Still from God of War Ragnarök
Image: Sony

God of War Ragnarök is defending an embattled console gaming market

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Tuesday, we’re discussing the early success of Sony’s God of War Ragnarök amid a year of decline for the video game industry. Also: How Twitter turmoil and the FTX implosion are affecting the games industry and a major new update for Epic’s Unreal Engine 5.

God of War answers Sony’s prayers

The game market has had a rough 2022: A surprising mobile slump, lower consumer spending, continued hardware supply constraints, and game delays littering the release calendar with unfilled absences.

But what is proving to be a resounding success for Sony — and proof of the resilience of the PlayStation maker’s console-first business model — is the new God of War Ragnarök. Released last week to rave reviews and a powerful first week of sales, Ragnarök is helping buoy a struggling console market and underscores Sony’s shrewd and exacting strategy for maximizing the value of its first-party studios.

The new God of War is fantastic. I’ve played only the first handful of hours of Ragnarök’s sprawling story, but it is an improvement in virtually every way over its 2018 predecessor while still maintaining a familiar approach. The original game has sold more than 23 million copies.

  • Sony opted not to make Ragnarök a PS5-only game and chose instead to target its existing PS4 base of nearly 120 million units. (The game features some graphical and performance upgrades for PS5 players.)
  • While that means the game doesn’t look and feel radically different, it is available to the widest swath of buyers.
  • Early sales data in the U.K. indicates Ragnarök enjoyed the biggest launch in the history of the God of War franchise, reported. The new entry sold more on its first day in that market than the 2018 installment did in its first week.
  • Ragnarök also dominated The Game Awards nominations yesterday, earning the most of any title this year with 10.

Ragnarök arrived at a particularly troubling time for the industry. Starting this summer, analysts and market research firms began warning of a game industry downturn. By the end of the second quarter, it became clear the market was in decline after two years of explosive pandemic-fueled growth.

  • New data out today from market researcher Newzoo has the industry contracting by more than 4%. The firm, founded in 2007, has never before forecast a decline for the global games market.
  • The primary culprit is mobile gaming, which has grown consistently every year since the launch of the iPhone and has helped offset declines in PC and console gaming. Another factor: Several game delays have pushed many big releases to 2023.
  • Analytics firm Sensor Tower’s gaming lead Dennis Yeh said “barring a major holiday season, annual mobile gaming spend in the U.S. will see a decline for the first time ever,” while Newzoo forecasts a mobile decline of 6.4% this year.
  • Some good news: The latest Call of Duty game was the fastest-selling in the franchise’s history, moving $800 billion in sales in its first three days.
  • U.S. market tracker NPD said yesterday that just two days of COD: Modern Warfare 2 sales were enough to make the newest entry the second-best-selling game of the year behind Elden Ring and help keep October consumer spending flat year over year despite the decline in mobile.

Single-player gaming is alive and well — for Sony, at least. The game industry continues to shift investments and priorities toward mobile, live service, and free-to-play gaming. But Ragnarök, as well as February’s smash hit Elden Ring, are offering a refreshing counterbalance to that line of thinking.

  • While far fewer studios these days enjoy the resources of God of War developer Santa Monica Studio to develop single-player games, there is strong demand for big-budget experiences using cutting-edge graphics and Hollywood voice talent.
  • Sony has outlined an ambitious plan to develop numerous live service games in the coming years, and it acquired Destiny developer Bungie this year for close to $4 billion to help those efforts.
  • Sony has also invested in mobile development, revamped its PlayStation Plus subscription, and sped up its pace in porting PlayStation games to PC so it isn’t so reliant on console gaming.
  • But at the same time, Ragnarök is evidence that narrative-driven console exclusives are still the company’s bread and butter, and Sony has no reason to ignore its core audience of PlayStation single-player fans while it invests in the growth areas it’s neglected until fairly recently.

Ragnarök may end up on PC in a couple of years, and perhaps even on Sony’s subscription service some time after that. But for now, the game is best enjoyed — and only enjoyed — on PlayStation for $60 to $70. So far, it seems likely many millions of players are still just fine with that arrangement.

— Nick Statt

A message from Meridian

While tech can be a transformational tool for change, there must be a balance to ensure we are not only depending on multilateral institutions to implement policy and standards, as authoritative regimes can easily dismiss those initiatives. Instead, we must have a holistic diplomatic approach that ensures tech diplomacy and collaboration can be spread through various platforms.

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The Commission is working to ensure that you will still be able to play Call of Duty on other consoles (including my Playstation). Also on our to do list: update stock pictures. These gamers have wired controllers whereas Xbox and Playstation have wireless ones since about 2006!” — Ricardo Cardoso, a member of the EU Commission overseeing the Activision deal, tweeted a curious comment last week implying he owned a PlayStation console and attached an outdated stock photo. He later clarified he is “not involved in the assessment.”

“The interactive entertainment business is very different than the linear entertainment business … So I, at least, pose the question as to whether subscription makes as much sense for interactive entertainment as it does for linear entertainment and registered some skepticism, which I still hold." — Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick said on an earnings call last week he was still unsure about the business model behind Xbox Game Pass and whether it made sense for the game industry.

In other news

Twitter cuts hit the game marketing team. As part of Elon Musk’s Twitter layoffs last month, the entire five-person Twitter Gaming marketing staff responsible for helping promote the industry was let go, The Washington Post reported.

Studio Ghibli and Disney partner for a mystery project. The legendary anime studio and Disney are working together, though both are cryptic about the details. A likely outcome: a new season of anime anthology series “Star Wars: Visions.”

Meta is killing its Portal smart display for good. After previously opting to shift Portal sales to business customers, the company is now pulling the plug on the device altogether.

The Witcher 3 update will arrive just in time. CD Projekt Red announced yesterday that the next-gen upgrade for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will keep its 2022 deadline with a Dec. 14 launch following two delays.

A closer look at Magic Leap’s new headset. The Magic Leap 2 may well be the best AR headset yet, but it’s also out of reach and not designed for most people.

Disgraced FTX CEO was a big gamer. Sam Bankman-Fried, who pushed his imploding crypto exchange to sponsor esports teams, once played Riot’s multiplayer hit League of Legends during an investor meeting, impressing onlookers. FTX filed for bankruptcy on Friday.

Disney’s latest demo day included NFT and AR startups. Some of the companies that were part of last week’s Disney Accelerator Demo Day included Polygon, Lockerverse, and Red 6.

Gaming companies become Twitter Blue targets. Before Twitter was forced to shut down signups to its Blue service, gaming brands were among the first high-profile targets of impersonators abusing the new, murkier blue check mark.

Epic’s Hollywood takeover continues

Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5 is getting its first major update today, and with it a suite of new features and capabilities for both game development as well as film and TV production. The goal is to make the engine, once exclusively a tool of game makers, into a widespread pillar of Hollywood production and, eventually, the metaverse.

Epic is pushing Unreal across media formats. The new update, version 5.1, is designed to take advantage of “the exponential growth in adoption of Unreal Engine over the last two years by media and entertainment professionals and companies of all sizes,” the company said.

  • The new update contains a dedicated in-camera visual effects editor, meaning that people doing stage production using an LED backdrop for virtual environments will be able to edit on-screen elements — and see the results of those edits — on the fly.
  • Epic says it’s adding an iOS app with touch controls to mirror the in-camera editor features on smaller screens in the coming weeks, as well as a color correction tool for adjusting virtual LED wall images.
  • Other big changes in 5.1 include an overhaul to the virtual camera tool, improvements to the Lumen lighting system, and improvements to animating and rigging animated characters.

Epic’s vision goes beyond the game engine market. While the Unreal Engine is often pitted against rival Unity, the platform of choice for mobile developers, Epic has made clear its bigger-picture goal is blurring the lines between live-action and digital and making any object, character, or environment interactive.

  • “As we head toward the metaverse, people will start to think of assets as usable objects just as they are in the real world,” Kim Libreri, Epic’s CTO and a former Hollywood visual-effects supervisor, told me last year. “We’re going to see a big transformation of how people think of digital content going forward.”
  • “The metaverse is often associated with speculative newness, but the core experiences engaging 100M's of active users today are about games with music experiences and movie crossovers,” Epic CEO Tim Sweeney explained back in May.
  • Indeed, Fortnite is in one sense a big revenue-generating battle royale game, but in another a testing ground for both Unreal and Sweeney’s theories about the future of entertainment.
  • “Silly hype aside, the metaverse is about taking real-time 3D social, entertainment, and creative experiences that already exist,” Sweeney wrote in September, “and transforming them over the coming years into an open, standards-based ecosystem like the web.”

— Nick Statt

A message from Meridian

New tech innovations like Web3, blockchain, and AI have massive potential to strengthen democracies and global economic security while decreasing the digital divide. However, these innovations come with significant risks. Political scientist Ian Bremmer underscores disruptive technology as one of three looming global crises for which we are largely unprepared.

Learn more

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