The latest gaming manufacturer to report earnings is Sony Corp, this time sharing fiscal 2021 first quarter results. During which the Japanese company revealed its PlayStation division recorded its highest first quarter sales ever even as PlayStation 5 shipments slightly lag its predecessor. Though sell-through to consumers for this latest generation of hardware is still going at a faster pace, driving gaming segment results for the consumer tech conglomerate.
This is the first full quarter that’s compared against highs set during the height of stay-at-home requirements, so the impact of a global pandemic on gaming and consumer spending is coming into focus. A record Q1 for Sony’s gaming department shows that audience demand is resilient, especially on the console side, even if software spend is descending from a very tall peak.
Suffice to say, PlayStation is making history even considering supply challenges facing the industry alongside easing pandemic restrictions.
Sony’s Gaming & Network Services (G&NS) i.e. PlayStation brand revenue rose just under 2% to a Q1 record of $5.62 billion. Higher than even last year’s impressive result of $5.5 billion, this performance was mainly driven by PlayStation 5 demand and exchange rate changes despite lower 3rd party software and add-on content sub-categories.
Essentially for Sony at this stage three quarters into a new generation of gaming consoles, hardware is selling out though its audience spend on games is slowing.
On the profit side, G&NS segment quarterly operating income dropped 33% to roughly $760 million on higher costs associated with making and marketing a new console cycle. More so, that lower third-party software and add-on spending relative to last year. Still when taking a broader perspective, this is actually fantastic output. It’s the third best operating profit performance in a first quarter in the history of breaking out the gaming segment.
Speaking of PlayStation hardware sales, Sony shared updated shipment figures for both of its latest boxes. PlayStation 5 shipped 2.3 million units in the quarter ending June, bringing lifetime to 10.1 million. This is notable for a couple reasons. First, it’s about 500K lower than PlayStation 4 did in the same quarter during April to June 2014. So its pace of shipment is slowing compared to its predecessor, no doubt impacted by a global chip shortage that’s adversely affecting everything from automobile to graphics processor output.
However, shipments can’t tell the whole story when there’s more information available. Sony Interactive Entertainment said recently PlayStation 5 sell-thru to its audience hit the 10 million milestone as of July 18th. That’s 3 weeks faster than PlayStation 4 took to reach that same amount. Which means the number of PlayStation 5 consoles getting to consumers (or perhaps scalpers, I know) at this stage in the cycle is higher than any other in the brand’s history.
There’s also the underlying profitability dynamics for these PlayStation 5’s moving through to households. According to executives on the earnings call, its standard disc edition is actually now profitable per unit after the tradition of being sold at a loss during initial quarters. I’ll note the version without a disc drive is not yet breaking even.
As expected this late in the PlayStation 4 life cycle, quarterly shipments dipped below the million unit mark for the first time since launch back in November 2013. This brings its lifetime mark to roughly 116.5 million. I expect this slowing to continue, and wouldn’t be surprised if Sony’s reporting tops out around the 120 million mark.
Well then. It’s time to get into the nitty gritty for a bit, then end with forecasts and predictions!
The above gallery above shows relevant slides and a handful of charts I compiled to illustrate where the PlayStation division is starting out this new fiscal year. I know it’s a lot of data. But it’s goods stuff, I swear!
Expanding broadly, Sony overall saw sales rise 15% in Q1 to $20.6 billion. Growth in both Electronics Products & Solutions (EP&S) plus its Music category outpaced all other categories, although gaming is still the main contributor from a dollar (or really yen) standpoint.
Quarterly operating profit for the company topped $2.56 billion, up 26%. Driven by that same EP&S category, dragged down by higher expenses within PlayStation.
I mentioned the record quarterly sales and lowering operating profit for G&NS before, so let’s see how these compare when expanding over time to smooth out the results. This helps put quarterly performance into context.
When looking at trailing 12-month gaming revenue accounting for this latest quarter, it’s again at another record high of $24.35 billion. That trend-line is impressive, no doubt bolstered by people trying to get their hands on the coveted new console. Trailing annual operating profit hit $2.75 billion, with the dip in the latest time period. Still, it’s higher than this same time last year. As the company gets more efficient in making PlayStation 5’s plus sees component costs potentially lower, I expect it to bounce back again.
You’ll also see a chart above drilling into category sales results within gaming. Of course, Hardware is the biggest gainer as it’s more than double the amount last year for obvious reasons. Consistent with earlier comments, both Physical and Digital Software decreased in the double-digits as did Add-On Content. Sony attributed that to 3rd party declines. Network Services is proving resilient, moving up compared to last year. The final category Others encompasses peripherals, PlayStation VR and first-party software on non-PlayStation platforms almost doubled, I imagine boosted by DualSense game pad demand.
On the software and engagement side, Sony shared new figures for game sales, PlayStation Plus subscriptions plus Monthly Active Users (MAUs) in its supplementary filing, the last of which is the estimated number of unique accounts that uses PlayStation Network during June 2021.
Full-game software sales totaled 63.6 million across PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4 during the quarter, substantially lower than the 91.4 million during Q1 last year. Within this, 10.5 million were first party exclusives, down from 18.7 million.
Thing is, this is more a reversion to the average than a decline. There’s also how last year saw the massive launch of The Last of Us Part II. Executives said every new release during April to June 2021 exceeding internal expectations. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is at 1.1 million units since June 11th. MLB The Show 21 hit market on April 16th and has since sold 2 million units while attracting 4 million players, certainly benefiting from a simultaneous Xbox Game Pass launch. Returnal also released in April, reaching 560K copies in the interim.
There’s also a specific shout out to PC versions of Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone as Sony opens up its legacy first-party catalog to a brand new audience.
Paid PlayStation Plus subscriptions reached 46.3 million from an even 45 million last year, while MAUs were down to 104 million from 114 million. This movement shows a bit lower average engagement, though it looks like new console owners are signing up for the PlayStation Plus service that allows online multiplayer and provides access to certain games each month.
The leadership team provided a bit more color on these stats, saying that total gameplay time of PlayStation users declined 32% from the highs of quarantine impact. It’s up 18% compared to the same quarter of 2019 fiscal year, a more normalized period even if well into PlayStation 4’s lifetime.
Now, how does Sony’s $5.62 billion revenue and $760 million operating income quarter compare to recent results from peers in the industry? As I covered in my piece on Microsoft’s latest financial year last week, the Xbox division generated $3.74 billion in sales during the same time frame. And Microsoft unfortunately doesn’t report Xbox’s profit. Hardware was the driver again, though it’s clear that PlayStation is outpacing Xbox in that department early in this generation based on expert unit estimates and these dollar sales.
Separately for the other major Japanese games manufacturer in Nintendo, it reports first quarter results tomorrow. So we’ll have a better picture then. Last year during the height of stay-at-home, Nintendo generated roughly $3.27 billion in sales and $1.3 billion in operating profit, implying a much higher margin with Switch towards the middle of its life span so we’ll see where it lands this year.
Edit on August 5th: Nintendo’s Q1 revenue totaled $2.91 billion while operating income reached nearly $1.1 billion. Consistent with it being the more profitable of the two, at least right now.
Back to Sony and looking ahead, the company provided updated 2021 fiscal year forecasts for its overall and segment operations. Sales guidance remained unchanged for the company overall at $89 billion, though it did boost operating profit by 5% to upwards of $9 billion. Within gaming, it confirmed annual guidance of $26.5 billion in revenue and $3 billion in profit. The former would be a record and the latter I believe the second best in its history, revealing just how bullish the Sony team is on the modern PlayStation brand.
Leadership also reiterated that it still expects to ship 14.8 million PlayStation 5 consoles during the financial year ending March 2022, which would be the same as PlayStation 4. This implies lifetime PlayStation 5 consoles would be 22.6 million after its first six quarters, slightly outpacing the 22.4 million of PlayStation 4.
Broadly speaking on the topic of looking forward, there were slides and additional comments related to general strategy that stood out from management too, consistent with recent trends of company spending and approach.
“PlayStation Studios, which oversees our first-party software production on a global basis, is accelerating investment to strengthen its production capabilities” said the team. They cited the purchase of Housemarque in June then Nixxes in July, two notable acquisitions for the PlayStation portfolio in this quarter alone. This sort of investment activity this year is even more than I anticipated from Sony when I wrote about broader predictions back in January. I expect another announcement in the back half of this fiscal year, this time of Bluepoint Games based in Texas.
Backing this up, executives shared more about future potential. “Going forward, we intend to continue to proactively make strategic investments with the aim of developing new IP, supporting our multi-platform strategy, and strengthening our service offerings including through add-on content.”
What this all means to me is Sony remains supremely confident in the PlayStation business and how the PlayStation 5 will continue as the fastest-selling console in its history. I’m doubling down on my original estimate for this fiscal year of 15 million hardware shipments, which I established in last quarter’s piece.
On the financial side, I believe Sony will match or exceed its guidance. A record year is in sight for gaming revenue. It’s selling as many consoles as its suppliers can make, cost of general marketing will flatten and segments like network services will prop up if software doesn’t keep pace with last year’s explosive growth.
Major questions still swirl around supply of components and the global semiconductor environment, which has limited the number of new consoles these manufacturers can produce. Imagine if that weren’t the case! Record numbers could be even higher. Then, can new hardware sales translate into player engagement remaining near recent highs? There are audience members that either started playing or returned to games sticking around, the pie is growing. It just depends on how much.
If this quarter is any indication, Sony is certainly having its fair share of slices.
Thanks for reading everyone. Check back to my earnings calendar for more dates, and there will be even more coverage here and on social media in the coming days. Be safe!
Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise mentioned. Exchange rate is based on the reported conversion: US $1 to ¥ 109.5.
Sources: Charles Sims (Photo Credit), Insomniac Games (Image Credit), Microsoft Corp, Nintendo Co Ltd, Sony Corp.
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 coupleinterviews 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.
Two important notes: First, a general content warning that The Last of Us Part II deals with disturbing, violent subject matter. Second, I’ll be intentionally spoiling two major plot points, one of which happens early then another halfway. I believe it’s impossible to write a full critique without discussing them. There will be no spoilers for events after the second act. Oh, and of course the first game will be spoiled in full.
Please check back later if you’d rather not know about the story. It’s best to experience the game first, unless you are extremely curious in which case I appreciate you trusting me with these topics. On to the review (which now includes a new photo gallery by the end)!
From the Beginning
Just like The Last of Us Part II is a difficult game to play, this was a tough piece to write.
Because even considering its bleak setting, unyielding violence, dark worldview and pacing inconsistencies, the game is a masterpiece backed by premier storytelling, environment, direction, acting and technical achievement. It’s one of the most important releases this generation, if not ever, plus among the most intense, heartbreaking stories ever told in the medium that still has me reeling days after its end.
Part II is the direct sequel to 2013’s The Last of Us, a phenomenal experience in its own right and the first recent new title from Sony’s Naughty Dog studio amidst entries in the Uncharted series. This one is again a third-person action-survival game which picks up five years after main characters Joel and Ellie made their harrowing journey across country. They attempted to find the Fireflies in hopes that Ellie’s immunity from the Cordyceps virus could help with a vaccine, only for Joel to pull Ellie away after finding out she would have to die to uncover a cure.
What begins innocently enough in a settlement in Jackson County, Wyoming in Part II morphs into a savage revenge tale that will forever change characters and relationships to the bitter end.
Gruff, father figure Joel and now 19-year old Ellie have just settled into their respective lives in Jackson, where the bustling of people is a stark contrast to the loneliness of the prior game. Ellie’s grown up with friends, notably a new love interest named Dina and Dina’s former boyfriend Jesse, all of which patrol the surrounding areas hunting for infected to keep the community safe. It feels almost normal, with Jackson home to adults, children and animals doing their parts to survive the post-apocalypse landscape.
The player begins controlling Ellie on a patrol route alongside Dina, as the two exchange flirts and witticisms, ignoring their brutal reality. Even as Ellie inherits Joel’s caution of getting close to someone at the risk of getting hurt, it’s clear to see the beginnings of intimacy. Naturally feeling each other out. Which is part of the masterful setup and a common theme in the game. Characters are real, we get to know them through interactions, dialogue and journal entries.
What’s also evident from the start is how ridiculously talented Naughty Dog’s team is still at environmental work, character designs and perfection of subtleties that other studios might disregard. Snow falls gently from tree branches as the player bumps into them. Glass shatters with a smash as pieces fall naturally to the floor. Ellie’s gun silencer visually degrades the more she uses it. Limbs are strewn about when the pair fight their way through infected enemies. Each encounter or exploration section has its own examples, as if someone looked over every inch of the game to enhance it in a very specific way.
I keep thinking: It must take a considerable amount of effort to make animations look this effortless. So nuanced and smooth, approaching lifelike. Each precise movement taken into account. It must be painstaking. Unfortunately, Naughty Dog is a studio criticized for exceedingly tough work conditions with “crunch,” a term used to describe how many folks work long hours right up to release. My fear is that this is why the game’s tech is near unrivaled in the space. Still. I want to acknowledge the supreme talent, and there’s no place more evident than these areas.
Change of Perspective
It’s after Ellie and Dina share these special moments that the game cuts to a brand new character, an immensely important one: Abby. Athletic build and piercing gaze, she’s with a group of travelers right outside of Jackson. Hunting someone in the community. Her friend Owen tries to talk her out of a plan to hit an outpost to collect information, yet of course she departs anyway. The player takes control of this parallel story-line, rather than witnessing it through cutscenes, moving through the area this time as Abby. An early hint that the game isn’t what it seems.
Abby is soon overrun by infected, when suddenly we she meets two faces familiar to fans: Joel and his brother Tommy, out on patrol. The three barely escape, then rendezvous with Abby’s crew. All of which seem to know who Joel is. Before we know it, Abby’s shotgun shatters Joel’s kneecap and she’s picking up a golf club while towering over him. It’s the first of many gut-punches in the story, albeit telegraphed by the game’s marketing, seeing a beloved character on the flip side of torture. (Something he’s done countless times, as alluded in The Last of Us.)
After Ellie hears the shot, she arrives just in time to see Abby’s striking blow on Joel. He’s gone. Screaming and frantic, she vows to hunt them all down. The irony is Abby and friends spare Ellie’s life, along with Tommy’s, because they found their target. They achieved their goal.
Then Ellie’s warpath begins.
Part II moves to follow Ellie and Dina on their attempt to find Tommy, who is also seeking revenge for his brother’s murder, and hunt down each member of Abby’s team. These people are based in Seattle as part of the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), a paramilitary organization controlling the city. The “Wolves.” These enemies are more specific than the generic hunters seen before, they use flanking tactics and are geared up for serious battle. They use dogs to sniff out the player, they call out to each other and scream in agony when a friend is found dead. It’s the kind of touch that somehow works, mainly because it’s used sparingly enough to not be redundant.
In one of the game’s highlights, the pair happen upon an open space area early in Seattle. The point is to find gas in order to kick off a generator that will open a door, yet there’s also optional buildings to find. One has a new weapon. Another an upgrade item. There’s puzzles with ladders or ropes, traversing vertically unlike the first game. It’s authentic because it feels like the characters would do this while stalking their prey, they wouldn’t know where the heck to go without context clues.
This sequence proves how scavenging is as good as ever. One of my favorite parts, scouring for written notes, hidden items or crafting parts. I’ve always said that reward structure is key in gaming. Part II certainly knows how to reward a player for spending time checking side areas and optional spots. Even if it’s not something tangible like an item, which it usually is, Naughty Dog showcases dazzling artwork or environmental design that bolsters the experience. The stories we learn indirectly from world items are just as significant as from dialogue or cut scenes. There’s more reward for exploring than simply the material.
What’s also evident from the start is how ridiculously talented Naughty Dog’s team is still at environmental work, character designs and perfection of subtleties that other studios might disregard.
Beyond this, after run-ins with the Wolves and a new faction called the Seraphites, rendezvousing with Jesse (who sneaked out of Jackson to help Ellie and Dina) and finding shelter in a theater, there comes a point where the game telegraphs a show-down. The culmination of our efforts!
It’s not, of course. The screen goes black, and reveals its master plan.
It begins again, this time playing as Abby.
This here is the game’s main transformation, why its structure is so effective. What starts as a seemingly traditional linear narrative turns into the story of two women, both determined for vengeance, yet unclear which is truly the antagonist. Are both of them? Neither?
What follows is the foundation of Abby’s backstory starting with a flashback that lays the groundwork for why she sought vengeance on Joel. It’s a subversion of the highest degree, that moment where the player steps into the shoes of the exact person we think is the villain. I hate Abby in the first act. In the next, I become her. By the end, I respect her.
While the original game progressed through seasons, the sequel is told mainly only a few days. We see the same segments in time from Abby’s perspective right after Ellie’s. At first, I admittedly didn’t like this. The pacing felt off and I found it jarring. We had seen the climax, then returned to way before that moment.
The more I played as Abby, learned about her motivations and histories, saw her life in the WLF alongside the people she cares about, it’s reinforced that every person has their own reasons. I didn’t have to despise her. There’s never one side to a story, quite literally, despite what the game first presents. Her and lifelong friend Owen are figuring out their feelings. Abby’s family history is tragic. She isn’t only the psychotic torturer as depicted early in the game. Yet the irony is that’s still a part of her, and her friends view her differently from that moment forward.
Here’s another gut-punch: She may even be justified in killing Joel.
Abby’s personality traits are bolstered by the introduction of new characters. The WLF is currently at war with a group called the Seraphites, a religious sect dubbed the Scars by their opposition because of their initiation process whereby they cut the face of new members. These people are tight-knit, devout and prone to violence in the name of their prophet.
At a critical turning point, Abby is captured by the Seraphites then left to hang. She’s saved by young Lev, who is really there for his sister Yara, both of which are former Seraphites themselves. The three escape and move to tend to Yara’s wounds. They can’t do so without help. This is when Abby seeks out Owen at his aquarium sanctuary. The aforementioned Mel, a medic in the WLF and Owen’s current lover, needs supplies to amputate Yara’s arm. Abby is AWOL from the WLF yet still willing to risk everything to travel with Lev to the hospital, an act of selflessness to return the favor for him saving her life.
Reality is Cyclical
It’s here that both ends of her spectrum come into focus: She’s been training for years to get payback, then applies this “by any means” rationale to her friends as well. She will always be both of these things now, and her relationships shift accordingly.
The unending cycle of violence caused by seeking revenge is obviously a strong theme, yet just the beginning in Part II. It’s not just about the ridiculous lengths that someone will go to achieve vengeance, it’s how much is that person willing to sacrifice in order to do so? Not just mentally. Tangible sacrifices like friendships and loved ones who may never look at you the same, even if they are part of the reason for the supposed justice. Payback has its costs, many of which are invaluable.
Without going too much further on individual story beats, as if it wasn’t obvious, so much of Part II is relationships. Forging new ones and losing others. Characters growing, struggling, fighting, protecting and risking life for each other. Dina and Ellie. Both of them with Jesse and Tommy. Abby and Owen. Owen and another WLF member Mel. Abby, Yara and Lev. Abby’s friends. Humans navigating the ruthless post-apocalyptic world.
There’s also sub-themes on the difficulties of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a character dealing with gender identity and stern religious beliefs infringing on personal choices. The concept that we can’t change what someone else has done. We can only control how we react to it.
Contributing to the effectiveness of the story and character moments is the incredibly talented cast of actors, comparable to a big budget movie. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are back as Joel and Ellie respectively, while newcomer to the series but industry veteran Laura Bailey slays, figuratively and literally, as Abby. Two Westworld alums Shannon Woodward (Dina) and Jeffrey Wright (WLF leader Isaac) plus video game voice actor Ashly Burch (Mel) all star. A truly stand-out role is Lev, acted by Ian Alexander from Netflix’s show The OA.
Combine this casting with Naughty Dog’s technology capabilities, I was awestruck. Dumbfounded that it was even feasible. Facial animations and character interactivity are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The sheer technical mastery displayed is near unrivaled, whether it’s spectacle in the action sequences or specific in the intimate moments. The type of game that should, and will, be studied.
Then there’s the topic of representation, which I’d like to specifically shout out. The audience learned in The Last of Us: Left Behind expansion that Ellie is queer, which obviously continues here and is even more prominent in her blossoming attraction to Dina. Then, one of the new characters here is transgender and refuses to be controlled by a bigoted religion. While it’s part of what drives their motivations, it doesn’t need to be anything more than normal to the characters. The more representation in mainstream games, the better. Especially in this way.
One of the game’s goals is showing how grief can be all-consuming. It blinds us to logic. Yet people still have the capacity for mercy, regardless of how many times they have sinned before.
As tough as it is, since I could talk about narrative and characters all day, I’d like to move past story themes into other topics that round out this memorable experience.
Naturally, Part II builds on the mechanics, systems and enemy variety of the original. It’s not revolutionary in the third-person stealth action space, yet the improvements are meaningful especially when it comes to the dynamics of combat with Ellie and Abby having more rounded skill-sets than the burly Joel.
Weapons are traditional, mostly standard firearm and bow archetypes, plus improvised explosives like stun bombs and molotov cocktails made by characters scraping together supplies in true end-of-the-world fashion. A new favorite of mine is the trap mine, a proximity device which Ellie can place on the ground. I used it to both protect areas from flanking enemies or strategically cover a specific spot in the path of their patrol.
The cadence is familiar. Scavenging for supplies, crafting to gear up for a fight, sneaking around picking off enemies individually then scrambling when it all goes wrong. Both playable women are athletic and maneuverable, they can jump and go prone, which are way more substantial than they first seem. There’s the added element of new companions as well, similar to Ellie supporting Joel in the first. Character AI is helpful and will make their own moves, even help the player out of a jam.
The three main enemies are of course the infected, then human groups WLF and Seraphites. Certain infected have mutated into new types, namely the gas-cloud bursting Shamblers and others that blend more into the environment, which makes even facing a small group more demanding. Both groups of humans use call-outs and attack strategies, the WLF being more militaristic as Seraphites using creepy whistles to communicate. The WLF even uses dogs, which will guide their owners according to the player’s scent. This requires a tactical approach, especially on a harder difficulty. Finally, we even see certain major combat moments that align more with traditional boss fights.
There are spots where these myriad foes are in the same space, so the player can lure one into fighting another. A move of which I took full advantage, if not just to see the results. These are all effective in making encounters feel unique, even if in reality they aren’t. I’ll say there are some stretches where it feels like there’s maybe one or two more fights than needed, which slows pacing especially for those more akin to stealth tactics.
Speaking of, total stealth seems viable throughout the game. Part II provides the tools, like bows, silencers, bottles and improved take down abilities. There isn’t some mandate that each area must be clear before moving on to the next, which is great to have as an option.
For those more interested in fighting it out, combat is way more flexible than the first game even if it’s still not the most memorable feature. Ellie and Abby are more malleable and adaptable to their situations. Scavenging during fights. Dodging, an excellent new mechanic especially in up-close fights. Lying prone. Crawling under vehicles. Jumping over obstacles. Even running away as a last resort.
I’d like to specifically call out the melee combat, which is exceptionally crunchy and brutal in its feedback. Whether hand-to-hand or with melee weapons, it’s among the most effective and viscerally painful close quarters fighting I’ve felt in games. Naughty Dog made it somehow both satisfying and sickening, partially through the sounds of enemies struggling to survive.
Now, this may sound predictable. A lot of it is. Then there’s times where it subverts expectations, even within its more predictable framework. Quiet moments are interrupted by hidden foes. The player must defend oneself when least expected. Scares during seemingly calmer moments. Long stretches without any enemies, a foreboding dread that lingers between character conversations. This heightened the tension, proving that there’s really no safety in this reality.
Since it’s a video game in 2020, Part II features upgrades to be found and skills to be opened. What’s cool is both characters have their own weapon sets and skill trees, not to mention collectibles, all of which operate independently. Workbenches allow for weapon enhancements via parts collected in the world, a callback to The Last of Us. Animations are slick as Ellie attaches a new part then wipes down her rifle, though for the most part, this is all standard.
The system with the smartest implementation is ability upgrades. This time around, it’s all based on training manuals that the player must find throughout the world. Each manual starts a new skill tree, and there are a number of them for each main character: Crafting, Stealth, Precision, Explosives and the like. Every upgrade requires Supplements, a resource found by scouring mainly medical buildings or bathrooms.
This again goes back to my statement on rewarding players for their time and curiosity, an essential part of any great game. I don’t think it’s possible to fully unlock each path in a single play-through, I unlocked most but not all on each character, so it’s a meaningful choice each time. Would you rather be sneaky or guns blazing, if you can’t be both? Between this, supplies and rounding out collectible sets, the game makes exploring every area its own journey.
Look Towards the Light
Consistent with the best stressful horror experience, Part II isn’t all about tense stealth sections or intense combat sequences. What sets it apart is Naughty Dog successfully inserts levity to break up the sheer brutality of it all. Most notably via flashbacks, mini-games and character moments.
Honestly, its best moments are unexpected so I won’t go into much detail. Sprinkled throughout the main campaign are flashbacks to earlier times for both Ellie and Abby, featuring Joel and Abby’s family plus Owen respectively. With a museum and aquarium being the backdrop to some of the best interactions, we learn even more about relationships than we could possibly through dialogue or texts. Many of these lead directly to the present day situation.
There’s also quiet times during the story itself where the world seems to disappear except for those on screen. Ellie and Dina early on, Ellie and Jesse while they look for Tommy, Abby and Owen various times as the writers try to convey their complicated history, then Abby, Yara and Lev settling in after their big escape. The foundation of player knowledge is built just as much on these as during the action, bolstered of course by the sensational performances and design technology.
A common thread is how Joel teaches Ellie to play guitar, which was hinted in the first game towards the end of their trek. In Part II, Ellie is now a proficient strummer so Naughty Dog adds a mini-game with real chords and the ability to practice whenever the instrument is close by. This blends seamlessly with the game’s music again crafted by composer Gustavo Santaolalla, leveraging plucked string melodies, dramatic build-ups and even renditions of one-time popular songs that act as main themes for certain characters.
There’s new puzzle type sections, as opposed to the plodding ladder or dreaded wooden pallet variety in The Last of Us. Many of them center on rope throwing, swinging or climbing which is somehow way more fun than it has any right to be. Plus, of the utmost importance: There are multiple times where the player can pet or play with a dog. I counted three, including two where fetch is totally an option. Game of the Year material level of pooch interaction.
This downtime is crucial. A game as bleak and relentless would be totally overwhelming if not for the opportunities to catch one’s breath. It’s also Naughty Dog’s craftsmanship on full showcase, the detail of the guitar strings or the intensity of someone’s stare. I can’t oversell how much detail is present, making these moments as warm and real as possible.
One feature in particular that I found useful is High Contrast Display, which simplifies the entire screen and highlights certain items in the world like players and collectibles while the background stays as plain as possible. I swapped to it occasionally to help locate a collectible or see what door I should open, so I can imagine how amazing it must be for someone who is color blind. It’s incredible.
I’m a big fan of minimalism in user interface design, so Part II is generally great in that regard. It has a simple heads-up display (HUD), which blends into the background unless in active combat or the player really wants to see it more. Essential for immersion, though there’s also the flexibility to make it larger and more prominent if that helps one enjoy the game.
On the performance and visual side, the game looks awe-inspiring albeit capped at 30 frames-per-second unfortunately. I never noticed any hitching or slowness playing on PlayStation 4 Pro, as it should be with that sort of restriction. Lighting is mind-blowing, especially as it reacts with foliage and grass. Snowy parts showcase both lighting and environmental reactions. And I’ve already gone on about character models, which are best-in-class. The least impressive part visually is probably the water areas, underwhelming and murky. No one’s perfect, after all.
The sheer number of areas and different environments is staggering. Even though all of them take place in a handful of cities, each is unique enough to stand out. The community feel of Jackson, the civil war torn Seattle plus multiple bespoke flashback sequences.
Oh. And its photo mode is great. In a new feature for this review, I’ve added a photo gallery with select shots. Highly recommend seeing for yourself!
It’s not just about the ridiculous lengths that someone will go to achieve vengeance, it’s how much is that person willing to sacrifice in order to do so? Payback has its costs, many of which are invaluable.
Now, even a masterpiece isn’t perfect. Part II is no different. I’d still argue its imperfections detract less from the final product than other titles.
There’s a couple instances of uneven pacing, namely the shift into Abby’s portion which signals the start of the second act. It comes after that false kind of climax, a restart when the race felt like it was just getting good. Because Naughty Dog is establishing her identity plus the personalities of the ones around her and their way of life, giving insight into the WLF as more than enemies, it takes build-up.
Combine this with the flashbacks and time shifts, it can be confusing at first. Once the game returns to “Seattle Day One,” the same time frame as when Ellie starts to seek out Abby, I found my bearings. This manipulation is a tactic by the designers to dole out information on their terms, slowly revealing not just Abby’s backstory but also how Joel and Ellie progressed once they moved into Jackson, which was anything but a traditional father-daughter dynamic.
It’s not a short game by any means, especially for a single-player narrative experience. My campaign clocked in at nearly 32 hours. I’m a notoriously slow and meticulous player, looking for side areas and collectibles as much as I can. There’s no doubt it can be finished in 20 hours if mainlining the path. I wouldn’t advise that, and instead say deal with the pacing inconsistencies because the exploration is totally worth it.
It Was for Everything
Part II is intentionally dark. It can be disgusting. An unfathomable cycle of violence, notably moments that are forced rather than driven by player choice. I’ve heard criticisms it’s a borderline murder fantasy. I’d combat that by saying while it’s dark, the player has the option for stealth or escape. Plus, there’s the lighter moments I’ve spoken about that balance the persistent misery.
Briefly about the interpretation of key story beats and the ending, I left satisfied. I understand why the characters made their choices during the conclusion, especially Abby after getting to know her. I can only talk about it from my perspective, I thought Naughty Dog’s direction was wholly effective and justified.
The Last of Us Part II is difficult. Not in its challenge, in that way where I want to look away or don’t want to press the button because I know the outcome is brutal. It’s foreboding. Unforgiving. Disturbing. This is exactly what makes it brilliant. It doesn’t have to be fun or a distraction, games should be much more. Seeing someone’s descent, always hoping there’s the possibility of atonement.
Naughty Dog proves yet again why it’s one of the most respected studios in gaming, the level of polish and detail in Part II is near unbelievable. The team improved on weaker aspects of the first game such as combat mechanics while maintaining the survival and scavenging, the side stories and collectibles, the crafting and upgrades plus the narrative strength that defined it.
One of the game’s goals is showing how grief can be all-consuming. It blinds us to logic. Yet people still have the capacity for mercy, regardless of how many times they have sinned before.
Where the first was fighting infected and finding hope in desolation, then doing anything for the ones you love even if it means dooming others, the sequel is about the duality of humanity at its most desperate and broken. Some seek retaliation that they will never find. Others pull together with those closest to them, finding redemption in that togetherness. Many do both.
It can’t all be for nothing. It wasn’t, no matter how much it feels that way. Everything matters, especially the hurt. It’s the only way that we can appreciate the small, fleeting fragments of compassion.
Title:The Last of Us Part II
Release Date: June 19, 2020
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Recommendation: If calling a game a “masterpiece” isn’t recommendation enough, I don’t know what is. The Last of Us Part II is an outright essential game, which will be remembered as such in future generations. It’s already hit 4 million copies sold within three days, the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive ever.
Sources: PlayStation Blog, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Screenshots on PlayStation 4 Pro.
April 2020 will go down forever as a tragic, horrifying month globally for many people enduring the coronavirus outbreak. My condolences to all those impacted, I wish you all the best during these trying times.
One silver lining at least is that video games are able to provide at least some relief from the monotony of social distancing and lock-down orders. And if sales are any indication, tons of people are most certainly getting their money’s worth.
Last month was a monumental one for video game industry sales, both domestically in the States and globally across digital marketplaces. It literally might have a record-breaking amount of records broken.
Just today both U.S. industry tracking firm The NPD Group and global digital data provider SuperData reported their respective figures for April, in what’s one of the single most newsworthy days in the history of gaming sales nerdom.
Rather than a more comprehensive deep dive into the myriad of stats, we’re going to do a rapid-fire recap of all the ridiculous statistics revealed today alongside lists of top-selling games both in the U.S. and globally by digital revenue. Then, I’ll get through a brief bit of commentary before we say goodbye.
Ready? Time to hit record.
Last month was a monumental one for video game industry sales, both domestically in the States and globally across digital marketplaces. It literally might have a record-breaking amount of records broken.
United States Games Industry Sales (April 5th to May 2nd):
Overall games industry spending increased a crazy 73% since this time last year, generating $1.5 billion. This is a record high for an April month, eclipsing that of April 2008’s $1.2 billion.
Monthly game software sales jumped 55% since April 2019, reaching the highest level ever for an April at $662 million. This beats out the previous record-holder again from April 2008, which totaled $642 million.
Within software, the most notable record is for Final Fantasy 7 Remake which led the monthly rankings chart and set a new franchise high for launch month dollar and unit sales, eclipsing that of Final Fantasy XV from 2016. Square Enix’s latest JRPG re-imagining is immediately the 3rd top seller of 2020 so far plus the best-selling PlayStation 4 title on the year.
It wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t mention Nintendo’s flagship hit Animal Crossing: New Horizons, even if the only record it set is short-term. The cute simulation and lifestyle game was ranked #2 on both the April and 2020 to date software charts. Its mini-accomplishment is that it’s the top-seller on Nintendo Switch as a platform over the past 12 months.
In terms of commercial successes we talk about every month, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was the 2nd top-seller of April and is still the highest ranked game of both the last 12 months and 2020 itself. During its 7th month run since release, it’s the 4th fastest-selling game ever tracked by NPD Group. That fits my description of an “almost” record, so I’ll allow it.
Moving like Jagger to a game that’s the opposite of talked about each month, Just Dance 2020 is the quickest selling game in Ubisoft’s long-running franchise since Just Dance 2014. It improved its ranking on the monthly software chart, now at #11 in April after boogying to the 17th spot in March.
Quickly flipping to the hardware category, overall dollar spend is so close to being a record that it gets like half a point. Console sales reached $420 million during April 2020, up a whopping 163% versus this time last year. April 2008 refused to be dethroned this time, as it maintains the best April month ever when it generated $427 million.
Within the Hardware segment, Nintendo Switch held the #1 spot for the 17th straight month. Here comes the real doozy: During 2020 so far, its sales are the highest of any single platform in the history of domestic tracking for the first 4 months of a year outpacing even the Wii over a decade ago in April 2009. Incredible, especially in a time with supply concerns.
Not only that! Dollar sales of the “Big 3” consoles in the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One all increased more than 160% year-on-year with Xbox One generating the best growth although NPD Group did not reveal an exact figure. From a unit sales standpoint, each of these hit record April amounts according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter:
PlayStation 4: 411,000
Xbox One: 329,000
Last category here is accessories and game pads, which generated $384 million in monthly sales for an increase of 49% since April 2019. Record alert! Consumer spend on game pads reached a high for an April month, clearing almost twice as much as last year’s amount. PlayStation 4’s Dual Shock 4 black controller topped April’s list, while Nintendo’s Switch Pro Controller is still the best for 2020.
Want another record? I’ve.. heard we got one for ya. Spending on headsets and headphones achieved the best April month in history, beating out that of April 2018. Last month also boasted record results for Steering Wheels and Game Cards. Note that we didn’t hear exact figures for any of these sub-categories, only that they had their best April months of all time.
I feel like we all need a breather after so many records. Let’s look at the full domestic software charts for both last month and year-to-date before going global.
Top-Selling Games of April 2020, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):
Final Fantasy 7 Remake
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
Grand Theft Auto V
Resident Evil 3 Remake
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered
MLB: The Show 20
Madden NFL 20
Red Dead Redemption 2
Just Dance 2020
Mortal Kombat 11
Predator: Hunting Grounds
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Persona 5: Royal
Need for Speed: Heat
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
Top-Selling Games of 2020 So Far, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
Final Fantasy 7 Remake
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
MLB: The Show 20
Grand Theft Auto V
Resident Evil 3 Remake
Madden NFL 20
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
Gaming allows individuals to escape into new, exciting worlds where they don’t have to worry about a pandemic. Or they can at least virtually fight back against one.
Worldwide Digital Games Industry Sales (April 2020)
Expanding to the global games market, let’s check out digital sales estimates from SuperData via its usual monthly report. In general, this only includes digital downloads and additional revenue through in-game transactions thus excludes physical copies sold.
And again to confirm, these are internal estimates as opposed to say publisher data.
Spending on digital games around the globe surpassed a monumental $10.5 billion during April 2020 which is the highest month ever and growth of 17% since last year. Ding ding. Another record!
Driving this figure was a jump in console sales of 42%, mobile growth of 14% then PC sales moving 12% higher. Of course this is temporarily bolstered by lock-down orders, as gaming has become a popular way to defeat the inevitable boredom that sets in from staying home. The question becomes how long can it last?
Diving into more individual game results, usual suspect Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold 3.6 million digital copies in April which is down slightly from the record 5 million in its launch month of March. Still, it was the top-selling console game on the worldwide chart. Here’s this month’s record: After only two months on market, it’s already the top-selling Nintendo Switch title as measured by both digital unit sales estimates and dollar revenue from downloads.
The aforementioned Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which was the best-seller in the States during April, achieved the 2nd spot on the global digital rankings. Since we’re certainly counting, its total of 2.2 million digital downloads set multiple records for a launch month. This is the best digital result within the franchise ever, plus it’s the fastest-selling PlayStation exclusive to date beating out Marvel’s Spider-Man in 2018 by a slim margin. A win is a win!
While not a record, Resident Evil 3 Remake achieved another notable result during April 2020. Capcom’s latest remake in the long-running horror franchise eclipsed 1.3 million digital units sold during this its launch month, slightly below the 1.4 million of its predecessor in 2019’s Resident Evil 2 Remake.
Back to the records. Last month, League of Legends hit its best player count of all time and spending in Grand Theft Auto V on in-game content reached its highest level ever. Ongoing games continue in their appeal, as people gather virtually to either compete or work together collaboratively.
This leads into the full charts from SuperData estimates for global digital sales. Take it away, fancy image.
Top-Grossing Console Games of April 2020, Worldwide, Digital Sales:
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Final Fantasy 7 Remake
Grand Theft Auto V
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Resident Evil 3 Remake
Alright. I believe I’m fully on record proving how April was a record-breaking month. Counting them up, there are more than a dozen here which is likely some sort all-time high.
My reactions? No one could have predicted this, not even as recently as a couple months ago. This is absolutely unprecedented, even if for the wrong reasons during a tragic time for our world history.
Gaming as much as any other medium is benefiting because of the feeling of connection caused by sharing on social media or gearing up with others online. There’s local play, which helps pass the time with the very few loved ones with which we can spend time. Gaming allows individuals to escape into new, exciting worlds where they don’t have to worry about a pandemic. Or they can at least virtually fight back against one.
It’s not much in the way of analysis to say that April was one of if not the most noteworthy sales months this generation. What’s difficult to say is how long it will last with all the uncertainty surrounding the scary longevity of coronavirus and the potential for a vaccine. I’m thankful that people have games to entertain, especially those on the front lines working hard for our safety, and that for now many have enough disposable income to spend.
As the summer starts here and new PlayStation 4 games like The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima release then Nintendo launches Paper Mario: The Origami King, where will the broader economy be, what level of unemployment will we see and how will sales look going into the marketing cycle for next generation consoles?
Let’s celebrate April for what it was, while acknowledging we have a long way to go outside of games.
As always, please check out NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella’s thread for many more details plus friend of the site Jeff Grubb’s recap on Venture Beat on the domestic report, then SuperData’s site for the global update. Thanks for reading, be healthy!
^Digital PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on Consoles Included
Sources: Media Play News, NPD Group, Square Enix, SuperData Estimates, Venture Beat.
These days, amidst a serious global pandemic with far-reaching economic impact, it’s impossible to be sure of anything in gaming and tech.
Which is why it’s notable that people familiar with Sony’s production pipeline say the company is still on target to launch its upcoming PlayStation 5 (PS5) console by year-end, according to a report today from Bloomberg.
Sources claim that the coronavirus outbreak has affected the company’s promotional roll-out and marketing strategy more than production of the console itself. Which would explain why we still don’t know what it looks like or, most importantly, how much it will cost at its scheduled launch later this year. (At least PlayStation Blog revealed the new DualSense controller last week to sate the rapid appetite for hints as to the aesthetic of Sony’s final product.)
Part of why the Japanese firm will reportedly still meet the late 2020 release window for PS5 is that its roll-out will be more limited than the PlayStation 4 (PS4) back in 2013. Sources say the console maker is informing production partners it intends to ship between 5 and 6 million PS5 hardware units between Q4 launch and March 2021 fiscal year end.
Compare this to the PlayStation 4 console after its November 2013 release: That hit 4.2 million and 3.3 million unit shipments during its first couple quarters respectively, for a total of 7.5 million in the fiscal year ending March 2014. So at best, internal estimates put the PS5 launch down 20% versus the prior generation. At worst, this forecast leads to a 33% dip.
It’s worth noting that this early production would be above 2006’s PlayStation 3 output of 3.5 million consoles during its first half year, as noted in this CNET piece.
On the personal prediction side, I’m expecting closer to the lower range of Sony’s PS5 guidance. 5 million to 5.5 million range. As I’ll expand on later, I’ve decided to remain conservative in today’s landscape.
Estimates and speculations reported by Bloomberg are quite revealing about Sony’s overall approach. It shows executives pressing forward to hit market by the holiday season despite anticipating lower output, a move which it hopes to make up for in volume on the back-end.
The other intriguing part of the equation and Bloomberg’s report is the exact topic on which I speculated in a recent article: How much will PS5 cost?
Developers interviewed for the piece imply a launch price of $499 to $549 in US Dollars, which would be a dramatic increase compared to where PS4 started at $399. In my aforementioned article debating about price, one of the most important points is the rumored cost to make PS5 totaling $450. Which leaves little room for margins if priced below that low end of developer speculation.
Main reason for the higher launch price seems to be its beefier specs, higher component costs driven and part scarcity. (I’d wager a costlier marketing campaign plays a factor, too.) Many tech products require the same kinds of components to build, and are sourced from China and related Asian markets, which were generally hit by the coronavirus earlier than the West. It follows that the launch price is most certainly impacted by the pandemic, there’s no avoiding it.
I was wavering in my personal price estimate after hearing the final technical specs. Now with the developer input plus knowledge of continued component shortages, I’m upping it to a minimum of $449 with the more likely outcome being $499. It’s just not realistic to expect Sony to take a significant loss per unit in this environment and while forecasting softer sales.
These estimates and speculations reported by Bloomberg are quite revealing about Sony’s overall approach. It shows executives pressing forward to hit market by the holiday season despite anticipating lower output, a move which it hopes to make up for in volume on the back-end. Not only that, its employees are working remotely which makes it more difficult to finalize plans both logistical and financial or meet with the external teams responsible for making the hardware itself.
Another element to the company’s strategy is potential discounts on current PS4 generation console versions plus offering services like PlayStation Plus in order to recoup the loss of hardware sales. If the PS5 is in shorter supply, can Sony entice people to stick around its ecosystem by selling PS4 this late in the generation? I’m skeptical on that play. The market is saturated as it is, with nearly 109 million PS4s in circulation already. If it’s just a couple more months of waiting, people will save that money to put it towards the next generation. Especially given that PS5 is backwards compatible with software on its predecessor.
I was wavering in my personal price estimate after hearing the final technical specs. Now with the developer input plus knowledge of continued component shortages, I’m upping it to a minimum of $449 with the more likely outcome being $499.
Good news for Sony in terms of marketing strategy is it’s much more viable to do a digital-only events these days, even for major product reveals. Normally hardware companies will host a huge in-person media event during a console unveiling. Given where we are at with the coronavirus and government mandates, this is unrealistic for the short to even mid-term and coincides with when Sony would want to ramp up its advertising campaign.
There’s also the question if Sony is still waiting for Microsoft to make its first move on release date and pricing for its Xbox Series X. Tough to know, since competitors monitor each other of course however each have their independent plans. Honestly, I don’t expect Microsoft to commit to a release date or cost soon. So Sony will either have to keep waiting and delaying its formal reveal, or make the first move and risk being beat on price or market date.
These points all lead back to the topic: Will Sony stick to the current schedule to release this year or have to push the PS5 launch date to 2021?
My answer: I believe that’s what Sony wants to do, even if it’s not necessarily what will happen.
Production pipeline estimates from Bloomberg’s sources say that suppliers are already getting parts to those that assemble the console. Broader PS5 production is expected by June. Which indicates that Sony is steadfast in its plan to reach consumers this year during a unified, global launch.
Thing is, it’s difficult to predict the future even without the variable of a pandemic. Components aren’t guaranteed to be in the same supply even weeks from now let alone months. There may be follow-up outbreaks that impact employees at those suppliers and assemblers. Even separate of the virus, production disruptions can happen for any number of reasons.
Once the console is built, there’s the added layer of retailers and their ability to attract customers. Then the economic impact on disposable income in Sony’s key markets. Where will demand be when people are recovering from what could be the worst recession since the Great Depression?
Many parts of the world are still on lock down. So many people aren’t working. Even when the situation turns more positive in a broad sense and worldwide cases dwindle, people start thinking of a return to normalcy, there’s the risk of follow-up outbreaks. I might be the most pessimistic in this context as I’m expecting this will last a lot longer and we shouldn’t expect it to change quickly.
The further Sony goes without revealing the console and its price, the more likely we’ll see the delay to early next year. It also depends on what Microsoft does with its Xbox Series X roll-out of course, however they are experiencing the same exact conditions as Sony when it comes to part suppliers and manufacturing pipelines.
There’s the strong possibility we see one of two things from Sony:
Soft initial roll-out of PS5 leading into the holiday season with low shipments and decreased sell-through to consumers until 2021.
Broader delay of its global console launch until Q1 of 2021, when retailers and distributors are more secure and demand has recovered.
Right now, I’m predicting the first scenario. Yet most certainly will not rule out the second.
Either way, my estimates parallel with Sony predicting that if the PS5 launches this year, shipments should be down compared to last generation when component costs are impacted by supply. Not to mention the appetite for expensive, new technology is subdued and won’t recover until next year. If the launch happens in 2021, I’m more optimistic on initial shipments and people’s willingness to spend.
What about you? Are you team Late 2020 or Early 2021? Feel free to get back to me here or Twitter on your expectations! Thanks for reading.
Note: Prices quoted here are using US Dollars.
Sources: Bloomberg, CNET, New York Times, PlayStation Blog, Sony Corp.
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.
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.
Death Stranding is one of the most important, unique and thought-provoking games of this generation with its themes of personal connection, harmony of humanity and the relationships between body, soul and afterlife. It’s the actual playing of the game that’s the difficult part, stumbling along the way with shaky gameplay, arduous controls and a confusing reward structure. This boldness ultimately makes for a truly memorable experience, as much for its underlying message as for the struggle in getting there.
It’s hard to summarize what the heck legendary gaming icon Hideo Kojima made with PlayStation 4 exclusive Death Stranding, his first independent project since splitting from Konami in 2015 and creating Kojima Productions. The genius Japanese designer is best known for many core games in the Metal Gear franchise, equal parts military stealth action and over-the-top, nonsensical commentaries on future tech and politics.
Death Stranding is, effectively, Kojima unchained. At its base level, it’s a third-person game in which the main character Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) delivers packages in order to connect remote regions of a disjointed America under a shared network. In reality, it’s so much more. A story with enough plot lines to make one’s head spin. It’s set in a post-apocalypse where dead now infiltrate the living world after a catastrophic event dubbed a “void out”, an explosion that occurs when entities from the other side interact with a human.
The cause of this initial void out and its subsequent fall-out is detailed in the off-the-wall story, told in chapters that focus on each character. One as weird as the next, though it all begins with the story of the gruff, solo delivery man Sam Bridges.
Sam is the playable character, complete with a tragic past and the ability to sense supernatural beings, who receives a task from his parent company (conveniently also called Bridges) to bring supplies to distant areas in order to integrate them into what’s know as the “Chiral Network.” He starts on the East Cost with the end goal to reach the Pacific, where the former President’s daughter is being held captive by a terrorist cell as she describes during visits via her holographic likeness. (I told you it was weird.)
This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games. Players can “like” all of these things, in the vein of social media. When Kojima claimed this new title occupied a new genre called Strand Games, this is what he meant.
Its world and setup is a smorgasbord of proper nouns and foreign words. Admittedly, as wild as they appear, somehow everything fits together under the lore of this future universe.
Chiralium (A made up element that has magic powers.) The Beach (i.e. Purgatory). Beached Things (BTs. Hostile ghosts from The Beach). MULEs (Former delivery folks obsessed with stealing packages.) Homo Demens (Terrorist outfit whose leader acts as the main antagonist.) Bridge Baby (BBs. Tiny pre-infants that exist between plains of existence and can sense BTs, so they are used as tools by various factions via placing them in a jar of goop then connecting an umbilical cord to one’s suit. Nope, I’m not lying.)
It’s surprisingly well-fleshed out. Partly because Kojima beats the player over the head with it from jump so that it’s unavoidable. More importantly because much of the back-story is available in flavor text throughout the game’s messaging system or data dictionary, plus characters reference these things as everyday terms. In this timeline, people eating “Cryptobiotes” to heal themselves is as ubiquitous as avoiding “Timefall,” rain that speeds up time to make everything age much more quickly when caught in it (like, of course!).
I’ll hand him credit: Kojima sure knows how to build a world like no other.
This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games.
Flipping from plot to visuals, it’s a stunningly gorgeous game built on the Decima engine borrowed from Sony’s Guerrilla Games studio. Which clearly specializes in glorious landscapes and environmental detail. I can’t oversell the spectacle of looking into the distance as a storm approaches or climbing a snow-capped mountain to take in the wintry horizon. These special moments almost make up for how painstaking it is to get there.
Speaking of that, here’s where the issues arise. Narrative set-up and universe-building can be as incredible as they are, yet the game is so brutal to play. Boring, even. Which is still a key aspect of one’s enjoyment. The core gameplay loop is picking up packages, balancing them on Sam’s back by using the trigger buttons, stumbling towards a destination avoiding rocks, Timefall plus pockets of enemies then dropping said packages off. It’s way too laborious until the better upgrades start appearing, which is no joke at least 8 to 10 hours into the game.
It’s not a case of “get good.” Sam’s lack of tools is by design. It feels intentionally frustrating in the first couple chapters, I’d imagine as an allusion to how difficult it would be without connections to other locations or players. That’s not even to mention the survival elements. Sam has a stamina gauge, then an energy bar, then the ever-present annoyance of “time fall” which is rain that speeds up time (of course) to the point where packages deteriorate.
There’s little to alleviate these pains until after those near dozen hours, when Sam earns gadgets and tools to assist in his effort. Making it even more annoying, the controls aren’t anywhere near intuitive. It never feels all the way right. Not to mention this quest design never changes. Unlike its game world, mission structure doesn’t evolve. Sure vehicles and weapons help. But the missions are basically the same in hour one as they are at the end. It’s boring by the second act and plain tiring in the last.
And what’s the reward? This is part of the problem. The lack of incentive, other than to progress the narrative to the next cutscene. Each mission awards experience based on a number of factors, like speed or package condition. The same animation plays as Sam delivers the package, a little bar goes up, there’s some dialogue then often times it’s back to the menu to pick up yet another boilerplate order. Very infrequently, the bar fills up to a point where that location doles out an upgrade or gift. There’s no clear path to seeing which places give what or how much time or experience it’s going to take to get that upgrade. It stumbles through its incentive structure as much as Sam does while getting there.
The argument against this thought process is that the journey is the reward, rather than the destination or reward. I understand that appeal to an extent. Though I think both have to be true in order for a game to be elite: I can find reward in getting to a place just as much as the tangible benefit for arriving there. Great games do this consistently well. Death Stranding isn’t one of them.
Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.
Once the pace picks up and upgrades unlock, weapons start popping up with characteristics explained in the underlying world. The main material used to combat BTs is.. fluid from Sam’s body. Bridges is constantly extracting these from Sam, since he’s special. Namely that his blood and bathwater impact the ghastly BTs. Blood is used for grenades and even bullets, in an interaction between character development and gameplay application. These kinds of gadgets along with other aiding in deliveries, like vehicles and stabilizing armor, help the minute-to-minute gameplay break out of its early rut to become much more tolerable in the game’s middle chapters.
A related nitpick in this kind of game, which is one I’ve expressed for others in the past. Namely stealth games. The expectation here is to be as non-lethal as possible. If someone is killed, and their body isn’t incinerated, it can cause a crazy explosion when BTs find them. Then the developers provide all sorts of lethal options while simultaneously chastising the player for using them. What the heck is the point? Thankfully, Death Stranding often offers non-lethal counterparts that are essential. Unless you want a crater on the map in the aftermath of a void out.
Let me say this now, because I can hear the comments already. I don’t think a game has to be fun in order to be great. There are classics that aren’t fun. I believe it should at least be engaging from a gameplay perspective as early as possible, otherwise who wants to play a game they aren’t enjoying or don’t think the rewards are justified except to see the story play out? I felt like this during both the beginning hours then the end here, when I wish I didn’t at all.
Getting back to the positives, the realistic look of its characters is a superb achievement. These roles feature near perfect acting, as they well should from an experienced cast of talent: The aforementioned Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff Unger, Léa Seydoux as Fragile, Guillermo del Toro as Deadman and even The Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner as Amelie. Add in cameos from some of his more recognizable friends and even though it’s kind of a ridiculous concept to see Conan O’Brien or Edgar Wright as characters throughout the world, I can’t say it doesn’t fit with Kojima’s persona.
It’s the type of lineup rarely seen in games, if ever. Which is groundbreaking on its own, where blurring the line between cinema and interactive media is the intent. Each chapter focuses on a different character, which keeps it as focused as a game about so many different themes can be. There’s a risk of losing a player for a section if they aren’t interested in that particular person, which throws off pacing. For instance, I found Heartman, who induces cardiac arrest at intervals to search The Beach for his deceased family then revives himself back to reality, particular engaging while others not as much. Covering all of them here is impossible, so suffice to say it’s a diverse cast that supports Kojima’s character-driven saga.
I want to point this out before dipping into other areas: Troy Baker, one of the most prolific voice actors in games, is exquisite in his role as the villainous Higgs. It’s great to see him in action rather than as the voice behind a character. I hung onto every moment he’s on screen, almost proud how well he flexed his ability to hang right there alongside traditional film actors.
After a slow beginning from both story and gameplay perspectives, Episode 3 starts the second act which is the game’s absolute best. This is when it finally doles out the upgraded versions of gadgets and introduces weaponry that helps drastically. Plus, the puzzle of how characters interact and who they really are pieces itself together, namely the mysterious character played by Mikkelsen which up until then existed only in the memories of Sam Bridge’s Bridge Baby buddy (say that fast).
Main complaint is on its delivery method, which I should honestly expect by now in Kojima games. His writing is as subtle as a sledgehammer. It lays the exposition on thick during many scenes, as if the player isn’t smart enough to figure things out on their own. Like how the President, who wants to connect everyone, has the last name Strand. Or how the woman with a ghost baby is called Mama. Or how the guy nicknamed Deadman is cobbled together with organs from the deceased. We get it. Their names parallel their character traits. We don’t have to hear it every time we see them.
Its final act was exceedingly too long, exacerbated by the increased cutscene frequency combined with way too many places to deliver. By this point, the gameplay loop was way less satisfying as it asks you to do the same old fetch quest dressed up in a new way for the umpteenth time. Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.
No story spoilers, other than to say it’s even further out there than I imagined. It goes places, then the ending flies off the rails. Turns total video game mixed with art film combined with anime. It’s totally aware and self-indulgent. I can’t tell if I love it or despise how Death Stranding wraps up during its, no hyperbole, more than two hours of cutscenes before actual final credits.
I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.
Speaking of the ending, we’re almost at the conclusion of this piece. I want to first highlight what I consider a main component of modern game design: Systems and quality of life. These are just as important to my game experience as how the game looks and runs plus its narrative progression.
To put it plainly: Death Stranding is cumbersome, in both movement and systems. As revealed by some very odd decisions. Namely, how the player navigates as Sam and his interactions with the world plus everything it throws at you in its myriad of menus.
There must be a hundred or more entries in the game’s log of how to play it or what to know about its mechanics. Hold the triggers to balance. Don’t let stamina deplete. Packages can be destroyed by falling or standing in timefall. Batteries power all the gizmos attached to Sam’s body. Smoke can hide you. Noxious gas can kill you. Don’t put too many packages on your back, there’s an encumbrance mechanic. You can hang onto parcels by hand, only by holding that particular trigger button. You can throw packages, only by hitting the punch button then letting go of said trigger. (This last one was especially comedic.)
It’s near comical how many times I had to check if I was doing something correctly. Or if I was forgetting some integral mechanic that would magically enhance my experience.
Then there’s the stealth. Mainly applies to two scenarios: Areas where Beached Things (BTs) exist, you know the ghosts that cross over to our dimension, or human enemies of MULEs and terrorists. BTs are intermittently invisible, so passing through those areas takes meticulous creeping and timing to kill them with Sam’s blood weapons. Not to mention time slows down for around 10 seconds every time Sam enters an area with these creatures. And they are around A LOT. It’s like when a Zelda game stops to tell you which item you’ve picked up, every damn time you pick it up.
The hint system is obnoxious, showing the same phrases over and over countless times on a huge portion of the screen. Sure they can be turned off. But what if I’m interested in learning new things about the game but don’t care about the hints I already know? I mostly appreciate these quality of life options in games. Not those that overstay their welcome, like they do here.
Then we have the infrastructure building system. It’s not bad. Players gradually get the ability to craft a variety of structures that help with navigation or combat. They can put up signs to encourage or warn other people. It starts with basic bridges and postboxes that require metal, then evolves into generators that replenish energy plus ziplines that zoom players around (however only if they can connect, which they often don’t, because only some of them populate from other people’s worlds).
All of this is governed by different materials like metal or resins, plus a general area has to be connected to the network in order for these to work. It’s a great way to make it feel like an evolving, connected world. I love how much it helps once it works. Though somewhat inconsistent in its application, plus Sam receives no help unless the main quest in a given area is complete.
Another major help in navigation that pops up after the first few painful hours is fast travel. Its implementation fits with one of the character stories, plus it allows movement between safe houses in different regions. Downside is the materials and gadgets don’t travel with Sam, so you can’t use it to actually make deliveries of course. It’s a travel system for him alone.
Final note before we wrap is the soundtrack. I really appreciated its integration, liking most of the tracks. There’s subtle, ambient tunes when traversing the world. It helps instill the sense of loneliness when delivering packages solo. Occasionally a licensed track will play during main story missions, accentuating the journey. It’s great, other than the track name being prominently displayed on the screen for way too long. As if the designers want you to know how much Kojima loves his picks for music. The band Low Roar, especially.
This reveals a common theme with Death Stranding: Great ideas, inconsistent implementation.
In what’s my longest review ever after spending an absurd 80 hours in this world, the craziest part is that there are things about this game I’m likely forgetting. It’s complex and opaque, with systems layered on top of systems for the sake of layering systems. It’s sometimes silly, breaking the fourth wall with that classic Kojima charm. Then turns serious, touching on themes that are obviously very important to him and his entire team.
It’s also a technical showpiece, a masterclass in game design when it comes to both motion capture and graphical fidelity. It rivals the most beautiful games on PlayStation 4 to date. I’d be remiss to not praise how special this is, plus the acting and cutscene work is the best in the business. It exists on another plane within the industry, one where film is as much an inspiration as anything. When we rank cinematic games, Death Stranding now has to be the preeminent entry on the list.
Still, it’s not without faults. Many of them. Its pacing is off, it’s nowhere near fun or even enjoyable to play and quest design is rudimentary at best. Among other negatives, such as way too many mechanics for its own good plus a lack of visibility on its rewards. This means there’s limited incentive to accomplish things outside of the critical path.
I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.
Title: Death Stranding
Release Date: November 8, 2019
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment on PlayStation 4. (505 Games on PC.)
Platforms: PlayStation 4. (Eventually PC.)
Recommendation: It’s hard to broadly recommend. I know it’s special. Yet only certain people will love it. If you dig Kojima’s storytelling, beautiful graphics, character acting, esoteric themes and connecting with other players then try it. Caveat being you must also tolerate all sorts of frustrations along the way with busted controls, annoying survival elements, repetitive fetch quests and unclear upgrade paths.
If not, play at your own risk.
Sources: Kojima Productions, IGN, PlayStation 4 Pro Screenshots.
Passionate PlayStation fans have driven Sony Corp to yet another impressive, hm.. milestone in its storied history as a game console manufacturer.
Announced in a supplemental sheet as part of its quarterly earnings report today, the Japanese technology conglomerate shared that it shipped 2.8 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the three months ending September 2019. Which means that to date, the PlayStation 4 has now passed 102.8 million consoles sold.
While at first it doesn’t sound as noteworthy as the PS4 surpassing the 100 million threshold last quarter, it’s super impressive in the context of all-time sellers in the home market. That’s because PS4 formally passed both Nintendo’s 2006 system Wii (101.63 million) and Sony’s own original PlayStation from 1994 (102.49 million) to land as the second best-selling console ever.
Only Sony’s PlayStation 2 system has shipped more units, at a whopping 155 million at last count.
Sensing a theme?
This marks yet another major accomplishment for the team. Led by Sony’s focus on appealing to core gamers with both its marketing and software lineup plus launching at a lower initial price than its main competitor in Microsoft’s Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 has cemented itself as a legendary couch gaming experience with exceptional commercial success.
Obviously question is: Can it pass its most accomplished ancestor, the PlayStation 2?
My simple answer is: Unlikely. Sony has already announced the PlayStation 5 is due out in late 2020. The company has consistently reduced its forecast of PS4 shipments for its full 2019 fiscal year from 16 million back in April to 15 million in July, then 13.5 million in this latest report. Assuming it does hit 13.5 million, that equates to roughly 110 million in the wild overall by March 2020.
Even taking into account another fiscal year during the transition to a new generation, I can see under 125 million before PS5 appeals to a broader audience than just early adopters. Depends of course on how later generation software exclusives fare plus discount trend over time.
Well. It will have to settle for second place at the moment.
Beyond the eye-catching headline, Sony’s latest financial quarter was mixed at best especially within its gaming division. Check below for highlights and, might I say, lively commentary. The company’s presentation is here. Note that dollar amounts used are estimates, converted from local currency.
As displayed above for the company’s overall second quarter, sales and operating revenue dipped 3% since last year to around $19.5 billion while operating income surpassed $2.57 billion, an increase of 16%. Both revenue and earnings-per-share results actually beat analyst consensus, though Sony lowered its forecast for both metrics when considering the full fiscal year ending in March 2020.
Within its Game & Network Services (G&NS) unit, which includes PlayStation hardware, software and related services, quarterly sales slipped 17% to $4.5 billion while operating profit dropped 28% to just under $600 million. Sony pointed out that an increase in PlayStation Plus subscription revenue was not enough to offset a dip in both hardware and software dollar sales, thus the lowered performance.
Now, it’s always worth considering these reports in a broader context. Comparing quarters is only part of the equation. When pushing the dollar sales trend out to a trailing 12-month period then mapping over time, we certainly see a recent decline. Thing is, it’s above this time last year. Which means that even as it approaches the reveal and launch of the PlayStation 5, gaming is maintaining decent momentum. Profit is down slightly when looking at a similar trailing time frame, though well above where it’s been in prior years.
Note that similar to the company’s overall forecast, Sony also lowered its G&NS division forecast for both sales and profit for the full year, plus the PlayStation 4 hardware target as I noted previously.
Let’s chat a few specifics within its gaming business, then wrap with a couple observations and future thoughts.
While PlayStation 4 eclipsed sales of most of its historical competitors this quarter, it’s obvious that hardware and software are both slowing ahead of a new console cycle. The full game software sales total of 61.3 million copies is down from last year’s 75.1 million, likely due to the massively popular Marvel’s Spider-Man releasing in the corresponding quarter of 2018.
In terms of physical and digital split, 37% of software sales in Q2 were downloads. Compare this to around 28% this time last year, and it’s clear the trend is inching towards digital even for a traditional platform holder. Combine this with the popularity of PlayStation Plus, which rose to 36.9 million subscribers compared to last year’s 34.3 million, and we see how much digital and services matter when hardware sales are tapering off due to the natural cycle. It’s especially true this generation, as prior generations skewed much more towards retail consumption.
Speaking of business split, above charts out individual product categories within the gaming division over recent quarters. Which shows a handful of notable trends.
First, hardware sales are among the lowest this generation. Expected now that PS5 is official. Software remains the most prominent part of the PlayStation business other than occasionally during the holiday quarter, so it’s natural that growth ebbs and flows with it. Take a look at the green Network Services bar. This burgeoning segment has shown double-digit year-on-year growth every single quarter. Services are the talk of the industry lately, and for good reason. Sony is seeing tangible contribution from providing customers with things like PlayStation Plus, PlayStation Now and others to where I anticipate this to continue smoothly in both the near and long term.
So. What does this all mean and where’s Sony going in the future within its most important business segment?
It’s obviously a mixed quarter both overall and within G&NS, most notably because of its lowered guidance for annual revenue, profit and PlayStation 4 hardware sales. Though when smoothing this quarter’s performance over time, the PlayStation business is showing legs before entering into a new chapter. Most noteworthy being the digital and services slices.
Still, software is key and that will dictate the remainder of this year. What I anticipated to be the year’s top console seller, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, achieved a $600 million opening weekend according to an Activision Blizzard press release today. It has an exclusive marketing deal with Sony plus PlayStation exclusive content, which means the console will benefit greatly from this rejuvenation of Call of Duty annual sales.
Death Stranding is the major console exclusive during this holiday quarter, releasing on November 8th. It’s produced by Kojima Productions, led by all-time-great director Hideo Kojima, and I’m upbeat on its sales potential despite being a new intellectual property.
The downside is that 2018 saw major releases in the God of War reboot and the aforementioned Marvel’s Spider-Man, which makes for a difficult comparison. Combine that with the delay of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II into the first quarter of 2020 fiscal and we can understand why Sony adjusted its estimates downward.
Based on the above, I’m intrigued to see how software sales compare during the back half of the year, since I already anticipate lower dollar sales from PlayStation 4 hardware due to market saturation and discounted pricing.
Sony boasts one of the most impressive achievements in its company history with PlayStation 4 joining its PlayStation 2 brethren as one of the best-selling pieces of hardware ever, though the company will face short-term pressure as it gears up production and marketing for PlayStation 5 its corresponding software lineup.
Hope you all have a good one!
Sources: Activision Blizzard, Kojima Productions, Nintendo, Sony Corp., Wired.
I believe Sony should focus mostly on this philosophy going into the next generation of consoles, rather than seeking growth through external acquisitions. There’s only so much funding to go around, and I’m betting those precious dollars are used for a combination of internal investment and partnerships with outside teams rather than outright buyouts of major studios.
I’ll now get into why this is such a hot topic, then outline each of my reasons.
Within a mostly innocuous report from the Wall Street Journal on the Japanese gaming giant’s decision to focus on gamers for its next PlayStation gaming console which means building out its portfolio of games (surprise!), the stand-out quote is how its main strategy is bolstering its lineup of games only available on Sony devices.
Then, local site Gematsu got in on the action as it translated a Nikkei report containing somewhat vague comments from Sony Interactive Entertainment President and CEO Jim Ryan about gaming content being of utmost importance and the company considering studio acquisitions as one of its strategies for this reason.
(I’ll note here that every major publisher, shoot every public company, has teams dedicated to merger and acquisition [M&A] research. There have been recent job postings from Sony seeking talent for its M&A team, though I’m not reading into this as much as others.)
Finally, PushSquare published a piece among other media sites on likely targets of Sony’s acquisition bucks. These and more sparked rampant speculation online as to which would be the best fits based on history and existing relationships. I’m here to say the ideal foundation going forward is not built on acquisitions, but rather more investment in what it does best. And that’s its current world class studios, upcoming hardware offerings and productive 3rd party partnerships.
The safer route is absolutely to spend its precious resources in its myriad of internal studios, which have produced modern classics such as The Last of Us by Naughty Dog and God of War from Santa Monica Studio, plus align itself with external companies through partnerships rather than outright acquisitions. The most notable recent example of such a fruitful team-up being Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games, which passed a staggering 10 million copies mere months after release last September.
Similarly, I’ll go as far to say I’m not hoping for or betting on acquisitions of any major developers or self-publishers in the near term. This list includes Bungie, Insomniac Games, Kojima Productions and Remedy Entertainment. Rather, there’s a much higher likelihood of one *maybe* two smaller teams that aren’t as cost prohibitive. If forced to pick, my bet is Housemarque. Known for arcade type shoot-em-ups such as Resogun and Alienation, I think it’s really the only smaller team suited for purchase now based on its proclamation that its style of games purely aren’t selling well, plus its affinity for working with the PlayStation team in the past.
Why? Here we go.
1. Major acquisitions are costly, time-consuming and risky.
I get it. It’s fun to speculate. To dream up scenarios where a favorite game developer gets purchased by a platform of choice. It’s just, in reality, acquisitions are usually not ideal compared to partnerships and are a truly massive undertaking presenting a variety of risks.
Acquisitions aren’t just about a big company throwing money at a smaller one. Both parties must consent, really except in the case of ugly hostile takeovers which should absolutely not be a part of Sony’s strategy. It often happens when a company is in need of a financial injection, its growth prospects have depleted or, in extreme cases, bankruptcy is looming. It’s especially trickier the more closely held a company gets, which is the case with many of the private game studios. Even those with hundreds of employees. The decision lies in the hands of a select few, normally with both financial and emotional investment from years of independent operation.
Then there’s the topics of what kind of premium the target will squeeze out of the acquirer, how well do company cultures mesh plus the whole regulatory side, all of which make this process time-consuming and expensive. M&A activity is inherently risky, blending folks that haven’t worked directly together so there’s no guaranteeing the company works as well as a subsidiary. Or there might be layoffs that happen due to redundancies. What I’m getting at is these involve many other factors than merely dollars and cents.
Let’s take a couple examples. One public, one private.
A team like Remedy Entertainment is publicly-traded. The Finnish developer is valued around $115 million in market capitalization. Not a huge figure in the context of Sony’s war chest, though certainly not pocket change compared to other names in this conversation. Not to mention that comes before any sort of projects even starting. And it has investors already. Lots of them. It doesn’t need to be injected with cash, especially with a new game Control next month and a collaboration with South Korea’s Smilegate on its CrossFire franchise. Every indication is Remedy wants to be independent. Even when Microsoft was publishing games like Alan Wake and Quantum Break, it was on its own. Why would execs and investors change their mind now, unless Sony throws some exorbitant amount of dough at it?
Then, our private example is Insomniac Games. Run by industry vet Ted Price, it’s a natural name thrown around due to its history of producing games for PlayStation like the aforementioned Marvel’s Spider-Man. Insomniac is a heck of a studio, it’s been around for decades plus boasts a portfolio of Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank, Resistance and a personal favorite, 2014’s Sunset Overdrive. It’s also dabbling in virtual reality for the Oculus Rift. So, if it’s operated this long alongside PlayStation, why isn’t it a part of Sony? Exactly. As exhibited by its releases on Microsoft and Facebook (Oculus) platforms, Insomniac seems to value its creative independence above all else. And while we don’t know its valuation, to me this clearly shows its decision-makers haven’t seen a reason to become part of Sony Interactive Entertainment yet.
World class first party games are impossible without investing in internal teams before anything else. Instead of dropping $100 million or more on a Remedy or Insomniac, those funds can be funneled internally towards high quality projects for existing teams.
2. Investment in internal teams is a better use of cash.
At present, Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios features a suite of more than a dozen teams. Guerilla Games. Naughty Dog. San Diego. Santa Monica. Media Molecule. Sucker Punch. And more, with a legit laundry list of projects under their belts that define what PlayStation is more than anything else. These will also be the main contributors to Sony’s launch lineup next generation when the (probably named) PlayStation 5 (likely) releases in late 2020.
This is a dazzling entourage of the most talented, prolific teams in all of gaming. They make games specifically for a single company’s platforms, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR presently. Which means they are experts. If the big focus is appealing to the hardcore audience, that means investing in the personnel that make up these excellent studios is of much more importance than trying to attract external talent. Not to mention, it’s more cost effective to retain individual team members at existing studios than to integrate entire teams.
Sony is known for its first party content. It’s why there are 96 million PlayStation 4 consoles shipped to date, not to mention the absurd numbers for prior generations where Sony has 5 of the top 10 best-selling pieces of hardware ever made. World class first party games are impossible without investing in internal teams before anything else. Instead of dropping $100 million or more on a Remedy or Insomniac, those funds can be funneled internally towards high quality projects for existing teams.
A preexisting agreement or relationship between a larger company and smaller development studio or self-publisher doesn’t necessarily precipitate a buyout, or even open the door to discussions on the possibility of one.
3. External partnerships are attractive for both parties.
When we talk partnerships in gaming, this includes stuff like marketing deals, exclusive content, pre-order bonuses and similar incentives to attract players towards one platform above another. As much as exclusives are not ideal, especially for those without multiple systems, it’s a reality.
The reason I think Sony should opt for partnerships over purchases is that from a corporate standpoint, these deals allow for the best of both worlds. Development teams benefit from the backing of a major console manufacturer, especially for advertising spend, while they also remain independent to pursue experimental projects or titles for multiple platforms.
Need a concrete example? Well, I already mentioned one in Insomniac Games. This time, I’d like to bring up Square Enix. I don’t hear anyone calling for Sony to scoop it up just because games like NieR: Automata or Final Fantasy VII Remake have an alignment with PlayStation as timed exclusives. A preexisting agreement or relationship between a larger company and a smaller development studio or self-publisher doesn’t necessarily precipitate a buyout, or even open the door to discussions on the possibility of one.
While a team like Remedy certainly has less output and lower valuation than Square, I view it similarly because of its standing as publicly-traded plus a history with manufacturers other than Sony. Then there’s the case of Kojima Productions. Game design legend Hideo Kojima had an infamous falling out with Konami a few years back, which led to him founding a private studio. When a company is used to being independent, or recently has become so, and it’s not facing financial instability, its asking price goes up plus the attractiveness of being owned by a parent company plummets.
4. Finally, hardware R&D will be the focus of Sony’s gaming budget.
While Sony’s gaming division now leads the overall firm in both sales and operating income, it’s just one of many considerations when budgets are drawn up. All signs point to it being the final year of the PlayStation 4’s life cycle. In the lead-up to a new generation, research and development costs naturally ramp up especially for a console targeting the “core” demographic of gamers, as illustrated above from executive comments. Design and construction aren’t cheap. Not to mention the massive marketing push that will take the better part of next year.
If Sony intends to put out a powerful console in late 2020 with a quality launch lineup, we’re talking a sizeable chunk of its budget dedicated to this endeavor. How much is leftover to use on merger activity? What’s the most effective way for it to balance hardware and software demands? My thought is that most of its budget must be allocated to its next PlayStation and a core offering of exclusive games, which leaves less for M&A prospects at the risk of being spread thin.
To wrap up this admittedly lengthy post, while I’d never entirely rule out the possibility of acquisitions, I think the contingent calling for Sony to dole out cash on multiple studios has unrealistic expectations. Namely because of where the firm is at in the console cycle. It already has so many talented studios in which it should invest to spur growth, then continue to reinforce its relationships with third parties. This is the ideal route to meet its goal of strengthening its software portfolio, plus has added benefits for external companies that have fought hard for self-sufficiency over the years.
It’s flashy to talk about studio acquisitions, almost casually tossing around names. And it’s certainly more boring to hope that a company stays consistent with its current strategy even when it’s doing quite well. In this case, I’m both hoping and betting that Sony keeps it boring like Proposition Joe said (The Wire hear me). Because its business ain’t broke, literally and figuratively, so it doesn’t need fixing.
Sources: Bloomberg, GamesPress, Gematsu, Kazuhiro Nog/AFP/Getty Images, NVIDIA, PushSquare, Road to VR, Sony Corp, Wall Street Journal.
With its themes of togetherness, creation and rejuvenation commingled with brilliant sound design, Luna is a quick, impactful indie game that transitioned well to console play from its virtual reality roots.
(Plus, and I know you noticed, it gives me a great opportunity to use an amazing pun that I couldn’t if I didn’t enjoy it!)
Funomena, a team of 30 folks based in San Francisco led by noted indie talent Robin Hunicke, originally released the esoteric, interactive story Luna in 2017 on virtual reality and PC platforms. Today marks its PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR debut, and it’s certainly worth trying. Likely via either medium, though this review is of the PS4 version.
It’s a game that’s relaxing without descending into boredom. Slight overtones of loneliness, albeit not dark, that transition into hopefulness. More an experience than a traditional video game. Which seems to be the exact intention. If someone is arguing whether games are art, Luna attempts to prove that no one should even be questioning it.
The tale centers on Bird, a little feathered friend that boasts a mighty song, trying to recover bits of the Moon by uplifting other critters. The other main character is Owl, ever foreboding and mysterious. Funomena’s presentation here is like a virtual picture book, with hand-crafted art and a soothing vocal narrator. The simple yet effective story is told through its environments and player interactions, with bits of narration interspersed that act more as guidance than exposition.
Luna packs a decent variety into its two to three hour playtime, as there are a handful of main “phases” that form its framework. Two of them revolve around light puzzle elements. One that’s semi-rhythmic in nature, as Bird sings to open nuts growing on a tree, while the other has the player forming constellations of different shapes or animals.
It’s necessary to complete these puzzles in order to open each of its level. What I like about the puzzles is they aren’t stagnant. They evolve each time, presenting slightly different challenges. One introduces a rotation element, the next takes away certain visual clues. It’s never too hard, and I appreciate the feeling of progression.
Speaking of its levels, they are mini-worlds each with a distinct animal inhabitant. And these are the true highlight of the game. Each of these spaces is effectively a dreary spot in need of enlightening, both literally and figuratively. Bird is fly enough to help! This is where player choice comes in, though there isn’t a strict set of goals or guidelines. It’s really a sort of free-flowing activity, which offers the player a chance to “cultivate” the scene with different plants, trees or flowers.
The player has to coax out each animal by planting those objects throughout this defined play space. Brighten it all up. Change the size. Sprinkle in color. As the player places trees or bushes, life awakens. Even though it’s simplistic and guided by context clues, it’s still satisfying. Plus, this allows for a level of creative expression. It’s especially fun to see one’s handiwork come to life in the background of the cut scene that ends each segment.
More an experience than a traditional video game. Which seems to be the exact intention. If someone is arguing whether games are art, Luna attempts to prove that no one should even be questioning it.
It’s almost a cliche these days to compare something to thatgamecompany’s Journey, though it’s natural here based on the team’s background of working on the 2012 independent classic. Luna dabbles in similar themes, as Bird tries to communicate using bits of song, though I’d actually align it more with recent titles like Fe and Gris from Zoink Games and Nomada Studio, respectively. Both of which I quite enjoyed, though this here is a much more swift adventure.
Sound plays a major role, especially in the puzzle areas. Since the player interacts with the game using a type of cursor controlled by the joystick, interacting with many of the game’s visual elements will spark a unique sound. Trying to connect a star chart to form a constellation? Guitar strings twang when the cursor crosses over any connections that already exist. It’s a subtle touch, and I found myself messing around to see how many different notes the team programmed.
Expanding on the game’s auditory direction, part of why it works so well is its free form design combined with a smooth, natural soundtrack from Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory (Journey, Abzu). His incorporation of chimes and piano chords amidst sounds of flowing water or ambient tones were great on console, and I’d imagine even better when immersed in VR.
The simple yet effective story is told through its environments and player interactions, with bits of narration interspersed that act more as guidance than exposition.
As much as I enjoyed Luna, I have to admit there were small moments of frustration. I think it’s equal parts the game’s fault and my own. Within the first space, as I was planting trees and changing their colors to my heart’s desire, I started to question how I was going to progress. The world seemed complete, or at least my version of it was, which meant I felt stuck. I rotated the camera, poked and prodded though couldn’t complete the instance. It wasn’t readily apparent that I had to keep adding flora until a visual cue popped up and I could conclude the level.
This is a case where the game’s abstract nature works against it. Especially for me, as I tend to be goal-oriented. Luna nudges in directions, lets the player create rather than enforcing strict guidelines. Which started as a confusion, then became much appreciated after I learned I had to form my own path. Perhaps this is the intent.
The other downside is that it ended way too abruptly! It’s not that I assume a game like this would be grandiose in its finale, it’s that I hoped it would be more interactive. Especially after giving the player tools throughout to express individuality. Just when I expected to create my digital masterpiece, Luna took the reigns and ended its story on its own terms. It’s not my ideal conclusion, though it certainly didn’t ruin the overall experience.
My thoughts on the ending are not too damning really, since the real treat is the time spent in the game’s melodic, inspiring world. The puzzles are never too difficult, and ultimately a means to open levels where the player is way more free to tinker. Nothing is overly complex, nor does it need to be.
Funomena achieves a status of interactive art with Luna, in multiple respects. It’s a visual story about unification, overcoming feelings of desertion or guilt and a sense that planting seeds can grow fruitful relationships. This all means that, in the time it takes to watch a film, I’d recommend instead taking a quick virtual trip over the Moon.
Release Date: October 17, 2017 (VR), November 22, 2017 (PC), June 18, 2019 (PS4, PS VR)
Platforms: Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR
Recommendation: If you made it this far, you already know I think it’s worth a shot! Really thinking that virtual reality version might be even better, too.
Sources: Funomena, Screenshots from PlayStation 4 Pro.