Seven Major Games Industry Predictions for 2022

New year, new excuse to think we can predict the future!

In an annual series of articles I began last year, here is where I’ll document my biggest, sometimes boldest, games industry predictions for the 12 months ahead. It’s fun to guess, and honestly it’s even more fun to look back when all is said and done to see how wrong some of them were!

Speaking of looking back, out of my seven predictions for 2021, I’d say I got maybe half of them “right” when combining different elements. I said Switch would be the best-selling console in the U.S. during 2021, and that’s the trend based on reports from The NPD Group. I also thought Nintendo would debut a Pro model, when instead the company released its OLED step-up. Partial points?

I dubbed 2021 “Year of the Delay,” which was true in games and various industries due to both impact from coronavirus and chip shortages. My most substantial win was Sony and Tencent scoring major acquisitions, as both companies expanded reach globally with a number of investments. I saw the global games market value growing double-digits to upwards of $190 billion or more. Because of the aforementioned worsening supply and delays, Newzoo said the global value hit $180 billion on only 1% growth. It did say digital contributed 93%, right near my estimate of “above 90%.”

Otherwise, I guessed Rockstar Games would reveal its next title and how it wouldn’t be Grand Theft Auto VI. Technically it had the Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, and there’s rumblings of a new Bully project, so I’ll take half credit? I spoke of the expansion of cloud gaming and projected that Amazon’s Luna service could be the standout. Cloud has grown in popularity and spending though I don’t think there’s necessarily a standout service right now, so I’ll say that’s a push. And lastly, Capcom still hasn’t announced a new fighting game which means I take the big L on that last one.

It’s now time to look ahead. I see a future where plenty of trends which started in recent times will accelerate such as services, cloud, mobile, consolidation, outing toxic work cultures, defining The Metaverse and even the dreaded blockchain and NFT barrage. Here are seven of my biggest industry predictions that, of course, will most certainly happen soon.

Workplace Culture, CEOs & Unionization

Starting with a downer, this is a sad prediction that hurts to write. I expect more disheartening stories of workplace toxicity and ongoing harassment at publishers of all sizes in 2022, following in the footsteps of Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, Riot Games and others. It will always be difficult to hear victims speak out about stories of abuse and “boys club” cultures, however I do believe it’s a key step towards a better industry. The year will bring to light various stories and hopefully remove bad actors from powerful positions.

The downside is I anticipate both Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick and Ubisoft Chairman/CEO Yves Guillemot to remain in their respective offices. They and their leadership teams will claim things have changed. Even if that’s not much the case. (We’ll see.)

On the brighter side, I expect employees within at least one major publisher to work towards broad unionization plus a concerted shift towards hiring more women and people of color in executive roles. The industry is at a boiling point. A group of brave employees can, and I think will, unify under a common goal to bargain with leadership. It could serve as a beacon for others to bring demands to management, and potentially symbolize a shift in power dynamics. While I don’t know which company it will be, I do expect this can be the year where a unionization effort manifests.

Sony PlayStation Subscription Service Rebranding

This one is a slam dunk. (I’ll take what I can get!) With the success of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass service and rumors swirling of Sony’s response, I believe we’ll hear very soon about PlayStation’s rebranding of PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now into a service allegedly code-named Spartacus. To firm up the prediction, I’ll list out specifics of how I think it could go.

At present, PS Plus and PS Now cost $10 per month individually. It’s messy. Spartacus will combine these, and I buy the rumored three tier setup with varying levels of service and price points. The first I expect to be priced at the current $10 since it’s essentially PS Plus. The second tier should have a catalog of prior and current gen software attached, so I’ll say $15. Then I can see a premier $20 per month service with the same online benefits and catalog plus a ton of older titles and cloud streaming available. Note: Xbox Game Pass base is $10 monthly while the upgraded Ultimate package is $15.

Going one step further, I think PlayStation will partner with either Electronic Arts or Ubisoft to bring EA Play or Ubisoft+ services simultaneously at launch of the rebranding in that highest priced tier. One or more pricing options will also have a console form of Discord bundled, as a result of the recent partnership between the two companies.

Then, here’s the biggie: I say at least one new first-party game will in fact launch into Spartacus during 2022. It might not be Horizon Forbidden West or God of War: Ragnarok. It could however be along the lines of a Destruction All-Stars which started on PlayStation Plus at launch in February 2021. Perhaps MLB The Show 2022. Or even Gran Turismo 7?

Nintendo’s Breathtaking Lineup & No New Switch

After surprising most talking heads by not releasing a new Switch “Pro” model in 2021, Nintendo opted for a slightly upgraded OLED iteration. The company also announced how its flagship sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is slated for release in 2022.

You know what? I believe them on Breath of the Wild’s follow-up. It will be out this year. (And absolutely should have weapon degradation because that’s a staple of what made the original so brilliant.) Consistent with my earlier call, I don’t believe it will launch alongside a new Switch model. Honestly Nintendo won’t say much of anything about new hardware during 2022, other than alluding to how its internal teams are always working towards the future. At most, I can see another accessory experience like Ring Fit Adventure or Nintendo Labo.

That’s because I think Nintendo’s hybrid handheld will have its second best year ever from a global unit sales standpoint. I’m targeting 25 million Switches shipped in the 12 months ending March 2022, slightly above Nintendo’s latest estimate of 24 million. That would be the best result since launch other than last year’s 28.83 million.

Elsewhere on the software side, I don’t think we’ll hear anything formal about the next full-fledged Mario Kart in 2022. While it’s clearly in development, I still say it will be tied to a Switch successor in 2023 or beyond. That said, I am calling for a major, dormant IP to make a return in 2022 for Nintendo with a mainline release. Let’s say it’s, at long last, EarthBound. Nobody is actually scoring these, right?

Finally there’s Metroid Prime for Switch, which I can see announced by E3 and released during the last quarter of 2022 to bolster Nintendo’s holiday period. Unfortunately, it’s probably not the full trilogy. It’s a remake of the first game. That way Nintendo can sell it for full price and still have two more similar releases in the future. It’s a business, after all.

Severe Impact of NFTs, Blockchain & Play to Earn Schemes

I dislike talking about this as much as the next level-headed pundit. In 2022, there will be plenty of chatter around blockchain games, non-fungible token (NFT) integration and so-called “Play to Earn” setups. Especially at the triple-A level. It’s driving investors wild. Anything that can make money, even if it’s temporary, will attract the attention of big budget publishers.

Diving into specifics, there’s flat out going to be tons of pitches around games built on the blockchain hand-in-hand with those that offer players NFTs for in-game items or cosmetics. Shoot, there already are. It’s only getting worse in 2022. Then there’s the corresponding rejection by core gamers against these things. That constant push-and-pull will partially define the industry this year.

I say *at least* three major global publishers will release their own full-blown NFT game, marketplace in an existing title or software specifically marketed as Play to Earn. One of them probably won’t even make it until the year-end. We’ll hear at least two or three stories similar to how S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 Heart of Chernobyl developer GSC Game World walked back plans for NFT usage after major backlash from its community. What about a game that smartly integrates these? I wonder if that’s even possible based on game development experts, so I can’t make that sort of prediction in good faith.

What I do know is this theme is going to be a nuisance all year. Could 2022 be the peak of blockchain and NFTs in gaming? That’s hard to say. It certainly does seem to be leaning towards short-term gains, however Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies aren’t going anywhere so I’d say buckle up.

Global Games Market Value Will Grow Low Single-Digits

How big will the global games market be when 2022 is said and done? Well, I think a little larger than it is right now. Similar to performance in 2021, I’m expecting a marginal increase. Under a 5% gain. Based on ending 2021 at roughly $180 billion, my target puts it between $182 billion to $185 billion on the upper end. I anticipate mobile will again be a driving force, gaining a similar single-digit percentage while console and PC will be slightly down or effectively even. Plus, digital split will remain above 90%.

Looking at hardware, Sony’s PlayStation 5 truly has an opportunity to surpass Nintendo Switch as the best-selling console in the U.S. specifically. However, I don’t think it will happen because of supply constraints expected to last until 2023. I’m leaning towards Switch repeating as the year’s top hardware. PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S will have healthy years even given production challenges. I anticipate Sony will meet its annual console targets while just recently, Xbox leader Phil Spencer said this current generation is Xbox’s fastest-selling ever. With the availability of Series S in particular rising lately, I can see this continuing. (Just wish they would share actual numbers!)

On the consolidation side, we’ve already just witnessed the largest deal in gaming history with Take-Two Interactive overpaying for Zynga at $12.7 billion mere days ago. Over the next twelve months, I think there will be another “blockbuster” deal worth upwards of $5 billion to $7 billion. It could involve a Western publisher and Asian game studio. Maybe the other way around?

Yes, I’m being cautious on naming names because I want to sneak in some credit for this prediction this time next year! What I’m driving at is I expect a lot of investment in global expansion during 2022 for the top-end gaming publishers.

It’s Impossible to Escape The Metaverse

As much as many companies want to claim they are each creating one, we’re already living in a world filled with Metaverses. We have virtual identities established over years of existing online, our precious personal information aggregating into databases everywhere as we socially chat and make purchases from our devices. Lately it’s become the hot buzzword used by companies both within and outside of gaming trying to capitalize, and I expect The Metaverse to consume technology as a sector and especially the games industry during 2022.

I continue to believe that no one will agree on how to define The Metaverse, so it will remain a more nebulous concept for executives to use for pitch materials. Hardware manufacturers, social media giants and virtual realty players will all look for a slice of that metaphorical pie and try to capture users in their tailored version.

To coalesce this into an actual prediction, I’m thinking something like a half dozen games from publishers large and small will launch with The Metaverse as a “selling point” in the advertising deck. Meta, formerly Facebook, will certainly be one of them on their Quest family of devices. Epic Games will continue bringing as many brands as possible into Fortnite. At least a publisher or two will try to integrate virtual workspaces with online play, billing their experience as a “fun place to work.”

I do think there will be a game that comes out of nowhere in 2022 that captures the spirit of The Metaverse without actually advertising it as such, and for that reason it will become hugely popular. Like, Pokémon Go level of popular. Ironic considering how well that game integrates augmented reality elements. I don’t know who will make it, or who will publish it. Just that it will exist. You heard it here first!

New BioShock Will Be Revealed, Releasing in 2023

Time to have a little fun!

In what would be a monumental moment for my personal gaming tastes, I think 2022 is the year when we finally hear from 2K Games and its Cloud Chamber development studio on the next installment in the beloved BioShock franchise.

The fourth mainline game was announced back in 2019 when the team, which includes a number of folks who previously contributed to the older games, said it was several years away from release. The first-person, historical horror shooter is certainly well into development by now. Enough so that rumors are trickling about an Antarctic setting in the 1960s and a more open area design structure. Apparently it’s been dubbed code-name “Parkside,” and there’s even a rumored title of BioShock: Isolation floating about like the buildings in BioShock Infinite’s fictional Columbia.

In the past, I’d consider this more pie-in-the-sky than an actual prediction. With this fresh trickling of information alongside 2K parent company Take-Two Interactive sharing updated unit sales statistics (38 million to date for the series) on recent earnings reports, I’m feeling more confident than ever it will reveal the new BioShock this year. And schedule launch for sometime in 2023.

It has to happen sooner or later, right? Why not sooner!

That’s a wrap on my biggest predictions for the games industry in 2022. How many of these line up with yours? Are you willing to go on record with your boldest of predictions? Will this be the year of a spankin’ new Capcom (and maybe Marvel) fighting game announcement? Can I finally have my wish of hearing about BioShock?

Whatever happens, we have a lot to look forward to in gaming over the next several months. First quarter is a busy one for releases and the landscape will fill up over time. Here’s to another year!

Sources: Artturi Jalli (Image Credit), Bloomberg, Getty Images (Photo Credit), MarioWorld.com (Image Credit), New York Times, Newzoo.

-Dom

2021 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

I’ve arrived at the very final post of 2021 Year-in-Review, and really the entire year for the website. It’s time to crown Game of the Year!

This piece marks a bittersweet moment. Looking back on a challenging, stressful 12 months, I’m impressed by any game development team and publishing outfit that was able to release games in 2021. Collaborating remotely, balancing work and life, juggling responsibilities and still making awesome games is an incredible feat.

Now’s the time to celebrate my favorite titles, the best of the best. And I must say, it was a unique one. Certain years, like films made specifically for award season, there are clear “best of” list entries. Not 2021. Variety and diverse quality defined gaming this past year, between triple-A surprises and fantastic indies, to where it was impossible to predict at the beginning where I’d be at the end.

Despite what some might say, I think last year was an incredible year for gaming. The breadth of experiences, glorious and saddening, is clearly reflected in the ranks of my top games. Here are the ten best games I played in 2021, then a quick set of excellent honorable mentions.

10. Monster Hunter Rise (Capcom)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC.

Capcom’s bespoke Nintendo Switch entry in the storied Monster Hunter franchise reminds me of predecessor Monster Hunter World in the best ways while simplifying certain areas for a more specific audience. The third-person action-crafting game is an amalgamation of console and handheld tendencies for Monster Hunter, sparked by a new ability that tremendously expands traversal, which benefits its cooperative gameplay and remains rewarding over dozens if not hundreds of hours.

9. Halo Infinite (343 Industries, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC.

After a year delay, the latest and arguably most important Halo entry since Halo: Combat Evolved twenty years ago nails its core gameplay within a bold move towards an open area structure, its campaign blending traditional corridor sequences with encounters that encourage experimentation. It overcomes a predictable storyline because it’s so fun to play as Master Chief, who I can’t imagine now without his signature grappling hook. I haven’t delved much into multiplayer, which I hear is fantastic, yet it’s still missing cooperative campaign and user generated content features which dings its ranking.

8. Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)
Platforms: PlayStation 5

The Ratchet & Clank series is pure gameplay joy mixed with high quality visual flair, and Rift Apart continues this traditional amidst an expanded cast of characters and gorgeous environment design. The latest generation of consoles lets famed developer Insomniac dazzle players with fast loading times, snappy mechanics and quick grappling plus its narrative is charming with Rivet and Kit joining Ratchet and his robo-buddy Clank adventuring across multiple timelines. It doesn’t push boundaries; it’s just plain old interactive fun.

7. Life is Strange: True Colors (Deck Nine, Square Enix)

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

One of the year’s best titles is also my favorite in the Life is Strange franchise, which now spans three mainline stories and select spin-offs. It’s carried by main character Alex Chen, an empath dealing with both her own and others’ traumas, plus creative writing, outstanding dialogue and consequential player choice. The fictional Haven Springs is a stunning setting, the backdrop to an effective character drama. Chapter 3 is the best single sequence of 2021, a few hours of pure bliss as the game briefly turns into a fantastical, turn-based role-playing adventure.

6. Lost Judgment (Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Sega)

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

Another sequel makes my top games list as Lost Judgment refines the detective mystery, martial arts fighting, hilarious character personalities and wacky side content the original did so well. It adds skateboarding, climbing and a detective doggo named Ranpo plus parallel questlines in solving a high-profile murder while investigating bullying at a local high school. The developers behind Yakuza expertly balance humor with gravity as Yagami’s path now spans two Japanese cities, and their vision coalesces into a thrilling experience as I wrote in my full review.

5. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (Eidos Montreal, Square Enix)

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

Rounding out the Top 5 is the most startling Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a spectacular adaptation underpinned by an affecting story, infectious chatter, beautiful visuals and delicate character moments when least expected. Starlord and team band together, fall apart and reunite in a game with exquisite writing and quick decision-making. Combat combines team management and third-person shooting, starting slow then ramping up with new abilities as squad relationships deepen. It drags at times in the third act yet ultimately reveals a narrative with themes of self-doubt, responsibility and redemption.

4. Psychonauts 2 (Double Fine Productions, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (Backwards Compatible), Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass (Cloud, Console & PC), PC.

Back in August I raved about the genius of Psychonauts 2, the follow-up to the cult classic launched way back in 2005. This action platformer is so much more than its genre convention, an artistic delight with thought-provoking themes, exceptional environmental artwork and an improved mechanical identity. Tim Schafer and Double Fine are best-in-class at establishing tone, incorporating references and focusing on finer details that bring an aesthetic to life. Each level is hand-crafted, from a psychedelic festival to hospital casino, resulting in a bizarre yet comical experience through the psyche that certainly has a mind of its own. Oh, and the year’s best song in Jack Black’s epic “Cosmic I/Smell the Universe.”

3. Forza Horizon 5 (Playground Games, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass (Cloud, Console & PC), PC.

The Forza Horizon franchise isn’t about racing. It’s about driving. The thrill of an open road, the roar of an engine and view of a brilliant sunset just over the.. well, horizon. The fifth entry is set in Mexico and has perfected its formula, more an open world exploration game with events than anything else. The trick behind its excellence is a constant reward loop. Its accessibility features make for smooth steering mechanics which can lean towards arcade or simulation. Collectibles, races, stunt opportunities and campaign stories dot the landscape, offering plenty to do in one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. There’s multiplayer, seasonal goals and even a dedicated battle royale mode. Last year, Forza Horizon 5 raced to the top of my favorite driving games of all time.

2. Inscryption (Daniel Mullins Games, Devolver Digital)

Platforms: PC.

It’s wholly inaccurate to call Inscryption solely a deck-building card game. It’s part psychological horror, part escape room and all instant narrative classic with a phenomenal card game as its primary player interaction. It’s the type of multi-layered experience that can’t be described without spoiling its later acts, because it’s so much more than what it initially presents. There’s a meta-story, referential themes, individual character arcs and consistent moments that utterly floored me. Jaw-dropping. Awe-inspiring. Daniel Mullins subverts every expectation and had me hooked on a card game that mainly uses sacrifice to strengthen a deck, a theme paralleled in its later puzzles. The early cabin area is tough, and its second act is probably too long, however I have minimal complaints about this monumental indie masterpiece.

1. The Forgotten City (Modern Storyteller, Dear Villager)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (Cloud), PC.

And finally, my Game of the Year is: The Forgotten City. A most delightful surprise in a year filled with great games.

If you’ve visited the site or chatted on social media, you’ve seen me tell everyone and anyone who would listen about this masterclass of game design and storytelling prowess that originated as a Skyrim mod. I wrote an unscored review around launch. Now that I’m scoring my critiques, The Forgotten City would easily earn a 9.5 out of 10.

Its setting: an underground Roman city. Its rule: if even a single person sins, everyone dies. The playable character is dropped into this ancient setting, summoned there to figure out who will commit the deed that leads to the city’s demise. It’s a first-person game less about combat, though there is light action mainly via a magical bow, and all about character dialogue, investigating leads and making impossible choices. There’s also the time loop element, resetting the world each time the player fails to uncover its mysteries.

What makes it stand out in the year of time loop games is a deft approach to repetition. Rather than requiring the player to conduct the same interviews and persuasions each run, it has a helpful character named Galerius that assists in carrying out various duties. Each action has a reaction as the player tries to close the loop to create a time paradox, zipping them back to modern times.

Of course, there’s a broader mystery about why someone from present day is suddenly ripped through time to solve this dilemma. Clearly not everything is as it seems. Most character arcs are well-written, especially that of Naevia in a forbidden palace and the lonesome Livia who knows the city’s secret, and its themes center on morality, philosophy, mythology and societal conventions of right versus wrong.

While animations can be janky and it should have more flexible options, The Forgotten City wins this award on the strength of its fantastic writing and revelations around societal conventions of right versus wrong, with multiple endings that reflect what the player considers in each scenario. I can’t recommend it enough. I hope it stands the test of time as one of the single best stories in all of gaming.

Top Five Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order):

Chicory: A Colorful Tale (Greg Lobanov, Finji)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac.

Death’s Door (Acid Nerve, Devolver Digital)

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

Deathloop (Arkane Studios, Bethesda Softworks)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PC.

Metroid Dread (Mercury Steam, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Returnal (Housemarque, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 5.

And that’s the last of 2021! Switch back over to the megapost for everything Year-in-Review.

Thank you very much to everyone for visiting and chatting this past year.

2021 saw the single best month of visitors for Working Casual (that was August 2021) and this month is already the highest average per day ever for the website. Be safe in the coming year, and look forward to many more posts and coverage of gaming, technology and media soon!

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

Disclaimer: Code was provided by the publisher for Psychonauts 2.

-Dom

2021 Year-in-Review: Independent Studios of the Year

This might be my favorite post all year. It’s time to specifically shout out the best indie studios of 2021 and their incredible games.

“Indie” has always been a nebulous term that’s difficult to define. Where do we draw the line? Team size? Budget? Scope? Association with a major publisher? To me, it’s elements of these things. Indie teams are usually smaller, self-published or shopping projects around for financing and games are kept at a more focused strategy. However, to me it’s mostly about the team’s spirit and approach when the lines become blurred. Shoot, it might not even be a team. These days, a single individual can make a multi-million seller indie epic.

There are also indies backed, or even purchased, by major game publishers. This post isn’t meant to litigate semantics about what is or isn’t part of this space. It’s a place to talk about which studios or individuals made the best “smaller” or independent projects this past year.

In terms of sheer number, it’s the largest list for this category ever. Nine entries deep! Let’s get on with the festivities, here are the top independent game studios of 2021 in alphabetical order.

Acid Nerve

Mark Foster and David Fenn make up Acid Nerve, a team based out of Manchester that created the awesome Death’s Door, one of the year’s most striking indie games. It’s a dark, isometric adventure game with tricky combat and creative bosses, where the player collects souls in a bureaucratic version of the afterlife. Previous projects include Titan Souls and Telepaint, but 2021 was Acid Nerve’s best yet.

Daniel Mullins Games

I promise this name will come up again during my Game of the Year list. Known previously for Pony Island and The Hex, Daniel Mullins recently created the incredible Inscryption, a deck-building card game I guarantee is like none other. Daniel is mostly a solo developer known for meta narrative and genre-bending, and this formula is perfected with Inscryption which is exquisitely executed, the type of experience that lingers long after it’s done.

Greg Lobanov

Another mostly solo creator is up next in Greg Lobanov for his excellent work on Chicory: A Colorful Tale, a game about self-doubt, artistic vision and ultimate perseverance. Greg, a Philadelphian in Canada formerly known as Dumb and Fat plus maker of Coin Crypt and Wandersong, worked with a small team to make one of 2021’s most layered games about anthropomorphic animals facing real life issues, sparked by a magical visual flare as the player can color its entire environment.

Ember Lab

Pixar-quality action-adventure Kena: Bridge of Spirits was incredibly the first game for Ember Lab, a team led by brothers Mike and Josh Grier who had a history in short film and commercial animation. The team leveraged this prowess to make a gorgeous game about Kena, guide to spirits and friend to cute creatures, which won both best indie and top independent debut at this year’s The Game Awards.

Four Quarters

A team originally based out of Russia and now spread around the globe remotely, the four-person Four Quarters launched the ingenious, enigmatic Loop Hero this past year. This semi-idle game with tower defense, crafting and role-playing elements captured the stage in first quarter 2021, selling over a million units and cementing Four Quarters, previously makers of Please, Don’t Touch Anything, as celebrated indie creatives.

Hidden Fields

Haunting visuals and tense interactions define Mundaun, a psychological horror game and first full-length project from one-man Swiss studio Hidden Fields. Michel Ziegler illustrated and programmed the hand-stenciled game set in the Alps where a man travels back to its hometown to find out more about his grandfather’s passing, and it’s one of 2021’s most dramatic, bizarre and unique indie releases.

Housemarque

Technically no longer independent since its purchase by Sony in June, Housemarque released time-bending action game Returnal in April which has since garnered critical praise and commercial success. As noted in my review, Returnal was the most ambitious and impactful title from the outfit previously focused on fast-paced arcade gems like Resogun and Nex Machina, blending bullet hell elements with run-based elements in splendid harmony.

Iron Gate Studio

Headquartered in Sweden, Iron Gate Studio broke out in 2021 after launching gathering, crafting and building game Valheim which snagged the zeitgeist in February with its Norse world and fantastical setting. At one point, the procedurally-generated title was selling a million units every other week, culminating in upwards of 8 million as of August and spawning many a tale of emergent, co-op interactions and challenging enemy battles.

Modern Storyteller

The final winner is Modern Storyteller, brainchild of lawyer-turned-developer Nick Pearce and creator of the masterpiece that is The Forgotten City. As I alluded in my review back around launch in July, the first-person time loop game set in an underground Roman city began as a Skyrim mod and blossomed into a daring narrative showcase that offers player choice, political intrigue and major morality conundrums. Pearce and team define and even transcend “walking simulator” genre boundaries with The Forgotten City, a staggering storytelling feat that lands them within this group of best indie studios around.

Shout out to all the developers on this most prestigious list and every indie developer working hard during 2021, a most challenging of years that resulted in some of my favorite projects to date. Bounce over to my megapost for all other Year-in-Review categories, including the impending Game of the Year awards.

Sources: Comic Book Resources (Image Credit), Company Websites & Twitter. YoYo Games (Image Credit).

-Dom

2021 Year-in-Review: Five Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Consistency and quality are the key in this Year-in-Review category.

It rewards those teams at larger publishers or console manufacturers with the most impact on the games industry, whether from a release, investment, expansion, influence or hardware launch standpoint. These are names most will recognize, standing at the top of their respective games. The work of their development teams and publishing arms shaped the broader industry in 2021, resulting in some of the most remarkable experiences of the year.

While I’m celebrating bigger companies here, I want to take a moment to say again how I stand behind workers fighting back against toxic regimes at companies like Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard, both of which (among others like Bungie and Riot Games) will most certainly not make this list right now. I’m excited to see efforts towards collective action and even unionization because these companies are their people, not just their executive teams. There’s no place for harassment here.

Note: My next article will highlight independent creators. This is reserved for publicly-traded or high valuation companies.

Here they are, the top five most impressive companies of 2021, in alphabetical order.

Capcom

The largest third-party Japanese publisher focused on high quality over quantity in 2021. Its two flagship launches in Monster Hunter Rise and Resident Evil Village were among the year’s most critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful, continuing a recent reinvigoration of both franchises. Round out its annual schedule with Monster Hunter Stories 2, Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, a handful of classic game collections plus even Resident Evil 4 for virtual reality (props to anyone who can play that!).

Monster Hunter Rise was made specifically for Nintendo Switch, existing somewhere between Monster Hunter World and earlier franchise titles centered on handheld play. It worked masterfully, an addicting gameplay loop that’s perfect for portable play. After shipping 4 million units in three days back in March 2021, it’s since surpassed 7.5 million units to already become the third best-selling game in series history.

Since its launch in May, Resident Evil Village has shown up on many an award list for its adaptation of the survival horror formula. Perhaps more memorably, the multi-platform follow-up to 2017’s Resident Evil 7 Biohazard spawned the vampire mother and ongoing meme that is Lady Dimitrescu. It was the fastest-selling series launch alongside Resident Evil 6, moving 3 million units across four days. After shipping an additional 2 million since, it now stands at 5 million to date.

I’m fully praising Capcom’s internal teams for adapting in a changing world and producing at least a couple of the year’s most celebrated big budget releases.

Devolver Digital

Devolver is the type of unique game company with a scrappy, start-up mentality that was also valued over $1 billion when its stock listed in London in November making it the largest U.S. company to trade on the stock exchange. Its games are all from smaller teams, and it explicitly makes fun of press conferences from larger counterparts during E3. The portion of its website showing accolades is called Propaganda.

That’s Devolver in a nutshell. And I’d argue 2021 was its best year to date.

It’s a publishing outfit, previously working on re-releases and lately coordinating with tighter-knit independent creators to market their projects around the world. Last year alone it produced the following: Inscryption from Daniel Mullins Games, Loop Hero by Four Quarters, Acid Nerve’s Death’s Door, Boomerang X made by Dang! plus Olija which was created by Skeleton Crew Studio.

These titles, notably the first three, are everywhere this award season and all signs point to solid sales as well. Inscryption is celebrated as one of the best deck-building card games ever, pushing 250K units on Steam alone. Loop Hero, which set its own genre somewhere between idle game and tower defense, has now sold well over a million units. Death’s Door is a critical darling with over 100K copies in a week. The totally rad Boomerang X flew under-the-radar, a quiet yet sensational compact experience.

Devolver is made up of smart, savvy talent finders which led to multiple games that defined the indie space in 2021.

Epic Games

Yes. Epic Games is, at first glance, Fortnite. 2017’s battle royale sensation is still one of the most relevant games because it pushes boundaries of collaboration, creation, intellectual property crossover and live event experimentation. Epic Games has effectively established a “metaverse” at a time when most other companies are talking about doing so. Which is impressive enough on its own.

This year alone, Fortnite added more characters and cosmetics from a range of different brands or gaming franchises: Marvel, Warner Bros, Halo, God of War, Street Fighter, Tomb Raider and others I’m forgetting. It’s probably the only place where Master Chief can have an epic battle with Kratos. Epic moved the game into its third chapter recently while expanding its event approach during 2021, showcasing Ariana Grande’s Rift Tour and the Soundwave Series of concerts headlined by Egyptian singer Mohamed Hamaki.

However Epic is also making deals, investments and partnerships while continuing its Epic Game Store growth with content offerings and major sales. This past year, it purchased Fall Guys creator Mediatonic, RAD Game Tools, ArtStation, Sketchfab and even Rock Band maker Harmonix. That’s not even to talk about its game engine business, moving into Unreal Engine 5 technology which was recently shown off via The Matrix Awakens and is now in the hands of developers making games for the latest generation of consoles like Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II and the next Mass Effect. It’s one of the most popular engines in the world, leveraged by film studios to game designers everywhere.

Epic Games’ valuation is estimated at upwards of $42 billion, up from under $30 billion in April. Its strategy is all-encompassing, with the ongoing, evolving ecosystem of Fortnite supplemented by various other businesses, experiences and its digital storefront.

Square Enix

When talking sheer software output, not many companies rivaled Square Enix during 2021. The Japanese developer-publisher moved a whirlwind of games and expansions, one of which was so successful that it had to stop selling it temporarily.

Its lineup ran the gamut. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Life is Strange: True Colors. Outriders. Bravely Default 2. Balan Wonderworld. Neo: The World Ends With You. Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars. NieR Replicant (insert many numbers here). Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker. Even Final Fantasy VII Remake for PC snuck in during December. Sprinkle in re-releases of catalog titles, and it was a busy time for its teams.

Now some of these were better than others, granted. I’d argue there’s more good than bad. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a sleeper Game of the Year contender and one of the best comic adaptations in recent years. Life is Strange: True Colors continued its franchise’s narrative legacy and produced one of the best main characters of 2021 in Alex Chen. Outriders had a major moment in April, launching simultaneously into Xbox Game Pass to reach 3.5 million players in a month. Bravely Default 2 has sold a million units worldwide.

Then there’s Final Fantasy XIV, one of the sweetest redemption stories in all of gaming since a shaky start over a decade ago. On the strength of its Endwalker expansion this year, the MMORPG became the most profitable game in Final Fantasy history, reached 25 million registered accounts and established a new record for concurrent players. In December, Square Enix had to halt new sales and trials because its servers couldn’t handle player load. If that’s not a good problem to have, I don’t know what is.

Traditional console and PC gaming isn’t the only vertical within its portfolio. Others include mobile, arcade, amusement, film, manga and merchandising of its various brands. While overall sales and profit are currently down slightly from last year’s highs, it expects annual revenue growth of 2% driven by these new launches plus the ongoing momentum of its MMORPG unit.

While I was disappointed to see a New Year’s letter from President Yosuke Matsuda talk mostly about metaverse and NFTs, two questionable corporate buzzwords I mentioned in my Year-in-Review trends post, employees at Square Enix produced several noteworthy games and continued significant ongoing player support in 2021.

Xbox Game Studios

During this same category last year, I awarded Microsoft overall a slot at the top at the start of its new Xbox Series X|S generation. This year, I’m celebrating the individual unit that is Xbox Game Studios for its dazzling array of consistent output. Major internal investment and studio purchases, headlined of course by $7.5 billion ZeniMax deal which closed in March, began bearing fruit. This was perhaps the best year in history for Xbox on the software production side.

Several of its now 23 development teams had banner new releases, even if some of them weren’t technically exclusive to Xbox or platforms where Xbox Game Pass exists. Two of these, Forza Horizon 5 from Playground Games and Double Fine Productions’ Psychonauts 2, were among the year’s five highest-rated on review aggregator OpenCritic. This, hm.. drove Forza Horizon 5 to the largest software launch in Xbox history, attracting a staggering 10 million players its first week alone.

Then there’s Halo Infinite, of course. The one-two punch of multiplayer and campaign are a franchise revitalization. While Xbox hasn’t shared statistics yet, I’m on record betting the latest Halo installment from 343 Industries had even higher engagement. Deathloop from Arkane Studios was a lock for year-end “best of” lists, while Age of Empires IV from Relic Entertainment was one of the premier PC launches of 2021.

On the ongoing support and catalog side, Sea of Thieves from Rare sailed past 25 million players back in October. It’s quietly one of the biggest success stories for Xbox in the last decade. A small team at Obsidian Entertainment released Grounded into early access, plus Microsoft Flight Simulator from Asobo Studio saw its console debut.

Because of contracts signed prior to recent acquisitions, Deathloop was actually a PlayStation 5 exclusive while Psychonauts 2 hit a variety of different platforms. To me, that doesn’t take away from the accomplishments of everyone within Xbox Game Studios whether long-time employees or recent joiners. That’s multiple Game of the Year contenders, if not winners, and major contributions to the industry made or published by Xbox this past year.

This celebration of those working at major gaming companies marks the halfway point of 2021 Year-in-Review here at the site. Check back to the megapost for all articles. Be safe, all!

Sources: Company Investor & Media Sites, Financial Review, Mohamed Hassan (Image Credit).

-Dom

2021 Year-in-Review: Biggest Trends in Gaming, Tech & Media

2021 was defined by a handful of major trends in gaming, technology and media, many of them centered around workplaces, culture and emerging technologies that even those involved might not fully understand.

It was another year of buzzwords within tech, as often happens. Cryptocurrency. Blockchain. Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). Meme Stocks. Metaverse. Within gaming, people spoke out against corporate toxicity and harassment. Mobile’s growth trajectory withstood as other areas cooled from the peaks of quarantine times, especially amidst supply concerns for hardware. For social media, the infamous Facebook Files, TikTok’s dominance and Twitter’s CEO departure hit the headlines.

Time to dig into six of the most significant trends of 2021. Fair warning, it’s not all good!

Workplace Culture & Whistleblowing

This story is a holdover from my 2020 list, and it’s only gained in relevancy this past year. More people were louder than ever on toxic cultures in the workplace or poor actions by executives, especially at big gaming publishers and social media giants. Over the summer, both Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard faced lawsuits related to discrimination and institutional harassment. Employees banded together to fight back against executives, to varying degrees of success.

Then there’s Facebook, now Meta, which saw a September leak reveal its self-realization of the harm it can cause younger users and its contributions to extremist activities worldwide. Not to mention the potential for fake research and incorrect information across its platforms. This is all thanks to whistleblower Frances Haugen and media investigations.

2021 did see some bright spots in these areas. Vodeo Games was the first gaming company in North America to formally unionize in December. Just recently, an IGN article detailed slightly improving conditions at Bungie while the Washington Post reported Riot Games must pay $100 million to settle a 2018 discrimination lawsuit. Toxicity at work and a “boys club” mentality is still prevalent in many industries. The hope is the more people talk about it, the more bad actors depart and these companies clean up their acts.

GameStop & Popularity of Meme Stocks

In a perfect swirl of internet camaraderie, corporate resistance and capitalist tendencies, 2021 became the year of the “meme stock” highlighted by names like GameStop and AMC Entertainment. At one point in January, GameStop closed at almost $350 per share. It opened the year under 20 bucks.

The frenzied swings of stocks like these are mainly due to online communities, especially Reddit’s WallStreetBets, forming narratives and collectively pushing them to historic highs. They tend to target securities with major short interest, which means a lot of other people were betting their prices would decline, to cause a massive upsurge in buying which skyrockets a stock’s intermittent value.

It’s the type of trend amplified these days when everyone is online, with entire sub-sections of the Web dedicated to chest-puffing against retail investors and major investment firms. A super curious phenomenon, especially when the underlying companies aren’t changing in value. It’s all about the market’s short-term perception. We couldn’t go a few days at times in 2021 without hearing about meme stocks, even from people who aren’t usually interested in social media or digital communities.

The Unavoidable Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, NFTs & Play-to-Earn

Apologies. I had to bring it up. It’s everywhere nowadays in tech, impossible to avoid plus impregnable for even those well-versed in the sector.

And that’s the undying realm that is blockchain, crypto and NFTs. Terms that you’ve probably heard numerous times now, whether via online posts or bros at a dinner table, and still find them wholly impenetrable. That’s because they are, plus it’s only getting worse.

These topics aren’t necessarily new at all. And I won’t dig into the specifics, that information is out there. Technologies surrounding digital ownership of goods, alternative forms of currency and decentralized systems have existed for years. It’s just the loudest right now. That’s primarily because of the astronomic popularity of NFTs, which are mainly used to make (or even launder) money under the guise of owning rights to a digital image.

Environmental impact, regulatory ramifications and opportunities for theft take a backseat to profitability in these realms, especially as company management teams start thinking of ways to capitalize and integrate into their products. Within gaming, that’s where areas like “Play-to-Earn” pop up in a ploy to entice people to play for the sake of generating money as opposed to leisure. Ubisoft introduced Quartz within its floundering Ghost Recon Breakpoint while developer GSC Game World tried, and failed, to incorporate NFTs in the forthcoming STALKER 2. This trend isn’t going anywhere, so I wager it could be a part of my 2022 predictions thread soon.

The Buzzword That Is The Metaverse

Every now and again, those at the top run a term into the ground to where it feels old before it’s even realized. That’s how “Metaverse” felt in 2021, a somewhat nebulous term combining aspects of augmented spaces, virtual reality, video connectedness and low quality online avatars to create a digital world where people can exist alongside one another. Lately it’s used by various companies claiming each wants to build the singular place where people can get together virtually.

Shoot. Facebook even changed its name to Meta in an attempt to monopolize the term.

This metaverse is another concept that’s not necessarily brand new. Just that lately, corporations see a clear opportunity to monetize a fancy buzzword and layer it on top of their existing brand identity. The aforementioned Meta, Microsoft, Apple, Alibaba, Epic Games, Roblox, Niantic and plenty more are using this phrase to describe its virtual offerings.

But what the heck is a metaverse and which will be the “one” that works a la the OASIS from Ready Player One? Well, many experts (and writers like yours truly) don’t think it’s possible. The space is too fragmented, companies are inherently driven to differentiate services rather than collaborate and getting all users to agree on a single platform is impractical. If 2021 is any indication, there will be much smaller, less defined metaverses competing for our virtual selves.

Hardware Shortages, Supply Chain & Product Delays

The global semiconductor shortage that heightened in 2020 partly because of coronavirus shutdowns had the carry-on effect of slowing all sorts of consumer industries including consumer technology, video game hardware, mobile phones and automobiles. Anything that used a chipset was more expensive to build and took longer to distribute in 2021, leading to supply shortages everywhere.

A major result is this combination of low availability and launch delays. Using the example of gaming consoles, the latest generation of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S were notoriously difficult to purchase this past year. When retailers did have inventory, it was short-lived and prone to scalping. Then there’s the console delays, including Valve’s Steam Deck and Panic’s Playdate handheld among others were pushed into next year.

Even so, there’s data showing resilience propped up by demand. Sony said PlayStation 5 shipments reached upwards of 13.3 million as of the quarter ending September. Sell-thru to consumers is higher than PlayStation 4. Nintendo Switch reached nearly 93 million sold lifetime, even as the company reduced its annual target for this fiscal year. Microsoft doesn’t share public figures, though anecdotally and from U.S. data, the Xbox Series S is more prevalent likely due to lower input costs. The NPD Group shows hardware sales up 20% in the U.S. through November 2021, even if compared to late console generation cycle the prior year. Unfortunately, many covering the chip industry think the supply chain issues will continue through 2022 and even beyond.

Mobile Driving Increased Global Games Industry Spending

Revenue numbers are in for the global games space, where overall value was up slightly in 2021 on a year-over-year basis. That’s attributable to gains in mobile and digital spending, while areas like console and personal computer (PC) dipped overall. Digital skew leads the charge as downloadable games plus additional content increased in traction and revenue generated.

According to Newzoo, worldwide video games industry value surpassed $180 billion in 2021. That’s up 1.4% since 2020, a durable figure that illustrates consistent spending on mobile experiences. Mobile as a category contributed $93 billion, showcasing 7% growth. Console was the next highest grouping, declining 7% to $50 billion. PC gaming reached $37 billion, down around 1% since 2020.

Overall, digital sources contributed 93% compared to 91% during 2020. Within console gaming, 77% was digital which is up from 72% prior year. Within mobile, Garena Free Fire led downloads with nearly 230 million. Subway Surfers and PUBG Mobile rounded out the Top 3, with 181 million and 172 million respectively. From a revenue standpoint, Honor of Kings, PUBG Mobile and Genshin Impact drove mobile sales.

On Twitter, Genshin Impact was the most-discussed title around the world followed by Final Fantasy XIV and Apex Legends. Looking at Google’s analytics, PopCat, FIFA 22 and Battlefield 2042 were the most searched. The top-selling games in 2021 for the U.S. as of November were topped by the two most recent Call of Duty titles, Black Ops Cold War and Vanguard in that order, followed by Madden NFL 22.

This recap of an eventful, and sometimes disheartening, year marks the first Year-in-Review post for 2021. Pop over to the megapost for more categories!

Sources: Christian Wiediger (Photo Credit), GamesIndustry.Biz, IGN, Marvin Meyer (Photo Credit), Meta Inc, Newzoo, Wall Street Journal (Photo Credit), Washington Post, Ubisoft.

-Dom

2021 Year-in-Review Megapost Is Now Live

The end is only beginning!

2021 is coming to a close. The past 12 months fit with the recent trend of years being difficult, trying and, very occasionally, magnificently rewarding. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which feels like it both started yesterday and has always been a part of our collective lives, continues as the biggest headline, impacting both our physical well-being and mental health. I like to believe humanity is strong enough to push through it, even if 2021 rebutted this theory at every turn.

Major news stories included insurgents at the U.S. Capitol, President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Ever Given disrupting global commerce by getting itself stuck in the Suez, COVID booster availability amidst the widespread omicron variant, an Olympics like none other, plus some rich people throwing money around so they could go to space.

Closer to home within gaming, technology and media, this Year of the Game Delay brought about some of the best content and worst trends ever. The Facebook Files and social media whistleblowers. GameStop as the premier meme stock with the rise of Reddit traders. Executives repeating the word “metaverse” as many times as they possibly can while pretending it’s a new topic. The inscrutable nuisance that is the non-fungible token (NFT) alongside the burgeoning, disheartening “play-to-earn” gaming trend.

Of course, there’s the omnipresent semiconductor shortages and supply chain issues making it near impossible to find a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X. Unless perhaos you happen to be a bot or scalper? Nintendo Switch’s new OLED model launched in the fourth quarter, cementing the hybrid handheld’s momentum on the charts. And, most importantly, the loud, ongoing relevance of challenging toxic workplace culture and harassment practices at companies including Ubisoft, Bungie and Activision Blizzard. (It’s a shame Bobby Kotick still has his job as I write this.)

Over the next few days, I’ll be recapping the year that was 2021. Once I wrap up writing about the biggest trends, it’s time to showcase what I thought was a consistent year in media and gaming especially, with a variety of high quality AAA titles and indie projects. First I’ll talk about larger publishers, then the more tight-knit indie scene before the grand finale: The ten best games I played all year.

This post acts as the central point for all things Year-in-Review here at Working Casual. Our categories are:

Biggest Trends in Gaming, Tech & Media

Five Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Independent Studios of the Year

Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

Set the bookmark and check back often! Happy Holidays and a safe, healthy New Year to all!

-Dom

U.S. Game Sales Decline Double-Digits in November in Difficult Hardware Supply Environment

The super important November month and Black Friday shopping seasons have come to a close, and United States sales numbers are in from The NPD Group for the video game industry!

And it was a mixed one, for a variety of reasons. That can happen when the prior year was a record, I suppose.

Last month had consumer spending down double-digits overall with declines experienced across all three major categories of Content, Hardware and Accessories. Which is understandable, considering how last year was a best-ever November and the global semiconductor shortage continues to dampen all sectors of consumer technology.

Hardware took the biggest hit with gaming console sales down nearly 40% to the lowest November level since this time in 2016. Nintendo Switch is still the standout, with the company sharing how its hybrid system sold over a million console units in the month alone. That combines all devices in the family, including the latest OLED iteration. Which, fitting with the month’s general trend, is still lower than the 1.35 million achieved in November 2020.

There’s just limited inventories across the board within Hardware, especially for new generation Microsoft Xbox Series X premium model plus Sony’s PlayStation 5 family. One bright spot is the aggressively-priced Xbox Series S version has been available at various retailers, resulting in Xbox Series X|S reaching second place in the Hardware ranks for the first time in a while.

Speaking of software, services and subscription sales as part of the bigger Content category, spending focused on mobile, military first-person shooters, Pokémon remakes and the latest Forza car game from Xbox Game Studios.

Brand new titles occupied four of the top five spots on the general software ranking: Call of Duty: Vanguard led, Battlefield 2042 up next, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl snatched up #3 then Forza Horizon 5 finished in fourth. The first three of these entered the year’s best-sellers list with just the single month on record.

Mobile, consistent as ever, generated over $2 billion in spending for the ninth consecutive month. There’s only two months in 2021 where this particular source hasn’t reached that threshold.

The last broad category of Accessories saw similar declines in November dollar sales, about 20% lower than a year ago. Steering Wheels at least showed great upside, their popularity driven mainly by a Forza release. Read on for more puns later in the piece!

“It is much harder to find a console to buy this holiday,” said The NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella. “Hardware sales [are] limited by supply, and the console with the most units in market is going to lead in sales, perhaps for a while.”

I hope those here in the States that celebrated had a safe, happy Thanksgiving. Then, everyone both domestically and overseas had a good month despite confronting the challenges of COVID-19’s Omicron variant and likely still having to attend those Zoom meetings from home while juggling that precious work-life balance. For those that can, take advantage of vaccinations for teens and kids plus booster shots for adults! It’s for the benefit of all.

Read on below for a look at spending data plus software charts, then see who can spot the worst “jokes” of all.

United States Games Industry Sales (October 31st, 2021 – November 27th, 2021):

Within The NPD Group’s monthly report, the firm said spending across the U.S. games industry last month reached just under $6.3 billion or a decline of 10% since the record high of almost $7 billion in November 2020.

While Content sales are mostly showing resilience, hardware was mainly behind the dip as this time last year both Microsoft and PlayStation launched their latest consoles. Positive areas like subscription and mobile spending weren’t enough to offset lower results in console hardware and accessories, the former certainly restricted by input part scarcity. Plainly, the biggest manufacturers weren’t able to make enough consoles to satiate buyer demand.

Good news is 2021 taken as a whole is still ahead of last year. Year-to-date approached $53 billion in November, which is 9% growth against the $48.5 billion of the same 11-month period in 2020. Basically, despite a more supply-constrained and softer software holiday quarter so far, the year is in high single-digit growth territory and moving towards another potential record result.

The Content category, software and the like, accounted for $5.14 billion in consumer spending. That’s 82% of November’s total, and a slight decline of 1% versus a year back. When expanding to 2021 so far, Content sales have risen 8% to breach past the $46 billion threshold. Which is 87% of the year’s overall spend.

A main contributor here continues to be mobile, which grew 11% in November and accounted for that “at least $2 billion” figure I referenced earlier. Smartphone titles Candy Crush Saga, Coin Master and Roblox among others propelled revenue. Though The NPD Group, in collaboration with Sensor Tower, doesn’t publish full mobile charts.

For console and PC gaming, some of the biggest blockbusters of the year launched last month and occupied the highest spots on the overall software chart.

Unsurprisingly, Call of Duty: Vanguard tops the list. As a game within the Activision Blizzard-published military shooter series has done during its launch month for a whopping 14 years straight since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare started the trend in November 2007.

Even considering the single month on market, Vanguard is already the year’s second best-selling game on the combined chart. Behind only last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. It’s unclear how Vanguard compares to prior titles on dollar sales. I have a question out to The NPD Group for context, I imagine they may not be able to answer publicly.

Oh. More importantly, Activision Blizzard management fostered and even participated in workplace toxicity plus various forms of harassment, employs a torture apologist on its board of directors and is now trying to stifle employees from collective action. CEO Bobby Kotick, among others, should be ashamed. And fired.

Back to the rankings, Battlefield 2042 landed at the second spot during its initial month on market, That’s one above where Battlefield V began in November 2018, and one below where October 2016’s Battlefield 1 launched at the top position. (No, there weren’t three other games in the war epic shooter between those. It’s just Electronic Arts with its confusing naming convention.) The title developed by DICE secured the second spot on both Xbox and PlayStation respectively and is already the sixth best-seller for 2021 as a whole. Again, no comparison details to prior titles available that I could find.

Switch exclusive Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl secured third place, and that’s excluding digital sales since Nintendo doesn’t participate in that portion of reporting. The Generation IV remakes in the long-running brand immediately became the 8th best-seller on 2021’s list, and of course led Switch platform ranks.

One of the biggest success stories remains Forza Horizon 5, ranking fourth on the total software chart and third on Xbox behind only Call of Duty and Battlefield. Importantly, this didn’t include Xbox Game Pass subscriptions. Which supports the notion that services can enhance sales rather than cannibalize them. The excellent open world driving title from Playground Games zoomed off the starting line, attracting 10 million players during its first week alone in the largest first-party launch for Xbox in its 20-year history.

Familiar titles like Madden NFL 22, Mario Party Superstars and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy helped round out the Top 10. Ubisoft’s Just Dance 2022 was the next new release at #11, while Japanese role-playing game Shin Megami Tensei V from Atlus debuted at #16. Note that the latter does not include downloads, which means its upside was even greater.

With just one month left in 2021, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is currently in pole position with Call of Duty: Vanguard on its heels and Madden NFL 22 in third place. Will Vanguard shoot past its predecessor? Well it certainly should, taking into account holiday sales, however it’s far from guaranteed. Which would be an anomaly in recent memory, telling a clear narrative of diminishing full game sales for the series this year.

For now, here’s November’s full results.

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

  1. Call of Duty: Vanguard
  2. Battlefield 2042
  3. Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl*
  4. Forza Horizon 5
  5. Madden NFL 22
  6. Mario Party Superstars*
  7. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
  8. FIFA 22
  9. Far Cry 6
  10. NBA 2K22*
  11. Just Dance 22
  12. Mario Kart 8*
  13. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  14. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  15. Back 4 Blood
  16. Shin Megami Tensei V*
  17. Minecraft
  18. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  19. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  20. Ghost of Tsushima

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

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Call of Duty: Vanguard
  3. Madden NFL 22
  4. MLB: The Show 21^
  5. Resident Evil: Village
  6. Battlefield 2042
  7. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  8. Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl*
  9. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  10. Far Cry 6

The most newsworthy of categories lately is Hardware, and November’s numbers showed a heightened impact from tough supply situation.

“It’s all about stock. The console with the most units in market will lead the charts,” Piscatella said. “[This] will likely be the case for a long while.”

In what was the most pronounced monthly decline of the three segments, Hardware sales declined 38% to $883 million. That’s the lightest November outcome since 2016’s $759 million. Last year’s figure was over $1.4 billion in the corresponding month, an all-time high established as both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S began their life cycles plus Nintendo Switch carried major software momentum into the holiday quarter.

Speaking of Switch, it was the top-selling gaming console in November as measured by both unit sales and dollars earned. (Basically, my prediction last month was half correct. Or half wrong, depending on one’s outlook. I’ll try to stay positive!)

Nintendo announced Switch sold 1.13 million units in November, 550K of which happened during Black Friday week. Note that last year’s November monthly unit sales figure was 1.35 million, which implies a decline of 16%. Still, Switch has now led on unit sales during 35 of the last 36 months, losing only September 2021 to a push from Sony’s PlayStation 5.

“As we head into 2022 and the sixth year of Nintendo Switch, the system continues to see strong demand,” said Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser in the company’s press release.

Now that there’s a full year of data on the new consoles, it’s clear that supply is dictating performance more than ever. Essentially, whichever console manufacturer produces more boxes is winning right now as Piscatella alluded. Nintendo’s November win was no doubt driven by OLED model production as its premier product, its first full month on market since launching in October. This phasing of the original model is enticing owners to upgrade or purchase an additional system.

Another noteworthy topic from last month’s report is how Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S platform landed in second place within hardware by units and dollars. Recently it’s been lower than competitors, and I am pretty sure the last time it actually led was June 2021 when it set a record for the brand. This time, it’s a combination of higher Xbox Series S availability and the attraction of Forza Horizon 5.

Now the details are fuzzy, from I gather it’s a substantial away from Switch mainly based on comments from Niko Partners analyst Daniel Ahmad. His claim is combining Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 sales for November are barely equivalent to what Switch generated alone. Which is a bit surprising to me, given how all are based on similar components and existing within a consumer tech space that’s reliant on part sourcing.

Even further, Ahmad points out a quite intriguing historical statistic in how PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Wii U sold more in November 2014 than the current three corresponding consoles did last month. I think that drives home the limited stock right now better than any quote or commentary.

So, in a rare occurrence, PlayStation 5 brings up the rear during one of the calendar’s most intense months of commercial competition. Hardware overall was down against a record high in November 2020, still it’s lower than it probably should be a year into a brand new console generation. Bad news is the chip environment isn’t expected to change any time soon, so we should brace for further distribution limitations.

Last category to cover for November is Accessories, which also dipped almost in lockstep with its Hardware counterpart. It’s still approaching record territory for 2021 as a whole, plus one sub-segment in particular saw a substantial improvement.

Consumer spending on Accessories contracted 20% to $258 million, down from $324 million last year. It’s the lowest November month figure since back in November 2017, when segment spend was $243 million.

On the bright side, revenue for the first 11 months of the year is certainly more positive and actually currently at a record $2.18 billion. Which is an upward trend of 4% compared to this time in 2020, the prior record holder.

Clearly November was, hm.. fueled by the start of Forza Horizon 5. Steering Wheels in particular drove a substantial boost. Consumer purchasing on this sub-category more than doubled, with the Logitech G920 Driving Force Racing Wheel for PC and Xbox platforms leading the pack.

Could I possibly squeeze any more racing terms into a single section? Perhaps. I clearly peeled out and road the momentum this far!

Alright. Enough of that.

All in all, November is always an eventful time for the commercial side of gaming, the biggest publishers and data nerds covering the industry. This year paints a slightly different story than most monthly reports this year, which have been overwhelmingly positive. It’s a comparison against a massive, record-breaking month in November 2020 amidst a most challenging hardware situation, which explains the difference.

This hardware availability impacts everything from new software buyers, spenders on ongoing games over time plus especially the purchasing upside of accessories. When someone scoops up a fancy new generation console, they often buy a headset or additional controller at the same time. Without a box to find, there’s less incentive to spend on the latest peripherals.

That said, I’m very much looking forward to the finale of 2021 in December’s data. The biggest exclusive title is Xbox’s Halo Infinite, as both Sony and Nintendo aren’t pushing any massive budget first-party projects other than those that are already on sale.

I’m wildly bullish on Halo Infinite’s engagement prospects, sharing on social media how I expect at least 15 million players around launch which should drive the science-fiction shooter to one of the top spots on December’s combined software list behind the likes of at least Call of Duty: Vanguard and a sports game or two that find popularity during the holidays.

On the multi-platform side, Take-Two Interactive has the physical release of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition (yes, that’s a real title and way too long to type more than once) since it was only out in digital form during November. Otherwise, it’s a relatively light end-of-year calendar for triple-A studios.

December’s report will have 2021’s annual data, which is trending towards a year of growth, especially for hardware’s performance before the supply constraints worsened. During 2020, consumers spent a record $57 billion across the games industry. 2021 is already at $53 billion, growing almost 10% as of November like I mentioned earlier in the piece. Last year’s December was $7.7 billion, which means next month only needs $4 billion to set a new record. I’m saying the potential for over $59 billion in annual spend is in sight!

So, this is the final NPD wrap up I’ll write in 2021, since December’s release is currently scheduled for January 14th, 2022. I absolutely loved covering them, and I hope you enjoy reading the recaps as well.

There’s a lot ahead at the site before the New Year as my annual Year in Review pieces will go around the last week of December. Hope everyone remains safe and well, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and a very wonderful December to all.

Thanks for the time and interest!

*Digital Sales Not Included, ^Xbox Digital Sales Not Included

Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.

Sources: New York Times (Image Credit), The NPD Group.

-Dom

Review: Call of Duty: Vanguard is What It Is and That’s Totally Fine

Note: Activision Blizzard has been in the news a lot for executives, including CEO Bobby Kotick, fostering a toxic workplace with widespread sexual harassment and mistreatment of its employees. It’s currently under multiple lawsuits and calls for his resignation. I acknowledge this project and others were made under these difficult circumstances and believe its management team should be held accountable. I don’t think this should stop people, including myself, from writing critically about the work of its development teams. Therefore, this is my full review.

It’s difficult for individual titles to stand out within an annual franchise. Consistency is really the name of the game, both in gameplay and structure. Call of Duty: Vanguard represents a continuation of great mechanics, rapid-fire intensity and blockbuster aesthetic from predecessors while suffering in areas especially within a bare-bones Zombies offering, slight imbalances in multiplayer weaponry and minimal integration with standalone battle royale mode Warzone.

The game is similar, familiar and doesn’t strive to reinvent the wheel. Which can be satisfying. This also means it’s not anything more than solid when taken as a whole.

As a military first-person shooter, it follows a similar cadence as many before featuring three distinct play options in Campaign, Multiplayer and Zombies. This year’s setting is the backdrop of World War II, showcasing characters, locales plus weapons from the era often sacrificing realism for functionality. It’s a video game after all, so some level of disbelief suspension is always in order.

Because of the historical setting, it’s naturally reminiscent of 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII. Which I found to be pretty good. Yet its mechanics are much more linked to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) which I consider in the highest regard within the mainline series and the genre in general. That means the pure feel, including movement capabilities, are top-notch. It achieves the series staple of smooth, seamless action.

The general approach here for both Campaign and Multiplayer, which were handled by Sledgehammer Games, is bouncing across different engagements during one of the world’s most massive wars. There’s fights everywhere from the Eastern and Western fronts, Northern Africa and Pacific regions. Zombies was instead made by Call of Duty: Black Ops creators Treyarch Studios and focuses on a tiny area in Stalingrad, a boring iteration in what’s the game’s most disappointing part.

Campaign has the highest of Vanguard’s highs, a playable blockbuster war flick following a team of specialized soldiers while learning about their pasts. From dazzling technical prowess to improved character writing and intense sequences, it’s a pretty thrilling five to six hour experience. Even stealth sections are worthy of praise.

There’s plenty of fun to be had in Multiplayer, the meat and potatoes of modern day Call of Duty. Even if progression feels uneven, unlocks take a lot of time and gun balancing is skewed from the start. Map diversity, general customization and play-style building is where it shines. That’s a lot of competitive content at launch, including at least a couple new modes plus rotating playlists that add flavor to the mix.

Other areas either plainly aren’t ready or don’t feel fully baked, notably Zombies and Warzone integration.

Zombies is the weakest bit, even if it’s the best place for mindless experience grinding without having to compete. More of a run-based approach. Which could work, it’s just way too basic and monotonous. Doesn’t feel fully baked at launch. December update.

The most relevant question asked of any virtual shooter is: how does it feel to play? Without that, it’s nothing.

I’m a firm believer that Call of Duty features best-in-class gun feel, movement capability, audio feedback and time-to-kill tweaking. While in a historical setting, Vanguard retains all of these and it just feels natural to play for first-person aficionados. Hit feedback is critical. I lean towards shorter time-to-kill games, where bullets feel stronger and engagements are about reaction and precision. This year’s experience continues modern staples like tactical sprint, sliding and mounting on different parts of the environment, providing a sleek and powerful combination of abilities that translate especially well to Multiplayer matches.

The game is similar, familiar and doesn’t strive to reinvent the wheel. Which can be satisfying. This also means it’s not anything more than solid when taken as a whole.

I always begin my annual Call of Duty passage with Campaign, so I’ll start there. While not the most impactful or innovative story, its intensity is matched only by its big budget feel during firefights across various theatres of the 1940s.

At first it appears a pretty standard setup when it comes to military stories: A group of specialized soldiers called Task Force One bands together during World War II to uncover a secret plot within the Nazi war machine. It ends up being more an interactive Tarantino flick told out of order because, within this framework, it’s actually a character piece delving into the past of its personalities before pushing forward into their present day.

Arthur Kingsley, a Cameroonian Brit well-educated in language and film, commands the unit with a deft touch and glowing charisma. Polina Petrova is a Russian-born sniper with a quick tongue and even faster trigger finger, she has a score to settle with her invaders. Pilot and New York native Wade Jackson joined the team after surviving the Pacific while Lucas Riggs is an Australian explosives expert. And general goofball. British Sergeant Richard Webb rounds out the cast, though is the only individual the player doesn’t control at some point.

In the opening mission, the team executes a high stakes train robbery where it learns of one of The Third Reich’s mysterious internal plans called Project Phoenix. Unfortunately, they are also captured by ambitious Nazi scumbag Hermann Freisinger and thrown into a high-security prison to be interrogated by Jannick Richter, acted incredibly well by Dominic Monaghan. It’s via these sessions that the game tells each character’s tale, leading to most of the game’s missions as flashbacks.

Each character has different abilities within these vignettes that change up the core gameplay. Petrova escapes her hometown of Stalingrad while leveraging her super fast stealth techniques and marksman aim. During The Rats of Tobruk, Riggs escorts a splinter unit to gain intelligence from a desert Nazi base while blowing up as many military vehicles as possible, even one that’s airborne, with an assorted inventory of grenades.

And during Operation Tonga, the player issues directives to a dedicated fire team as Kingsley, pointing out areas for cover fire or opportunities to hit high value targets, fighting during the infamous invasion of Normandy. Because what’s a World War II game without Normandy?

Sure, it’s a bit predictable. It’s still more effective bouncing between controllable characters rather than a single one, reminiscent of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with its multiple protagonists. And the focus on the most important parts of their history means there can be quieter moments with family and fellow squad members amidst the chaos of war.

As a massive publisher project, the Campaign is a technical showpiece that exists on the front-line of modern console capabilities. The developers at Sledgehammer games, which handled this mode plus Multiplayer, are showing off when it comes to movement animations, environmental design and audio prowess. The sound design is incredible, neatly capturing whizzing bullets and crunchy demolition.

There’s a distinct focus on environment, cover and destruction in Vanguard. While of course it’s a set of linear sequences, it offers flexibility in blasting through a wooden barricade or mounting a crumbling cement wall. While far from revolutionary, this sort of destructibility is a welcome touch.

My favorite mission trick later in the narrative is one where the camera switches perspective mid-mission as the playable character shifts within a broader conflict. It’s a superb effect and spreads out mechanics because of those bespoke abilities assigned to each teammate. Jackson’s time-slowing aiming in particular is the most satisfying of all.

Regrettably an earlier set of missions set in the skies above the Pacific Ocean then the Numa Numa Trail in Papua New Guinea mark lows in the action. First the player is tasked with flying a primitive fighter plane then dive-bombing ships. The controls just don’t translate well, and imaginary walls restrict the combat area so flying outside them causes mission failure. Right after there’s a jungle sequence along the trail where Jackson and his copilot meet the 93rd Infantry Division, a segregated unit for African-American soldiers. I appreciate the inclusion, and leader James “Booker” Washington acts as an inspiration, even if the mission itself is a somewhat monotonous trudge.

Back to the highs, Sledgehammer’s voice casting and motion capture techniques are on full display. Famed voice actress Laura Bailey steals the overall show as Petrova, while British actor Chiké Okonkwo’s Kingsley quite literally commands his every scene. The aforementioned Monaghan is incredible as a sniveling, over-matched Nazi investigator when facing off with each personality. Facial features are crisp and animations line up perfectly in another example of technical know-how from the Sledgehammer team.

It’s a mostly enjoyable five or six hours, feeling even longer than it is and boasting more highs than not. I would have liked one additional mission or a more climactic final sequence, yet have minimal complaints about its length as a war epic trying to showcase multiple fronts of the war and more intimate flashback anecdotes.

The main focus of development and ongoing support in the latest Call of Duty games, now operating each year alongside its persistent Warzone battle royale offering introduced back in 2020, is Multiplayer. Clearly.

Competitive play is where the franchise’s smooth, fast-paced mechanics really make their mark. Vanguard is no different, maybe a slight step behind the master class of Modern Warfare. It’s the most tangibly rewarding mode, with the usual setup of the best unlocks requiring a major time investment. It’s the series that revolutionized progression in first-person multiplayer, and still does it as well as any other by dangling that next reward after every round.

That progression, the forward momentum, it’s what Call of Duty perfected all those years ago. The numbers go up almost everywhere, after every match, between general level experience (XP), weapons getting more powerful via unlocks, Operator level and its ongoing battle pass. It’s part of why the franchise has been so successful and long-lasting, and why I keep coming back to it each time. Sure there are specific challenges and cosmetic awards for achieving them. But I love progression that can be earned in-game, and Call of Duty rewards people every step of the way for simply playing.

The core of Vanguard is a sampling of traditional modes like Team Deathmatch and Free-For-All, objective-based Domination, Hardpoint and Search and Destroy and many corresponding Hardcore renditions where radar is turned off plus bullets are more lethal. Team Deathmatch is naturally where most of the player base operates, as usual. It’s the bread-and-butter, the definition of consistency. Or perhaps redundancy, depending how one looks at it. When I’m not grinding out experience in smaller maps, I tend to gravitate towards certain objective types: the zone control of Hardpoint and especially Kill Confirmed where players collect dog tags of fallen foes and comrades.

This year’s title introduces a couple new modes, one that’s really an iteration of an existing template then another that’s unlike most others. Patrol is the former, where a capture area constantly moves around a map and rewards the team that holds it the longest. It’s cool enough, promoting more movement than Hardpoint while requiring the same team coordination.

Champion Hill is the more unique introduction in Vanguard. This is a round-robin style tournament in which eight small teams compete against one another with a limited set of lives in a fight for supremacy. It begins in a hub area with a buying round where teams of two or three can choose between weapons, perks, upgrades and even more lives. It then randomly selects a match-up of two teams and places them in one of four sub-areas on the broader map. Kills generate cash which can be used to add attachments or spent during additional buying rounds. Any team that runs out of lives is eliminated. It’s a snappy set of tactical skirmishes where things can go south quickly, and smart use of cash reserves is key. It’s intense and addictive, especially with friends on comms.

The big push in Multiplayer is creating a build that fits one’s play style. Weapons, attachments, grenades, field upgrades, perks, killstreaks, the cornucopia of completing one’s arsenal.

Weapon variety right now in Vanguard is mostly as expected, with a historical backdrop of course rather than any sort of modern military models. It’s a tricky task for Sledgehammer to operate within the World War II setting and create gameplay scenarios that entice players used to automatic weapons and accoutrements galore. So it ends up being a Frankenstein blend of period guns with unrealistic upgrades and capabilities, a sacrifice of realism for the sake of practicality which I believe is necessary.

There’s 38 weapons at launch across the typical primary categories of assault rifles, submachine or light machine guns and shotguns. Vanguard separates marksman rifles from snipers, the former being long range semi-automatics while the latter are mostly one-hit kills. Then the secondary options of pistols, melee and, my personal favorite, launchers. All of these archetypes aren’t just anticipated, they are purely essential by now.

Early in a multiplayer game’s life cycle, imbalances are unavoidable. That’s the case right now for at least one or two weapons especially within assault rifles and shotguns, while marksman and snipers seem underutilized. The STG44 is the very first assault rifle available to players and probably the best all around pick. There’s also the faster firing Automaton, lethal during closer engagements yet harder to control. The most fun, or broken, of all in Vanguard is the Combat Shotgun with ridiculous range and impeccable impact. Now of course this will change over time, as the meta layer moves according to Sledgehammer’s patches alongside user base feedback. I don’t mind going with the more powerful weapons because it allows me to focus rather than spreading myself too thin. Plus, I can be more competitive as a somewhat slightly above average player.

The defining characteristic of Call of Duty is flexibility, and the weapon attachment system is robust in Vanguard. Guns have ten dedicated spots for mixing and matching. Regulars like silencers, scopes, barrels and grips are all represented, adjusting attributes from accuracy to speed. Then there’s additional spots for ammo type, proficiency and kit. These add further customization like incendiary bullets that set targets ablaze or the Vital proficiency which increases critical hit size. As I alluded to before, the tradeoff is the most powerful are among the last to unlock.

Personally, an expanded arsenal of different launchers excites me the most. There are four of them: M1 Bazooka, Panzerschreck, Panzerfaust and MK11 Launcher. The last two are especially amazing during ground tactics. I’ve probably made a lot of opponents mad on smaller maps. The main risks are reloads that take forever and there’s no automatic lock-on for these, it’s straight shooting for all projectiles. Which means taking down airborne vehicles proves more difficult in Vanguard.

Individual play is even further defined by the familiar systems of custom loadouts and other options. Players assign perks, field upgrades, killstreaks then both tactical throwables and lethal grenades. It’s impossible to cover them all in a review. Suffice to say series regulars are all here, even if they have different names. Everything from attack dogs and Molotov cocktails to flamethrowers and spy planes. Variety is the spice of life, and a defining factor of Call of Duty.

I’ll often opt towards a more stealthy and accurate approach. Suppressors and stabilizers that steady recoil pair well with perks like Ghost and Radar to make me more inconspicuous. There’s always a flipside because firepower output is lower plus I’m more susceptible to explosions. This works well in objective modes and larger spaces. Lately I’ve started experimenting with a louder technique using options that give me more grenades and rockets. Combining Demolition, which allows two lethals at spawn, with Supply Box means I can resupply all explosive types. I pair these with a great perk called Piercing Vision that allows me to briefly see through walls when I hit a target. It’s especially effective on more compact maps, and I love being able to bounce between these two distinct styles.

Speaking of maps, or “boards” as veterans dub them, the sheer number at release is one of the most highly impressive aspects of Multiplayer. There’s 20 at present, 16 of which are traditional while four are the individual areas of Champion Hill. It’s a robust total which I believe is the most ever right at launch.

Maps are on the whole consistent. Certain ones are fantastic while there are a couple weaker outliers. There’s legacy areas sprinkled in like Castle and Dome, both from 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War. Most of Vanguard’s are new designs. Select favorites include Tuscan, a daring rooftop parlay in Italy, then the real-world German building Kehlsteinhaus represented in Eagle’s Nest which excels in interior engagements between two exterior lanes. Decoy is an incredible outdoor training course area with mock buildings and smashable walls.

Then there’s my choice: Das Haus, in what’s proving a most controversial pick within the community. It’s pure close-quarters mayhem in a remote location where Germans train to infiltrate the U.S. White House. I adore the chaos, one of those love it or hate it type of instant classics a la Nuketown. It often has its own dedicated playlist, or combined lately with a snazzy iteration of Shipment, which works wonders for grinding out levels.

Another introduction in Vanguard is the Combat Pacing system. It offers three distinct options for player population in each match, from the most chill to crazy hectic, and I really dig this particular move. Tactical has the least amount of players, feeling the most like a normal Call of Duty count of 6 versus 6. Assault ramps up the intensity to moderate. Blitz boasts the highest player count and most frenzied of all, leading to constant action and high body counts. The system changes even how a single map can feel, and it’s mostly for the better. Blitz makes even the most open locales feel frenetic. There’s the downside of Tactical hitting on that same sort of big board, which makes it empty. This sort of mini-innovation within the series is a welcome change, especially since there’s flexibility in matchmaking to focus on a single pacing or include them all.

A most frivolous and honestly questionable new feature is the Team MVP concept, which now exists alongside the typical end-of-match Play of the Game or Final Kill replays. Vanguard’s algorithm picks three contestants to highlight when a fight is over, normally those with the most headshots or multi-kills and occasionally showcasing people who led objective tasks. Each player can vote on who was the most valuable, gaining a slight bit of experience points each time. Because there aren’t many win animations and certain rewards are for trivial things like being around teammates for the most time, it’s not the most polished of match finales like say Overwatch.

Nowadays every Call of Duty game introduces their own Operators, or the characters one picks before a given match. Within Vanguard these are mostly visual as there’s no classes or roles like earlier titles. It’s a small roster, each has quips and finishing moves plus those Play of the Game and MVP animations. There is a slight XP boost for playing with a character and their “favorite weapon.” Oh, and of course there’s an Operator Level. It’s mostly another way to see the numbers go up, and increase cosmetic possibilities.

Multiplayer overall here is a sound foundation with excellent map consistency and clever pacing features that increase both the enjoyment and reward frequency. Sure there’s balancing challenges for weapons mostly, which is mostly forgivable early on and can even level the playing field for non-professionals. How it evolves over time will be key. I believe it’s quite enjoyable in its current state, notably on fast-paced maps and close clashes, even for the more casual competitors like yours truly.

It doesn’t have to change much because it relies on fundamentals that work. Whether or not that’s a knock against it comes down to taste and perspective, and I’m in the camp that recognizes how minor differences can enhance that base experience.

Now, to talk about the biggest swing-and-miss: Zombies.

Straight up, this co-op mode wasn’t ready. Because developer Treyarch themselves said the first story beats begin in early December. Right now, it’s a shell of what it should be and the most disappointing aspect of Vanguard’s packaging. Zombies lacks intrigue, replayability, narrative hooks and a reason to stay longer term other than maybe messing around leveling up with friends or seeing how difficult it can get.

Set within a very small area of Stalingrad, the Zombies mode is supposed to be a continuation of the Dark Aether narrative which began last year. For background, Projekt Endstation opened up inter-dimensional portals to a demonic parallel universe and a Nazi commander now wants to control them for a last ditch effort against Allied forces. Basically, players control Special Forces soldiers to see how many otherworldly foes they can take down.

The glaring problem is right now, Zombies has.. turned into a run-based mode that starts in a small hub world then moves into other tiny areas for a single task then teleports players back to that main area to purchase upgrades and the like. The main map features a crafting bench, the “Altar of Covenants,” weapon upgrades and a Pack-a-Punch machine that generates a random gun.

There’s an obvious roguelike influence here, except without the variety or meaningful progression and certainly no mysterious, engaging elements like years past. Which is what I cherished most about Zombies, its ability to be weird and curious with random artifacts and puzzles to solve. Sad to report this is the exact opposite.

Portal objectives rarely require any brainpower. I believe there are only three of them, two of which are variations on staying alive long enough for a timer to run out. The most taxing is Harvest, which asks players to collect runes then deposit them. No variants. Zero coordination needed. The utter definition of monotony.

In typical Zombies fashion, difficulty bumps up a bit after the group of up to four players clears a portal. Which really means they mostly become more bullet spongy and more of them spawn. One would think Zombies offers developers a golden chance to flex muscles on enemy variety and design tactics to push players to their limits.

Nope. There’s three zombie types. Standard shamblers, exploders called Boom Schreiers and Sturmkrieger also known as “Big Annoying Zombie With Machine Gun And Too Much Health.” At least they have cool names, I suppose. Because Vanguard’s idea of challenge is throwing more and more of the same exact fodder, not getting creative with tactics or mutations. Oh wait, I forgot. Some of the base versions do have armor. Which is just a way to disguise giving them a bigger health pool.

Are you asleep yet?

Sure, there are select loadout choices and customization powers. All the guns and attachments from Multiplayer are used, then the player selects one of four “entities” that each have a single power. These are basic abilities dressed up with fancy names like Dragon of Saraxis, an area of effect blast, or Mask of Bellekar that’s just a short-term cloak. Perks can be found around the map, giving more health or speed. Chests drop grenades or different guns, usually throwaway versions. Again, wholly lackluster.

The aforementioned Altar of Covenants is the most impactful of customization tactics and at least provides meaningful benefits. After each round when returning from a portal, a player earns a Sacrificial Heart. These can be exchanged for Covenants, or abilities that spice things up a tad. Bloodlust allows self-healing for melee damage, Death Blow returns ammo for critical kills and Cryofreeze is pretty self-explanatory. The best of these are Brain Rot, which randomly turns a damaged zombie friendly, then Ammo Gremlin which refills ammo in stowed weapons. It eliminates the need to reload constantly, which is a staple of zombie fights.

It’s so bare-bones and boring that I don’t have much more to say about Zombies other than it feels half-baked in its current form. And I’m not sure updates will vastly change that. Its nowhere near as mysterious or intriguing as past iterations, though at least it will have more substance in a couple weeks. Because it drastically needs that.

I guess there’s one reason to play Zombies as a quick, more chill way to gain experience and player level without having to run competitive matches. It’s just flat out bad after the first hour or two when the allure of jumping into portals wears off, the seams start showing and its rampant imperfections take hold of any semblance of fun. There’s not much reason to play Zombies until it’s fixed. If that even happens in the future.

As expected from a project of this magnitude and a team of this size, Vanguard runs smooth as butter on the Xbox Series X and I assume most other platforms because of its pedigree. Performance stability is a staple of first-person shooters, and Call of Duty excels in this department offering up to a 120hz refresh rate on console. There’s also a welcome field of view slider, plus a variety of motion blur and video options. Sadly, there’s no ray tracing implementation though it’s still a gorgeous game where I noticed zero frame rate hitches and no issues running in any mode.

Diving more into settings, Vanguard’s feature suite is extensive. Flexible control mapping alternatives, gameplay changes, movement options, color customization and heads-up display switches are all tweaks available to players. Accessibility is covered with font size, subtitles, crosshair bobbing, the aforementioned color changes plus a variety of text chat features. There’s even the ability to disable graphic content and engage profanity filters. I commend the teams for just how many different configurations they offer.

One glaring omission is a formal photo mode, which is more popular than ever in modern games. Even those with multiplayer elements. Campaign in particular can be stunning and would lead to some epic shots.

In terms of social features, it’s the usual party system where one can team up with platform or Activision friends. There’s also full cross-play and cross-progression in Call of Duty now, the former can be flipped off and the latter is done via Activision account. A neat touch now is Clans, where a group of up to one hundred folks can team up in a group and earn bonuses for doing so.

Luckily I’ve seen limited disruptions in matchmaking and connection. This year’s title also introduced a dedicated anti-cheat team called Ricochet, which was desperately needed. Technologically, Vanguard is an achievement for all folks involved. Just remember to mute all in the lobby when running outside of a party!

Because it’s a modern multiplayer game, there’s all sorts of cosmetic systems from emblems to name plates and weapon skins to those Operator animations I mentioned earlier. It’s ripe for monetization over time, though the usual cosmetic packs aren’t present yet. They certainly will be, I’d imagine when integration with Warzone kicks off in early December.

And that part will be key for the ongoing support and meta game for Vanguard, as it’s another annual launch operating in parallel with Warzone. Right now, the two operate independently. There’s going to be a new map set in the Pacific called Caldera, available on December 9th, which will mark a new season in the Call of Duty universe. The battle royale mode and its current maps have grown a bit stale to me, so I’m excited to try out the changes and see how integration with historical weapons works. It can’t be a clean break because of how much investment players have put into prior seasons to date, even as much as I’d love to see what would happen in that case.

After spending a considerable amount of time with all that Call of Duty: Vanguard has to offer, I’ve come away satisfied with Campaign, impressed with elements of Multiplayer and wholly distraught by an aggressively poor Zombies offering. Sledgehammer’s contributions to story and online play lead the charge while Treyarch’s lackluster fighting against the undead is the weakest link.

Vanguard, like individual instances of many ongoing franchises, is mostly predictable. It does show off a handful of surprises, like select flashback missions in the narrative and the Multiplayer’s new battle pacing system that ramps up the reward feedback loop. Which is essential in the competitive space, even when played casually.

It’s a technical showpiece, plain and simple. There’s clear attention to detail in animation quality and environmental design. One moment, gunsmoke exiting a weapon’s barrel looks real enough to smell the residue. The next, a character jams that new round in the chamber before aiming down their scope to snap off a clean critical hit. The frenzied pacing often hides these qualities that really define a military shooter, and Call of Duty does it as well as any. Even if it does happen every year, there are noticeable improvements for those paying attention.

This sort of iterative effort is akin to a sports game that nails the core experience. It doesn’t have to change much because it relies on fundamentals that work. Whether or not that’s a knock against it comes down to taste and perspective, and I’m in the camp that recognizes how minor differences can enhance that base experience.

Call of Duty is no longer isolated to the once a year event then content packs in the coming months. It’s all the time, ongoing and ever-present. Vanguard as its latest iteration is mostly good, even if not regularly great. It’s still one of the best at those jaw-dropping, blockbuster moments and trailblazing technology.

I’m way content with the time I’ve had in the game so far, and I plan to keep it up over time especially with friends in the online component. And I hope to dip into a better Zombies mode down the line. Foundational mechanics and gratifying progression, plus those “wow” moments when chaining shots together or parachuting across the Pacific during a Campaign mission, are plenty good enough to carry Vanguard even when other aspects weigh it down.

Title: Call of Duty: Vanguard

Release Date: November 5th, 2021

Developer: Sledgehammer Games, Treyarch Studios

Publisher: Activision Blizzard

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

Final Score: 7.5/10

Recommendation: While there’s entertainment to be had in the Campaign and it features the most memorable moments, I’m not sure it’s worth the price of admission alone. Multiplayer is the more consistent highlight right now due to great game feel, awesome maps and a steady progression system. Zombies is a total whiff, at least for now. I say it’s worth a try for the first two modes alone, just don’t expect a mind-blowing experience.

Sources: Activision Press Center, Screenshots from Xbox Series X.

-Dom

U.S. Games Industry Sales Set October Record as Seven New Titles Enter Top 10 List

It seems October was a scary good month for video game sales in the States.

That’s according to the latest monthly report from industry tracking firm The NPD Group, which released its October 2021 stats for the U.S. games market today.

The data shows it was a record-breaking October for consumer spending, where it approached nearly $4.4 billion in sales or an increase of 16%. All three categories experienced some sort of growth, both during the month and across 2021. Video Game Content and Video Game Hardware rose double-digits in these time frames, while Video Games Accessories saw more modest single-digit gains.

Within the biggest contributor of Content, new releases occupied a staggering seven of the Top 10 spots on the overall software chart. Ubisoft’s open world action shooter Far Cry 6 landed the top rank, just above a surprising runner-up in Warner Bros’ co-op zombie tag-along Back 4 Blood. Nintendo then boasted the opposite of a dreadful start for the latest entry in its classic Metroid franchise, as Metroid Dread set its own super series launch record. And, as it often does, mobile continues a steady pace with October spending again exceeding $2 billion. A feat which mobile has achieved for eight straight months now.

Hardware remains the category with the most growth upside as both Nintendo and Sony showed consistency, even amidst a supply-limited situation impeding them and competitors from making as many consoles as they’d like in ideal conditions.

Nintendo Switch regained the top spot during October, as measured by both units sold and dollar sales. Primarily bolstered by the October 8th launch of its Switch OLED model which contributed over 40% of Switch unit sales for the month. The device family is also the best-selling of 2021 to date when using units as a gauge.

PlayStation 5 is still the year’s best-seller from a dollar standpoint, no doubt influenced by steady demand and a higher asking price. Curious to see if this keeps up through the holidays, given recent reports of Sony potentially reducing production targets given part scarcity in the global supply chain.

Here domestically, October represented a consistent trend lately of spending gains, record output for certain data points, hardware growth trajectory, mobile momentum and successful software starts. Demand was certainly still solid for consoles in particular, leading me to surmise the record October could have been even more stacked if it wasn’t held back.

“Strong hardware, subscription and mobile, this month [was] aided by the flow of new releases,” said NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella on Twitter. “Still don’t know how high the ceiling is for console hardware, [it’s] still (and will be for a long while) in a supply constrained environment.”

There’s a lot to cover, let’s start with the overall figures then move into category results.

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

Consumer spending in the U.S. games market moved up that aforementioned 16% to a best ever October amount of $4.4 billion. This means it’s upwards of $46.67 billion on the year as a whole. That’s 12% higher than the comparable period in 2020.

Seeing both of these totals rise double-digits given the more strict quarantine restrictions last year proves the market’s resiliency, maintaining buyers within ecosystems like mobile and subscriptions like Xbox Game Pass, plus the ongoing popularity of live service games with long tails. Combine that with hardware demand and there’s a recipe for growth even against high comparables.

Content i.e. software, subscription and mobile sales increased 11% in October, settling at $3.76 billion. That’s 86% of total spend for the month. We know that mobile passed $2 billion, comprising at least 46% of this Content category. Monthly mobile revenue growth reached 12%. This makes sense, rising from the single-digit gains around this time last year, because people are spending more time and money on their phones.

On the traditional software side, the big story is new releases. These accounted for four out of the Top 5, seven of the Top 10. Even enough to push mainstays like NBA 2K and Call of Duty down the list further than accustomed.

Leading the pack was Far Cry 6, which is already a part of the 2021 to date best-seller list as well at #8. The title also earned the top spot on PlayStation and Xbox individual charts. I didn’t see much from NPD Group in the way of direct comparison to prior entries. Which doesn’t mean I can’t do just that. Its predecessor Far Cry 5 also led its first month in March 2018. Ubisoft claims this year’s title has 25% more engagement than its predecessor, albeit didn’t share anything on copies or dollar results. For more context, Far Cry 4 debuted all the way down in 6th place back in November 2014.

Back 4 Blood charted at the second spot during October, securing that same rank on both PlayStation and Xbox sales lists. Developed by Turtle Rock Studios featuring veterans of the Left 4 Dead team, the multi-platform title no doubt benefited from a simultaneous launch into Xbox Game Pass. In a trend now seen consistently for years, starting in the subscription service actually compliments sales rather than cannibalizes them. The word-of-mouth effect works especially well for a game like Back 4 Blood focused on the social element of slaying the undead alongside friends.

On to more records. Nintendo’s Metroid Dread speed boosted towards a historic launch, rounding out the Top 3 for October even without its digital portion. It might have been ever better taking downloads into account. Even so, the Switch exclusive set a new series record for launch month dollar sales. Looking at strictly retail, Metroid Dread’s first month earned more than double that of prior best Metroid Prime in 2002. According to an interview with Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser, it sold 854K units in the U.S. alone during October marking the best start of all time for a Metroid release. (I assume his figure includes retail AND digital, whereas NPD ranks do not for Nintendo-published games.)

Moving past Madden NFL 22 at #4 we get to the somewhat shocking entry of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba: The Hinokami Chronicles ranked fifth overall and the same spot on the PlayStation list. The anime arena fighter published by Sega is the latest in certain Japanese titles launching simultaneously in the West, much to its benefit.

Other notable new launches include Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy from Square Enix at the seventh spot. Consistent with what I predicted earlier, keep in mind this happened with only a handful of days on record after a late October start. I wouldn’t jump to conclusions yet on calling it disappointing, especially given the Marvel brand backing. Right after this were Nintendo mini-game collection Mario Party Superstars then hockey simulator NHL 22 from Electronic Arts at 8th and 9th, respectively.

Beyond that, the rest were games launched in prior periods. One slight item of note is the second game from Ubisoft released in October Riders Republic was nowhere to be found. Not yet at least.

Up next are the rankings themselves. Then it’s more deets on Hardware and Accessories.

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

  1. Far Cry 6
  2. Back 4 Blood
  3. Metroid Dread*
  4. Madden NFL 22
  5. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba: The Hinokami Chronicles
  6. FIFA 22
  7. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
  8. Mario Party Superstars*
  9. NHL 22
  10. NBA 2K22*
  11. Mario Kart 8*
  12. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  13. Ghost of Tsushima
  14. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  15. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  16. Minecraft
  17. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  18. Diablo II: Resurrected
  19. Mortal Kombat 11
  20. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*

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

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Madden NFL 22
  3. MLB: The Show 21^
  4. Resident Evil Village
  5. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  6. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Far Cry 6
  9. Minecraft
  10. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Flip flopping over to the Hardware category, spending totaled $472 million in October. That’s up 82% from $260 million. Expanding to 2021 numbers, Hardware is above $3.88 billion which is 53% more than where it was a year back.

Pretty substantial growth that I’ll call wholly expected, given the lower comparison during a late generation cycle last year as it’s now been 11 months of data for new consoles from Sony and Microsoft.

After PlayStation 5 topped September, Nintendo Switch reemerged as the pack leader during October. Driven by a fancy new OLED iteration, it snatched back the top spot on both unit sales and dollars generated.

Bowser shared how Switch sold 711K consoles in the States overall last month. 314K, or 44%, were Switch OLED model. This figure tells a story on its own. The latest version featuring a more dazzling, larger screen plus other enhancements isn’t just attracting new buyers. It’s enticing existing owners to upgrade or replace. Whether they own the original 2017 model or have a Lite they are passing along to a family member or child, there’s plenty of demand among those that already bought some sort of Switch before. Plenty of potential on the demand curve.

“We see this as a strong start for the Nintendo Switch OLED model and a very strong indicator of the performance we can expect as we go into the holiday season,” said Bowser.

Considering this kick off for the OLED and consistency of sales, Nintendo Switch is currently the top-selling gaming device for 2021 by units sold. I believe it’s held that position all year given its recent track record.

Now, while PlayStation 5 gave up the lead on the monthly chart, Sony’s most recent console still retains the 2021 to date best as measured by dollar sales. Again its revenue potential is bigger than Switch, even with OLED being a slightly higher priced model within its particular family.

You might be wondering if there’s anything on Microsoft’s Xbox performance. Well, unfortunately I didn’t see any within The NPD Group’s reporting. I’ll assume the trend that Xbox is selling out, it’s just not producing as many boxes as its peers. Just wish the report confirmed this narrative.

Within the smallest and usually most uneventful category of Accessories, spending gained 5% in October to $158 million. Marginally above the $151 million last year. Considering the first 10 months of the year as a whole, it’s showing more growth at 9%. That’s upwards of $1.92 billion in sales for this segment.

Microsoft did lead in at least one aspect during October: Its Xbox Elite Series 2 Wireless Controller generated the most sales within Accessories.

Briefly digging into the category, game pads are the top seller for the year so far. Spending on game pads is 7% higher now than it was thru October 2020.

And looking at 2021 so far, PlayStation 5’s DualSense White controller continues as top dog. Because of its pricing and the popularity of its corresponding console, I believe it’s been the broad leader all year.

Hardware supply, hardware supply, hardware supply. And spankin’ new games. These are the highlights of October’s record report, a stellar period for overall spending, Nintendo’s Switch OLED model and standout entries in series like Far Cry and Metroid.

Echoing a hesitant sentiment on the console side, there’s been (unconfirmed) reports in the industry that Sony has slightly lowered its global target for PlayStation 5 production for the year ending in March 2022. Similarly, as I wrote last week, Nintendo formally reduced its worldwide annual Switch shipment guidance from 25.5 million to 24 million.

The word being thrown around is uncertainty, which is the bane of any analyst or predictor’s existence. We just don’t know when chip availability will improve. Still, it’s the pre-holiday rush season including the coveted Black Friday time frame, so expect a lot of competition for that top spot. My personal choice is Nintendo Switch leading November by units, then PlayStation 5 squeezing out a slight victory on dollars.

Bowser mentioned the general environment and Nintendo’s related effort during his interview.

“These challenges have been facing many industries, and they’ve been going on for quite some time,” he said. “But we’re working to meet demand for our holiday products, including Nintendo Switch OLED model. I will say things are constantly changing, but we’ve been working across the supply chain – from production to overseas transport to local distribution channels – to make sure we have a steady flow of hardware and games through the holiday cycle.”

Speaking of a steady flow of games, November will continue the fourth quarter spree of triple-A blockbuster launches in particular. It’s the season of heavy hitters.

Activision Blizzard, whose executives still haven’t fully addressed any clear steps being taken to improve workplace conditions and should be held accountable for their inaction in recent years, published its latest military shooter entry Call of Duty: Vanguard last week. I fully expect it to the November’s biggest seller, and enter the 2021 to date chart near the top.

Then there’s the glorious success story of Forza Horizon 5, which I expect to be in the Top 2 or 3 of the overall chart and easily top the Xbox platform list in November. The open world driving game from Playground Games already surpassed 6 million players according to Xbox’s Aaron Greenberg, overtaking my ambitious initial week estimate of 5 million! Not only is it a first-party Microsoft title going directly into Xbox Game Pass, the early access version attracted at least a million buyers based on in-game statistics. It should be the largest Forza Horizon launch of all time in the U.S.

There’s also the likes of Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 2042 (which I expect to round out the Top 3 on the total charts), Switch exclusive Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl plus Rockstar Games presenting Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. I expect a fun, eventful November especially given how October shaped up!

As usual, check out Mat at NPD Group’s thread for more details and further insights direct from the company itself.

Definitely look forward to digging into it then and chatting here or on social media. Until then, be safe, get those booster shots and thanks everyone for taking the time to hang out.

*Digital Sales Not Included, ^Xbox Digital Sales Not Included

Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.

Sources: Aaron Greenberg, Bloomberg, GamesRadar (Image Credit), The NPD Group, Ubisoft, The Verge.

-Dom

Nintendo Reduces Annual Switch Target in Mixed Yet Still Impressive Financial Report

As the latest console manufacturer and software maker to feel the impact of component supply shortages in consumer technology, Nintendo shared a mixed earnings report for the six months between April and September.

The good news is that, in the context of the last decade including five years of Switch sales, this second fiscal period was still a historically good quarter considering the environment. Plus the Japanese gaming company actually signaled optimism in certain areas by raising guidance for profit and software performance.

Lifetime Nintendo Switch hardware sales reached 92.87 million to date after moving 3.83 million more units in the three months ending September. It’s the seventh gaming console or device of all time to pass the 90 million threshold.

That brings the most recent six month total to 8.28 million Switch shipments, down 34% compared to the highs of last year.

Originally Nintendo was targeting 25.5 million for the full year. That’s been revised to 24 million, consistent with a recent report out of Nikkei claiming production would be exactly this amount for the fiscal year ending March. Which means the company has to ship 15.72 million in the back half. Unfortunately, this figure could even be higher if the part shortages and supply chain circumstances were better.

“We can’t produce enough to meet the demand we are expecting during the upcoming holiday season,” President Shuntaro Furukawa commented during a briefing after the release. “Currently there is no sign of improvement and the situation continues to be severe, so I can’t say how long it will continue.”

As I wrote a few months back, the lifetime figure for Switch hardware sell-thru to consumers was 85 million back in June. Now it’s upwards of 90 million which implies an even higher percentage of shipments hitting households. A clear indicator of end-user demand as Switch continues to sell at retail.

While Nintendo’s slate of new exclusive software releases has been quiet the last few months, it provided updates on them and evergreen titles. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD has shipped 3.6 million units since launch in July. Going back historically, it’s selling at a faster rate than the original Wii version which sold-in 3.52 million between November 2011 and March 2012.

In its second quarter on sale, Mario Golf: Super Rush sold 600K units to reach 1.94 million. Signs point to it now being the best-selling game in the series, above the 1.47 million of Mario Golf on Nintendo 64. And the most curious result to me was New Pokémon Snap, which hit 2.19 million lifetime after.. 2.07 million in the quarter ending June? Granted these are only for outside of Japan since The Pokémon Company publishes it locally. Without knowing the full picture, it’s hard to compare it to the top-selling original at 3.63 million lifetime. All we know is that it lacks any sort of momentum outside of its home market.

On the financial side, Nintendo’s first half revenue reached $5.69 billion or a reduction of 19%. This implies July to September quarter revenue of $2.75 billion, representing a decline of 27%.

On the profit side, operating income dipped 25% to just over $2 billion during the six months ending September. The second quarter alone saw this metric reach $913 million, when it was $1.34 billion in the prior period.

Again when calculating the latest annual period, operating profit reached $5.18 billion. That’s actually above the $5.01 billion aggregated last year.

All of these results reveal a similar trend for Nintendo’s forecast going forward. The company reiterated its annual revenue guidance of $14.58 billion, which would be a decline from the record $16 billion or so. It then upped operating income target by 4% to $4.74 billion. While that’s still down from the all-time high of $5.8 billion in 2021, the upward move combined with an increased dividend payout as well shows more confidence in its expected profitability.

Time to recap the full report and make some predictions of my own.

Boiling this gallery down into a quick summary, Nintendo’s business is reverting towards the mean after historic highs due to supply constraints, a more sparse lineup plus a comparison to the commercial phenomenon that was Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It’s still doing very well.

Now I’ll move into the fun part.

Quick reminder that revenue during Q2 hit $2.75 billion. As displayed on the quarterly graph above, this is the second highest result for a second quarter since 2009 behind only the record-breaking sales around this time in fiscal 2021. For context, I’ve included an annualized chart as well. Expanding this sales metric to a trailing 12-month figure shows $14.7 billion in total. Compare that to $14.89 billion a year back and the trend is clearly normalizing. It’s still among the best in a decade, notably when looking at pre-pandemic times.

Accounting for expenses, operating profit hit that $913 million figure down from $1.34 billion in 2021 Q2. Similar to revenue, it’s the runner-up result when looking back more than a decade. Annualized operating income right now is $5.18 billion, even better than last year which shows strength in margins and a shift towards evergreen titles retaining players that want to continue spending.

Both of these are still highly positive, especially in comparison to the difficult years surrounding Wii U’s flop after its launch in 2012. Last year was more of an outlier, an extraordinary time with Animal Crossing: New Horizons release right before most of us began staying home.

Regional split exhibits a similar movement as last quarter, with The Americas making up 44% now versus 41% last year. Europe is up next at 24%, up from 25%. Japan was at 23% last year, it’s now slightly below at 22%. This means 78% of Nintendo’s sales right now are outside of its home market.

Digging into product categories is a bit more interesting. 43% of Nintendo’s business is from Switch hardware which is down from almost half at 49%. Retail software is 30%, compared to 25% previously. Digital software is actually down to 11% from 14%, while subscriptions and add-ons hit 12% this quarter while generating 8% in 2021 Q2. The small remainder is from mobile and IP licensing business. This reflects lower production of Switch and improved split for retail intriguingly enough. Existing owners are buying games, and non-owners are waiting on inventory.

Now that Nintendo and its peers Microsoft and Sony have all reported their respective quarters ending in September, we can look at how they stack up against one another. Because it’s always a competition, right? No, because all of them are doing very well overall and selling as many pieces of hardware their suppliers can muster. It’s still fun to run the numbers, at least for me.

Remember that Nintendo generated $2.75 billion. From my articles on Microsoft and Sony, quarterly revenue from gaming was $3.6 billion and $5.86 billion respectively. These were both all-time highs for that particular quarter, while Nintendo was in the business of breaking top-line records around a year ago. Microsoft doesn’t report operating profit unfortunately, so all we have to compare is Nintendo’s $913 million to Sony’s $750 million.

This tells the story of companies at different stages in their console life cycle, naturally. Nintendo’s hardware margins are better right now because Switch is five years old, while Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 launched in November 2020. These higher priced boxes are generating substantial revenue though also cost more to manufacture. There’s also the subscription impact for Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus, whereas Nintendo’s online is lower cost. (Well, before the recent Expansion Pass.)

Moving back to Nintendo itself, out of the 8.28 million Switch units shipped in the six months ending September, 6.45 million were Standard edition while 1.82 million were Switch Lite. Basically last year the standard model alone, shipping 8.36 million, outsold the combined total in Nintendo’s latest half year report. Switch Lite has taken the biggest hit lately, off 56%. I’ll note the Switch OLED launched right after this fiscal period, so it will be curious to see how Nintendo displays splits next quarter. The assumption is OLED will slowly replace the Standard option.

I’ll reiterate what we all are witnessing, these hardware trends show slowing momentum amidst part supply challenges and an abnormally high comparable last year. Even a decline of 34% for hardware units overall in the first half was still well above fiscal 2020 two years back when it was 6.93 million.

Software is faring better on a comparative basis, declining only 6% during the six months ending September to 93.89 million units. It was slightly above 100 million before. This brings Switch lifetime software to 681 million, up from 632.4 million a quarter ago. I don’t have much analysis on that other than to say that’s a lotta games!

Over this same time frame, Nintendo shared how there are 18 titles, 14 self-published then four by 3rd parties, that amassed at least a million copies sold in this time alone. This is down slightly from the 20 million-sellers last year, reflecting a bit lighter lineup this time around.

I mentioned sales for newer releases like The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword HD and others earlier. Nintendo also provided updates on its more evergreen titles from past periods, so I’ll share the current list of top-sellers on Switch as of September. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe reached 38.74 million to become the biggest commercial success in the franchise passing Mario Kart Wii at 37.38 million. It jumped another 1.66 million somehow in the quarter and continued to show why sadly there won’t be another Mario Kart until next generation. Next up is Animal Crossing: New Horizons rising almost a million units to 34.85 million. Third is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate crossing the 25 million mark, landing at 25.71 million to be exact.

Elsewhere, stand-outs lower down the software list include Super Mario Party up 760K to almost 16.5 million, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe shipping 1.04 million to lifetime 11.48 million then Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury from earlier this year gaining 770K in the last three months to its 7.45 million total. Momentum here is one of the reasons why its software split is widening, in addition to hardware constraints of course. I expect the upcoming holiday season to be similar.

I’ll note Nintendo didn’t share news on WarioWare: Get it Together!, which debuted in September. Which points to a sub 1 million seller. Then Metroid Dread launched in early October, so we’ll hear about that next time around. I’m anticipating a major success within the mainline Metroid franchise.

On a related topic, digital sales for Nintendo declined 16% in the last 6-months to $1.3 billion. So it made up around 23% of its overall revenue. From a software standpoint, digital units made up 45% of total dedicated platform game sales during this time frame. That’s down slightly from 47%. This trend parallels the decline in overall software sales, though looks to be more pronounced as brick-and-mortar makes a return.

Alongside these earnings results Nintendo provided a more broad corporate briefing update which covered a range of topics. I’ll focus on the more tangible numbers and comments from executives on Switch’s life cycle since 2017 and potential future of its various businesses.

Nintendo actually posted certain engagement statistics, the first called “annual playing users” which represents someone playing a Switch at least once in the past year. That’s at 79 million currently, down from 87 million which was of course the highest it’s been since launch, driven by the enormous growth last year. Nintendo Switch Online however is growing, with 32 million subscribers compared to the 26 million in September 2020.

Going forward, management is seeking another year of growth for Switch with its recent start of OLED model production. It hopes this will maintain engagement and contribute to ongoing software success.

“Nintendo Switch is shifting to a new stage where the foundation of software business growth is being strengthened in addition to the further expansion of the hardware business,” Furukawa said. “With the Nintendo Switch lineup and its new addition, Nintendo Switch OLED Model, we will aim for a sixth year of growth, something never before experienced with our dedicated video game platform business.”

This sentiment is reflected in its financial forecast and software guidance, even if hardware is expected to soften.

Nintendo opted to reiterate its dollar sales target for the full year ending in March, which it thinks will be roughly $14.58 billion. Other than last year, that would be the highest in a decade. Executives revised operating income forecast upwards 4% to $4.74 billion. While down from the record-breaking $5.84 billion of fiscal 2021, it’s still above every year than 2010. Not too shabby when putting it in context over time.

Alongside the reduction in annual hardware unit sales forecast from 25.5 million to 24 million, Nintendo actually raised its software unit guidance to 200 million. That’s 5% higher than it was before.

“Our [Switch] shipment forecast for the second half was reduced because of the change in our production plan due to the effects of the global semiconductor shortage,” said the team. “On the other hand, we revised the Nintendo Switch software forecast up by 10 million units to 200 million units based on the sales performance of the first half.”

My estimate for Switch hardware in the year ending March 2022 is now revised to 25 million from an upbeat 28 million. Supply conditions are not improving. There’s too much uncertainty. Upside for Nintendo is the OLED version comes in at a higher price, generating more revenue per unit sold. The company claimed this model is just as profitable as others, meaning the net result is bottom line growth potential.

And I can see the rationale for Nintendo bumping up its software target. I think Metroid Dread is going to be an overwhelming success. The type of break-out that Animal Crossing had last year, even if not nearly as much unit upside. There’s also two Pokémon launches in the next three months with Pokémon Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl in a couple weeks plus Pokémon Legends: Arceus scheduled for January. Pokémon is one of the most dependable brands in all of gaming. Lastly, this optimism could signal a potential January to March release that isn’t on the calendar just yet so I’d watch out for that. (I don’t know anything. Just reading into the numbers is all.)

The last tidbit of information came from a question and answer discussion after its briefing and is referenced in the above slide. Nintendo’s next gaming system is planned for this decade, of course. Furukawa indicated that internal research and technology building is ongoing for this next console. Or an “experience” as he describes it.

So, not even Nintendo itself knows what the successor to Switch will be or when it’s targeted to begin production. I’d bet it’s not too far off from the winning formula of the current hybrid device.

That wraps up the numbers and analysis for Nintendo’s second fiscal quarter report, an impressive one in context even if it can’t reach the high bar set 12 months ago. Switch boosting past 100 million unit sales is a foregone conclusion at this point, even as the company provides mixed forecasts for the year ending in March. Like all consumer technology manufacturers at this stage, it’s at the mercy of part availability and supply logistics which are challenging during a world that’s still undergoing a deadly pandemic. Luckily its software prowess and quality lineup are offsetting hardware limitations, as Nintendo is best-in-class at making compelling games.

For those interested, there’s a lot more from its corporate briefing including IP decisions, expansion into other media like movies, theme park strategy and other initiatives. I didn’t have the space to cover here because I focused on the financial results, and these are more nebulous topics. Certainly still worth a look!

Hope everyone is safe this busy earnings season. Check back later for more commentary and thanks for reading!

Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise mentioned. Exchange rate is based on reported conversion: US $1 to ¥ 109.78.

Sources: Getty (Photo Credit), Nikkei, Nintendo, Video Games Chronicle.

-Dom