Sony, the total supremacy

 

ps-tower

It’s over. Nintendo bought as much time as it could. The entire gaming world had hold its breath for months, but now everybody has shown his hand. The situation is clear, there is no doubt on the current status of the gaming market : Sony has achieved crushing dominance over its rivals. Nintendo Switch is weak, its line-up even more so and its so-called partners are doing nothing but lip-service. How did we get to that, and where are we going?

To find some answers, let’s first have a look to Famitsu’s top 100 chart, published in a recent issue. How can Switch seem so feeble when top ten rankings show Nintendo owning Japan? It’s very trivial : developers and publishers, unlike journalists don’t simply look at top ten. So let’s borrow their point of view and observe the top 50 (49 actually because of the title line) of combined SKUs. As usual, the sources are GAF, Vgchartz’s digital sales thread and Dengeki’s weekly rankings.

The first thing to notice besides the (deserved) domination of the superb Pokemon Sun&Moon, is that Sony now has a majority of games here : 29 PSV/PS3/PS4 games against 20 on 3DS/WiiU. If you look in detail, you’ll also notice that 9 out of 20 games on Nintendo systems are from Nintendo itself, whereas there’s only one first party game (Uncharted 4) in the Playstation best-sellers. Third parties have therefore a lot more business opportunities on PSVita or PS4 (knowing that PS3 is almost phased out). Another parameter of growing importance : the digital purchase rate is quite higher on Playstation platforms, around 10% (22% for The Division!). Digital reduces variable costs and improves the margin. Publishers love that.

Japanese publishers came to be wary of the 3DS/WiiU audience, hungry for kiddy games which is rarely what 3rd party developers want to do. A major part of the 3DS/WiiU best-sellers is aimed at children (but also at adults in the case of Pokemon) so Japanese 3rd parties naturally prefer addressing and older and more core audience, and that audience plays on Playstation. Best proof of that is Level-5 : hugely successful on 3DS with Yôkai Watch, the company didn’t go as far as announcing Ni no Kuni Revenant Kingdom for Nintendo Switch. As a side-note, observe that both Dragon Quest Heroes II and Dragon Quest Builders sold more than Dragon Quest Monster Joker 3 : Nintendo consoles are no longer the home of SquareEnix’s famous series.

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So what happened on 1/13? Everyone was hoping/expecting Nintendo to turn the tides with a flurry of powerful exclusives. That failed to happen, and it’s the direct consequence of what we’ve seen above. Big games are still pretty far away : Xenoblade 2 (splendid character design this time around) gets a vague 2017 and Fire Emblem Warriors looks like development has barely started (EDIT : it’s confirmed for fall, so things are looking up slightly). The launch line-up is downright ridiculous : besides Zelda Breath of the Wild and 1 2 Switch, some party game looking like the despicable Wii Sports, all games are ports from PS4. Nintendo has lost the initiative, they’re completely out of the race.

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The third party part of the conference is ice cold. Atlus quickly mentions a new Shin Megami Tensei project for Switch, but also confirms a 3DS one, just in case… As a consequence, the exciting Project ReFantasy must be for PS4. Many wondered what Nippon Ichi Software (whose clients have been Playstation players for years of not decades) could do on Switch, and the publisher answered by saying they were providing «serious» support. It so happens that the only thing NIS has in store for Switch is a Disgaea 5 port, that is to say their biggest commercial failure. Switch is not getting NIS’s brand new games The Witch and the 100 Knights 2 (PS4) or Exile Election(‘PS4/PSVita). Far from being serious in its support, NIS actually seriously makes a fool of Nintendo.

SquareEnix has more in the works. Dragon Quest XI for Switch is briefly talked about, and Dragon Quest Heroes I&II are confirmed as launch games. Then comes Octopath Traveler, a 2D JRPG very much like Grand Kingdom and made by the developer of Bravely Default (which confirms the latter as deceased). However, nowhere in the Famitsu article it is mentioned to be exclusive. A PS4 or PSVita port could come quickly. No other JRPG is scheduled for Switch, and that won’t come as a surprise if you look at the chart. In the top 50, major 3DS JRPGs (Shin Megami Tensei IV Final, Etrian Odyssey) are flattened by numerous competitors on Playstation platforms, including the disappointing Star Ocean 5 and the discreet World of Final Fantasy. The big names of JRPGs sell better on Playstation and 2016 showed that again : Persona 5 beats the series’ record and Tales of Berseria is more or less flat compared to Tales of Zestiria.

But the most embarrassing moment is when Toshihiro Nagoshi comes on stage. The director of Yakuza games faces the public, speaks a couple of gentle words on Switch and, probably too busy counting the hefty profits made from Yakuza 6 in Asia, goes back without any confirmation he’s working on Switch at all. Suda 51, columnist extraordinaire at Dengeki, doesn’t really ease the worries : Let it Die’s creator shows a random artwork of No More Heroes while speaking some strange monologue. All this sets the eerie impression that nothing is ready, that maybe nothing is really decided for Switch. Capcom, Nintendo’s most faithful ally, is a no-show. What happens to Monster Hunter 5 and Great Ace Attorney 2? Will Switch even get them? KoeiTecmo, besides working closely with Nintendo on Fire Emblem Warriors, has Nobunaga’s Ambition Power up kit and Romance of the 3 Kingdoms Power up kit (it weakest software) for Switch. Games like Ni-Ô, Dynasty Warriors 9, Blue Reflection, Musô Stars and Nights of Azure 2 stay as Playstation exclusives. Skittish Japanese publishers are actually avoiding Nintendo as much as possible, and it’s a complete disaster for Switch : as it is now, it wouldn’t even take one customer from Vita.

The West is the biggest question mark and a huge stake for Switch. Bethesda confirms Skyrim Switch, but the game is far from ready despite being out for PS4 and XboxOne. Comes Electronic Arts, whose representative looked like at a burial : FIFA Switch is announced, but we won’t see anything of it. Despite its continuous praise for Switch, Ubisoft is not at the event Still, it has some oldies to port on Switch : Rayman Legends (remember, that WiiU exclusive), Just Dance and Steep. Pathetic is the word, Nintendo’s new system is going to be smashed into pieces on Western markets.

Nintendo mentions more than 80 titles in development for Switch, BandaiNamco promised a Tales of at some point… Sure. Crysis 3, Ghost Recon Online and Alien Colonial Marines were to be released on WiiU too. Such titles had seen their development stopped the second their publishers realized the audience didn’t fit. At least this time, Ubisoft doesn’t go as far as announcing Ghost Recon Wildlands for Switch : history shows that it would have little success on that platform, provided it could run on it. You also have to consider the issue of a new console that is coming right in the middle of a generation, which had never happened before. How should developers react? They’re already working on install bases of dozens of millions systems where the business is flourishing. Why would they make extra effort, let alone exclusives for an underpowered system that has zero install base? From a third party point of view, it’s just money thrown by the window.

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Switch’s other problem is itself. The open world (although we’re not sure of that yet) in Super Mario Odyssey is ugly and full of aliasing. It looks terrible compared to Watchdogs, a nearly three-year old PS4 game, and it so happens that precise tech specs have not been made public. Surely are they as bad as the leak published by Digital Foundry. We can now be certain that the most ambitious PS4 games cannot be be ported on Switch : forget Battlefield, Read Dead Redemption or Mass Effect Andromeda. The share button exists, but the official site already tells us that some games will block the feature. Anyone who’s tried to save a screenshot in Pokemon Sun&Moon knows how much you can trust Nintendo on that subject. The manufacturer also indicates that game «generally» won’t be region-locked. I translate that by « some games will be region-locked and you won’t be able to play them on your EU system ». So in fact region free doesn’t really exist and all this looks like a mere PR stunt. The most striking point is the total lack of trophies : why would today’s gamers even want to play their games without a centralized achievement system?

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But Nintendo might actually be targeting another audience with Switch. The conference, for most part, was focusing on Switch’s biggest innovation : playing without screen. Switch players will be invited to face each other in party games in which the screen is accessory. Table tennis, Rock/Paper/Scissors game, boxing… Switch aims at local communities rather than at solo players. In the same way, Splatoon players will be able to gather anytime, anywhere to face each other in multiplayer. In other words, Nintendo is asking casual gamers to open their wallets again to avoid facing Sony directly. Future will tell if this audience embraces the concept and if it’s large enough to make a difference. Nintendo still believes in the miraculous game/idea that sells loads of system, but nothing proves that can still happen. Rare exceptions aside, whole librairies of games sell systems, and nothing else.

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What about Microsoft then? The American recently made the brilliant decision to cancel its most hyped exclusive. From that, it’s clear that Redmond’s firm lost its will to fight : they timidly recommend Sea of Thieves and Halo Wars 2 in replacement. At best Microsoft can cling to the second place and do business in Sony’s shadow.

Miracles exist, but Nintendo Switch will need a really big one to avoid critical failure after that poor reveal conference. Sony has now more than 50 exclusives and welcomes all the commercially huge multiplatform games that Switch won’t have. Sony succeeded in taking market shares while building a win-win situation with 3rd parties, something that Nintendo is unable to do. The Kyoto-based company hence ends up totally isolated and powerless to compete. The concept of an hybrid system is really attractive, Xenoblade 2 looks awesome but Switch won’t achieve much without a strong library of games. And as a matter of fact, Nintendo has no real ally at the moment. As it is, it can just satisfy Nintendo loyalists and casual gamers not yet addicted to Super Mario Run. What is at stake for the Big N now is whether it can keep its “big” for long or if it become a regular publisher, light years behind a leader even more hegemonic than in the PS2 era.

Nintendo Switch, the impossible trade-off

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Let’s say it again, Nintendo is going through a key period in its history. WiiU has died as the biggest failure of the company and 3DS is welcoming less and less games. 3rd parties abandon ship and those still aboard are slowly drowning in vast quantities of unsold 3DS games, the public being increasingly less dedicated. Eyes are thus now focused on Nintendo Switch, the Big N’s new and revolutionary concept. Having a home console and a handheld in the same piece of hardware indeed seems to be a major trump card. The whole world is holding its breath as January 13th approaches.

In this rather tense atmosphere, people jump even at the slightest piece of rumor. So when Eurogamer quotes the hardware specialists of Digital Foundry, internet forums begin to shake. Eurogamer’s article is not at the rumor level : figures are extremely precise and the analysis quite relevant, Digital Foundry’s video as guarantee. Those people are ultra-famous among hardware circles and they can’t afford to provide information out of thin air. The bad news for Nintendo loyalists is that the first tidbits aren’t exactly delightful.

Switch’s CPU lets people down. When the rumor of a Tegra chip surfaced some months ago, many were hoping that Tegra X2, well above the now mediocre X1, would be the objective given the 2017 launch. Nothing of the sort, Eurogamer confirming that the architecture is inspired by Tegra X1, the CPU being a ARM Cortex A57 running at 1GHz, whereas PS4 is around 1,6GHz and XboxOne 1,75GHz. A bit below then, but not a major flow.

It’s the GPU that will be the bottleneck factor, because of the hybrid stance of the machine. Switch’s GPU runs at 768MHz, quite lower than Nvidia Shield TV which runs PS3 games with mixed success, when docked. The GPU is thus a nerved version of the X1, which doesn’t make us optimistic about how the games will look like. And with only 256 shaders compared to 1152 in the case of PS4, overall graphical performance fails to reach 400 Gflops, while PS4 pulls out 1,8 Tflops. Definitely not in the same league as PS4, let alone PS4 Pro. But the big problem occurs when you leave home, Nintendo being driven to painful trade-off in order to keep decent battery life and prevent heating. The Switch undocked, GPU clock speed is halved to 307MHz, that is to say a mere 157 Gflops. The very concept of hybrid is risky and here’s the snag : how will developers deal with a GPU that runs at different speed depending on the situation? Will they embrace the full capabilities, even at the risk of seeing framerate collapse when the tablet leaves the dock, or will they just play it safe and lower their ambitions? This looks like to be a much more serious problem than the use of the Gamepad. Even assuming it can work like a PS4 Pro patch like Eurogamer seems to suggest, how can that work out? The game would have to un-patch itself every time the console leaves the dock…

Raw memory bandwith definitely won’t help : with 25GB/s to read 4GB of RAM, Nintendo Switch is light years behind PS4 which reads is 8GB of GDDR5 (the finest RAM available) at 176GB/s. Safe to say at this stage that you’re probably not going to see high-end games like Battlefield 1 on Switch. EA’s blockbuster wouldn’t even fit in any of the standard game cartridges for Switch… As for PS4 first party masterpieces like Uncharted 4 or The Last of Us Part Two, such level of quality is unthinkable on Switch as it is now. The open world of Zelda Breath of the Wild look dumb next to Final Fantasy XV, which doesn’t even have its PS4 Pro patch yet. When we talk about a home console experience to bring everywhere with you, it’s certainly not the quality and ambition we know on PS4, to which players around the world have become used to. On GAF and pretty much everywhere else, gamers are crestfallen.

Actually, it’s the philosophy behind the architecture of the Switch that should interrogate us. If Sony has made the PS4 Pro and if Microsoft is so keen on building an even more capable Scorpio, it’s because developers are eager for more power, not less. Developers want to push back the limits, to go even deeper in their art so as to leave a trace in the history of gaming. Do you imagine them wasting their time downscaling their formidable 3D engines for the small bunch of folks who will actually bother quiting his beloved Zelda or Mario?

People might be raising eyebrows at the tiny 32GB hard disk, disk space is heavy and costly. Larger space would hurt the handheld side of the device and its launch price. It’s probably not even important, since most of the data will be on cartridges with no need to install internally. Let’s not forget that you’ll likely be able to add cheap and hefty SD cards if you need more space. Nothing to fuss about, then.

Given the weak specs, many observers are now calling for a 199€ pricepoint. Let’s stop right here. New3DS XL currently retails for 179€, so there is absolutely zero chance that Switch, being a whole new concept and better tech, would cost only 20€ more! 299€ is definitely what you can expect on shelves next March, or maybe 249€ if you’re really lucky and if 3DS family gets a cut at the same time. Still, the problem remains that PS4 now trades for 259€.

Switch therefore takes the risk of being an awkward compromise meeting no sufficient demand : it’s not powerful enough for core gamers who might not find the AAA games they like (or not at the same quality level) and it might be too expensive for the mainstream public now fed by Super Mario Run and lured by much cheaper 3DS which still gets support. The only thing that could make the difference is handheld capability, because it’s surely gonna be a very good one. But here again, the potential market is unsure. PSVita failed to achieve market penetration in the West for a reason : people there don’t feel the need to play during travel, and there’s no reason that this would magically change when Switch hits stores.

Nintendo’s next system would then only have one kind of audience left : veteran gamers still seduced by handheld gaming, that is to say PSVita owners and Nintendo’s core audience. To few clients to drive Switch to success, all the more troublesome that it has to sell twice more since it’s one system for two types of offer. The alarm raised by Digital Foundry means serious worries for Switch’s future. We’ll see on 1/13 if the actual situation is better, or if it’s red alert status in Kyoto.

E3 2016 Nintendo – His last Breath ?

Zelda BoW

Pretty much everyone agrees that the Big N is in critical state at the time of E3 2016. Sales are on the wane, Sony is gaining ground quickly in the Japanese market, publishers are turning their back on them and gamers are not listening anymore.

Nintendo’s revenues were down significantly (-8%) in 2015-2016. The 4m Splatoon and the 3.5m Mario Maker were not enough to keep them flat, which speaks a lot on how bad the rest of the line-up did. Xenoblade Chronicles X sold average at best : the “proper JRPG” like they say, with only 140K units sold in Japan and a little more than 200K in the US, didn’t live up to the first Xenoblade, which had made JRPG history. It’s clear that Monolith’s latest title had something unappealing about it, and lacked the necessary qualities to be a long seller. Xenoblade Chronicles X doesn’t play in the same league as Bloodborne or Dark Souls III despite the abnormally high marks it got. There’s hoping those arrogant fools refrain from proclaiming themselves kings of JRPG next time, as they have only a tiny fraction of them. The Yokai didn’t set the West on fire, one trump card lost… WiiU has been steady at its low level (around 3m system shipped), but 3DS shipments are down 22% compared to last year, as well as software. With the decreasing interest of third parties, the lack of originality of first party games, the outdated hardware and Miitomo’s short-timed success, the manufacturer is running out of options.

But in the end, its accounts give some leeway. Profitability is still good, as the operating result went up 33% to 32 billions of yens. Nintendo is still fighting to reduce producing and marketing costs : -15% this year again. The weaker net profit (divided by 2.5) is caused by unfavorable parity between the yen and Western currencies, which caused a loss this time instead of a gain last year. When it comes to its core business, Nintendo undoubtedly succeeds in rationalizing its financial structure. The balance sheet hasn’t changed at all, being still excellent. We do notice that even in difficulty, the manufacturer doesn’t lose any money.

Zelda BoW

But saving money is not a long-term solution and of course Nintendo makes plans to improve revenues. It played its last trump card during this E3 by giving a first look of the new Zelda game, called Breath of the Wild. We can come to worry given the disastrous downgrade compared to the technical demo of two years ago. Of what Treehouse showed on Tuesday night, it looks like Assassin’s Creed 1 with cel-shading to hide the poor texturing. The world is absolutely barren and its density is close to Oregon plains… The two mini-dungeons were completed within five minutes : 5 minutes of puzzle every 2 or 3 kilometers, it that the promise of gameplay of a Zelda game? The happy members of Treehouse reach a summit from time to time in order to show the view. Futile effort, the game isn’t displaying anything as good-looking as Xenoblade Chronicles X released a year before. By showing Zelda’s open world next to the one in Watchdogs 2, Nintendo gives the final proof it is lagging five years behind the rest of the industry. If like Aonuma says, the experience is the same on NX, this new Zelda could be its last breath as it won’t compete with the PS4 games of 2017.

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Nintendo had two new games for this E3. Ever Oasis, an uninspired RPG with character design as poor as Codename STEAM (announced in similar circumstances), and Mario Party Star Rush, which is another worthless rehash. No wonder they didn’t do a direct… The rest of the line-up was far from bad, including Dragon Quest VII, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Ace Attorney 6 Spirit of Justice and above all Pokemon Sun/Moon which is going to be a huge success in the holidays. Game Freak’s IP has never weakened in 20 years. As much as those games are interesting and Pokemon strong, they can’t make Nintendo stand out, make the buzz or fill internet forums. The WiiU/3DS news quickly drown in the continuous waves of PS4/PSVita/Xbox games. Without NX, Nintendo is forced to live in the shadows.

The most interesting point of view on NX is Ubisoft’s. The French publisher announced the next Just Dance for NX and stated that Nintendo’s next console “has potential to recapture the Wii audience”. Let’s stop one minute here to fully understand the meaning of this : Ubisoft is porting Just Dance on NX, but doesn’t do the same for Ghost Recon Wildlands, Watchdogs 2 or any other core gamer title. Aside of that, it says NX is perfect for casual gamers. What if NX were a system made specifically for a mainstream audience and Nintendo long-term fans, without even trying to compete with Sony and Microsoft? That would make sense after Emily Rogers’s (famous Nintendo insider) sources said that NX “was closer to an XboxOne than a PS4 in terms of power” and that “it wouldn’t blow away current gen systems”. If true, NX would be nearly immediately blown away by the PS4 Neo and the XboxOne Scorpio, both strengthened versions of the existing systems. Reggie all but confirmed this in a recent interview when saying that Nintendo was focusing on content rather than raw power.

Whatever it may be, the very fact that NX is not at E3 means that nothing is ready yet. No game can be shown : the development might be harder than they thought (Nintendo is currently learning what most publishers have learned those past 10 years or so), the hardware might need some tweaking to be functional or maybe they just lack third party support. The March 2017 release make us think to a financial deadline, as the company would need the launch revenues by the end of the fiscal term, even if they have to rush the games and risk launch hiccups. Impossible to give a clear prediction, Nintendo’s future has never been that foggy.

E3 2016 Sony – Divided we stand

U4 coin

Sony comes to E3 as victor. Not only does the lack of NX and Microsoft’s current state of weakness clear the way for him, but the manufacturer can also boast growing economic results. Its consolidated result has more than doubled, and is now positive.

Surprisingly it’s not by achieving superior sales that Sony reached profitability : revenues are slightly down. On the other hand and very much like its rival, the electronics giant has been mainly saving money. Production costs have been reduced by 2%, administrative costs by 6% and other expenses by 72% (but the latter represent a much lower figure). It’s fairly obvious on several product lines (mobile, TVs, photography) which sees their profitability boosted by the lesser costs. Only black mark on the record, semi-conductors are unhealthy and dive into the red. Batteries and other pieces aren’t very competitive any more, and caused amortizations.

The gaming division is still shining : the branch’s operating result surged almost 100% thanks to staggering PS4 and PS4 software sales. Sony had planned 16m shipments for the system, and ended up shipping 17,7m. Clearly the powerful partnerships signed in 2015 have brought results, AAA games players generally preferred PS4 versions. By doing multiple astonishing conferences throughout the year, Sony gave some line of sight t customers who know they’ll have plenty of choice between Western and Japanese games, including countless exclusives. Japanese games seem locked for PS4 and Vita as publishers drive away from 3DS. We’ll have to wait and see how they react to NX, but as things stand Sony has almost everything. It’s worth noticing that the Playstation Network alone generated more revenues than the whole Nintendo. Yes, the domination is huge.

Sony is then able to multiply its consolidated operating result by 5! As for taxes, the firm finally eases the pain, because its net profits allow a reversal on deferred taxes amortizations and much to its delight, Sony received direct tax benefits. The manufacturer seems definitely in luck.

Akiba Beat

Sony’s E3 actually starts well before the show officially opens. In the first days of June, a frenzy of reveals takes place in the gaming world and developers put everything on the table right away! Horizon Zero Dawn gets a release date, as well as Dragon Quest Builders, World of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts 2.8. Gran Turismo Sport is shown again, Persona 5 details its plans for America, Final Fantasy XII HD is unveiled, Akiba’s Beat is announced (worldwide), Fate Extella and SummonNight 6 let us know they are being localized and Tokyo Xanadu all but confirms it’s coming west by being ported to PS4. The producer of TitanFall 2, before saying anything about his game, warmly welcomes PS4 gamers. The play stands for EA’s futuristic shooter are all PS4. The Japanese company couldn’t be more pleased… PS4 Neo (the super-powerful 4K version of the system), which was supposed to be the star of the show, is confirmed but doesn’t make any appearance at E3. So what’s left for the conference? Will there be even crazier things? Confusion and suspense cause headaches, but Playstation has already won the first round by the usual method : games, games, games.

Before we answer the above question, you have to consider what happened after the conference. It so happened that most publishers released their trailers once the E3 doors were officially opened. In mid-day in the 14th, several companies posted trailers more or less at the same time, making it difficult for any of them to stand out. NieR Automata is briefly seen with 1 minute of video or so, accurate details being saved for the next Famitsu 2 days later. Tales of Berseria reminds us that it comes West, as well as Sword Art Online Hollow Realization which can’t avoid a delay to 2017. Attack on Titan, Ni-Ô and Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 also gatecrash during the afternoon. The power of the rich line-up is indeed on the showfloor, but you’re probably starting to imagine the problem.

TLG

Fatally, with that much content before and after, there is little left for the conference, short and lifeless. By focusing on a couple of western-centric games (God of War, Days Gone, Spiderman, etc.), Sony shatters the unity and diversity that made it strong last year in every part of the world. The company looks like it doesn’t want to unite its fans anymore. The Last Guardian only got 3 minutes of a confusing trailer, and Gravity Daze 2 won’t even be shown (it had been in the Paris conference). Poor Kat’s trailer will be posted in the internet just after the conference, like a bone thrown to a dog. Meanwhile, the conference features Skylanders and Lego Star Wars Episode 7. It’s absolutely pathetic, a conference where you prefer Skylanders to Gravity Daze is is FU** BULLSH**! “4 the players” has become “4 the masses”, a retarded view of the industry in which you don’t take any risk, stop innovating in order to get easy cash. Art and diversity will manage to survive someway, they must think… This conference should have included games like Persona 5 or NieR Automata, at least to balance its message and so that its host lives up to its leadership. That night, Sony was everything but a worldwide leader. Microsoft invited Platinum Games, SquareEnix and BandaiNamco on stage, Sony couldn’t care less and doesn’t even answer to that. The Japanese manufacturer keeps thinking locally in the biggest international show of the year. Huge mistake : Sony is being divisive at the very time it must gather people together.

Playstation VR, awkwardly pushed by worthless-looking in-game features, doesn’t make us optimistic either. Batman VR, Stra Wars X-Wing VR, a dumb shooting mini-game for FFXV in which you play as Prompto (the least character you’d want to play as) are announced without a single detail on how they are played. Eagle Flight and Star Trek VR from Ubisoft clearly look bad, so at this point you’d pretty much pity virtual reality.

RE7

Until that moment. Resident Evil 7 is announced by a frightening trailer and is indeed back to its horror roots. Fear is back and action is sacked. Fans rejoice, and even more so when they find out that it will be 100% VR compatible and that a demo has been discreetly delivered on the PS+. The short gameplay is absolutely scary on a regular screen : the atmosphere is so oppressive that the first noise almost cause a heart attack. Just imagine that in VR! The demo is also rich and complex, including several endings and little secrets. It’s quickly made a strong buzz in the web, so that might be the killer-app PSVR needs to take off.

Miku FL

In Japan, Famitsu reveals that Project Diva X will be updated to be compatible with PSVR in the future, to coincide with Hatsune Miku VR Future Live. Both titles allow the player to watch Miku’s performance in a more intimate way. Summer Lesson, Harada’s bizarre game which puts you in relation with pretty chicks, finally becomes a full-fledged launch line-up product. Of course, this information is not discussed at E3, SCEA having closed cultural borders. At the very least, PSVR has a chance to sell decently at launch.

In short, this E3 is a leap forward for Playstation, but a huge step backwards for Sony which is weak and divisive. While its accounts have never been better, the manufacturer plays it safe and entrusts part of the promoting job to publishers and the community. The Playstation ecosystem widely dominates in both number and variety of releases, but this rich line-up has to live in blackout. We’ll have to observe how this situation evolves and if Sony really decided to leave part of its audience behind.

JRPG, for a change of power

FFXV P5

Despite having a limited importance on the market, JRPGs still maintain themselves in the spotlight. It is still the king of Japanese gaming : every manufacturer, publisher or developer wants its own JRPG to express their talent and influence. It’s a genre that has been captivating players for 25 years, there’s a lot at stake for Japanese companies.

In this long-running struggle, Final Fantasy had long been a unquestioned leader : its extreme refinements at each episode, its overwhelming content, its emotional power had crushed the competition for a long time. But lately, its leadership has been contested by outsiders like Tales of or Xenoblade. Final Fantasy XV’s motto “reclaim your throne” echoes the necessity to take back the crown. But the returning king could very well be robbed of its throne by a malicious thief.

March 30th, May 5th 2016, two dates that might change the balance of power for JRPGs worldwide. Two events aiming at striking the heart of the people, but of opposed style. More than that, a clash of ideologies : Final Fantasy XV and Persona 5 don’t offer their JRPG experience in the same way. Absolutely not.

Final Fantasy XV went for a lavish show : fashionable soiree, large audience, funny MCs, CG movie, commercial partnerships… SquareEnix actually held that in Los Angeles, sign that they’re dropping the original spirit. Uncovered Final Fantasy XV feels terrible by its locked communication and flowery articles in the mainstream press. The publisher seeks to widen its marketing target, but distances itself from players in the same process.

King

The case of Kingslaive, animated movie that tells the events that occurred before FFXV, is interesting : the short film sure has a energetic pace, but it show a western way of making entertainment, we still aren’t in the JRPG sphere. It’s just like SquareEnix was going back to an approach similar to Final Fantasy The Spirits Within, and we know how that finished… And there is that Audi R8, which almost jumps out at your face, which ultimately suggests that pretty everything went awry in rotten business plan and a movie shot with a bugdet it doesn’t even have. And fuck, why is the gameplay trailer ending on Stand by Me!? This is truly the end, the RPG Final Fantasy XV is not Japanese anymore.

P5 tt

On the other side of the planet, Persona 5 (which tells the adventures of a Arsene Lupin-like master thieves) declares that it will “steal Tokyo Tower”. Original and clever way to make the buzz : the lights of the famous red structure indeed went off on 5/5 at 10pm. The commentary is given by some old Japanese lady no one knows where she comes from, and by the characters who run the prison in the game. An anime will air in September for the launch of the game, and it can only be better than Brotherhood, the tasteless attempt of Final Fantasy XV to go media mix. In short, Atlus shows a better symbiosis with its fans than SquareEnix, less business, more fun and passion. Cooler, closer to the people… Doesn’t that ring a bell? Yes, that is Sony’s strategy with the PS4, and it works.

PLATINUM DEMO – FINAL FANTASY XV_20160514170440

But that was just the appearance of things. On the content presented, the gap is even wider between the two. Final Fantasy XV hardly shows anything new, since the trailer is just a patchwork of super short sequences that refrain to show precise gameplay or any bit of consistent narrative. True, there was the Platinum demo. But this trial version in reality doesn’t represent the FFXV experience and in fact, dodges the question of gameplay by conjuring up spin-off content. And that’s fortunate, because gameplay in the Platinum demo is atrocious : there is one button for attack and one to maintain for both defense and counter. Confusing, rough, even Duscae was more exciting than this. Evasion has magically vanished and the poor QTEs don’t give much hope for deep gameplay. Surely that was some secret experiment from the publisher that was recently saying in a Famitsu interview that half of the Duscae poll respondents wanted it less complex… Unavoidable consequence : between Duscae and Platinum, gameplay got nothing but worse and the hype for the story deflated.

Persona 5 does show lots of gameplay, serious gameplay. Stealth, joint assaults, dungeons, magic, interface, time management… you have to watch the trailer several times to pick up everything. You know more about Persona 5 after 4 minutes in video than you know about Final Fantasy XV after 2 demos. It also communicate an excitement on the storyline that Final Fantasy XV has barely shown. The master thieves are up to some unbelievable stunts and have the entire world against them.

But Atlus will strike its competitor when it hurts, on characters. No need to remind you how unappealing Noctis’s group is : JRPG players in the world are split between anger ad hilarity, SquareEnox failing to notice. Final Fantasy betrays and 25-year long heritage by refusing the very idea of a permanent playable female character. The series constructed itself by respecting parity to deliver the best in terms of story, emotion, art and visuals : the sloppy setting of Final Fantasy XV cannot work, and Atlus is fully aware of that.

P5 girls

While Persona 5’s team was already flattening the other in charisma even before May 5th , the dev team doesn’t just add one, but THREE heroines. Parity is totally rebalanced in Persona 5, loud and clear message send to its opponents and to the players worldwide. The role of the girls is heavily underlined in the trailer, way of showing that no, Persona 5 doesn’t have double standards.

All those elements show that Persona 5 wants to restate its commitment to the JRPG genre, and to its audience. It can be considered part of “the Final Fantasy spirit” which Bravely Default failed to inherit. With Final Fantasy itself being so far from its roots, Atlus’s series has a historical chance to reign over JRPG.

2015, the twilight of the goddess?

Nep tw

The Hyperdimension Neptunia series celebrated its 5th anniversary last year. It’s of course for me a lot of fond memories, but lately also a growing disappointment, not to say delusion. That’s an occasion to assess the situation and let’s be honest, it’s not going that well.

If you look at last week’s top 100, Compile Heart is not in it. Indeed, no title has topped 35K units sold in Japan. Even the new main episode, Megadimension Neptunia VII, ended quite below its 40-60K goal. In 2014, 3 of 4 Neptunia games had been above 40K, including ReBirth2 which was a remake. New IP Moero Chronicle even reached 70K, a dream-like figure for a Dungeon-RPG. This alone shows how bad 2015 was, not to mention that during the year the Neptunia franchise lost half of its fanbase : while Megadimension Neptunia VII draws 33’000 fans in April, Blanc + Neptune vs Zombie Army stalls at 28’000 in October, and there are less than 20’000 enthusiasts left for Neptunia vs Sega Hard Girls in November. The picture looks grim in Japan, but bear in mind there are increasing western sales to compensate. Nevertheless, at new year’s eve, Idea Factory’s subsidiary is almost in shambles after months (years?) of clear ill-management.

First very simple and plain thing : 3 or 4 games per year is way to much for one IP. However tiny and faithful the audience is, such a pace isn’t sustainable. Furthermore, remaking every single title in this flurry of games necessarily ends up counter-productive in the future. If a publisher starts remaking every game in more complete versions, buyers will naturally hesitate to acquire the new episodes day one. Disgaea 5 knows something about that. That is the first problem of Megadimension Neptunia VII, adding to the ones raised in my review. The second shock comes from Blanc + Neptune vs Zombie Army. This successor of Hyperdimension Neptunia U Action Unleashed had everything to succeed and yet added to the distrust.

Besides the total lack of effort in the writing, the pathetic jokes and the poor user interface, it is the removal of costume break that is puzzling. Whever you like it or not, this feature inspired by Senran Kagura was a major selling point of Hyperdimension Neptunia U Action Unleashed. Its disappearance without notice (Compile Heart acknowledged it end of November, one month after release) has been a shock and a treachery for many. Here we must remember what Idea Factory International stated during the Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 controversy : the international subsidiary doesn’t want to have to censor anything anymore. Might Compile Heart have censored the game from the very beginning so as to have a free pass in the West later? It is a mere hypothesis, but the result stays the same : the Hyperdimension Neptunia series seems to be wanting to dwell in its comfort zone without taking risks or go further. Compile Heart look as if it intended to simply cash in on and wait. But gamers, unlike gullible casuals, do realize that. In 2015, the developer failed or refused to keep up while others were raising the stakes. Therefore, the present situation is no surprise.

Economic crisis, creativity crisis, confidence crisis… the Neptunia series goes back from scratch in early 2016 and Compile’s eerie silence in January shows how serious the issues are : never before the company had left its official planning blank. But maybe it’s a good thing if it means that the devs are thinking on how improve their strategy, balance their IP catalog (Makai Shin Trillion is definitely one that should see further development in another genre) and invest more on each title. The Dengeki special issue of November made it clear that a new Neptunia game is in the works. But given the series’ all-time low, everything or so must be rebooted.