Amazon acquires Double Helix, Killer Instinct developer

During the last years, Amazon has been giving strong signals of its gaming ambitions. It launched its own game studio back in 2012, consistently expanded the games catalogue for its Kindle Fire and now is going to launch its own Android microconsole this year, to compete against Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

Given that scenario, a studio purchase felt natural for Amazon, especially since offering exclusive titles can be a good deal for a console. However, when the acquisition news broke out yesterday, there was something unexpected: Amazon was buying Double Helix, the console-oriented studio that developed last year’s Killer Instinct (the fightning Xbox One exclusive). According to Amazon, it “acquired Double Helix as part of our ongoing commitment to build innovative games for customers.”

I hope I’m getting Amazon Prime along with my new health plan

It’s worth noting that, even if it may look like a usual fighting retail game, Killer Instinct has a novel approach to free-to-play games, as it only offers one character for free. You can either play using that character forever, or you can spend around $5 for adding a new one.

So far, that strategy has been criticized by fans, but apparently also quite successful. Perhaps it’s precisely its popularity what triggered the need for a “jail” system. Given this precedent, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Amazon looking for new ways to monetize big scale games.

After yesterday’s announcement, Microsoft has confirmed that it will be working with a new “development partner” on Killer Instinct. Double Helix, in turn, had a platform game set to be published by Capcom this year, Strider (a reboot). I guess that project will remain unchanged (it’s probably in its final stage of development).

Amazon is well known for betting high when a business is attractive enough for its overall strategy. Combine that ambition with its experience in digital and retail services, and you have a strong contender for becoming one of the big players in the industry.

I don’t know how much time we’ll have to wait until seeing Double Helix’s new contributions, but I’m sure that Amazon will do its part to make 2014 a great year for gaming.

Sources: Polygon, Gamasutra

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Zynga fires 314 people but buys NaturalMotion for $527 million

Zynga’s last 2 years have been riddled with missteps: underperforming games, studio shutdowns, and failed mobile attempts. In a couple of years, it went from being the social games king to an overcrowded company, struggling to find its place in a world now ruled by tablets and smartphones. In that scenario, on July 1, 2013, Zynga founder Mark Pincus handed his CEO job to Don Mattrick, responsible for the Xbox label at Microsoft.

Don Mattrick (CEO) and Mark Pincus (Founder)

Don Mattrick (CEO) and Mark Pincus (Founder)

Yesterday, in the strongest move since he replaced Pincus, CEO Don Mattrick and COO Clive Downie (also a new manager) moved up their investor call planned for February 6 to share some news.

As expected, 2013 was a rough year for the company, with a net loss of $37 million and lots of players. It was better than the previous year, though, which had resulted in a  $209 million loss. However, the notheworthy announcement isn’t so much the company’s expected weak numbers, but the news that came with that:

  • As part of the plan to reorganize, reduce costs and save between $33 and $35 million, Zynga is laying off 314 people (15% of its workforce).
  • At the same time, in order to finally compensate its late switch to mobile, Zynga is acquiring Oxford based NaturalMotion for $527 million. The English company is well known for 2 achievements: the amazing simulation engine behind games like Grand Theft Auto V, and their mobile hits CSR Racing (created by Boss Alien and later acquired by NaturalMotion) and Clumsy Ninja.
NaturalMotion's CSR Racing (2012)

NaturalMotion’s CSR Racing (2012)

75 percent of all new games in development are mobile-first. For the first time in our company’s history, we expect mobile bookings to surpass web bookings.

Zynga is betting heavily on mobile gaming to make 2014 a turning point, and the “market” seems to trust it: following this announcement, the company’s stock went up around 20% (even if it’s projecting a $50 million loss for the first quarter of 2014).

There are a lot of questions regarding see how Zynga and NaturalMotion will work together. Will Zynga jump to less-known genres? Will this affect AAA games that are used to license NaturalMotion’s technology? Will they produce games hand to hand, or each one will take care of different areas (monetization, gameplay, etc.)? I’m eager to see their approach to the current state of the industry.

You can find a Gamasutra analysis here, and Don Mattrick’s thoughts here.

Sony offers a single subscription for all its MMOs

Starting April 02, Sony Online Entertainment will offer a single membership plan called All Access, that will cover all its MMOs (EverQuestEverQuest IIDC Universe Online PC, PlanetSide 2 PC, VanguardSaga of Heroes, and the upcoming EverQuest Next and EQN Landmark).

For $14.99 a month (with extra savings for 3, 6 and 12 month plans), subscribers will be able to:

  • Claim 500 Station Cash monthly from within the game marketplaces.
  • Receive a 10% discount on marketplace purchases.
  • Gain access to exclusive promotions and offers throughout the year.

Besides, all players with existing memberships will be automatically upgraded into the new plan. As IGN points out, free-to-play members will still be able to play games without paying for them and the new consolidated payment options are only available on PC right now.

I’m interested to see how this single subscription model works. As I see it, lowering the barriers for those who want to play (at least) more than one MMOs is a clear vote of confidence for the free-to-play model. Why? Because now the only way to monetize those players (outside the single $14.99 subscription fee) will be through in-app purchases, as they will be spending less per game. Of course, those who only play one MMO won’t see any change.

In the end, it’s about giving people more for their money.

Source: SOE Community

No more pre-order regret in Steam

During the last years the industry has had a pre-order fever, with many games offering exclusive content for players who purchased the game before its release (and before the reviews appeared).

That bonus material can take many forms: a multiplayer upgrade, extra challenges, an additional piece of story or simply new skins (the worst kind, in my opinion). Today you can pre-order games that don’t even exist!

However, sometimes a fan pre-orders a game just to regret later. It could happen for many reasons: the game previews look terrible, the anxiety goes away or the promised bonus content is modified, for example. As pre-orders are becoming a trend among publishers, also is asking for a refund among consumers.

1858192-walmart_batman

In response to that, now Steam lets you get a refund on your pre-order smoothly, without the need of opening a support ticket with Valve. The refund puts the money back in your Steam Wallet, so you can make the same mistake with another game.

steam-refund_614

Its competitor GOG’s refund policy, in turn, extends to 14 days after getting the game in case you just changed your mind and to 30 for technical issues.

In my case, I only pre-order a game when it comes with extraordinary additional content, as when buying The Bureau: XCOM Declassified in Steam got me all the previous XCOM installments, along with Spec Ops: The Line. As a matter of fact, I ended up playing more the other games than The Bureau… A considerable price discount can also help.

Perhaps it’s time to stop purchasing dull pre-orders, or to listen to those who advocate for abandoning them once and for all. Will they follow the same path as online passes?

Sources: The Escapist and Polygon

Capcom unveils its five-year plan

All of us have been in love with Capcom at least once. Street Fighter, Mega Man, Resident Evil, Devil May Cry and many other great contributions have left a lasting mark on gamers across generations.

However, during the last years Capcom made a lot of of wrong decisions and released many faulty games, leading everybody to ask the same question: what happened to Capcom?

O Capcom, where art thou?

2013 was the pinnacle of its failure. Monster Hunter 4 shipping 4 million units only 2.5 months after its release wasn’t enough to rescue the company, as the rest of its line up fell below expectations. Trying to adapt to the growing smartphone business, Capcom decided to use U$S39.1 million from Monster Hunter 4‘s profits to fund a new mobile studio.

In an attempt to address its latest missteps, Capcom has published a group of open letters detailing its business plan for the next 5 years. In Kenjo Tsujimoto (Capcom CEO)’s words,

From now on, I plan to hire at least 100 software developers every year to give us an even more powerful development workforce. Furthermore, I want to establish clear targets for these developers so they can help make Capcom even stronger.

You can find the CEO‘s full letter here, the COO‘s letter here and all the management objectives here.

League of Legends made $624 million last year

League of Legends (Riot Games’ hit MOBA) continues its hugely successful run, having earned $624 million during 2013 (its 4th year in the market). The game is free-to-play, so the earnings came 100% from in-app purchases. However, that number wasn’t enough to make it the most lucrative online PC game, as it was surpassed by CrossFire, SmileGate’s first-person military shooter, which earned $957 million during 2013.

If we divide the top 10 free-to-play earners by publishers, the Chinese giant Tencent is the clear winner, having a combined annual gross of $1,581 million and holding the top 2 spots. The South Korean developer Nexon comes second, with 3 of the top 10 slots and an $873 million annual income.

  1. CrossFire (Tencent/SmileGate) – $957 million
  2. League of Legends (Tencent/Riot Games) – $624 million
  3. Dungeon Fighter Online (Nexon) – $426 million
  4. World of Tanks (Wargaming.net) – $372 million
  5. Maplestory (Nexon) – $326 million
  6. Lineage (NCSoft) – $257 million
  7. World of Warcraft (Activision/Blizzard) – $213 million
  8. Star Wars: The Old Republic (Electronic Arts) – $139 million
  9. Team Fortress 2 (Valve) – $139 million
  10. CounterStrike Online (Valve/Nexon) – $121 million

It’s important to note that the study doesn’t include paid subscriptions, so World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic have even bigger earnings.

Source: SuperData

How much money do you need to make a big game?

“And I would like a mobile version too, please”

There are countless materials available about best game design practices, recommended development techniques and successful artistic approaches. However, finding reliable information about game budgets is a pretty disappointing venture. Even if you work in games, chances are you don’t know the budget of your current or past projects, simply because publishers and developers almost never release their data.

There are always exceptions, of course: journalists and analysts making educated guesses (although most of the times they are just a guess), public companies’ investor reports (although they usually combine all their production costs), and people like Tim Schafer, who isn’t afraid of telling us the costs of their previous critically acclaimed games (Grim Fandango: ’98, $3 million; Psychonauts: ’05, $12 million; Brütal Legend: ’09, $24 million), and even lets us know that patching a console game can cost $40,000.

“And this is how I get the money for my games”

That’s why it’s worth checking what a remarkable job the Kotaku columnist superannuation has done. Using public sources, he has put up an incredible list with tons of titles and their budgets. According to him, this list “marks a first attempt here at Kotaku to get a comprehensive sense of how much money the world’s biggest and most expensive games cost.”.

It starts as early as 1982, with the infamous E.T. (’82) and its $23 million licensing fee, and includes the car combat game Twisted Metal (’95, $0.8 million), the god game Black & White (’01, $5.7 million), the first Guitar Hero (’05, $1.7 million) and the mythological action-adventure game God of War III (’10, $44 million), among others.

Take a look at the full list here.