2020 Year-in-Review: Five Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Behind all the numbers and corporate speak, companies are people. And it’s those people that worked hard to design, create, polish, quality check, publish and distribute hardware, games, products and services during a tumultuous year that was 2020.

This category is meant to celebrate the teams of hard-working folks at companies with the most impressive lineups or multitude of successes. Later categories will focus on smaller, indie studios and publishers. This is reserved for the stand-out performers, often publicly-traded. We’ll hit all segments of the industry with the Year-in-Review.

No time to waste, right into the awards!

Activision Blizzard, Inc (United States)

While I don’t always agree with its business practices or monetization strategies, there’s no denying the sheer output of Activision Blizzard during 2020. Between new ventures in owned franchises, integration across Call of Duty titles plus the reintroduction of beloved catalog titles, its teams delivered multiple launches amidst the work-from-home demand of the coronavirus pandemic.

The internal teams Treyarch Studios and Infinity Ward collaborating to integrate last year’s excellent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Warzone free-to-play battle royale with November’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War was a massive, if not ludicrous, undertaking. Then, put out continuous free updates with its seasonal content model, delivering new maps, weapons and a battle pass every few months. As of now, there’s both cross-play and cross-progression across these titles, nearly everything accessible to players on various platforms. The franchise overall reached $3 billion in net bookings during the 12 months ending December, proving upside of this adjusted business model.

Not to mention, finally, its Activision unit dug into the vaults of its storied IP library to produce Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, a remade collection of two skating classics by Vicarious Visions, then a new entry in a long-running series: Toys for Bob’s Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Fans have been calling for the company to leverage its back catalog for a long time, so these decisions should satisfy.

Blizzard’s output has been notably lower the past couple years, with Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV in the pipeline. Yet it still released a new expansion in the World of Warcraft legacy called Shadowlands, a release that moved 3.7 million copies in a single day to briefly achieved the fastest-selling PC launch ever back in late November (before CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077 broke its record shortly after). Blizzard’s even received positive early impressions for mobile game Diablo Immortal!

Oh, speaking of mobile. There’s King, one of the most consistent labels within the field. It was mainly about consistent output this year across all three sub-divisions of the American publisher, and its teams deserve a shout out for delivering on these tight deadlines.

Microsoft Corp (United States)

As you’ll see here and a bit later, it’s time to celebrate the people behind the start of a new generation. That’s the main reason why Microsoft and its Xbox staff members easily make the cut. Those who worked through a pandemic to design, engineer, produce, market and ultimately distribute the Xbox Series X|S family.

Project Scarlett, as it was once dubbed, had a formal reveal late in 2019 as the Xbox Series X, and then 2020 happened. Team Xbox had to shift to a more virtual campaign for rolling out, plus deal with the delay of its flagship title Halo: Infinite. They successfully completed this effort in November at the launch of not only the higher-end Series X but the entry level, digital-only Series S as well.

Even without something at the scope of Halo, Xbox platforms saw plenty of worthwhile games and allowed smaller projects to shine. Ori and the Will of the Wisps from Moon Studios is one of the year’s most exceptional. Obsidian Entertainment’s Grounded attracted 5 million players to date and introduced clever new ideas in accessibility. Microsoft Flight Simulator from Asobo Studio reinvigorated a beloved, dormant franchise. It was one of the highest-rated games of 2020, just recently surpassing 2 million players.

Gears Tactics, Call of the Sea, Battletoads, Tell Me Why and Wasteland 3 rounded out the year’s lineup of games on Xbox. Shoot, Microsoft even somehow nabbed the local console launch of Phantasy Star Online 2. While perhaps lacking in triple-A experiences, there was plenty to enjoy.

Shortly before the new consoles, it updated the Project xCloud branding to Xbox Cloud Gaming and launched a formal beta alongside Xbox Game Pass Ultimate in September. It’s now available across 22 countries, with at least four more planned in the future. It’s a compliment to the traditional delivery model, meant to propagate the idea of ecosystem and connection. And it’s a damn fine service from personal experience.

Then there’s the continued growth and appeal of Xbox Game Pass, which snagged a partnership with Electronic Arts’ EA Play membership service as a way to expand its catalog. Recent rumors point to the potential inclusion of Ubisoft games, too. At last count, Game Pass had 15 million paid subscribers, up from 10 million earlier in 2020.

Lastly, in perhaps the biggest news drop of the year for the company and even gaming overall, Microsoft announced the purchase of ZeniMax in September for $7.5 billion. This is the parent company of the historic Bethesda Softworks, home to a number of development teams behind long-running franchises like Fallout, DOOM, Elder Scrolls, Wolfenstein, Dishonored among others. The upside of these games being exclusive to Xbox platforms, or at least having content exclusive to them, is massive. Like, industry-changing massive.

Microsoft’s annual gaming revenue exceeded $12 billion for the first time ever as of its quarter ending in September. While 2020 was light in the major exclusive department, it did feature two new consoles, a major studio acquisition and an expansion of its services. It’s laying the foundation for the upcoming decade, heavily investing in ecosystem in a more holistic approach than competitors.

Nintendo Co Ltd (Japan)

Yep. Nintendo is back on the annual list. During a year where its flagship game ended up being an Animal Crossing, not necessarily the biggest of sellers historically, and competitors debuted shiny new consoles, the Japanese developer and publisher was consistent in sales, output and quirky innovation, leading to its Switch hybrid hitting multiple milestones as the year’s most sought after hardware.

Steadfastness and fun, that’s Nintendo.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the headline-grabber here in 2020. The cute, animated life simulator’s launch in March coincided with the start of quarantine, a somewhat bittersweet serendipity that led to it achieving the fastest-selling launch ever for a Switch title at 11 million copies in under two weeks. It exceeded the *lifetime* sales of all other games in the series within 11 days. Then 13 million in 6 weeks.

Since then, it’s moved over a staggering 26 million units to date, already making it the second best seller on Switch behind only Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (a game in itself that saw exceptional momentum last year). Beyond the sales stats, it’s the single Nintendo-published game that served as a virtual safe haven for people to meet and hang out while the pandemic kept them physically distant.

It wasn’t the only notable software from Nintendo during 2020, even if the schedule was lighter than past years on big exclusives. Paper Mario: The Origami King is one of the most joyful and heartfelt games of the year, even if overlooked by general consensus. Its Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity collaboration with Koei Tecmo was a surprise critical darling, a musou prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Remakes of older titles like Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX and Pikmin 3 Deluxe strengthened its annual lineup.

Then there’s the celebration of Mario’s 35th anniversary, where Nintendo launched a bevy of products related to the plumber’s birthday. Super Mario 3D All-Stars brought three prior gen games to Switch, even if underwhelming in their lack of modernization. Free to download Super Mario Bros. 35 pitted almost three dozen players at a time in a sort of Mario Royale competition. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit continues in the company’s tradition of innovation, as a live version of the cart-racer. Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. was the next entry in the collectible type of physical consoles. While I don’t like how some of these are only available for a limited time where the end happens to coincide with Nintendo’s fiscal year end, seeing them acknowledge the anniversary with such fervor was welcome in a difficult year.

Of course there’s the story of how Switch hardware continued to sell gangbusters and set records along the way. It reached 68.3 million units in September, vaulting past Super NES, Xbox One and the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) all during 2020. It was the best-selling in the U.S. by units during the coveted November time slot at 1.3 million units, outpacing the shorter supply of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S. This marked a record 24 straight months atop the monthly hardware chart by retail unit sales.

All of this led to another stellar year for Nintendo, commercially and generally critically. Its financial situation hasn’t been this solid since 2009, measured by both revenue and operating profit. While it didn’t reveal much in the way of titles like the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Metroid Prime 4 or Bayonetta 3 last year, as long as Switch is in supply and the team consistently produces quality releases in its own special way, it will likely be a repeat in 2021.

NVIDIA Corporation (United States)

As far as higher-end PC gaming goes, NVIDIA was the backbone of 2020.

Its recognition here stems from the introduction of its latest line of graphics cards, the GeForce RTX 3000 series, plus continued success of its GeForce Now streaming service and a monumental acquisition deal.

The difference in its RTX 3000 card series compared to prior generations is real-time ray-tracing, a fancy way of saying “really cool lighting” techniques that happen while playing which make light sources, reflections and shadows pop when implemented correctly.

I won’t get bogged down in the tech nitty gritty here, there are other sites for that. Suffice to say these graphics cards built on its new Ampere architecture set the standard for performance across the mid and top end of the market. The beefy RTX 3090 and 3080 GPUs debuted in September, then RTX 3070 started in October. December brought the more affordable RTX 3060 Ti.

Critical consensus during reviews was outstanding. The series was lauded for advancements in 4K resolution, Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) to boost frame rate performance and general ray-tracing capabilities. The tough part unfortunately was supply to the market, no doubt impacted by manufacturer yield issues, availability of parts and the pandemic at large. Even with the staggered schedule, scalpers and bots were usually first to order leaving regular consumers either without cards or resorting to secondary sources. Good news is sky-high demand. The tough part is the company said stock will increase next year, though it may take a few months, and scalpers will still be there.

In another major launch for NVIDIA, it formally kicked off its public beta for game streaming service GeForce Now back in February across North America and Europe. It’s really cool tech from the sound of things, though I haven’t tried it myself. Supports cloud gaming on laptop, PC, Mac, SHIELD TV and even Android phones or tablets. What’s nice is it connects to existing library on certain storefronts, although certain publishers have blocked using it with their games. Once NVIDIA figures out incentive to get publishers on board and launch in more territories, it could very well be the ideal option for cloud gaming.

Beyond its latest set of graphics cards and streaming offering, NVIDIA’s RTX technology suite is pushing audio, recording and streaming advancements too. Its RTX Voice feature beta started in April 2020, a module used to improve sound quality when using one’s PC for calls. This was then replaced by Broadcast app during the Fall, which featured new functionality for noise removal and virtual background while streaming.

Oh. There’s also the groundbreaking deal where NVIDIA announced its intention to purchase ARM from SoftBank for $40 billion in cash and stock. ARM is a major player in processors and intelligent computing, which would lead to a combined entity pushing research into artificial intelligence and super-computing. It’s expected to close within the next year or so, though certain investors have speculated it might be blocked by regulators in the United Kingdom. If it does go through, it’s a significant deal within the tech and computing industries.

Back in September, NVIDIA said it set records for quarterly revenue and profits. Sales jumped 57% year-on-year. Its share price reflects the ongoing financial success, more than doubling in 2020. If the American graphics card and chip maker can ensure supply of its latest product suite and close on its ARM deal, 2021 could be another historic year.

Sony Corp (Japan)

Our final entry in the list of impressive companies in 2020 is none other than Sony. Of course. PlayStation 4 achieved new sales records. PlayStation 5 became a huge (quite literally), landmark tech product. Its laundry list of exciting new games offerings both book-ended a generation and set the stage for this future one, with advancements in narrative, performance and accessibility options. The gaming teams at Sony continue to set the industry benchmark for both hardware and software, and deserve recognition for doing all of this during one of the most difficult times in modern history.

The Japanese consumer tech conglomerate started the year with the reveal of the PlayStation 5 logo, then dove into more about its new generation box and its brand new DualSense controller throughout the year.

At the same time, PlayStation 4 continued its commercial success. The second best-selling home console ever maintained decent enough momentum in its final year, reaching nearly 114 million in units shipped as of October. Bolstered by third-party exclusives like Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Persona 5 Royal and Nioh 2 in addition to flagship first-party titles like The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima alike. Many of which are mainstays on year-end award lists and, more importantly, internal teams like Naughty Dog worked to set a new gold standard for accessibility features.

Then comes November, the PlayStation 5 launch. It was a big one, literally and figuratively. Sony’s approach is more towards defining the new generation with a new form factor, revamped controller and select games solely for the latest box as opposed to the fully backwards compatible strategy of its main competitor. Admittedly Sony acknowledges that it can’t ignore the millions and millions of PS4 owners, so there are plenty of cross-gen games. Even if its messaging was murky.

Headlined by Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls from Bluepoint Games/Japan Studio, the PS5 launch lineup was smartly supplemented by joyful surprises like Asobi Team’s Astro’s Playroom and The Pathless by Giant Squid. As part of Sony’s shift towards cross-generational consistency, it also offered a suite of legacy games via the PlayStation Plus Collection to PS5 buyers.

This dedication to exclusive software and new feature sets plus a competitive price led to PS5 being the fastest-selling global launch in brand history, beating out its predecessor. Sony didn’t said by how much at the time. A recent report suggests that the first four weeks reached 3.4 million consoles shipped. (Unofficial for the time being.) Domestically in the States, NPD Group said PS5 achieved the highest launch sales of any console in tracked history during November as measured by both units and dollars, again besting the PS4.

While services like PlayStation Now are somewhat lagging and the future of its virtual reality program is up in the air, Sony’s late PS4 support and movement into the new generation with PS5 marked a transitional year during which it consistently delivered memorable experiences and solid sales results. Out of the five companies on the list, it probably has the most upside for 2021.

Here we are at the end of yet another 2020 Year-in-Review piece. Check back to the megapost for more. Be safe, all!

Sources: Company Investor & Media Sites, Digitimes, NPD Group.

-Dom

2020 Year-in-Review: Biggest Trends in Gaming, Tech & Media

Year-in-Review is here!

Across gaming, technology and media, 2020 both continued major trends from last year and introduced select new ones, most notably around how people consume entertainment and work together during a global pandemic.

Some are common across all, such as digital distribution, streaming platforms and direct-to-home content delivery systems gaining steam this year. Consolidation continued with mergers and acquisitions both big and small, changing the way these industries look. Mobile gaming reached new records, plus targeted a more core audience via traditional genres and gameplay systems.

Then there’s the new or unique, in a year during which two major video game console manufacturers somehow launched new products. Game developers worked in even more difficult circumstances to finish projects in time for ship date. Similarly, 2020 brought ongoing reports of difficult workplace conditions, whether due to sexual harassment or “crunch” culture.

On the media side, topics of political policy, privacy matters and general regulation for social media platforms. Within technology, remote work and virtual collaboration redefined how people work, likely forever.

Let’s now dig into the biggest trends of 2020!

Digital, On-Demand, Streaming & Cloud Everywhere

The transition to digital as the primary distribution platform, whether in gaming or otherwise, is essentially complete with the surge of online storefronts and streaming services that deliver entertainment direct to folks in their homes or wherever on their devices. This was inevitable in my opinion, comparable to the music industry, though perhaps accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic quarantining millions upon millions of (often bored) people.

In particular, 2020 will be remembered as the time where film distributors embraced the direct-to-home model, with major releases such as Universal Pictures’ Trolls World Tour, Disney’s Mulan and WB’s Wonder Woman 1984 all hitting on-demand services simultaneously as their theatrical debuts. This is a tectonic shift within an industry historically reluctant to move away from its traditions.

Comparatively, this model is now solidified within gaming. Xbox Game Pass is the best value around, now with beta access to its Cloud Streaming in select areas. Sony supplemented its PlayStation Plus and PS Now offering with a PlayStation 5 PlayStation Plus Collection catalog. Google Stadia, while not the most popular, is still active and attempting to attract an audience. Amazon introduced Luna, an intriguing new cloud player that will support “gaming channels” with Ubisoft already on board. NVIDIA’s GeForce Now is a go-to cloud technology for PC gamers. Steam and GOG, to name a few, are well-established online storefronts.

The games industry generated at least $175 billion in sales during 2020 according to Newzoo, an increase of 20% year-on-year. A staggering 91% of this is digital sources. It’s to the point where every major media or gaming company seemingly has or supports digital platforms, cloud streaming services or a combination of both. Taking advantage of the ability to reach people on whatever device they want to use. Oh, and the ongoing subscription revenue doesn’t hurt either.

The Next Game Console Generation Begins

Even as I write this, more than a month out from release, I’m still shocked that teams at both Microsoft and Sony were able to successfully launch new gaming consoles in the year that was 2020.

But that’s just what they did. And they deserve eternal kudos for it, considering the type of year it was. The Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 debuted during the same week in November, each with its own distinct strategy to entice people to upgrade to the newest generation of gaming hardware.

Microsoft has expanded its Xbox brand to encompass all of its gaming ventures across console, computers and mobile, so it pushed a multi-tiered product launch with Xbox Series X at the upper end then the entry level-priced Xbox Series S to hit both ends of the market. Xbox overall is now about ecosystem, with its push towards a library of games via Xbox Game Pass and backwards compatibility across software and accessories. Even without a major exclusive like the delayed Halo: Infinite, Xbox Series X|S still boasted the most successful commercial launch in brand history.

Sony’s bread and butter is the core audience, thus its more traditional approach with a bevy of new software titles coinciding with the PlayStation 5’s start. Even if one of them was a shorter “expandalone” in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and another was a remake in Demon’s Souls, Sony fans (and scalpers alike, unfortunately) came out in droves to scoop up the new hardware. Sony said demand for PS5 was “unprecedented,” resulting in the fastest-selling global console launch in history. It also set a new record domestically for launch month dollar and unit sales, outpacing its predecessor in both instances.

This is really just the start for both boxes, notably in short supply during this holiday season. While production will ramp up in 2021, software offerings will as well. It’s an exciting time to be a console owner, or someone that covers the industry to see where sales and consensus go in the future.

Toxic Workplace Environments & Crunch Culture

This important and timely topic deserves an article unto itself, and it’s a trend I hope will ease in the future. It’s not exclusive to gaming by any means, though 2020 brought with it several high profile releases from some of the industry’s most notoriously difficult workplaces, which is why it’s currently front-of-mind. (As it really should be always.)

“Crunch” culture is a part of game development, like many other workplaces. Where people labor for long hours, even weekends, leading up to the completion of a project. It’s the type of tricky situation that impacts both physical and mental well-being yet is hard to avoid for many, since it’s so embedded, so the trend of reporting on this from media outlets is welcome. Places like Take-Two’s Rockstar Games, Sony’s Naughty Dog, Ubisoft and CD Projekt Red plastered the headlines as current and former employees spoke about what it’s like to work under these kinds of conditions.

The latest of these is CD Projekt Red and its downright ugly release of Cyberpunk 2077 this month, a game that was clearly rushed to meet financial deadlines as I posited in my recent piece. This was after executives said there wouldn’t be mandatory crunch. Management held an internal Q&A session shortly after launch, proving that it should have opened feedback loops well before then for its employees. (I’ll note that CD Projekt is fairly compensating employees for their hard work. Rightfully so.)

Similarly, Ubisoft was in the spotlight due to accusations of sexual harassment and general misconduct at certain of its global studios. Back during the summer, multiple people at the company raised abuse or harassment allegations towards fellow employees or even management. One of these resulted in the removal of former Chief Creative Office Serge Hascoët, another the firing of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla original director Ashraf Ismail. Since then, CEO Yves Guillemot outlined a plan to address this sort of workplace toxicity. It’s yet to be seen if anything major will come of this, however getting rid of the worst offenders is a good start.

Record-Breaking Mobile Game Revenue

Mobile remained the hottest category in its industry last year, as it accounted for nearly half of the yearly global games market at a staggering $86 billion. An increase of almost 26% since 2019.

Leading the charge was a set of five titles each with more than $1 billion in sales, which is a record number for a single year. Two games published by Chinese tech and social media conglomerate Tencent topped the list, with PUBG Mobile at $2.6 billion then Honor of Kings eclipsing $2.5 billion.

Former cultural phenomenon Pokémon GO is still at it, clearing over $1.2 billion in sales. This makes 2020 its best year ever, bolstered by changes made to accommodate stay-at-home restrictions. Rounding out the billion-makers are Coin Master and Roblox, each with an impressive $1.1 billion.

In addition to these big money-makers, 2020 marked a time where mobile publishers continued to combine the model with more traditional gameplay mechanics. The highest profile of these was Genshin Impact, an open world action RPG from China’s miHoYo that’s generated almost $400 million within only two months of launch. Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad followed in the steps of Call of Duty: Mobile when it launched back in August, offering a first-person shooter experience comparable to console play on the go. There’s big money in mobile, especially if it can appeal to both casual and console/PC type audiences.

Push for Accessibility Features in Games

As someone who plays with inverted camera controls and often leverages subtitles, this trend is an especially important one. I’m thankful that creators are moving in a direction toward accessibility and inclusion, to where the industry and media at large are celebrating it.

This is a multi-step effort, one driven intrinsically by developers making games easier to play for people of all types, especially those that may have disabilities or other challenges. Flexible settings, camera controls, button mapping or even custom controllers, deaf/hard of hearing considerations, choices for those lacking motor skills, blind/low vision/colorblind filters. Basically, the more varied and considerable the options, the better.

Then, the industry overall is finally signal-boosting accessibility more by rewarding projects with the best options. This culminates in efforts like AbleGamers, Can I Play That, Steve Saylor (Blind Gamer) and award ceremonies specifically dedicated to these extremely important, I’d argue essential, features.

AbleGamers hosted its first annual Video Game Accessibility Awards in 2020. Both The Game Awards and entertainment outlets like IGN highlighted games like The Last of Us II, Grounded (boasting a genius filter to combat arachnophobia), Ghost of Tsushima, Fuser, Watch Dogs: Legion and HyperDot, all of which are setting the bar. One that I hope all creators hope to achieve.

Consolidation, Mergers & Acquisitions

It’s an ongoing move within a variety of spaces, though some of the biggest acquisition deals in gaming and technology took place during the last twelve months. And it’s not just the top-end, massive deals. Many smaller teams were picked up by the mid-tier of publishers, in particular the likes of Embracer Group, Zynga and Enad Global 7 (EG7).

Within technology, the big news makers were of course NVIDIA, AMD and Salesforce. NVIDIA’s purchase of Arm hit a whopping $40 billion in deal value, the biggest in the tech industry this year. Just behind that was AMD grabbing fellow semi-conductor manufacturer Xilinx for $35 billion, while Salesforce’s purchase of communication software firm Slack Technologies hit upwards of nearly $28 billion.

Within gaming, the hottest deal was Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of Bethesda parent company ZeniMax. It’s an industry-shaking event, where future Bethesda output like Starfield and the next Elder Scrolls project could very well end up exclusive to Xbox platforms. Within China’s local streaming scene, Huya and DouYu have a $6 billion merger planned for mid-2021 (where the resulting entity will naturally be majority owned by Tencent). Then there’s Electronic Arts making a $1.2 billion offer for racing developer Codemasters, outbidding fellow American publisher Take-Two Interactive.

Swedish publisher EG7 announced the purchase of a few notable teams including Daybreak, Zynga is taking over smaller mobile developers plus Embracer Group (THQ Nordic) is buying.. well, literally dozens of development studios or smaller independent companies.

After a super active 2020, will the pace slow down next year? Will Sony or Nintendo partake? Let’s just say I don’t see consolidation going anywhere, anytime soon.

Social Media Politics & Government Regulation

It was an election year in the U.S., one of the most significant in recent history I’d say. Which means social media took center stage in terms of discourse and advertising. This led lead players like Facebook and Twitter in attempts to both earn integrity and stop the spread of misinformation by instituting practices such as removing bad accounts, moderating posts and comments plus flagging threads that had questionable claims. Others like YouTube took a less proactive approach, opting to react to political outcomes after the fact.

Then there’s the similar theme around the U.S. government’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Section 230 law, which in the past has allowed social media and modern tech companies to essentially avoid accountability when it comes to the content produced on their platforms. This stemmed from Facebook and Twitter restricting a NY Post story on now President-Elect Joe Biden.

Now the question becomes, where will Section 230 and responsibility of social media companies go under a new administration? It sounds like Biden opposes the law, though it isn’t clear what will happen if it’s adjusted or even repealed. Would self-regulation be better? I don’t know if that’s an effective option, since it wholly depends on media companies acting against their own self-interest of maintaining freedom of speech and keeping active users. Yet there’s also the responsibility to keep platforms clean of lies. There may not be a perfect outcome.

Remote Work & Virtual Collaboration in Technology

In terms of general technology trends this past year, the ramp-ups in remote working, artificial intelligence and the movement towards automation all defined 2020. These are all areas expedited by how companies operate during a global pandemic, which challenged the traditional model of office work and manual processes.

For those companies with the capabilities, remote work increased during the early days of the pandemic in March and April. For those without, they had to put them in place. Quickly. There’s the initial challenge of getting basic tech to workers, maintaining security at home, collaborating virtually and balancing family life outside of the office.

Flexibility in workspace proved to be a key topic across the tech landscape. Back in July, Google made a major decision on virtual working: Employees have the option to work from home until July 2021. During October, Microsoft announced that employees with the option to do so can stay home permanently, as part of its focus on both location and workweek hours.

Among many other things that 2020 changed, where and how people work is one of the most significant. You might even be reading this while working in your home office or bedroom, getting ready for a video call or virtual meeting. It’s my thought that this will become the norm, the pandemic was merely a catalyst.

There we have it: The biggest trends of 2020 completed. Which ones caught your eye? Any others you’d point out? Check back to the megathread for more Year-in-Review content. Thanks for stopping by!

Sources: Andrew Neel (Photo), Bloomberg, GamesIndustry.Biz, Kotaku, Microsoft Blog, Newzoo, NPD Group, Sam Pak (Photo), Sensor Tower, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Ubisoft Entertainment, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

2020 Year-in-Review Megapost Is Finally Here

It’s almost over.

The year unlike any other that was 2020 is, finally, coming to an end. To say it’s been a challenging, newsworthy one is an understatement.

While a tragic global pandemic, the voice of Black Lives Matter supporters and a major presidential election in the United States made headlines broadly, the games industry, modern media and new technology served as a much-needed distraction from the often disaster that was daily life.

And it turned out to be a historic one, especially for the games industry. A brand new console generation, Nintendo’s commercial success, the continued rise of digital distribution, cloud and streaming services, visibility of independent creators, questions around workplace culture and underdeveloped projects plus continued advancement in mobile titles blurring the line between tradition and future defined a tumultuous yet successful year for many.

This mega-thread will serve as the nexus for Working Casual’s year-end coverage across these various industries and topics. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be tackling the biggest 2020 has to offer. Trends, companies, indie teams and, of course, the best video games of 2020.

Here are the categories:

Working Casual 2020 Year-in-Review:

Biggest Trends in Gaming, Tech & Media

Five Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Independent Studios of the Year

Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

Check back often to see the links to new posts, and feel free to comment here or on social media once they are up. Wishing a safe and healthy holiday season to all, especially those on the frontline of the pandemic, and an incredibly Happy New Year!

-Dom

CD Projekt Didn’t Have To Rush Cyberpunk To Meet Fiscal Demands, But Did Anyway

CD Projekt Group’s fiscal year ends in December.

Cyberpunk 2077 happened to be delayed three times then released in December.

Coincidence? Unfortunately, no.

Though it didn’t have to be this way, with a now historic launch debacle that began with complaints of rampant issues especially in PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions then accelerated to various online stores and retailers offering full refunds plus, the cherry on top, PlayStation pulling it from its digital store in an unprecedented move within the games industry.

To understand why the company would have been fine, even benefited from, pushing out the launch of its new IP and latest flagship game past its fiscal year end, we have to look back at its general timeline and financial standing leading up to now. Plus, consider the reports brought forth by media like Bloomberg and others on difficult labor conditions and “crunch culture.”

Essentially: CD Projekt could have easily weathered a Cyberpunk 2077 release date in first quarter of 2021 financially, even if that coveted pre-order revenue smoothed out over time. The company boasted early on that pre-orders alone exceeded 8 million copies. The question becomes how many of those are being refunded or returned. And how many people will refuse to purchase it because of the company’s approach during a shaky launch.

My belief is that executives absolutely should have moved the date again to at least Q1, primarily to allow more time for developers to polish and ensure that previous generation versions were ready to go. The current debacle alone is proof that no flashy marketing push or early financial benefit is worth the dangerous publicity and loss of goodwill caused by a botched launch.

Until recently, Polish developer and publisher CD Projekt Red (the core games business of CD Projekt Group) was a one franchise studio with The Witcher fantasy games. The enormous success of 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its subsequent support from the studio cemented it as one of the world’s preeminent action role-playing designers, and set the stage for exceedingly high expectations going into its next project.

In the time between then and present day, CD Projekt established itself as one of the largest and most financially successful publishers across all of Europe. It’s achieved at or above $100 million in sales each year since 2015, at times much more than that. At one point back in May, it even surpassed Ubisoft Entertainment as the region’s largest video game company by market valuation at over $9 billion in capitalization.

So, what happened?

The current debacle alone is proof that no flashy marketing push or early financial benefit is worth the dangerous publicity and loss of goodwill caused by a botched launch.

CD Projekt Red transitioned to a two-franchise studio as part of its mid-term strategy starting in 2016 when it kicked off pre-production on Cyberpunk 2077, a project that was actually announced a full generation ago way back in 2012. As its development continued and the company began to show the futuristic, first-person role-playing experience both privately and publicly, culminating with an appearance from Keanu Reeves, its legend grew to where it became one of the most anticipated games of the decade if not ever.

During this same time, the team continued support of the 28-million unit seller The Witcher 3 with two expansions in late 2015 and mid-2016, the introduction of a standalone version of its strategy card game GWENT, plus a Nintendo Switch version as recently as last year. While development costs along with marketing spend certainly ramped for Cyberpunk 2077 into this year, sales of these products bolstered its financial well-being throughout as its dedicated fan base showed support.

CD Projekt Major Product Launches:

  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt: FY15 Q2
  • Hearts of Stone: FY15 Q4
  • Blood & Wine: FY16 Q2
  • GWENT: FY18 Q4
  • The Witcher 3 Switch: FY19 Q4
  • Cyberpunk 2077: FY20 Q4

Overall, CD Projekt Group generated $140 million and just under $100 million in annual revenue during 2019 and 2018, respectively. Operating income hit nearly $50 million last year, over $30 million the year prior. That’s *growth* right smack between major titles, trending upward into a product launch even prior to the deluge of pre-orders. Does this happen without a level of trust built up over years of ongoing support and quality craftsmanship? Sure, The Witcher 3 had its issues at launch in 2015. But the whole reason CD Projekt garnered so much trust is its consumer-facing practices of constant improvement, support and attention to its audience.

At least, that’s how it used to be.

It’s clear to see when checking the charts in conjunction with its timeline of events. Even before pre-order dollars accumulated in recent quarters, CD Projekt had a stable revenue stream from the work its developers had already done and the goodwill it built with a sizeable base. Expenses will rise into a major, AAA release especially in the final push. It’s not always reinforced financially by work the team had already done on prior projects, like with the beloved Witcher series.

Subsequently, running parallel to its game development business was its GOG.com digital distribution platform. It sells a variety of PC games, and has become a notable supplement to the group’s structure in the lead-up to a big launch from its sister subsidiary. GOG.com has proven a reliable venture, contributing upwards of 40% to total sales at times over the past couple years.

While it seems at face value that CD Projekt goes as its major game franchises do, its distribution business offers a separate revenue stream even if some of that success is inevitably tied to its internally-published products. Producing games isn’t the sole driver of its direction, and this sort of supplementary source could have propped up the company into next fiscal year.

Now of course, another pressure point when talking about the timing of launches is investor sentiment. From all indicators, shareholders bought into the downright outrageous hype cycle of Cyberpunk 2077, which initially had a launch date of April 2020 (Can you imagine?). It was pushed to September. Then November. And after that, to December. A convenient timing right before its financial calendar turned to 2021.

Notably after the first delay, CD Projekt’s share price rose. And kept going, reaching a peak around September. After a brief dip in November during the last delay announcement, it bounced right up again showing the ever-present appetite of investors for that juicy Cyberpunk 2077 profit. Would it have declined again if it was delayed to 1st quarter next year? Sure. But I doubt it would have experienced the precipitous drop since launch day, December 10th, which has eliminated over $2 billion in market value in just over a week.

The stock is now trading below where it started the year. And it was all avoidable.

My hope is there’s a lesson here: a general change towards optimal quality over financial gain, transparency over secrecy, giving people time to complete quality work rather than setting a date to meet a deadline that wasn’t realistic in the first place.

Briefly on the development side, it’s now obvious even December ended up being an unrealistic deadline based on the results and reporting around its challenging launch timeline. In addition to media reports of long hours and tough work as far back as over a year ago, another Bloomberg story today shares that management held a question and answer session on Thursday with employees. Luckily, they were able to vocalize their frustrations and press executives on various topics related to Cyberpunk 2077’s development cycle.

A “developer asked whether CD Projekt’s directors felt it was hypocritical to make a game about corporate exploitation while expecting that their employees work overtime,” the story’s author Jason Schreier writes, revealing a frustration bubbling up within the very people who are now tasked with fixing the game.

(Word is that all employees will be receiving their intended bonuses regardless of where critical reception ends up. Which is how it should be. People should be compensated commensurate with their labor. I won’t overly celebrate management paying their workers acceptable wages.)

The elephant in the room, of course, is the impact of a global pandemic. One which hit right during the final part of the project’s timeline. The coronavirus effect, which is difficult to quantify and impossible to ignore. CD Projekt employs a workforce of over 1,100 people, the majority of which transitioned to remote working for 2020 according to its mid-year filing. As if crunching for a major product launch and dealing with an impractical deadline wasn’t enough, these folks also had to adjust to a new working situation and team dynamics outside of the office.

What now, then?

Well, it’s time to rebuild. And more importantly, regain trust. I firmly believe that the loss of goodwill and faith in the management team wasn’t worth the short-term financial boon of launching right before the 2020 financial calendar ended. What a quarterly table or chart doesn’t show is the longer term effect of losing credibility as an executive team, or having a set of employees still working to the bone on a game that should have been delayed to a more reasonable schedule.

Management needs to be held accountable, by all parties: employees, media and consumers alike. They should have been more open to feedback from their teams ahead of time, not after the fact. I doubt CD Projekt will ever reveal how many of the millions upon millions of copies sold were actually refunded, but revenue numbers won’t lie when that time comes.

This is the type of industry-shaking event that doesn’t happen often. My hope is there’s a lesson here: a general change towards optimal quality over financial gain, transparency over secrecy, giving people time to complete quality work rather than setting a date to meet a deadline that wasn’t realistic in the first place.

CD Projekt can bounce back from the launch of Cyberpunk 2077. In three to six months, the game could very well be in solid shape and people will be more confident in management’s decision-making. Its employees may return to more stable hours and have an improved feedback loop with higher-ups. Over the next couple years, it could (and likely will) go on to sell tens of millions of copies and people will forgive management for their hasty decisions back in 2020.

But it didn’t have to be this way from the start.

Sources: Bloomberg, CD Projekt Investor Relations, Sony Interactive Entertainment.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

First off, no jokes. I hope everyone is safe right now, especially here in the States. I know the pandemic is impossibly tough and puts a strain on everyone’s physical well-being and mental health. But it’s still bad out there, and it will only get worse if we don’t keep up with the same precautions. Please be patient and wear a mask.

The upside is that right now, we can spend even more time playing and discussing games, media and technology. And it’s as good a time as any, with a new earnings season underway and new tech products right around the corner!

Which brings us to this: The Internet’s single biggest compiled list of of earnings dates for the most important companies in these sectors. Now covering over 75 stocks, including those from numerous markets worldwide plus a handful of newer listings this time around.

Check out the calendar above to save as a handy image or click on the Google Doc below, which has links to company websites with more information. It’s the only resource you’ll ever need to track these dates.

I’ll periodically update as others are firmed up, so set up that bookmark and check back often. Now on to the calendar and highlighting three companies to watch closely this season.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Activision Blizzard, Inc (ATVI): Thursday, October 29

On one of the busiest days this quarter, domestic gaming juggernaut Activision Blizzard reports its third quarter results. I expect the ongoing momentum of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, mostly attributed to its Warzone battle royale mode and constant stream of seasonal updates, to drive an impressive suite of figures. We’ll also hear about attribution from mid-September’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, a critical darling, plus perhaps an indication of early sales for Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time after its launch in early October. As for forecasting, I expect Activision Blizzard to maintain or even raise guidance with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War debuting in November, which I fully expect to be the best-selling console game of 2020.

Square Enix (9684): Early November

Square Enix will publish its second quarter report in early November, and it’s the most important in a long while. Mainly because this is the first period after the Japanese publisher’s flagship Marvel’s Avengers released in September, to both mixed reviews and an uncertain market reaction. As I wrote recently, it was the best-selling title in the U.S. during September according to The NPD Group. Industry tracking firm SuperData recently estimated it was the third best-seller of the month globally measured by digital sales on consoles, moving an approximate 2.2 million copies. This would be the company’s second best digital start ever behind April’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Square Enix has consistently reiterated very positive guidance leading into this fiscal, yet hasn’t shared global unit sales statistics for its second major title of 2020. Makes it tricky to know which way it will go.

Corsair Gaming Inc (CRSR), Unity Software (U): TBD

The games industry saw some notable initial public offerings during September in Corsair Gaming and Unity Software, the former a headset and accessory designer while the latter is a software provider boasting one of the world’s most popular gaming engines. Corsair shares declined right after listing, though have since rose over 70% to give the company a valuation over $2.2 billion. Unity Software has been hot from the start, its stock gaining 46% since first trading. This makes its market valuation a staggering $26 billion, at or ahead of the most established of publishers and software providers. This will be the first time these companies report publicly outside of their respective prospectuses, so we’ll see how underlying financials align with market sentiment once we know the exact dates.

Thanks for stopping by and hope to see you again soon!

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites, NPD Group, SuperData.

-Dom

Marvel’s Avengers & Nintendo Assemble at the Top of September’s U.S. Game Sales Charts

It’s officially sales season in gaming, and is proving to be busy one at that.

September ushered a great start domestically for a polarizing game from Square Enix, while overall consumer spend achieved yet another double-digit increase even as the console cycle comes to a close. Plus, there were tons of debuts and new-ish games to discuss on the software side while Nintendo secured another dominant win within the hardware category.

Industry tracking firm The NPD Group has, hm.. assembled its latest monthly sales statistics for the U.S. games market. Stand-outs during September included Marvel’s Avenger’s achieving the top spot on the software chart, sports games occupying 3 of the Top 5 spots including a record performance from a familiar franchise, Crusader Kings III debuting within the Top 7 and Nintendo Switch besting hardware as it’s done every month since December 2018.

Total spending across the categories of Video Game Content, Video Game Hardware and Video Game Accessories reached a whopping $4.3 billion in the domestic market during September 2020. An increase of 10% since this time last year. While it’s not as robust as the growth seen in the spring and summer months, it’s still yet another double-digit rate which has been the case each month since March. Of course coinciding with the tragic rise of the pandemic, which has forced people to remain home for months.

“Mobile, hardware and accessories were among the largest growth segments,” said NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella. In terms of hardware, “growth in sales of Nintendo Switch offset declines on other console platforms.”

Expanding to the year-to-date figures, broad consumer spend in the games industry reached $33.7 billion through September. This is up 21% since last year. Continued stay-at-home guidelines and quarantine mandates combined with a variety of brand new titles from major publishers, namely licensed releases and sports titles, contributed to impressive growth this late in the console generation.

Let’s get more into the numbers and commentary.

United States Games Industry Sales (August 30th to October 3rd):

As mentioned before, September brought healthy gains overall and across all three major categories in the U.S. tracked by The NPD Group. The above chart shows monthly and year-to-date metrics.

The largest category of Content (i.e. game sales and in-game purchases) reached $3.84 billion in September and $29.8 billion for the year as a whole, increases of 8% and 21% respectively. Mainly driven by titles from some of the most popular companies in the business: Square Enix, Nintendo, Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts.

Diving into the data, Marvel’s Avengers fought its way to the top spot on the total software chart which I’ll list out shortly.

The hero brawler slash live service game made by Crystal Dynamics received mixed critical reception at release in early September, yet brand power goes a long way when it comes to licensed titles. Not only was Square Enix’s latest the top-selling game overall last month, it held the top spot on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One individual charts plus immediately became the 7th best-selling title of the year so far.

Its launch month dollar sales were quite impressive, reaching the second best in history for a super hero game behind only the record-setting 2018 title Marvel’s Spider-Man. While early success doesn’t guarantee momentum over time, which is key for an ongoing game like Marvel’s Avengers with regular characters and content updates, a solid start establishes a baseline audience that may come back during those intervals. We also haven’t heard yet from Square Enix on global sales, which I predicted would be strong in its launch window. Essentially, only the first chapter of its story has been told.

It wouldn’t be a software chart without a major Nintendo launch, and September was no exception. Super Mario 3D All-Stars, the collection of three classic games in the beloved series, jumped to the 2nd spot overall. Spanning 2020 as a whole, it enters the year-to-date chart at the 10th spot.

For context, Super Mario 3D All-Stars is also the 2nd best retail launch for any game in the U.S. during 2020 that isn’t called Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which is more an anomaly at this point with its incredible sales. Widening the time frame, it’s the 6th best start for any game published by Nintendo in tracking history, as measured by retail dollar sales. (Note that Nintendo doesn’t share digital in this context, so this particular statistic only encompasses physical sales.)

Madden NFL 21 rounds out the Top 3, scoring a second consecutive month of solid momentum after leading the chart in August. Publisher Electronic Arts hasn’t shared specifics in terms of units or engagement for the football game, though did say in a press release that this year’s Madden recorded 20% higher unit sell-thru to customers than its predecessor during launch week.

“After the most successful year in franchise history, fans are now playing more Madden than ever before,” said Executive Producer Seann Graddy. Personally, I’d prefer to hear exactly how many people are playing, unfortunately that’s wishful thinking for a major sports title these days other than maybe Take-Two and its 2K franchises.

Speaking of, September welcomed the resurgence of Tony Hawk with the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, a rebuilding of the first two games in Activision’s long-running skateboarding series. The remake carved its way to the 4th spot overall in the most impressive of ways: it set a series record for launch month dollar sales, outpacing the prior leader in 2004’s Tony Hawk’s Underground 2. Talk about grinding out the win.

Quickly reporting on the remainder of notable new games, Take-Two’s annual basketball release NBA 2K21 scored the 5th spot. This is noticeably lower than last year’s title, which led September 2019’s rankings. I’d say that’s mainly due to the publisher no longer sharing digital share for any of its products, which is even more obvious with how both Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 are no longer mainstays each month.

Since NPD Group doesn’t publicly state units or dollars, it’s difficult to determine an early performance comparison across NBA 2K history. Take-Two Interactive reports second quarter results on November 5th, and executives should share global unit sales at that time.

In what’s likely the surprise of the monthly chart, Crusader Kings III landed at #7. The strategy game from Paradox Interactive achieved the best launch month start in series history from both a ranking and dollar sales standpoint. Two October games that technically released right before the cut-off landed on the chart: Star Wars: Squadrons at #9 then Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time at #11. More to come next month on these when they have more days on market.

Lastly, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare maintains its position as the year’s top-seller as it enters into its sixth and likely final season of content before Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War hits stores on November 13th. I expect the latter of these to lead holiday charts. Yes, even with all the major games around the new console launches especially the hotly-anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 from CD Projekt Red, which will serve as stiff competition.

Check out the software charts below for September 2020 and the year so far, then I’ll switch over to hardware and accessories.

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

  1. Marvel’s Avengers
  2. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  3. Madden NFL 21
  4. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
  5. NBA 2K21*
  6. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  7. Crusader Kings III
  8. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  9. Star Wars: Squadrons
  10. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  11. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time
  12. Ghost of Tsushima
  13. Ring Fit Adventure
  14. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  15. UFC 4
  16. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  17. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  18. Super Mario Odyssey*
  19. Mortal Kombat 11
  20. Super Mario Party*

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

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. The Last of Us: Part 2
  4. Madden NFL 21
  5. Ghost of Tsushima
  6. Final Fantasy 7: Remake
  7. Marvel’s Avengers
  8. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  9. MLB: The Show 20
  10. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*

Moving to the Video Game Hardware category, spending in September amounted to $277 million which is up 15% year-on-year. Nintendo Switch was the only console experiencing gains. Over 2020 so far, hardware spend rose 22% to $2.3 billion in total. In the least surprising stat this past month, Switch was again the best-selling console by both number sold and dollars generated. It nearly broke a September record as per comments from Piscatella, and retains its position atop the hardware list for the year as well.

This is a spot Nintendo’s hybrid has held since holiday season nearly two years ago. And I’m on record saying that even with the release of both Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 upcoming in November, Nintendo will once again attain the top spot for each month during the 4th quarter. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is still the game to get, plus upcoming releases like Pikmin 3 Deluxe (October 30th) and Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity (November 20th) mean there’s still room for growth in the domestic market for Switch if you can believe it. Guaranteed to be a staple of holiday product lists.

The final category of Video Accessories is actually among the most significant of results last month. Accessory spend reached a record September amount, hitting $191 million or a 30% gain since this time last year. Over 2020 to date, this category has accumulated an all-time high result of $1.6 billion, an increase of 26% year-over-year. Within, Gamepad and Headset/Headphones sub-categories also hit historical highs for both a September monthly result and year-to-date through this same month driven by the Xbox Elite Series 2 Wireless Controller.

And that’s all for September’s numbers and positions. The late summer to early fall here in the States sees continued lock-downs in many areas as coronavirus tragically isn’t going away any time soon. The games industry continues to be a benefactor of people abiding by the rules, making the most of home entertainment and spending time interacting via online games as opposed to in-person gatherings.

For way more detail on The NPD Group release itself, head over to their Twitter page or the in-depth thread from Piscatella as well.

Until next time, stay safe and thanks for stopping by!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Electronic Arts, Nintendo, NPD Group, Square Enix, Take-Two Interactive.

-Dom

Forget Console Wars: Sony & Microsoft Can Both Win Next Generation

Congratulations, gaming fans. You can do it!

All of you.

After Sony’s somewhat messy reveal yesterday of many things PlayStation 5 plus Microsoft’s announcements last week regarding the Xbox Series X|S platforms, the foundation of gaming’s next console generation are starting to fall into place.

With these announcements and a subsequent trickle of details, both manufacturers are solidifying their individual strategies. Sony with its more direct platform marketing and big-budget exclusive software compared to Microsoft’s two-tiered hardware plan plus service as an ecosystem play.

And I believe that both of these can, and will, work out for them.

Starting with Sony, the Japanese tech giant shared that the PlayStation 5 base version starts at $499 with a Digital Edition set for a quite competitive $399. The only difference being the latter doesn’t have a physical disc drive. Both release on Thursday, November 12th in seven markets, then November 19th in the remainder. Launch lineup includes games like Demon’s Souls and Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales (which now has an Ultimate Edition with a remastered version of 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man), with the most notable point being increased prices compared to last generation. The broad video game price increase is officially underway.

Sony’s showcase also had brand new announcements like Final Fantasy XVI from Square Enix and Warner Bros’ Hogwarts Legacy then capped off teasing a new God of War title in development from its Santa Monica Studio. Overall, it was a tight, informative presentation albeit missing a number of key details for things like software release windows and pre-order timing.

Messaging from Sony has been all over the place in the time since this reveal. First off, Sony allowed retailers to dictate when pre-orders went live despite saying that they would provide “plenty of notice” previously. Also in the past, executives like Sony Interactive Entertainment’s President & CEO Jim Ryan have stressed how the company believes in generations. That is, targeting games for strictly the new console as opposed to cross-generational type releases.

Then yesterday, the garbled communication accelerated. The team said PlayStation 5 games including Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sackboy A Big Adventure and even next year’s flagship graphical powerhouse Horizon Forbidden West will also have PlayStation 4 releases. An inconsistency with seemingly its underlying strategy of established generations. Now, this makes all the sense in the world from a business standpoint. There are 112 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the wild, most owners of which won’t upgrade for a number of years. A clean-break generational move is antiquated in 2020, when backwards compatibility and maintaining a library is important.

Early adopters are going to buy the shiny new box regardless. It’s more about people six months or years from now that will determine the trajectory of sales. These companies have to consider those just as much as the enthusiasts.

In another twist, Ryan said in a couple interviews with media that the overall catalog of games is less significant than having “new, great” software offerings. Combine this with the massive $100 million or more budgets for its first party projects, Ryan doesn’t think that launching games into a subscription service is sustainable.

The irony is that I believe bridging the gap between PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 is one of the reasons why Sony can be successful in the upcoming cycle. Maintaining continuity with its legacy owners and their libraries will allow people to upgrade without fear of losing access to their favorite games, especially with many titles being live services now and not providing clear upgrade paths. Early adopters are going to buy the shiny new box regardless. It’s more about people six months or years from now that will determine the trajectory of sales. These companies have to consider those just as much as the enthusiasts.

Another reason I believe Sony can achieve is competitive pricing, especially the Digital Edition at $399. This model comes without sacrifice in the power department, it’s just that it only allows for digital downloads. Sony apparently had locked in the idea of getting at least a version to the same launch price of PlayStation 4, and they succeeded. The question comes down to availability, and anecdotal evidence says the digital version is much harder to find despite Sony saying that the PlayStation 5 will have more units overall at launch than its predecessor.

Finally, and it’s no secret, Sony’s software prowess is near unparalleled in modern game development. Its studios are among the most talented in the business. With projects like Horizon Forbidden West and God of War 2021 in the pipeline from internal teams, Sony seems to be leveraging a similar software strategy as last generation in quality, single-player experiences.

It’s also making key partnerships with external publishers, such as the aforementioned deal with Square Enix for Final Fantasy XVI console exclusivity plus its work with Bluepoint Games on major remakes, to round out the portfolio. There’s also a new service offering as part of its PlayStation Plus membership: PlayStation Plus Collection, where legacy titles will be available for PS5 owners.

That’s how Sony can win. Solid hardware pricing to sell volume of both editions, new foundational games on console then PlayStation Plus and even PC on the back end down the line. It just needs better and more honest messaging, clean up the pre-order process ahead of November and share information on upgrade paths like it has with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales in that the game moves with players from PS4 to the upcoming generation.

Switching to its main competitor in Microsoft of course, its Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S consoles debut a bit earlier the same week on November 10th in a simultaneous global launch, for $499 and an utterly aggressive $299 respectively. Both are also available via what’s called the Xbox All Access financing program, for $34.99 and $24.99 per month each. This comes with a subscription to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, an immediate library of software. Which is a key part of enticing especially new buyers, not having to drop so much money up front like generations of the past.

As I’ve stated before, the American software and cloud conglomerate’s modus operandi is ecosystem and services. Lowering the barrier to entry, offering games and subscriptions on a variety of devices beyond its consoles, embracing cloud as a complement to traditional gaming plus connecting everything in its Xbox brand. Its Xbox Game Pass catalog of games monthly subscription service is arguably the best value in the industry, considering that all new first party titles launch simultaneously into the service on their retail date.

Then there’s Project xCloud. Microsoft formally launched the cloud streaming offering just earlier this week for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members in various countries for use on Android phones and tablets. It’s a play on the future direction of the industry. Despite some critics prognosticating otherwise, I don’t believe it’s a replacement for traditional games. It’s a complement that will offer yet another way to play console and PC quality software. Which means it won’t cannibalize sales, it will be accretive to the business line.

“We really built this strategy around that – play the games you want, with the people you want, on the devices you want or already have,” said Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox. “The high-level goal for us is can we build a platform where more people want to play more games more often?”

What this means is that Microsoft is foregoing one-time purchases up front to make it up in volume, monthly fees and player engagement. It hopes to monetize on an ongoing basis, and keep people in the ecosystem whether using hardware, PC or even mobile via cloud.

So, what does this have to do with winning? Everything.

A holistic approach makes Microsoft less dependent on core hardware sales and major, blockbuster exclusives than ever before. Its hyper-competitive pricing tier for Xbox Series S gives the most realistic entry point for various slices of the market: lapsed gamers, those on the fence about an upgrade and even PlayStation owners looking for a way to try games not available on that platform. Sure, the company is chalking up a loss on hardware and even generating less revenue up front with service discounts. It’s still built up a user base of 10 million strong for Xbox Game Pass as of last month, many of which have or will renew even when their discounts expire. And according to various accounts, this leads to people not just playing more games but also buying them, bumping up software sales alongside the subscription.

Xbox has also been much better about messaging and marketing, sending a clear signal with both its pricing and retail packaging. Its social media team is on fire, rolling with the punches during leaks and summarizing perfectly the contrast between its console models. While some argue that offering two models with similar names is confusing, I strongly disagree and think that tech consumers are more knowledgeable than that in the age of multiple iPhone models and countless TV iterations. The pricing alone tells the story: Xbox Series S is for those looking to enter next gen at an affordable price, Xbox Series X is for the enthusiasts that are much less sensitive to cost.

A holistic approach makes Microsoft less dependent on core hardware sales and major, blockbuster exclusives than ever before. Its hyper-competitive pricing tier for Xbox Series S gives the most realistic entry point for various slices of the market

The main question (and it’s a big one, no doubt) surrounding Xbox is its software lineup, at least early in the cycle. Without games like Halo Infinite, Forza Motorsport or Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 at launch, it will lean more on smaller titles like The Medium from Bloober Team and Ebb Software’s Scorn, older first party games like Gears 5 and Gears Tactics plus external, multi-platform releases such as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Destiny 2: Beyond Light. With the amount of studio acquisitions and announced games like the aforementioned bunch plus Rare’s Fable and Everwild, I anticipate a more beefed up portfolio within two years of launch. Which is really the time that’s most make-or-break for sales.

Microsoft is one of the world’s largest companies, and while Xbox is a key brand segment, it’s a small portion of the overall business. We’re still talking about an $11.5 billion or more annual revenue generator here, one where Microsoft is clearly investing in parallel to its Cloud offerings. The firm can sustain a hit from discounted Xbox Game Pass and All Access programs, as long as the opportunity is there to keep players over time. These are meant to build up the audience base and benefit over the longer term, even if shorter term it appears to be slower than its competition.

As noted throughout, we now know how both Sony and Microsoft are throwing down aggressive pricing this holiday season for some powerful next generation boxes. Both are investing internally, mapping out marketing, purchasing studios and making partnerships in attempts to win mind-share and, most importantly, dollars.

Sony promises more PlayStation 5 consoles at launch than PlayStation 4, offers an enticing Digital Edition upgrade for PS4 owners while also solidifies a more impressive launch lineup of software even if its messaging has been jumbled. Microsoft’s message has been direct: Its Xbox Series S is the most affordable of the bunch and both consoles are available via a financing option for folks that might not want to pay up front or have been impacted financially by coronavirus.

It’s not quite time yet for my detailed forecasts, though this piece should give an early indication of where I’m at in that I expect both manufacturers to sell out of launch stock then move into the later years of this generation with unique offerings that absolutely will attract buyers. Even some that will overlap. If I had to pick, I’m slightly more bullish on Sony’s prospects especially if they can supply enough Digital Editions to the market at that extremely attractive $400 point.

That doesn’t mean its competition can’t also win. Each has something the other doesn’t, which means victory is attainable for all. Most of which, console gamers. Even if they’ll probably continue to fight among themselves for eternity.

Stay safe all. Thanks for reading!

All prices reference above in U.S. Dollars. Local pricing available at manufacturer websites.

Sources: Fast Company, GamesIndustry.Biz, Microsoft, Sony, TechRadar, Washington Post, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

Madden Wins & Nintendo Sets a Record in August Games Industry Sales Report

The push toward the goal line of 2020 is now officially underway, as signaled by the annual release of a new Madden game.

And this year’s proves to be another big seller, pushing games industry growth up double-digits here in the States.

During August 2020, Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL 21 and Nintendo’s Switch console attracted the most dollar sales in their respective categories domestically, with the former increasing the franchise streak of commercial success and the latter setting a new August month record. This is all according to the latest monthly report from tracking firm The NPD Group.

Overall, stay-at-home restrictions and everyone trying to get the most out of the relaxing days before school starts drove consumer spending across the games industry in August to $3.3 billion. That’s up 37% since this same time period last year. (Get used to that number.)

“Digital content on console, mobile and subscription were among largest growth segments,” said my friend and NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella.

Expanding to year-to-date spend, this is up 23% across 2020 so far to a total sum of $29.4 billion. Every category jumped more than 20% in August. The three main ones now being Video Game Hardware, Video Game Content and Video Game Accessories as I detailed last month.

As I’ll describe shortly, 2020 continues to be a remarkable year when it comes to gaming sales across multiple segments even amidst the ongoing difficulties of coronavirus. It’s one of the main viable forms of experiencing new entertainment at home, especially as film studios continue to push major motion pictures to theaters. Gaming is excellent at bringing people together remotely, and almost all companies involved are benefactors whether it’s those producing free-to-play releases like Fall Guys and Among Us or the traditional full-price model as we’ll see here.

On to the numbers.

United States Games Industry Sales (August 2nd to August 29th):

As displayed in the above chart compiled by The NPD Group, Video Game Content i.e. software and in-game purchases sales rose 37% (there it is again) in August 2020, reaching $2.9 billion. For the year as a whole thru last month, content category spend hit $25.9 billion which is up 22%.

The major highlight during August was Madden NFL 21, the best-selling title last month. This marked the 21st straight year that a game in the Electronic Arts-published football franchise has led the overall chart during its first month. It’s a streak that provides context for just how consistent the annualized series is commercially.

Launch month sales doubled when compared to Madden NFL 20, making it instantly the sixth best-selling game of 2020 to date. Surpassing games with months of sales like Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot and MLB: The Show 20. The continued early success here reiterates the Madden NFL brand as the top-selling sports franchise in the multiple decade history of tracking.

Another Electronic Arts game reached second place on the August list, that being UFC 4. The mixed martial arts simulator set a launch sales record for UFC games produced by EA, dating back to 2014. The game ranked within the Top 3 of the individual charts for both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 platform results.

The other ongoing stories were Call of Duty: Modern Warfare rounding out the Top 3 while games published by Nintendo occupied six spots within the Top 11. Animal Crossing: New Horizons showed steady momentum, landing it at #5 while fitness game Ring Fit Adventure finished right behind it.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild reached an impressive milestone in August, as it’s now the 10th best-selling game on a Nintendo platform of all time domestically. It was a launch title for Nintendo Switch back in March 2017, since which time it’s been in the Top 7 on that platform’s list of software sellers every single month.

Another note in perusing the lists is the notable scarcity of games from publisher Take-Two Interactive, owner of Rockstar Games and 2K Games. Its golf game PGA Tour 2K21 landed at #14 on the main chart, a respectable yet pedestrian result, and its sports titles randomly made the single platform lists. Though staples like Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 are nowhere to be found. My understanding is this stems from a change in how the company is reporting its downloadable portion, as its games are now flagged similar to Nintendo’s without digital sales.

I expect its flagship basketball title NBA 2K21, released back on September 4th, to perform very well during September’s report. However I can’t shake the odd feeling of not seeing Rockstar on any of the lists, when I know its games are still attracting players and dollars.

Anyways, full charts for August and year-to-date below.

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

  1. Madden NFL 21
  2. UFC 4
  3. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  4. Ghost of Tsushima
  5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  6. Ring Fit Adventure
  7. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  8. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  9. Paper Mario: The Origami King*
  10. Mortal Kombat 11
  11. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  12. The Last of Us: Part 2
  13. Minecraft: PS4 Edition
  14. PGA Tour 2K21*
  15. New Super Mario Bros. Deluxe*
  16. Super Mario Party*
  17. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege
  18. Super Mario Odyssey*
  19. Final Fantasy 7: Remake
  20. Luigi’s Mansion 3*

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

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. The Last of Us: Part 2
  4. Final Fantasy 7: Remake
  5. Ghost of Tsushima
  6. Madden NFL 21
  7. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  8. MLB: The Show 20
  9. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  10. Mortal Kombat 11

Within the Video Game Hardware category, consumer spending totaled $229 million last month which was growth of 37% (a ha! we meet again) when compared to August 2019. For year-to-date figures, spending on consoles was up 23% to $2 billion flat.

While Nintendo Switch continued its dominance as the best-selling hardware, a spot it’s held each monthly report since late 2018, August proved an especially exceptional result. The hybrid platform set a new August month record for dollar sales, outpacing that of the Nintendo Wii back in August 2008. Also, unit sales doubled since this time last year. Considering its recent momentum and ongoing demand, this shows what can happen when the supply side and inventories catch up to consumer interest.

Going back three years ago, right before Switch hit the market, I was on record as one of the most bullish on its prospects. I loved the hardware design and thought that a combination of that ingenuity and Nintendo’s software prowess, Switch would be one of the firm’s most successful consoles ever. But I stopped short of predicting it would beat the Wii, a global phenomenon in the years after its 2006 launch.

These days, I’m reconsidering that. Especially with word that the company is further ramping up production into the back half of this fiscal year and the speculation of another model next year, I’m now betting that Switch lifetime sales meet or exceed that of Wii globally.

Want another prediction that we’ll know sooner than that? Looking domestically according to these reports, I’m planting my flag that Nintendo will win the holiday months even with the start of next generation, mainly due to supply opening up for Nintendo’s box and limits on inventory for its competitors in the Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5.

Whew. Back to the report itself, Video Game Accessories also set an August record last month by jumping 42% to $166 million in dollar sales. Expanding to full year, sales within this category reached an all-time high through an August month at $1.4 billion, exhibiting growth of 26% year-over-year.

Sub-categories sales here for Gamepad, Headsets/Headphones and even Steering Wheels boasted August and year-to-date records too, though no growth or cash totals were provided. PlayStation 4 DualShock 4 wireless black model was top-selling accessory in August. Xbox’s Elite Series 2 game pad maintains its spot as the year’s top seller so far.

Moving into the back part of Q3 then holiday season is when these reports really ramp up, this year more than ever with Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2 releasing in early September. (Get it?)

Though really, the combination of coronavirus restrictions, Nintendo’s slate now being clear with Mario’s 35th anniversary games including Super Mario 3D All-Stars then Pikmin 3 plus of course new generation consoles starting in November as I write about before with Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S announcements, this is the starting whistle of the more newsworthy months in industry tracking.

Highly recommend NPD Group’s post and NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella’s thread for a great summary and further details on the results and individual platform rankings.

Stay safe everyone. Thanks for hanging out!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Bloomberg, Electronic Arts, NPD Group.

-Dom

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

Updated: September 9th.

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

Well, sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up, that pricing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what now?

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

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

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

I’d bet the house.

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

It Starts With Honor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come To Know One’s True Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle Unending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Ghost of Tsushima

Release Date: July 17, 2020

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

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

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

-Dom