Issue #154
April 23, 2014
Hung Up on Semantics
Front Page

Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are broken down and editorialized. Here's a fun fact: apparently all of the PSN's PSP and PlayStation Classic titles have gone live for download on the PS Vita. The catch is that their availability isn't apparent in the PS Vita PSN storefront. Perhaps you should check out your download list and see if you can download a few games you haven't touched in a while. Personally, I'm pumped to get my hands on Jeanne D'Arc:

I know it isn't everyone's thing, but I can't get enough of that sexy tactical action. Clearly nostalgia has gotten the best of me.

If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:

  • What are your favorite games on the PSN?

  • Have you downloaded any PSP or PlayStation Classic since they've become available again?

  • What games do you think need to be added?

At one of my old workplaces, we had a newsletter that tracked people leaving departments, joining departments, retiring, exiting the company, and joining the company. It was a nice way of knowing when to extend a welcome or a goodbye at the right times. One of the things I've noticed over the course of the past month is the sheer number of movements from company-to-company by key individuals. I figured we could start this issue of Currents by highlighting a few of them and possibly mulling over what these changes in employment mean for their past companies, current companies, and the industry at large.

Microsoft has named Phil Spencer as the new head of its Xbox division, taking over the role vacated by Marc Whitten this past March. He'll also have his hands in the pots of LIVE, Xbox Music, Xbox Video, and Microsoft Game Studios. The goal in his promotion was to combine a number of gaming and content assets across the Xbox team under a single leader, as well as to eventually bring those Xbox assets to tablets, PCs, and smartphones. Phil is already well known and well-liked by many Xbox gamers. He's won a lot of respect across battle lines by admitting that Microsoft made some wrong decision with the Xbox One. He's since pledged to "win" this console generation and promised games — not hype — for this year's E3 presentation. It's an exciting move for Xbox fans, and I honestly think it means a lot of good things for the Xbox One's future. Up until now, the system has sorely lacked the leadership of a transparent figure for customer concerns. Shu Yoshida's openness has done a lot for the PS4's PR, and hopefully the same will be said about Phil and the Xbox One in the future.

After unveiling its Fire TV media streaming and game device, Amazon got a bit of attention for two new notable hires: Kim Swift and Clint Hocking. Swift is best known for her work at Valve on Portal, though she also worked on the Left 4 Dead series of games. She left Valve in 2009 to head up projects for Airtight Games, including first-person puzzler Quantum Conundrum and the rhythm action game Soul Fjord. Hocking, on the other hand, gained notoriety working at Ubisoft on Splinter Cell, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and Far Cry 2, but left the publisher in 2010 and joined LucasArts as the creative director of an unannounced project. He then left for Valve in 2012, and has jumped ship again for the world's largest online retailer of books and media. I'm sure Swift is a major score for Amazon, but at this point I have my doubts about Hocking. After separate stints at LucasArts and Valve, he has nothing to show for himself. I'm beginning to question whether he can or has any interest in delivering on projects.

Amy Hennig is well known among Naughty Dog fans. As the former creative director and writer of the acclaimed Uncharted series, it was troubling when people began to hear that she had been "forced out" of the studio. Thankfully, she has recently landed a role at Electronic Arts' Visceral Games, known mostly for their Dead Space franchise. According to Visceral VP and general manager Steve Papoutsis, Hennig's first project will be as the creative director of the studio's unannounced Star Wars project. A former co-worker of hers from her days at Crystal Dynamics, he maintains that she'll fit in perfectly with what the studio is trying to do: making the most thrilling, immersive games in the world. There's no doubt that this is a huge win for EA and Visceral Games, but after a fair amount of high-profile departures from Naughty Dog, I'm beginning to question what is happening to their corporate culture.

Speaking of, The Last of Us art director, Nate Wells, has also left Naughty Dog. He has recently attained a position with Giant Sparrow, makers of the acclaimed art-adventure game The Unfinished Swan. Giant Sparrow hasn't been tremendously open on what they'll be up to next, but the official statement on their unannounced title is that it is "not a sequel to The Unfinished Swan, but... not a million miles away either." Wells is definitely a talent in the industry and I'm excited to see what he contributes to next.

The third high-profile departure from Naughty Dog comes in the form of Uncharted 4 director Justin Richmond, who left the studio for a role with League of Legends developer Riot Games. Richmond joined Naughty Dog in 2008 and oversaw the multiplayer component of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. He was also the game director of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Hennig and Richmond were both cited as working together on Uncharted 4 when it was unveiled last November, but SCEA maintains that "the development timeline of Uncharted will not be impacted." Personally, I'm more concerned with the quality of Uncharted 4 than its timeliness.

Interestingly, there is one other weird labour force change at Naughty Dog that is tied to Hennig. Her close friend Todd Stashwick, who will be joining her as a co-writer on Visceral's unannounced Star Wars project, has lost his role in the new Uncharted game as its villain. He confirmed the news to IGN, and this news is indeed startling as he had been very involved with the game and was even the voice of the teaser trailer. His recasting by Naughty Dog has gone on to fuel rumors that Hennig's departure from the studio was not amicable.

Next up is Ted Timmins, the lead designer on Fable Anniversary, who has recently left Lionhead after seven years with the company. This comes as interesting news as he was appointed the role of Fable's franchise manager almost immediately after his work on Fable Anniversary. Ted first's game was the original Fable and he tweeted that he was happy that the Anniversary edition would be his last. It's clear that he is ready for a change, and might of felt overwhelmed by being handed the franchise's future. This decision came as a shock to Peter Molyneux who thought Timmins to be "a lifer."

Finally, we'll end on a sad note as Mart O'Donnell, a longtime composer at Bungie, was let go recently — supposedly "without cause." According to Marty's twitter, the board of directors terminated him on April 11, after more than ten years of working at the studio, but Bungie has since contended that the termination was friendly. Responsible for the music throughout the Halo franchise as well as Bungie's upcoming title Destiny, O'Donnel is a bit of a heavy weight in modern video game composition. I have no doubt that he'll find a new project to work on soon, but the choice to terminate him is befuddling. I'm not sure if the board thought he was over-compensated or that the studio needed to go in a different musical direction, but I can say that this situation is exactly why American employment laws need to be altered for the bettered protection of employee rights. In Canada, for instance, an employee cannot be terminated without the breaking of a civil law or documentation of repeated offenses. Even if they were to lay off the position, he would have required at least six week's worth of notice or payment in lieu of notice. This termination displays shockingly little regard for the livelihoods of others by Bungie's board and I believe all board members should reexamine how their actions are being perceived by outside interests. This screams bad PR.

Sources: Polygon, Games Industry, IGN

Recently, the PlayStation 4 celebrated what some would call a major milestone: selling 7 million units in less than six months. Sony confirmed the figure on April 6, 2014, and added that the console is now available in 72 countries and regions around the world. They were also happy to share that 20.5 million units sold of PlayStation 4 software had also been sold — meaning that the device currently has an attach rate average of roughly three games per system sold. President and group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Andrew House stated that the company is still facing difficulties keeping up with demand, but remains steadfast in their commitment to meeting the needs of Sony customers. Naturally, many people were curious about how well Microsoft's Xbox One was doing in comparison.

Yusuf Mehdi, corporate VP of marketing, strategy and business for Xbox, announced in a Microsoft blog post how well Xbox AAA exclusive Titanfall performed as well as the Xbox One's progress. "Today, we congratulate our friends at Respawn Entertainment, and Electornic Arts, as Titanfall for Xbox One was named the number one selling game in March, according to NPD Group figures released today," he wrote. "We're also happy to share that more than 5 million Xbox One consoles have been sold-in to retailers since our launch."

Now, I won't get into why the NPD Group isn't a great source of information on game sales in the digital age (that's a rant for another day), but I will dip into the pond of semantics by differentiating the terms "sold-in to retailers" and "units sold." You see, your first response at Microsoft's blog post might be "the PS4 only has a 2 million unit lead, that's not that bad." That response, however, would be incorrect. Sold-in to retailers is not the same thing as actual units sold. For instance, the Wii U may have sold 5.86 million units worldwide by the end of 2013, but the sold-in to retailer number was probably around 7 to 8 million units. You see, "sold-in" only means that the retailers themselves (GameStop, Best Buy, Future Shop, Amazon, Walmart, GAME, etc.) have purchased a certain supply of consoles — it doesn't indicate a demand for those consoles.

If we're being extremely realistic, the Xbox One's units sold are probably just above 4 million. As of late February, the Xbox One had estimated sales of 3.6 million, and according to NPD's hardware sales (which are far more reliable than their software sales) roughly 311,000 Xbox Ones were sold in America during the month of March. Factoring in a bump in that number for Europe and other territories, I honestly would estimate units sold to be in the ballpark of 4.2 million.

So, what is my point in making this distinction? Am I Sony fanboy with an axe to grind? Do I spend way too much time on unimportant details? Have I wasted your time in meandering over this topic for as long as I have? Well, the truth is that I don't like BS PR spin like this. Microsoft knows exactly how many units they've sold. I'd guarantee that Phil Spencer has the number on his Windows 8 phone. However, the same marketing gurus who gave us the vitriolic "Scroogled" campaign have decided to treat you like an idiot by presenting sales numbers that aren't real numbers. Maybe Microsoft is currently undergoing an ego crisis. Maybe they aren't. Regardless, it is important that you, the consumer, be aware of what these numbers mean and why corporate marketing types phrase things the way they do. Sold-in is not units sold.

Sources: Xbox Blog, NPD Group

Alright, so a few websites have been running a somewhat misleading story on progress of the Wii U. The Nintendo Wii U, which has been out for 17 months, currently stands at an estimated 6 million units sold worldwide. It is the assertion of these sites that the Sega Dreamcast, at the same point in time, had sold 10.6 million units... before Sega pulled the plug and exited the hardware market. The contention is one of "why hasn't Nintendo abandoned the Wii U yet/the Wii U is a colossal failure." Today, we're going to discuss why these articles are a bit off the mark.

To begin, the Sega Dreamcast wasn't 17 months old when the plug was pulled by Sega. Released in Japan November 27, 1998 and discontinued March 30, 2001, the Dreamcast was around for two years, four months, and three days. So, to say that the Dreamcast sold 10.6 million units in 17 months is a lie. In fact, it took 27 months for the console to sell that many units, and that was after an extremely strong North American launch in 1999. Also, there were several mitigating factors that pushed Sega to pull out of the hardware space.

The Dreamcast was introduced shortly after the Saturn was abandoned. The people in Japan and in the West who had supported the company likely felt betrayed by the sudden abandonment of the system that was supposed to rival the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. It's hard to get the trust of consumers back when you decided to leave them out in the cold like that, and it is likely that many chose not to return to the company after the Dreamcast was launched.

Secondly, the Dreamcast was released shortsightedly. Don't get me wrong, it's still a great system with a ton of excellent games, but the technical specs it launched with weren't ever going to compete with the PS2, GameCube, or Xbox and its longevity in the market was affected as a result. Now, the PS4 and Xbox One are clearly more powerful than the Wii U, but the graphical fidelity, gameplay, and loading times of the Wii U don't feel a full generation behind, per se.

Thirdly, Sega wasn't a financially healthy company when the Dreamcast's sales were being trumped at every corner by Sony's PS2. They had a ton of failures on their plate, thanks to the Sega 32X, Sega CD, Sega Nomad, and Sega Saturn. Financially speaking, it didn't make sense to continue to throw money at a business model that was no longer working for them. To that point, becoming a 3rd party software developer was likely the smartest move the company could have made.

In comparing modern Nintendo's state of affairs with Sega's circa 2001, I can't see a lot of similarities. Nintendo is still sitting on a large pile of cash, and has even more control over the direction of the company since recently performing a share buy-back. No, the Wii U is not performing as well as its predecessor or current competition, but it has also only been about a year and a half in the market. I will say that I find it terribly concerning when I hear that Wii Us are being sold in Sears stores for $99.97 (something that isn't good for the system's valuation or Nintendo), but we haven't yet seen the four horseman of the apocalypse fly across the sky harkening the death of Nintendo's hardware business. I'll let you know when that happens, but in the meantime let's stop spreading misinformation and false parallels to failed consoles.

Source: NPD Group

Let's talk about stock and what rights that stock entails. Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. has recently announced that it has sold all of its stock in Square Enix Holdings, amounting to 9.54 million shares. The total sale of this stock is worth roughly $150 million (USD), and the company received net cash proceeds on April 21, 2014.

This action can be attributed to a broad strategy to reduce costs, which has included the sale of large properties and office space, the closure of small retail stores, and a sizeable amount of redundancies. Sony's chief executive Kaz Hirai has been under intense pressure to reduce the corporation's cost base and under his leadership Sony has regularly made sizable one-off sales ahead of annual financial reports.

Naturally, fanboys and fangirls have begun asking what this means for exclusivity. Has Sony shot themselves in the foot? Did they have a massive falling out with their former best friend? Will Final Fantasy VII finally come out for the Nintendo 64? All of these conversations have been hogwash.

Sony had an 8.2% stake in Square Enix. They didn't own the company and couldn't use that little stake to demand anything — especially not exclusivity rights. Sony, for the record, has never been cited as using its shareholder status to force any company into a corner for the purpose of game exclusivity. That is a myth which has been perpetuated on the internet by numerous, sourceless individuals who never have to be accountable for their words. Sony and Square Enix, like Nintendo and Sqauresoft in the early 90s, had a mutually beneficial partnership. There was a basic understanding that one party would develop games while the other would help publish in certain territories. That being said, we now live in a world where Square Enix is one of the world's largest publishers and has been increasingly platform-agnostic since 2008. Square Enix simply doesn't need a close partner as they did in the 90s and early 2000s.

Let me ask a basic question: if Sony had the ability to demand exclusivity through the power of their 8.2% stake alone, why did the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii ever get Square Enix releases? How did Final Fantasy XI, Project Sylpheed, Infinite Undiscovery, The Last Remnant, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, Nier, or any of the Final Fantasy XIII titles get published on the Xbox 360? What about Nintendo? Why did the Nintendo Wii get Dragon Quest Swords, Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon, the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles games, or Dragon Quest X if Sony had exclusivity rights? The simple answer is that Sony didn't have exclusivity rights and hasn't been Square Enix's foreign publishing partner in years.

The reality is that Square Enix has lost 45% of its value since Sony first invested in them during the early 2000s. Perhaps Sony thought that Square Enix Holdings had hit its profit ceiling and wanted to get out while the getting was still relatively good. This was a business deal, not a break up. It certainly won't have a drastic effect on where Square Enix games go. Square will continue to release games on the platforms that make sense the most sense for those games — including the Sony PS Vita and PS4. Sony, in turn, will continue to welcome Square Enix games to Sony platforms. End of story.

Source: Polygon

That's it for this issue of Currents. Shout out to Sarah McGarr for the new 'Currents' icon. You'll see another issue again in a couple weeks, but stay tuned to RPGamer for all the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.

Your dork from the Great North,

Trent Seely

Stalk me on Twitter: @InstaTrent

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