Are We Too Quick to Judge?

The video game industry is surrounded by a level of passion that is hard to be matched by any medium. Movies, books, music have passionate fans regarding franchises, bands, series, but few can accrue as much love or hate as the most prominent video game franchises.

And we have seen that with the yet unreleased Mass Effect Andromeda, the new entry in the beloved sci-fi franchise that became an icon in the industry. N7 jackets, cosplays, tattoos, regarding Commander Shepard and the world around him proliferate in conventions, and even in everyday life.

But like any major brand, as we see with Star Wars’ prequels, the same fans who adore the characters and the lore can feel betrayed, as what happened with the controversial ending of Mass Effect 3. And some of that hate has transferred against Mass Effect Andromeda, and I’m not defending the game, that is yet to be found out if it’s worthy of being considered as part of the franchise.

Yes, the animations truly look horrendous, sometimes worse than what we saw in the first entry, that came out in 2007, and far inferior to those in Dragon Age Inquisition, that came out in 2014, by the same studio. But it feels that everybody is going beyond that and considering the game a failure based on the impressions of the first few hours, that doesn’t give an amazing first impression, but neither did Mass Effect 1, and many other revered RPG’s.

With a game that has such a big scope, spanning through an entire galaxy, a new one, hundreds of characters, and dozens of hours of content, we can’t judge it based on its first hours. After all, a lot of story, character and gameplay developments will happen after that.

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Many other games were released with a negative impression, with problems that weren’t related to the visuals, but that was clouded by doubt and proved to be at least good games. Last year’s Hitman, was criticized by many for adopting the episodic business model and ended up becoming one of the biggest surprises of last year. It didn’t have an amazing story, but through brilliant level design and incredible replay value was voted by many as their game of the year.

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The outstanding Horizon Zero Dawn, that is a candidate for game of the year, previewed well but wasn’t deemed as an incredible game, with many journalists pointing to strange facial animations as a flaw, albeit they are not as bad as those in ME: A. And it had an amazing reception, being pointed as a new franchise for the PlayStation, possibly becoming a staple of the brand for the future.

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Final Fantasy XV also wasn’t unanimity among the media, with lackluster demos, characters that looked formulaic and uninteresting. All of that added to the morbid curiosity of seeing a project that took several years, and fundamental changes throughout the years to be released. And the final result proved to be positive, well-regarded by reviewers and fans alike, proving to also be a success when it comes to sales, that may never turn into a profit given the long development cycle and huge marketing effort behind it.

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And we can never forget, that looks may deceive, as we saw in The Order: 1886 and Mafia III. Both games were touted as possibly groundbreaking, due to its jaw dropping graphics in The Order and its story in Mafia III that tackled tough themes. Even though they managed to succeed in these areas, both were plagued by poor gameplay, and worlds that felt lifeless and underwhelming, being considered huge disappointments.

I’m not saying that Mass Effect Andromeda is going to be a great game, or that it shouldn’t be criticized based on its flaws. But at times we have judged a game before seeing the final product, and many times we were wrong. All I’m saying is that we should at least give it a chance to get a fair assessment, if indeed it really is a sub par entry, then it shall receive its share of reasonable criticism, but if it’s good then let’s all enjoy it.

 

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Are We Seeing the Beginning of the End of the Physical Market?

For a while now the digital market has emerged as the future of the games industry, with its participation growing exponentially. In the past few years it has already dominated the PC landscape, and every year it increases their participation in the console space. To the point that 60% of EA’s  total business revenue comes from the digital market reaching almost $3 billion in the last 12 months, 47% of Ubisoft’s sales come from digital products, increasing more than 84% when compared to the previous year, becoming an instrumental market to any company.

A confluence of reasons allowed this growth to happen, such as the improvement of the internet infrastructure worldwide, with improved speed and reliability. The ease of being able to purchase a game without the need to wait for days until the game is delivered, allied to the capacity to play from the second it is released. Services such as PS Plus and Games with Gold giving dozens of games each year, the growth of the indie scene, that is very hard to find physically, and smaller prices, bigger sales, also helped attract consumers to this market.

Yesterday another example of these changing times was the announcement of the Xbox Game Pass, a service that for a monthly fee allows gamers to access a library in excess of 100 games. Having a similar structure to Netflix and Spotify, services that dominate their respective markets and were in part responsible for the downfall of the physical market in the movies and music industry, but also a new source of revenue and a revival, changing the way people consume their entertainment.

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Nowadays digital transactions represent more than 27% of Microsoft’s gaming division revenue, considering hardware and software. And in 2014, the first sign of this focus was the arrival of EA Access, that similar to Xbox Game Pass, gives you access to EA’s library, trials and discounts. After the announcement of both services, Gamespot’s shares tumbled, showing a level of concern over their future.

And in order to not become redundant, Gamestop, the biggest video game retailer in the world, has tried to change their business strategy. Focusing on geek culture, selling licensed products from major franchises, trying to reach a new audience, especially since their revenue, number of stores, and relevance has diminished significantly in the past few years.

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They also started GameTrust, their publishing arm, representing their biggest opportunity to stay in the market, if everything goes as planned. Partnering with studios such as Insomniac and Ready at Dawn, to finance and publish new titles, creating products based on these properties that can only be found in their stores. With their first foray being Song of the Deep, with about 80% of the sales coming from retail.

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But the most unexpected and perhaps the most important player in this situation, and that could propel this change even faster, is the US president-elect Donald Trump. With his intent to roll out trade tariffs, he can end up affecting the physical market negatively.

Living in Brazil I managed to see this situation closely when the PS4 was released for more than $1.800,00 due to heavy taxation, being recognized by Nintendo as the main reason to end their distribution in the country. With the only way out being producing the console as well as the games locally, as Microsoft has done with the Xbox One from the beginning, and Sony followed suit later with the PS4.

A big part of the expense behind physical games comes from manufacturing and logistics. Printing games, distributing, are all expenses that don’t affect the digital market. Many materials come from other countries, distribution centers might be located overseas, as well as many other parts of the business don’t happen in the US, creating a scenario in which game prices may increase.

If companies are required to bring their business to the US, the overall cost of production will increase, after all the American worker is a lot more expensive than the European, Mexican, Canadian worker. A situation that could create an extremely positive environment for digital stores, that due to a slimmer infrastructure can have much lower prices, to the point of going below the $60,00 price tag for releases, becoming much more attractive than any program offered by a retail store.

Yes, this law is focused in the US, but we are talking about the biggest gaming market in the world. If the American market adopts digital games as the standard for consoles, the entire industry will follow suit, maybe not immediately, but eventually. Microsoft’s decision to create an all-digital service was the biggest example of one of the Big Three companies taking a significant step towards this change.

Whether people like it or not, we are roaming towards an all-digital future, such as the other areas of entertainment. It has never been cheaper and easier to watch a movie, listen to an album, read a book, and from what it looks like, the same will happen with games, and from what we can see from companies such as EA and Microsoft, they can’t wait for it to happen.

PS: Two videos of the Colin Was Right series were part of the inspiration for this text, and they go even further in other subjects, so watch them and enjoy.

Xbox’s Moment of Truth

The Xbox brand has been in the market for more than 15 years, becoming a huge player in the gaming market, rivaling with much more well-known brands such as the PlayStation and Nintendo. However recently there’s a feeling that despite the leadership of Phil Spencer, that has changed their image focusing on consumer friendly initiatives, the Xbox might be at a crossroads.

A lack of meaningful exclusives, the cancellation of Scalebound, even things out of their reach, like the surprisingly good lineup of exclusives Sony has presented in 2017, and the Nintendo Switch release have overshadowed Microsoft’s gaming division. Bringing a lot of doubt and concern towards their consumers that feel that the console is being abandoned in favor of Scorpio.

Xbox’s first party situation is very different from its competitors, with only a handful of studios working on franchises that even though remain relevant, seems to have lost some of their power. Forza, Gears of War and Halo still are crucial to Microsoft, but the latest entries of Gears and Halo didn’t  have the same level of excitement or hype around it, with sales figures being unimpressive when compared to what they were able to accomplish before.

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Only Forza is growing in sales and mindshare, with sales of Forza Horizon 3 far surpassing those of FH2 and being regarded by many outlets as one of the best games of the year. Quantum Break, Sunset Overdrive are examples of new IP’s that didn’t find an audience on Xbox One and despite being well-received, they wouldn’t have the staying power required to turn into a franchise.

Microsoft’s strategy in E3 of only revealing games that will release until the end of the year has been detrimental to the company lately. It is comforting and a lot more honest to know that we won’t see games 3 years away from release, but if there’s nothing to expect in the horizon, there’s no reason for the consumer to be excited. Creating a feeling that there’s nothing during the first semester of every year, and that there are no games on Xbox, when Sony has Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, Nioh and Nintendo has Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The recent wave of cancellations and studios shut downs has also affected negatively the public perception of the company. Fable Legends, Scalebound, Phantom Dust were cancelled, with Scalebound’s being the one that received the biggest attention, after several delays, poor demos and millions of dollars invested. Lionhead being shut down disappointed fans of Fable, a unique franchise in a genre uncommon in console exclusives, and that looks defunct now.

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Nonetheless, some signs of changes are coming, from what seems to be a reboot for a company that has been outsold by its main competitor easily. Mike Ybarra, an important figure in the Xbox ecosystem, being promoted to vice president of the division is a sign that the Xbox’s leadership is composed of gamers, joining Phil Spencer in his attempt to revitalize it.

Another important decision began last year, announcing Scorpio at the end of the E3 conference, showing a Microsoft willing to fight and flex their muscles, talking about their mid-cycle console that feels like a new Xbox, before Sony even mentioned the PS4 Pro. And this year the company changed their E3 showcase to Sunday, leaving their trademark Monday morning slot.

It may appear silly, but having more than 24 hours ahead of Sony’s presentation gives them more space in the media and a bigger repercussion to their announcements. Without the need to compete on the same day with Sony, they can feel free to show their new projects without being eclipsed only a few hours later.

But if they don’t come with guns blazing, showing the Scorpio, new exciting games, at least a new AAA IP, all can be lost. Despite showing that Microsoft believes in their lineup for the show, and this level of confidence reassures their consumers, if it is anything less than impressive, Sony will have enough time to do some minor changes to their presentation and also be able to refute Redmond’s company.

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An announcement made today signals a different approach from Phil Spencer’s team, Xbox Game Pass, a Netflix-like service that allows customers to pay a fee to access more than 100 games a month, downloading them, and giving a 20% discount, something never seen before on this scale in the console market. In the announcement a light attack to PS Now, similar to when the company announced the Xbox One S, focused on differentiating them from Sony’s service in the sense that you don’t have to stream the game, since it is on your console, creating a smaller reliance on internet stability.

Being a bold move, especially considering the fact that they are basically affecting the physical market directly,  with Gamestop’s shares declining more than 7,8% today, making a move towards the digital future. As the first major company to show their intent to focus on a digital-only market on console, as what already happens in the PC  space with Steam, GOG, it displays a brazen attitude that might really pay off in a near future.

This focus on innovation can determine the future of the Xbox, that with the release of Scorpio can see a revival, a breath of fresh air. Xbox Game Pass looks like the perfect decision, allowing gamers to enjoy what they love the most, games, for an affordable price. When E3 comes, if we see that the Scorpio is the monster it’s claimed to be, filled with meaningful exclusives, a consumer-oriented environment, and new features, we can finally have a competitor for the PlayStation, something we haven’t seen yet this generation, and we badly need. After all, if Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft are successful, we win as gamers.