Gaming Observer Radio: June 24-29

Timestamps:

0:39 Top stories (Black Ops 4 expose, Trump tariffs)

7:10 Charts and game releases

10:32 2K Games

10:55 Bungie

11:55 Devolver Digital

12:05 Electronic Arts

12:43 Epic Games

14:30 Google

15:07 Niantic

15:58 Nintendo

16:23 PUBG Corp.

17:04 Respawn Entertainment

17:53 Riot Games

18:51 Saber Interactive

20:00 Valve

21:16 Misc.

Transcript:

How’s it going everybody, Adrian Simple here, Gaming Observer Radio. It is June 29th, 2019, and this show is going to be taking a new format. I’m going to cover a lot more news from the last 7 days, which will exceed the information I can provide in the daily updates. We’re going to start off with the top stories, where I’ll talk in depth about two of the biggest news items from the last week. Then, I’m going to cover the sales charts and game releases. And finally, I’ve got individual segments for each company. You can find full timestamps for the content in the description, so you are welcome to skip around to segments or companies that you are most interested in. Thegamingobserver.com for more info.

 

Top stories:

 

Jason Schreier of Kotaku has released yet another expose of the gaming industry titled “The Human Cost of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4“. This follows a series of articles about the development process behind games like Anthem, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Mass Effect: Andromeda. This time though, while there was still lots of info about crunch and overtime, there was new focus on departmental segregation.

 

It turns out that Treyarch’s quality assurance team, who are all contractors, are treated like second-class citizens. Let me read this to you, and it’ll hopefully give you an idea of what I mean, “Testers work on the second floor of the office, while most of the other developers are on the first. Some testers say they’re told not to speak to developers in other departments, and one told me they’ll only do so surreptitiously, out of fear of getting fired. When they get to work, testers have to park their cars in a different parking lot than other employees, one that’s further away from the office. When lunch is catered, testers are told that the food downstairs is for the development team, not for them. Sometimes, they’re allowed to scrounge for leftovers an hour later, once the non-testing staff have gotten to eat.”

 

And while this may be the day-to-day issues that they face, it also gets elevated to a systemic issue. These testers are only paid a base wage of $13/hour, while living in Los Angeles. Meanwhile the new CFO of Activison was getting a $15 million bonus. They are not included in surveys about company health. They were asked to work crunch hours without any notice – often finding out they were working weekends on Friday night. To me, the craziest thing that is being enforced is that they’re not even allowed to talk to the other developers, and those developers are encouraged to only speak to QA heads.

 

There is a particularly egregious story here regarding working conditions as well. Basically, their department is split in two 12 hour shifts to cover the full day. Well, the morning shift would leave the building at 10pm, and as the night shift was arriving, the company would turn off the air conditioner in the building. This meant that the night crew was working in 90+ degree temperatures, especially because of all the computers and consoles that a running throughout the whole floor. When they went to higher-ups to turn the AC on, they were told it was broken, even though it operated through the daytime. It took them two months of desperate emails before they got through.

 

Besides the QA department, Jason touches on the typical mismanagement issues as well. They completely scrapped the campaign they half-way through for Black Ops 4, and replaced it with the battle royale “Blackout” mode, which led to an 9-month frenzy to develop an entirely new mode. “Employees of Treyarch spent most of 2018 crunching to finish Black Ops 4, according to all of those interviewed for this story. One developer estimated that during crunch time, they’d work 12 hours from Monday through Thursday, a standard eight-hour day on Friday, and then another eight hours on Saturday, for a total of 64 hours per week. “If things got bad,” they said, “you’d do 12-hour Fridays, maybe even a Sunday.”

 

Then after the game released, they were pushing out patches constantly, which led to even more crunch. But with each patch came a new build of the game, which meant a new build of the game that needed to be tested. With little time to test between development and launch, the game got buggier and buggier as time went out. Take a stab at who took the blame there.

 

What is happening at Treyarch is revolting and despiciable. They are creating one of the most successful franchises in the world, and they should be the bastions of a healthy workplace. Instead, they operate like a sweatshop, churning out products to create more money for executives. If there has ever been a time for unionizing the games industry, it is now. Workers must be protected from these situations.

 

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President Donald Trump of the United States has been imposing trade tariffs on various countries for more than a year now, with China of course being its biggest target. Well, their newest proposal from last month included video game consoles, game controllers, and coin-op arcade games in their list of tarriffed products. In a public document released to the public, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo have teamed up in an effort to remove this tariff from the list – and they put up a good argument.

 

They begin with a general outline, explaining that a tariff on gaming consoles would hurt everyone involved in the process, put jobs at risk, and stifle innovation in the industry. There is then five headings with distinct points as to why it shouldn’t happen.

 

First, they establish the importance of the gaming industry in the U.S., and how fast it is growing, over 20% year-on-year. They show how wide and how deep it effects the U.S economy, and then more specfically how each of the companies individually effect it. A nice touch was Sony pointing out that they moved their headquarters from Tokyo to the US because of their commitment to invest in the country.

 

Now that they’ve set up the pitch, they make their throw, and say that 96% of video game consoles imported into the US were made in China. This section of the paper outlines how vital China has been to their process, and how difficicult it would be to change that process. “It would cause significant supply chain disruption to shift sourcing entirely to the United States or a third country, and it would increase costs—even beyond the cost of the proposed tariffs—on products that are already manufactured under tight margin conditions.”

 

Not only it cost more, but it would effect everyone in the process. Since they create these consoles with a small profit margin, they would have to pass the tariff cost on to the retailer. But retailers can’t afford to eat the tariff cost either – so inevitably, it gets passed down to the consumer. This means less people buying game consoles, and thus video games. And therefore the people who are disproportionately affected by the price increase would be small to medium sized video game developers, and this is one of the major points they make here. Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost simply because people wouldn’t have the ability to play the video games they want to buy.

 

They go on to explain that non-gaming technology could be directly affected, thanks to the influence of things like motion tracking with the Kinect, and Sony’s supercomputer processor that was used in healthcare. If nothing else in this paper catches the eye of the government, it should be this. Implications of even more industries being negatively effected is a slippery slope, I’m sure.

 

They finish off the paper explaining that China has no interest in developing their own consoles, thanks to the complex nature of them, and those that have been attempted were not well received. This is another really compelling argument, because really the reason for these tariffs is to protect US industry, but all of US gaming console industry is based out of China. They’re only hurting themselves in this situation.

 

Now, that was a report of what they said in their joint statement to the US government. It is very much worth noting that I am not a political or economic analyst by any means. While there are logical conclusions that can be made, this is not a reflection of my personal views, because I cannot form an opinion with the limited knowledge I have.

 

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UK physical sales, week ending June 22, 2019:

Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled‘s debut was quite the hit, taking the #1 spot. This is the second-best Crash week one sales in history, behind the N Sane Trilogy, and the third-best launch of 2019 so far, behind Days Gone and Resident Evil 2. In week-one sales it more than quadrupled the sales of Team Sonic Racing. 66% of sales were for the PS4.

 

The only other new release to make it to the Top 40 was Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a Castlevania spiritual successor. It debuted at #17.

 

The only game that saw a lift in sales week-on-week was The Division 2, with a 15% increase. I can’t seem to find the reason for this, but my guess would be an increased marketing push that is coming from E3. The rest dropped anywhere between 16% and 64%.

 

The top 10 charts are as follows:

      1. Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled
      2. FIFA 19
      3. Forza Horizon 4
      4. Days Gone
      5. Red Dead Redemption 2
      6. Battlefield V
      7. Grand Theft Auto V
      8. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
      9. The Division 2
      10. Anthem

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Game Releases and Updates

 

June 24:

Heavy Rain released on PC, exclusive to the Epic Games Store. I am interested to see whether Quantic Dream will find the PC ports worth their time. Their games have a reputation as being silly fun, but there will be a lot of people that aren’t interested in replaying it, and probably won’t be reccomending it to their friends.

 

June 25:

Hitman 2 added a new location set in a New York bank. IO Interactive also did an interesting livestream with the level designer, who talked about how she made it, and added some behind the scenes thoughts.

 

Judgment released worldwide on the Playstation 4, a Yakuza spin-off that was previously released in Japan. It stars Japanese icon Takuya Kimura. The game was pulled from sale in March because actor Pierre Taki was arrested, and his likeness reworked for the worldwide release.

 

Monster Jam Steel Titans from Rainbow Studios released. This was interestingly highlighted in the THQ Nordic investor presentation, but the few critics who took a look at it weren’t all that impressed.

 

Early Access game Risk of Rain 2 added their “Scorched Acres” update. Tons of content has been added, with quite a few additions being put in from community reccommendations.

 

World of Warcraft had their 8.2 patch called “Rise of Azshara”. They added just a ridiculous amount of content, and people seem really happy with it.

 

June 27:

Prison Architect adds “The Clink” update, enhancing guard features, adding cosmetics, and various QoL improvements. Paradox also announced 4 million players across PC, console, and mobile.

 

The Sinking City, developed by Frogwares, released to pretty polarizing reviews. It got some pretty bad rap, but there were some people that were willing to overlook it for a more mixed or positive review. Definitely take a look before you purchase.

 

Terraria has been ported to the Nintendo Switch.

 

June 28:

Super Mario Maker 2 came out of universal acclaim, many people are very happy with it as a proper sequel to the first.

 

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2K:

The issue of in-game advertisements is making its rounds on social media again. NBA 2K19 had an incredible Switch sale for $3, and there are people coming across unskippable ads in their loading screens for the first time. This has been around for a while, and can be disabled, but it sets a dangerous precedent, obviously.

 

Bungie:

They have plans to nerf the “Lord of Wolves” shotgun that is rampant in Destiny 2 PvP, but are delaying it for developer work-life balance. In their blog post they wrote “Sometimes, Destiny is going to have goofy outliers, or periods of time where something is OP…We don’t want these periods to last too long…but they can be memorable moments.” During a charity stream, creative director Luke Smith explained that they are waiting because they just asked their team to work longer hours to implement a new feature, and don’t want to ask them to do it again. They are targeting a patch for “summer”/July, and intend on including the nerf with that patch, so that all timelines stay on track for the team. Good on them.

 

Speaking of the charity stream, GuardianCon concluded on the 23rd, raising $3.7 million for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The bulk of this was raised in the final block of the livestream, led by DrLupo, where fans donated over $900,000. Just another example of how we can use video games to improve people’s lives.

 

Devolver Digital:

My Friend Pedro has hit 250,000 sales in one week. They released a behind the scenes video alongside the announcement.

 

Electronic Arts:

CEO Andrew Wilson spoke to GameDaily about Anthem and how they view it. He sees it as an IP that exists in 7-10 year cycles, saying that they wouldn’t continue to invest in it if they didn’t think there were any compelling aspects to the game. For now, they are taking the poor start in stride, hoping to redeem it in the eyes of the community. This is definitely achievable – just take a look at No Man’s Sky.


EA Access, the subscription service that gives you pretty much all of their games, will be arriving on PS4 on July 24th. This will be their first time on the platform, already having a presence on Xbox and PC.

 

Epic Games:

The Fortnite team is taking two weeks off from June 24-July 8, which means no competitive tournaments during that time. Season 9 content will release as scheduled, and they are prepared to react if there are any major issues that arise.

 

Players are upset with one of those scheduled content releases. They released a new version of a character in the premium store which was previously only availble via the battle pass. This goes against Epic’s promise that Battle Pass content would never be sold outside of it. While it may seem like a surface-level issue, the issue is more about the precedent that will be set. There are characters in the Battle Pass that take many long hours and challenges to acquire – if they could just be bought later, it devalues the original product.

 

Tim Sweeney took to Twitter to talk more about his position on the store exclusives. He said that he believes it to be the only strategy that will change the 70/30 revenue split that exists on other platforms, and that other attempts at competing with Steam haven’t succeeding simply by having lots of features. “In judging whether a disruptive move like this is reasonable in gaming, I suggest considering two questions: Is the solution proportionate to the problem it addresses, and are gamers likely benefit from the end goal if it’s ultimately achieved?” He answers the first question by saying that the 30% cut often exceeds the profits of a game company’s sales, so yes, the solution is proportionate. He answers the second question by saying that more money will be going to developers, and when those companies are competing with one another, that money will be used to reinvest and reduce pricing. Whether or not these things will come true isn’t certain, but he’s certainly more clear about his goals here than the company has usually been regarding exclusives.

 

Google:

A roundtable with UK games press occurred, answering some of their questions about Stadia. For one, it was confirmed that games will be full-price, and won’t be any different from other platforms. This was justified by removing the upfront hardware cost of a console or PC, and the feature of being able to play the game on any device that has a screen and Chrome. This was followed up with a promise that games would never be “lost” to the ether – essentially saying that if you buy the game, you’ll have it forever. We’ve heard these promises before, but unfortuantely it’s just not a rock solid situation, especially with the type and age of this technology.

 

Niantic:

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite made it’s release as the company’s first mobile AR game after Pokemon Go. According to Sensor Tower, the game got 400,000 installs in the first 24 hours after launch in the US and UK, with player spending reaching at least $300,000 which puts them pretty far down the spending charts. Compare this to Pokemon, which got 7.5 million downloads and $2 million on opening, which put them at #1 on the spending charts. It’s a stark difference, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure by any means, and it certainly has the chance to catch up considering the IP they’re using.

 

Pokemon Go‘s next community day is on July 21st, taking place 4-7pm worldwide. The featured pokemon this time around will be Mudkip, and it looks like there are some teased events with the legendary villains Team Rocket.

 

Nintendo:

They are opening their second official retail store in Tel Aviv, Israel, in a shopping mall called the Dizengoff Center. The first store opened in 2005 in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, and a third is planned for Tokyo later this year. I find it interesting that the first retail store went through Nintendo of America instead of going to Japan first. Regardless, with two stores opening this year across the globe, we might be able to expect even more of them coming.

 

PUBG Corp.:

Glen Schofield, former Sledgehammer co-founder, is now working for the company as the head of a new studio called Striking Distance. Not only that, but they’re working on an original narrative that will take place in the PUBG universe. Job listing for Striking Distance don’t reveal much, but they are hiring for both single player and multiplayers experiences. That doesn’t necessarily answer anything, roles can be shifted around as the project iterates, but it gives you an idea of where their head is at right now. Interestingly, if they were to make a narrative with a multiplayer, PUBG wouldn’t just be a battle royale game, but a franchise. It really makes you wonder whether things like Fortnite or Apex would be interested in doing the same thing.

 

Respawn Entertainment:

When Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was shown as 15 minutes of gameplay at E3, there were mixed feelings. While many were excited for a new, proper, Star Wars game, the actual gameplay looked bland. Journalists that got to try the demo were very surprised at this though, because what was shown was very different from what they played. Respawn has now recognized this, and has released the 25 minute extended video to the public. The key discrepencies were that gameplay was actually quite complex in comparison to what was shown, and that and that there are Metroidvania aspects that were never once brought up. So it looks like there is much more to it than a standard Tomb Raider-like experience. I’m surprised that’s how they decided to make their first impression, considering there would be a lot of people that would be happy to hear about their influences and the actual gameplay loop, instead of a section of gameplay footage.

 

Riot Games:

League of Legends has been blocked for players residing in Iran and Syria. The official message from Riot states “Due to U.S. laws and regulations, players in your country cannot access League of Legends at this time. Such restrictions are subject to change by the U.S government, so if and when that happens, we look forward to having you back on the Rift.” It’s not apparent whether Riot was specifically asked to do this as a part of Trump’s increasing sanctions, or if they are simply following those that have existed for many years. Apparently there have been people getting around it with VPNs, and unless the government is really breathing down their neck, I doubt Riot is going to do anything about it.

 

They released their auto-battler Teamfight Tactics this week, and it looks like it’s been so popular that their servers are freezing up. Queue times can be as long as an hour to get into the game, because they’ve had to throttle the servers to keep up with the demand. There’s no word on a solution just yet, but they have delayed the release in new regions to stop even more people trying to get in.

 

Saber Interactive:

World War Z, which released on April 16 on consoles and Epic PC exclusive, has sold over two million copies. I would guess that this would be the best selling game they’ve ever made as primary developers. 700,000 of those copies come from the Epic Games Store, which CEO Matthew Karch highly credits, saying they are performing above expectations thanks to it. He also commented on the backlash to Epic, “We don’t see backlash when console manufacturers create games that are just for their hardware, and buying a system for a game is obviously a much more onerous requirement. My hope is that once there is feature parity on the PC platforms, we won’t hear as much complaining.” Certainly, things are looking up for the EGS AAA exclusives. Ubisoft has very publicly supported the decision, which is no surprise considering the success of The Division 2 and THQ Nordic’s Satisfactory was also above their expectations. The only negative so far has been Metro Exodus, but there are no confirmed numbers there yet, and the concern is mostly from how CEO Lars Wingefors was responding to investor questions. The next big games to keep an eye on will be Borderlands 3, The Outer Worlds, and perhaps the Quantic Dream PC ports.

 

Valve:

The Steam Summer Sale 2019 began on June 25th, with some lackluster sales and a confusing event alongside it. It’s racing themed, and people are assigned to a team that tries to acquire points. The top-scoring teams allow random players free games on their wishlist, as well as the usual emotes and badges. Anyone looking at this that isn’t chasing the Steam profile level will likely be skipping over it, and there are probably few game sales that will be catching your eye based on the sale alone. While they obviously weren’t trying to compete, everything here pales in comparison to things like the Epic Mega Sale.

 

The bigger story to come out of that sale though was that it was so confusing, indie developers are getting harmed by it. People participating in the event thought that they were going to be given a random free game on their wishlist, so they were taking off the cheaper games to increase their chances of getting a AAA, more expensive one. This meant developers losing a lot of wishlists that they accrued, and likely a lot of sales. Wishlist numbers are a big deal for indie devs who try to build excitement for their game release, and there are likely a significant number of people who won’t be re-wishlisting some of these titles. Valve has since clarified the issue to their players, and have actually redone the whole event to be more clear, but the damage has been done.

 

Here and There:

South Korea’s laws against video game account boosting have gone into effect beginning June 25. Fines can go up to $18,000, and two years in prison. Prosecutions go into effect in many different situations, which obviously includes playing an account to boost it for money. However, it also includes playing with a client on two seperate accounts to raise the relevant points/achivements. A repeated phrase in their guidelines is “depending on whether the game company authorized it, whether there was a payment, and the frequency of the act.” So if you’re just playing with your friends, it’s no big deal. But if your friend throws you ten bucks to help him boost his character, it’s illegal, unless the developer allows it.

 

The UK House of Commons is conducting an inquiry into immersive and addictive technologies. This was going to be one of the top stories but I ran out of time to watch the one that happened on the 28th. Basically last week the committee met with Epic and EA to ask some questions, and they got basically nothing out of it, the companies were hardly helpful at all to them. This week they met with King and UKIE, among others, who were apparently more helpful but still not convincing enough for the committee. It’s a real shame, because these are the people in power who are trying to understand the industry, and when they’re just met with resistance, not only will their decisions be uninformed, but it’ll likely be worse thanks to the people they met with.

 

That is going to be all for today folks, thank you very much for listening. This is definitely a proof of concept for the news, so please let me know what you think and if you enjoyed it. July 1st and 2nd is Canada Day and then my birthday, so I will do my best to get out a daily update. Thank you for tuning in, thank you to Brandon for supporting the show through Patreon. My name is Adrian Simple, I’ll see you soon, and happy gaming everybody!

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