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

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

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

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

Annapurna Interactive (United States)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capcom (Japan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nintendo (Japan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respawn Entertainment [Electronic Arts] (United States)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tencent (China)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscription Services & Cloud Streaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Transition & Storefront Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content Creation & Community Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

A celebration is in order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

Madden NFL 20 Remains Victorious as U.S. Video Game Sales Slow in August

Football season has finally kicked off here in the States, and Madden NFL 20 scores yet another victory on the domestic monthly video games sales charts. An impressive streak for the perennial best seller, even if overall software sales hit a slump in August.

This year’s installment in the Madden franchise was the top-selling game last month between August 4th and August 31st, according to industry research firm The NPD Group. Based on this solid momentum, Madden NFL 20 has moved up the standings to become the 3rd best-selling title of 2019 to date.

It’s a recurring theme. This is the seventh year in a row that an Madden game has led August. In fact, the annualized series itself is the number one selling sports franchise of all time in the country. It’s the most consistent in this segment for good reason, reiterating that football is the most popular sport in America.

Publisher Electronic Arts recently shared that this year’s title welcomed the most players ever for a National Football League (NFL) opening weekend. While the figures are definitely padded by a free trial effort, combining this with its two consecutive months atop the monthly sales chart and vaulting to #3 on the year-to-date shows not only how much of a sales giant it is but also how it’s still part of both sports and casual gaming culture.

The best part is Madden serves as the metaphorical first whistle signalling the start of the Fall sales season, which really picks up next month then culminates during the holidays. Speaking of sales, let’s get into the numbers.

In terms of overall spending on the games industry last month, consumers racked up $666 million across hardware, software and accessories/game cards. A figure which is down 18% compared to this time last year. For 2019 to date, industry spend is $7 billion in total. Six percent lower than the comparable period leading up to August 2018.

Each of the three main segments saw declines, though the eye-catching statistic resides within software. Consumer spend on games totaled $257 million, a decline of 22% year-on-year. This is the lowest figure for an August month in 20 years when spend on software totaled $234 million back in 1998. The summer is a notoriously slower time for games, even more pronounced this year due to where we are in the general console cycle.

Here’s the thing. The data is clear, August was way slow. However, when broadening the scope to look at the full year, software spending in the U.S. is actually up since last year. Overall software sales rose slightly to $3.1 billion, boosting up 1% compared to the same time frame during 2018.

Strength in Nintendo Switch output is obviously fueling this growth amidst long-in-the-tooth competitors, though I’d argue legacy multi-platform games like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto V still appeal to folks capitalizing on console discounts and buying the half-step PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X hardware iterations.

There you have it, I’ve found the silver lining in a somewhat dreary report. Context is important. It’s not just about each month, it’s about how that month impacts the aggregate.

Moving over to hardware, this segment dipped 22% to $167 million. Switch was the only console to see growth since last August. For the year so far, hardware is sitting at $1.6 billion which is a decline of 21%.

In case the trend isn’t obvious, Nintendo Switch yet again earned the top hardware spot as measured by dollar sales and units sold. The same as it’s done since the holiday season in 2018. Because of this, it retains its position as the best-selling console of 2019. I wouldn’t be surprised if this holds through November and beyond. Can discounts on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One can do anything to stymie Switch’s run?

Accessories and game pads round out the three main segments, generating $242 million in August and totaling $2.3 billion for 2019 to date. These figures are down 6% and 2%, respectfully.

Here’s the thing. The data is clear, August was way slow. However, when broadening the scope to look at the full year, software spending in the U.S. is actually up since last year. Overall software sales rose slightly to $3.1 billion, boosting up 1% compared to the same time frame during 2018.

On to the rankings!

Let’s see the software list then delve into it. First we’ve got the August monthly game chart, then the year-to-date best sellers. This is based on dollar sales when combining physical and digital for those companies that participate in The NPD Group’s data gathering effort.

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

  1. Madden NFL 20^
  2. Minecraft#
  3. Grand Theft Auto V
  4. Fire Emblem: Three Houses*
  5. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  6. Super Mario Maker 2*
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Mortal Kombat 11
  9. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege
  10. Astral Chain*
  11. Marvel’s Spider-Man
  12. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  13. Red Dead Redemption 2
  14. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4^
  15. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
  16. Super Mario Party*
  17. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order*
  18. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  19. The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan
  20. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

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

  1. Mortal Kombat 11
  2. Kingdom Hearts 3
  3. Madden NFL 20^
  4. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  5. Anthem^
  6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  7. Resident Evil 2 Remake
  8. Grand Theft Auto V
  9. Red Dead Redemption 2
  10. Days Gone

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

Beyond Madden in the lead, Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto V round up the top two spots. Nope, this isn’t 2014. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Both are still selling, especially during a slower month for new releases other than a major sports franchise. My ongoing theory is every new console buy means a copy of at least one of these games, if not both. Especially Grand Theft Auto V. Following these mainstay legacy titles were Fire Emblem: Three Houses at the 4th spot then Super Smash Bros. Ultimate fighting to #5.

In fact, the list is a whole bunch of Nintendo. Half of the top ten is comprised of games published by the Japanese gaming giant exclusively for Switch. This includes the only brand new release squeezing into the Top 10: Astral Chain. The third-person action game developed by PlatinumGames debuted at #10 during August. Considering Nintendo doesn’t share the digital portion of software sales, this is an even more impressive start. Especially knowing the game isn’t part of an established franchise, albeit made by a popular developer.

Quick note on Fire Emblem: Three Houses, this is its second month within the Top 5 overall list as last month it occupied the #2 spot. Its second month sales were the best ever for a game within the Fire Emblem series, and it’s approaching lifetime sales of the franchise top-seller 2012’s Fire Emblem: Awakening. A testament to both Nintendo’s software direction plus the global appeal of the brand now.

Another new title which is much deserving of a shout out is Age of Wonders: Planetfall from developer Triumph Studios and publisher Paradox Interactive. This fifth iteration within the Age of Wonders strategy series released early in the month and landed at #15. Most impressively, it generated the best initial month ever for an Age of Wonders game in dollar sales terms. For a release within a more niche genre usually targeting the PC crowd, grabbing a Top 15 spot is excellent.

On the other hand, a couple other major August releases didn’t fare as well. The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan, the first installment in a new horror franchise from Supermassive Games, cracked the Top 20 with its start at #19. Considering the multi-platform title’s late August release window plus its lower price point, this actually isn’t too bad of a result.

Remedy Entertainment’s Control on the other hand didn’t make it into the Top 20. While critically acclaimed, including in a review from your boy, the combination of releasing within days of the month end plus no digital sales here means it’s not part of the top-sellers. That caveat of publisher 505 Games not contributing digital sales is important, so really this ranking isn’t telling the entire story. A full story which, unfortunately, we likely won’t hear without the publisher sharing anything official.

That about wraps it up for this monthly report. Regular visitors will already know, but in case it’s your first time: friend of the site Mat Piscatella is an essential follow on Twitter as an analyst representing the NPD Group. Check out his video for further details on last month’s data, including individual platform rankings and all that fun stuff.

Till next time. Stay safe.

Source: The NPD Group, Electronic Arts, Nintendo, Paradox Entertainment, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

-Dom

Review: It’s Worth Taking a Plunge into the Pinball-Themed Creature in the Well

Amidst the pantheon of pinball-inspired video games like Sonic Spinball, Devil’s Crush and more recently Yoku’s Island Express, Creature in the Well cements its position right from launch then makes a definitive case to be considered among the very best. Boasting beautiful art and snappy mechanics plus a mysterious plot line, Flight School’s creative indie blends mechanics in the most unique of ways. It’s a seamless mix of traditional pinball elements, dungeon-crawling and sword combat that rewards the player constantly. Even with minor quality-of-life omissions, late game pacing hiccups and tricky boss encounters, I can’t recommend it enough.

Noticeable right after, hm.. launching the game is its eye-catching artwork. Almost paper-mâché in its aesthetic. A wide-ranging color palette featuring bright oranges and subtle blues creates a world in which a massive sandstorm has forced survivors to retreat within a camp called Mirage, guarded by the ever-present, titular “Creature.” Its minimalist approach is ideal in this setting, in that it acts to enhance the game’s focus on mechanics rather than causing any distraction.

General premise is the player hacks and slashes through the world as the last “BOT-C” robot engineer, trying to power up a massive weather device built into a mountain that can allegedly dissipate the storm. “How?,” one might ask. Well. By plunging into abandoned areas of the mountain to smack balls of light at objects to create energy, naturally! Individual goals come down to powering up a number of areas within the apparatus, each with a distinct color arrangement and theme like Power Reserves or the Archives. The ultimate end being to overcome the Creature then switch on the machine.

Characters such as a friendly amphibian Roger T. Frog, a descendant of one of the original weather device project leads, plus half alligator, part alien Danielle are the sole non-playable characters (NPCs) present in this world. The Creature lurks literally down in a well on the outskirts of Mirage, taunting throughout the journey. Villagers hint they are hiding in their homes while you approach. A clever way to instill mystery, even if I’d prefer it be more interactive. It’s low key a funny game, between intimate dialogue sequences with Roger and Danielle in addition to documents or world items found at the end of each section.

Boasting beautiful art and snappy mechanics plus a mysterious plot line, Flight School’s creative indie blends mechanics in the most unique of ways. It’s a seamless mix of traditional pinball elements, dungeon-crawling and sword combat that rewards the player constantly.

It’s remarkable to remember that Creature in the Well is the work of mainly two developers from Flight School’s studio, Adam Volker and Bohdon Sayre, with bits of support from additional teammates. There’s more content and lore than I anticipated. Throughout my upwards of eight hours with the game it becomes increasingly clear that every section is hand-crafted with obvious reverence for the game’s inspirations.

Presentation is via an isometric view, though its camera is much more dynamic than traditional games using this perspective. Shifting in angle while following the protagonist winding through corridors. Moving vertically while confronting the Creature in a boss fight. I’m openly not a huge fan of games using this type of vantage. It’s essential here to maximize the viewing angle and effectively simulate a virtual playfield, so I applaud the design choice over a more third-person action or static top-down like say The Legend of Zelda.

Each room is a self-contained puzzle, the source of the game’s real joy. Progression is achieved by absorbing energy through slashing orbs with one’s weapon to bounce them off bumpers, slingshots and related pinball accoutrements. BOT-C then opens doors with said energy, proceeding on to the next. Gameplay is furious and fluid, with obstacles to dodge and barriers to consider. In its most obvious tribute to its pinball roots, the best sequences require a level of precise shot-making that’s instantly gratifying. Volker and Sayre succeed in layering mechanics even late into the expedition, like exploding energy pillars or switches that cause pathways to emerge. It’s familiar enough without being predictable.

Game feel is top-notch, and it has to be here in order for it to work, with responsive controls and quick movement capabilities. Hit feedback is punchy, causing weapons to feel powerful when smacking around orbs. It’s worth saying Creature in the Well is far from an easy game, though I’d argue it’s accessible to all gamers. Certain rooms where enemies, hostile orbs and obstructions surround the player are tough. The nice part is other places offer no resistance whatsoever, they exist purely to build up energy while enjoying bright lights and flashy sounds. Like being able to control the flippers when a machine is stuck in attract mode.

Now, this might all end up feeling stale or overstaying its welcome if it wasn’t for nearly two dozen items and upgrades available. These are found strewn throughout both Mirage and the mountain, in secret areas. Which always provide a sense of accomplishment. While a few are cosmetic, the two main categories that drastically impact play are Strike Tools, which facilitate ball striking, and Charge Tools that impact how BOT-C takes hold of orbs then aims accordingly. Reminiscent of catching that coveted silver ball at the base of one’s flipper, in hopes to gain better aim.

I’ll admit when I first picked up a baseball bat or frying pan, I wasn’t quite sure how these would help. Or if they were only there to be visual and auditory pleasures. It then builds momentum by offering tools relevant to each section, like a magnetic fork or electrifying wand. Which are hugely important the more puzzle elements are thrown at the player. A personal favorite is the Fan Blade, which slows time to a crawl and opens potential for pinpoint precision. Later on, finding a weapon with a laser sight is, pun intended, a literal game-changer.

There are also cores around the world that allow Danielle to upgrade BOT-C’s health back at camp. This is essential for later stages, I highly recommend seeking these hidden areas. Oh, I almost forgot, your character wears a cape! So it’s only natural to have some fancy patterns available to find. My first standout was a regal shade of purple, then I finished the game with a scarlet ensemble. Fellow Hunters in Destiny or Castlevania enthusiasts will know just how cool it feels to dash around adorned with a beautiful, flowing cloak.

This all proves the duo of developers has crafted a title which embodies the “one more try” attraction of great pinball machines and dungeon crawlers alike. I’d even love the addition of challenge modes or high score trials. The mechanics are so tight that I’d welcome these if the team offers them in the future, albeit likely not realistic since they might be moving onto other things (bring that on, too!).

Gameplay is furious and fluid, with obstacles to dodge and barriers to consider. In its most obvious tribute to its pinball roots, the best sequences require a level of precise shot-making that’s instantly gratifying. Volker and Sayre succeed in layering mechanics even late into the expedition, like exploding energy pillars or switches that cause pathways to emerge. It’s familiar enough without being predictable.

While the loop of cutting through puzzles then returning to Danielle for upgrades is addictive, I do wish the town was more dynamic. Allowing me to hear stories from survivors or showing more reaction to my efforts. It feels drab once exploring it the first time. There’s one notable change that happens towards the third act, which highlights how much of a missed opportunity this is. I didn’t experience an urge to be in the hub world for any longer than I had to be.

Before ending this round, we’ve got to talk boss fights and difficulty. The antagonizing Creature chucks barbs at BOT-C throughout the game. Like an annoying skeleton with glowing eyes. It brags about how it’s controlling the town. Stalks from the shadows. Though curiously, it never actually destroys you. Instead it thrives on failure, plucking you from a dungeon and resetting your progress, which makes it all the sweeter when given the opportunity to stop it.

Most Creature fights are well-designed, challenging yet manageable. The type of balance that’s necessary in this context. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Two later bosses in particular are severely frustrating, totally killing both my character and the steady momentum the game had up until then. Because of later game pacing interruptions, Creature in the Well suffers a similar fate as many games in that its conclusion requires multiple attempts. Each one more exasperating than the last. Problem is, it’s less a culmination of skills and more the game throwing all of its myriad of tactics at once, leaning on that for difficulty rather than more advanced mechanics.

It was moving at such a consistent clip that I was struck by how devastating it felt. Somehow the very last gauntlet is much better, though breaking through the two Creature fights that almost stymied my motivation was an endeavor. While I felt like quitting, the gameplay was still so spirited that I’m glad I stuck through it. Fair warning is all.

Turning to quality of life features and other options, these are somewhat limited which is unsurprising. There’s no brightness setting, minimal visual flexibility. No colorblind mode. Due to its higher difficulty late game, any sort of assist mode would be welcome to increase accessibility. A mini-map displays in the bottom right corner with no quick way to expand it. As I noticed multiple unused buttons, ideally one of them could bring up the map rather than having to tab through the start menu.

Nintendo Switch performance is solid running on Unreal Engine, no complaints in docked mode. It’s especially great to move and fight with a Pro Controller. Handheld mode is fine though not preferred, unless you’re looking for artificial challenge. Joystick and button positioning means it’s trickier to be precise with shots and evasion. And oddly it’s noticeably dark when using Switch’s auto-brightness setting. As noted before, there’s limited in-game visual settings. Pushing the system-level brightness up remedies this, colors popping even on the smaller screen though this will of course impact battery life.

Minor complaints on a couple boss encounters and quality-of-life items aside, Volker and Sayre have created something special with this project. A unique take within a hybrid sub-genre. It’s especially telling that I’m praising it this much, considering that isometric hack-and-slash games are not my choice style.

Similar to a classic pinball table or timeless arcade cabinet, Creature in the Well is the type of game that’s both addictive in short bursts plus fulfilling over marathon sessions. The concept is straightforward enough: grab a sword, launch a ball toward the objects in order to clear the room. Which means mastery is the true goal. While a difficulty jump in the final areas are startling compared to everything prior, a rousing finale catapults it into the upper echelon of indie games in general released this year.

Amidst the chaos in a new room or boss fight, there’s that moment of zen within a game’s mechanics that we’re all chasing. Not unlike being razor-focused on an arcade game or entering the zone while flipping on a pinball table. Where onlookers stare, dazzled by the bright lights and nostalgic accents. This is the feeling that Creature in the Well evokes at its best. Which is great, because it’s at its best almost the entire time.

Title: Creature in the Well

Release Date: September 6, 2019

Developer: Flight School

Publisher: Flight School

Platforms: Xbox One (Xbox Game Pass), Nintendo Switch, PC (Windows 10 & Steam)

Recommendation: For anyone that even remotely likes pinball or dungeon crawlers, Creature in the Well is a must-play indie game this year. Honestly, even if these genres don’t often interest you, I still bet you’ll end up thinking it’s well worth the price of admission. I certainly did!

Sources: Popagenda, Flight School, Nintendo, Screenshots from Nintendo Switch.

Disclaimer: Review code provided on behalf of Flight School.

-Dom