During a presentation at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, Boss Fight Entertainment’s Damion Schubert suggested the industry to drop the term “whales,” calling it disrespectful to the heavy spenders that make the free-to-play business model possible. As an alternative, he proposed calling them “patrons,” as their largesse allows the masses to enjoy these works that otherwise could not be made and maintained.
After his talk, Schubert spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about his own experiences with heavy spending customers. During his stint at BioWare Austin, Schubert was a lead designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic as it transitioned from its original subscription-based business model to a free-to-play format.
“I think the issue with whales is that most developers don’t actually psychologically get into the head of whales,” Schubert said. “And as a result, they don’t actually empathize with those players, because most developers aren’t the kind of person that would shell out $30,000 to get a cool speeder bike or whatnot… I think your average developer feels way more empathy for the free players and the light spenders than the whales because the whales are kind of exotic creatures if you think about them. They’re really unusual.”
Schubert said whales, at least those he saw on The Old Republic, don’t have uniform behavior patterns. They weren’t necessarily heavy raiders, or big into player-vs-player competition. They were just a different class of customer, with the only common attribute being that they apparently liked to spend money. Some free-to-play games have producers whose entire job is to try to understand those customers, Schubert said, setting up special message boards for that sub-community of player, or letting them vote on what content should be added to a game next.
“When you start working with these [customers], there’s a lot of concern that they are people who have gambling problems, or kids who have no idea of the concept of money,” Schubert said.
But from his experience on The Old Republic, Schubert came to understand that most of that heavy spending population is simply people who are legitimately rich and don’t have a problem with devoting money to something they see as a hobby. Schubert said The Old Republic team was particular mindful of free-to-play abuse, and had spending limits placed to protect people from credit card fraud or kids racking up unauthorized charges. If someone wanted to be a heavy spender on the game, they had to call up customer service and specifically ask for those limits to be removed.
“If you think about it, they wanted to spend money so much that they were willing to endure what was probably a really annoying customer service call so they could spend money,” Schubert said.
The Old Republic’s transition from a subscription-based model to free-to-play followed a wider shift in the massively multiplayer online genre. Schubert expects many of the traditional PC and console gaming genres like fighting games and first-person shooters to follow suit, one at a time. That said, free-to-play is not the business model of the future. Not the only one, at least.
“I think the only constant in the industry is change,” Schubert said when asked if the current free-to-play model will eventually fall out of favor. “So yeah, it will shift. And it will always shift because people find a more effective billing model. And the thing to keep in mind is that a more effective billing model will come from customers finding something they like better… I think there is always someone waiting in the wings with a new way of how you monetize it. But I do think that anything we’re going to see in the short term, at least, is probably going to start with a great free experience. It’s just so hard to catch fire; there are too many competitive options that are free right now.”
Two upstart business models Schubert is not yet sold on are crowdfunding and alpha-funding. As a consumer, he has reservations about both.
“The Wild West right now is the Kickstarter stuff, which is a whole bunch of companies that are making their best guess about what they can do,” Schubert said. “Many of them are doing it very, very poorly, because it turns out project management in games is something the big boys don’t do very well, much less these guys making their first game and trying to do it on a shoestring budget. I think that’s a place where there’s a lot more caveat emptor going on.”
Schubert’s golden rule for anyone thinking of supporting a Kickstarter is to only pledge an amount of money you would be OK losing forever with nothing to show for it.
“At the end of the day, you’re investing on a hope and a dream, and by definition, a lot of those are just going to fail or stall,” Schubert said. “Game development is by definition R&D. Every single game that gets developed is trying to find a core game loop, trying to find the magic, trying to find the thing that will make it stand out from the 100 other games that are in that same genre. And a lot of them fail. You’ve played 1,000 crappy games. Teams didn’t get out to make crappy games; they just got there and they couldn’t find the ‘there’ there.”
He wasn’t much kinder to the idea of charging people for games still in an early stage of development.
“I’m not a huge fan of Early Access, although ironically, I think the MMO genre invented it,” Schubert said. “But on the MMOs, we needed it because there are things on an MMO that you cannot test without a population. You cannot test a 40-man raid internally. You cannot test large-scale political systems. You cannot test login servers with real problems from different countries, server load and things like that. Early Access actually started in my opinion, with MMOs, with the brightest of hopes and completely and totally clean ideals.”
Schubert has funded a few projects in Early Access, but said he wound up getting unfinished games in return. Considering he works on unfinished games for a living, he doesn’t have much patience for them in his spare time, and has since refrained from supporting games in Early Access.
“I genuinely think there are very few people in either Kickstarter or Early Access that are trying to screw customers,” Schubert said. “I think people in both those spaces are doing it because they love games and want to be part of it, and it’s hard for me to find fault in that at the end of the day.”
Microsoft’s Xbox division is in a much healthier state today than it was a year ago. It’s had a tough time of it; forced to reinvent itself in an excruciating, public way as the original design philosophy and marketing message for the Xbox One transpired to be about as popular as breaking wind in a crowded lift, resulting in executive reshuffles and a tricky refocus of the variety that would ordinarily be carried out pre-launch and behind closed doors. Even now, Xbox One remains lumbered with the fossilised detritus of its abortive original vision; Kinect 2.0 has been shed, freeing up system resources and marking a clear departure for the console, but other legacy items like the expensive hardware required for HDMI input and TV processing are stuck right there in the system’s hardware and cannot be extracted until the inevitable redesign of the box rolls around.
All the same, under Phil Spencer’s tenure as Xbox boss, the console has achieved a better turnaround than any of us would have dared to expect – but that, perhaps, speaks to the low expectations everyone had. In truth, despite the sterling efforts of Spencer and his team, Xbox One is still a console in trouble. A great holiday sales season was widely reported, but actually only happened in one territory (the USA, home turf that was utterly dominated by Xbox in the previous generation), was largely predicated on a temporary price-cut and was somewhat marred by serious technical issues that dogged the console’s headline title for the season, the Master Chief Collection.
Since the start of 2015, things have settled down to a more familiar pattern once more; PS4 consistently outsells Xbox One, even in the USA, generally racking up more than double the sales of its competitor in global terms. Xbox One sells better month-on-month than the Wii U, but that’s cold comfort indeed given that Nintendo’s console is widely seen as an outright commercial failure, and Nintendo has all but confirmed that it will receive an early bath, with a replacement in the form of Nintendo NX set to be announced in 2016. Microsoft isn’t anywhere near that level of crisis, but nor are its sales in 2015 thus far outside the realms of comparison with Wii U – and their installed bases are nigh-on identical.
The odd thing about all of this, and the really positive thing that Microsoft and its collaborators like to focus on, is that while the Xbox One looks like it’s struggling, it’s actually doing markedly better than the Xbox 360 was at the same point in its lifespan – by my rough calculations, Xbox One is about 2.5 million units north of the installed base of Xbox 360 at the same point. Oddly, that makes it more comparable with PS3, which was, in spite of its controversy-dogged early years, a much faster seller out the door than Microsoft’s console. The point stands, though, that in simple commercial terms Xbox One is doing better than Xbox 360 did – it just happens that PS4 is doing better than any console has ever done, and casting a long shadow over Microsoft’s efforts in the process.
The problem with this is that I don’t think very many people are under the impression that Microsoft, whose primary businesses lie in the sale of office and enterprise software, cloud services and operating systems, is in the videogames business just in order to turn a little profit. Ever since the departure of Steve Ballmer and the appointment of the much more business-focused Satya Nadella as CEO, Xbox has looked increasingly out of place at Microsoft, especially as projects like Surface and Windows Phone have been de-emphasised. If Xbox still has an important role, it’s as the flag-bearer for Microsoft’s brand in the consumer space; but even at that, the “beach-head in the living room” is far less important now that Sony no longer really looks like a competitor to Microsoft, the two companies having streamlined themselves to a point where they don’t really focus on the same things any more. Besides, Xbox One is being left behind in PS4′s dust; even if Microsoft felt like it needed a beach-head in the living room, Xbox wouldn’t exactly be doing the job any more.
But wait, we’ve been here before, right? All those rumours about Microsoft talking to Amazon about unloading the Xbox division came to nothing only a few short months ago, after all. GDC saw all manner of talk about Xbox One’s place in the Windows 10 ecosystem; Spencer repeatedly mentioned the division having Nadella’s backing, and then there’s the recent acquisition of Minecraft, which surely seems like an odd thing to take place if the position of Xbox within the Microsoft family is still up in the air. Isn’t this all settled now?
Perhaps not, because the rumours just won’t stop swirling that Microsoft had quietly put Xbox on the market and is actively hunting for a buyer. During GDC and ever since, the question of who will come to own Xbox has been posed and speculated upon endlessly. The console’s interactions with Windows 10, including the eventual transition of its own internal OS to the Windows 10 kernel; the supposed backing of Nadella; the acquisition of Minecraft; none of these things have really deterred the talk that Microsoft doesn’t see Xbox as a core part of its business any more and would be happy to see it gone. The peculiar shake-up of the firm’s executive team recently, with Phil Harrison quietly departing and Kudo Tsunoda stepping up to share management of some of Microsoft Game Studios’ teams with Phil Spencer, has added fuel to the fire; if you hold it up at a certain angle to the light, this decision could look like it’s creating an internal dividing line that would make a possible divestment easier.
Could it happen? Well, yes, it could – if Microsoft is really determined to sell Xbox and can find a suitable bidder, it could all go far more smoothly than you may imagine. Xbox One would continue to be a part of the Windows 10 vision to some extent, and would probably get its upgrade to the Windows 10 kernel as well, but would no longer be Microsoft hardware – not an unfamiliar situation for a company whose existence has mostly been predicated on selling operating systems for other people’s hardware. Nobody would buy Xbox without getting Halo, Forza and various other titles into the bargain, but Microsoft’s newly rediscovered enthusiasm for Windows gaming would suggest a complex deal wherein certain franchises (probably including Minecraft) remain with Microsoft, while others went off with the Xbox division. HoloLens would remain a Microsoft project; it’s not an Xbox project right now and has never really been pushed as an Xbox One add-on, despite the immediate comparisons it prompted with Sony’s Morpheus. Xbox games would still keep working with the Azure cloud services (Microsoft will happily sell access to that to anyone, on any platform), on which framework Xbox Live would continue to operate. So yes, Xbox could be divorced from Microsoft, maintaining a close and amiable relationship with the requisite parts of the company while taking up residence in another firm’s stable – a firm with a business that’s much more in line with the objectives of Xbox than Microsoft now finds itself to be.
“None of Xbox’ rivals would be in the market to buy such a large division, and no game company would wish to lumber itself with a platform holder business. Neither Apple nor Google make the slightest sense as a new home for Xbox either”
This, I think, is the stumbling block. I’m actually quite convinced that Microsoft would like to sell the Xbox division and has held exploratory talks to that end; I’m somewhat less convinced, but prepared to believe, that those talks are continuing even now. However, I’m struggling to imagine a buyer. None of Xbox’ rivals would be in the market to buy such a large division, and no game company would wish to lumber itself with a platform holder business. Neither Apple nor Google make the slightest sense as a new home for Xbox either; the whole product is distinctly “un-Apple” in its ethos and approach, while Google is broadly wary of hardware and almost entirely disinterested in games.
Amazon was the previously mentioned suitor, and to my mind, remains the most likely purchaser – but it’s seemingly decided to pursue its own strategy for living room devices for now, albeit with quite limited success. I could see Amazon still “exploring options” in this regard with Microsoft, but if that deal was going to happen, I would have expected it to happen last year. Who else is out there, then? Netflix, perhaps, is an interesting outside possibility – the company’s branching out into creating original TV content as well as being a platform for third-party content would be a reasonably good cultural match for the Game Studios aspect of Xbox, but it’s hard to imagine a company that has worked so hard to divorce itself from the entire physical product market suddenly leaping back into it with a large, expensive piece of hardware.
This, I think, is what ultimately convinces me that Xbox is staying at Microsoft – for better or worse. It might be much better for Xbox if it was a centrepiece project for a company whose business objectives matched its strengths; but I don’t think any such company exists to take the division off Microsoft’s hands. Instead, Spencer and his talented team will have to fight to ensure that Xbox remains relevant and important within Microsoft. Building its recognition as a Windows 10 platform is a good start; figuring out other ways in which Xbox can continue to be a great game platform while also bringing value to the other things that Microsoft does is the next challenge. Having turned around public perception of the console to a remarkable degree, the next big task for the Xbox team will be to change perceptions within Microsoft itself and within the investor community – if Xbox is stuck at Microsoft for the long haul, it needs to carve itself a new niche within a business vision that isn’t really about the living room any more.
There’s not a lot to argue with the consensus view that Valve had the biggest and most exciting announcement of GDC this year, in the form of the Vive VR headset it’s producing with hardware partner HTC. It may not be the ultimate “winner” of the battle between VR technologies, but it’s done more than most to push the whole field forwards – and it clearly sparked the imaginations of both developers and media in San Francisco earlier this month. Few of those who attended GDC seem particularly keen to talk about anything other than Vive.
From Valve’s perspective, that might be just as well – the incredibly strong buzz around Vive meant that it eclipsed Valve’s other hardware-related announcement at GDC, the unveiling of new details of the Steam Machines initiative. Ordinarily, it might be an annoying (albeit very high-quality) problem to have one of your announcements completely dampen enthusiasm for the other; in this instance, it’s probably welcome, because what trickled out of GDC regarding Steam Machines is making this look like a very stunted, unloved and disappointing project indeed.
To recap briefly; Steam Machines is Valve’s attempt to create a range of attractive, small-form-factor PC hardware from top manufacturers carrying Valve’s seal of approval (hence being called “Steam Machines” and quite distinctly not “PCs”), running Valve’s own gaming-friendly flavour of the Linux OS, set up to connect to your living room TV and controlled with Valve’s custom joypad device. From a consumer standpoint, they’re Steam consoles; a way to access the enormous library of Steam content (at least the Linux-friendly parts of it) through a device that’s easy to buy, set up and control, and designed from the ground up for the living room.
That’s a really great idea, but one which requires careful execution. Most of all, if it’s going to work, it needs a fairly careful degree of control; Valve isn’t building the machines itself, but since it’s putting its seal of approval on them (allowing them to use the Steam trademark and promoting them through the Steam service), it ought to have the power to enforce various standards related to specification and performance, ensuring that buyers of Steam Machines get a clear, simple, transparent way to understand the calibre of machine they’re purchasing and the gaming performance they can expect as a result.
Since the announcement of the Steam Machines initiative, various ways of implementing this have been imagined; perhaps a numeric score assigned to each Machine allowing buyers to easily understand the price to performance ratio on offer? Perhaps a few distinct “levels” of Steam Machine, with some wiggle room for manufacturers to distinguish themselves, but essentially giving buyers a “Good – Better – Best” set of options that can be followed easily? Any such rating system could be tied in to the Steam store itself, so you could easily cross-reference and find out which system is most appropriate for the kind of games you actually want to play.
In the final analysis, it would appear that Valve’s decision on the myriad possibilities available to it in this regard is the worst possible cop-out, from a consumer standpoint; the company’s decided to do absolutely none of them. The Steam Machines page launched on the Steam website during GDC lists 15 manufacturers building the boxes; many of those manufacturers are offering three models or more at different price and performance levels. There is absolutely no way to compare or even understand performance across the different Steam Machines on offer, short of cross-referencing the graphics cards, processors, memory types and capacities and drive types and capacities used in each one – and if you’ve got the up-to-date technical knowledge to accurately balance those specifications across a few dozen different machines and figure out which one is the best, then you’re quite blatantly going to be the sort of person who saves money by buying the components separately and wouldn’t buy a Steam Machine in a lifetime.
“Valve seems to have copped out entirely from the idea of using its new systems to make the process of buying a gaming PC easier or more welcoming for consumers”
In short, unless there’s a pretty big rabbit that’s going to be pulled out of a hat between now and the launch of the first Steam Machines in the autumn, Valve seems to have copped out entirely from the idea of using its new systems to make the process of buying a gaming PC easier or more welcoming for consumers – and in the process, appears to have removed pretty much the entire raison d’etre of Steam Machines. The opportunity for the PC market to be grown significantly by becoming more “console-like” isn’t to do with shoving PC components into smaller boxes; that’s been happening for years, occasionally with pretty impressive results. Nor is it necessarily about reducing the price, which has also been happening for some years (and which was never going to happen with Steam Machines anyway, as Valve is of no mind to step in and become a loss-leading platform holder).
Rather, it’s about lowering the bar to entry, which remains dizzyingly high for PC gaming – not financially, but in knowledge terms. A combination of relatively high-end technical knowledge and of deliberate and cynical marketing-led obfuscation of technical terminology and product numbering has meant that the actual process of figuring out what you need to buy in order to play the games you want at a degree of quality that’s acceptable is no mean feat for an outsider wanting to engage (or re-engage) with PC games; it’s in this area, the simplicity and confidence of buying a system that you know will play all the games marketed for it, that consoles have an enormous advantage over the daunting task of becoming a PC gamer.
Lacking any guarantee of performance or simple way of understanding what sort of system you’re buying, the Steam Machines as they stand don’t do anything to make that process easier. Personally, I ought to be slap bang in the middle of the market for a Steam Machine; I’m a lapsed PC gamer with a decent disposable income who is really keen to engage with some of the games coming out in the coming year (especially some of the Kickstarted titles which hark back to RPGs I used to absolutely adore), but I’m totally out of touch with what the various specifications and numbers mean. A Steam Machine that I could buy with the confidence that it would play the games I want at decent quality would be a really easy purchase to justify; yet after an hour flicking over and back between the Steam Machines page launched during GDC and various tech websites (most of which assume a baseline of knowledge which, in my case, is a good seven or eight years out of date), I am no closer to understanding which machine I would need or what kind of price point is likely to be right for me. Balls to it; browser window full of tabs looking at tech spec mumbo-jumbo closed, PS4 booted up. Sale lost.
This would be merely a disappointment – a missed opportunity to lower the fence and let a lot more people enjoy PC gaming – were it not for the extra frisson of difficulty posed by none other than Valve’s more successful GDC announcement, the Vive VR headset. You see, one of the things that’s coming across really clearly from all the VR technology arriving on the market is that frame-rate – silky-smooth frame-rate, at least 60FPS and preferably more if the tech can manage it – is utterly vital to the VR experience, making the difference between a nauseating, headache-inducing mess and a Holodeck wet dream. Suddenly, the question of PC specifications has become even more important than before, because PCs incapable of delivering content of sufficient quality simply won’t work for VR. One of the appealing things about a Steam Machine ought to be the guarantee that I’ll be able to plug in a Vive headset and enjoy Valve’s VR, if not this year then at some point down the line; yet lacking any kind of certification that says “yes, this machine is going to be A-OK for VR experiences for now”, the risk of an expensive screw-up in the choice of machine to buy seems greater than ever before.
I may be giving Steam Machines a hard time unfairly; it may be that Valve is actually going to slap the manufacturers into line and impose a clear, transparent way of measuring and certifying performance on the devices, giving consumers confidence in their purchases and lowering the bar to entry to PC gaming. I hope so; this is something that only Valve is in a position to accomplish and that is more important than ever with VR on the horizon and approaching fast. The lack of any such system in the details announced thus far is bitterly disappointing, though. Without it, Steam Machines are nothing more than a handful of small form-factor PCs running a slightly off-kilter OS; of no interest to hobbyists, inaccessible to anyone else, and completely lacking a compelling reason to exist.
Free to play has an image problem. It’s the most influential and arguably important development in the business of games in decades, a stratospherically successful innovation which has enabled the opening up of games to a wider audience than ever before. Implemented well, with clear understanding of its principles and proper respect afforded to players and creativity alike, it’s more fair and even, in a sense, democratic than old-fashioned models of up-front payment; in theory, players pay in proportion to their enjoyment, handing over money in small transactions for a continued or deepened relationship with a game they already love, rather than giving a large amount of cash up-front for a game they’ve only ever seen in (possibly doctored) screenshots and videos.
While that is a fair description, I think, of the potential of free-to-play, it’s quite clearly not the image that the business model bears right now. You probably scoffed about half a dozen times reading the above paragraph – it may be a fair description of free-to-play at its hypothetical best, but it’s almost certainly at odds with your perceptions.
How, then, might we describe the perception of F2P? Greedy, exploitative, unfair, cheating… Once these adjectives start rolling, it’s hard to get them to stop. The negative view of F2P is that it’s a series of cheap psychological tricks designed to get people to spend money compulsively without ever realising quite how much cash they’re wasting on what is ultimately a very shallow and cynical game experience.
I don’t think it’s entirely unsurprising or unexpected that this perception should be held by “core” gamers or those enamoured of existing styles of game. Although F2P has proven very successful for games like MMOs and MOBAs, it’s by no means universally applicable, either across game types or across audience types; some blundering attempts by publishers to add micro-transactions to premium console and PC titles, combined with deep misgivings over the complete domination of F2P in the mobile game market, have left plenty of more traditional gamers with a very negative and extremely defensive attitude regarding the new business model. That’s fine, though; F2P isn’t for that audience (though it’s a little more complex than that in reality; many players will happily tap away at an F2P mobile game while waiting for matchmaking in a premium console game).
What’s increasingly clear, however, is that there’s an image problem for F2P right in the midst of the audience at whom it’s actually aimed. The negative perception of F2P is becoming increasingly mainstream. It gets mass-media coverage on occasion; recently, it spurred Apple to create a promotion specifically pointing App Store customers to games with no in-app purchases. I happen to think that’s a great idea personally, but what does it say about the feedback from Apple’s customers regarding F2P games, that promotion of non-F2P titles was even a consideration?
Even some of the most successful F2P developers now seem to want to distance themselves from the business model; this week’s interview with Crossy Road developers Hipster Whale saw the team performing linguistic somersaults to avoid labelling their free-to-play game as being free-to-play. Crossy Road is a brilliant, fun, interesting F2P game that hits pretty much all of the positive notes I laid out up in the first paragraph; that even its own developers seem to view “free-to-play” as an overtly negative phrase is deeply concerning.
The problem is that the negativity has a fair basis; there’s a lot of absolute guff out there, with the App Store utterly teeming with F2P games that genuinely are exploitative and unfair; worst of all, the bad games tend to be stupid, mean-spirited and grasping, attempting to suck money out of easily tricked customers (and let’s be blunt here: we’re talking, in no small measure, about kids) rather than undertaking the harder but vastly more rewarding task of actually entertaining and enthralling people until they feel perfectly happy with parting with a little cash to see more, do more or just to deepen their connection to the game.
Such awfulness, though, is not universal by any measure. There are tons of good F2P games out there; games that are creative and interesting (albeit often within a template of sorts; F2P was quick to split off into slowly evolving genre-types, though nobody who’s played PC or console games for very long can reasonably criticise that particular development), games that give you weeks or months of enjoyment without ever forcing a penny from your pocket unless you’re actually deeply engaged enough to want to pay up to get something more. Most of F2P’s bone fide hits fit into this category, in fact; games like Supercell’s Clash of Clans or Hay Day, GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragons and, yes, even King’s Candy Crush Saga, which is held aloft unfairly as an example of F2P scurrilousness, yet has never extracted a penny from 70 percent of the people who have finished (finished!) the game. That’s an absolutely enormous amount of shiny candy-matching enjoyment (while I don’t like the game personally, I don’t question that it’s enjoyment for those who play it so devotedly) for free.
Unfortunately, the negative image that has been built up by free-to-play threatens not just the nasty, exploitative games, but all the perfectly decent ones as well – from billion-grossing phenomena like Puzzle & Dragons to indie wunderkind like Crossy Road. If free-to-play as a “brand” becomes irreparably damaged, the consequences may be far-reaching.
A year ago, I’d have envisaged that the most dangerous consequence on the horizon was heavy-handed legislation – with the EU, or perhaps the USA, clamping down on F2P mechanisms in a half-understood way that ended up damaging perfectly honest developers along with two-bit scam merchants. I still think that’s possible; companies have ducked and dived around small bits of legislation (or the threat of small bits of legislation) in territories including Japan and the EU, but the hammer could still fall in this regard. However, I no longer consider that the largest threat. No, the largest threat is Apple; the company which did more than any other to establish F2P as a viable market remains the company that could pull the carpet out from underneath it entirely, and while I doubt that’s on the cards right now, the wind is certainly turning in that direction.
Apple’s decision to promote non-F2P titles on its store may simply be an editor’s preference; but given the growing negativity around F2P, it may also be a sign that customer anger over F2P titles on iOS is reaching receptive ears at Apple. Apple originally permitted free apps (with IAP or otherwise) for the simple reason that having a huge library of free software available to customers was a brilliant selling point for the iPhone and iPad. At present, that remains the case; but if the negativity around the perception of F2P games were ever to start to outweigh the positive benefits of all that free software, do not doubt that Apple would reverse course fast enough to make your head spin. Reckon that its 30 percent share of all those Puzzle & Dragons and Candy Crush Saga revenues would be enough to make it think twice? Reckon again; App Store revenue is a drop in the ocean for Apple, and if abusive F2P ever starts to significantly damage the public perception of Apple’s devices, it will ban the model (in part, at least) without a second thought to revenue.
Some of you, those who fully buy into the negative image of F2P, might think that would be a thing to celebrate; ding, dong, the witch is dead! That’s a remarkably short-sighted view, however. In truth, F2P has been the saviour of a huge number of game development jobs and studios that would otherwise have been lost entirely in the implosion of smaller publishers and developers over the past five years; it’s provided a path into the industry for a great many talented creative people, grown the audience for games unimaginably and has provided a boost not only to mobile and casual titles, but to core games as well – especially in territories like East Asia. Wishing harm on F2P is wishing harm on many thousands of industry jobs; so don’t wish F2P harm. Wish that it would be better; that way, everyone wins.
The security of the employees of Phantom Dust developer Darkside Game Studios is in doubt, after Microsoft decided to sever all professional ties to the studio.
Phantom Dust is a remake of an Xbox game from 2004, which was designed by Yukio Futatsugi, the creator of Panzer Dragoon. Darkside’s project was unveiled at E3 last year as an exclusive title for the Xbox One, but whatever agreement existed between the studio and Microsoft has been terminated.
Here’s the official line: “Microsoft partnered with Darkside Game Studios in the development of Phantom Dust, but our working relationship has now ended. We have great respect for their studio and their work in the industry.
“While we do not have anything new to share on Phantom Dust at this time, we can confirm that development of the title continues. We look forward to sharing more details on the game as we get closer to release.”
Darkside, which is based in Florida, has contributed to the development of a host of major releases, including a couple of Xbox exclusives: Sunset Overdrive, Gears of War: Judgment, the Borderlands franchise, the Bioshock franchise; it’s a solid track record, albeit entirely composed of contract work, and Phantom Dust was to be its first solo project.
However, the “respect” Microsoft has for that track record is now the subject of suspicion, with several sources from within Darkside claiming that the company has been forced to layoff its entire staff – around 50 people.
“The executives who saw it were impressed and as late as this morning gave our team every indication that the project was on solid ground,” one of the sources said to Kotaku. “Yet we got the phone call today that someone up on high who in all likelihood wasn’t even aware of the game in detail shut it down.”
The notion that the alleged termination of Darkside’s working relationship with Microsoft was sudden is reinforced by the studio’s recruitment page, which advertised six open positions as recently as the start of January. Among the perks listed there, one stands out: “Working with major publishers.”
Microsoft offered no comment on the situation at Darkside, but we are pursuing the studio’s management for clarification.
A year or two ago, it seemed that doom and gloom reigned over the prospects for “core” gaming. With smartphones and tablets becoming this decade’s ubiquitous gaming devices, casual and social games ascendant and free-to-play established as just about the only effective way to make money from the teeming masses swarming to gaming for the first time, dire predictions abounded about the death of game consoles, the decline of paid-for games and the dwindling importance of “core” gamers to the games industry at large.
This week’s headlines speak of a different narrative – one that’s become increasingly strong as we’ve delved into what 2015 has to offer. Sony’s financial figures look pretty good, buoyed partially by the weakness of the Yen but notably also by the incredible success of the PlayStation 4 – a console which more aggressive commentators were reading funeral rites for before it was even announced. Both of the PS4′s competitors, incidentally, ended 2014 (and began 2015) in a stronger sales position than they were in 12 months previously, with next-gen home consoles overall heading for the 40 million sales mark in pretty much record time.
Then there’s the software story of the week; the startling sales of Grand Theft Auto V, which thanks to ten million sales of the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game, have now topped 45 million units. That’s an incredible figure, one which suggests that this single game has generated well over $2 billion in revenue thus far; the GTA franchise as a whole must, at this point, be one of the most valuable entertainment franchises in existence, comparable in revenue terms to the likes of Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Look, this is basically feel-good stuff for the games business; “hey guys, we’re doing great, our biggest franchise is right up there with Hollywood’s finest and these console sales are a promise of a solid future”. Stories like this used to turn up all the time back when games were genuinely struggling to be recognised as a valid and important industry alongside TV, music and film. Nowadays, that struggle has been internalised; it’s worth stepping back every now and then from the sheer enormity of figures like Apple and Samsung’s smartphone sales, or Puzzle & Dragons’ revenue (comparable to GTAV’s, but whether that means the game can birth a successful franchise or sustain itself long-term is another question entirely), or the number of players engaged with top F2P games, to remind ourselves that there’s still huge success happening in the “traditional” end of the market.
The take-away, perhaps, is that this isn’t a zero-sum game. The great success of casual and social games, first on Facebook and now on smartphones, isn’t that they’ve replaced core games, cannibalising the existing high-value market; it’s that they’ve acquired a whole new audience for themselves. Sure, there’s overlap, but there’s little evidence to suggest that this overlap results in people engaging less with core games; I, for one, have discovered that many smartphone F2P games have a core loop that fits nicely into the match-making and loading delays for Destiny’s Crucible.
That’s not to say that changes to the wider business haven’t resonated back through the “core” games space. The massive success of a game like GTAV has a dark side; it reflects the increasing polarisation of the high-end games market, in which successful games win bigger than ever, but games which fail to become enormous hits find themselves failing utterly. There’s no mid-market any more; you’re either a complete hit or a total miss. Developers have lamented the loss of the “AA” market (as distinct from the “AAA” space) for some time; that loss is becoming increasingly keenly felt as enormous budgets, production values and financial pressures come to bear on a smaller and smaller line-up of top-tier titles. Several factors drove the death of AA, with production costs and team sizes being major issues, but the rise of casual games and even of increasingly high-quality indie titles undoubtedly played a role – creating whole new market sectors that cost far less to consumers than AA titles had done.
It’s not just success that’s been polarised by this process; it’s also risk. At the high-end of the market, risk is simply unacceptable, such are the enormous financial figures at play. Thus it’s largely left to the low-end – the indie scene, the flood of titles appearing on the App Store, on Steam and even on the likes of PlayStation Vita – to take interesting risks and challenge gaming conventions. Along the way, some of the talented creators involved in these scenes are either trying to engage new audiences, or to engage existing audiences in new ways; sometimes experimenting with gameplay and interactive, sometimes with narrative and art style, sometimes with business model or distribution.
All of which leads me to explain why I keep writing “core” games, with inverted commas around “core”; because honestly, I’m increasingly uncertain what this term means. It used to refer to specific genres, largely speaking those considered to have special resonance for geeky guys; gory science fiction FPS games, high fantasy RPGs, complex beat-’em-ups and shoot-’em-ups, graphic survival horror titles, war-torn action games. Then, for a while, the rise of F2P seemed to make the definition of “core” shimmer and reform itself; now it meant “games people pay for up front, and the kind of people who pay for those games”.
Now? Now, who knows what “core” really means? League of Legends is certainly something you have to be pretty damn deeply involved with to enjoy, but it’s free-to-play; so is Hearthstone, which is arguably not quite so “core” but still demands a lot of attention and focus. There are great games on consoles – systems whose owners paid hundreds of dollars for a devoted gaming machine – which are free-to-play. There are games on mobile phones that cost money up front and are intricate and engrossing. There are games you can download for free on your PC, or pick up for a few dollars on Steam, that explore all sorts of interesting and complex niches of narrative, of human experience and of the far-flung corners of what it means to play a “game”. Someone who sits down for hours unravelling the strands of a text adventure written in Twine; are they “core”? Someone who treats retro gaming like a history project, travelling back through the medium’s tropes and concepts to find their origin points; are they “core”? How about Frank Underwood in House of Cards, largely disinterested in games but picking up a violent shooter to work out frustrations on his Xbox in the evenings; is he a “core gamer”?
Don’t get me wrong; this fuzzing of the lines around the concept of “core” is, to my mind, a vital step in the evolution of our medium. That the so-called “battle” between traditional business models and F2P, between AAA studios and indies, between casual and core, was not a zero-sum game and could result in the expansion of the entire industry, not the destruction of one side or another, has been obvious from the outset. What was less obvious and took a little more time to come to pass was that not only would each of those sides not detract from the others; they would actually learn from one another and help to fuel one another’s development. New creative outlooks, new approaches to interactivity, new thoughts on social and community aspects of gaming, new ideas about business models and monetisation; these all mingle with one another and help to make up for the creative drought at the top of the AAA industry (and increasingly, at the top of the F2P industry, too) by providing a steady feed of new concepts and ideas from below.
It’s fantastic and very positive that the next-gen consoles are doing well and that GTAV has sold so many copies (dark thoughts regarding the polarisation of AAA success aside); but it’s wrong, I think, to just look at this as being “hey, core gaming is doing fine”. Games aren’t made up of opposed factions, casual at war with core; it’s a spectrum, attracting relevant audiences from across the board. Rather than pitting GTAV against Puzzle and Dragons, I’d rather look at the enormous success of both games as being a sign of how well games are doing overall; rather than stacking sales of next-gen consoles against sales of smartphones and reheating old arguments about dedicated game devices vs multi-purpose devices, I’d rather think about the enormous addressable audience that represents overall. As the arguments about casual or F2P gaming “destroying” core games start to fade out, let’s take this opportunity to rid ourselves of some of our more meaningless distinctions and categories for good.
Over the last few years, the industry has seen budget polarization on an enormous scale. The cost of AAA development has ballooned, and continues to do so, pricing out all but the biggest warchests, while the indie and mobile explosions are rapidly approaching the point of inevitable over-saturation and consequential contraction. Stories about the plight of mid-tier studios are ten-a-penny, with the gravestones of some notable players lining the way.
For a company like Ninja Theory, in many ways the archetypal mid-tier developer, survival has been a paramount concern. Pumping out great games (Ninja Theory has a collective Metacritic average of 75) isn’t always enough. Revitalizing a popular IP like DMC isn’t always enough. Working on lucrative and successful external IP like Disney Infinity isn’t always enough. When the fence between indie and blockbuster gets thinner and thinner, it becomes ever harder to balance upon.
Last year, Ninja Theory took one more shot at the upper echelons. For months the studio had worked on a big budget concept which would sit comfortably alongside the top-level, cross-platform releases of the age: a massive, multiplayer sci-fi title that would take thousands of combined, collaborative hours to exhaust. Procedurally generated missions and an extensive DLC structure would ensure longevity and engagement. Concept art and pre-vis trailers in place, the team went looking for funding. Razor was on its way.
Except the game never quite made it. Funding failed to materialize, and no publisher would take the project on. It didn’t help that the search for a publishing deal arrived almost simultaneously with the public announcement of Destiny. Facing an impossible task, the team abandoned the project and moved on with other ideas. Razor joined a surprisingly large pile of games that never make it past the concept stage.
Sadly, it’s not a new story. In fact, at the time, it wasn’t even a news story. But this time Ninja Theory’s reaction was different. This was a learning experience, and learning experiences should be shared. Team lead and co-founder Tameem Antoniades turned the disappointment not just into a lesson, but a new company ethos: involve your audience at an early stage, retain control, fund yourself, aim high, and don’t compromise. The concept of the Independent AAA Proposition, enshrined in a GDC presentation give by Antoniades, was born.
Now the team has a new flagship prospect, cemented in this fresh foundation. In keeping with the theme of open development and transparency, Hellblade is being created with the doors to its development held wide open, with community and industry alike invited to bear witness to the minutiae of the process. Hellblade will be a cross-platform game with all of the ambition for which Ninja Theory is known, and yet it is coming from an entirely independent standpoint. Self-published and self-governed, Hellblade is the blueprint for Ninja Theory’s future.
“We found ourselves as being one of those studios that’s in the ‘squeezed middle’,” project lead Dominic Matthews says. “We’re about 100 people, so we kind of fall into that space where we could try to really diversify and work on loads of smaller projects, but indie studios really have an advantage over us, because they can do things with far lower overheads. We have been faced with this choice of, do we go really, really big with our games and become the studio that is 300 people or even higher than that, and try to tick all of these boxes that the blockbuster AAA games need now.
“We don’t really want to do that. We tried to do that. When we pitched Razor, which we pitched to big studios, that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. That was going to be a huge game; a huge game with a service that would go on for years and would be a huge, multiplayer experience. Although I’m sure it would have been really cool to make that, it kind of showed to us that we’re not right to try to make those kinds of games. Games like Enslaved – trying to get a game like that signed now would be impossible. The way that it was signed, there would be too much pressure for it to be…to have the whole feature set that justifies a $60 price-tag.
“That $60 price-tag means games have to add multiplayer, and 40 hours of gameplay minimum, and a set of characters that appeal to as many people as they possibly can. There’s nothing wrong with games that do that. There’s some fantastic games that do, AAA games. Though we do think that there’s another space that sits in-between. I think a lot of indie games are super, super creative, but they can be heavily stylised. They work within the context of the resources that people have.
“We want to create a game that’s like Enslaved, or like DMC, or like Heavenly Sword. That kind of third-person, really high quality action game, but make it work in an independent model.”
Cutting out the middle-man is a key part of the strategy. But if dealing with the multinational machinery of ‘big pubs’ is what drove Ninja Theory to make such widespread changes, there must surly have been some particularly heinous deals that pushed it over the edge?
“I think it’s just a reality of the way that those publisher/developer deals work,” Matthews says. “In order for a publisher to take a gamble on your game and on your idea, you have to give up a lot. That includes the IP rights. It’s just the realities of how things work in that space. For us, I think any developer would say the same thing, being able to retain your IP is a really important thing. So far, we haven’t been out to do that.
“With Hellblade, it’s really nice that we can be comfortable in the fact that we’re not trying to appeal to everyone. We’re not trying to hit unrealistic forecasts. Ultimately, I think a lot of games have unrealistic forecasts. Everyone knows that they’re unrealistic, but they have to have these unrealistic forecasts to justify the investment that’s going into development.
“Ultimately, a lot of games, on paper, fail because they don’t hit those forecasts. Then the studios and the people that made those games, they don’t get the chance to make any more. It’s an incredibly tough market. Yes, we’ve enjoyed working with our publishers, but that’s not to say that the agreements that developed are all ideal, because they’re not. The catalyst to us now being able to do this is really difficult distribution. We can break away from that retail $60 model, where every single game has to be priced that way, regardless of what it is.
Driven into funding only games that will comfortably shift five or six million units, Matthews believes that publishers have no choice but to stick to the safe bets, a path that eventually winnows down diversity to the point of stagnation, where only a few successful genres ever end up getting made: FPS, sports, RPG, maybe racing. Those genres become less and less distinct, while simultaneously shoe-horning in mechanics that prove popular elsewhere and shunning true innovation.
While perhaps briefly sustainable, Matthews sees that as a creative cul-de-sac. Customers, he feels, are too smart to put up with it.
“Consumers are going to get a bit wary of games that have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them”
“I think consumers are going to get a bit wary. Get a bit wary of games that have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them. I think gamers are going to start saying, ‘For what?’
“The pressures are for games to appeal to more and more people. It used to be if you sold a million units, then that was OK. Then it was three million units. Now it’s five million units. Five million units is crazy. We’ve never sold five million units.”
It’s not just consumers who are getting wise, though. Matthews acknowledges that the publishers also see the dead-end approaching.
“I think something has to be said for the platform holders now. Along with digital distribution, the fact that the platform holders are really opening their doors and encouraging self-publishing and helping independent developers to take on some of those publishing responsibilities, has changed things for us. I think it will change things for a lot of other developers. “Hellblade was announced at the GamesCom Playstation 4 press conference. My perception of that press conference was that the real big hitters in that were all independent titles. It’s great that the platform holders have recognised that. There’s a real appetite from their players for innovative, creative games.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to try to do things differently. Like on Hellblade, we’re questioning everything that we do. Not just on development, but also how we do things from a business perspective as well. Normally you would say, ‘Well, you involve these types of agencies, get these people involved in this, and a website will take this long to create.’ The next thing that we’re doing is, we’re saying, ‘Well, is that true? Can we try and do these things a different way,’ because you can.
“There’s definitely pressure for us to fill all those gaps left by a publisher, but it’s a great challenge for us to step up to. Ultimately, we have to transition into a publisher. That’s going to happen at some point, if we want to publish our own games.”
While the Sony PlayStation 4 has been selling very well, it seems that Christmas was not really its season.
Sony said that the PlayStation 4 has sold more than 18.5 million units since the new generation of consoles launched. While that is good and makes the PS4 the fastest selling PlayStation to date, there was no peaking at Christmas.
You would think that the PS4 would sell well at Christmas as parents were forced to do grevious bodily harm to their credit cards to shut their spoilt spawn up during the school holidays. But apparently not.
Apparently, the weapon of choice against precious snowflakes being bored was an Xbox One which saw a Christmas spike in sales.
Sony said that its new numbers are pretty much on target, it sold the expected 2 million sales per month rate.
Redmond will be happy with that result even if it still has a long way to go before it matches the PlayStation 4 on sales.
While we can’t get a real handle on when Microsoft might reveal the VR headset that they have had in development, we have learned from our sources that it is well into development and some selected developers already have developmental prototypes.
It is hard to say when Microsoft might actually reveal the new VR headset and technology, but it would seem that GDC or E3 would be the likely events to see it introduced. We do know that Microsoft is targeting 2015 to move the VR headset into mass production and it is thought that we will see versions for both the Xbox One and PC. Though we expect the PC version to come a little after the Xbox One version.
Rumor has it that the same development team that worked on the Surface tablet are the team that has taken on this project as well.
Recently, my smartphone started acting up. I think the battery is on the way out; it does bizarre things, like shutting itself off entirely when I try to take a picture on 60per cent battery, or suddenly dropping from fully charged to giving me “10per cent remaining, plug me in or else” warnings for no reason at all. I can get it fixed free of charge, but it’s an incredibly frustrating, bothersome thing, especially given how much money I’ve paid for this phone. Most of us have probably had an experience like this with a piece of hardware; a shoddy washing machine that mangled your favorite shirt, a shiny new LCD screen with an intensely irritating dead pixel, an Xbox 360 whose Red Ring of Death demanded a lengthy trip back to the service center. There are few of us who can’t identify with the utter frustration of having a consumer product that you’ve paid good money for simply fail to do its job properly. Sure, it’s a #FirstWorldProblem for the most part (unless it’s something like a faulty airbag in your Honda, obviously), but it’s intensely annoying and certainly makes you less likely to buy anything from that manufacturer again.
Given that we could all probably agree that a piece of hardware being faulty is utterly unacceptable, I’m not sure why software seems to get a free pass sometimes. Sure, there are lots of consumers who complain bitterly about buggy games, but by and large games with awful quality control problems tend to get slapped with labels like “flawed but great”, or have their enormous faults explained in a review only to see the final score reflect none of those problems. It’s not just the media that does this (and for what it’s worth, I don’t think this is corruption so much as an ill-considered aspect of media culture itself); for every broken game, there are a host of consumers out there ready to defend it to the hilt, for whatever reason.
I raise this problem because, while buggy games have always been with us – often hilariously, especially back in the early days of the PlayStation – the past year or so has seen a spate of high-profile, problematic games being launched, suggesting that even some of the industry’s AAA titles are no longer free from truly enormous technical issues. The technical problems that have become increasingly prevalent in recent years are causing genuine damage to the industry; from the botched online launches of games like Driveclub and Battlefield through to the horrendous graphical problems that plague some players of Assassin’s Creed Unity, they are giving consumers terrible experiences of what should be high points for the medium, creating a loud and outspoken group of disgruntled players who act to discourage others, and helping to drive a huge wedge between media (who, understandably, want to talk about the experience and context of a game rather than its technical details) and consumers (who consider a failure to address glaring bugs to be a sign of collusion between media and publishers, and a failure on the part of the media to serve their audience).
We can all guess why this is happening. I don’t wish in any way to underplay how complex and difficult it is to develop bug-free software; I write software tools to assist in my research work, and given how often those simple tools, developed by two or three people at most, have me tearing my hair out at 3am as I search for the single misplaced character that’s causing the whole project to behave oddly, I am absolutely the last person in the world who is going to dismiss the difficulty involved in debugging something as enormous and complex as a modern videogame. Debugging games has inevitably become harder as team sizes and technical complexity has grown; that’s to be expected.
However, just because something is harder doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be happening, and that’s the second part of this problem. Games are developed to incredibly tight schedules, sometimes even tighter today (given the culture of annual updates to core franchises) than they were in the past. Enormous marketing budgets are preallocated and planned out to support a specific release date. The game can’t miss that date; if there are show-stopping bugs, the game will just have to ship with those in place, and with a bit of luck they’ll be able to fix them in time to issue a day-one digital patch (and if your console isn’t online, tough luck).
Yet this situation is artificial in itself. It’s entirely possible to structure your company’s various divisions around the notion that a game will launch when it’s actually ready, and ensure that you only turn out high-quality software; Nintendo, in particular, manages this admirably. Certainly, some people criticise the company for delaying software and it does open up gaps in the release schedule, but compared to the enormous opprobrium which would be heaped upon the company if it turned out a Mario Kart game where players kept falling through the track, or a Legend of Zelda where Link’s face kept disappearing, leaving only eyes and teeth floating ghoulishly in negative space (sleep well, kids!), an occasional delay is a corporate cultural decision that makes absolute sense – not only for Nintendo, but for game companies in general.
It doesn’t even have to go as far as delaying games on a regular basis. There is a strong sense that some of the worst offenders in terms of buggy games simply aren’t taking QA seriously, which is something that absolutely needs to be fixed – and if not, deserves significant punishment from consumers and critics alike. Quality control has a bit of an image problem; there’s a standard stereotype of a load of pizza-fuelled youngsters in their late teens testing games for a few years as they try to break into a “real” games industry job. The image doesn’t come from thin air; for some companies, this is absolutely a reality. It is, however, utterly false to think that every company sees its QA in those terms. For companies that take QA seriously, it’s a division that’s respected and well-treated, with its own career progression tracks, all founded on the basic understanding that a truly good QA engineer is worth his or her weight in gold.
Not prioritising your QA department – not ensuring that it’s a division that’s filling up with talented, devoted people who see QA as potentially being a real career and not just a stepping stone – is exactly the same thing as not prioritising your consumers. Not building time for proper QA into your schedules, or failing to enact processes which ensure that QA is being properly listened to and involved, is nothing short of a middle finger raised to your entire consumer base – and you only get to do that so many times before your consumers start giving the gesture right back to you and your precious franchises.
Media does absolutely have a role to play in this – one to which it has, by and large, not lived up. Games with serious QA problems do not deserve critical acclaim. I understand fully that reviewers want to engage with more interesting topics than technical issues, but I think it’s worth thinking about how film reviewers would treat a movie with unfinished special effects or audio mixed such that voices can’t be heard; or perhaps how music reviewers would treat an album with a nasty recording hiss in the background, or with certain tracks accidentally dropping out or skipping. Regardless of the good intentions of the creative people involved in these projects, the resulting product would be slammed, and rightly so. It’s perhaps the very knowledge of the drubbing that they would receive that means that such awful movies and albums almost never see the light of day (and when they do, they become legendary in their awfulness; consider the unfinished CGI at the end of “The Scorpion King”, which remains a watchword for terrible special effects many years later).
Game companies, by contrast, seem to feel unpleasantly comfortable with releasing games that don’t work and aren’t properly tested. Certain technical aspects probably contribute to this; journalists may be wary of slamming a game for bugs that may be fixed in a day-one patch, for instance. Yet it seems that there’s little choice but to make the criteria stricter in this regard. If media and consumers alike do not take to punishing companies severely for failing to pay proper respect to QA procedures for their games, this problem will only worsen as firms realize that they they can get away with launching unfinished software.
We all want a world where technical issues are nothing but a footnote in the discussion of games; that will be the ultimate triumph of game technology, when it truly becomes transparent. We do not, however, live in that time yet, and the regular launches of games that don’t live up to even the most basic standards of quality is something nobody should be asked to tolerate. The move by some websites to stop reviewing online games until the servers are live and populated with real players is a good start; but the overall tolerance for bugs and willingness to forgive publishers for such transgressions (“we know the last game was a buggy mess, but we’re still going to publish half a dozen puff pieces that will push our readers to pre-order the sequel!”) needs to be fixed. If we want to talk about the things that are important about games (and we do!), it’s essential that we fix the culture that ignores QA and technical issues first.
For independent developers, the last decade has been an endless procession of migratory possibilities. The physical world was defined by compromise, dependence and strategically closed doors, but the rise of digital afforded freedom and flexibility in every direction. New platforms, new business models, new methods of distribution and communication; so many fresh options appeared in such a brief window of time that knowing where and when to place your bet was almost as important as having the best product. For a few years, right around 2008, there was promise almost everywhere you looked.
That has changed. No matter how pregnant with potential they once seemed, virtually every marketplace has proved unable to support the spiralling number of new releases. If the digital world is one with infinite shelf-space for games, it has offered no easy solutions on how to make them visible. Facebook, Android, iOS, Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network; all have proved to be less democratic than they first appeared, their inevitable flaws exposed as the weight of choice became heavier and heavier. As Spil Games’ Eric Goossens explained to me at the very start of 2014: “It just doesn’t pay the bills any more.”
Of course, Goossens was talking specifically about indie development of casual games. And at that point, with 2013 only just receding from view, I would probably have named one exception to the trend, one place where the balance between volume and visibility gave indies the chance to do unique and personal work and still make a decent living. That place would have been Steam, and if I was correct in my assessment for even one second, it wasn’t too long before the harsher reality became clear.
After less than five months of 2014 had passed, Valve’s platform had already added more new games than in the whole of the previous year. Initiatives like Greenlight and Early Access were designed to make Steam a more open and accessible platform, but they were so effective that some of what made it such a positive force for indies was lost in the process. Steam’s culture of deep-discounting has become more pervasive and intense in the face of this chronic overcrowding, stirring up impassioned debate over what some believe will be profound long-term effects for the perceived value of PC games. Every discussion needs balance, but in this case the back-and-forth seemed purely academic: for a lot of developers steep discounts are simply a matter of survival, and precious few could even entertain the notion of focusing on the greater good instead.
And the indie pinch was felt beyond Steam’s deliberately weakened walls. Kickstarter may be a relatively new phenomenon – even for the hyper-evolving landscape of the games industry – but it faced similar problems in 2014, blighted by the twin spectres of too much content and not enough money to go around. Anecdotally, the notion that something had changed was lurking in the back ground at the very start of the year, with several notable figures struggling to find enough backers within the crowd. The latter months of 2014 threw up a few more examples, but they also brought something close to hard evidence that ‘peak Kickstarter’ may already be behind us – fewer successful projects, lower funding targets, and less money flowing through the system in general. None of which was helped by a handful of disappointing failures, each one a blow for the public’s already flagging interest in crowdfunding. Yet another promising road for indies had become more treacherous and uncertain.
So are indies heading towards a “mass extinction event”? Overcrowding is certainly a key aspect of the overall picture, but the act of making and releasing a game is only getting easier, and the allure of development as a career choice seems to grow with each passing month. It stands to reason that there will continue to be a huge number of games jostling for position on every single platform – more than even a growing market can sustain – but there’s only so much to be gained from griping about the few remaining gatekeepers. If the days when simply being on Steam or Kickstarter made a commercial difference are gone, and if existing discovery tools still lack the nuance to deal with all of that choice, then it just shifts the focus back to where it really belongs: talent, originality, and a product worth an investment of time and money.
At GDC Europe this summer, I was involved in a private meeting with a group of Dutch independent game developers, all sharing knowledge and perspective on how to find success. We finished that hour agreeing on much the same thing. There are few guarantees in this or any other business, but the conditions have also never been more appropriate for personality and individuality to be the smartest commercial strategy. The world has a preponderance of puzzle-platformers, but there’s only one Monument Valley. We’re drowning in games about combat, but This War of Mine took a small step to the left and was greeted with every kind of success. Hell, Lucas Pope made an entire game about working as a border control officer and walked away with not just a hit, but a mantelpiece teeming with the highest honours.
No matter how crowded the market has become, strong ideas executed with care are still able to rise above the clamour, no huge marketing spend required. As long as that’s still possible, indies have all of the control they need.
It’s already been widely reported that Microsoft is working on game-streaming technology, long enough that the company has apparently started over at least once. According to a new ZDNet report, Microsoft halted work on one such project called “Rio,” and has since begun building a new streaming service code-named “Arcadia.”
ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley cites sources within Microsoft with the news that Arcadia is being worked on by a new team in the company’s Operating Systems Group. A job listing for the team says it will be working “to bring premium and unique experiences to Microsoft’s core platforms.”
Arcadia is said to run on Microsoft’s Azure cloud technology, and will let users stream apps as well as games. While there was talk of having Arcadia stream Android apps and games to Windows devices, Foley reported that particular feature has been tabled for the moment.
Sources are sighting a rating seen on the Australian classifications that seem to point to an upcoming Remastered Edition of Borderlands is coming for Xbox One and PlayStation 4. So far this has remained unconfirmed by publisher 2K and franchise developer Gearbox.
The new remastered version is expected to be simply called “Borderlands Remastered Edition”, but with no confirmation from 2K and Gearbox it is difficult to say what all it might contain or if it is simply a converted and compiled version of the first three games for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Bottom line if it is in fact a complied remastered release of the first three games, the reality is that this could actually be a good thing for those that own the new consoles.
Project Orleans, the cloud engine that powers Xbox hits Halo Reach and Halo 4, is being taken open source.
The engine, which has also played a vital role in the development of Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform, will be released under an MIT licence next year by Microsoft Technologies after being trailed at this year’s Microsoft Build Conference.
This is the latest in a long line of open-source announcements by Microsoft this year as the company tries to reinvent itself for the age where its stranglehold on the market has reduced and a wide variety of non-proprietary alternatives exist.
At the same Build conference, the company also announced that it will open source the .NET framework, on which most Windows applications depend.
The project, as described by the team itself, is “an implementation of an improved actor model that borrows heavily from Erlang and distributed objects systems, adds static typing, message indirection and actor virtualisation, exposing them in an integrated programming model”.
The team added that, whereas Erlang is a pure functional language with its own custom virtual machine, the Orleans programming model “directly leverages .NET and its object-oriented capabilities”.
One example available to try is an analysis of Twitter sentiment gauging reaction to a given hash-tag based on the language around it and creating visual representations of the mood of the web.
The code will be available as an extension to Microsoft Studio 12 or 13 with samples and supporting documentation already available, including for the Azure implementations. Non-Azure users can grab a free trial version before they buy.
Detractors of free-to-play have been having a good few weeks, on the surface at least. There’s been a steady drip-feed of articles and statements implying that premium-priced games are gaining ground on mobile and tablet devices, with parents in particular increasingly wary of F2P game mechanics; a suggestion from SuperData CEO Joost van Dreunen that the F2P audience has reached its limits; and, to top it off, a move by Apple to replace the word “Free” with a button labelled “Get” in the App Store, a response to EU criticism of the word Free being applied to games with in-app purchases.
Taken individually, each of these things may well be true. Premium-priced games may indeed be doing better on mobile devices than before; parents may indeed be demonstrating a more advanced understanding of the costs of “free” games, and reacting negatively to them. Van Dreunen’s assertion that the audience for F2P has plateaued may well be correct, in some sense; and of course, the EU’s action and Apple’s reaction is unquestionable. Yet to collect these together, as some have attempted, and present them as evidence of a turning tide in the “battle” between premium and free games, is little more than twisting the facts to suit a narrative in which you desperately want to believe.
Here’s another much-reported incident which upsets the apple cart; the launch of an add-on level pack for ustwo’s beautiful, critically acclaimed and much-loved mobile game Monument Valley. The game is a premium title, and its level pack, which added almost as much content as the original game again, cost $2. This charge unleashed a tide of furious one-star reviews slamming the developers for their greed and hubris in daring to charge $2 for a pack of painstakingly crafted levels.
This is a timely and sobering reminder of just how deeply ingrained the “content is free” ethos has become on mobile and tablet and platforms. To remind you; Monument Valley was a premium game. The furious consumers who viewed charging for additional content as a heinous act of money-grubbing were people who had already paid money for the game, and thus belong to the minority of mobile app customers willing to pay for stuff up front; yet even within this group the scope of their willingness to countenance paying for content is extremely limited (and their ire at being forced to do so is extraordinary).
Is this right? Are these consumers desperately wrong? It doesn’t matter, to be honest; it’s reality, and every amateur philosopher who fancies himself the Internet’s Immanuel Kant can talk about their theories of “right” pricing and value in comment threads all day long without making a whit of difference to the reality. Mobile consumers (and increasingly, consumers on other platforms) are used to the idea that they get content for free, through fair means or foul. We could argue the piece about whether this is an economic inevitability in an era of almost-zero reproduction and distribution costs, as some commentators believe, but the ultimate outcome is no longer in question. Consumers, the majority of them at least, expect content to be free.
F2P, for all that its practitioners have misjudged and overstepped on many occasions, is a fumbling attempt to answer an absolutely essential question that arises from that reality; if consumers expect content to be free, what will they pay for? The answer, it transpires, is quite a lot of things. Among the customers who wouldn’t pay $2 for a level pack are probably a small but significant number who wouldn’t have blinked an eye at dropping $100 on in-game currency to speed up their ability to access and complete much the same levels, and a much more significant percentage who would certainly have spent roughly that $2 or more on various in-game purchases which didn’t unlock content, per se, but rather smoothed a progression curve that allowed access to that content. Still others might have paid for customisation or for merchandise, digital or physical, confirming their status as a fan of the game.
I’m not saying necessarily that ustwo should have done any of those things; their approach to their game is undoubtedly grounded in an understanding of their market and their customers, and I hope that the expansion was ultimately successful despite all the griping. What I am saying is that this episode shows that the problem F2P seeks to solve is real, and the notion that F2P itself is creating the problem is naive; if games can be distributed for free, of course someone will work out a way to leverage that in order to build audience, and of course consumers will become accustomed to the idea that paying up front is a mugs’ game.
If some audiences are tiring of F2P’s present approach, that doesn’t actually remove the problem; it simply means that we need new solutions, better ways to make money from free games. Talking to developers of applications and games aimed at kids reveals that while there’s a sense that parents are indeed becoming very wary of F2P – both negative media coverage and strong anti-F2P word of mouth among parents seem to be major contributing factors – they have not, as some commentators suggest, responded by wanting to buy premium software. Instead, they want free games without any in-app purchases; they don’t buy premium games and either avoid or complain bitterly about in-app purchases. Is this reasonable? Again, it barely matters; in a business sense, what matters is figuring out how to make money from this audience, not questioning their philosophy of value.
Free has changed everything, yet that’s not to argue with the continued importance of premium software either. I agree with SuperData’s van Dreunen that there’s a growing cleavage between premium and free markets, although I suspect that the audience itself overlaps significantly. I don’t think, however, that purchasers of premium games are buying quite the same thing they once were. Free has changed this as well; the emergence and rapid rise of “free” as the default price point has meant that choosing to pay for software is an action that exists in the context of abundant free alternatives.
On a practical level, those who buy games are paying for content; in reality, though, that’s not why they choose to pay. There are lots of psychological reasons why people buy media (often it’s to do with self-image and self-presentation to peers), and now there’s a new one; by buying a game, I’m consciously choosing to pay for the privilege of not being subjected to free software monetisation techniques. If I pay $5 for a game, a big part of the motivation for that transaction is the knowledge that I’ll get to enjoy it without F2P mechanisms popping up. Thus, even the absence of F2P has changed the market.
This is the paradigm that developers at all levels of the industry need to come to terms with. Charging people for content is an easy model to understand, but it’s a mistaken one; people don’t really buy access to content. People buy all sorts of other things that are wrapped up, psychologically, in a content purchase, but are remarkably resistant to simply buying content itself.
“I think there’s a bright future for charging premium prices for games – even on platforms where Free otherwise dominates, although it will always be niche there”
There’s so much of it out there for free – sure, only some through legitimate means, but again, this barely matters. The act of purchase is a complex net of emotions, from convenience (I could pirate this but buying it is easier) and perceived risk (what if I get caught pirating? What if it’s got a virus?), through to self-identity (I buy this because this is the kind of game people like me play) and broadcast identity (I buy this because I want people to know I play this kind of game), through to peer group membership (I buy this because it’s in my friends’ Steam libraries and I want to fit in) or community loyalty (I buy this because I’m involved with a community around the developer and wish to support it); and yes, avoidance of free-game monetisation strategies is a new arrow in that quiver. Again, actually accessing content is low on the list, if it’s even there at all, because even if that specific content isn’t available for free somewhere (which it probably is), there’s so much other free content out there that anyone could be entertained endlessly without spending a cent.
In this context, I think there’s a bright future for charging premium prices for games – even on platforms where Free otherwise dominates, although it will always be niche there – but to harness this, developers should try to understand what actually motivates people to buy and recognise the disconnect between what the developer sees as value (“this took me ages to make, that’s why it’s got a price tag on it”) and what the consumer actually values – which could be anything from the above list, or a host of other things, but almost certainly won’t be the developer’s sweat and tears.
That might be tough to accept; but like the inexorable rise of free games and the continuing development of better ways to monetise them, it’s a commercial reality that defies amateur philosophising. You may not like the audience’s attitude to the value of content and unwillingness to pay for things you consider to be valuable – but between a developer that accepts reality and finds a way to make money from the audience they actually have, and the developer who instead ploughs ahead complaining bitterly about the lack of the ideal, grateful audience they dream of, I know which is going to be able to pay the bills at the end of the month.