After lots of speculation about Madden NFL 25 not seeing a Wii U release, Electronic Arts confirmed it via a recent statement (courtesy of Nintendo World Report):
“We will not be releasing a Wii U version of Madden NFL in 2013. However, we have a strong partnership with Nintendo and will continue to evaluate opportunities for delivering additional Madden NFL products for Nintendo fans in the future.”
Let’s get the hyperbole out of the way first. Not having a Madden game in 2013 will not kill the Wii U. It’s instinctive to think that a lack of EA presence on the platform could be akin to a kiss of death, similar to what we saw with EA spurning SEGA and the Dreamcast. This is a different animal, I think. Yes, the lack of sports games will hurt attempts to position the Wii U as a primary console. There’s a pretty large base of consumers who buys sports games, and not having the most popular sports IP in the United States on the Wii U platform diminishes its sales potential. This doesn’t mean that the Wii U is finished, however. Nintendo still has its stable of strong IP to draw from that can’t be played anywhere else. It’s similar to what we saw back in 1999 and 2000 but Nintendo’s IP stable is stronger. If EA doesn’t come back to Nintendo, perhaps circumstances regarding some sports licenses will change… such as the current exclusivity deal between the NFL and EA. We’ll have to wait and see on that.
While Wii U will battle on, it’s undeniable that losing Madden for a year– combined with no NHL game, no NCAA football game, no PGA game, and no MLB game for this first full calendar year for the new platform on the market– is a painful loss. There also isn’t any assurance that FIFA will see a Wii U release. That would mean that only the NBA would see a Wii U game. Perhaps sports games don’t sell on Nintendo platforms, but when you’re trying to establish sales momentum ahead of competition from Sony and Microsoft and with the likelihood that both new consoles will see at least a Madden game this year (if not also an NHL game), that’s a considerable disadvantage. For sports game consumers looking to upgrade early, the Wii U simply isn’t an option without support. It’s one thing for the games to sell quietly; it’s another for the games to not even be there as a potential lower-priority selling point. I understand the claims from Nintendo supporters that “nobody” (read: very few) buys Nintendo systems for sports games, but not being one of the platforms that a multi million-selling game is going to be on is viewed as a negative by many. Like them or not, sports games are a very important cog in the video game economy.
I understand the cries of “Not fair!” and “EA sucks!” from Nintendo supporters. The rather quick dissolution of the “strong partnership” that EA and Nintendo reportedly had not too long ago is certainly suspect. Perhaps there’s something to the theory about EA’s pitch to Nintendo regarding Origin going south killed that relationship, but there are other factors to consider. Unit sales for the Wii U platform are historically low, tracking the lowest in the first six months at retail since the Nintendo 64 some 17 years ago. Could EA make a return on its investment to port its games over to the Wii U since the install base is so low and since sales of most third-party games on the platform are terrible? Given that EA is trying to scale back projects and save money, perhaps this wasn’t as “personal” a decision as some see it and it’s more of a business decision based on success potential. I think that’s a plausible scenario, but unless the truth comes out from EA brass (which I doubt), we’ll probably never know for certain.
I do think that there’s some culpability on Nintendo’s end here, too. Nintendo’s struggles with third-party relations are worsening, and this apparent divorce with EA is the biggest loss yet. What have Satoru Iwata and his staff been doing to keep EA engaged, if anything? Why isn’t Nintendo reaching into its war chest to make it worth EA’s while to keep supporting its platforms with games? Where has Take-Two been? Where is Konami’s Wii U support? Why didn’t Tomb Raider make it? There are lots of questions and no answers from Nintendo brass, aside from the now-popular Internet meme of “Please understand.”
At some point, Nintendo has to make a decision about third-party relations. Nintendo, at this point, has few allies in the ranks. Ubisoft is still supporting Wii U, but the concession of Rayman Legends moving from exclusive to multiplatform and seeing a significant delay was a blow. Capcom is there to some extent. There’s some question as to Activision’s trust in Wii U, with an air of uncertainty regarding a version of the newest Call of Duty game for the platform. Early reveal notes pointed to releases for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC; however, the Wii U was not mentioned on the list of platforms and retailers are not taking reservations for a Wii U version. I even witnessed a Call of Duty: Ghosts preorder for Wii U get turned away as the customer was told that the game isn’t coming. We don’t know whether it’s coming or not. Some claim it is, but Activision has been coy with its answers to questions about the situation. That absence is not helping Wii U’s perception to customers. If Wii U doesn’t have sports games and (at this point) doesn’t have Call of Duty, there’s no real impetus for people to sink $350 into the platform unless they’re Nintendo diehards. “Old” platforms like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are getting it. It’s a safe bet that the new Xbox is getting it. It’s likely that the PlayStation 4 is getting it. Those last two platforms are fine in not yet being confirmed. The new Xbox isn’t even revealed yet (but will be on May 21st, when the first full reveal of Call of Duty: Ghosts will be shared during the event), and we know the PS4 exists but don’t have many details yet. Compare that to the Wii U, which has been on the market since last November and can be purchased right now. No Call of Duty? No Madden? Possibly no FIFA? Those are perception problems and point to weakness in the Wii U’s software catalog. Again, where is Nintendo in this? Is there not enough clout for Nintendo to get Activision to show its hand a bit?
In the worst case scenario, we will find out if Nintendo fans are right about first-party software being all that Wii U needs to thrive. I don’t believe that to be a good scenario for Nintendo– or, at least, one with a positive outcome. SEGA also had a fairly strong first-party lineup, complete with sports games, RPGs, arcade games, adventure games, and more. SEGA was unable to weather the third-party drought after a strong launch lineup and a solid & steady first-party release slate. Key third-party support is very important to the overall success of a platform, and without it, a very long and uphill battle awaits for Nintendo as its competition gets assault plans ready.
I’ll be very interested to see while attending E3 just what Nintendo’s strategy is. The leaders at Nintendo are not dumb and I’m sure that there will be a plan of attack. I just hope that it’s a good one.
I’ve already submitted a story for approval to Popzara Games regarding Electronic Arts‘ earnings conference call yesterday, but I’m still thinking a lot about it.
I’m struck by the cautious and arguably negative tenor that was taken during the call when it came to EA’s position on console video games. EA isn’t going anywhere, of course, and console games will still be coming over the next 12 months, but something just isn’t right. Perhaps it’s because we’re entering a lame duck period for this console generation as we prepare for what EA calls Gen4– the next generation of console hardware. Perhaps it’s something more ominous, such as the reality of analyst observations stating that consumers are fleeing to other forms of entertainment. Either way, there were a whole lot of social, mobile, and digital mentions made… and not a whole heck of a lot of console mentions made.
I’ve talked about the decline of console gaming in recent days and months, and I think that it’s been easy to spot. Trends are key. Despite a hefty release schedule for console games in the final three months of last year, sales continued to trend down. Hardware sales have been trending down for all platforms since December, and April will make it five straight months of YOY declines unless the PlayStation 3 surprises and moves more than 205,000 units. That trend could be explained in part by the generation ending as I mentioned. Lagging software sales are another problem, though. Perhaps they can be explained by a generally weak release schedule that’s had one genuine hit in Mass Effect 3 and couple of moderate movers so far in 2012, but that doesn’t explain disappointing March sales that were down 26% YOY despite a decent slate of releases.
It can be argued that console sales will show more life once the next generation transition is complete, but what if it doesn’t?
There isn’t a guarantee that consumers will come flooding back to consoles if they’ve found other entertainment to enjoy instead. Mobile and social gaming are slated to increase by 20% over the next 4 years. Console growth is projected to increase by only 5% during the same period, according to EA, and that’s after this current cycle of declines that we’ve seen since since 2008. This indicates to me that while console gaming will still be a viable market, it doesn’t make sense for publishers to invest a ton of money on development if the risk is that enough consumers don’t buy in.
That’s where the revelation that EA is investing $80 million into next-gen development comes in. At first, I looked at this number as more of a positive. Then I thought about it some more. $80 million isn’t a ton. If we go by the assumption that next-gen development probably needs to start now (or soon) to have games ready for a release in the second half of 2013, that amount indicates to me that EA is probably staying away from major risk and taking a very cautious first step. They’re doing it because success in other areas of the business can subsidize development in a market that has potential, but not a lot of apparent strength. If not for mobile and social, it’s not out of the question that EA would be in a much tougher position moving forward.
It’s possible that my position is rather bearish, but listening to CEO John Riccitiello try to give a vote of confidence for console gaming to analysts during the Q&A portion of the call was painful, at best. There wasn’t confidence in his voice at all. There was uncertainty and hope for a turnaround, while the confidence was shown during questions about other facets of the business. I think that things are going to get worse before they get any better, but I also believe that the decline that we’re seeing is a necessary correction for an industry that got much bigger than anyone could have projected.
Look for more reactions this week as Activision shares its prior quarter results on Wednesday evening and then NPD sales data for April drops on Thursday evening.
As I write this entry in the wee hours of Monday morning, there are literally dozens of reviews of Medal of Honor that have been completed and will not be read for another day or so. Meanwhile, many more consumers are looking for some sort of indication as to whether Medal of Honor is going to be worth spending $60 on… and they won’t find out with much notice before the game’s release. See, Electronic Arts is holding reviews hostage by way of embargoes– which basically seal away all reviews until a specified time of the publisher’s choosing. This means that all of the playing time and prep time that it took to write these reviews for the purpose of helping readers decide on a buying decision is arguably wasted. Sure, reviewers have been given time to play the game in advance and will have reviews ready to go live at 12:01am… but there’s a lot of uncertainty and guesswork going on as to the quality and worthiness of a game that is already struggling in the shadow of Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Let me say this: Review embargoes, to me, indicate that publishers are worried about the quality of their games and are usually a sign of a game’s weakness. If a reviewer completes the work and the reviewer’s editorial team believes that the piece is ready to go, it should be posted. Keeping a lid on potentially negative reviews in order to squeeze out some sales to a consumer base that must rely on instinct rather than experience or testimonials is a poor practice. Furthermore, holding up the review process and leading customers to buy a potentially poor game damages the reputation not only of the publisher in question, but also of the industry at large. Customers question what they’re spending their money on and charge publishers with trying to make a quick buck. Fewer games are bought, largely because impulse buying can lead to potentially disappointing results. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that frankly lies at the feet of publishers and public relations companies who likely know that their game may be a bomb and are willing to piss off a few people in order to pull in some revenue before word gets out and their games rot on store shelves.
If publishers are so genuinely concerned about bad press leading up to a game’s release, why bother with review copies? Let reviewers buy their own copies and, by the time the game is played and a review is written… at least a few thousand consumers will have already impulse-bought the game and something will have come from nothing. Gaming press, ideally, should be concerned with using reviews to get the opinions of their review team out there and not have to be held to standards set by the same companies that are basically getting free publicity via these reviews to begin with. If you think about it, cutting off review copies will certainly purge the overpopulated landscape of websites out there. At the same time, it helps those sites that remain because there’s nobody to answer to but the readers. There’s no worrying about the reaction of a PR team or publisher if a reviewer strongly dislikes (with valid reasons) a particular game. There’s no possibility of kowtowing to anyone, because there would be nothing to gain from it.
I dealt with an embargo just once in my writing “career”, and, unsurprisingly, the embargo was lifted because my review was a positive one. Honestly, I’ve never received feedback from publishers or PR about my work, even at its most critical. Then again, I’ve never been the most visible of writers. I’m not in the same league as Andrew Reiner, Jeff Gerstmann, Andy Eddy, Dan Amrich, Brad Gallaway, Robert Workman, and many other reviewers whom I respect and am inspired by. I can’t imagine the pressure and scrutiny that Gerstmann endured during the Kane & Lynch incident. I can only wonder how many others have faced some sort of backlash or consequence from publishers for simply speaking their minds when it comes to a game that may not be worth buying. Embargoes are one way that the industry keeps the gaming press under its collective thumb.
We all know why the embargo is in place. It isn’t for fairness so that some websites don’t get a leg up on others. It isn’t because certain features weren’t active before launch. It’s simply because publishers want to exercise damage control before the game even releases. Sure, the game is awful, but you as a consumer obviously liked it enough to buy it before reviews became available and widely accessible. In the publisher’s eyes, that’s your own damned problem– not theirs. There’s nothing that can be done to force change, either. Websites that question or fail to observe embargoes are usually punished in some way; review copies can be cut or delayed and access to contacts and assets can be limited or denied. Losing that publisher contact hurts a website in many cases, so everyone falls into line for the website’s best interests instead of the interests of the site’s readership or the consumer base at large. I can’t necessarily blame websites for playing ball here, since the competition for content (including assets, review copies, and so on) is fierce in today’s gaming press environment, but it’s disheartening at times to see where priorities lie.
In the case of Medal of Honor, I’m now leaning away from buying it after being on the fence for a few weeks about it. The gag order on my fellow writers is unsettling, and worse is the anonymous chatter going on via Twitter about the game. I’ve read that the single-player campaign lasts four hours. I’ve read that multiplayer action is still buggy, despite a recent beta and time to clean up the issues. These two factors now stand out to me, and with no reviews accessible to me before launch, I have no reason to doubt what I’ve been reading. It’s a curious situation, because pre-launch letdowns are becoming more common for me. For example, I was set to buy Dead Rising 2 until Case Zero hit; the game’s atrocious frame rate and the inability to explore due to time constraints talked me out of dropping any money on it. Now, with Medal of Honor, I’m experiencing seeing more pre-launch jitters. There’s been no positive buzz, and I have no reason to believe that I’ll be wisely spending $60 if I buy it. I’m much more apt to spend my budgeted funds on a proven re-release like Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition than I am to take a risk on a new game that’s embargoed and receiving negative buzz.
Embargoes are a dishonorable practice. Both the industry and the gaming press do a disservice to the consumer base by holding out early complete reviews just because the publisher fears bad publicity or a website fears publisher retribution. They’re a disservice to the writer that spends hours playing a game and more time writing the review that comes in under a strict deadline. They’re a disservice to website readers because it becomes evident that there may be forces at work behind the review process that aren’t on the up and up. Perhaps the worst part of all is that, as video games continue to maintain their popularity and there aren’t any drivers for change, we will continue to see the use of embargoes increase with no real benefit for anyone outside of the industry.
Electronic Arts today launched a haymaker towards used game consumers when it unveiled the Online Pass program. The Online Pass is a key to online play for EA Sports titles, beginning with Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 11. If you buy the games new, you’ll get a one-time DLC key that allows use of the Online Pass for free for each individual game. If you don’t buy the game new, though… you have to pay $10 to play online– even if you’re already paying for an Xbox LIVE subscription.
This is the latest in a series of moves by EA to attempt to force consumers away from the used market. Previous examples included Madden NFL ’10‘s Online Franchise mode and Mass Effect 2‘s Cerberus Network… but this is the first time that online play is being held for ransom. For Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, the game’s online components are substantial; features like tournaments, GamerNet, and online multiplayer are all affected by Online Pass. The game’s Achievements and Trophies are undoubtedly tied to the online parts of the game as well, so you’ll quite literally have to pay for them in these instances.
Make no mistake about it; EA is indeed holding online play for ransom. Game Informer‘s Matt Helgeson covered the announcement of Online Pass and of particular note was a quote from Andrew Wilson, senior vice preisdent of worldwide development for the company:
In order to continue to enhance the online experiences that are attracting nearly five million connected game sessions a day, again, we think it’s fair to get paid for the services we provide and to reserve these online services for people who pay EA to access them.
The context of Wilson’s quote is very clear and doesn’t require interpretation, but I’m going to supply it anyway.
Wilson believes that EA deserves to “get paid” for online services, and it’s consumer purchases of new EA games that supply this “pay”. Used gamers don’t pay for anything, right, Mr. Wilson? They’re pirates! Surely there’s some law that prohibits the sale of pre-owned merchandise… and if there isn’t, then it’s up to EA to punish these evildoers in some way, right? You WILL pay $60 for our games, or we’ll take away features and functionality. Why not be a man, come right out, and admit that you think used game consumers are what’s wrong with the industry, Mr. Wilson? Show some backbone. Or better yet, why not shoulder some of the blame for your company’s bland earnings? How have those exclusive deals with the NFL and the PGA treated you?
I’ve said this before, but the industry needs to take its beef with used games up with retailers. Leave the consumers out of it. It’s apparent that publishers don’t understand the concept that consumers are in penny-pinching mode and that buying used saves money. Very few people– if any– are buying used games in order to purposely strip companies of revenue. News flash: Consumers don’t care. Consumers want their games cheaply, and they don’t care how that happens. Maybe they’re on clearance, maybe they’re used at GameStop, or maybe they’re found at tag sales or flea markets. You’re not going to make people move away from used games by strong-armiing them.
Am I angry? You’re damned right. In a console generation that’s seen more regression than progression, this is the latest is a comedy of errors and bad decisions that make me wonder why I even bother with today’s consoles anymore. Look at the list of crap that we’ve seen in this console generation… and it’s still growing:
- Hardware unreliability
- Higher disc-based software pricing
- Removal of game features for paid DLC at a later date
- Death of game manuals
- Initiatives to kill the preowned game market
- Gradual increases in downloadable game costs
- Digital distribution (leading to hard drive overloads and issues with bandwidth caps)
- DRM / constant internet connection requirements
- Additional expense for used game consumers in order to use online functionality
It’ll be interesting to see how Online Pass goes over, especially when Madden NFL 11 hits the scene in a few short months… but my patience with EA’s anti-used tactics has just about run out. Even if I wanted to be sympathetic towards EA’s stance on how used games are affecting their bottom line, punishing used game consumers like myself pretty much casts any sympathy or understanding out the window. Why should I care about your bottom line when mouthpieces like Andrew Wilson obviously don’t care about mine?
Go on, take online gaming for ransom. Good luck getting anyone with any sense to pay that ransom.
Bob Slydell must have been working closely with EA regarding their next round of layoffs and closings, as they laid out the bad news on Friday. 1,000 more people lost jobs and EA Black Box (Need for Speed, NHL Hitz 20-02, Sega Soccer Slam) was one of nine studios slated to be closed in the near future. The bad news continued late Friday night when Matt Casamassina (via IGN’s Insider message boards, link at NeoGAF) confirmed that Factor 5 has also shuttered completely… this after reports surfaced earlier in the week that 37 people were laid off from the development firm.
Yikes. When does the bad news end?
The EA announcement was expected, although the timing is harsh. The closure of EA Black Box is unfortunate, as well. Black Box certainly started well… NHL 2K for the Dreamcast was eye-opening, then we saw Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 and NHL Hitz 20-02 not too long after that. There have been other triumphs (Skate) and trials (the more recent Need For Speed titles)… and I do think that it’s been the poor direction of the Need For Speed titles which really helped to do Black Box in. I honestly haven’t enjoyed a Need For Speed game since Most Wanted, and even that game wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Hot Pursuit 2 on the PlayStation 2 was the series’ high point and the games never reached that apex again.
While Black Box was able to weather some questionable titles, it seems as though Lair was their big downfall. Aside from being exclusive to the PlayStation 3 (which was a revenue-limiter), the game was almost universally panned by the gaming press and never really had a chance at retail. While I have not had the opportunity to personally try it, rumblings have been that the Sixaxis play controls were spotty at best and this didn’t improve all that much after a later patch. This came after generally positive relationships with Nintendo and LucasArts, from which Factor 5 really made their success with titles in the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series.
Factor 5′s move away from Nintendo, in retrospect, could be argued to be the company’s turning point. Look at the current state of both companies: Nintendo is on top of the world with the Wii and DS right now, comfortably in the lead for this console generation… and Factor 5 is now nothing more than a chapter in video gaming history. It almost makes you wonder what might have happened if Factor 5 had just stuck with Nintendo… but we’ll never know.
I firmly believe that 2009 is going to bring more of the same bad news, for different companies. Is Eidos next on the list? Maybe Majesco? Will we see further scaling back at EA? And what about Sony’s future? Can the market continue to bear three consoles in these difficult times? Unfortunately, these questions and more related developments will be stories that the gaming press corps and the related blogosphere will be focusing on as much as new games in the coming year.
Let’s just hope that we’ve seen the last of the downward spiral for 2008.
Unless you’re Nintendo, there are signs that the currently struggling worldwide economy is beginning to take its toll on what was thought to be a recession-proof industry. I mentioned the demise of Midway in a recent blog entry, but the negativity reaches far beyond the fate of the former coin-op giant. Factor 5 recently confirmed considerable layoffs, Electronic Arts may be planning more layoffs soon, and Sony’s stock was recently downgraded. There are now rumblings that Free Radical Design (TimeSplitters series, HAZE) has ceased operations.
Say all you want about November 2008 NPD numbers being fantastic… this recent rash of news serves as proof to me that the recession is affecting the gaming industry more than some might want to believe, and I honestly think that this trend will continue and accelerate in 2009. There will still be winners (notably Nintendo and Capcom), but the future is not so bright for other companies. Can EA escape its funk? What does Konami have up its sleeve to try and strike gold like Metal Gear Solid 4 did in 2008? Have music-based games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band run their course?
We’ll have to let time play out in order to know for sure, but for as much success as Nintendo is having, many other companies are either losing money or going out of business altogether in a time of economic difficulty that this industry has never seen. There’s little doubt in my mind that the financial well-being of the gaming industry will be as big a story to follow in 2009 as any.