Microsoft’s Xbox Division Sets New Annual Sales Record in 2021

During Microsoft’s fiscal fourth quarter results presentation yesterday for the period ending June 2021, the massive American technology conglomerate shared how its gaming division is faring amidst the global pandemic and early in this latest console cycle. This presentation revealed how the Xbox team achieved a handful of impressive records.

First, Microsoft’s gaming revenue for the trailing 12-month period back from Q4 is its highest in reported history. The Xbox division generated nearly $15.4 billion in annual sales. That’s 33% higher than the same 12-month period this time last year, when it was almost $11.6 billion.

That makes this the second quarter in a row that annual gaming sales were above the $15 billion threshold for Microsoft, showcasing how both hardware momentum and subscription expansion are boosting results even as third-party software contributions slow from highs in 2020.

In terms of the new generation of Xbox Series X|S platforms that launched late last year, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Satya Nadella said on the earnings conference call they are the fastest-selling boxes in the 20-year history of the Xbox brand. These have “more consoles sold life-to-date than any previous generation” according to Nadella. This led to Xbox Hardware growth of 172% during Q4, with the caveat being of course this compares to a low point at the end of a prior generation.

Which is notable especially in terms of the current hardware supply environment for all manufacturers. Xbox is selling every single box its suppliers can make, as consumer interest far exceeds production capabilities right now. I anticipate this will continue for the foreseeable future, at least through the next fiscal year ending in mid-2022.

Parallel to the hardware performance is that of gaming software and related services, represented by the Xbox Content & Services sub-segment. This is the one notable lackluster portion of the report, with a fourth quarter decline of 4%. Increases in Xbox Game Pass and first-party releases couldn’t outpace declines in third-party.

Speaking of the Xbox Game Pass service, unfortunately Microsoft executives didn’t share updated figures for its paid subscriber base. Last count it was officially 18 million as of 2020 year-end, though more recent media reports have estimated the figure at upwards of 23 million as of April. My current estimate is 25 million, though I imagine Microsoft would share that milestone so it might be just below it for now.

Knowing these records and high level performance, I’ll now dig a bit into underlying numbers and executive comments.

If you pop open these gallery images above, you’ll see a.. number of insights.

First, the annual revenue figures for Xbox based on reported growth. Overall, gaming revenue for Microsoft rose 11% in Q4 bolstered by a major contribution from hardware and subscriptions. Based on historical sales figures, this equates to roughly $3.74 billion in quarterly revenue. That’s the highest sales ever for Xbox during a fiscal fourth quarter i.e. April to June.

Aggregating this quarterly figure into annual results and you’ll see the trend line for 12-month revenue is at that record $15.4 billion level. Even if slowing its growth trajectory, there’s no denying Microsoft’s combination of hardware launch and ecosystem play are at least pumping up Xbox’s top-line.

One note. Technically the quarterly result for gaming revenue is currently an estimate based on growth figures reported in Microsoft’s earnings slides. The company hasn’t formally filed its 10K with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) where it reveals exact gaming revenue figures. It should be very close.

(Update: Microsoft posted its annual filing on July 29th. 12-month gaming revenue reached $15.37 billion, essentially spot-on.)

For context here, how does this compare to peers in the industry?

Well, since I know you checked out my July to August 2021 earnings calendar, you’ll see both Sony and Nintendo report their respective first quarter results next week. So using recent annual figures from March 2021, Sony’s Gaming & Network Services segment reached over $24 billion while Nintendo’s overall sales totaled roughly $12 billion at the time. Essentially, Microsoft sits between the two other hardware manufacturers. And all of them are doing very well lately.

Unlike its competitors, Microsoft doesn’t reveal profit metrics for its Xbox segment. That doesn’t mean we can’t infer from what it does share. Might get technical here, bear with me. The broader More Personal Computing business unit, of which Xbox is a part, saw operating income of $4.87 billion in Q4, up from $4.09 billion. However, gross margin percentage declined 1% since last year due to a shift to gaming. Margin as a metric basically accounts for expenses deducted from total sales.

Now there’s a variety of factors impacting profitability within this segment. Suffice to say that a slight dip in margin percentage caused by this shift means gaming was a bit less profitable than others here which are Windows, Devices and Search Advertising. It’s impossible to back into exact numbers, unfortunately.

Xbox is selling every single box its suppliers can make, as consumer interest far exceeds production capabilities right now. I anticipate this will continue for the foreseeable future, at least through the next fiscal year ending in mid-2022.

When it came to growth during Microsoft’s latest Q4, Xbox Series X|S hardware was certainly the star.

The aforementioned 172% growth for Xbox Hardware is the result of simply high demand meeting limited supply. It’s effectively the best it can be right now, as Xbox consoles are consistently selling out.

With Xbox Series X|S being the fastest-selling in the company’s history, how does that translate to unit sales? Well, we don’t exactly know formally because Microsoft stopped sharing these a while back.

Still, there are estimates out there. Friend of the site and analyst at Niko Partners Daniel Ahmad attempts to estimate units shipped for Xbox Series X|S at roughly 6.5 million since November 2020. Aligned with Nadella’s comments, this figure would outpace the prior record holder of Xbox 360 at 5.7 million starting in 2005 plus 2013’s Xbox One with roughly 5 million shipments across the same 6-month span.

Which makes sense, especially given recent performance in its largest market of the United States. The Xbox platform had its best June month ever according to The NPD Group, as I wrote about recently. Definitely check out that piece to see more specifics.

The other sub-segment within gaming is Xbox Content & Services, which saw somehwat mixed results during the fourth quarter.

Revenue here was 4% lower than this time last year, mainly because of software published by third parties available on the Microsoft store or retailers. This makes sense because the prior four quarters all experienced growth above 30%. It was bound to revert from those prior peaks.

Amidst this decline, executive comments still indicate expansion in services and player interest in particular. Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Amy Hood noted the team saw “strong engagement across the platform” during Q4.

The management team said Xbox Game Pass is “growing rapidly” while referencing certain statistics, similar to those we’ve heard in the past about how subscribers play and spend more than their non-member counterparts.

There was specific mention of cloud gaming this time, a service that Xbox has embedded within its top-tier Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and expanded to more countries in recent months. While not specific, Microsoft said that “millions” are streaming to their various devices.

What this mix of results and comments around Xbox Content & Services tells me is that last year was really fantastic during the height of pandemic quarantine orders, the audience base is still there yet spending less than that time especially on software. Subscriptions are propping it up, which is exactly what the team wants from pushing ecosystem and its robust Xbox Game Pass library.

Growth could slow a bit near-term for the Xbox division. I do think the baseline has been reset by newer audience members plus lapsed gamers sticking around and spending lately, which will help comparing growth against those high points last year.

Taking a step back to the company overall, Microsoft posts some staggering results in the scheme of things. Over $46 billion in fourth quarter revenue, an increase of 21% and well ahead of analyst estimate of $44.2 billion. Operating profit of $19.1 billion is 42% higher than this time in 2020, leading to an earnings-per-share figure above consensus as well.

Then what’s next after this record year for Xbox? Beyond healthy guidance for the firm overall, gaming is expected to grow into the first quarter of fiscal 2022.

“We expect revenue growth in the low double-digits,” said Hood in reference to gaming. “Console growth will again be constrained by supply. And on a strong prior year comparable, Xbox content and services revenue should grow low single digits.”

I can see that, consistent with its release schedule and hardware inventory limitations. There’s no flagship first party launches until Halo Infinite, and even that has a nebulous holiday release at present. There’s higher profile third party multi-platforms like Madden NFL 2022 from Electronic Arts in August and NBA 2K22 in September, which will contribute on the content side. There’s also a slew of new versions, smaller or indie titles in the coming months. The Ascent. 12 Minutes. Psychonauts 2. Hades and Microsoft Flight Simulator on console.

It might be tricky for Xbox to match the sales highs of the last 12 months, given the previous global stay-at-home situations and leading into a new console generation. Growth could slow a bit near-term for the Xbox division. I do think the baseline has been reset by newer audience members plus lapsed gamers sticking around and spending lately, which will help comparing growth against those high points last year.

Xbox Hardware will be strong, even if supply increases at a slower rate than originally anticipated. I believe subscriptions will keep pace, though am tapering expectations on content and software spend until the quarter ending December.

All in all it’s big results for 2021, like we’re seeing most places in the games industry. The question becomes where will it go from here.

Feel free to reach out here in the comments or on social media with your reactions or questions. Thanks for visiting!

Sources: Microsoft Investor Relations, The NPD Group, Wu Yi (Photo Credit).

-Dom

The Top 10 Highlights of Gaming’s Biggest Show: E3 2021

It’s over already?

The build-up to gaming’s annual Electronic Entertainment Experience (E3) gala lasts for what seems like forever. We make our predictions and get probably way too excited. Then the multi-day show and surrounding week-long event cycle is a whirlwind of information pushed by publishers, developers and hardware manufacturers big and small, plus a plethora of enthusiast media presentations and general coverage.

And it’s over before we know it.

During that time, it’s a rush. There are so many conferences and games in and around E3, as companies try their best to carve out their sections to capture a super engaged audience ready for cool, new stuff. Sure, it’s scattershot in this digital format. Sometimes unclear which events are backed by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), who organizes E3, or which are on their own. Good news is that it’s all gaming for about a week straight. If you weren’t glued to the internet, I’ve got you covered.

2021 presented a number of challenges for the organizers and hosts plus all of the people working hard to make games while adapting to a COVID world. E3 went digital, and the results were certainly mixed when it comes to consistency and quality. I mean, it’s tough to make things during a pandemic.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a ton of great stuff across huge triple-A publishers, excellent indie presentations and informative interviews or panels. While I won’t cover everything, I’ll do my best to hit the major trends and most impressive reveals.

Congratulations to all the teams that did have something to show this year. It’s an accomplishment on its own to put yourself out there. I hope you get some temporary and much-needed rest before making that push to finish your projects.

Here are the ten biggest highlights from E3 2021, plus a little bonus for good measure.

#1: Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase

This year’s Xbox & Bethesda show was illustrative of effort across an entire generation of investing in a directional shift for Microsoft’s gaming division. The single biggest exclusive that team Xbox has isn’t Halo Infinite or Starfield. It’s Xbox Game Pass. Out of 30 games shown, 27 are hitting the subscription service which will also soon be available in even more places. Headliners included a blow-out on Halo Infinite, cinematic trailer for console exclusive Starfield, stunning reveal of Forza Horizon 5, August release date for Psychonauts 2 plus an awesome deep dive into S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. The Outer Worlds 2 from Obsidian had arguably the best “non-trailer,” poking fun at games that are revealed with nothing to show. Then its finale was Arkane’s secret vampire project, entitled Redfall.

The theme of Microsoft’s conference was reminding everyone that Game Pass is the best value in the industry. How it’s making games more accessible on different devices. In particular the team boasted a number of notable third party hookups like Back 4 Blood, launching day one into Game Pass later this year, in addition to a sequel to one of my favorite games of 2019, A Plague Tale: Requiem in 2022. 12 Minutes, Atomic Heart, Somerville and Replaced are all day one titles. Then there’s existing games like Hades, Among Us and Yakuza: Like a Dragon hitting the service.

Packed with released and future content at a brisk pace, I didn’t even mention Battlefield 2042 and Far Cry 6, Xbox & Bethesda showed exactly what a console manufacturer slash major publisher should do at E3. And did I mention there was Game Pass? Hit up Xbox Wire for more details.

#2: Nintendo Direct & Treehouse Live

Nintendo usually bookends an already hyped event on the final day, showcasing its projects during a curated Direct video then launching right into gameplay segments on Treehouse Live. While there was nothing from Animal Crossing or Pokémon and zero hardware other than the collectible Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, the Japanese publisher and console maker did have a ton to like and a little bit for everyone. Including long-suffering fanbases.

Top billing was of course the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which shared gameplay bits interspersed with cinematics, divulging that the skies above Hyrule will be an important part, prompting fan theories galore. Nintendo is targeting 2022 for that, perhaps to coincide with a certain console iteration. Fighting for biggest surprise of E3 overall was Metroid Dread, the first proper Metroid game in a decade set to be released in October, resurrected after its disappearance over fifteen years back. Even Advance Wars is hitting Switch in the form of the Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp collection.

Mario Golf: Super Rush, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD all had segments since their respective launches come over the next few weeks. Switch’s back half of 2021 lineup is rounding out as well, seeing as Nintendo announced WarioWare: Get It Together! in September and Mario Party Superstars in October. Third party exclusive Shin Megami Tensei V drops in November. Sprinkled in were segments on Life is Strange, Danganronpa, Just Dance 2022 and even Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water. Ubisoft crossover Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope made its second appearance of E3 here.

All in all, Nintendo showed strongly with its theme of rapid pacing, quality exclusives and ongoing partnerships for Switch that appealed to various swathes of its audience. Well, except for Bayonetta fans. Read a full recap here.

#3: Indies, Indies Everywhere!

It was nearly overwhelming trying to follow along with all the amazing mini-showcases featuring or solely focusing on independent creators this year. Guerrilla Collective. Day of the Devs. Future Games Show. Indie Game Showcase. ID@Xbox sections. Devolver Digital. And more. Indies positively stole the week in this digital format, the most consistent and wide-ranged showing ever for that slice of the industry. The best part of this format is that indies can share, or even capture, the spotlight and instantly hit the radar of fans and even people that might not normally check them out.

Between titles already announced and brand new reveals, I can’t count how many indies I want to play after the past week. Off the top of my head I can list over a dozen that are worth exploring. 12 Minutes, Black Tail, Bramble The Mountain King, Death’s Door, Happy Game, Harold Halibut, Lake, LifeSlide, Loot River, Lost in Random, Moonglow Bay, Replaced, Sable, Sifu, and Tunic. There’s way more, appealing to all tastes because that’s the forte of there being so many talented creators working in the space. Some even have limited time demos out on Steam or Xbox platforms.

That’s the beauty of the indie scene, and I’m ecstatic that smaller teams can hang with the so-called “big guns” this time of year. Perhaps even outshine them.

#4: FromSoftware’s Elden Ring

This one should be no surprise. Shoot, I dedicated an entire article to it right after its reveal last week.

In the most substantial get for Geoff Keighley and Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live last Thursday, FromSoftware shared an Elden Ring trailer for the first time since 2019. Right after, publisher Bandai Namco pushed press materials and screenshots that delved even deeper into the dark fantasy role-playing game, a collaboration with A Song of Ice and Fire writer and Game of Thrones showrunner George R.R. Martin. It temporarily satiated the appetite of the core gaming discourse online, with analyses and investigations into what it will end up being when it’s out in January 2022. A release target that’s way sooner than expected.

And for good reason. An open area soulslike made by the masters of the genre with different biomes, bespoke dungeons, towering bosses amidst the usual expert environmental design expected of FromSoftware. Especially if Elden Ring can strike a balance between story and lore, which is usually opaque in the developer’s prior titles, it could end up as the showpiece for games of its kind.

Right now, it’s 100% my most-anticipated upcoming release. I’m nowhere near alone in that regard.

#5: Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live

Tying in with the prior entry on this list, Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live marked the unofficial beginning of “E3 Week” as Geoff Keighley and his talented team produced a jam-packed stream featuring game reveals, musical performances, celebrity guests and, of course, that Elden Ring finale.

What’s great about anything Keighley does, including The Game Awards, is that he leverages industry relationships to make inclusive events that blend commercial and hardcore, and he just knows how to put on a show. His passion is evident immediately, and the sheer breadth of content is usually there. Since it’s not actually affiliated with E3 or any major console manufacturer, this is a place mostly for third parties and independent labels. This year’s stream featured Tiny Tina’s Wonderland, Metal Slug Tactics, Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding: Director’s Cut, Jurassic World Evolution 2 (introduced by Jeff Goldblum), Salt and Sacrifice, Two Point Campus and even a new publishing label from Koch Media called Prime Matter.

Admittedly this one didn’t have the best pacing, with a notable lull in the middle. Luckily it started strong and was able to crescendo in the back third, not unlike its couple of great musical performances. Especially Japanese Breakfast singing over the serene gameplay of Sable. Following along was a fun way to begin the festivities, mainly because of production value and the know-how of its organizers. Visit the website for a replay.

#6: Ubisoft Forward

From a pure presentation standpoint, Ubisoft is one of the best in my opinion. Engaged hosts, snappy segments and often times gameplay features right after teaser trailers. Even if the content was a bit lighter than usual this year, for obvious reasons during a global pandemic, the massive French publisher’s event contained multiple intriguing projects.

Pre-show started with updates on already out titles like Watch Dogs: Legion, For Honor, The Crew 2 and a crossover between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Brawlhalla. Which was all an appetizer for the main course. Rainbow Six Extraction, the co-op first person shooter that previously had the unfortunate subtitle of Quarantine, featured both a trailer then gameplay demo. Guitar teaching software Rocksmith+ and annualized dance franchise Just Dance 2022 performed here. In the most intense and honestly fun showing, multiplayer extreme sport title Riders Republic brought a lot of energy. Every time I see that game, I’m more interested in trying it.

Ubisoft talked about how 2020’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will get another year of updates, implying that the next mainline game is a ways out. It showed a segment on its Film and Television content, then Far Cry 6 and the formal reveal of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. That “one more thing” moment came in the form of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, setting a release window for this action-adventure game as next year. We’ll see about that!

While nothing mind-blowing, Ubisoft’s lineup is about ongoing support and consistency of franchise appearances. The lack of Prince of Persia, Skull & Bones and Beyond Good & Evil 2 is unfortunate. Splinter Cell was only mentioned in passing, as is the case lately. It was still the most robust single third party publisher event this E3 season, and a full rundown can be found here.

#7: Wholesome Direct

The winner of this past week for “best vibes” totally goes to Wholesome Direct, an indie developer showcase strictly focused on the most chill, upbeat of new releases. There were at least 70 games shown, all of them non-violent and positively charming.

It’s hard to pick out individual games from so many, and it was really more about getting to see an entire showcase where everything was so darn cheery. But here are some that stood out to me. Lake is a narrative game about a delivery driver returning to her hometown. Moonglow Bay is colorful and set in a fun fishing town. Snacko is a simulation game about being a cat. Behind the Frame is a story puzzle game using art as its delivery method. Letters is a choice-based story about pen pals.

Admittedly, some are pretty self-explanatory. You battle as cakes in BattleCakes. Unpacking is a meditative, reflective game where you unpack boxes. The player cooks yummy meals in Soup Pot. In Skatebird.. well, you skate as a bird, of course!

And last but certainly not least was Pupperazzi. Yes. This is a game about taking photos of cute dogs. If that doesn’t sell you on the entire concept of Wholesome Games, I don’t know what will. Its website has lots of deets.

#8: Halo Infinite

Of all the games shown that aren’t named Elden Ring, Xbox’s Halo Infinite was probably the single most important single showing for a company presenting at this year’s E3. During the aforementioned Xbox & Bethesda show, a large chunk in the middle was dedicated to the latest mainline game in the Halo franchise since 2015’s divisive Halo 5: Guardians. While 343 Industries has been providing monthly updates on the upcoming project, this was its chance to perform on the big stage. Especially after a disastrous trailer last year.

And this time, it did. Not only was there a cinematic story trailer in which Master Chief talks to an artificial intelligence that isn’t named Cortana, who is allegedly dead now, 343 also showed off ample footage of the multiplayer mode.

One huge element of the multiplayer is that it’s free-to-play, breaking down the usual barriers to entry of purchasing a full-priced title. Even those without Game Pass can play at no cost. Xbox confirmed that both campaign and multiplayer will launch at the same time.

The most curious part to me is that Microsoft is still playing coy with a launch date for Halo Infinite, what everyone expects to be its flagship 2021 title. After all the E3 coverage, it’s still listed as Holiday. As that time approaches without a firm date, the more skeptical I become that it will be out this year. For now, I’ll take them at their word.

#9: Guardians of the Galaxy

Finally, a big surprise! (Well, almost.) When talking major publisher showcases, Guardians of the Galaxy was in fact the most surprising of all reveals to me. Even if it leaked ahead of time. Before the event, Square Enix said a new game from Eidos Montreal would headline its digital event, and this was it. In conjunction with Marvel Games, the Canada-based team is making a game based on the oddball superhero crew.

What shocked me most is that it’s a single-player narrative action game where the player only controls Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, in his adventures with a misfit crew that includes Rocket, Groot, Gamora and Drax. Not only did Square Enix play a cinematic trailer showing the classic witty banter between these characters and story setup, it had a lengthy gameplay demo as well.

Combat is third-person action with Star-Lord using his blasters and jet boots to face against alien foes. The player can command each member of the team, almost like a special move. Rather than someone controlling every character like Marvel’s Avengers, this is solely a solo experience.

There also looks to be at least some narrative depth when it comes to choices and decision-making, where Star-Lord can decide to agree with one crew member over the other. How much that will dictate how things play out is anyone’s guess, but it’s a great system in concept.

Bonus points here for a release date of October 26th across all current and prior generation consoles, PC plus Nintendo Switch via cloud version. I’m looking forward to the usual humor and gallivanting across the stars from the Guardians later this year.

#10: Forza Horizon 5

What a ride it’s been! Speaking of, Xbox finally revealed what the rumors suggested: That Forza Horizon 5 is this year’s racing game from Playground Games, and it’s heading to Mexico. This was single-handedly the most gorgeous title shown across the entire week, featuring fast cars, stunning vistas and beautiful backdrops for the open world driving franchise that’s arguably the best in its genre.

2018’s Forza Horizon 4 is still popular these days, so many were anticipating what would come next. Now we know, as Playground boasts its “largest and most diverse world.” Features include dynamic weather and an “ever-evolving landscape.” It boasts a campaign mode plus co-op and competitive play, with classic game modes plus fun new ones such as bowling and piñata breaking.

Where it gets ridiculous is on the technical side. HDR. Raytracing. Photogrammetry, where the team takes photos or video of the actual locales in Mexico and somehow, I think using magic, translates all that data into realistic visuals with insane graphical fidelity within the game space. Then there’s all the cars, including the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE that’s featured in the gameplay sections.

Forza Horizon 5 was voted most anticipated game *overall* at the E3 Awards. Nearly unheard of for a racing game. Not only that, it’s out in November! We won’t have to wait long to see this beauty in action.

Bonus Game: Battlefield 2042

It’s bonus time. While technically revealed right before even Summer Game Fest, Battlefield 2042 was featured prominently at certain showcases including Xbox.

I believe the latest military spectacle shooter published by Electronic Arts has the most trailer views of any game revealed in the past week or so, currently at upwards of 15 million for the trailer at its official YouTube channel alone. Development team DICE shared a gameplay segment during Xbox & Bethesda’s stream, boasting futuristic weaponry, weather effects and a ton of outlandish multiplayer moments. Battlefield 2042 is the first mainline game in the franchise since 2018, and it’s proving a popular revitalization at least according to general interest during its announcement phase.

The much-anticipated and technically impressive shooter will certainly be a focus of Electronic Arts’ EA Play digital event on July 22nd. For now, head to its website for the latest info.

There you have the ten biggest stories from E3 2021 and a bonus to boot. A unique show in the scheme of things, but not without its amazing spectacle and awesome reveals. Judging by how long my gaming “watchlist” is compared to this time last week, I’d say it was still a good one.

Now it’s time to start planning for next year’s show, which is scheduled to be back in Los Angeles, California. In person! No word on dates yet.

What was the highlight of the show for you? How did your predictions go? Which showcase was your favorite? Do you prefer the digital format?

Be safe, and see you next year for more E3 coverage!

Sources: Company Press Websites & YouTube Channels, Entertainment Software Association (ESA)

-Dom

E3 2021 Preview & Predictions Spectacular

It’s the holidays in June!

For gamers, that is.

After skipping last year due to obvious reasons, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) is back hosting gaming’s biggest annual event. This time it’s rebranded to the Electronic Entertainment Experience (E3) and presented in an all new digital format.

Admittedly everything is a bit scattershot especially since the ESA is leaning on companies to schedule their own times, plus there are events happening around it that aren’t necessarily associated. (They like to stay close to capture that engaged audience, of course). It’s really the general season that counts, giving everyone a reason to celebrate all the new reveals, trailers and inevitable surprises.

During this piece, I’ll be covering previews and some (potentially bold) calls for various publishers that have formally announced their participation. Then will wrap up later with miscellaneous bets and random thoughts.

Here’s a rough calendar of events, subject to change. Then it’s time to get into the good stuff, and go on record with all my predictions!

  • Thursday, June 10th: Summer Games Fest.
  • Friday, June 11th: Netflix Geeked Week, Koch Primetime, IGN Expo.
  • Saturday, June 12th: Guerilla Collective, Wholesome Direct, Ubisoft Forward, Gearbox, Devolver Digital.
  • Sunday, June 13th: Xbox & Bethesda, Square Enix, PC Gaming Show, Future Games Show, Warner Bros.
  • Monday, June 14th: Take-Two, Capcom, Mythical Games, Freedom Games, Razer, Limited Run Games.
  • Tuesday, June 15th: Nintendo Direct & Treehouse Live. Bandai Namco. Yooreka Games, GameSpot, E3 Awards.

Koch Primetime (Friday, June 11th)

What We Know: Koch Media, a subsidiary of Embracer Group and overseer of Deep Silver, is hosting its first showcase actually before the start of E3 proper as part of Geoff Keighley’s conveniently-timed Summer Games Fest. Making the lives of predictors everywhere easier, Deep Silver already announced there will be no news on its biggest franchises: Dead Island, Saints Row, Metro or TimeSplitters. And honestly, Koch has been stingy with any information about what will actually be shown. It’s probably the publisher we know the least about when it comes to its streaming event. I mean, its tagline is actually “We Know Something You Don’t Know.” Okay then.

What I Predict: So, what the heck does that leave for the show? I expect something new from space shooter Chorus, currently slated for this year. Monster Energy Supercross 4 and MotoGP21 from Milestone are likely contenders. Iron Harvest and Phoenix Point with upcoming console releases are also a good bet. Here’s the long shot: We know Koch recently signed a co-publishing deal with Starbreeze for Payday 3. While it’s a long ways off, announced for 2023, let’s say we’ll get some sort of brief tease for that as well since it’s an important opportunity for both companies.

Ubisoft Forward (Saturday, June 12th)

What We Know: French publisher Ubisoft’s annual event really kicks off E3 weekend, and it’s always well-produced and hosted by pros. Beginning with an hour-long pre-show showing updates for existing titles For Honor, Trackmania, The Crew 2, Brawlhalla and Watch Dogs: Legion plus more, the team will then shift focus to upcoming games Far Cry 6, recently slated for October, then undated titles Rainbow Six (Formerly Quarantine) and Riders Republic. Both Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the ever-present Rainbow Six Siege will have updates then Ubisoft Film & Television is scheduled to share more about its content.

What I Predict: Ubisoft claims there will be “a few additional surprises” during this Forward. What could they be? I’m thinking this is definitely where we learn more about the free-to-play Tom Clancy’s The Division: Heartland. Beyond that, I’m not nearly as confident. There’s a very slight chance that the recently-delayed Skull & Bones will make an appearance, it really needs some sort of showing to reassure folks that it’s on track. There’s infinitesimal odds of Beyond Good & Evil 2. And I don’t think Prince of Persia: Sands of Time will be there. I am in fact anticipating a new project reveal, even if a tease or title card. Might even be a new virtual reality experience. Though I’ve got bad news in that it, in all likelihood, won’t be a mainline Splinter Cell game.

Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase (Sunday, June 13th)

What We Know: Without Sony’s participation this year, arguably the biggest event will be Xbox and Bethesda’s joint presentation. Microsoft described the focus as being Xbox Game Studios, Bethesda plus third party collaborators. It technically hasn’t confirmed any individual titles, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t those guaranteed, or close enough, to be present. Halo Infinite will have a blow-out. It legitimately can’t have a poor showing, especially since it’s the flagship title for Xbox’s late year calendar. Forza Horizon 5 location reveal and trailer are nearly a lock. Psychonauts 2 from Double Fine is a shoe-in for both gameplay and formal launch date, which I expect to be very soon. July’s The Ascent should be here. Then there’s Starfield from Bethesda, which will almost certainly be displayed in some form even if no release window. Rounding it out will be a lot from Xbox Game Pass and the ID@Xbox indie program, naturally.

What I Predict: Within that hour and a half, there’s a lot of room for unknowns. I’m thinking this would be a good time to see Halo Infinite multiplayer. And, yes, a battle royale mode which I believe absolutely has to be there right away to compete with modern F2P counterparts like Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone. There will be a major Xbox Game Pass partnership. I’m calling Electronic Arts’ new Battlefield launching into the service. Betting that Rare shares how its new IP Everwild is shaping up, then maybe a quick technical showpiece from Senua’s Sacrifice Hellblade 2. Avowed from Obsidian is a good call. I’m not sure Perfect Dark reboot or State of Decay 3 will be present, same with Fable. Then, what’s new from internal teams? I bet we learn what Compulsion Games is up to recently since We Happy Few is already three years old by now. The big one will be (another) Wolfenstein 3 from MachineGames. Yes, I know the team is working on an Indiana Jones project. Wolfenstein is just too significant a part of the portfolio to be overlooked if it’s in any stage of progress to be shared publicly.

Square Enix Presents (Sunday, June 13th)

What We Know: Japanese publisher Square Enix will present Square Enix Presents and, as you can see above, we already know the highlights of what it’s presenting. Headliner is a “world premiere” from Eidos Montreal. More from Babylon’s Fall is guaranteed, September’s Life is Strange: True Colors will be there and, yes, Crystal Dynamics will keep on supporting Marvel’s Avengers with its upcoming Black Panther content.

What I Predict: With the show hitting a runtime of 40-minutes, Square Enix is teasing the old “and more” to keep us guessing. First off, leaks indicate that Eidos Montreal is building a Guardians of the Galaxy action-adventure game. Easy prediction there. More footage from Life is Strange: Remastered is highly likely. Forspoken is the new project from Luminous Productions, I think there will be a small section on that. Project Triangle Strategy should get an actual title that’s probably just Project Triangle. I’d imagine there will be at least one mobile title featured. Something Dragon Quest, after its recent event. The big question comes down to Final Fantasy (doesn’t it always with Square Enix)? Last we saw PlayStation 5 timed exclusive Final Fantasy XVI was around December. But I really think the company would lead with that as the headline if it was ready to take center stage, so I’m not sure it will be there in a major capacity. Or Final Fantasy VI Remake Part 2, for that matter.

Take-Two Interactive (Monday, June 14th)

What We Know: Not much at all other than Take-Two Interactive, owner of Rockstar Games and 2K Games, will be a part of the schedule for a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Panel Discussion.

What I Predict: To me, this 100% means Take-Two Interactive isn’t sharing anything new at E3. Rumors point to Firaxis working on a strategy game in the Marvel universe while third party partner Gearbox Entertainment is cooking up a spin-off Borderlands entry called Wonderlands. While I’d absolutely flip out if the word BioShock was even uttered next week, don’t get hopes up. This sounds like a quick appearance.

Capcom (Monday, June 14th)

What We Know: Capcom is another one of these parties simply listed on the ESA’s website as having a “presentation” with no details whatsoever. The company hasn’t posted any specifics or teases, its investor relations website was merely updated with a new event called E3 2021 that links back to the same ESA page.

What I Predict: Knowing this, I expect another quick block with limited potential for new reveals. Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is launching a month from now on Nintendo Switch and PC, so I bet it’s the feature here. Resident Evil Village released in May as its flagship title in the series this year, while March’s Monster Hunter Rise has already seen a couple updates to flesh out its endgame content. I’d say we see more from at least one of these. Going forward, I don’t expect much in the way of new or remade Resident Evil reveals or something from series like Mega Man or, God forbid, Dead Rising. And I’ll probably have to keep on waiting for my new Capcom fighting game prediction to come true. One day!

Nintendo Direct & Treehouse Live (Tuesday, June 15th)

What We Know: On the final day of E3 2021, Nintendo will step into the limelight and look to steal the show with its 40-minute Direct then three hours on gameplay details for select Switch titles. Though the company hasn’t said exactly which games will be there, there are certain titles that are almost guarantees. Mario Golf: Super Rush launches weeks after the event, so lock that in during both portions. Game Builder Garage will already be out by then, however I think Nintendo reminds everyone of that here. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD hits in July, I’d be shocked if we don’t see gameplay. A bit further out is Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl scheduled for November, which should be at least highlighted during the Direct. Plus there will be indies and ports galore, a staple of Switch ever since publishers recognize how well it’s selling.

What I Predict: Note how I haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room: The New Nintendo Switch Advance Pro Plus XL, or whatever the upgraded hardware iteration is going to be called. That’s because I don’t believe Nintendo will announce hardware during E3, and it’s almost too late to reveal it beforehand now. It will instead reserve that for a future, separate Nintendo Direct digital event. Which also means that a lot from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild sequel is up-in-the-air. My guess is a cinematic trailer with hints of gameplay footage during the Direct, though no hands-on time and a generic release window of Early 2022. In terms of other franchises, I’m skeptical of Metroid Prime 4 or Bayonetta 3 showing up in any meaningful capacity. Splatoon 3 looks far enough along that I could see even hands-on campaign play shown off. Pokémon Legends: Arceus now has a date of January 28, 2022, earlier than expected. So let’s say there’s a trailer for that here. Then there’s Nintendo’s classic “one more thing” moment. Mario Kart 9? Unlikely. Donkey Kong? Solid maybe. My inclination is a strong Super Mario Odyssey 2 tease, ending with a release window in 2022.

Miscellaneous Previews & Predictions (June 10th to June 15th)

What We Know: Well, there’s certainly going to be a lot more shown during E3 and its surrounding showcases and panels that I can’t possibly cover everything here. Warner Bros. will be there, focused on Back 4 Blood. Bandai Namco is assuredly bringing Scarlet Nexus. 24 Entertainment will show off its impressive Naraka: Bladepoint. A slew of third party and independent games via things like PC Gaming Show and Future Games Show plus enthusiast media coverage including IGN Expo and GameSpot’s Play For All Showcase. There are too many titles to name that we know should be there, especially with more of a focus on indie teams. Personally, I hope indies like 12 Minutes, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals and She Dreams Elsewhere will be somewhere. One indie title we know won’t be is Hollow Knight: Silksong. Unfortunately.

What I Predict: Here’s where I swing for the fences and have a bit of fun. You’ve probably been waiting for me to say this: What about Elden Ring! Bandai Namco has a slot late on the final day, and I’m calling it for real: This is where the legendary FromSoftware will finally bless the gaming world with its secretive soulslike, role-playing collaboration with George R.R. Martin. And it will be glorious. Now, what else? Will Hideo Kojima make a surprise showing during Summer Games Fest with his upcoming title? I actually think there’s a small yet not insignificant chance, given his bromance with Keighley. Will Microsoft acquire another studio? I wouldn’t count on it. Finally, in my wildest prediction yet, I bet that gamers will get along and not be disappointed by anything all week!

All in all, even as spread out as this year’s digital events will be, I’m just looking forward to having a few days dedicated to celebrating the industry and the hard-working people that grind it out every day. This is a special moment for them, those covering it like yours truly and everyone in the audience.

What about you? Which games are you most excited about over the next week or so? Are you willing to go on record with your most massively bold predictions? Feel free to share here or Twitter, especially as the big show approaches.

Good luck to all the teams showing off their games during this season. It’s an exciting time. Enjoy your E3 everyone, and be safe.

Sources: Company Websites, Entertainment Software Association, Saniya on Twitter @saniyaga for the clean schedule image.

-Dom

Sony & Microsoft Gaming Division Sales Launch To New Record Highs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Yup. Sony has a lot of businesses.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

Now That We Know Specs, How Much Will PlayStation 5 & Xbox Series X Cost?

The short answer: We still don’t know. Yet that won’t stop us from speculating!

Even though we’re now a bit closer to seeing the full picture, there are still plenty of variables at play. Right now, no one on the outside actually knows.

That said, it’s time to guess.

After Sony’s “Road to PlayStation 5” video reveal of the technical specifications for its upcoming PlayStation 5 hardware, we know a lot more about components and power expectations for it alongside its main competitor in Microsoft’s Xbox Series X. So it’s easier to approximate where they might be at launch, currently scheduled for late this year. Which is great. Because while power is important, I’d argue price drives consumer sentiment more than anything.

For those looking for in-depth breakdowns of specs and numbers for Sony and Microsoft’s hardware, check out Digital Foundry’s work at this link for the PlayStation 5 and this one for the Xbox Series X. The team also compiled a comparison piece across the two consoles, at least based on the information so far.

Then there’s the latest collaboration with Digital Foundry, Austin Evans and Xbox Wire with even more detail into Microsoft’s project, plus Sony’s own PlayStation Blog post summarizing various items on its box. Plenty of places to soak up the technical jargon. It’s impressive coverage, to the point where even someone that follows the business and critical side of games can almost understand.

Here, we’re going to cover mostly the general points and see just what they mean for potential launch pricing. Price drives consumer decisions just as much as power, arguably even more so since it’s an easy comparison point between different products. Don’t worry if some of the tech side goes over your head. You’re not alone.

Based on the reports as you see above, the conclusion is the raw components and feature sets are mostly comparable with some important distinctions. In terms of capabilities, there are common ones. They support high frame rates and 8K resolutions. They’ve got Raytracing (get used to this buzzword for a fancy lighting technique). 3D audio. Custom AMD processors. Solid state drives. Some form of backwards compatibility for legacy software.

It’s looking at the divergences that spark discussion of course. Without getting too much into the weeds, I’ve heard it framed as such: The Xbox Series X is more powerful while the PlayStation 5 is notably speedier. The former has the more capable processing power, while the latter has a tailored solution for delivering the highest speed possible.

Which makes sense when we step back. Microsoft’s general philosophy is now about how it has the most powerful console this generation in the Xbox One X, and the focus remains on the upper end targeting tech enthusiasts this time as well. The upcoming Xbox Series X is twice as powerful as the improved version of its predecessor, the Xbox One X. Microsoft’s goal is to have games looking great and running smoothly plus is going to offer the ability to suspend and resume multiple games at once. Which fits with its ecosystem, software compatibility and catalog approach.

The downside to the raw power of the Xbox Series X is that it requires proprietary expandable storage options, which will add to the cost of keeping the console over time when hard drive space inevitably fills up. This certainly lowers its price tag, yet adds to the overall investment across the full generation. There’s also the question of first party software support, which is a primary concern though less relevant in this context.

Flipping over to Sony’s PlayStation 5, its specs are still impressive. While in raw terms its numbers are notably lower than Xbox, its implementation is slightly different in using what’s termed “variable frequency,” more plainly a type of “boost” to allocate its power budget. Sounds to me like a focus more on optimization rather than sheer strength.

This also fits with its design mantra of placing a major focus on speed. Limiting loading times for players, offering studios the tools to minimize downtime and providing better options on the consumer storage side. This is achieved by leveraging a custom system alongside its 825 GB solid state hard drive plus expandable storage that doesn’t require proprietary equipment. Simply, the real treat is its storage speed and flexibility.

Mark Cerny, Sony’s lead system architect and hypnotic public speaker, described the solid state drive as the single most requested component by software developers. Capabilities for the people that make games are just as important as delivering performance output to those that play them. Which is why the PlayStation 5 seems tuned for speed.

One disappointment of Sony’s messaging so far is its stance on backwards compatibility. The aforementioned PlayStation Blog post alludes to many of the most popular PlayStation 4 games being playable at launch on the new console generation, then comments that there are roughly 4,000 PS4 games on which they will be working on this feature. Does that mean only select games will be available? Or that those will benefit from the PS5 power? We need more clarification of this increasingly more important feature.

Capabilities for the people that make games are just as important as delivering performance output to those that play them. Which is why the PlayStation 5 seems tuned for speed.

This summary of the broader strategies across the two competing hardware makers brings us to the real debate:

How much will people have to pay to move to next gen later this year?

We’ll start with the PlayStation 5, mainly because we already have some insight into its supply chain and pricing decisions from a Bloomberg piece last month.

For context, PlayStation 4 released at $399 back in 2014 while 2016’s more powerful mid-step PlayStation 4 Pro hit that same price later in the cycle, after discounts applied for the original box.

Rumors suggest that the manufacturing cost for the upcoming PlayStation 5 is currently at $450 per console, which is well above the estimated $381 for the base model of its predecessor. And this is strictly speaking about component cost. It doesn’t include the additional marketing and distribution associated with launching a flagship product.

During a conference call with investors earlier this year, Sony’s Chief Financial Officer Hiroki Totoki said “We must keep PlayStation 5’s bill of materials under our control and we need to make the correct number of units in the initial production.”

That certainly sounds like component cost might be approaching levels that Sony didn’t anticipate. Knowing these factors, could we see the same $399 introductory price for the PlayStation 5 this holiday?

I think there’s an argument to be made that we will, and it’s where I predicted it to be when discussing the topic in late 2019. That was without knowledge of the power capabilities and higher-than-expected component cost. Console manufacturers traditionally have slim margins early in a console life cycle, though $399 would be clearly selling at a loss. Companies aren’t in the business of losing money.

I’m leaning towards upping my forecast to $449, with Sony eating those additional expenses in hopes of making it up in volume and software sales. This puts it roughly at what it costs to make, and it’s only 50 bucks more than where it launched PlayStation 4 nearly seven years ago.

Gaming has been largely free from the reality of inflation so far, what with big budget software costs remaining consistent through the years. Even if publishers are finding ways to generate additional revenue via downloadable content and customization options. With rising costs to build hardware, it’s looking like a higher baseline for console launch cost is approaching.

There’s also a chance that Sony’s console starts at $499, especially if supply chain constraints limit the availability of parts. I don’t think it will be this high due to both sticker shock and competitor decisions, yet we can’t rule out the possibility based on what we know of its specs now. Especially if Sony only has the one model at launch, its usual strategy.

Microsoft’s situation is somewhat different. It’s already revealed plenty about the beefy Xbox Series X. While there aren’t yet rumblings of how much it costs to build, we can deduce that it’s likely going to be more than the PlayStation 4.

Thing is, there’s still the unknown of Microsoft potentially offering a more affordable option simultaneously at launch. Allegedly the team is working in parallel on the Xbox Series X and what’s dubbed Project Lockhart, a slimmed down version with less power and a friendlier price. Similar to what phone manufacturers do. Two products, one targeting the enthusiast and the other suited more for a broader, casual audience.

Even this generation, Microsoft has dabbled with offering a variety of console options. Xbox One hit market in late 2013 at $499, a much higher price point than its competition. Problem was, it wasn’t actually more powerful. It was that way because of bundling Kinect.

We then saw the Xbox One S version in 2016, beginning lower at $299. The most powerful family member in the Xbox One X launched a year later, coming in at $499 to appeal to dedicated players that wanted more than the earlier models could produce.

Shoot, Microsoft has been even more experimental later this generation. The Xbox One S All-Digital Edition hit last year for $249, making it the most cost effective in the family. Even if it had little fanfare and we don’t actually know how well the market reacted.

Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox, hearkened back to the early days last gen in an interview with Eurogamer by saying “If you remember at the launch of Xbox One, we were $100 more expensive and less powerful. So, I won’t be in that position. There’s no doubt about that. As an industry that’s growing so fast, we do think about price. We do think about performance as well. I’m not going to sacrifice performance for the sake of price.”

Combining this sentiment with now seeing the power potential of Xbox Series X, I’m at a minimum of $499 for launch cost. I just don’t see a way Microsoft can price it lower and not take a serious bath on each unit. $549 is probably a smarter prediction, even $599 contingent upon the existence of the lower-priced Lockhart version of course. I don’t think Microsoft can enter next gen with only one console priced at $599. That’s beyond risky. I think the smart people on the team know that.

There’s ways to make it more enticing even at a higher price than the PlayStation 5. I’ve said bundling Xbox Live and/or Xbox Game Pass would go a long way to incentivizing the undecided audience towards the Xbox ecosystem. Even spreading out the cost with a payment plan, similar to its Xbox All Access program.

Gaming has been largely free from the reality of inflation so far, what with big budget software costs remaining consistent through the years.. With rising costs to build hardware, it’s looking like a higher baseline for console launch cost is approaching.

What makes predicting this generation even more difficult is the increased uncertainty surrounding global economies and the impact of coronavirus. How will it impact component availability and supply chain? Could it even delay the launch to 2021? I’m not calling for that just yet. We have to acknowledge it could happen.

The last question for now is: When will these companies reveal pricing? The Bloomberg piece suggests that Sony is somehow waiting for Microsoft to make the first move. Sony hasn’t even shown the form factor of PlayStation 5 yet. While Microsoft has even let certain media members see Xbox Series X in person and been extremely vocal about sharing details, it’s still quiet on the potential of another model. With the delay of various gaming events globally and the move to a digital format for many presentations, I expect a longer wait than usual for price announcements. Think closer to the summer.

I’m on record with my predictions of $399 for the PlayStation 5 and $499 for the Xbox Series X, while leaving the door open to moving up slightly if component scarcity hits or some other disruption. It’s too early to lock in officially. (Yes, I’m leaving myself an out. Wouldn’t you?)

Anyone confident enough to place bets even when we don’t have all the information and there’s plenty up in the air with current socioeconomic elements? What are your price expectations right now?

Pretty soon, we’ll all have to go on record.

I look forward to hearing here or on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

Note: All pricing discussed above is in US Dollars.

Sources: Bloomberg, Eurogamer, Digital Foundry, Microsoft, PlayStation Blog, Sony, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

Review: Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an Essential, Extraordinary Sequel

It’s impressive when the follow-up to a great game in a new franchise transcends every standard set by the original.

Despite my exceedingly lofty expectations, Ori and the Will of the Wisps did just that.

The sequel to 2015’s Xbox darling Ori and the Blind Forest is a special experience for plenty of the same reasons. Its platforming prowess, beautiful art direction and heartwarming soundtrack. And now, add more to the list: Snappy combat, friendly characters, a better sense of progression and an entire quest system that has both tangible and emotional payoffs. While its overall story is predictable and not every new feature is created equal, Will of the Wisps is the type of memorable, instant classic that defines the last year of a console generation.

Moon Studios’ 2D action platformer is more robust in nearly every respect, from systems and mechanics to abilities and combat. It’s refined, resembling the conclusion of a long-running series rather than the second game from an independent studio. There’s even elements of town-building and garden growing, allowing for progression outside of any skill tree or upgrade path. All of these enhance the experience without detracting from what made the original special: narrative, movement and aesthetic.

There’s so much new to cover, it’s tough to know where to start.

Let’s begin right after the events of Blind Forest, to set the story in motion. The playable character is again a whimsical forest spirit named Ori, who alongside mother figure Naru and long-legged buddy Gumo nurture an egg then hatch an owlet named Ku. As the young owl grows, she literally wants to spread her wings. With the help of her mother’s feather, Ku takes flight with Ori along for the ride.

All is well until a nasty storm separates the friends in a new land called Niwen. The first act is spent searching for Ku. There’s also a broader narrative about a forest willow perishing due to the spread of decay in this new land, scattering ghostly “wisps” throughout each locale that Ori must collect. It’s really a means by which the development team can show off how beautiful they can make different areas, and build more and more challenging platforming elements as the story progresses. For the sake of spoilers, I’ll leave it here.

Part of what makes Will of the Wisps a broader, epic adventure is the expanded cast of characters. Some are merchants. Others offer quests. A couple are there for comic relief. There’s Tokk the birdlike wanderer. The adorable Moki species, who look like lemurs and talk in cute phrases. Lupo, a map-making insect. Opher, the well-read weapon master baboon. A giant toad guardian named Kwolok. Wise old badger slash gardener Tuley. Grom, the strong, grizzled builder and town leader. Ori has help this time, and it feels more grand when others are at stake.

The standout element of this Xbox Game Studios production is, of course, its mechanics. The movement is familiar. Ori is light and quick, dashing around the forest in search of a lost friend. What stands out immediately is: Combat! Where the original was generally about traversal, Will of the Wisps applies a healthy dose of fighting action akin to a Hollow Knight or Guacamelee!

It totally changes the game.

What starts with a simple torch turns into a selection of “Spirit” weapons, as the player amasses everything from a Spirit Edge sword to the fiery Blaze blast, from a Spirit Arc bow to the Sentry turret. Which is actually *not* a turret. It’s really a butterfly. So that’s right, one might call it bullets with butterfly wings.

These map to the face buttons X, Y and B so one could have up to three equipped at a time. Ori faces various hostile forest creatures on which to use this arsenal, from rambunctious dung beetles to buzzing “skeetos.” Fighting is surprisingly and satisfyingly snappy. There’s even boss fights with bespoke mechanics and damage phases, such as an early game battle against a ravenous, gargantuan wolf.

The genius of these spirit weapons is they aren’t strictly combative. There’s all sorts of applications, from environmental puzzles to advanced movement capabilities. Fire does damage over time and can destroy wooden barriers. Sniping a target will open a new pathway. The team at Moon Studios didn’t just introduce combat for the sake of it, they did so to make the player more capable in Will of the Wisps for platforming too. Thus making it that much more fun.

Speaking of movement, it’s even more of a treat here than in Blind Forest. The player earns abilities much more rapidly in the sequel. Namely, one that I maintain every game should have, and that’s a double jump (which can eventually become a triple jump because who cares just keep giving me jumps). There’s Bash, which allows launching off enemies and projectiles. Dash, which is self-explanatory. Wall climbing. Feather parachuting. Shoot, even a grappling hook! It’s like Sonic the Hedgehog meets Rayman except way cuter. A smorgasbord of sweet movement options.

These combine to make even the most casual players feel like a competent platforming artist if not a novice speed-runner. There’s always a way to move through an area, or bail oneself out of a jam. Not only that, they blend seamlessly with spirit weapons. Light Burst, which is a fireball, combines with Bash to allow nifty traversal options that are only now fully realized with this new level of flexibility. Burrow has Ori cutting through sand then launching out to reach new heights or smash into baddies.

For all its fancy bells and whistles, Will of the Wisps is at its heart still a speedy side-scroller. It has everything a lover of the genre could want. Which is essential, because it ramps up the difficulty as it progresses and throws different scenarios together within increasingly crowded areas. That’s part of the charm.

Moon Studios’ 2D action platformer is more robust in nearly every respect, from systems and mechanics to abilities and combat. It’s refined, resembling the conclusion of a long-running series rather than the second game from an independent studio.

On the topic of platforming, the team gets creative in how they implement environmental hazards and puzzle applications. Areas have their own aesthetics of course, though with that comes fun variation in individual elements.

One destination has a Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Water Temple feel, as Ori must shift sea level to traverse different vertical slices. Another has the player shooting targets with Spirit Arc to create different pathways. There’s a spooky zone requiring lightning bugs to guide in darkness. Fire causes upward wind drafts upon which Ori can soar.

There’s even later areas with enemy types embedded in the scenery. Vines that are really monster tongues. Dangerous Venus fly traps that will chomp away at any bystander slow enough to get caught. These enhance the aesthetic and platforming trickiness, plus prove that Moon Studios was having a good time brainstorming new ways to challenge the player.

I’d be remiss to not talk about the dreaded escape sequences.. Which are SO much better this time. Legitimately. These action-packed scripted moments were among my least favorite parts of the original. Dying constantly during what’s supposed to be a cathartic series of events killed any momentum. Not this time around. These are much less technical while still incorporating much of the game’s fabled movement tech. The result are memorable, epic arrangements that are much more memorable for being exhilarating as opposed to frustrating.

Then, we’ve got quests!

Will of the Wisps is much more structured in this regard, offering a menu of main missions and optional content. There’s the overarching campaign quest then stuff like side objectives, character stories, rumors pointing to areas of interest, combat arenas and even timed races called Spirit Trials. Most of these augment the experience, especially for those that love the feeling of crossing off checklists. The combat areas are particularly worthwhile, unlocking upgrade slots.

While compact, there are super impactful side quests that tell their own stories within the forest world of Niwen. The standout for me is about a family of Moki reuniting, which literally forced me to step away due to the emotional resonance. After the first game, it’s clear that story is part of what makes Moon Studios’ work so memorable. I didn’t expect to be hit so hard by an optional mini mission about a family of lemurs.

To keep everything organized, there’s a robust menu offering. There’s the map, a tab for upgrades and even for inventory. Helps keep quests and items organized. Albeit the menu pages are cumbersome, especially inventory. Luckily it’s solely supplementary.

A byproduct of the quest system combined with its Metroidvania roots means revisiting areas satisfies the crave for exploration. Especially when experimenting with new abilities. It doesn’t feel like padding, either. The map isn’t daunting and there’s multiple fast travel points in each area. The designers make it easy to search the nooks and crannies, then return to base to use materials or currency.

That reminds me I haven’t yet discussed base building. Now that the series has so many characters, it needs a place for everyone to hang! That, friends, is Wellspring Glades.

Town leader Grom is descends from an ancient race of miners and builders. He’s set up shop and requests help from Ori to make Wellspring Glades comfortable enough for people to live there, safe from the decay that’s enveloping the land. It’s nowhere near the level of Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, yet it offers a reason to check out different locations or follow-up on character leads plus provides a sense of camaraderie with the various characters.

As the player helps Grom with building, new areas of the town open up for exploration. It’s quaint, and nowhere near essential, though I welcome this sort of centralized location for merchants. Especially if it means I can buy cool new stuff!

Along with the new combat mechanics and weapon system are, naturally, upgrades. In the form of Spirit Shards, for which Spirit Light is the trading currency. In another homage to a game like Hollow Knight, this system allows for a set number of slots to be filled with various buffs or debuffs. Want to do more damage at the expense of lower health? Do you prefer more ability energy or more health?

There are always trade-offs with this level of customization, which can make for some sweet builds. I opted for a tanky approach, maxing both health and resistence to damage, with one slot dedicated to making sure that enemies dropped more Spirit Light each time so that I could reinvest those earnings. It supports plenty of playstyles, and really makes a difference against later game enemies.

What’s magic about Will of the Wisps is that it’s expertly layered in its systems without being overwhelming. It coaxes experimentation with a suite of new abilities, gives good reason to invest in upgrades plus entices backtracking and seeking out secrets to bolster the experience. When I feel an incentive to engage with everything, that’s proof of sound game design.

The backdrop to all of these new elements is a staple of the series: Its art design. Which is truly incredible. Pleasing. Pastoral. Picturesque. Plenty of ways to describe the game’s general aesthetic. Its most striking feature yet again.

What I noticed more in this follow-up is a specific attention to detail in animations and character nuances. Ori’s arms swooping and swinging. Doing a handstand while on top of a vine. Flailing while flinging off a spinning wheel. These subtleties are not insignificant, each of them proves how sound the design philosophy is when it comes to art and animation direction.

All this said, arguably my favorite part of Blind Forest and now Will of the Wisps is the music. It’s as good as ever here. Gareth Coker’s score is dynamic, shifting from haunting pianos to suspenseful strings as effortlessly as Ori traverses early game areas. The title track is especially moving, like a remastered version of the first. It’s a soundtrack that works as well within the context of the game as it does while casually listening. That’s proof of an amazing score.

What I notice all this time while singing the game’s praises, it’s tough to find major complaints with Will of the Wisps. I’d be lying if my upcoming comments didn’t feel like nitpicks.

The introduction of combat mechanics does have its downside, especially depending on difficulty level. There’s just a lot of it, and enemies can be relentless when traversing Niwen since they respawn constantly. It didn’t happen a lot to me, but there were times it messed with pacing and flow of movement. I’d imagine this is exasperated the higher the difficulty. I tried both Easy and Normal. During the latter, I occasionally wished for less foes when trying to get through a daunting platforming section.

While I personally adore introducing quests to the game, there are a good amount of optional ones that might annoy those going for the critical path. I don’t want to criticize a game for offering more content, so it’s less a complaint and more an observation. Spirit Trials in particular, the mini races against the clock scattered around the world, are superfluous and target a slice of the player base. I ran one of them and was uninterested after that.

Experienced random, minor quality of life hiccups. I mentioned the inventory menu before, cumbersome and difficult to follow. During gameplay, item pick ups stop the action a la The Legend of Zelda. Even later in the game. This is a pet peeve of mine. And I know I’m not the only one.

At this point, I’ll briefly address performance and stability by not actually saying much about it temporarily. I played through the entirety of the game on a pre-release build. Which means I’ll update this section after spending time with it now that an early patch is available.

Co-founders Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol run a unique outfit at Moon Studios, where the team is mostly worldwide rather than in a centralized location. This is reflected in a game that’s so varied, yet has a cohesive thematic approach. It’s fun to move around, to slash and fight, to reach places previously unattainable, to search behind a wall and be rewarded for trying, to find out a character’s background and help them with a task. To accomplish all this within a world as gorgeous as Niwen is breathtaking.

Blind Forest was great. However, a mostly lonely experience in a world devoid of friendly life. Will of the Wisps is the opposite, their team crafting an artistic masterwork that takes the best kind of inspiration from peers to form an unforgettable game where most everything works in harmony.

The highest praise I could give a game is that I didn’t want it to end. That was the case here, even after 20 plus hours of uptime.

What’s magic about Will of the Wisps is that it’s expertly layered in its systems without being overwhelming. It coaxes experimentation with a suite of new abilities, gives good reason to invest in upgrades plus entices backtracking and seeking out secrets to bolster the experience. When I feel an incentive to engage with everything, that’s proof of sound game design.

When it comes to narrative, it’s bold in where it goes with its character arcs. Unafraid. For a game with little dialogue, it says so much. When the world is suffering, rebuilding still has its sacrifices.

As I wrap here on my latest critical piece, I always make it a point to challenge myself on areas that didn’t work for me. I have to be critical. No game is perfect. Even the ones I love.

Knowing this, I stand by my sentiment that Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the closest thing to an essential Xbox and PC game this year, even this console generation, and it’s a treat to experience the level of artistic vision that it takes to create such a momentous work.

Title: Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Release Date: March 11, 2020

Developer: Moon Studios

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios.

Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, Windows 10 PC, Steam.

Recommendation: Unequivocally, it’s an essential part of the Xbox catalog and a treat to play for anyone with access to any of its platforms. You, hm.. Will not be disappointed!

Sources: Screenshots and Key Art courtesy of Xbox Wire.

Note: Review code provided courtesy of Microsoft.

-Dom

It’s That Time: Boring & Bold E3 2019 Predictions!

It really is a holiday in June, for gamers and tech heads!

The Electronic Entertainment Expo 2019 officially kicks off next Tuesday in Los Angeles, though pre-E3 festivities start well before then as game companies large and small try to dazzle enthusiasts (and, in some cases, investors) with live presentations or pre-recorded digital shows.

Now, it’s super easy to do a recap of what we already know. Especially since this week has seen numerous leaks or early teases, from the likes of Ubisoft with Watch Dogs Legion to the rumored From Software and George R.R. Martin collaboration now called Elden Ring.

It’s also a snoozefest typing up a list of safe predictions. What’s the fun in that? It’s freakin’ E3! No matter how much comes out before the event itself, you and I both know there will always be reveals that no one is expecting.

Which brings me to this post. Across the next week, we’ll be bombarded with information on what’s new in gaming and related technology including consoles, streaming and even virtual reality. I’m going to write one boring and one bold prediction for each of the major company events, then a little something something for E3 proper.

If you need to follow along with the general calendar, the E3 Media Site and IGN’s Wiki Page are good resources. Let’s get this.. show on the road!

Electronic Arts: EA Play, Saturday, June 8th, 9:30 AM PT / 12:30 PM ET.

Boring: EA is scrapping its traditional (and honestly pretty tame) E3-adjacent press conference for a series of live streams starting later today as part of its EA Play fan event in Hollywood. This features previously released titles like Apex Legends, Battlefield V and The Sims 4 in addition to new iterations in its sports franchises. The major headliner is Respawn Entertainment’s Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, starting right at the beginning of the live show with a gameplay reveal.

Which brings me to my first boring prediction. EA is going to reveal details about Season 2 of its battle royale game Apex Legends, complete with a new character. We’ll see gameplay from that character today, and a start date right after its recent The Legendary Hunt event concludes on July 2nd.

Bold: Noticeably absent from the schedule is BioWare’s Anthem, the online action game that released in February to mixed reviews. Personally I enjoyed its mechanics, though acknowledged it was certainly rough around the edges. It’s baffling that older games like Battlefield V and The Sims 4 would be here while Anthem isn’t. I know its player count is dwindling plus BioWare hosted a separate stream recently for the game. However this is supposed to be EA’s flagship stream and one of its most recent high profile games is nowhere to be found?

I’m not sure how to read this absence, so let’s naturally go in a completely irrational direction. During today’s set of live streams or at its fan event, we’ll hear at least a bit more of what BioWare is working on next. Which is the next Dragon Age. While there was a quick tease at last year’s Game Awards, there’s been nothing since. If the developer has symbolically moved past Anthem, it has to.. slay any concerns fans have and reassure about its future.

Microsoft: Xbox E3 Briefing, Sunday, June 9th, 1:00 PM PT / 4:00 PM ET.

Boring: This is a huge E3 year for Microsoft. It’s even said as much. Its major competitor isn’t there. It’s building a new generation of consoles. It’s been gobbling up studios in hopes it can bolster its game lineup. It’s expanding on services, from Xbox Game Pass to Project xCloud. I’d argue this is the most important moment for Xbox as a brand, perhaps ever.

A bit dramatic? Absolutely. But also true. In fitting with this theme, even my boring prediction is massive: Microsoft will formally reveal its next generation of Xbox hardware, nicknamed Xbox Scarlett. This being the two rumored models: One more powerful then the other more entry-level. Nothing on price, timing or the boxes themselves. Just a teaser. If these are out in the fall 2020 timing that I’m estimating, we won’t see a blow-out until next year.

Bold: No, I don’t think Microsoft is going to acquire Capcom. Or Konami. Or any major publisher because that’s not going to happen. If anything, perhaps a smaller development team that isn’t publicly-traded.

That’s not going to be my bold prediction, of course. This is: We’re going to learn about not just one, not just two but THREE brand new, next generation titles from Xbox Game Studios. Head of Xbox Phil Spencer already said we’ll see 14 games from its teams. Not satisfied? Let’s say one of them is from one of the newly-acquired developers. Had enough? Lastly, the biggest of those games will be.. finally, a new Fable. Created by, you guessed it, Playground Games.

Bethesda Softworks: Bethesda E3 Showcase, Sunday, June 9th, 5:30 PM PT / 8:30 PM ET.

Boring: Late night on Sunday, when everyone else is dreading work the following day, gamers will be stoked to see what independent publisher and always wildcard Bethesda will bring to the table during its showcase. Safe bets are DOOM Eternal, Wolfenstein Youngblood and more DLC for Rage 2, which I reviewed recently. I predict we’ll see all three of these, plus more from at least one of its mobile offerings.

Bold: With director Todd Howard crushing dreams in saying recently that big-budget projects like Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI will not be making E3 appearances (which sense as there’s no way either of these is coming out this generation), what kind of crazy surprise might we see that’s unrelated to these much-anticipated games?

Well. I could use this space to predict that Bethesda will tease a new Evil Within title from legendary horror designer Shinji Mikami, who we know will be at E3. I could use this to say that Fallout 76 will receive a major update and go F2P at the same time. While both of those can certainly happen, I’m going elsewhere: Bethesda will finally reveal that Arkane Studios has been cooking up something real juicy. Twist! It’s not going to be within the Dishonored or Prey universes. It’s new. And it’s probably going to be awesome.

Ubisoft Entertainment: UbiE3 Press Conference, Monday, June 10th, 1:00 PM PT / 4:00 PM ET.

Boring: If we’re talking about guesses for French publisher Ubisoft, shoot almost all of them might be considered boring since we likely know its lineup before it even happens Monday afternoon. I mentioned Watch Dogs Legion before. October release Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint will assuredly be prominently featured. We’ve even heard rumblings from my buds Nibel and analyst Daniel Ahmad plus Kotaku’s Jason Schreier of multiple new projects, including co-op shooter Rainbow 6 Quarantine, an RPG codenamed “Orpheus” plus even a roller derby title dubbed Roller Champions. Everyone seems to be getting in on the action!

The snoozer part of my prediction is that we’ll see all of these. Then another Just Dance, which will undoubtedly be revealed alongside a dancing animal of some sort.

Bold: Always animated Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot is a staple of these live shows, thankfully so, which means it’s easy to say he’ll be there again. That’s not my guess.

My super bold prediction is that new Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser (yes, Bowser) will make a special appearance together with Guillemot. Because the two gaming powerhouses are going to announce a spanking new collaboration! The easy guess is a Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle 2. This isn’t a place for easy. I’m thinking something new, a different blending of two brands, along the lines of Rayman and Yoshi. Trials and F-Zero. Something innovative. That no one is expecting, except me!

Square Enix: Square Enix Live E3 2019, Monday, June 10th, 6:00 PM PT / 9:00 PM ET.

Boring: Out of all this year’s live shows, I think Square is going to be the most surprising. In the best way possible. The Japanese publisher needs to redeem itself after last year’s average showing. I believe it will.

Easy predictions include headliners Marvel’s Avengers from Crystal Dynamics and the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake from Tetsuya Nomura’s internal team. It’s unlikely we see anything more than a cinematic trailer for the former, though a gameplay demo for the latter is certainly feasible if not likely. I also think there’s a high likelihood we see gameplay from action-adventure Babylon’s Fall from PlatinumGames, plus the official reveal of People Can Fly’s shooter Outriders as it was teased on Twitter a couple days ago.

Lastly, in an interesting twist, Polish studio Techland revealed a week ago that Square will be publishing its upcoming open world zombie game Dying Light 2. Which is curious considering that the original was distributed by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. I’m thinking we see a lot from this game here, plus a release window of Q1 2020.

Bold: As impressive as the above is, I’m betting Square will still surprise us and elevate its show to being a standout amid its competitors. Gematsu recently posted about an announcement event for mobile title Dragon Quest Walk, during which produce Yuu Miyake made mention of Dragon Quest XII in vague terms, hinting at some sort of announcement on the storied JRPG franchise despite the game being early in development. Being bold, I say we’ll see a tease along with its subtitle and a logo, similar to how Bethesda revealed the upcoming entry in its Elder Scrolls series!

Nintendo: Nintendo Direct E3 2019, Tuesday, June 11th, 9:00 AM PT / 12:00 PM ET.

Boring: Nintendo is once again slotted in on Tuesday mid-day, technically right before the start of E3 itself, with its Direct and then Treehouse Live stream. We’ve already got a good sense of what it will feature for its Switch hybrid platform, plus some.. inkling of what it could reveal. Pokémon Sword and Shield will be the headliner, after the reveal of its November 15th release date among new pocket monster variations in addition to more about its systems. Super Mario Maker 2 is out this month and Fire Emblem: Three Houses hits July, which means both should have lengthy demo sections.

I’m also betting we see gameplay from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remaster, plus a potential release window. Luigi’s Mansion 3 should be shown in some capacity, along with exclusive-to-Switch Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. Easy ones, done-zo.

Bold: If the aforementioned prediction on a crossover project with Ubisoft isn’t enough, you’ve come to the right place. Minuscule chance of Bayonetta 3 or Metroid Prime 4, though I’m not betting on it. However, what’s up with Animal Crossing for Switch? Nintendo still lists it as a 2019 game in recent reporting, though we know virtually nothing about it. Part of my bold prediction is that we’ll get the full blow-out. Cinematic trailer. Gameplay walk-thru during Treehouse. Plus! A December release date.

But that’s not all. It’s about time.. for Mario Kart 9. That’s right. A new Kart game, exclusive to Switch. Its predecessor is selling so well that this might be my most ridiculous pick of the day, but who cares! I went there. Let’s see if Nintendo does, too.

E3 Show Hours and E3 Coliseum: Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 11, 10:00 AM PT / 1:00 PM ET to Thursday, June 13, 6:00 PM PT / 9:00 PM ET.

Boring: All this said and we haven’t even started the show! On Tuesday, the expo itself opens its doors to exhibitors, press, influencers (ugh) and fans alike. There’s so much that I haven’t even mentioned here that’s a shoe-in to be there. Destiny 2! Cyberpunk 2077! Baldur’s Gate 3! Call of Duty: Modern Warfare! That’s not to mention all the independent developers showing off their sweet upcoming projects, of which there will be at least a handful of standouts. Untitled Goose Game, plz!

I’m thrilled to learn more about these plus see the myriad of panels featured at E3 Coliseum, which is a fantastic mini-event during the broader show. This year’s has so many talented people sitting down to discuss their games, including folks from Bungie, Respawn Entertainment, id Software, Xbox and more. It’s less a prediction and more a guarantee that this will be exceptional.

Bold: Alright. What the heck. I know Take-Two Interactive and 2K Games is focused on marketing Borderlands 3 this year ahead of September drop date, however I’m still forever hoping for a new BioShock game. My final bold prediction is that, somehow someway, we hear a rumor or tidbit about the secret BioShock project. Give me anything at all!

Whew. Being bold is tiring work. Whatever your opinion on E3, however many things leak in advance, I’m always going to be pumped this time of the year.

I’ve sent out a question on Twitter related to this post, asking for one boring and one bold prediction from all of you. I expect big things. Don’t disappoint, and enjoy this year’s gaming spectacle! I know I will.

Sources: Entertainment Software Association, All companies and tweets above, Kotaku, The Verge, PC Gamer.

-Dom