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

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

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

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

Annapurna Interactive (United States)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capcom (Japan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nintendo (Japan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respawn Entertainment [Electronic Arts] (United States)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tencent (China)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

No more funny business!

Alright, maybe just a little. Because it’s that time again. The most fun you’ll have all season. It’s way too hot (at least here in the States) to go outside, so spend the next couple weeks as one should right now: hanging in the air conditioning reading through financial reports and analyzing fancy numbers, of course.

If that’s your type of thing, you’re in the right spot. I’ve compiled the closest thing to a full list anywhere in the world for upcoming earnings dates from major global gaming, tech and media companies. I know you’re busy. Hope this will keep things organized.

You’ll notice something a bit different this time. Select rows are listed as not reporting this quarter. This is the result of trying to document as many names as possible, though not every international company reports quarterly. Some only share numbers semi-annually. I’ll keep them on the list for quick reference or access to the investor site, though we’ll have to be even more patient to see how those in particular are doing.

Full calendar image is above, then there’s the Google Doc link below that has each of them listed individually. A number don’t have set dates yet, though we have a general sense based on trends. Scroll further to see which three companies I’m monitoring closely this quarter. Truly appreciate your visit, please check back for updates!

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Sony Corp (SNE): Tuesday, July 30th

The Japanese gaming and consumer conglomerate has been bolstered lately by excellent results within its gaming division. While software and services are growth engines this late in the current cycle, I’m actually intrigued by how hardware is holding up since the PlayStation brand is maintaining better momentum than anticipated. Namely, will this be the quarter where Sony’s successful PlayStation 4 console eclipses the 100 million units shipped? If so, it would be only the sixth piece of hardware to ever cross this coveted threshold. two of them being earlier Sony consoles with the original PlayStation at over 102 million and PlayStation 3 achieved a whopping 155 million. Based on the lifetime sales of just under 97 million and the company’s trend of moving approximately 3 million or more PS4 in the past couple quarters ending June, there’s certainly a chance it reaches this milestone. Though I’d bet it happens later in the summer.

Capcom Co Ltd (9697): Thursday, August 1st

The resurgence of Osaka-based Capcom is one of the most uplifting stories of the current generation. Last year’s.. hm, yes I’m doing it. Last year’s monstrous hit Monster Hunter: World continues its momentum as it amazingly hit 13 million units sold just this past week, widening its margin as the company’s best-selling game ever. January’s Resident Evil 2 Remake is the 5th best-selling title of the 1st half of 2019 in the States according to NPD, and has eclipsed 4 million units at last count. March’s Devil May Cry V showed well at launch and is estimated to be nearing the 3 million unit threshold. Continued sales of these should make for solid results in the quarter ending June, though I’m actually more interested in where executives go with guidance. Especially in light of Monster Hunter World’s Iceborne expansion due out September. And where’s the company going with its fighting game approach? Will it factor in a brand new Resident Evil entry, perhaps for early next calendar year? We likely won’t know for sure until later, though any change in guidance can give us enough information to at least speculate!

Super League Gaming (SLGG): Mid August

Yup. This is a new one. eSports community and content platform Super League Gaming is the latest in gaming initial public offerings (IPOs), raising proceeds of nearly $23 million back in Q1. It’s an intriguing, modern business model in a growing industry where the firm operates more as a community platform for amateur players rather than solely competitive games for pros. Effectively highlighting content creators on social media, hosting events and offering a technology platform to organize all of it. Based on its first quarterly filing as a public company back in April, revenues nearly doubled and it’s established multiple partnerships with companies like Best Buy, Logitech and the aforementioned Capcom. With annual revenue estimated at $1 million, I’m curious to see how it continues to monetize this type of community approach especially since it’s aligned with major titles like League of Legends and Minecraft.

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites & Press Releases, Sony PR, Capcom PR, NPD Group, Super League Gaming, Games Press.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jan & Feb 2019: Gaming, Tech & Media Companies

Updated: 1/29/2019

It’s a new year, which means another earnings season is underway!

Do you like numbers? And charts ? And corporate buzzwords like “tailwinds” or “compound growth?” Then you’ll dig the next few weeks as we’ll hear reports from major companies around the globe with updates on how each of them are doing.

(And if you don’t, you probably wouldn’t be here amirite?)

With a new earnings season comes my usual post, featuring essentially a calendar of events that no one visiting here wants to miss. Above is a snapshot, while below gives you access to a Google Doc for easy navigation to each investor site.


Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jan & Feb 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Notable companies on my radar this quarter are:

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about Nintendo $NTDOY and whether it can hit its lofty hardware target of 20 million Switch units sold during its fiscal year ending in March. I’m on the record as being optimistic it will hit this goal, especially after December’s NPD sales report showing it was the best-selling console in the States during 2018. However I’m actually more interested in its software figures after hearing how well Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is tracking in particular after its December release.

In my recent piece about Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 Remake, I explained why I’m upbeat on the Japanese publisher’s latest title. Today the company revealed it’s shipped 3 million copies of this remake in its first week on sale, eclipsing the launch of Resident Evil 7 in 2017 which moved around 2.5 million. Between this resurgence and the ongoing support of Monster Hunter: World, I anticipate strong results when the firm reports on Monday, February 4th.

Major U.S. publisher Electronic Arts $EA has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. Word of another Star Wars game being cancelled broke recently, its upcoming blockbuster game from BioWare called Anthem had a rocky demo this past weekend plus now the company has caved to pressures in Belgium to stop offering “loot box” transactions there for its FIFA franchise after local regulators deemed them gambling. The key here won’t be its actual results on February 5th, but instead its future guidance and overall tone when answering analyst questions. Especially with Anthem releasing next month.

What companies are you interested in hearing from this time around? Did I miss any that you want me to cover? Feel free to leave a message here or on Twitter, I’d be happy to chat. Thanks for stopping by.

-Dom

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites/Press Releases, NPD Group, VentureBeat, Erica Griffin on YouTube, Kotaku, GamesIndustry.Biz, BioWare.

Can Resident Evil 2 Remake Outsell Its Predecessors?


The blog is no longer dead. You might call it.. undead!

Fittingly, Capcom kicks off a brand new year with another blockbuster January release, which is becoming its signature, with today’s launch of the remake/remaster/re-imagining of the second entry in its classic survival horror franchise, Resident Evil 2 Remake.

I’ve recently finished the game, which is based on the 1998 title of the same name, and even as a mostly casual fan I came away more impressed than I originally anticipated. Like the first, you fight through a devastated version of the fictional Racoon City, ravaged by a virus that’s turning folks into brain eaters. Players can proceed through similar yet diverging story lines from the perspectives of the game’s protagonists: rookie policeman Leon Kennedy and college-student-on-a-mission Claire Redfield.


As you’ll see in the video above, it’s a fantastic, total remake in the truest sense. The world in which shady big-pharma company Umbrella Corporation operates is rebuilt in the same game engine used for 2017’s Resident Evil 7. It features an over-the-shoulder perspective, redesigned familiar areas, new puzzles, plenty of undead enemies to fight and jump scares galore that are actually in different places that the original, to keep players on their toes.

While I still have qualms with some of its gameplay mechanics, especially a lack of punchy weapon feedback and the opaque, stumbling nature of some puzzles that you need to complete in order to proceed, I will admit Capcom and its R&D Division 1 development team sets a new standard for what this type of product should be. Fans of the original are going to devour it like a hungry zombie does when you turn the wrong corner, and I anticipate it will bring in a substantial new audience as well. Which is great news after stories regarding its difficult development cycle, documented recently by Polygon.

Though, let’s be honest. We like critiquing games here however we also really love to talk business! With my critical thoughts out of the way, let’s turn to the series from a commercial standpoint and do some predicting on where this remake will fall in its storied history.

Resident Evil is Capcom’s highest-selling franchise by a wide margin, moving over 85 million copies across its dozen-ish mainline titles and numerous alternate versions, spin-offs, remasters etc. The next closest is Monster Hunter, with 52 million. Four of the company’s six best-selling individual releases ever are Resident Evil games, as you’ll see later in this post. Like the game’s signature G-Virus monster, it’s a behemoth. And a core reason why Capcom remains one of Japan’s most successful game publishers. Especially with the resurgence that began with Resident Evil 7 two years ago, which is approaching nearly 6 million units on its own.

So, can Resident Evil 2 Remake shamble its way up the list to take a bite out of the original and other all-time Capcom best-sellers?

I’m betting that it can, and will, do very well. Especially its first few weeks. Though I’m skeptical it can eclipse the likes of the more action-oriented Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 which are the best-selling in the series at 7.4 million and 7.2 million units, respectively. I expect Resident Evil 2 Remake can and will outpace the original, plus both launch window and eventual lifetime sales of Resident Evil 7. Which will be impressive, considering that the original was the fastest-selling title in North America at the time of its release in 1998, hitting 5 million copies alone during launch year.

If I had to put a number on it, which I like to do because anyone can say it will “sell well” and look back like got the prediction correct, I’m leaning in the 6.5 million lifetime range. Check the chart below for some context. I’m thinking it will basically align with Resident Evil 2 for its first year, then have good momentum through early next year as we won’t likely see another franchise title just yet.

Why? Early indicators are upbeat, including review aggregators like OpenCritic showing scores in the low 90’s. Critical reception and word-of-mouth has been overwhelmingly positive. Its “1-Shot Demo,” where players could grab a version of the game for free and play for a half hour ahead of release, has been downloaded nearly 2.7 million times as of today.

Going further, a well-done rebuild of an older game has the dual appeal of feeling like something totally new while also tickling gamer nostalgia. And I would argue that nostalgia is a more important factor in the medium of games than any other. Especially when it comes to return to an older style within a long-running franchise, plus a remake that’s so expertly-crafted like this one is.

Lastly, its release window is darn near perfect. Capcom has been smart in releasing new Resident Evil and Monster Hunter games during the past three January’s now, a month that is usually a slower one for the games industry. The prior two years have seen very impressive commercial showings from Capcom, especially Monster Hunter: World which is currently the firm’s best-selling individual title of all time. And ultimately, I anticipate this smart release timing along with the familiarity of the franchise, nostalgia for a return to older games, the indicators from the demo and the outright quality of this version will drive impressive sales for Resident Evil 2 Remake.

So, what about you? Am I being brain dead, and overly optimistic? Or do you actually think the remake will outpace the 5th and 6th installments in the series? Link up here or on Twitter, and thanks as always for.. shuffling through!

-Dom




Sources: Capcom Investor Relations, ResidentEvil.net, Outside Xbox, Polygon, Capcom Fandom, My own Xbox One X for screenshots.

2018 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

Hi all. It has certainly been a slow writing year for me here at the blog, though I try to maintain activity on Twitter as much as I can! With this last post of the year, I wanted to celebrate all the great times I had with notable games that so many dedicated development teams worked on during the past 12 months.

Let’s get right to it. Here are my Top 10 Games of 2018, in descending order. Plus, some bonus mentions at the bottom. Each is listed alongside developer, publisher, platforms and sales.

Which of these did you check out? Did any of these make your list? I certainly hope so!

10. Florence (Mountains, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: Mobile. Android & iOS.

Sales: Was tracking well early according to lead designer Ken Wong. Over 10K downloads on Android, 5K ratings on iOS.

Mountains’ Florence is nowhere near a typical mobile game. More of an interactive visual novel. Though it’s the type of game that wouldn’t work nearly as well on a platform *other than* mobile. It uses its platform masterfully to tell the tale of a couple in their 20s, from random encounter to honeymoon period to an inevitable rough patch. Its main mechanic is using the touch screen to literally piece things together (or attempt to do so) as an emotional narrative plays out. One that comes to an unconventional conclusion, and leaves a lasting impression as a result.

9. Celeste (Matt Makes Games)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: At least 500K units, according to the game’s creator Matt Thorson. Hugely successful for a smaller-sized indie team!

Celeste is a 2D platformer about struggle, mental health and attempting to overcome your internal criticisms to achieve an aspiration. As main character Madeline climbs Celeste mountain, the challenging gameplay combines with a suite of characters and a killer soundtrack to reveal it’s ultimately an allegory for setting a goal then dealing with obstacles on the way to fulfilling it. It’s a fine video game, frustrations and all.

8. Marvel’s Spider-Man (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: 3.3 million units its first 3 days, an all-time record for a PS4 exclusive. Currently stands as the 6th best-selling game of 2018 in the States.

For a medium that seems a perfect fit for superheros, not many recent games capture the essence of being one quite like Marvel’s Spider-Man. Insomniac stuck what I think is most important for the fantasy of being Spidey: effortless, stylish swinging through Manhattan then kicking the crap out of bad guys. While the game has snoozer side activities, annoying stealth sequences and uneven pacing, its gameplay, stellar 3rd act and surprisingly intimate character moments sling it above many 2018 games.

7. Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope, 3909)

Platforms: Windows. MacOS.

Sales: At least 100K units in around 2 months, per SteamSpy.

If you said a game made predominantly by one person that’s only available on PC/Mac where you play as an insurance adjuster would make my list, I would’ve looked at you like you were a kraken. But just last week, I finally played the game every critic I respect couldn’t stop talking about since its October ship date. It’s a sort of murder-mystery that tells the story of a doomed East India Company sea vessel called the Obra Dinn, via minimalist art and moment-in-time vignettes. Gameplay consists of navigating these snapshot memories using a magical watch, deducing what happened to crew members and passengers during the ill-fated journey. The sheer triumph of figuring out each fate becomes infectious, all the way through its conclusion and final reveal.

6. Monster Hunter: World (Capcom)

Platforms: Xbox One. PlayStation 4. Windows.

Sales: A whopping 10.7 million units. The best-selling single retail release in Capcom’s storied history, not counting re-releases.

This was the earliest major release of 2018, and the first time Capcom’s popular Monster Hunter franchise hit major consoles after being very popular on handhelds in Japan. A global audience latched onto the quirky, humorous fun of an action role-playing game where you hunt gargantuan wild creatures in a variety of detailed locales. Not only is the combat super satisfying, all of its systems blend to keep players engaged: studying animals, gathering supplies, crafting weapons, purchasing items, upgrading gear and taking on quests. Plus, it has cooperative multiplayer. And you hunt alongside a cat friend. It’s a “Palico.” That calls you Meow-ster. Purr-fect!

5. Yoku’s Island Express (Villa Gorilla, Team17)

Platforms: Xbox One. PlayStation 4. Nintendo Switch. Windows.

Sales: Not available.

I couldn’t write this list without including at least something pinball related. And Yoku’s Island Express isn’t just related, it’s pinball in video game form with a genius twist. Villa Gorilla ingeniously built a 2D world that integrates traditional pinball features like flippers and bumpers that allow for traversal across its environments. The player works toward unlocking areas, discovering secrets, finding collectibles and even fighting bosses using pinball as a means to achieve these goals. The controllable character is Yoku, a cute beetle-turned-postman, who delivers items across a cheerful world that’s unfortunately plagued by a dark curse. It’s the smartest synthesis of pinball and video game that I can remember, plus it features a joyful soundtrack and amusing dialogue. I had a ball!

4. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch (Streaming in Japan Only), Windows.

Sales: Unit sales aren’t explicitly available, as often happens with major publishers. Ubisoft shared that 1st week sales set a record for the franchise on current generation. Currently the 10th best-selling game of 2018 in the States.

It may feel like the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been around for ages, before Assassins and Templars started beefing. Odyssey is nearly its dozenth mainline title, seeing the player take the role of Alexios or Kassandra, a pair of Spartan twins embroiled in political, societal and even mythical battles as mercenaries in ancient Greece. I don’t say it lightly that it’s one of the best entries in the series. (Yes, even after I said the same about Origins last year.) Some argue it’s shifting further from the series’ tradition, with its enhanced role-playing elements, loot system, dialogue trees, romance options and skill trees. I argue that this is progression. Ubisoft is continually expanding on the stealth-action base of its past. Other than a lackluster conclusion for one of the major plot lines, I have very little to complain about for this sharpest of entries.

3. Tetris Effect (Monstars/Resonair, Enhance Inc)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR. (I’d love a Switch version, please!)

Sales: Not available.

You aren’t suffering from seeing things, like you would if you were experiencing The Tetris Effect. There is a new Tetris game in my top three. We all know Tetris is one of the best games ever. I believe that Tetris Effect, produced by Mark MacDonald alongside visionary Japanese designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, is the singular best Tetris game ever since the original.

Its presentation is flawless. Expertly-crafted backgrounds alone would be an experience in sensory bliss. Then, its sound design is legendary. Blips of auditory delights trigger with every tetromino spin, placement and drop, accentuating its uplifting, modern new age soundtrack. It’s not without innovations, either. Players can trigger Zone, a slow motion mechanic that provides for crazy combos. There’s Journey, a curated experience through many of its levels. Its Effect mode allows players to level up and compete on leader boards. Not to mention, it’s fully playable in virtual reality. Moments of synesthesia aplenty, Tetris Effect is borderline transcendental.

2. God of War (Sony Santa Monica Studio, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: 3.1 million units at launch, a record for a PS4 exclusive game until Marvel’s Spider-Man released. Currently at least 5 million copies.

It’s very telling that Sony’s God of War is this high on my list, as I have little nostalgia for the over-the-top action franchise. Its main character, the rage-filled god Kratos, carries over from the earlier trilogy. Though it’s effectively a brand new game set within a gorgeous world crafted this time around Norse mythology rather than Greek. It’s a technical marvel, with game director Cory Barlog and team achieving a single camera cut for the entire duration. Positively stunning visuals, though uneven performance at times. Combat with the new Leviathan Axe is wholly satisfying, especially throwing it at a group of enemies and recalling it. Admittedly, the base combat can be repetitive but each skill unlock reveals the true depth of its systems.

With this said, the game truly shines in its story, character moments and monumental boss sequences. It’s hard to think I’m actually describing a God of War game in this way, but it’s all true and that’s why it’s this high on my list. The plot revolves around an older Kratos attempting to fulfill his wife’s dying wish of spreading her ashes, now accompanied by his half divine son and combat partner Atreus (whom the player can direct during combat and puzzle sequences). Certain Norse figures show up, including Baldur, Freya and the prolific, hilarious storyteller Mimir. The father-son dynamic drives this epic quest along, which ends in an unexpected place and surprisingly captivated me with its narrative elements above all else.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, Take-Two Interactive)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4.

Sales: $725 million in dollar sales during its first weekend. 17 million units in its initial two weeks. The second best-selling game of 2018 in the States. Not too shabby, partner.

This year, Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games returned to the Western setting with the spectacular Red Dead Redemption 2. As a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games of last generation, I was both extremely excited and cautiously optimistic when it was announced. I’m happy to report it vastly exceeded any expectations I had, however lofty. This open world action game’s primary storyline delves into the gang formed by eloquent criminal Dutch Van der Linde, with the player controlling the crew’s second-in-command named Arthur Morgan. He’s a flawed man, loyal to a fault yet still shows the capacity for good deeds and compassion. The game allows you to interact with every character in the world, and ultimately decide what “your Arthur” becomes via a morality scale. The voice acting and motion capture across the board here, for all characters though especially gang members, is extraordinary. Additionally, we see appearances from a variety of familiar faces from the original game: namely John Marston, Javier Escuella and Bill Williamson. Each of them alongside a myriad of new characters makes it feel more like a bustling settlement than many others I’ve seen within the genre.

I can’t understate how visually beautiful and detail complete RDR2 is. Every biome across its world, from snowy mountains to desolate plains to swampy bogs, is populated with fauna, animals, random characters and places to explore. Many games boast what’s called “emergent storytelling,” as in moments that a player will experience individually, separate of the curated quests or story beats. Few deliver on this promise as much as Rockstar does here. It rewards you for going out on your own, talking to people, finding strangers and helping them with their requests. Hunting, fishing, playing cards and more activities open up and each is masterfully executed. Some of them could be games on their own. In fact, these emergent moments are just as memorable if not more so than the game’s missions for me.

Speaking of missions, its overarching narrative is a standout especially in terms of the manner in which it’s conveyed. It’s obvious Rockstar is telling a certain story here, with cutscenes and cinematics interwoven to rival modern films. Sure, its mission design isn’t necessarily innovative. And it doesn’t allow for much player choice during said missions. But that’s by design! There’s freedom in every other aspect that more than makes up for this curation. Missions are usually tense and engaging, especially “major” events like heists or gang endeavors. Arthur and his fellow crew members are constantly on the run from the law or engaging with rivals, not to mention their Western dream of freedom is slowly dying to the progression ushered in by industrialism. There’s plenty of weight to the campaign, especially in later chapters as relationships clash or unravel, and Rockstar weaves moments of fan service with surprising twists to tie the game and its predecessor together.

I’m not saying it’s a perfect game, or even a game for everyone. Some of its menu and UI design is dated. It’s deliberate. Its “feel” can be sluggish until you get the hang of it. You don’t speed through its open world, you mosey. You savor it, as exhibited by Arthur’s movement as he skins each animal, loots each drawer and chats with each gang member or passerby. You hear their stories. And then, you make your own stories that exist alongside Rockstar’s.

I loved this pacing. I loved exploring, finding oddities and secrets that felt like only I had ever seen them before even though I know that’s not true. I virtually *became* a character in America during the late 1800s. I lived in Rockstar’s hyper-realistic, beautiful yet dangerous world for hours and hours, and savored every moment as much as Arthur did.

Before I wrap up, I would like to mention that Rockstar has been criticized for its demanding work practices. Many team members work long hours, especially right before release. This dedication absolutely shows in the final product. And there are those that expressed how much they love working for the studio. Either way, I am hopeful that every single person is compensated fairly for their efforts. Labor practices and company culture is way too big of an issue to discuss here, so I’ll end with saying that no one should have to suffer mentally or with their family just to produce a video game.

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order)

Dead Cells (Motion Twin)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: Upwards of 2 million owners on PC alone per SteamSpy. Not available for console versions.

Dead Cells is the type of game that I shouldn’t have enjoyed, with its roguelike elements including permadeath and losing gear after every “run,” however it ended up being one of my favorite 2D action games of the year almost on feel alone. It’s at its best when you have a run during which you build a sweet load-out and slice through opponents like butter. Though I never actually beat the final boss because of the difficulty spike, which I mark as a knock against it even if you might disagree.

Destiny 2: Forsaken (Bungie, Activision Blizzard)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows.

Sales: The only official numbers we heard were for the original Destiny 2 launch in 2017, which was above 6.3 million units. Well beyond that by now, especially after sales and promotions, however exact figures are not available.

We all know I couldn’t end this post without at least mentioning Destiny. Bungie put out its major Forsaken expansion this September, marking the one year anniversary of Destiny 2’s initial release. And it’s excellent, featuring a campaign where lovable, witty robot Cayde-6 is murdered and the player must hunt down his killers. Plus, there’s a brand new raid, tons of new gear, secrets galore and a variety of quality-of-life updates. Bungie has kept up with maintaining Destiny 2 since launch, however this is the best it’s been. It’s as fun as ever to team up with friends and fight the galaxy’s most threatening enemies, while naturally looking pretty cool all the while.

Donut County (Ben Esposito, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: Everything.

Sales: At least 50K on PC, per SteamSpy. Otherwise, not available.

Have you ever dreamed of controlling a hole in the ground that swallows up entire towns? No? Creator Ben Esposito fulfills a desire that no one knew they had, crafting a fun-loving game with a simple mechanic. You move a hole around a map, growing with every item it swallows up until literally nothing remains. Its plot is actually solid, as friends Mina (a human) and BK (a racoon) work at a doughnut shop. BK plays a mobile game where he “delivers doughnuts” to people by sending them holes in the ground. It’s simple and funny, with slight undertones of a commentary on gentrification. The humor shines especially in its glossary, where each item is documented as it’s gobbled up. It’s also an accessible, easy to control game.

Hollow Knight (Team Cherry)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: Approximately 1.25 million units, when aggregating available PC and Nintendo Switch figures.

This entry is technically cheating, as Hollow Knight originally released in 2017. Its Switch launch happened this year, so that’s when I played it, and it’s sincerely excellent. The dark, dreary 2D action platformer stands out not just because of its challenging combat but because of its unique lore and creative world-building. It’s all about a lost kingdom of bugs, and those creatures that inhabit it. The player learns about secrets and mini-stories via exploration. Each time you proceed to a new area, you feel equal parts wonder and dread. It also has some of the most memorable boss sequences I’ve played the past couple of years.

Pokemon Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Pokemon Let’s Go, Eevee! (Game Freak, The Pokemon Company, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Sales: In the two months since release, over 3 million units worldwide. The highest first week sales for a Switch title, until Super Smash Bros Ultimate hit 5 million at launch in December.

My final honorable mention is the latest set of adorable entries in the Pokemon franchise, which I’ll just call Let’s Go! because it’s a lot to type every time. These are re-made versions of 1998’s classic Pokemon Yellow featuring updating trappings inspired by 2016’s mobile phenomenon Pokemon Go. I grabbed the Pikachu version of Let’s Go!, of course, and loved building up my team of pocket monsters within the colorful world of Kanto, then using them to battle trainers and gym leaders. Favorite of my current squad? Arcanine. You can ride on its back, with Pikachu on your shoulder. That’s worth the price of entry alone!

There you have it. All the 2018 games worth playing! Well, there are other good games out there, but these are my selections for the best of the best. Thank you as always for reading, here’s wishing you all the best in the new year.

Sources: Photos are screenshots from my time with these games. Sales info as linked. Other information from company media and investor relations websites, Wikipedia, Venture Beat and NPD Group.

-Dom

Casual Friday: August 19th, 2016

IntelIntel-ligent Virtual Reality Move

 

To kick off this week’s Casual Friday, Intel Corporation (INTC) has announced it is working on a virtual reality device called Project Alloy. “Sigh, another VR device” you might say. But the intelligent part is that Project Alloy is an all-in-one VR platform, wireless and standalone as opposed to most other devices on the market or in concept today that require wired connections to a separate computer. Above is a shot of INTC’s Craig Raymond debuting the company’s brainchild at a conference it hosted this week.

You can find full details at the link above, but the reason I want to share is that I’m a known skeptic on the mainstream appeal of traditional VR especially for gaming applications. I don’t think it will be popular until it can be self-contained, compact and wireless. Even a sort of Augmented Reality (AR)/VR hybrid that resembles a pair of goggles or glasses. This is a long way off, I understand, but Project Alloy is the direction in which VR needs to move if it wants to be sustainable as a mass market product. Whether it will emerge as the leader in the VR space, I cannot say, but I like what INTC is doing here.

 

MH GenerationsNintendo’s Monstrous Month

 

Nintendo Co Ltd (7974), a regular at Working Casual, had a great July. On the back of Pokemon Go fever here in the States, Nintendo announced that its 3DS handheld was the top-selling gaming system last month and also 5 of the top 11 best-selling games are playable on the company’s platforms, including the top-selling Monster Hunter: Generations (featured in the artwork above) developed by Capcom Co Ltd (9697). This was according to the NPD Group, the foremost authority on the U.S. games market and sales.

The 3DS family of handhelds sold 80% more this year than the same time last year, an impressive stat given the latest installment was released in early 2015 in this region. I will note that the summer is an especially slow time for the gaming industry, and this past July was no exception as there were no notable blockbuster games released. Still, it’s a good sign for Nintendo that it can release a mobile game based on one of its storied franchises and sell other products to consumers as a result.

 

Metal Gear SurviveThis Is How Metal Gear Survives?

 

In other Japanese gaming company news, Konami Holdings Corp (9766) has revealed the next installment in the long-running Metal Gear franchise and the first to be released after the departure of series creator Hideo Kojima. It’s called Metal Gear Survives, and it’s a.. science-fiction cooperative stealth spin-off game with zombies?

I don’t know what else to say, really. The series is a legendary part of gaming history, love it or hate it, and fans and critics alike had their doubts about how it would *survive* without Kojima’s oversight. But I don’t think anyone predicted this direction of a multiplayer-only spin-off game. I assume it will be priced more like say Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, which cost $30 at release, but then again knowing Konami, I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if it was stubborn enough to charge full price. Cost aside, I don’t think it’s a make-or-break for the Metal Gear franchise, but it’s a telling sign of the direction the games will take now.

 

FFXVWill This Be The Final Delay?

 

The focus on Asian companies in this week’s Casual Friday continues, as Square Enix Holdings Co (9684) announced yet another delay of its decade-in-the-making game Final Fantasy XV. Originally slated for a September 30th release, the firm said the latest release in its Final Fantasy series will come out on November 29th.

Reasoning given was that it needs extra polish and Square Enix wants to avoid the need for a large day-one update to put features in late. Still, it’s absolutely astounding that a game announced way back in 2006 is still not ready. Square Enix also said in an official statement that the delay would not impact its financial year ending next March, so it maintains its current estimates of $2.5 to 2.7 billion in revenue and $270 – 330 million in operating profit for 2017.

 

(Disclosure: I own INTC stock. But as always, my articles are not investment advice nor should be used in investment decisions.)

-Dom