November 9, 2021
Image: Blizzard Entertainment
This week in Protocol Gaming, your weekly guide to the business of video games: Game delays are the new normal, everyone shares their opinions on the metaverse, and indie darling Devolver Digital goes public.
Each week brings a new series of game delays. Last week, there were four: Electronic Arts' EA Sports PGA Tour; Take-Two's new Marvel game, Midnight Suns, from subsidiary Firaxis; and two major setbacks for Blizzard Entertainment with Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4 being pushed back indefinitely. A number of gaming publications now keep a running list of this year's delays, and it's grown long.
Unfortunately, this feels like the new normal for the game industry. Developers have had the last 18 months or so to adjust to the new reality of operating fully remote or in a hybrid setting during the pandemic. But the delays we're seeing now seem less like ongoing reactions to COVID-19 and more like systemic inefficiencies in the video game release model, which remains stuck between the brick-and-mortar boxed product era and the games-as-a-service model that's been taking over for years now.
Game publishers are still incentivized to push for unrealistic release dates. Due to ongoing industry consolidation and big acquisition spending sprees, many of the biggest game makers today are part of publicly traded corporations beholden to shareholders, which like to see aggressive release schedules and a near-constant cadence of big hits and reliable revenue streams.
Release dates are less important these days, for certain games. Many of the most popular titles release as early access free-to-play games that are constantly updated over time, making an initial release date an irrelevant window quickly forgotten about. But many major studios are stuck straddling the line, with some free-to-play titles but other franchises that depend on competitive holiday sales and heavy release-day marketing.
The pitfalls of Cyberpunk 2077 still loom large. It's easy to forget that this time a year ago we were all eagerly awaiting one of the most anticipated games of the last console generation. CD Projekt Red's open-world role-playing game did sell a lot of copies thanks mostly to pre-release hype, but it was a buggy mess, and Sony eventually pulled it from its digital store.
The classic Shigeru Miyamoto quote — "A delayed game is eventually good; a bad game is bad forever" — gets tossed around a lot these days, usually from fans in the Twitter replies to a game delay announcement as a conciliatory gesture.
But the quote is less true now than ever; just look at Cyberpunk 2077. The industry is moving away from models that require launch-day perfection, mainly because developers can't possibly release flawless products while also consistently creating bigger, more expensive and more complicated game worlds. As such, games are now shipping more often in early access, relying more heavily on public alpha and beta testing, and sometimes just being pushed out the door unfinished. The one constant we can expect is many more delays, well beyond 2021.
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On Protocol: NFTs and the broader blockchain gaming sector are promising players — many of them in developing countries — real-world earnings, either in cryptocurrency or valuable and unique in-game items. But that comes with all sorts of complex real-world tax implications, reports Protocol's Hirsh Chitkara.
Take-Two cancels a $53 million project. Rockstar parent company Take-Two Interactive last week canceled a game project it had sunk tens of millions into, Bloomberg reported. The project, code-named Volt, was under Take-Two subsidiary 2K Games' Hangar 13 studio, but it reportedly needed too long of a development runway.
Some Harry Potter games are hits, some are not. Last week, Pokémon Go creator Niantic announced it would be ending its Harry Potter AR game in January. Meanwhile, NetEase's Harry Potter: Magic Awakened for the Asia market has become the second-most successful game based on Harry Potter to date, earning $228 million in two months.
Microsoft's metaverse plan starts with meetings. Microsoft added its own twist to the ongoing metaverse conversation last week with its announcement of Mesh for Teams. The feature brings more lifelike virtual avatars to the company's video chat and collaboration platform. Thankfully, it doesn't require you to strap a screen to your face — not yet at least.
Devolver Digital goes public. Indie publisher Devolver went live on the London Stock Exchange last week, Gamesindustry.biz reported, making it the largest U.S. game maker to ever do so. Big-name investors include Sony and NetEase, and Devolver was valued at just under $1 billion at the time of its debut.
Zynga resurrects FarmVille. Seven years after the release of FarmVille 2, Zynga has brought the simulator game back with a third iteration for mobile, TechCrunch reported. The game has been in the works since Zynga CEO Frank Gibeau took over in 2016 and opened a new studio for free-to-play development in Helsinki.
Ubisoft is still in turmoil. The French publisher has been roiled by a series of connected workplace culture crises for the past couple of years, and it's not abating. Last week, employees belonging to the ABetterUbisoft movement published a petition calling for change, while the company's Canadian arm is now issuing pay raises to stop an exodus of high talent, Kotaku reported.
Activision Blizzard delivers some bad news. The company, still grappling with its workplace discrimination crisis, announced last week that in addition to Blizzard game delays, studio co-president Jen Oneal is stepping down. That leaves Mike Ybarra the sole leader in charge of the studio.
Zynga on Monday announced its hiring of D20 founder and former Coca-Cola exec Matt Wolf to be its vice president of Blockchain Gaming. Wolf's job will be "to integrate non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and blockchain technology into Zynga's existing portfolio and owned IP, as well as to develop games from inception that are built with NFTs as part of the core gameplay loop."
This is likely the first of many such positions that will be created and then quickly filled in the coming months, as big game developers try and stay ahead of the blockchain gaming boom accelerated by Facebook's transformation into Meta and the eye-popping fundraising spree in the NFT gaming market.
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