It is, for the moment, just a conspiracy theory, and it goes something like this: Microsoft wants to get out of the games console business. It’s planning to package up the Xbox part of the Devices & Studios division and separate it off from the rest of the company, so it can be sold as a going concern. Who’s buying? Amazon, which views acquiring Xbox as a step towards dominance of the living room. If there’s anything to this theory at all, the coming year or two could see the end of Microsoft Xbox and a warm welcome for Amazon Xbox.
Let’s lay all the cards on the table. The evidence is sketchy and circumstantial. We know that Microsoft is looking at some pretty major strategic changes in the wake of the appointment of new CEO Satya Nadella. Nadella’s focus throughout his career has been on the business end of Microsoft – servers, cloud services and enterprise tools – which remains in robust health compared to the troubled state of the firm’s consumer divisions. Choosing him as CEO could suggest that the company is aiming for a future focused on enterprise tools and platforms, not consumer products.
Then there’s the man who wasn’t chosen as CEO, Stephen Elop. Elop used to work at Microsoft, then became CEO of Nokia. Now that Nokia is selling its mobile phone division to Microsoft, Elop is back where he started. Moreover, he saw himself as a strong candidate for the CEO job when Steve Ballmer resigned. With Nadella in the CEO’s chair, Elop’s consolation prize is that he’s taking over as head of Devices & Studios. That’s a logical choice, since Devices & Studios will include Nokia under its umbrella, at least to some extent, so Elop will continue running his old Nokia team alongside the Xbox and Surface teams at Microsoft.
Given that, it would perhaps be more surprising if Elop wasn’t put in charge of Devices & Studios. His presence ought to ease the transition as Nokia is absorbed into Microsoft, a major acquisition that’s likely to cause some indigestion along the way. However, during the CEO selection process, while Elop was still in the running, Bloomberg reported that he had some very interesting plans for the company if he was running it. The reported plans included, notably, a willingness to sell off business units Elop viewed as distractions from Microsoft’s main goals – business units including the Bing search engine and the Xbox. As logical as his new job at Devices & Studios may seem, you can’t blame people for raising an eyebrow when a man who supposedly wanted to sell off the Xbox division is put in charge of the Xbox division.
It takes two to tango, so how about the Amazon side of the deal? Well, whispers of Amazon’s keen interest in the games market have flown around for months now, including rumours that the company has discreetly hired a number of veterans from the games industry while keeping their involvement quiet – for now. Last month, Amazon bought games studio Double Helix, fresh from working closely with Microsoft to prepare Killer Instinct as a launch title for Xbox One. Something is afoot. Occam’s Razor suggests a “Kindle” console, an Ouya-style box under the TV linked to Amazon’s digital content platform, but given the plethora of Android consoles currently underwhelming the market and failing to gain a foothold, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Amazon would want to make a much bolder move into the console space. Plus, Amazon certainly isn’t scared of making big acquisitions when it wants to open up a new market opportunity for itself – it’s hard to conceive of a cash value for Xbox, not least given how obfuscated the financials of the console business are, but I don’t doubt that Amazon could afford it if it really wanted to.
That’s it – that’s the conspiracy theory. I don’t deny for a second that the evidence, if you can call it that, is pretty thin. Microsoft is probably going to refocus on enterprise; a guy who wanted to sell Xbox is the new boss of that division, but he’s also the most logical choice for the job. Amazon is setting itself up for a big move into the games space and may (or may not) have hired some senior games people on the down-low. That’s the sum total of the evidence, and we should all bear that in mind. Even this article exists not to promote this theory, which I view as interesting but unsupported by the available information, but rather to evaluate, hypothetically, whether there is any real possibility of an Xbox spin-off and sale. In short, there’s no real evidence that Microsoft is going to do this thing, but it’s an interesting academic exercise to evaluate whether they could do it if they wanted, and whether a motivation to do so might exist.
So how hard, in theory, would it be to spin off and sell Xbox? The answer to that depends on what exactly Microsoft is proposing to sell. Xbox, as mentioned earlier, is part of the Devices & Studios division, which also houses Surface and will shortly be joined by Nokia. Some other odd things are rolled into this division, apparently. It was claimed last year that the patents which force Android device makers to cough up a fee to Microsoft for every handset they sell are held, for financial purposes, in Devices & Studios, thus accounting for a big chunk of the division’s revenue.
If Microsoft’s new management had come to view Xbox as a distraction that doesn’t fit with their new enterprise focus, one might reasonably ask if they’ll take the same view of Surface. That product which hasn’t performed well and has reportedly soured relationships between Microsoft and other hardware vendors, who aren’t terribly happy with the company from whom they license the Windows operating system suddenly being in direct competition with them. The company wouldn’t be happy about losing the patents related to Android, not least since Windows and Windows Phone presumably use the technology described by those patents as well, so that probably wouldn’t be included in any sale, but aside from that it’s plausible that Microsoft could sell the entire Devices & Studios operation, thus putting itself out of the hardware business entirely.
Alternatively, Microsoft could decide to hold on to Surface and simply divest itself of Xbox and the various Microsoft Game Studios operations. Surface would then be joined by Nokia in the much-reduced Devices division (no more studios!), which would be entirely focused on tablets and smartphones without the “distraction” of games. Such a disentanglement wouldn’t be terribly difficult, either. Xbox is actually fairly well divorced from the rest of Microsoft’s operations. Its operating system shares a visual language with the “Metro” interface of Windows 8 and Windows Phone, while various game-related elements of Microsoft’s other operating systems have also been given the “Xbox” and “Live” monikers. Bing, of course, runs on the Xbox dashboard. By and large, though, the technology and services which drive Xbox are divorced from the rest of Microsoft – although it’s worth noting that the much-vaunted Cloud functionality of Xbox One relies in part on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud services platform. Any buyout of Xbox would include various contracts ensuring that any Microsoft technologies or services upon which the console relies would continue to be provided to the new owner, so this would not be a major stumbling block.
A bigger question might be, would Microsoft even want to do this? That really depends how seriously you take the idea of “distraction”. Xbox One has had its thunder stolen by PS4, but is still selling well – and Xbox 360 was a major success. In fact, it’s the only success Microsoft has ever had in the consumer hardware space. Xbox proved Microsoft’s ability to create a great consumer brand and sell hardware to people. It’s a real bright spot in a few tough years for the company – especially compared to everything else it has attempted in the consumer space, from Zune and Surface to its latest operating system, Windows 8.
Why would you get rid of that? Well, you probably wouldn’t – but let’s brainstorm a motive. You could argue that Xbox is a bright spot that doesn’t have any real relevance to the rest of the company. Microsoft in the early 2000s wanted to reinvent itself as a consumer-facing company, but with Xbox being the only success in a small sea of failures, Satya Nadella is likely to try to bring the firm back to focusing on the enterprise market. As the oil tanker slowly turns around to head into more corporate seas, Xbox will be more and more at odds with the culture and mission of the rest of the company. It will arguably be a distraction both internally, where it won’t fit with Microsoft’s culture, and externally, where it will detract from a brand message that promotes Microsoft as a serious, corporate, business-focused partner for enterprise (as distinct from the more consumer-led branding of rivals Apple and Google). Selling off Xbox would generate cash (not that Microsoft needs it), streamline the company and start the new CEO’s tenure with a dramatic gesture that sets out his vision more clearly than any speech or press release.
In short, Microsoft could do this and, if we assume that upper management take the notion of “distraction” seriously and are genuinely willing to abandon the firm’s ambitions in the consumer devices space, there’s a motive for doing it. How about Amazon’s side of the table? This deal would cost billions; would Amazon stand to gain enough to justify that kind of outlay? After all, aren’t consoles a dying space? Plenty of pundits seem to expect that PS4 and XB1 will be the last generation of consoles. Would a company as smart as Amazon get sucked into a market that’s about to collapse?
Amazon, like Microsoft a decade ago, has major ambitions in the consumer devices space. The company built itself on the back of selling physical goods but has neatly sidestepped the so-called “innovator’s dilemma” by being more than willing to disrupt its own business. The world’s biggest seller of physical books became the world’s biggest promoter of ebook readers. Music downloads, streaming video, cloud services; Amazon has taken an active and enthusiastic interest in every field that might disrupt its existing businesses, seeking not to shut down threats but to be the biggest player in whatever comes next. It supplemented the Kindle e-reader with Kindle tablet devices whose market performance is largely unknown, but is thought by analysts to be one of the only genuine competitors to the iPad’s sales dominance. Anyone who owns a Kindle device knows that they are designed from the ground up to be a great interface to accessing and buying content from Amazon’s ecosystem. That’s Amazon’s play; own the media ecosystem, building the devices themselves if that’s what it takes.
That ambition is a pretty solid fit for the console business. Moreover, it can’t have escaped Amazon’s notice that Steam, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live together make up a big area of digital content provision in which it has no involvement right now. Amazon will also be paying careful attention to the interest around set-top boxes (like AppleTV and Google’s TV efforts) and Smart TVs. Here there’s huge potential for consumers to be accessing media ecosystems directly from their TVs and connected devices – again, a game in which Amazon has no skin. For Amazon, the ideal would be that when you want to watch or play something on your TV, you do so through Kindle interface that links right into Amazon’s digital library, just like the Kindle tablets work. Of course, an Android microconsole would achieve that goal, but it wouldn’t be of much interest to gamers – at best, it would capture a fringe of the market who engage with Kindle tablets.
Is appealing to gamers important? This comes back to the question of whether consoles are really dying – and honestly, who knows better about that question than Amazon? Amazon is the largest retailer in many countries. Not only does it see how many consoles and console games are sold, it also sees loads of connected information which is hidden from even game publishers. It knows how high-spending gamers are in other areas – whether they’re likely to buy a lot of gadgets, a lot of books, a lot of movies or albums. It knows how much they engage with the brands they love, whether they cross-promote to friends resulting in more sales, whether they leave reviews and promote products on social media. Amazon can make an estimation of the actual value of the core gamer market more accurately than any other company.
What is that estimate looking like? I don’t know, of course, but Amazon’s actions in the coming months are going to tell us a lot about it. Regardless of whether the Xbox conspiracy theory pans out, Amazon is going to make some kind of game-related move relatively soon. It will be interesting to see how much importance and focus the company places on the games space at that time.
Until we see more evidence, though, it’s impossible to construct a fully credible argument which places the future of Xbox anywhere but Microsoft. There’s simply not enough information out there to support that kind of conclusion. That said, there is a possible motive to sell on the part of Microsoft, and a possible motive to buy for Amazon. If I had to pin my colours to a mast on this, I’d say Microsoft is probably discussing a sale with interested parties, including Amazon, but hasn’t made a final decision on whether to start sale proceedings as yet. I also wouldn’t read too much into that, given that it’s the responsibility of management to consider such possibilities as part of their duty to the shareholders. Then again, under Microsoft’s new management, perhaps such things are being considered rather more seriously than before.
In a keynote conversation with Entertainment Software Association boss Mike Gallagher at the Digital Entertainment World conference, Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore talked about industry lessons learned as the business transitions more to digital games.
For now, games remain a hybrid of physical and digital, and the quick sales of the new consoles are enabling the industry to coalesce around two great platforms that offer a tremendous competitive environment, which ultimately benefits the market. While he believes the console sector’s in great shape, Moore does see mobile gaming thriving, and digital revenues should surpass that of physical game sales in just two years, he said.
Looking back at the music industry’s transition to digital (which it still hasn’t recovered from), Moore said that the games industry must embrace “creative destruction” – there’s nothing an industry can do to stop a shift in consumer tastes and habits. The most important thing for EA – and much of the industry is headed this way with the digital transition – is that games are becoming live operations. That means they require a massive infrastructure with customer service and global billing. Moore noted that it’s a completely different industry now, with a global network running live ops, and gamers deserve their games to be always up and available, and it’s EA’s job to provide this access. Moore acknowledged that EA is still learning a lot about what that takes.
The online environment has been incredibly valuable to EA in building a direct customer relationship. Moore said that EA’s customers used to be the retailers, but now they’re the gamers. In fact, EA has tripled its customer facing support staff resources in the last five years. It’s changing how the publisher interacts with, and markets to, gamers. He eschews “marketing” and prefers “engaging”. Social media has become crucial to success, and Moore noted that on Twitter a gamer will get a response from EA within 30 minutes to resolve a problem.
On the marketing end, Moore said that EA’s TV spend is down 20 percent while the company has actually doubled its digital spend and engagement. Social media and community management are changing the rules. Don’t spend tens of millions on TV to see if it lifts sales, Moore said; instead game companies can more effectively use digital channels and focus on performance-based marketing.
“TV ads today are chum in the water. It attracts customers, then reel them in with digital media so you can engage instead of pushing a message out,” he remarked.
It’s pretty hard to figure out exactly where the new generation of consoles stand in terms of sales right now, but the general picture is clear. PS4, still supply constrained in many markets, leads Xbox One by at least a million consoles sold, possibly as much as two million – so the oft-cited ratio of 1.5:1 seems to be holding. Assuming little else changes, that ratio will tip even further in Sony’s favour in the coming weeks, with the PS4 finally launching in Japan, a market where it can expect to sell very strongly – although I wouldn’t expect to see the dominant 3DS removed from the top of the hardware charts for too many weeks. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s rather less successful console, the Wii U, continues to lose ground to both of the newcomers and will likely be surpassed in overall sales by Sony sometime this month (if it has not been so already) and by Microsoft within the next quarter.
It’s important to put this in some context – the Xbox One would look like a pretty successful console launch if it wasn’t stacked up against the PS4, but eyebrows would still be raised over the slackness in demand for what would be expected to be a fully supply constrained launch. Meanwhile, Wii U’s performance wouldn’t look great in any reality, but certainly wouldn’t be attracting the current degree of fainting and pearl-grasping were it not being compared to the extraordinary success of its own predecessor, the Wii.
“I’d argue that the real problem with these innovative pieces of kit isn’t that they’re inflating the price – the real problem is that they are, so far, utterly pointless”
The only console among them which resists any attempt at contextual negativity is the PS4, which is performing incredibly well. Hardly anyone has a bad word to say about the PS4, other than “I can’t find one to buy” – the hardware has turned out to be very solid; the online services (PS Plus in particular) are well-liked; and Sony’s approach of wooing key indie developers to the console for launch period has helped to stock the console with early adopter friendly titles which generate plenty of goodwill as the wider market waits for big AAA hits to filter through. Giving several of these games away on PS Plus, especially while new owners are in their freebie period, has also been a great move.
It’s hard to argue against a surface reading of this situation which says that Sony has executed superbly on its product while Microsoft and Nintendo have stumbled. Nintendo dropped the ball on Wii U software for its first year, arguably at least, and made a mess of marketing its new console – just as it initially did with the 3DS, which makes me wonder exactly what compromising pictures of Iwata the firm’s amazingly still-not-fired marketing bosses are keeping in a concrete bunker somewhere. Microsoft lost the trust and goodwill of a huge swathe of the early adopter audience, especially outside the USA, when it announced the Xbox One as a TV-watching box, compounded its error with a horribly anti-consumer policy on used software, then changed its mind on the latter (a good thing, but much damage was already done) and botched the execution of the former. Now it’s got a mountain to climb to restore goodwill, a console that’s $100 more expensive than its well-liked rival and a fresh salvo of unflattering technical comparisons between the systems emerging each week – a tough position, to say the least.
I think that beyond that surface reading, there’s something more fundamental at work – a level on which both Nintendo and Microsoft made the same mistake. Sony’s PS4 isn’t just superbly executed, it’s also conservative. It’s a powerful console with great engineering behind it, a great OS and network services, and a superb messaging strategy in which Mark Cerny and Shuhei Yoshida, who are actually at the coalface of developing the system and its software, have been allowed to take very public roles and to speak openly and honestly. That’s all fantastic, but PS4 is also very clearly an evolution of what came before. In architectural terms it’s vastly different from PS3, of course, but from a consumer standpoint – here’s a black box that you stick discs into and then play them with a Dual Shock pad. You can play with your friends online, and even buy games online, but arguably the only real departures from the traditional console model lie with the online services – PS Plus (which existed on PS3 as well, of course) and video streaming.
Xbox One and Wii U are less conservative, because both of them make some effort to change the interface and context of videogames. Xbox One includes a vastly updated and improved Kinect motion sensor, which shoulders the brunt of the blame for the console’s inflated price tag. The sensor, like its predecessor, is designed to map and understand the movement of human bodies around the room in front of it – unlike its predecessor, it actually appears to be capable of doing so very well. The Wii U, meanwhile, includes the GamePad, a touchscreen controller that lets you play games even while others are watching something else on TV, but more interestingly, also creates a second screen for gameplay and has potential uses in asymmetric multiplayer, wherein one player uses the screen to set up a game while others use Wii Remotes to tackle the challenges being created.
Both of these things are interesting. Both of these things, inevitably, inflate the price of the console to which they’re attached. Both Wii U and Xbox One could seriously do with being $100 cheaper than they are right now – such a price cut wouldn’t be the end of their woes, especially in the case of Wii U, but it would level the playing field and make everything much more interesting. Yet I’d argue that the real problem with these innovative pieces of kit isn’t that they’re inflating the price – the real problem is that they are, so far, utterly pointless. Not only have both Microsoft and Nintendo failed to create software that effectively capitalises on the potential of Kinect or the GamePad, both firms have also completely failed to explain the devices to consumers in a way that stands any hope of making them excited about such potential. The very fact that the first reaction of many consumers and commentators to weak sales from these consoles is “get rid of Kinect / the GamePad!” is a demonstration of just how badly communication, explanation and demonstration of these features has failed.
It could be, of course, that the features themselves just aren’t much good. I think the potential of the GamePad remains to be tapped, but have some sympathy with the argument that Kinect, even in its vastly upgraded Xbox One incarnation, is a solution for which no readily apparent problem can be found. Certainly its present function, as an utterly sub-par way of controlling the console’s menu functions and an occasional shoehorned annoyance in games, does little to explain why this expensive piece of hardware is a mandatory part of Xbox One – yet I know that there are plenty of enthusiastic and intelligent games people at Microsoft, and there must be a genuine belief that Kinect 2 can deliver unique and worthwhile experiences that won’t be possible on other consoles. The problem is that, just as with the thus-far largely meaningless GamePad, Microsoft has failed to demonstrate or articulate just what those experiences will be.
In short, I think consumers are confused about what exactly Nintendo and Microsoft want to sell them. Sony’s proposition is clear – it’s a much-upgraded and improved successor to the PS3, which was a much-upgraded and improved successor to the PS2, and so on. Nintendo and Microsoft make claim to be something more than that, then mumble incoherently when asked what exactly they mean, or what precisely they’re proposing to achieve.
It feels like both companies want to bottle some of the magic which fuelled the Wii to such great heights in the last generation, but they’ve forgotten that the real magic of the Wii wasn’t actually the Wiimote – it was Wii Sports. In one superbly crafted game, bundled free with the console in many territories, Nintendo explained exactly what the Wii was for. A few minutes with Wii Sports showed anyone and everyone what the Wiimote was designed to do and how it would change the game experience. Moreover, it set out a clear agenda for the console as a whole – a social machine, a family machine, an accessible machine. Wii Sports wasn’t just a game, it was a powerful demonstration, a mission statement and perhaps the greatest piece of marketing anyone in the games industry has ever crafted.
The Xbox One and the Wii U both have their Wiimote, but neither has their Wii Sports. One of Satoru Iwata’s big pledges in his mea culpa speech after Nintendo’s projections were downgraded was that the firm would double down on the GamePad, creating software and marketing that would explain the controller better to the public. If that means finding the Wii U’s Wii Sports, it will absolutely be a worthwhile effort – it doesn’t have to mean establishing the Wii U in the same market as the Wii, but making a clear mission statement for the console would definitely help. Microsoft, too, needs some of that focus. Right now, Kinect 2 is not differentiating Xbox One in the marketplace – it’s just hanging around the console’s neck like a deadweight. Unless Microsoft can find the software and the messaging required to make Kinect into a real system-seller, its mandatory inclusion may go down as one of the worst self-inflicted wounds of any console battle in history.
In a new Wedbush report that spans nearly 170 pages, providing a comprehensive overview of the past, present and future of the video game marketplace, the firm discusses why the next generation “will be as big as ever” and how the industry’s growth actually makes it more appealing to investors than other entertainment businesses.
While analyst Michael Pachter acknowledged that the current console transition is “one of the most difficult” for publishers, he ultimately sees the new consoles spurring big growth for the industry as software sales take off in the next several years. Combined U.S. and European software markets are forecast to grow at a 9 percent CAGR over the 2014 – 2016 period, totaling console software sales of $12 billion in 2014, growing to $14 billion in 2015 and to $15 billion in 2016. Handheld software sales (DS, 3DS and PS Vita) are expected to remain flat at approximately $1.6 billion per year over the three-year period.
The continued growth of the business is another reflection of a maturing industry and a maturing audience that’s growing older, earning more and spending more on games.
“Several demographic trends and market drivers should fuel rapid growth of interactive entertainment software sales. We believe the most compelling of these trends is the expanding age demographic of the interactive game consumer, accompanied by an increasing level of disposable income and the propensity to spend that income on entertainment,” noted Pachter.
Importantly, many of these people are choosing to spend on games above other entertainment, and that’s something investors should pay attention to. “We believe that the interactive entertainment industry offers secular dynamics that will provide extended and sustainable growth. We believe several publishers stand poised to capitalize on this growth, providing investors with an opportunity to participate,” Pachter said.
“Both Sony and Microsoft should deliver substantial profits from their gaming businesses over the next several years”
“Console, handheld and PC video games comprise a significant portion of overall entertainment industry sales, we believe comparing favorably with other mainstream entertainment products such as movies, books, and music. With comparable size and growth at a faster rate than these competing forms of entertainment, we expect the interactive entertainment software sector to present a compelling investment opportunity over the next three to five years.”
Wedbush believes interactive entertainment software sales will grow around four percent annually in the next three years, and the firm expects interactive entertainment to grow faster than other U.S. entertainment sectors over the next five years. Wedbush is modeling growth of just zero to two percent for other entertainment products sales over the same time period.
“Using our projected growth rates, we forecast that the U.S. interactive entertainment industry in 2016 will continue to be larger than books, box office and music… It is important to consider video game software purchases in the context of all entertainment spending. When books, music, movies and video games are added together, total U.S. spending on entertainment content totaled over $65 billion in 2013. The portion spent on video game software, at around 11 percent of the total, has the potential to grow at a faster rate than any of the other entertainment categories for many years to come,” Pachter explained.
For the current year, Wedbush expects PS4 to sell another 12 million units, Xbox One to sell 9 million, and Wii U to sell 3 million. More important than who “wins the console wars,” however, is which companies can maintain profitability. Pachter noted that Microsoft and Sony should do well on that front compared to a struggling Nintendo.
“Given its very slow console sales, Nintendo appears destined to see its console software sales and royalty stream markedly lower than in the last cycle, and we are skeptical that it will make a profit from its console business during the next generation,” he said. “At our projected sell-through rate, we expect both Sony and Microsoft to be very profitable in the next generation. Notwithstanding their relative projected market shares, we expect both companies’ console penetration to substantially exceed their penetration in the current generation console cycle, primarily due to market share gains from Nintendo.”
He continued, “If our estimates are close to the mark, both Sony and Microsoft will likely be profitable on each console sold, and their respective games divisions will at worst break even. More importantly, Sony and ￼￼Microsoft earn royalties on every game sold for their respective consoles; our forecast calls for 294 million cumulative PS4 software units and 227 million cumulative Xbox One software units sold by the end of 2016, with an average of $8 – 10 in profit for each unit booked by each company. Both their multiplayer networks and their royalty businesses will provide a recurring revenue stream at a very high dollar margin (the respective networks require a high level of capital and support spending, while the royalty businesses bear little cost), meaning that both Sony and Microsoft should deliver substantial profits from their gaming businesses over the next several years.”
There’s plenty more in the full report at the link above. It’s an interesting read if you have the time.
While many video game publishers are racing to embrace the mobile world – and seeing some significant earnings in the process – Take-Two Interactive Software CEO Strauss Zelnick is moving cautiously.
There’s certainly potential in the market, he concedes – but, so far, the hardware isn’t where it needs to be to be a proper showcase for the company’s games. And he’d rather wait than make compromises.
The experience Zelnick has in mind has already been showcased a few times. Older Grand Theft Auto games have been ported over – and last year, the company transferred XCOM: Enemy Unknown to the mobile world.
“As tablets become more powerful, I am of the view that they’ll be a wonderful gaming platform – but they’re not quite there yet”
XCOM was notable in that it wasn’t a drastically altered adaptation of the game, but rather a complete transfer of the PC and console experience to a mobile device. The game garnered great reviews and was able to command a premium price – and that’s what Zelnick wants to do with other titles in the company’s current catalog.
“We don’t differentiate between mobile and not mobile,” he says. “As long as we can distribute a game in a high-quality version – and as long as the consumer wants to interact – we’re happy to be there. … We’re not a platform company. We’re a content company.”
When it comes to newer platforms – specifically, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – Take-Two is pretty happy, though. While the company has only put out one game for the systems (NBA 2K14), sales were strong and Zelnick says he’s “thrilled with how the new consoles have sold so far”.
At present, Take-Two has more than 10 games in development for next generation systems – but it’s not saying much more than that. Evolve, WWE and the next NBA2K are announced, but otherwise, the company’s pipeline is a mystery.
That extends to its crown jewel as well. Despite plenty of speculation, Zelnick wouldn’t address whispers about a PC or next-gen version of Grand Theft Auto V. And he knows how much that agitates fans and investors.
What’s unlikely is that many – if any – of those games will make it to the Wii U. Zelnick has never been a vocal cheerleader for Nintendo, noting that the Kyoto-based company’s mission and Take-Two’s games don’t mesh well. But with the Wii U floundering in the market, there’s less incentive to consider the system.
“We haven’t talked about specific titles in development, but we’ve said our strategy is to meet consumers where they are,” he says. “If they’re buying hardware, we’ll be there with software. That said, we make these really big, AAA titles that work on some platforms, but not others.”
“Oculus Rift was a big smash and wonder at CES – and our folks were very impressed with it”
The hesitation to commit to the Wii U shouldn’t be misunderstood as a reluctance to branch into new areas. Zelnick notes that the Oculus Rift is a device the company is keeping a close eye on, even if it hasn’t made any formal announcements regarding software for the device.
While Zelnick hasn’t personally had a chance to test the hardware (something that’s not entirely surprising as he often describes himself as “a suit, not a gamer”), he’s encouraged by what he hears from Take-Two employees.
“Oculus Rift was a big smash and wonder at CES – and our folks were very impressed with it,” he says. “It remains to be seen what we can do with it, but [Oculus] has already addressed some of the big challenges (such as users getting motion sick) that it faced early on. … I’m encouraged by anything that gets people more engaged with interactive entertainment.”
While Rockstar Games’ Leslie Benzies, Dan Houser and Sam Houser will be celebrated later this month at the D.I.C.E. Summit, receiving inductions into the AIAS Hall of Fame, Take-Two suffered something of a staffing blow last month, when Rod Fergusson, who was heading up a new studio for 2K in the Bay Area, defected to Microsoft to run the Gears of War franchise.
While there has been speculation about the fate of the Bay Area studio in the wake of that departure, Zelnick says those fears are overblown.
“We think the world of Rod, but he chose to move on,” he says. “We have a big studio out there with terrific leadership. I was saddened to lose Rod, but they’re full steam ahead on their project.”
Gears of War will continue to turn, as Microsoft has acquired the sci-fi shooter franchise from Epic Games. Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer confirmed, saying the deal covers the intellectual property, all existing games and assets, and the rights to continue the franchise in the future.
As for who will make the Gears of War games with Epic out of the picture, that task has been entrusted to Microsoft’s Vancouver-based Black Tusk Studios, under the leadership of the studio’s general manager Hanno Lemke. Spencer called it “a big vote of confidence” for not just the studio but the Vancouver development scene. (Microsoft closed its nearby Victoria development studio last month.)
Future development on the franchise will be led by Rod Fergusson, who was a producer on the first three Gears of War titles. While Fergusson has a long history with Gears of War, his appointment at Black Tusk has to be considered surprising. Just four months ago, Take-Two announced that Fergusson was launching a new Bay Area studio to work on a new project for the publisher.
“It’s kind of nice he can tie the franchise, the culture, bring it all together, and really help with the talent we already have up at Black Tusk to get the franchise going with a new organization,” Spencer said.
Fergusson released a statement on his new appointment, saying, “I’m extremely excited to be joining Black Tusk Studios to oversee development on the Gears of War franchise. I’ve been privileged to work on a lot of great games with a lot of great teams, but Gears has had the most impact on me professionally and personally, so this really feels like a homecoming. I can’t wait to share more with you all soon.”
“[I]f you look at what we did with 343 and getting them up to speed for Halo 4, you can maybe anticipate some things that are similar to that.”
This isn’t the first time Microsoft has had to find a new studio to take over a blockbuster sci-fi shooter IP. In 2007, Bungie struck a deal to split off from the Xbox maker, leaving the Halo franchise in need of a new developer. Spencer said there were lessons to be learned from the successful transition of the Halo series to 343 Industries, and mentioned Lemke would be speaking with 343′s Bonnie Ross about her experiences.
“We’re not announcing anything right now, but I think if you look at what we did with 343 and getting them up to speed for Halo 4, you can maybe anticipate some things that are similar to that,” Spencer said. “But it does give me confidence knowing that we’ve done this once with 343.”
343 cut its teeth on the Halo franchise with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, an Xbox 360 remake of the original Xbox launch title Halo: Combat Evolved.
Whatever else changes with Gears of War, one thing that will likely stay the same is the technology powering the franchise. Spencer declined to say whether the deal requires Microsoft to use the Unreal Engine for future Gears games, but he did say the company was a big fan of the technology.
“We’ve used the Unreal Engine in our development of the Gears franchise and other franchises,” Spencer said. “Unreal is important for us. So I don’t see us moving away from Unreal. I have confidence in the Unreal Engine going forward, and it’s important to the franchise.”
Spencer also noted that a Black Tusk teaser trailer shown at E3 was built using Unreal. And even though that clip–a man rappelling down the side of a present-day skyscraper before swinging in an open window to clobber a gun-toting guard–looked decidedly unlike Gears of War, Spencer called it a concept piece, and not a project that is being shelved as a result of the IP acquisition.
“This obviously isn’t something that started yesterday in terms of our discussions with Epic,” Spencer said. “Hanno’s been involved for quite a while, so he’s known that this is something we could land. And the leadership team there obviously knew as they started to build their road map for what they would be focused on. I wouldn’t say things have been shelved. Obviously, this will become a big focus of the studio and something that will be critical to them driving forward. There’s not really something that was on the road map that all of a sudden goes away.”
When Microsoft opened Black Tusk in 2012, studio representatives said it was not working on an existing franchise, but instead was “looking to build the next Halo” from the ground up.
Financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed.
Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus, notes that – as a hardware manufacturer – his business has no say in what software companies will charge for Oculus-enhanced games, but admits he would not be surprised to see them come at a premium price.
“It’s going to be up to the developers,” he says. “There will be some who make casual, simpler experiences – maybe bite sized. There are going to be Indie developers that make bigger experiences. And there are going to be bigger teams that make really big experiences. … And some that we’ve seen early prototypes of… Well, we’ve seen some that, boy, would I pay a lot to get that experience in virtual reality.”
Aaron Davies, director of developer relations at Oculus, agrees.
“In VR, suddenly objects have value – and scale and size and depth and I think there will be opportunities for developers to monetize them,” he says.
Noticeably higher retail prices for software could be one of the few things to derail current gamer excitement about VR. Consumers are still smarting from the industry’s move from $50 to $60 in 2005 – and EA incurred player wrath last February by suggesting they might jump to $70 with the launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
“They’d better deliver if they’re going to charge more than $50 or $60 for a game”
Iribe noted that pricing in the game industry tends to swing. Prices spiked with the launch of the last generation consoles, then swung to the other end of the pendulum with the rise of mobile gaming. He sees the rise of virtual reality as not an extension of PC gaming, but something different – which opens the door for them to move back in the opposite direction.
“VR is a fundamentally different experience,” he says. “This is the next generation of computing in a very big way. … This is something that’s going to change so many things.”
However, he notes, raising prices also raises risk for developers.
“They’d better deliver if they’re going to charge more than $50 or $60 for a game,” he says.
Davies notes that the higher prices – if they come at all – may not be done in a clumsy fashion, such as hiking the initial retail price. Instead, he points to the free-to-play model, where microtransactions make it less painful to pay (and the customer may not realize they’re paying more until much later).
“The whole concept of charging a premium is somewhat outdated,” he says. “It’s not to say it’s going to be upfront. It could be this is going to be an experience you get dialed into. We’ll see how it monetizes. … If you create content or an experience that someone is passionate about, you’re creating a lifestyle for them. And they’ll pay for that.”
“If people are willing to spend a lot of money on VR games, it obviously means we’re doing something right,” says Iribe.
Davies and Iribe note that they’re speaking in hypotheticals. At present, the company still isn’t even willing to talk about the Rift as a commercially available product. It’s still in the R&D phase, says Iribe, who won’t even commit to a 2014 release for the product.
The Crystal Cove prototype (which won Best in Show at this year’s CES Awards) does give a few hints as to what we can expect when this thing finally does hit its release milestone, though.
The unit being shown at this year’s CES relied on a camera attached in front of the user to work. And Iribe said barring an unforeseen technological miracle, that’s not likely to change.
“While we’re not talking about the consumer unit, if it does [require the camera], we’ll bundle that in,” he says.
To date, Oculus has shipped more than 50,000 developer kits for the Rift, says Iribe. The company has gone from 7 employees a year ago to more than 70 today. The past year has also brought about several improvements to the unit.
The Crystal Cove prototype, as has been widely reported, offers positional tracking (thanks to that camera), giving users six degrees of visual freedom. And it has significantly reduced motion blur.
Latency has been improved as well. The developer kits in people’s hands have a latency of about 50-60 milliseconds. Crystal Cove got that down to between 30-40 milliseconds. The goal for launch, says Iribe, is 20 – with the hopes of further reducing that in later models.
“We’re not going to ship until we have a version that delivers a highly immersive, comfortable experience at a low price,” says Iribe. “I don’t mean just the foam padding and things like that. The experience of virtual reality has to be comfortable. VR has never been close to comfortable. We’re confident we will deliver a very comfortable experience for version one. It’s my belief that the age of 2D monitors has run its course.”
Steve Jobs was in the habit of describing the Apple TV – the real Apple TV, that is, not the hypothetical uber-device that’s been stalking the imagination of tech pundits and the nightmares of TV manufacturers for years – as the company’s “hobby”. It sells a few million units here and there, but it’s no iPad, no iPhone, not even a Mac. It’s a casually dangled toe in the water of a new market whose primary purpose is to extend the functionality of iTunes and iOS devices, rather than being a significant product category in its own right. “Hobby” summed it up; lots of noise and light around the topic accompanied all of Jobs’ later keynote events, but really, Apple was just dabbling.
Steam Machines, then, are Valve’s hobby. Admittedly, Valve is a company with a lot of hobbies, but Steam Machines fit a similar profile to Apple TV in this regard. The rest of the world, or its more credulous denizens, are waiting with bated breath for Valve to sally forth with a device that’s going to cut a swathe through the games market – yet for all the world, everything Valve does looks like little more than casual dabbling. They’re mucking around with a custom version of Linux (saying “SteamOS” sounds really impressive until you realise that most people’s family pets have their own custom version of Linux at this stage) and experimenting with an intriguing controller design, both of which are fine hobbies – but the much vaunted Steam Machines themselves, thus far, are little more than an underwhelming branding exercise.
Of course, Valve’s not about to get into hardware manufacture any time soon. It’s not what they do and it wouldn’t make sense. However, the company has a deep interest in ensuring that the gaming PC, as a platform, is in robust health. The name “Steam Machine” is a giveaway, if one were required; Valve needs lots of machines out there for Steam to run on. It has, as I’ve argued before, become the de facto champion and caretaker of the PC gaming sector, a role long since abandoned by Microsoft. Steam itself is the biggest pillar of Valve’s support for the PC, and Steam alone has done a great deal to ensure the continued flourishing of this market. The company’s gamepad efforts are an interesting sideline, its dabbling with SteamOS little more than tinkering for now; the Steam Machines, though, we earnestly expected to take a rather more dramatic form when they emerged at CES this week.
In the end, Valve managed scarcely a handful of minutes on stage to introduce the dozen “Steam Machine” manufacturers, each of which is producing its own versions of the system. Gabe Newell deflected all questions to the device manufacturers. Despite carrying the Steam name, it’s almost like Valve isn’t entirely happy to be associated with the project right now – perhaps wincing at the heavy responsibilities which being seen as a platform holder will inevitably bring. Perhaps the Apple TV comparison isn’t fair after all; Apple TV always felt like an under performing but beloved hobby. Not much feels beloved about Steam Machines. Not yet, anyway.
It’s not hard to see why the Steam Machines might be unloved, though. They’re an ugly and rather ramshackle lot. Their prices range from a console-matching $499 up to an eye-watering $5000, while their case designs range from the functionally ugly through to the kind of howlingly awful rig that inspires mass eye-rolling even at LAN parties. The specifications of the devices, which one might have expected to conform to some kind of standard, or a number of standard “steps” at different price points, cover the whole spectrum of PC performance. This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the announced devices – if these were actually meant to attract less hardcore gamers (most core gamers will still build their own systems, of course), then by doing nothing to reduce the mind-numbing complexity of figuring out specifications and component codenames, they have already failed in their most basic task.
If I sound disappointed, it’s because I am. I’m disappointed on an entirely personal level, I confess. 2014 was going to be the year I got myself a gaming PC again. I’ve missed too many games and experiences through not owning one, and I’d love a reasonably small, low-profile box with enough grunt to play PC titles comfortably. I haven’t followed PC specifications and components for about a decade and I’d rather perform my own open-heart surgery than build another of the damned things myself, so a Steam Machine looked perfect; yet after this week’s CES reveal, it appears that the actual advantages of such a system in terms of reducing complexity (let alone cost, which was always unlikely to be a major factor) are negligible. I’m left wondering who exactly these boxes are for – the core audience will ignore them and build their own systems, while the more casual audience who are eager to engage with PC gaming won’t find any advantage in a “Steam Machine” that doesn’t exist at any other pre-built PC box-shifter.
Valve may have reason to wish that it was taking this hobby a bit more seriously. In spite of the robust health of the PC games market right now, there are structural issues with the PC market as a whole which present a major challenge to its continued growth and success in the coming years – structural issues which only Valve is likely to be in a position to solve, and for which a Steam Machine style venture may well be necessary. To wit, a primary advantage of the PC platform, namely its sheer ubiquity, is winding down. It used to be the case that nearly everyone owned a PC and thus, nearly everyone could play games, at least to some extent. In recent years, the PC benefitted even more as a gaming platform from the inverse of that argument. Gaming PC purchases were justified in part by the prowess of the system as a multi-function device. A gaming PC was expensive, but also served as the user’s primary computer.
Today, the desktop computer is an increasingly rare beast. A great many households only have laptops; a great many more are supplementing laptops with tablet computers that perform much of the functionality that once belonged to PCs. Laptops, too, have changed. Apple’s Macbook Air and Google’s Chromebook, followed by a steady parade of Ultrabooks and wafer-thin, solid-state imitators, have refocused the desires of buyers away from power and towards size, weight and battery life. When I bought my last laptop, the ultra-thin one with 10 hours of battery life put forward a case that simply couldn’t be answered by any hankering for a powerful gaming system. Sales figures suggest that I’m far from alone in making this choice. The resulting device can run some games (it’s fine for lots of indie stuff, and Civilization V just about works) but it’s certainly not a gaming system. I’ve never even bothered installing Steam.
I am not, in any sense, predicting the “death of the PC” – to do so would be nonsensical – but there’s no doubt that this switch away from desktops and towards tablets and Ultrabooks presents a challenge to the existing PC market. I believe that gaming PCs will increasingly have to make a case for themselves as gaming devices alone; a subtle but important change from “here’s your next PC, and it’s great at games” to “here’s your next gaming device, and it can do PC stuff too if you want, which you probably don’t”. Core gamers won’t change their outlook at all, of course, but beyond that group there’s a vast hinterland that was once the domain of PC gaming and which now risks disappearing as the technological landscape shifts.
Steam Machines ought to be at the vanguard in terms of counteracting that shift – accessible, attractive, easy to understand gateways to PC gaming designed perfectly to fit into the lives of “lapsed” PC gamers using Ultrabooks, or console gamers looking to branch out, or former core gamers who want to stay in touch but don’t have the time or money any more to be deeply involved. Valve, as the operators of essentially the only PC game software distribution platform that matters a damn, ought to be leading that movement. On the strength of this week, Valve knows it ought to be doing something, but doesn’t have the stomach for doing much of anything – while left to their own devices, it seems, PC manufacturers aren’t capable of seeing beyond their own narrow world of hilariously arcane specifications and desperately ugly boxes. There’s an enormous opportunity waiting here to be grasped; so far, Steam Machines have only fumbled.
The great American debate over violent video games is over. Like cigarettes being good for you, pro wrestling being real, or 9/11 being an inside job, the idea that a few hours of Grand Theft Auto can turn well-adjusted kids into middle school Manchurian Candidate killers is being clung to by a vanishingly small portion of the population.
I bring this up because this week marks the anniversary of game industry figureheads meeting with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss what can be done to prevent mass shootings like the one that took place in Newtown, CT, the previous month. As with any unspeakable tragedy, there was tremendous pressure put on politicians to make sense of something senseless, to assign blame and pass laws to ensure such horrors could never happen again. In the wake of Newtown, the spotlight shone on three potential culprits: guns, the mental health system, and violent video games.
“The debate has been won on the legislative front. It exists now only in the cultural arena, and even there only for a small window longer.”
While I didn’t expect Obama and Biden to believe games were anywhere close to the root of the problem that the other two subjects represent, they did seem like the easiest scapegoat. After all, opponents of gun control in the US wield an incredible amount of political influence (more states responded to Newtown by loosening firearm restrictions than tightening them) and reforming mental health care in the US carries all the logistical headaches of reforming general health care (see the agony surrounding Obamacare), and combines it with the challenge of eradicating profoundly entrenched cultural stigmas. Given that, I was legitimately concerned that throwing games under the bus would be the most politically expedient course of action for the administration.
I can’t say how seriously Biden and President Obama were considering pushing for laws regulating violent games, and how much their calling of game execs to the principal’s office was just to appear open to options beyond gun control. But I hope I am accurate in saying that was the last moment in my life I would ever feel legitimate concern that wrong-headed legislators would constitutionally quarantine games from the rest of the creative arts.
It was a brief moment of panic, a fleeting worry that a groundswell of public support would overrule the 2011 US Supreme Court verdict ensuring games would have the same constitutional free speech protections as any other creative art form. But that moment has passed. President Obama instead called for more research into the effects of game violence on kids, the findings of which would have almost no chance of spurring legislation, barring some sort of smoking gun. (Then again, the NRA has shown that even with a literal smoking gun, these sorts of laws are not always easy to pass.)
So the debate has been won on the legislative front. It exists now only in the cultural arena, and even there only for a small window longer. What remains now is the final push to take the impact of violent games on mass shootings from “different angle on a tragedy that may help fill time on a 24-7 cable news network” to “even Fox News wouldn’t suggest this with a straight face.” I believe we’ve actually crossed that threshold now, and can only hope I never have an opportunity to be proven right. And as much as I might congratulate the Entertainment Software Association on this development, it would be for good fortune as much as good planning.
“What will finally inoculate the major players the industry from this sweeping criticism is the rise of games they would never have published…”
After decades of dealing with this issue, the tipping point was not a refinement of the ESRB rating system, a PSA campaign with cherished professional athletes, or a fundraiser to support the creation of educational games. Those are all fine and good, but they’ve been done plenty of times, and they haven’t clinched the debate. What will finally inoculate the major players the industry from this sweeping criticism is the rise of games they would never have published, games with introspective stories about straining family ties, exploring the difficulty of maintaining a healthy work-life balance, or coping with a child’s terminal cancer.
It’s no coincidence that games like Gone Home, The Novelist, and That Dragon, Cancer are emerging from outside the framework of the traditional gaming industry. From the way they’re made to the way they’re marketed, these games run counter to everything mainstream gaming has been doing for decades. They are the products of extremely small teams, with similarly tiny budgets. They are digitally distributed, avoiding all the expenses related to getting a game in a box on Walmart’s shelves. They aren’t planned for traditional consoles (at least not yet), where games must pay to go through the ratings process. In the case of Gone Home and The Novelist, the creators are selling their games directly to consumers (although those who prefer can grab them off Steam).
The industry will benefit greatly from efforts like The Novelist simply existing.
Despite their outsider status, these games represent the industry’s best chance of making the mainstream reassess what games are and the respect they should be afforded. Until now, the non-gaming masses have split games into two general categories: colorful toys for children and ultraviolent toys for manchildren.
Did that last statement make you pause? Are you thinking of counter arguments, games that don’t fit into either category in any way? If so, it’s probably because you understand the industry well enough to see the nuance, to spot that oversimplification. Lots of non-gamers don’t. So when they hear the game industry described as “a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against own people,” they compare it to what little they know of the industry. And every holiday season, the industry spends a whole lot of money to make people think it exists solely of Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, and other nasty-sounding titles.
Fortunately, this new breed of higher profile narrative-driven games, commercially viable titles that would rather explore a collapsing relationship instead of collapsing skyscrapers, give the industry clear counterpoints to its critics. And once people accept that the medium is not a monolithic entity, that just as with film and books and music, the best-sellers don’t come close to encompassing all that is possible with the art form, then the argument shifts. At that point, the object of the outcry transitions from the medium to specific entries therein. There will always be button-pushers, headline-grabbers, experimental works that attempt to shock the conscience. But winning this debate means that from this point forward, the onus of answering for these potentially offensive works will fall more squarely where it belongs, on the people who create them instead of the medium as a whole.
A beta of the title Starbound has appeared on the Steam download website and the Chucklefish developer website. It obviously has impressed gamers as one million units have moved.
The sales were revealed in a Twitter message from Chucklefish last night. It’s a pretty blank statement and we don’t know whether it reflects a combination of sales from both of the websites.
“We’ve just passed a MILLION copies sold. Keeping with the Keanu Reeves theme…,” it said, along with a picture of the actor looking surprised and, well, stupid.
The game looks like a cute affair with endless possibilities. Recently the firm announced a raft of updates that make the most of user mods and add fresh features and developer tools to them.
“In Starbound, you take on the role of a character who’s just fled from their home planet, only to crash-land on another,” goes the game’s promotional blurb. “From there you’ll embark on a quest to survive, discover, explore and fight your way across an infinite universe.”
On the Steam website the information about Starbound says that the game, which is described as “early access” and “indie”, was released on 4 December.
Chucklefish says that the game is a work in progress that will grow with its fans, adding that it is already huge.
“Starbound is already extremely playable and contains a vast amount of content, however we decided to release the game as a beta through early access to ensure the community gets a chance to help us shape the game,” it explains.
“In this first stage of the beta process you may experience some bugs, crashes or compatibility issues. Updates will come thick and fast, though, as we listen to your feedback, push fixes and add new content.”
In case those who committed to becoming an early adopter of either the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 have not noticed, there isn’t much new content coming for your new console to play till early February. That’s right; if you get sick of playing the games that have already been released for the two consoles and the limited amount of downloadable titles, you are out of luck.
It always takes a while for developers and publishers to crank up production for the new systems, but the unprecedented lack of titles being released till February has many owners of the new consoles shaking their heads. Not that the number of games released around the launch of the two consoles was small, but December and January didn’t offer much in the way of new games to play.
When February rolls around it will see the new LEGO Movie game, Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare, Rayman legends, and Thief all get released; as long as none of them end up being delayed. March looks much better, with release (of course) of Titanfall for the Xbox One and Xbox 360, as well as Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and LEGO The Hobbit already slated to drop. PS4 fans can to look forward to Driveclub and iNFAMOU Second in March, as well as exclusives to that platform. We are not sure if those two titles will address the disappointment of not getting Titanfall on the PS4, but it can’t hurt.
One very interesting offering coming at the end of January is Tomb Raider – The Definitive Edition, which could end up being an excellent seller just by virtue of its release date. The Definitive Edition which will be available for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is said to be re-mastered to deliver a next-generation gaming experience on both platforms. It will deliver 1080p graphics, enhanced physics, all of the previously released DLC content, as well as a number of subtle improvements over the original release. The reboot of the franchise was very good, and the re-release for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 looks to be a worthy pickup if you didn’t play it first time around.
For those wondering what the future really holds, you are going to have to wait till E3 in June when the publishers and developers let us in on their schedule for releases for the rest of the year. While we expect the number of releases overall this year for both platforms to be rather thin, we do think that both companies have a number of surprises in the pipeline; but it is doubtful that we are going to hear much about them for a while.
After stretches in which Nintendo and Microsoft dominated the console market, Sony is in position to reclaim the sales throne in the coming years, according to Michael Pachter. Over the holiday break, the Wedbush analyst released his industry forecast for the next three years, saying, “we expect Sony’s PS4 to ‘win’ the next console generation,” while noting the PS4 and Xbox One should both thrive through the end of 2016.
Pachter projects the PS4 to post cumulative worldwide sales of 37.7 million systems by the end of 2016, 30 percent higher than his expectation of 29 million Xbox One’s sold. Bringing up the rear will be the Nintendo Wii U, for which Pachter projected worldwide sales of 20 million units through 2016. He said a “disproportionately high percentage of Nintendo customers play more casual games,” which leaves the company vulnerable to competition from mobile and tablet games.
Pachter’s projections included a few assumptions about the retail prices of the consoles, specifically that they will experience only modest cuts over the next three years. Pachter expects the Wii U to drop 50 percent to $150 by the end of 2016, but acknowledges a possibility of Nintendo discontinuing production on the console entirely if sales lag. Meanwhile, Pachter expects the PS4 to drop $100 to $299 over the next three years, with Microsoft narrowing the cost gap of the consoles by dropping the Xbox One $150 to $349 over the same period. While Pachter has the PS4 “winning” the console generation (putting quotes around all uses of the word), aggressive pricing from Microsoft could throw a wrench into that prediction.
“We think ‘winning’ is important to both companies,” Pachter said, “and it is possible that Microsoft will reduce Xbox One pricing far faster than we have forecasted. Should hardware prices come down faster than we have modeled, it is likely that hardware and software sales will grow faster.”
Regardless, Pachter paints a brighter picture of industry software sales than seen in some time. In the US and Europe, Pachter believes gaming software sales will jump 10 percent this year, 7 percent next year, and 6 percent in 2016. Microsoft and Sony platforms will account for much of that growth, with Pachter expecting the two companies’ various platforms to grow by a combined 50 percent in the next three years. As a result, the real winners may not just be Sony and Microsoft, but core gaming publishers as well. Pachter noted that the highest-rated stocks in Wedbush’s gaming coverage–Electronic Arts, Activision, Take-Two, Ubisoft, and GameStop–all focus on core gamer audiences.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened to games during 2013? There are lots of candidates, all of them equally valid depending on your perspective and personal interests. The launch of new console hardware, perhaps; or the continuing meteoric rise of tablet and smartphone gaming. The deluge of microconsoles perhaps, none terribly successful but their very profusion pointing the way to the future ubiquity of game hardware (maybe). Oculus Rift, the really rather effective realisation of so many virtual reality fantasies; perhaps even Google Glass, which could open a doorway to new kinds of play if it doesn’t fall victim to a social backlash before it even gets off the ground.
For myself, forced to pick a single thing, I’d probably go with the bedding in of crowd funding as “part of the furniture” of the games business – indeed, of creative businesses in general. 2012 may have been the year when crowdfunding captured all the headlines, but in 2013 we started to see the wheels turning – projects completed, projects underway, projects stalled, projects failing.
After the initial hype, the reality of what it means for a wide group of interested individuals to fund a creative endeavour has bedded in. There has been disappointment, certainly, and some even bigger disappointments will probably follow down the line – but this is a learning process for creators and funders alike, and the lessons being learned are incredibly valuable. Why is crowdfunding still so exciting, despite all the hiccups? Because, quite simply, it removes one of the most infuriating and ridiculous barriers in the creative industry – the financial middlemen who must be convinced of the market value of a creative idea before they will fund it to completion.
In theory, this is not a terrible idea, even acting as a useful filter of quality in some instances – and in practice, it will continue to be how a great deal of creative work is funded. However, these gatekeepers have also slammed down the door on a vast, uncounted number of perfectly valid projects – labours of love or wonderful ideas which have been rejected because they don’t conform to a financier’s specific notion of what’s popular in the market, or because their commercial potential, while significant, is overshadowed by another more overtly commercial project.
In this way, we’ve lost not only countless games but entire genres. Adventure games are the most often lamented, having disappeared almost entirely in the 1990s, though I’d contend that the best features of the adventure genre were moulded into other game genres, survival horror being a key one, while the worst features of adventures really ought to stay dead – but I know the genre has plenty of hardcore fans who would probably do something awful to me for such blasphemy, perhaps even something as awful as making me play a load of old adventure games. Other genres, too, have declined to a huge degree, while whole swathes of game themes or approaches are simply deemed non-commercial and will never be funded by a major publisher.
Crowdfunding changes the rules, and in doing so, may help to rescue the creative and artistic continuity of the games medium. By allowing a creator to run up a flag and say “I’m going to make this; who’s up for it?”, it shares the enormous risk of creation around a vast audience, while empowering them directly to make choices about what gets made. It’s no accident that many of the most funded Kickstarter games are adventure games – after years of lamenting the lack of new titles in the genre, its fans were finally given a chance to prove the commercial viability of adventure games by putting their money where their mouths were, and they responded admirably.
As crowd funding moves into its next wave, I think that an audience of more savvy and slightly more cynical funders will interact with a group of very switched-on creators to start doing more and more interesting things. Up to now, crowd funding has been an orgy of nostalgia – long-dead genres, dusty old franchises, half-forgotten characters and worlds, all wiped down for Kickstarter in anticipation of fistfuls of dollars from men wearing the world’s rosiest spectacles. Some of the resulting games will probably be excellent (Wasteland 2 is a particular favourite at the moment) and it is certainly nice to see much-loved older genres and titles being treated with care and respect, mostly by their original creators. However, I submit that crowd funding can, and must, achieve so much more than this.
Crowd funding is about tapping into the collective power of a minority audience. The majority of the game purchasing audience don’t know or care about Double Fine, or Wasteland, or Leisure Suit Larry, or any of the other crowd funded titles to date – arguably the most “commercial” of which is the now incredibly well funded Star Citizen, and even that is a space simulation game, a genre which effectively breathed its last many years ago. These are all minority audience games, their success a testament to the fact that in the age of the internet, even the smallest niche can turn out to be a commercially viable audience. At a time when commercially backed games need to find some way to “prove” that they’ll be of interest to an audience of millions, crowd funded games need only gain the interest and affection of an audience of a few thousand to make them into viable, funded projects. So far, those minority audiences have largely been exactly what you’d expect from early adopters. They’ve been, by and large, people like me – proudly geeky guys in their thirties and forties who have some games and genres from the past they absolutely love, and who have a decent amount of disposable income in their pockets that they’re willing to delve into for the sake of nostalgia.
There’s not a damn thing wrong with that, and long may it last. However, it should be immediately apparent that there’s a much wider range of minority audiences who are deeply involved with, indeed, deeply in love with, video games. They’re largely not addressed by existing commercial games. The depiction of women in games isn’t great to begin with, but once you get into the realms of racial or sexual minorities, depictions of disability or mental illness and a whole host of other issues, games either don’t deal with them at all – or, when they do, you really, really wish they hadn’t. If you’re rolling your eyes right now, grow the hell up. Every medium invented by humanity is used by minority groups as a way of exploring and sharing their life experiences, and every medium in which this has occurred has benefited hugely from this process, the creative exploration of minorities at the margins feeding back into the mainstream and advancing the artistry and possibilities for everyone.
So here’s where I see crowd funding going in 2014 – a trend whose origins, tiny, hopeful green shoots, we can see in 2013. Crowd funding of nostalgia projects and well-loved developers breaking out of the publisher model will continue, of course. Some high profile projects will be released and people will love them. Some will be released and they’ll suck, others will fail, and there’ll be fresh bursts of enthusiasm and cynicism which will eventually start to look like a standing wave, a background pattern that’s actually stable when you look at it for long enough. Crowdfunding will be part of the furniture – and around its margins, amazing things will be occurring. Powerful voices will be tapping into the collective power of minority groups and using their input and their resources to make new kinds of games that would never, ever, in a million years, make sense to a game financier in a suit behind a boardroom table, but which engage small yet powerful niche audiences in fresh and wonderful ways.
In some regards, we can view the entire course of video game creativity over the past few years as being a process of learning how not to ask permission. It used to be that you had to ask permission from a whole lot of people before you could make a video game. Today, anyone can sit down with a copy of Unity, some time, some talent and a lot of coffee and make a video game; but of course, apart from the occasional lone genius, the investment of time and money required to make something on a large scale is still denied to those who cannot receive permission to create. Crowd funding succeeded in 2013 and will continue to succeed in the coming years because it changes the terms of that conversation. Once, creators had to find a grim-looking man with a fat wallet and say “please sir, may I be allowed to create?”; our future is a world where a creator instead stands up in a crowd and says “here’s what I’m going to create; who’s with me?”. This is no utopian vision, because the judgment of the crowd will often be as harsh and unforgiving as the besuited financier ever would be – but there are many, many crowds, and they ultimately offer a chance for a lot more voices to be heard in a medium that has all too often spoken in monotone.
The Samsung Gamepad is compatible with all Android phones running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and above, though Samsung said that it is specifically optimized for Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and above. It features an eight-way D-Pad, two analogue sticks, four action buttons, two trigger buttons, a Select button and a Play button.
The Play button is a link to the Samsung App Store selling console optimized games at “reasonable prices”. The Gamepad uses Bluetooth 3.0, but can also pair via NFC and even cast gaming onto the big screen using Samsung Allshare. Although there are a number of Chinese imports available, this is the first time a major player has brought an Android game controller to the table.
Samsung said 35 games are available through the Play button at launch with more to come in 2014. Launch titles include Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Asphalt 8, Modern Combat 4, Virtua Tennis Challenge, and Prince of Persia. These are in addition to existing games from Google Play.
Samsung is keen to tout this new device as an alternative to buying a more expensive console such as an Xbox One or Playstation 4 (PS4), and while we’re not really sure if it can match them, we can certainly see the advantages of a device like this over Android game consoles such as the Ouya or Gamestick.
The device is already available for pre-order at Expansys for $125.99. At present there is no date attached to it, and Samsung is only committing to “the coming weeks” as the time-frame for availability.
As it’s a device with a steel casing, Samsung clearly is not aiming this at the budget market, and if its functionality matches its specifications, it could be one to watch in 2014.
Rockstar has teased some updates for Grand Theft Auto, its carjacking, torture, bank heist and crime simulatiion game franchise.
Content updates for GTA Online are coming, including a Deathmatch option, and a race creation tool. Further away, and hinted at by Rockstar are even more mysterious updates that it does not intend to talk about at the moment.
“This week, we will give you the first chance to build your own content in GTA Online (and play content others have made) with the release of the Deathmatch & Race Creators Beta. With access to some of the same tools as our own game design and development team, you can craft your own custom blood-soaked gunfights, high-octane street races, screaming jet dogfights and more,” it said about its upcoming update due out later this week.
“You’ll also be able to publish your original Deathmatches and Races via the Rockstar Games Social Club for the whole community to discover, download, play, rate and share. The Deathmatch and Race Creators will come to you via a free update, and you’ll need to have a Social Club account that is linked to your Xbox Live Gamertag or Playstation Network ID to use them.”
The firm added that these will be in beta for now, so they might include flaws. GTA gamers should perhaps be used to that sort of thing. The beta should be released tomorrow.
Later this month the firm will bring in team based games including a variation on capture the flag.
Flags are not the target in these so-called Capture games, but contraband and vehicles are. These are likely to be highly tactical games and come under four game types called Raid, Contend, Hold and GTA.
The long expected Heists feature is still to come, as Rockstar said that it is still working on getting this right. It also promised story updates for Michael, Trevor and Franklin. These are expected in 2014.