Review: Returnal’s Fresh Take on a Familiar Loop is Mostly a Great Time

Modern run-based games owe a great deal to arcade experiences of yesteryear. They are both traditionally frantic in their gameplay, feature engaging progression mechanics that may go away upon death and can be unapologetically difficult. Returnal is all of these things, flipping a modern spin on the best parts while also retaining others that should be kept in the past.

Housemarque is a Finland-based studio known for its arcade pedigree with beloved titles like Resogun and Nex Machina among others, though this is the first time it’s really flexed muscles in the purely third-person, bigger budget shooter genre. The team smartly borrows traditional roguelike elements where each session is unique in terms of weapons and power-ups, the player loses certain progress when they die and the game world transforms itself so that no playthru looks the same.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect. The player controls Selene Vassos, a Scout for fictional space exploration company Astra Corporation who crash lands on a planet called Atropos. Selene sets out initially to find a signal, learning in the process that she’s trapped within this seemingly never-ending cycle. It’s lonely, and harrowing. She somehow stumbles upon her own house within this world, then upon entering the view shifts to first-person in mini playable sections where the bulk of story is introduced via exploration.

Returnal is single-handedly one of the most engaging time-loop setups in the history of games, a psychological sci-fi thriller that uses infinite spawning on a distant planet expertly while slowly revealing how its story is much closer to home than it first presents. There’s three distinct acts across six biomes, the last of which unveils the “true” ending. While its presentation is staggered and jarring at times, that’s the nature of time-bending tales. I ended up adoring it. This works because its collectibles and cut scenes intrigue all along the way, making it feel like the player is learning about this unfortunate predicament and her own history at the same time as Selene.

Foreign world Atropos features the aforementioned playable areas and a scattering of history from a race Selene dubs Sentients. She lands in the Overgrown Ruins, a dreary yet gorgeous rain forest contrasted with bright flora and angry fauna. The game’s first act starts in this space, moves thru the Crimson Wastes desert then an imposing alien Derelict Citadel. Once the player beats the boss in a particular sub-segment, Returnal allows teleporting to the next biome which makes for better flexibility in subsequent tries. It’s a bit of much-needed restraint in an otherwise punishing ordeal.

Once the first act is complete, players transition to almost a remixed version of the first three locales. For instance, the fourth biome is called the Echoing Ruins, bearing a stark resemblance to the very first crash landing site. What’s great is the second act is essentially its own run entirely, as the player respawns here in the Echoing Ruins as opposed to way back at the beginning. This makes endgame tries feel manageable, significantly less dejecting when one fails.

An aspect I’d like to specifically praise in Returnal is its genius map implementation. It’s best-in-class, displaying a three dimensional mini-map on the heads up display then expanding to a more isometric view full of markers and indicators. It clearly marks optional routes, fast travel spots and certain types such as boss locations or particularly challenging fights. An incredible feature that I now wish to see in every game.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

In terms of mechanics and arsenal, it’s a familiar feel for quick, over-the-shoulder shooters. Selene begins each run with a low level pistol, then can replace that with guns that spawn from enemies or found in chests. Each has its own set of potential perks, Leech Rounds being my ideal because they can heal, plus an alternate fire mode that could be a number of different attacks. Grenade, powerful sniper shot, proximity mine etc. Weapon variety is solid, ranging from traditional automatic carbine to close-range shotgun that spouts goo all over the place. There’s rocket and grenade launches then more unique designs like the Dreadbound that has projectiles launching then returning automatically to the magazine. The aesthetic here is alien engineering fused with biological organisms, making for peculiar and effective feature sets.

Speaking of, Returnal boasts one of the most satisfying interactions: active reload. Gears of War popularized this tactic, whereby hitting a button within a certain window allows for instant reloading. It’s a little clumsier here, with the right trigger acting as the same button to shoot and reload. Plus the player can’t manually load their weapon, it only happens automatically when ammo runs out. This combined with alternate fire makes for rewarding engagements.

Movement is as important as ever in a game like this, and Returnal is clear that the player is invulnerable when dashing. I coined my mantra “Always Be Dashing,” spamming the circle button to shoot across arenas to avoid enemy fire. Part of the way thru, both a sword unlock and grappling hook really open up fighting and traversal capabilities plus promote more efficient exploration. There’s nothing quite like dodging, launching across a map using a grappling point and slicing an enemy into a spectacular burst of colorful bits.

Progression systems are layered in Returnal, which is what really determines run variety and impacts how much one is able to achieve in a given try. Items, unlocks and upgrades come in a multitude of forms, most tending to disappear when a run is over. Permanent unlocks include key story items, weapon traits, world collectibles plus a powerful material called Ether that cleanses chests or can be used to activate a machine that allows one respawn per area.

The player loses almost everything else upon failure. The currency called Obelites, required for fabrication for various items. Valuable Artifacts that offer benefits, such as increased weapon power or reduced alternate fire cooldown. A favorite of mine is the Phantom Limb, which offers a 10% chance to boost health when killing an enemy.

Its most unique mid-run upgrades are Parasites, squishy insects that visually attach to Selene’s suit. These provide one associated benefit then an associated debuff that makes play more difficult. These trade-offs can make or break a given segment. Does one gain better drops from enemies at the expense of melee damage? What about increasing health repair when long falls cause damage?

Returnal’s Malfunction system also prompts important choices. Chests or pick-up with a glowing purple aura are “Malignant” or “Spoiled,” which mean there’s a chance the player can become infected upon grabbing them. The probability of infection is clearly displayed, from Moderate to Very High. Malfunctions cause some detriment until a criterion is satisfied. These can be brutal, and the player may suffer from more than one at once. Decreased weapon output, lower health, taking damage when collecting items and many more can outright ruin even the best of attempts.

These along with mini-progression systems like Weapon Proficiency, basically increasing weapon drop level, and Adrenaline that builds while racking up kills without being hit are all the ways that the developers keep players on their toes and give that wonderful sensation that every single venture is different. Its systems open an infinite number of opportunities for both success and failure, especially towards endgame in the last two areas which are increasingly devastating. My strategy tended towards health regeneration, though I could see a high damage output or super high proficiency build working as well with the right gun configuration. This is also a good reason for replaying content.

While progressing thru Returnal, Selene encounters enemies of all shapes and brutalities. There’s bio-luminescent animals that can pounce from a distance, stationary turrets scattered about, hard-shelled crustaceans that barrage with missiles, robotic atrocities who snatch up the player and the eternally dreaded flying enemies, whether airborne fish, overgrown bats or incessant drones. These are constantly remixed throughout the biomes, with variants like frozen or malformed in later spots. The most terrible of foes is probably the Severed, a bipedal sentient species that will constantly close the gap, never allowing any respite. Their tactics are clever, unrelenting. Combine these together and that’s part of the reason why the game has a reputation for being difficult.

Boss fights in particular are spectacular, monumental affairs. They all have three phases, making ongoing survivability essential. Most occur in an open area, forcing the player to quickly decipher patterns and figure out the optimal damage parameters. Then there’s Nemesis, one of the most epic, memorable battles I’ve ever played. I won’t spoil it here, suffice to say its scale is tremendous.

Now. To address the elephant in the room. Does all of this make Returnal too difficult? Is it for everyone?

The answer is exceeding complex, and warrants an entirely separate discussion on its own.

No doubt its genre is challenging by nature, which is unavoidable. Losing progress in games is deflating. Starting over is painful. Certain times, Returnal feels unfair. I believe this stems from a handful of reasons: Lack of certain quality of life features, its reliance on luck when it comes to build quality, limited accessibility options and inconsistent stability. It’s not that the game is impossible, it’s that there are too many aspects that make it unfriendly to a subset of players.

In lieu of a traditional save system, Housemarque literally shows a pop up alert after starting the game informing to use PlayStation 5’s famously finicky Rest Mode. Why not just offer a mid-run save system? A way for people to tend to life matters or take a rest? This could even be incorporated into the game world and have lore implications, it doesn’t have to be an auto-save. Even Dark Souls has bonfires. Even Alien Isolation has save stations. There’s usually some example of saving in modern gaming.

There’s no difficulty setting or tuning allowed. Yet hardcore platformer Celeste or even last year’s excellent Hades are perfect examples where player choice in this context can work to everyone’s benefit. The former has an Assist Mode. The latter a God Mode. The rationale is offering these accessibility tweaks doesn’t impact players that don’t use them, it only broadens the audience of those that can play because of them.

The role of luck can’t be understated either. Randomness plays a major part in weapons, Parasites, room locations, enemy types and other temporary situations. Certain times, it just won’t go well. Others will fall into place beautifully. This is a byproduct of the decision to make a roguelike, just depends how well it’s balanced.

I understand the desire is to make a tricky, trying run-based game. There’s tension in knowing it could end at any moment. Yet that’s no longer generally practical, especially since attempts in Returnal last a couple hours on average. I had one go for a half dozen, crossing my fingers that the console wouldn’t update or crash when I stepped away to take a break.

These quality of life and accessibility considerations may not have been as important during the arcade days that inspired this genre, yet they should be accounted for now. It should allow for those that want the badge of honor associated with a marathon session while acknowledging those that balance real life.

Thing is, even with all that, I believe that many people can have a great time with Returnal if they are fine operating within these parameters. There’s the constant progression elements I discussed before, carrying over key abilities. The fast travel and teleporting opened by beating areas. Not to mention how player skill improves with each pass, learning tactics and forming strategies to make headway.

Returnal should absolutely be more flexible in its quality of life and accessibility settings. That doesn’t mean many players can’t build up to the point of victory.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect.

In terms of technology and performance, the title shows how it’s clearly one of the first developed specifically with the PlayStation 5 in mind. Its best feature is DualSense controller integration, with the best example of haptic feedback use to date. The game pad vibrates with each falling raindrop, or swerve of Selene’s ship upon entry to the atmosphere. It gives perfect directional feedback when items or foes are near. Returnal also uses the adaptive triggers in offering traditional shooting by pulling the left trigger halfway, then an alternative fire mode by squeezing it all the way. It’s way better in concept than execution, causing one to fumble in a tight spot and accidentally use the wrong shooting type. I swapped to a more standard customization within the first hour.

Graphical fidelity and general visual presentation is good, albeit not exceptional even at up-scaled 4K resolution. Art and environment work is superior. Textures can be rough and certain rooms are way too dark despite ray-tracing claims and lighting techniques. Its best moments are when enemy projectiles light up a space, resulting in a dazzling neon light show akin to an electronic music venue. Housemarque is a bunch of wizards when it comes to particle effects and destructibility. Performance is consistent throughout, that 60 frames per second shining in the most heated of battles.

There’s plenty of bottlenecks to deter from giving Returnal a go. The cost of a full price tag, knowing its lack of options, not being able to save, that feeling of desperation after getting this close to a win. I hear that. I still argue it’s worth an honest shot, and it’s one of the most surprising games for me this year because I was a skeptic going into my time with it. I was open to trying, and came away very much impressed.

When it comes to comparisons, I’d say it’s part Metroid, reminiscent of Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells plus plays like a blend of the best third-person action games with bullet hell elements where traversal and strategy are key. Going into a fight unprepared has its ramifications.

After over 35 hours and a couple dozen deaths, I firmly believe that Housemarque’s latest is its best game to date. A most clever take on a genre filled with run-of-the-mill releases, though it suffers some of the same setbacks as well. During a good run, Returnal is sublime. When things go poorly, it’s terribly exhausting. Especially having to spend time in earlier biomes to power up in preparation of later areas.

This is inherent to the genre, in which Returnal is one of the best despite its few flaws. It has the ability to produce both completely stressful play sessions and the most blissful moments of accomplishment. The latter outweighs the former, every single loop of time.

Title: Returnal

Release Date: April 30th, 2021

Developer: Housemarque

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 5

Recommendation: It’s an exquisite, well-designed roguelike that’s worth the price tag, though could desperately use a variety of modern options. Especially a save system, its most glaring omission that wouldn’t impact difficulty and would allow for a wider audience. It’s an essential early PlayStation 5 experience.

Sources: Screenshots from PlayStation 5, Sony Interactive Entertainment.

-Dom

Sony & Microsoft Gaming Division Sales Launch To New Record Highs

Two of the biggest gaming console manufacturers and technology companies reported recent financials back-to-back, and both of them set their own impressive new records in the process.

Sony, purveyor of PlayStation among other consumer electronics, reported full annual results earlier today while Microsoft and its Xbox division shared fiscal year 2020 3rd quarter figures yesterday.

(I hope you knew that because you checked out my latest earnings calendar already!)

Each report proves that traditional gaming is as popular as ever, racking up record sales figures and providing other insights into how the biggest players in the industry are reacting to the pandemic in terms of customer demand, part supply for hardware and development activity for software.

For instance, both companies just reported the highest ever revenue from their respective gaming divisions. Sony’s Gaming & Network Services (G&NS) segment, which houses its PlayStation brand, achieved annual sales above $24 billion for the first time ever. Microsoft has a shorter history in games, which means it’s been reporting figures over less time. Even so, it also reached a significant milestone with Xbox gaming revenue for the past 12 months moving past $15 billion for the first time since it began reporting that particular split.

Time to take a look into the reports, highlighting the records and notable figures along with trends that I spotted while reviewing the stats. And get ready for some super fun charts!

Overall for the year ending March 2021, Sony reported nearly 9 trillion yen in consolidated revenue, which equates to roughly $82.8 billion. This is an increase of 9% since 2019, and a beat compared to analyst estimates. Biggest contributors were significant increases in the aforementioned G&NS plus Financial Services unit while Sony Pictures saw declines due to lack of theatrical performance in a tough ongoing environment for films.

Yearly operating income for the firm as a whole rose 15% to 972 billion yen, or just under $9 billion. Driven by performance in PlayStation, Electronics Products & Solutions in addition to Music segments then offset by decline in Imaging & Sensing Solutions. While a double-digit increase, profit actually missed analyst estimates for the year.

(Yup. Sony has a lot of businesses.)

Focusing within G&NS i.e. the PlayStation division, this is the firm’s leading contributor in recent years. Total sales reached 2.66 trillion yen or roughly $24.44 billion, which is up 34% since last year and a record result for this unit during a full year. Operating income jumped 44% to $3.15 billion. This is the first time this particular business moved past $3 billion in annual profit, marking yet another record high.

Of course underlying these results is the PlayStation 5 launch back in November, a console which shipped 3.3 million units during its second fiscal quarter on market. That brings lifetime shipments after two quarters to 7.8 million, Sony’s best console launch ever as it surpasses the 7.6 million of PlayStation 4 back in fiscal 2013. I had estimated between 3.1 and 3.3 million PlayStation 5 shipments for the quarter, so it’s in-line with expectations and honestly an impressive result given the chip shortage and production constraints plaguing console makers right now.

“Supply has not been able to keep up with extremely strong demand for PlayStation 5, although constraints on the supply of components, especially semiconductors, is expected to continue this fiscal year,” said Chief Financial Officer Hiroki Totoki on the Sony conference call.

As presented in the below gallery, the notable part of this particular console transition for PlayStation is how well growth across all sub-categories is contributing to ongoing performance during a time where older hardware isn’t moving as many units and new consoles are constrained on the supply side of the equation despite massive demand. Digital Software and Add-On Content are both up 44% while Hardware jumped 39% in 2020, showing how players are consistently supporting software offerings and additional expansions or downloadable content on both prior and current generation.

Signaling an industry shift that’s been ongoing for a while and accelerating during the pandemic is digital split for PlayStation software, which hit an all-time best 65% compared to 53% in 2019. Implies nearly 2 out of every 3 games purchased for its platforms are now downloads.

Full game software unit sales reached 339 million during fiscal 2020, up from 276 million in 2019. Out of that, first party titles published by Sony contributed 58.4 million compared to 49.2 million last year. Signaling an industry shift that’s been ongoing for a while and accelerating during the pandemic is digital split for PlayStation software, which hit an all-time best 65% compared to 53% in 2019. Implies nearly 2 out of every 3 games purchased for its platforms are now downloads.

Swapping to user engagement, subscribers to Sony’s PlayStation Plus service rose 15% to 47.6 million. Monthly Active Users (MAUs) across all of PlayStation Network dipped a bit, now at 109 million compared to 114 million a year prior. Still, the rise in PlayStation Plus paid memberships is a more significant contributor to the gaming segment, pushing Network Services sales up 14% year-over-year.

Turning back to PlayStation 4 hardware for a moment, Sony shipped 1 million units of this now legacy console in its last fiscal quarter ending March. That brings lifetime sales to just over 116 million, maintaining its second spot on the all-time home console sales list. While this slowing momentum implies that it will never come close to the lofty 155 million lifetime sales of the historic PlayStation 2, it proves that there will be sparse demand for the immediate future and could realistically hit 120 million next fiscal year at this pace.

Looking into the future for Sony overall, the company starts its fiscal year 2021 sales forecast at an 8% increase over 2020 while projecting a 4% decline in annual operating income. The sales increase should be bolstered by a bounce-back for Sony Pictures plus continued performance of PlayStation and electronics categories. Profit will be negatively impacted by higher costs in development of games alongside other divisional declines.

In terms of gaming, Sony guidance shows a similar theme for the PlayStation business in that sales should increase 9% yet profit will show a bit of weakness, dipping 5% year-on-year. Hardware unit sales will naturally increase as supply broadens, as long as the global chip shortage doesn’t get any worse. And manufacturing costs will lighten as the production process is refined. Though consistent with the recent trend of game delays, Sony expects 3rd party games to contribute less in fiscal 2021 and that includes the coveted add-on content revenue stream.

In terms of a hardware unit projection, Sony executives played a bit coy on the conference call. CFO Totoki reiterated the expectation to ship “above 14.8 million” PlayStation 5 units during the fiscal year from April 2021 to March 2022. Which would bring lifetime to 22.6 million, ever so slightly above its predecessor’s 22.4 million during the same time frame. Basically saying to anticipate a slight increase this early in the generation. My first full fiscal year estimate is 15 million, with a tilt towards the downside if supply doesn’t strengthen quickly enough.

On the software front, Sony is intent on investing in its studios plus other partnerships as has been its successful strategy. The way PlayStation creates value and entices people to buy its hardware is by launching high quality games, especially from those talented studios that it owns. Naturally, it’s pumping dollars in order to attract talent.

“In terms of costs, we plan to increase development, personnel and other costs in our in-house studios by approximately 20 billion yen ($184 million) year-on-year as we further strengthen our in-house produced software,” said Totoki. “To enhance our software offering, we intend to continue investing in or partnering with external studios in addition to aggressively investing in our in-house studios.”

And I tend to agree with Sony’s overall and PlayStation guidance, though I remain tentative on the supply side of hardware and on first party launches like Horizon Forbidden West and God of War Ragnarok despite this strong ongoing investment. For example, I don’t project that both of these major titles will be out in the next 12 months. I expect only Horizon to release in fiscal 2021, perhaps even during the January to March time frame as holiday still seems like a tight deadline.

Moving to Sony’s main competitor in the traditional console space at least in Microsoft, it’s obviously a much broader company with enterprise cloud and Azure driving a bulk of its performance. So unfortunately it shares less details on its gaming results. Still, there are significant statistics and executive quote that guide towards where it’s at in its play towards ecosystem and services alongside its Xbox Series X|S console launch.

Note that these are quarterly numbers and compared to a year ago unless otherwise specified, since Microsoft reported its third quarter fiscal year 2021 figures.

In the quarter ending March, the company overall generated nearly $42 billion in revenue which is up 19%. Operating income increased 31% to $17 billion. It beat analyst estimates on both sales and earnings-per-share. Intelligent Cloud revenue reached over $15 billion, as the foundation of Microsoft’s business.

The Xbox division falls under its More Personal Computing (MPC) segment, which itself contributed $13 billion in sales and operating profit hit $4.6 billion. These 9% and 27% increases respectively were bolstered specifically by gaming results.

Drilling down into gaming alone, total revenue was $3.53 billion during January to March. That’s the first time a 3rd fiscal quarter recorded over $3 billion in sales, and a staggering increase of 50%. It accounted for 27% of revenue from MPC segment, a strong moment for a business that’s accelerating especially given the success of Xbox Game Pass and certain first party games like the ever-present Minecraft.

Xbox Content & Services, which basically means software plus subscriptions, alone grew 34% due to strength across the board in third party titles, Xbox Game Pass subscriptions and first party software.

“People are turning to Xbox more than ever to play and chat with friends, and we saw record engagement this quarter, led by strength on and off-console,” Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella noted on its conference call. “With Game Pass, we are redefining how games are distributed, played, and viewed. Just last week, we added cloud gaming via the browser, expanding our reach across PC and mobile.”

What this quote and the results reveal is that Microsoft’s holistic strategy of attracting players to its ecosystem as opposed to a singular device is starting to pay major dividends. The team at Xbox is indifferent as to where someone plays its game or accesses its services. Just as long as they do.

Curiously, Nadella and team didn’t share new figures for Xbox Game Pass subscriptions. Back in January, Microsoft reported that the figure was 18 million. Rumors are that this figure is upwards of 23 million as recently as last week. Which would be consistent with Nadella’s remarks and recent Xbox Content & Services double-digit growth.

On the Hardware side, revenue more than tripled since this time in 2020 due to the start of a new generational cycle. Demand for Xbox Series X|S is vastly outstripped supply, the latter of which seems to be more significantly constrained than even the PlayStation 5.

Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood echoed the sentiment. “In Gaming, we continued to see record engagement and strong monetization across our platform, as well as demand that significantly exceeded supply for our Xbox Series X and S consoles,” she said.

Still, Microsoft isn’t sharing unit sales figures or giving any indication other than growth statistics for its hardware sales. It’s tricky to estimate, though friend of the site and Niko Partners Analyst Daniel Ahmad estimated that the Xbox Series X|S shipment figure was at 3.5 million last quarter. That would be slightly less than its predecessor the Xbox One, which did 3.9 million in its launch quarter.

I won’t put an exact number on it because it would be a complete guess, though wouldn’t be shocked if Microsoft shipped a couple million last quarter given the current inventory environment.

Annual gaming revenue jumped 46% since this time in 2020 plus achieved a record, the first time ever that yearly gaming sales at Microsoft crossed the $15 billion milestone.

Above gallery contains relevant information here, plus a handy chart that I’ll get into now.

Expanding to a longer timeline, gaming sales for Xbox totaled just over $15 billion for the trailing 12 month period ending March 2021. Annual gaming revenue jumped 46% since this time in 2020 plus achieved a record, the first time ever that yearly gaming sales at Microsoft crossed the $15 billion milestone. The recent direction under Head of Xbox Phil Spencer’s leadership of expanding to new audiences and devices isn’t just a concept, it’s proving to be a sound business decision.

One caveat here is that the $7.5 billion acquisition of ZeniMax happened during the quarter, so its contributions began in early March. Which definitely allowed for its record results. And is exactly why Xbox paid handily for it.

In terms of Xbox software, performance of first-party titles came in above expectations. Minecraft in particular, which recently saw MAUs increase 30% to 140 million. That’s an absolutely ridiculous number of people signing in every month on average for a game that’s over a decade old. Microsoft also shared that Minecraft creators have generated $350 million from over a billion downloads of mods, add-ons and experiences on the platform over the years.

Moving towards the future and guidance, Microsoft provides a specific number for its three broad segments then general comments about individual businesses. MPC revenue next quarter will be upwards of $13.6 billion and $14 billion.

“In Gaming, we expect revenue growth in the mid-to-high single digits. Significant demand for the Xbox Series X and S will continue to be constrained by supply,” said CFO Hood. “And on the strong prior year comparable, we expect Xbox content and services revenue to decline in the mid-to-high single digits.”

This is similar across both Microsoft and Sony, in that consumers will be buying as many pieces of hardware as they can produce. I’m most intrigued by software output for Microsoft, which I think will be quite stagnant until Halo Infinite later this year (which I’m fairly confident won’t be delayed again). So the question comes down to first party output combined with third party partnerships for Xbox Game Pass, the latter of which has been strong lately with games like Outriders and MLB The Show 21.

I anticipate Xbox Game Pass partnerships and console demand to drive results into the last quarter of Microsoft’s fiscal year ending June 2021, as opposed to any significant first party output. Minecraft will always be consistent, at least. Additional titles from its owned studios will come later, especially with Bethesda now incorporated into the mix and Halo Infinite looming as the flagship Xbox console exclusive later in calendar 2021.

Thanks to everyone for stopping by and checking out this analysis. Company reports have more details if so inclined, and I’m always active on Twitter for conversations around these results or my predictions. Would be interested to hear your perspective as well. Be safe!

Note: Exchange rate used for Japanese Yen to U.S. Dollar is as of today. 0.0092 JPY to 1 USD.

Sources: Daniel Ahmad (Niko Partners), Jez Corden (Windows Central), Microsoft, Newsweek (Image Credit), Sony.

-Dom

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

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

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