New U.S. Video Game Sales Report Reveals the Best Sellers of 2019 & the Decade

It’s the last sales report of the decade!

Last night, industry tracking firm NPD Group shared a number of figures on the U.S. games market for December, 2019 as a whole plus the entire decade beginning way back in 2010. Get ready for lots of juicy stats!

Not wasting anytime, let’s start with December and expand to broader time frames after that.

During a period that includes the usual holiday push, domestic consumer spending in December totaled $3 billion which is down around 15% since last year’s figure. Softness occurred in all major categories, as gains for Nintendo Switch couldn’t offset other declines.

Software spending in December landed at $1.1 billion, 13% lower than last year’s corresponding month. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was again the month’s top selling title. Separately, the Hardware segment dipped 17% to $973 million as Nintendo Switch continues its streak as the month’s best-selling platform. The final category of Accessories & Game Cards saw consumers spend $869 million during the month, which is down 14% year-over-year. The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 marked its second straight month leading this category.

We can attribute continued weakness here to tough comparables in late 2018 which featured the popularity of games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Marvel’s Spider-Man, plus the sustained strength of Fortnite which really bolstered accessory sales last year in particular. We know this later console cycle decline is expected, though December 2019 is more pronounced than it would be due to record-setting software releases last year.

The chart below courtesy of NPD Group shows monthly comparisons within each segment during Decembers of the past five years.

Here’s the list of the top selling games for the month of December.

Top-Selling Games of December 2019 (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
  3. Madden NFL 20
  4. NBA 2K20
  5. Luigi’s Mansion 3*
  6. Pokémon Sword*
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  9. Pokémon Shield*
  10. Minecraft#
  11. Grand Theft Auto V
  12. Red Dead Redemption 2
  13. FIFA 20
  14. Just Dance 2020
  15. Need for Speed: Heat
  16. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  17. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening*
  18. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  19. Super Mario Party*
  20. Ring Fit Adventure

Before moving into 2019, I’d like to shout out a couple individual team accomplishments.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was released in November and held the second spot in the chart for a second month in a row during December, plus jumped up the annual ranks to 6th overall as we’ll see in a bit. With only a couple months of tracking, the third-person action game is now officially the best-selling of all time from developer Respawn Entertainment, known mostly for creating the Titanfall series. The team had a heck of a year between this and free-to-play hit Apex Legends.

Switching to sports, PlayStation 4 exclusive MLB The Show 19 is now the top-selling baseball game ever in the States since tracking began in the mid-90s. Based on dollar sales since its release in March 2019, it passed up MVP Baseball 2004 to take the top spot within this specific segment. Considering all the titles released over the years plus it being a platform exclusive really shows how much of a home run Sony’s San Diego Studio scored in 2019.

Speaking of 2019, let’s expand our discussion to chat on full year figures. Graphic above maps out the last few years as a reference.

Overall games industry spending in 2019 reached $14.6 billion, which is off 13% compared to 2018. Within this total, annual spending on Software declined 9% to $6.6 billion. Nintendo Switch console games experienced growth, the only platform to do so. Hardware sales in 2019 dropped 22% to $3.9 billion, while Accessories & Game Cards category dipped 7% to $4.1 billion. On the year, the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller led all accessory sales.

Switch itself was of course the major story of the year on the console side, as it led each monthly chart during the year and was the top-selling platform of 2019. Its new Lite model bolstered demand after its release in September such that the family as a whole saw annual gains compared to 2018. At last count, Nintendo announced Switch sales in the Americas passed 15 million units, which is just over a third of the latest global figure. Titles like mainline Pokémon and the surprising Luigi’s Mansion 3 plus ongoing support for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate contribute to its continued popularity as Nintendo takes advantage of a brief lull in the life cycle of other platform manufacturers.

In terms of individual software, it’s no surprise that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was the year’s leading seller after dominating the monthly chart since its release back in October when it shot to the top of the year-to-date list. This marks the 11th straight year that a game in the franchise has led the annual chart, as seen below by the full rankings.

Top-Selling Games of 2019 (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. NBA 2K20
  3. Madden NFL 20
  4. Borderlands 3
  5. Mortal Kombat 11
  6. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
  7. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  8. Kingdom Hearts 3
  9. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
  10. Mario Kart 8*
  11. Grand Theft Auto V
  12. Red Dead Redemption 2
  13. Minecraft#
  14. FIFA 20
  15. Anthem
  16. Pokémon Sword*
  17. Resident Evil 2 Remake
  18. Luigi’s Mansion 3*
  19. Days Gone
  20. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*

Finally, we’re going even bigger. Despite what naysayers would have you believe, 2019 is in fact the end of the decade that began back in 2010. Which means it’s time to recap industry sales and the games with the broadest success.

Adding together each year in aggregate, total consumer spending on the games industry in the U.S. for the decade ending 2019 totaled over $150 billion.

Sony’s PlayStation 4 ended as the top-selling gaming console of the decade domestically, one in which it saw competition from its own PlayStation 3 platform, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Xbox One launches plus Nintendo’s Wii U and Switch. While we don’t have exact unit sales figures locally, its milestone of 106 million sales worldwide cements it as the second best selling home console ever.

Flipping to the software side, Take-Two Interactive’s Grand Theft Auto V ended as the single best selling game of the decade in the States. The latest in the crime drama franchise from Rockstar Games released in 2013 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, topping the annual chart during its release year.

After its Xbox One and PlayStation 4 release in 2014, the open world game went on to Top 3 results the next two years and Top 11 finishes in every single year since. Boosted now by its ongoing online mode, it’s truly the biggest console game of the generation. It became one of only a handful of titles to pass 100 million unit sales globally back in 2018 as shared on an earnings call. As it stands currently, Grand Theft Auto V boasts an impressive 115 million copies shipped and I wouldn’t be surprised if that figure increases by millions when we hear another update from Take-Two early next month.

Unsurprisingly, Call of Duty earned the top spot as the best-selling gaming franchise of last decade. Like, to the point where there’s just as many games within the series on the full decade list as those outside of the series as we’ll see in a moment. The appetite of the American casual audience for multiplayer, competitive shooters is persisting. There’s no.. fatigue with military shooters just yet.

Below are the full rankings for the span from 2010 to present day along with each game’s release year for reference. Fair warning that it might be a bit redundant.

Top-Selling Games of the Decade, 2010 – 2019 (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
  2. Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010)
  3. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012)
  4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011)
  5. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (2015)
  6. Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013)
  7. Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)
  8. Call of Duty: World War 2 (2017)
  9. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (2018)
  10. Minecraft (2011)
  11. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (2014)
  12. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019)
  13. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
  14. Mario Kart 8 (2014)
  15. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (2016)
  16. Battlefield 1 (2016)
  17. Battlefield 4 (2013)
  18. Destiny (2014)
  19. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
  20. Star Wars Battlefront (2015)

Whew. Enough stats for ya?

2019 wasn’t necessarily a banner year for blockbuster game releases or massive sales overall, though it had plenty of quality releases that won’t ever top the charts. Expanding to the decade, it’s somewhat repetitive and predictable to see so many military shooters and almost disheartening to see a lack of new properties other than the likes of Minecraft and Destiny.

Moving into 2020 and beyond, my hope is that we see more diversity at the upper end when we regroup in ten years (whoa!) though I’m not overly confident this will be the case as publishers move towards the model of even more sequels, ongoing games and projects within established brands.

Only time will tell!

For now, check out my buddy Mat Piscatella’s post on Twitter which has deets on individual platform results and more. Or the NPD Games page for additional insights. Next month will bring the first rankings of the new decade, and while it will be quiet on the new release front, we should still have a lot of fun! Thanks for visiting.

^Digital PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on Consoles Included

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, NPD Group, Sony Corp, Take-Two Interactive.

-Dom

2019 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Forget the holidays. It’s Game of the Year season!

In what’s become an annual tradition here, the very last post of my year-in-review is a prestigious list of the best games I played in 2019. These defined the year for me, which truly was an especially important one personally and for the site as I started writing more in the way of official reviews and impressions.

No need for too much of an introduction. These excellent games speak for themselves, so let’s get into the festivities!

Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

#10: Remnant: From the Ashes (Gunfire Games, Perfect World Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Just recently passed one million copies, according to the studio.

Starting my Top 10 is Remnant: From the Ashes, one of the most surprising games of the entire year after seeing it in passing around E3 live-streams. Gunfire Games’ latest project is a blend of over-the-shoulder combat mechanics with Dark Souls-inspired areas and difficult boss fights. The shooting and melee both pack a serious punch, as one’s created character move through environments like forests and deserts that are curated yet also can be “generated” when starting a new game which adds replay potential. What really sets it apart is its enemy design and loot systems, where figuring out patterns is as enjoyable as building a character and finding cool new gear with which to overcome them.

#9: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, Activision Blizzard)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: As usual, Call of Duty was one of the year’s best-selling premium titles. $600 million in three days. To date has $1 billion in global sell-through, which implies ~ 16.5 million copies.

In terms of annual, triple-A releases, I believe there’s none more consistent than the military action game Call of Duty. And Infinity Ward’s latest, a re-imagining of its 2007 classic Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, is the best it’s been this generation. Built on a revamped engine, the result is a gritty campaign as memorable for blockbuster moments as its more claustrophobic, personal missions. The competitive multiplayer is grounded, smooth and addictive. The only thing really holding it back from a higher spot is its middling co-op mode.

#8: Control (Remedy Entertainment, 505 Games)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Remedy Entertainment CEO Tero Virtala stated the three year development budget was under €30 million ($34 million) and that the title is “in a good position with steady sales.”

When I reviewed Control in August, I explained what’s so glowing about Remedy’s creepy, third-person action-adventure. Its seemingly everyday corporate setting is elevated by gorgeous art and best-in-class sound design that sets the uneasy mood as a backdrop for its weird albeit occasionally nonsensical narrative. Its attention to detail in world-building, which I argue is just as important as the story progression and fluid combat mechanics, sets it apart compared to most games in its genre. Protagonist Jesse Faden’s journey ends up being overshadowed by the broader scope of what’s happening with the enigmatic government agency around her, and discovering that is the game’s true joy. It also contains one of my favorite sequences in a game this generation in its “Ashtray Maze.” You have to play it to understand.

#7: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (Respawn Entertainment, Electronic Arts)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: EA was selective in its stats. Fastest digital launch and best PC launch for the series. In the U.S., NPD Group reported it was the 2nd best seller of November and immediately #9 on the 2019 list to date.

This generation finally has a.. hm, stellar Star Wars game! Respawn Entertainment’s first foray into third-person action games is a damn good one as Jedi: Fallen Order captures what being a skilled, Force-wielding Jedi must feel like. Main character Cal Kestis and his ragtag crew move through stunning environments mimicking those from the films, including the iconic Wookie planet Kashyyyk which is stunningly represented by Respawn’s art team. Inconsistent performance is the main reason why it’s not ranked higher, because its engaging story and satisfying combat elements result in the most memorable experience in a Star Wars game since probably the original Battlefront II way back in ’05.

#6: Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital Games, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Not disclosed.

Outer Wilds is the type of game where its best features and phenomenal finale stuck with me long after forgetting how tricky it was to actually play. I described what’s so mesmerizing about Mobius Digital’s space exploration experience when I reviewed it. That sense of wonder when first peering out at an unexplored solar system. Acquiring knowledge on an alien civilization to figure out why everything is stuck in a time loop. And I actually like it more now than before after reflecting on why it’s so special. Each 22-minute interval offers something new: a tidbit of information, an excerpt of text, a curious location. All of these provide a sense of progression via information rather than tangible upgrades like a conventional video game. This makes the player feel as if they are the first and only to figure out its secrets, right up until its exceptional ending.

#5: Resident Evil 2 (Capcom R&D Division 1, Capcom)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Currently over 5 million units shipped, slightly outpacing the original release.

As far as remakes go, Capcom absolutely slayed Resident Evil 2. The same way that dual playable characters Leon and Claire do zombies in this modernized version of the 1998 original. It’s set in an eerily beautiful, updated Raccoon City with an over-the-shoulder perspective, revamped puzzles and refined enemy placements. Resident Evil 2 nails the atmosphere and terror of the original yet feels new enough to be suspenseful and unpredictable. Sound work is especially riveting when popping off shots at zombies or evading the constant threat of main villain Mr. X, as Capcom proves that older games in the franchise are far from dead.

#4: The Outer Worlds (Obsidian Entertainment, Take-Two Interactive/Private Division)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. (Nintendo Switch in 2020).

Sales: Nothing specific other than Private Division executives saying on a recent call it is “outperforming expectations handily.”

The other sci-fi game on my list is Obsidian Entertainment’s latest entry in its storied role-playing lineage. Published by Take Two’s Private Division, the first-person game is set in a universe where corporations are in charge. The Outer Worlds boasts an amalgamation of elements such as dialogue options, skill tree upgrades and combat variations that offer multiple ways to play. And not just in the marketing sense, decisions will impact how stories play out. There’s also companion quests a la Mass Effect, offering intimate moments with crew-members. Obsidian’s newest is truly witty and nails its comedic moments, which successfully balances out the darker underpinnings of its universe. Towards its last act, the player learns what’s really going on with its corporate overlords and luckily can amass the power and influence to alter the future of humanity. Depending on their decisions, of course.

#3: Judgment (Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Sega)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: Held the record for biggest new IP launch in Japan before Death Stranding per Game Data Library. Producer Daisuke Sato noted that its performance is above expectations in the West.

There’s so much to do in Judgment, and I honestly did not expect to love the PlayStation exclusive as much as I did. My review was outright glowing for the Yakuza spin-off from Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku team. It’s so many things, yet feels so cohesive. It’s a story about a disgraced detective named Yagami trying to reclaim his honor amidst a backdrop of the fictional Kamurocho district, which offers an open world playground, plenty of characters to meet and secret quests to uncover.

Its main campaign never suffers the myriad of side stories and mini-games; in fact, it’s actually a gripping tale of relationships between government agencies, law enforcement and street gangs that all operate under the bright lights of a vibrant Japanese city. Combat is near flawless, even if far from the only option. Investigations are intriguing and tailing missions aren’t even that bad. It has serious Sleeping Dogs vibes mixed with Yakuza and crime noirs, though somehow maintains its humor with especially wacky character moments. The only crime of which Judgment is guilty is that it’s not on more platforms for a broader audience to enjoy.

#2: A Plague Tale: Innocence (Asobo Studio, Focus Home Interactive)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

You know it’s a great year when the most memorable of experiences arise from the most unexpected of places. A Plague Tale: Innocence is the definition of such a game, as I described in my favorite review of 2019. Made by French development team Asobo Studio and set in a 14th century version of the country that’s plagued by diseased rats and power-hungry leaders, it’s truly exquisite interactive storytelling. The most emotional time I had with a game all year. It’s a story about a pair of siblings, Amicia and Hugo, confronting loss, fighting challenges, retaining innocence and regaining hopefulness.

It’s more beautiful than it has any right to be based on the studio’s size, and its predominant feature from a tech standpoint is how many plague-ridden rats it can fit on screen. These rodents act as barriers to progressing within each area, along with soldiers from both armies and even the church. As older sister Amicia, the player must solve environmental puzzles and stealth past enemies to avoid detection while keeping track of sickly younger brother Hugo. There’s a crafting system that allows the player to be sneaky or even powerful in late game. Still, the main pull is the narrative. It’s like a medieval novel come to life, one that I can safely recommend to anyone that’s open to trying it. I guarantee its characters and conclusion will leave a lasting impression.

#1: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (FromSoftware, Activision Blizzard)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: 2 million copies shipped within ten days according to Activision, lifetime total stands at 3.8 million according to FromSoftware’s parent company Kadokawa via friend of the site Daniel Ahmad.

FromSoftware is in the upper echelon of Japanese game developers in that when they make a game, the industry pays attention. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the latest from famed director Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team, and it’s undoubtedly my favorite game of 2019.

I’m a relative late bloomer when it comes to “Souls-like” games as they are now known, a sub-section of games defined by challenging mechanics, lethal enemies, ominous locales and intricate boss battles. FromSoftware is the preeminent developer in this space ever since creating the Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls series, and Bloodborne in 2015 was its first such game that hooked me. I revere that as my favorite PlayStation 4 exclusive. Ever. And I firmly believe Sekiro is just as good.

At its core, Sekiro is third-person action adventure set around 17th century Japan. The player controls Wolf, a one-armed master shinobi, in his effort to rescue his child lord from the same clan of samurai that dismembered him. In typical FromSoftware fashion, it’s so much more than this basic summary. Wolf is the most capable of protagonists in any game within the sub-genre, leveraging stealth tactics and his prosthetic arm for a variety of traversal and combat uses. There’s a “posture” system akin to a stamina bar, where blocking and countering are essential (not to mention feel great!), plus various weapons and skills to customize that provide advantages depending on the situation or enemy type. The heavy axe, firecrackers, an umbrella that blocks certain attacks are all examples of the flexibility the prosthetic arm enables.

Because of this, I believe it’s the best combat in a FromSoftware game ever and the best action of any game of 2019. The fluidity with which the player can move through areas, sneaking in for a kill or grappling to a perch when enemies swarm, sets it apart from more methodical, grounded systems. When an enemy is vulnerable, Wolf can end its misery with a visceral finishing move. Sure, the game is super difficult. And most people playing it will die more than twice. Yet the feeling of mastering enemy movements, being able to counter them the more you learn, that’s the magic. Few feelings are as good as being able to outmaneuver an enemy you once thought was impossible to beat.

Locations in Sekiro range from somewhat traditional, like the outskirts of a Japanese castle, to the surreal when diving into flashbacks or entering more.. otherworldly realms. The one critique I’ve heard is that enemies are more “pedestrian” than other Souls-likes (i.e. they aren’t all humongous beasts or deformed oddities). I’d say: Keep going. The design is anything but normal the further the player progresses, and there’s plenty of weird to see in the game’s later acts.

I’ll admit, its narrative is much more lucid than other FromSoft entries. Wolf’s motivation is clear: It’s a story of revenge and an attempt at retribution. He wants to track down his lord and eradicate those responsible for his kidnapping. Yet the world-building and lore is what sets it apart from other action-adventures, with mysterious characters residing and random notes with item descriptions strewn about the play space. It’s worthwhile to explore, because not everything is obvious. While I was certainly enraptured by its main narrative, it’s the secrets that I adore. Devouring each morsel I could find to learn about the world and its mysteries.

Then there’s the best part. The boss fights. It’s not risky to say it: This is really my favorite aspect of the genre, and Sekiro’s design team is best in class. Especially because of how it keeps the player off balance. There are now mini-bosses to fight in addition to the more epic battles. Wolf faces against foes of all sizes, from swift fellow shinobi, armored solders, angry beasts, ghostly beings and plenty more. There’s even an encounter that’s more puzzle mechanics than combat, which shows that FromSoftware is evolving to transcend genre conventions.

To illustrate my adoration for Sekiro, I’d like to shout out a particular sequence: The “Guardian Ape.” It starts normal as ever, in a valley where the player faces a massive, aggravated simian. As a colossal beast enemy, it has devastating attacks and even dung flinging abilities. Once its posture is hurt or health is depleted, Wolf uses his sword to decapitate the beast. Victory! Or so the player thinks. While waiting for the usual cues that the boss is gone, the ape resurrects as an immortal being. Holding its severed head in its arms and attacking with a totally different element type, this time more specter than animal. It’s demoralizing, having to fight the same enemy with new tactics especially when one’s health items are now likely depleted.

And this is just one of many times that Sekiro surprised the heck out of me, and most importantly led to the most satisfying of triumphs when I finally master the fight to overcome its most difficult foes. The great part is, there’s always another challenge after that, beckoning me to come forward and test my willpower. Combine this with environments, narrative, world-building, lore, secrets and character encounters, FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is my Game of the Year and I’m jealous of those that still get to play it for the first time.

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical)

Ape Out (Gabe Cuzzillo)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC.

Sales: Unknown.

Apex Legends (Respawn Entertainment, Electronic Arts)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Now over 70 million registered players according to EA.

Creature in the Well (Flight School Studio)

Platforms: Xbox One (Xbox Game Pass), Nintendo Switch, PC.

Sales: Unknown.

Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment/505 Games)

Platforms: PlayStation 4. (PC in 2020).

Sales: Top selling new IP launch in Japan this generation according to Game Data Library. 7th best-selling game of its launch month in the U.S. per NPD Group. Unclear on global sales so far.

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep (Bungie)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia.

Sales: 15 million registered players at last count.

Gears 5 (The Coalition, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Over 3 million players at launch as shared by Xbox.

Life is Strange 2 (Dontnod Entertainment, Square Enix)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Hard to know just yet, its final episode released in December.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Next Level Games, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Sales: It’s setting launch month records for its franchise domestically, plus doing very well in Japan. We’ll hear formal unit sales during Nintendo’s next quarterly update.

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (Massive Entertainment, Ubisoft)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia.

Sales: While Ubisoft said the game hasn’t met expectations, it’s still the 7th best seller of 2019 in the States as reported by NPD Group plus the same rank in terms of global digital revenue for 2019 according to SuperData estimates. We might never know unit sales.

Untitled Goose Game (House House, Panic Inc)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC.

Sales: As of writing, it just surpassed 1 million copies sold.

What a year. It feels like the most competitive of the decade, with so many great games that there couldn’t possibly be a consensus pick for the top spots. It’s also the last year of awards that won’t include the new generation of consoles.

I’m so grateful for all the amazing experiences in gaming during 2019, especially those listed above.

Thanks for reading through my Year-in-Review, remember the round-up post is here to see them all in one place. Here’s to 2020. All the best to you and yours!

Sources: Company media sites, Game Data Library, GamesIndustry.Biz, MeriStation, NPD Group.

-Dom

2019 Year-in-Review: Independent Studios of the Year

It’s the last day of the year! Though no slowing down just yet. My year-end posts roll on with an extremely special one to me. During 2019, I’ve branched out more into critical reviews. With that I’ve written more about independent games, which are seriously the lifeblood of creativity in the games industry. As the barriers to entry of publishing on major platforms is more a reality than ever, these types of teams can earn the type of exposure they deserve.

I admit that “indie” is such a nebulous term, so let’s not get caught up in nailing down a definition. Rather, I plan to highlight those studios that either are smaller in scope, aren’t owned by major publishers and/or produce games on a lighter budget. These certainly vary in size, though each of them operates on their own and that’s what counts.

Here’s my list of seven awesome indie teams of 2019.

Asobo Studio (France)

I wrote about it in my review, A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of the most powerful games I played this year. And I was admittedly skeptical of it when I saw streams during E3. It’s the breakout game by French team Asobo Studio, previously known for working on adaptations of Pixar games and supporting the likes of ReCore and The Crew 2, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. Plus, its enemy design and artificial intelligence technology is extra impressive as the player navigates a pair of siblings through middle century, plague-ridden France. A likely candidate to occupy a very high spot on my Game of the Year list, and I’m not the only one.

Bungie (United States)

You know I couldn’t finish these annual awards without mentioning the Destiny franchise. Maker of my favorite online looter shooter Bungie is now technically independent after its split from Activision Blizzard in January. Since then, the team released the Shadowkeep expansion for Destiny 2, offered a free version of the game, moved to a more seasonal event-driven model, instituted cross-save functionality for players to take characters anywhere plus became the flagship launch title on Google Stadia. Granted, the Washington-based studio is larger than most indie teams. Yet as a self-publisher it now faces many of the same challenges. And has succeeded in facing them thus far, to the point where I’m as excited as ever for its future.

Gabe Cuzzillo (United States)

A one-man team is still a team. Gabe Cuzzillo created one of the most unique, striking games of 2019 in the frenetic, stylistic Ape Out. Cuzzillo is a graduate of NYU Game Center and made his second game here in conjunction with fellow student Bennett Foddy and associate professor Matt Boch. Ape Out is top-down beat-em-up where the minimalist jazz soundtrack reacts to the player controlling an ape trying to, well, get the heck out of places. It was a finalist for the Independent Games Festival back in 2016 then published by Devolver Digital in February, one of those unforgettable indie games defined by its brash style and killer soundtrack.

House House (Australia)

Speaking of memorable indie gaming experiences, 2019 might as well be the Year of the Goose. Back in 2017 when House House announced that we’d play as a goose on the loose in its second game, I was captivated immediately. Right after the Australian team released on Switch and PC in September, Untitled Goose Game and its antagonizing protagonist became an instant meme. The game itself is really a puzzle game where the player, as the annoying goose, moves along by playing tricks on residents of the English countryside. One million copies, award nominations galore and plenty of funny GIFs later, House House is undoubtedly one of the year’s finest honking studios.

Kojima Productions (Japan)

Celebrity game designer Hideo Kojima split from Konami in 2015 to found his own studio, and 2019 showcased the fruits of this labor with the release of Death Stranding. Last month I wrote extensively on my thoughts on Kojima Productions’ debut game, featuring a star-studded cast with incredible tech and cutscenes despite wavering in its gameplay elements and cumbersome systems. However, there’s no denying its importance. It’s Sony’s biggest PlayStation 4 exclusive in 2019, receiving numerous industry awards. As divisive as Death Stranding turned out, Kojima’s team of around 80 fits a unique space within the industry in that it’s aligned with a platform holder yet operates autonomously. Creating whatever it wants to make. I respect that, regardless of my personal opinion on the final product.

Mobius Digital Games (United States)

The more I reflect on Outer Wilds, and distance myself from it, the greater I appreciate its significance despite frustrations I describe in my review. The first-person exploration game is truly a special indie title, with its own solar system and stories to discover. It’s open-ended, allowing the player to figure out what’s going on rather than presenting it explicitly. It sparks wonder by suggesting questions on intelligent life, the universe and mortality. Considering how much I like it the more I think about it over time, the tight-knit, California-based team created one of the most remarkable titles of the console generation, let alone the year. They are an absolute lock for this list.

ZA/UM Studio (Estonia/London)

It’s the last entry on my list of the top indie studios of 2019, and honestly a late addition. ZA/UM are the creators behind Disco Elysium, a bold detective RPG with political themes and internal monologues that cleaned house across multiple categories at The Game Awards this month. The studio’s story is incredible, a team of around 30 people that moved from war-torn Estonia to London during development. These efforts paid off. This traditional role-playing game featuring an alcoholic cop trying to solve a murder within a city of varying political ideologies is one of the most prominent examples of what an indie project should be. And sits among the most memorable of 2019. Compelling. Weird. Unafraid. The type of game that not only occupies a genre, but transcends it.

There we have it. Shout out to all the amazing developers that made the list! Your hard work and dedication to your craft is greatly appreciated.

One more post to go for 2019 year-end accolades: My Top 10 Games of the Year. Stay tuned. It should be a fun one!

Sources: Studio websites and press photos, GamesIndustry.Biz, New York University, The Game Awards.

-Dom

2019 Year-in-Review: Top 5 Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Every year, companies across the games industry compete for audience’s time and hard-earned dollars. Within this piece, I’ll highlight those bigger publishers and developers that I believe consistently provided the best value for gamers.

2019 marked a number of international successes in particular. Major Japanese companies featured prominently in mind-share, from hardware manufacturing to software hits, while the world’s largest gaming company broke through a difficult regulatory environment. At the same time, publishers of varying sizes from other regions produced impressive titles (some of which I’ll cover in my next post on the Independent Studios of the Year.)

Here are my picks for the five most impressive gaming companies throughout the year, in alphabetical order.

Annapurna Interactive (United States)

Annapurna Interactive has become a premier publisher for independent video games, and I’ll play almost anything it puts out these days. This subsidiary of film producer Annapurna Pictures backs a number of exceptional, unique projects. And more importantly, has enough funding behind it to smartly market its games through a combination of grassroots campaigns and word-of-mouth.

After an amazing 2018 with the likes of Florence and Donut County, Annapurna’s output this year solidified its standing as the type of deft publisher that knows how to pick ’em.

Its standout 2019 title is Outer Wilds from Mobius Digital, a new kind of space exploration game that’s one of the highest rated and widely praised projects of the entire year. Within my review, I praised the sense of wonder I felt navigating the cosmos and discovering the story of its alien solar system and the intelligent life that inhabits it. Even if I had a tough time with its controls, reflecting back I absolutely believe it deserves its recognition.

Other Annapurna joints this year include Telling Lies from Sam Barlow, a drama presented via full-motion video, then “interactive album” Sayonara Wild Hearts by Simigo. The latter of which is a one-of-a-kind production, blending pop music with traditional endless runner mechanics for a tight, memorable experience. Most recently, Annapurna published the wacky Wattam from Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy) and Funomena. I haven’t played it, though critics note its creativity; how it piques imagination through its visuals and interactions.

Finally, it also brought a classic to PC for the first time: thatgamecompany’s Journey, originally out in 2012 for PlayStation 3. Annapurna shared arguably the best independent game ever made to a wider audience. It’s a must-play. For everyone.

This line-up is representative of the types of projects Annapurna hand selects. Those that are sometimes experimental, often unique, frequently emotional and always worth a look.

Capcom (Japan)

The resurgence of one of Japan’s most storied gaming companies accelerated in 2019, due to both the quality of its output and sheer quantity of support especially for the Nintendo Switch.

Capcom produced two of the year’s most well-regarded new third person games in Resident Evil 2 Remake and Devil May Cry 5 then produced an expansion to its best-selling game of all time in Monster Hunter World: Iceborne.

Starting strong of the gate in January, its re-imagining of 1998 survival horror game Resident Evil 2 is a Game of the Year contender with its enhanced visuals and modernized mechanics. I posed a question in the beginning of 2019, wondering if this version could outsell its predecessors in the long-running series. Within a week on market, Capcom shipped 3 million units. A month later, over four million. Then earlier this month, it passed the original’s lifetime total by eclipsing the 5 million unit mark.

Essentially, it took under a year for the remake to outsell the original. Between its critical and commercial success, Resident Evil 2 illustrates Capcom’s renewed focus on incubating legacy IP.

Both Devil May Cry 5 in March and September’s Monster Hunter World: Iceborne continued this streak of critical and financial accomplishment. The former hit 2 million copies sold within a couple weeks, already two thirds of what Devil May Cry 4 sold lifetime and “reinvigorating” the franchise according to Capcom execs, while the latter vaulted to 2.5 million in sales within a week.

Separate of these new projects, Capcom pumped out a number of legacy games on a variety of platforms. Onimusha: Warlords, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy plus a set of Resident Evil and Devil May Cry ports for Nintendo Switch.

Between creating successful newer releases and rounding out 2019’s portfolio with catalog titles, Capcom is back in the good graces of fans while also appealing to a broader audience especially with its Monster Hunter series. All it needs now is a great new fighting game! Perhaps in 2020.

Nintendo (Japan)

It should come as no surprise that Nintendo is here. In fact, if I was ranking the list, it would likely capture the top spot.

Even if it wasn’t Nintendo’s strongest first party software year in the Switch generation, which I’d argue was its first year in 2017, its consistency of output is best in business right now. Not only that, Nintendo Switch is the place for third parties to release both new projects and older ports, and especially fruitful for independent teams.

The Kyoto-based company also released a new more compact, handheld-only version of its hybrid console in September. Dubbed the Nintendo Switch Lite, its release contributed to Switch hardware sales jumping to 41.67 million consoles this year plus the company experiencing its best week of Switch sales ever during the Thanksgiving holiday.

It’s impossible to comment on all of its 2019 output, so let’s list them to prove the point.

There’s the internal or “second party” partnership stuff. Tetris 99. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe. Yoshi’s Crafted World. Super Mario Maker 2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Luigi’s Mansion 3. And its most significant 2019 release, Pokémon Sword and Shield.

Then the third party exclusives. Cadence of Hyrule. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. Astral Chain. Daemon X Machina. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Plus the multi-platforms or ports of older games. There are a ton of these. I promise. Titles like Dragon Quest Builders 2, Mortal Kombat 11, Cuphead, Ori and the Blind Forest and even The Witcher 3 are all now playable on Switch.

Not to mention mobile. Mario Kart Tour. Dr. Mario World. And the experimental. Labo Toy-Con VR Kit. Ring Fit Adventure.

Even a, gasp, pretty good video game movie in Detective Pikachu!

It’s cliche to say that Nintendo literally makes something for everyone. Shoot, in many cases there’s a LOT for everyone. But it’s true. And it’s playable at home or on the go, sometimes even on a phone. We expect Nintendo’s internal teams and close partnerships to produce amazing content. It’s the third parties and indies that are really starting to bolster the Switch experience.

Sure, there’s room for improvement. Its online service is nowhere near its competitors. It should offer individual legacy titles rather than only as a library. Its mobile app is laughable. Its operating system lacks basic functionality. We still have to use friend codes.

These aside, Nintendo’s at its best when it both offers great exclusive titles from its talented studios that appeal to all kinds of gamers plus experiments with use cases for its technology. Its leadership like President Shuntaro Furukawa, Director and legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto and more locally Nintendo of America lead Doug Bowser (since the retirement of Reggie Fils-Ame) aren’t afraid to get weird and have fun. This and its sheer consistency on the software development side are the defining characteristics of 2019’s most impressive gaming company.

Respawn Entertainment [Electronic Arts] (United States)

I’m going to cheat a bit here because I want to shout out a particular team within a broader parent firm for its excellent work. Respawn Entertainment, which was purchased by Electronic Arts a couple years back, is responsible for two of the year’s blockbuster titles. One of which came out of nowhere, the other a foray into a new genre for the studio.

First, there was Apex Legends. Most industry commenters claimed that the battle royale fad had passed. That there was no room for real competition to the likes of Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), both of which still have large, dedicated audiences. Then Respawn stealthily released Apex Legends as a free digital download on a random Monday in early February and proved everyone wrong.

A first-person game set in the Titanfall universe where teams fight for dominance, Apex Legends player counts skyrocketed within days as it enraptured gamers with smart accessibility options, a balanced hero system and top-notch mechanics. One million within 8 hours. 2.5 million in a day. 10 million in 72 hours! It made $92 million in sales within its first month. And it’s free! That means players weren’t merely downloading it, they liked it so much that they wanted to spend money on its cosmetics.

Since then, it’s boasted over 50 million players. A success story for the industry in showing that new concepts can be rewarded even in a market flooded with participants.

Respawn’s second massive project this year was Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. To say Electronic Arts has been inconsistent in publishing Star Wars games is an understatement. That is, until now.

Fallen Order released in mid-November to widespread critical acclaim. It’s a third person action game with satisfying lightsaber combat, an intriguing story and diverse environments seemingly pulled right from the movies. Directed by God of War veteran Stig Asmussen, it’s undoubtedly one of the best Star Wars games to date plus a candidate for year-end accolades despite some unfortunate technical problems. It’s also a surprising move for Respawn to shift to third-person action when it’s solely made first-person shooters in the past.

While we don’t have broad sales numbers for Fallen Order, I wrote recently about how it was the second best-selling title domestically in its release month and nearly achieved the best launch ever for a Star Wars game, trailing only 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront. It’s already entered the Top 10 sellers of the year, and I anticipate that rank to improve when we hear December’s data.

By developing a surprise hit in a competitive genre alongside a critical darling in one of the world’s most beloved franchises, Respawn clearly earned its spot as one of the most compelling and accomplished studios of 2019.

Tencent (China)

It’s ironic how quietly Chinese media conglomerate Tencent dominates the global games industry. Because its operations are mostly in the mobile and PC market, especially popular titles within the Asia Pacific region, Tencent is the biggest gaming company in the world by revenue (near a whopping $20 billion during 2018) with less mind-share than most of its competitors.

Think of a big game or publisher, it’s likely that Tencent is involved with it. League of Legends? It owns Riot Games. Clash of Clans? Holds 84% of Supercell. Fortnite? A 40% stake in Epic Games. PUBG? Nearly 12% of Bluehole at last count. Activision? Ubisoft? Small holdings in both.

Even stakes in smaller teams like Path of Exile creator Grinding Gear Games and Frontier Developments, maker of Jurassic World: Evolution and Elite Dangerous, round out Tencent’s plethora of investments.

This isn’t even to mention its own games like mobile racing game QQ Speed or crazy popular multiplayer game on phones Honor of Kings, released in the West as Arena of Valor. If we’re talking the smartphone market, there’s none more impressive than Tencent.

Beyond that, I’m placing it on my 2019 list is for multiple reasons other than its significant holdings: More because of its navigation of China’s difficult regulatory environment, the smash release of Call of Duty: Mobile and its recent partnership with Nintendo.

It’s always a tricky regulatory situation in China, so a quick recap of the most recent events. Back in April 2018, the country instituted a freeze on new releases in the world’s largest gaming market due to addiction concerns,. This obviously impacted Tencent’s performance and market capitalization, losing a unfathomable $250 billion in valuation at one point. After ten long months, the government began approving new titles.

While Tencent earned approvals for smaller new titles, it didn’t for one of its biggest money-makers in PUBG Mobile which has been downloaded over 600 million times. The company shut down the game in May, though simultaneously released a new one in the same genre called Game for Peace (or Peacekeeper Elite in English).

During its first month, Game for Peace generated $70 million in sales. When combined with the $76 million from its PUBG Mobile counterpart, these quickly became the world’s top smartphone games by revenue. Since then, total global sales have passed $1.5 billion from these games, according to Sensor Tower. This is fully representative of Tencent’s savvy in bouncing back from the government freeze.

Similarly, Tencent’s global expansion is underway now with the release of Call of Duty: Mobile back in October. Based on the uber popular first-person military franchise owned by Activision Blizzard, this version was actually developed by Tencent’s internal team Timi Studio. It achieved a record during its first week on market with 100 million downloads and has since passed 170 million while raking in $87 million in sales. Aligning with a Western publisher is the type of decision that allows Tencent to benefit from an audience it otherwise couldn’t reach.

The final move is its recent partnership with Nintendo to sell the Switch in China, a market that’s notoriously difficult for console gaming. Just a few weeks ago, the Switch launched there albeit without much of a library. Only New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is available, with titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Mario Odyssey in the more immediate pipeline and others slated for next year. Niko Partners estimates 100,000 in Switch console sales during this month alone, then a growing install base to where Switch could be the local market leader by 2022.

After a tumultuous 2018 under local regulations putting a halt to new titles, Tencent emerged in 2019 to continue its dominance in the smartphone game space especially in the East. Combine this with its global expansion alongside a smart alliance with Nintendo, and it’s the last on this prestigious list of gaming companies.

Working Casual’s Year-in-Review is far from over! Next up will be Independent Studios of the Year. Until then, thanks for reading.

Sources: Business Insider, Business Wire, Company investor and media sites, Newzoo, Niko Partners, PC Gamer, Sensor Tower, The Verge.

-Dom

2019 Year-in-Review: Three Biggest Trends in Gaming

The games industry is changing, perhaps more rapidly now that ever before. With the appetites of consumers evolving, new major players emerging plus existing companies adapting to where and how people want to play, 2019 will go down as a significant time when looking back at the direction of gaming and its technology overall.

Because of this, I’ve identified three major trends in gaming that dominated headlines and mind-share during 2019. Each of these is significant on their own of course, though taken together provide a broader illustration of the industry’s future.

This year is the last one before a new traditional console generation, as Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 entered their sixth year on market. Both companies have announced new consoles for this time next year. Yet 2019 marks a more transitory period for these platform holders in terms of services and ecosystem, plus similar efforts from competitors like Nintendo and now Google to appeal to shifting audience dynamics.

Similarly, digital ownership is on the rise. Which means more varied ways to access a gaming library, plus newcomers in the space of virtual storefronts. In terms of actually playing games and their increasing popularity, video creators and streamers are more important than ever.

So. What’s driving the direction of gaming? Scroll it out to see.

Subscription Services & Cloud Streaming

2019 served up many trends. None more important than this.

The growing movement toward subscriptions, services and streaming is the first on my list because it’s the most impactful of all. Namely due to its potential for major long term ramifications on how people collect and access their library of games.

Pushing beyond the traditional model of buying a game at retail or even digitally then owning it in perpetuity, companies are ramping up the subscription side of the business model to enhance offerings as part of a broader ecosystem. One in which gamers stick around to try a variety of experiences, and pay for that privilege. Picture it like Netflix or Disney+ as opposed to buying individual films or TV seasons.

All of the “big three” now sell subscription services in which players pay a monthly fee to access a catalog of curated games, some of which are exclusive to the respective platform. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass with its broad selection of hundreds of games, Sony’s PlayStation Now boasting downloads as part of its service plus Nintendo’s Switch Online housing a catalog of retro games for its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Super NES legacy systems.

Beyond the major platform holders, individual publishers are even trying to slice a piece of the pie. This includes Ubisoft’s Uplay+, Electronic Arts’ EA Access plus a variation of Microsoft”s Xbox Game Pass strictly for PC all with their own list of titles.

These represent the effort by each company to not just attract but also keep people active within an ecosystem while simultaneously benefiting from an ongoing revenue stream rather than the usual one-time purchase. I ultimately believe it’s a win-win for individuals and console makers. There’s really no better way to access that many games at once for the price. The tricky part is determining which is most appealing to one’s taste, because the cost starts to add up quickly.

Then there’s cloud streaming, technology by which players can stream games by leveraging a company’s remote servers instead of playing titles locally on a console or PC. Compared to the aforementioned subscription services, which offer digital downloads and feel more like “ownership,” streaming is an even more exotic way to interact with games.

There are older cloud services like PlayStation Now and NVIDIA’s GeForce Now that launched in some form prior to 2019, albeit with limited buzz and varying degrees of quality. The two major streaming platforms from this year are Microsoft’s Project xCloud, beginning as a beta in October, then Google Stadia stumbling its way to market in November.

Much has been made of the differing approaches, where Microsoft clearly labelled xCloud as pre-launch tech while Google rushed to formally release Stadia lacking a number of promised features and, frankly, enticing games. Still, the fact that streaming is becoming a more viable option as a counterpart proves it will remain part of the conversation. Especially as the technology improves, developers spend more time with it and more games are present.

The services trend will influence the future of gaming, even if the streaming option is unproven, which makes it the most important topic of 2019.

Digital Transition & Storefront Competition

It’s no secret that players are moving towards digital ownership. According to SuperData, worldwide sales from digital PC games totaled $35.7 billion in 2018 as compared to $33 billion in 2017, while the console segment hit nearly $13 billion versus $8 billion the prior year.

Earlier this year, Sony reported digital full game software ratio on PlayStation 4 hit 53%, meaning this was the first quarter ever where digital sales outpaced physical. It’s an even more significant milestone because it’s full game software as opposed to digital goods or in-game items boosting the metric.

Broader digital figures skyrocket when including mobile of course. The point above is that even segmented into console and PC, the share is growing. Intriguingly, this doesn’t mean physical is diminishing. NPD Group noted that digital sales should not cannibalize retail sales in the domestic market in its predictions for 2019, since it’s more the overall amount is growing while diversifying across segments.

Alongside this digital transformation is a trend that intensified specifically in 2019, and that’s competition among virtual storefronts. Just like brick-and-mortar stores compete with one another, virtual marketplaces battle for consumer dollars.

For years, the main player in digital PC games has been Valve Corporation’s Steam platform with 90 million active users and one billion accounts in 2018. Smaller challengers like CD Projekt’s GOG.com and others offer an alternative, especially for indie publishing, though only recently has a new storefront generated buzz and disdain quite like when Fortnite creator Epic Games launched the Epic Games Store in late 2018.

What started then carried over to this year, as more and more games announced partnerships with Epic Games Store in order to capitalize on its more favorable revenue sharing rates. Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, Metro: Exodus from Deep Silver and Take-Two’s Borderlands 3 are prime examples of those with some sort of deal with Epic Games.

The latest true challenger to Steam’s dominance reveals a parallel to console competition in that major companies and smaller self-publishers alike see upside in moving away from the platform with an effective monopoly. 2019 will be remembered as the year of the continued rise of digital distribution, even for console gaming, plus the rise of Epic Games Store and the consumer sentiment surrounding its ascension.

Content Creation & Community Support

The third biggest gaming trend of 2019 is video content creation and the fostering of communities that support the creators, plus those companies that pay in hopes to boost popularity of games through this more modern avenue for advertising. Content is key for streamers and video creators trying to make a living off playing games, and it’s certainly working.

Amazon’s Twitch is the main platform for gamers to stream directly to an audience, while Google’s YouTube remains the place for video uploading. Earlier this year, Twitch reported 15 million daily active users. YouTube is ubiquitous when it comes to online video, Google said in May that more than 200 million people watch gaming content on the platform every day.

Talk about major opportunities for building and supporting a community. The biggest Twitch streamers not only have staggering following numbers, like Tfue (7.3 million) and Myth (5.6 million), they earn hundreds of thousands of dollars via a combination of subscriptions and advertising deals. Like the model for professional athletes.

Recently, Microsoft has made serious moves in this space by doling out cash to some of the most popular video creators to move to its Mixer streaming platform. The most noteworthy is of course Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who racked up a million followers within days of moving to Mixer in August. Ninja used to make $500K per month playing mainly Fortnite, and was paid by Microsoft for the move though the amount was not disclosed. Another marquee example is Shroud, real name Michael Grzesiek and a former Counter-Strike pro, shifting to Mixer in October after a long run on Twitch.

It’s not just about the individual streamers now. It’s also how their massive audiences can benefit the likes of platform holders like Microsoft and Sony plus publishing firms. I hate using the word, but can’t deny it’s a reality: “Influencers” are super important these days trying to boost the popularity of a new release. Pay-for-play is a term used for when a popular streamer is paid to promote a game near launch, a tactic used more now than ever by businesses to establish mind-share off the bat.

When Electronic Arts stealth launched Apex Legends in February, big streamers were there day one. The aforementioned Blevins was reportedly paid $1 million to do so. This reveals the position that major content creators have in the industry. It’s big business, whether more casual names or eSports pros, for both the gamers themselves and the companies that benefit from their gigantic audience reach.

And there we have it. While these most certainly aren’t the only trends, my three biggest trends in 2019 revolve around services and streaming, the movement towards digital ownership and the storefronts that offer virtual games then content creation, the audiences that follow and the companies that pay in hopes of benefiting from them.

Honorable mentions include virtual reality, live multiplayer games, cross-play popularity, China’s regulations, Japan’s consistency, mobile explosion, developer labor conditions and the further legitimizing of eSports. All of which are worthy of discussion.

What do you think of the final list? What about the honorable mentions? Are there other trends that stand out to you? Comments here or on Twitter are more than welcome!

Next up in the Working Casual 2019 Year-in-Review will be the Top 5 Most Impressive Gaming Companies. Catch you then.

Sources: Epic Games, Google, Influencer Markekting Hub, Microsoft, NPD Group, Sony, SuperData, Tubefilter, TwitchMetrics.

-Dom

Working Casual’s 2019 Year-in-Review Round-Up

A celebration is in order.

Yes, another year is coming to a close. Though not just any year. The absolute *best* year ever for the site!

Strictly because of you taking time to swing by, 2019 was Working Casual’s best of all time in terms of visitor numbers and impressions. I’ve added reviews to the mix in addition to the usual sales round-ups and thought pieces on gaming, tech and media, so I’m forever grateful for your generous support during this expansion. I’m having a blast.

While the year is nearly done, I’m most certainly not. We’ll talk the future a bit later. For now, it’s time to revisit the past.

And what a time it’s been to follow gaming. It’s a transitory period for the industry, as current generation Xbox and PlayStation consoles near the end of their lifespans which stands in stark contrast to Nintendo’s steadfastness in its software support and model updates for its Switch hybrid hardware. All major platform holders dropped notable games in 2019, with Nintendo as the most prolific of the three with titles in the Fire Emblem, Yoshi, Zelda, Mario Maker and Pokémon series among others. Microsoft and Sony boasted major titles of their own in Gears 5 and Death Stranding, respectively. I’d argue it’s even more significant that these companies pushed to strengthen their service offerings in an increasingly digital world, with varying degrees of success.

Microsoft emerged as the ecosystem front-runner on the service side, with its ever-expanding Xbox Game Pass subscription system. Loop in Tencent, which remains a bellwether on the mobile and online PC side, marked 2019 with global expansion into new markets and overcoming challenges locally after Chinese regulators backed off of a hold on new releases. Then Google entered the market with Stadia in November, albeit with a stumble. Epic Games, maker of Fortnite, launched its own digital store to compete primarily with Valve Corporation’s Steam, beginning a sort of storefront fight akin to earlier days of console wars.

On the software side, the general “more variety than ever” trend remained in full effect. For better or worse, I might add. Japanese development teams in particular settled nicely into the late generation cycle, the likes of Capcom and Square Enix responsible for some of the year’s most impactful titles. Ongoing, live service games continued to thrive as newer competitors like Apex Legends from Respawn Entertainment proved there’s still room for competition in the space. As long as it’s of a certain quality.

Mobile games grew market share by attracting the casual audience, partly due to spin-offs from traditional franchise like Call of Duty: Mobile and Mario Kart Tour. Independent development remains a realistic avenue for some creators, with publishers like Annapurna Interactive and Devolver Digital carving out a niche within the broader space. 2019 also had examples of consolidation within the independent segment, with Sony acquiring Insomniac Games and Embracer Group (formerly THQ Nordic) scooping up a myriad of smaller studios.

Then there’s the transition to digital ownership, China’s relaxing regulatory environment, a movement towards cross-play, the Oculus Quest making wireless VR a.. reality, the growing role of content creators, lousy labor conditions unearthed by dedicated journalists and eSports pushing towards broader legitimacy which all made 2019 a memorable end to the decade.

All three major platform holders released cool projects in 2019, with Nintendo as the most prolific then Microsoft and Sony each boasting a major title of their own. More notably these companies pushed to strengthen their service offerings in an increasingly digital world, with varying degrees of success.

Since I can’t cover all of these important topics in a single piece, that means multiple posts! The more the better, I say. Here’s the plan to recap the year over the next few days.

Three Biggest Trends in Gaming: Documenting and critiquing the major trends across the industry.

Top 5 Most Impressive Gaming Companies: Which teams rose above the rest in delivering great experiences for gamers throughout the year?

Independent Studios of the Year: Smaller teams with major dreams, and accomplishments to back them up.

Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year: One of the most prestigious of top game lists. Naturally.

After each post, I’ll update this round-up with links to keep everything in order. Only then can we move onto 2020!

It’s a quickie for now. We’ll certainly chat again soon.

-Dom

Star Wars & Pokémon Shine in the States During November Pre-Holiday Sales Rush

Here we are, almost at the end of 2019!

November is a gloriously busy season for new game releases, which naturally means heightened competition on the monthly sales charts. While the top spot is again the latest Call of Duty title, two new releases in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Pokémon Sword & Shield form two of the major storylines ahead of the holiday sales rush. The latter of which even set a new franchise record for launch month performance. Time to catch you up on the stats.

Industry tracking firm The NPD Group shared its November monthly sales report last night, revealing an obvious winner in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare yet again topping the software list for a second month in a row. The first-person military shooter from publisher Activision Blizzard is a perennial performer, here maintaining its status as the top-selling video game of 2019 to date. It’s also now the best performing game in the trailing 12 month period, measured by dollar sales as a whole through last November.

The real stories begin when looking further down the software chart.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order accomplished the second spot on the monthly chart after its release in mid-November. The latest from publisher Electronic Arts is quite notable for a number of reasons. First, it’s the second best launch ever for a Star Wars game as measured by dollar sales behind only Star Wars Battlefront in 2015. It enters the 2019 year-to-date rankings immediately, at the #9 spot.

It’s also the best debut ever for development studio Respawn Entertainment, which industry veterans Vince Zampella and Jason West started as an independent studio in 2010. EA purchased the team most known for the Titanfall franchise of mech action shooters outright in 2017. As an in-house studio, Respawn has now produced two of 2019’s best titles: Battle royale game Apex Legends and the aforementioned Star Wars iteration. Which is a fantastic third person action game where the player controls a Jedi. Congratulations to the entire team now on the commercial success.

Moving to Nintendo, you’ll notice later a little franchise called Pokémon dominates the chart in last month’s rankings as it holds the remaining three spots within the Top 5. Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield are Nintendo’s flagship 2019 titles, and their performance in November backs this up. If aggregated with the Double Pack version, these Pokémon games would actually eclipse Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order to be the second best seller of the month.

When considered all together, Sword and Shield represent the best launch month ever in the franchise. Beating out the original record holders in handheld games Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon back in 2016. Knowing how successful the franchise has been over the years really puts this in perspective. Recently, the Pokémon brand was named the highest-grossing entertainment property ever with nearly $95 billion in revenue since inception in 1996. To say Sword and Shield saw the best start ever domestically is a serious statistic.

The final new release within the Top 10 is PlayStation 4 timed exclusive Death Stranding. The divisive game from Hideo Kojima’s new Kojima Productions studio.. hm, delivered a good enough start to reach #7 in November. Mat Piscatella of The NPD Group provided additional context, noting that the game “did well in November” and falls within the ten best launches in history for a Sony-published title. I thought the high production value third-person action game had more potential on the upside based on Kojima’s pedigree alone. Its competition provided too much for it to reach a Top 5 rank.

In terms of older games last month, Nintendo’s character fighter Super Smash Bros. Ultimate hit a major milestone. It’s now the very best seller of all time domestically within the fighting game genre, surpassing one of its predecessors in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008) on Wii. That’s right. The latest Smash Bros. iteration became the best-selling fighting game here across tracking history within a year on market. A truly staggering result, plus a testament to the director Masahiro Sakurai and team’s unending work ethic to support it with exciting updates.

Now that we’ve covered some impressive numbers for individual games, let’s look at the full list of best sellers of November and 2019 so far.

Top-Selling Games of November 2019 (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order^
  3. Pokémon Sword*
  4. Pokémon Sword & Shield Double Pack*
  5. Pokémon Shield*
  6. Madden NFL 20
  7. Death Stranding
  8. NBA 2K20
  9. Need for Speed: Heat
  10. Luigi’s Mansion 3*
  11. FIFA 20
  12. Borderlands 3
  13. The Outer Worlds
  14. Just Dance 2020
  15. Mario Kart 8*
  16. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  17. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  18. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
  19. Grand Theft Auto V
  20. Mortal Kombat 11

Top-Selling Games of 2019 (Year to Date):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. NBA 2K20
  3. Madden NFL 20
  4. Borderlands 3
  5. Mortal Kombat 11
  6. Kingdom Hearts 3
  7. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
  8. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  9. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order^
  10. Anthem

^Digital PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on Consoles Included

That’s right. The latest Smash Bros. iteration became the best-selling fighting game here across tracking history within a year on market. A truly staggering result, plus a testament to the director Masahiro Sakurai and team’s unending work ethic to support it with exciting updates.

Strong software launches for major titles is certainly the highlight of an otherwise mixed month when talking overall industry sales, namely driven by hardware softening for everything but Nintendo Switch.

As displayed in the above chart, total consumer spending in November hit $2.3 billion. This figure is down 19% compared to this same month last year. Driven mostly by lackluster hardware results, as we’ll see in a bit. When taking the year in aggregate, total industry spend across all major categories is $11.6 billion. 12% lower than where it was in November 2018.

Monthly software dollar sales dipped 14% in November, down to $926 million. Game sales for 2019 as a whole are 8% lower than this time in 2018, coming in at $5.4 billion. Nintendo Switch software is really the only segment here that showed growth, while game sales on competing consoles slowed. I’d imagine partially due to volume plus discounted pricing.

Flipping to hardware, this is where the declines accelerate. Spending on consoles fell 26% in November to $891 million, while year-to-date it’s down 24% to $2.9 billion. For the latter figure, Nintendo Switch is the only platform that’s up since the same time frame in 2018.

Speaking of, let’s.. Switch to some more positive news. Nintendo’s latest console was again the top-selling hardware of the month in November, which means it’s now officially won every single month since the holiday season last year. Obviously it retains its spot as the best-selling hardware platform of 2019.

Last week, Nintendo issued a press release detailing its late November performance in the Americas. Its Switch hybrid console achieved the best week ever in the U.S. since release in March 2017, moving 830K units the week of Thanksgiving (November 24th to 30th). Its Cyber Monday was also “record-breaking,” however the team didn’t provide any more details there. I’ll note there’s one caveat of course, this now includes sales of its more compact Switch Lite variant.

Within the Americas, Nintendo Switch console sales now total 17.5 million units. Nearly 42% of its overall global sales. The aforementioned Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield surpassed 3 million copies sold in the region, while other notable hits passed their own significant unit sales milestones there: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (8.5 million), Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (8 million), Super Mario Odyssey (6.5 million) plus New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe (1.5 million).

Going back to The NPD Group’s report, the final category of accessories and game cards is now also experiencing slowing momentum. Sales here equaled $433 million in November, 14% lower than last year. $3.2 billion of accessories sold in 2019 to date, a 5% decline compared to the same months in 2018. The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller 2, which launched in early November, achieved the highest result in its launch month of any other accessory though the standard PlayStation DualShock 4 in black is still the top seller this year.

We’ve come to the end of another month, marking the beginning of the highly-coveted holiday sales season and the penultimate of the year (and decade!). On the upside, select software titles are seeing record or near record results. Nintendo is taking full advantage of a lull in competition. Still, it’s clear that we’re in for a slower holiday season on the whole when compared to recent ones. That doesn’t mean it won’t be fun!

As always, check out The NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella’s detailed thread on Twitter for more insights on this tracking period and check back here for the final monthly report of 2019 next month! Thanks for hanging out.

Sources: NPD Group, Electronic Arts, Nintendo.

-Dom

Review: Kojima’s Death Stranding is Groundbreaking & Special, Yet Stumbles in its Delivery

Death Stranding is one of the most important, unique and thought-provoking games of this generation with its themes of personal connection, harmony of humanity and the relationships between body, soul and afterlife. It’s the actual playing of the game that’s the difficult part, stumbling along the way with shaky gameplay, arduous controls and a confusing reward structure. This boldness ultimately makes for a truly memorable experience, as much for its underlying message as for the struggle in getting there.

It’s hard to summarize what the heck legendary gaming icon Hideo Kojima made with PlayStation 4 exclusive Death Stranding, his first independent project since splitting from Konami in 2015 and creating Kojima Productions. The genius Japanese designer is best known for many core games in the Metal Gear franchise, equal parts military stealth action and over-the-top, nonsensical commentaries on future tech and politics.

Death Stranding is, effectively, Kojima unchained. At its base level, it’s a third-person game in which the main character Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) delivers packages in order to connect remote regions of a disjointed America under a shared network. In reality, it’s so much more. A story with enough plot lines to make one’s head spin. It’s set in a post-apocalypse where dead now infiltrate the living world after a catastrophic event dubbed a “void out”, an explosion that occurs when entities from the other side interact with a human.

The cause of this initial void out and its subsequent fall-out is detailed in the off-the-wall story, told in chapters that focus on each character. One as weird as the next, though it all begins with the story of the gruff, solo delivery man Sam Bridges.

Sam is the playable character, complete with a tragic past and the ability to sense supernatural beings, who receives a task from his parent company (conveniently also called Bridges) to bring supplies to distant areas in order to integrate them into what’s know as the “Chiral Network.” He starts on the East Cost with the end goal to reach the Pacific, where the former President’s daughter is being held captive by a terrorist cell as she describes during visits via her holographic likeness. (I told you it was weird.)

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games. Players can “like” all of these things, in the vein of social media. When Kojima claimed this new title occupied a new genre called Strand Games, this is what he meant.

Its world and setup is a smorgasbord of proper nouns and foreign words. Admittedly, as wild as they appear, somehow everything fits together under the lore of this future universe.

Chiralium (A made up element that has magic powers.) The Beach (i.e. Purgatory). Beached Things (BTs. Hostile ghosts from The Beach). MULEs (Former delivery folks obsessed with stealing packages.) Homo Demens (Terrorist outfit whose leader acts as the main antagonist.) Bridge Baby (BBs. Tiny pre-infants that exist between plains of existence and can sense BTs, so they are used as tools by various factions via placing them in a jar of goop then connecting an umbilical cord to one’s suit. Nope, I’m not lying.)

It’s surprisingly well-fleshed out. Partly because Kojima beats the player over the head with it from jump so that it’s unavoidable. More importantly because much of the back-story is available in flavor text throughout the game’s messaging system or data dictionary, plus characters reference these things as everyday terms. In this timeline, people eating “Cryptobiotes” to heal themselves is as ubiquitous as avoiding “Timefall,” rain that speeds up time to make everything age much more quickly when caught in it (like, of course!).

I’ll hand him credit: Kojima sure knows how to build a world like no other.

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games.

Flipping from plot to visuals, it’s a stunningly gorgeous game built on the Decima engine borrowed from Sony’s Guerrilla Games studio. Which clearly specializes in glorious landscapes and environmental detail. I can’t oversell the spectacle of looking into the distance as a storm approaches or climbing a snow-capped mountain to take in the wintry horizon. These special moments almost make up for how painstaking it is to get there.

Speaking of that, here’s where the issues arise. Narrative set-up and universe-building can be as incredible as they are, yet the game is so brutal to play. Boring, even. Which is still a key aspect of one’s enjoyment. The core gameplay loop is picking up packages, balancing them on Sam’s back by using the trigger buttons, stumbling towards a destination avoiding rocks, Timefall plus pockets of enemies then dropping said packages off. It’s way too laborious until the better upgrades start appearing, which is no joke at least 8 to 10 hours into the game.

It’s not a case of “get good.” Sam’s lack of tools is by design. It feels intentionally frustrating in the first couple chapters, I’d imagine as an allusion to how difficult it would be without connections to other locations or players. That’s not even to mention the survival elements. Sam has a stamina gauge, then an energy bar, then the ever-present annoyance of “time fall” which is rain that speeds up time (of course) to the point where packages deteriorate.

There’s little to alleviate these pains until after those near dozen hours, when Sam earns gadgets and tools to assist in his effort. Making it even more annoying, the controls aren’t anywhere near intuitive. It never feels all the way right. Not to mention this quest design never changes. Unlike its game world, mission structure doesn’t evolve. Sure vehicles and weapons help. But the missions are basically the same in hour one as they are at the end. It’s boring by the second act and plain tiring in the last.

And what’s the reward? This is part of the problem. The lack of incentive, other than to progress the narrative to the next cutscene. Each mission awards experience based on a number of factors, like speed or package condition. The same animation plays as Sam delivers the package, a little bar goes up, there’s some dialogue then often times it’s back to the menu to pick up yet another boilerplate order. Very infrequently, the bar fills up to a point where that location doles out an upgrade or gift. There’s no clear path to seeing which places give what or how much time or experience it’s going to take to get that upgrade. It stumbles through its incentive structure as much as Sam does while getting there.

The argument against this thought process is that the journey is the reward, rather than the destination or reward. I understand that appeal to an extent. Though I think both have to be true in order for a game to be elite: I can find reward in getting to a place just as much as the tangible benefit for arriving there. Great games do this consistently well. Death Stranding isn’t one of them.

Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

Once the pace picks up and upgrades unlock, weapons start popping up with characteristics explained in the underlying world. The main material used to combat BTs is.. fluid from Sam’s body. Bridges is constantly extracting these from Sam, since he’s special. Namely that his blood and bathwater impact the ghastly BTs. Blood is used for grenades and even bullets, in an interaction between character development and gameplay application. These kinds of gadgets along with other aiding in deliveries, like vehicles and stabilizing armor, help the minute-to-minute gameplay break out of its early rut to become much more tolerable in the game’s middle chapters.

A related nitpick in this kind of game, which is one I’ve expressed for others in the past. Namely stealth games. The expectation here is to be as non-lethal as possible. If someone is killed, and their body isn’t incinerated, it can cause a crazy explosion when BTs find them. Then the developers provide all sorts of lethal options while simultaneously chastising the player for using them. What the heck is the point? Thankfully, Death Stranding often offers non-lethal counterparts that are essential. Unless you want a crater on the map in the aftermath of a void out.

Let me say this now, because I can hear the comments already. I don’t think a game has to be fun in order to be great. There are classics that aren’t fun. I believe it should at least be engaging from a gameplay perspective as early as possible, otherwise who wants to play a game they aren’t enjoying or don’t think the rewards are justified except to see the story play out? I felt like this during both the beginning hours then the end here, when I wish I didn’t at all.

Getting back to the positives, the realistic look of its characters is a superb achievement. These roles feature near perfect acting, as they well should from an experienced cast of talent: The aforementioned Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff Unger, Léa Seydoux as Fragile, Guillermo del Toro as Deadman and even The Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner as Amelie. Add in cameos from some of his more recognizable friends and even though it’s kind of a ridiculous concept to see Conan O’Brien or Edgar Wright as characters throughout the world, I can’t say it doesn’t fit with Kojima’s persona.

It’s the type of lineup rarely seen in games, if ever. Which is groundbreaking on its own, where blurring the line between cinema and interactive media is the intent. Each chapter focuses on a different character, which keeps it as focused as a game about so many different themes can be. There’s a risk of losing a player for a section if they aren’t interested in that particular person, which throws off pacing. For instance, I found Heartman, who induces cardiac arrest at intervals to search The Beach for his deceased family then revives himself back to reality, particular engaging while others not as much. Covering all of them here is impossible, so suffice to say it’s a diverse cast that supports Kojima’s character-driven saga.

I want to point this out before dipping into other areas: Troy Baker, one of the most prolific voice actors in games, is exquisite in his role as the villainous Higgs. It’s great to see him in action rather than as the voice behind a character. I hung onto every moment he’s on screen, almost proud how well he flexed his ability to hang right there alongside traditional film actors.

After a slow beginning from both story and gameplay perspectives, Episode 3 starts the second act which is the game’s absolute best. This is when it finally doles out the upgraded versions of gadgets and introduces weaponry that helps drastically. Plus, the puzzle of how characters interact and who they really are pieces itself together, namely the mysterious character played by Mikkelsen which up until then existed only in the memories of Sam Bridge’s Bridge Baby buddy (say that fast).

Main complaint is on its delivery method, which I should honestly expect by now in Kojima games. His writing is as subtle as a sledgehammer. It lays the exposition on thick during many scenes, as if the player isn’t smart enough to figure things out on their own. Like how the President, who wants to connect everyone, has the last name Strand. Or how the woman with a ghost baby is called Mama. Or how the guy nicknamed Deadman is cobbled together with organs from the deceased. We get it. Their names parallel their character traits. We don’t have to hear it every time we see them.

Its final act was exceedingly too long, exacerbated by the increased cutscene frequency combined with way too many places to deliver. By this point, the gameplay loop was way less satisfying as it asks you to do the same old fetch quest dressed up in a new way for the umpteenth time. Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

No story spoilers, other than to say it’s even further out there than I imagined. It goes places, then the ending flies off the rails. Turns total video game mixed with art film combined with anime. It’s totally aware and self-indulgent. I can’t tell if I love it or despise how Death Stranding wraps up during its, no hyperbole, more than two hours of cutscenes before actual final credits.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Speaking of the ending, we’re almost at the conclusion of this piece. I want to first highlight what I consider a main component of modern game design: Systems and quality of life. These are just as important to my game experience as how the game looks and runs plus its narrative progression.

To put it plainly: Death Stranding is cumbersome, in both movement and systems. As revealed by some very odd decisions. Namely, how the player navigates as Sam and his interactions with the world plus everything it throws at you in its myriad of menus.

There must be a hundred or more entries in the game’s log of how to play it or what to know about its mechanics. Hold the triggers to balance. Don’t let stamina deplete. Packages can be destroyed by falling or standing in timefall. Batteries power all the gizmos attached to Sam’s body. Smoke can hide you. Noxious gas can kill you. Don’t put too many packages on your back, there’s an encumbrance mechanic. You can hang onto parcels by hand, only by holding that particular trigger button. You can throw packages, only by hitting the punch button then letting go of said trigger. (This last one was especially comedic.)

It’s near comical how many times I had to check if I was doing something correctly. Or if I was forgetting some integral mechanic that would magically enhance my experience.

Then there’s the stealth. Mainly applies to two scenarios: Areas where Beached Things (BTs) exist, you know the ghosts that cross over to our dimension, or human enemies of MULEs and terrorists. BTs are intermittently invisible, so passing through those areas takes meticulous creeping and timing to kill them with Sam’s blood weapons. Not to mention time slows down for around 10 seconds every time Sam enters an area with these creatures. And they are around A LOT. It’s like when a Zelda game stops to tell you which item you’ve picked up, every damn time you pick it up.

The hint system is obnoxious, showing the same phrases over and over countless times on a huge portion of the screen. Sure they can be turned off. But what if I’m interested in learning new things about the game but don’t care about the hints I already know? I mostly appreciate these quality of life options in games. Not those that overstay their welcome, like they do here.

Then we have the infrastructure building system. It’s not bad. Players gradually get the ability to craft a variety of structures that help with navigation or combat. They can put up signs to encourage or warn other people. It starts with basic bridges and postboxes that require metal, then evolves into generators that replenish energy plus ziplines that zoom players around (however only if they can connect, which they often don’t, because only some of them populate from other people’s worlds).

All of this is governed by different materials like metal or resins, plus a general area has to be connected to the network in order for these to work. It’s a great way to make it feel like an evolving, connected world. I love how much it helps once it works. Though somewhat inconsistent in its application, plus Sam receives no help unless the main quest in a given area is complete.

Another major help in navigation that pops up after the first few painful hours is fast travel. Its implementation fits with one of the character stories, plus it allows movement between safe houses in different regions. Downside is the materials and gadgets don’t travel with Sam, so you can’t use it to actually make deliveries of course. It’s a travel system for him alone.

Final note before we wrap is the soundtrack. I really appreciated its integration, liking most of the tracks. There’s subtle, ambient tunes when traversing the world. It helps instill the sense of loneliness when delivering packages solo. Occasionally a licensed track will play during main story missions, accentuating the journey. It’s great, other than the track name being prominently displayed on the screen for way too long. As if the designers want you to know how much Kojima loves his picks for music. The band Low Roar, especially.

This reveals a common theme with Death Stranding: Great ideas, inconsistent implementation.

In what’s my longest review ever after spending an absurd 80 hours in this world, the craziest part is that there are things about this game I’m likely forgetting. It’s complex and opaque, with systems layered on top of systems for the sake of layering systems. It’s sometimes silly, breaking the fourth wall with that classic Kojima charm. Then turns serious, touching on themes that are obviously very important to him and his entire team.

It’s also a technical showpiece, a masterclass in game design when it comes to both motion capture and graphical fidelity. It rivals the most beautiful games on PlayStation 4 to date. I’d be remiss to not praise how special this is, plus the acting and cutscene work is the best in the business. It exists on another plane within the industry, one where film is as much an inspiration as anything. When we rank cinematic games, Death Stranding now has to be the preeminent entry on the list.

Still, it’s not without faults. Many of them. Its pacing is off, it’s nowhere near fun or even enjoyable to play and quest design is rudimentary at best. Among other negatives, such as way too many mechanics for its own good plus a lack of visibility on its rewards. This means there’s limited incentive to accomplish things outside of the critical path.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Title: Death Stranding

Release Date: November 8, 2019

Developer: Kojima Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment on PlayStation 4. (505 Games on PC.)

Platforms: PlayStation 4. (Eventually PC.)

Recommendation: It’s hard to broadly recommend. I know it’s special. Yet only certain people will love it. If you dig Kojima’s storytelling, beautiful graphics, character acting, esoteric themes and connecting with other players then try it. Caveat being you must also tolerate all sorts of frustrations along the way with busted controls, annoying survival elements, repetitive fetch quests and unclear upgrade paths.

If not, play at your own risk.

Sources: Kojima Productions, IGN, PlayStation 4 Pro Screenshots.

-Dom

Call of Duty Leads October U.S. Video Game Sales Chart to a Near Record Month

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is the latest commercial juggernaut in the long-gunning franchise, as it fought to the top of the domestic software chart last month in what was the second best October this decade on overall consumer spending across the U.S. games industry.

This year’s installment in Activision Blizzard’s first-person shooter series became the 12th consecutive title in the series to achieve top-seller status during its launch month, according to a recent report from industry tracking firm The NPD Group. The last time a Call of Duty game didn’t lead at launch was October 2007, when another Activision property rocked the industry to the top of the chart: Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

As a result of its domination in October, Modern Warfare is immediately the best-selling game of the entire year. Even with only a single month of tracking. This feat displays how truly massive it is, especially this year after generally positive critical reception plus the always present casual audience it attracts.

Activision’s internal development team Infinity Ward returned to its Modern Warfare sub-series for the first time since last generation’s Modern Warfare 3 back in 2011. This year’s title is essentially a re-imagining of its classic formula, this time on a rebuilt game engine with a more gritty campaign alongside its traditional multi-player offerings.

It’s paid off. Quite literally. Call of Duty retained its distinction as the highest selling series of all time across the history of tracking, which dates back to 1995.

The success of Modern Warfare, among other strong software debuts I’ll mention in a bit, drove overall games industry spending to $1.034 billion in October. This the second best October month this decade, trailing only last year when both Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2 released. Which means the 34% decline since last year is up against a most impossible comparable.

When looking at 2019 to date, total consumer spending on all segments is at $9.3 billion. 10% lower than the same time frame in 2018.

I’ll point this out right away. This October’s growth figures appear to be much worse than they are. In fact, they are really freaking good for where we are in the console cycle. Namely considering this time last year we saw the best October of the entire decade, when total spending reached upwards of a whopping $1.57 billion. That was a monumental month, and an outlier.

On the software spend side, this figure dipped 37% in October to $620 million as displayed in the earlier chart. “Despite this decline, October 2019 tracked software sales represent the third highest total ever achieved for an October month, trailing only October 2008 and October 2018,” said NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella on Twitter, proving additional historical context on why last month is still a standout.

Year-to-date software sales hit $4.5 billion, a decline of 7% since prior year. Nintendo Switch game sales are in fact growing, though competitors are not. Hence the notable dip on the aggregate.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is the latest commercial juggernaut in the long-gunning franchise, as it fought to the top of the domestic software chart last month in what was the second best October this decade..”

Let’s now drill down into individual title performance, starting with the full rankings for both October 2019 and the year through last month.

Top-Selling Games of October 2019 (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. The Outer Worlds
  3. Luigi’s Mansion 3*
  4. Madden NFL 20
  5. NBA 2K20
  6. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
  7. WWE 2K20
  8. FIFA 20
  9. Borderlands 3
  10. Ring Fit Adventure
  11. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening*
  12. Mario Kart 8*
  13. Minecraft#
  14. Grand Theft Auto V
  15. Mortal Kombat 11
  16. Overwatch
  17. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  18. Code Vein
  19. Red Dead Redemption 2
  20. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*

Top-Selling Games of 2019 (Year to Date):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. NBA 2K20
  3. Madden NFL 20
  4. Borderlands 3
  5. Mortal Kombat 11
  6. Kingdom Hearts 3
  7. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
  8. Anthem
  9. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  10. Grand Theft Auto V

^Digital PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on Consoles Included

In the most surprising result of the month, Take-Two’s Private Division label and Obsidian Entertainment’s space role-playing game The Outer Worlds lands at the second spot on the overall software chart. It starts at number two on PlayStation 4, and number five on Xbox One. Keep in mind that this is even more impressive considering the game is also available as part of Microsoft’s monthly subscription service Xbox Game Pass, which isn’t factored into these metrics.

This is one of the best five launch month debuts for a game made by Obsidian Entertainment, a studio now owned by Microsoft which has titles under its belt such as Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Fallout: New Vegas. As a comparison, Fallout: New Vegas also hit number two during its launch in October 2010. One caveat being that back then, the ranks were based on copies as opposed to dollar sales.

It’s a.. stellar commercial result for a game that’s also receiving widespread critical praise.

Rounding out the Top 3 in a busy month is, ironically, Luigi’s Mansion 3 from Nintendo. The company’s latest major Switch exclusive is the third installment in the spooky, 2D ghost-catching saga featuring Mario’s taller and more timid brother. The month’s best-selling Switch title also sets a new series record for the series, previously held by 2001’s original Luigi’s Mansion on GameCube.

It was finally time for Luigi to get some shine. Good for him!

A couple chart regulars in Madden NFL 20 and NBA 2K20 secured spots in the Top 5, as they often do. Ubisoft’s under-performing Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint retains the sixth spot in October, the same as the prior month during which it launched. While not an overall poor performance, it’s certainly not living up to its potential within the Tom Clancy brand.

Quick notable move is NBA 2K20 charting below Madden NFL 20 last month, while still occupying a higher position on the year-to-date list. Which implies that NBA 2K’s launch month was better, and is carrying it to more success when taken as a whole. I’d imagine the gap in dollar sales during October between the two sports games was small, even if we won’t ever know for sure publicly.

I must say that Nintendo’s experimental Ring Fit Adventure squeezing into the Top 10 is an impressive feat for the exercise game, and reveals a couple things. First, Nintendo Switch software is doing well by virtue of its hardware popularity. Then, the casual market often responds positively to its innovative projects (see: Wii Sports, Pokémon Go). While not every single experimental Nintendo product does well in the market, I always love and appreciate when its teams get creative like they did with Ring Fit Adventure. Especially a health-conscious product.

Final observation on software, when looking at a longer time frame for 2019 overall, the only Switch title on the best-sellers list is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate which released nearly a year ago. It’s natural for multi-platform games to outsell exclusives. However given Switch’s hardware success this year, it really doesn’t have that blockbuster software seller. Yet. I’d wager a major sum that this will change in November after today’s release of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, which appeal to a massive audience of children leading into the holidays.

While not every single experimental Nintendo product does well in the market, I always love and appreciate when its teams get creative like they did with Ring Fit Adventure.

Hm, Switching to the hardware side, unfortunately it’s not nearly as interesting as software. Spending on consoles in the U.S. was down 41% compared to last year, to only $182 million. This contributes to the current year-to-date figure of $2.1 billion on hardware, which is off 23% compared to the months leading up to October 2018.

Unsurprisingly, Nintendo Switch was top-selling for the month, it’s the top-selling for the year and the only platform showing growth at this stage due to its competitors treading water ahead of next year’s announcements. A similar theme as I’ve discussed in the recent past, not much to see here.

To talk about a positive for something other than Nintendo, I’ll point out a great observation from NPD Group in the following quote from Piscatella: “With six years in the market, the PlayStation 4 ranks as the third fastest unit-selling home console in history, trailing only the six-year sales totals of the Wii and the PlayStation 2.” Just last month, I wrote about how Sony’s PlayStation 4 became the second best-selling console of all time as measured by global units shipped.

Final set of data is on accessories and game pads. This segment totaled $231 million last month, which is down 16% compared to October 2018. For the year as a whole through last month, accessories and game pad spending is $2.7 billion. 3% lower than this same time last year.

That (finally) wraps up an eventful month on the software side, given that the year’s biggest launch hit plus we saw a handful of noteworthy surprises. November will be a good one too, with the release of two major brands with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and the aforementioned Pokémon games, all of which are out today.

Note that The NPD Group ranks software based on dollar sales. For an even more complete data rundown, including individual platform charts and commentary on the fighting game genre in particular, go check out Piscatella’s informative thread.

It’s been real fun. Thanks for stopping by. November will also be a spicy one. Until then!

Sources: The NPD Group, Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, Take-Two Interactive, Venture Beat.

-Dom

Sony’s PlayStation 4 Becomes Second Best-Selling Home Console of All Time

Passionate PlayStation fans have driven Sony Corp to yet another impressive, hm.. milestone in its storied history as a game console manufacturer.

Announced in a supplemental sheet as part of its quarterly earnings report today, the Japanese technology conglomerate shared that it shipped 2.8 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the three months ending September 2019. Which means that to date, the PlayStation 4 has now passed 102.8 million consoles sold.

While at first it doesn’t sound as noteworthy as the PS4 surpassing the 100 million threshold last quarter, it’s super impressive in the context of all-time sellers in the home market. That’s because PS4 formally passed both Nintendo’s 2006 system Wii (101.63 million) and Sony’s own original PlayStation from 1994 (102.49 million) to land as the second best-selling console ever.

Only Sony’s PlayStation 2 system has shipped more units, at a whopping 155 million at last count.

Sensing a theme?

This marks yet another major accomplishment for the team. Led by Sony’s focus on appealing to core gamers with both its marketing and software lineup plus launching at a lower initial price than its main competitor in Microsoft’s Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 has cemented itself as a legendary couch gaming experience with exceptional commercial success.

Obviously question is: Can it pass its most accomplished ancestor, the PlayStation 2?

My simple answer is: Unlikely. Sony has already announced the PlayStation 5 is due out in late 2020. The company has consistently reduced its forecast of PS4 shipments for its full 2019 fiscal year from 16 million back in April to 15 million in July, then 13.5 million in this latest report. Assuming it does hit 13.5 million, that equates to roughly 110 million in the wild overall by March 2020.

Even taking into account another fiscal year during the transition to a new generation, I can see under 125 million before PS5 appeals to a broader audience than just early adopters. Depends of course on how later generation software exclusives fare plus discount trend over time.

Well. It will have to settle for second place at the moment.

Beyond the eye-catching headline, Sony’s latest financial quarter was mixed at best especially within its gaming division. Check below for highlights and, might I say, lively commentary. The company’s presentation is here. Note that dollar amounts used are estimates, converted from local currency.

As displayed above for the company’s overall second quarter, sales and operating revenue dipped 3% since last year to around $19.5 billion while operating income surpassed $2.57 billion, an increase of 16%. Both revenue and earnings-per-share results actually beat analyst consensus, though Sony lowered its forecast for both metrics when considering the full fiscal year ending in March 2020.

Within its Game & Network Services (G&NS) unit, which includes PlayStation hardware, software and related services, quarterly sales slipped 17% to $4.5 billion while operating profit dropped 28% to just under $600 million. Sony pointed out that an increase in PlayStation Plus subscription revenue was not enough to offset a dip in both hardware and software dollar sales, thus the lowered performance.

Now, it’s always worth considering these reports in a broader context. Comparing quarters is only part of the equation. When pushing the dollar sales trend out to a trailing 12-month period then mapping over time, we certainly see a recent decline. Thing is, it’s above this time last year. Which means that even as it approaches the reveal and launch of the PlayStation 5, gaming is maintaining decent momentum. Profit is down slightly when looking at a similar trailing time frame, though well above where it’s been in prior years.

Note that similar to the company’s overall forecast, Sony also lowered its G&NS division forecast for both sales and profit for the full year, plus the PlayStation 4 hardware target as I noted previously.

Let’s chat a few specifics within its gaming business, then wrap with a couple observations and future thoughts.

While PlayStation 4 eclipsed sales of most of its historical competitors this quarter, it’s obvious that hardware and software are both slowing ahead of a new console cycle. The full game software sales total of 61.3 million copies is down from last year’s 75.1 million, likely due to the massively popular Marvel’s Spider-Man releasing in the corresponding quarter of 2018.

In terms of physical and digital split, 37% of software sales in Q2 were downloads. Compare this to around 28% this time last year, and it’s clear the trend is inching towards digital even for a traditional platform holder. Combine this with the popularity of PlayStation Plus, which rose to 36.9 million subscribers compared to last year’s 34.3 million, and we see how much digital and services matter when hardware sales are tapering off due to the natural cycle. It’s especially true this generation, as prior generations skewed much more towards retail consumption.

Speaking of business split, above charts out individual product categories within the gaming division over recent quarters. Which shows a handful of notable trends.

First, hardware sales are among the lowest this generation. Expected now that PS5 is official. Software remains the most prominent part of the PlayStation business other than occasionally during the holiday quarter, so it’s natural that growth ebbs and flows with it. Take a look at the green Network Services bar. This burgeoning segment has shown double-digit year-on-year growth every single quarter. Services are the talk of the industry lately, and for good reason. Sony is seeing tangible contribution from providing customers with things like PlayStation Plus, PlayStation Now and others to where I anticipate this to continue smoothly in both the near and long term.

So. What does this all mean and where’s Sony going in the future within its most important business segment?

It’s obviously a mixed quarter both overall and within G&NS, most notably because of its lowered guidance for annual revenue, profit and PlayStation 4 hardware sales. Though when smoothing this quarter’s performance over time, the PlayStation business is showing legs before entering into a new chapter. Most noteworthy being the digital and services slices.

Still, software is key and that will dictate the remainder of this year. What I anticipated to be the year’s top console seller, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, achieved a $600 million opening weekend according to an Activision Blizzard press release today. It has an exclusive marketing deal with Sony plus PlayStation exclusive content, which means the console will benefit greatly from this rejuvenation of Call of Duty annual sales.

Death Stranding is the major console exclusive during this holiday quarter, releasing on November 8th. It’s produced by Kojima Productions, led by all-time-great director Hideo Kojima, and I’m upbeat on its sales potential despite being a new intellectual property.

The downside is that 2018 saw major releases in the God of War reboot and the aforementioned Marvel’s Spider-Man, which makes for a difficult comparison. Combine that with the delay of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II into the first quarter of 2020 fiscal and we can understand why Sony adjusted its estimates downward.

Based on the above, I’m intrigued to see how software sales compare during the back half of the year, since I already anticipate lower dollar sales from PlayStation 4 hardware due to market saturation and discounted pricing.

Sony boasts one of the most impressive achievements in its company history with PlayStation 4 joining its PlayStation 2 brethren as one of the best-selling pieces of hardware ever, though the company will face short-term pressure as it gears up production and marketing for PlayStation 5 its corresponding software lineup.

Hope you all have a good one!

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Kojima Productions, Nintendo, Sony Corp., Wired.

-Dom