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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscription Services & Cloud Streaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Transition & Storefront Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content Creation & Community Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

A celebration is in order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

Here we are, almost at the end of 2019!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: NPD Group, Electronic Arts, Nintendo.

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Death Stranding

Release Date: November 8, 2019

Developer: Kojima Productions

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

Platforms: PlayStation 4. (Eventually PC.)

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

If not, play at your own risk.

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

Sensing a theme?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope you all have a good one!

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

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Back again. Earlier in the week it was sales, now it’s all about earnings.

‘Tis the season. For company reporting and executive conference calls, of course. Lots of numbers and some jargon on top. Plus, reactions from yours truly as I plan to write in depth about select events.

To help us navigate this latest quarterly earnings season, I’ve gathered up notable reporting dates for companies across the gaming, technology and media sectors.

Above in the image, below in Google Docs. Then some quick hitters on three notable names I’m watching in the next few weeks. Let’s a go.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Microsoft (MSFT): Wednesday, October 23rd

Last month, Microsoft announced a handful of updates to its investor reporting standards. The most noteworthy of these is the introduction of “year-over year percentage revenue growth for Xbox content and services” as opposed to the inclusion of dollar sales from its gaming segment within its earnings press release and presentation slides. As noted in the excerpt above, content and services includes Xbox Live, software sales and third-party game royalties.

The unfortunate part is the new metric is merely growth as opposed to a raw amount, the latter of which is always preferable. Upside is that Microsoft will still report overall gaming revenue, it’s just that it will only be included in its quarterly or annual filings with U.S. regulators. Which are usually published a day or so after its earnings press release. So we won’t know the dollar amount from content and services, though we’ll still see the revenue figure. After a bit of patience.

Capcom (9697): Tuesday, October 29th

Capcom’s rejuvenation continues with its recent announcement that Monster Hunter World: Iceborne, the latest expansion for its best-selling game ever, moved an impressive 2.5 million copies within a week of its release back in September. In its integrated report for 2019, the Japanese developer and publisher also expressed an intent to utilize dormant IP and remakes after successful launches of titles in the Resident Evil and Devil May Cry franchises.

While the company has been.. hm, beasting over the past couple years, the main notable game in its upcoming slate is the spin-off multiplayer title within the Resident Evil universe dubbed Project Resistance. How will its forecasting look this quarter? Does it indicate a new mainline entry in one of its properties, maybe at the launch of next generation? My guess is Capcom will look towards the fighting game genre next, a segment in which it used to excel, since both Street Fighter V and Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite were underwhelming at best.

Activision Blizzard (ATVI): Thursday, November 7th

Blizzard, one half of major domestic publisher Activision Blizzard, has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons after suspending a professional Hearthstone player for speaking out in support of Hong Kong protesters then fumbling through the aftermath. It’s been a public relations nightmare for the developer of Warcraft, Diablo and Overwatch.

Its annual Blizzcon event will be over by the time the earnings call happens, though I’ve got a feeling it won’t be the last of this latest news cycle and I expect at least a couple analysts to ask executives to address this situation. Especially with rumors swirling that Diablo 4 and a sequel to 2016’s hero shooter Overwatch could be revealed at the event.

On the Activision side, the obvious subject of interest will be any indication of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare forecasting with its release happening later this week. I anticipate the game will be the best-selling console title of 2019, plus has a chance to set a record for launch dollar sales in the franchise (which would be anything above a $550 million opening weekend). Expect management to be extremely bullish on its prospects, because anything else would be newsworthy on its own.

Thanks friends for stopping by, though check back often in the coming weeks. I look forward to writing more about individual companies during this season plus chatting about it on Twitter like usual!

Sources: Company Investor Websites, Kotaku, GameSpot.

-Dom

NBA 2K20 & Borderlands 3 Heat Up the U.S. Video Game Charts in September

Shoot. It’s October already!

Which can mean only one thing. Obviously.

No, not that Halloween is around the corner. It’s that sports and shooters once again score big in the commercial video game landscape here in the States, as proven by the stellar sales performance of new titles in the NBA 2K and Borderlands franchises last month!

This is all according to a recent report from The NPD Group, the main tracking firm for U.S. game market sales. (September’s tracking period ran from September 1st to October 5th, which means it included five weeks.)

NBA 2K20 released back on September 6th, and since then it’s been an unprecedented success. Similar to recent entries in the long-running franchise, which is on a real hot streak. This time though it’s at its most impressive.

2K Games’ latest basketball entry scored the number one spot during September’s monthly tracking period. Not only that, it’s instantly the top-selling game of the entire year so far, already outpacing the prior leader Mortal Kombat 11 which held the spot since back in May.

Going further, NBA 2K20 achieved the highest launch month dollar sales of any sports game. Ever. Like, as in the history of NPD tracking the U.S. market. The series overall, published by Take-Two Interactive, moves past RedOctane & Activision’s Guitar Hero to become the 6th best-selling franchise of all time domestically as measured by dollar sales.

Essentially, it’s another a slam dunk for Take-Two.

Speaking of Take-Two, not only did the company have the top seller of September, it also produced the 2nd best-selling title in Borderlands 3.

Gearbox Software’s first-person shlooter (yes that’s a shooter and a looter combined into one word because it’s easier to write, however now that I’ve explained it, I’ve taken up way more of your time than writing it out) shot up the chart to land in the same #2 spot as its predecessor did back in September 2012.

This time, Borderlands 3 set a launch month record for its series. Plus it’s already the 3rd best-seller of the full year, which means it’s collected more dollar sales than any 2019 release except for the aforementioned NBA 2K20 and Mortal Kombat 11.

Congratulations to the studio, though I admittedly say this with one slight caveat. Borderlands 2 had less time in its respective September month than did this year’s installment, so it’s natural Borderlands 3 should overtake it. It doesn’t diminish the accomplishment at all. The game sold 5 million units in less than a week’s time. It’s just the type of thing we have to acknowledge when talking records and the like.

NBA 2K20 achieved the highest launch month dollar sales of any sports game. Ever. Like, as in the history of NPD tracking the U.S. market.

Rounding out the Top 5 best sellers last month are two new releases then one August title: The September releases being Electronic Arts’ FIFA 20 at #3 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening from Nintendo at #4. Then Madden NFL 20 at the #5 spot, another Electronic Arts joint that was August’s leading game.

I’d argue the remainder of the Top 10 is just as intriguing as everything prior, even with all the record-setting happening. As you’ll see above, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint quietly achieved the sixth spot with only two days of tracking. I remain bullish on Ubisoft’s latest Tom Clancy project even if on brand alone, and can see it becoming a mainstay of the chart for the next couple months despite major competition. These games have a knack for being persistent, especially as Ubisoft’s focus on ongoing support.

Then there’s Gears 5 from Xbox Game Studios. The only flagship Xbox One console exclusive of 2019, and the first truly major game that hit both traditional retail and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription service simultaneously (I know Forza Horizon 4 was similar, though it’s part of the more niche racing genre).

It’s difficult to make a true comparison without underlying sales vs subscription figures, though Gears 5 debuts a few spots lower than the 3rd place launch of Gears of War 4 back in October 2016. However when talking overall engagement, Microsoft said Gears 5 was the biggest launch this generation for Xbox Game Studios attracting 3 million players during its opening weekend. Which is twice the amount of the prior installment.

To me, this indicates that players are getting into Gears 5 using Xbox Game Pass just as much as they are purchasing at stores or digitally, plus competition this September was more challenging than the same month in 2016. Which means that the 7th spot isn’t a poor result for Gears. It’s more indicative that Microsoft is enticing consumers with a subscription rather than relying on traditional sales avenues.

Now that we’ve talked on a select group of individual titles, here’s the full list of September sellers and 2019 year-to-date rankings.

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

  1. NBA 2K20
  2. Borderlands 3
  3. FIFA 20
  4. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening*
  5. Madden NFL 20
  6. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
  7. Gears 5^
  8. Code Vein
  9. NHL 20
  10. Mario Kart 8*
  11. Minecraft#
  12. Grand Theft Auto V
  13. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  14. Spyro Reignited Trilogy
  15. Red Dead Redemption 2
  16. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege
  17. Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville
  18. Marvel’s Spider-Man
  19. Catherine
  20. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*

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

  1. NBA 2K20
  2. Mortal Kombat 11
  3. Borderlands 3
  4. Madden NFL 20
  5. Kingdom Hearts 3
  6. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
  7. Anthem
  8. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
  9. Resident Evil 2 Remake
  10. Grand Theft Auto V

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

I remain bullish on Ubisoft’s latest Tom Clancy project even if on brand alone, and can see it becoming a mainstay of the chart for the next couple months despite major competition. These games have a knack for being persistent, especially as Ubisoft’s focus on ongoing support.

Bouncing over to the industry at large, overall consumer spending hit $1.278 billion in September. Off 8% compared to the same month in 2018. All three major categories saw year-over-year dips, with hardware experiencing the most precipitous decline (22%) as the console cycle matures.

When taking the year as a whole, total spending is down 6% to $8.3 billion on lower console sales.

Nintendo Switch was again the best-selling piece of gaming hardware in the States, which it’s been each of the past 10 months, plus it’s still the top dog for 2019 as a whole. Which makes sense. It’s the only hardware showing momentum when it comes to the domestic market, as Nintendo of America revealed it’s sold 15 million Switch units in North America alone since launch in March 2017. Not only that, Switch sales year-to-date are up an impressive 20% compared to the same time frame last year.

Though even the launch of Switch Lite couldn’t offset declines in competitor consoles, as September hardware spend in the U.S. totaled $306 million compared to last year’s $328 million. This is more of a decline than I anticipated, with Lite providing less of a boost. Or perhaps its counterparts dipped more than I thought. Either way, these things combined to show that hardware needs more than a dedicated handheld Switch iteration to grow again.

For 2019 to date, hardware is off 21% to $1.9 billion. Expect this trend to continue and even worsen with next generation slated for holiday 2020.

On the software side, domestic spend was down 4% in September to $732 million. Driven by the launches of Gears 5 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening respectively, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch software sales actually rose during September. Though not enough to counteract weakness in PlayStation 4 game purchasing.

A bit of a bright spot is that for the year so far, dollar spending on software is actually flat at $3.9 billion. Nintendo Switch is showing enough strength to completely offset declines elsewhere.

Finally, accessories and game pad dollar spend dipped 7% compared to this time in 2018, to $306 million. Spending in this last category for 2018 through September is $2.6 billion, which is down a slight 2%.

That said, it’s time for the buzzer. All the super intriguing monthly stats are courtesy of The NPD Group, namely friend of the site Mat Piscatella. Check out his detailed post on Twitter or EEDAR and be sure to give a like on his YouTube video, which has even more information.

Tomorrow we’ll be getting back into earnings season with my latest calendar post, so the fun never stops! Talk again then.

Sources: The NPD Group, Take-Two Interactive, Electronic Arts, Nintendo.

-Dom

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep: Day 2 & 3 Recap: Power to the Players

In my initial piece after Destiny 2: Shadowkeep launched on Tuesday, I spoke generally about my impressions of Bungie’s latest update plus the studio’s general direction shift for the franchise going into the third year of this sequel. Today, I’ll provide an update of where I’m at as a player gearing up for today’s Garden of Salvation raid and Vex Offensive mode as part of the Season of the Undying, plus praise new quality of life initiatives while also critiquing the new armor and modification system.

It’s a little later than usual, since I’ve been on the grind.

For those that have played since the original in 2014, the general cadence of a Destiny expansion for those looking to gear up quickly for endgame activities is to blast through early story content and quests until hitting what’s called the “soft cap,” a point at which the player needs more powerful sources to drive one’s Light/Power level towards the maximum. In this case, all players begin at 750 Power then naturally work upwards to the soft cap of 900. Powerful sources are then required to climb towards 950, at which time Bungie has now introduced “pinnacle” sources that go up to 960. The development team describes this trajectory in more detail in a recent weekly post.

This means powering up takes some strategy. Plus, having two or three characters doesn’t hurt as gear can be transferred between them. I’ve been in the middle of this power trip, and loving it, while at the same time admitting that it’s certainly not for everyone. At least not on a shortened timeline.

Thing is, I firmly believe that even the most casual of player can have a great time with Shadowkeep as long as they are able to tolerate some familiar enemy designs. Its base story of the mysterious pyramid on the Moon and Eris morn’s guidance through a treacherous set of nightmare enemy encounters culminates in what I think is a really cool finale, and if one stops there then it can certainly be a satisfying conclusion. Especially if this happens over days or weeks rather than hours.

One item I’d like to clarify is that while Shadowkeep certainly has a “campaign,” this is far from the end of its story. With Bungie’s new ongoing approach, activities will now start up across the entirety of the Season of the Undying, beginning with today’s raid and event. While in the past the narrative was more contained in the initial expansion, now it unfolds over time. Which is awesome for those of us that want more, though it’s difficult to do a formal review and many players won’t stick around for the best of its content.

Back to where I’m at, then let’s chat on where we’re going.

Once the base campaign ends, the Moon opens up to a plethora of activities that reward powerful and even exotic gear. This includes a replay of the introduction Shadowkeep mission, going on more “Nightmare Hunts,” the three-player mini-strikes against spooky versions of familiar bosses like the knight Crota and wizare Omnigul.

Eris also asks you to help track down the Memory of Sai Mota, one of her deceased fireteam members. This particular quest has players engaging in quick forays into Lost Sectors strewn about the moon, crafted areas in unique sub-locations with a boss encounter. There’s also a curious exotic quest that has players tracking down a very unique and expertly-designed rocket launcher.

Spending more time on the Moon reveals hidden lore and random enemy encounters that help build out the game’s environment storytelling is welcome after the main missions conclude. Plus, I’ll take any chance I can to enjoy the nostalgia.

Across the solar system, there are now plenty of powerful loot opportunities. Many vendors at the Tower social space now offer weekly bounties, plus one of the game’s most amazing quality of life updates in the ability to generate daily bounties that can help level up both the seasonal pass and work towards achieving these weekly powerful drops. It’s legitimately one of the biggest game changers in the Destiny grind, in that rather than having to wait for the game to reset bounties daily like it’s done in the past, players can ask a vendor to create a bounty for 3,000 glimmer. I can’t oversell how important this is.

Another quality of life feature that changes the game is the new quest and bounty tracking screen. Even if I wish we had more slots to hold quests and bounties with an ability to filter them, splitting them into their own categories on the menu screen makes for much easier tracking. It feels like this system, one that’s so integral to the endgame progression, is close to being absolutely stellar.

One area fans have been vocal about in the past is wanting to pick which kinds of gear to chase rather than relying on random drops, which can result in a situation where you have one piece under-powered compared to everything else. Bungie briefly offered this in the original game, then more recently within the Season of Opulence with the Menagerie activity. This continues on the Moon, with an artifact called the Lectern of Enchantment. Players can purchase bounties specific to an exact piece of gear, then set out to earn it knowing full well how to accomplish it. A very helpful tool, especially since the weapon design here is top-notch.

While Shadowkeep certainly has a “campaign,” this is far from the end of its story. With Bungie’s new ongoing approach, activities will now start up across the entirety of the Season of the Undying, beginning with today’s raid and event. While in the past the narrative was more contained in the initial expansion, now it unfolds over time.

While many powerful sources are tied to activities that have been in Destiny 2 for a while now, namely the Crucible PvP mode plus strike playlist that rotates bespoke missions, I intriguingly found it refreshing to complete these with friends because I hadn’t played much of the game in a couple months. And now that the game’s main Director page clearly shows the rewards from every activity type, this time is much more streamlined.

Once I was done with everything, I had achieved 935 Power level and am geared up for today’s endeavors. I strongly urge any lapsed or new players to at least give this powerful chase a try after hitting 900 Power, since it gives a great taste of everything Destiny 2 has to offer. This game is nowhere near what it was back in 2017, with the introduction of things like raid lairs, Gambit and new competitive modes, that there’s plenty fun to have even after the initial ramp ends.

So, what to do now?

I know the above might sound overwhelming, though Destiny 2 is slowly turning into an action multiplayer online game with more role playing elements than ever before. This is clearly shown by the new armor system, one that I now have more experience with though won’t fully appreciate its depths until the meta-game is established.

“Armor 2.0” is a major move, so I’ll try to recap as best I can. First, it brings statistics related to melee, grenade and super ability cool downs in the form of Strength, Discipline and Intellect respectively much more the the forefront. A throwback to the original game. Players see exactly how long each cool down lasts, and every piece of gear comes with its own levels that can be adjusted through modifications.

Speaking of modifications, Armor 2.0 scraps the fixed attributes of earlier gear and introduces a system of modifiers whereby players can pick where to focus based on how much “Energy” they apply to that piece. Want more ammunition for a certain weapon class? Slap that modifier on your armor. Play more of a long game with snipers and need better target acquisition? There’s a mod for that. Do you have the desire for every finisher to regenerate your health? You get the idea.

The difficulty here is that it’s obvious this system is in its infancy, because the implementation is off in multiple ways. Put plainly: It’s unclear how to earn mods and the interface is messy. Instead of revealing each modification type, what it does and how to earn it, Bungie only shows players the ones we’ve earned so far. It then limits the modification types that can be applied to armor, yet doesn’t communicate that explicitly.

I’d prefer the menu show all mods available, then list out where we can find the ones we’re missing rather than being vague about it. I know it takes away from the mystery, but it’s so much better from a usability standpoint and that’s what’s key for an intricate new system. I appreciate the flexibility offered by this updated setup. It’s still got a long way to go before I can call it user-friendly. We’ll need to check back in there down the line, as I’d wager the team will take feedback and work towards cleaning this up.

This game is nowhere near what it was back in 2017, with the introduction of things like raid lairs, Gambit and new competitive modes, that there’s plenty fun to have even after the initial ramp ends.

This brings us to today. It’s one of the most exciting days in the history of Destiny, with the launch of two major activities within the broader Season of the Undying: the Garden of Salvation raid and the mysterious Vex Offensive activity. Both of which sound like they expand on Shadowkeep and its narrative, hopefully in meaningful ways.

Garden of Salvation is the latest six-person raid. Guardians will traverse to what’s called the Black Garden, a place out of time that is actually where the first game’s base campaign ends. It kicks off this afternoon in a World First race that pros and streamers alike compete to decipher its puzzles and beat down its bosses.

Raids are my favorite part of Destiny by a wide margin. Each is set in a distinctly crafted, unique and beautiful setting with individual lore elements that tie back to the main universe. They take coordination, teamwork and skill due to the complexity of puzzles and combat encounters. These epic missions also offer some of the highest level and coolest looking gear possible, which is crucial in a loot game. Our team will be there at the start, and I’m looking forward to sharing my experience here and on Twitter after we get a lot of time there this weekend.

The second event is a newer style one for Season Pass owners, dubbed Vex Offensive. Apparently the time-manipulating robot race of the Vex are amassing on the Moon (in addition to the other aliens, as it seems a popular destination for invasion these days) and Warlock Vanguard leader Ikora Ray has tasked Guardians with pushing them back. It’s a six-member, match-made activity that sounds a lot like last season’s Menagerie. There are currently nodes on the Moon’s map that allude to this activity, though beyond this we don’t know too much more just yet.

It’s currently a bit.. Vexing!

Before concluding, I wanted to give a shout out to the entire team at Bungie for hitting a player count milestone this week. According to Destiny Tracker, the game boasts more than 15 million registered players. While less than the 30 million of the original game, which was notably available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in addition to current generation consoles, this is still a feat that we should celebrate as a fan base. The more Guardians, the better!

Alas, I could write for hours about the world of Destiny, its evolving mechanics and its bright future. I’d say I’m somewhere between an enthusiast and hardcore fan, since there’s still plenty for me to do and learn within this evolving title even if I’ve sunk many hours into playing.

Today is historic for the franchise and Bungie’s independence, and I’m mostly upbeat with where Shadowkeep is going despite the handful of noted hesitations above. I’m excited at the prospects for folks that stick around, it sounds like we’ll even be a part of the story that shapes this game going forward.

Good luck, and eyes up!

Sources: Bungie, Destiny Fandom, Destiny Tracker, Screenshots on Xbox One X.

-Dom

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Day 1 Recap: Serving Up Nostalgia

We’re going back to the Moon!

Yesterday saw the launch of the latest expansion for 2017’s first-person sci-fi shooter Destiny 2, entitled Shadowkeep, which is part of a re-imagining of sorts for the franchise that saw its start way back in 2014. The now independent studio Bungie, splitting from Activision Blizzard this summer, launches its latest expansion alongside a free-to-play version of the base game called Destiny 2: New Light. Not only that, it’s moved the PC version from Activision’s Battle.net to the more universal digital platform Steam from Valve Corporation.

This isn’t even to mention the myriad of changes coming to the shared world online multiplayer title itself. Notably this includes quality of life updates, the roll-out of a brand new armor customization system plus the introduction of a seasonal type pass offering rewards for ranking one’s character up.

As you’d imagine from the above, the team at Bungie’s vision for Destiny as a franchise is beyond ambitious. Game Director Luke Smith provided fans with a three part Director’s Cut manifesto back in August that described how the game is changing to an action multiplayer game with an evolving world where everyone can play together.

Being a long-time fan, I will acknowledge that I start from a place of nostalgia and appreciation. This also makes me more hyper-critical than most. You’re probably wondering how it went during Shadowkeep’s kick-off yesterday. I’d like to keep a running documentation here on my experience, with context provided when I can, so let’s Keep it moving.

Playing since the original game’s early days, I’ve grown accustom to long waiting times every time a new influx of players hits during expansions. This time was no different, though even more pronounced due to Bungie launching the aforemention paid expansion, free-to-play version and a Steam version all on the same day. I understand wanting to align these for consistency, but man that’s a lot to ask of the tech teams.

The benefit of this is it obviously attracts people to the game. On PC alone, Steam concurrent players neared 220K at its peak. The digital deluxe version of Shadowkeep and the underlying game achieved the best-selling titles yesterday on its store. Which means that it’s not only enticing for new players, it’s that existing and lapsed players alike are jumping back in to see the new story lines and updates.

Despite some emergency server maintenance lasting a couple hours, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep luckily stabilized early enough for me to play through the entirety of its new campaign and experiment with its new systems and more endgame content. And it was really good.

With one, potentially major, caveat..

It was this good because I love Destiny.

For newer players and those with more of a passing interest? I don’t know if Shadowkeep will hit as hard. I especially question whether it will keep them coming back after this initial wave, which is the most difficult part of an ongoing, live service title. This carries forward throughout the actual story content of the expansion, as we face against all too familiar foes that appeal to us as fans though could very well feel redundant to everyone else.

Let’s step back momentarily. At its core, Destiny 2 is an online multiplayer game where we team up with buddies to eradicate hostile aliens from our solar system. It’s segmented into different planetary locations where various missions and activities take place. It’s much more a loot game than competitors in the first-person shooter genre, where players seen the best guns and armor to tackle even more difficult quests then progress towards an endgame that features raids, dungeons, competitive multiplayer and more.

One of these locations from 2014’s original Destiny was Earth’s Moon. A fan favorite, really, with its spooky vibe and opportunities for exploration. Sparing the details of its extensive back-story and lore, alien races called the Hive and Fallen now inhabit the moon and the player, called a Guardian, is tasked with clearing them out and defeating their leaders.

With Shadowkeep, players return to a modified version of the Moon. Most of it is the same layout as the original, offering familiarity and nostalgia for diehard players though I could see it drawing ire from lapsed players as a “been there, done that” vibe. I’ll note that the Moon has changed since our time here years ago, the Hive have erected a massive “Red Keep” structure towering over the lunar surface with a mysterious new enemy at its core.

Our guide on this journey is Eris Morn, a returning character in the game’s universe. She spent years hiding among the sinister Hive beings, which are essentially evil incarnate, after a mission gone bad. She’s learned their intricacies and knows that they post a serious threat to whatever is left of humanity.

Turning to missions themselves, the start has Guardians fighting in a more social type of environment against waves of Hive in an attempt to storm the Red Keep. It’s an epic return to this familiar setting, since it takes place in a brand new sub-area where the team’s stellar art direction really shines. The shooting is as good as ever, since not much has changed there other than weapon balancing, and Bungie is one of the best in the business when it comes to game mechanics.

Despite some emergency server maintenance lasting a couple hours, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep luckily stabilized early enough for me to play through the entirety of its new campaign and experiment with its new systems and more endgame content. And it was really good.

As is customary for a Destiny expansion, this amazing opening kicks off a new mini-campaign in which we take on quests all across the Moon plus can play in open, public spaces to tackle public “events,” clear out enemy enclaves called Lost Sectors and generally explore for items and secrets.

Without getting into spoiler territory, Bungie weaves older enemies into the mix here as Nightmares, fearsome shadowy versions of former foes which Guardians have to hunt down in order to help Eris learn more about the core threat. It’s great from an art and atmosphere perspective, and very much a setup that favors those who love the game. We recognize these enemies and their tactics. We’ve faced them all before. While I think this is smart from a nostalgia perspective, it really only appeals to those that don’t mind retreading old fights.

I can see the argument from lapsed players that Shadowkeep is repetitive. A rehashing. It might even feel old, which is the opposite of what an expansion should be. I wouldn’t have a great rebuttal, other than to say that I love it because it makes me remember all the fun I’ve had in years past when it makes someone else feel like it’s more of the same.

Now, I’ve argued for years that Destiny isn’t a traditional shooter and shouldn’t be judged as such. It’s a loot game that you play with friends. The whole point is to earn new weapons and armor, to find materials and modifiers that help you level this gear with the end goal of looking the coolest, feeling the most bad-ass and beating the highest level challenges it has to offer.

Shadowkeep initially looks great from this angle. Everyone begins at the same Power level (Or Light level, for veterans) and the game is generous in the flow of new, cool stuff. By the time I finished the campaign, I had a beefy exotic hand cannon, an awesome heavy machine gun and a full set of new legendary armor, hitting a point in my Power that I could now move into later game activities. There’s also the opportunity to pick up bounties that offer specific types of gear, rather than relying on the usually random drops to level up.

If we’re talking loot, this latest expansion is excellent. Though collecting every piece of gear isn’t a priority for most players, which goes back to the retention question. If lapsed players feel like they’ve seen this all before, and don’t see the appeal of hording stuff, what’s the point in sticking around?

Well, part of Bungie’s strategy towards player retention is making changes to the overall universe then the more nitty gritty systems and quality of life, which we’ll chat a bit on here before wrapping for the day.

First, Shadowkeep kicks off what’s dubbed Season of the Undying in which Bungie shifts to a more “evolving world” approach. This isn’t meant to be a one-time, traditional update. There are events planned, new missions to run and powerful gear to chase in the weeks to come. Powering up to tackle the Garden of Salvation raid this weekend or new Vex Offensive activity (“Vex” are another enemy race) are key to keeping player’s attention amidst a busy fall release schedule.

Still, this again targets the hardcore less than the general player base. It’s a delicate balance. I love the strategy, though am still skeptical of its implementation and overall appeal to many people returning for Shadowkeep. I do want to make sure to say that offering a free version in New Light is an excellent decision, allowing a taste of every activity and location without much barrier to entry.

One new major feature that does target everyone is the Battle Pass-type roadmap where everyone can unlock seasonal rewards just by playing the game. This includes actual weapons and armor, in addition to materials and cosmetic items. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this approach at first, though admittedly am warming up to this as it’s yet another carrot-on-the-stick. And this time, it appeals to all players since rank-ups happen organically. Kudos here to the studio for intelligently adopting this model that can be rampant with pay-to-win tactics.

Flipping to more focused changes, I haven’t dabbled much with the new “Armor 2.0” system which offers much more flexibility in how gear is customized. I did like how specific gameplay customization options are now split up from appearance, though will have more on this topic in the days to come.

Long-time fans will debate how weapon and ability changes impact the Destiny “meta” game longer term, though again this is something I won’t get into this much since I want this to be more of a general recap.

I want to know which visionary at Bungie thought of adding the new finisher system, and give them the highest of fives. It’s one of the best parts of this update, and that’s not hyperbole.

Finally, the introduction of Finishers is pure and utter genius. Most enemies can be “finished” with a flashy melee kill when at low health, and it never gets old no matter how many times I do it. The best part is that players can earn new finishers later in the game, or through the seasonal pass, and can assign modifiers that offer perks like enemies dropping more ammo when killed by a finisher.

I want to know which visionary at Bungie thought of adding the new finisher system, and give them the highest of fives. It’s one of the best parts of this update, and that’s not hyperbole.

This brings us to the end of the first day recap now that Shadowkeep is officially here. As with most live games, there will be hiccups along the way. I’m really enjoying my early time with the latest update to Destiny 2, though still maintain my skepticism that players other than those as crazy as me and my clan will be here for longer than a week or two.

Until tomorrow!

Sources: Steam, Bungie, Screenshots on Xbox One X.

-Dom