Microsoft Reveals Xbox Series S, Leaks Hint to Series X Price & Release Date

Updated: September 9th.

It’s now around two months before next generation gaming consoles are set to release, and one of the manufacturers has finally moved publicly on price.

Well, sort of.

In the middle of the night here in the States, Microsoft formally unveiled its “smallest Xbox ever” in the Xbox Series S, the counterpart to its higher powered Xbox Series X platform. The leaner, more cost-friendly Series S will launch at $299 with a financing option at $25 per month via Xbox All Access.

Its existence has been the worst kept secret in the industry for a year or more, originating at the same time speculation began about Microsoft’s new generation approach featuring multiple, simultaneous console launches. Last night this intensified, mainly due to a post at Thurrott.com showing leaked promotional packaging for the Series S.

According to another leaked Series S promo posted by WalkingCat on Twitter, this time a full on video ad, Microsoft is certainly going for the segment of the audience that might want to upgrade or enter the Xbox ecosystem, doesn’t care about physical discs and refuses to break the bank in order to play the newest games.

Series S is an all-digital box, which means no disc drive, and it’s 60% smaller than the beefy Series X. While it has a quick-loading solid state hard drive (SSD), it’s only 512GB which is restrictive in terms of internal storage space. Especially for a console that only downloads or streams games. Its specs are of course reigned in compared to any next gen version so far, though targets comparable output in terms of performance. Supports high frame rates, 4K upscaling and more as you’ll see in the commercial.

Furthering the fervor, Windows Central dropped even more major news in that its sources say the powerful Xbox Series X will launch at $499 with a $35 per month financing option.

AND that both Xbox consoles will be out on Tuesday, November 10th.

(Edit: Microsoft has confirmed that at least Xbox Series S launches this day. I anticipate both will be at the same time.)

(Second Edit: Microsoft revealed that Xbox Series X will also release on this date, at $499.)

Whew. After months of snacking on crumbs, we now have a lot to digest. First, let’s talk timing.

This all sounds legitimate. Friend of the site Jez Corden and his team at Windows Central are reliable for most things Microsoft and this is consistent with the company’s own marketing of a November release. Plants it squarely before the holiday rush and right during the windows of big third party titles like Destiny 2: Beyond Light, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Cyberpunk 2077.

(The irony of a Bungie game that isn’t Halo being effectively a launch title for an Xbox console isn’t lost on me!)

And, this timing just might be before its rival Sony PlayStation 5 as well, which is rumored actually for later that week on Friday, November 13th.

If the simultaneous Xbox release happens to be November 10th, then it’s a few days after my prediction. I thought the console would hit on a Friday, though Microsoft is seemingly opting for a Tuesday strategy. Similar to its Xbox 360 debut in 2005. Really, the exact day of launch is less important in the grand scheme than is moving first and having it ready to go before Black Friday and holiday shopping begins in its major markets.

Still, what continues to stand out to me is a distinct lack of exclusive, first party launch games now that Halo: Infinite is delayed to next year. The timing tells me that Microsoft is leaning into those aforementioned third parties, updates from last generation software and its Xbox Game Pass service to entice people to upgrade. Perhaps when Microsoft officially reveals the date, it will also have a surprise announcement for a new launch game. (Not betting on it.)

There’s also the question of future-proofing, which is why this latest set of consoles try to target things like 8K resolution and 120 frames-per-second at the top end. These boxes need to be relevant years from now. Can the Series S accomplish this with its current specs? Probably not. Which is why we’ll likely see a mid-generational upgrade like we did last time around, so future-proofing isn’t as important as it once was.

Next up, that pricing!

The first word that came to mind when hearing these revelations is: Aggressive. Like, extremely so.

Earlier this year, I speculated that $499 would be the minimum price for Series X based on its specs and likely build cost. I’m on record saying I expected $349 for a cost-friendly Series S with the option to reduce based on its specs (which we never knew in advance, in my defense). Microsoft reaching or beating these, especially the $299 Series S point, clearly shows a strategy of making next gen affordable for as many people as possible even if the lower end specs aren’t dazzling.

These days for the $11.6 billion in annual revenue Xbox gaming division, it’s just as much about attracting buyers to Xbox Game Pass. The two-tiered console approach covers a significant part of the market now. Enthusiasts will always upgrade early, that’s the audience for Series X. It’s the more casual audience, those that are platform agnostic or even lapsed gamers that are most likely to bite on that juicy $299 price tag.

Another smart move from a marketing perspective is Microsoft starting with the price announcement of only its entry level version. Putting that in public mind-share on its own, rather than showing both at once. Taking this sort of staggered approach injects a sense of affordability in the market, saying to consumers that it really isn’t crazy expensive to move into the next generation of console gaming.

I fully expect to see at least a version of each console bundled with Xbox Live, Xbox Game Pass and even the streaming service Project xCloud, the last of which is an especially intriguing play for the all-digital Series S. An Xbox Series S bundled with an introductory subscription to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate could be the best bang for the buck early in the console cycle.

In terms of general sales predictions, I’m still cautiously upbeat on early prospects in November and all of the fourth quarter calendar year. For both console manufacturers, mind you. We still don’t know price or timing for Sony’s PlayStation 5, so I’m hesitant to go on record with figures or comparisons at this stage other than to say I’m expecting demand to be steady though unsure about production quantities.

Even so. With the confirmation of an all-digital version in the next gen Xbox family, Microsoft sales should shift towards that lower-margin model which means slightly lower overall revenue generation. I still fully expect early adopters to upgrade to the Series X. The question becomes how many of the people that might not have upgraded, or might have picked the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, will now buy Series S? That will dictate sales even more than the hardcore players.

Of course it also comes down to production, which we know will be impacted by coronavirus and availability of parts. In 2013, Xbox One sold a million units in a day to be the biggest launch in Microsoft’s gaming history. And that was priced $100 more than its competitor. Between the two models this time, there’s potential for setting another record internally.

So, what now?

Microsoft ended its Twitter reveal saying that they will share more soon. Windows Central notes the likelihood of Xbox holding a press event in the near future, after which time I assume pre-orders will also go live for both versions. Expect this to be *very* soon, like within days now.

While overnight we saw our first glimpse of next generation pricing, plus received all-but-confirmed rumors of cost and timing for the Xbox suite of devices, we’re now waiting for that official confirmation.

Then, it’s Sony’s move. My “almost” final prediction for PlayStation 5 Standard Edition is $499 and Digital Edition is $399. Which would be great for that Series S entry point. When will we know? Well, right after Microsoft’s event seems like a sure thing.

I’d bet the house.

Stay tuned here or Twitter for more news, commentary and sales talk on next generation consoles plus everything in gaming. Thanks for reading!

All prices quoted in US Dollars. Sources: Microsoft, Thurott, WalkingCat on Twitter, Windows Central, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

Review: Ghost of Tsushima is a Great, Vibrant Samurai Game That Colors Inside the Lines

An actual open world samurai game set in stunning, gritty and conflicted feudal Japan. It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it.

Ghost of Tsushima is most certainly that game, even if not more. Perhaps it doesn’t have to transcend its genre convention since it does it so well. It’s gorgeous, vibrant and visibly pleasing, a solid action game combining sword combat, ranged capability and stealth tactics within a world worth exploring for tangible benefit and aesthetic luster. It’s that beautiful virtual painting where the brush firmly remains within predefined lines.

The newest project from Sony’s Sucker Punch Productions studio, it’s a quite enjoyable samurai experience tuned especially for collectible enthusiasts, map-clearing addicts and digital photographers, even if it never reaches the lofty standards of its cinematic inspirations or superior contemporaries.

It Starts With Honor

As suggested in its title, the game centers on the Japanese island of Tsushima in 1274 during the initial Mongolian invasion towards the mainland. Classic setup. The player controls Jin Sakai, a young warrior who might be the only samurai left after an amazing intro sequence fighting back against Mongols making landfall. Jin somehow survives an early duel with big baddie general Khotun Khan, fictional grandson of Genghis Khan, who captures Jin’s uncle and honorable protector Lord Shimura. Naturally, Jin sets out to rescue Lord Shimura, rid his homeland of the foreign threat and restore order to a struggling populace.

Even being as talented a fighter as he is, Jin can’t do it alone. The cast of characters he seeks out is somewhat predictable yet mostly likeable. He’s saved after his fight with Khan by Yuna, that ol’ skilled thief with a heart of gold. Lady Masako is the tough matriarch of a dismantled family. Sensei Ishikawa is a skilled archer dealing with the fallout of a rogue student. Norio the warrior monk strives to uphold a fallen sibling’s legacy and retake his stolen temple. In addition to their involvement in the main campaign, each of these has a set of quests which are some of the highlights of both character moments and mission designs. It’s like a simplified, historical version of Mass Effect 2: Gather a squad to take on the enemy.

And I can’t forget the best of them all. Those adorable sacred foxes!

Really though, the main character is the island of Tsushima itself. It’s hard to describe how stunningly gorgeous this game is with respect to art direction. A photographer’s nirvana. Sucker Punch’s art and environment teams deserve all the credit for what I believe carries the game. It entices people to explore and see what’s over that hill or around that bend. It’s beautiful in its aesthetic and overall direction. An exquisite use of color, shimmering in every regard, that allows for quiet moments on top of a hill writing a haiku to be as memorable as any moment of combat or story climax.

Natural lighting seeps through cracks in the treeline, revealing daybreak across a golden forest scattered with tall grass. Even the dreary areas offer natural beauty, mud soaking up dew from a nearby maple tree. The island and everything in Ghost of Tsushima provides that picturesque backdrop of what someone dreams feudal Japan looked like at its most beautiful and serene.

A key design choice by Sucker Punch that enhances the experience is its minimalist user interface (UI) and experience approach. There aren’t any traditional waypoints or navigation lines, the map isn’t littered with random icons. Instead, players pick a spot in the distance or a collectible type then swipe the touchpad to trigger Guiding Wind, a subtle, self-explanatory assistant that breezes toward the objective. There’s also a myriad of birds that will hint at locations, whether it be healing waters or pillars that hold vanity items. The lack of a UI taking up screen real estate, unless manually triggered or in combat, does well to disguise its true nature as a checklist style open world.

As stunning as its art and aesthetic, the game is nowhere near as dynamic as it seems or even similar games when it comes to secrets, events or pop-up missions. There are shrines to find, lighthouses to fire up, artifacts to read, even haikus to write. (Like, a lot of these things. A few too many.) Then the player will see the same type of Mongol group or bandit patrols lurking throughout each of the game’s three acts, having to save a hostage or clear a graveyard, which I ended up avoiding altogether about halfway through my 60 to 65 or so hours towards getting the Platinum trophy. Combine this with my critiques of mission structure a bit later, this proves Ghost of Tsushima has less character overall than it initially suggests.

It’s a quite enjoyable samurai experience tuned especially for collectible enthusiasts, map-clearing addicts and digital photographers, even if it never reaches the lofty standards of its cinematic inspirations or superior contemporaries.

Come To Know One’s True Nature

It wouldn’t be a major video game in 2020 without multiple types of upgrades and skills. There’s impressive flexibility in building Jin as a character, as he slowly adopts new techniques perhaps not as honorable as the straightforward samurai tactics taught by his uncle. Jin believes they are essential to defeating the Mongols, liable to fight disgracefully themselves.

Various systems combine to define one’s character: Armor selection, upgrade paths and a charm system offering unique spec opportunities. Every combat encounter or zone takeover contributes experience points to growing one’s legend, which signal’s Jin’s reputation as the Ghost.

Upgrade paths fall into a handful of categories: Samurai with multiple battle stances and damage buffs, Ghost with its stealth techniques and assassination tools then one’s gear like Jin’s katana and bow can be strengthened by vendors. This is where the game reveals its alignment most with stealth action titles like Assassin’s Creed or Dishonored because the coolest gear comes from playing as a Ghost with its bombs and poison, even if some on the island frown upon it. A personal favorite is the ability to stealth assassinate multiple foes at a time, like Batman in Arkham Knight or Talion in Shadow of Mordor.

Earning charms ends up being the most impactful of all because it’s how the player builds out Jin’s passive traits. Some are general, increase health or enhance melee ability. Others, especially late game, are much more specific. Arrows have a chance to poison opponents or return when missed. Parries and dodges are easier to perform. Increase the amount of upgrade materials gathered.

Throw in a ton of vanity items including hats, masks and armor dyes to accentuate Jin’s fashion, the downside of all this customization is that I was constantly swapping armor and charms based on my immediate situation. Often mid-activity. The ability to save custom loadouts and assign them via menu wheel would absolutely change the game for the better, saving a ton of downtime fumbling through menus to remember which items paired with a specific build.

Flowing from character options right into combat overview then mission design, this is certainly the core of a game meant to simulate being a samurai warrior. Early combat is far too simple, centered on the blade and fighting one or a handful of enemies at once ranging from Mongols, bandits then rogue “Straw Hat Ronin” swordsmen. As Jin grows his legend, he earns new stances to fight against different enemy classes. Flipping between them is essential. The best fighting happens after the introduction of throwables like kunai and smoke bombs, as it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

The glaring omission is the lack of a lock-on option. There should be one, no question. Not everyone has to use it, it could be something that the player turns off in the option menu. However it’s worth the upside from an accessibility standpoint. The camera in Ghost of Tsushima can be unwieldy, notably for newcomers and when enemies are flanking constantly. I really hope Sucker Punch adds this with a future patch.

Later game, Ghost and ranged attacks end up being more fun than the close quarters forced in the first act. Especially the use of a blowgun, introduced in the second act. Jin can use deadly poison or hallucinatory plants to confuse and enrage, which really creates additional opportunities to surprise attack. As much as the game keeps telling the player that they should fight honorably, there’s too much cool Ghost stuff to ignore.

Mission design even during campaign quests follows a somewhat ordinary trajectory. Talk to someone, go to a place, investigate said place, find tracks or an enemy, follow or trail, clear the area, return to original character. Side quests are the most egregious offenders, which was fine as I was getting my bearings then trended towards laborious the more I played. Sure this is distilling it to its most basic format, and there are some emotional and surprising stories that play out within this framework. It’s hard not to notice how predictable it becomes.

Fair word of warning to those that cringe at the thought of stealth missions: You will be tailing people in Ghost of Tsushima.

I’ll specifically shout out the epic battle sequences that happen a few times, often during major story culminations when going against a sizeable Mongol force. These are excellent as they open up opportunities to fight in a free-form manner, combining tools and ranged tactics with standard swordplay. There’s even some larger artillery that I won’t spoil because it’s a great time to experience firsthand.

The driving conflict behind these missions in Ghost of Tsushima is obviously fighting back against Khotun Khan and his Mongol army. The additional narrative layer is Jin’s ambition to free his people, no matter the cost, versus upholding an honorable samurai code as instilled by Lord Shimura and the militaristic Shogun from the Japanese mainland. As Jin befriends people and adapts his style, he creates a divide between himself and the traditionalists.

Thing is, this is really nothing new in video games or films from which it clearly draws inspiration. It’s unsurprising in both themes and execution. Local Japanese warrior defending the population from an invader. The honor code of the samurai versus trickery of the thief. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool to interact with such a story. Sucker Punch wears its inspiration on its sleeve. There’s even a “Kurosawa” mode where one can play in grainy black-and-white in homage to Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. While I’m not a samurai film expert, the story here feels more like it’s trying to replicate its inspiration rather than rising above it.

Plus, this struggle of honor actually reveals my main philosophical difficulty with Ghost of Tsushima. It’s constantly telling the player, sometimes blatantly, to not use stealth or trickery to defeat foes while at the same time offering the dopest abilities and gadgets in its Ghost path! The weather even becomes more stormy the more one plays as a Ghost, I mean c’mon. Characters are constantly challenging Jin’s honor, even using his notoriety against him by claiming he’s done thievish acts. Why is the game making me feel guilty for using stealth? It’s a disconnect for the sake of a narrative conflict, one that detracts from the fantasy. Why does the hero always have to be a “good guy?”

There are side stories and mini-quests, true to the open world action philosophy. Most are run-of-the-mill while a select few feature quieter, random emotional stories of people lost in the invasion. Still, the optional Mythic Tales are clearly the standout. There’s a musician in various locales singing stories of legendary techniques or armor sets in animated sequences complete with artwork, lore and storytelling. It’s really something, setting up multi-part quests that don’t actually reveal where the player must go. Instead, they hint using drawings of areas and make them figure it out. These culminate in tough duels with different types of characters, plus are the most rewarding of all secondary missions. They check all the boxes of what makes great content.

Truthfully, I found my absolute favorite part of Ghost of Tsushima was simply exploring the world. Reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild except not nearly as charming or mysterious. Uncovering parts of the map previously untraveled. Stumbling upon a landmark etched into the scenery. Unfortunately, there’s mixed results when it comes to reward structure (you know how much I praise games for rewarding players for their time). Often it’s an excuse for a great screenshot or mindful meditation rather than any tangible keepsake.

Why is the game making me feel guilty for using stealth? It’s a disconnect for the sake of a narrative conflict, one that detracts from the fantasy. Why does the hero always have to be a “good guy?”

Battle Unending

When taking stock of acting, voices and performances, which are so very important in a game where story is conveyed mostly through dialogue and cutscenes, there’s a layer of polish missing in Ghost of Tsushima. Acting is stilted, resulting in rigid story moments especially when it cuts to Jin speaking to non-playable characters (NPCs). It reminds me of older games where the characters just stand across from each other talking, with limited nuance or expression. Jin is stoic as it is, highlighted even more by these interactions.

There’s an unfortunate disconnect when it comes to dialogue depending on the setting. As I do with games of this nature set in Japan, I began using the Japanese vocal track with English subtitles. The lip-syncing was clearly off, bothersome right away. Which meant I had to change to English voiceover, much less authentic. Overall it’s serviceable, with no real standouts within performances or animations, and I wish I experienced the Japanese version.

In what’s thankfully a general push in the industry these days, Sucker Punch provides a decent menu of accessibility options. I noted the lack of a target lock-in during ground combat, though there is an auto-aim feature for using Jin’s bow. There are simplified controls, button hold toggles, visual indicators and controller vibration choices. It’s not the best in class like something along the lines of The Last of Us Part II, still very much appreciated.

The game’s photo mode is the true treat and acts to show off an already beautiful selection of locations. I ended my play session with over 200 shots saved. It features the standard options for color palettes and focus depth, it’s that it offers animated backgrounds, time-of-day changes, wind direction and even background music for the GIF-inclined folks. I spent more time in this mode trying to craft the perfect shot than any other game in recent memory besides Red Dead Redemption 2.

Changing my stance to take a step back, there’s a ton to like in Ghost of Tsushima between its explorable environments, character building and fluidity of combat. Its setting is magnificent. The project echoes Kurusawa movies and respects the historical time period, even if it pays homage without ever going as far as being a great samurai narrative.

In video game terms, there’s just way too much base-clearing and camp liberating. Random encounters that get stale when you’ve seen them all. Mission structure comparable to games of yesteryear. It’s just as much Far Cry as Assassin’s Creed. It’s the type of open world game set in feudal Japan that people have wanted from those kinds of series without challenging conventions established by them.

Sucker Punch’s latest, and I think best, fits nicely within a general modern day open world design mantra, and it’s a great one of those. Especially in its depiction of a 13th century Japanese setting. It’s just never more than that, unlike some of its more spectacular and memorable predecessors. Ghost of Tsushima will be remembered as the game that satisfies that enticing fantasy of being a powerful, vengeful samurai that develops new skills to combat an invading force. It falls just short of being an essential study in the space.

Title: Ghost of Tsushima

Release Date: July 17, 2020

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Recommendation: It’s a really cool open-world, third-person action game set in a beautiful landscape with some smart features and challenging combat sequences. Exploration is a treat, as is taking screen-grabs of its incredibly artful environments. You won’t find innovation or risk-taking beyond its genre, much of its side content is repetitive and its interactions aren’t as dynamic as it should be. Ghost of Tsushima is still worth a play for collectors, photographers and feudal Japan enthusiasts alike (of which there are at least 2.4 million, as the game is the fastest-selling new property on PlayStation 4 to date.)

Sources: PlayStation Twitter, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Screenshots on PlayStation 4 Pro.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Hope all is well everyone. Given the difficult circumstances, especially here in the States.

(WEAR A MASK!)

There’s still not much else to do these days besides talk about gaming, media and tech amirite? Good news is there’s a bevy of information dropping recently and in the near future from companies about the status of their businesses amid the coronavirus landscape.

Helping navigate is my quarterly earnings calendar covering these major sectors. Above is the image for quick reference and below is the usual Google Doc with everything including investor links.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

I recommend keeping a close eye in particular on the three companies below as you hopefully stay safe during this time.

Ubisoft Entertainment SA (UBI): Wednesday, July 22

The maker of games in major franchises like Assassin’s Creed and the Tom Clancy lineage actually reported already last week in what was the most significant communication from a PR standpoint in its recent history. As shared by various outlets including an extensive article from Bloomberg, multiple Ubisoft executives are facing ongoing allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct including the main creative officer of the company Serge Hascoët who recently resigned.

The French publisher’s numerical performance was sound, with increases in sales and engagement for catalog titles especially, yet the real topic was the company’s approach to addressing toxicity in its studios. CEO Yves Guillemot claims to be committed to changing its culture. Which desperately needs to happen on a broad scale. It’s way too early to know if he will, at least the company has a plan in place to move towards a more welcoming environment for everyone. Especially women, people of color and LGBTQ employees.

Sony Corp (SNE): Tuesday, August 4

Sony is a sizeable company with a diverse set of ventures, though its gaming division continues to be the feature especially this summer. We’ll notice the impact even more in its latest quarter due to the flagship release of The Last of Us Part II in June. Like many critics, I showered Naughty Dog’s latest with praise in my recent review. This widespread critical admiration is translating to commercial success as the game was the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive ever, selling-through 4 million copies in three days and the number one grossing title in the United States during the month of June.

The Japanese tech conglomerate should also benefit from growing PlayStation Plus memberships, which reached 41.5 million last quarter up from 36.4 million the prior year, plus higher demand in its other consumer businesses amidst continuing stay-at-home situations globally. Just as intriguing will be its forecasts for future quarters and the upcoming fiscal year, given the significance of its PlayStation 5 release this holiday.

Walt Disney Co (DIS): Tuesday, August 4

Disney is one of those companies that experiences both sides of virus impact. Coronavirus has naturally caused massive disruption in its park and cruise operations, resulting in significant earnings declines last quarter. Though the media leader benefits financially in subscriptions to its Disney+ streaming service, which totaled 54.5 million users as of its last quarterly report. Compare this to the 33.5 million in March and you can see the potential as the virus looms or even returns in areas.

In arguably its biggest get yet, the movie version of Broadway hit play Hamilton launched on the service in early July, surging downloads by 74% over its debut weekend. There’s also the sports angle, as the National Basketball Association (NBA) is set to restart its season this Thursday, July 30 exclusively at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at its Florida location. While these latest developments won’t impact the latest quarter-ending results, Disney’s forecast for future growth will reveal how much they can offset the lower park and vacation revenue near term.

Thank you again to all those on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus, and to those working through the pandemic wherever you are whether it’s helping to deliver packages or working essential retail.

Hopefully chatting about these industries, companies, products and experiences can help during the downtime. Appreciate the visit!

Sources: Bloomberg, Company Investor Relations Websites, NPD Group, PlayStation Blog.

-Dom

Review: Maneater is an Amusing, Fun Shark Game Even in its Shallow Depth

Sometimes, you know exactly what you are going to get after hearing a game’s pitch.

Maneater is that. One of those video games that relishes in being a video game, purely defined by that “ah ha” moment in the brainstorming phase: Play as a shark. Become powerful. Destroy everything. That’s about it.

Billed as an open world shark adventure with role-playing game mechanics by development team Tripwire Interactive, the core loop of swimming, exploring and devouring as a powerful ocean predator is mostly fun and quite satisfying even if lacking in surrounding areas of narrative, quest design and progression balancing. If the end goal is simply wreaking as much havoc as possible as a vengeful bull shark, then mission accomplished.

It’s framed as a ridiculous reality television show, itself dubbed the titular Maneater, that documents battles between humans and sea beasts. Like a deranged Shark Week on steroids. This particular show features the exploits of lifelong bayou shark hunter Pierre “Scaly Pete” LeBlanc and his inexperienced, college-aged son Kyle.

Presentation and design philosophy is akin to a Crackdown or Sunset Overdrive, as over-the-top and exaggerated as possible. It never takes itself seriously. There’s the ever-present, sarcastic narrator voiced expertly by Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell. Title splashes and hashtags fill the screen. Personally I enjoy the approach because it provides a parodist tone that perfectly parallels a game solely about munching and destroying everything in sight. I could see some viewing it as more annoying than entertaining, especially towards the end hearing the same lines numerous times.

Initial setup is as straightforward as they come: Scaly Pete captures a mother shark and kills her before trying to throw her newborn pup overboard to survive on its lonesome. Pete maims the baby shark in order to distinguish it when it gets older, then the pup gobbles his arm in the struggle, igniting a feud between the two that becomes the primary narrative driving the game towards its conclusion.

The player then takes control of that small shark. And it’s pissed.

What follows is, plain and simple, utter underwater destruction. Even some above ground. The point is to consume as many creatures and nutrients as possible to evolve from diminutive stature into a massive, legendary beast that’s powerful enough to confront Scaly Pete. There are cutscenes interspersed between each chapter that mostly delve into Pete’s familial relationships and his ambition to rid the sea of a mythical Megalodon because it killed his father. Really there’s not much story to be had, there’s no sub-plots. The backdrop is a standard revenge tale.

Jumping over to gameplay mechanics, I’ve always struggled with the physical act of playing water levels in games. And that’s because, honestly, they usually aren’t very good. Not for lack of trying. Especially for 3D where it’s extremely difficult to balance camera operation with input controls and account for variables of both depth and distance, plus the resistance of water on how a character moves. I don’t envy anyone who has to develop a game with one water area, let alone an entire world. So going into it, I was naturally skeptical.

Results here are mixed, yet I’m happy to report it’s on the positive end of the spectrum. I judge this by evaluating swimming controls and camera maneuverability. Maneater does well enough with swimming and movement, even if it takes longer than it should to get the hang of it. There are multiple options for controller layouts, always a plus. Moving and turning is smooth and manageable. There’s a “chomp” attack button that bites, a burst to gain speed, an evasive dodge and even a tail-whip input. Tripwire Interactive’s designers and animators gave a cool suite of movement tech to the shark, which only improve with future upgrades.

Sadly, camera control is inconsistent and finicky. Moving below the shark to line up jumps to grab collectibles above sea level proves frustrating. When descending into pipes or cave areas, the camera bumps up against geometry making for wonky viewing angles. Perspective is especially difficult when trying to prioritize enemies during fights with multiple foes at once. The game allows a sort of soft lock-on mechanic that snaps to enemies, which is both necessary and disorienting. I tend to weigh camera quality high on my list of priorities because it’s integral to my enjoyment, and I believe the player should feel in control. Especially in a power fantasy.

The core loop of swimming, exploring and devouring as a powerful ocean predator is mostly fun and quite satisfying even if lacking in surrounding areas of narrative, quest design and progression balancing. If the end goal is simply wreaking as much havoc as possible as a vengeful bull shark, then mission accomplished.

Speaking of integral, the whole idea of Maneater is that it includes role-playing game (RPG) elements. Which means customization, skills and upgrade paths to evolve one’s shark “beyond what nature intended.” This is done via an Evolution system, where every kill or collectible provides experience points and nutrients which the player can invest in growing the size and base statistics of the shark then decide on a handful of different ability types.

Traditional stats include mass, health, defense, damage and speed which increase incrementally as the shark matures then can be influenced by equipping gear. There are five body parts on which this gear can be equipped: jaw, head, fin, tail then body. All of these provide buffs or varying abilities. The last of which even provides a unique ultimate ability, which is a pleasant surprise.

Gear falls into one of three sets: Bio-Electric (Lighting), Shadow (Poison) and Bone (Durability). These are all pretty self-explanatory, and it’s fun to play around while adjusting builds. For instance, Bone is uber strong against boats and humans while Shadow provides speed benefits, poison attacks and can heal when biting enemies. Wearing multiple pieces of the same set increase the benefits. There are also upgrade paths for these that require investing nutrients and mutagens, which come from either winning combat encounters or finding stashes throughout the world.

I’m impressed by the attention to detail and the flexibility to mix-and-match items. Plus, these choices actually change how the character looks, the way it dodges plus other movement animations. Each is unique to that set of gear. Which means that your shark can look cool while also having sweet abilities, which is obviously the true endgame of any RPG.

Even beyond the gear slots, there’s three additional “organ” options for further customization. These provide more passive buffs, like acquiring more nutrients and health per enemy eaten or being able to breath out of water for longer. Using this in combination with gear types provided even more opportunities for a particular player build. It gave me a chance to be strong against boats while also gaining health on kill, the latter of which is something I often utilize when given the chance.

Overall it’s really an impressive, ambitious gear and upgrade system with impactful results. Thing is: It’s the implementation where I have qualms.

Unfortunately, Maneater isn’t forthright in explaining how it all works or how to acquire upgrades for these slots. It shows the screen once and provides a brief tutorial. Then it’s on the player to figure out where to find them. Certain upgrades are via side activities or clearing a given area. Others are snagged via the bounty system, which I’ll address soon. Even more are directly tied to collectibles, which is my least favorite because it feels like rewarding the most banal of content. I don’t love the ambiguity or pushing towards busy work, though I understand it in context because the game doesn’t really have too many different tasks to complete.

Subsequently there’s the actual equipping. Swapping between anything at all requires the player to be at a grotto, a sort of home base in each of the game’s seven regions. This means there’s zero flexibility to change tactics on the fly, which is especially frustrating given the free flowing nature of moving through an area and facing different enemies. Having to both leave combat and wait for a loading screen before being able to change gear is way too limiting. Please games, let us change in action!

Alright. I’ve gone this far and haven’t talked about the shark’s favorite part: Combat.

Fighting is for all intents and purposes the point of the game. It’s the means by which all forms of progression happen, it enables most upgrades and provides the core fun factor that all games must have. Not all fish are antagonistic, but those that are can be especially fearsome.

Combat consists of chomping, dodging, tail-whipping and strategically timing attacks when an enemy is vulnerable which is signaled by it changing to a “highlighted” yellow state. When it works well, it’s crunchy and visceral with the most amazing sound design. Fantastic audio effects, noises that fish make while struggling or shaking loose, crunching wood when boats are cleaved in half, loud splashes when breaching the tide and even human screams pleadings for mercy combine to tell the player that they are really doing well as a shark.

There’s some good, smart creature variety in Maneater that really fills out each section. The swampy bayou early on has alligators and catfish. Later game in more wide open oceanic areas, it’s seals, mahi mahi, barracudas, quick species of sharks and even gigantic whales.

What’s tough is again, related to camera and lock-ons which becomes immensely frustrating when being attacked by multiple enemies especially of different types. It’s imprecise and jarring. Bites occasionally don’t land. Enemies look vulnerable then grab you despite their state. It pretends to be more tactical than it is, as in many cases I ended up randomly whipping my tail or attempting chomps until I dealt damage or grabbed a fish to thrash the life out of it. The ambition of combat is well above its execution, most notably against higher level foes and apex predators that guard each region.

Looping back to progression and pacing, the “campaign” in Maneater is dictated by achieving various tasks in a given area. Thing is, those tasks aren’t that various in practice. It’s mostly: Eat things. Chomp some chunky humans or a specific species of fish. Terrorize a region enough so that bounty hunters show up. Complete hunts against nasty apex predators. Reach a certain level of evolution, find the next grotto and move on. There are a couple areas with official boss encounters, mainly used for story progression and with a similar mechanic each time. Even the final boss is an iteration of something the player has already experienced.

Missions and quests aren’t very inspired, if you could even call them as such. Perhaps it’s because there’s not much in the way of variety when you play as a single-minded shark that eats everything in its quest for revenge. I would have liked perhaps some sort of puzzles or more intricate challenges to achieve, as opposed to merely “kill 10 of (insert species)” then “beat this mini-boss.”

It’s best to go with the flow and not expect much more than the tale of a shark on a warpath to avenge the death of its mother. Maneater is hilarious and absurd, its combat is crunchy when it works and the game fulfills a ridiculous fantasy of playing as a shark, even if it’s shallow in a number of areas.

A primary side activity and a way to acquire upgrades is its Bounty System of ten increasingly more difficult shark hunters. Picture a combination of the wanted level from a Grand Theft Auto with the nemesis system Shadow of Mordor, except for the ocean and not nearly as robust. It uses an Infamy rating which ramps up when the shark attacks a certain number of humans then a handful of boats that show up who try to mow down the player with assault weapons, explosives or underwater divers.

Problem is, being hunted is brutal and relentless. It doesn’t stop until the player runs away. And the hunters are powerful, often of a higher level than the shark and there are dozens of them. This is where I’d prefer different levels of difficulty, because even when I had the shark at its most powerful, the bounty hunters would still be overwhelming. Sure there’s no major consequences to dying from what I can tell, it’s just the annoyance of having to respawn after waiting through tiring load times.

Tying into narrative and overall world progression is the process of leveling up. This felt somewhat out of balance. Early game, the next area is gated since I had to evolve to become a “teenager,” which meant grinding for experience points. Then during the second act, it felt way too generous with experience to the point I became over-leveled for base enemies very quickly. Perhaps this is by design in hoping players would like being powerful. For me, this ends up feeling like there’s less incentive then to partake in side activities or go off fighting optional enemies.

With respect to game length, it took around 20 hours to get 100% of everything. Could easily be a 12-15 hour playtime, if not less, depending on one’s proclivity to optional activities and tolerance for collectibles.

Flipping back to tone and world-building, the game’s lighthearted, satirical nature carries through to environmental touches. There are seven regions with names like Fawtick Bayou with its swampy aura, Sapphire Bay resort town and Dead Horse Lake with its radioactive power plant. I really liked the personality of each spot, plus the fun use of each environment.

Golf courses with water where the shark can swim. Underground pipes in the industrial energy sector. Communities with swimming pools that allowed for bouncing around and scaring residents. Everything is built to cater the utmost destruction, and also to make sure that there’s always some body of water within reach. Going further, there’s many destructible items from boats to parts of scenery.

For the explorers and completionists, there’s a fair amount of collectibles: Funny landmarks, license plates, nutrient caches. The good news is completing these earns rewards, as noted before. It’s also fun to see all the clever landmarks throughout the world. There’s an underwater parking lot where the mob hides those with loose lips. Variety of underwater artwork. There’s even a replica of the Titanic, a mysterious UFO and fake Stonehenge. I love when developers put these kinds of touches in their games, it makes collecting reward both tangible and enjoyable.

Briefly touching on performance before I wrap, it’s fairly inconsistent. Frame rate dips during scenes of frantic action, making combat that much more difficult. There’s often loading screens or hitches between areas, even right before a cutscene which totally kills momentum. Loading times overall are way too long and that’s playing off the internal hard drive of the Xbox One X. Experienced a couple hard crashes, even after the day one patch. It’s a small development team and I’m not very strict when it comes to performance, I just have to report this since no one wants to lose progress and I’d prefer not to sit through that many loading screens.

Taking Maneater as a whole, it’s a fun game with a clear intention. It suffers from blemishes and a lack of depth in cases, such as quest design and narrative strength.

The Tripwire Interactive team doesn’t bite off more than it can chew, which is fine for a team of this size however it also limits the potential upside of its game. It’s unfair to compare it with open world RPGs made by larger teams, it’s just I wish there was more to this particular one than its rudimentary mission structure and lack of different types of content.

Truly, it’s best to go with the flow and not expect much more than the tale of a shark on a warpath to avenge the death of its mother. Maneater is hilarious and absurd, its combat is crunchy when it works and the game fulfills a ridiculous fantasy of playing as a shark, even if it’s shallow in a number of areas.

Which is why this game works as a guilty pleasure. Just don’t expect it to be much more.

Title: Maneater

Release Date: May 22, 2020

Developer: Tripwire Interactive LLC

Publisher: Tripwire Interactive LLC, Deep Silver

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

Recommendation: Water my final thoughts? I know there aren’t many, so it’s got to be among the best shark games out there. I haven’t played anything quite like it. It’s a fun, shallow and straightforward romp to occupy a weekend or so. Might be best on sale down the line.

Sources: Deep Silver, Tripwire Interactive LLC.

-Dom

Let’s Count Just How Many Records Video Game Sales Set in April 2020

April 2020 will go down forever as a tragic, horrifying month globally for many people enduring the coronavirus outbreak. My condolences to all those impacted, I wish you all the best during these trying times.

One silver lining at least is that video games are able to provide at least some relief from the monotony of social distancing and lock-down orders. And if sales are any indication, tons of people are most certainly getting their money’s worth.

Last month was a monumental one for video game industry sales, both domestically in the States and globally across digital marketplaces. It literally might have a record-breaking amount of records broken.

Just today both U.S. industry tracking firm The NPD Group and global digital data provider SuperData reported their respective figures for April, in what’s one of the single most newsworthy days in the history of gaming sales nerdom.

Rather than a more comprehensive deep dive into the myriad of stats, we’re going to do a rapid-fire recap of all the ridiculous statistics revealed today alongside lists of top-selling games both in the U.S. and globally by digital revenue. Then, I’ll get through a brief bit of commentary before we say goodbye.

Ready? Time to hit record.

Last month was a monumental one for video game industry sales, both domestically in the States and globally across digital marketplaces. It literally might have a record-breaking amount of records broken.

United States Games Industry Sales (April 5th to May 2nd):

Overall games industry spending increased a crazy 73% since this time last year, generating $1.5 billion. This is a record high for an April month, eclipsing that of April 2008’s $1.2 billion.

Monthly game software sales jumped 55% since April 2019, reaching the highest level ever for an April at $662 million. This beats out the previous record-holder again from April 2008, which totaled $642 million.

Within software, the most notable record is for Final Fantasy 7 Remake which led the monthly rankings chart and set a new franchise high for launch month dollar and unit sales, eclipsing that of Final Fantasy XV from 2016. Square Enix’s latest JRPG re-imagining is immediately the 3rd top seller of 2020 so far plus the best-selling PlayStation 4 title on the year.

It wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t mention Nintendo’s flagship hit Animal Crossing: New Horizons, even if the only record it set is short-term. The cute simulation and lifestyle game was ranked #2 on both the April and 2020 to date software charts. Its mini-accomplishment is that it’s the top-seller on Nintendo Switch as a platform over the past 12 months.

In terms of commercial successes we talk about every month, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was the 2nd top-seller of April and is still the highest ranked game of both the last 12 months and 2020 itself. During its 7th month run since release, it’s the 4th fastest-selling game ever tracked by NPD Group. That fits my description of an “almost” record, so I’ll allow it.

Moving like Jagger to a game that’s the opposite of talked about each month, Just Dance 2020 is the quickest selling game in Ubisoft’s long-running franchise since Just Dance 2014. It improved its ranking on the monthly software chart, now at #11 in April after boogying to the 17th spot in March.

Quickly flipping to the hardware category, overall dollar spend is so close to being a record that it gets like half a point. Console sales reached $420 million during April 2020, up a whopping 163% versus this time last year. April 2008 refused to be dethroned this time, as it maintains the best April month ever when it generated $427 million.

Within the Hardware segment, Nintendo Switch held the #1 spot for the 17th straight month. Here comes the real doozy: During 2020 so far, its sales are the highest of any single platform in the history of domestic tracking for the first 4 months of a year outpacing even the Wii over a decade ago in April 2009. Incredible, especially in a time with supply concerns.

Not only that! Dollar sales of the “Big 3” consoles in the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One all increased more than 160% year-on-year with Xbox One generating the best growth although NPD Group did not reveal an exact figure. From a unit sales standpoint, each of these hit record April amounts according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter:

Switch: 808,000

PlayStation 4: 411,000

Xbox One: 329,000

Last category here is accessories and game pads, which generated $384 million in monthly sales for an increase of 49% since April 2019. Record alert! Consumer spend on game pads reached a high for an April month, clearing almost twice as much as last year’s amount. PlayStation 4’s Dual Shock 4 black controller topped April’s list, while Nintendo’s Switch Pro Controller is still the best for 2020.

Want another record? I’ve.. heard we got one for ya. Spending on headsets and headphones achieved the best April month in history, beating out that of April 2018. Last month also boasted record results for Steering Wheels and Game Cards. Note that we didn’t hear exact figures for any of these sub-categories, only that they had their best April months of all time.

I feel like we all need a breather after so many records. Let’s look at the full domestic software charts for both last month and year-to-date before going global.

Top-Selling Games of April 2020, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  4. NBA 2K20
  5. Grand Theft Auto V
  6. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  7. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered
  8. MLB: The Show 20
  9. Madden NFL 20
  10. Red Dead Redemption 2
  11. Just Dance 2020
  12. FIFA 20
  13. Mortal Kombat 11
  14. Borderlands 3
  15. Predator: Hunting Grounds
  16. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  17. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
  18. Persona 5: Royal
  19. Need for Speed: Heat
  20. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

Top-Selling Games of 2020 So Far, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  4. NBA 2K20
  5. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  6. MLB: The Show 20
  7. Grand Theft Auto V
  8. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  9. Madden NFL 20
  10. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*

Gaming allows individuals to escape into new, exciting worlds where they don’t have to worry about a pandemic. Or they can at least virtually fight back against one.

Worldwide Digital Games Industry Sales (April 2020)

Expanding to the global games market, let’s check out digital sales estimates from SuperData via its usual monthly report. In general, this only includes digital downloads and additional revenue through in-game transactions thus excludes physical copies sold.

And again to confirm, these are internal estimates as opposed to say publisher data.

Spending on digital games around the globe surpassed a monumental $10.5 billion during April 2020 which is the highest month ever and growth of 17% since last year. Ding ding. Another record!

Driving this figure was a jump in console sales of 42%, mobile growth of 14% then PC sales moving 12% higher. Of course this is temporarily bolstered by lock-down orders, as gaming has become a popular way to defeat the inevitable boredom that sets in from staying home. The question becomes how long can it last?

Diving into more individual game results, usual suspect Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold 3.6 million digital copies in April which is down slightly from the record 5 million in its launch month of March. Still, it was the top-selling console game on the worldwide chart. Here’s this month’s record: After only two months on market, it’s already the top-selling Nintendo Switch title as measured by both digital unit sales estimates and dollar revenue from downloads.

The aforementioned Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which was the best-seller in the States during April, achieved the 2nd spot on the global digital rankings. Since we’re certainly counting, its total of 2.2 million digital downloads set multiple records for a launch month. This is the best digital result within the franchise ever, plus it’s the fastest-selling PlayStation exclusive to date beating out Marvel’s Spider-Man in 2018 by a slim margin. A win is a win!

While not a record, Resident Evil 3 Remake achieved another notable result during April 2020. Capcom’s latest remake in the long-running horror franchise eclipsed 1.3 million digital units sold during this its launch month, slightly below the 1.4 million of its predecessor in 2019’s Resident Evil 2 Remake.

Back to the records. Last month, League of Legends hit its best player count of all time and spending in Grand Theft Auto V on in-game content reached its highest level ever. Ongoing games continue in their appeal, as people gather virtually to either compete or work together collaboratively.

This leads into the full charts from SuperData estimates for global digital sales. Take it away, fancy image.

Top-Grossing Console Games of April 2020, Worldwide, Digital Sales:

  1. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
  2. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  3. FIFA 20
  4. Grand Theft Auto V
  5. NBA 2K20
  6. DOOM Eternal
  7. Fortnite
  8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered
  9. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  10. Resident Evil 3 Remake

Alright. I believe I’m fully on record proving how April was a record-breaking month. Counting them up, there are more than a dozen here which is likely some sort all-time high.

My reactions? No one could have predicted this, not even as recently as a couple months ago. This is absolutely unprecedented, even if for the wrong reasons during a tragic time for our world history.

Gaming as much as any other medium is benefiting because of the feeling of connection caused by sharing on social media or gearing up with others online. There’s local play, which helps pass the time with the very few loved ones with which we can spend time. Gaming allows individuals to escape into new, exciting worlds where they don’t have to worry about a pandemic. Or they can at least virtually fight back against one.

It’s not much in the way of analysis to say that April was one of if not the most noteworthy sales months this generation. What’s difficult to say is how long it will last with all the uncertainty surrounding the scary longevity of coronavirus and the potential for a vaccine. I’m thankful that people have games to entertain, especially those on the front lines working hard for our safety, and that for now many have enough disposable income to spend.

As the summer starts here and new PlayStation 4 games like The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima release then Nintendo launches Paper Mario: The Origami King, where will the broader economy be, what level of unemployment will we see and how will sales look going into the marketing cycle for next generation consoles?

Let’s celebrate April for what it was, while acknowledging we have a long way to go outside of games.

As always, please check out NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella’s thread for many more details plus friend of the site Jeff Grubb’s recap on Venture Beat on the domestic report, then SuperData’s site for the global update. Thanks for reading, be healthy!

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

Sources: Media Play News, NPD Group, Square Enix, SuperData Estimates, Venture Beat.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

I know it may feel like time means nothing these days, so trust me when I say that it’s earnings season once again.

It’s our quarterly ritual of learning more about how companies are doing, in particular those across gaming, technology and media spheres. And it will be an especially eventful one to hear how the global coronavirus pandemic is impacting companies at a more micro level. Many companies are also reporting annual figures, summarizing a full year of business dealings.

Up top is the calendar image, below is a Google Docs sheet with this same information that provides easy access to links. It’s fluid as I’ll be adding either new names or updated dates throughout the next few weeks.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

In what’s going to be an unorthodox quarter for many companies, some of which delaying statements or keeping dates fluid, here are three that stand out where we should pay close attention.

Activision Blizzard, Inc. (ATVI): Tue, May 5th

With the introduction of Call of Duty: Warzone in early March, domestic publisher Activision Blizzard blasted into the free-to-play battle royale competition. And made an impact immediately. The game amassed over 6 million players within a day, 15 million in less than a week, 30 million over 10 days then over 50 million users in a month. This trajectory is notably faster than Epic Games’ Fortnite Battle Royale (which admittedly exploded later in its life cycle) and around the same as Apex Legends from Electronic Arts. The question becomes how is the publisher monetizing these users. I expect people are spending a lot in the game, so it should have a significant impact in this first quarter of its new fiscal year which is normally a slower one for new releases.

Nintendo (NTDOY): Thursday, May 7th

No-brainer here. Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons on March 20th, both tragically and opportunistically in the middle of a global lockdown, and it’s the talk of the industry. Everything is pointing to it being one of the Japanese company’s best new launches ever, plus it’s pushing hardware sales despite production shortages. As I wrote recently, it set franchise records here in the States for first month sales and achieved a Top 3 start ever for a new Nintendo game. It’s already over 3.6 million boxed units in Japan per Famitsu. And that’s only physical sales!

SuperData estimated 5 million digital copies sold globally in March alone. I expect its digital split to be 40% even 45% given the world right now, meaning we haven’t yet seen the full extent of its upside. Will likely achieve the biggest debut for a Switch title since launch in 2017. We’re talking 11 to 12 million unit sales in under a couple weeks. It’s the type of silver lining story that helps distract people during times like this, and I expect it to drive one of the best ends to a fiscal year that Nintendo has seen in years.

Square Enix: Mid May

Although its filing date is still up in the air, there’s no question I’m intrigued by what Square Enix will say about a handful of topics during its annual results. Any sort of update on Final Fantasy 7 Remake sales, which surpassed 3.5 million units within three days of release earlier this month, would give an indication of the game’s momentum even if it released after this fiscal year end. Updated financial guidance overall from the Tokyo-based company given its upcoming slate that includes Marvel’s Avengers in September and Outriders during late 2020 would of course be telling. I tend to not expect much in the way of details, but we know changes in estimates can tell a lot even when a company withholds specifics.

Thank you again to all the healthcare and essential workers for your tireless effort in today’s uncertain world. I hope you are able to take time away from the job, and even chat it up here or on Twitter for a fun distraction.

Source: Activision Blizzard, Company Investor Websites, Nintendo of America, Famitsu, Final Fantasy Twitter, SuperData.

-Dom

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Rings in a Rallying of March U.S. Sales Results

In the pantheon of Nintendo’s most popular games, people normally think of franchises like Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Smash Bros.

In 2020, it’s time to officially add Animal Crossing to the list.

The latest entry in the long-running, family-friendly simulation series entitled Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a massive commercial seller since its release last month. It’s the main driver behind a stellar March sales result domestically, undoubtedly boosting both software and hardware gains.

Attribute performance to pent up demand resulting from the last mainline entry being way back in 2012, the transition from its handheld hardware to the big screen on Nintendo Switch plus the tragically convenient timing of launching alongside enormous appetite for design, creation and social collaboration during a global lock down.

These myriad of factors caused New Horizons to achieve the top spot on the March 2020 software rankings in the United States, according to a new report from NPD Group. Easily the best launch ever for the series. It’s immediately the second best-selling game of 2020, leap-frogging everything except Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as Activision’s premier military shooter moves up to number one.

In what’s a staggering statistic, New Horizons generated the 3rd highest launch month sales of any game ever published by Nintendo in the history of domestic tracking behind only Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in late 2018 and 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl. That means it’s above any Mario or Zelda, as storied as they might be.

Keeping with the theme of ridiculous numbers, launch month unit and dollar sales have already exceeded the individual *lifetime* sales of every other entry in the internally-developed Nintendo Animal Crossing franchise. Yes. It took less than a month on market to beat the overall results of those games.

What’s most impressive is NPD Group tracking doesn’t even include digital downloads for Nintendo games. This is strictly based on physical, boxed sales. Considering the stay at home orders across the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if digital contributed upwards of 40% or more overall. (Purely speculation. No quotes.)

A rising tide does lift all boats in this case. And that boat is more than likely used to get to one’s island in Animal Crossing, if sales are any indication.

Changing it up (heh) to another major software release of March, PlayStation 4 exclusive baseball series MLB The Show continues its quiet consistency on the charts. This year’s entry MLB The Show 20 hit third on the March software rankings, sliding in just below Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (which keeps on with its momentum, achieving an all-time high for a March month, might I add).

The Sony Interactive Entertainment San Diego studio creation is the top seller on the PlayStation 4 individual platform chart for March, plus already a Top 5 performer for the year to date overall software list. This year’s game yet again set another launch month franchise record, same as last year’s MLB The Show 19. It’s the definition of consistency, hitting the charts strong every single time.

(Who caught all the puns?)

Plenty of other new games dotted the March overall software chart. Capcom’s zombie remake Resident Evil 3 achieved the fourth spot and reached #7 on the list of 2020 best-sellers to date. DOOM Eternal from Bethesda Softworks went on a tear to #6. Worth noting that Bethesda is another publisher that doesn’t include digital sales, thus performance for DOOM Eternal accounting for downloads could be even better.

Two recent Japanese games charted in the States during March: Persona 5: Royal from Atlus/Sega lands an impressive start at #7 while Koei Tecmo’s Nioh 2 barely misses the top 10, debuting at the 11th spot.

Finally, Nintendo’s Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX achieved a Top 15 start while Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered rounds out the Top 20 even with a surprise, timed limited release solely on PlayStation 4.

Following the above highlights, here are the full overall software rankings for March 2020 then the year to date.

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

  1. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. MLB: The Show 2020
  4. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  5. NBA 2K20
  6. DOOM Eternal*
  7. Persona 5: Royal
  8. Grand Theft Auto V
  9. Borderlands 3
  10. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  11. Nioh 2
  12. Red Dead Redemption 2
  13. FIFA 20
  14. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  15. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX*
  16. Madden NFL 20
  17. Just Dance 2020
  18. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
  19. Mortal Kombat 11
  20. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered

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

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  4. NBA 2K20
  5. MLB: The Show 20
  6. Grand Theft Auto V
  7. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  8. Madden NFL 20
  9. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  10. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Last month’s whopping result for Switch came in above this figure, likely upwards of a million or even more units. For a single month in one territory, this is incredible. It reveals how important quality software is to drive hardware sales years after initial launch, something Nintendo has perfected by now.

Let’s put these software starts in context and take a broader look at industry spending in March.

In a busy month, overall domestic consumer spending reached $1.6 billion which is an increase of 35% since this time last year. In fact, it’s the highest result in more than a decade for this particular time frame. The last time a March month generated higher sales was way back in 2008, at $1.8 billion.

Last month, dollar spending on software alone jumped 34% to $739 million in what was the best March month since 2011’s $787 million. Out of the top ten overall titles listed above, all but one of them generated higher sales than those at the same ranks last year.

Hardware spending increased a massive 63% since March 2019. Nintendo Switch was the best performer of course, more than doubling its sales year-over-year. Still, even its major competitors in PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both saw monthly increases above 25% using the same time frame comparison. This shows that it wasn’t just Nintendo’s release slate that provided a bump.

Expanding on Switch console sales, it was the single best month in the history of Nintendo’s hybrid console on the strength of the aforementioned Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That’s right. Last month was better than even its launch three years ago, the prior record holder. And that’s with supply constraints this year!

Let’s quickly review for context. Unit sales for Switch back during its launch month in March 2017 reached approximately 906K. Which means last month’s whopping result for Switch came in above this figure, likely upwards of a million or even more units. For a single month in one territory, this is incredible. It reveals how important quality software is to drive hardware sales years after initial launch, something Nintendo has perfected by now. Just when you think it can’t top itself, it does.

The final category measuring spending is accessories and game pads, up 12% since last year to $397 in March. This is a record high for a March month for both accessories, previously achieved back in 2008, and game pads as well. The top-selling game pad was the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller last month, while PlayStation 4 hit its best ever combined game pad spending during a March month.

A rising tide does lift all boats in this case. And that boat is more than likely used to get to one’s island in Animal Crossing, if sales are any indication.

Before we wrap, it’s not all great news unfortunately.

Broadening the scope tells somewhat of a different story for the first quarter overall. Year-to-date spending as a whole is down 4% since this same time last year, hitting around $3 billion. This covers the same categories of hardware, software and accessories and game pads.

Two of these categories are lower compared to 2019: software and accessories and game pads. Consumer spend on software titles during 2020 so far dipped 8% to $1.4 billion, while accessories and game pads weakened to $905 million, 3% off year-on-year. Which means that even with the new release boost last month, the earlier months in 2020 are dragging.

Even so, Switch and hardware buck the trend for the quarter. Hardware sales rose nearly 10% to $773 million during 2020 so far. Here’s the main factor: When talking unit sales, Nintendo Switch saw the best quarter for *any* platform, regardless of manufacturer, since a decade ago in 2010 when it was achieved by the Nintendo DS. A major Q1 hit will certainly do that.

To summarize, March ends up being an exciting month for video game sales and the industry for those teams releasing new games especially. Partially a byproduct of those major software launches, somewhat due to the coronavirus impacting buying and playing habits. It’s a sad, tragic situation for the world right now. One of the few bright spots is being able to enjoy video games, which means some staggering statistics for a March month here in the States.

I highly recommend sifting through NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella’s thread on Twitter where he provides even more detail, notably on individual platforms. He also posted a follow-up piece at the NPD Blog to give more insight into Animal Crossing in particular.

Another month and quarter in the books. And it was a wild one. How did your predictions go? What’s the biggest surprise? Are you somehow one of the few people like me that isn’t playing New Horizons? Swing by in the comments or Twitter to chat.

Lastly, I hope you and your families, friends and loved ones are safe during this difficult time. Shout out to everyone working at essential jobs and healthcare. You are heroes. Thanks for reading!

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

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Go Nintendo, Nintendo of America, NPD Group, Sony Corp.

-Dom

Will PlayStation 5 Launch This Year? Sony Thinks So, But What About Me?

These days, amidst a serious global pandemic with far-reaching economic impact, it’s impossible to be sure of anything in gaming and tech.

Which is why it’s notable that people familiar with Sony’s production pipeline say the company is still on target to launch its upcoming PlayStation 5 (PS5) console by year-end, according to a report today from Bloomberg.

Sources claim that the coronavirus outbreak has affected the company’s promotional roll-out and marketing strategy more than production of the console itself. Which would explain why we still don’t know what it looks like or, most importantly, how much it will cost at its scheduled launch later this year. (At least PlayStation Blog revealed the new DualSense controller last week to sate the rapid appetite for hints as to the aesthetic of Sony’s final product.)

Part of why the Japanese firm will reportedly still meet the late 2020 release window for PS5 is that its roll-out will be more limited than the PlayStation 4 (PS4) back in 2013. Sources say the console maker is informing production partners it intends to ship between 5 and 6 million PS5 hardware units between Q4 launch and March 2021 fiscal year end.

Compare this to the PlayStation 4 console after its November 2013 release: That hit 4.2 million and 3.3 million unit shipments during its first couple quarters respectively, for a total of 7.5 million in the fiscal year ending March 2014. So at best, internal estimates put the PS5 launch down 20% versus the prior generation. At worst, this forecast leads to a 33% dip.

It’s worth noting that this early production would be above 2006’s PlayStation 3 output of 3.5 million consoles during its first half year, as noted in this CNET piece.

On the personal prediction side, I’m expecting closer to the lower range of Sony’s PS5 guidance. 5 million to 5.5 million range. As I’ll expand on later, I’ve decided to remain conservative in today’s landscape.

Estimates and speculations reported by Bloomberg are quite revealing about Sony’s overall approach. It shows executives pressing forward to hit market by the holiday season despite anticipating lower output, a move which it hopes to make up for in volume on the back-end.

The other intriguing part of the equation and Bloomberg’s report is the exact topic on which I speculated in a recent article: How much will PS5 cost?

Developers interviewed for the piece imply a launch price of $499 to $549 in US Dollars, which would be a dramatic increase compared to where PS4 started at $399. In my aforementioned article debating about price, one of the most important points is the rumored cost to make PS5 totaling $450. Which leaves little room for margins if priced below that low end of developer speculation.

Main reason for the higher launch price seems to be its beefier specs, higher component costs driven and part scarcity. (I’d wager a costlier marketing campaign plays a factor, too.) Many tech products require the same kinds of components to build, and are sourced from China and related Asian markets, which were generally hit by the coronavirus earlier than the West. It follows that the launch price is most certainly impacted by the pandemic, there’s no avoiding it.

I was wavering in my personal price estimate after hearing the final technical specs. Now with the developer input plus knowledge of continued component shortages, I’m upping it to a minimum of $449 with the more likely outcome being $499. It’s just not realistic to expect Sony to take a significant loss per unit in this environment and while forecasting softer sales.

These estimates and speculations reported by Bloomberg are quite revealing about Sony’s overall approach. It shows executives pressing forward to hit market by the holiday season despite anticipating lower output, a move which it hopes to make up for in volume on the back-end. Not only that, its employees are working remotely which makes it more difficult to finalize plans both logistical and financial or meet with the external teams responsible for making the hardware itself.

Another element to the company’s strategy is potential discounts on current PS4 generation console versions plus offering services like PlayStation Plus in order to recoup the loss of hardware sales. If the PS5 is in shorter supply, can Sony entice people to stick around its ecosystem by selling PS4 this late in the generation? I’m skeptical on that play. The market is saturated as it is, with nearly 109 million PS4s in circulation already. If it’s just a couple more months of waiting, people will save that money to put it towards the next generation. Especially given that PS5 is backwards compatible with software on its predecessor.

I was wavering in my personal price estimate after hearing the final technical specs. Now with the developer input plus knowledge of continued component shortages, I’m upping it to a minimum of $449 with the more likely outcome being $499.

Good news for Sony in terms of marketing strategy is it’s much more viable to do a digital-only events these days, even for major product reveals. Normally hardware companies will host a huge in-person media event during a console unveiling. Given where we are at with the coronavirus and government mandates, this is unrealistic for the short to even mid-term and coincides with when Sony would want to ramp up its advertising campaign.

There’s also the question if Sony is still waiting for Microsoft to make its first move on release date and pricing for its Xbox Series X. Tough to know, since competitors monitor each other of course however each have their independent plans. Honestly, I don’t expect Microsoft to commit to a release date or cost soon. So Sony will either have to keep waiting and delaying its formal reveal, or make the first move and risk being beat on price or market date.

These points all lead back to the topic: Will Sony stick to the current schedule to release this year or have to push the PS5 launch date to 2021?

My answer: I believe that’s what Sony wants to do, even if it’s not necessarily what will happen.

Production pipeline estimates from Bloomberg’s sources say that suppliers are already getting parts to those that assemble the console. Broader PS5 production is expected by June. Which indicates that Sony is steadfast in its plan to reach consumers this year during a unified, global launch.

Thing is, it’s difficult to predict the future even without the variable of a pandemic. Components aren’t guaranteed to be in the same supply even weeks from now let alone months. There may be follow-up outbreaks that impact employees at those suppliers and assemblers. Even separate of the virus, production disruptions can happen for any number of reasons.

Once the console is built, there’s the added layer of retailers and their ability to attract customers. Then the economic impact on disposable income in Sony’s key markets. Where will demand be when people are recovering from what could be the worst recession since the Great Depression?

Many parts of the world are still on lock down. So many people aren’t working. Even when the situation turns more positive in a broad sense and worldwide cases dwindle, people start thinking of a return to normalcy, there’s the risk of follow-up outbreaks. I might be the most pessimistic in this context as I’m expecting this will last a lot longer and we shouldn’t expect it to change quickly.

The further Sony goes without revealing the console and its price, the more likely we’ll see the delay to early next year. It also depends on what Microsoft does with its Xbox Series X roll-out of course, however they are experiencing the same exact conditions as Sony when it comes to part suppliers and manufacturing pipelines.

There’s the strong possibility we see one of two things from Sony:

  • Soft initial roll-out of PS5 leading into the holiday season with low shipments and decreased sell-through to consumers until 2021.
  • Broader delay of its global console launch until Q1 of 2021, when retailers and distributors are more secure and demand has recovered.

Right now, I’m predicting the first scenario. Yet most certainly will not rule out the second.

Either way, my estimates parallel with Sony predicting that if the PS5 launches this year, shipments should be down compared to last generation when component costs are impacted by supply. Not to mention the appetite for expensive, new technology is subdued and won’t recover until next year. If the launch happens in 2021, I’m more optimistic on initial shipments and people’s willingness to spend.

What about you? Are you team Late 2020 or Early 2021? Feel free to get back to me here or Twitter on your expectations! Thanks for reading.

Note: Prices quoted here are using US Dollars.

Sources: Bloomberg, CNET, New York Times, PlayStation Blog, Sony Corp.

-Dom

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

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

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

Let’s talk specifics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top-Selling Games of the Last 12 Months (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

Sony Corp: Tuesday, February 4th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ubisoft Entertainment SA: Thursday, February 6th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activision Blizzard: Thursday, February 6th.

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

Twice the fun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take-Two Interactive: Thursday, February 6th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom