Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2021: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

We’re a month into the second calendar quarter of the year, which means another earnings season has started!

In my largest list yet, above is the current schedule for a variety of public companies across gaming, media and technology spaces reporting fiscal results this month and next. It’s a handy way to keep track of the season, which I’ll update periodically based on new announcements.

There’s also the link below, which goes to a Google Doc displaying the same list for easy access to investor relations websites. I recommend bookmarking one of these, perhaps even both, though I admit I’m a bit biased! It’s the way I keep tracking of everything, so I love sharing it with everyone each few months.

Lastly, I briefly list out three stocks to monitor closely this quarter with some details on their situations. Whether established companies or new listings, Working Casual can cover them all. Which ones made the highlights? Check below the fold to find out.

I hope you and your families are well and on the road to vaccination, if not already there. Be safe!

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2021: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Nintendo Co., Ltd: Thursday, May 6th

Early in May, Nintendo reports its latest annual results where we’ll hear about hardware, software and mobile results for the full year through the end of March. Last quarter, the Japanese gaming giant raised targets for sales and profit guidance along with Switch hardware units for the year to 26.5 million from 24 million. CEO Shuntaro Furukawa and the executive team are known lately for erring towards conservative guidance, so I expect a beat on all fronts. As it usually does, Nintendo will also share updated lifetime hardware sales for Switch, which will blow past 80 million and should eclipse both PlayStation Portable plus Game Boy Advance lifetime figures, in addition to a variety of major software title updates. In a move much decried by fans, its Mario 35th Anniversary celebration ended abruptly in March with a handful of titles going off market, a timing that’s curiously the same as its fiscal year end date. Combining that boost with steady hardware momentum and software output, it should be the best year for Nintendo in at least a decade.

Capcom Co. Ltd: Monday, May 10th

Yet another Japanese publisher that’s been very active the past 12 months is Capcom, one of the most consistent in the industry in terms of pace and quality of releases. It will also share annual results this quarter in mid-May. The company’s flagship this year so far is Monster Hunter Rise, which launched late in March on Nintendo Switch and surpassed 5 million units shipped in just over a week. Back catalog sales for Resident Evil franchise in anticipation of Resident Evil Village next month plus legacy Monster Hunter World titles along with supplementary launches sprinkled throughout 2020 will drive results to what I expect to be solid growth. Speaking of Resident Evil Village, I’ll keep a close eye on guidance for next year since the first mainline game in the series since 2017 releases during its fiscal first quarter, just before another Switch exclusive in Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin. I’m still maintaining my prediction for a return to the fighting game genre from Capcom as well, so will this be the year?

Roblox Corporation: Monday, May 10th

In one of the most sought-after gaming and tech IPOs this year, Roblox soared well above its listing price during its trading debut in March. The unique gaming platform targeted at a family audience is now trading at a market valuation of over $41 billion ahead of its first public earnings report for Q1, a capitalization comparable to an established industry peer like Electronic Arts (EA). Roblox is a distinct company in the sector, hosting more of a diverse avenue for content creators and game makers than an individual publishing or software development, and it’s available on nearly every mobile or PC device plus Xbox consoles. What it comes down to ultimately is its underlying financials and the ability to support this lofty valuation. In its March prospectus filing, the firm said daily active users rose 85% to 32.6 million and revenue reached just under $1 billion, an increase of 82% in 2020. Downside is costs outstripped sales, which means it’s currently recording a more significant loss than prior years. I’m skeptical of this current market cap given this situation, though I do see future growth potential if it’s able to monetize that growing user base.

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites, The Sun UK News Company (Image Credit).

-Dom

Switch & Monster Hunter Give Rise to Record March for U.S. Games Industry

While vaccinations in the United States thankfully continue to increase, so too does the rate at which people around the country spend money on video games.

Industry tracking firm The NPD Group released its March 2021 monthly report on consumer spending across the games industry today. And it’s a significant one for a number of reasons.

First, it marks a full year of tracking since the pandemic began. Comparisons to last year will now be reflective of the spending burst that began during the initial stay-at-home restrictions around March 2020.

On the software side, Activision’s Call of Duty regains top honors while new releases from Japanese publishers Capcom and Square Enix complete the Top 3. Then, one Mario spin-off franchise hits a major milestone within its genre. While Nintendo Switch’s continues its ongoing dominance atop the hardware rankings, PlayStation 5 maintains its quick start since launching back in November. Sony also retains leadership in the accessory space with its latest controller iteration.

While technically this March report does include a handful of days from February and April, continued quarantine efforts drove record levels and a substantial first quarter, with consumers spending nearly $15 billion on games, consoles and accessories during the first three months of the year.

Before diving into the report, I want to express my thanks to everyone working or volunteering during this still very difficult time. Please be safe and well. And hopefully find some downtime during which you can enjoy games!

Now. The numbers, please.

United States Games Industry Sales (February 28th, 2021 – April 3rd, 2021):

The above chart courtesy of NPD Group tracks total spending in the U.S. games industry over time since the beginning of 2020. As you’ll see, March 2021 topped $5.6 billion which is an increase of 18% since the same month last year. Which is a huge figure, considering Nintendo launched its record-breaking Animal Crossing: New Horizons at that time and nearly everyone was home for the entire time.

What this means is that March 2021 set a new record for a March month across the history of tracking, dating back to the 1990s.

When expanding to the first three months of 2021, sales saw an increase of 30% to $14.9 billion. While solid, this first quarter growth actually sounds more impressive than it is considering the first two months last year were early coronavirus days for the country.

Video Game Content i.e. software and related revenue from subscriptions category is the largest contributor, as it rose 12% to $4.6 billion in March. For Q1 as a whole, these sales jumped 25% to $12.8 billion.

After a month in second place, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War retakes the top position on the overall software list. It was the best-selling title for both the first quarter and the prior 12 month time frame.

Meanwhile, Capcom’s Monster Hunter Rise captured the second spot after it launched exclusively on Nintendo Switch in late March. The latest launch in the company’s second largest franchise immediately became #4 on the year’s top sellers list. Not to mention it’s already achieved a startling statistic. As measured by dollar sales, with just over a week of tracking, it’s the second best-selling Monster Hunter game in series history behind only 2018’s Monster Hunter World, which is Capcom’s number one seller of all time.

Rounding out the Top 3 on the overall chart is Outriders, for which I’ll shamelessly plug my recent review. The brand new shlooter IP published by Square Enix also debuted at the 3rd spot on both PlayStation and Xbox platform charts, causing it to land as the 10th best-selling title overall during 2021 to date. That’s after only three days on sale plus without the consideration of downloads via Xbox Game Pass, which is only counted in the spending categories rather than allocated to individual releases. This successful start, especially for something that isn’t a sequel or part of a known series, partly proves that games sell just as well when launching into subscription services. If not better, due to word-of-mouth and peer recommendations.

As expected, Nintendo-published projects littered the overall ranks due to the continued pace of Switch sales and amazing attach rates. The most notable being Mario Kart 8, the greenest of evergreen titles. During March 2021, Mario Kart 8 became the best-selling racing game in tracked history. That includes the Deluxe edition, though not any digital portion of that or the base version! The prior record holder was Mario Kart Wii, released back in 2008.

NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella commented on the software category in particular. “In content, Nintendo evergreens continue to impress,” he said. “Subscriptions are here to stay, will continue to grow and gain importance. No significant downsides evident, plenty of upside suggested.”

Top-Selling Games of March 2021, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Monster Hunter Rise
  3. Outriders
  4. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  5. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  6. Mario Kart 8*
  7. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  8. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  9. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  10. Minecraft
  11. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019
  12. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  13. Pokémon Sword & Pokemon Shield*
  14. Mortal Kombat 11
  15. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time
  16. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  17. Madden NFL 21
  18. NBA 2K21*
  19. Super Mario Party*
  20. FIFA 21

Top-Selling Games, 2021 Year-to-Date, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  3. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  4. Monster Hunter Rise
  5. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  6. Mario Kart 8*
  7. Minecraft
  8. Madden NFL 21
  9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  10. Outriders

When it comes to the Hardware category in the U.S., Japan rules once again. Accelerated by popular Nintendo and Sony platforms, domestic spending on consoles boosted 47% to $680 million in March 2021. That’s yet another March record, beating out the $552 million from the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 era of March 2008.

For the first quarter this year, sales in this category reached $1.4 billion. Naturally, this is a significant jump since the late generation cycle months of 2020, an increase of 81% year-on-year.

Nintendo Switch earned the top spot as measured by both units sold and dollars generated. This marks the 28th consecutive month that the hybrid platform has led by unit sales, all the more impressive given Nintendo’s anti-discount strategy. Switch also led the first quarter by number of units sold.

Out of its main competitors, PlayStation 5 is faring the best during its early days despite inventory constraints due to chip shortages plus a notable lack of exclusives during its launch window. Sony’s platform is officially the fastest-selling console in the history of NPD Group tracking, as measured by both unit and dollar sales during the first 5 months after launch. While the report wasn’t specific, I believe its predecessor held the spot previously.

There’s no word specifically on Xbox Series X|S performance other than mentioning that new generation boxes are moving off retail shelves as fast as manufacturers can ship them. It sounds like Microsoft’s production has been hit the hardest by the global chip situation, since supply dictates commercial fulfillment at this stage.

Gaming Accessories are the final category here tracked in this monthly report. NPD Group shared that it also boasted a historic month, hitting a March record spending amount of $300 million. That’s up 26% since March 2020.

Across the first three months of the year, accessory revenue climbed 42% to $717 million in total.

During both the month and quarter, the standard PlayStation 5 DualSense Wireless Controller variant led all other accessories in parallel to the success of its corresponding hardware.

For those keeping score, that’s a set of March month records for total, hardware and accessory spending during March 2021. It’s a combination of mobile gains, new hardware sell outs, subscription revenues and flagship software launches from major publishers bolstering last month to record levels across these areas.

“[The] market might be more smoothly transitioning to cyclical growth than I’d expected,” Piscatella added. “What happens next depends on the chip situation and content development; supply as or more important than demand.”

I’m anticipating very good if not great momentum in the coming months, as the release schedule picks up especially on the third party and PlayStation side. Even knowing a lot of game delays pushed to later this year or into 2022. April releases include MLB The Show 2021, now multi-platform and always a steady seller, in addition to the revived Pokémon Snap. Combine this with the bulk of Outriders sales plus Monster Hunter Rise momentum and I wouldn’t be surprised to see April generate certain records of its own.

Until then, please wear a mask, wash your hands and be safe everyone. I’m out for now!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Capcom, Microsoft, Nintendo, NPD Group, Square Enix, Zachary Hsieh.

-Dom

Review: Outriders is Geared Up For Guilty Fun, When It Actually Works

It’s difficult to establish new brands in the games business, especially within the crowded looter shooter space. Outriders gets part of the way there with an addictive gameplay loop, masterful environment art plus flexibility in character and gear customization options. Even if it’s rough around the edges and often crashes, both figuratively and quite literally.

Developer People Can Fly, a team known for fast-paced shooters like Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgement, crafted a campaign-based, 3rd person action game riddled with loot, rank-ups and abilities. It’s a twist on the deluge of online service games of the modern era, spinning it towards campaign instead of ongoing content. It often feels like a Mass Effect with even more gear to find and tweak. Memorable environmental design, a satisfying combat hook and narrative arc that builds momentum well in the later acts are among its best surprises. Where it suffers is a lack of polish, a slow beginning, cringe-worthy dialogue, various technical issues and inconsistent quality of life and accessibility offerings.

Ultimately, I’d compare Outriders more to the satisfying, greasy junk food devoured after a night out as opposed to any sort of fine dining experience. It has its moments, guilty as they are, and boasts features that competitors should have while lacking others that are genre staples. It often tries too hard to be edgy, distracting from the eloquence of certain mechanical choices. I’m skeptical of its staying power past a few weekends, as fun as those could be when it’s stable enough to play.

Fans of well-established shlooters like Destiny or Borderlands will be immediately familiar with its general conceit. At its core, Outriders is a sci-fi action game that leans on character builds, skill choices, intense combat, level progression and the never-ending desire to find that next piece of gear. There’s a lot to it, a monumental amount of work and balancing from a studio’s first foray into this space.

Story goes like this: Earth is dying because of climate change. Humanity decides to send a select amount of colonists to Enoch, a distant planet seemingly suited for life. Among them are the titular Outriders, a team of elite scouts that will arrive before everyone else to take stock of this new home. Thing is, Enoch isn’t actually that hospitable. An unexplained, deadly energy force dubbed the Anomaly makes life near unmanageable. When the Outriders try to warn the Enoch Colonization Authority (ECA), its leaders are in denial and send a separate team to assassinate all the Outriders.

The player character survives both this internal attack and exposure to the Anomaly itself, is shoved into cryostasis by ECA scientist Shira Gutmann and sleeps for over 30 years.

Once awakened, Enoch is a totally different place. Overrun by enemy factions in an endless war alongside disgusting monsters influenced by the Anomaly, including a set of humans with special powers called The Altered. Our Outrider, possessing these super human abilities as well, works with former friends and new allies to mitigate threats and salvage some semblance of normal life for everyone that survived this far.

And that’s where the player takes control, finding both Shira and fellow Outrider Jakub Dąbrowski embroiled in this conflict. The MacGuffin here is a mysterious signal being broadcast since at least that initial landing, thus the journey towards gear and glory commences. All of this is explained during a painfully slow introduction sequence, as the game takes way too long to get into the real action.

At this point the player faces a major choice: What class to pick? Outriders features four of them, all designed well enough yet sharing a lot of similar characteristics. Devastator is the in-your-face tank. Pyromancer is a balanced build based on, you guessed it, fire. Then there’s the sniping class in the Technomancer and its multitude of turrets. Finally, Trickster offers agile, hit-and-run techniques including a snappy teleport.

I’ve rolled a Trickster and Pyromancer, then learned about the other two via co-op or reading impressions. Even though the game is technically a shooter, its skill system is what truly makes it fun and engaging. Each character has a set of eight selectable skills, three of which can be active at a given time. Many of these apply certain status effects, for instance Burning for the Pyromancer or Slow for the Trickster.

What’s great about the skill design is they are viable in both solo and multiplayer modes, the latter of which really highlights combat versatility and synergies among classes. Trickster and Technomancer combine as a great team, teleporting and turrets in tandem. Devastator is powerful yet a bit more risky alone, and Pyromancer is an all-around quality pick. It’s the combinations that are necessary when facing high level combatants, notably during post-game.

Quick yet important caveat is there’s no regenerating health. The only way to heal is to fight. Each class has its own curative mechanic, all of which require some sort of damage dealt. While having to fight in order to stay alive might seem counterintuitive, it’s a genius decision. Outriders is closer to something like DOOM in how it rewards aggressive behavior. A frenetic action game masquerading as a cover shooter.

Naturally for a title of this nature, multiple layers of player progression coax people to stick around. First, there’s individual player level. Experience points here are gained by basically just playing anything, up to the Level 30 maximum per character. This provides points that can be invested into Class Trees, unlocking additional passive bonuses that range from basic to highly focused. Each character has three main “specializations” i.e. sub-classes. Decisions around them are important, mainly because there aren’t enough points to unlock everything in the broader tree.

Every skill point investment is meaningful, crafting toward specific builds. For instance there’s a Trickster path called Assassin that promotes weapon output and quick movement on the battlefield. While I’m not a fan of this sort of arbitrary limiting, I understand the design choice. It’s meant to encourage specialization and experimentation rather than becoming an all-around god. Thing is, many people like the power fantasy. Good news is that it doesn’t cost anything to re-spec or shift to a different branch.

Then there’s one of the best ideas Outriders has to offer in World Tiers, both a leveling and difficulty mechanic. This effectively sets the “meta” layer, impacting enemy power, loot drop level and the rate at which the best gear appears. It also determines the wearable item level cap, so a lower level character can’t wield a super-powerful gun until it reaches the corresponding tier.

There are fifteen World Tiers, each one increasing all of these requisites and rewarding with a random drop once a new level is achieved. The brilliance is how Outriders lets the player dictate difficulty by allowing changes on the fly. Having a tough time with a certain encounter? Bump it down temporarily. Thing is, there’s a slight catch. The game only doles out World Tier experience at the highest unlocked level, and dying resets part of that progress. My personal rule was if I failed once during a particular fight, I’d lower it by one until I finished that area. I love this sort of setting that can be adjusted immediately. It encourages more people to play, alleviates wasted time on challenging encounters and there are still plenty of meaningful prizes.

While having to fight in order to stay alive might seem counterintuitive, it’s a genius decision. Outriders is closer to something like DOOM in how it rewards aggressive behavior. A frenetic action game masquerading as a cover shooter.

Speaking of rewards, I’ve come this far without mentioning the most important part of the genre: LOOT!

Originating in role-playing games of yesteryear, gear and customization around it is now commonplace in many genres. Outriders is in a class where it’s the core design aspect: The player character starts with crummy weapons and armor, earns better loot throughout the game until they are powerful enough to take on the game’s most challenging content.

As always, there are varying degrees of quality: Common, Unusual, Rare, Epic and the coveted Legendary. All of them communicated visually by both how they look on the character and what color they show up as in one’s inventory. What’s nice is even if early gear is not pleasing to the eye, it’s still useful in a practical sense. Lower level items starting at the Rare category possess worthwhile perks, such as applying status effects, shortening skill cool downs or replenishing health after a kill.

The overall loot ramp-up is steady, if not slow, until the story opens up to where there are certain optional quest-lines. My first Epic reward came at around 5 hours, a Level 12 shotgun earned during a boss fight. Initial Legendary was a double fire machine gun called Amber Vault at Level 21, a random pull after numerous hours fighting hordes and insurgents. Upside is that certain missions actually allow the player to pick between three different rewards within the same rarity. Most times they are worthwhile, and it reduces the reliance on luck.

Aesthetically, a lot in Outriders isn’t really appealing unless it’s the best of the best. A mish-mash of post-apocalyptic junk and natural designs, a whole lot of bones and protrusions. Weapons are mostly standard military fare until the highest tier of Legendary designs start to look really unique, blending the Anomaly’s supernatural aura with parts from native creatures and elemental features. It looks like each Legendary has its own story of why it looks that way, a blend of Old Earth and New Enoch. And I appreciate the craftsmanship at the top end, even if I don’t love the artistic approach of “edgy and we know it.”

The best intrinsic system of Outriders might be its crafting, the method by which a player tunes its gear to enhance specific builds or shift towards a certain status effect type. This is done via interacting with crew member Dr. Abraham Zahedi, one of Enoch’s last remaining scientists. For both weapons and armor, he offers multiple functions: increase rarity, boost attributes, modify slots, change variant and even level it up if it’s lagging behind. These cost resources like Iron, Leather or Titanium, which are found in-game or from breaking down unneeded gear.

Modding is the most impactful and flexible part. Rare quality items have a single slot, while Epic and Legendary possess two. Crafting allows one of these to be changed to any other mod the player has unlocked, as long as they have the resources to afford it. Even high level mods are affordable. Once changed, this particular slot can then be adjusted to any other owned mod at any time.

There are three tiers of mods, each offering more unique bonuses and powerful build opportunities than the last. These precious items are unlocked by dismantling a piece of gear with it attached. Once that happens, that character can use it on any relevant gear. Forever. These aren’t consumables. Which means that even if gear isn’t used, it’s still useful.

To highlight perfectly why this particular crafting design is so smart in Outriders, a personal favorite Legendary that I’ve been leveling through endgame is Thunderbird. It dropped with the highest tier of lightning damage possible, which allowed me to add a mod with Anomaly blade attacks at the same time. Using attribute boosting, I was able to spec towards critical and close range damage. It shreds most enemies, especially if they rush.

That’s a basic overview of how gear works, though the point is that crafting is so important and multi-layered. With this amount of flexibility, the possibilities are staggering. Quite simply, crafting is easy and essential in Outriders and I wish every loot game leveraged its malleable approach to gear modification.

So how does an Outrider actually use all this sweet gear? Well, to kill baddies. Then receive more gear used to kill more baddies and so on, of course. It’s that standard hook the genre tries so desperately to capture, and Outriders truly excels in the moment-to-moment combat encounters even if its broader mission design could use freshening.

The best way to describe combat is crunchy. It most certainly earns that Mature rating, with explosions of gore and viscera galore. Guns feel good for a third-person shooter, and abilities supplement well. Automatic weapons in particular are very effective. Rifles and tactical semi auto variants are a bit trickier to use if not playing in cover as a Technomancer, since otherwise time is spent on the run. Shotguns predictably have a most satisfying punch, even if lacking range when fighting humans in cover.

Enemies fall into different broad categories: creatures of Enoch plagued by the Anomaly then humanoids, whether insurgents (exiles from the ECA) or fearsome late game foes called Ferals. There are also other Altered, classified as elites or bosses. Standard archetypes exist within these groups: Those that relentlessly follow players closely, others launch projectiles from a distance, snipers hide in cover and bombard with mortar attacks. And, the worst of the worst, flying insectoids and massive airborne birds that fight from the skies.

Visually, Outriders has a lot of striking designs especially for monsters. Thing is, the tactics employed here are mostly the same. Enemy density and intensity are turned to the max. They will swarm and try to overwhelm. Even mini-bosses will constantly hassle a player, bothering with Anomaly barrages or elemental bursts. This makes it hard to account for everything, even when playing on a team, until one learns to anticipate how enemies will act.

One core complaint is how Outriders increases challenge by boosting the level and amount of foes as opposed to providing any sort of mechanical complexity. Encounter design is lacking. This is fine early on, though I expected it to progress over the course of the campaign. A standard cadence will be enter an area, take down a horde, go through a passageway, fight another large group, pass through a blockade, beat up on a boss, collect reward. Expeditions during endgame have areas to secure, a slight wrinkle. In my hours playing, I haven’t seen anything more complex than “stand on a plate until the timer counts down.” The impact of this rote encounter layout is softened at least because of how satisfying the actual combat can be.

Another thing while I’m at it. My Outrider is this super human Anomaly machine, so how is it that I don’t have the ability to jump? All these cool powers and I’m tethered to the ground. A glaring omission in a game where skills are based around mobility.

There’s story and loot payoff plus plenty of endgame potential for those that can endure its rough edges, a valiant effort from People Can Fly that produces plenty of fun and frustration alike.

Ambitiously, People Can Fly sought to create a loot game within a complete campaign arc, featuring a definitive finale then leaving room for post-game for its most dedicated players. Which means its main missions are where the bulk of time is spent, since most realistically won’t play past the ending.

I admit I was skeptical whether they could achieve any meaningful story beats. Early game presents like standard sci-fi blockbuster, as humans fight with both each other and native creatures while trying to colonize an alien planet. It’s rough and often cliche, yet really started to pique my interest with the second act once it delves more into Enoch, its history and inhabitants.

Like, I know humans are often crappy to one another. We are territorial. A lack of resources in a foreign world would certainly create in-fighting. How about this new world? What about its history? What can we learn from it? Can humanity find a second chance? Happy to say that Outriders mostly delivers in the back half on both character moments and the overarching narrative. Even if the finale is a bit messy, I appreciate how it justifies the endgame setup.

The parallels with a franchise like Mass Effect carry over to character involvement, as personalities join the Outrider on the quest to fight the hordes and find this signal. There’s the aforementioned Zahedi, a future seer Channa, the stern outsider Bailey, gentle giant Tiago de la Luz and even an unexpected visitor that will remain a surprise. While they don’t actively participate in combat, there are dialogue sequences and each member serves a purpose within the roaming camp such as driver or merchant. It’s like a reverse Red Dead Redemption 2, promoting a sense that humanity could learn to work together on this faraway rock.

There’s way more world building than I ever anticipated, as Outriders features a massive journal with numerous entries on lore. Starting with what happened on Earth to result in deep space travel then moving onto Enoch and its various stories, factions, locales and enemies. While not nearly as robust, it reminds me of Destiny’s Grimoire collection because a lot of the cool stuff takes place before or outside the in-game campaign. It’s a nice touch, even if I wish there was more of it during cut scenes or spoken roles.

The actual presentation of its general narrative is rough, disjointed at times and notable for its inconsistent tone. Certain cut scenes just aren’t well-directed, with violent camera movement and jarring cuts. Thankfully there’s an option to turn off camera shake, which I highly recommend. Dialogue often borders on cringe, a combination of edgy lines and lackluster delivery. If you like cursing, you’ll bleeping love the writing in Outriders.

It’s curious, the art design seems to mimic the campaign movement. The first few areas of human civilization within cities and trenches are lackluster in a visual sense. It makes them confined, an odd feeling for this awe-inspiring alien planet. It’s like they never left Earth, a lot of browns and grays with nondescript locations. The further it goes, the more exceptional environment designs become. There’s stunning artwork once the squad visits snowy peaks and rumbling volcanoes, cult areas and ancient ruins, lush forests and foreign villages. Outriders turns into a sensory treat throughout the campaign, and somehow ends nowhere near where it started in terms of artistic effectiveness.

Unfortunately, what the game also reveals over time is a continually basic quest structure and tedious mission design. It starts as clicking on an area, moving through it while fighting hordes of enemies, then teleporting back to camp to try the next one. And never really changes. Even more beefy side quest-lines like beast hunts and bounties are the same setup with a named enemy boss target. Occasional side missions pay off differently, but getting there is wholly predictable. Combat flows in a similar way almost every time, just changes in enemy grouping. This is especially painful on subsequent characters which is the only way to try a new class.

That said, I want to praise Outriders for a multitude of other design aspects. The aforementioned World Tiers are exceptional. The way it integrates side quests with the main campaign is great, allowing for swift selection of either mission type within the game world. Being able to quickly mark all loot of a certain rarity leads to easy dismantling or selling. World destruction during combat is a beautiful thing, in particular where spots of cover can be destroyed. This leads to changes in a battlefield’s construction mid-fight, requiring more dynamic tactical choices.

For those into the cosmetic side of loot games, it has a decent enough character creator. Personally I like when a game offers limited yet different options, and that’s Outriders. There’s no sliders or jaw length or body type, it’s a limited set of player looks, hairstyles and skin tones. Then there’s visual options for banners, emotes and one’s truck. Most are earned via an accolade system, hitting certain milestones across categories like combat, class use and world progression will award new designs. It’s enough to feel personal without being overwhelming. While it could be riddled with future loot boxes, micro-transactions or cosmetics for real money, publisher Square Enix has said that won’t be the case.

Now that I’ve praised decisions, it’s only fair to highlight certain other design issues with Outriders. This is where it can be rough. As I alluded before, there are tons of jarring camera cuts. Gives a feeling of whiplash when just progressing through its campaign. There’s frequent, intermittent loading screens. Everywhere. Moving from areas. Transitioning to side quests. Trying to team up. Then, its fast travel system is annoyingly cumbersome. You can’t travel between regions unless you first move to the base camp of a given location. Which means something as simple as turning in a bounty takes up to three fast travel instances, each with its own loading screen. This is luckily fast enough on current generation consoles and PC, though suffers tremendously on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

In terms of actual performance, it’s mostly stable throughout solo gameplay. I didn’t notice frame-rate dips or chugging. It’s not the most beautiful game, though it has its moments more because of art direction than resolution crispness. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case while playing on a team. To go along with matchmaking issues I’ll mention soon, co-op play is filled with lag, odd animations and dropped frames. Oh, and turn off motion blur. Thank me later.

While the People Can Fly team provides a number of smart quality of life options, it’s lacking in other areas. If a game doesn’t offer a photo mode, which this one doesn’t, I’d prefer it offer the ability to turn off the heads up display (HUD) in a click. Blood spatter lingers on the screen even when a small bit of health is lost, which is especially disruptive since it stays outside of combat. Text is too small, even on the largest setting.

And now. The ugliest of all: Instability and utterly poor matchmaking.

For context, Outriders is an online-only game. Even when playing alone, it requires a connection to its servers. I’d imagine that’s because it stores character and loot information there as opposed to locally. One could debate the merits of that call, yet that’s how it is and we have to play under those rules.

I had mostly a pleasant solo experience, save for occasional crashes and the quality of life issues I noticed. It’s playing with others that’s near impossible right now. Matchmaking is, in a word, miserable. Teaming up with friends should be way easier than it is. It took 15 minutes of multiple tries just to join a game, and that’s on the same platform. Cross-platform play wasn’t fully available until yesterday, over a week after launch. And still, the same team up issues are present when trying to use a “game code” system that generates a unique identifier for each hosting instance.

Trying the “join a team” function is brutal and broken. I started using it for Expeditions, post-campaign higher tier challenges. Half of the time, it pairs me with one person running a random campaign mission. I’d even bet they have their party set to “open” and they don’t really want me there. Other times, it takes me to someone’s hub camp and they are standing there idly for what seems like eternity. It’s a rare case when it fills a whole team running the correct mission type. A more elegant solution would be a playlist where one can pick the enemy level, instead of matching into a single host’s instance.

Then there’s the general instability as it relates to hard crashing to the dashboard. I can’t count how many times Outriders has crashed now on my Xbox Series X. It often happens when at the character inventory screen or trying to swap skills. There’s also times it freezes during gameplay, notably boss fights, which is infuriating. The worst part? Apparently crashes can cause *full* inventory wipes. Players trying to log back in will find their characters without any gear. Talk about demoralizing. People Can Fly and Square Enix have been furiously updating the game with stability fixes, which I appreciate even if I won’t excuse it. The inventory bug is still present at the time of publishing, so I refuse to play again until that’s remedied.

For those at this point wondering about my experience with its endgame, it’s hard to give full impressions on something I haven’t finished. Not for lack of trying or desire, I really want to play more Outriders. It’s purely that I can’t due to the multitude of known issues. Connecting to teams is inconsistent. It will crash before, during or after an Expedition, never knowing what’s going to happen with my loot drops. Not to mention the threat of losing my entire inventory is enough for me to await a patch or two.

Really unfortunate, because the concept is sound. An Expedition is akin to a dungeon, a bespoke mission that really ramps up the enemy density and requires mild coordination to complete. Post-game foregoes the World Tier system, moves to a Challenge Tier concept where players run these timed missions at increasingly higher difficulties to rank up and earn a currency that can be used to either buy weapons or play new Expeditions. Once hitting the highest tier, it unlocks a final Expedition that’s supposed to be the pinnacle of play. I’d absolutely love to see this, especially because loot drops are quite generous. One day.

When it works, Outriders can be incredibly fun and a great time whether solo or squad. It’s like an awesome sci-fi tale meets looter, featuring frantic combat and honed character skills amidst stunning backdrops and during a narrative where individual people and a new world are both characters in their own ways. Then it fails to find a connection before signing in, puts the player in a co-op team that isn’t doing the desired activity or crashes a couple times in the same boss fight, and it’s the most disappointing experience possible.

Technical issues aside, I’ll remember as much about its clever mechanical systems as what happened in the later acts to crew members I grew to know and the secrets of Enoch, its culture, the Anomaly and its ferocious foes. There’s a point in the story where it reveals the actual situation on this distant planet, both in terms of its native landscape and humanity’s colonization efforts. It’s an effective twist.

Like all great loot games, Outriders excels when injecting those mini endorphin rushes, whether it’s succeeding at a particularly tricky fight or snagging that piece of gear with a great set of stats. It launched in a tough state, certain aspects like its crass tone and shaky presentation will be there forever while others can be fixed. There’s story and loot payoff plus plenty of endgame potential for those that can endure its unpolished current form. A valiant effort from People Can Fly that produces plenty of fun and frustration alike.

Title: Outriders

Release Date: April 1, 2021

Developer: People Can Fly

Publisher: Square Enix

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation 5, Playstation 4, PC, Google Stadia.

Recommendation: For those into shlooters and 3rd person action games that don’t mind dealing with its edgy tone and technical hiccups, the meaty campaign of around 30 to 35 hours is well worth it. There’s a lot of loot to discover, builds to try, crafting to complete and a story that steadily improves in quality. Multiplayer and post-game should be played at one’s risk as its loop is plagued by inconsistent matchmaking, hard crashes and general connection issues.

Sources: Square Enix, Screenshots from Xbox Series X.

-Dom

Super February 2021 U.S. Game Sales Boosted by Mario & Switch

Can you believe it’s already been a year since lock-downs began due to the pandemic? I could have sworn it was still March 2020.

Up front, I’m forever thankful for everyone who has been working the entire time to keep the broader economy and healthcare system going. You are real-life versions of the heroes in games like these.

As it relates to U.S. game sales, the industry continues to set records almost on a monthly basis as shared by tracking firm The NPD Group in its latest report.

Add February 2021 to that list, as overall consumer spending in the States reached a record high for a February month. Nintendo Switch hardware, a new old Mario game, the evergreen nature of Call of Duty plus the next generation of consoles led to yet another significant, double-digit increase in aggregate monthly sales.

Granted, February 2020 was wholly lackluster. So the comparison is favorable to a month this year when people are still at home a lot. With their families. Desperate for anything to do. Enter video games, a welcome respite even if hardware inventories are currently limited.

It’s a lot of usual suspects this time though with genuine surprise debuts on the software side with Persona 5: Strikers and Little Nightmares II, then a handful of major milestones for Nintendo’s hybrid platform in terms of lifetime results. It was a super month indeed, and not just because of a certain Mario launch.

United States Games Industry Sales (January 31st, 2021 – February 27, 2021):

Per the numbers in the image above, total consumer spending in February 2021 reached $4.6 billion which is an increase of 35% year-on-year. For 2021 to date, spending is up 39% to $9.3 billion. Driving factors being double-digit gains across each category of Content (Software), Hardware and Accessories, with Hardware in particular seeing explosive growth towards its best February in a decade.

Content is naturally the dominant category, rising 29% to contribute $4 billion on its own. Bolstered by the release of Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, ongoing updates for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and an impressive debut from Sega’s Persona 5: Strikers, year-to-date spending in this segment is $8.2 billion as compared to $6.1 billion this same time last year.

Atop the software list is yet another Nintendo title in Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, a re-release of a mostly beloved 2013 Wii U game. This time featuring an excellent “bonus” mode in Bowser’s Fury, an open world 3D platformer that’s more standalone than it seems. The game is immediately the 2nd best seller of 2021 to date, and all of this without even considering digital dollars (because Nintendo doesn’t share that portion).

Second is the ever-present Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. This marks the first time since launch in November that it wasn’t top dog. That’s kind of.. ruff. Of course it remains the best-selling of 2021 to date, a position I expect it to retain until the next annual release later this year. Plus, February was yet another month where two Call of Duty games occupy spots in the Top 10.

At #3 on the overall chart was Persona 5: Strikers, an impressive start for Sega and Atlus’ spin-off musou game in the Persona franchise. Not only did it debut in the Top 3, it’s the 9th top-seller of the (admittedly young) year right now. The other supremely remarkable new release is Little Nightmares II at #6. Tarsier Studios’ chilling sequel to 2017’s horror adventure Little Nightmares has already passed 1 million copies sold globally, making it the fastest-selling ever for Bandai Namco Entertainment Europe and propelling the franchise to 5 million units sold. Clearly helped by a great launch in the States.

Otherwise, plenty of familiar titles among the software ranks in February including Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales at #4, the 5th-ranked Madden NFL 21 and a couple more Nintendo games naturally among the Top 10. Time to check out the charts!

Top-Selling Games of February 2021, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  2. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  3. Persona 5: Strikers
  4. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  5. Madden NFL 21
  6. Little Nightmares II
  7. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  8. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  10. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  11. FIFA 21
  12. NBA 2K21*
  13. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  14. Mortal Kombat 11
  15. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  16. Ring Fit Adventure
  17. Just Dance 2021
  18. Minecraft: PlayStation 4 Edition
  19. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  20. Immortals Fenyx Rising

Top-Selling Games, 2021 Year-to-Date, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  3. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  4. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  5. Madden NFL 21
  6. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  7. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  9. Persona 5: Strikers
  10. Ring Fit Adventure

Among the three categories in February 2021, Hardware experienced the most intense growth. Compared to this time last year, spending here more than doubled (rising 121% to be exact) to $406 million. That’s the best dollar result in a decade since February 2011’s $468 million. When reviewing 2021 so far, the Hardware segment achieved $725 million. Up 130% year-over-year.

No doubt a two-tailed reason for this: Nintendo Switch momentum and strong demand for new consoles.

Switch topped all console sales in February, this time by both unit sales and dollar revenue. That marks a staggering 27 consecutive months leading on unit sales, in what must be a record for any single piece of hardware to date. Its February was quite incredible, attaining the highest unit and dollar sales for any platform in a February since Nintendo Wii during 2009, smack in the middle of that craze.

Looking back historically, Switch reached major milestones last month. It’s now the second best-selling Nintendo hardware ever behind only Wii. This also makes it the 7th top-selling single platform ever domestically. That’s out of every console released during NPD Group’s tracked history, back to the 90s. Turns out re-launching a Mario game from the failed Wii U generation a month before games released as part of the franchise’s 35th anniversary won’t be on sale any longer equates to sizeable commercial success.

The other beneficiary of high hardware demand in February 2021 was the PlayStation 5. Sony’s new platform continued its “big” streak by becoming the fastest-selling console in U.S. history as measured by dollar sales during the first four months after launch. In terms of ranking, it was the runner-up in the Hardware segment last month.

While an excellent start for PlayStation 5 itself, this sort of lofty performance isn’t isolated to a single new platform. There are plenty of buyers for both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S at this early point in their life cycles. (Even if some are scalpers, unfortunately.) These manufacturers literally can’t distribute enough to satiate audience appetite right now.

It just so happens that Sony must have stocked more inventory in February domestically, at least that’s my take on the situation. I expect healthy demand throughout the year, for both, then supply should catch up starting solely in the Summer months.

Shifting over to the final category of Accessories, in what’s essentially the unsung portion of the report that’s been as steady as they come. Industry spend on this segment increased 41% since last year to $195 million. Want more February records? Game Pads, Headset/Headphone and Steering Wheel sub-sections all did that, reaching their best levels ever for a February month.

As it’s done all year as the best-selling in 2021 to date, the PlayStation 5 DualSense Wireless Controller generated top dollar sales during February 2021. It truly has control over this category, in lockstep with the momentum of its corresponding console. Especially given its substantial price and general availability. Sony is even trying to sell accessories to people who wait in queue for a PlayStation 5 online and aren’t able to order one. Savvy, if a bit icky.

As I alluded to earlier, February 2021 marks the final month before very difficult comparable months start up. March 2020 saw Animal Crossing: New Horizons break out as a cultural phenomenon during the early part of the global coronavirus outbreak, driving all three categories in the U.S. to either record March highs or near that level.

I anticipate consistent results upcoming, even as vaccinations speed up. Spending on video games isn’t going anywhere, especially given it’s the first full year of a new console generation. Though I doubt we’ll see growth like we’ve become accustomed to lately with these reports, given that buying habits shifted when everyone started to stay at home.

For more information on February’s report, visit NPD’s website or check out NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella’s detailed Twitter thread. I’m really here to react and analyze to the stacks of information gathered by their team each month.

Until next time: Thanks for reading, stay safe and be well!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Bandai Namco, Nintendo, NPD Group, Polygon, Sony.

-Dom

Familiar Franchises & New Hardware Lift U.S. Games Industry to a Record January

It’s the first U.S. monthly sales report of the new year, featuring formidable familiar faces topping the charts on the way to a record January for domestic games industry spending.

Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Marvel’s Spider-Man among others drove a solid double-digit increase in content and software sales, while Nintendo Switch alongside PlayStation 5 combined to push hardware results to more than double the amount of this time last year. Even accessories increased over 70% year-on-year in January, bolstered by Sony’s most recent innovative controller.

It’s clear even with vaccine distribution thankfully happening around the globe, the video games industry is a primary beneficiary of continued shelter in place and quarantine orders. Even devoid of flagship releases charting on the software side, inventory constraints on the hardware front and following a major holiday season, January achieved a record.

This proves the strategy of many publishers in the current era providing ongoing content, seasonal events and cosmetic drops to engage an audience that wants to stick around longer than in prior generations. People love a reason to play the games they own, whether solo or with others, and this modern model certainly fulfills that.

Before I dig into the numbers and document my reactions, I want to again eternally thank the front-line, healthcare and retail workers for all the effort during an impossibly difficult time. I hope you are able to find some downtime and enjoy these games as a much-needed distraction.

United States Games Industry Sales (January 3rd, 2021 – January 30th, 2021):

Straight from NPD Group itself, plain and simple: January 2021 was a record January across its tracking history.

Consumer spend in the U.S. during the month reached over $4.71 billion, an increase of 42% since January 2019. Every single category of Content, Hardware and Accessories saw at least double-digit growth year-on-year.

Starting with the biggest contributor, Video Game Content sales exceeded $4.17 billion, comprising nearly 89% of monthly spend. This figure is up 36% when compared to early last year. Big results from Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, the resilience of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla plus a plethora of strong catalog titles from Nintendo highlight this category’s continued momentum.

As anticipated, Video Game Hardware saw the strongest movement: a staggering 144% gain over the same month in 2019, to upwards of $319 million. This time last year marked the last hurrah of the prior console generation, so naturally 2021 will bring about sizeable increases. I argue it’s slightly more impressive considering the public supply constraint issues admitted by both Sony and Microsoft.

As a knock-on effect of console launches plus Sony’s popular DualSense controller revision, Video Game Accessories bumped up 73% year-over-year to a spending amount of $222 million. A rising tide lifts all boats in this case, as displayed by all sub-categories here reaching all-time January highs last month.

Software is the leading category, which means it’s up first.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War once again led the charge on the overall rankings, a spot its held each month since launching in November. It’s also the best-selling title over the past year. Not only that, the military shooter from Activision broke into the Top 20 best-selling games *of all time* in January, right at that #20 spot.

NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella called it “incredible” and said this particular statistic “made his jaw drop.”

2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is even in the Top 10. Activision Blizzard shared recently that both sales and engagement increased in the quarter ending December, namely how net bookings from the Call of Duty franchise rose over 50% in the quarter. Black Ops Cold War itself drove monthly active franchise users to increase around 70%. Lifetime spending across series history reached $27 billion in 2020, plus it entered this year with its largest user base to date.

In a similar success, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla ranked #2 on January 2021’s chart. It’s now the second fastest-selling game in the open world franchise from Ubisoft Entertainment, as measured by first three months U.S. dollar sales, behind only 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III.

As part of a quarterly report this week from Ubisoft where the company achieved record net bookings of over €1 billion ($1.21 billion), the French publisher noted how Valhalla generated record revenue within the long-running series.

Rounding out the Top 3 was PlayStation exclusive Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It’s also the 10th best-selling title of the last 12 months. Insomniac Games’ super hero action game achieved global unit shipments of 4.1 million since launch in November alongside the PlayStation 5, no doubt accelerated by Sony’s willingness to put out games simultaneously across both console generations. Smartly capitalizing on the 115 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the wild.

Another observation when perusing the list is again the sheer number of games from Nintendo even without digital sales reported, snagging 4 of the Top 9 spots. Animal Crossing: New Horizons returned to the Top 5 for the first time since July 2020, after surpassing the 30 million copies sold worldwide milestone. And Ring Fit Adventure among them at 7th overall, a further example of a clever bet from the Japanese company within the fitness sub-genre. Ubisoft’s Immortals Fenyx Rising, a late year gem, maintained a Top 15 finish after its Top 10 showing last month.

You might be wondering about the precipitous drop for CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077 from second to 18th, barely making the Top 20. Or perhaps the notable absence of Hitman 3 after excellent reviews from IO Interactive’s latest? Well, it’s the same reason why Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 are no longer staples of the charts: No digital sales. While NPD Group has expanded its coverage of publishers sharing downloaded data, there are still a number that opt out.

Top-Selling Games of January 2021, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  3. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  4. Madden NFL 21
  5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  6. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  7. Ring Fit Adventure
  8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  9. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  10. NBA 2K21*
  11. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  12. FIFA 21
  13. Immortals Fenyx Rising
  14. Mortal Kombat 11
  15. Just Dance 2021
  16. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  17. Minecraft: PlayStation 4 Edition
  18. Cyberpunk 2077*
  19. Super Mario Party*
  20. UFC 4

Top-Selling Games, 12 Months Ending January 2021, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  4. Madden NFL 21
  5. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  6. The Last of Us Part II
  7. Ghost of Tsushima
  8. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  9. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  10. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Flipping over to Hardware, both Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5 lifted category sales to well more than double the amount recorded this time last year.

Switch was the leading platform in terms of unit sales during January. This marks the 26th consecutive month atop the rankings by this measure, a record in the history of tracking dating back to the 90s. Switch unit sales reached the best result for a January month since 2010, back when even grandparents purchased the Nintendo Wii at the height of its popularity.

Last week, Nintendo updated its financials and it’s staggering stuff. Switch is approaching 80 million units on market, 79.87 million to be exact, exceeding the almost 76 million of Nintendo 3DS as of December. This means Nintendo exceeded its initial full year target for Switch shipments with a quarter to spare. Shoot, the Switch Lite model alone is approaching the lifetime sales of its predecessor the Wii U, at 13.53 million compared to 13.56 million respectively.

In terms of dollar sales domestically during January 2021, PlayStation 5 once again led hardware. Same as it did last month, when I wrote about how it achieved the best result for PlayStation consoles thru each platform’s first December. Sony said last week that PlayStation 5 shipped 4.5 million units in its first quarter on sale, a number that’s a bit higher now taking into account January sales.

There’s not much in the report about Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S, so it’s hard to know where it lies in relation to its competitors. On a global scale, friend of the site and Niko Partners Analyst Daniel Ahmad estimated the family at around 3.3 to 3.5 million globally to date. Just hard to know how it did in January here in the States.

Lastly, here’s even more records when moving onto the final segment of Accessories. Not only did the category itself jump over 70% to achieve a January historical high on dollar sales, each of its sub-segments did as well. Game pads, headsets and headphones plus steering wheels. January month records for all!

Among the products themselves, Sony’s PlayStation 5 DualSense Wireless Controller (seen above) topped everything to be the best-selling accessory of the month. Another one of Sony’s offerings, the Pulse 3D Wireless Headset, topped headset/headphones.

Taken as a whole, January echoed the ongoing story of games industry sales, reaching a record January month on the back of catalog titles plus new hardware shipments. Individual software franchises from Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft plus both hardware and accessories from Sony were the winners, though many more boasted great results to start 2021.

Highly recommend checking out Twitter accounts for NPD Group and Piscatella for even more general commentary and data within platform rankings. Definitely worth it if you’ve made it this far!

Thanks to all for reading. Let’s regroup in February for more sales talk. Be safe.

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, NPD Group, Ubisoft.

-Dom

Seven Major Games Industry Predictions For 2021

Well, it might be a bit late. Yet it’s finally time to look ahead.

So what’s in store during 2021 for the games industry? A whole lot, plus some surprises. It should be another big one for Nintendo, with Zelda’s 35th anniversary plus the potential for a new Switch model on the horizon. In what I’m dubbing the Year of the Delay, better or worse I expect a number of dates to be pushed back amidst the usual challenges of game development compounded by the ongoing impact of a pandemic and remote work scenarios. After Microsoft snagged merger and acquisition headlines last year, my guess is that Sony ramps up its purchasing. Meanwhile, Tencent will continue its takeover.

What about size and spending in the market? I’m calling for double-digit growth both globally and domestically, driven by new consoles, a continued high digital share across the board and steady mobile performance. In a bit of a risk, I’m guessing we see a major collaboration between Marvel and Capcom to rejuvenate the latter’s fighting game history, then I bet we see what Rockstar has been working on besides the online versions of its biggest titles. And it might surprise you!

Finally, we can’t talk modern games without cloud streaming. After making the easiest prediction on the list, I’ll up the stakes by picking which of the major providers could be the winner this year. As long as it executes on a smart business model and expands to new territories.

Where will 2021 take us? For now, it has taken you here. Reading about the future. And a few minutes from now, you’ll know.

Pro Model & Zelda’s 35th Power Switch to Best-Selling Console of 2021

While we’ll get new figures next week, as of right now Nintendo has shipped over 68 million Switch hybrid consoles since its debut in 2017. This year, I not only expect this excellent momentum and the company’s best financial results in a decade to continue, both will actually accelerate with the introduction of a new, higher-powered model. How it manifests, what features it will have and what it will be called is anyone’s guess. (I say go all out. The New Nintendo Switch Pro Plus.) Four years after the original feels like the right time, especially now that other platform holders Microsoft and Sony launched their respective consoles last year.

To go along with a fancy new Switch iteration, I anticipate Nintendo will lean heavily into the 35th anniversary of its The Legend of Zelda franchise. This means I’m calling the launch of the sequel to Breath of the Wild simultaneous with its new Switch, periodic re-releases of classic games in the series throughout the year including Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask plus at least one off-the-wall, patently Nintendo idea. Like a toy Master Sword that somehow interacts with the Switch. It won’t be a surprise when Nintendo dominates headlines and its fiscal guidance again in 2021.

No Game Can Escape The Year of the Delay

While the games industry undoubtedly felt the impact of a global pandemic last year, 2021 will be even trickier when it comes to development challenges and hitting deadlines. It’s going to be like that in many businesses, especially as new projects start during a post-COVID era. We’ve already seen multiple games moved, Outriders and Returnal among them. Additionally, CD Projekt Red’s botched launch of the industry’s biggest game last year in Cyberpunk 2077 shows publishers that it’s better to move a title than risk all built up goodwill with a launch that’s lackluster at best, broken at worst.

What it means here is no game is safe from a delay, and I fully expect almost every single major title to have some sort of release date push, with some even slipping to 2022. And many of those without dates being next year or beyond. Think of a game, and I’m skeptical it meets its initial timeline. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. Horizon Forbidden West. God of War Ragnarok. Resident Evil Village. Far Cry 6. Gotham Knights. Dying Light 2. Hollow Knight: Silksong. Overwatch 2. Elden Ring. Starfield. Bayonetta 3. Metroid Prime 4. Shoot, even something that’s slated for the Fall like Halo Infinite isn’t immune. The only guarantee in 2021 is that teams are going to take their time, and I really can’t blame them.

Sony & Tencent Highlight Another Year of Acquisitions

Mergers, acquisitions, investments and public offerings across the games industry totaled $20.5 billion thru the first three quarters of 2020. Deals like Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of ZeniMax, Tencent’s purchase of Leyou Technologies for $1.4 billion plus Embracer Group’s buy of Saber Interactive among many others headlined a busy year of consolidation. 2021 will be no different, as I believe we’ll see more purchases. Especially at the top-end. And I’m foreseeing a couple major moves from Sony and Tencent, in particular.

I bet Sony invests in at least two development studios to bolster its portfolio, one of them being long time collaborator Bluepoint Games who was responsible for PlayStation 5 launch game Demon’s Souls. When it comes to Tencent, the recent rumor is it may be targeting a major Western or South Korean gaming company. Unlike some, I don’t think publishers like Electronic Arts or even Take-Two Interactive are on the table. I’m putting my money on the latter, like a Pearl Abyss or Smilegate based in Asia. Either of which would still be major news. Otherwise, I think Microsoft solidifies a deal for Moon Studios, the team behind the Ori series, and of course Embracer Group expands its subsidiaries considerably again in 2021 as it continues the path of quantity over anything else.

Double-Digital Consumer Spending Increase Led By 90% Digital

During a time when people stayed at home and played a ton of games together virtually, the games industry expanded nearly 20% to a total $175 billion in consumer spending according to Newzoo. Within the U.S. alone, sales expanded 27% to almost $57 billion per NPD Group as I wrote recently. Not only that, digital accounted for 91% of worldwide spending and 72% of the console market. Sony even reported that more than half of software sales on PlayStation 4 were digital each of the past four fiscal quarters, averaging nearly two-thirds from downloads. In reality, stay-at-home guidelines accelerated a trend that’s been building for years.

With supply issues easing in 2021 for new generation hardware, the potential introduction of a Switch Pro, the continued appeal of mobile even at home on devices like tablets plus the almost guaranteed surprise of another break-out hit like Among Us, I’m betting that both of these figures rise at least double-digits. That would bring global spending to at least $192 billion, with the U.S. generating $63 billion. And digital will account for roughly 90% again. Similar to all the games companies benefiting from this increased spending: take it to the bank.

Capcom Announces Blockbuster Marvel Universe Fighting Game

This is admittedly pure and utter speculation. Let’s have some fun! Marvel Games has already displayed a renewed appetite for video game collaborations. Sony with Spider-Man, Epic Games and Fortnite, Square Enix and Avengers among others. Capcom hasn’t released a fighting game in five years, since the underwhelming Street Fighter V. The brands have assembled in the past for Marvel vs Capcom projects. See where I’m going?

This time, I’m thinking both companies reveal a brand new fighting game this year set in the Marvel universe. One where it starts with a base of characters and villains from the cinematic universe then works over time to include almost everyone it can on its varied roster. It’s the type of game that could rival Capcom’s Monster Hunter series in terms of live offering, establishing an ongoing platform that can evolve, expand and, importantly, earn a steady stream of revenue through cosmetics and micro-transactions. If implemented correctly, a blend of great mechanics and a famous character roster, Capcom could revive its fighting game legacy. With the help of the world’s most recognizable entertainment brand, of course.

Rockstar Reveals Its Next Project, And It Isn’t Grand Theft Auto VI

Ready for another wild one? During 2021, I think we’ll finally know what Rockstar has been working on in between new content drops for the everlasting Grand Theft Auto Online and Red Dead Online. For that reason plus the fact it’s still shipping upwards of 5 million copies per quarter of Grand Theft Auto V nearly eight years after its initial release, not to mention how there’s a next gen version of the open world crime game slated for 2021 already, I don’t know if this next one is another Grand Theft Auto game.

If not, then what could it be? A sequel to Bully? L.A. Noire 2? Agent? More Table Tennis?! How about none of the above, and instead a new IP from one of the most talented and detail-oriented studios in the business. That’s not to say its older franchises aren’t valuable, it’s just I’d love to see them flex their muscles on something else. Imagine what Rockstar could accomplish with its near unlimited budget and time allowance from parent company Take-Two Interactive. The downside is, knowing its culture, staff could be in for even more crunch trying to create something from scratch as opposed to leveraging the familiarity of established brands. If its management could find a balance and ensure the mental and physical health of its employees, I’d always prefer to witness something we’ve never seen before.

Amazon Luna Flies High Above The Clouds

In terms of a general prediction, saying that cloud streaming and related services within the games industry will grow in 2021 is a cop out. That’s a given. It’s currently a small portion of the overall market, there are seemingly new services every other quarter and no one has found the right business model to make a substantial dent when it comes to spending or active players. We know nothing about engagement stats for Google Stadia. Microsoft’s Cloud Gaming is still in beta and leans on its bundling with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. NVIDIA’s GeForce Now is a genius idea, yet faces pressure from publishers that don’t want to participate. Sony’s PlayStation Now had 2.2 million subscribers at last count, a decent start yet nowhere near the market’s potential.

A bolder call is trying to guess which player will win. And I love Amazon Luna’s business model, even if it’s from a company that has yet to successfully break into the behemoth that is the games industry. Announced back in September, Luna uses in-house Amazon Web Services, immediately reducing costs. It boasts over a hundred titles, plus starts at an affordable 6 bucks a month. Not only that, Luna has the easiest path to integration with the most popular game streaming platform Twitch. Because Amazon owns that too. And my favorite feature is publisher “channels,” which is similar to buying HBO for a cable package. Ubisoft Entertainment is already on board, where Luna will boast a channel on which Ubisoft games will release simultaneously as other platforms for an additional per-month fee. It has a long way to go, it’s still in early access and only available in the States, yet I see Luna with the best upside and the most practical of models.

Thus concludes my major predictions for the upcoming year. Am I out of my mind? What about you? Have any predictions of your own? Feel free to drop a line here or Twitter, and we’ll look back a year from now to know just how well we did. Thanks for reading.

Sources: Company Investor Relations/Media Sites, InvestGame, Newzoo, NPD Group.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jan & Feb 2021: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

The first big season of 2021 is now underway.

No, not Winter. (Or Summer, depending on when you are in the world.) Not the NFL playoffs. Not even WandaVision. It’s earnings season!

That fun quarterly time when we get to talk more about companies and their underlying businesses, how their performance rolls up to industries at large. With a focus here on various gaming, tech and media stocks, naturally.

First is the calendar image, as you’ll see above. Coverage is approaching 80 companies in total. Easy for pulling up as a quick reference on the schedule. I keep it open all season. I’ll also update it periodically, since some companies haven’t announced yet.

Then there’s the link below, a Google Doc with this same information and easily accessible links to each website. Very handy.

It’s a busy one, so let’s get right to it. Bookmark that calendar, check the doc and then read about a few companies on my radar in the upcoming weeks. Thanks for reading!

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jan & Feb 2021: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Sony Corp (SNE): Wed, February 3rd

When Sony shares its fiscal third quarter numbers next week for the period ending December, it will be the first that includes revenue from sales of the PlayStation 5 after its November launch. The Japanese consumer tech leader already said its next generation console had the biggest global commercial start of any PlayStation box in its history, a sentiment echoed by December’s U.S. monthly report from NPD Group which I wrote about previously. Despite tight supply and limited inventories, I expect a strong showing in shipments that translate to yet another stellar quarter for its gaming division. Upwards of 4.5 to 5 million, slightly above the 4.5 million of PlayStation 4. The PS5 will also benefit from software copies sold, with the stronger launch lineup compared with its main competitor in Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S. Hardware and game sales will be impressive, as will its digital ratio which I expect to be around 50%.

Huya Inc (HUYA) & DouYu International Holdings (DYOU): Mid Feb & March, Respectively.

Back in October, these two Chinese powerhouses in game streaming and esports announced the intention to merge effective sometime in 2021. A deal worth an impressive $6 billion, with Tencent of course steering the merger resulting in a healthy share of the new entity. Lately, local officials are taking a closer look at the potential for creating a monopoly in the space, perhaps delaying its completion or even disintegrating the partnership entirely. Neither company has announced a date for their respective financial report plus the latest we heard was that the deal is in its regulatory phase. I anticipate a firm update in the next couple weeks, and I’m betting that China’s government ends up deeming it fine to proceed.

GameStop (GME): March.

The biggest gaming retailer in the U.S. has been in the news a lot, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this month, it announced a shake-up in its Board of Directors, resulting from a major investment from Chewy.com founder Ryan Cohen later last year. And as recently as last week, its shares began surging due to a wild scenario of a Reddit forum full of traders fighting short-sellers (investors bet on a stock’s price going down) in one of the most bizarre stories you’ll read about Wall Street all year. Thing is, its underlying fundamentals haven’t changed. Partly due to the pandemic and mostly because of mismanagement, it’s closing a thousand stores in the first quarter of 2021 alone. Holiday sales were mixed, even with the new generation of consoles. It will stay in business in the short term, perhaps with a better direction with the new look of its Board. But there’s a limited upside to brick-and-mortar retailers that aren’t able to adapt in the digital age.

Sources: CNBC, Company Investor Relations Websites, NPD Group, Pan Daily (Image Credit).

-Dom

Call of Duty & Nintendo Top a Record Year for U.S. Game Sales in 2020

Alright, I might have lied. Can’t get rid of 2020 just yet.

That’s because industry tracking firm The NPD Group released its final batch of statistics for the U.S. market last year, and it’s a monumental one. Between the continued dominance of Nintendo, steadfastness of Activision’s multi-tiered Call of Duty franchise and the start of a new console generation, it turned out to be a record one for the domestic video games industry.

This past week’s release covered the highly-coveted holiday month of December, plus a report on full year figures. We’ll start with December then move into the broader 2020 as a whole, pulling back for context on a mostly forgettable year except for when it comes to gaming. I’ll add commentary and context in various spots.

A couple things to note. All of these statistics are solely for the U.S. market, and include those publishers that participate in NPD’s tracking. In particular, certain publishers exclude digital sales when it comes to software charts (Why? Well, that’s for another day.) There are three sub-categories, each of which has its own reporting: Content (Software, Add-On etc), Hardware and Accessories. We’ll go through them all, with links and sources at the end.

Bring on the numbers.

United States Games Industry Sales (November 29th, 2020 to January 2nd, 2021):

Overall, industry spending in December within the States reached a record high for a December month. Upwards of $7.7 billion, which is an increase of 25% since this time last year.

Driven by Nintendo Switch demand plus the first full month on market for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S, spending on Hardware rose 38% to $1.35 billion. This is the best December for the sub-category since 2013, the start of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One generation, which totaled $1.37 billion.

This slight decline in early generation hardware contribution stems from supply constraints rather than lack of demand, naturally. When talking about Xbox Series X|S in particular, though I imagine it also applies to PlayStation 5, NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella said they “quickly sold every unit made. Just not enough stock to keep up with demand.”

Switch was the top-seller as measured by both units and dollars. This marks the 25th consecutive month where it’s led on unit sales, a staggering record for Nintendo. As I’ll write in a bit, this holiday push led its annual sales to a near record level. The manufacturer hasn’t shared anything publicly on specifics, I’d love to know unit sales to gauge how it compares historically.

In terms of the new generation, NPD didn’t share much in the way of specifics on December numbers alone. Rather, I’ll comment on annual hardware results a bit later, which really covers both November and December in aggregate.

Industry sales of software and add-ons within the Content segment reached $5.8 billion, up from $4.7 billion in December 2019. This impressive growth was driven by top-selling franchises likes Call of Duty, Animal Crossing, Madden and Assassin’s Creed plus a plethora of Nintendo-published titles, which accounted for half of the Top 20 list!

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War continued the lead from its debut month of November, driving another year of commercial success as well. In an incredible run, Activision’s first-person military shooter has led every single December during the past decade except for one: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in 2018.

Even during a shaky launch, Cyberpunk 2077 sold well as pent-up anticipation drove significant demand. The futuristic, open world RPG landed at #2 on the overall chart. And CD Projekt Red doesn’t even provide the digital share. I’m not sure digital would cause it to overtake the staggering levels of Call of Duty, though I’d surely love to know.

Ubisoft produced two games in the overall Top 10 during December. At third place is the consistent Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which the publisher previously said was the best launch ever in the franchise. Then, open world action-adventure game Immortals Fenyx Rising kicked off at #9. As a debut for new IP during the busiest of months, this is a notable start (for a game I really enjoyed).

Lastly on the software side, just look at how many Nintendo Switch games are on the Top 20. Beyond Animal Crossing, like darn every Mario game on the platform is there plus Smash Bros., Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity and even Ring Fit Adventure sneaking in at #19. And that’s without even considering digital sales for any of them, a significant portion of the market by now. Clearly reveals just how high Nintendo’s attach rate is when people snag a new device. Which they didn’t plenty of this holiday season.

Before moving to the software chart itself, it’s briefly worth noting the final category of Accessories. This segment rose 15% year-on-year in December to $546 million. Driven by Gamepad spending, as Sony’s brand new DualSense Wireless Controller topped the monthly list.

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

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Cyberpunk 2077*
  3. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  4. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  5. Madden NFL 21
  6. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  7. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  8. NBA 2K21*
  9. Immortals Fenyx Rising
  10. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  11. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  12. Just Dance 2021
  13. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity*
  14. FIFA 21
  15. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  16. Super Mario Odyssey*
  17. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  18. Super Mario Party*
  19. Ring Fit Adventure
  20. Mortal Kombat 11

United States Games Industry Sales (2020):

Shifting into annual figures for the U.S., market, we’ll see similar trends within all three sales sub-categories especially at the top-end. Consumer spending across the games industry eclipsed a new yearly high during 2020, rising 27% to a whopping $56.9 billion. Driven mostly by the Content category, which accounted for 86% of the total.

Hardware achieved its best result since 2011, back when it was $5.6 billion. During 2020, this category jumped 35% year-over-year to $5.3 billion. Major contributors being Switch and transitioning generations, of course. Even if production limits cause the new boxes to under-perform a bit.

Nintendo Switch topped each monthly chart during 2020, and thus it was the best-selling piece of hardware on the year. Not only that, the hybrid console’s annual dollar result was the second best ever behind only Wii in 2008.

Flipping over to the fancy new generation, PlayStation 5 came in second during 2020 on dollar sales. Sony’s latest big (hah, literally) platform even achieved a dollar amount record for PlayStation hardware through each console’s first December. Separately, PlayStation 4 led the year on units sold. PlayStation 5’s dollar lead is attributed to a higher average selling price while its predecessor relied on discounts and higher inventory to clear boxes from retailers.

Call of Duty once again dominated the Software category, marking the 12th year in a row that a game in the franchise led the annual overall rankings. And not only that, the series occupied the top two spots! This year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops at numero uno then last year’s stellar Call of Duty: Modern Warfare at #2.

I’d have to look back over the entirety of tracked history since the start of Activision’s best-selling series in 2003. But I believe this is the first time since then that two titles in the same franchise led the combined chart. It’s a testament to the quality of Modern Warfare, its Warzone battle royale mode, continued free content updates and efforts toward cross-platform/cross-progression functionality that all keep players attracted to the ecosystem.

In a year full of notable milestones, Animal Crossing: New Horizons recorded yet another. It ranked #3 on the overall list. Its retail dollar sales, sans digital, were the highest for any game published by Nintendo since Wii Fit Plus in 2010. And we all remember how everyone and their grandmother bought the fitness board back then. (Likely even still collecting dust at a relative’s place, like ours.) I can’t wait to hear from Nintendo early next month on its global unit sales through year-end.

On a related note, the sheer number of exclusives on the 2020 sales list is wild. Both Nintendo and PlayStation platforms each boasted three games in the Top 10. Sony’s The Last of Us Part II ended at #6. Within Sony-published titles, it’s now behind only Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War from 2018 measured by lifetime dollar sales. Ghost of Tsushima and Final Fantasy 7: Remake also landed in the Top 10. All of these prove the continued relevance of console exclusives, enticing players to spend on that platform.

There’s also certain titles noticeably missing to keen observers. No more Grand Theft Auto V. Farewell Red Dead Redemption 2. As I’ve discussed before, this is less a byproduct of slowing sales and more the way that publisher Take-Two now participates in NPD’s data gathering. “Take-Two remains a data sharing member of the Digital Leader Panel,” said Piscatella in a tweet reply. “However its digital sales are excluded from the published best-selling title charts.”

While not as major a contributor to overall results, Accessories generated $2.6 billion in spending during 2020. This is up 21% since 2019. On the year, Gamepad spend achieved a new spend record. Similar to December, the DualSense Wireless Controller for PlayStation 5 was the best-selling piece on units and dollar amount. Headset/Headphone actually surpassed its all-time spending high in 2020, with Turtle Beach’s Ear Force Recon 70 leading the charge. I hear ya!

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

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  4. Madden NFL 21
  5. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  6. The Last of Us: Part II
  7. Ghost of Tsushima
  8. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  9. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  10. Final Fantasy 7: Remake
  11. Marvel’s Avengers
  12. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  13. NBA 2K21*
  14. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  15. FIFA 21
  16. Mortal Kombat 11
  17. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  18. MLB: The Show 20
  19. Cyberpunk 2077*
  20. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2

Whew. That’s a whole lot to digest. Typical 2020, am I right.

It’s an easy conclusion to draw, yet I’ll do it anyway: It was an incredible year for gaming, with broad critical success echoed by commercial performance.

Switch is starting to trend like no one could have predicted, both in terms of hardware sales and the ridiculous number of software products charting month-in, month-out. Call of Duty is going nowhere, the hard work of the development teams behind the annual series rewarded for their consistent output. Animal Crossing became the year’s biggest surprise, launching in March during a time of much-needed distraction. Sony exclusives proved that quality results in mass adoption. Microsoft sold out of stock during the holiday months, even if supply can’t possibly keep up with demand.

I’ll have a piece soon on my 2021 predictions, yet I find it hard to determine right now if it will be a repeat. Depends on a lot of factors, some unknown. But what I do know is that 2020 set a high standard, despite the most tragic of scenarios.

Hat tip to NPD Games and Piscatella for the various stats plus the chart visual. Totally worth giving both a follow to read more there on individual platform details and other tidbits.

Thanks for checking out the last NPD thread for 2020. Be safe!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Nintendo, NPD Group, Ubisoft.

-Dom

2020 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

It’s here! The final post of Year-in-Review. Then we can finally, officially and thankfully say goodbye to 2020.

Good riddance, for the most part. Except for gaming. Last year welcomed among the best and most memorable of the waning console generation, while Nintendo kept consistent in its first party output as did indie teams on a variety of platforms.

In my opinion, plenty of great titles were contenders for the list overall and top spot. Quality across the whole industry, which is even more incredible given that a global pandemic hit in many major markets before the first quarter ended.

Props to all the teams that released games in 2020, and especially to those that made this prestigious list. Here we have my Top 10 Games of the Year and five Honorable Mentions. Enjoy!

10. Spiritfarer (Thunder Lotus Games)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, PC, Linux, Mac.

Sales: Between 200K and 500K owners on SteamSpy. No official figures from the publisher.

What starts as a cozy 2D management simulator featuring anthropomorphic spirits ends as one of the most powerful gaming experiences touching on the temporary nature of humanity, getting the most of our relationships and the journey towards life-after-death. Spiritfarer is a true gem. While it overstays its welcome a bit because of the sheer amount of management mechanics and goals needed to shepherd each character to the afterlife, helping them confront their mortality amid a gorgeous painterly, pastel aesthetic makes for a plethora of memorable personal narratives and individual moments. Just don’t forget to bring the tissues.

9. Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt RED)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Google Stadia, PC.

Sales: 13 million units sold within 10 days. (I’d imagine many since, even with returns.)

It would take more than one graph during year-end awards to fully analyze Cyberpunk, a first-person, action role-playing game with a launch that was equal parts super anticipated and completely botched. It makes the list because of an intriguing narrative around the future of consciousness and humans melding with machine, rich character relationships, exceptional weapon designs and depth of skill customization. Unfortunately, it’s not ranked any higher because of a myriad of bugs, performance hiccups, silly AI, stability issues and a world that breaks apart at the seams when delving deeper than the surface level. It’s totally worth a play after all these years of waiting, notably for RPG or hacking enthusiasts, though was clearly rushed and won’t be a truly good game until maybe six months of patches and a next generation update at least.

8. Astro’s Playroom (Japan Studio/Asobi Team, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 5.

Sales: It’s a pack-in game with the console, so we’ll know when Sony reports them. Could be upwards of 3.4 million units in four weeks, unofficially.

Astro’s Playroom is quite simply the biggest and most joyful surprise out of all the games I played in 2020. It comes pre-installed on every PS5, and is so much more than a tutorial on the new DualSense controller’s functionality. Asobi Team crafted a smooth, capable 3D platformer that’s a complete love letter to everything PlayStation, fit with clever collectibles, stages and characters all centered on the brand and its nostalgia. There’s a wild amount of Easter eggs and secrets to find, nooks and crannies to explore and even speed-running levels to test one’s prowess against friends. It’s essential playing for the PlayStation 5, and should be the first game everyone old and young tries on their shiny new consoles. Guaranteed fun and memories all in one.

7. Paper Mario: The Origami King (Intelligent Systems, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Sales: Fastest-selling game in the franchise at 2.82 million units during its first quarter, outpacing Super Paper Mario (2007).

My goodness, what an unexpected, pleasantly amazing game. Paper: Mario: The Origami King is the first release on Switch for the divisive Paper Mario series, which has undergone somewhat of an identity crisis before. And happy to report this one is way better than the critics say. It’s really an homage to everything in the Mario universe, creatively wrapped in a charming adventure game with heavy puzzle and exploration elements. Characters are quirky and excellent, in particular a Bob-omb named Bobby, environments are artfully designed and dialogue is genuinely and consistently hilarious. While its combat is a tad simplistic, boss fights are an epic clash of rapid riddles and movement tech plus the game sneaks in heartbreaking subject matter behind the cheerful appearance. Believe me, it’s anything but thin!

6. Final Fantasy 7 Remake (Square Enix)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: Over 5 million units shipped + downloaded digitally.

Personally, I lack any sort of attachment to the Final Fantasy history. Which means I came into Final Fantasy 7 Remake as a first-timer, all knowledge second-hand thru the years and expectations set by modern standards. Happy to say, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s an excellent modern action role-playing game, with a combination of active and time-stop combat options plus a great party system with a variety of customization. Where it really shines is its characters and world-building, bringing its Midgard realm to life. I was enthralled to learn about the likes Cloud, Tifa, Barret and Aerith, personalities so woven into the fabric of gaming history, then to explore areas that make up the famed in-game universe. Enemy encounters range from focused to monumental, it’s totally worth doing side missions and set pieces are incredible, such as the Honeybee Inn. While its story is convoluted for a newcomer, I’m now invested to where I’m eager to play future iterations.

5. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Google Stadia, PC.

Sales: Fastest-selling title in the series. So above 3.5 million units in a week as it beat the former record holder, 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III.

I’m one of those lonely, long-time Assassin’s Creed fans that adores its modern direction whereby the stealth-action series deliberately leans into RPG elements in vast worlds inspired by historical settings. Valhalla places players in Norway and England during the 870s AD, amidst the rise of Viking plundering. It’s one of the most beautiful and well-realized open worlds ever. Playing as Eivor, the player must build up a settlement in Britain by gaining allies in the fight against the country’s shady rulers. It encourages exploration and lightly guides players towards areas and stories. Its main narratives center on forming alliances, the Hidden Ones (it’s the Assassin’s) taking out The Order of the Ancients (and The Templars) alongside a robust settlement building setup. Then its best parts are world events and collectibles. There are only a handful of traditional side quests here, a major one venturing into Norse mythology is a must-see, instead opting for a more emergent design of scattering waypoints across the landscape. Many funny, plenty rewarding and some just plain gut-wrenching. And while it’s probably too long of a game overall, almost all of it is worth seeing.

4. Ghost of Tsushima (Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: Quickest-selling first party original game on the platform at 5 million units at last count.

As I wrote extensively in my review, Ghost of Tsushima is breathtaking. Even if its inspirations are obvious. Set in feudal Japan, the third-person action game takes place in a gorgeous open world and follows Jin Sakai as the last samurai on his island fighting against the Mongolian invasion. It’s a brilliantly vibrant locale carefully crafted by Sucker Punch, providing a stunning backdrop for Jin’s vengeance. There’s the traditional conflict, fighting back against a stubborn Mongolian warlord, yet the underlying theme revolves around the struggle to maintain one’s honor against the reality of needing new tactics like stealth and trickery to wage war as the underdog. Its cast of characters is notable, featuring a father figure lord, cunning thief, former samurai great and a matriarch to a fallen house, with deep individual quest lines a la Mass Effect. Combat is visceral, a word overused in gaming yet one that happens to apply here, with a cornerstone of intense duels and gory sword battles. Movement and traversal is smooth. Bonus points as the only game on the list with a grappling hook! Despite too many mundane collectibles and repetitive side content, Ghost of Tsushima is a cut above most competitors.

3. Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Moon Studios, Xbox Game Studios/Iam8bit)

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch, PC.

Sales: 2.8 million players, which isn’t equivalent to sales yet it’s all that the studio has shared.

I’ve said it before in my review, I’ll write it briefly again: Ori and the Will of the Wisps sets the bar for what a sequel should be, as it both continues the narrative of its predecessor plus improves on the already solid underlying mechanics and overall structure. The artful 2D platforming series made by Moon Studios should already be considered a modern classic, as Will of the Wisps introduces new combat abilities, features a slotting ability system, maintains the same traversal momentum and even has a hub world area that can be built out as a home base. Complete with fun characters, side quests and a true emotional payoff, Will of the Wisps deserves to be celebrated for all of its accomplishments.

2. The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: Fastset-selling PS4 exclusive at 4 million units in a weekend back in June. Though, no official word since then.

It was an excellent year for Sony exclusives as the PlayStation 4 cycle came to a close. The best of those was Naughty Dog’s latest narrative survival horror masterpiece The Last of Us Part II, which I reviewed in June and reaches the second spot in these illustrious rankings. The original game is heralded as one of the best stories ever told in gaming. Its follow-up continues that tradition by following well-known characters like Joel, Ellie and Tommy plus new ones like Dina, Jesse, Abby, Owen, Yara and Lev, expertly leveraging flashbacks to tie both games together and provide the foundation for the events depicted here. It’s relentlessly brutal and sparingly beautiful. A story of violence and humanity and the often futile goal of vengeance. Mechanics are familiar, third person stealth and combat impactful as ever. New enemy and friendly factions expand the scope of Part II, as it’s the narrative and relationships within the cold-hearted future of Seattle that drives the experience.

Naughty Dog’s work here with accessibility is especially noteworthy, setting a standard for the amount of options it allows in various categories like hard-of-hearing, colorblind and general control mapping. One disappointing part of development is the rumors of long-hours, crunch culture and a difficult setting for employees. I want to celebrate the team’s work, especially on exceptionally detailed character models, environment design and incorporating some of the best acting in games to date. Yet I can’t ignore decisions by management, and desperately hope it improves if true. While the final act drags and there are select pacing problems, The Last of Us Part II is the fruit of this intense labor, an instant triumph in game design and narrative mastery.

1. Hades (Supergiant Games)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac.

Sales: Achieved 1 million unit milestone within three days of launch, accounting for 700K copies sold during Early Access.

Believe me, I never saw this coming. I first picked up Hades around October, and at first bounced off the isometric roguelike action game. There’s a barrier to entry up front, it’s difficult and frustrating, especially when dying in the middle of what seemed like a great run, having to reset back to the halls of Hades to start anew. When I game it another try late in the year, it clicked and slowly became a standout, important gaming experience.

Thing is, Hades handles progression like no other run-based game in history. Its story of Zagreus, the ruler of the Underworld’s son, trying to escape his home world, seemingly climb Mount Olympus and figure out revelations of his past. Supergiant’s magnum opus slowly reveals its true genius over time as the player improves and learns more about its world, story and characters. It’s a common backdrop, ancient mythology with gods and Olympians, yet it’s a wholly unique take complete with amazing dialogue and a bespoke story suited solely for gaming as a medium.

Its hack-and-slash combat is snappy and responsive, crunchy and severe, as Zagreus ascends through realms of Tartatus, Asphodel and Elysium towards the surface. Tough enemies and bosses present a strategic challenge, even after facing them countless times. Gifts or boons from the likes of the major deities of Greek mythology like Zeus, Poseidon and Aphrodite make each run unique, providing combinations of skills that create builds of varying effectiveness. And after beating the final fight for the first time, it’s nowhere near over. Supergiant sets up a “heat” system where the player decides on adjustments to the challenge, like new boss mechanics or number of foes, earning bounties along the way to seeing the story thru to credits and an epic epilogue.

It came to the point where failure didn’t hurt anymore, because this led to interactions with core characters in the House of Hades like the God of the Dead himself Hades, Achilles, Nyx, Medusa and of course, being able to pet Cerberus whenever you want. It’s fully voice-acted, with a staggering amount of dialogue. In my at least 50 hours with the game, I don’t think I heard a repeat line. The team’s excellent writing and plot development made discussions among characters as memorable as the action itself. Plus, there are accessibility features such as God Mode for those players that would like the focus to be on story.

Hades is my Game of the Year that shouldn’t have been, based on my taste and history. I rarely play run-based games or “dungeon crawlers” because losing progress makes it feel like time wasted. This here is the opposite, almost rewarding death where it recognizes the player’s efforts by filling in the narrative after failed attempts. This particular structure made succeeding that much more satisfying, while following along with what ends up being a grounded story of family and finding one’s legacy.

Top Five Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical):

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch

Sales: Second top-selling Switch game ever at 26 million copies. And that’s as of September. It’s a lot more after the holiday season.

Immortals Fenyx Rising (Ubisoft Quebec, Ubisoft Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, PC.

Sales: Unknown for now.

Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Linux, Mac.

Sales: Between 200K and 500K owners on SteamSpy. No official figures from the publisher.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4.

Sales: Unknown for now. Should be quite impressive.

Nioh 2 (Team Ninja, Koei Tecmo/Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: At least 1.2 million copies shipped + downloaded as of October.

And with that, thus concludes my 2020 Year-in-Review! Thank you *so* much to everyone who stopped by to read this coverage or throughout the year. It was a historic one for Working Casual, with both views and visitors nearly doubling since 2019. I’m honored that so many people would take the time to read my site or chat with me about the topics I love.

What were your favorite games? Biggest surprises? Double back to the megathread for all coverage of this year’s awards, then feel free to drop a comment here or on social media on your reactions. Have a great new year!

Sources: Company Websites, Press Kits, Twitter & Investor Relations.

Disclaimer: Codes were provided by publishers for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Immortals Fenyx Rising and Ori and the Will of the Wisps.

-Dom

2020 Year-in-Review: Independent Studios of the Year

This is one of my favorite articles to write in recent years, showcasing the very best of independent gaming and the people behind the projects.

When covering games and tech, there tends to be a focus on the bigger players. Especially here when I analyze the business side. Yet the industry is so much more these days, with many of the most amazing experiences coming from smaller teams that aren’t owned by major publishers. Some of them even self-publish, a risky and admirable venture in today’s landscape.

This is their much-deserved moment, on the most prestigious list of all if I may. Congrats to everyone, on the list and otherwise, who worked hard to produce and publish their indie titles amidst everything the year tried to stop it. You are among the best, most talented creators and it’s a honor to play your games.

Here goes, in descending order until we arrive at Studio of the Year!

Kinetic Games

Out of all the teams on this most distinguished of lists, Kinetic Games is unique. It’s really just one person: Daniel aka Dknighter. From what I gather, he’s a 24-year old solo dev from the United Kingdom. I don’t even know if there’s a logo or branding. He released his first game into Early Access on Steam this year. That would be Phasmophobia, a four-player co-op ghost hunting jaunt into the dark corners of horror locales such as a creepy houses, deserted hospitals and abandoned prisons. Think the show Ghost Hunters, except way more immersive. And scary.

There’s a lot of super innovative ideas in Phasmophobia. It’s less about jump scares and more the overall aesthetic and environment that’s spooky. It uses a sanity meter, where the wrong choices can result in zero sanity where spirits become aggressive. Its ghosts are procedural, meaning they don’t have a set shape, form or characteristics. Each run is unique. There’s detective work involved, where even talking to your fellow hunters on the microphone or interacting with the environment can trigger a reaction from apparitions. There’s a more “hands off” role for people who aren’t keen on going hunting yet still want to assist their friends. Plus, it supports virtual reality. Why anyone would want to play a horror game in VR is beyond me, but it’s possible. It’s nowhere near the typical horror game, combining a ton of clever systems, which is the reason for its rise to popularity in 2020.

Asobo Studio

I didn’t think it was possible for France’s Asobo Studio to repeat on this annual list of the best indie teams. Then they made Microsoft Flight Simulator. In a stark contrast to their 2019 original game A Plague Tale: Innocence, the classic flight sim is a return for the franchise that had its start way back in 1982. I mean, that predates Windows OS itself. It used to be a pillar of the PC gaming community for decades and hadn’t seen a new release since 2006!

The technology, design acumen and scope of the latest Microsoft Flight Simulator is astounding. It’s a gorgeous 4K resolution. It leverages Microsoft’s Azure to render 3D representations. Pulls in from Bing Maps to create in-game assets, which means it reacts to the world and how different locales change. 37 thousand airports. A couple million cities. At least 20 different aircraft. Realistic piloting mechanics. Asobo even recently introduced a virtual reality mode. Attracting over a million players within weeks of release in August, it’s the fastest-selling game in the series and ended up as a safe way to get one’s travel fix during the pandemic.

Thunder Lotus Games

Based in Montreal, Thunder Lotus made one of the most emotional indies I played all year in Spiritfarer, a management simulator about spending time with loved ones, facing death and moving into the afterlife. As the player takes the role as the new ferry-master to the great beyond, the game blends painterly artwork, traditional simulation mechanics like building up a boat, harvesting, growing, feeding and crafting with a narrative about spirits one must shepherd towards their ultimate passing. Every interaction feels meaningful, and each map location ties into a story of one of the animal spirits met along the way.

Past projects from the team of around two dozen employees include Sundered and Jotun, yet Spiritfarer is their true breakout. Mainly because of its subject matter and intense sense of togetherness in a year where that was near impossible in real life. Something as simple as a hug between two characters felt like a momentous occasion, and I haven’t encountered a mix of bittersweet joy and sadness as much as the final moments alongside a character meeting their maker. It’s exceptional.

Young Horses Games

Bunger Bunger Bunger Bunger. What the heck am I talking about, you say? Bugsnax, of course! A hilarious collectathon puzzler about part-bug part-snack creatures. Made by Young Horses, a team of less than a dozen folks based out of Chicago, it was the most eye-catching and innovative of all PlayStation 5 launch titles. Led by CEO Phil Tibitoski, the studio previously known for Octodad: Dadliest Catch has now solidified itself as the maker of humorous, puzzle-based games with a ton of heart.

Funny thing is, Bugsnax may look cartoonish and light, which it is at times, yet there’s an underlying unease and tension as the player learns more about the inhabitants of Snaktooth Island both character and snack. What stuck with me as much as the clever creature designs, such as the aforementioned burger-beetle named Bunger, was the realistic depiction of relationships between islanders in the community. These folks have histories and dramas, current or lost loves, and it culminates in one of the most unexpected finales of the year. I imagine we’ll be talkin’ Bugsnax as an indie darling throughout this entire console generation.

Moon Studios

Fully remote indie developer Moon Studios followed up its 2015 instant indie classic Ori and the Blind Forest with yet another amazing game last year, the sequel Ori and the Will of the Wisps. It’s not often that the follow-up to a great project can both continue its story and mechanics well then improve on them in almost every single way. That’s what Moon did with 2D action metroidvania Will of the Wisps, as I wrote extensively in my review, one of the top games of 2020.

Its backdrop is a similar dreamlike aesthetic of the Forest, the art team really outdid themselves again, with the similar main character Ori and even higher stakes this time. Platforming is as smooth and pinpoint as ever, while combat is overhauled for the better with a variety of new abilities plus a slotting system of different traits to tailor one’s playstyle. There’s a new quest approach, opening up the map to possibilities and side content. Minus a somewhat tropey main villain, Will of the Wisps defines what a sequel should be and made for a most memorable of adventures.

Mediatonic

Flash back to August 2020. Couldn’t go a day without everyone talking about the latest phenomenon of the battle royale genre, this little old game with a clever twist. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout immediately dominated headlines for the entire month when it launched on PlayStation 4, via PlayStation Plus, and Windows PC. The competitive, physics-based platformer royale from Mediatonic, a London-based team with a history of making flash games and Murder by Numbers, found its groove with Fall Guys, hitting the 10 million units sold mark on Steam alone within a couple months.

While it didn’t necessarily have the longest of legs, mainly due to the next entry on this list, its moment was massive. Gameplay is simple, random and somehow elegant at the same time, effectively a fierce party game with its variety of stages and game modes. It provides a sense of progression via a free battle pass and its round-based approach. Plus there’s nothing quite like grabbing that crown to become the winner. Mediatonic proved there’s room for new ideas, and hilarious hijinks, in an over-saturated genre.

InnerSloth

Three Developers! One Communications Director! That’s the team behind Among Us, only one of the biggest multiplayer movements out right now. And it’s not even a 2020 game, technically. Forest Willard, Marcus Bromander (totally dope name), Amy Liu and Victoria Tran are responsible for one of gaming’s wildest stories in 2020, the resurgence of a 2D co-op/competitive spy game from 2018 about shipmates trying to get stuff done while some members are undercover imposters intent on wiping out the crew. (Like, you know your game is big when politicians are playing it online!)

Its gameplay is straightforward enough, centered around movement and completing tasks via puzzles. Genius arises in the interaction between people, making decisions on how to deceive or reveal the truth, convincing others that you aren’t the killer when you really are, that makes it special most notably in the streaming community. InnerSloth’s creation won best multiplayer game at The Game Awards recently, beating out the likes of Animal Crossing and Call of Duty, plus the much-deserved recognition here for the team’s brilliant idea and sound execution. These folks aren’t sus at all.

Supergiant Games

And finally, the indie Studio of the Year is none other than Supergiant Games. It’s impossible to talk the year in gaming without mentioning Hades. Honestly, a game about continually trying to escape Hell defines 2020. It’s simply one of the best roguelike, dungeon crawlers ever made. Want to know how I’m so sure? Because I love it, and I’m notorious for being sour on these genres.

Part of what makes Hades special is its journey. How it began in Early Access, transformed with feedback from the community and launched in peak form in September. Players take the role of Hades’ son Zagreus in his attempts to fight out of the underworld in order to learn more about his family legacy. Its action combat is exquisite. Weapon variety is great. All the mythical gods and personalities are here, many offering assistance in the form of boons that change how each run plays out. Then there’s the most important part, and that’s the persistent story progression. It’s self-referential, acknowledging Zagreus’ continued struggles when characters talk and react to the player’s actions. I’ll gush more about it during my Game of the Year article, suffice to say it’s a must-see of 2020.

Lastly, a special shout out to Supergiant for its company culture. Based on interviews, there isn’t a lot of turnover on the team. Many of the same people have been there throughout its release of critical standouts Bastion (way back in 2011), Transistor and Pyre. There’s zero crunch. Instead of mandatory overtime, there’s mandated vacations. Everyone checks out of work communication for the weekend on Friday afternoon. This is the type of studio environment I want to reward in this setting, not to mention how the result is an incredible game like Hades. It’s a model for studios everywhere, no matter the size.

There’s another list of awards complete. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by as I shout out the best of the indie space in 2020. Plenty more back at the Year-in-Review megathread, including the upcoming, historic Game of the Year awards. Until then!

Sources: AIAS Game Maker’s Notebook Podcast, Company Websites, Press Kits & Twitter, Xbox Wire.

-Dom