“Stadia Nailed the Impossible, and Then Failed the Possible”

This Week in Business is a collection of stats and quotes from our sister site GamesIndustry.biz that sheds light on console sales, new trends, and more. Check back every Friday for a new entry!

I’ve used the phrase “due to the winding down of the current console generation” or something similar to it numerous times in the last several months, and I anticipate I’ll use it again and again for months to come to explain or speculate on dips in sales, game release delays, career movements, and far more. The games industry is no stranger to this weird, transitory period when everyone knows there’s little point in going big on new projects for existing consoles, but just can’t show its hand yet on the real masterworks studios and publishers are cooking up.

But it feels, at least looking at this week in particular, like a number of major companies not involved specifically in a new console generation are content using this period as a time of transition. For example, Valve announced its return to major game development with further evidence that it’s going all-in on VR as the future of gaming. And it did that with the resurrection of Half-Life’s denarian spirit into a new body that doesn’t at all resemble what its fans have been clamoring for since Alyx Vance wept over her father in Episode 2’s cliffhanger ending.

Half-Life: Alyx is a VR exclusive. | Valve

QUOTE | “There are many reasons why it’s still hard to justify building something of that scope in VR. We felt like that was a role we could fill, because we can invest in longer-term strategies around putting more effort and time into something than we may expect a return from an audience like VR.” – Valve developer Robin Walker explains that Half-Life: Alyx wasn’t originally conceived as a Half-Life game, but rather exists because Valve wanted to do something big and impactful with VR technology.

STAT | $0 – The cost to play Half-Life: Alyx …if you already own a $1000 Valve Index and a similarly expensive PC to run it on.

QUOTE | “As much as Valve might insist that it isn’t concerned about selling high numbers of units, and as much as millions of unit sales is hardly a marker attributable to VR games in general, the fact remains that games and experiences still have to be worthwhile for developers to make in the first place.” – Sorry, that’s me back in May after my first brush with the Valve Index, which is some dang cool tech that most developers probably can’t afford to experiment with unless they have Valve-level investment.

QUOTE | “It’s happening a lot, especially in the VR space. People aren’t making money because they’re selling their games. They’re making money because they’re paid to make the games, to support platforms or pieces of hardware.” – Former Valve VR ambassador and current Stray Bombay co-founder Chet Faliszek worries that indie developers focused on VR won’t be sustainable without something outside that ecosystem to keep them going past project-focused investment.

Also in technology, Google Stadia’s launch this week presented some of the (admittedly unripened) fruits of a coming push for game streaming, and we heard a bit from its immediate streaming rival, Microsoft, on its percolating plans as well:

QUOTE | “Stadia nailed the impossible, and then failed the possible. The single most important challenge facing Google—getting video game streaming on a par with local play—has been passed with flying colors. But on everything else, the company’s approach is baffling.” – The Guardian’s Alex Hern sums up the critical consensus on Google Stadia, which is that as revolutionary its tech might end up being, the expensive buy-in for a product with many of its promised features missing or broken does not inspire long-term confidence.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the few launch titles for Google Stadia. | Rockstar Games

STAT | 175,000 – The number of times the Google Stadia app (necessary to run Google Stadia) has been downloaded so far. Over 90% of those downloads were through Google Play.

QUOTE | “We’ve done something very similar in the console where we deploy new console updates to a set of consumers and then we get their feedback. For us, it’s more important that we get this correct, so we’re going to do it in an open and transparent way. We started four weeks ago with four games in three markets. Today there’s over 50 games. It’s an ever-expanding model.” – Microsoft’s corporate VP of Gaming Cloud Kareem Choudhry discusses the slow but steady approach the company is taking to game streaming with Project xCloud—what they’ve learned so far, and what they still have to figure out.

STAT | 22 – The amount of games available on Google Stadia at its official launch this week. This line-up was announced barely 48 hours before the kits were in pre-order customers’ hands. Seven days before, Google had said there would be only 12 games available at launch.

And on the software level, Pokemon Sword and Shield’s launch provided an example of a developer that’s making the transition into the new console generation with apparent difficulty. Yet despite vocal criticisms from a segment of the fanbase over everything from the games’ graphics to their inclusion of only around 400 Pokemon to a perceived over-simplification of certain mechanics, the games are reviewing and selling, uh, real dang well. Which leaves Game Freak with the question of whether or not to respond to a level of audience emotion that at times felt overwhelming, or to continue doing what sells units year after year through the rest of the Nintendo Switch’s life cycle.

With so much quiet on the console front for a few months more, it’s easier to spot the other shifts different corners of the industry are taking as technology improves, major companies experiment, and games continue to find new ways to reach even more people than they had before.

STAT | 6 million – The number of copies of Pokemon Sword and Shield sold through globally in the games’ launch weekend. Their launch was also the highest-grossing launch of any Pokemon game (likely helped by the $20 price increase from 3DS to Nintendo Switch).

STAT | 81 – The current Metacritic average score for Pokemon Sword and Shield, which reviewers praised for its quality of life improvements and explorable Wild Area, though they felt its biggest issue was not being innovative enough given the series leap to the Nintendo Switch.

QUOTE | “Every franchise that lasts a long time has a need to handle this balancing act—bringing in new, younger players to keep things refreshed, holding on to older players and figuring out which of the many groups their older fans have split off into are worth catering to in the process.” – Rob Fahey in his weekly column suggests that as audiences for franchises with considerable longevity (such as Pokemon) grow over time, management of their expectations will only get more challenging.

QUOTE | “Xbox is aggressively pursuing new business models, distribution models and markets because it wants and needs to attract a wider consumer base. PlayStation is doing all of those things, too… but it’s doing that in a more measured way. That’s because it already has an install base of 100 million consoles.” – Our publisher, Chris Dring, on why Sony is taking a quieter approach into the next console generation than its immediate console rival.

QUOTE | “When we started with this idea, we thought it was great, it was [a story] we wanted to tell, it made sense for the story and the characters. We didn’t want to shy away from that and the difficulty of doing it.” – Dontnod Entertainment announced Tell Me Why at X019 last week, and game director Florent Guillaume explains how the story came to have a transgender hero at its center.

QUOTE | “We’re not the operator of the world’s town halls. We’re the operator of the communities that allow you to have fun through the lens of a video game.” – It wouldn’t be a This Week in Business (at least lately) if we didn’t find yet another reason to point out the weird disconnect between Activision Blizzard’s insistence that its official channels stay clear of politics, and its regular expression of very specific kinds of politics anyway.

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