Is 2013 The Year Of Android-Based Game Consoles?

Along with the Bluetooth forks, waterproof mobile phones, and massive TVs, one unexpected announcement for a product that might actually be useful was Nvidia’s out-of-the-blue Project Shield game console. Looking a bit like a Bluetooth controller accessories strapped to the bottom of a 5-inch touchscreen, it has impressive specs and is designed both as an Android gaming device and for streaming your PC games to an attached TV. Pundits have already started to weigh in on whether this will succeed and completely wreck the traditional game console market or just fizzle out; more interestingly, from a trending perspective, it adds to a number of other devices trying to bring Android gaming to console/portable console platforms. Four other notable examples are:

1)      The OUYO console. The OUYO is a very cute 10-c.m. cube. This $99 box was funded through Kickstarter in August 2012, and development kits are already in developers’ hands, with final units hitting the market in March 2013.

2)      The GameStick. Another Kickstarter project that has just hit its funding goal, this Android console takes a form similar to those “Android on a USB stick”-type devices seen here. It also slots away when not in use into its own retro-style controller — and it’s even cheaper than the OUYO at $79. The Kickstarter campaign doesn’t finish until the end of January, and first-run devices are promised in April 2013.

3)      The Archos GamePad. Surfing another trend — game-centric tablets — the Archos GamePad is a 7-inch Android tablet with additional controls for games. Coming in at $169.99 and available pretty much now, its spec is underwhelming and suffers from several of the usual Archos flaws — looks that only a mother could love and poor displays.

4)      The Wikipad. The Wikipad is a 10-inch Android tablet with gaming controls — like a bigger, less ugly Archos GamePad. Although it was due in October 2012, it was “slightly delayed” and still hasn’t seen the light of day. At $499, it is more similar in price to Project Shield or the even more expensive Razor Project Fiona rather than the cheap and cheerful Kickstarter consoles.

Of course, using an open source OS in a game console device isn’t new; the portable Pandora was announced back in 2009 and runs Linux. In those pre-Kickstater days, however, production was hampered by a bare bones “preorder” crowdsourcing model, which has led to ongoing issues with contract manufacturers. Some units (including a spruced up 1 Ghz model) have shipped, but it has been slow progress; mine has been on order since July 2010!

A more recently announced Linux game platform is the still-mysterious Valve Steam Box console, which is bound to attract a lot of attention as more details emerge.

Why Android?

Why is Android suddenly a go-to option for those looking to get into the (massively loss-generating) console hardware business?

  • It is free to use with a ready library of tools and functionality. Small startups don’t have the time, money, or expertise to build an OS from the ground up. Android is there for the taking and has already proven capable of simple smartphone games given adequate hardware.
  • It benefits from the Google Play and multidevice synergy. Similarly. Google Play offers a mature and varied marketplace for apps for Android devices (usually…see the downside below). If you are a game developer, the ability to target the OUYO, GameStick, GamePad, and Project Shield as well as all the non-game-focused Android tablets and phones via one store and one build is a big incentive. You also don’t need to jump through the fiscal and judgemental hoops that Apple, Sony, and Microsoft impose before getting on to their platforms — though this often leads to the Google store feeling more like the Wild West!
  • It’s optimized for ARM architectures. A key consideration for new hardware builders is how cheaply you can source decently performing components. The high volume of ARM CPUs shipping for tablets and phones — along with firms like Nvidia and Qualcomm continually pushing the price/performance envelope —means it is an obvious choice. Once you have ARM chips, what are you going to run on them? Well, it isn’t going to be Windows RT!
  • It has XBMC compatibility out of the box. XBMC is pretty much established as the media player solution across most platforms, particularly open source ones. It gives the user access to a host of media playback options along with network awareness — a nice extra to add to games on Android platforms.

There are downsides, too, of course. We already have a massively fragmented Android phone market; different OS versions, OEM tweaks, and varying hardware specs make development and deployment of game applications much more tricky than for the carefully controlled iOS ecosystem, for example. This could potentially undo all the synergy that being able to sell to multiple device owners can bring.

What does it mean for the wider videogaming market?

  • It puts price/functionality pressure on next-generation consoles. Sony and Microsoft are expected to announce their new home consoles this year, probably at E3 in June. These will doubtless offer more power and additional network capabilities, but what else — and at what price? Traditional console launch prices have been going up since the original PlayStation landed in 1994 for $299. Increased functionality, networking, and hard disk storage have created bloated devices more akin to a PC, with only Nintendo sometimes bucking this trend (see this great analysis by Gamasutra). It’s reasonable to assume that new consoles will be at least $400 to $500. Does that still stack up compared with an $80 Android console?
  • It furthers the cause of the free-to-play (F2P) market. Game developers have learnt from the Apple App Store and Facebook game development that giving your game away and charging for add-ons can be a great strategy when gamers are looking for entertainment for $0.99 or less. However, this can also go staggeringly wrong: see Punch Quest) as an example. Android consoles and Google Play will form a natural console home for F2P and casual games. Will Sony and Microsoft aim to compete in this space? We’ll see.
  • Sony has a stealth “in” here but doesn’t seem to care yet. Interestingly, Sony already has half a foot in this camp. Its PlayStation Mobile Android app supports a range of simple twitch and puzzle games, and it even used to have older original PlayStation games like Crash Bandicoot until Sony inexplicably dropped these last August. While graphically rudimentary, it may still offer better game play than Google Play shovel-ware clones. Better ARM processing power may also mean that PlayStation2 classics could appear on the platform — but only if Sony gets its act together and increases its support for more complex PlayStation mobile games. Surely these aren’t seen as being in competition with the (failing) Vita?

Five Consumer Technology Trends To Watch In 2013

2013 will undoubtedly be an “interesting” year for consumer technology. While devices like tablets and smartphones go from strength to strength, PC makers and traditional CE makers in TV, audio, and cameras continue to struggle to turn a profit . . . and that’s before you factor in high-street retail woes and no end in sight to recession-driven belt-tightening. Aside from ongoing evolutionary trends, what will really break through in 2013?

  1. Kickstarter-funded projects need to deliver. One of the breakout successes of 2012 was Kickstarter. Although started in 2009, it was only in 2012 that high-profile projects started to appear and get funded. The downside of this popularity is that more and more projects from inexperienced business startups are appearing. This has led to some high-profile disasters, such as the Code Hero debacle, and a number of projects (particularly games) being abandoned following funding success. Delays are even more endemic: CNN Money compiled a excellent list of the top 50 projects, and just eight shipped on time. In 2013, some of the larger projects, such as the Pebble Watch or Oculus Rift system, need to reach consumers if Kickstarter is to maintain its reputation; the increasing recognition that giving money doesn’t entitle the donor to much if a project goes pear-shaped doesn’t help here.
  2. Tablets will really take off, with multiscreen becoming a focus. After a slow start at the beginning of 2012, tablets from Apple, Amazon, as well as Google and partners were flying off the shelves by year end; this was less true for RIM and Windows RT devices. Predicting that this category will grow in 2013 is like predicting that gravity will keep working at this stage. But what other trends will the success of tablets lead to? Probably the most important is the rise of multiscreen behavior  particularly when looking at consumer media. Techies have been networking and syncing devices for years, if not decades, but it’s only with the rise of the iPad, Nexus 7, Surface RT, and Amazon Fire HD that normal folks have a device that is seamlessly synced to their media libraries, browsing history, and AV equipment. This allows new behaviors  such as a) two-screen movie/TV viewing (see Microsoft’s Smart Glass); and b) bookmark portability — both for browser bookmarks and eBooks — meaning that you’re always able to pick up where you left off.
  3. Cloud services and streaming will improve. While enterprise cloud investment continues to be the “next big thing” (as per IDC, Gartner et al), consumer cloud services are going from strength to strength. Apple, Google, and Amazon will now store nearly your whole media library in the cloud, facilitating even more of the multiscreen behavior described above; and Dropbox, SkyDrive, and Google Drive make sharing files between devices and friends easier than ever. Streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Deezer are gaining momentum as broadband connectivity becomes more reliable and usage caps get higher.
  4. Gaming will reach a crossroads. 2012 was not a good year for videogaming; a number of developers and publishers closed, and retail was hit hard. Aside from the obvious reasons for this (recession spending reductions and home consoles getting long in the tooth), the rise of both tablets and free-to-play (F2P) games has changed the gaming landscape enormously. 2013 will see the release of new consoles from both Microsoft and Sony, but those publishers that fail to adapt to the new realities of the marketplace may well follow THQ into bankruptcy.
  5. Smartphone proliferation will put new functionality in consumers’ hands. As with tablets, it’s pointless to cite a trend of greater smartphone adoption. It’s far more interesting to look at what new functionality will reach critical mass because of the rapid life cycle of phone development, fuelled by rabid consumer demand. 2013 will see:
    1. NFC and mobile payments reach early-stage critical mass. Whether you’re looking at embedded NFC applications or add-on dongle payment services (like Square , Bank of America , or ROAM), the rapid adoption of new smartphones means many consumers will have access to mobile payment technology sooner rather than later; of course, whether they then feel comfortable making payments this way is a more complex question.
    2. Wireless charging. While 2009’s Palm Pre was one of the first consumer smartphones to offer built-in wireless charging, that device sank along with the rest of Palm (thanks HP!). Now, though, devices from Nokia, Google, Motorola, HTC, and Samsung allow for wireless charging; some, like Nokia’s Lumia 920 and Google’s Nexus 4, include the phone end of the technology by default. Even better news is that most of the devices use the Wireless Power Consortium’s Qi standard, so one charging mat should serve for multiple devices.
    3. The return of Bluetooth for non-headset devices. After a huge explosion in the availability and usage of Bluetooth headsets and hands-free speakers back in the mid-noughties, it seemed that Bluetooth had pretty much had its day; Wi-Fi and high-bandwidth communication protocols like WHDI seemed like the way forward. However, newer versions of Bluetooth (v4) offer better data rates and lower power usage. More importantly, as tablets have grown in popularity, a swath of new accessories has emerged: game pads, keyboards, and portable speakers all trade high data rates (or sound quality) for ease of use. 2013 will see even more of these accessories combined with new usage models — just look at a bunch of those popular Kickstarter projects. In many cases, they pair up nicely with wireless charging — see JBL’s Wireless Charger Speaker for the Nokia Lumia.

Bubbling under

These technologies will make an impact in 2013 but won’t reach critical mass:

  1. 3D printing. Consumer 3D printers are a tremendously exciting field for tinkerers and hobbyists; the ability to print small but complex objects in a variety of materials has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of our lives (distribution, repairs, art, etc.). But it’s all just “potential” at the moment: Consumer 3D printers are messy, are difficult to set up, and struggle with certain shapes (depending on the technology used). Expect lots of stories in 2013 about 3D printing (3D print shops, IP theft, etc.) and significant advances in the quality versus cost of devices from Makerbot, Ultimaker, and Fab@home, along with better software tools . . . but don’t expect to see millions of these devices in consumers’ homes. The 3D print bureau service (like Staples or 3Dprintuk) seems more likely to grow in the short term, in the same way that Kinko’s provided printing and duplicating services for consumers before cheap multifunction printers arrived.
  2. Augmented reality and 3D headsets. High-profile announcements from Google and the increasing power of smartphone and tablet platforms have reignited interest in augmented reality. Similarly, Kickstarter Oculus Rift has created buzz around 3D headsets. Both of these technologies will offer more immersive experiences, better UIs, and more natural engagement with technology in the future, but component costs, portability, and limited processing power mean that 2013 will not be the year of “X reality” — be it augmented or virtual.
  3. Streaming video to smart TVs and the death of traditional ‘broadcast’. It seems strange that when we’re talking about multiscreen viewing and cloud services taking of we are still some way off of Smart TVs and TV-based internet video services becoming successful. 2013 will see this space ramp up significantly – with potentially Apple, Sony and Intel getting in to the space (news from CES may offer some insight) – but rights issues, complexity, long replacement cycles and mainstream consumer apathy means it will be some time before traditional sources for TV content (ie pay TV providers) see significant threats emerge. The exception to this rule may be emerging markets where broadcasters don’t yet have sports and movie rights tied up and lack a critical mass of signed-up consumer households – Smart TV video services could make real inroads here – but hardware prices will stymie much of this.

Extending PlayStation Plus To PlayStation Vita Could Give Sony A Much-Needed Holiday Boost

While Sony has been running the PlayStation Plus (PS+) subscription service since June 2010, it has become a lot more interesting during 2012: first, we saw the introduction of the ”instant game collection” for PS3, and this week saw the addition (at no extra cost) of PlayStation Vita games (and online save backup).

 

Effectively, Sony is turning PS+ into a high-value subscription service to exploit an extensive back catalogue of game titles by distributing them electronically at virtually no cost. This has advantages, such as a predictable revenue stream and the generation of usage data. Obviously, the downsides are that revenue from traditional sales of a game title are lost, and the rate of remuneration for third-party publishers including games has to be carefully balanced. It contrasts with Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold service — which is basically a souped-up version of the free Xbox Live service — Sony has always given more away for free in its network

In what promises to be a tough Q4 for all videogame markets, Sony’s move could significantly boost its hardware sales and PS+ subscriptions. In terms of consumers, it’s clear that this announcement affects three key groups:

  1. Existing PlayStation 3 (PS3) and Vita owners without PS+ subscriptions. This group is probably the least affected; these early adopters probably have most titles included in PS+ for the PS3 and Vita. They may be potentially slightly miffed that so many games for which they paid full price are being given away. They are unlikely to sign up for PS+ in the near term, but they could be a medium-term opportunity if Sony adds newer titles and other benefits.
  2. PS3 PS+ subscribers without a Vita. This is the most obvious target group; effectively, Sony has cut $80 off of the cost of a Vita by bundling two of the best-known first-party titles — Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Gravity Rush. While (unlike Sony) we don’t have subscriber device profiles for PS+ users, I’d guess that 80% or so still haven’t invested in a Vita, though some of these gamers will also have legacy PSP digital downloads in their account. Conservatively, this offer could convert 10% to 20% of these owners into Vita owners in the next three to six months — especially as the third-party AAA Vita titles start to arrive at the same time.
  3. New consumers. The Vita addition makes an all-in PS3/Vita/PS+ bundle much more attractive, but it will still be a significant outlay for those who have resisted investing in the Sony ecosystem for 5+ years. While there may be some upside here, it will be fairly limited.

What else could Sony do? A couple of things may help even more:

  •  Discount coupons for larger-format memory cards. The price of memory cards for the Vita is still one of the most common complaints in user forums. Any mechanism that allows PS+ subscribers to get a 10% to 15% discount voucher for memory cards would help here. Making this a limited-time offer may also spur the buying decision. This could even tap into the first group mentioned above and help them justify the PS+ sign-up; they could save 6GBP on a 32 Gb card and still get the one or two games they haven’t already bought for the Vita. Of course, this opens up a world of hurt in terms of dealing with merchants and making sure that discount codes aren’t reused, but it could potentially boost hardware and PS+ adoption in the short term.
  • Get those physical PSP games onto the Vita. The obvious benefit that would also play to our first group is a version the “disk à digital” program (similar to the UMD passport program launched in Japan when the Vita came out) for UMD-based PSP titles: let new PS+ subscribers pick two or three of their legacy PSP games for conversion to a Vita digital copy. Again, there is probably quite a lot of work here in terms of authentication, validating the title list, etc., but if many of these titles are already available in the store, there is little downside. This could also strengthen the case for buying a Vita for our second group as well, but to be fair, the case is already pretty strong for them.
  • Offer discounted DLC for Assassin’s Creed and Black Ops via PS+ as soon as possible for both the PS3 and Vita. Looking beyond the groups mentioned above, aggressively priced hardware bundles and the new AAA third-party titles should sell some additional Vita hardware to the more casual FPS gamer, even if they’re reviewing badly, such as Black Ops on Vita. Assuming many of those buyers have a PS3 but don’t have PS+, adding discounted DLC to PS+ could push them over the edge to subscribing — particularly as those titles are unlikely to be included in the subscription any time soon.
  • Market the “great value” PlayStation message. There seems to be a definite anti-Sony feeling this holiday season: the Wii U is offering new hardware; Xbox is becoming (seemingly) the other major supported format, particularly at supermarkets / non-dedicated retail; while there’s criticism directed at Sony that the new PS3 design didn’t come with a price cut and the Vita is too expensive. Without getting into negative messaging, the value of PS+ (even with just a PS3) is probably Sony’s trump card. Spinning this with a message of “But wait! There’s more! Free quality Vita games!” could at the very least drive PS+ sign-up and probably get that Vita PS+ message out there.

The 2012 holiday season will be the final push for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 before new consoles are released next year. Given how radically the gaming landscape has changed over the past two years, it will be interesting to see how successful these final quarters are. It’s even more critical that the Vita makes an impression after a lacklustre launch and increasing competition from smartphones and tablets.

Wii U: Can Nintendo Win Through With Its (Probably) Final Home Console?

At various points during the past 24 hours, Nintendo has revealed the release dates and prices of the Wii U console in different geographic markets. Two versions will ship: a basic/White Wii U (Japan: ¥26,250; US: $299; UK/EU: around £200 or €250) and a Premium Black Wii U (Japan: ¥31,500; US: $349; UK/ EU: around £250 or €310). For the extra $50, aside from a more traditional console colour, you get four times more Flash memory (32 GB), charging stands for the tablet controller and console, a bundled NintendoLand mini-game collection, and a three-month pass for the “Nintendo Network Premium” online service. Initially, the games won’t support a second tablet controller (which, when purchased separately, will cost a whooping ¥13,440 in Japan — the only market where they are available separately at launch), but this will come over time. The good news is that almost all the Wii controllers, balance boards, and other random bits of plastic you’ve invested in should work with the new console.

Some initial thoughts:

  • Is the pricing right? Putting aside regional variations — Japan has always paid more for its consoles, and Europe has variable value-added tax — the price of the new console isn’t too bad. Sure, it’s higher than traditional Nintendo launch prices, but this was partly forced on the company by the competition. It’s certainly cheaper than the last-generation launch prices from Microsoft and Sony. A more interesting question is whether consumers are still prepared to pony up $350 for a new console when they have other compelling options like tablets, smartphones, and social gaming in which to invest. Incidentally, Gamesutra has a very nice comparison of historic console launch prices, even adjusting for inflation, here.
  • The tablet controller offers some interesting “second screen” game-play opportunities. Many game publishers already complement console/PC releases with companion iPad games or apps (e.g., Mass Effect 3 Infiltrator and Datapad Apps). Nintendo and Sony have also offered console connectivity for their portable consoles in the past. But this is the first time that the second display can be taken as a given for the entire console-owning base. Naturally, the first opportunity is to use the controller screen in a similar fashion to the lower touchscreen on a Nintendo DS. Over and above that, though, developers are pushing the boundaries with asymmetric multiplayer gaming as a real differentiator — i.e., up to 4 ”players” use traditional controllers to interact with the game on the TV, while another player assumes a “God” (or spectator) role with the tablet controller, looking on and driving the overall experience. This effectively takes role-playing gaming right the way back to the original Gary Gygax Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game. Penny Arcade sees some cynical, but probably true downsides to this!
  • This brings second screen TV entertainment to the rest of us. The Wii U TVii functions look nice, allowing social discussion, deeper program engagement (maybe with advertising?), and a more intuitive program guide integrated with multiple providers . . . all for free out of the box in North America. Not that you couldn’t already do this with an iPad (costing from $399) or with an Xbox 360 and “Project Glass” (provided you have Xbox Live Gold for $60 a year and a compatible tablet costing . . . well who knows!) if you were a geek with money to burn. So it’s a much cheaper solution for what looks like a nice experience. All the major US/Canadian networks are on board, along with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. It’s not yet clear how much extra effort these content and distribution firms will invest in generating the required metadata, but at least many of the sports stats, trivia and social connections are pretty much already there to be tapped into.
  • Why is this likely to be Nintendo’s last home console? Even though we’ve watched OnLive crash and burn and Gaikai be absorbed by Sony, this doesn’t mean game streaming is dead — the days of dedicated game consoles are still drawing to an inevitable close. Why? For the same reason that dedicated cable boxes or video-streaming boxes like Boxee will disappear. The technology will be incorporated into other devices; it could be the TV, a wirelessly connected tablet, or eventually a proper functional cloud streaming service. Incidently, Microsoft and Sony also have just one more console in them; by the end of that generation (in five years’ time, perhaps), I’d expect expensive, dedicated console hardware to have run its course.
  • It has the field to itself for a year. Speaking of the competition, it’s clear that we won’t see new consoles from Sony and Microsoft for at least a year, maybe longer. Nintendo will have the ”next generation” to itself — although Sony and Microsoft will argue, with some validity, that the Wii U is only really comparable with their current generation. Another factor that may help Nintendo in the closing months of 2012 is the delay of several key titles (such as Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Alien: Colonial Marines, DmC, etc.) to early 2013, leaving core gamers with extra money to spend; some of that may well head Nintendo’s way.

So, can the Wii U succeed? It’s by no means a slam-dunk for Nintendo. Many dedicated gamers — Nintendo’s old core audience — felt let down by the “casual” games that proliferated on the Wii (ironically, the same games that made the console a mainstream success), along with too many Mario ports (no sign of that changing) and mainstream consumers have long since boxed up their Wiis. Add in the rise of social gaming on PCs and tablets, and the appeal of a dedicated console that doesn’t even play DVDs, let alone Blu-ray discs and with just one (albeit innovative) controller seems tough. But Nintendo needs this to work. Unlike Sony and Microsoft, it doesn’t have a fall-back business model or ”multidevice living-room strategy” from which to recoup its investment. And the additional pressures in the portable gaming space from smartphones and tablets mean that Nintendo really has a battle for survival on its hands.

My take: At this stage, I’m prepared to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt. The hardware looks good; it has strong support from publishers and TV content/distribution owners in North America; and backward compatibility with Wii titles means that there is an extensive collection of games out there in addition to the launch window titles. By the end of Q1 2013, we’ll have a better idea of whether Nintendo will survive as a home console platform owner or follow Atari and Sega down the software-only route.

 

Earnings Season: What Recent Results Say About Consumer Firms’ Future Prospects

In what is turning out to be one of the most interesting quarterly earnings reporting seasons for some years, Apple, Zynga, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Intel have all “surprised” the market with their “low” numbers — but there are fundamental differences in why these firms have had a tough quarter. (I’m going to use calendar quarters rather than financial quarters to avoid things getting far too complicated).I can think of four main reasons (I’m sure there are more):

  • The tough product transition period, part 1: Apple. Apple had a pretty good Q2 2012 — far better than a year ago — but unfortunately it came on the back of a huge Q1 2012 (largely thanks to iPhone 4S). Citing poor demand in Europe among other factors, Tim Cook also made some interesting comments on the earnings call alluding to anticipation of iPhone 5 reducing demand for current products. Pent-up demand for the new phone seems unprecedented; once this device hits the market, Apple numbers should “improve.” It’s a testament to the financial markets’ belief that Apple can do no wrong that this shock miss of Wall Street’s inflated earnings estimates (albeit more in line with Apple’s own projections) shaved 5% off the share price overnight.
  • The tough product transition period, part 2: Nintendo. Another firm whose current products are looking tired but whose shiny new products aren’t quite ready is Nintendo. The Wii has dropped off console sales charts in the past year, and while the 3DS is doing good business in the portable space, the release of new Wii U consoles is still (probably) several months away. It’s going to be a tough 2012 for Nintendo; crucially, there isn’t that guaranteed pent-up demand for the new console that Apple enjoys with the iPhone 5.
  • Great business but bad investments coming home to roost: Microsoft. In many ways, Microsoft is also in a transition period — Windows 8 OS and accompanying Surface devices won’t arrive until October 26, 2012 — but luckily the rest of its products haven’t run out of steam. In fact, Q2 2012 was a good quarter with rising revenues; it’s just a shame that its on-going fruitless attempts to build a consumer media/advertising strategy led to a $6.2 billion writedown.
  • A changing market causing (hopefully) short-term pain: Intel, AMD, PC OEMs. As expected, a tough global economy and the on-going consumer (and business) infatuation with tablets is hitting traditional PC sales numbers. Ironically, the solution to the tablet challenge may also be causing consumers to delay PC replacements while they wait to see a proper tablet + Windows solution, which won’t happen until the end of October.
  • Wow, we did not expect that! Zynga. Cracks started to appear in Zynga’s “grinding games without the fun game bit” business model some time ago; its valuation at IPO (in November 2011) was based on the continuing stratospheric growth of user numbers (and the accompany microtransaction revenues) seen with early hits like Farmville and Mafia Wars. Unsurprisingly, like every other videogaming market, social games have turned out to be a hits-driven industry, with relatively low barriers to entry and a fickle audience. It also highlights the danger of relying on someone else’s platform (Facebook) over which you have no control. And the strategy of buying a rival “star” product/ firm (Draw Something by OMGPOP) for top dollar just as it became a “dog”(entirely bypassing the “cash-cow” phase) didn’t help . . . see this if that last sentence didn’t mean much to you.

Of course it’s not all doom and gloom: ARM and Samsung have reported excellent results of late — and even Facebook did moderately OK, even if that didn’t stop the markets from punishing its share price for not doing better, probably due to the fact that the firm still hasn’t worked out how to really ramp up revenues.

So, while Q3 is typically a quiet period for consumer firms, Q4 is shaping up to be a litmus test for firms like Apple, Nintendo and Microsoft – new products that will need to succeed (and fast), landing at a time when consumers still seem unwilling to recommence their profligate spending ways.

 

E3 2012: A Quiet Year For Videogaming

E3 took place in LA last week, perhaps for the last time, but it failed to really hit the headlines in the way it usually does. Why? Well, as expected, it was a very quiet year for announcements, with most firms recognizing that now is not a great time to heavily invest in the industry (see the recent game retail crisis, etc.). It was common knowledge that Sony and Microsoft were unlikely to announce new consoles, but even Nintendo failed to excite, despite the Wii U coming out later this year. However, there was some interesting news aside from the inevitable announcements of game title sequels.

  • Microsoft focused on the “home entertainment” angle. The Xbox has always been a potential Trojan horse to get Microsoft into consumers’ living rooms — and it demonstrated this strategy at this year’s E3: new music services, deals on video streaming, and, most interestingly, SmartGlass technology to link various Microsoft-based platforms.
  • Sony played it straight. Along with some new game announcements (mainly sequels, of course), it announced a revamp of PlayStation Plus — adding more free full games to make the service even better value. Sony’s interesting new product was Wonderbook: Book of Spells, an augmented reality (AR) book tied to the Harry Potter franchise that works with the Move peripherals. Sadly, while Sony has years of interesting AR/video products (dating all the way back to EyeToy in 2003 and EyeToy:Chat in 2005), these never seem to draw in consumers in sufficient numbers.
  • Nintendo snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It should have walked away with the conference, but instead it failed to impress — failing to confirm pricing or launch details for the Wii U. Still, we got Pikmin 3 — finally! Luckily for Nintendo, at least some of the third-party publishers announced some interesting Wii U titles.

Elsewhere, the show highlighted a slew of sequels from the major publishers and the continuing resurgence of the indie developer sector. Most interestingly, Peter Molyneux’s new firm 22Cans announced Curiosity; it’s not really a game but more of a social media experiment. Elder Scrolls Online also got its first real showing. Whether the franchise can reverse the ongoing trend toward free-to-play (F2P) MMOs remains to be seen; it’s a strong brand but, arguably, not Star Wars strong and The Old Republic is losing subscribers.

What is E3 good for?

Slow years like this inevitably lead to questions about whether E3 is as relevant as it once was. After all, many of the new game announcements were trailed or leaked prior to the show; with so many online sources (Eurogamer, Joystiq, Kontaku, Spong) covering gaming every day of the year, E3’s no longer a great way of getting that big-hit mainstream press coverage. However, E3 is:

  • Great for doing proper business. While the gaming media (and gamers) bemoaned the move to a much smaller show in Santa Monica in 2007 as lacking in glamour, you can bet just as much useful business was done between distributors, retailers, developers, and publishers.
  •  A useful date in the diary for an industry temperature check. E3’s June date puts it right at the point when vital Q4 titles and hardware have been finalized — meaning distributors, developers, and the media get hands-on with near-final game builds or hardware. Admittedly, given that some titles have already slipped to 2013, the usefulness of the timing has been somewhat diminished this year.
  • A great venue for the whole gaming ecosystem to have a meeting of minds (hopefully). E3 was born in the PC gaming age, just as consoles were enjoying their second coming (e.g., original PlayStation, Sega Saturn). It has continued to be dominated by these platforms — mostly the consoles and their portable stable mates. While recent years have seen some embracing of mobile gaming, the booming casual/social game market hasn’t been particularly well represented. This is changing: Zynga was at the show this year for the first time — albeit on more of a recruitment drive rather than to demonstrate its wares — and the pace of change should accelerate, turning E3 into a truly platform-agnostic forum for the industry.

What It Means: The Failure Of Game Retail For Publishers And Platform Owners

As discussed in previous posts, game retailers have to radically change their strategy if they are to survive on the high street, but what does this major shift in consumer buying habits and, potentially, retailers’ strategy mean for the titans of the videogame world: publishers and platform holders?

The good news:

  • More direct digital sales. A decrease in the physical availability of the product is bound to spur the (already growing) trend in digital downloads — particularly for more obscure titles or add-ons that are unlikely to be stocked/discounted by non-dedicated game retailers. The boom in indie PC games is a clear example of this already happening; boxed PC games have been a highly fragmented market prone to piracy for years, and systems like Steam have enabled otherwise unlikely titles to make it big via secure digital distribution.
  • The long-term decline of the secondhand market. As previously discussed, publishers have long considered secondhand games a thorn in their side, diverting sales from new titles — or so the theory goes. While an online secondhand market will continue to grow, the disappearance of high-street stores with lots of available secondhand titles (often shelved next to the same title, new) reduces impulse-buying opportunities.
  • A smoother supply chain. Obviously, digital sales don’t require holding inventory; in addition, much of the complexity of distribution, credit facilities, and returns will disappear if physical boxed games end up being distributed mostly via two or three massive online stores and major chains/supermarkets. However, there are significant downsides to dealing with only a few firms like WalMart, Tesco, or Amazon — see below.
  • Direct engagement with customers (or at least better information via partners). What do you, as a publisher, know about your end customer — or how many units were bought in a particular state? Perhaps a buyer is tied into your loyalty program or online service — but that doesn’t tell you where they bought from. By simplifying the supply chain and even selling digital goods directly, you gain insight into the buying behaviour of your customers and should be able to respond more quickly and effectively to their needs. Whether the big retailers like Amazon will share this information (even for a fee) is trickier; it depends whether they view the data as a revenue opportunity or a strategic advantage.

The bad news:

  • Supermarkets and multi-category retailers become the primary physical retail outlets. You may have simplified your supply chain, but when Wal-Mart becomes responsible for 50% of your title sales, you become overly reliant on its largesse. And firms like Wal-Mart and Tesco negotiate hard for discounts. A secondary consideration is that, like books, videogames will become a loss leader for multi-category stores: pull punters in with $10 off Mass Effect 3 and then sell them $200 of groceries. As a publisher, you still get your revenue, but this exerts downward pressure on price points and devalues games.
  • Online retail is still a mixed blessing. The gold rush in online shopping is largely over for most categories, including videogames. A few, well-behaved retailers dominate in multiple geographic markets; they don’t tend to discount massively and do now take part in pre-order and limited-edition promotions. But their long-term strategy isn’t necessarily obvious. Could Amazon become a leading competitive digital game distribution service? Will eCommerce (and rent-by-post) players jump into the gap left by high-street stores for secondhand games? The answer to both of these questions is probably ‘yes’.
  • A short-term spike in the secondhand market. A key strategy (as I see it) for those struggling physical stores is to up their game in secondhand and trade-in games. While long-term publishers and platform holders may be able to cut off the air supply to this market with digital downloads and a reduction in the number of physical game disks/cards, that is going to take some time. Be prepared for struggling chains to keep pushing the boundaries in terms of what they see as their right to exploit this (more) profitable segment.
  • The high-street showcase disappears. Often overlooked — especially by people who see GAME and GameStop stores as somewhat grubby holes (guilty as charged!) — is the showcase that these venues provide for new titles and new game systems — however seemingly badly organized to an outsider. 3D-based systems are the clearest example here: you can’t demonstrate a 3DS on TV or YouTube; you actually have to play with one in-person. Ultimately, this also means that videogames cease to hold a special place in consumers’ minds (just like books and music) — dedicated stores where you can browse and be immersed in your hobby/obsession, rather than just picking up the latest Call of Duty while you do the weekly food shop.

Today’s videogame market is such that both publishers and platform owners will probably benefit most from a slow, graceful decline in high-street videogame stores rather than catastrophic collapses — even if the threat of the latter accelerates plans around disintermediation.