Games publisher EA believes things will turn around for the company next year. This year has been pretty unpleasant for the company after its trusted DRM sunk its flagship SimCity release.
But Electronic Arts seems to think that is all behind it and has forecast fiscal 2014 earnings above Wall Street’s expectations. EA has been cutting staff and reorganizing studios in recent months to embrace new game platforms. It is preparing a new batch of games including the latest installment of its “Battlefield” shooter game franchise.
Digital revenue, from mobile games, online offerings and other newer sales channels, rose 45 percent year-over-year to $618 million, larger than EA’s packaged goods business in the fourth quarter ended on March 31. It thinks that consumers have held back from buying hardware and software as they await new versions of Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox expected later this year.
The video game maker forecast revenue of $4 billion, in line with Wall Street’s expectations. Weakness in the packaged games market dented revenue, but EA recognized $120 million of deferred payments from its “Battlefield Premium” service in the fourth quarter.
For the latest quarter, total revenue declined to $1.2 billion from $1.37 billion a year ago. Adjusted revenue rose 6.4 percent to $1.04 billion over the same period, barely beating analysts’ average estimate of $1.03 billion.
Net income fell to $323 million from $400 million last year.
It appears that the Ouya is going to be a bit delayed.
This is good news though, as it is being delayed because the console developers have more cash to spend on it, $15m more to be precise.
Ouya already raised around $7m on Kickstarter, and now, when it should be taking its last steps towards completion, it has had almost twice as much more injected into it by lovely venture capitalists.
We were expecting the console in early June, but that has slid back to 25 June. The time and money will in part be used to solve an issue with sticky buttons, something that usually only happens once consumers have taken some hardware home with them.
The money comes from venture capital firms and other companies including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), Nvidia, Shasta Ventures, and Occam Partners. KPCB’s general partner Bing Gordon will join the Ouya board of directors as a result.
“We want Ouya to be here for a long time to come,” said Julie Uhrman, Ouya founder and CEO.
“The message is clear: people want Ouya. We first heard this from Kickstarter backers who provided more than $8 million to help us build Ouya, then from over 12,000 developers who have registered to make an Ouya game, next from retailers who are carrying Ouya online and soon on store shelves, and now from top pioneering investors.”
Gordon is in charge of digital investments at KPCB and is a veteran of the games industry, having started at Electronic Arts in 1982.
“Ouya’s open source platform creates a new world of opportunity for established and emerging independent game creators and gamers alike,” he said.
“There are some types of games that can only be experienced on a TV, and Ouya is squarely focused on bringing back the living room gaming experience. Ouya will allow game developers to unleash their most creative ideas and satisfy gamers craving a new kind of experience.”
Ouya consoles should start arriving in living rooms on 25 June. If you want one, you are going to have to come up with around $100 dollars, plus another $50 dollars if you want two controllers.
It’s ancient history now, but once upon a time, if you wanted to play the most recent and most interesting games, you had to get up, leave the house and make your way to an arcade. Games consoles and home computers lived further down the food chain, their owners waiting for often sub-par versions of glorious arcade hits to be released on home systems. The real experience happened in an arcade.
Even to those who experienced that era, it’s a little hard to believe when you look at the sad remnants of their former glory which remain. Even in supposedly arcade-mad Japan, games generally find themselves wedged ignominiously in between gambling machines occupied by middle-aged chain-smokers and UFO Catcher booths promising, but rarely delivering, stuffed toys and sweets for bored teens on dates. In western countries, sad, lonely fighting game machines are just stuffed in where “arcade” owners ran out of fruit machines to install.
The reasons for this change are fundamentally technological. Arcade machines are big, bulky and expensive to move or replace. Once, that meant that they were vastly more powerful than home systems – but the accelerating pace of technological progress turned the size and expense of arcade machines into a liability rather than an advantage. Cheap, rapidly updated computers and consoles (and eventually even phones) first matched and then far outstripped the processing capabilities of big arcade cabinets. Rapid updates in graphics, processing, storage, networking, controls and screen resolutions were comfortably adopted by the home market, the costs buffered by cheap, cheerful hardware and absorbed by the wallets of millions of consumers. Arcade operators, faced with replacing large numbers of huge, expensive systems in order to keep track of such changes, fell behind completely.
Social factors either exacerbated or softened this blow, but these were highly region dependent. In Japan, where small family living spaces have engendered a culture in which many social activities are carried out external to the home, arcades persisted as date spots, as places to hang out with friends and – perhaps most importantly – as a venue for games too large, too noisy or too intrusive to be played in a small family home. In parts of the West, though, social factors intervened to hasten the decline, with a perception of arcades as “seedy” venues (in the grand tradition of pool halls and their ilk) discouraging many potential players, while regions with legalised gambling were quick to drop videogames in favour of more profitable slot machines.
Over the years, there has been talk of an “arcade renaissance” on several occasions, yet each time has ended in disappointment. Even as living spaces in many Western countries (the UK is a particularly notable example) have shrunk dramatically in terms of average size, Western consumers have demonstrated a continued willingness to engage with loud, bulky games. Rock Band and Guitar Hero were hugely successful as home games in the West, where their Japanese equivalents, Konami’s Guitar Freaks or Drum Mania, have acted as sustaining lifeblood for arcade venues. It’s also notable that even as Japanese arcades have innovated and invested, launching extraordinary new games which leverage all sorts of new technologies, from the company’s ultra high-speed broadband networks through to the possibilities of RFID enabled cards, the arcade sector’s health has still declined – a drop-off in footfall, revenue and floor space that’s been slower than in the West, but still isn’t exactly the rude health you might have come to believe from fawning articles about amazing Japanese arcades in the western media.
As such, it’s important to be cautious about any notion of an arcade recovery. Yet if we were to envisage any potential uplift in the fortunes of the out-of-home gaming sector, we can easily say what one key factor would be – just as in the heyday of the arcade, these venues would need to provide games which you simply cannot experience at home. This won’t come about, this time around, through more powerful graphics or processing – the trends in those areas are focused on miniaturisation and cost-efficiency, targeting the ability to put high-end 3D into phones rather than building pricey, bulky, ultra high-end systems. Instead, the focus would have to be on experiences that don’t work at home for reasons of space, budget, intrusiveness – or preferably, a combination of all of the above.
The reason I raise this issue now is because in the past few weeks, most of us will have seen videos or demonstrations of technologies which, although their creators purport to be focused on the home market, clearly fall into these categories. One is Microsoft’s Illumiroom system, which uses Kinect to map a 3D space and then projects imagery matched to that 3D map. It’s a great piece of technology with extraordinary gaming potential. It’s also abjectly unsuited to an ever-increasing number of living rooms around the world. Kinect alone is an impossibility for many players due to the space and room layout it demands; Illumiroom, demanding similar space if not more and intrusively taking over the entire room such that nobody else will be able to use it concurrently with the game being played, is simply not going to work for most people and most homes. Outside the home, though, in a dedicated venue? The potential of the technology is extraordinary, the experiences it could create serving to create a destination for gamers to experience something that just won’t work at home.
The same thought process applies, to some extent, to the Oculus Rift. It’s not that the superb VR headset hardware won’t work at home – of course it will, and it’ll probably only be a few hardware generations before the compromises presently being made in the name of cost are ironed out by technological progress. However, the “full” VR experience – with a custom controller (a gun, perhaps, or full-body motion sensing suite), a multi- directional treadmill, and so on, is simply going to be too expensive for most users – and even if prices collapsed, it’s too big and unwieldy to live in most people’s apartments. Yet the entertainment potential of such a fully-functional setup, running in parallel with a dozen other such suites so that a group of friends can explore a virtual world together, is enormous – and from a commercial perspective, not even all that space-consuming.
Of course, technology is just one factor. Technologies such as these (and I’m sure that others exist which also fall into the trap of “amazing, but it won’t work in my house”) can give a compelling reason for people to engage with out-of-home gaming – but the social factors also have to be right if an arcade renaissance is to be possible. Social factors are trickier, in many ways, than getting the hardware and the software right. Losing the seedy, unwelcoming image of the arcade in some regions will be tough; in others, where arcades have died entirely, the marketing of an entirely new social pursuit would present a major challenge. Getting people to try out something like this might be easy; getting them to see a trip to the VR centre with friends as an entertainment option on par with a trip to the cinema is likely to be much harder.
All the same, the entertainment possibilities opened up by technologies of this kind, which are now reaching a mature, usable stage in their development, ought to create an optimism around arcades and out-of-home gaming that hasn’t been seen for some time. Social or commercial aspects could still pull the rug out from any hope of recovery or renaissance – but the potential certainly exists for new kinds of gaming and interactive entertainment to take their place as key social out-of-home experiences in the coming years.
Some well-known industry analysts are suggesting that Microsoft could be behind as much as six months on software development for the Xbox Next. According to these sources, a combination of events have put Microsoft in this position, but it seems that some titles that were being developed internally have been canned. The situation led to Microsoft seeking to secure exclusives from 3rd party sources to fill in the gaps.
We first suggested a link between EA and Microsoft on some sort of an exclusive deal back when they were not a part of the Sony press conference earlier this year. Now, we find that they have a deal of some sort for the new Respawn title, which will apparently be exclusive to the Xbox 360 and Xbox Next. That’s not all, as it is expected that Microsoft has more exclusives to announce. What the question is really about is whether these are true exclusives or are just timed exclusives that we will see on the PS3/PS4 at some point in the future.
Even if Microsoft’s internal exclusives lack for the Xbox Next at launch, we expect them to catch up; we don’t see a big gap developing, but we know that Microsoft has solid properties to use on the Xbox Next and they will get those titles developed and out. No worries: it is going to be similar to all console launches where the software lacks when the system is released.
Ubisoft has confirmed that Watch Dogs will arrive on November 19th in North America and November 22nd in Europe. The game is been confirmed for the Xbox 360, Xbox Next, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, and Wii U. The release date for the PlayStation 4 version is expected to coincide with the release date of the PlayStation 4 console, so depending on its release date, the release of the PS4 version could be adjusted. (This apparently applies to the Xbox Next, as well.)
We are also being told that the PS3 version of the game will include an additional 60 minutes of exclusive game play. We are not sure if this game play will also be available for those that purchase the PS4 version, but we suspect that it will.
Four special edition versions of the game will be offered. It is not yet clear whether or not they will offer each of these special editions for each of the platforms. More details are expected to follow in the days ahead, but these look like some very nice special editions of the game, with some very nice extras being thrown in.
As anyone who has accidentally walked into a room full of children can tell you, they’re good at asking the kinds of questions that just keep drilling down. “Why is the sky blue? So why does blue light get scattered more? Then why is the sky red at sunset? Where are you going?”
And although I don’t recommend it, if you were to sit one of these little buggers down with a quarterly earnings reports from EA or Activision, they might soon start asking “Why are violent video games so much more popular than other games?” It’s a tricky question to answer without falling down the why hole. Because shooting stuff is fun. Why is it fun? Because people like military themes where they can be the hero. Okay, but why is that? Because players like feeling ridiculously powerful and enormous guns let them do that. But why is that appealing? Why, why, why?
Well, some psychologists are trying to tease apart the reasons why violence sells without throwing their hands up and shouting “Just because! And I’m not even your real dad!” Researchers Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan describe how they think that the design of violent games – especially shooters – naturally does a pretty good job of satisfying some very basic psychological needs. But not in the way you may be thinking.
In their book, Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, Rigby and Ryan describe “self-determination theory,” a fairly well established framework that aims to describe why people pursue certain voluntary activities. In part, self-determination theory says that people are motivated to engage in activities to the extent that they satisfy three psychological needs:
- 1. Competence – progressing in skill and power.
- 2. Autonomy – being able to choose from multiple, meaningful options.
- 3. Relatedness – feeling important to others.
What does this have to do with violent shooters? Rigby, Ryan, and their colleagues argue that many of the design principles of good shooters also happen to follow well worn paths to satisfying these three psychological needs. Let’s take a closer look.
Competence is communicated by immediate and unambiguous positive feedback in response to your actions – you see opponents stagger, see blood fly off them, and ultimately see them collapse. The beloved headshot is particularly effective in this regard. Scott Rigby notes, “I’ll often put up a slide with a great screenshot of a headshot, and it always elicits smiles. The smiles here aren’t because everyone is sadistic – they are because this is a moment of mastery satisfaction that all gamers can relate to. The blood may not be the value component, but really is just a traditional way dense informational feedback on mastery is provided.” Information about competence in shooters is also thrown at you in the form of scoreboards, rankings, weapon unlocks, and eventually the outcome of every (relatively short) match.
Autonomy, the second motivator in self-determination theory, is also well served by the design of most popular shooters. Having the option to choose many different paths through a level satisfies autonomy, as does choosing between different classes, different loadouts, or different tactics. In a lot of games you can even choose between different modes, modifiers, or maps, allowing you to satisfy the need to play a game how you please. And if that’s not enough, custom character or weapon skins or models also fit in here.
Finally, relatedness is most obviously important in multiplayer games where you can feel like part of a successful (or, perhaps more likely of pickup games, incompetent) team bound together by opposition to a common foe. To the extent that shooters communicate your contributions in the forms of scores, points, server-wide notifications, or MVP awards, relatedness will be satisfied – to say nothing of what you can get out of text and voice chat. But even most modern shooters have single player campaigns that somewhat mimic this and put you in the role of someone important to those around you.
Of course, none of these motivators is unique to shooters. They show up in good game design across all genres and themes. But violent shooters usually hit on all three, and Rigby and Ryan believe that’s there’s a big overlap between what makes an effective shooter and what satisfies multiple facets of all three of these psychological needs. So while RPGs might nail autonomy, platformers may demand competence, and MMOs may allow the most relatedness, violent shooters fire on all three cylinders.
“[Violent games] are fun not because of the blood and gore,” write Rigby and Ryan, “but because games of war and combat offer so many opportunities to feel autonomy, competence, and the relatedness of camaraderie rolled up into an epic heroic experience.” But, that all said, do shooters satisfy all these motivators so well because they’re violent?
It’s an important question, and Ryan, Rigby, and their colleague Andrew Przybylski published a 2009 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that addresses it. Part of their research involved a clever experiment where they modified Half-Life 2 to create a high-violence version of the game’s multiplayer and a low-violence version. The high violence version is pretty much what you’d expect. The low violence one, though, was created by changing the bullet-spewing guns into “tag” tools that players would use to zap opponents. Once tagged, foes would freeze and float up into the air for a second before being harmlessly teleported to a “penalty box” where they would wait to respawn into the game. So the main difference – arguably the only difference – between the two groups was how much violence there was in the game. Everything else was the same: the level layouts, the controls, and all the other stuff that satisfied competence and autonomy (unfortunately they didn’t examine relatedness). Only the violence was teased out of the equation
What did they find? Well, a lot of things. But one interesting finding was that the games in either condition were found enjoyable and both games satisfied the basic psychological needs of competence and autonomy. Even whether or not a person was naturally aggressive and normally enjoyed violent games didn’t matter once you accounted for competence and autonomy.
To me, this is vastly interesting and argues for alternatives to the go-to trope of violence and gore if you’re looking to draw people to games. It’s not the bloodshed as much as it is feeling like you’re able to make what you want happen on-screen. It’s not fetishising guns and explosions as much as it is the ability to use tactics and choose among meaningful options on the road to victory. It’s not the military themes as much as it is feeling like you’re an important part of a team.
Sure, war and military heroism are themes and experiences worthy of exploration, but there are other options that can be just as effective. Gamers may be happy to just keep buying the same game over and over again without understanding a thing about self determination theory, and publishers may only want to greenlight games that look like smash hits from the past without caring about mechanisms for satisfying psychological needs, but developers who think about these things and play around with them can definitely do something both great and different.
Ouya, the open Android-based console designed by Yves Behar, is being shipped to its Kickstarter backers today, and the company officially announced this week at GDC that it will hit retailers in the US, UK and Canada on June 4. Ouya is promising “hundreds” of titles for the June 4 release and the $99 console will be available at Amazon, Best Buy, GAME, GameStop, Target, and the store on OUYA.tv. Additional controllers will be sold for $49.99. And for digital purchases, consumers will be able to get pre-paid cards with redeemable codes at retail if they wish.
The company said that over 8,000 game developers worldwide are currently developing games, including both up-and-comers and more well known game makers like Square Enix, Double Fine Productions, Tripwire Interactive, Vlambeer, Phil Fish’s Polytron Corporation, and Kim Swift’s Airtight Games. “The majority of devs so far are experienced devs who’ve never built an Android game before. About 1 out of 5 have never even built a game before,” Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman said that at the GDC unveiling. She boasted that Ouya “already has more titles a couple months before launch than any console has ever launched with.”
The Ouya hardware itself is even smaller than we had previously thought (think Rubik’s Cube or smaller), and its sleek design and brushed aluminum is pleasing to the eye. Uhrman, however, stressed the controller more than anything else. “What we spent the most amount of time on is the controller. We really want this to be our love letter to gamers,” she said, adding that Ouya focused on the ergonomics, the weight, the feel, and wanted it to be a precise, accurate controller. “This is one of the pieces of Ouya that evolved a lot based on early supporter feedback,” she continued.
Apparently, the feedback led to numerous changes on the controller in terms of button placement, and the style of d-pad. The team found out that many preferred a cross-style d-pad than a disc because it’s superior for fighting games. Also, the engineers retooled the tension of the analogs and the design of shoulder buttons. And Ouya even made the responsiveness and speed of the center touch pad customizable. In this journalist’s hands, it felt comfortable and familiar while playing a few titles.
After showing off the hardware, Uhrman dived into the user interface of Ouya. The whole UI is incredibly streamlined, with four categories and an apps-like layout. The four categories are Play, Discover, Make, and Manage (which is for settings). Play is simply where anything you’ve downloaded – games or music or video apps – will be placed. Discover is the store, and it’s been designed to encourage people to “find the best games.” For example, sub-selections in Discover include featured channels like Go Retro, Hear Me, Genres, and Sandbox. The plan is to offer more descriptive names for games within genres.
“The way games get exposed in the genre list is based on what we call the O-rank, which is our fun algorithm. It’s how we rank great games. A lot of app platforms today use downloads as a metric or they use revenue as a metric and we don’t think that’s a good way to say if it’s a good game,” Uhrman said. “You could download a game and never play it again. And with the free-to-try model, revenue isn’t necessarily the best model either. What is [a good metric] is what proves that the game is fun, and that’s engagement. So things like how long you have played a game, how many times you’ve played that game over a certain period of time. How quickly from the time you boot up Ouya, which is an always-on device, do you play that game… It’s those types of engagement metrics that we think prove it’s a fun game.”
Another interesting area within Discover is Sandbox, which offers developers an opportunity to put builds up and ask people to thumb it up. The idea is for great games to get out of the Sandbox and be searchable and merchandized. It encourages developers to market their games and promote them to fans. Once you get out of Sandbox you know the people next to you have great quality games, Uhrman explained.
The Make channel is an area that appears to still be in flux. Uhrman said the goal is to serve two audiences, gamers and developers, equally. While Make is a place where a developer can upload early builds, over time it’ll be a place for devs to communicate with fans. “We also can grow it to be, what if you want to make a game, here’s how to market a game, etc. We’ll look to devs and gamers for feedback on how to evolve the section,” Uhrman said.
A console that’s as open as Ouya should have a fairly simple submission process for developers right? Uhrman confirmed that it’s not overly complicated and should be something most can complete within an hour. “It’s something we thought a lot about given that we’re an open platform… but we wanted to make sure that there are good quality games, at least to the extent that it was optimized to the television and for the controller. So the guidelines isn’t necessarily a quality review, but it checks if there’s malware, does it break or freeze often, does it use our controller schema in the right way, we need to make sure there’s no IP infringement, no pornography, does it elicit real-world violence, you are who you say you are kind of thing – that’s the review. We try to keep it under an hour. Developers can choose to go live immediately or they can choose a certain time,” she detailed.
Curiously, there’s been no partnership reached with the ESRB to rate the games in North America. Right now, the games will be self-rated by devs and community reviewed. Given that Ouya is being sold in mainstream retail, however, we do have to wonder if this will pose potential problems for the company in an atmosphere where some people are still pointing fingers at violent video games. “We’ll take it as it comes; right now we want to expose great content from any type of developer and we do have the thumbs-up/like feature or the report if this is abuse on the system,” responded Uhrman, adding that “We basically say that we can change the rules at any time and we can reject the game for any reason that doesn’t fit our content guidelines – we want everybody on Ouya to have a great experience.”
Ratings aside, one of the big questions surrounding Ouya is whether or not it can truly carve out a market for itself in the console space as industry veterans Sony and Microsoft prepare to launch their respective next-generation systems. The games we saw on Ouya are not graphically intense and are very indie in nature. Can Ouya handle high fidelity triple-A releases? Or does it even need to in order to get noticed?
Ouya does has a partnership with OnLive, so that’s one way to get triple-A games. “That’s one solution. We also support 1080p, hi-def… and we have a USB port so someone can add an external hard drive, so for games that are heavy you could absolutely use that. We have a max download size of 1.2GB for the first download, but as a developer if you want to add and send additional content from your servers you can,” Uhrman said.
“Traditional games take longer to develop, and we have some of those in development that we’re really excited about. Ouya is not about the number of polygons on the screen,” Uhrman acknowledged. “That’s not where we went. We wanted to have innovative and creative exclusive content, and we’re already starting to see that.”
Exclusive content plus a very appealing $99 price point is what could make the system an easy impulse buy for many gamers Uhrman believes. Moreover, Uhrman noted that most core gamers tend to purchase more than one console, so Ouya is likely to be something they’ll want to buy even if they are getting a PS4.
“Ouya offers something different; every gamer has a different expectation depending upon the platform and we believe we’re going to have innovative, creative games and exclusive games to Ouya… And the barrier to entry at just $99 where every game is free-to-try, I think opens up the opportunity for a number of gamers, even core gamers. Core gamers on average own more than one console. We don’t really think it’s an either/or situation. We’re offering something different – I think they’re going to want Ouya too,” she said.
A number of traditional consoles in the past have launched selling at a loss. Since Ouya is built with off the shelf components, it may be easier to contain costs, but Uhrman wouldn’t confirm that each unit is sold at a profit. “We’re really comfortable with our business model,” is all she would say.
That said, if things go the way Uhrman would like, this is only the beginning. Ouya will continue to evolve its software and hardware, and the hardware is likely to get refreshed quickly.
“We’re like any other software platform that iterates and grows over time, and we’ll have a hardware refresh rate more similar to a mobile refresh rate than a console refresh rate because we want to take advantage of the best chips out there and falling commodity prices. We will certainly make sure that there’s enough content that’s optimized for that chip and we don’t push on higher prices to the consumer,” she said.
Does that mean some Ouyas in future will not be compatible with certain games? Uhrman is looking to avoid that scenario. “We have a plan where all content will be compatible with future Ouya systems; we don’t want to fragment our own market for developers, and we always want gamers to have a great experience,” she commented.
Ouya will be interesting to watch. It’s a bold move for the industry and everything we’ve seen so far is completely unconventional. Whether or not that will pay dividends in the long-run is hard to judge at this point in time. “The market is calling us the ‘un-console’ and we like doing things the ‘un-way’,” Uhrman remarked.
When Crytek opened its new Crytek USA studio, it picked up a number of the staff from Vigil when THQ hit bottom. Now, it looks like those former Vigil studio members might be lucky enough to see Crytek acquire the Darksiders franchise that these folks poured their hearts and souls into.
Crytek is apparently looking to buy the rights to the Darksiders franchise. This is not to make a new Darksiders game, but is in the spirit that the people who created the game might as well own the IP if someone if going to get it.
Former Vigil boss, David Adams, now the head of Crytek USA, went to Twitter to announce the news that Crytek would be bidding to acquire the franchise because the IP belongs at home with is creators, according to the Twitter posting.
While it is far from assured that Crytek will acquire it, the courts and the legal wrangling will determine how it shakes out. Still, it is nice thing to see that some of the former Vigil crew could end up with the IP being under the roof where they work again. It does not get anywhere close to a new Darksiders game, but it would be nice for the Vigil folks to have something good come their way.
Warhammer 40K owner Games Workshop has confirmed a new licensing deal with Roadhouse Interactive to develop new titles for mobile space based on the franchise. The developer, who is based in Vancouver, describes the new Warhammer title as a side screening action game.
While Roadhouse confirms that the game is in development, the end mobile platforms that will see the released version of the game are still up in the air at the moment; but more information is sure to be coming in the months ahead, according to the studio.
The Warhammer 40K has had others attempts to capture the tabletop war game in video form before. These Warhammer offerings have met with mixed reviews, but this new title from Roadhouse will be a first for Warhammer 40K in the mobile space.
Mac owners will get to play the upcoming release of BioShock Infinite, thanks to Aspyr Media. Aspyr will be handling the Mac conversion, as well as the marketing of the Mac version of the game.
While the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC versions of BioShock Infinite will arrive on March 26th, the Mac conversion does not have a specific release date beyond its planned arrival at some point this summer.
The news really isn’t that surprising, as BioShock Infinite looks to be one of the biggest titles to be released this year; and, of course, Aspyr should do well with a Mac conversion of the game.
The Disney acquisition of LucasFilm last October included all of the company’s subsidiaries, including Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound, and veteran game developer LucasArts. While news since the acquisition has been mostly focused – and justifiably so – on an announcement of a new Star Wars movie in production, what does the future hold for LucasArts?
Here’s what’s known about Disney’s plans for Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries. Disney’s official press release on the acquisition stated that “Lucasfilm, headquartered in San Francisco, operates under the names Lucasfilm Ltd., LucasArts, Industrial Light & Magic, and Skywalker Sound, and the present intent is for Lucasfilm employees to remain in their current locations.”
Subsequently, Disney has announced the beginning of production on Star Wars Episode VII, to be directed by noted director JJ Abrams; the cancellation of the acclaimed animated series The Clone Wars after 100 episodes; and Seth Green’s planned Star Wars: Detours comedy has been shelved for now. The speculation among Hollywood insiders is that Disney wants to focus efforts on the new movie, and wants to remove possible distractions (other licensed Star Wars shows) from the entertainment landscape.
The picture regarding LucasArts’ future is much less clear. The company began in 1982 producing games for Atari consoles, and later produced computer games including a series of popular adventure games (like The Secret of Monkey Island), military simulations (like Battlehawks 1942) and first-person shooters (Star Wars: Dark Forces). Subsequently, after the turn of the millennium LucasArts changed focus, working with other publishers and focusing mostly on titles based on Lucasfilm properties.
The last few years have been turbulent for LucasArts, with a series of executive changes and downsizings. Jim Ward headed up the company from 2004 to 2008; he was followed by Howard Roffman as interim until Darrell Rodriguez took over and was replaced by Paul Meegan in 2010; Meegan left in 2012, and the studio has not yet chosen a permanent president.
The game slate for LucasArts has been pared down to only one that’s promoted on its web site: Star Wars 1313. The game is a third-person adventure game, seemingly similar to a BioWare game, and it caused quite a positive buzz at E3 last year. Kotaku has reported that the three different sources told them the game was put on hold since the acquisition, but LucasArts denied this, saying that “Star Wars 1313 continues production.” Kotaku also reported that Star Wars: First Assault, a multiplayer shooter, may never be released given the uncertainty about the future of LucasArts and its direction.
According to BusinessWeek’s article on the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm, LucasArts brought in $150 million in revenue in 2012, with operating income of about $90 million. Those numbers may seem high given the languid pace of LucasArts releases (Kinect Star Wars being the only release in 2012, and Lego Star Wars III in 2011), but LucasArts also has licensed game revenue from titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Now, sources have indicated that since the acquisition LucasArts hiring has been frozen, and other rumors passed along to us questioned the future of the studio itself. LucasArts, when reached for a statement, said it’s “one hundred percent not true” that LucasArts was headed for a shutdown, and that “everything is moving ahead.” Speculation will doubtless continue in the absence of hard information about release dates and future products.
The studio’s performance in recent years has not impressed former LucasArts employees. One ex-LucasArts employee had this to say: “The ‘business’ has been on life-support since the Star Wars license and subsequent development for their best title went to Bioware/EA. I’m frankly amazed that they’ve stayed in business this long. No stomach for truly original product, and slender means to produce their previous cash cows – Indy and Star Wars.”
Disney has many things to consider when looking at the future of LucasArts. The studio has had a spotty record of product releases, but perhaps some of that may be due to the unfocused nature of the Star Wars franchise in the last few years. Disney has had its own difficulties in determining a strong interactive strategy, shutting down Junction Point Studios and recently slipping the ship date for Disney Infinity. Many of Disney’s best intellectual properties (like the many Marvel characters) are licensed out rather than developed in-house.
The relaunch of the Star Wars movie franchise with Episode VII is clearly a major event that Disney will want to exploit to the fullest. Either LucasArts should be revitalized to produce games worthy of a major media event, or Disney may decide to just give up in-house production of cutting-edge game titles and license the property out. Either way, Disney needs to decide soon which way to go; AAA games take years to develop properly, and time is passing swiftly.
Essentially, if Disney doesn’t decide what to do with LucasArts soon the decision will effectively be made for it. Employees who have no clear picture of their future will be looking for work elsewhere, and typically the most talented employees are among the first to leave. If Disney waits too long, it won’t be able to have AAA games available around the launch of the new movie, and the talent pool may be lower than it was. May the Force be with them.
Video game research firm EEDAR, which already has a proprietary database of over 100 million internally researched data points from more than 90,000 physical, digital, mobile, and social game products, is gearing up for the launch of a new service to assist mobile and social developers. EEDAR said that its new suite of mobile. Tablet and social products will aim “to improve sales potential and game quality for titles utilizing in-app monetization.”
EEDAR said that one of the most important things a developer can do is to optimize a game before launch. “EEDAR is able to provide an assessment at any point during the development cycle and accurately project key performance measurements of the final product, in addition to a qualitative assessment that provides feedback from the perspective of a professional game critic and consumers,” the company said about its new product suite.
Jesse Divnich, VP of Insights at EEDAR, to get an overview of the key takeaways from the firm’s research on the mobile and social markets. Divnich stressed that developers must be prepared with their in-game monetization strategy for retention and boosting conversion rates before a title is released into an app store.
“When the mobile game market was emerging, developers could optimize key monetization features after a game’s launch. The onboarding acquisition process had a long tail. Today, due to competition and larger consumer awareness, the time to peak engagement is rapidly shortening,” he noted.
“Facebook/Social games are a perfect example. Games like Farmville took nearly a year before they reached their peak users. It gave Zynga ample enough time to adjust game features to increase engagement monetization rates. Now, Social games are peaking within weeks and this idea of always being in ‘beta’ quickly shows its weaknesses when you are onboarding the majority of your lifetime users in only a few weeks,” he continued. “The mobile market is beginning to reach that point. Mobile games are making more headlines, consumers are becoming aware of hit titles faster. Simply put, consumers are engaging mobile games closer to a game’s release date and sleeper hits are becoming less prevalent.”
Even getting highlighted by Apple doesn’t mean what it used to. Developers can squander a great opportunity if they don’t make an effort to optimize. “Being featured by Apple no longer means weeks or months on the top charts. At most you have seven days and if your title is not fully optimized, you will leave money on the table,” Divnich added. “Going forward, developers must ensure they’re launching with maximum optimization, both from an artistic and scientific perspective. This means dedicating more resources to pre-launch analytics and qualitative testing.”
So what are some other notable mistakes developers are making? Well, mimicry certainly isn’t helping. Just because something works in one game doesn’t mean it can be successfully “borrowed” for a different game.
“There are still a large chunk of developers that are still too short-sighted. Clash of Clans has been a top seller for a few months and nearly 50 percent of the concepts and vertical slices that come across my desk in some way or another have an 80 percent overlap of Clash of Clans’ engagement loop. After we perform our assessments, some developers are disappointed to learn their retention, conversion, and monetization rates potential are a fraction of the results Clash of Clans has produced,” observed Divnich.
Even if your game is successful at the start, retention is a real problem, as it’s hard to create a game that has legs. “Competition within the mobile markets is at its fiercest, and every week there are at least seven high-quality releases trying to fight for our attention. The increase in competition, media coverage, and consumer awareness has driven down retention rates, for some genres, to dangerously low levels,” Divnich explained.
The key, he said, is to drive connectivity with a very attractive multiplayer component. “Right now, the tried and true method for improving retention has been multiplayer and social features. The correlation between retention rates and the inclusion of multiplayer and social features is ridiculously high,” Divnich noted. “We do issue caution, however. Just because games with strong multiplayer and social support sell well doesn’t mean slapping on a multiplayer component will automatically make your game a success.”
“We’ve seen this trend occur in the traditional HD gaming space. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare created a multiplayer frenzy and everyone thought by cuffing on a multiplayer component their game, too, would be a success. While it helped for some, those that tacked it on were met with lukewarm or disappointing reception. We still encourage our developers to implement new ways of approaching multiplayer and social features, but how they are implemented is key to improving retention rates,” he continued.
While the mobile/tablet space is getting all the attention these days, and social gaming on Facebook has seen sharp declines, that doesn’t mean developers should automatically ignore the social space. There can be opportunities there as well, especially if developers optimize their titles.
“The social platform is still viable and profitable for many developers,” Divnich remarked. “Two years ago developers were fanatic about releasing on the social platform, but they oversaturated the market. There was too much choice in a market, there were no switching barriers for consumers, and there existed too many rip-offs of the standard Farmville or Bejeweled engagement loop. Additionally, Facebook couldn’t keep up with the demand for innovation. Being a platform where consumers violently resist change (e.g. Timeline), it’s difficult to support new tools and back-end features for developers without changing the whole experience altogether.”
“Developers can still be profitable on social platforms, but we certainly approach that space more cautiously,” he concluded.
Steam Box prototypes will be in the wild for customer testing in the next three to four months, according to Gabe Newell. Valve has given up on pretending that it’s not interested in the hardware game; its ambitions are now pretty clear, and somewhat wider than we expected. Where once the concept of a Steam Box was thought to be simply a minimum set of specs for PC manufacturers to follow in order to get a “Steam Powered” sticker on their boxes, now Newell talks openly about the nitty gritty of hardware challenges like heat and noise management, or building bio-metric sensors into the custom controller for the console.
A great many people are hugely excited about the Steam Box. I’m one of them, I confess – I think it’ll be just the thing to ease me back into PC gaming, which is where my roots as a gamer lie, but from which I’ve become increasingly (if unwillingly) estranged. However, I think there are some tough questions and unhappy realities about the Steam Box – whatever final form it may take – that still need to be addressed, especially by the most outspoken proponents of the system.
The crux of the problem is this – Valve’s console is already being lauded as a chariot of openness, a triumph for all those who love things that are Open as opposed to Closed, even if some of them aren’t very good at defining what those terms actually mean. The box will presumably run either Windows or some Linux variant, and if you want to, you’ll presumably be able to leave the Steam environment and pop back to the desktop of that OS and run whatever games or other software you want. (That’s the assumption, anyway; we shall see.) That’s certainly Open compared to, say, a PlayStation 4 or an iPad, which won’t run anything Sony or Apple respectively don’t want you to run.
However, there are other facets to this which look less convincing. For a start, while Steam is an amazing distribution platform that has massively boosted the appeal and reach of PC gaming, in many ways it’s just as much a walled garden as any of the consoles. Indeed, when I wrote a column recently calling on Sony to lower the barrier for indie studios and small firms wishing to publish PSN games (something they seem intent on doing with PS4), many people pointed out that Steam can actually be an even tougher place to publish a game than PSN – and with the advent of a PS4 based on PC architecture and seemingly more open than ever to self-publishing, that contrast may become rather stark. It’s already a stark contrast with the iOS App Store and Google Play, which both place only the smallest of barriers in front of creators who want to put their games in front of consumers.
As such, the question I’m asking myself is this; to an average consumer, who doesn’t really want to dig around in another OS that sits behind the “console” interface, is Valve’s proposed console really all that different to what Sony are suggesting? It seems to me that while Valve and Sony have started out on very different ideological and technological ground (and as such, are bringing along vocal supporters who originate in diametrically opposed viewpoints), they’ve converged significantly towards a midpoint. Sony, a company whose consoles have been totally closed ecosystems that were extremely difficult to publish on, has made huge strides towards welcoming self-publishing and liberalising its pricing and business models. Valve, a company with its roots in the open free-for-all of PC distribution, has gradually erected taller and taller walls around its garden and will, in the final analysis, build something that’s rather more like a games console than most PC gaming fans are comfortable admitting.
That’s fine, of course. If anything, it’s a triumph for common sense. The companies that used to build totally closed systems are recognising the immense benefits of more open platforms and loosening the reins accordingly. Companies who were ideologically wedded to the concept of openness, meanwhile, are recognizing that a certain degree of gatekeeping helps to ward off malware, fraud, viruses and a host of other damaging software. Perhaps the best thing about Steam, from a personal perspective, is that I trust implicitly that both it and the software it hosts will not damage my computer, which is a very major step for PC gaming but not one that could be taken without first stepping back a little bit from the concept of “openness”.
What I’m trying to challenge here, I think, is the notion that whatever Valve does with the Steam Box is necessarily going to ride roughshod over next-gen console efforts. I simply don’t think that’s a given. The Steam Box will have advantages – a huge catalogue of games being the most obvious – but it’s simply wrong to assume that it’s going to be waving some extraordinary flag of democratization and leading the charge against a closed console market. It’s just going to be another walled garden among several walled gardens – the good news being that the walls this generation are going to be much, much lower than they’ve ever been before. It goes without saying, though, that Xbox and PlayStation are much stronger brands with the consumer market than Steam or Valve, so there’s an uphill struggle to be fought in that regard.
From both a consumer and developer standpoint, though, this all looks rather positive. Assuming that the leaks about Xbox 3 are correct, we’re talking about three consoles backed by serious, heavy-hitting companies, each based on PC architecture that’s pretty straightforward to develop for, and in the case of Valve and Sony at least, each courting the notion of openness and self-publishing. That level of competition is very, very healthy indeed – so much for the notion that the console market is moribund and set for an early grave. Consoles are changing and adapting to new conditions; not extinction but evolution. It’s great to see Valve being a part of that process and helping to knock down the utterly artificial barrier between PC and console gaming, which have always had far more commonalities than differences.
Developers, publishers and others involved in the industry simply need to be careful about how they conceptualize this shift. There is going to be a lot of fanboy nonsense written and spoken in the coming months about Valve turning up to “smash” the consoles, or about how “Open” is going to obliterate “Closed”. Valve isn’t smashing consoles; it’s building one. Open isn’t obliterating Closed; all the major players from both sides of that ill-defined fence are cherry-picking the best bits of both models to create an environment that makes sense for a modern, digital world. It’s going to be a topsy-turvy few years – I still can’t quite get over being told by several indie developers that they find it easier to publish on Sony’s consoles than on the PC via Steam, and I expect to have plenty more such preconceptions and notions being overturned in years to come. The only real certainty about the ongoing digital transition is that it still holds a great many surprises and turnabouts.
Sony announced its Playstation 4 console last month, with most of the firm’s event devoted to the AMD accelerated processing unit (APU) that will drive the console. Now Nvidia has said that despite its chips not powering Sony’s next generation games console, games developers programming for the console can use its Physx technology.
Nvidia’s Physx technology is a physics library that works on PCs and current generation consoles. It’s no longer limited to the firm’s own GPUs, meaning that AMD’s APU can execute Physx code properly, though perhaps Nvidia would argue slower than its own chips.
Aside from Nvidia’s Physx software, the firm’s Apex SDK also boasts support for the Playstation 4. Nvidia’s Apex is a set of tools that allows games designers to rapidly develop models and interactive game content. Mike Skolones, product manager for Physx at Nvidia said, “Great physics technology is essential for delivering a better gaming experience and multiplatform support is critical for developers. With Physx and Apex support for Playstation 4, customers can look forward to better games.”
Nvidia still wants games developers to use its tools despite not being in at least two of the three next generation games consoles, because it gives the firm a chance for its desktop graphics cards to win benchmarks when games are ported to the PC.
I haven’t played any of the Dead Space games, so I can’t comment on the criticisms that Dead Space 3 sold poorly because of game content or the way in which it dumbed down the gameplay experience to appeal to a broader audience. I can talk about how I see the microtransaction and other changes that vocal fans derided fit in with Electronic Arts’ broader strategy.
The games market is polarizing. The big are getting bigger (see Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty beating first week sales records year after year) while the niche is becoming more viable (see every indie game on Steam) while the middle is getting squeezed (see THQ, Eurocom and dozens of other midsize developers). The emergence of digital distribution has brought along a bigger change than many people realized, driven by two different properties:
- It is cheaper than ever before to distribute content
- It is possible to have unique, personal, one-to-one relationships with every customer
The strategies that EA are putting in place reflect this reality.
The variable demand curve
The past 30 years were about putting games in boxes, shoving them in shops and trying to sell as many as possible. The price was basically fixed at around £30-40, so the only way you could make more money was to do more volume, i.e. sell more copies. You could also try to maintain the price for as long as possible by restricting price reductions and limiting trade-ins. What you couldn’t do was to connect with your fans in any meaningful way.
We no longer live in that world, except perhaps for the very biggest blockbusters. We live in the world where there is a bewildering choice and variety of games available to us. At the same time, development costs for AAA games are enormous and rising, while the market is not getting bigger. In fact, that subset of the market is shrinking as players are distracted by the many different ways, times and devices they can play games on.
There is only one solution. It is to find a way to use the initial launch of AAA game as a starting point in your relationship with fans. It is to start the long process of turning games from one-off purchases to long-term relationships. It is about using games to engage with and retain players, to convert some of those players into fans and to convert some of those fans into superfans. In the process, niche AAA games that are not viable using the blockbuster, fixed-price-massive-volume model can become successful long-term businesses.
Viewed through that lens, everything that EA is doing makes sense. It is trying to use its games as the starting point of the relationship. Sometimes those games are free (as in most of its mobile, tablet and online strategy). Sometimes they are paid (as in its console strategy). What they are trying to achieve is a revenue model which means that those people who love their games, who keep playing, who are vocal and demanding, are given an opportunity to spend lots of money on the products that they love. It is the only way for niche AAA games to survive.
I don’t know why Dead Space 3 didn’t do well. I don’t know if it was about poor design decisions, a change of focus or gamers voting with their wallets and not supporting a game with microtransactions on principle (EA will have data on how many users engaged with microtransactions. Answering the other questions will be harder).
But I don’t think gamers should view any rumored cancellations of blockbuster projects as a victory against microtransactions. Finding a way for the biggest fans to pay lots of money to get things they truly value is the only way to support niche AAA games (and by niche, I mean anything outside the top 4 or 5 games released every year). EA may not have got the exact model right yet, but they are experimenting. The failure of the experiment does not mean that EA will abandon microtransactions: it means that it will abandon anything other than blockbuster games and tablet games.
Is that what you really want?
Nicholas Lovell is director at GAMESbrief, a blog about the business of games. He provides business advice on free-to-play and paymium design. He will be giving a masterclass on how to make money from free-to-play games in San Francisco on Sunday March 24, just before GDC. You can also book one-to-one surgeries.