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.
With Amazon’s Fire TV device the first out the door, the second wave of microconsoles has just kicked off. Amazon’s device will be joined in reasonably short order by one from Google, with an app-capable update of the Apple TV device also likely in the works. Who else will join the party is unclear; Sony’s Vita TV, quietly soft-launched in Japan last year, remains a potentially fascinating contender if it had the right messaging and services behind it, but for now it’s out of the race. One thing seems certain, though; at least this time we’re actually going to have a party.
“Second wave”, you see, rather implies the existence of a first wave of microconsoles, but last time out the party was disappointing, to say the least. In fact, if you missed the first wave, don’t feel too bad; you’re in good company. Despite enthusiasm, Kickstarter dollars and lofty predictions, the first wave of microconsole devices tanked. Ouya, Gamestick and their ilk just turned out to be something few people actually wanted or needed. Somewhat dodgy controllers and weak selections of a sub-set of Android’s game library merely compounded the basic problem – they weren’t sufficiently cheap or appealing compared to the consoles reaching their end-of-life and armed with a vast back catalogue of excellent, cheap AAA software.
“The second wave microconsoles will enjoy all the advantages their predecessors did not. They’ll be backed by significant money, marketing and development effort, and will have a major presence at retail”
That was always the reality which deflated the most puffed-up “microconsoles will kill consoles” argument; the last wave of microconsoles sucked compared to consoles, not just for the core AAA gamer but for just about everyone else as well. Their hardware was poor, their controllers uncomfortable, their software libraries anaemic and their much-vaunted cost savings resulting from mobile game pricing rather than console game pricing tended to ignore the actual behaviour of non-core console gamers – who rarely buy day-one software and as a result get remarkably good value for money from their console gaming experiences. Comparing mobile game pricing or F2P models to $60 console games is a pretty dishonest exercise if you know perfectly well that most of the consumers you’re targeting wouldn’t dream of spending $60 on a console game, and never have to.
Why is the second wave of microconsoles going to be different? Three words: Amazon, Google, Apple. Perhaps Sony; perhaps even Samsung or Microsoft, if the wind blows the right direction for those firms (a Samsung microconsole, sold separately and also bundled into the firm’s TVs, as Sony will probably do with Vita TV in future Bravia televisions, would make particular sense). Every major player in the tech industry has a keen interest in controlling the channel through which media is consumed in the living room. Just as Sony and Microsoft originally entered the games business with a “trojan horse” strategy for controlling living rooms, Amazon and Google now recognise games as being a useful way to pursue the same objective. Thus, unlike the plucky but poorly conceived efforts of the small companies who launched the first wave of microconsoles, the second wave is backed by the most powerful tech giants in the world, whose titanic struggle with each other for control of the means of media distribution means their devices will have enormous backing.
To that end, Amazon has created its own game studios, focusing their efforts on the elusive mid-range between casual mobile games and core console games. Other microconsole vendors may take a different approach, creating schemes to appeal to third-party developers rather than building in-house studios (Apple, at least, is almost guaranteed to go down this path; Google could yet surprise us by pursuing in-house development for key exclusive titles). Either way, the investment in software will come. The second wave of microconsoles will not be “boxes that let you play phone games on your TV”; at least not entirely. Rather, they will enjoy dedicated software support from companies who understand that a hit exclusive game would be a powerful way to drive installed base and usage.
Moreover, this wave of microconsoles will enjoy significant retail support. Fire TV’s edge is obvious; Amazon is the world’s largest and most successful online retailer, and it will give Fire TV prime billing on its various sites. The power of being promoted strongly by Amazon is not to be underestimated. Kindle Fire devices may still be eclipsed by the astonishing strength of the iPad in the tablet market, but they’re effectively the only non-iPad devices in the running, in sales terms, largely because Amazon has thrown its weight as a retailer behind them. Apple, meanwhile, is no laggard at retail, operating a network of the world’s most profitable stores to sell its own goods, while Google, although the runt of the litter in this regard, has done a solid job of balancing direct sales of its Nexus handsets with carrier and retail sales, work which it could bring to bear effectively on a microconsole offering.
In short, the second wave microconsoles will enjoy all the advantages their predecessors did not. They’ll be backed by significant money, marketing and development effort, and will have a major presence at retail. Moreover, they’ll be “trojan horse” devices in more ways than one, since their primary purpose will be as media devices, streaming content from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix and so on, while also serving as solid gaming devices in their own right. Here, then, is the convergence that microconsole advocates (and the rather less credible advocates of Smart TV) have been predicting all along; a tiny box that will stream all your media off the network and also build in enough gaming capability to satisfy the mainstream of consumers. Between the microconsole under the TV and the phone in your pocket, that’s gaming all sewn up, they reckon; just as a smartphone camera is good enough for almost everyone, leaving digital SLRs and their ilk to the devoted hobbyist, the professional and the poseur, a microconsole and a smartphone will be more than enough gaming for almost everyone, leaving dedicated consoles and gaming PCs to a commercially irrelevant hardcore fringe.
There are, I think, two problems with that assessment. The first is the notion that the “hardcore fringe” who will use dedicated gaming hardware is small enough to be commercially irrelevant; I’ve pointed out before that the strong growth of a new casual gaming market does not have to come at the cost of growth in the core market, and may even support it by providing a new stream of interested consumers. This is not a zero-sum game, and will not be a zero-sum game until we reach a point where there are no more non-gaming consumers out there to introduce to our medium. Microconsoles might do very well and still cause not the slightest headache to PlayStation, Xbox or Steam.
The second problem with the assessment is a problem with the microconsoles themselves – a problem which the Fire TV suffers from very seriously, and which will likely be replicated by subsequent devices. The problem is control.
Games are an interactive experience. Having a box which can run graphically intensive games is only one side of the equation – it is, arguably, the less important side of the equation. The other side is the controller, the device through which the player interacts with the game world. The most powerful graphics hardware in the world would be meaningless without some enjoyable, comfortable, well-designed method of interaction for players; and out of the box, Fire TV doesn’t have that.
Sure, you can control games (some of them, anyway) with the default remote control, but that’s going to be a terrible experience. I’m reminded of terribly earnest people ten years ago trying to convince me that you could have fun controlling complex games on pre-smartphone phones, or on TV remote controls linked up to cable boxes; valiant efforts ultimately doomed not only by a non-existent business ecosystem but by a terrible, terrible user experience. Smartphones heralded a gaming revolution not just because of the App Store ecosystem, but because it turned out that a sensitive multi-touch screen isn’t a bad way of controlling quite a lot of games. It still doesn’t work for many types of game; a lot of traditional game genres are designed around control mechanisms that simply can’t be shoehorned onto a smartphone. By and large, though, developers have come to grips with the possibilities and limitations of the touchscreen as a controller, and are making some solid, fun experiences with it.
With Fire TV, and I expect with whatever offering Google and Apple end up making, the controller is an afterthought – both figuratively and literally. You have to buy it separately, which keeps down the cost of the basic box but makes it highly unlikely that the average purchaser will be able to have a good game experience on the device. The controller itself doesn’t look great, which doesn’t help much, but simply being bundled with the box would make a bold statement about Fire TV’s gaming ambitions. As it is, this is not a gaming device. It’s a device that can play games if you buy an add-on; the notion that a box is a “gaming device” just because its internal chips can process game software, even if it doesn’t have the external hardware required to adequately control the experience, is the kind of notion only held by people who don’t play or understand games.
This is the Achilles’ Heel of the second generation of microconsoles. They offer a great deal – the backing of the tech giants, potentially huge investment and enormous retail presence. They could, with the right wind in their sales, help to bring “sofa gaming” to the same immense, casual audience that presently enjoys “pocket gaming”. Yet the giant unsolved question remains; how will these games be controlled? A Fire TV owner, a potential casual gamer, who tries to play a game using his remote control and finds the experience frustrating and unpleasant won’t go off and buy a controller to make things better; he’ll shrug and return to the Hulu app, dismissing the Games panel of the device as being a pointless irrelevance.
The answer doesn’t have to be “bundle a joypad”. Perhaps it’ll be “tether to a smartphone”, a decision which would demand a whole new approach to interaction design (which would be rather exciting, actually). Perhaps a simple Wiimote style wand could double as a remote control and a great motion controller or pointer. Perhaps (though I acknowledge this as deeply unlikely) a motion sensor like a “Kinect Lite” could be the solution. Many compelling approaches exist which deserve to be tried out; but one thing is absolutely certain. While the second generation of microconsoles are going to do very well in sales terms, they will primarily be bought as media streaming boxes – and will never be an important games platform until the question of control gets a good answer.
“Grey Goo is remarkable not for what it has added to the RTS formula, but what it has stripped away,” PC Gamer wrote in its reveal of Grey Goo, a new real-time strategy game from the veterans at Petroglyph. Perhaps the same could be said of Grey Goo’s recently formed publisher Grey Box, which is seeking to strip away the more negative aspects of game publishing. Suits and creatives typically will bump heads because the two sides are looking at the creation of games from wildly different perspectives. But what if they actually had the same goals?
Ted Morris, executive producer at Petroglyph, felt an immediate kinship with the team at Grey Box. “As a small [studio] – small being 50, 60 people – we are always talking to publishers to see what deals we can put together. But with Grey Box, I think that we meshed better on a personal level with them as a company and as a group of people than we have ever meshed with another group,” he enthused to GamesIndustry International during GDC. “And we’ve worked with Sega and LucasArts – all the big guys – and certainly talked to everybody else, too – the EAs and everybody – and these guys – man, we just gelled with these guys so well.”
Morris said that Grey Box’s approach to publishing was noticeably different from the start. While other, larger publishers may immediately come up with marketing plans and sales targets, Grey Box found itself on the same page with Petroglyph: fun comes first.
“Every meeting that we have is always a sit down and then people open up financial books and they start talking about what the sales figures are going to be like, and when we sit down with [Grey Box], it’s like ‘how can we make a great game?’ We don’t even talk about money, we talk about ‘how good can we make this game?’ and ‘how successful will it be?’ You know, let the game drive the sales, don’t let the marketing drive the sales, don’t let the sales department drive the sales. It’s really about, if you make a great game, they will come,” Morris continued. “They spoke to that so often, so frequently that we thought, ‘man, these guys just want to help us focus on what’s really important.’”
One of the defining traits for publisher Grey Box is that they’re all gamers at heart, noted Josh Maida, executive producer for the publisher.
“I’m not going to pre-judge any of those other publishers – I mean, for all I know they love games as much as we do. And we do. We all love games. We all come from different areas. I lost a whole grade point in college to Street Fighter, and… we want to be fiscally mindful. You need to make money, but with the money we make, we want to make more games,” he remarked.
“So I think at the core of that is we’re not trying to take away from the industry. We want it to feed itself and go bigger. Quality over quantity is something that we’re mindful of. We also just want to make a good working relationship for our partners… everybody’s in here for fulfillment. The talent we work with, they could all be working in private industries for twice the amount they do, but they’re here because they love to make games, and so we want to be mindful of that. And when people die, they want to know they did great things and so we want to create those opportunities for people.”
Tony Medrano, creative director for Grey Box, criticized other publishers for being too quick to just follow another company’s successful formula.
“We’re not chasing a trend, we’re chasing something we believe in, we’re chasing something we like, and we’re not trying to shoehorn a formula or monetization model onto things that just don’t work because they’re popular,” he added. “I think from the get-go, it’s been all about how can we make the best game, and then everything else follows from that. I think a difference structurally [with other publishers] would be that we have a very lean and mean team. We’re not trying to build a skyscraper and have redundant folks. Everybody that’s here really cares, has some bags under their eyes from late nights… I think it is just that we look at all our partners as actual partners. We let them influence and make the product better, whether it’s the IP or the game.”
Speaking of monetization models, Maida commented that there’s no “secret agenda to Zyngafy RTS or anything.” Grey Goo is strictly being made for the PC, but the RTS genre easily lends itself to free-to-play. Upon the mere mention of free-to-play, however, you could almost feel the collective blood pressure in the room rising. It’s clearly not the type of experience that Petroglyph and Grey Box are aiming for.
For Petroglyph’s Morris, in particular, free-to-play hit a nerve. “I’m going to jump in here, sorry. I’m really annoyed!” he began. “There’s been such a gold rush for free-to-play right now that is driving publishers – I mean, there needs to be a good balance. There’s a great place for free-to-play – I play lots of free-to-play games – but it is driving developers like us to focus on money instead of making great game content. I’m not going to name any examples, but I’ve been disappointed with some of the free-to-play offerings because it’s not so much about making a great experience for the player anymore. It’s about ‘how can we squeeze them just a little bit more?’ or annoy them to the point where they just feel like they have to pay.”
Medrano added, “I get frustrated when I play free-to-play games, and if I purchase something, I feel dirty. I feel like ‘oh, I got cheated, I fell for the trap.’ Or even more modern games where they baby you through the whole thing. There’s no more of that, like, ‘this is tough, so that means if I get good at this, there’s reward – there’s something there.’”
Ultimately, while Petroglyph and Grey Box came together thanks to a shared love of the RTS genre, they feel there’s a real opportunity to bring back hardcore, intelligent games.
Andrew Zoboki, lead game designer at Petroglyph, chimed in, “It’s almost as if the industry has forgotten about the intelligent gamer. They feel like that everyone’s going to be shoehorned in there, and I would say even from a design perspective that a lot of design formulas for a lot of things, whether they be free-to-play or what the mainstream is going to, next-gen and such, that all those titles are kind of a little more cookie-cutter than they probably should be. They’ve tried to shoehorn gamers into a formula and say, ‘this is what a gamer is,’ rather than understanding that gamers are a very wide and diverse bunch of individuals, everyone from the sports jock to the highly intellectual, and they all have [different] tastes… there’s different games that will appeal to different demographics… if you make the games that players want to play, they will come.”
And that really is at the heart of it. Morris lamented how business creeps into the games creation equation far too often. “They’re trying to balance the game with Excel spreadsheets instead of sitting down and actually playing it and having focus tests and bringing people in and actually trying to iterate on the fun,” he remarked about other publishers.
For Grey Box at the moment, the focus is on making Grey Goo the best it can be, but the company does have plans for more IP. It’s all under wraps currently, however.
“We do have a roadmap, but it’s not based off of the calendar year. We do have another game in the works right now and we might announce that at E3. And we have a road map for this IP, as well,” Maida said. “Obviously we want to get it in the hands of players and fans to see what they respond to, but we’ve got capital investment in the IP with hopes to not only extend this lineage of RTS’s but possibly grow out that franchise and other genres as well.”
Grey Box plans to release Grey Goo later this year.
In April of 2011, GameStop acquired streaming tech firm Spawn Labs because cloud gaming was the future. Today, the retailer announced it had closed Spawn Labs because cloud gaming is still the future.
Speaking with GameSpot today, the retailer’s vice president of investor relations Matt Hodges said cloud gaming isn’t a good fit for today’s consumers.
“While cloud-based delivery of video games is innovative and potentially revolutionary, the gaming consumer has not yet demonstrated that it is ready to adopt this type of service to the level that a sustainable business can be created around it,” Hodges said.
For the time being, GameStop’s cloud gaming business will be focused on selling subscription cards for programs like PlayStation Now through its retail locations.
Beyond the closure, the specialty retailer also reported its fourth quarter and full-year financial results this morning. The launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 reinvigorated the console market, helping to drive sales and profits growth.
For the year ended February 1, total revenues were up nearly 2 percent to $9.04 billion. At the same time, the company returned to the black, turning the previous year’s $269.7 million net loss into a $354.2 million net profit. The company also underlined the growth of its digital and mobile business, which brought in more than $1 billion for the year.
The fourth quarter saw sales rise more than 3 percent to $3.68 billion, with net income slipping nearly 16 percent to $220.5 million. Those figures include goodwill and asset impairment charges of $28.7 million, “primarily due to the closure of Spawn Labs and store asset impairments.”
GameStop also released its first outlook for the current fiscal year and its first quarter. For the full year, the retailer is expecting total sales to be up 8 to 14 percent, with a net income between $398 million and $433 million. For the current quarter, it has projected year-over-year sales growth between 7 and 10 percent, with profits between $64 million and $70 million.
Microsoft is using this year’s Game Developers Conference as a platform to push ID@Xbox, with the company yesterday announcing dozens of titles headed for the console under the indie self-publishing program. Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison sat down with GI discuss the reasons behind the initiative and where the company hopes to take it in the future.
“A lot of the platform decisions we made in previous generations have really been around the fact we had a predominantly retail business model,” Harrison said. “You don’t want to be pressing millions of discs only to find they don’t work. Those are expensive investments that are difficult to retract from. But in a digital world, those constraints go away. In the previous generation, all console companies had walled gardens with pretty high walls. And now we’ve got gardens with small fences around them, or maybe a hedge. The barrier to entry has definitely come down, and that is a really positive trend for gamers, but also for creating an on-ramp for developers looking to get into our industry.”
Harrison acknowledged that a platform holder could run into problems by taking that approach too far, but suggested that the ID@Xbox program isn’t in any danger of that situation just yet.
“There’s always a balance to be had, but right now our push–and we’ll continue for the foreseeable future–is to democratize access to our platform,” Harrison said. “As you know, we have an intention that every retail Xbox One can become a dev kit, and we want to open up the platform to as many people as possible.”
The company has also set up some of the Xbox One’s core feature set specifically to address some of the potential problems of being overly open, Harrison said. Social features like user recommendations and trending offerings will help, but the Twitch streaming and ability to upload screens and gameplay to video are expected to really help games attract more attention from the wider community.
“We think those platform features will help the best games connect with the biggest audience, and the biggest audience can find the best games,” Harrison said. “It’s a virtuous cycle. We’re probably just scratching the surface of what’s possible with that, but I really like where it’s headed.”
Early results from Microsoft’s indie outreach are promising. Harrison said in the ID@Xbox program’s first four months, it has already attracted 250 developers, more indies than the Xbox 360 has drawn in its eight years on sale.
The trade-in service will accept games for popular consoles like the Sony PlayStation3 and Microsoft Xbox 360, and customers can in return buy anything at Walmart and Sam’s Club, both in stores and online, Wal-Mart said.
“Gaming continues to be an important business for us and we’re actively taking aim at the $2 billion pre-owned video game opportunity,” Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer for Walmart U.S., said in a statement.
The traded-in games will be refurbished and made available to buyers later this year.
Retailers such as Best Buy Co, Target Corp and GameStop Corp also offer trade-in programs for used video games.
Thanks to Silicon Valley, there’s no shortage of tech companies hosting meetings or conferences in the Bay Area, but when it comes specifically to the business of games, there are few conferences in San Francisco that can rival the annual Game Developers Conference. For most in the industry (or those looking to enter the industry) it’s one of the few must attend events each year. And you can bet the city of San Francisco is happy to host GDC, as the financial benefit to local businesses is substantial.
“GDC is the highlight of March for the San Francisco hospitality community – everyone knows when GDC is here judging from the packed bars, restaurants, and streets. I love that turning any given corner in or near the convention center, one will hear an international language spoken. Their current financial impact is estimated at over $46 million,” Leonie Patrick, senior director for Moscone Expansion Sales at the San Francisco Travel Association.
“Although San Francisco is fortunate to have several large conventions, the demographic of GDC is unique and high energy. GDC is a valued, annual group and we do our best to assist with their success every year. When they thrive, we thrive,” she continued.
While GDC used to take place in San Jose, the conference quite simply outgrew the city, and San Francisco became its new home, offering more convention space and hotel accommodations. The conference has been consistently growing along with the industry itself, and it’s definitely been a boon to San Francisco.
“GDC has been with us since 2005, with the exception of 2006. They have demonstrated tremendous growth. They started off with 10,000 people crammed into Moscone West, and they have more than doubled their attendance in 8 years,” Patrick said. “GDC has also had extreme room growth, starting at 1,900 on peak to almost quadrupling that number.”
While some locals have resented the impact that highly-paid tech sector employees have had on San Francisco’s cost of living, San Francisco Travel Association isn’t concerned that GDC will be affected by any of this sentiment. “We have no concerns about how the GDC attendees will be received by San Francisco. San Franciscans know that tourism is our number one industry and conventions are a different issue from residency issues. We welcome GDC happily each year,” Patrick added.
Indeed, tourism is a wonderful thing for the great city of San Francisco. From the sights and sounds to the places to eat, there’s plenty to enjoy for GDC attendees who might want to nip out of Moscone for some downtime as well.
“Many attendees have been here repeated times so they want more than the typical icons. They may want to explore the more offbeat neighborhoods like the Castro, Union & Fillmore Streets, eat a great meal in the Mission, or walk around Noe Valley. For the first and second timers, they should see the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, ride a cable car, go down Lombard Street, sit in a café in North Beach, walk along the Wharf, visit the Ferry Building, or window shop in the Haight,” Patrick recommended. “And I can’t forget about Golden Gate Park, or maybe see the Pacific Ocean if they have not before. And if they really have time visit one of the many neighboring cities. Sausalito, Tiburon, Monterey/Carmel, Lake Tahoe… the list goes on.”
And even if you don’t have a car, it’s thankfully not too difficult to get around San Francisco (unlike Los Angeles, for example).
“Luckily, San Francisco is a large city contained in a small footprint. It is an extremely easy city for walking. Despite its reputation for having many hills, which it does, take a walk along the waterfront in order to get you from the convention center to the Wharf – you will avoid them all,” Patrick noted. “We also have great public transportation that can take you to outlying areas of San Francisco as well as outlying cities very economically.”
While it’s a bit late now, her advice for future GDC attendees should definitely be heeded: “Use the hotels that the event staff at GDC recommends since they are all vetted and reviewed by the GDC staff. And try not to book your hotel too late since rates are likely to get higher closer to the event date.”
User acquisition is a big buzz word in the mobile games space nowadays. But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Acquiring users has gotten expensive, and it won’t matter how many you acquire if the churn is so high that they’re all leaving your game in a few days. That’s why player retention is so important and it’s how Yvolver, a new Dallas-based startup, hopes to make a difference.
CEO Steve Nix, former executive at id software and GameStop, believes that most developers should stop paying for user acquisition. It costs more than $3.00 per install to acquire customers and that’s only increasing.
“Lately the trend is that costs for paid user acquisition are increasingly prohibitive, especially for mid- and smaller-sized developers. There is a point where paid user acquisition doesn’t make good economic sense for some games anymore,” Nix told GamesIndustry International. “Hopefully developers are also going to acquire players organically through typical paths like word of mouth, social and online discovery or digital store search.
“The big difference that Yvolver brings to the table – we are much more concerned about the behaviors and value perceived by users already in the game. This makes any users acquired more likely to return to the game, more likely to make a first or second in-app purchase and much more likely to recommend the game to a friend. Every customer acquired, regardless of how they got there, will be that much more valuable to the developer. So to a large degree, we are not replacing acquisition services or methods, we are just making them much more cost effective or viable for the developer.”
Nix added that the problem for many developers is that they’ve become far too concerned with the acquisition part of the equation rather than focusing on engagement.
“Right now, many developers are focused on acquisition as the only tool in their toolbox outside of the gameplay mechanics and changes to their economies that they can directly control themselves. Gameplay mechanics may be difficult to iterate upon quickly or the developer may just not have the resources to make all of the changes that they would like. We know that these same developers are increasingly viewing their acquisition programs as dumping money into a giant leaky budget. Yvolver helps plug the leaky money bucket that acquisition dollars are being poured into by encouraging retention, engagement and in-app spend for those users once acquired,” Nix continued.
“There are also a lot of great developers out there that are fantastic at creating a fun, gorgeously crafted games, but they do not have the resources to study user engagement and spending behaviors the way that the major studios can with their dedicated teams. That is all we focus on at Yvolver, so we are excited about improving the health of the business model for developers that may not have the capabilities that our laser-focused team of veteran data science and loyalty experts can quickly bring to their games.”
The crux of Yvolver is a loyalty rewards program. In fact, Yvolver teamed with Hal Brierley, who’s serving as a key investor and providing counsel on the design of its loyalty services. Brierley is an expert when it comes to loyalty rewards, having been a pioneer in the design of major loyalty programs, including American Airlines AAdvantage, Hilton HHonors and GameStop Power-Up Rewards.
So how does it work? Essentially, Yvolver users are able to build up a monthly Yvolver Score by completing events that are set by the developer in combination with making in-game purchases. Users can then convert their monthly score into prizes – both digital in-game items or power-ups and physical real-world rewards, like electronics, clothing or other goods. The score is persistent across games/apps and different platforms.
And while you might think that a program like this would be intrusive or take away from the experience for some players, Nix insists that it’s been designed in a way that won’t push away players – besides, that goes against the very thing the company was built for.
“The core premise of Yvolver is that we only have value for developers if we are creating value for the gamers playing their games. Most of the team here came out of game development and we have been critically focused on every detail of the user experience and making sure that we only add to the enjoyment of the game,” Nix said. “We should never be throwing confusing pop-ups out, blocking the user’s progression, making them think they have somehow left the game, or all of the distracting stuff that you see in a lot of the ad and offer platforms that are integrated into so many games now. We have worked closely with our game developer partners to make sure that we are respecting their game, and the response so far has been that we are firmly on the right path.”
The supporting cast around Nix and Brierley is strong as well, coming from companies like id, GameStop, Zynga, Apple and more. Former Apple App Store games manager Cory Lewis is a co-founder and is leading biz dev, former id lead programmer Jah Raphael is a co-founder and is serving as CTO, and Matt Himelfarb, a managing partner at Dallas Venture Partners is a co-founder and acting as CFO. You can read more about the entire team here.
On the business side of things, Yvolver believes its own interests run in parallel to the developers it’s looking to help. Much like a sales associate on a commission, Yvolver only benefits when the developer starts seeing sales.
“We work with our developer partners to build loyalty-driven events and programs that add value for their users and incentivize the behaviors that are most important to the developer. When users engage with the game in these desired ways, combined with that user’s in-app spend, they will receive an Yvolver score. The more the desired behaviors and in-app spend happen, the higher the user’s score will be. Our revenue is based directly on the Yvolver scores generated in an app in a month. The beauty of this model is that we only make money if the developer is making money through these in-app purchases. We are completely aligned with our development partners, which is important to us,” explained Nix.
Yvolver has been in private testing with a number of apps so far, but the company isn’t worried about signing tons of developers right away.
“We are not concerned about integrating with two-thousand apps the first year and game count is really a meaningless metric for us… Our data science and account teams are working continuously to become more creative and efficient in the programs that we develop with our partners, and that is how we really think about our progress. We believe gamers will quickly start seeking out titles that have integrated with Yvolver, and gamers will ultimately tell us if we are successful through their behaviors,” Nix said.
To kick things off, a beta version of the Yvolver service will launch exclusively with Zombie Gunship Zero from Limbic. The game will be available for download on March 13 and the beta service will follow in the “near future.”
Limbic CEO Arash Keshmirian commented, “Running a successful independent mobile games studio has become an increasingly complex challenge during the past two years. Market competition is at an all-time high, and marketing resources are becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. We couldn’t be more excited to partner with the Yvolver team to not only help engage and retain our current fan base, but to bring those fans real, added value within the Zombie Gunship Zero experience. It’s a win-win for us.”
It is, for the moment, just a conspiracy theory, and it goes something like this: Microsoft wants to get out of the games console business. It’s planning to package up the Xbox part of the Devices & Studios division and separate it off from the rest of the company, so it can be sold as a going concern. Who’s buying? Amazon, which views acquiring Xbox as a step towards dominance of the living room. If there’s anything to this theory at all, the coming year or two could see the end of Microsoft Xbox and a warm welcome for Amazon Xbox.
Let’s lay all the cards on the table. The evidence is sketchy and circumstantial. We know that Microsoft is looking at some pretty major strategic changes in the wake of the appointment of new CEO Satya Nadella. Nadella’s focus throughout his career has been on the business end of Microsoft – servers, cloud services and enterprise tools – which remains in robust health compared to the troubled state of the firm’s consumer divisions. Choosing him as CEO could suggest that the company is aiming for a future focused on enterprise tools and platforms, not consumer products.
Then there’s the man who wasn’t chosen as CEO, Stephen Elop. Elop used to work at Microsoft, then became CEO of Nokia. Now that Nokia is selling its mobile phone division to Microsoft, Elop is back where he started. Moreover, he saw himself as a strong candidate for the CEO job when Steve Ballmer resigned. With Nadella in the CEO’s chair, Elop’s consolation prize is that he’s taking over as head of Devices & Studios. That’s a logical choice, since Devices & Studios will include Nokia under its umbrella, at least to some extent, so Elop will continue running his old Nokia team alongside the Xbox and Surface teams at Microsoft.
Given that, it would perhaps be more surprising if Elop wasn’t put in charge of Devices & Studios. His presence ought to ease the transition as Nokia is absorbed into Microsoft, a major acquisition that’s likely to cause some indigestion along the way. However, during the CEO selection process, while Elop was still in the running, Bloomberg reported that he had some very interesting plans for the company if he was running it. The reported plans included, notably, a willingness to sell off business units Elop viewed as distractions from Microsoft’s main goals – business units including the Bing search engine and the Xbox. As logical as his new job at Devices & Studios may seem, you can’t blame people for raising an eyebrow when a man who supposedly wanted to sell off the Xbox division is put in charge of the Xbox division.
It takes two to tango, so how about the Amazon side of the deal? Well, whispers of Amazon’s keen interest in the games market have flown around for months now, including rumours that the company has discreetly hired a number of veterans from the games industry while keeping their involvement quiet – for now. Last month, Amazon bought games studio Double Helix, fresh from working closely with Microsoft to prepare Killer Instinct as a launch title for Xbox One. Something is afoot. Occam’s Razor suggests a “Kindle” console, an Ouya-style box under the TV linked to Amazon’s digital content platform, but given the plethora of Android consoles currently underwhelming the market and failing to gain a foothold, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Amazon would want to make a much bolder move into the console space. Plus, Amazon certainly isn’t scared of making big acquisitions when it wants to open up a new market opportunity for itself – it’s hard to conceive of a cash value for Xbox, not least given how obfuscated the financials of the console business are, but I don’t doubt that Amazon could afford it if it really wanted to.
That’s it – that’s the conspiracy theory. I don’t deny for a second that the evidence, if you can call it that, is pretty thin. Microsoft is probably going to refocus on enterprise; a guy who wanted to sell Xbox is the new boss of that division, but he’s also the most logical choice for the job. Amazon is setting itself up for a big move into the games space and may (or may not) have hired some senior games people on the down-low. That’s the sum total of the evidence, and we should all bear that in mind. Even this article exists not to promote this theory, which I view as interesting but unsupported by the available information, but rather to evaluate, hypothetically, whether there is any real possibility of an Xbox spin-off and sale. In short, there’s no real evidence that Microsoft is going to do this thing, but it’s an interesting academic exercise to evaluate whether they could do it if they wanted, and whether a motivation to do so might exist.
So how hard, in theory, would it be to spin off and sell Xbox? The answer to that depends on what exactly Microsoft is proposing to sell. Xbox, as mentioned earlier, is part of the Devices & Studios division, which also houses Surface and will shortly be joined by Nokia. Some other odd things are rolled into this division, apparently. It was claimed last year that the patents which force Android device makers to cough up a fee to Microsoft for every handset they sell are held, for financial purposes, in Devices & Studios, thus accounting for a big chunk of the division’s revenue.
If Microsoft’s new management had come to view Xbox as a distraction that doesn’t fit with their new enterprise focus, one might reasonably ask if they’ll take the same view of Surface. That product which hasn’t performed well and has reportedly soured relationships between Microsoft and other hardware vendors, who aren’t terribly happy with the company from whom they license the Windows operating system suddenly being in direct competition with them. The company wouldn’t be happy about losing the patents related to Android, not least since Windows and Windows Phone presumably use the technology described by those patents as well, so that probably wouldn’t be included in any sale, but aside from that it’s plausible that Microsoft could sell the entire Devices & Studios operation, thus putting itself out of the hardware business entirely.
Alternatively, Microsoft could decide to hold on to Surface and simply divest itself of Xbox and the various Microsoft Game Studios operations. Surface would then be joined by Nokia in the much-reduced Devices division (no more studios!), which would be entirely focused on tablets and smartphones without the “distraction” of games. Such a disentanglement wouldn’t be terribly difficult, either. Xbox is actually fairly well divorced from the rest of Microsoft’s operations. Its operating system shares a visual language with the “Metro” interface of Windows 8 and Windows Phone, while various game-related elements of Microsoft’s other operating systems have also been given the “Xbox” and “Live” monikers. Bing, of course, runs on the Xbox dashboard. By and large, though, the technology and services which drive Xbox are divorced from the rest of Microsoft – although it’s worth noting that the much-vaunted Cloud functionality of Xbox One relies in part on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud services platform. Any buyout of Xbox would include various contracts ensuring that any Microsoft technologies or services upon which the console relies would continue to be provided to the new owner, so this would not be a major stumbling block.
A bigger question might be, would Microsoft even want to do this? That really depends how seriously you take the idea of “distraction”. Xbox One has had its thunder stolen by PS4, but is still selling well – and Xbox 360 was a major success. In fact, it’s the only success Microsoft has ever had in the consumer hardware space. Xbox proved Microsoft’s ability to create a great consumer brand and sell hardware to people. It’s a real bright spot in a few tough years for the company – especially compared to everything else it has attempted in the consumer space, from Zune and Surface to its latest operating system, Windows 8.
Why would you get rid of that? Well, you probably wouldn’t – but let’s brainstorm a motive. You could argue that Xbox is a bright spot that doesn’t have any real relevance to the rest of the company. Microsoft in the early 2000s wanted to reinvent itself as a consumer-facing company, but with Xbox being the only success in a small sea of failures, Satya Nadella is likely to try to bring the firm back to focusing on the enterprise market. As the oil tanker slowly turns around to head into more corporate seas, Xbox will be more and more at odds with the culture and mission of the rest of the company. It will arguably be a distraction both internally, where it won’t fit with Microsoft’s culture, and externally, where it will detract from a brand message that promotes Microsoft as a serious, corporate, business-focused partner for enterprise (as distinct from the more consumer-led branding of rivals Apple and Google). Selling off Xbox would generate cash (not that Microsoft needs it), streamline the company and start the new CEO’s tenure with a dramatic gesture that sets out his vision more clearly than any speech or press release.
In short, Microsoft could do this and, if we assume that upper management take the notion of “distraction” seriously and are genuinely willing to abandon the firm’s ambitions in the consumer devices space, there’s a motive for doing it. How about Amazon’s side of the table? This deal would cost billions; would Amazon stand to gain enough to justify that kind of outlay? After all, aren’t consoles a dying space? Plenty of pundits seem to expect that PS4 and XB1 will be the last generation of consoles. Would a company as smart as Amazon get sucked into a market that’s about to collapse?
Amazon, like Microsoft a decade ago, has major ambitions in the consumer devices space. The company built itself on the back of selling physical goods but has neatly sidestepped the so-called “innovator’s dilemma” by being more than willing to disrupt its own business. The world’s biggest seller of physical books became the world’s biggest promoter of ebook readers. Music downloads, streaming video, cloud services; Amazon has taken an active and enthusiastic interest in every field that might disrupt its existing businesses, seeking not to shut down threats but to be the biggest player in whatever comes next. It supplemented the Kindle e-reader with Kindle tablet devices whose market performance is largely unknown, but is thought by analysts to be one of the only genuine competitors to the iPad’s sales dominance. Anyone who owns a Kindle device knows that they are designed from the ground up to be a great interface to accessing and buying content from Amazon’s ecosystem. That’s Amazon’s play; own the media ecosystem, building the devices themselves if that’s what it takes.
That ambition is a pretty solid fit for the console business. Moreover, it can’t have escaped Amazon’s notice that Steam, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live together make up a big area of digital content provision in which it has no involvement right now. Amazon will also be paying careful attention to the interest around set-top boxes (like AppleTV and Google’s TV efforts) and Smart TVs. Here there’s huge potential for consumers to be accessing media ecosystems directly from their TVs and connected devices – again, a game in which Amazon has no skin. For Amazon, the ideal would be that when you want to watch or play something on your TV, you do so through Kindle interface that links right into Amazon’s digital library, just like the Kindle tablets work. Of course, an Android microconsole would achieve that goal, but it wouldn’t be of much interest to gamers – at best, it would capture a fringe of the market who engage with Kindle tablets.
Is appealing to gamers important? This comes back to the question of whether consoles are really dying – and honestly, who knows better about that question than Amazon? Amazon is the largest retailer in many countries. Not only does it see how many consoles and console games are sold, it also sees loads of connected information which is hidden from even game publishers. It knows how high-spending gamers are in other areas – whether they’re likely to buy a lot of gadgets, a lot of books, a lot of movies or albums. It knows how much they engage with the brands they love, whether they cross-promote to friends resulting in more sales, whether they leave reviews and promote products on social media. Amazon can make an estimation of the actual value of the core gamer market more accurately than any other company.
What is that estimate looking like? I don’t know, of course, but Amazon’s actions in the coming months are going to tell us a lot about it. Regardless of whether the Xbox conspiracy theory pans out, Amazon is going to make some kind of game-related move relatively soon. It will be interesting to see how much importance and focus the company places on the games space at that time.
Until we see more evidence, though, it’s impossible to construct a fully credible argument which places the future of Xbox anywhere but Microsoft. There’s simply not enough information out there to support that kind of conclusion. That said, there is a possible motive to sell on the part of Microsoft, and a possible motive to buy for Amazon. If I had to pin my colours to a mast on this, I’d say Microsoft is probably discussing a sale with interested parties, including Amazon, but hasn’t made a final decision on whether to start sale proceedings as yet. I also wouldn’t read too much into that, given that it’s the responsibility of management to consider such possibilities as part of their duty to the shareholders. Then again, under Microsoft’s new management, perhaps such things are being considered rather more seriously than before.
In a keynote conversation with Entertainment Software Association boss Mike Gallagher at the Digital Entertainment World conference, Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore talked about industry lessons learned as the business transitions more to digital games.
For now, games remain a hybrid of physical and digital, and the quick sales of the new consoles are enabling the industry to coalesce around two great platforms that offer a tremendous competitive environment, which ultimately benefits the market. While he believes the console sector’s in great shape, Moore does see mobile gaming thriving, and digital revenues should surpass that of physical game sales in just two years, he said.
Looking back at the music industry’s transition to digital (which it still hasn’t recovered from), Moore said that the games industry must embrace “creative destruction” – there’s nothing an industry can do to stop a shift in consumer tastes and habits. The most important thing for EA – and much of the industry is headed this way with the digital transition – is that games are becoming live operations. That means they require a massive infrastructure with customer service and global billing. Moore noted that it’s a completely different industry now, with a global network running live ops, and gamers deserve their games to be always up and available, and it’s EA’s job to provide this access. Moore acknowledged that EA is still learning a lot about what that takes.
The online environment has been incredibly valuable to EA in building a direct customer relationship. Moore said that EA’s customers used to be the retailers, but now they’re the gamers. In fact, EA has tripled its customer facing support staff resources in the last five years. It’s changing how the publisher interacts with, and markets to, gamers. He eschews “marketing” and prefers “engaging”. Social media has become crucial to success, and Moore noted that on Twitter a gamer will get a response from EA within 30 minutes to resolve a problem.
On the marketing end, Moore said that EA’s TV spend is down 20 percent while the company has actually doubled its digital spend and engagement. Social media and community management are changing the rules. Don’t spend tens of millions on TV to see if it lifts sales, Moore said; instead game companies can more effectively use digital channels and focus on performance-based marketing.
“TV ads today are chum in the water. It attracts customers, then reel them in with digital media so you can engage instead of pushing a message out,” he remarked.
It’s pretty hard to figure out exactly where the new generation of consoles stand in terms of sales right now, but the general picture is clear. PS4, still supply constrained in many markets, leads Xbox One by at least a million consoles sold, possibly as much as two million – so the oft-cited ratio of 1.5:1 seems to be holding. Assuming little else changes, that ratio will tip even further in Sony’s favour in the coming weeks, with the PS4 finally launching in Japan, a market where it can expect to sell very strongly – although I wouldn’t expect to see the dominant 3DS removed from the top of the hardware charts for too many weeks. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s rather less successful console, the Wii U, continues to lose ground to both of the newcomers and will likely be surpassed in overall sales by Sony sometime this month (if it has not been so already) and by Microsoft within the next quarter.
It’s important to put this in some context – the Xbox One would look like a pretty successful console launch if it wasn’t stacked up against the PS4, but eyebrows would still be raised over the slackness in demand for what would be expected to be a fully supply constrained launch. Meanwhile, Wii U’s performance wouldn’t look great in any reality, but certainly wouldn’t be attracting the current degree of fainting and pearl-grasping were it not being compared to the extraordinary success of its own predecessor, the Wii.
“I’d argue that the real problem with these innovative pieces of kit isn’t that they’re inflating the price – the real problem is that they are, so far, utterly pointless”
The only console among them which resists any attempt at contextual negativity is the PS4, which is performing incredibly well. Hardly anyone has a bad word to say about the PS4, other than “I can’t find one to buy” – the hardware has turned out to be very solid; the online services (PS Plus in particular) are well-liked; and Sony’s approach of wooing key indie developers to the console for launch period has helped to stock the console with early adopter friendly titles which generate plenty of goodwill as the wider market waits for big AAA hits to filter through. Giving several of these games away on PS Plus, especially while new owners are in their freebie period, has also been a great move.
It’s hard to argue against a surface reading of this situation which says that Sony has executed superbly on its product while Microsoft and Nintendo have stumbled. Nintendo dropped the ball on Wii U software for its first year, arguably at least, and made a mess of marketing its new console – just as it initially did with the 3DS, which makes me wonder exactly what compromising pictures of Iwata the firm’s amazingly still-not-fired marketing bosses are keeping in a concrete bunker somewhere. Microsoft lost the trust and goodwill of a huge swathe of the early adopter audience, especially outside the USA, when it announced the Xbox One as a TV-watching box, compounded its error with a horribly anti-consumer policy on used software, then changed its mind on the latter (a good thing, but much damage was already done) and botched the execution of the former. Now it’s got a mountain to climb to restore goodwill, a console that’s $100 more expensive than its well-liked rival and a fresh salvo of unflattering technical comparisons between the systems emerging each week – a tough position, to say the least.
I think that beyond that surface reading, there’s something more fundamental at work – a level on which both Nintendo and Microsoft made the same mistake. Sony’s PS4 isn’t just superbly executed, it’s also conservative. It’s a powerful console with great engineering behind it, a great OS and network services, and a superb messaging strategy in which Mark Cerny and Shuhei Yoshida, who are actually at the coalface of developing the system and its software, have been allowed to take very public roles and to speak openly and honestly. That’s all fantastic, but PS4 is also very clearly an evolution of what came before. In architectural terms it’s vastly different from PS3, of course, but from a consumer standpoint – here’s a black box that you stick discs into and then play them with a Dual Shock pad. You can play with your friends online, and even buy games online, but arguably the only real departures from the traditional console model lie with the online services – PS Plus (which existed on PS3 as well, of course) and video streaming.
Xbox One and Wii U are less conservative, because both of them make some effort to change the interface and context of videogames. Xbox One includes a vastly updated and improved Kinect motion sensor, which shoulders the brunt of the blame for the console’s inflated price tag. The sensor, like its predecessor, is designed to map and understand the movement of human bodies around the room in front of it – unlike its predecessor, it actually appears to be capable of doing so very well. The Wii U, meanwhile, includes the GamePad, a touchscreen controller that lets you play games even while others are watching something else on TV, but more interestingly, also creates a second screen for gameplay and has potential uses in asymmetric multiplayer, wherein one player uses the screen to set up a game while others use Wii Remotes to tackle the challenges being created.
Both of these things are interesting. Both of these things, inevitably, inflate the price of the console to which they’re attached. Both Wii U and Xbox One could seriously do with being $100 cheaper than they are right now – such a price cut wouldn’t be the end of their woes, especially in the case of Wii U, but it would level the playing field and make everything much more interesting. Yet I’d argue that the real problem with these innovative pieces of kit isn’t that they’re inflating the price – the real problem is that they are, so far, utterly pointless. Not only have both Microsoft and Nintendo failed to create software that effectively capitalises on the potential of Kinect or the GamePad, both firms have also completely failed to explain the devices to consumers in a way that stands any hope of making them excited about such potential. The very fact that the first reaction of many consumers and commentators to weak sales from these consoles is “get rid of Kinect / the GamePad!” is a demonstration of just how badly communication, explanation and demonstration of these features has failed.
It could be, of course, that the features themselves just aren’t much good. I think the potential of the GamePad remains to be tapped, but have some sympathy with the argument that Kinect, even in its vastly upgraded Xbox One incarnation, is a solution for which no readily apparent problem can be found. Certainly its present function, as an utterly sub-par way of controlling the console’s menu functions and an occasional shoehorned annoyance in games, does little to explain why this expensive piece of hardware is a mandatory part of Xbox One – yet I know that there are plenty of enthusiastic and intelligent games people at Microsoft, and there must be a genuine belief that Kinect 2 can deliver unique and worthwhile experiences that won’t be possible on other consoles. The problem is that, just as with the thus-far largely meaningless GamePad, Microsoft has failed to demonstrate or articulate just what those experiences will be.
In short, I think consumers are confused about what exactly Nintendo and Microsoft want to sell them. Sony’s proposition is clear – it’s a much-upgraded and improved successor to the PS3, which was a much-upgraded and improved successor to the PS2, and so on. Nintendo and Microsoft make claim to be something more than that, then mumble incoherently when asked what exactly they mean, or what precisely they’re proposing to achieve.
It feels like both companies want to bottle some of the magic which fuelled the Wii to such great heights in the last generation, but they’ve forgotten that the real magic of the Wii wasn’t actually the Wiimote – it was Wii Sports. In one superbly crafted game, bundled free with the console in many territories, Nintendo explained exactly what the Wii was for. A few minutes with Wii Sports showed anyone and everyone what the Wiimote was designed to do and how it would change the game experience. Moreover, it set out a clear agenda for the console as a whole – a social machine, a family machine, an accessible machine. Wii Sports wasn’t just a game, it was a powerful demonstration, a mission statement and perhaps the greatest piece of marketing anyone in the games industry has ever crafted.
The Xbox One and the Wii U both have their Wiimote, but neither has their Wii Sports. One of Satoru Iwata’s big pledges in his mea culpa speech after Nintendo’s projections were downgraded was that the firm would double down on the GamePad, creating software and marketing that would explain the controller better to the public. If that means finding the Wii U’s Wii Sports, it will absolutely be a worthwhile effort – it doesn’t have to mean establishing the Wii U in the same market as the Wii, but making a clear mission statement for the console would definitely help. Microsoft, too, needs some of that focus. Right now, Kinect 2 is not differentiating Xbox One in the marketplace – it’s just hanging around the console’s neck like a deadweight. Unless Microsoft can find the software and the messaging required to make Kinect into a real system-seller, its mandatory inclusion may go down as one of the worst self-inflicted wounds of any console battle in history.
In a new Wedbush report that spans nearly 170 pages, providing a comprehensive overview of the past, present and future of the video game marketplace, the firm discusses why the next generation “will be as big as ever” and how the industry’s growth actually makes it more appealing to investors than other entertainment businesses.
While analyst Michael Pachter acknowledged that the current console transition is “one of the most difficult” for publishers, he ultimately sees the new consoles spurring big growth for the industry as software sales take off in the next several years. Combined U.S. and European software markets are forecast to grow at a 9 percent CAGR over the 2014 – 2016 period, totaling console software sales of $12 billion in 2014, growing to $14 billion in 2015 and to $15 billion in 2016. Handheld software sales (DS, 3DS and PS Vita) are expected to remain flat at approximately $1.6 billion per year over the three-year period.
The continued growth of the business is another reflection of a maturing industry and a maturing audience that’s growing older, earning more and spending more on games.
“Several demographic trends and market drivers should fuel rapid growth of interactive entertainment software sales. We believe the most compelling of these trends is the expanding age demographic of the interactive game consumer, accompanied by an increasing level of disposable income and the propensity to spend that income on entertainment,” noted Pachter.
Importantly, many of these people are choosing to spend on games above other entertainment, and that’s something investors should pay attention to. “We believe that the interactive entertainment industry offers secular dynamics that will provide extended and sustainable growth. We believe several publishers stand poised to capitalize on this growth, providing investors with an opportunity to participate,” Pachter said.
“Both Sony and Microsoft should deliver substantial profits from their gaming businesses over the next several years”
“Console, handheld and PC video games comprise a significant portion of overall entertainment industry sales, we believe comparing favorably with other mainstream entertainment products such as movies, books, and music. With comparable size and growth at a faster rate than these competing forms of entertainment, we expect the interactive entertainment software sector to present a compelling investment opportunity over the next three to five years.”
Wedbush believes interactive entertainment software sales will grow around four percent annually in the next three years, and the firm expects interactive entertainment to grow faster than other U.S. entertainment sectors over the next five years. Wedbush is modeling growth of just zero to two percent for other entertainment products sales over the same time period.
“Using our projected growth rates, we forecast that the U.S. interactive entertainment industry in 2016 will continue to be larger than books, box office and music… It is important to consider video game software purchases in the context of all entertainment spending. When books, music, movies and video games are added together, total U.S. spending on entertainment content totaled over $65 billion in 2013. The portion spent on video game software, at around 11 percent of the total, has the potential to grow at a faster rate than any of the other entertainment categories for many years to come,” Pachter explained.
For the current year, Wedbush expects PS4 to sell another 12 million units, Xbox One to sell 9 million, and Wii U to sell 3 million. More important than who “wins the console wars,” however, is which companies can maintain profitability. Pachter noted that Microsoft and Sony should do well on that front compared to a struggling Nintendo.
“Given its very slow console sales, Nintendo appears destined to see its console software sales and royalty stream markedly lower than in the last cycle, and we are skeptical that it will make a profit from its console business during the next generation,” he said. “At our projected sell-through rate, we expect both Sony and Microsoft to be very profitable in the next generation. Notwithstanding their relative projected market shares, we expect both companies’ console penetration to substantially exceed their penetration in the current generation console cycle, primarily due to market share gains from Nintendo.”
He continued, “If our estimates are close to the mark, both Sony and Microsoft will likely be profitable on each console sold, and their respective games divisions will at worst break even. More importantly, Sony and ￼￼Microsoft earn royalties on every game sold for their respective consoles; our forecast calls for 294 million cumulative PS4 software units and 227 million cumulative Xbox One software units sold by the end of 2016, with an average of $8 – 10 in profit for each unit booked by each company. Both their multiplayer networks and their royalty businesses will provide a recurring revenue stream at a very high dollar margin (the respective networks require a high level of capital and support spending, while the royalty businesses bear little cost), meaning that both Sony and Microsoft should deliver substantial profits from their gaming businesses over the next several years.”
There’s plenty more in the full report at the link above. It’s an interesting read if you have the time.
While many video game publishers are racing to embrace the mobile world – and seeing some significant earnings in the process – Take-Two Interactive Software CEO Strauss Zelnick is moving cautiously.
There’s certainly potential in the market, he concedes – but, so far, the hardware isn’t where it needs to be to be a proper showcase for the company’s games. And he’d rather wait than make compromises.
The experience Zelnick has in mind has already been showcased a few times. Older Grand Theft Auto games have been ported over – and last year, the company transferred XCOM: Enemy Unknown to the mobile world.
“As tablets become more powerful, I am of the view that they’ll be a wonderful gaming platform – but they’re not quite there yet”
XCOM was notable in that it wasn’t a drastically altered adaptation of the game, but rather a complete transfer of the PC and console experience to a mobile device. The game garnered great reviews and was able to command a premium price – and that’s what Zelnick wants to do with other titles in the company’s current catalog.
“We don’t differentiate between mobile and not mobile,” he says. “As long as we can distribute a game in a high-quality version – and as long as the consumer wants to interact – we’re happy to be there. … We’re not a platform company. We’re a content company.”
When it comes to newer platforms – specifically, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – Take-Two is pretty happy, though. While the company has only put out one game for the systems (NBA 2K14), sales were strong and Zelnick says he’s “thrilled with how the new consoles have sold so far”.
At present, Take-Two has more than 10 games in development for next generation systems – but it’s not saying much more than that. Evolve, WWE and the next NBA2K are announced, but otherwise, the company’s pipeline is a mystery.
That extends to its crown jewel as well. Despite plenty of speculation, Zelnick wouldn’t address whispers about a PC or next-gen version of Grand Theft Auto V. And he knows how much that agitates fans and investors.
What’s unlikely is that many – if any – of those games will make it to the Wii U. Zelnick has never been a vocal cheerleader for Nintendo, noting that the Kyoto-based company’s mission and Take-Two’s games don’t mesh well. But with the Wii U floundering in the market, there’s less incentive to consider the system.
“We haven’t talked about specific titles in development, but we’ve said our strategy is to meet consumers where they are,” he says. “If they’re buying hardware, we’ll be there with software. That said, we make these really big, AAA titles that work on some platforms, but not others.”
“Oculus Rift was a big smash and wonder at CES – and our folks were very impressed with it”
The hesitation to commit to the Wii U shouldn’t be misunderstood as a reluctance to branch into new areas. Zelnick notes that the Oculus Rift is a device the company is keeping a close eye on, even if it hasn’t made any formal announcements regarding software for the device.
While Zelnick hasn’t personally had a chance to test the hardware (something that’s not entirely surprising as he often describes himself as “a suit, not a gamer”), he’s encouraged by what he hears from Take-Two employees.
“Oculus Rift was a big smash and wonder at CES – and our folks were very impressed with it,” he says. “It remains to be seen what we can do with it, but [Oculus] has already addressed some of the big challenges (such as users getting motion sick) that it faced early on. … I’m encouraged by anything that gets people more engaged with interactive entertainment.”
While Rockstar Games’ Leslie Benzies, Dan Houser and Sam Houser will be celebrated later this month at the D.I.C.E. Summit, receiving inductions into the AIAS Hall of Fame, Take-Two suffered something of a staffing blow last month, when Rod Fergusson, who was heading up a new studio for 2K in the Bay Area, defected to Microsoft to run the Gears of War franchise.
While there has been speculation about the fate of the Bay Area studio in the wake of that departure, Zelnick says those fears are overblown.
“We think the world of Rod, but he chose to move on,” he says. “We have a big studio out there with terrific leadership. I was saddened to lose Rod, but they’re full steam ahead on their project.”
Gears of War will continue to turn, as Microsoft has acquired the sci-fi shooter franchise from Epic Games. Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer confirmed, saying the deal covers the intellectual property, all existing games and assets, and the rights to continue the franchise in the future.
As for who will make the Gears of War games with Epic out of the picture, that task has been entrusted to Microsoft’s Vancouver-based Black Tusk Studios, under the leadership of the studio’s general manager Hanno Lemke. Spencer called it “a big vote of confidence” for not just the studio but the Vancouver development scene. (Microsoft closed its nearby Victoria development studio last month.)
Future development on the franchise will be led by Rod Fergusson, who was a producer on the first three Gears of War titles. While Fergusson has a long history with Gears of War, his appointment at Black Tusk has to be considered surprising. Just four months ago, Take-Two announced that Fergusson was launching a new Bay Area studio to work on a new project for the publisher.
“It’s kind of nice he can tie the franchise, the culture, bring it all together, and really help with the talent we already have up at Black Tusk to get the franchise going with a new organization,” Spencer said.
Fergusson released a statement on his new appointment, saying, “I’m extremely excited to be joining Black Tusk Studios to oversee development on the Gears of War franchise. I’ve been privileged to work on a lot of great games with a lot of great teams, but Gears has had the most impact on me professionally and personally, so this really feels like a homecoming. I can’t wait to share more with you all soon.”
“[I]f you look at what we did with 343 and getting them up to speed for Halo 4, you can maybe anticipate some things that are similar to that.”
This isn’t the first time Microsoft has had to find a new studio to take over a blockbuster sci-fi shooter IP. In 2007, Bungie struck a deal to split off from the Xbox maker, leaving the Halo franchise in need of a new developer. Spencer said there were lessons to be learned from the successful transition of the Halo series to 343 Industries, and mentioned Lemke would be speaking with 343′s Bonnie Ross about her experiences.
“We’re not announcing anything right now, but I think if you look at what we did with 343 and getting them up to speed for Halo 4, you can maybe anticipate some things that are similar to that,” Spencer said. “But it does give me confidence knowing that we’ve done this once with 343.”
343 cut its teeth on the Halo franchise with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, an Xbox 360 remake of the original Xbox launch title Halo: Combat Evolved.
Whatever else changes with Gears of War, one thing that will likely stay the same is the technology powering the franchise. Spencer declined to say whether the deal requires Microsoft to use the Unreal Engine for future Gears games, but he did say the company was a big fan of the technology.
“We’ve used the Unreal Engine in our development of the Gears franchise and other franchises,” Spencer said. “Unreal is important for us. So I don’t see us moving away from Unreal. I have confidence in the Unreal Engine going forward, and it’s important to the franchise.”
Spencer also noted that a Black Tusk teaser trailer shown at E3 was built using Unreal. And even though that clip–a man rappelling down the side of a present-day skyscraper before swinging in an open window to clobber a gun-toting guard–looked decidedly unlike Gears of War, Spencer called it a concept piece, and not a project that is being shelved as a result of the IP acquisition.
“This obviously isn’t something that started yesterday in terms of our discussions with Epic,” Spencer said. “Hanno’s been involved for quite a while, so he’s known that this is something we could land. And the leadership team there obviously knew as they started to build their road map for what they would be focused on. I wouldn’t say things have been shelved. Obviously, this will become a big focus of the studio and something that will be critical to them driving forward. There’s not really something that was on the road map that all of a sudden goes away.”
When Microsoft opened Black Tusk in 2012, studio representatives said it was not working on an existing franchise, but instead was “looking to build the next Halo” from the ground up.
Financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed.
Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus, notes that – as a hardware manufacturer – his business has no say in what software companies will charge for Oculus-enhanced games, but admits he would not be surprised to see them come at a premium price.
“It’s going to be up to the developers,” he says. “There will be some who make casual, simpler experiences – maybe bite sized. There are going to be Indie developers that make bigger experiences. And there are going to be bigger teams that make really big experiences. … And some that we’ve seen early prototypes of… Well, we’ve seen some that, boy, would I pay a lot to get that experience in virtual reality.”
Aaron Davies, director of developer relations at Oculus, agrees.
“In VR, suddenly objects have value – and scale and size and depth and I think there will be opportunities for developers to monetize them,” he says.
Noticeably higher retail prices for software could be one of the few things to derail current gamer excitement about VR. Consumers are still smarting from the industry’s move from $50 to $60 in 2005 – and EA incurred player wrath last February by suggesting they might jump to $70 with the launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
“They’d better deliver if they’re going to charge more than $50 or $60 for a game”
Iribe noted that pricing in the game industry tends to swing. Prices spiked with the launch of the last generation consoles, then swung to the other end of the pendulum with the rise of mobile gaming. He sees the rise of virtual reality as not an extension of PC gaming, but something different – which opens the door for them to move back in the opposite direction.
“VR is a fundamentally different experience,” he says. “This is the next generation of computing in a very big way. … This is something that’s going to change so many things.”
However, he notes, raising prices also raises risk for developers.
“They’d better deliver if they’re going to charge more than $50 or $60 for a game,” he says.
Davies notes that the higher prices – if they come at all – may not be done in a clumsy fashion, such as hiking the initial retail price. Instead, he points to the free-to-play model, where microtransactions make it less painful to pay (and the customer may not realize they’re paying more until much later).
“The whole concept of charging a premium is somewhat outdated,” he says. “It’s not to say it’s going to be upfront. It could be this is going to be an experience you get dialed into. We’ll see how it monetizes. … If you create content or an experience that someone is passionate about, you’re creating a lifestyle for them. And they’ll pay for that.”
“If people are willing to spend a lot of money on VR games, it obviously means we’re doing something right,” says Iribe.
Davies and Iribe note that they’re speaking in hypotheticals. At present, the company still isn’t even willing to talk about the Rift as a commercially available product. It’s still in the R&D phase, says Iribe, who won’t even commit to a 2014 release for the product.
The Crystal Cove prototype (which won Best in Show at this year’s CES Awards) does give a few hints as to what we can expect when this thing finally does hit its release milestone, though.
The unit being shown at this year’s CES relied on a camera attached in front of the user to work. And Iribe said barring an unforeseen technological miracle, that’s not likely to change.
“While we’re not talking about the consumer unit, if it does [require the camera], we’ll bundle that in,” he says.
To date, Oculus has shipped more than 50,000 developer kits for the Rift, says Iribe. The company has gone from 7 employees a year ago to more than 70 today. The past year has also brought about several improvements to the unit.
The Crystal Cove prototype, as has been widely reported, offers positional tracking (thanks to that camera), giving users six degrees of visual freedom. And it has significantly reduced motion blur.
Latency has been improved as well. The developer kits in people’s hands have a latency of about 50-60 milliseconds. Crystal Cove got that down to between 30-40 milliseconds. The goal for launch, says Iribe, is 20 – with the hopes of further reducing that in later models.
“We’re not going to ship until we have a version that delivers a highly immersive, comfortable experience at a low price,” says Iribe. “I don’t mean just the foam padding and things like that. The experience of virtual reality has to be comfortable. VR has never been close to comfortable. We’re confident we will deliver a very comfortable experience for version one. It’s my belief that the age of 2D monitors has run its course.”