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

Review: Psychonauts 2 is an Incredible Sequel That Doesn’t Mind Being Weird & Wholesome

“Oh, you think the human mind is safe? That’s cute!”

It’s difficult to be genuinely funny. Always walking a line between upbeat and morose, corny and original, hilarity and outright bombing. Even trickier to make media that’s consistently humorous, especially a video game spanning over multiple hours. Near impossible to find the right balance between that humor and hitting impactful subject matter plus layering an entertaining gameplay loop on top of everything.

Psychonauts 2 is that near impossible outcome.

It’s a unique, comical and even thought-provoking third-person adventure game that combines exquisite humor, witty references, well-written characters, productive exploration, trippy environments and satisfying mechanics. It’s that full course meal with no filler, unlike any other series in the industry and a worthy follow-up within a franchise that stands out for mostly the right reasons. The weird ones, too.

Psychonauts 2 is clearly a labor of love from developer Double Fine Productions, made mostly prior to the studio becoming part of Xbox Game Studios. The sequel to 2005’s cult classic Psychonauts is the culmination of many years, assisted by a crowd-funding campaign. The team obviously used that time to maximize the belly laughs, detailed world-building and genius general direction that makes it so good.

It’s fun. And funny. Granted, occasionally dark. Then has the courage to ask big questions surrounding mental health, self-reflection and human consciousness. It’s a psychology lesson and philosophy debate layered within third-person action platforming. A total trip, and well worth the wait.

Studio founder Tim Schafer and team start Psychonauts 2 with a great cutscene intro, summarizing both the first release and virtual reality game Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. This allows a quick refresher for fans then an entry point for everyone else. The recap shows how 10-year old physic Razputin “Raz” Aquato fled from the family circus, was found by a spy agency called the Psychonauts, fought off a rogue summer camp counselor with the help of fellow campers, learned about his psychic powers in the original then rescued Psychonauts leader Truman Zanotto in the VR spin-off.

A few days later, the sequel begins.

Back at Psychonauts “Motherlobe” headquarters, self-proclaimed dentist and amateur brain surgeon Dr. Loboto is being interrogated because of his involvement in Zanotto’s kidnapping. By diving into his brain, a common tactic used by the squad, agents Sasha Nein and Milla Vodello along with the player controlling Raz learn that someone internally is feeding information to an outside evil mastermind. Turns out Loboto is merely a puppet. The boss’ name is Maligula. Allegedly deceased long ago, her “Deluginist” followers are attempting to bring her back with necromancy, an area the Psychonauts have suspiciously been funding recently. That doesn’t sound good. It means there’s a mole! The sequence acts as both story setup and an introduction to action mechanics, namely platforming in 3D realms and light melee combat with ranged capabilities.

The Motherlobe acts as a home base where Raz learns he’s actually an intern. It’s an awesome hub, more expansive than Whispering Rock summer camp. Agents scatter the halls. A mural of “The Psychic Six” founders looms over the common area. There’s a mail room, barber shop and even a bowling alley. Raz meets the other interns, a scenario reminiscent of his fellow campers in the prior game.

Considering it takes place in both the physical and mental planes, Psychonauts 2 is all about its cast of characters with the interns, agents, foes and even Raz’s family playing huge parts. Many of them are quite literally the levels or “dungeons” as these places exist only inside their minds and are cleverly intertwined. It’s fun getting to know the Aquatos in particular and how certain folks from the original are related to new characters. It makes for a feeling of familiarity and togetherness, like the player is part of something bigger where everyone still has plenty of quirks.

The main campaign revolves around figuring out who is snitching within the organization. Which means chatting with people and using a Psychic (PSI) Portal of course, where Raz’s astral projection jumps into select minds to gather information and learn about their motivations. Way cool, I know! Dialogue options are smart and quirky even if they have no effect on the core narrative. Character interactions make the Motherlobe and surrounding areas feel alive, enticing all sorts of exploration that’s immensely rewarding. Figuring out the mysteries of someone’s thoughts. And gathering up the best kinds of collectibles.

As is evident with the description of the plot and character names, Double Fine is among the best in the industry at references, puns and double entendre use. This really is a highlight as little details go a long way to add up to something immeasurable. It’s hard not to stop everywhere and admire what the designers crammed into these locales. Design decisions like these make its world simultaneously bizarre and uniquely endearing. Double Fine can play with so much using these settings that blend the real with imaginary worlds.

For instance, health is called Mental Energy. Censors are brawler enemies that stamp out unwanted thoughts. Regrets are dangerous flying bugs carrying heavy kettlebells because they weigh people down. It features aptly named collectibles like physical manifestations of that person’s thoughts called Figments, Emotional Baggage that requires Raz to find a tag to comfort it or cute Half-a-Mind brains which need two lobes to make a whole. Instead of a fingerprint, one’s Thinkerprint is used for accessing areas.

It’s very fun noticing a small touch or chuckling at an enemy description, partly because it’s relatable. Double Fine lightly pokes fun while simultaneously acknowledging the seriousness of mental health. There’s a stylized feel throughout the entire project, like it’s tuned to feel uncanny yet familiar. The player uses an intern’s manual as a journal to track quests, skills or inventory. There’s so much care in Psychonauts 2, whether obvious or hidden, and it all contributes to the cohesiveness of its tone.

Mission structure is standard, then has multi-layered objectives within each story quest. There’s the main campaign trying to uncover the mole with its own set of requirements around that investigation. This takes Raz to mind locations such as the casino hospital of Hollis Forsythe, interim leader of the Psychonauts, and agent Compton Boole’s mental cook-off among others.

Then there’s optional tasks opened by talking with certain characters. A conniving intern convinces the player to take on a scavenger hunt, claiming it’s important agency business (hint: it kinda isn’t). Lili, Raz’s girlfriend and Zanotto’s daughter, asks for help in trying to help her father bounce back from his captivity. A set of interns need help boosting the signal of their pirate radio station. Then there’s the Aquato family side quests, a personal favorite because it shows more about Raz’s past. His father Augustus played a role late in Psychonauts, now we meet the full crew including his precious Nona who keeps reminding him of the family’s curse that they will die in water. Most end up tying back into the narrative in exciting ways.

All of these are really a great way to flex an improved movement system. Raz is a child acrobat by trade meaning he’s already an expert double jumper, ledge grabber and wall bouncer. Then there’s the Levitation power, which lifts Raz on top of a ball for him to move more quickly and get to greater heights. It’s floaty and a bit unwieldy, used as a psuedo-sprint button since there’s no dedicated button for speed. Platforming is generally solid, though I’d like a more controlled sprint mechanic. It can occasionally be difficult to know where Raz is landing when leaping, the sort of situation where an indicator could help. Especially among higher level challenges.

Even so, one of the highest compliments I can pay Psychonauts 2 is it’s more fun to move around and take the scenic route than use fast travel (which is a nice option to have here of course). There’s always something to collect or a character to find. A fun area to explore. This sort of love for traversal is a staple of the genre’s best experiences.

It wouldn’t be a video game about psychics without powers, of course! Certain “PSI-Powers” are carryovers from the original: The aforementioned Levitation technique. Telekinesis, the ability to throw objects. PSI Blast is a projectile energy beam. Pyrokinesis is, naturally, a big old fireball. And Clairvoyance allows Raz to see from another being’s perspective. This materializes what they think of him, and changes based on the person. Or animal. It can be quite amusing.

As he’s grown a few days since last game, Raz learns a handful of new abilities. Mental Connection is used to connect ideas, essentially grapple points, and pull the player towards them. Primarily a movement mechanic that allows for more vertical exploration plus a combat tactic where Raz to zip around, pull enemies or snag objects in mid-air. There’s also Time Bubble slowing anything in its path. Helpful during platforming to new places or fighting against quick opponents. Lastly there’s Projection where the player creates a separate paper version of Raz. This copy can open secret areas or serve as a much-needed distraction during battle. He’s also a master of one-liners.

Double Fine shows off clear innovation and creativity baked into environment and level design along the way. There’s four main open areas in Psychonauts 2 plus more than a dozen individual minds to tour. Almost all of them are memorable, especially in how they bend themes or blend them together. As Raz starts to learn his new powers in the second act, exploration really opens up. Notably into more vertical spaces. For example in the physical world, The Questionable Area is a bootleg theme park and natural attraction outside the Motherlobe which houses deposits of “Psitanium,” the game’s fictional element and main currency. It’s also where Raz’s family sets up shop. There’s a later game open area that ties into the game’s lore, featuring some of the earliest Psychonaut technology.

Jumping into a human consciousness is really where the artwork, color palette and innovation pick up. These are just big enough to enjoy collectible gathering and power experimentation, then have focused objectives to get done in order to progress the story. Without digging into spoilers, I’d like to highlight two of these mental environments to prove what makes this game so special.

As mentioned before, a woman named Forsythe is temporarily leading the Psychonauts while Zanotto is recovering. She’s also the intern coordinator, so Raz has to start his bureau education within her mental classroom. The other leaders are setting up a big casino mission, which Forsythe forbids any interns from joining. These savvy kids get the idea to, quite literally, “change her mind” by urging Raz to use Mental Connection. The player ends up tricking her into associating risk with success. Now she wants to gamble with the agency’s finances.

Forsythe was a medical professional before joining the Psychonauts, so her mental space starts as a run-of-the-mill hospital. Through collectibles, Raz learns that her mentor stole her seminal work. Once Raz changes her mind, her worldview shifts to a hospital casino hybrid where neon signs and bright lights take the place of a traditional sterilized look. The player has to unlock a high roller suite by figuring out puzzles and fighting their way through her psyche, which will stop her from gambling everything away. A roulette wheel accompanies the maternity ward. “Pillenko” is a pachislot machine with a pharmacy twist.

It’s an exceptional aesthetic with only a tinge of dark humor. Like when a snarky playing card says to Raz: “Sorry, I don’t talk to jokers.” The scenario also presents a myriad of questions: Is it smart to convince people to change their minds? What are the consequences? Will that impact who they are? Forever?

Separately, my favorite mind palace is called PSI King’s Sensorium. It’s a sensory overload of color and sensation set amidst the psychedelic backdrop of a music festival. It’s fully color-shaded, even Raz himself looks different. A truly bursting rainbow of shades and sounds galore. During the associated mission, the player has to work with a ball of light to set up an epic concert. A Feast of the Senses.

Problem is, the band and instruments are all missing. Each member represents one of the five senses, so the player drives a hippy van around an over-world map looking for the missing mates. At one point, the ball of light says some characters “like to get high.” Raz points to a mountaintop. “Oh you mean they go way up there?” And there’s long lines of people waiting for food in the world where the nose band member is located. Tongue-in-cheek references like this abound in Psychonauts 2, tickling the funny bone.

There’s mechanical and symbolic significance here amidst all this natural (and potentially chemical) beauty. First it’s the introduction of the Time Bubble power, representing how people should slow down and enjoy their surroundings. PSI King also suffers from Panic Attacks that manifest as especially brutal enemies. These ugly creatures are super fast, disorienting and downright ugly. And, of course, the culmination of Raz’s effort during this sequence has massive story implications. Part of the payoff is hearing the game’s best song.

For those that have played Psychonauts, PSI King’s Sensorium is definitely the Milkman Conspiracy of the sequel. Both of these minds show Double Fine’s genius, melding extraordinary location design with relevant themes, artwork and gameplay. This blissful concoction couldn’t happen anywhere except video games.

Psychonauts 2 occupies this open space in the industry as a fantastic action platformer not based on a furry mascot, cartoon character or Italian plumber. Its content is much more nuanced than standard adventure games, its environments more daring and jokes hit that much harder.

Now, I have to address combat. The best way to describe it is serviceable, leaning towards solid. It’s certainly not the game’s strongest aspect, more a means to an end than a great time in the moment. Raz uses a psychic hand to slap enemies around, which can be upgraded for further combos or beefed up damage. There’s the PSI Blast ranged attack, perfect for defeating aerial opponents. That also has boosts to create additional projectiles or reduce cooldown. The player can dodge out of the way, even counter attack, though I found this whole process slightly slower than I’d like.

Then his other powers come into play, such as tethering with Mental Connection or burning an area with Pyrokinesis. The latter is a specialty of mine because it causes enemies to break off their current path and run around on fire. Problem is that hit feedback and damage indication are weak, plus the melee moves in particular lack a certain oomph present in better action games. I didn’t mind fighting, though at a certain point in the story I started to avoid conflict when in free roam spots.

Boss fights are far superior to individual combat encounters with fodder enemies. These were always surprising and had mechanics specific to a given area. One would require flinging objects at certain targets with Telekinesis, another asked the player to grapple around the arena in order to output damage. A couple were anticlimactic in the end. Which happens when there are this many, I suppose.

On the mechanical side, a key aspect to balance out platforming and combat is the inclusion of puzzles. They mainly integrate with movement to manifest in environmental puzzles, requiring the player to pilot Raz around areas to complete mini-goals before progressing. Connection thought clouds within a subject’s mind is a popular one. Back in PSI King’s Sensorium, connecting spotlights to prisms in order to make rainbow bridges. Another mind has the player riding a bowling ball around ramps and overpasses. There’s even an entire cooking competition sequence during which Raz is prepping the correct ingredients while being timed, hoping to craft that perfect dish.

Its smart combination of spacial and traditional puzzles are essential to making Psychonauts 2 so effective, many of them reflecting the current hardships or confusion within someone’s brain. It’s less about patching up issues and more about understanding. Winning little battles, then trying to at least continue on after conceding that solving doesn’t necessarily mean fixing.

Beyond its overall presentation technique, Easter Eggs and callbacks are icing on the cake. Which makes sense. The game is set mere days after the last one, as agents make sure characters such as Coach Oleander (a protagonist previously) and Dr. Loboto know when claiming they are changed people. Similar to something like Waterloo World in Psychonauts, there are over-worlds within certain mental spaces that connect to individual levels. The fast travel friend Oatmeal aka “Little Buddy” is present as well.

For those games that offer it, progression is an increasingly important system because it’s a primary reward loop. Good games are rewarding. The best ones respect a player’s time commitment. This is one area where Psychonauts is traditionally cumbersome, which is still the case in the sequel. Even more so with the introduction of a Pin customization system.

Overall, Raz has a Rank. This isn’t increased by experience points. Rather, it can move up a few different ways. The easiest is to collect 100 Figments or what’s called a PSI Challenge Marker, the latter of which is more hidden in harder-to-reach places. Each of those earns a single rank. The other way is by using a vending machine to combine two different items together: Nine PSI Cards, another collectible that’s easier to find, with one PSI Core that can be purchased with currency. That process creates a PSI Challenge Marker, which again bumps up the rank. Got all that?

I understand the desire to make collecting items meaningful. It’s just the whole combining process isn’t intuitive or streamlined. When the game has to constantly remind the player how to rank up, that tells me there’s one too many steps involved.

Then there’s Intern Credits used to upgrade individual PSI Powers. These are earned by completing tasks, ranking up or snagging certain items across the world. A very useful system that allows four powerful upgrades for each power. I maximized Levitation in order to vary my movement capabilities plus Pyrokinesis because, well, fire is always useful!

Adding even more complexity, flexibility and even pizazz are what’s called Pins, personalized options purchased strictly via collected Psitanium nuggets. Raz can have three equipped at any time. They are haphazardly categorized, a messy presentation that screams it was good in theory though thrown together in execution. The pins themselves are quite fun and malleable. It’s a smorgasbord of different choices. Some are cosmetic, like a classic dance for Raz’s idle animation. Many are practical including a ground pound for Levitation or gaining Mental Energy when grappling. Then there’s those that completely change how the game plays. Glass Cannon increases both incoming and outgoing damage. Time Warp makes a Time Bubble speed up instead of slow down.

There’s even a pin to gain the ability to pet animals. Why that isn’t on by default, I’ll never know!

This is all coordinated by agent Otto Mentallis, master engineer and gadget guy. He’s the brains of the team when it comes to tinkering and experimenting with mechanical objects. His Otto Matic vending machine sells all of these cores, items and pins. He even lets Raz borrow two gadgets: Thought Tuner offers access to new areas by finding “stray thought” grapple points. Otto-Shot Camera is a basic, effective photo mode. His lab also has a nice touch with the Hall of Brains, showing off the title’s myriad of financial backers. Like one big brain gumball machine, another perfect choice in any number of presentation decisions by Double Fine.

Looking at other options, namely those of the quality of life and accessibility variety, the studio thankfully puts a focus on these features. There’s a suggested control scheme that can be fully customized. A number of assist features from subtitle size, text clarity, colorblind considerations, no fall damage, invincibility and narrative combat mode which makes the player super powerful when fighting. There’s a content warning and mental health disclaimer after booting it up. Similar to the original, the Collective Unconscious allows access to prior mental locations then there’s a fast travel mechanic whether in big open spaces or within minds when revisiting them. You can tell Double Fine cares about its players, no matter their abilities.

Performance is consistent on current generation, noting that I played on Xbox Series X. Based on a chart shared by Double Fine ahead of launch, older consoles will run at 30 frames-per-second. Loading time is impressively fast which helps a ton during travel and post-game. It’s the type of game that lets its art and color carry it visually as opposed to outright resolution. Both high dynamic range (HDR) and variable refresh rate (VRR) are available on Xbox Series X|S while PlayStation 5 doesn’t offer these more advanced options. I’d say it will look and run well enough even last generation for most players other than the most picky, which probably have the new boxes or a gaming PC already.

I’d be remiss not to mention its soundtrack, full of jazzy tunes, punk anthems, background beats and even rock operas. The music is highlighted by Jack Black’s incredible psychedelic power ballad shown in a 2020 trailer here. There’s also expert use of sound effects, changing the sound of walking on different surfaces, blaring casino machines, bouncy boings as Raz levitates around plus squishy noises when poking throughout a brain world. Yet another example of the heightened attention to detail, this time on the sound engineering side.

Because it’s a character story, there’s a notable quality in its voice acting prowess. Richard Steven Horvitz shines as Raz. Nick Jameson doubles as Oleander and Loboto. Roger Craig Smith, Yuri Lowenthal and even Elijah Wood were recruited for select roles. Then of course, a Double Fine favorite, Jack Black himself makes his presence felt. This is a small sampling of the talented actors that make dialogue so engaging and deliver on the writing team’s intended humor.

I did have reservations about certain choices from Double Fine, as much as I adored the whole package of Psychonauts 2. Many might be considered nitpicks. There’s random two-dimensional platforming segments that seem to be there more for visual flare than mechanical enjoyment. This 2D angle pops up in a couple different minds, I could take it or leave it mainly because the mechanics are much more limited than anywhere else making Raz feel notably heavy.

While it offers certain features, I think it could do even more from both a cosmetic and game mode standpoint. There’s so much the team could do with outfits and areas. The player can pick which color ball is under Raz as he levitates, but can’t choose his look! There’s an Aquato circus area that’s way underutilized. It’s ripe for time trials, acrobatic challenges or even survival modes. I see big upside for an expansion even, especially adding new spots based on different people’s minds.

The game walks a fine line between helpful and distracting when it comes to text pop-ups and reminders. I counted a few times where two or three overlays littered the user interface, which was unexpected from a game this sleek. I know it’s trying to convey helpful information. This just isn’t as welcome in the middle of a tricky platforming section.

It’s hard not to stop everywhere and admire what the designers crammed into these locales. Design decisions like these make its world simultaneously bizarre and uniquely endearing. Double Fine can play with so much using these settings that blend the real with imaginary worlds.

Many games claim it, yet few of them succeed: There really is no experience quite like Psychonauts 2 out there. A masterful and refined sequel that builds on the original’s formula, it’s expanded to include an even richer cast of characters and the amazing areas within their respective minds. There’s not many complaints throughout and a whole lot of laughs until the end.

What surprised me most is where its story went, how well it includes so many special characters then comments on mental health without being heavy-handed. There are twists. Serious revelations. I felt for characters, especially when others try to make decisions for them. It’s a genuine, even if somewhat convoluted, narrative about family, relationships, what people do to try to help one another, the consequences of choice and how everyone has their own inner demons.

Psychonauts 2 occupies this open space in the industry as a fantastic action platformer not based on a furry mascot, cartoon character or Italian plumber. Its content is much more nuanced than standard adventure games, its environments more daring and jokes hit that much harder.

World detail is magnificent. Even when visiting places multiple times, which can be done during the campaign or end-game clean-up. In fact, I’d highly recommend sticking around after the finale because things change in reaction to what’s happened. Even after around 25 hours deep into my play-thru when I hit the ending, I didn’t want to stop playing. After the credits rolled I jumped back into levels multiple times, surprised to see they had changed and reacted to the state of its world.

Double Fine are masters of their craft, this is exactly where they should be and I’m thankful for it. They specialize in dual meaning, character modelling, hybrid themes and exceptional references. It’s easy to miss how much they pack into these areas which makes it that much more pleasing to revisit them. I adore so much about Psychonauts 2 that I’ll probably keep exploring well after this review, which is a testament to the high level of talent on display and the superb polish that makes this game shine.

Title: Psychonauts 2

Release Date: August 25th, 2021

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

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

Recommendation: 100% recommended. An amazing modern adventure game boasting plenty of charm, a bit of darkness and wacky locations to explore. It keeps players entertained as they traverse through various minds to uncover mysteries surrounding the agency’s history, its enemies and Raz’s family dynamic. Essential playing as one of the best 3D platformers in the last couple generations.

Sources: Double Fine Productions Media Kit, Microsoft, Screenshots via Xbox Series X.

Disclaimer: Review code provided courtesy of Microsoft/Xbox for coverage ahead of launch.

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

Congratulations, gaming fans. You can do it!

All of you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe all. Thanks for reading!

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

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

-Dom

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

Updated: September 9th.

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

Well, sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up, that pricing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what now?

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

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

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

I’d bet the house.

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

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

-Dom

Let’s Count Just How Many Records Video Game Sales Set in April 2020

April 2020 will go down forever as a tragic, horrifying month globally for many people enduring the coronavirus outbreak. My condolences to all those impacted, I wish you all the best during these trying times.

One silver lining at least is that video games are able to provide at least some relief from the monotony of social distancing and lock-down orders. And if sales are any indication, tons of people are most certainly getting their money’s worth.

Last month was a monumental one for video game industry sales, both domestically in the States and globally across digital marketplaces. It literally might have a record-breaking amount of records broken.

Just today both U.S. industry tracking firm The NPD Group and global digital data provider SuperData reported their respective figures for April, in what’s one of the single most newsworthy days in the history of gaming sales nerdom.

Rather than a more comprehensive deep dive into the myriad of stats, we’re going to do a rapid-fire recap of all the ridiculous statistics revealed today alongside lists of top-selling games both in the U.S. and globally by digital revenue. Then, I’ll get through a brief bit of commentary before we say goodbye.

Ready? Time to hit record.

Last month was a monumental one for video game industry sales, both domestically in the States and globally across digital marketplaces. It literally might have a record-breaking amount of records broken.

United States Games Industry Sales (April 5th to May 2nd):

Overall games industry spending increased a crazy 73% since this time last year, generating $1.5 billion. This is a record high for an April month, eclipsing that of April 2008’s $1.2 billion.

Monthly game software sales jumped 55% since April 2019, reaching the highest level ever for an April at $662 million. This beats out the previous record-holder again from April 2008, which totaled $642 million.

Within software, the most notable record is for Final Fantasy 7 Remake which led the monthly rankings chart and set a new franchise high for launch month dollar and unit sales, eclipsing that of Final Fantasy XV from 2016. Square Enix’s latest JRPG re-imagining is immediately the 3rd top seller of 2020 so far plus the best-selling PlayStation 4 title on the year.

It wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t mention Nintendo’s flagship hit Animal Crossing: New Horizons, even if the only record it set is short-term. The cute simulation and lifestyle game was ranked #2 on both the April and 2020 to date software charts. Its mini-accomplishment is that it’s the top-seller on Nintendo Switch as a platform over the past 12 months.

In terms of commercial successes we talk about every month, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was the 2nd top-seller of April and is still the highest ranked game of both the last 12 months and 2020 itself. During its 7th month run since release, it’s the 4th fastest-selling game ever tracked by NPD Group. That fits my description of an “almost” record, so I’ll allow it.

Moving like Jagger to a game that’s the opposite of talked about each month, Just Dance 2020 is the quickest selling game in Ubisoft’s long-running franchise since Just Dance 2014. It improved its ranking on the monthly software chart, now at #11 in April after boogying to the 17th spot in March.

Quickly flipping to the hardware category, overall dollar spend is so close to being a record that it gets like half a point. Console sales reached $420 million during April 2020, up a whopping 163% versus this time last year. April 2008 refused to be dethroned this time, as it maintains the best April month ever when it generated $427 million.

Within the Hardware segment, Nintendo Switch held the #1 spot for the 17th straight month. Here comes the real doozy: During 2020 so far, its sales are the highest of any single platform in the history of domestic tracking for the first 4 months of a year outpacing even the Wii over a decade ago in April 2009. Incredible, especially in a time with supply concerns.

Not only that! Dollar sales of the “Big 3” consoles in the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One all increased more than 160% year-on-year with Xbox One generating the best growth although NPD Group did not reveal an exact figure. From a unit sales standpoint, each of these hit record April amounts according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter:

Switch: 808,000

PlayStation 4: 411,000

Xbox One: 329,000

Last category here is accessories and game pads, which generated $384 million in monthly sales for an increase of 49% since April 2019. Record alert! Consumer spend on game pads reached a high for an April month, clearing almost twice as much as last year’s amount. PlayStation 4’s Dual Shock 4 black controller topped April’s list, while Nintendo’s Switch Pro Controller is still the best for 2020.

Want another record? I’ve.. heard we got one for ya. Spending on headsets and headphones achieved the best April month in history, beating out that of April 2018. Last month also boasted record results for Steering Wheels and Game Cards. Note that we didn’t hear exact figures for any of these sub-categories, only that they had their best April months of all time.

I feel like we all need a breather after so many records. Let’s look at the full domestic software charts for both last month and year-to-date before going global.

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

  1. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  4. NBA 2K20
  5. Grand Theft Auto V
  6. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  7. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered
  8. MLB: The Show 20
  9. Madden NFL 20
  10. Red Dead Redemption 2
  11. Just Dance 2020
  12. FIFA 20
  13. Mortal Kombat 11
  14. Borderlands 3
  15. Predator: Hunting Grounds
  16. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  17. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
  18. Persona 5: Royal
  19. Need for Speed: Heat
  20. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

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

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  4. NBA 2K20
  5. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  6. MLB: The Show 20
  7. Grand Theft Auto V
  8. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  9. Madden NFL 20
  10. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*

Gaming allows individuals to escape into new, exciting worlds where they don’t have to worry about a pandemic. Or they can at least virtually fight back against one.

Worldwide Digital Games Industry Sales (April 2020)

Expanding to the global games market, let’s check out digital sales estimates from SuperData via its usual monthly report. In general, this only includes digital downloads and additional revenue through in-game transactions thus excludes physical copies sold.

And again to confirm, these are internal estimates as opposed to say publisher data.

Spending on digital games around the globe surpassed a monumental $10.5 billion during April 2020 which is the highest month ever and growth of 17% since last year. Ding ding. Another record!

Driving this figure was a jump in console sales of 42%, mobile growth of 14% then PC sales moving 12% higher. Of course this is temporarily bolstered by lock-down orders, as gaming has become a popular way to defeat the inevitable boredom that sets in from staying home. The question becomes how long can it last?

Diving into more individual game results, usual suspect Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold 3.6 million digital copies in April which is down slightly from the record 5 million in its launch month of March. Still, it was the top-selling console game on the worldwide chart. Here’s this month’s record: After only two months on market, it’s already the top-selling Nintendo Switch title as measured by both digital unit sales estimates and dollar revenue from downloads.

The aforementioned Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which was the best-seller in the States during April, achieved the 2nd spot on the global digital rankings. Since we’re certainly counting, its total of 2.2 million digital downloads set multiple records for a launch month. This is the best digital result within the franchise ever, plus it’s the fastest-selling PlayStation exclusive to date beating out Marvel’s Spider-Man in 2018 by a slim margin. A win is a win!

While not a record, Resident Evil 3 Remake achieved another notable result during April 2020. Capcom’s latest remake in the long-running horror franchise eclipsed 1.3 million digital units sold during this its launch month, slightly below the 1.4 million of its predecessor in 2019’s Resident Evil 2 Remake.

Back to the records. Last month, League of Legends hit its best player count of all time and spending in Grand Theft Auto V on in-game content reached its highest level ever. Ongoing games continue in their appeal, as people gather virtually to either compete or work together collaboratively.

This leads into the full charts from SuperData estimates for global digital sales. Take it away, fancy image.

Top-Grossing Console Games of April 2020, Worldwide, Digital Sales:

  1. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
  2. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  3. FIFA 20
  4. Grand Theft Auto V
  5. NBA 2K20
  6. DOOM Eternal
  7. Fortnite
  8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered
  9. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  10. Resident Evil 3 Remake

Alright. I believe I’m fully on record proving how April was a record-breaking month. Counting them up, there are more than a dozen here which is likely some sort all-time high.

My reactions? No one could have predicted this, not even as recently as a couple months ago. This is absolutely unprecedented, even if for the wrong reasons during a tragic time for our world history.

Gaming as much as any other medium is benefiting because of the feeling of connection caused by sharing on social media or gearing up with others online. There’s local play, which helps pass the time with the very few loved ones with which we can spend time. Gaming allows individuals to escape into new, exciting worlds where they don’t have to worry about a pandemic. Or they can at least virtually fight back against one.

It’s not much in the way of analysis to say that April was one of if not the most noteworthy sales months this generation. What’s difficult to say is how long it will last with all the uncertainty surrounding the scary longevity of coronavirus and the potential for a vaccine. I’m thankful that people have games to entertain, especially those on the front lines working hard for our safety, and that for now many have enough disposable income to spend.

As the summer starts here and new PlayStation 4 games like The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima release then Nintendo launches Paper Mario: The Origami King, where will the broader economy be, what level of unemployment will we see and how will sales look going into the marketing cycle for next generation consoles?

Let’s celebrate April for what it was, while acknowledging we have a long way to go outside of games.

As always, please check out NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella’s thread for many more details plus friend of the site Jeff Grubb’s recap on Venture Beat on the domestic report, then SuperData’s site for the global update. Thanks for reading, be healthy!

^Digital PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on Consoles Included

Sources: Media Play News, NPD Group, Square Enix, SuperData Estimates, Venture Beat.

-Dom

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

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

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

That said, it’s time to guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: All pricing discussed above is in US Dollars.

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

-Dom

Microsoft’s Annual Gaming Revenue Exceeds $11.6 Billion For The First Time

Phil Spencer, Head of Microsoft’s Xbox division.

For Microsoft $MSFT, having one’s head in the Cloud is turning out to be a smart decision.

According to the company’s fiscal 2019 3rd quarter earnings results today, it reported revenue of $30.6 billion. An increase of 14% compared to the prior year, and a figure that comes in above analyst expectations. Operating profit jumped 25% to over $10 billion. Growth is mainly attributed to the firm’s cloud offerings and productivity suite.

Going further, how did the Xbox gaming division fare? The answer is that it broke yet another record.

As you’ll see in the above chart, Xbox gaming revenue exceeded $11.6 billion for the trailing 12-month period for the first time since the company began reporting this specific metric. This breaks the record of $11.5 billion set last quarter. In fact, revenue has been steadily growing for the Xbox business during the later part of the Xbox One generation of hardware, which began in late 2013.

Quarterly gaming sales eclipsed $2.36 billion, up 5% since this time last year. Attributed to 12% increase in Xbox software and services, which offset a drop in hardware likely due to both market saturation and discounting. Microsoft notes that software and service results were boosted by “third party monetization” and “subscriptions growth.”

Edit: While profit metrics aren’t shared for gaming itself, there is a small comment giving a bit of insight:

“Gross margin percentage increased due to sales mix shifts to higher margin businesses in Gaming and Windows.”

Translation: Gaming is shifting to higher margin businesses, which benefits profitability. Unfortunately, I don’t see much else on the profit side.

Allow me to translate that last part for you:

Xbox Live monthly active users totaled 63 million compared to 59 million last year. The more people subscribe, the more they become embedded in the ecosystem and purchase content on the digital store. Each online buy provides a revenue slice for Xbox.

Then, like so many parties involved, it’s making a boatload of cash as its players spend in online battle royale games Fortnite and now Apex Legends. This phenomenon is not only keeping players around, but more importantly attracting new ones. Which is especially key as the current hardware generation ages.

So. How is Xbox achieving milestones when it’s not selling Xboxes?

It’s the renewed focus on expanding player services and reinforcing customer goodwill. Xbox has fully established its Game Pass offering, where players pay a monthly fee for access to a library of digital titles. It’s attracting major publishers to participate, grabbing games like Capcom’s Monster Hunter: World and Square Enix’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While we don’t have statistics on how Game Pass did this quarter, there’s no doubt it’s bolstering the service side.

Another attractive offering is backwards compatibility, where titles from prior generations work on the Xbox One family of devices. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker or a system-seller, though it’s still a distinguishing feature.

Oh. And did I mention battle royale?

Now don’t get me wrong. The hardware decline is a moderate concern. However it’s not uncommon that a downturn happens when a console is approaching its seventh year on market. And revenue growth is still happening despite lackluster hardware results. I fully anticipate middling hardware sales in the foreseeable future, until next generation. The good news is that both battle royale and these various services aren’t going anywhere.

With all-but-confirmed rumors that the firm is building its next generation of gaming hardware for a potential 2020 launch, Microsoft’s gaming division is using services as a way to generate business and maintain its user base for the time being. And based on today’s report, it’s working.


Source: Microsoft Investor Relations & Press Resources. Xbox.com. Windows Central.

-Dom

2018 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

Hi all. It has certainly been a slow writing year for me here at the blog, though I try to maintain activity on Twitter as much as I can! With this last post of the year, I wanted to celebrate all the great times I had with notable games that so many dedicated development teams worked on during the past 12 months.

Let’s get right to it. Here are my Top 10 Games of 2018, in descending order. Plus, some bonus mentions at the bottom. Each is listed alongside developer, publisher, platforms and sales.

Which of these did you check out? Did any of these make your list? I certainly hope so!

10. Florence (Mountains, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: Mobile. Android & iOS.

Sales: Was tracking well early according to lead designer Ken Wong. Over 10K downloads on Android, 5K ratings on iOS.

Mountains’ Florence is nowhere near a typical mobile game. More of an interactive visual novel. Though it’s the type of game that wouldn’t work nearly as well on a platform *other than* mobile. It uses its platform masterfully to tell the tale of a couple in their 20s, from random encounter to honeymoon period to an inevitable rough patch. Its main mechanic is using the touch screen to literally piece things together (or attempt to do so) as an emotional narrative plays out. One that comes to an unconventional conclusion, and leaves a lasting impression as a result.

9. Celeste (Matt Makes Games)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: At least 500K units, according to the game’s creator Matt Thorson. Hugely successful for a smaller-sized indie team!

Celeste is a 2D platformer about struggle, mental health and attempting to overcome your internal criticisms to achieve an aspiration. As main character Madeline climbs Celeste mountain, the challenging gameplay combines with a suite of characters and a killer soundtrack to reveal it’s ultimately an allegory for setting a goal then dealing with obstacles on the way to fulfilling it. It’s a fine video game, frustrations and all.

8. Marvel’s Spider-Man (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: 3.3 million units its first 3 days, an all-time record for a PS4 exclusive. Currently stands as the 6th best-selling game of 2018 in the States.

For a medium that seems a perfect fit for superheros, not many recent games capture the essence of being one quite like Marvel’s Spider-Man. Insomniac stuck what I think is most important for the fantasy of being Spidey: effortless, stylish swinging through Manhattan then kicking the crap out of bad guys. While the game has snoozer side activities, annoying stealth sequences and uneven pacing, its gameplay, stellar 3rd act and surprisingly intimate character moments sling it above many 2018 games.

7. Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope, 3909)

Platforms: Windows. MacOS.

Sales: At least 100K units in around 2 months, per SteamSpy.

If you said a game made predominantly by one person that’s only available on PC/Mac where you play as an insurance adjuster would make my list, I would’ve looked at you like you were a kraken. But just last week, I finally played the game every critic I respect couldn’t stop talking about since its October ship date. It’s a sort of murder-mystery that tells the story of a doomed East India Company sea vessel called the Obra Dinn, via minimalist art and moment-in-time vignettes. Gameplay consists of navigating these snapshot memories using a magical watch, deducing what happened to crew members and passengers during the ill-fated journey. The sheer triumph of figuring out each fate becomes infectious, all the way through its conclusion and final reveal.

6. Monster Hunter: World (Capcom)

Platforms: Xbox One. PlayStation 4. Windows.

Sales: A whopping 10.7 million units. The best-selling single retail release in Capcom’s storied history, not counting re-releases.

This was the earliest major release of 2018, and the first time Capcom’s popular Monster Hunter franchise hit major consoles after being very popular on handhelds in Japan. A global audience latched onto the quirky, humorous fun of an action role-playing game where you hunt gargantuan wild creatures in a variety of detailed locales. Not only is the combat super satisfying, all of its systems blend to keep players engaged: studying animals, gathering supplies, crafting weapons, purchasing items, upgrading gear and taking on quests. Plus, it has cooperative multiplayer. And you hunt alongside a cat friend. It’s a “Palico.” That calls you Meow-ster. Purr-fect!

5. Yoku’s Island Express (Villa Gorilla, Team17)

Platforms: Xbox One. PlayStation 4. Nintendo Switch. Windows.

Sales: Not available.

I couldn’t write this list without including at least something pinball related. And Yoku’s Island Express isn’t just related, it’s pinball in video game form with a genius twist. Villa Gorilla ingeniously built a 2D world that integrates traditional pinball features like flippers and bumpers that allow for traversal across its environments. The player works toward unlocking areas, discovering secrets, finding collectibles and even fighting bosses using pinball as a means to achieve these goals. The controllable character is Yoku, a cute beetle-turned-postman, who delivers items across a cheerful world that’s unfortunately plagued by a dark curse. It’s the smartest synthesis of pinball and video game that I can remember, plus it features a joyful soundtrack and amusing dialogue. I had a ball!

4. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch (Streaming in Japan Only), Windows.

Sales: Unit sales aren’t explicitly available, as often happens with major publishers. Ubisoft shared that 1st week sales set a record for the franchise on current generation. Currently the 10th best-selling game of 2018 in the States.

It may feel like the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been around for ages, before Assassins and Templars started beefing. Odyssey is nearly its dozenth mainline title, seeing the player take the role of Alexios or Kassandra, a pair of Spartan twins embroiled in political, societal and even mythical battles as mercenaries in ancient Greece. I don’t say it lightly that it’s one of the best entries in the series. (Yes, even after I said the same about Origins last year.) Some argue it’s shifting further from the series’ tradition, with its enhanced role-playing elements, loot system, dialogue trees, romance options and skill trees. I argue that this is progression. Ubisoft is continually expanding on the stealth-action base of its past. Other than a lackluster conclusion for one of the major plot lines, I have very little to complain about for this sharpest of entries.

3. Tetris Effect (Monstars/Resonair, Enhance Inc)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR. (I’d love a Switch version, please!)

Sales: Not available.

You aren’t suffering from seeing things, like you would if you were experiencing The Tetris Effect. There is a new Tetris game in my top three. We all know Tetris is one of the best games ever. I believe that Tetris Effect, produced by Mark MacDonald alongside visionary Japanese designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, is the singular best Tetris game ever since the original.

Its presentation is flawless. Expertly-crafted backgrounds alone would be an experience in sensory bliss. Then, its sound design is legendary. Blips of auditory delights trigger with every tetromino spin, placement and drop, accentuating its uplifting, modern new age soundtrack. It’s not without innovations, either. Players can trigger Zone, a slow motion mechanic that provides for crazy combos. There’s Journey, a curated experience through many of its levels. Its Effect mode allows players to level up and compete on leader boards. Not to mention, it’s fully playable in virtual reality. Moments of synesthesia aplenty, Tetris Effect is borderline transcendental.

2. God of War (Sony Santa Monica Studio, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: 3.1 million units at launch, a record for a PS4 exclusive game until Marvel’s Spider-Man released. Currently at least 5 million copies.

It’s very telling that Sony’s God of War is this high on my list, as I have little nostalgia for the over-the-top action franchise. Its main character, the rage-filled god Kratos, carries over from the earlier trilogy. Though it’s effectively a brand new game set within a gorgeous world crafted this time around Norse mythology rather than Greek. It’s a technical marvel, with game director Cory Barlog and team achieving a single camera cut for the entire duration. Positively stunning visuals, though uneven performance at times. Combat with the new Leviathan Axe is wholly satisfying, especially throwing it at a group of enemies and recalling it. Admittedly, the base combat can be repetitive but each skill unlock reveals the true depth of its systems.

With this said, the game truly shines in its story, character moments and monumental boss sequences. It’s hard to think I’m actually describing a God of War game in this way, but it’s all true and that’s why it’s this high on my list. The plot revolves around an older Kratos attempting to fulfill his wife’s dying wish of spreading her ashes, now accompanied by his half divine son and combat partner Atreus (whom the player can direct during combat and puzzle sequences). Certain Norse figures show up, including Baldur, Freya and the prolific, hilarious storyteller Mimir. The father-son dynamic drives this epic quest along, which ends in an unexpected place and surprisingly captivated me with its narrative elements above all else.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, Take-Two Interactive)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4.

Sales: $725 million in dollar sales during its first weekend. 17 million units in its initial two weeks. The second best-selling game of 2018 in the States. Not too shabby, partner.

This year, Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games returned to the Western setting with the spectacular Red Dead Redemption 2. As a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games of last generation, I was both extremely excited and cautiously optimistic when it was announced. I’m happy to report it vastly exceeded any expectations I had, however lofty. This open world action game’s primary storyline delves into the gang formed by eloquent criminal Dutch Van der Linde, with the player controlling the crew’s second-in-command named Arthur Morgan. He’s a flawed man, loyal to a fault yet still shows the capacity for good deeds and compassion. The game allows you to interact with every character in the world, and ultimately decide what “your Arthur” becomes via a morality scale. The voice acting and motion capture across the board here, for all characters though especially gang members, is extraordinary. Additionally, we see appearances from a variety of familiar faces from the original game: namely John Marston, Javier Escuella and Bill Williamson. Each of them alongside a myriad of new characters makes it feel more like a bustling settlement than many others I’ve seen within the genre.

I can’t understate how visually beautiful and detail complete RDR2 is. Every biome across its world, from snowy mountains to desolate plains to swampy bogs, is populated with fauna, animals, random characters and places to explore. Many games boast what’s called “emergent storytelling,” as in moments that a player will experience individually, separate of the curated quests or story beats. Few deliver on this promise as much as Rockstar does here. It rewards you for going out on your own, talking to people, finding strangers and helping them with their requests. Hunting, fishing, playing cards and more activities open up and each is masterfully executed. Some of them could be games on their own. In fact, these emergent moments are just as memorable if not more so than the game’s missions for me.

Speaking of missions, its overarching narrative is a standout especially in terms of the manner in which it’s conveyed. It’s obvious Rockstar is telling a certain story here, with cutscenes and cinematics interwoven to rival modern films. Sure, its mission design isn’t necessarily innovative. And it doesn’t allow for much player choice during said missions. But that’s by design! There’s freedom in every other aspect that more than makes up for this curation. Missions are usually tense and engaging, especially “major” events like heists or gang endeavors. Arthur and his fellow crew members are constantly on the run from the law or engaging with rivals, not to mention their Western dream of freedom is slowly dying to the progression ushered in by industrialism. There’s plenty of weight to the campaign, especially in later chapters as relationships clash or unravel, and Rockstar weaves moments of fan service with surprising twists to tie the game and its predecessor together.

I’m not saying it’s a perfect game, or even a game for everyone. Some of its menu and UI design is dated. It’s deliberate. Its “feel” can be sluggish until you get the hang of it. You don’t speed through its open world, you mosey. You savor it, as exhibited by Arthur’s movement as he skins each animal, loots each drawer and chats with each gang member or passerby. You hear their stories. And then, you make your own stories that exist alongside Rockstar’s.

I loved this pacing. I loved exploring, finding oddities and secrets that felt like only I had ever seen them before even though I know that’s not true. I virtually *became* a character in America during the late 1800s. I lived in Rockstar’s hyper-realistic, beautiful yet dangerous world for hours and hours, and savored every moment as much as Arthur did.

Before I wrap up, I would like to mention that Rockstar has been criticized for its demanding work practices. Many team members work long hours, especially right before release. This dedication absolutely shows in the final product. And there are those that expressed how much they love working for the studio. Either way, I am hopeful that every single person is compensated fairly for their efforts. Labor practices and company culture is way too big of an issue to discuss here, so I’ll end with saying that no one should have to suffer mentally or with their family just to produce a video game.

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order)

Dead Cells (Motion Twin)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: Upwards of 2 million owners on PC alone per SteamSpy. Not available for console versions.

Dead Cells is the type of game that I shouldn’t have enjoyed, with its roguelike elements including permadeath and losing gear after every “run,” however it ended up being one of my favorite 2D action games of the year almost on feel alone. It’s at its best when you have a run during which you build a sweet load-out and slice through opponents like butter. Though I never actually beat the final boss because of the difficulty spike, which I mark as a knock against it even if you might disagree.

Destiny 2: Forsaken (Bungie, Activision Blizzard)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows.

Sales: The only official numbers we heard were for the original Destiny 2 launch in 2017, which was above 6.3 million units. Well beyond that by now, especially after sales and promotions, however exact figures are not available.

We all know I couldn’t end this post without at least mentioning Destiny. Bungie put out its major Forsaken expansion this September, marking the one year anniversary of Destiny 2’s initial release. And it’s excellent, featuring a campaign where lovable, witty robot Cayde-6 is murdered and the player must hunt down his killers. Plus, there’s a brand new raid, tons of new gear, secrets galore and a variety of quality-of-life updates. Bungie has kept up with maintaining Destiny 2 since launch, however this is the best it’s been. It’s as fun as ever to team up with friends and fight the galaxy’s most threatening enemies, while naturally looking pretty cool all the while.

Donut County (Ben Esposito, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: Everything.

Sales: At least 50K on PC, per SteamSpy. Otherwise, not available.

Have you ever dreamed of controlling a hole in the ground that swallows up entire towns? No? Creator Ben Esposito fulfills a desire that no one knew they had, crafting a fun-loving game with a simple mechanic. You move a hole around a map, growing with every item it swallows up until literally nothing remains. Its plot is actually solid, as friends Mina (a human) and BK (a racoon) work at a doughnut shop. BK plays a mobile game where he “delivers doughnuts” to people by sending them holes in the ground. It’s simple and funny, with slight undertones of a commentary on gentrification. The humor shines especially in its glossary, where each item is documented as it’s gobbled up. It’s also an accessible, easy to control game.

Hollow Knight (Team Cherry)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: Approximately 1.25 million units, when aggregating available PC and Nintendo Switch figures.

This entry is technically cheating, as Hollow Knight originally released in 2017. Its Switch launch happened this year, so that’s when I played it, and it’s sincerely excellent. The dark, dreary 2D action platformer stands out not just because of its challenging combat but because of its unique lore and creative world-building. It’s all about a lost kingdom of bugs, and those creatures that inhabit it. The player learns about secrets and mini-stories via exploration. Each time you proceed to a new area, you feel equal parts wonder and dread. It also has some of the most memorable boss sequences I’ve played the past couple of years.

Pokemon Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Pokemon Let’s Go, Eevee! (Game Freak, The Pokemon Company, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Sales: In the two months since release, over 3 million units worldwide. The highest first week sales for a Switch title, until Super Smash Bros Ultimate hit 5 million at launch in December.

My final honorable mention is the latest set of adorable entries in the Pokemon franchise, which I’ll just call Let’s Go! because it’s a lot to type every time. These are re-made versions of 1998’s classic Pokemon Yellow featuring updating trappings inspired by 2016’s mobile phenomenon Pokemon Go. I grabbed the Pikachu version of Let’s Go!, of course, and loved building up my team of pocket monsters within the colorful world of Kanto, then using them to battle trainers and gym leaders. Favorite of my current squad? Arcanine. You can ride on its back, with Pikachu on your shoulder. That’s worth the price of entry alone!

There you have it. All the 2018 games worth playing! Well, there are other good games out there, but these are my selections for the best of the best. Thank you as always for reading, here’s wishing you all the best in the new year.

Sources: Photos are screenshots from my time with these games. Sales info as linked. Other information from company media and investor relations websites, Wikipedia, Venture Beat and NPD Group.

-Dom