emotional connection. “There’s no measuring spoon for love. You can’t quantify it,” she said. “Retention is not the same as happiness.”

Meeting with GamesIndustry International after her talk, McWilliams expressed very real concern that the amount of money being made is masking the negative connections created by free-to-play games, and the possible long-term damage that could result from that relationship.

“The moment that you monetise in Candy Crush you’re probably extremely frustrated. You want to get past this level you’ve failed to complete 40 or 50 times, and that’s the moment you spend. But mixed into that moment where you spend is that frustration. It’s building a bad connection. I’m not monetising at a positive moment.”

Meade concludes his argument with perhaps the most salient point of all: “The audience knows better than all of us and if our mobile public truly does signal ‘I care’ through purchasing, I don’t think its radical for the industry to start listening to the 98 per cent of mobile gamers out there saying ‘I don’t care’.”

The full version of the article is over on Polygon, and it’s well worth your time.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are AAA Games Budget A Threat To The Industry?

May 13, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

It became apparent many years ago that much of the games industry’s future growth was going to come from new markets; new platforms, new demographics and new business models. Right from the outset, that undeniable reality has been hanging over the industry’s formerly dominant companies like Edgar Allan Poe’s slowly descending pendulum blade. Most senior people in any business like this know, or at least think they know, how this part of the innovator’s dilemma works; it means that the companies most successful in the old paradigm hang on for too long, too afraid of damaging their doomed old businesses to really push forward with new ideas, eventually being rendered obsolete by new, hungry firms with no stake in the old order of things to hold them back.

Lots of commentators see that happening to Nintendo right now. The company that effectively invented the modern console is so tied to the old model (which served it superbly with the Wii and DS, and continues to serve well on the 3DS) that it can’t let go, and will be outpaced by innovative new companies with no console fiefdom to defend. I don’t entirely agree; Nintendo is certainly conservative, but I don’t think it’s bound so much by the innovator’s dilemma as by a sense of long-termism that makes it deeply suspicious of possibly faddish trends. That suspicion could sink the company, or keep it swimming for a very long time; anyone claiming to know for sure how this plays out is welcome to email me next week’s lottery numbers while they’re at it.

“For all the dextrous footwork in their business planning, both companies can equally put their success at present down to a much more straightforward factor: fantastic core games”

After all, it’s not so long since plenty of other games companies were posited as dinosaurs who were about to be rendered extinct by the impact of new business models and technologies. Certainly, a fair few publishers have foundered in recent years, largely crushed by the implosion of the sub-AAA console space, but this week saw a twist to the narrative for the industry’s two largest publishers. Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard announced their financial results in quick succession; both firms significantly exceeded market expectations. You wouldn’t call either set of figures amazing, but there were few holes to be picked; they were solid figures, reflecting good, sustainable and growing businesses.

Part of that is down to flexibility. The two firms have leapt over the industry’s long and tortuous transition period in very different ways. EA embarked upon a long-term restructuring program under former boss John Riccitiello, ensuring that it would have a strong presence in new mobile and social gaming markets while retaining its powerful core franchises. Activision, on the other hand, doubled down on core gaming before branching out into the social and mobile spaces from that stronghold. You could reasonably posit that Activision is now stronger in the core space, and EA stronger in the new markets, but the reality is that both companies have ended up in broadly the same place, albeit through different routes, and both look very different to how they looked five years ago.

All the same, for all the dextrous footwork in their business planning, both companies can equally put their success at present down to a much more straightforward factor: fantastic core games. EA’s revenue was driven strongly by Titanfall, and positive forecasts for the coming year are thought to be largely based on forthcoming updates to the Battlefield franchise. Activision’s strong financial backbone is Blizzard, which continues to generate mountains of money from World of Warcraft (slowly declining, but still bigger than any MMO in history) and Diablo. Call of Duty and Skylanders are its other cash cows; its big hope for next year is Destiny, the new title from Halo creators Bungie.

These core franchises are not immune from the lure of new business models, and nor should they be. Activision, for instance, has high hopes for free-to-play mechanisms in its new Blizzard title, Hearthstone, and its forthcoming version of Call of Duty for the Chinese market. Yet most of the money coming from these games and services is in the form of up-front purchases or subscriptions. The introduction of new business models hasn’t killed off the old ones, it seems; plenty of consumers still prefer the traditional way of doing things, and are happy to pour money into it. EA and Activision have both made errors of judgment regarding which business model best suits which product in the past, and will do so again in the future, no doubt, but both firms recognise that the new models are additional options, not straight-up replacements, for the old way of doing things.

In that regard, although it’s just a single quarter’s data points, the positive results for these two leading publishers (and the stock market rally which followed) are good news for the industry overall. It’s been my thesis for some time that the market for core games is not in any kind of decline at all, but merely seems thus because of a combination of rapid growth elsewhere (which overshadows the now slow-but-steady growth of the much more mature core sector) and the obfuscation of revenues due to the digital transition. I suggest that EA and Activision’s results are further confirmation of that hypothesis; at the very least, even if they’re far from being “proof”, they’re good news for those whose businesses or careers are still pinned to the core sector and its traditional (but evolving!) business models.

“If budgets do soar in this direction and consumers decide that this level of investment is what “AAA games” ought to be, then AAA games will contract to an even smaller subset of what they already are”

Which is not to say that there was no shadow cast by this week’s financial announcements. If you didn’t raise your eyebrows at Activision’s admission that Destiny’s development and launch is going to cost around $500 million, then you’re either a lot wealthier than most people, or a lot worse at processing very large numbers than most people. For all the talk and worry among core gamers and the developers who serve them about the rise of mobile, social and F2P, I can’t help but feel that the only real threat to AAA gaming right now is not external at all. It’s in this kind of madness, half-billion dollar gambles on single AAA titles, that the seeds of AAA’s own destruction may lie.

Sure, Destiny isn’t going to cost half a billion to develop; much of that money will go to the marketing budget and the expensive infrastructure required for the game, no doubt. Yet such specifics barely matter. Activision is making a half-billion-dollar punt on the game, and that in itself is inherently destructive. Imagine being a manager or creative at almost any level within such a project. Creative projects are inherently risky; nobody truly, honestly knows whether the public will love or hate (or worst of all, simply feel indifferent about) a new game, movie, song or book when it appears on the market. A $500 million creative project, therefore, must compensate for such inherent risk by trying to cut down risk in every other way possible; or to be more precise, everyone involved in such a project, aware of the enormous dollar-sign floating above, will reduce the risk of their own specific part of the project as much as possible, such that in the event of failure, nobody will blame them.

I’m not saying that Bungie, or any part of Activision itself, is necessarily pursuing such a strategy; merely that such a strategy naturally emerges from the awareness of such an enormous level of investment and the potential for such a damaging failure. People cover their own backsides; they do things that are solid and proven rather than things that are new and interesting, because new and interesting things are risky. It’s my firm hope and desire that Destiny ends up being a fantastic game, but I never really expected it to be a surprising game, and the $500 million price tag all but guarantees that I’m right about that. Surprises are risky. You can surprise people at low cost and hope for the best, but for $500 million, you don’t dare surprise anyone, least of all the fickle consumer.

I said previously that EA and Activision have ended up in the same place by walking different paths; I wonder, worriedly, if Destiny might be a part of the journey Activision has yet to complete, but which EA experienced rather painfully with the also hugely expensive Star Wars: The Old Republic. Once executives start talking about such huge amounts of money, seemingly oblivious to the inherent, essential riskiness of any new creative endeavour, it’s hard not to see shades of previous vainglorious failures. If budgets do soar in this direction and consumers decide that this level of investment is what “AAA games” ought to be, then AAA games will contract to an even smaller subset of what they already are. $500 million may be an impressive boast for Activision, but it’s not good news for the industry at large.

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Will Deep Silver Announce Two New Games During E3?

May 12, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Deep Silver says that they have two triple-AAA titles that they be announcing at E3. The company claims that they are both currently unannounced games.

Deep Silver has a pretty deep portfolio these days with Dead Island, Saints Row, Metro, as well as a couple of other franchises that they are now handling the distribution for.

What we already know that Metro” Redux is coming for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, so if the company announced both a new Saints Row and Dead Island game that would fill the two unannounced title slots that the company is talking about. Sources tell us a new Saints Row game is in development, but it is unknown if it will be ready to be announced at E3.

Courtesy-Fud

Will The PS4 Lead All Consoles In 2016?

May 8, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The IDC is preparing to publish its latest console forecast and the research firm has given GamesIndustry International an exclusive preview of the report. There are several key takeaways to note, including Sony’s dominance of the new console cycle, Microsoft’s need to unbundle Kinect, and a general decline in the physical retail side of the games business.

IDC predicts that Sony’s PlayStation 4 will have the single biggest share of the market in 2016 with 51 million sold globally. Microsoft hasn’t been faring quite as well, but IDC believes Xbox One will make a serious comeback, particularly in North America where it’s forecasted to take the lead. This will be spurred on by unbundling Kinect, IDC said.

“The presumed unbundling of Kinect and Xbox One, which should facilitate rough price parity between it and the PS4, should lead to a spike in Xbox One sales; assuming the console and sensor are unbundled in 2015, IDC expects Xbox One to recover and emerge with the largest installed base of any console in North America by the end of 2016,” the firm explained.

Meanwhile, Nintendo’s Wii U is expected to finally receive “the equivalent of a $50 price cut worldwide in late 2014 or early 2015,” but it won’t make a serious dent in the installed base gap between Wii U and the competition.

Looking at the bigger picture, the retail component of the video game business is expected to see continued declines, IDC said. IDC’s forecast states that, together, eighth generation consoles will generate about 10 percent less retail revenue from console hardware and disc-based games than seventh generation (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) consoles did combined through their first six years on the market.

That being said, total eighth generation console hardware revenue actually is projected to come in above the comparable seventh generation total thanks to higher average selling prices (ASPs). It’s a different story, however, for the physical disc business, which IDC forecasts will see 45 percent fewer discs sold to retailers in the first six years compared to the seventh generation physical games sales.

It’s clear that more and more games are being purchased digitally, and the good news is that digital sales will keep the industry healthy. “Given current trends, more than 50 percent of total game and direct app/service spending across all consoles will come through digital channels by 2019 (just over the edge of our forecast window),” said Lewis Ward, IDC research manager. “Microsoft and Sony will get there faster than Nintendo; the projection mixes all game/service spending on big 3 OEM platforms.”

In order for the industry to match the sales of the seventh generation, digital will have to continue to grow – and it appears that it will. “If digital games and related online console revenue streams are included in the picture… the outlook for eighth generation consoles improves substantially. The inclusion of digital console game spending, subscription revenue and other content/service/app purchases billed through online eighth generation console stores pushes total revenue up to within a few percent of the seventh gen total through the first six years of availability,” noted IDC. “Rising digital revenue is forecast to nearly offset the fall in disc-based revenue.”

IDC’s 73-page report, Worldwide Video Game and Entertainment Console Hardware and Packaged Software 2014-2018 Forecast, will be available this week.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will China Be The Next Battleground For Consoles?

May 7, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

When the Xbox One finally rolls out in Asian territories this September, almost a year after its western debut, all eyes will be on its performance in one key territory. Not Japan, where expectations for the console’s performance are about as close to absolute zero as you can imagine, but rather China; a late, and somewhat surprising, addition to Microsoft’s launch plans.

You’d think that China, the world’s most populous nation and second-largest economy, would be an obvious and attractive target for a console platform holder. Indeed, China is on track to be the world’s top economy within the coming years (perhaps even next year, according to recent projections in the Financial Times); corporations around the globe are eyeing the nation’s rapid growth and swelling middle class as a huge opportunity. Games on PC and mobile phones are already big business in China; why shouldn’t console platform holders take a piece of that pie?

Yet in September, when Microsoft introduces Xbox One to the Chinese market, it will be the first platform holder to attempt such a launch for many years. Neither Nintendo nor Sony has shown any indication that they intend to bring their present home console platforms to China, and despite the apparent potential of the market, you’d struggle to find any serious analyst who expects Xbox One’s performance there to be anything more than an interesting experiment. Chinese news site QQ reports that Microsoft is only planning to ship 100,000 units of the console in the region; Microsoft denies that rumour, but only does so in pointless newspeak. It’s “a figure which does not reflect Microsoft’s vision,” apparently, which translates into actual human language as “we can’t deny it, we just don’t want you to say it out loud”.

“Chinese gamers have mostly grown up without consoles and are used to mobiles and PCs as their gaming platforms, so the level of demand is questionable”

So what’s the problem with China? Why isn’t the world’s largest economy in waiting an open goal for console manufacturers? The problems are actually summed up quite well by the very circumstances which have allowed Microsoft to launch Xbox One in the market – namely the partial repeal of a rule dating back to 2000 which quite simply banned the sale of any foreign-made games console in China. Sony tried to flout the rule by marketing the PS2 as a more generalised home entertainment device, but even after trying to accommodate the thoroughly unimpressed Chinese authorities, found itself subject to a ban. Nintendo had a little more success, creating a joint venture called iQue which marketed a heavily modified N64 (the iQue Player) with a very limited range of software, but since since 2003 has focused solely on handheld consoles.

The recent expansion of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone has brought with it a change to this rule, along with many other liberalisations of trade within a specific zone around Shanghai. This has allowed Microsoft to establish a partnership with local firm BesTV – not just for Xbox One, but a more broad partnership aimed at extending Microsoft’s media interests into China.

Note two things about the above narrative. Firstly, for all its rapid growth and development as a marketplace, China was as recently as 2000 and beyond still establishing strict new rules prohibiting overseas countries from bringing consoles and games to the country. These rules were justified largely on cultural grounds; the authorities were apparently concerned that console games were bad for the development of children and would violate the cultural norms which the country’s censors wish to enforce. Concerns for childhood development, however, seemed not to apply to the country’s homegrown games industry, which has boomed in recent years. China now has a huge market for mobile and PC games, largely served by domestic companies, with only occasional success stories for western companies who manage to navigate the nation’s tough regulatory environment; Blizzard being the obvious example.

I don’t doubt that Chinese concern over the cultural aspects of games was real. The Chinese authorities believe strongly in the power of media and communication to impact upon their populace, and have a particularly deep-seated fear of external influences which might loosen their grasp on power within the country. Console games, a creative industry dominated by America and Japan – nations seen as rivals at best, as enemies at worst – would certainly appear suspect to those authorities, and a belief that games are bad for children’s development, albeit unsupported by research, does seem commonplace among Chinese parents. The justifications weren’t untrue, then; they were just very, very convenient, since they allowed the authorities to enact trade rules that very effectively protected a burgeoning local industry from international rivalry. This kind of protectionism is not unique to China, nor is it necessarily a bad thing, but the government’s willingness to wield this weapon in its economic battles around the media industries is a major concern for any new player in the marketplace.

This is far from being the only protectionist measure with which console manufacturers – Microsoft included – must contend. The second thing that’s notable about the narrative is that Microsoft is to launch the Xbox One in China not by itself, but in partnership with a local company, BesTV. This is not because of any particular desire to tap into local knowledge and experience, but rather because of legal requirement; doing business in China requires a local partner. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, a rare foreign success story in the market, is presently operated in China by local firm NetEase, and as mentioned, Nintendo’s foray into the market also takes the form of a joint venture.

This naturally reduces both the profitability of any operation in China, since the overseas parent company simply receives a royalty payment rather than the full profits of its operations, and also reduces control over Chinese operations in a potentially frustrating manner. Blizzard notably ran into major difficulties with the launch of World of Warcraft expansion packs in China, with the nation’s censors objecting to large swathes of content; the launch of Wrath of the Lich King in particular seems to have been delayed far, far longer than the company would have wished as a consequence of switching Chinese partners (from The9 to NetEase) during the negotiation process with the authorities.

“None of this is to say that console success in China is impossible; merely that it is very, very unlikely”

Such problems are, of course, surmountable, especially if the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is big enough. Certainly, there is some audience for consoles in China; grey imports from Hong Kong are openly sold in Chinese stores, albeit at pretty high prices which are only appealing to the most devoted of enthusiasts. However, Chinese gamers have mostly grown up without consoles and are used to mobiles and PCs as their gaming platforms, so the level of demand is questionable. Moreover, those platforms are where Chinese game developers publish their work, tailor-made for their own audience. Software in a market like this is chicken-and-egg; no console platform will succeed without software that appeals to the local audience, yet no local developer will work on a new platform without a decent installed base. Microsoft’s dollars could intervene to help, but that would require a very major financial commitment to a market in which success is a very, very slim possibility.

There is, of course, an appetite for content from overseas within China, which could help to drive uptake of consoles like the Xbox One. In this, however, the hand of China’s censors remains a serious issue. Although the Shanghai Free Trade Zone regulations finally permit the sale of consoles, they do not free platform holders and publishers from the onerous requirement of passing their software under the watchful eye of the censorious authorities before release. In the past, the changes to software demanded by those authorities have been very significant; even small graphical elements which are seen as running counter to traditional Chinese culture in some manner are forbidden in many cases (although they pass without mention in locally developed software), while any game with an overtly political message will simply never be released. You may not think that terribly many games have an overtly political message, but then again, you’re (presumably) not a member of any of China’s censorship authorities, who have a penchant for seeing threats to the nation’s civil order around every corner.

None of this is to say that console success in China is impossible; merely that it is very, very unlikely. I haven’t even mentioned the issue of piracy, which remains rampant in the country, and means that many game consumers have become accustomed to paying incredibly low prices for software, while games companies have largely switched to business models like subscriptions and F2P for their wares. This is just another problem sitting in Microsoft’s way; adding pricing and business model to a list which already contains major cultural, legal and censorship hurdles.

It’s easy to see, I think, why Microsoft is alone in taking advantage of the newly liberalised Shanghai Free Trade Zone; why Sony is holding back from further engagement with the nation (although it does a fine trade in Hong Kong) while Nintendo is keeping its engagement low-level through its existing iQue partnership. Both firms actually have major business interests in China; like Microsoft, they manufacture their consoles there. Yet neither is keen to throw good money after bad in the hostile and difficult Chinese market. No doubt, they will watch Microsoft’s experiment carefully – they would be foolish not to – but nobody should hold out serious hope for consoles in China. There are new markets to be tapped all around the world for videogames and consoles, but for all its growing wealth and success, China is about as far from being low-hanging fruit as you can imagine.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Virtual Reality Here To Stay?

April 30, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Last week, Virtuix announced a $3 million round of seed funding to complete its flagship product, the Omni virtual reality treadmill. While a far cry from Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, the Virtuix investment is yet another indication that investors believe in the potential of virtual reality.

Speaking with GamesIndustry International after the funding was announced, Virtuix CEO Jan Goetgeluk stopped short of crediting the Facebook deal with drumming up investor interest, but nevertheless called it an exciting endorsement for the entire VR field.

“Haptics are fairly complicated; it’s very difficult to make it work in a way that’s affordable for consumers and accessible for a mass market.”

“It certainly validated the message that we’ve been presenting to investors when fundraising, which is that VR is set to become a mass market new medium, with applications that stretch way beyond gaming,” Goetgeluk said. “Social activites, health care, fitness, you name it…VR is not set to stay a niche; it’s set to be a mainstream platform.”

Facebook isn’t the only company trying to turn VR into a mainstream platform. Last month’s Game Developers Conference was a coming out party for a number of VR headsets, including Sony’s Project Morpheus.

“I think investors now believe and see that given all these headsets coming to market, and given how compelling the experience is–not just for the headsets but the Omni–the bottom line is it’s an excellent experience, and it’s here to stay,” Goetgeluk said. “It’s not a fad. It’s not just a fun thing to try out. It’s an incredible experience and a new medium that will impact various aspects of our daily lives. And investors that tried the experience were convinced, and that’s why they invested.”

Even with the rush of companies looking to stake their claim in the VR field, the preponderance of activity seems to be in the headset market, with fewer companies looking to tackle the haptic part of the VR equation. Goetgeluk suggested two main reasons for that.

“One, the visual aspect of VR is certainly a crucial part,” he said. “If there’s no visual element of the VR system, then there’s no virtual reality at all. It’s also a problem that is easier to solve than haptics. Haptics are fairly complicated; it’s very difficult to make it work in a way that’s affordable for consumers and accessible for a mass market. The visual problem is an easier nut to crack, and certainly with immediate applications.”

Of course, the Omni only addresses one element of that haptic problem. But when asked if Virtuix had plans to tackle other elements to complete the illusion of VR for players, Goetgeluk said the company had more pressing concerns in simply getting Omni to market.

“That’s our focus right now; we don’t have the resources to do much beyond that at this point,” Goetgeluk said, adding, “The pressure is on to deliver a top quality product in a timely manner.”

The Omni is set for a release this summer, which poses a potential problem. Virtuix is creating a $500 VR peripheral that is largely reliant on the user having a VR headset as well, but the two biggest names in the field, Sony and Oculus, have yet to even announce commercial release windows for their VR headsets. The idea of being a product “ahead of its time” doesn’t really bother Goetgeluk.

“In tech, you’re either early or you’re late. So we’re certainly early, but that’s not necessarily a bad place to be,” he said.

Given Virtuix’s production capacities, showing up to the party early might not be the worst course of action. Virtuix has already sold 3,000 Omni treadmills, and new preorders placed through the company’s site aren’t estimated to ship until September. The company might not mind arriving a little earlier than the VR headsets, but it definitely needs them to arrive.

“We’re a VR product and if VR doesn’t take off, then we’ll stay a niche product, and that’s not the intention.”

“We’re a VR product and if VR doesn’t take off, then we’ll stay a niche product, and that’s not the intention,” Goetgeluk said. “I think VR is an incredible experience, the technology is here, and I think VR is here to stay this time.”

That’s not the only potential concern critics of the Omni may have. When asked about the difficulty for players to find room to keep a VR treadmill next to their PCs, Goetgeluk said he expects people to be surprised by the final production version of the Omni. The company has made a number of changes to the hardware from what they’ve been carting along to trade shows.

“That’s our prototype, which is made of wood and certainly looks a bit big and clunky,” Goetgeluk said. “The final product will be a tad smaller and certainly sleeker looking, smaller than a regular treadmill, and also easy to disassemble and store away. It’s not a small product, but I don’t think size is necessarily an issue.”

Additionally, Goetgeluk brushed aside concerns about developer support for the device. It acts as a plug-and-play substitute for a gamepad or keyboard, and developers who choose to actively support the Omni can access more advanced features, such as mapping travel speed in the game with the player’s speed on the Omni, or to decouple the walking direction from the looking direction. Virtuix is also creating its own demo, TRAVR, to showcase how the Omni could be integrated with traditional first-person shooter and horror games.

Finally, Virtuix needs to figure out how to get people to experience gaming with Omni first-hand. Appearances at trade shows have been a good first step and one Virtuix will continue pursuing, but the company is also considering placing Omni demos in certain retail stores or malls.

“We certainly want to make it as feasible as possible for people to try out, because it’s a device where when you try it, that’s when you realize its potential,” Goetgeluk said.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Should Shareholders Come Before Gamers?

April 23, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning has never played well with big corporations. In 2005, following a particularly vicious quarrel with Electronic Arts, his studio Oddworld Inhabitants seemed all but dead, taking the beloved franchise with it. Now it’s back, and barrelling towards a bright new future. At GDC earlier this year, Lanning was keen to explain to GamesIndustry International his new approach to the business – and why he trusts major publishers less than ever.

“I don’t want to be a slave to the big ships, and that’s what was happening with AAA, with publishing and with game devs,” he explained. “Every game dev that I know that’s still doing AAA retail products is trying to figure out a way to get out of it.

“Those deals are just getting worse and worse, even though your expectation of the money is getting higher and higher. Labour’s getting more expensive and the rewards are getting smaller. So that’s why we decided to stop playing for a while until we could start getting our games up digitally, see if we could build our own business. It’s working, it’s funding new content.”

The success of HD re-releases of Stranger’s Wrath and Munch’s Oddysee has provided the resources to create a full remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee, titled Abe’s Oddysee: New ‘N’ Tasty. Lanning hopes that the sales of this latest offering will, in turn, open up further new opportunities. Ultimately the goal is to get Oddworld Inhabitants to a place where it can create a new AAA IP totally independently.

“We’re spending cold cash on this, a couple of million. Not a public company partner. Ourselves. If we lose, we lose big. But if we can get it to that next level where we’re spending five or six million on content, we can do a new IP,” he said.

“It’s not money we’re sticking in our pockets, it’s money we’re leaving in the bank to fund new stuff”

It’s the sort of money he doesn’t think could be raised through crowd-funding – he’s dismissed suggestions that he should run an Oddworld Kickstarter. He’s determined to live up to the “AAA expectations” of Oddworld, and he’s confident that with a cycle of game releases followed by re-investment in the business, they’ll get the funds they need.

“I do think success in the product can raise that money. It’s not money we’re sticking in our pockets, it’s money we’re leaving in the bank to fund new stuff,” he explained. “It’d be nice to be getting paid again! [laughs] That hasn’t been happening for me. It’s all going into the product.”

For Lanning, going independent doesn’t mean going it alone. None of Oddworld Inhabitants’ progress so far would have been possible without their partnership with Just Add Water. The small, Yorkshire-based company has been responsible for the development of all three remakes, with Oddworld Inhabitants taking on a supervisory role and handling publishing. Now Lanning is working with a second studio, mobile developer Square One, who will be producing a port of Stranger’s Wrath to iOS and Android devices.

“What’s nice, working with other indie guys, is that they believe that quality is going to be their lifeline,” he said of his partner studios. “These guys are like, ‘if we’re going to succeed it’s because we build really superb quality products’.”

The indie community as a whole is something he’s keen to embrace. He spoke enthusiastically about cross-promotion plans with developers 17-BIT (Skulls Of The Shogun, Galak-Z: The Dimensional) and Switchblade Monkeys (Secret Ponchos), pointing to an almost union-like spirit of mutual co-operation and support among independent studios. The sort of interactions, he pointed out, that are impossible for studios hitched to major publishers. Among indies, he says, it’s not about competition.

“It’s funny, because people ask me, for New ‘N’ Tasty, ‘who do you see as your competition out there, what titles?’,” he said. “It’s interesting, because if you’d have asked me that for an Xbox release it would be a very specific answer and I’d be trying to convince you why we’re a better offer for your money. But we’re not looking at it that way anymore. We’re looking at it like if you like this type of game, and there’s another type of game like this, we want to be recommending it to you!”

Of course, Lanning’s glowing positivity about the indie community is always framed as a contrast with his misgivings about the past and current actions of major publishers. He pointed to Battlefield 4 as an example of how wrong he feels the developer-publisher relationship can go.

“Why did a title that was so incredible ship prematurely?” he asked. “Now I know, without talking to anyone, if you look at the quality of that title, and if you know how games are built, you know how much hard work went into that, you know how much love and pain and sleepless nights the developers put into it. And you know they were devastated when someone made the decision to release that project before it was ready. Because they’re smart enough not to do that.”

He speaks from personal experience too; the original release of Abe’s Oddysee was criticised for its buggy state, and Lanning places the blame firmly on now-defunct publisher GT Interactive.

“A gold master with all the bugs fixed was in Fed-Ex while someone else made the decision to release a buggy game, because they’re in the sales department and they thought ‘Hey that’s enough time, I don’t need to wait til tomorrow, it’s good enough’,” he recalled. “And then you get stung by the hardcore gamers asking ‘why did you f**k this game up?’. I know what a heartbreak that is.”

In his eyes, it’s the need to impress shareholders taking priority over the need to satisfy customers. “When shareholders are more important than the customers, how long is your business really going to last?” he asks.

Lanning points to the level of trust and transparency indie developers have with their audience, and the more direct relationship that creates. It’s already affecting the way Oddworld Inhabitants do business in a significant way – following the re-release of Munch’s Oddysee, the company polled their audience as to what title they’d like to see developed next. Abe’s Oddysee: New ‘N’ Tasty was the winner. “When creators can go directly to the audience it’s a much better existence,” said Lanning.

“Trust is the most endangered commodity, it’s the rarest commodity today,” he pointed out, referring to the lack of trust consumers have in large businesses. Indie developers, he believes, are in a unique position to gain that customer trust, but it takes a leap of faith. It means being honest even when you don’t know that things are going to go your way.

“You’ve got to answer their questions in a sincere way, even if it’s not what they want to hear. You have to say ‘you know what? You’re right, we f****d up like this or we f****d up like that, but this is where we’re at, this is why we’re doing it, this is what we’re trying to achieve,” he explains.

For Lanning, however, the benefits are absolutely worth the risk. It’s that direct relationship with the fans that has allowed Oddworld Inhabitants to revive itself in the way it has, and will allow it to continue moving forward. Without the resources behind them to do large-scale marketing, they’re relying on word-of-mouth to sell units.

As ever, Lanning is supremely confident, convinced that the fans will come through for him. So far, they have, with the two remakes to date generating impressive figures. Strikingly, Stranger’s Wrath HD has actually out-sold the original, perhaps finally vindicating Lanning’s claims that he was failed by publisher EA’s marketing department when it was first released. He’s enthusiastic about the future, talking excitedly about potential future projects, even mentioning in passing developing something for VR devices.

He’s also convinced he knows where the industry is headed.

“High-end AAA isn’t going away, but within 5 years, I think what we’re going to see is high-end AAAs competing against indies. The indies will be rising up,” he predicted. “More and more sales will be digital and the retailers are going to have a harder and harder time. Some more retail businesses will go out.

Courtesy-GI.biz