PlayStation 5 Hits 19.3 Million Lifetime Shipments As Sony Reports Sales Gains & Sets Ambitious Annual Hardware Target

Now that I’ve posted about recent results from both Microsoft and Nintendo, it’s time to dig into the last of the “big three” console manufacturer this earnings season.

That would of course be Sony, which posted its annual results for fiscal 2021 on Tuesday.

During these 12 months ending March 2022, the Japanese consumer tech company saw positive momentum in both its overall business and PlayStation segment. Sales and operating profit for the firm in general each saw double-digit gains since last year.

Even amidst challenges on the hardware side, momentum hasn’t slowed much since a record holiday quarter for PlayStation. While growth rates hovered in the low single-digits, Sony’s Game & Network Services (G&NS) just achieved its second best trailing annual revenue and operating profit. This is especially impressive given the major demand spike last year during more restrictive quarantines in various markets.

Hardware is the headliner for Sony’s gaming business now that the current console generation has entered its second year. After shipping the expected 2 million PlayStation 5 consoles during the quarter of January to March, fiscal year shipments totaled 11.5 million. This was in-line with Sony’s guidance, which I’ll note was reduced from nearly 15 million just last quarter.

It follows that PlayStation 5 is now upwards of 19.3 million lifetime. It’s still not easy to find one and Sony’s suppliers are limited by part availability, which means it’s lagging its predecessor more than ever. At this point, PlayStation 4 had shipped over 3 million more units. It seems that more than its counterparts in the space, Sony is having a tougher time securing inputs.

Which is why I was a bit surprised by its forecast looking ahead to the next fiscal year ending March 2023. Sony’s management has set quite an ambitious goal of moving 18 million PlayStation 5’s over that time. It would be an increase of 6.5 million, and bring lifetime units to 37.3 million. Personally, I’m not nearly as optimistic.

Elsewhere in the report, Sony reported slight contractions in a couple engagement statistics. Both PlayStation Plus memberships and Monthly Active Users (MAU) declined since March 2021, signifying it’s lost players since the pandemic peaks. However on the financial side, Sony overall and PlayStation saw sales and profit increases which means those people sticking in the PlayStation ecosystem are spending money.

One area where PlayStation excels is first-party software. Its teams are responsible for some of the most critically-successful titles in the industry, thus enticing buyers to pay that premium price tag. So it makes sense executives call out plans to invest more in its game development resources and strategy of placing titles on other platforms, namely PC.

“Going forward, we aim to grow the game business by strengthening our first party software and deploying that software on multiple platforms,” said Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Hiroki Totoki during its earnings call. “

Buckle up, let’s see what’s driving Sony’s recent growth.

The gallery above contains various slides and charts based on Sony’s FY 2021 results.

For the company in total, fourth quarter revenue rose 2% to over $20 billion. That led full year sales growth of 10% to above $88 billion. In terms of operating profit, this was $2.33 billion or almost three times as much as the prior year. That substantial quarterly momentum was behind the annual profit jump of 26% to upwards of $10.71 billion.

G&NS is still the leading business by both sales and income when looking at segment reporting. Pictures and Electronics Products & Solutions (EP&S) grew the most, while Financial Services proved to be the only major business line to decline during this time.

Focusing on the PlayStation business alone, January to March sales increased a modest 1% to $5.9 billion. Operating profit nearly doubled to $777 million. Over the latest 12 months, gaming generated $24.4 billion in revenue which was 3% higher than prior year. Annual operating profit was effectively flat around $3 billion.

The top-line growth was attributed to an increase in hardware sales plus the impact from foreign exchange rate, outpacing a decline in mainly third party software. Sony stated it’s seeing better margins for hardware, contributing to that more consistent profitability. Which is good news in this environment of rising costs. It means when hardware is selling, on average its price point makes up for manufacturing expenses. This is consistent with Sony’s comments in the past that the standard PlayStation 5 edition became profitable after only a handful of quarters on market.

This dynamic is reflected in the product category chart, where annual sales from Hardware & Others grew 10% to $7.5 billion. Network Services boosted 7% to $3.6 billion. Digital Software & Add-On Content was the only sub-grouping to decline, though it wasn’t by much. It saw a 2% dip to $12.7 billion, and still comprises more than half of the PlayStation business. Underlying this was mainly a reduction in add-on content, implying a bit less spending on that type of downloadable content.

Per usual, I’ll run a quick comparison to major players in the games industry. Here’s what I wrote in my article on Nintendo, because it’s relevant here:

Tencent reports later this month, though most recently had an industry best $27 billion from gaming. Microsoft’s Xbox division posted $16.5 billion. Factoring the pending Activision Blizzard deal, it could be upwards of $23 billion to $24 billion depending on cost savings, etc. Unfortunately, both of these companies don’t break out profit from games. On the other hand, Sony also reported results today featuring $24.4 billion in revenue then $3 billion in operating profit. Thus, while Nintendo’s overall sales aren’t as much as these others, it’s currently more profitable than the PlayStation brand.

Moving onto a round-up of various supplemental updates from Sony’s materials, I’ll now talk software performance, player engagement, subscription movement and services output.

First up is software sales, as measured by copies sold. For the year, Sony reported declines in both total and first party games. On the whole, 303 million units sold across PlayStation platforms. Out of that, almost 44 million were first party games. Compare that to 339 million and 58.4 million respectively during last year. And it wasn’t really a lack of output. On the console exclusive side, titles like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection, Horizon Forbidden West, Gran Turismo 7, Ghostwire Tokyo and Returnal hit this year. While lower year-on-year, first party software wasn’t as much to blame here.

It’s more releases from external publishers that are causing declines, and I wager softer performance of Call of Duty: Vanguard is the most significant contributor. While it’s still massive, the title is under-performing in the context of premium Call of Duty offerings. Perhaps the suite of sports titles that usually hit in the Fall, as well. And this latest quarter saw Elden Ring, which seems to be more successful on PC, plus Dying Light 2: Stay Human.

Now, it’s also a natural normalization of spending from pandemic highs. People are seeing higher prices elsewhere, thus limiting more discretionary spending. It’s not necessarily a doomsday scenario.

Digital split ended up being pretty consistent in the realm of software sales. Downloads made up 66% of all game sales during fiscal 2021, which is effectively the same as last year’s 65% figure. Lately then, this means 2 out of every 3 games sold on a PlayStation platform is downloaded as opposed to purchased via traditional retail.

Looking at Sony’s current main subscription of PlayStation Plus, memberships declined ever-so-slightly to 47.4 million. It was at 47.6 million in March 2021. The company recently outlined its rebranding plan, which will combine this service with PlayStation Now streaming capabilities into a set of PlayStation Plus pricing tiers. I think it’s overly complicated to have three tiers, and it’s not a true competitor to Xbox Game Pass in its form starting this June. Though I believe it can attract more subscriptions, so the end result should be a net positive. Even if I don’t think Sony is going far enough with what it’s offering.

Similarly on the engagement side, Monthly Active Users (MAUs) dipped in fiscal 2021. It started the year at 109 million, then ended up at 106 million. Management didn’t share much more in the way of engagement or play hours, so I have to infer that they were lower than a year ago. Which makes sense as I’ve talked about mean reversion and spending normalization.

Not to be forgotten just yet, PlayStation 4 made an appearance in the supplementary report with 100K units shipped during the fourth fiscal quarter. That brought its annual total to exactly 1 million consoles shipped, and pushed its lifetime figure to around 117 million. Based on Sony’s optimism around PlayStation 5 shipments increasing, this could very well be the last hurrah for its predecessor.

Considering the current consumer technology environment and where purchasing habits were at this time last year, Sony’s fiscal 2021 report is a triumphant one. Gains in both revenue and profit while battling headwinds from component shortages and rising inflation are worth celebrating. For PlayStation, hardware may be lagging historically and software sales are trending down, yet these are temporary situations. Financially this business is stable as ever, supplementing its traditional console sales with digital, service and add-on spending which will only increase as PlayStation Plus rebranding and partnerships with external publishers continue.

Before closing out, I’ll take a look ahead leveraging Sony’s own forecasts. It’s also time to throw in some predictions of my own!

Starting with that PlayStation 5 guidance of 18 million console shipments expected in the coming year. Management suggests the company will be able to secure enough parts, and at reasonable prices, to reach this elevated goal compared to the 11.5 million over the last 12 months. I believe they *think* they can, yet what will happen in reality is anyone’s guess. Even the smartest leaders can’t accurately predict the future when there’s this much uncertainty.

Personally, I don’t see what executives do. Reading the room using comments from chipmaker CEOs and industry experts, plus considering lock-downs in China, I’m much closer to 15 million or 16 million. More than most, I’m preparing for the semiconductor shortage to last into next year or more. The longer it goes, and if inflation continues with it, I predict Sony will reduce that forecast something like six months from now.

Flipping to financial forecasts, Sony is anticipating some robust top-line growth though guarding against pressures on the profitability side. The firm expects revenue to pass $101 billion in the year ending March 2023, which would be an increase of 15%. Even with that double-digit sales growth, it’s guiding towards 4% lower operating income of around $10.3 billion.

Sony is expecting a similar trend within G&NS where revenue will be higher yet operating profit should decline. In fact, revenue guidance is showing a substantial 34% jump to $32.6 billion which would be a record year for PlayStation. That reflects positive impact from hardware, peripherals, software and exchange rate impact. Still, much higher costs for game development and expenses related to acquisitions will drag down operating income by 12% to $2.7 billion.

“We plan to increase software development expenses aimed at strengthening first party software at our existing studios by approximately 40 billion yen ($300 million) year-on-year,” Totoki said. “And we have incorporated that impact into this forecast.”

Executives expect the $3.6 billion Bungie deal in particular to close before December 31st. If the G&NS segment excluded this acquisition, Sony claims operating profit would be virtually flat.

Taking a look at pending flagship software releases on the console exclusive side, the schedule is actually somewhat light for the next 12 months. Square Enix’s Forspoken was pushed from May to its current window of October. God of War Ragnarok is the big one of course, currently with a nebulous “2022” timing. I may be in the minority, I just don’t buy that the sequel to 2018’s masterpiece God of War will be out this year. However, I do see a launch between January and March 2023, in which case it will help boost sales this fiscal year. Then there’s titles like Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Marvel’s Wolverine from Insomniac that are still a ways out.

Then there’s the potential for PlayStation VR 2 during the coming 12 months. Sony’s been drip-feeding information on its next generation virtual reality headset in recent months, showing off its form factor, brand new controllers, advanced technologies and Guerilla Games’ Horizon Call of the Mountain project. Many industry followers think it will launch this year. I’m skeptical given it has to exist in the same supply conditions as the PlayStation 5 right now, though it wouldn’t shock me to see it out this holiday season.

Tangential to gaming is Sony’s transmedia push, seeing as the Uncharted movie has made nearly $400 million dollars since dropping in February. The company clearly has strength in IP ownership, and plans to leverage that in places other than just gaming.

“Following the success of the first movie adaptation of the popular PlayStation game title Uncharted in Motion Pictures, we are leveraging our game IP by proceeding with the adaptation of Ghost of
Tsushima
and The Last of Us into video content,” Totoki said.

Then there’s the constant swirl of rumors around potential acquisitions. Sony of course shouted out the Bungie and Haven Studios purchases. Could there be more in the near future? I’ve heard the rumblings about Square Enix after it sold various assets to Embracer Group. I’m thinking it remains independent and continues to partner closer with Sony. Which leaves other third parties still available. If I had to guess, I’d say another development studio or two will be next. And no, not FromSoftware!

Sony’s plans are ambitious and it expects to see substantial revenue growth in the coming year, even if high costs put pressure on its profitability. I believe top-line growth for gaming in particular will be limited if it misses the PlayStation 5 hardware guidance, so I’m more bearish than Sony’s leadership. It all depends where component cost and availability trend, and my estimates prepare for the worst.

Have any questions on today’s Sony recap? What are your reactions to the news and numbers? Do you think PlayStation VR 2 and God of War Ragnarok will be out this fiscal year? Am I crazy to think it won’t hit the 18 million PlayStation 5 target? Yell at me here or on social media, as always.

Oh. And always check my latest earnings calendar for more on gaming, media and tech company results. Have a great rest of the week and season, be well everyone!

Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise mentioned. Exchange rate is based on reported conversion: US $1 to ¥112.3.

Sources: Company Investor Relations Sites, KnowTechie (Image Credit), PlayStation Blog.

-Dom

PlayStation 5 Shipments Reach 17.3 Million as Sony Reports Best Third Quarter PlayStation Operating Profit Ever & Lowers Hardware Forecast

In what’s continuing as the busiest year in gaming news ever, Sony is back after announcing its $3.6 billion acquisition of Bungie to this time reporting its fiscal year 2021 Q3 earnings results.

An eventful one, it was.

In addition to providing updated figures on PlayStation hardware, software and engagement, Sony’s results showed that the gaming division recorded its second best quarter ever for top-line sales. Quarterly revenue exceeded $7.15 billion, which is second only to last year’s $7.77 billion.

Even further, operating profit rose 15% to $817 million in PlayStation’s single best operating profit for a third fiscal quarter. This is the coveted holiday period between October and December, which is most significant for consumer tech companies because of peak demand in various parts of the world. This record profit result and strong growth happened against a high comparable last year around the launch of PlayStation 5.

Right now, and in the immediate future, we know it’s availability dictating a lot of where the business is going. So these results are wholly impressive given this environment, which is continuously supply-constrained and facing delays on the software front. Behind the resilience is add-on content, an expansion in PlayStation Plus memberships plus a shift towards digital software.

On the hardware side, lifetime PlayStation 5 console shipments since launch are now 17.3 million after moving 3.9 million in this latest quarter. When compared to PlayStation 4, the brand’s fastest-selling console, that was at 20.2 million by this point. Its second holiday quarter was a strong 6.4 million, which is 2.5 million above PlayStation 5. It’s clear the current generation is starting to lag in a historical sense, facing various outward pressures amidst the semi-conductor crisis.

Oh, I guess this also means PlayStation 5 has officially passed the 13.56 million units that Nintendo’s Wii U reached across its lifetime. Add it to the list.

Because of supply concerns, Sony reduced its full year annual hardware guidance for PlayStation 5 to 11.5 million units. Previously it expected in-line with PlayStation 4 at upwards of 14.8 million. This implies only 2 million more PlayStation 5’s shipped in this quarter ending March 2022, which would also be below PlayStation 4’s 2.3 million in the corresponding period.

“Limitations on the supply of components are expected to continue going forward, but we are continuing to exert every effort to meet the strong demand for PlayStation 5,” said Sony’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Hiroki Totoki.

Here’s a full breakdown of the overall results plus PlayStation business segment, then the various supplementary statistics Sony shared. There’s even more color around the Bungie acquisition later in the article. Numbers, charts and more below!

For the company as a whole, both sales and profit metrics experienced double-digit gains and set new all-time highs for a fiscal third quarter.

Revenue increased 13% to $26.66 billion, while operating profit rose an impressive 32% to nearly $4.1 billion. Major growth in Pictures and Imaging & Sensing Solutions business segments boosted these historic results.

Drilling into Game & Network Services (G&NS), aka the PlayStation business, this is still Sony’s leading category by revenue at nearly twice as much as the next contributor in Financial Services. The PlayStation brand accounts for 27% of Sony’s sales and 20% of aggregate profit.

I’ve already mentioned the $7.15 billion in revenue, down 8% since last year, and $817 million in operating income during third quarter for G&NS. Slides from the company’s presentation cite declines in hardware, peripherals, first and third party software overtaking the impact of exchange rates on the sales side. Alternatively, lower expenses and better margins for PlayStation 5 spurred profit growth.

Those that have read my recap articles know what’s coming. Let’s frame these quarterly figures in context. There’s charts in the above gallery displaying trailing 12-month time frames for each of these.

Over the last four fiscal quarters, which is also calendar year 2021, PlayStation sits at almost exactly $24 billion in revenue. While down from the all-time high of $24.67 billion three months ago, it’s still the second best on record. Not too shabby. For operating profit, the most recent annual number is $2.56 billion and a slight increase over last quarter’s $2.45 billion.

The dip in trailing revenue makes sense, given the slowdown in hardware units and nearly every sub-category within the gaming business. The profitability bounce-back is more noteworthy, in my opinion. It reflects that amidst slowing production of hardware, there’s lower costs bumping up margins giving good impact to PlayStation’s bottom line.

The last of my charts in the gallery shows every product category within the gaming unit and where it’s been in recent quarters. My main observations are it’s the best time for digital software, the second best quarter for add-on content and even hardware, the latter two previously set during holiday 2020. There’s also the slow and steady upward trajectory of Network Services, proving that online play and the related software perks of PlayStation plus are keeping players in the ecosystem. The rumors around a potential combination of services into code-name “PlayStation Spartacus” would bolster this particular slice. I expect this trend-line to continue.

Now that Sony has reported, let’s quickly compare to industry peers. Pulled from my recent article on Microsoft’s results, here’s how it plays out. Sony’s trailing 12-month revenue of $24 billion still comes in below that of Tencent’s gaming businesses, generating $27.3 billion as of September 2021. Microsoft’s record $16.28 billion from annual Xbox sales is up next. If combined with Activision Blizzard, it would be $25.33 billion and actually could exceed Sony’s latest figure. Nintendo reports tomorrow, so I anticipate this figure to rise, however its latest for now is $14.7 billion. Keep in mind there’s impact from exchange rates of course plus Tencent won’t report until next month, though I like to show how each stacks up on a relative basis.

Beyond the fancy financials, Sony provided various updates on players, software and services within its PlayStation ecosystem.

Its online service PlayStation Plus tallied up 48 million subscribers as of December, slightly higher than the 47.4 million at end of 2020. On the flip side, Monthly Active Users (MAUs) across all PlayStation Network declined to 111 million from 114 million last holiday.

This implies that while paid users for PlayStation Plus are consistent, people are spending less time playing. No doubt impacted by last year being the launch of a brand new console, higher availability of vaccines recently plus more open economies. Gaming is still a go-to entertainment, of course. It’s just that folks are spending time on different media.

On the conference call, Totoki echoed this sentiment on engagement. “Total gameplay time of PlayStation users in December 2021 was 20% lower than the same month of the previous year, which was immediately after the release of the PlayStation 5,” he said. “But gameplay time increased approximately 7% from December 2019. For a quarter in which there were only a few major titles released, we think this was solid performance.”

I tend to agree, primarily because Sony is monetizing its base even as they spent less time gaming.

Full-game software sales also showed a downward trend year-on-year, declining to 92.7 million from the recent high of 104.2 million in fiscal 2020 Q3. First party title unit sales were 11.3 million, or 12% of the total, compared to 19 million and 18% of the total prior year. Partially reflective of the limited holiday lineup on the exclusive side, while major seller Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales hit market last year.

Consistent with digital software being its highest ever from a product category revenue standpoint, the split of digital full game sales is increasing. 62% of all software was digital download, compared to 53% last year. All three quarters this fiscal year have been at or above this same 62% figure. Basically, between 6 to 7 out of every 10 software units sold are now downloaded.

Because of known limitations on the PlayStation 5 production side, Sony is still chugging along manufacturing PlayStation 4 consoles. It shipped 200K of its prior generation box during the quarter ending December, resulting in lifetime sales of 116.9 million. At this rate, it might someday pass Game Boy’s 118.69 million. In a few years, hah.

Projecting into the future, it’s a challenging environment for the PlayStation from a hardware perspective though there are plenty of opportunities on the software and services side.

We’ve talked to death about high demand, low supply. My economics professors would be so proud!

Production and inventories aren’t getting better, as clearly displayed by PlayStation 5’s vast under-performance during a holiday quarter when unit sales have historically been much higher. Consistent with Sony’s formal guidance reduction, I’m lowering my estimate for PlayStation 5 shipments in the year ending this March. Last quarter, I was ambitious at 15 million. Even then I said confidence was waning. Now, I’m down to 12 million which would mean January to March has to reach 2.5 million.

Intriguingly, Sony lowered its fiscal year revenue outlook for the G&NS segment to $24 billion from $25.5 billion yet decided to boost its operating profit target from $2.86 billion to over $3 billion. This is a telling turn of events, signaling further cost reductions that will outpace lower dollar sales for PlayStation. Manufacturing less consoles does have the benefit of lower expenses, I suppose!

The last fiscal quarter ending next month will ramp up on the first party software side, as both Horizon Forbidden West and Gran Turismo 7 are slated to launch. There’s also third party console exclusives like Sifu and now Ghostwire Tokyo, announced today for March 25th. While releases like this won’t drive console sales as much as in the past because of inventories, it will benefit software sales, notably that digital content segment, plus player time investment.

Finally on the topic of acquisitions, Sony’s executives naturally did not comment much when asked about Microsoft’s industry-changing $68.7 billion purchase of Activision Blizzard and if they had plans to snatch up any large publishers.

They did, of course, talk about their major purchase in Bungie. While I didn’t dedicate an entire piece to it, I did want to mention Sony providing additional flavor around the deal, the resulting relationship and how it fits with the future of PlayStation as a brand.

Bungie, creators of Halo and makers of my beloved Destiny, was one of the largest private independent studios in the industry at over 900 employees. To me the main reason to me why it made a deal with Sony, as opposed to a traditional publisher or a software and cloud company like Microsoft, is the trans-media potential of crossover with film and television plus the opportunity to remain mostly independent.

On Sony’s side of the bargain, the upside is huge. One glaring weakness in PlayStation’s portfolio is a lack of live service and ongoing game expertise, which is crucial in 2022 going forward. Bungie provides that, both from a business model and technology standpoint. Along these lines, execs claims global revenue in the games industry from live services have been growing at an annualized rate of 15% since 2014 or the year Destiny launched.

“We intend to utilize these strengths when developing game IP at the PlayStation studios as we expand into the live game services area,” Totoki pointed out. “Through close collaboration between Bungie and the PlayStation Studios, we aim to launch more than 10 diverse Service Games by the fiscal year ending March 31, 2026.”

Alongside this movement towards games-as-a-service, Totoki also discussed the mid-term plan to grow first party software dollar sales to double its current amount by fiscal 2025. Between this internal acceleration of exclusive IP, pushing more into ongoing games with the help of Bungie’s knowledge plus the potential for a Xbox Game Pass-like service in PlayStation Spartacus, Sony’s gaming approach is looking more balanced than it’s ever been.

It does seem to be a good compromise and united.. destiny for both companies.

That’s a wrap on a mostly successful quarter for Sony, especially as a whole with those record results, even considering the lag in PlayStation 5 shipments and downward revision for certain items in the PlayStation division. Other areas are picking up the slack, proven by the record profitability exhibited within its gaming business. While its forecast is lighter for hardware and gaming sales, that operating income guidance increase is reassuring.

Did anything stand out to you in the report? What was the most surprising part? Do you agree with my forecast for hardware or are you more conservative like Sony’s management team? Feel free to drop a comment here or on social media.

Be safe and well. Thanks for reading!

Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise mentioned. Exchange rate is based on the reported conversion: US $1 to ¥113.7.

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites, LEGDAY on Twitter (Image Credit).

-Dom

PlayStation Records Best 2nd Quarter Sales Ever While Profit Falls Over 20 Percent

Now up this quarter for console manufacturers and game development is Sony, owner of PlayStation and responsible for many commercial hardware successes plus some of the most memorable, big budget titles of all time.

Speaking of all time, Sony established yet another massive record when it reported fiscal 2021 second quarter results ending September. Its Game & Network Services (G&NS) segment, which houses the PlayStation brand, just achieved its best ever revenue during a second quarter: $5.86 billion. The prior record holder was three years ago in 2018 at roughly $5 billion, when PlayStation 4 was well into its lifecycle.

The Japanese consumer tech giant attributed this top-line success to an increase in hardware sales, a better 3rd party software effect plus exchange rate impact despite a dip in first-party game sales mainly on a more sparse lineup. This means PlayStation 5 is showing solid momentum at this stage, bolstered by buyers spending on multi-platform software, services and add-on content.

On the downside, operating profit for the PlayStation unit dipped more than 20% in the second fiscal quarter ending September to just over $750 million. Partially because of a tough comparable to a powerful number last year during maximum quarantine restrictions globally. Sony is of course selling less PlayStation 4 consoles and related accessories lately. Not to mention the average cost of making a PlayStation 5 during the quarter exceeded its price point, and first-party software is currently lagging.

When focusing on hardware shipments, PlayStation 5 has already reached its fourth quarter on the market. Time flies. Sony said it produced 3.3 million PlayStation 5 consoles during July to September, bringing its lifetime total to 13.4 million. Both of these figures are ever so slightly below the PlayStation 4 during the same relative time frame, which moved 3.4 million during the same fiscal quarter and reached 13.8 million at this point in its life span.

No doubt Sony is feeling the impact of global component and chip shortages, though the good news is the latest hardware is mostly selling out when available. Technically we haven’t heard a formal update on PlayStation 5 hardware unit sell-thru since the 10 million milestone back in July, when the company announced it as the fastest-selling console it’s ever made. I’m confident it’s at least 13 million right now, implying parity with its predecessor. Or even better.

During the firm’s conference call, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Hiroki Totoki acknowledged the production difficulties yet reiterated both its hardware shipment goal of 14.8 million PlayStation 5’s and current financial targets for Sony’s gaming business this fiscal year ending in March.

“We have not changed this target,” said Totoki, referencing the aforementioned 14.8 million guidance. “Worldwide there is a disruption in logistics and mainly semiconductors device supply are being constrained. This is having a larger impact. And as you know, the hardware sales in the first quarter were less unit-wise, and so this is having an impact on us likewise with the second quarter. I think with effort and putting in place different measures, the PlayStation platform momentum can be maintained.”

In order to reach this number Sony needs to ship an additional 9.2 million PlayStation 5’s in the next six months, a bulk of which will happen during the holiday season. Personally, I’m leaning towards betting this will be achieved. Even if I’m not as sure as I once was. More on that later.

For now, the fun starts. I’ll dig into some quick analysis of underlying numbers within this latest report and then it’s forecasting time!

On the whole, Sony generated roughly $21.5 billion in sales during the quarter which was a 13% increase. This was attributed to major boosts in G&NS, Pictures, Music plus its Electronics Products & Solutions (EP&S).

From a profitability standpoint accounting for expenses, the firm’s output was effectively flat. Operating income during Q2 moved up 1% to $2.87 billion. EP&S provided a substantial boon here, while the aforementioned decline in gaming profit led on the downside.

PlayStation was still the company’s main contributor from both a sales and profit standpoint. That record Q2 revenue of $5.86 billion was up 27% and represents right around 27% of Sony’s total top-line. While the $751 million in operating profit from this business marked a decline of 22%, it still comprises 26% of total profit.

Where does this fall in the context of results lately? Taking a look at trailing annual figures helps add to that perspective, which is displayed in the first two charts I’ve compiled. Over the last four quarters, the PlayStation brand is responsible for $25.47 billion in sales. This is its best ever aggregate result, a billion U.S. dollars more than any rolling period in recent memory.

Operating profit tells a different story of course since earlier days of the pandemic, as expenses rise plus first party software output slides. Adding up the past year, G&NS segment income was $2.54 billion. This is the lowest since fourth quarter fiscal 2019.

The last chart in the gallery above displays quarterly contributions from each product category within PlayStation’s portfolio. Add-On Content is the primary factor at $1.71 billion, nearly 30% of gaming revenue and 10% higher than Q2 in 2020. Hardware is the clear growth story, nearly tripling since the final hurrah of last generation. PlayStation consoles contributed a quarter of gaming sales for Sony, reaching $1.46 billion. On the software side, Physical dipped 17% while Digital edged up slightly.

These dynamics reveal a couple intriguing trends. Even if there are less people playing than last year, they are still purchasing additional items and downloadable content for the games they own. It’s representative of a modern industry where games have longer tails and stay supported well after release. Digital is proving resilient, while retail is inconsistent. Oh, and PlayStation 5 is popular. That’s an easy one.

It’s only natural at this stage to run a quick comparison against two of Sony’s main global competitors in Microsoft and Nintendo. As I wrote earlier this week, Microsoft’s corresponding quarter was also a record-breaker internally on the revenue side and it’s reached $15.86 billion over the last year. Nintendo reports next week, its latest trailing 12-month sales around $15.56 billion. I expect that to increase accounting for its latest quarter so it’s not apples-to-apples just yet. Either way, PlayStation is clearly exhibiting its sales prowess. With my usual caveat that top-line doesn’t tell the whole story.

Financials and hardware sales weren’t the only juicy parts of Sony’s latest report. There’s also updates on PlayStation Plus, user engagement, software then its corresponding digital split. Note I included a full excerpt in the earlier gallery containing this supplemental data.

PlayStation Plus subscribers reached 47.2 million as of September month-end, which is up compared to 45.9 million 12 months back. A mere fraction off the quarterly high of 47.4 million subs back in March.

Monthly Active Users (MAUs), or the estimated total unique accounts that used PlayStation Network or played software in the ecosystem, shrank from 108 million last year to 104 million now. It’s the lowest in at least the latest six quarters, a statistic which was reflected by executive comments.

On the conference call we learned gameplay of PlayStation users was down 17% in Q2. Still with PlayStation Plus momentum, additional content spend and digital sales consistency based on category metrics, management called it an improving “quality” of engagement. Basically while player count is an important barometer, it’s more about how much people are spending. If the former is down while the latter is up, it’s really a win.

Full game software unit sales across PlayStation platforms, a figure which includes bundles, totaled 76.4 million, roughly 10% of which were first-party titles. Compare that to 81.8 million and 16% first-party from July to September 2020. Digital download ratio is now at 62%, up a bit from 59%. Sony doesn’t report exact physical versus digital units. Based on that earlier physical software revenue decline, the implication is retail softness is behind the change.

These indicators reflect a handful of things to me: Lower exclusive output, better spend on evergreen experiences plus a general impact of game delays. The period between July and September was light for PlayStation exclusives. Deathloop and Kena: Bridge of Spirits led the charge really, alongside “director’s cuts” for Ghost of Tsushima and Death Stranding. The first is actually published by Xbox Game Studios and while the second recouped its development costs and did well on platform ranks, it’s still an indie project. Multi-platform launches like FIFA 22 and Madden NFL 22 weren’t enough to beat out a strong prior comparable.

Not to be forgotten just yet, PlayStation 4 is still active on the software side even if much less so on hardware shipments which were 200K. That brings lifetime to 116.7 million. Any hopes of the second best-selling home console of all time moving past PlayStation 2’s 155 million is out the window by now. The upside is the latest generational transition is the most opportunistic for consumers, as PlayStation 5 does have backwards compatibility.

That’s enough looking back. Instead, what’s next for Sony?

Well management is certainly optimistic on future prospects, raising fiscal year ending March guidance for both sales by 2% and operating income by 6%. It now anticipates almost $90 billion in revenue, then $9.45 billion in profit.

At the same time, it reiterated internal forecasts for the PlayStation business even in the face of weakening operating profit. Target is $26.34 billion in sales for the year, with almost $3 billion in operating profit expected. Both of these would be substantial, establishing new financial year records.

This historic performance would require a strong showing from PlayStation 5 hardware shipments naturally, hitting that 14.8 million figure targeted for the full year ending March 2022.

Responding to an analyst question, Managing Director of Investor Relations Sadahiko Hayakawa echoed confidence in the platform. “I think that with effort and putting in place different measures, the PlayStation platform momentum can be maintained. And especially to the users waiting for their PlayStation 5, said Hayakawa. “We want to be able to supply as many PlayStation 5’s as possible to our customers who are waiting. That is our thinking.”

Right now I tend to agree with the top-line target for G&NS, taking into account another holiday for PlayStation 5 and related software. A steady hardware prediction is trickier, given so many uncertainties and how a lot of it is out of Sony’s control, no matter what executives claim. I’ve moved toward being less confident in my 15 million annual shipment estimate, though I will keep it temporarily. Perhaps out of stubbornness.

And I’m nowhere near bullish on the profit target. Especially with rising component prices, lower chip availability, player figures wavering and inching up digital sales. Will additional content spending and hardware growth be enough to offset expenses? I’m going to say it misses slightly, with the room for review once seeing where the holiday quarter lands.

Before wrapping, I want to mention further comments from Sony’s leaders on investment and focusing efforts. After purchasing Bluepoint Games, Fabrik Games and Firesprite all during the past quarter, the team plans to maintain “aggressive” investment in its development capabilities. This implies expansion beyond its current studio suite, so I’m curious where the next move will be.

CFO Totoki also said Sony wants to enhance and increase PlayStation Studios to invest more on development of games for PC and mobile, pushing beyond its traditional console market share. The announcement of God of War (2018) planning a PC release in January 2022 echoes this statement.

PlayStation is clearly the most important part of Sony’s overall business, hitting records and doing its best to keep up with hardware demand. The cost of investment and input prices to make PlayStation 5 has had an effect on its bottom line lately, though maintaining its annual targets shows a positivity that I don’t fully share across the board until gleaning more from the global chip situation and holiday performance.

Did anything stand out to you while checking out my article or Sony’s announcement? Do you think it will meet its targets and boast record PlayStation performance? Give a shout here or on social media. Be safe and thanks for reading!

Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise mentioned. Exchange rate is based on the reported conversion: US $1 to ¥ 110.1.

Sources: Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony.

-Dom

PlayStation 5 Breaks Nintendo Switch Streak in Record September for U.S. Games Sales

Although it feels like no one can find one these days, PlayStation 5 is most certainly selling. And, like many years past, sports video games are as popular as ever here in America.

That’s according to the latest monthly report from U.S. games industry tracker The NPD Group, which released its September 2021 consumer spending figures earlier today.

Within, the firm revealed last month hit a September best across the entirety of tracked history. Total spending reached nearly $4.4 billion, an increase of 3% and the single best September month on record.

This impressive result was primary driven by continued moment of hardware growth, mobile spending and ongoing subscription sales on services like Xbox Game Pass. These sub-categories were able to balance out declines elsewhere, including within accessories.

Biggest story told by the numbers is within Video Game Hardware: how PlayStation 5 halted a competitor’s historic streak. Sony’s latest generation box was the best-selling console in the U.S. by both dollar sales AND units sold. The latter is the important point. This ends Nintendo Switch’s consecutive streak of leading by unit sales at a whopping 33 months. The last time a console other than Switch was atop the hardware chart by this metric was PlayStation 4’s win back in November 2018!

Which to me is more indicative of supply conditions as Sony continues to output as many PlayStation 5’s as possible. Nintendo has swapped over to its Switch OLED Model production, which launched after this month’s sales report on October 8th. The tricky part going forward is inventories aren’t expected to increase much anytime soon. In recent weeks, semiconductor sector leaders from AMD and Marvell commented that the chip shortage likely won’t ease until back half of 2022 if not later. As a primary component of gaming consoles, this is concerning for those of us that track industry sales.

Back to the report within Video Game Content i.e. the software, mobile and subscription category. While it was flat on the spending side, sports games dominated to take home the top three spots on the overall chart. Entries in Madden NFL, FIFA and NBA 2K scored top marks. This happened alongside record franchise launches for Tales and Life is Strange, all of which contributed to consistent content trends.

Mobile continues to be a major factor of course, contributing over $2 billion in monthly spending yet again. This has happened in eight of the past nine months this year. That’s roughly 45% of overall spending for the entire month of September. Names like Candy Crush Saga and Genshin Impact were among the best performers.

The NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella said the story overall is “unchanged” lately, namely how hardware is performing as well as supply allows it plus mobile and subscriptions are keeping their pace.

Before moving into the actual charts and underlying trends, I want to say I hope everyone is safe and healthy leading into a busy season, namely the colder months here in the Northern hemisphere. Grab a cup of something warm and read on for the hottest details of today’s report.

United States Games Industry Sales (August 29th, 2021 – October 2nd, 2021):

As mentioned before and displayed in the above gallery, it was a record-breaking September for the domestic games industry. Total consumer spend grew 3% to $4.4 billion, the best September month of all time.

This led to the first 9 months of 2021 reaching $42.28 billion, or growth of 12%. Two of the three main meta categories experienced double-digit gains, and the last just a tad below that.

Monthly Content spending was essentially flat in September, stacking up $3.78 billion or around 87% of total spending. Aggregating the year so far, Content is up 10% to $37.11 billion for the first three quarters.

This Content segment result was driven by mobile, hardware and myriad new releases on the software side. Within mobile in particular, average monthly spending in the first 9 months was 28% higher than last year. Genshin Impact in particular celebrated its one year anniversary recently and was the second highest grossing mobile title in September, up a massive 120% compared to August.

There’s a whole lot to cover on the traditional console and PC market side, mainly due to just how many best sellers launched. I’ll try to go rapid fire.

Madden NFL 22 repeats at the top spot on the overall chart, the same as during its release month of August. Electronic Arts’ annual football entry is now the second best-selling game of 2021 to date, up from fourth in August. It was the top earner on PlayStation and Xbox platform lists alike.

Electronic Arts also published the second-ranked game in FIFA 22, which hit that same spot on PlayStation and Xbox ranks. That’s with only 2 days of sales in this period. This was just below last year’s debut when it nabbed the top spot in October 2020 because of more days included and a bigger gap between its release and Madden at the time.

NBA 2K22 was the sports title rounding out the top three. Take-Two Interactive might have jumped even higher with its annual basketball series if the publisher shared digital sales, so this start is that much more notable because it’s retail alone. This was higher than NBA 2K21’s relative start, where it was #5 in September 2020.

Next up was new launch Tales of Arise at #4. It had the single biggest launch month of any game in the Bandai Namco-produced Tales Japanese RPG series, measured by dollar sales. And it’s yet another example of Eastern games gaining in popularity during simultaneous global releases.

Activision Blizzard, a company still under lawsuits for reported workplace toxicity that its executives fostered thus making a difficult time for women and marginalized employees, saw its Diablo II: Resurrected earn the fifth spot last month. Deathloop, the atypical PlayStation 5 exclusive published by Xbox Game Studios post Microsoft’s ZeniMax deal, came in sixth place. I call that successful for a single platform game (for now) just on PlayStation 5, achieving fourth on PlayStation platforms in September behind only the major third-party sports titles. Then Square Enix’s Life is Strange: True Colors sneaked into the Top 10, yet another commercial success that generated record first month dollar sales within its respective franchise.

Further down the list were new releases Sonic Colors: Ultimate at #13 then Nintendo’s WarioWare: Get it Together! at #15. One major observation is there were no Nintendo-published game within the Top 10, the highest ranked was Mario Kart 8 at eleventh. Definitely impacted by Nintendo only reporting physical sales plus the dearth of new multi-platform titles available across competitors.

It’s time for all them rankings.

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

  1. Madden NFL 2022
  2. FIFA 22
  3. NBA 2K22*
  4. Tales of Arise
  5. Diablo II: Resurrected
  6. Deathloop
  7. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  8. Ghost of Tsushima
  9. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  10. Life is Strange: True Colors
  11. Mario Kart 8*
  12. Diablo Prime Evil Collection
  13. Sonic Colors: Ultimate
  14. Minecraft
  15. WarioWare: Get it Together!*
  16. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  17. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  18. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  19. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  20. Mortal Kombat 11

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

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

Diving into Hardware numbers for the month, this segment experienced a 49% increase in consumer spending to $412 million. It’s the most significant growth story across the full report, which makes sense this early in the cycle. And I believe it could be even more if the inventory situation was less constrained, as I’m confident there’s ample demand.

Hardware was also up the same 49% during the first three quarters of the year through September, moving almost $3.41 billion in spend.

And well, it happened again. One of my predictions from last month’s piece was wrong. As I mentioned during the intro, PlayStation 5 topped September by both dollar revenue and monthly unit sales. I previously guessed that Nintendo Switch could outpace competitors until the crucial November and December time frames, when anything can happen. Sony was successfully able to produce enough PlayStation 5 boxes to outpace Nintendo, which had an incredible run over the past almost three years. The best predictors are able to admit when they miss, and it won’t be the last time.

While The NPD Group didn’t formally report second place on the console side, I assume it was Nintendo Switch based on current momentum and consistency of output. There’s also no word on Microsoft’s Xbox performance. I know anecdotally it’s extremely difficult to find Xbox Series X, so those higher priced units are selling. I’m unsure on Xbox Series S because I’ve seen more inventories pop up on online retailers in particular, not going out of stock as quickly as other new consoles. I’d love to see the numbers behind it.

Which leads me to a similar story for dedicated readers and social media friends: Supply, market forces and shortages! Until there’s more, it just depends on which manufacturer has more in the market. September was Sony’s time to shine. Let’s see where it goes in the coveted fourth quarter.

Final category to cover is Video Game Accessories, really the only blemish on an otherwise solid report. Spending here declined 12% last month to $171 million. It was $193 million back in September 2020.

Accessories is still growing over the first nine months of 2021, reaching $1.76 billion over that time which is 9% higher than the same period in 2020. Its pace is still positive, even if slowing.

Microsoft again boasted the top accessory with its Xbox Elite Series 2 controller generating the highest dollar sales. Sony’s PlayStation 5 Wireless Controller white iteration maintained its position as the year’s best seller so far.

Not much else to say for this segment other than it’s relatively quiet right now. Upside is there are gains for the year in total.

When taking September’s U.S. games industry report from The NPD Group as a whole, there’s a lot of bright spots within both content and hardware results. PlayStation 5 pushes through the chip shortage to steal Nintendo’s spotlight, even if I believe that will be temporary.

Not only do I expect Nintendo Switch to regain its leading hardware position during October on units, I believe it can win on dollar sales too due to the higher-priced OLED offering.

We’re currently in the midst a busy season of releases, especially for AAA sports franchises, and I expect those to continue on the charts for foreseeable future. FIFA 22 will now have a full month of sales then Madden and NBA 2K will continue momentum during their respective league seasons.

In terms of other recent or upcoming titles, Ubisoft will have a favorable month as Far Cry 6 will chart well then Riders Republic is a wildcard. Nintendo publishes two games in Metroid Dread and Mario Party Superstars. I firmly believe the former will undoubtedly set a series launch record. Just unsure where it will rank within the broader market against multi-platforms, I’d say Top 6 or 7 is realistic.

Back 4 Blood is a question mark. I expect Xbox Game Pass, pent up demand for a Left 4 Dead-like and word-of-mouth can drive a solid start for the title published by Warner Bros Games. Electronic Arts had NHL 2022 launch a few days ago, a sports title more niche than its counterparts. Guardians of the Galaxy from Square Enix will be a curious debut in late October, where I expect brand recognition alone to can land a Top 7 rank even with three days on market.

All in all, it’s a fun time to be following the industry and checking which records will be made or broken each time.

Thanks all for reading. I should have at least an article or two between now and October’s report. Earnings season is starting up after all, so stay tuned for my world famous calendar! I hope you and yours are doing well until next time around.

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

Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.

Sources: CNBC, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, The NPD Group, Sony.

-Dom

Review: Deathloop Is Made of Great Parts That Could Be Excellent Next Time Around

“If I’m not dead, then what the bleep am I?”

Well if it’s 2021, then probably caught in a time loop.

Expanding on a mechanic seemingly at peak popularity, Deathloop is the latest time-bending title to be set in a never-ending cycle that resets upon ending. And it’s a seriously good one, even if its punchy gameplay, clever level design and crafty progression aspects mask its fatal flaws such as lack of variety, uneven ability usefulness plus an unsatisfying story arc. Moments of excellence only highlight its potential for greatness, as it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights it so stylishly attempts to grasp.

I adore so much about Arkane Lyon’s creation, which doesn’t fit neatly into current genre conventions. It’s a first-person action game with shooting, exploration, puzzle, stealth and run-based elements that presents as a sandbox immersive sim then really ends up being more linear and restrictive than it initially promises. Its timeline is out of order, a nifty way for the team to tell a narrative primarily by slowly dispensing information then allowing the player to manipulate outcomes within this overall framework.

The tricky part with a game as ambitious as Deathloop is certain parts feel lesser when compared to superior ones, like a full course meal where the main dish is exquisite yet the appetizer and dessert are unfulfilling.

That mysterious, quick-witted woman is Julianna Blake who acts as the main antagonist. While mercilessly heckling Colt via the radio, her goal is maintaining the loop’s integrity. Which means hunting Colt as he tries to kill seven other fellow Visionaries. She can invade mid-run, controlled by either AI or a person online. This sort of multiplayer is a novel concept where it’s much more fun to be Julianna of course, busting up a run as opposed to losing. Visionaries themselves have key roles in the history and management of Blackreef, and the loop ends only if they are taken out in a single day.

This place is meant to be a utopia for most inhabitants dubbed “Eternalists” as they are experiencing a form of amortality, effectively being unable to die. To Colt, it’s a suffocating trap from which he must be freed. He and Julianna retain knowledge across loops, an important distinction compared to most everyone else who are experiencing the “First Day” indefinitely. 

During a tutorial that’s a contender for longest ever because it takes a couple hours to get one’s bearings, the game spills its general structure and gameplay tips. There are four different areas across Blackreef: Fristad Rock, Karl’s Bay, Updaam and The Complex. Each can be accessed via a menu at four times of day: Morning, Noon, Afternoon or Night. Time doesn’t move forward while at these locations, only in the menu between them. And order doesn’t matter, Colt can wait until a later time of day if needed. It’s a smart way to allow players to take time devouring each map, learning the intricacies without the pressure of a ticking clock. Once nighttime is over, or Colt perishes, the loop resets back to dawn.

Which means there are 16 different combinations, all of which take place on the same base area yet showcase a variety of scenarios. Places look fresh in the early sunrise while everyone is waking up, possibilities supposedly endless to all. By sundown, the worst are battered or blown up. The best are ready for a snazzy masquerade ball or big environmental puzzle. It’s through these mechanisms that Colt influences the world to precisely line up his kills. The player’s main goal is to figure out how to either manipulate characters or leverage their movements across areas to achieve an “ultimate” run where every single one doesn’t survive.

Objectives in Deathloop are organized using a system of leads: One is a set of Visionary storylines, mapping out where each individual starts and the most relevant information learned to bring about their demise. What’s curious about these is they don’t actually end the first time Colt kills a given Visionary. He has to do it the correct way for the lead to “complete”, which means it’s then ready to be a part of his master plan.

For instance, the first big lead during the tutorial phase is Doctor Wenjie Evans at The Complex. She’s actually the one responsible for the loop, her hope was to have an eternity to learn about it and while studying she realizes she comes to the same conclusions each day. Thus realizing she forgets each night. Her major contributions are related to upgrades I’ll discuss later. Her main ability is duplication, pulling in copies of herself from other timelines. While one way to kill her is taking out each of her copies, that might not be the optimal outcome.

The other objective type is a set of Arsenal Leads. These aid in learning how to acquire Slabs, unique powers from most Visionaries, plus select elite level weapons. Slab acquisition happens naturally while targeting the Visionary Leads, then high-level weapons act as a sort of side quest within the guidelines of each run. This is essential in my opinion, especially given the game’s limited arsenal.

There are also menu options for Discoveries and Documents. The former shows action items that build up over time as the player explores. The latter is anything related to character journals or audio logs. Some are essential to move the narrative forward, others reward with bits of lore and help round out what the heck is going on while some explain minor systems. All of this is a lot to take in and was overwhelming for a while.

From this menu navigation to moving around the world and engaging in combat, Arkane has made a core experience where almost everything has such a great feel. Controls are snappy and always responsive. There’s this tangible feedback, partially due to technology in the DualSense controller, that bolsters immersion even in the most basic of interactions. 

Gameplay for the most part is predictable for a first-person game, especially in the Arkane lineage of Dishonored and Prey. There’s walking, traversal, climbing, shooting and grenade tossing. Stealth is viable and I’d argue essential in the first half of the game’s 20 to 30 hours. A “focus” button can mark and examine a certain number of enemies, which is helpful when gauging the layout of a new area. Then there’s hacking of sensors and turrets via the Hackamajig, an on-the-nose gadget which somehow also acts as a radio.

Weapons fall into traditional archetypes: pistols, shotguns, submachine guns and rifles. There really aren’t that many different options. Long range is particularly lacking. And early on, rarity is low. Colt finds a base level gun early to practice target shooting. Every other piece of gear is picked up from defeated enemies. Visionaries and Arsenal Leads having the highest quality. Crappy weapons can even jam, “because they are old” the game argues, which is quite literally the opposite of fun. I wish it was never greenlit. It’s the type of system clearly added to encourage stealth in the early parts, even though the player’s low health and minimal ability suite already does that. Luckily, the best weapons won’t jam which leads me to wonder why have it in the first place.

Each Visionary has a role to play, a distinct personality, individual relationships and most even have fancy powers to steal. These are called Slabs. They offer up core abilities, which will be familiar to fans of Arkane’s earlier works. The first of which is Reprise, a slab intrinsic to Cole’s loadout which can revive him twice. There are five others: The teleporting Shift from Charlie Montague. Aether from Egor Serling offers invisibility. Nexus links foes together so hurting one does the same to everyone else, held by Harriet Morse. Fia Zborowska has Havoc, basically an enrage cheat code. Then there’s Aleksis Dorsey’s Karnesis, a form of telekinesis that can throw enemies around. Julianna can actually use any of these abilities, so she’s another source. Using these takes a regenerating resource called Power.

A nice system around these slabs is upgrading them. The first time a Visionary is killed, Colt earns the base slab. Each time after that, he can collect an upgrade linked to their particular ability. It’s an incentive to finish out portions of a run or to take down Julianna when she invades. For example there are slam and area-of-effect options for Karnesis, while Shift can reach further or hover in mid-air. Very much welcome, especially the latter for rapid traversal.

Enhancing Colt and his gear are items called Trinkets, customization options that have a notable impact. These are pieces “imbued with Blackreef’s temporal anomaly” and can either be made in certain locations or picked up from enemy drops. Character trinkets are general buffs like boosted health, more power, faster movement and the like. Weapon trinkets can improve accuracy, damage, rate of fire or reload speed. Combining these helps beef up Colt to take on a more run-and-gun approach, or spec towards stealth with more silent alternatives.

So, how does the player retain things other than knowledge across runs? A mechanic called Infusion, originally discovered by the aforementioned Dr. Wenjie. Using Residuum, a resource collected from items throughout the world or by killing bosses, the player can carry over weapons, slabs and trinkets from one run to the next. Anything in one’s current inventory can also be sacrificed for a select amount of Residuum, which means duplicates or unused items can be useful. Especially because Residuum itself can’t be carried over at the end of a night and is lost upon death, so it’s essential to hang onto it and allocate towards becoming more powerful.

Regrettably the rules of Infusion are confusing. Presentation in the menu is messy. It takes a while to understand what carries over and why, resulting in missed infusions or precious lost items. The best approach is to infuse anything and everything because there’s a risk of dying and losing everything that isn’t locked in. There’s filtering options which can help a bit, it’s still not the most intuitive upgrading path.

The ultimate problem here, and it’s one of my major gripes with Deathloop, is the limitation of its loadout system. Having three weapon slots is perfectly fine. That works. It’s the slab and character trinket options that hurt. Colt can only have two slabs equipped at once. Shift alone is almost an essential power, therefore always taking up a slot and making it so that there’s one spot for four other slabs. If Colt can have all these slabs at once, why can’t he use them? I mean Blackreef is this special temporal location where time is clearly special. Isn’t there a lore workaround that would allow him to alternate between more than two slabs?

Similarly character trinkets are limited to four. Double jump is classified as a trinket rather than an inherent skill. So it’s really three slots as far as I’m concerned. Double-jump is a ridiculous video game thing that most characters have by default. Colt should too. I assume Arkane wanted to streamline these systems so as to not confuse players, since their prior games had a ton of different skills. So then let us pay Residuum to unlock additional slots as we get to know the game. It could focus attention during the early portion then add to character growth later on, and by the end both Colt and the player would understand how to leverage them together.

The tricky part with a game as ambitious and feature-packed as Deathloop is certain parts feel lesser when compared to superior ones, like a full course meal where the main dish is exquisite yet the appetizer and dessert are unfulfilling.

Setting up these loadout setups and character systems is well and good. I’m surprised to report that the best moments happen when it all goes to crap. Which is often in Deathloop. At least for me. It’s the exact opposite of something like Dishonored in that regard, where I never had any success with combat. Shooting hits hard here, and it’s the most enjoyable and effective strategy other than the first few times through each level. Assuming the player has powered up. Downside is stealth is much more of a slog than arousing the sort of tense dread that’s key for such sequences. I just didn’t feel as compelled to take my time when the alternative felt that much better.

Tying into the location mechanic mentioned earlier, a most genius move from the development team is its take on progression. The player chooses where and when to start a given go, whether it’s for key information gathering, targeting a Visionary’s unique power or focusing on an individual weapon lead. It’s the type of rewarding feedback loop that makes a player feel smart and more enabled, both from a knowledge standpoint plus actual in-game capabilities. Colt as a character is growing as he’s remembering why the heck he’s on Blackreef.

There’s also progression baked into levels. Certain collectibles talk about the player’s prior actions. Enemy placement also changes based on time of day. Some denizens are drunk and easy to kill. Others have geared up so they are much stronger. Visionaries can move around and be manipulated. The most glaring instance here is a big party thrown by Visionary Aleksis Dorsey taking place at his mansion in Updaam. It’s really the biggest singular event during the loop. Depending on what Colt does during earlier phases of the day, major characters will attend the event which makes it easier to take them out in succession.

Contributing to a sense of place and aesthetic, Blackreef has its own distinct look plus history to discover. Aesthetic does a ton of heavy lifting in Deathloop. Style is uber slick, a 60’s jazz-spy vibe complete with war-torn trappings, scientific experiments, pop art decor, a soundtrack full of piano chords with blaring horns and even animated sequences straight out of a noir cartoon thriller. This is totally enhanced by ongoing banter between Colt, his inner voice and Julianna’s constant poking fun.

The famed Arkane level design and environmental expertise is solid in this sort of setting. Cold War era industrial buildings allow for labyrinthian corridors and subterranean passageways. The Complex is Blackreef’s research center, where Dr. Wenjie and Egor Serling conduct unconventional tests in sterile laboratories plus outdoor satellite arrays. Fristad Rock houses an intricate upscale dance club and mysterious underground bunker. All locations have various locked doors and un-powered levers, clearly indicating the need for further information. What’s cool is most access codes are randomized, meaning they change for different players and even across loops. It’s a crafty way to change things up.

Updaam houses a handful of its most stellar areas, mainly because that’s where gamemaker and Visionary Charlie Montague operates plus Aleksis hosts the aforementioned mansion party. Montague has built these live-action games scattered throughout different maps which he calls “Charlie Challenges.” The Moxie is a set of laser and pressure plate challenge rooms. Condition Detachment is the name of his space invader type of game, which houses his personal lair and one of the main areas where he’s vulnerable. There’s also Charlie’s robot called 2-Bit, made from half of his brain and one of the few sentient beings that remembers things across loops. It’s crucial to explore these areas.

This is all to say one of the things Deathloop does best is make Blackreef as memorable for its character as its practicality, namely in offering alternate route options for Colt. It’s a bizarre place where intriguing scientific questions are asked and not many answers are needed by most.

The run-based nature here and neat side activities lends itself well to quick sessions as much as marathons. Someone can play strictly for the purpose of gathering information. Others are used to take out Visionaries. Even get in on some invading. Within the industrial shore town of Karl’s Bay, there’s an unconventional way to make trinkets. An amatuer science team sets up a failed experiment to harness Blackreef’s temporal power. There’s a machine that exposes the area to “visitors” from other timelines, which Colt has to kill quickly in order to collect enough Residuum. There’s plenty of individual tasks to complete, even if some aren’t necessarily as rewarding.

Speaking of rewarding optional content, I have to give a special shout out to Heritage Gun. It’s a top-level Arsenal lead reward from arguably the best side event in the game which spans an entire map. While technically a shotgun, it has a slug round mode with incredible range. Fans of The Chaperone in Destiny will agree.

I mentioned the feedback and general feel before. A major component is sound design in Deathloop. It’s straight up mean. Pure. Colt’s boots crunch across the hard cement. Julianna’s radio chatter emanates from the DualSense controller speaker. Announcements from Visionaries blare through the streets. And the kill sound when using a weapon is up there with the best shooters of all time, crunchy and violent. It’s especially satisfying when using a rifle.

Tying in with the audio design is how voice acting, dialogue and writing is top-notch. Especially the two main characters. It’s amazing to see black leading characters and actors in a triple-A game of this caliber, both of which are exceptional performances. Jason E. Kelley plays Colt and Ozioma Akagha features as Julianna, each getting the best out of the other. It helps that their writing is savvy, and I looked forward to hearing their quick antagonizing at the start of each sequence.

Unfortunately, the distinction within Deathloop for its most fatal of flaws is rigidity of effective play styles and lack of variety hidden beneath the veil. Weapon archetypes are restricted to just the handful I mentioned before. And there’s at most a couple within a given type. Especially long-range. Other than a sniper hidden behind an Arsenal Lead, there’s a single rifle to find. Some of its best top-end gear is locked behind the Deluxe Edition.

The decisions around loadout options are most restrictive and unfortunate. Certain powers feel essential, like Shift allowing teleporting and quick movement especially vertically. Others are flat out inferior or hyper-specific for more hardcore fans. Like Nexus, the one that can tether enemies together, is fiddly and unreliable.

I was hoping Arkane kept with its tradition of giving players more credit in our understanding of how abilities can synergize. I know Deathloop leans into action elements more than its predecessors. The beauty of an immersive sim or sandbox game is still flexibility of choice. Limiting the use of various hard-earned powers feels like an unnecessary constraint. Hand the player tools then let them decide, rather than forcing them to pick.

Elsewhere there’s superfluous features that didn’t jive with so many other smart decisions. There’s a sort of cosmetic outfit system for Colt and Julianna, which doesn’t mean much when everything is first person. These are mostly earned by protecting the loop as Julianna, which I guess is some incentive to play as her. Then there’s dual wielding weapons, a setup that’s against the very framework of having a weapon in one hand then a power or hacking device in the other. The only time I used it was with one of the special weapons that transforms from dual pistols to a submachine gun, because there’s a damage boost associated with doing so.

In terms of opposition to Colt’s bloodbath, most enemies are flat-out dumb. The main challenge comes from overwhelming numbers rather than savvy tactics. Difficulty levels in this context would be very much welcome. It’s so easy to trick or lose Eternalists. At least it can be hilarious!

For the most part, Deathloop avoids the deathtrap of most time loop games: Repetition. That is until the endgame, when there’s little else to figure out or discover. When the targets are all lined up. There’s really only one way to finish the game properly. So it comes down to execution. It’s demoralizing to be invaded or make one mistake busting that final run. Losing time towards the finale is what hurts most, not materials or upgrades because the player is swimming in them by that point.

Arkane shows its more level-based roots here in guiding toward the optimal run, less akin to moving chess pieces on a board and more like finally seeing the solution in a board game with a predefined path. No matter what one has done before, conforming to the “right way” is the only option. Which is why I consider Deathloop to be ultimately a linear narrative jumbled up to make it seem otherwise, which is excellent during the discovery phase then traditional once the picture clears up.

I will say its final gauntlet of ripping through the Visionaries was admittedly intense the first time I did it. Like a boss rush. It was amplified because Julianna showed up at night during the last push. I wonder if the game’s programmed to do that. If so, kudos to the team for ramping up that adrenaline. Subsequent tries are much less so, because the player already knows what to do. It’s the problem of knowing a solution before being able to finish a puzzle, leading to an anticlimactic situation.

Quality of life features and various options are a mixed bag. The tutorial menu is exceptional. All of the game’s mechanics and systems are organized in a single spot, which is convenient. Heads-up display has a ton of flexibility. There’s not much in the way of dedicated accessibility options beyond text size. No colorblind considerations or detailed controller mapping. There’s no actual map or waypoint system, which could be helpful even considering all the hand-holding it does documenting everything the player finds. Plus there’s no photo mode, for those that might be curious.

Visual options on console are more varied. All of them have dynamic 4K scaling. One mode favors resolution, a second is where performance prioritizes a steady 60 frames-per-second then a raytracing mode. Naturally I played in performance mode, which was flawless. I have read about certain challenges on PC, which Arkane is addressing.

Sad to report I did experience certain technical issues on PlayStation 5. The game hard-crashed twice, causing me to lose progress since it saves only at the start of a given area. I had one instance where the menu overlay froze and wouldn’t leave the user interface, making the game unplayable without restarting. The most weird of all was on the controller side, losing control of the character, dropping inputs and not being responsive. I’ve never had that happen with any other PlayStation 5 game since its launch. I even updated the game pad to the latest software, it continued to happen occasionally.

Ultimately Deathloop feels like the foundation of an incredible game most notably in its structure, systems and level design. Its style is impeccable, which only carries it so far.

Here’s the toughest part of Deathloop. Maybe this is personal, though I bet I’m not the only one. It can be tiring playing a game where you have to be “on” all the time. When everything is out to kill you. It would be ideal if there were ways to guard against being seen. If cosmetics actually acted as disguises or deception came into play. Maybe more eavesdropping and investigation. Learning information by pretending to be an Eternalist. Using a mask to mingle at Alex’s party then isolate a target. The “sneak around until caught then murder anything that moves” mentality is much more basic than comparable assassin simulators like Hitman. It can feel just as badass to execute a clinical misdirection, and it’s often more efficient.

To act within the constraints of Deathloop takes a lot of experimentation, patience and time. One early tool-tip pops up to say “don’t just shoot everything.” Once Colt is powered up, it’s quite literally a feasible option, if not the best path, to do exactly that. Why slow and steady when there’s a much more effective strategy? There can be fun in experimentation I guess, though is that a good enough motivator for most players? Not those like me.

Up until this point, I haven’t included much about its narrative. It’s tricky to avoid spoilers in the context of a time loop game, and honestly the story isn’t anywhere near a highlight. There’s random tidbits of history and lore told via collectibles. Julianna drip-feeds certain points of Colt’s past during dialogue. I think the story itself is less important than the manner in which it’s told here. There’s also the ending, of which there are multiple versions, all of which are disappointing and ambiguous. I’m alright with open-ended conclusions. This just isn’t a partially good one of those.

Ultimately Deathloop feels like the foundation of an incredible game most notably in its structure, systems and level design. Its style is impeccable, which only carries it so far. It’s truly a more constrained, even linear experience disguised as something with more options and possibilities. Story is jumbled by its nature then even when it’s mapped out, it’s mostly middling.

It claims to offer a lot, then limits how the player uses its tools. This makes it tricky to describe Deathloop at its core. First person action? Puzzle murder sim? Run-based shooter? Semi-sandbox stealth? If this were a test, the only answer would be “it wants to be all of the above which means it ends up being something else.”

Some of these make it amazing. It’s a heck of a lot of fun in the heat of battle, hip-firing shotguns and clearing baddies on the way to a boss room. Then slows to a snooze, walking the same looking rooms for crumpled papers or recorded logs. There’s rewarding side content, then optional exploration that just isn’t worthwhile except for the most diehard of lore fanatics.

It’s a conundrum. In some ways more ambitious than predecessors in Arkane’s heritage, yet the result is just as focused. Jumbling the timeline is a clever presentation style. Like a murderous Memento or even more bloody Pulp Fiction. The journey of getting there is where true genius is revealed, because the final revelation is much more pedestrian than it could have been.

It’s presented as having freedom and creativity mixed within a loop concept. It ends up being closer to a linear shooter campaign with a handful of powers and select hacking capabilities all jumbled up a la Source Code, where the goal is to figure out how to execute the right outcome rather than an outcome of one’s choosing. There’s fun in getting there, it’s a fantastic game. There’s just a handful of elements that miss the mark, enough not to dub it a masterpiece.

Title: Deathloop

Release Date: September 14th, 2021

Developer: Arkane Lyon

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Platforms: PlayStation 5 (Timed Console Exclusive), PC.

Recommendation: It’s an odd one from a platform standpoint, the rare PlayStation 5 console exclusive published by a company now owned by Microsoft. Deathloop itself is up there with Arkane’s prior releases, especially better on the action side. Definitely a must-play for PS5 and PC owners specifically those that prefer shooters as opposed to pure stealth games. Don’t expect it to say much thematically or in the way of a riveting narrative. It’s purely a fun time figuring out puzzles, select side content and blasting through maps full of enemy fodder. Worth it!

Sources: Bethesda Softworks.

-Dom

Madden & Mobile Score Big in Record August Report for U.S. Games Industry Sales

Yes, it’s football season again in America which means autumn is on the way. And a new Madden NFL game is atop the charts.

The world is returning to its natural order.

Jokes aside, I first want to say I hope everyone is well in this challenging portion of the pandemic. Which is still going on, despite what some might have you believe. I wish you and your families all the best during this still difficult time. Hang in there.

Hopefully for a quick distraction, industry tracking firm NPD Group reported its monthly U.S. games spending report for August 2021. It’s a huge one. As in almost $4.4 billion in spending, which marks an August record for overall sales across the industry’s history.

Within the Video Game Content category, which saw monthly sales growth of 5%, the aforementioned Madden NFL 2022 led the total software chart. This is a feat the Electronic Arts-published franchise has accomplished now for a staggering 22 straight years during its launch month! The last time a Madden NFL title wasn’t the best-seller in its first month was August 1999 when wrestling game WWF Attitude outpaced the start of Madden NFL 2000. Granted, this was a time when the latter of which had a limited amount of days during that measured period.

Mobile continues its climb notably as more people open up their commutes and traveling, accounting for over $2 billion or roughly 45% of the domestic spending total. Led by Candy Crush Saga, Garena Free Fire and Roblox among others, this segment is a driving force behind the record August performance.

Swapping to the console side, Nintendo Switch, Sony’s PlayStation 5 and even Xbox Series X|S continue solid trends leading Video Game Hardware category spending to a 45% increase and an August dollar total that hadn’t been reached since 2008. Nintendo Switch was the best-selling in August by unit sales, thus retaining its spot as the top-seller for 2021 so far. This unit sales lead is the 33rd consecutive month for the hybrid console, which I expect to continue thru next month and beyond with the launch of its new OLED model.

PlayStation 5’s first year momentum marches on despite widespread supply shortages. It was August’s highest-selling platform by dollar sales, a metric by which it also leads for the year to date.

The literally massive PlayStation 5 has been on sale for 10 months now. During that time, it’s the fastest-selling PlayStation brand platform in tracked history. As I noted last month in July, NPD Group reported it was the fastest-selling hardware ever thru nine months at the time. Now that its comparison has reached the Nintendo Switch’s holiday season, the PlayStation 5 no longer holds the top spot. Still an impressive run given constraints on the inventory side. It could even return to being the quickest seller, depending where production goes.

Now that I’ve hit the highlights, it’s time to move into the full August figures.

United States Games Industry Sales (August 1st, 2021 – August 28th, 2021):

As detailed in the above gallery, overall consumer spending rose 7% to $4.37 billion during August 2021. Spurred mainly by Madden, mobile, subscriptions plus both older and newer hardware growth despite semi-conductor concerns, this is an August month record across NPD Group’s tracking history. Full-on proof the games industry keeps on moving as the most popular entertainment vertical.

Expanding to annual figures, total consumer spend on gaming year-to-date hit nearly $38 billion. This is 13% higher than the first eight months of 2020. All of the three major categories saw double-digit growth during this time, showcasing the stickiness of demand, general fan retention and even audience expansion.

Video Game Content i.e. everything from software, mobile and related sales made up the bulk of these monthly totals, reaching $3.88 billion in August. Or around 89% of overall spend. Which is 5% better than the same time last year. Underlying this is the sixth month in a row where mobile alone generated $2 billion, something that only happened three times all of last year.

As NPD Group reports have shown recently, the strength of 2021 to date sales continues with Content alone moving up 11% to $33.33 billion in aggregate during this time-frame.

Digging into individual title performance during August, I mentioned before how Madden NFL 2022 led the chart during its first month on sale and maintained an historic streak going back more than two decades. As a result of.. kicking off this initial performance, the game is immediately the fourth best-selling title of 2021 so far.

Football wasn’t the only big story of the software list. Open world samurai slasher Ghost of Tsushima, which came out on PlayStation 4 back in July 2020, saw a resurgence in August due to the start of its Director’s Cut version including an upgrade path to PlayStation 5 alongside a new expansion. Sony’s PlayStation exclusive was ranked 110th in July. Talk about making moves!

Rounding out the Top 3 was, of course, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War as it entered its latest Season 5 of ongoing content. The military shooter is published by Activision Blizzard, a company that’s still under a lawsuit due to reported workplace toxicity and a culture of abuse towards women and marginalized people. I’m behind the employees fighting back against executives.

Right after this was the 4th best-selling title of the month in turn-based strategy game Humankind. Published by Sega and made by Amplitude Studios, it was the top-selling PC game during August. It’s already 5th on the 2021 to date chart for PC as a platform. An exceptional start, especially for a game without a console release just yet. (I guess it did launch on Google Stadia.. hah.)

Otherwise, the top monthly rankings were about as expected. Business as usual for a couple Nintendo games among the ten best-sellers: the ever-present Mario Kart 8 then The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD moving to 7th from its top spot in July. The publisher has a number more in the Top 20, as always.

Minecraft in there like usual. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla did show a nice move back into the Top 10 from #20 in July, likely due to ongoing support via Ubisoft’s downloadable content. In terms of new releases, No More Heroes 3 from Grasshopper Manufacture started at #42. Tough to contend in August as a Switch exclusive and with only a few days in the tracking period.

Below are the software ranks across all measured platforms for August plus year-to-date.

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

  1. Madden NFL 2022
  2. Ghost of Tsushima
  3. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  4. Humankind
  5. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  6. Mario Kart 8*
  7. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD*
  8. Minecraft
  9. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  10. MLB The Show 21^
  11. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  12. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019
  13. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
  14. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  15. Pokémon Sword & Shield*
  16. Mortal Kombat 11
  17. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  18. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  19. Mario: Golf: Super Rush*
  20. Super Mario Party*

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

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

Video Game Hardware remained the biggest monthly grower shared by NPD Group, jumping 45% to $329 million in total spend last month. This is the single best August result for the category since $395 million back in August 2008.

“Were enough units available to actually satiate consumer demand this year, I have little doubt this record would have been absolutely smashed,” said NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella after sharing the report.

And I concur. We’ll never know the ceiling for hardware sales during these recent months with a dire chip situation for everything from automobiles to consumer tech to appliances and beyond. The unfortunate part is how this is expected to continue in the near-term, so this category’s true potential during this latest generation of platforms won’t be revealed until years to come.

Within these constraints, I mentioned before how Nintendo Switch retained the top spot in August and 2021 by unit sales thus increasing its incredible streak of monthly wins. Since November 2018! This begs the question of how long can it go? Based on a potential pricing move for the base model and demand from enthusiasts for Nintendo Switch OLED, launching worldwide October 8th, my guess is unit sales thru the holiday season will be led by Nintendo’s hybrid console.

Dollar sales leader for both August and year-to-date PlayStation 5 is faring well, even if no longer the fastest-selling platform in history. Both Game Boy Advance and Nintendo Switch are now ahead of PlayStation 5 during each platform’s respective first 10 months on market. Within Sony’s storied gaming history, it’s still top dog. Between that and leading recent months by revenue, partially bolstered by a higher price point than Switch, the PlayStation brand is as ubiquitous as ever.

Similar to recent months, there wasn’t much in the way of details on Microsoft’s Xbox platform sales. NPD Group did reiterate how Microsoft is selling-thru to buyers as many Xbox Series X|S boxes as it can produce in the States. It’s just seemingly not as many as its competitors. I’m curious about these production dynamics, in particular the gap between platform performance. I didn’t see a comparison or any granularity past these general comments.

We’ll have to live for now knowing that all three major manufacturers are performing consistently in the domestic market, just a matter of how well!

Last category on the docket before closing up shop is Video Game Accessories. It’s the only one of the three that didn’t experience growth during August, coming in exactly flat at $164 million in contribution.

This was Microsoft’s category to shine last month. The team’s Xbox Elite Series 2 Wireless Controller achieved best-selling status out of all accessories, implying that even though many people can’t buy consoles, the high-end game pad is attractive. Mainly because of its compatibility with various generations and devices, including Bluetooth capability for use with cloud gaming.

When looking at the year as a whole, the result for Accessories stays much more positive. Its annual figure to date is up 12% compared to last year, reaching nearly $1.59 billion. Sony’s PlayStation 5 DualSense Controller white variant kept its position as the year’s highest-selling accessory. No doubt mapping in parallel to its underlying console trajectory, as folks opt to purchase additional game pads for co-op or multiplayer use.

Another month in the books. While it wasn’t the most eventful, there’s still plenty of news, indicators and trends to follow.

Yet another record for overall spending, this time an August month, and hardware growth leading to the best category result in 13 years. A set of impressive streaks for Nintendo and Electronic Arts, while Sony’s latest platform trajectory remaining the best it’s ever been.

Companies selling out of console stock, trying desperately to make enough to keep up with intense demand. Big movers and shakers on the software side, plus mobile’s steady presence for content spending alongside subscription services increasing in popularity.

Top-end game pads propping up an accessories segment that often moves as hardware does early in a cycle.

September marks the last month of the third quarter already! It’s a busy one, even in a year with noticeably less output at the triple-A level. Perennial seller NBA 2K from Take-Two Interactive has a new annual entry. Nintendo’s silly party game WarioWare: Get It Together is out. Then there’s Deathloop, the unusual Xbox Game Studios title exclusive to PlayStation 5 that I predict will outperform. Life is Strange: True Colors, Lost Judgment, Diablo II: Resurrected and I imagine a surprise or two will be featured in stories upcoming.

Not to mention the biggest topic in hardware next month as Switch’s OLED model hit shelves. How will it fare given the environment, and will PlayStation 5 keep pace? Can Microsoft boost Xbox output to compete in the rankings?

We’ll know more then. Thanks everyone for stopping by this month and hope to see you again soon!

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

Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.

Sources: Electronic Arts, Neil Gardose (Photo Credit), The NPD Group, Sensor Tower.

-Dom

Hardware & Zelda Propel U.S. Games Industry Spending to Record High July

The domestic games industry is rolling with the excessive wave of warm weather hitting the States lately in that it’s heating up during these Summer months, as consumer spending in July 2021 reaching a record high for any July in history.

Industry tracking firm The NPD Group shared its latest U.S. monthly sales report this morning. In which, all signs point to continued momentum especially within hardware, even considering tight supply conditions limiting inventories in the market for next generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft. This and content spending increases notably for mobile, subscriptions and post-launch are likely bolstered by returning mandates hitting the country as variants of coronavirus spread.

Despite what a bad opinion piece from a major media outlet that I won’t link here might say, people are most certainly still enjoying games. And buying new devices on which to play them, for longer than ever.

Overall consumer spending across Content, Hardware and Accessories totaled nearly $4.6 billion in July. That’s a solid increase of 10% since this same time last year and a record amount for a July month across tracked history, dethroning last year’s $4.2 billion.

In terms of dollar sales, Content continues as the largest contributor though it was the only category of the three not to experience double-digit growth. Hardware gains proved resilient, nearly doubling year-on-year spend driven by another unit sales lead for Nintendo and PlayStation 5 continuing its historically quick start. Accessories wouldn’t be left out of the party as it actually set a July sales record of its own, influenced by a new product offering from Nintendo.

Software charts boasted two new games in the Top 3, both from storied franchises created by Japanese publishers Nintendo and Capcom. Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty franchise had another month where two of its games ended up in the general Top 10. The real story there is how the American publisher should be called out for reports of its toxic workplace every time its games are mentioned now.

It’s time for the numbers behind an exceptional July for broad U.S. games industry spending.

United States Games Industry Sales (July 4th, 2021 – July 31st, 2021):

As I mentioned above, it was a record July month for overall monthly domestic spending on games at $4.6 billion. When expanding to 2021 as a whole, total video game sales rose 14% to $33.5 billion across the first seven months. Gaming is still the preeminent entertainment experience, especially as platform holders delve more into the subscription side appealing to folks with both traditional and on-the-go devices.

Within the largest sub-category of Content i.e. software etc, it was mobile, subscription and post-launch spending boosting sales during July to just under $4.1 billion. That’s a moderate 6% increase. Year-to-date Content currently totals $29.4 billion, moving up 12%.

The Switch Effect remains in full effect here on the overall monthly software chart. Nintendo’s hybrid platform claimed four of the Top 6 spots as console or outright exclusives, three of which are published by Nintendo and don’t even count the digital portion of their sales!

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD took home top honors in July. I didn’t see much in the way of context here within the report, and I’d love to know how this remaster compares to the original game launching on Wii back in November 2011. All I can say is the first game debuted at #9, so I assume there’s a sizeable difference here. Will update if I hear anything.

Next at #2 is chart mainstay Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War from Activision Blizzard, the American publisher that’s under a lawsuit because it reportedly doesn’t treat its employees well at all and fosters a “frat boy” workplace culture. The game’s latest season launched today, and I give props to every single employee working hard to keep up with its ongoing content roadmap amidst this difficult environment. Worth noting that 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is back in the Top 10 this past month, at the ninth spot.

Capcom’s Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin landed third on the total rankings. The Switch title that’s also available on PC already generated triple the *lifetime* sales of the original Monster Hunter Stories 2017 release on Nintendo 3DS. Wow. NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella called this biggest surprise of the month, and can’t argue there. Monster Hunter as a whole gained a more global appeal since Monster Hunter: World in 2018, seemingly now to the point where even console exclusive spin-offs are gaining heavy traction.

Moving down the list, I have to point out Mario Kart 8 and MLB The Show 21. First off, who keeps buying Mario Kart? Well it’s probably anyone purchasing a Switch, right. Which is plenty of people right now. I’ve pushed back my expectations for a Mario Kart 9 every time I see it achieve a Top 5 month or reach a new milestone on global sales, which are now at over 37 million units.

Then there’s MLB The Show 21 at #7 in July, allowing it to set a new year-to-date sales record within the franchise. Not only that: Lifetime dollar sales of the game have already beat out last year’s entry to become the best ever for any MLB The Show game, a series which dates back to 2006. This is only its fourth month on sale! The multi-platform move and Xbox Game Pass decision by Major League Baseball made this game a mega hit.

The last of the new releases within the Top 20 was Neo: The World Ends With You debuting at #16. Launch month dollar sales of the Square Enix-published release started at more than double that of The World Ends With You for Nintendo DS in July 2007.

Finally, Capcom also launched The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles in July, a compilation of adventure games within the Ace Attorney series which started at the 22nd spot on the total chart.

Here’s a full look at two of the main software lists, first for the month then the year as a whole as of July.

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

  1. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD*
  2. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  3. Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin
  4. Mario Kart 8*
  5. Minecraft
  6. Mario Golf: Super Rush*
  7. MLB The Show 21^
  8. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  9. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019
  10. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  11. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
  12. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  13. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
  14. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  15. Mortal Kombat 11
  16. Neo: The World Ends With You
  17. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  18. Pokémon Sword & Shield*
  19. Resident Evil: Village
  20. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

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

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

Now, talk about explosive growth.

Hardware experienced the biggest increase of the three segments during July 2021 as sales nearly doubled year-on-year to $323 million. Up 98%, to be exact. It’s the best individual July month since upwards of $447 million back in 2008. Sounds like all three major competitors in Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S experienced increases naturally, just depends on how many boxes they can ship honestly.

Switch maintained its staggering streak of now 32 consecutive months atop the console ranks in July as measured by units sold. It’s also the year’s top-seller, by both units and dollars. Those new software title launches plus evergreens like the aforementioned Mario Kart continue to attract, and I’m very curious to see demand impact for the OLED model that hits market in October.

However, PlayStation 5 led console spending by dollar sales in July implying a higher average selling price and consistent retail demand for its supply-constrained platform. Sony’s latest generation box is still the fastest-selling home console as measured by dollar sales during its first 9 months on market. For now. It’s worth noting that next month will be the 10th for PlayStation 5, which corresponds to Switch’s first December. Even with demand as strong as it is, I don’t know if Sony can keep this streak alive given this timing and external sources limiting output.

On the Xbox side, the report didn’t shed too much light. Piscatella noted that Xbox console sales are “significantly higher” than one year back, albeit that was very late in the Xbox One life cycle.

For 2021 in aggregate, spending on Hardware jumped 50% to $2.7 billion. That’s again the best growth in the tracked sub-categories of Content, Hardware and Accessories. As we’ve seen all year, Nintendo’s Switch console is 2021’s best-selling so far. This time measured by both units and dollars. While not a shocking result, it’s certainly noteworthy for a platform starting off its fourth year on sale versus others in their early stages.

It’s time to accessorize, as July 2021 proved to be a historic month for Accessories as well.

Not to be outdone by its counterparts, spending on Accessories just set a new July record. Last year, July 2020 dollar spend was around $170 million. This year, July sales reached its brand new all-time high of $189 million.

And yes, there’s a theme. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD Edition Joy Con debuted as the month’s top-selling accessory, no surprise really. So Nintendo’s latest launch in the Zelda franchise, even as a remaster, was responsible for the month’s best-selling game plus top accessory.

The white version of PlayStation 5’s DualSense Wireless Controller still holds the crown for now as 2021’s best-seller, driving category spending over the year so far to $1.4 billion. That’s 13% higher than the same period in 2020, almost mirroring Content spending growth.

Viewing July’s trend-lines in terms of growth within domestic games spending shows that ever since declines in the months prior to April 2021, monthly spending is now back on the rise. A July record nearly solidifies it. Spending across the industry right now reveals a blend of new audience members plus ongoing spending from casual and core players.

New software releases are helping of course, as is supply for new generation platforms. There’s consistency in both mobile and ongoing spending on the content side, and companies are selling-thru to consumers as many pieces of hardware that suppliers can push out.

It’s also the accretive nature of those people trying gaming for the first time or returning that’s defining this time over a year into the pandemic. Combined with an enthusiast audience still gobbling up Nintendo games plus pumping demand for PlayStation and Xbox, I’m not surprised by ongoing growth.

August marks what I like to consider the first major commercial push of the back half, marked by the launch of perennial seller Madden NFL from Electronic Arts. This year’s Madden NFL 2022 football franchise release kicks off on August 20th. Fully expect it to be the best-seller. August also has a couple notable updates to existing titles in Marvel’s Avengers: War for Wakanda expansion on August 17th plus August 20th’s Ghost of Tsushima Directors Cut. Even with Nintendo bereft of a major first party title and chip shortages ongoing, I’m leaning bullish on the month.

Thanks for reading, be safe and see you next time!

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

Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.

Sources: Alvaro Reyes (Photo Credit), Bloomberg, The NPD Group, Reuters (Photo Credit).

-Dom

Sony Reports Biggest First Quarter Ever for PlayStation Revenue

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.

-Dom

Xbox & Ratchet & Clank Set Records in June 2021 U.S. Games Industry Sales Report

I know it feels like 2020 never ended. Yet somehow, the front half of 2021 is now in the books. It was another challenging one for a variety of reasons, yet one of the bright spots continues to be video game sales which I hope has provided some much-needed joy and respite for everyone.

And with that, we have.. numbers, of course!

Recently, industry tracking firm The NPD Group dropped both a monthly and second quarter 2021 report on the domestic games market. With it, sharing some notable records in the process and showing how spending on all categories this year is trending upwards.

In terms of growth, overall monthly consumer spending on games in the U.S. rose a steady 5% against a high comparable last year, set in the middle of stricter quarantine guidelines. Led by a Hardware category that more than doubled its level this same time in 2020. Within that, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S topped dollar sales. Even setting a new June record within the Xbox platform’s 20-year history. Separately, Nintendo Switch maintains a staggering streak when it comes to leading on unit sales, which it did again in June, as it has every month for 31 consecutive months! Both of these impressive feats occurred amidst a global chip shortage, signaling a boost in otherwise limited stock lately.

Content i.e. software, subscriptions and add-on sales moved up slightly, propped by usual suspects like Call of Duty and MLB The Show plus three new releases in the Top 5 on the general chart: Sony’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Nintendo’s Mario Golf: Super Rush and Scarlet Nexus from Bandai Namco. Accessories was the only segment showing a decline in June 2021, though only 1% as PlayStation’s DualSense continues its consistency there.

Expanding to second quarter, total spend inched up 2% compared to the same three month period last year. However for the full first half of 2021, total sales climbed a solid 15% as all categories exhibited double-digit bumps. Spending on games isn’t slowing down compared to the height of the pandemic, proving new audience members are sticking around and core players are keeping up the hobby.

It’s time to delve deeper into each segment individually, including a close look at the software charts for both June and 2021 to date!

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

During June 2021, overall consumer spending in the domestic games market reached $4.93 billion, rising 5% compared to the same time last year. That’s now two consecutive months of year-on-year growth after a dip back in April.

While Content remained the leading segment by spending, it was Hardware making the biggest splash as production slowly yet surely ramps up. The last category of Accessories dipped slightly in June, cooling off a bit in the hot summer months domestically.

“Hardware was the obvious big story of June,” said The NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella. “Xbox Series was the star of the month, but all major platforms showed double or triple digit dollar sales growth vs year ago. Demand is nowhere near satiated, supply is still a massive challenge.”

Across the second quarter between April to June, total spend in the U.S. hit $14 billion. That’s up 2% since the same time in 2020. The NPD Group reported Q2 growth across a variety of sub-groups: personal computer (PC), cloud, non-console virtual reality, mobile, subscriptions plus, of course, gaming consoles.

“Consumer spending has not only maintained the elevated levels reached a year ago, but exceeded them in key areas such as hardware, mobile and subscription spending,” said Piscatella in the Q2 report at the firm’s website.

This trend is illustrated even more when looking at the entire first half of 2021. The total for consumer spend jumped 15% to $28.94 billion during the six month span ending June, driven by console growth in particular. Demand for new consoles still outstripped inventories, though manufacturers proved resilient with production even as it’s difficult to source certain parts in the supply chain.

When focusing on Content alone, sales in June reached $4.32 billion. Up a modest 1% year-on-year. Looking at second quarter, this major category saw $12.6 billion in sales, growing 2%. Notably driven by subscription spend, showing double-digit growth in Q2 (although the firm wasn’t specific in that figure). Across the time frame from January to June, Content bumped upwards of $25.36 billion, 13% higher than first half of 2020.

New releases wrote the narrative here for June. Sony published Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, the month’s top-selling software title. The latest mainline Ratchet & Clank action-adventure platformer achieved the best dollar sales ever in franchise history, a staple within the broad portfolio of developer Insomniac Games. The prior record holder for the series was April 2016’s Ratchet & Clank, a counterpart to a movie launched that same month.

Right behind chart mainstay Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, which ranked #2, was Nintendo’s latest sports offering in Mario Golf: Super Rush. Within the States, this title set a new Mario Golf record for first month dollar spend, outpacing that of GameCube’s Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour way back in 2003. Nintendo hasn’t yet shared global unit shipments for its latest Switch exclusive sports game, though I expect a similarly solid start when it does on August 5th.

June’s biggest surprise to me was Scarlet Nexus fighting to the five spot on the combined platform chart. An action Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) from Bandai Namco is the latest in splendid starts for Japanese titles expanding overseas during simultaneous global launches, echoing examples like Square Enix’s NieR: Replicant at #5 in April 2021, Capcom’s Monster Hunter Rise in the second spot during March 2021 plus Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot also from Bandai Namco, the best-selling title in January 2020.

Through the first half of 2021, chart composition is familiar. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War was the best-seller with Resident Evil: Village and MLB The Show 21 right behind it at #2 and #3, respectively. One notable position is the 9th-ranked Outriders from Square Enix, a quietly consistent seller during the first half even if it lost some ground compared to May.

It’s time for the lists themselves, both monthly and first six months of the year.

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

  1. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
  2. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  3. Mario Golf: Super Rush*
  4. MLB The Show 21^
  5. Scarlet Nexus
  6. Resident Evil: Village
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Minecraft
  9. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  10. Mortal Kombat 11
  11. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  12. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019
  13. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  14. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  15. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  16. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition
  17. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
  18. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  19. Pokémon Sword & Shield*
  20. Sea of Thieves

Top-Selling Games, 1st Half 2021, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

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

Moving onto gaming consoles during June 2021, the Hardware category saw gains across all three major platforms in PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo, driving exceptional growth of 112% to $401 million. That’s the top June sales amount for Hardware since June 2009’s $617 million.

I mentioned before the great, record-breaking month for Xbox where Series X|S led by dollar sales. That’s the first time since its launch in November 2020. It recorded the best June month ever for an Xbox platform, beating out June 2011. No doubt driven by new content for console exclusive Sea of Thieves, continued pace from MLB The Show 21 plus the allure of Xbox Game Pass as the best value proposition in games.

Microsoft wasn’t the only manufacturer with an exciting month. Nintendo Switch led by unit sales in June 2021, as it has every month for years now during its wild run of success. PlayStation 5 continues its extremely quick start. Sony’s new generation (big ol’) box is still the fastest-selling home platform in tracked history, as measured by unit sales during the first 8 months on market. Note this statistic excludes handhelds, since Game Boy Advance is still the fastest-seller overall.

Stretching the time frame to second quarter, console spending moved up 12%. Then between January and June, this Hardware category earned $2.35 billion. That’s a fantastic 45% increase, even if compared to a time that was later in the console cycle last year.

It’s worth repeating that numbers during the early portion of a new platform generation are driven by supply rather than demand, more now than ever given the inventory environment. Essentially, Xbox produced enough Xbox Series X|S units to lead by dollar sales during June. Demand is for all platforms is stellar, even Nintendo Switch four years after its debut. This contrasts a chip shortage expected to block higher production output for a year or two, at least.

The only mildly disappointing category during both June and second quarter was Accessories, unable to keep pace with its counterparts. Understandable given the strength of spending this time last year. Although it did exhibit growth when looking at the aggregate during the first half of 2021, an encouraging sign.

Monthly spending on this category comprised of game pads, headsets etc declined 1% to $207 million in June and was 12% lower than last year when looking at the second quarter. Still, it saw 14% growth during the first six months of 2021, rising to $1.23 billion.

Sony is the consistent leader here. The PlayStation 5’s DualSense Controller Midnight Black edition topped this accessory group during June. Out of the four best sellers last month, three of those were DualSense game pads. Similarly, DualSense’s base White variant led the segment for the year so far.

It appears additional spending on these pieces of ancillary hardware is slowing in the early summer months, so will see where it goes leading into the back half.

The domestic games market saw many bright spots during June, especially for platform holders. Each of them had bragging rights in their own way, and all of them are doing well despite production challenges.

Individual software titles, subscriptions and mobile are keeping up consistency in spending, proving how the industry was not just able to grow its audience during the last year or so, but keep it around to maintain commercial momentum and interest in the medium.

Which makes sense to those tracking closely. Gaming is somehow both the most massive entertainment segment in the world and the quietest, a trend that last week’s reporting clearly shows especially when considering double-digit gains across each category since the year’s start.

I hope everyone stays well until next month when July marks the start of 2021’s second half, always an exciting time for those of us that love to follow. Feel free to drop a comment here or on social media. Be safe and thanks for reading!

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

Sources: Billy Freeman (Photo Credit), The NPD Group, PlayStation Press Center.

-Dom

MLB Shows Well in April During Slight Decline in U.S. Games Industry Sales

While not quite another month full of record highs, April 2021 still boasted numerous commercial highlights for the U.S. games industry in the scheme of things.

Yesterday, The NPD Group shared its monthly sales report for consumer spending on various parts of the games industry within the domestic market.

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re starting into the time period where the impact from stay-at-home restrictions caused some of the biggest months in tracked history. Which means tough comparisons when looking at this year versus the same time in 2020.

Overall, total consumer spending was down a bit in April 2021 driven mainly by lower hardware output, offset by new launches, mobile, subscription and downloadable content within the software category. Still, consumers have spent nearly $20 billion on Content, Hardware and Accessories during the year so far. Which is over 20% higher than the same time period in 2020.

While Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5 continue impressive runs, it wasn’t enough to stave off a double-digit decline in Hardware and Accessories for the month. No doubt affected by global semiconductor shortages and manufacturing slowdowns. Both of these categories are still showing notable spend increases when aggregating 2021 to date.

New annual sports release MLB The Show 21 stepped into the spotlight during its release month, snatching the top spot on the overall and PlayStation software charts. The ever-present Call of Duty series plus a brand new Pokémon side entry in New Pokémon Snap rounded out the Top 3, while strong debuts from both NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139 and Returnal led the Content category to an increase.

“Hardware shortage impact [is] being felt, will continue to be felt throughout 2021,” said NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella. “Accessories [are] now being impacted by supply chain/logistics as well.”

That said, there’s still plenty of growth to cover, so it’s time to dig into all the numbers.

United States Games Industry Sales (April 4th, 2021 – May 1st, 2021):

Consumer spending in general declined 2% to $4.6 billion in April 2021. This marked the first time monthly overall sales have dipped since back in February 2020 i.e. right before the start of country-wide quarantines plus the massive success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

It feels like forever ago, I know.

Now, this isn’t actually a bad sign. In fact, it’s a perfectly healthy month historically. It’s just slightly lower because last April set the record for setting records when it comes to domestic industry spending as I documented at the time. (Note that since that time, NPD Group has reclassified its categories and added to its coverage, so the public numbers themselves aren’t necessarily comparable.)

When expanding the timeline and looking at the first four months of 2021, total spending is up 21% since this time last year to $19.6 billion. Mainly because of momentum during the first couple months of this year driven by demand for next generation consoles and games to play on those systems, especially mobile, services plus add-on content for existing titles.

Speaking of software, the largest category of Content generated $4.2 billion in sales during April. This is up from $4.1 billion in April 2020. Year-to-date is even more impressive, hitting upwards of $17 billion when compared to $14.3 billion.

Expansion in Content is due to the release schedule picking up, ongoing appeal of subscription services plus legacy title support as the biggest older games still continue to chart.

Taking the lead on the overall software rankings in April 2021 was MLB The Show 21, which is dual published by Sony Interactive Entertainment on PlayStation devices then MLB Advanced Media on the Xbox family. This is a huge year for the annual franchise, marking the first time it’s been available on Microsoft’s consoles. Not only that, it launched directly into the Xbox Game Pass subscription service. Judging by its placement, the impact on sales seems to have been additive rather than cannibalizing.

A combination of PlayStation’s usual player base plus a new audience of Xbox fans led the baseball game developed by Sony’s San Diego Studio to set a series record for launch month dollar sales. Because of this, it’s immediately the 3rd best-selling title of 2021. And this isn’t even considering digital revenue from Xbox. Is this an appropriate time to say that the team knocked it out of the park?

Another impressive start was Nintendo’s New Pokémon Snap, landing at the third spot overall. Similar to above, this also doesn’t even consider digital sales since Nintendo notoriously doesn’t participate in that part of reporting. Predictably, it was the biggest title on Nintendo platforms during April. First month retail sales more than doubled that of July 1999’s Pokémon Snap debut, marking a picture-perfect return for the previously dormant spin-off from one of the world’s most successful brands.

Elsewhere on the software ranks, Outriders now has a full month on record and dropped one spot to fourth place. Square Enix’s third person action game was another with a simultaneous release on Xbox Game Pass, a rare occurrence for third party titles. The shlooter attracted 3.5 million unique players during its first month, a result that saw its publisher hinting at future content by saying it’s on track to being its next hit franchise. Unfortunately, it’s still unstable for many folks, resulting in continuous patches from development team People Can Fly.

In what I’d call more than a pleasant surprise, another Square Enix title landed at #5 this time in NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139 (yes, I always have to Google the full title like most of us). The “version update” of the first NieR game that released a couple generations ago was handled by Toylogic. Replicant charted well above 2017’s NieR: Automata which started at ninth in its March 2017 debut month, popularity no doubt bolstered by Automata engaging more mind-share towards the cult classic franchise.

Two other notable titles within the Top 10 were PlayStation 5 exclusive Returnal, with only two days of tracking, then It Takes Two published by Electronic Arts as part of its EA Originals indie program. Returnal at the 8th spot is a strong debut for new IP from Housemarque Games, long-time Sony collaborator and arcade game specialist. It Takes Two continues its quietly consistent success, climbing a dozen spots to #9. The co-op adventure game from Josef Fares’ Hazelight Studios recently sold a million units globally in under a month.

Full charts incoming.

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

  1. MLB The Show 21^
  2. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  3. New Pokémon Snap*
  4. Outriders
  5. NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139
  6. Mortal Kombat 11
  7. Monster Hunter Rise
  8. Returnal
  9. It Takes Two
  10. Mario Kart 8*
  11. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  12. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  13. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  14. Minecraft
  15. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  16. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  17. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  18. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  19. Pokémon Sword & Shield*
  20. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  3. MLB The Show 21^
  4. Monster Hunter Rise
  5. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  6. Outriders
  7. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  8. Mario Kart 8*
  9. Minecraft
  10. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Hardware and Accessories tell a marginally different story, declining from last year’s staggering highs.

For Hardware, overall console dollar sales came in at $296 million which is 30% lower than April 2020. Console manufacturers are facing supply-side constraints as inventories can’t keep up with rabid demand. This is going to continue even throughout the full year, as explained by executives from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft alike during recent earnings presentations.

Even so, year-to-date figures aren’t as gloomy. These are up 42% compared to the same time frame during 2020, hitting $1.7 billion compared to $1.2 billion.

Nintendo Switch continues to be the bellwether, leading both units and dollar sales for the month of April. By my calculation, that’s 29 consecutive months of Switch leading the U.S. by unit sales. An incredible streak, I’d have to imagine it’s the best in domestic tracking history for a single console. It remains the top seller for 2021 so far, and that’s ahead of rumors swirling around a potential new model. (Which, in fairness, have been happening for a while. It’s only recently they have solidified into more tangible information.)

I wrote recently about how Nintendo reported its most profitable year ever, driven by global annual Switch unit sales of nearly 29 million for last fiscal alone ending in March. The introduction of a more powerful iteration, estimated around September or October based on the rumor mill, would continue its consistent pace into the holiday season and beyond even at a higher price point.

That’s not to say competitors aren’t doing big things either. Now in its six month on sale, Sony’s PlayStation 5 remains the fastest-selling console ever domestically. No doubt driven by the appetite of early adopters purchasing new and old games alike then many PlayStation 4 versions carrying over to the current generation, making for a smoother transition.

Not much in the way of information on Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S performance on the hardware side. At present, it’s about production rather than customer appetite. It seems like Sony is outpacing Xbox in its supply chain, thus leading in the early goings.

In a theme that parallels Hardware, dollar sales for Accessories were down in April though are still exhibiting strength when taking the year as a whole.

The Accessories category dipped 23% in April, generating $168 million in domestic consumer spending. However, its total is $885 million for 2021 to date which is growth of 22%.

Sony’s PlayStation 5 accessories continue their category dominance. The DualSense White Controller led dollar sales for April and retained its spot as the year’s top seller. The Pulse 3D Wireless headset was the month’s runner-up. These often go as hardware goes, and PlayStation 5’s record pace is driving its accessories to be the most popular right now.

Note: The new DualSense colors with fancy names from the image aren’t out until June. Midnight Black (dope!) and Cosmic Red (not for me) are currently up for pre-order.

April 2021 saw various industry trends continuing. These include content growth supplemented by services, mobile and additional content, Nintendo’s evergreen titles constantly on the charts plus PlayStation 5’s record early momentum. Though it couldn’t contend with last year’s record April month itself when combining the various sales vectors. I won’t hold that against it, the year so far has been extremely impressive even with manufacturing limitations for hardware platforms.

“Given where we are with both supply and the pandemic-driven year ago comparable period, the market is holding remarkably well,” Piscatella added in additional commentary on the monthly report.

Looking ahead, next month’s report will be available in just a few short weeks covering May 2nd to May 29th. I expect a phenomenal start for Resident Evil Village, high demand for Mass Effect Legendary Edition plus ongoing strength for major third parties and Nintendo exclusives. Switch will probably lead again, though PlayStation 5’s record start should continue as well.

Until then, enjoy some fun games, stay healthy, and especially my American friends, please continue to be safe things as things open up here with vaccinations on the rise. See you again.

*Digital Sales Not Included

^Xbox Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Electronic Arts, Enrique Vidal Flores (Image Credit), MLB Advance Media, NPD Group, PlayStation Blog, Square Enix.

-Dom