Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Microsoft Surface: New Gaming Platform?

Microsoft announced their new line of Surface tablets yesterday, and they look pretty sweet. The tablets come in either an ARM chip version for Windows RT (Windows 8 for ARM), or the Surface for Windows 8 Pro (which uses an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 chip, running Windows 8). Lots of unanswered questions still, but there are still at least several months before we see the ARM version (and 90 days after that before the Intel version ships).

Of course, a lot depends on details that Microsoft didn't reveal, like the exact specs or, you know, the price. And since they didn't let journalists actually use the devices, it's not clear how smoothly they operate (a big problem with many Android tablets). Assuming Microsoft can get all these details sorted out, though, I think these tablets have some serious potential. They shouldn't have a problem grabbing the #2 slot in the tablet market away from Android, anyway. For Windows users the idea of running all your Windows software on a tablet, and doing it well, sounds pretty good. (Assuming it's not too damn expensive, that is.)

For gaming, these bad boys could bring keyboard-and-mouse games on the road in a big way. OK, it's a trackpad instead of a mouse, which is less-than-optimal for some games. But for a lot of games it could be just fine.

What's not to like? A few things... the nomenclature is clunky. Surface for Windows RT? Surface for Windows 8 Pro? Inelegant and confusing. How about just Surface RT and Surface Pro? Or something equally simple. Apple's had some naming clunkers, too -- MacBook Pro with Retina Display is far less nifty than the actual device. Still, they have time to fix this.

More problematic is announcing so far ahead of shipment. Maybe they felt rushed by the impending announcement of Google's tablet (rumored to occur next week). Maybe the wanted to slow the headlong rush into iPads, and perhaps make it so Apple won't sell 20 million more by the time they get this to market. In any case, they've given every competitor some time to think up responses.

How will this dovetail with their smartphones, and with Xbox 360, and the Xbox 720? You can bet Microsoft will try to make these things fit together somehow. This may be the right product to knit together their various divisions, and get the success of Xbox and Windows working together to make a new category successful.

Or it could just be another Zune, and end up as a trivia question someday. Maybe. I think this has some good potential, but Microsoft still has many, many things to get right before it launches. I'm rooting for them; successful competition will drive everyone to make better devices at better prices, and consumers all win in that case.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Apocalypse Nowish

I just got the latest NPD numbers for May, and they seem to explain why so many games feature post-apocalyptic settings. It's just looking ahead to where the traditional retail channel is heading. Sales overall are down 28% over last May, with hardware dropping an astounding 39%, and software 32%. Accessories were up 7%, but that's a case of the tail lifting up the whole dog.

So far since December, sales have been consistently down 20% or more over last year for both hardware and software. Call me Cassandra, but I think we're looking at 2012 being yet another year of declining video game sales. Sure, there will be bright spots for some companies, but those that aren't looking in other places for substantial growth are delusional. Companies have to find ways to generate revenue other than putting a disc in a box and sending it to retail stores. Fortunately, most seem to have gotten the memo. The question is, can companies make the shifts necessary to thrive as fast as the marketplace is changing?

It's an exciting time, to be sure. Doubtless many executives wish it would be a little less exciting, and more resistant to rapid change.

Here's what NPD said: “YTD 2012, there have been 27% fewer new software title introductions into retail which we believe is a big part of the softness we’re seeing in May sales. A title obviously continues to see sales beyond its launch month, so there is a longer term impact from a narrower array of available new content. That said, we saw some exciting content at E3 that will come to market in the latter part of the year, and when great content comes to market, gamers are still showing up at the stores to buy it.”

Hah. "Softness" is a rather delicate term for a drop that's around a third of your total sales. Try "devastating" or "horrifying" to get closer to the sensations that causes when execs look at the numbers and try to think about meeting payroll.

Time to pull some rabbits out of the hat for the holidays, or else the Grinch will be putting Christmas on eBay for pennies on the dollar.

Warren Spector and I Talk Game Violence

I posted an interview with Warren Spector on GamesIndustry International, which among other things talked about his opinion that the violence in games has just gotten completely out of hand. (I recommend you check it out; there's also some interesting stuff about Epic Mickey 2 in there.) Having seen a wide selection of the newest games at E3, I can't really argue with that. There's some really graphic violence out there, and in many cases it seems to be used for shock value and as a way to get attention.

I see this as a classic example of the tragedy of the commons (I actually took a population ecology class from Garrett Hardin a few years after he wrote this paper). Essentially, doing an ultraviolent game has some incremental benefit to the company that does it (or at least, they think so); it gets them expanded attention and hopefully greater sales. At the same time, it damages the entire game industry, by creating a worse impression of games overall. Which leads to more attempts to regulate games and keep them away from kids. That damage is diffuse and hard to quantify, and occurs over a period of years, so it has minimal meaning to a company that's purely focused on numbers day-to-day. Thus individual companies can conclude that increasing ultraviolence in games is in their best interest.

Hopefully companies will exercise some judgment, but that's more likely if people take a stand and say No, I won't buy this. Look, there should be plenty of shooters out there to choose from; you should still be able to shoot things and have fun while still avoided games that go too far over the top.

Sadly, designing a game where you kill things is easier than designing a game where you have more nuanced considerations. Weapons use is pretty mechanical and easy to figure out; emotions and human conflict are much, much trickier. Still, there are plenty of interesting games being created out there with unusual and interesting mechanics. At E3 I saw Pikmin 3 on the Wii U, and it looked like a lot of fun. Even without spurting blood.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wii U: WiiK

Some people seemed to think this is a Wii peripheral.
Nintendo's press conference here at E3 2012 underwhelmed me. I was really hoping they'd show a strong lineup of games and some compelling reasons why people would buy a Wii U. Nope. Not even close.

Really, one of the best ways to tell how they did is the audience response, from an audience predisposed to like them (the audience that cheered when Shigeru Miyamoto took the stage at the beginning of the conference): At the end, Nintendo got a polite 'golf clap." And not much of one at that.

Look, I think Pikmin 3 looked really nice, but that was clearly the best thing they had. And it's not even necessarily a launch title, they only said that about NintendoLand. Is Pikmin 3 going to make anybody other than the most passionate fanboy run out and drop $300 (probably) on a Wii U? No way.

Third party support was weak. EA who? Activision what? No Grand Theft Auto? Really, if the best you can show is Batman (which is what they lead with), it's a weak lineup. Ubisoft is nice, but they don't pull in the hardcore.

Half of Nintendo's presentation was about sports, fitness, dancing and singing. For the hardcore gamer, you got a zombie's head exploding... a few minutes of hardcore action in all.

Nintendo spent a lot of time on NintendoLand, and their whole E3 booth is built around it. It's basically a set of minigames that use iconic Nintendo characters. See, we have Zelda on Wii U! Well, a little archery range in NintendoLand with a Zelda theme, that's pretty much the same as a Zelda game, right?

They did show Super Mario for the Wii U... it's basically an HD Super Mario. No differences in game play were highlighted, nothing that showed a reason for the gamepad. They didn't even spend much time on it.

Look, it's pretty clear Nintendo had a very weak lineup because they spent so much time on pointless things, like introducing execs from other companies. If you have a ton of games to show, you spend time doing that, not having execs smile and wave and crack dumb jokes.

Once again Nintendo has gotten hardware to market well in advance of software. This looks like the weakest starting software lineup of any Nintendo launch I can remember, and I remember all of them back to NES.

Nintendo still has time to make some corrections to their launch plans. They haven't announced a price yet. They haven't announced a ship date. They could still pack NintendoLand in with the hardware rather than trying to get you to spend $50 or $60 on a collection of minigames.

I think the reaction of investors is pretty telling, though. Nintendo stock dropped 3% after the press conference. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of their announcements. I think Nintendo's headed for another bad year, perhaps exceeding the scale of last year's debacle.

Microsoft and Sony must be pretty happy. They don't have any new hardware this fall, and they won't need it. Perhaps a bit of a price drop here and there (PS Vita, I'm looking at you) and they should do just fine. Nintendo is going to need to pull some large rabbits out of somewhere to have a happy Christmas.