Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Highlights Quiet January U.S. Games Sales Report

Here we have the first domestic sales report of the new decade from video game industry tracking firm NPD Group, hot off the presses this morning.

As anticipated based on where we are in the console cycle, January saw consumer spending down in the double-digits both overall and within each major category of hardware, software and accessories. Even recent bellwether Nintendo Switch couldn’t escape declines. Still, I’ll shout out a handful of bright spots in terms of individual software results plus the latest figures for a top-end controller from Xbox.

Let’s talk specifics.

January is traditionally a type of recovery month after the holiday sales rush, however in recent years we’ve seen companies like Capcom capitalize with flagship games early in the year. This time the slate was even quieter than usual. Which means that Bandai Namco capitalized fully with its latest project Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, the best-selling game of January in the States based on dollar sales.

This is actually the first time in tracking history that a game in the long-running Dragon Ball Z franchise has topped the monthly rankings. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot also experienced the 3rd best launch month in series history. The only two games ahead of it are Dragon Ball FighterZ, during its debut at #2 in the January 2018 chart, and Dragon Ball Z: Budokai around 18 years back.

Publisher Bandai Namco recently shared during a conference call that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot shipped 1.5 million units globally within a week of its January 16 release date. This is slightly below the record-breaking 2 million copies for Dragon Ball FighterZ a couple years back, yet still obviously impressive. Early in the year continues to be an advantageous time to hit market. And this latest report from NPD proves that is domestic share here in the U.S. is quite healthy.

Broadening the scope to overall spending as mapped in the above chart, January’s total dollar sales across the industry hit $678 million. Off 26% compared to the same time frame in 2019. This is partially due to the aforementioned sparse release schedule, compounded by last year boasting the likes of Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 Remake and Kingdom Hearts 3 from Square Enix during this early window. Then of course both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One getting increasingly long-in-the-tooth.

I’d also posit that the major success of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in late 2018 to early 2019 impacted Nintendo Switch’s year-over-year performance comparison, thus contributing to the wider weakening.

Consumer spending on software reached $311 million last month, a figure that’s 31% lower than January 2019. In what was the most pronounced decline of the three individual categories, hardware spend dropped 35% to $129 million. The notable part here is that even Nintendo Switch experiencing a decline in customer spending, when it’s been growing most months amidst its competitors doing the opposite.

Rounding out the segments, accessories and game pads generated $238 million in sales. 11% lower than the same month 2019. It’s the best result in terms of comparisons, albeit still in that double-digit decline territory.

This is actually the first time in tracking history that a game in the long-running Dragon Ball Z franchise has topped the monthly rankings. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot also experienced the 3rd best launch month in series history.

Delving into software, we’ve already touched on the success of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot. As a result of this, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare drops to the second spot on the monthly chart. Of course it retains its standing as the best-seller of the last 12 month period due to its immense success and continued momentum during the holiday months.

The next notable in the month ending January is Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order from Electronic Arts, which stays within the Top 5 this time at #4. The sixth best seller of last year has maintained a consistent position domestically since mid-November, and this enthusiasm has translated globally as well. Its publisher said during its latest earnings conference call that the game from Respawn Entertainment hit the upper range of its original guidance. Implying 8 million units shipped. The company even said it now expects 10 million copies by March. Sounds like single-player games aren’t dead just yet.

Familiar titles from Rockstar Games moved up the chart in January too, as 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V returned to a Top 5 ranking and Red Dead Redemption 2 rode to the Top 10. Publisher Take-Two Interactive released updated global unit sales figures for these behemoths last week during its financial report, sharing that Grand Theft Auto V reached 120 million and Red Dead Redemption 2 eclipsed 29 million. The online modes in particular for these traditionally narrative-driven series are bolstering momentum, plus Grand Theft Auto is the type of series that new console buyers purchase out of the gate.

Final item in the software rankings that caught my eye is Ring Fit Adventure. Nintendo’s latest foray into motion-controlled exercise software. The game launched in mid-October, landing at #10 during that monthly report. Ring Fit Adventure has returned to the Top 10, climbing to #9 in its best result since launch. Global unit sales hit 2.17 million in December, which is well above my personal expectations for one of Nintendo’s signature experimental type of titles. The legs on this exercise-meets-role playing game are as impressive as those one could tone up while using it.

Check below for the full rankings during last month and last 12 months.

Top-Selling Games of January 2020 (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

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

Top-Selling Games of the Last 12 Months (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. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
  8. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  9. Grand Theft Auto V
  10. Mario Kart 8*

Ring Fit Adventure has returned to the Top 10, climbing to #9 in its best result since launch..

The legs on this exercise-meets-role playing game are as impressive as those one could tone up while using it.

Flipping over to hardware numbers during January, Nintendo Switch was yet again the top selling gaming console. It’s held the top spot each month since November 2018, yet this time is especially noteworthy. Not because of its success but the fact it experienced a decline compared to the first month of 2019. The residual sales of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate must have had more of an impact of those from Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield this year. Which makes sense. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the best-selling fighting game of all time in the States, after all.

As we’ve seen recently and will continue to see until late this year, hardware is somewhat lackluster right now. Still, I’ll keep an eye on where Switch goes with Animal Crossing: New Horizons launching in March with a bundle that’s on sale for pre-orders now. A major caveat here is how much the ongoing coronavirus will impact Nintendo’s hardware pipeline, as the company noted production delays locally in Japan due to the outbreak. Will this hit the U.S. and other territories to impact supply in the short term?

In terms of the other platform holders in Sony and Microsoft, both have upcoming launches this year so it’s natural to see slowing sales at this stage. Still, NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella helped put overall sales to date in perspective for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with the following quote:

“After 75 months in market, the combined installed base of PS4 and Xbox One in the US market is 6% higher than that of the PS3 and Xbox 360 and 16% above PS2 and Xbox. Premium console gaming remains strong.”

Which means we must always keep everything in context, think broader rather than focusing on independent data points, despite how temporarily gloomy these numbers feel at a surface level.

The last of the three broader categories is accessories and game pads, which saw less pronounced declines than its software and hardware counterparts. The story here is the Xbox Elite Series 2 controller as it’s held the top spot every month since it hit market in early November 2019. Even more newsworthy is it’s now the fifth fastest-selling accessory within this segment in the history of tracking, as measured by the first three months on sale. The high-end game pad option is proving to be popular despite its lofty price tag.

For those wondering, the two fastest-selling accessories ever within their first three months are Kinect bundles for Xbox 360, the third on this list is the standard DualShock 4 black model for Sony’s PlayStation 4 then the fourth quickest is the Wii Remote bundle. (Who am I kidding? I know you were all wondering!)

This brings us to the end of the latest U.S. monthly report, a somewhat pedestrian one at that. Though not unexpected. I was pleasantly surprised by Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot and continue to respect the over-performance of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Ring Fit Adventure and the Xbox Elite Series 2 controller in particular. Nintendo Switch saw a tough comparison to last year, which warrants monitoring especially given its full software pipeline for the first half of 2020 is still unclear.

We’ll regroup again next time. Definitely check out the thread from friend of the site Mat for additional details right from the source. Thanks for reading!

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

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Bandai Namco, CNBC, Electronic Arts, Nintendo, NPD Group, Take-Two Interactive.

-Dom

Sony, Ubisoft, Activision & Take-Two Earnings Recap: It’s a Numbers Game

As you likely read recently at my post of this quarter’s earnings calendar across gaming, tech and media, this week was an especially busy one for these industries.

In addition to the likes of Twitter and Disney, we saw gaming giants share updates on their recent financial results. Today I’ll both summarize and analyze Sony, Ubisoft, Activision and Take-Two reports and highlight the most important parts driving each business. Plus, chat some about predictions and where these companies are going in the near future.

I hope to.. hm, earn your confidence as we work through these because it should be a good one!

Sony Corp: Tuesday, February 4th.

Japanese media and gaming conglomerate Sony Corp reported a number of updates across its myriad of businesses for 3rd quarter of fiscal 2019, including its Gaming & Network Services (G&NS) business which houses its PlayStation brand and continues to be its main revenue source.

Notably, Sony announced that its PlayStation 4 hardware has now passed 108.9 million consoles shipped globally after moving 6.1 million during the holiday quarter. As expected later in the console cycle, this quarterly figure is down from 8.1 million last year. Still, the company reiterated its current forecast of 13.5 million consoles for the full year, implying we’ll see another 1.4 million come the end of March.

In terms of software within G&NS, PlayStation 4 game sales totaled 81.1 million copies in the quarter compared to 87.2 million in Q3 of 2018. 49% of these full game sales are now digital, when last year it was 37%. After its Q1 report hit 53% digital back in June, Sony is certainly on track to see at least 40% digital share this fiscal year which would be the first year ever it’s crossed this threshold.

Switching over to the services side, its PlayStation Plus subscription service, which offers online multiplayer access, hit 38.8 million registered users versus the 36.3 million player base last year. This increased subscription audience drove Network Services to be the only sub-segment within G&NS growing this quarter on dollar sales.

Speaking of dollars, Sony overall generated $22.4 billion in sales and operating revenue which is up 3% since last year on strength in its financial services and imaging businesses. Operating income however experienced a decline of 20%, to $2.73 billion. Within G&NS, sales dipped 20% to $3.3 billion with operating profit down 27% to just under $490 million due to lower hardware and external software sales. That PlayStation Plus user increase did help to offset this.

You’ll see in the chart above that even aggregating over the last 12 month period, during which sales were approximately $18.8 billion for its gaming business, the decline is tangible. It’s more pronounced than I even expected leading into the formal reveal of its PlayStation 5, due this holiday season. Partially due to the major success of titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Marvel’s Spider-Man driving sales during last year’s comparable time frame.

Sony’s higher network services revenue shows the growing importance of ecosystem and subscriptions to keep an audience engaged especially late in the cycle, helping to smooth out performance plus offset weakness in hardware and full game sales.

Within the PlayStation business, Sony realigned its segment reporting which I’ve presented above. Both digital software and add-on content and hardware sales experienced double-digit declines, though network services gained nearly 10%. Sony’s higher network services revenue shows the growing importance of ecosystem and subscriptions to keep an audience engaged especially late in the cycle, helping to smooth out performance plus offset weakness in hardware and full game sales.

Looking forward, the firm actually boosted its overall guidance slightly for sales and operating profit for the full year, though lowered these projections within its PlayStation unit, which means it expects a lower contribution than before. My personal take is that this quarter’s result is a bit lower than I anticipated, though certainly fits with where the major manufacturer and software producer is at ahead of its next console release in the back half of this year.

It’s going to be lackluster for a few more quarters leading into PlayStation 5, and I’m intrigued to see how its network services and subscriptions perform in the interim.

Ubisoft Entertainment SA: Thursday, February 6th.

Yesterday’s third quarter sales announcement from French video game publisher Ubisoft was lighter on the details than its competitors. But there’s still plenty to discuss (and speculate, of course)!

From the numbers side, sales for the nine months ending December dipped 16% to $1.23 billion which is on pace to come in well below the firm’s initial expectations due to softer sales of games like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 in particular. Ubisoft did point out that Just Dance 2020 is.. this is an easy one, performing well. Digital equates to nearly 80% of total sales, a figure which includes both digital game downloads and in-game purchases.

Because of somewhat weaker results for new titles, back catalog sales are propping up its recent numbers. Revenue of these older titles hit nearly 69% of business compared to 62% in the same period last year. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey from 2018 saw a major rise in unit sell-through plus engagement compared to its predecessor Assassin’s Creed Origins. 2015’s Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege is still showing excellent momentum years after launch, boasting 55 million registered players and record active users for a December month.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft doesn’t share much in the way of profitability metrics outside of annual reporting. I’d imagine it’s facing a similar trend in declines, perhaps even more pronounced because of rising costs associated with developing games that it delayed a few months back. It did reiterate its full-year sales targets for both this fiscal year ending March and the following one, showing early confidence in its adjusted release schedule.

At a personal level, I’m extremely excited for Ubisoft’s robust lineup after the type of year it’s had with core franchises. At an analyst level, I’ll remain intently skeptical all targets will be met until we hear exactly how these games will roll-out.

Speaking of its development pipeline, we’ve arrived at the best part of Ubisoft’s press release and conference call. The rest of this fiscal year through March is light. No major releases. Looking forward, CEO Yves Guillemot highlights the internal organizational restructuring in an attempt to strengthen its most important titles, which means the firm reiterated its plan to release five new triple-A titles between October 2020 and March 2021. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I spoke with Ubisoft Investor Relations briefly over email to confirm that three of these flagship games are targeted for the October to December window while the remaining two are slated in January to March. Three of these five have been formally announced: Watch Dogs Legion, Gods & Monsters and Rainbow Six Quarantine.

The worst kept secret in the industry is that a Norse-themed Assassin’s Creed game is on the way this Fall, so let’s mark that down as the fourth. My ongoing assumption for the final one is a new mainline Far Cry, thereby crushing the hopes of Splinter Cell fans everywhere yet again. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier claims that these are both true, so we essentially have an unofficial confirmation of its full fiscal year lineup.

It’s an ambitious schedule, especially for this upcoming holiday quarter during the launch of consoles from Microsoft and Sony. Ubisoft is usually one of the most dedicated supporters of a new generation, capitalizing on the updated tech and fervent early adopters. It sounds like this time it’s no different, although I wouldn’t be surprised if only two projects end up releasing before December and the remainder sometime during the first half of calendar year 2021. Having three titles jam-packed into the holiday quarter risks cannibalization, especially given how most of these games feature some sort of open world or action elements.

Now these aren’t the only pending games from the publisher. Guillemot points out it does have more intimate ones, as he describes them as “very innovative titles that have a particular focus on social interaction.” Main example being Roller Champions. I’d imagine there’s also a mobile game from internal studio Social Point or perhaps a new UbiArt style project made by a smaller team.

At a personal level, I’m extremely excited for Ubisoft’s robust lineup after the type of year it’s had with core franchises. At an analyst level, I’ll remain intently skeptical all targets will be met until we hear exactly how these games will roll-out.

Activision Blizzard: Thursday, February 6th.

Out of those reporting this week, domestic publisher Activision Blizzard was the only one with a fiscal year ending in December. Thus it shared both fourth quarter and annual metrics.

Twice the fun!

For the quarter, results exceeded internal expectations with net revenues of $1.99 billion though were down compared to the $2.38 billion generated last year. Operating income totaled $454 million, off from the $694 million in fourth quarter 2018. Nearly $1.29 billion of sales, equating to 65% of the total, were from subscriptions, licensing and micro-transactions rather than retail product sales or full game downloads. That’s the model for these major software makers going forward, after all.

Across the full year, Activision Blizzard generated almost $6.49 billion. Which is down a billion bucks since 2018. 76% digital share in 2019, essentially flat compared to the 77% in prior year. Operating profit reached $1.61 billion, down from the near $1.99 billion. Which means that while results beat the firm’s estimates, the trend is certainly down for the company overall.

What really caught my eye when looking at what’s driving these figures is the distribution of sales for the full year across its Activision, Blizzard and King businesses. Historically, Activision is top dog. That fits the narrative this year, as its split is 36% of total sales and 41% of profit. However, mobile subsidiary King is now in second place, which means the overall firm is now benefiting more from its casual phone offerings like Candy Crush than traditional games made by its storied Blizzard studios.

It’s clear that flagship franchise Call of Duty from Activision is as strong as ever. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare unit sales and engagement stats are up strongly compared to last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Around half of Modern Warfare console sales are now digital, helping it become the best-selling game in the States during 2019 as I wrote about recently. Then there’s Call of Duty Mobile, which now has over 150 million downloads after one of the biggest launches in history.

On the Blizzard side, dollar sales ended the year at $1.72 billion which is down 25%. Monthly active users dipped 3 million since this time in 2018, now at 32 million. It’s a mixed bag for this division, where growth for Overwatch and World of Warcraft driven by a resurgence of interest for its Classic version couldn’t offset declines in Hearthstone and Diablo. It’s been an intriguing time for Blizzard in recent years, with a focus on continued support of older franchises rather than new releases. There’s Overwatch 2 in the pipeline, with no launch window. And I’m still skeptical of how fans will react to it. Then there’s Diablo IV, which I have to believe is a long ways out. This trend is likely to continue for the short to medium term.

Mobile subsidiary King is now in second place, which means [Activision Blizzard] is now benefiting more from its casual phone offerings like Candy Crush than traditional games made by its historic Blizzard studios.

Tying in with this is the last major item: its forecast for next year plus its mention of new titles. Activision Blizzard expects to generate $6.45 billion in revenue during 2020, slightly below this year’s figure. Guidance for earnings is also down 5%. Factored into this forward-looking guidance is.. surprise! A new Call of Duty project set to release in the last quarter of 2020.

Thing is, I’m not sure what else will drive its performance. Blizzard is set to focus again on continuing games like WoW, then a test phase for phone game Diablo Immortal in the middle of 2020. King reportedly has multiple new mobile games in development. On its conference call, Chief Financial Officer Dennis Durkin alluded to these not having material impact on guidance.

So, what will? Well, friends, we’ve reached the highlight. Activision Blizzard is sitting on a goldmine of legacy properties that it hasn’t leveraged as well as competitors. To that end, the company expects to “tap into our portfolio of beloved IP to bring several remastered and re-imagined experiences to our players in 2020, which we will announce closer to launch” according to Durkin.

In recent years, the company’s seen success with collections like Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Spyro Reignited Trilogy, the former being a major commercial win at 10 million units shipped. This type of quote shows that executives at least acknowledge the value of such brands. The issue becomes that fans of these franchises desire new games yet the quote is ambiguous. Will it continue to be more of the same or might we see new projects within these nostalgic series? Apparently we should hear sooner than later.

Take-Two Interactive: Thursday, February 6th.

Finally this brings us to the last one up. Another stateside developer/publisher in Take-Two Interactive, owner of historic labels Rockstar Games and 2K Games plus the Private Division publishing arm and mobile subsidiary Social Point. Take-Two reported its third quarter of fiscal 2020 results via the usual press release, then went in-depth on its conference call highlighting sales results of all its major franchises. (My favorite part.)

The way I’ll tackle Take-Two is talking broadly about its quarterly figures then drill into its owned businesses. Net revenue overall reached $930 million, down from $1.25 billion. Mostly because of the comparison to the massive launch of Red Dead Redemption 2 this time last year. Operating profit hit $177 million, down from $303 million in 2018 Q3.

Of its total sales, 37% is now from recurring spending; a metric which grew 15% this quarter and represents virtual currency, add-on content and in-game items. This drove the digital share to 75% of full revenue for the quarter. The company also reported that around 41% of its business originated from catalog sales, mainly those within the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption franchises plus mobile titles from Social Point.

2K Games, which the company estimates will be around 55% of its business this fiscal, benefited from ongoing sales of NBA 2K20 as it now totals 8 million units shipped to date since its September release. Roughly on part with its predecessor. This quarter’s slate included the launch of Sid Meier’s Civilization VI on console, Borderlands 3 and NBA 2K20 for Stadia (neither of which I imagine contributed materially) and WWE 2K20.

Borderlands 3 continues its better-than-expected start since release a few months back, now totaling 8 million units sold-in. This is after moving 5 million copies within a five day span near launch. Take-Two notes that while it expects lifetime sales to achieve a record within the franchise, it’s factoring lower sales for Gearbox Software’s latest into its annual forecast.

On the flip side, WWE 2K20 saw a lackluster launch that drastically under-performed the firm’s internal estimates on both the critical and commercial sides. Developer Visual Concepts is working to rebound, though I think this year’s iteration is down for the count.

Still, the cash cow for Rockstar continues to be Grand Theft Auto V. A game which apparently isn’t yet in the homes of every single person who owns a gaming console because its lifetime copies shipped hit a whopping 120 million in the holiday quarter.

One of the most consistent and frankly notorious teams in the business is Rockstar Games, which will account for 35% of Take-Two’s annual net bookings. Its main release this past quarter was Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC around the year anniversary of its console version, which drove lifetime unit sales for the game to over 29 million. This is up from 26.5 million copies as of September, proving the impact of the new platform plus the ongoing adoption of Red Dead Online for which CEO Strauss Zelnick said engagement tripled year-on-year.

Still, the cash cow for Rockstar continues to be Grand Theft Auto V. A game which apparently isn’t yet in the homes of every single person who owns a gaming console because its lifetime copies shipped hit a whopping 120 million in the holiday quarter. That’s 5 million more than the prior quarter. No one at Take-Two or really anywhere in their wildest dreams could have predicted this sort of longevity.

A part of this crazy momentum is the ongoing success of Grand Theft Auto Online, which somehow achieved a record audience size in December and in the quarter overall. Recurring spending from consumers on GTAO jumped 54% this quarter after a new expansion in the Summer. Take-Two expects this online mode to have a record fiscal year in terms of recurring consumer spend. Keep in mind: The base game released in 2013, and its online mode really picked up steam the following year. Honestly doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

Moving to Private Division, its major release during Q3 was The Outer Worlds which debuted on Xbox Game Pass in addition to its console and PC platforms. Obsidian Entertainment’s recent space role-playing title, which earned a Top 5 spot on my 2019 Games of the Year list, has now sold-in 2 million copies since October. And that doesn’t even include downloads from Xbox Game Pass, nor its Nintendo Switch release which is set for sometime before March 2021 (I’d imagine even sooner).

Another quick note is that Kerbal Space Program, the first game in a franchise now run by Private Division, is approaching a new sales milestone itself by reaching nearly 4 million copies shipped. The company reiterated that its sequel is due in fiscal 2021 as well.

Switching over to the broader company’s outlook for the full year, it adjusted the numbers slightly though I wouldn’t say it’s a substantial impact. Basically it tightened the range in which its revenue expectations, then slightly lowered its profit guidance. As you’ll see above, net revenue should be up however net bookings will contract. I’m not as concerned as other industry commentators, as I think this quarter and year look a whole lot worse than they really are because of just how ridiculously well Red Dead Redemption 2 did.

I’d even argue Take-Two’s upcoming lineup is just as intriguing as Ubisoft’s, even if we don’t know as much about its major projects. Speaking on its development pipeline, Zelnick called it the “largest and most diverse in our history, including releases from our largest franchises, new IP and a broad mix of gameplay experiences.”

Sure, that’s a bit of corporate speak. It’s still somewhat indicative of where one of the industry’s premier software players is going. Shorter-term, this implies to me new annual releases in the NBA 2K and even WWE 2K franchises, new platforms for existing titles plus ongoing content for the online modes in its main games.

Medium to long term is where it gets exciting. First and foremost, the filing announcing the departure of former Rockstar Games co-founder and vice president Dan Houser said the team is working on both “current and future projects.” Where does Rockstar goes with its upcoming slate now that its model has changed to fostering player retention via online modes rather than solely single-player experiences? Will there be a Grand Theft Auto VI? The answer is yes, we just don’t know what form it will take with this different ideology. I’m more curious about what games Rockstar might have that aren’t Grand Theft Auto.

Then there’s (my beloved) BioShock. Take-Two announced a new studio called Cloud Chamber this past quarter, which is currently developing the next iteration in the series. Within this earnings release, the company reiterated that it will be in the works for “several years.” While it isn’t factored into the immediate forecast, I’m ecstatic to hear how it progresses.

Executives even fielded questions on other teams such as Hangar 13, known for Mafia 3, then the newly-formed 2K Silicon Valley led by industry veteran Michael Condrey. Sounds like these are in fact actively working on projects, we just can’t hear about them yet.

I’d say Take-Two’s current position is summarized by President Karl Slatoff as he echoes his CEO’s sentiment: Its pipeline consists of “new IP and existing franchises, free-to-play games, different business models, casual games, core games, mid-core games” about which they will share more in upcoming months.

While I don’t expect Take-Two to have a major presence during this year’s set of console launches outside of sports titles, we’ll undoubtedly see it capitalize on the new tech in the mid-term. And who knows, maybe Rockstar will surprise us?

Well then. That’s a pretty darn comprehensive look at the week that was in games industry financial reporting if I say so. Spiced up with my takes (as varying in quality they might be).

Reflected across all four is the trend of ongoing digital and services attempting to offset the contraction in hardware resulting from next generation beginning this holiday season, plus development plans that will ramp up at various points in the future. Ubisoft seems to be the most immediately impacted with its recent delays, while Activision and Take-Two lean on recurring sales from their biggest budget franchises to soften the blow while we await new tech from hardware manufacturers and emerging platforms alike.

If you made it this far: You rock! Thanks for reading.

Note: All comparisons are year-over-year unless noted. Currency conversions are to U.S. dollar as of February 7, 2020 for the sake of comparison.

Sources: Company Investor Relations & Media Sites, Getty Images, Kotaku, The NPD Group.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jan & Feb 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Updated: February 12th.

The first season of the year is upon us.

Here I’ll document all the companies reporting earnings results during the quarter, via the trusty calendar you see above. I’ll do my best to maintain it going forward since there are a number of dates still up in the air.

There’s also a Google Doc I maintain with easy access to dates and investor sites.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jan & Feb 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Unfortunately due to time constraints at a personal level, I won’t be able to provide additional commentary just yet. Stay tuned for that, likely at the same time as I update the calendar in the near future when we have some more conctrete dates!

Until then, I’ll be covering select earnings reports mostly on Twitter then later here. See you then.

Source: Company Investor Websites.

-Dom

Review: It’s a Colorful, Enjoyable & Laughable Journey to the Savage Planet

Many games try to capture the wonder of stepping foot onto unknown terrain, ready to survey a mysterious, faraway world brimming with life and flora. Beautiful landscapes to admire. Alien secrets to uncover. Danger lurking around any corner.

Few of them then immediately encourage the player to soccer kick a stout, cartoonishly round bird-like creature to watch it fly helplessly through the air then pop in a smattering of goo ending in a satisfying *splat*.

Then again, not every game is Journey to the Savage Planet.

An interaction like this embodies what the first game from Typhoon Studios is: a colorful, hilarious trek across a new planet where the player surveys a host of living organisms, traverses multiple biospheres, confronts different wildlife and ultimately seeks the hidden messages of a foreign world. It’s a mostly satisfying type of adventure game, albeit subtly flawed and reveals itself to be more conventional as it progresses, that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is much better for it.

The first-person adventure game is set in a galaxy where Kindred Aerospace, which dubs itself the 4th Best Interstellar Exploration company, sends a spanking new recruit to explore potential planets for humans to inhabit. Its gameplay is a combination of strolling around and platforming across environments in four bespoke biomes on a planet called AR-Y 26. The player scans its surroundings and discovers world items to build up a codex, a knowledge base for profiling the unfamiliar habitat. There’s also combat against hostile creatures and even boss enemies, as the player is equipped with a cool, laser Nomad Pistol plus thrown items like bait bottles and plant bombs.

It’s humorous and clever from the beginning, especially in its presentation of how Kindred communicates with its lonely recruit so far from home. Typhoon leverages full motion video capture to beam messages from Kindred CEO Martin Tweed or wacky infomercials for futuristic products such as Brain Wipes, advertised as tissues for one’s cerebral that can wipe away a bad mood. This format, along with other touches I’ll mention later, represent the game’s personality as a comical commentary on capitalism and the expendibility of its corporate worker bees.

Since it’s such a compact map with distinct areas to explore, diverting one’s attention or experimenting is rewarding. Nothing ever takes too long, then it’s on to the next thing that piques my interest. While there are traditional missions and even side quests, these aren’t as fun as going off in a direction just to see what’s there.

While the best parts of the game are its distractions, there are technically a couple main goals. The kinds of objectives that serve to push its more nebulous narrative forward. Our artificial intelligence companion EKO tells us we’ve crash landed so naturally we need to repair our ship, the Javelin, then find enough fuel to eventually make a return trip to Earth. You know, a classic video game MacGuffin. The other much more intriguing task is Kindred’s assignment for us to document everything on AR-Y 26 by building up a Kindrex, our handy master list of alien life and mysterious artifacts.

Oh. There’s also the massive floating tower scraping the sky that dominates the horizon, which ends up being the infatuation of Kindred’s CEO. He has to know what’s inside, regardless of how perilous of a predicament it becomes for his employee.

The game’s initial areas, the Landing Site and Itching Fields, reveal there’s all sorts of weird stuff to see and interact with across wintry tundras, jungle climates and poisonous swamps. The standout here is its variety as we progress upward toward the tower. Animals with silly species names like Pufferbird, the fat little guys I splattered before, and the carnivorous shrub known as a Meat Vortex. There’s shrubbery like the Vitality Plant, which drop seeds that help us survive. Bombegranates have, well, bombs that explode when we chuck them. There are sections with exotic, ominous titles like Chamber of Intrigue and Towering Crystals of Madness. Collectibles pop up in the form of scannable statues, hinting that we aren’t the first visitor to this fertile land.

Journey to the Savage Planet is built on this foundation of discovery and cohesiveness. These kinds of terms and their corresponding descriptions in the Kindrex establish the game’s eternal charm. It often breaks the fourth wall in clever ways, while also tying these kinds of comments back to its universe. Even pop-up text for achievements and trophies earned along the way are quips. Typhoon absolutely nails the general identity, complete with cheery music and subtle flourishes.

Shifting to mechanics, our core loop is exploring, scanning, fighting when necessary then claiming rewards in the form of materials that build upgrades to allow access to the next broader area. As many games do these days, Journey to the Savage Planet has “Metroidvania” elements in grappling points or cracked walls that can only be accessed via specific abilities. I’ve come to expect this in most modern titles, and while temporarily frustrating to a completionist like myself, I mostly appreciate them enticing me back towards new slices of familiar areas.

Naturally, there are plenty of powerful upgrades to build out the character page. It’s a much more robust system than I expected. The Proton Tether allows grappling and really opens up the traversal to being way more fun than the first section. A more powerful iteration allows travel on ziplines. Seriously, who doesn’t love that moment when you can finally ride the zipline you’ve been eyeing all game?

Jump Thrusters add to mobility and enable double, triple and even quadruple jumps later game. A better helmet scanner highlights where the most hidden of items dwell, a favorite of collectors like yours truly. Damage, reload and charge boosts for our trusty handgun make beating up baddies easier, which is welcome because the game’s combat is pedestrian as I’ll expand on soon.

While I wouldn’t call its ability system anything revolutionary, I dig Typhoon’s plan here for a sense of progression without applying a character level or experience bar. Mechanics progress at the same pace as discovery of the world and its peculiar history, mainly because expanding on them allows for access to previously obstructed paths.

Operating in unison with a humorous approach to, well, mostly everything is its stunning visual aesthetic. Typhoon’s tenets here are a beautiful color palette, creative creature design and variety of sensory effects. This is the game’s most obvious strength that’s easy to convey. Just look at it!

Each biome has a distinct personality that’s communicated via its look, combining scenery, animal styles and plant design.

Its smallest creatures remind me of Halo grunts, except friendlier and covered in a coat of bright paint. There are also loud, multi-headed animals that split into two unique bodies after being hit, like a cell dividing itself. Then there’s larger more aggressive species like Pikemanders and Slamphibians, the latter of which some grotesque blend of frog and primate.

As I worked my way upwards toward later chapters, I encountered hallucinogenic plants and bubbling Orange Pods that increased health and stamina when eaten. Some flora spray seeds when damaged, not all of them helpful as I found out by slapping one filled with acid. Animals drop materials that are sucked up magnetically a la Ratchet and Clank. Honestly, just the collecting itself is satisfying. It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s a video game after all.

Speaking of, there are light puzzle elements. Mini areas that require stealth or tricky platforming, both of which can be finicky unfortunately. Each area even culminates in a boss with its own mechanics, like having to hit weak points while dodging dangerous attacks or grappling up ledges to hit the perfect angle from which to fight. It works well enough, even if I occasionally struggled with controls or aiming.

The coolest part of Journey to the Savage Planet is how Typhoon designed everything to fit together and amid the type of corporate universe in which it exists. Items like Grob, an amorphous matter that can be constructed into food. Or how fast travel is actually the ship’s artificial intelligence transcribing the player’s consciousnesses onto a new body (As EKO tells it, we’re supposed to consider it “teleporting”).

There’s slick animation when the player stretches after waking up on the ship or collects samples from an ancient effigy. Seemingly small moments that define its satirical tone. Like how there are periodic “progress reports” from Kindred, which track the player’s actual statistics and ask personal questions about the trip. It’s all a part of the experience.

The attention to detail, its visual styling and the level of care put into each unique design that shows me that the team at Typhoon was clearly having a ton of fun during development, which inspires me to find all that its game has to offer.

Honestly, I think I had more fun being distracted than actually moving towards the finale. We’re meant to do silly things. And fail along the way. There’s even an achievement for scanning one’s dead body after being reincarnated. Since it’s such a compact map with distinct areas to explore, diverting one’s attention or experimenting is rewarding. Nothing ever takes too long, then it’s on to the next thing that piques my interest. While there are traditional missions and even side quests, these aren’t as fun as going off in a direction just to see what’s there.

All the collecting and scanning builds its lore, since the best storytelling Typhoon does is indirect. We’re learning from in-game items that we might not be the first traveler to embark on such a tour, which ties into later game happenings for those paying close attention to the documents and videos.

As enjoyable as its exploration and world-building, not all edges in Journey to the Savage Planet are of the smooth variety.

Side quests are forgettable and exist for the sole purpose of filing out the upgrade tree. As are “science challenges” that lock the best stuff behind a set of hyper-specific tasks like shocking a large number of enemies or jumping from a height without dying. I wouldn’t call them fun, though they encouraged more unique combat approaches. A couple in the final group are plain annoying and arduous. The most frustrating part is knowing that the coolest upgrades can’t be seen until trying over and over to accomplish the exact task.

Combat itself is, well, decent enough to get the job done but nowhere near the highlight. Like the first BioShock except with only one weapon and throwables in the left hand as opposed to cool Plasmid powers. There’s often too much of it, which results from enemies becoming hyper-aggressive once the fight begins. Since it’s not the game’s strongest suit, it can be strenuous to have a dozen animals screaming towards you when all you want to do is scan a new collectible. In the back half, I found myself avoiding conflict more than seeking it.

Swapping over to quality of life and accessibility touches, Journey to the Savage Planet is immensely inconsistent. This is disappointing in an era where so many games focus on flexibility.

Fast travel works mostly well, except loading times are just a bit too long when moving between areas rather than within one. I did experience a bug where I couldn’t unlock one of the teleporters, which kept me from completing the set. My hunch is that there’s a combat sequence before it that failed to load, because there’s a comparable encounter at another device.

Controller mapping is nonexistent as it stands pre-release, and the options that are present don’t feel natural especially for the sake of combat. It’s 2020. I firmly believe every game should incorporate a level of customization in button mapping. The more options, the better. And there aren’t many here.

Certain parts of the menu are only accessible back on the Javelin computer, like alien logs and completion statistics. It would have benefited from a sort of wristwatch that could pull these up at will. Especially because so much of the game is about knocking out items on a checklist, I’d prefer an easier way to keep track of my progress or see the collectibles I’ve found.

As mentioned before, its narrative is ambiguous. Which isn’t a sort of major negative, it just left me wanting. There’s not much dialogue. It’s a lonely game where the player is the main and only character on the planet. Which means I didn’t learn about myself, if that makes sense. Part of it is, this is going to be super specific, the protagonist makes some very odd and almost disturbing sounds and never communicates back to Kindred or EKO. I assumed I’m human because of our mission. Yet we sound almost alien. Even so, what it lacks in story and character development it makes up for in many other areas.

Operating in unison with the humorous approach to, well, mostly everything is its stunning visual aesthetic. Typhoon’s tenets here are a beautiful color palette, creative creature design and variety of sensory effects. This is the game’s most obvious strength that’s easy to convey. Just look at it!

From a technical standpoint, I’d call it sufficient though I will admit I was disappointed that it crashed three times during my approximately fifteen hours with the Xbox One X version. It even turned off my console, which is unacceptable. Each time I was surrounded by enemies and an explosion happened. Perhaps the engine couldn’t process all at once. It’s a rare occasion when a hard crash results in forcing the console to shut down. This is the type of thing that could be resolved by a future patch, yet I’d be remiss not to report it.

Plus side, I will say, having a photo mode in the pre-launch patch is an excellent feature. It showcases the game’s broader beauty that might be missed from the first-person perspective. Every game is better with one, even if basic in its functionality. I stand by it.

In general, the more I played, the more conventional it started to feel. It’s a quite good, compact experience. I can’t argue it’s doing anything overly innovative or supremely special that I have to drop everything and share a clip or text a friend. While perhaps this limits its potential to stand-out over a longer term, there’s still plenty of fun in the moment.

These aside, I truly had a mostly good time figuring out what the heck was going on in this unique world teeming with life. One note, I wasn’t able to try co-op play before release. There’s a two-player online mode where friends (or enemies I guess, if you so choose) can share in the adventure. The host of the session retains materials, upgrades etc that can apply to their individual save, the guest unfortunately does not. This isn’t uncommon in co-op modes. I can see this being a fun way to experience its silliness, perhaps with a sibling or child.

Journey to the Savage Planet is led by Typhoon Studios co-founders Alex Hutchinson and Reid Schneider, and all throughout it’s clearly a project crafted by a small team of close-knit developers. Because it feels intimate and personal despite its otherworldly setting. It’s genuinely funny. It’s eye-catching in its landscapes. It’s goofy, encouraging and not afraid to let the player stumble into hi-jinks.

Vivid presentation and amusing tone are what caught my attention when I saw it. I’m happy to report these carry through as its best attributes. I’ll remember it most for how much care its designers took to make me chuckle each time I read a passage or engaged with a new species.

It’s the type of adventure that fulfills what the word promises, partly because its combat and narrative aren’t the focus though more because its experience really is the story. That sense of not knowing what I’ll see and making the trip anyway, because I’ve got a hunch I’ll always spot something new.

Title: Journey to the Savage Planet

Release Date: January 28, 2020

Developer: Typhoon Studios

Publisher: 505 Games

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (Epic Games Store Exclusive).

Recommendation: If you like to explore and laugh along the way, this is your game. Don’t expect to be blown away by engaging combat or a gripping tale, and be ready for rough edges and the potential for it to crash once or twice. It’s an experience, albeit a goofy one, that’s worth having. Also, it might be the first and only time a Typhoon game is on platforms other than Stadia, since the studio was purchased by Google back in December.

Sources: 505 Games, Google, Certain screenshots on Xbox One X.

Disclaimer: Review code provided courtesy of 505 Games.

-Dom

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