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.
Sony Pictures Entertainment has hired FireEye’s Mandiant forensics unit to clean up a cyber attack that knocked out the studio’s computer network nearly a week ago, and resulted in three movies ending up online.
The FBI is also investigating the incident. Sony went down last Monday after displaying a red skull and the phrase “Hacked By #GOP,” which reportedly stands for Guardians of Peace. Emails to Sony have been bouncing back with messages asking senders to call employees because the system was “experiencing a disruption.”
Mandiant is an incident response firm that helps victims of breaches identify the extent of attacks, clean up networks and restore systems. The firm has handled some of the largest breaches uncovered to date, including the 2013 holiday attack on Target. Sony is investigating to determine whether hackers working on behalf of North Korea have launched the attack in retribution for the studio’s backing of the film “The Interview” which is to be released on Dec. 25 in the United States and Canada.
The movie is a comedy about a CIA attempt to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is such a funny guy. The Pyongyang government denounced the film as “undisguised sponsoring of terrorism, as well as an act of war” in a letter to UN. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The group had published a list of emails and passwords for PSN, Windows Live Mail and 2K Games accounts online, and claimed to be prepared to release more, but Sony says that they’ve come from other sources than hacking.
“We have investigated the claims that our network was breached and have found no evidence that there was any intrusion into our network,” the company wrote in a declaration to Joystiq. “Unfortunately, Internet fraud including phishing and password matching are realities that consumers and online networks face on a regular basis. We take these reports very seriously and will continue to monitor our network closely.”
Blizzard is happy and why shouldn’t they be as World of Warcraft subscriptions are up. The reason for the increase can be traced to the release of the latest expansion pack which was recently released. The latest WOW expansion pack is called Warlords of Draeno and its release has driven subscriptions to 10 million.
Selling over 3.3 million copies of the Warlords of Draenor on the first day alone, growth has been seen in all major territories since release. The numbers do include those players that are using the 1 month free subscription that comes with the expansion pack. WoW subscriptions had climbed to 7.4 million last quarter after being down.
Of course the release of Warlords of Draenor has not been without its problems. Still Blizzard says that they are working around the clock to address them. Owners have been offered free play time as compensation.
Microsoft has seen a number of Xbox One exclusive titles already be ported to the PC. Both Dead Rising 3 and Ryse have already made it to the PC, but we are now again hearing that Sunset Overdrive again is heading to the PC and Forza Horizon 2 maybe following as well.
This is not the first time we have heard rumors of Sunset Overdrive coming to the PC. An ad that suggested as much was down played at the time by Insomiac as a mistake. Now Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 showed up on Amazon France as coming for the PC.
While Phil Spencer has suggested that Microsoft will have more to say about the PC in 2015 and that it would be a good thing for PC gamers. The reality is that Microsoft has not pushed PC game development in a longtime as it chose to focus on titles for the Xbox and Xbox 360. With the Xbox One being closer in design to the PC, porting a title to the PC is easier and Microsoft of course wants to be a player in this space.
We will have to wait and see what actually happens, but should Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 make their way to the PC, it will be a good thing for PC gamers. Then again it could just be nothing more than a mistake.