The number of games on Steam continues to rise at a daunting rate. According to new data from Steam Spy, the number of full games released on the store this year rose 40% over 2015.
Steam Spy founder Sergey Galyonkin published a chart on Twitter that indicated a total of 4207 games launched on Steam in 2016, up from 2964 last year. If accurate, that means 38% of all games on Steam were released within the last 12 months – a sobering thought for any developer trading on Valve’s market leading platform.
Of course, the notion that Steam is crowded with product is hardly new, but Steam Spy’s chart – republished above – clearly illustrates the pace at which the trend is playing out.
The only small consolation is that the 40% rise over last year is actually lower than the 67% increase in new games between 2014 and 2015. Galyonkin noted that the chart doesn’t include movies and non-game software, but it also filters out relevant content like DLC packs and “games without owner data.”
Valve is certainly cognisant of the issues that Steam’s teeming inventory has created for both developers and consumers. It has responded with two “Discovery Updates” that gave more control over the experience to both groups, the first in 2014 and the second little more than a month ago.
Following the second Discovery Update, GamesIndustry.biz talked to developers about the “huge impact” of the changes.
As the numbers from Black Friday and Thanksgiving weekend continue to trickle in, many analysts are examining how the holiday sales picture is coming together this year. While The NPD Group is not ready to give its full assessment just yet, the firm did note to GamesIndustry.biz that digital promotions on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live were much more aggressive this year and may have impacted the retail channel. Digital aside, the sector that seemed to struggle the most is virtual reality, according to SuperData, which said VR has been the “biggest loser.”
Thanks to “notably fewer units sold than expected due to a relatively fragmented title line-up and modest marketing effort,” VR headsets are now expected to sell even fewer than previously thought. SuperData’s revised forecast for 2016 calls for under 750k PlayStation VR units sold (their previous estimate was 2.6 million) with Google’s Daydream selling just 261k (down from 450k). Previous estimates for HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Gear VR remain unchanged at 450k, 355k and 2.3 million, respectively.
As you can see, expectations for PSVR have seen the most dramatic shift. Stephanie Llamas, director of research and insights at SuperData, explained to us, “PSVR had the best opportunity to benefit from the holidays but their supply inconsistencies and lack of marketing have put them behind their potential. They did not offer any first-party deals this weekend, restock bundles or market the device, pushing instead for the PS 4 Pro. They have also pointed out that VR looks even better on a Pro than a standard or slim PS 4, so the message to most gamers is: Get the Pro now, then the PSVR later. As a result, we won’t see them break 1M shipments until well into the new year.”
Llamas added that Sony may be deliberately limiting PSVR supply until it can do a better job with supporting the platform. “Had Sony pushed the PSVR the way they’ve been pushing their other new hardware, the demand would have certainly fulfilled a supply of over 2 million. However, given its quiet release it’s clear they’re being cautious before fully investing in the tech. Without the ‘killer app’ and the slow, steady release of AAA content, they will release less than 1 million devices until they have content they feel confident will bring in the praise they want. They can afford to take it slow since they have no competition for now, so their supply and sales will rise steadily into 2017 as opposed to riding the seasonal wave,” she said.
As for Oculus, Llamas believes they’ve taken a risk by possibly splitting their own user base. “The Rift’s Touch controllers are an opportunity for Oculus to penetrate, but not many headsets have moved, especially with their round-about deal where purchasers earned $100 Oculus credit rather than just getting $100 off. Oculus’s hardware release strategy has also slowed them down and split their user base, so developers are having to make some choices around whether they should develop for both Touch and non-Touch users. This means development has slowed and is becoming another barrier to growth,” she remarked.
Looking at the non-VR games market, Nintendo may actually prove to be the biggest winner, thanks to updates both to Pokémon GO and selling out of its NES mini. “On mobile we recorded a spike in earnings as players made the most of the Thanksgiving special for Pokémon GO. The game’s ability to stay in the forefront of people’s minds as we approach the release date for Super Mario Run may prove beneficial for Nintendo, which has yet to make a convincing claim on the $38 billion mobile games market,” said Joost van Dreunen.
Overall digital game sales this holiday are down 2% from 2015 so far, but the impact of digital has grown tremendously in just a few years. “In 2012 full game downloads accounted for only 6% of total unit sales around the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. For 2016E that number was four times higher at 24%,” van Dreunen said.
The other big contributor to the slow holiday start has been big discounting, according to Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter. “We saw greater discounting of high-profile new video games this Black Friday compared to last year. Last year’s top sellers, Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III , Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 4, and EA’s Star Wars Battlefront, saw sticky pricing on Black Friday, with the $60 price point remaining largely intact. While discounting of sports games happens each year, many other titles that maintain pricing on Black Friday were listed at discounts of 40% or more this weekend,” he observed.
“For example, Walmart had EA’s Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 at $27, and Microsoft’s Gears of War 4 and Take-Two’s Mafia III at $35. Walmart also had Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Legacy Edition, which includes Modern Warfare Remastered , for $57, a $23 discount. Discounting of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare began earlier in the week, with widespread discounts of roughly $20 for the different versions of the game. Hardware discounting for the PS4 and Xbox One was largely consistent with 2015, as $50 discounts were commonplace.”
Pachter also agreed that the “pace of the mix shift to digital full game downloads continues to be brisk,” but we probably won’t know whether digital sales fully made up for retail declines until we get the complete NPD report for 2016 sometime in January.
Last week, over three and a half years after its initial release, Digital Extremes’ free-to-play shooter Warframe broke its concurrent player record with expansion The War Within, hitting Steam’s top three on the weekend of release, recording a maximum of 68,530 players online at once and logging an incredible 1.2 million hours of playtime in a single day. Across PC and the more recent Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game, over 1 million of the 26 million players who have registered since the game’s 2013 launch had played by November’s halfway point, beating all previous monthly unique records with a fortnight to go.
Those are impressive numbers, especially for a game at a point in its lifecycle where it could certainly be forgiven for slowing down – and it’s no anomalous bump. Instead, a quick glance at SteamSpy’s graphs for the game show a steadily increasing number of players for the game, as well as a very healthy schedule of updates, patches and big content drops. Rather than leeching users to other games as it ages, Warframe is going from strength to strength.
Meridith Braun, VP Publishing at Digital Extremes, says that it’s been a tight compromise of strategies – resulting in a success which far exceeds the expectations of a game which was initially seen as something of a make or break exercise. Key to that, she says, has been a careful acquisition process, but not one which has come at the cost of long term curation and engagement of existing players.
“It’s definitely a balancing act between catering development to new players and veterans of the game,” Braun explains, “but after 3.5 years, the core of the game has grown so much that for new players there are literally hundreds of hours of missions, quests, customising and exploring game systems before they catch up to where veteran players are.
“Whilst many of our updates focus on adding new content and improving game systems that our veterans are most interested in, earlier this year we took a fresh look at the new player experience and released an update that refined some of the tutorials, updated the UI, tied quests together to help the lore flow better, and revamped the market for easier functionality. It was not our most played update, like The Second Dream or The War Within, but it served a long-tail purpose of making Warframe more inviting and easier to understand for new players. It helps them navigate to the really intricate depths of the game with the intent to retain them long-term.”
“We spend very little compared to other free-to-play games that focus a large amount of their budgets on acquisition”
Polishing the tip of the spear is a tried and tested acquisition technique, but it’s not usually a way of sidestepping the vast costs which many companies associate with gathering new players. Warframe’s marketing, though, was forged in a crucible of necessity, at a time when budgets were almost non-existent. As a result, the studio has learned to maximise the gain from channels which deliver users without draining revenue, although the financial success of the game has also enabled them to operate in areas previously well beyond their price range.
“We spend very little compared to other free-to-play games that focus a large amount of their budgets on acquisition,” says Braun. “Warframe was a passion project – the studio’s ‘Hail Mary’ pass, if you will. There was barely budget to buy an account server for the game, let alone to spend on marketing at the time. We turned to viral everything to get the word out: live streaming, social media, Reddit, forums, PR, knocking on partner’s doors for promotional opportunities. Once we launched in open beta and more players got a taste of the game, it was clear we had something unique on our hands. Since then our acquisition strategy has focused primarily on our update schedule and community involvement.
“We discovered early on that frequent significant updates – updates that added dramatic gameplay changes, enhancements and content, and transparency with our community, brought in droves of new players. Now that we have more wiggle room in our coffers, we work the usual acquisition channels – online CPA-focused advertising, social media, streaming, etc. – but nothing beats age old word-of-mouth between players telling their friends to join in on a game that only gets better and better over time.”
What’s perhaps even more unusual about the current high that Warframe finds itself riding upon is that it comes at a time when the AAA shooter market is crowded with a wide spread of very high quality competitors – many of which are under-performing at retail. The game’s peak numbers come at a point when there are brand new Battlefield and Call of Duty games at market, as well as extremely well reviewed releases like the Titanfall and Dishonored sequels.
“Warframe was a passion project – the studio’s ‘Hail Mary’ pass, if you will. There was barely budget to buy an account server for the game, let alone to spend on marketing at the time”
Braun very much sees free-to-play as playing a significant part in the difficulties which Warframe’s boxed rivals are experiencing.
“I think we’re seeing the F2P model disrupting the standard retail model for larger budget games,” she says. “The continued rise of AAA-quality, free-to-play games coming to market – and their ability to fill the long gaps between large IP releases – is taking a bite out of the big game market. Just this year it was great to see F2P titles like Paragon and Paladins launch to great fanfare and numbers, I’m sure they both had some effect on the big budget FPS games alongside Warframe.
“It’s hard to compete with free. Sure, we want people to eventually pay for the entertainment they’re receiving – but when you have the ability to try out a game for free for as long as you want, a game with equally great production value, and then decide if it’s a game that deserves your money, that’s pretty stiff competition. The larger games also aren’t built to be as agile and reactive to the market after they ship. Free games at their core are made to continually update and improve, offering incredible value and entertainment over a longer period of time.”
Blizzard probably has a few things to say about the notion that free-to-play games offer the best long-term player engagement and responsive improvement, and Braun freely admits that games like Overwatch share that strategy of player curation. Warframe, she says, also offers something else, though. Because it wasn’t a Blizzard game, born almost fully-fledged and slickly functional, early adopters have had the joy of watching it smooth out its rougher edges.
“When Warframe first launched it was a shell of the size of game it has become, and our players have stayed with our growth throughout its life-span. They enjoy taking the ride with us, being a part of the evolution, experiencing game development from the front seat. If you’re not thinking about long-term engagement and game service at the heart of your game design as a good part of the future of gaming, you may have yet to come to grips with the dwindling projections of one-and-done games.”
Whether it is the return of X-Files and Twin Peaks, or Shenmue and Pokémon, bringing back classic IP has become a safe way to secure headlines and generate copious amounts of hype.
Yet it’s not just brands that are tapping into our love for the familiar. Take this summer’s smash Netflix show Stranger Things, which plays homage to both ’80s Spielberg and classic horror. Or indeed the millions of dollars that the likes of Yooka-Laylee and Bloodstained have raised on Kickstarter – the former riffing on 1990s platformers like Banjo-Kazooie (and made by many of the same team members), with the latter acting as the spiritual successor to Castlevania (from former producer Koji Igarashi).
Ron Gilbert is another person looking to recreate those ’90s feelings. The adventure game maker behind the likes of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island is creating a new one called Thimbleweed Park, a point-and-click adventure with retro 8-bit visuals that raised $626,250 via Kickstarter.
“I think a lot of the nostalgia that is around right now comes from a desire to go back to a simpler time,” suggest Gilbert, speaking to Gamesindustry.biz shortly after appearing at Melbourne International Games Week in Australia.
“Back then games were a little bit simpler and seeping with charm. A lot of people that love the 8-bit games today might not have even been alive back then, but they still identify with that era because it was so interesting and charming.
“It is really one of the reasons we did Thimbleweed Park. We were looking at and asking why was Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion so appealing? What is it about modern adventure games, although they’re interesting and have great stories, that means they lack the charm those games from that era had? Can we recreate that old feeling today?”
Point-and-click adventure games are enjoying a small renaissance, thanks in part to the rise of indie developers – as indeed are platformers, Metroidvania games and a whole host of other genres long thought dead.
“I don’t know exactly why adventure games faded away,” Gilbert continues.
“I do feel that somewhere around the mid-90s, point-and-click adventures sort of ran off the rails. A lot of really – for want of a better word – stupid puzzles were being made. I think what happened was that people looked at this, and went: ‘Wait a minute, you’re asking me to do completely ridiculous and random things to get through these games.’ Some players just checked out at that point.
“You also had games like Doom that came along and were first person and were more action orientated, and those games attracted a very different audience into games. So I don’t know if adventure games necessarily fell, but they certainly didn’t grow with the rest of the industry. But now we are seeing this place where we are attracting a much broader audience, and a little bit of that is due to mobile games being so ubiquitous. There are just so many more people playing games these days, and with adventure games being very story and character focused, they are able to attract that broader audience.”
He continues: “You have games that have always been niche markets. Now, because of digital distribution and the way the democratization of development tools is working, niche markets can be viable markets.”
Gilbert is enjoying the current state of indie development and the ability to make decent games with relatively small teams. It speaks to his days making titles in the ’80s and ’90s. Maniac Mansion was made with three people, Monkey Island had five full time members of staff, which increased to seven for its sequel.
Thimbleweed Park is also being made by just a handful of creators, with input from the game’s plentiful Kickstarter supporters. But this desire to go back to those early days is not just about how the visuals looked or how small the teams were, Gilbert also wants to head back to a period when developers didn’t take themselves quite so seriously.
“When we were making games back then, it was all kind of new,” Gilbert remembers. “We didn’t have anything to go from, so it was a more innocent time. Games today, although I love modern adventure games like Firewatch or Kentucky Route Zero, they are very deep and thoughtful. They require a lot from me as a player, or the viewer, because there are very interesting, deep messages that I am gleaming from this stuff. And that’s largely just the advancement of the art form. The games of the ’80s and early ’90s, they were just more innocent, and simple and therefore more charming.
“Adventure games have certainly improved. Visually, games like Firewatch are much more advanced. But I think they’ve advanced in some ways and they’ve actually de-evolved in others. I think they’re more advanced because they are trying to tell more meaningful stories, stories that are truly about something interesting or important.
“But in other ways, they haven’t moved forward. Games like Kentucky Route Zero… although I enjoyed that game quite a bit, I sort of jokingly call it the ‘press A to continue game’, because I didn’t feel like I was making a lot of choices. I was just kind of pressing the A button to get to the next piece of dialogue, and it was greatly written dialogue and it was a captivating world, which made it ok. In Firewatch, you are spending a lot of time walking around and exploring this world, and it is a very fascinating world and a very beautiful place, so I was utterly enthralled with it, but there’s not actually a lot to do. The old school adventure games really required you to work. It was a case of: ‘here is a load of puzzles and here is a bunch of story, and you have to solve all these puzzles, which should lead to uncovering the next part of the mystery’. The classic adventure games were more sophisticated in that sense.”
Like Yooka-Laylee with Banjo-Kazooie and Bloodstained with Castlevania, Thimbleweed Park is a game that could easily have had the words ‘Maniac Mansion’ or ‘Monkey Island’ plastered on the artwork. Gilbert does hope his new IP can be successful enough to become a series, but he also, quite publicly, wants to revisit those classic franchises that made his name. Both Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island were created at LucasArts, so the rights to them currently reside in the vaults somewhere at Disney’s HQ.
Disney has largely moved on from video games, and Gilbert has asked the media giant on Twitter to let him buy back the rights to his old franchises. To no avail, so far.
We ended our conversation by asking Gilbert if he had considered returning to Kickstarter to raise the funds he might need to acquire those 1990s brands.
“Buying the rights back for those games… it’s not a matter of money, it is a matter of Disney being willing to sell them,” Gilbert concludes. “If Disney came to me and said: ‘Hey, we’ll sell you Monkey Island’. I will go get the money. No amount of crowd-funding is going to make this happen, it’s just a case of Disney agreeing to sell them.
“I’ve not managed to talk to anyone at Disney who is high enough up the ladder to make that decision. I fear that the people who would make that decision have no idea what Monkey Island is.”
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was the No.1 boxed game in the UK this week, but Week One sales were down 48.4 percent compared with the same period for last year’s Black Ops III.
It’s the fiercest drop the franchise has suffered since it became one of the world’s most popular entertainment properties following the success of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2007.
There was no PS3 or Xbox 360 version this year, however even just comparing the PS4 and Xbox One figures shows a sales drop of 43.6 percent.
Activision has changed its strategy a little with the series, and has put an increased emphasis on generating more revenue from its fans via DLC, special editions and microtransactions, as opposed to growing user numbers. Nevertheless, such a steep fall will come as a big disappointment to the firm and to UK retailers.
This was still the second biggest UK game launch of the year after FIFA 17. However, Call of Duty now finds itself playing catch-up with its biggest rival, Battlefield 1, which has already passed over half a million sales in the UK – the game has been on sale for two weeks longer.
It is important to note that all of these statistics do not factors in sales made via Steam, PSN, Xbox Live or EA Origin.
Call of Duty’s performance follows the disappointing launch of Titanfall 2. That EA game suffered a relatively mild 41 per cent week-on-week drop in its second week, but it is still selling well below what would have been expected for the IP.
It once again calls into question the logic of launching three huge first person shooter games within such close proximity.
There was one other new entry in the physical retail charts this week, Football Manager 2016 at No.6. The PC game almost certainly would have performed far better than this once you consider digital sales.
It wasn’t all bad news for Activision, Skylanders Imaginators has returned to the Top Ten following recent TV advertising, with sales rising 131 percent week-on-week.
All figures are courtesy of UK physical games tracker GfK and UKIE.
The announcement of Red Dead Redemption 2 has gamers and Take-Two investors alike eagerly anticipating the game’s release next fall, but the company’s been giving both camps reasons to pay attention in the meantime. Take-Two today announced its results for the quarter ended September 30, meeting (and in the case of bookings, exceeding) guidance and touting some record-breaking recent releases.
September’s NBA 2K17 and Mafia III (which launched in the current quarter) set new records, with the former selling in more units at release than any previous title in the franchise, and the latter selling in more units than any previous game on the 2K label (which includes BioShock and Borderlands, but not Rockstar series like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption). The company also noted that NBA 2K17 posted the highest Metacritic scores that series has seen to date, as well as the best scores of any annualized sports game this console generation. (As of this writing, NBA 2K17 has a Metacritic average of 90, which the series has previously surpassed, but not since Take-Two acquired it from Sega in 2005.)
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Take-Two chairman and CEO Strauss Zelnick acknowledged Mafia III’s reviews were not quite as record-setting as its sales. At the moment, they range from 62 to 69, depending on the platform. However, he characterized its overall reception as “phenomenal.”
“I think the scores have been a bit disappointing because there were some scores much lower than we expected,” Zelnick said. “But the reviews, especially from those who matter, have been phenomenal. And consumers absolutely love it; it’s selling really well.”
While it has been years since the NBA 2K series has been pushed by a strong competitor (Sony stopped making its own basketball series and EA has been struggling to return NBA Live to its former standing for years), Zelnick said the developers don’t take their success for granted.
“This was record first-week sell-in and we’re excited about that; virtual currency sales are up 160% year-over-year,” Zelnick said. “But if you sat with our creative team, they could give you a long list of things they feel we should be doing better, and we’re focused on all of them. Every year we aim to delight consumers, every year we make progress, and every year we fall short a bit from our own point of view. So I think we have plenty of motivation to delight the consumer, internally.”
But as games continue posting bigger and better numbers, so too do the expectations around them rise in lockstep. Zelnick said the return on investment for what constitutes a successful AAA game has only risen over time.
“For our successful titles, the ROI is very strong and getting stronger,” Zelnick said. “And I think that’s attributable to the fact that a few years ago, we’d make a title, market it, sell units, then sell catalog. And today, we offer opportunities for the consumer to engage after that release. And in many instances, we offer an opportunity to spend money after that release.”
He added that has “unquestionably” made the industry more hit-driven.
“I said in 2008 or 2009 that good is the new bad. Standards are going up, and that’s why our strategy always has been to be the most creative, innovative, and efficient company in the business,” Zelnick said. “And more often than not, we are. Sometimes we fall short.”
Take-Two met its expectations for the second quarter, posting net revenues up 21% to $420.2 million with net income of $36.4 million, down from $54.7 million in the year-ago quarter. The company also reported bookings up 28% to $452.8 million (well above the $400 million top-end range of its guidance) and non-GAAP net income of $50.7 million, down from $56.2 million the year before.
The second fiscal quarter is historically the quietest stretch for Electronic Arts, but the three months ended September 30 gave the publisher reason for optimism heading into the crucial holiday season. The company today released its second quarter results, beating its net income guidance and showing strong growth in its EA Sports Ultimate Team efforts.
“Q2 was an excellent quarter for Electronic Arts, led by breakthrough new EA Sports titles engaging players across console and mobile,” CEO Andrew Wilson said. “We are in an outstanding position for the quarter ahead, with two of the highest-rated games of this console generation in Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2, global competitive gaming tournaments underway, and our first virtual reality experiences coming soon. Across all platforms, this holiday season will be a fantastic time to play.”
While Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 launched after the second quarter, EA used the report to tout the games’ early achievements. For Battlefield 1, the company said the total player base during the first week of release nearly doubled that of 2013’s Battlefield 4. As for Titanfall 2, which just launched last Friday, the company said dozens of press outlets had given review scores the equivalent of a 90 out of 100 or above.
As for the releases actually covered by EA’s second quarter results, they would include EA Sports mainstays Madden 17 and FIFA 17. The company said “20% more players were engaged” in FIFA 17 during its first week than in the first week of FIFA 16, but made no mention of specific performance for Madden. However, the EA Sports Ultimate Team game modes appear to be healthy, as EA said Ultimate Team’s net sales between the FIFA, Madden, and NHL series are up 15% year-over-year on a trailing 12-month basis.
For the second quarter, EA reported net revenues of $898 million, up 10% from last year, but short of the $915 million it had given as guidance. However, the company’s net loss for the quarter of $38 million was a significant improvement on the previous second quarter’s net loss of $140 million, and better than the projected $51 million net loss.
EA gave the early performance of FIFA 17 and the holiday slate of releases as reason enough to adjust its full-year expectations, with the company now expecting net revenue for the year ending March 31, 2017 to be $4.775 billion, up from $4.75 billion. Net income for the year is also projected to reach $848 million, compared to the previous guidance of $809 million.
Update: On the earnings call, EA CFO Blake Jorgensen addressed the early feedback on Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2, noting that it’s too early to update any sales projections but that there’s “incredible excitement” around both and the company is “very optimistic” not just for this holiday season but for the longer term. Citing the fact that “quite a few players” were still playing Battlefield 4 years after it released, Jorgensen said he expects similar long-term interest in both titles. More generally, looking at EA’s business, Jorgensen is also encouraged by the opportunity that this generation’s consoles and the mid-cycle upgrades affords a big publisher like EA since the console installed base is already up 33% in the West compared to the previous generation, he said.
Interestingly, when asked about one of EA’s big upcoming titles, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Jorgensen effectively said that EA is not afraid to push the title back yet again (it was originally scheduled for 2016 but is now loosely slated for Q4, which ends next March). While that shouldn’t be read as a sign of trouble – Jorgensen said Mass Effect is “tracking extremely well” – it appears EA wants to be 100% sure that the game does not need any additional time before it commits more fully to a release date.
At a Microsoft event to showcase its Windows 10 Creators Update coming next year, the software giant made it absolutely clear that it has big plans for VR, not just AR and HoloLens. By partnering with HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer and Asus to offer a range of VR headsets that are priced at $299 and feature inside-out tracking, the company has taken an important step towards democratizing VR for the masses. But what’s the larger play here? How will VR headsets like these impact Project Scorpio next year and the Xbox business moving forward?
Tim Merel, founder of Digi-Capital and CEO of Eyetouch Reality, believes the VR news from Microsoft is a true “game changer” and he speculates that the company will look to make Scorpio an even more enticing proposition for gamers by bundling in VR. “The greatest potential for the Microsoft VR headset could come from bundling it with Xbox One Project Scorpio, which Microsoft has already highlighted as supporting next generation VR. With an Xbox One installed base over 20 million users, this might be Microsoft’s silver bullet for both VR specifically and the console market more generally. So Microsoft could be using its new VR headset to leapfrog competitors in two markets at the same time, leveraging for VR some of the great work already done by Phil Spencer, Alex Kipman and Kudo Tsunoda with Windows 10 and HoloLens in the adjacent AR market,” he says.
Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter agrees with Merel, telling GamesIndustry.biz, “Tim is spot on. A standalone headset without a CPU/GPU makes no sense, and if it requires the purchase of a high end PC, it’s not clear that anyone will buy it instead of Oculus/Vive/PSVR. However, if it works with Scorpio, it’s a formidable competitor for PSVR (albeit with a starting installed base of zero). I think that’s probably the plan, and am curious if software for Oculus and Vive will work with the Microsoft headset.”
Other analysts are more skeptical of Microsoft’s chances in VR, however. Stephanie Llamas, Director of Research and Insights at SuperData, still thinks HoloLens and augmented or mixed reality will be more impactful for the company.
“A VR device will not be a silver bullet for any market for a very long time,” she cautions. “First off, Microsoft is banking on consumers they don’t even have yet: Xbox One will not support the line of devices, so they are actually starting from a user base of zero that they hope will buy the Xbox One Project Scorpio. Early VR adopters already bought their PSVR, Vive or Oculus — inside-out tracking alone isn’t going to entice them to spend on another VR device this early in the market’s lifecycle. This product is going to be secondary to a purchaser’s decision to buy Project Scorpio, not the other way around.
“Second, this is just a MS-compatible line of headsets. So Microsoft will have to tout a third-party accessory with a first-party device, which definitely complicates their marketing and potential for bundling. Microsoft should have done this a year ago, or at least given us more promise than including their controller with the Oculus Rift, but they are already too far behind. Where they should continue to focus, and where they have shown a unique value proposition, is with the HoloLens’s potential for augmented and mixed reality.”
EEDAR’s Patrick Walker, on the other hand, is confident that a pivot towards VR is a smart move for Microsoft at this juncture. “While many technology thinkers are significantly more excited about the potential of AR long-term, VR is much closer to reaching a mainstream market,” he remarks. “It is also becoming more and more clear that the line between VR and AR will likely be blurred. Microsoft’s VR initiatives on the Xbox One portfolio also make a lot of sense considering the console’s position in the market. The PS4 has had a much more successful launch than the Xbox One so it is in Microsoft’s interest to push technology initiatives that disrupt the console generation, including the VR headsets and the merger of PC and console gaming.
“The increased VR capability of the Scorpio could provide a compelling reason for PS4 gamers to jump into the Xbox One platform. This creates a nice short term strategy of regaining console share, a mid-term strategy of generating VR revenue across PC and console, and a continued long-term strategy of developing for the future of AR.”
DFC Intelligence’s David Cole falls more in the skeptic’s camp. “The big issue in the VR market is that there needs to be a clear market driver that can package up the experience for the mass consumer. Right now the only one with that solution is PlayStation VR, which has a clear price point and an easy to use solution that is getting out to the masses,” he says. “The problem with the other VR devices is not having that clear distribution or message. Just having a product available doesn’t push it to consumers and that is the big problem Microsoft faces…who is going to communicate that message to consumers? This is still a pitch to the tech elite. There is also going to be a great deal of consumer confusion with multiple devices.
“VR is a new form of entertainment that needs to be introduced as such. The issue is many of these headset manufacturers are not strong at consumer marketing so who is going to get the message out? Right now for 2017 we see PSVR as being far and away the leading high-end VR device. I don’t think these products are launching until later in 2017 so we see a lot of announcements coming in this space.”
Inside-out tracking is important because it means you don’t need sensors all over your room to track your headset and controller motions, but as long as players are tethered to a device the experience will feel somewhat limited. “Losing the wire will be bigger. VR is still in its infancy and we expect even more price reductions and innovation to drive the market,” Cole continues.
“Microsoft has pretty much indicated that they plan for Project Scorpio to work with multiple VR headsets. The real issue will be Project Scorpio is too little, too late. Project Scorpio will actually be starting from a zero install base, not 20 million, so I think Windows VR should move the needle more than Project Scorpio.”
Merel remains more positive, though, and unlike Llamas, does not think that offering third-party VR hardware is a downside. “Microsoft’s new VR headset is the next stage of VR going mass consumer. For consumers, inside-out tracking without the need to buy or set up external sensors in a dedicated VR playroom is huge. The $299 price point is much less expensive than other PC based VR products. Launching with partners HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, and Acer gives Microsoft an accelerated hardware platform and also spreads its market risk,” he notes.
Microsoft has been making some headway in the generation eight console battle, with the Xbox One celebrating a third month running as the best-selling console in the US. The combined sales of the original One and the new S model also put it at the head of the pack in the UK in September.
US figures come from the NPD group and UK numbers from GfK, although no actual unit values were given. The full US sales report from NPD is due next week.
It’s likely that some of that recent lead is a result of a dip in PS4 sales thanks to the imminent launch of the PlayStation Pro, but the One has also been building momentum too, with sales up across many territories.
“Xbox One was the only gen eight console to see year-over-year growth in September in the U.S., Australia, the U.K and many other countries worldwide,” said corporate VP of Xbox marketing Mike Nichols. “This success was driven by our fans and their support for Xbox One S, which is the only console available this holiday with built-in UHD 4K Blu-ray, 4K video streaming and HDR for gaming and video.”
For game critics, loving Gears of War has been problematic since the very beginning. The rippling, testosterone drenched surface of Epic’s franchise served as a distraction from its abundant qualities. Looking back, it’s clear that the first game, released in 2006, provided the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era with the kind of moment that arguably still hasn’t arrived for the current generation. It was a new visual benchmark, its sense of weight and physical force was entirely distinct, and – a year before the launch of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – it introduced the most credible new multiplayer experience since Halo. For those who based their professional integrity on distinguishing good games from bad, to notice and appreciate any of this was to miss the square-jaws and lumpen dialogue that comprised its story.
Looking back now, it’s clear that Gears of War was one of the defining series of the last console generation, influencing the creative direction of a large proportion of action games, driving the development community towards the Unreal Engine in droves, and with Horde mode in Gears of War 2, introducing a multiplayer concept that would be adopted by everything from Uncharted to Mass Effect. Even its marketing was influential: Gears of War’s popular “Mad World” trailer might well be the origin of action games using pained, acoustic covers of popular songs to score their artfully spliced carnage.
Despite this estimable legacy, however, the reviews of Gears of War 4 are shot through with an almost apologetic tone; a need to address the (arguably misplaced) perception of Gears as nothing more than a dude-bro power fantasy. Polygon, which awards the game an impressive 9 out of 10, spends a full third of its review on story and characterisation, opening with a declaration that, “Gears of War 4 is about home and family.”
“Gears of War as a series has dealt with accusations of hyper-masculine excess and an emphasis on gore and violence since it was first announced more than ten years ago. And it’s not that those observations are wrong, exactly – the characters have always been larger than life, the men in particular wide and heavy, and the violence of the series has always been extreme and enthusiastic. But beneath or even in parallel to that aspect, there’s always been consistent themes of friendship, of relationships of support and camaraderie that would seem corny in most other games but, somehow, work in Gears of War for a passionate fanbase.”
This protagonist of this reboot – which was developed by Microsoft’s The Coalition – is J. D. Fenix, the son of the original series’ central character, Marcus Fenix. Both father and son play pivotal roles in the game’s story, which Polygon describes as, “more focused, less sprawling story than the last few entries… A lot of time is spent exploring the strained relationship between Marcus and his son, with a lot of perspective on both sides of the equation.” The game’s various other key characters all have their own emotional journeys, largely relating to those themes of family and friendship. Gears of War 4’s story and character time works as well as it does for several reasons,” Polygon says. “The writing is matter-of-fact, avoiding over-stoicism and also overwrought fluff for the most part.”
If this is an area of weakness that The Coalition sought to address, then the abiding sense from the game’s reviews is that it has made a significant improvement. Whether that’s what the vast majority of Gears of War’s players care about is another matter, of course, but The Coalition hasn’t dropped the ball with the series’ core strengths, either. Polygon praises Gears of War 4 as “simply a joy to play,” and that sentiment echoes throughout the critical discourse.
The Daily Telegraph, which awards four stars, applauds the “muscular and endlessly gratifying thrill” of the gunplay, which carries the game through a slow start that serves, “as an elongated (re)introduction to that well-oiled Gears combat, flashing between cover-to-cover, switching between shotgun and rifle and familiarising yourself with the rattle of an emptying clip and the satisfaction of a well-timed, power-boosting active reload.” There are two new enemy races to fight in place of the original series’ Locust, and “weaponry…as exotic as the bestiary” with which to fight them. The need to switch between distinct weapons to fight equally distinct weapon types has always been central to Gears of War’s appeal. Here, again, The Coalition has honoured its heritage.
The same is true of Gears of War 4 as a spectacle. You won’t find a single review that doesn’t proclaim it to be one of the very best looking games on either Xbox One or PlayStation 4, and the same is true is the PC version. Indeed, PCGamesN calls it “a visual and technical tour de force,” maintaining “searing frame-rates on ‘ultra’ settings during some of the most mind-blowing – if cheesy – set-pieces I’ve seen in games, while also inviting me to appreciate the vivid redness of sycamore leaves lazily billowing on a cracked yellow wall in a medieval town square on some parallel-to-Earth planet.”
That last observation is crucial, because the beauty of Gears 4 goes beyond polygons, framerates and animations, and extends to art direction. “This certainly ain’t the grey-brown Gears of old,” PCGamesN says, before adding, “the diversity of what it shows is stunning… This is a far cry from the game that single-handedly started the stereotype of the ‘murky brown war shooter’, taking us instead on a historical tour of the vestiges of a world parallel to ours, yet still different enough to be mysterious; I almost felt guilty as I stomped around a scenic town as a giant mech, casually calling in airstrikes to smash my way through buildings. Almost.”
Words like “jawdropping,” “stunning,” “incredible” and “breathtaking” are scattered throughout this and many other reviews, to the point where the handful of scores that fall below 8 out of 10 demand close attention. For Jimquisition, the website started by ex-Destructoid personality Jim Sterling, “there’s nothing quite like Gears on the market. The sense of weight, the meaty impact of combat, the gruesomely satisfying way heads pop and bodies burst, any given Gears game has a baseline quality even at its worst thanks to its undeniably unique style.” However, Gears of War 4 relies on that “baseline quality” a little too much, The Coalition happy to make the improvements necessary to maintain relative standards but, “doing very little to rock the boat and making minor improvements and evolving where needed.”
“Such a tactic provides a game that’s decent just because it’s Gears of War, relying on the groundwork established across four older games to maintain the baseline. And that’s most certainly what Gears 4 is. A maintenance of the series as opposed to an injection of fresh blood.”
In a sense, then, the game’s most ardent supporters and most vocal critics are in full agreement: Gears of War 4 absolutely meets the standard set by its forebears, which is either something to praise or lament depending on the individual. One suspects, though, that in the absence of new Gears, the public will be more than happy to settle for more Gears.
In a week’s time, what is arguably the first truly great commercial experiment of the new VR age will begin. For the first time, consumers will be able to go out and buy a VR headset that’s (relatively) inexpensive, that doesn’t require a costly hobbyist PC to operate, and that provides a “good enough” VR experience for gaming and other applications. If there’s to be a sweet spot in the virtual reality market, Sony will be planting its flag firmly in it next Thursday.
Reviews of the device have started to appear and are pretty much what you’d expect. It’s good; we’ve known that from the countless demos and trade show appearances PSVR has made this year. It’s not as technically accomplished as the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, but it’s a far more comfortable, well-designed piece of hardware, and its technical shortfalls are far fewer and less noticeable than you’d expect from such a cheap device running on such comparatively low-powered hardware. It’s certainly an entirely different class of experience than any of the “toy” VR experiences currently offered by mobile tech like Samsung’s Gear VR, a situation which Google’s newly announced Daydream headset seems unlikely to change.
So yes, this is the sweet spot, if such a thing exists. Good enough to actually want to use, unlike current mobile VR devices, cheap enough to be accessible to a wider audience of gamers and enthusiasts, and with common sense (if occasionally frustrating) trade offs between complexity of setup and physical arrangement, and accuracy of control. If a VR headset is to rescue this putative Year of VR from the somewhat disappointing launches of HTC and Oculus’ consumer devices – both of which saw interest plateau in the post-launch period – then it’s going to be PlayStation VR.
Is that what Sony has in mind, though? One peculiarity of the PSVR launch is that beyond the specialist press, it’s something of a non-event. Marketing support for the launch is minimal; there’s far less hype and visibility around the product than there would be around, for example, the launch of a major game. Here in Japan, PSVR barely warrants a mention in Sony’s current barrage of advertising, which is promoting PlayStation 4 with TV and streaming site commercials that highlight the launch of games like Persona 5 and Yakuza 6, the arrival of new console hardware, and oh yeah, PSVR is a thing too.
One could argue that Sony would be foolish to push PSVR too hard given that pretty much the entirety of its early shipments are spoken for by pre-orders. We still don’t know how many units of PSVR will ship for launch, or how many are projected to ship by year-end, but every indication is that the numbers are relatively small, at least by comparison with the PS4’s installed base. It’s not unreasonable to expect that PSVR will be for all intents and purposes supply-constrained through into early 2017, making it comfortably the most commercially successful of the tethered VR platforms – regardless of whether the company spends a single cent on further marketing.
However, the slightest glance back over the history of hardware launches in the games business and beyond would demonstrate that companies generally do not row back their marketing budgets just because of being supply-constrained; if anything, this encourages them to redouble their efforts. That’s because supply constraints act as a multiplier on marketing budgets. When demand is outstripping supply, every extra notch that you can ratchet up that demand through your marketing efforts guarantees more media coverage, more word of mouth and more visibility for your product, creating a halo of desirability around the platform which can give a long-term boost to sales that lasts for months or even years after the initial supply constraints are lifted.
That Sony has seemingly decided to eschew that strategy for PSVR is interesting, but probably speaks to a confluence of a number of different factors. For a start, it’s rare for a platform holder to be putting not one but two major new pieces of hardware on the market at once, which is what Sony is doing with PSVR in October and PS4 Pro in November. A huge marketing push, widespread coverage of shortages and the resulting desirability halo that would build around PSVR would be great for the VR headset, but might negatively impact the now overshadowed PS4 Pro. That would hurt all the more if, as is likely, PS4 Pro is not supply constrained while PSVR is. That’s definitely a factor playing into Sony’s decision making here.
There’s something else in play too, though. Lots of software is on the way for PSVR, and there’s actually a pretty respectable line-up at the outset – but reviews of the system are fairly blunt about the extent to which much of it feels more like it’s demoing the hardware, and the concept of VR itself, rather than being a proper, full-strength VR game experience. The games aren’t just short, they expose kinks in the PS Move control system (which may be fixable or may be an innate problem PSVR just has to work around forever) and sidestep major issues instead of tackling them – for example, the Batman VR title’s decision to make the player jump from location to location, rather than walking between them, to avoid motion sickness.
In short, while there’s interesting and even accomplished stuff in there, it all sounds rather like the kind of thing that you play to show off a new system’s capabilities, rather than the kind of thing that makes you say, “you’ve got to go out and get PSVR so you can play this game”. The enthusiasts and the VR faithful don’t need a killer app – they just need enough of a taster to convince themselves that the killer apps will come, given time – but the general public absolutely does. It’s easy for enthusiasts – a category which, if you’re reading this, probably encompasses you – to underestimate the psychological barrier VR needs to overcome. For many consumers, the prospect of strapping on a headset that looks like a Daft Punk cosplay prop, isolating themselves from the world around them and potentially looking like a complete tool as they flail around with objects nobody else in the room can see is a pretty big ask.
A great killer app game that gets the world gushing will overcome that barrier. That may be on the way; all eyes are on January’s Resident Evil 7, which could potentially be VR’s first truly huge AAA title. Until that kind of game is available, though, Sony may be well advised to focus on the VR faithful and keep its marketing powder dry. That’s certainly what seems to have happened so far; this is entirely anecdotal, but I’ve been surprised at just how few people have asked whether I’m getting a PSVR (and if they can bring an offering of beer around in order to have a go on it). Far fewer people have asked me about PSVR than have asked about PS4 Pro, or even Xbox One S. Enthusiasts know about it; the average gamer simply doesn’t seem to care yet.
Given the hurdles facing mainstream VR adoption, that may be for the best. It’s important that when the majority of consumers start to experience VR, their experience of it is fantastic, not just a demo or a proof of concept but a game that makes them want to own this technology right now. Saving the marketing blitz and letting PSVR’s software library mature first could be the best way to prevent the so-called Year of VR from ending with the Winter of VR Discontent.
Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe has emphasized the freedom that Oculus VR allows its employees to support their personal views, a freedom he said also applied to Palmer Luckey.
In a post on his Facebook page, Iribe spoke about Luckey’s regret at the negative impact the situation had created for “the company, our partners, and the industry.” However, he offered a measure of support for Oculus VR’s founder, citing Luckey’s right to independent political beliefs.
“Everyone at Oculus is free to support the issues or causes that matter to them, whether or not we agree with those views,” he said. “It is important to remember that Palmer acted independently in a personal capacity, and was in no way representing the company.”
Original Story: After numerous publications (GamesIndustry.biz included) no doubt flooded Oculus with requests for comment on Friday, when the story broke that Palmer Luckey allegedly had been funding a pro-Trump “shitposting” group, the man himself took to Facebook (which owns Oculus) to apologize for his actions.
“I am deeply sorry that my actions are negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners.The recent news stories about me do not accurately represent my views,” he wrote. “Here’s more background: I contributed $10,000 to Nimble America because I thought the organization had fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters through the use of several billboards. I am a libertarian who has publicly supported Ron Paul and Gary Johnson in the past, and I plan on voting for Gary in this election as well.”
Luckey went on to deny that he was the author behind the ‘NimbleRichMan’ posts on Reddit and the vice president of Nimble America: “I am committed to the principles of fair play and equal treatment. I did not write the ‘NimbleRichMan’ posts, nor did I delete the account. Reports that I am a founder or employee of Nimble America are false. I don’t have any plans to donate beyond what I have already given to Nimble America. Still, my actions were my own and do not represent Oculus. I’m sorry for the impact my actions are having on the community.”
The original Daily Beast article, however, confirmed that Luckey was indeed the man behind “NimbleRichMan” and author Gideon Resnick reiterated that fact on his Twitter account today.
Here is where I sought that clarification from him and what he said. pic.twitter.com/pPfLKUX5Cg
— Gideon Resnick (@GideonResnick) September 24, 2016
One more email: Luckey clearly states in here that the NimbleRichMan account represents him. pic.twitter.com/RC4mXPFDkM
— Gideon Resnick (@GideonResnick) September 24, 2016
So it’s essentially Resnick’s word against Luckey’s, but Oculus Head of Content Jason Rubin urged people to take Luckey at his word. “I wanted to give @PalmerLuckey a chance to respond before I posted… knowing Palmer, I take him at his word,” Rubin tweeted, adding, “30 years in the Game business I would not work in a place that I thought condoned or spread hate. Nor would I remain silent if I saw it.”
Denials from Luckey and support from Oculus colleagues aside, the development community is already reacting, and some are pulling support for the Rift. Polytron, which is making a VR game called SuperHyperCube, noted on Twitter that it will not be supporting Oculus now. Scruta Games took it one step further, asking that Luckey leave the company he founded: “Until @PalmerLuckey steps down from his position at @oculus, we will be cancelling Oculus support for our games,” the developer said. Tomorrow Today Labs issued a similar sentiment: “Hey @oculus, @PalmerLuckey’s actions are unacceptable. NewtonVR will not be supporting the Oculus Touch as long as he is employed there.”
Edge of Nowhere developer Insomniac Games said it “condemns all forms of hate speech” and issued the following statement to Polygon as well: “While everyone has a right to express his or her political opinion, the behavior and sentiments reported do not reflect the values of our company. We are also confident that this behavior and sentiment does not reflect the values of the many Oculus employees we work with on a daily basis.”
Not all developers are punishing Oculus for Luckey’s actions, however. James Green, co-founder of VR developer Carbon Games, commented to Motherboard, “This backlash is nonsense. I absolutely support him doing whatever he wants politically if it’s legal. To take any other position is against American values.”
Oculus has had a number of obstacles to overcome on its path to retail, with Rift headsets not making it out to Kickstarter backers for months after launch and some consumers feeling that they had been misled on what the actual price of the unit would be. Luckey admitted that he “handled the messaging poorly” back in January, and now just as manufacturing of the headset has finally improved and the flow of software has started to increase as the company prepares to launch its Oculus Touch controllers, this PR storm and accusations that its founder is vice president of a racist, pro-Trump organization could represent a significant setback. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out in the next few weeks and as we head into the holiday shopping season.
A little bit of clarity can go a long way. A few weeks ago at the reveal of the PS4 Pro, in a staff roundtable I questioned whether Sony’s new console would hurt Microsoft’s chances with the more powerful Scorpio. I also gave Sony an edge because of its HDR rollout to all PS4s. As it turns out, the HDR update is practically useless (no games supported yet and no video streaming) and the PS4 Pro itself will see most games upscaled, according to Sony Interactive boss Andrew House.
While PS4 architect Mark Cerny did make it clear during the conference that the Pro does not render games in true 4K resolution, many fans had no doubt assumed it would and likely glossed over his technical explanation of the Pro’s “streamlined rendering techniques” and “temporal and spatial anti-aliasing.” It’s hard to say how much consumers will care when the Pro goes on sale in November, but Microsoft wasted no time in puffing up its chest to declare its superiority with a console that won’t ship for many, many months.
Microsoft Studios Publishing general manager Shannon Loftis told USA Today, “Any games we’re making that we’re launching in the Scorpio time frame, we’re making sure they can natively render at 4K.” Moreover, Albert Penello, senior director of product management and planning at Xbox, hammered home the point with our sister site Eurogamer, commenting, “I think there are a lot of caveats they’re giving customers right now around 4K. They’re talking about checkerboard rendering and up-scaling and things like that. There are just a lot of asterisks in their marketing around 4K, which is interesting because when we thought about what spec we wanted for Scorpio, we were very clear we wanted developers to take their Xbox One engines and render them in native, true 4K. That was why we picked the number, that’s why we have the memory bandwidth we have, that’s why we have the teraflops we have, because it’s what we heard from game developers was required to achieve native 4K.”
That’s a punch to the gut in true console war fashion, and one that Microsoft is no doubt happy to get in during a console cycle which has seen PS4 dominate. It may not seem like a big deal right now, as 4K TV sales are still relatively minor, but the prices are falling and interest in 4K and HDR is picking up, not only with consumers, but also with game developers and content providers for streaming services like Netflix. This could be a decent holiday for the 4K TV market, and by the time Scorpio actually does launch there will be that many more 4K TV owners to target with the only console that renders 4K natively. That’s a nice feather in Microsoft’s cap.
This week we also featured an interesting writeup on VR and AR from DICE Europe. While VR proponents like Unity’s Clive Downie said there will be over a billion people using VR in the next 10 years, others such as Niantic’s John Hanke and Apple boss Tim Cook cast doubt on the long-term appeal and commerical success of VR. Of course, this isn’t the first time that people have wondered whether VR will ever move beyond a niche category – and indeed, our Rob Fahey talks about the over-investment in the space in his column today – but the idea that VR is merely an intermediary step before AR comes into its own is the wrong way to think about these technologies in my view.
Just because they both offer altered realities and utilize headsets does not mean they should be lumped together. The use cases and experiences are vastly different for VR and AR, and while I agree that AR likely is the better bet from a commercial standpoint, I don’t underestimate VR for one second. I’ve had way too many fun game sessions using the tech already, and it’s early days. Beyond that, serious movie makers are starting to leverage the great potential of the medium. Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Jungle Book), for example, is working on a VR film called Gnomes and Goblins and he’s even brought on veteran game designer Doug Church (System Shock, Thief) to fine tune the VR interactions.
The fact is VR has enormous storytelling potential and can immerse its users in ways that we’ve never experienced before. “As I work in film, so much has been done,” Favreau commented. “There are technological breakthroughs but there is less and less up in the air. You’re really writing a song in the same format that has been going on for at least a hundred years. And what’s interesting about VR is that, although I really don’t know where it’s going or if it’s going to catch on in a significant way culturally, I do know that there is a lot of unexplored territory and a lot of fun things as a storyteller for me to experiment with. It’s exciting to have so much fresh snow that nobody has walked through yet. There’s been no medium that I’ve felt that way since I’ve come into the business, where it feels like you can really be a pioneer.”
AR will be tremendously exciting in its own right, and I can’t wait for Magic Leap, HoloLens and castAR, but to think that VR will be cast aside to make way for AR’s ascendancy is totally off base.
Halfway through Sony’s announcement event for its new consoles – the redesigned, slimmer PS4 and the new, more powerful PS4 Pro – I found myself thinking about the optics of these events. I’ve seen the announcement events for every console since the PS2, and of them all, this was by far the most muted. The lack of bombast and braggadocio could speak to a quietly understated confidence, or to uncertainty, depending on where you’re standing. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle – Sony, achieving success it hasn’t seen since the PS2’s halcyon days, is certainly confident, but is also walking out onto uncertain territory with the PS4 Pro. The ground underfoot is no longer familiar.
The slim PS4, of course – perhaps the worst-kept secret in the history of the industry, given the appearance of functioning models on auction websites prior to the announcement – is nothing unexpected. Three years into the PS4’s lifespan, a slimmed down redesign was inevitable; it joins the (arguably rather more attractive) Xbox One S on the shelves as a sleeker model whose launch is somewhat overshadowed by impending obsolescence. Xbox One S, at least, has a year to run before the hugely more powerful Scorpio appears on the market. The new PS4 suffered the ignominy of being quickly announced and forgotten just moments before the unveiling of PS4 Pro, the device destined to replace it.
PS4 Pro, though, is a curious beast. It’ll run you $100 more than the slim PS4, it plays the same games and connects to the same online services. Sony has bent over backwards to avoid fragmenting their playerbase, and in theory, PS4 Pro is really designed only for the small minority of consumers with 4K displays in their living rooms. Yet the company must know the psychology of its consumers; it must know that for a large proportion of them, playing a game on a regular PS4 in the knowledge that an upgrade would make it that little bit sharper, that little bit smoother, is like Chinese water torture. That will only be exacerbated by the “Pro” moniker; so much of the market will feel an involuntary twitch of consumer desire at the very notion of their existing hardware being “amateur” or, god help us all, “noob”.
Ultimately, though, Sony’s cautious approach seems to be pitched just right. Those who will find themselves discombobulated by the notion of a needlessly dropped frame or a disappointingly undetailed hair strand, or quietly fuming at being branded a non-Pro, are precisely the audience expected to upgrade anyway. The benefits of PS4 Pro will be sufficient to keep them satisfied; while for pretty much everyone else, for the enormous audience of more casual consumers that Sony must access in the coming years in order to maintain the PS4’s sales trajectory, the benefits of the Pro seem minor enough not to bother with. The stroke of genius, perhaps, is that every upgrading gamer will release a second-hand PS4 into the market – handed off to a younger sibling or cousin, perhaps, or sold to a late upgrader from the last generation. That ought to do wonders to kick-start the PS4’s demographic expansion.
That’s not an easy balance to strike, and while it feels like it’s been skilfully done, only time and market data will tell. Sony enters Winter 2016 in a position of almost unprecedented strength; Nintendo’s NX won’t launch until next spring (and nobody really knows what it is), while Microsoft’s lovely Xbox One S is overshadowed by the plan to entirely outclass it with Scorpio next year. Both PS4 and PS4 Pro will do great guns this year (while PSVR, about which more in a moment, will undoubtedly be supply constrained). That’s not the real test; the test is how this line-up can fare against 2017’s launches, NX and Scorpio. Sony’s cards are now on the table for the next couple of years of the console war.
The other test, of course, is how this evolves. Much has been made of PS4 Pro representing the end of the console model; a final nail in the coffin of the five, seven or even ten year hardware cycle which has defined game consoles since the 1980s. Incremental updates like the PS4 Pro, maintaining compatibility and continuity while keeping pace with hardware advancements, are the future.
Well, perhaps they’re part of the future. Scorpio, with its dramatic upgrade over the Xbox One – so dramatic that the notion of Xbox One remaining fully capable of playing Scorpio titles seems ridiculous – suggests a somewhat different future. Equally, the muted nature of this week’s launch is suggestive of somewhat different thinking. Sony didn’t want to come out all guns blazing, shouting in triumph about its new hardware, because it cannot afford to alienate the 40 million existing owners of PS4 by implying that their consoles are obsolete. That’s a radical difference from console launches of old precisely because the whole purpose of those launches was to declare everything which came before obsolete. “Here, here is the new thing! All singing, all dancing, making the singing and dancing your existing console is capable of look merely like painful hopping and wheezing! Buy the new thing!” You can’t do that with an incremental upgrade; you can’t alienate your existing market in that way. Even smartphone makers have more freedom in their messaging, knowing that their hardware is expected to run on an 18 to 24 month upgrade cycle; consoles, though, you expect to remain “current” for four years, five years or more.
Incremental upgrades, then, lock us to a much more muted kind of message about new hardware. Does anyone really believe, though, that there’s no PS5 in the works? No grand, sweeping upgrade, that will be unveiled with bombast, and fireworks, and promises of walking on water and improbable feats of catering involving bread and fish? Of course that’s in the works. If PS4 Pro points us at something, it’s at the possibility of compatibility across generations in the very broad sense – perhaps, at last, we have entered a generation of consoles whose games will remain playable pretty much forever, or at least for as long as the capricious DRM gods smile upon us. The reverse, however, cannot remain true forever. Console generations will continue to roll past; it’s just that now, perhaps, there will be more mezzanines and landings between the floors.
Notably absent from Sony’s quiet little event was PlayStation VR. Oh, there was a logo, and there were a few words said, but you’d hardly imagine that this was a massive product launch that’s happening in just a few months’ time. Perhaps that’s because the aspect of PS4 Pro Sony is most anxious about is what impact it’s going to have on PSVR, and vice versa. Ever since the first leaks about PS4 Neo, as then was, hit the wild, there’s been a widespread assumption that part of the raison d’être for the new hardware was to drive PSVR headsets – with the existing PS4 simply being underpowered as a VR device.
If that’s not the case, Sony could have done a better job of pointing it out. Throwaway comments about the PS4 Pro yielding better frame rates for VR software sit uncomfortably with the company’s earlier pronouncements about 120Hz rendering for PSVR. Everything we’ve seen and learned about VR thus far suggests that this tech is all about framerate; if you can’t hit a consistent, high frame rate, users start to get severe motion sickness. If it’s the case that PS4 can hit those frame rates consistently, but PS4 Pro allows more visual finesse at the same frame rate, that’s great. If, on the other hand, PS4 is struggling with frame rate and PS4 Pro smoothes things out, that’s a big problem. PSVR cannot afford to be a poor experience on the existing PS4 installed base; if it is to be a success, it needs to work superbly on the 40 million PS4s already in the wild, not just on the fraction of the installed base which will be PS4 Pro.
Perhaps it does. Certainly, the demos of PSVR to date – all presumably running on PS4 standard hardware – have been fine, for the most part. Again, though, the optics are problematic; if you’re launching a VR headset within weeks of launching more powerful hardware, people are going to assume, not unreasonably, that they’re meant to complement each other. If that translates into users of the headset on stock PS4s getting physically ill where users on PS4 Pro do not, that’s a very big problem – and if that’s absolutely not the case, and there are procedures in place to prevent it, Sony needs to be discussing those things candidly and openly. (If it is the case, they might have been best served by doing something radical like only taking PSVR pre-orders alongside PS4 Pro pre-orders; let VR be the USP of PS4 Pro, and avoid the possibility of backlash from underpowered VR entirely.)
With the cards on the table, now we see how the hand plays. PS4 Pro is undoubtedly a shake-up to how the console business works. It’s one step closer to a world where console hardware is essentially a fixed-spec PC in a nice box that’s updated every few years – but we’re not in that world yet, and whether we ever arrive there will be determined by how Sony and its rivals fare in the coming 18 months.
MediaTek has some decent network products and Asus and Xiaomi have a few midrange routers based on its SoC (system on a chip). Now it looks likely that Microsoft’s One S will use two MediaTek SoCs for wireless connectivity.
It has been a while since IFIXIT tore apart the Xbox One S but no one really noticed that the wireless component of the console came from MediaTek.
The Xbox One S looks like a nice console, worth the investment and was a good design win for AMD as it has an AMD APU inside. There are two chips from MediaTek, inside – firstly, the MT7632TUN, which is probably a variation of the MT7632 wireless chip supporting 2×2 802.11n + Bluetooth 4.0 Module. It is interesting that Xbox uses a 2×2 MIMO approach as this will make the 801.11n wireless much faster than before.
The second chip is MediaTek’s MT7612UN which is likely a variant of 802.11ac 2×2 MIMO that will again make things much faster in the 5GHz band and getting closer to 1Gbps speeds with the ac.
MediaTek won some business with Amazon tablets last year, and adding Microsoft to its portfolio definitely means a lot for the company and boosts its wireless image.
Xbox One S should be available in the western part of Europe within the next three weeks and Amazon Germany claims to start shipping on the September 22. US customers can get one today and it starts at $269.99 for 500 GB + Halo bundle and it jumps to $349.99 Xbox One S 1TB Console – Madden NFL 17 Bundle or $359.99 for Xbox One S 2TB Console – Launch Edition.