AAA Game Dev Math is Bonkers

Somehow, Outriders hit 3.5m players at launch and has didn’t turn a profit in by Dec 31st

I’m piling on the Square Enix mystery math tour here, but it’s frankly astounding at how poorly finances are managed in that company if millions of games are sold and it isn’t enough. A brand new IP… clearly competing against its own games (Marvel Avengers) in a looter/shooter genre is beyond baffling. It sheds some further light on why Square Enix sold off so many IPs last week… their financials are a mess.

I’ve been on the wrong side of a contract in the past, and in most of those cases its the small print that gets you in the end. There’s no word of lawyers in public, but one would have to assume that there are some interesting conversations being held in the backrooms. Not much different that Fallout: New Vegas missing the bonus payment by about 1% on Metacritic.

Stories like these make you wonder why anyone would want to be at a large dev studio, or try to make a deal with the devil” to get over the hump. Maybe it’s just a parachute to get out of the grind? Some crazy hope that you are going to be that exception? Blind faith? Perhaps it’s simply the lesser of evils.

Games are a weird microcosm of other pieces. They are a massive entertainment industry, nearly $120b worldwide. Money makes for some interesting choices…

Acti-Blizz Numbers

I’m on nearly 4 months since my last Blizzard post (the MSFT buyout), and I’m certainly not missing it! While I’m certainly on record for armchair designing WoW, the business portion is equally fascinating.

We’re at the saturation point of the pandemic, where the large spike of “hermits” has ended. People are going outside and spending less time in front of screens. This is a challenge as the pandemic itself stretched out the pipeline on any development. So there were more consumers eating away at products that were taking longer to generate material. Eventually, something has to give.

Blizzard in particular here has had troubles launching much during this timeframe… and obviously struggling as a company as a result. Between the last results and this one, WoW saw Eternity’s End come about, the announcement for the next expansion Dragonflight, and attempts to drive interest in Diablo Immortal beta in June (simultaneous PC launch, and ~4 years since it was announced).

The financials this quarter were not good. 2m less monthly users. 43% less revenue. And that’s compared to Q4 where nothing launched. Those are painful numbers. In the aggregate, they’ve managed to lose nearly 20% of their userbase this year alone, and about 40% across the last 4 years.

The future isn’t looking so bright either. Overwatch 2 was delayed, and what people have seen so far is very “meh” in terms of being more of an expansion than a sequel (which is a mountain in itself). Diablo 4 is nowhere to be seen (hopefully they are paying attention to what Lost Ark did well). Dragonflight doesn’t have a release date or pre-orders (typically, you can buy it 1yr ahead). I have a lot of fundamental design questions on that expansion…but others are better equipped at that.

Perhaps we’re nearing that turning point where AAA game development is simply no longer sustainable. Where development for the sake of numbers has run the course. Where the indie scene can show that passion and smaller teams can have more success – and that there’s the potential for a sustainable market.

Square-Enix Sells some IP

I guess we’re simply in that age where there’s little ground in the middle for game development. Either you’re indie or you’re AAA. Reports of Square Enix of selling a rather large IP portfolio are going around, including Tomb Raider, Deux Ex, Hitman, and Thief. Embracer bought this package, for a relatively low price of $300m… low when you recall they bought Gearbox (Borderlands) for $1b.

What doesn’t appear included are the Marvel licensed games, either Guardians of the Galaxy (which was well reviewed and sold decently, but “missed targets”) or Marvel Avengers (which was neither well received nor sold well). That honestly makes sense, as there’s no way Disney (which certainly puts the Kingdom Hearts cross-over under new light) was going to give any sort of control to SE to decide where that went. Perhaps this is similar to Telltale Games and their over-paying for IP vs. the projected returns.

Of note, Tomb Raider and Deus Ex also didn’t hit sales targets. Tomb Raider has sold nearly 20m copies… so maybe I’m just bad at math that this isn’t good?

All of these seems to be couched in SE wanting to invest in: blockchain, AI, and cloud. I’ll break these into smaller pieces.

  • Cloud. I gravitate towards Stadia in terms of cloud-streaming games. This is the logical end point of gaming, but we are still a good 10 years away and limited by the speed of light. It would make no sense for SE to invest in a cloud distribution model… that is entirely saturated by Steam and EGS.
  • AI. This does have appeal in terms of enemy AI, or in procedurally generated content as a response to player actions. There are many patents in the works for this, though I would expect EA to take lead here. (There’s a foreboding aspect of training AI in combat simulators, no?)
  • Blockchain, which in this case is almost exclusively in the leverage of NFTs. See, the concept of NFT is that you can prove ownership of a unique item, but the reality is that it’s a massive scam with dozens of examples that point towards a modern ponzi scheme.

This isn’t a SE obituary, more like a divestment of western games from their repertoire. All we’re going to see now are the RPG franchises we’ve seen so far… Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Star Ocean, Kingdom Hearts. Or perhaps, they are going to change their accounting team math, so that investments and projected returns are closer to reality.

Odd way to start the week.

Lego Star Wars

2005. That’s when the first one came out and pretty much blew my mind as to how Lego may actually be cool again. It it the right blend of action, humor and nostalgia… and the timing was right before Episode 3 was released to cinemas. It effectively created an entire genre, which is astounding when you stop to think about it.

Over the years I’ve picked up various iterations of these Lego games. Batman, Marvel, Harry Potter, LotR among them. I completed each one’s main story without fault, and spent some minor amount of time collecting the extra bricks along the way. Yet, the only one that ever hit 100% was the Original Trilogy version. There’s a rather laser focus in that series, where nearly all the levels are linear, and the options while wide, are still limited. Unlocking more red bricks to add larger stud multipliers still feels like a gold rush. Just had the right amount of dopamine hits. Games since then have opted to go wider, notably the Harry Potter and Marvel games. It just feels like a never ending amount of content, and frankly gimmicky efforts to get any extra collectables. Tedious.

The Skywalker Saga has been out a few weeks now. I picked it up and have played some with the kids, some alone. It’s hard to explain how much I have the original trilogy’s layout tattooed in my memory. I could probably play it blindfolded. This version is the same story, but told in an entirely different method, with voice acting throughout (no more gibberish!).

Most notably, the camera is no longer fixed, so you’re in a fully 3D world now.. It sounds relatively minor, but it really changes the approach to level design. Plus the improved graphics make the gameplay the same quality as the cutscenes… it’s quite impressive. The older versions had a diorama-type layout, with relatively linear and contained environments. This isn’t open world in the typical sense, but much more fluid. As a result of this, there are many fewer vehicle-based quests as they were meant to give the semblance of “bigger” – I am rather happy with this change.

Second, the character differences are dramatically shrunk here. Force users, mechs, bounty hunters, stormtroopers, and scavengers are the only types now. Flyers, double jumpers and other niche skills are no longer present. Well, that’s not entirely true… as there’s now dialogue/quest options that require characters of a given faction to trigger. The net result is that there are simply more viable characters to play with, and once you complete the main game, pretty much 100% of the rest of the game is open to explore. – This is a big QoL change as it removes a lot of tedium.

The world itself no longer has a single central hub, and instead covers 24 planets related to the 9 episodes. Each planet has its own hub and space sector, which lead into the various story arcs. The hubs themselves are full of things to collect – bricks, characters, ships. Either you get it outright, or need to complete a small quest. Space is also pretty neat, you can eventually fight/capture capital ships in neat small activity. – This feels like bloat, in the same vein as Ubisoft add map icons to fill time. It’s a good hour+ per hub.

Which brings me to the last change, which is the introductions of quests. They could be very small things, like ride a Gonk 10 feet to a platform. There are medium ones that are on the same planet, or in the adjoining space. Then there are the long ones, which require visiting multiple planets, or going through a few space battles to the next bit. – I generally dislike this change as a completionist. It’s just not possible to 100% any specific zone until you pretty much hit 50% on every other one… this likely won’t bother most people.

In the end, I still think that the Original Trilogy version is the best of the bunch, primarily because of the very focused design. The Skywalker Saga fits just under that, primarily for the QoL changes brought about, but suffers from the sprawl … which is sort of understandable when you’re covering 9 movies. In that context, it’s a generational leap for the platform, and a good foundation for anything else that comes in the future. Very impressive.

Return to Dyson Sphere Program

Steam has me clocked at a few hundred hours on this game, across multiple playthroughs. Probably the game with the most time outside of an MMO. I took a break after that, given that it was (and still is) in Early Access. There is a veritable sea of garbage games in Early Access… Dyson Sphere Program is an absolute gem.

Since the last time I played the game has added:

  • Improved blueprints (my last playthrough had blueprints, but they were still quite wonky)
  • Way more variety in terms of planets / systems.
  • Ability to customize the mecha (Syp could probably spend days in this thing)
  • Pilers to stack items on belts
  • Improved belt controls and warning systems when things stop working (supply chains that are 9 steps long are insanely complex to troubleshoot)
  • Proliferators, which allow for a boost to productivity for a material/energy cost
  • A rather astounding amount of bug fixes/optimization so that your CPU doesn’t melt.
  • A new Dyson Sphere construction interface
  • Achievements / milestone structure. Some of the achievements can be considered “hard mode”, which require a gas giant with fire/ice in the local system to beat the clock.

DSP is a graphical spreadsheet designed for solo play. That may not sound interesting, but if you like solving number and logistical issues, holy cow. Factorio is the gold standard in this field, but now in 3D and a much larger toybox to play in.

When I last posted about the game, I mentioned that there was a lack of clear content for the end game, as well as a significant “stall” period just prior. I would say that those issues are partially resolved, and it’s primarily related to the concept of scale.

Imagine you’re running a small bakery. It’s complicated enough, managing the ingredients coming in, the production of the goods, the building/lease, employees, and financial portions. Small business owners have it hard, because they usually need to manage it all themselves. That step to franchise or company, where you expand to more locations is where things turn sideways. You simply don’t have the time to manage the details, so you delegate and set out rules. Shortages at one store may impact the other, and so on.

DSP has this similar issue. Your starter planet has everything but Titanium, an absolutely essential component to enter the mid-game. It’s not a choice, you need to leave the planet to find it, then transport it. Technically, you could manually mine and transport, but the scale needed means you need to automate – or build another mini-bakery. You need the mining tools, smelters, power, and a transport hub.

Once that part is sorted out, you live in the mid-game, where it’s about scaling up your production lines to build more. A batch of solar sails takes 25 elements, that need to be harvested and refined a half dozen times by tools that require those same elements to construct, transport of material, and power. And you need well over 10,000 sails to “complete” the game.

The game does a great job to get you to the mid-point, then the scaling/optimization challenge really comes into focus. Finding material and the mechanisms to transport is one challenge (the materials to build a hub are not cheap), but the real kicker is powering the whole thing. Power, at scale, is dramatically improved from prior versions, yet still a massive hurdle. Prior, you were putting in piecemeal progress, adding production and then power, and then production. There are now more and better balanced options for power, and the odds of a cascade power failure are dramatically reduced.

Scaling + the QoL changes to production allow for a relatively quick view into production chain issues. If you’re not producing sails, you should be able to quickly point to where that is breaking down (like circuit boards). This smooths out the transition from mid-game to late-game and reduces the need to simply wait it out.

Late-game… this portion is not fully improved yet (well, the sphere design interface is a lot better), though there are more options with stacking and proliferating to improve the logistical capacity. You do more with less space, which is a good thing, though the power / moving stuff around issues increase exponentially. Where you’d love it to be viable for say a production planet, the reality is that it’s just not doable until you have more power than you need with a complete Dyson Sphere. Focusing on boosting research is really the only change I see right now, which is certainly of benefit, but really quite hard to fully manage.

The good thing about DSP is that it encourages experimentation, especially with the advent of blueprints and QoL design tools. It is very hard to paint yourself into a corner… you could certainly slow down progress, but to cancel it outright… I don’t quite get.

If I had recommendations it would be to reduce the cost of Energy Exchangers so that they are more accessible in the mid-game. That single change would improve the ability to move energy sources between planets at some level of scale, which is the primary cause of frustration for expansion. The time between having a working starter planet and then a minor form of production elsewhere is still too long. I’d also recommend that Planetary Logistic Stations have 6 slots of material instead of 3. In their current form, they serve zero purpose as their upgraded form (Interplanetary) has 5 slots and the ability to leave the planet, and the cost upgrades are negligible.

Without question the game is better now than it was nearly a year ago. The next big update will be a combat function, which I understand to be the last significant item before full launch. Combat will be entirely optional, so in that context, the game is about as “feature complete” as you can think if you want to avoid that piece altogether.

Chrono Cross on Switch – Quick Thoughts

Long story short, I played a crap ton of Chrono Cross when it came out. Like 100% playthroughs multiple times type of time. The only other RPG that fits into this category is Final Fantasy 10. I take no issue with stating that I tried emulation, but the main point of issue was the video resolution issues between the gameplay and the menu… for some reason it resized and played havoc with my displays. When I learned it was coming to the Switch (other platforms too, but honestly, this is best suited to mobile space), I picked it up on launch.

At a really quick level, the game sports updated visuals that work most of the time. There’s clearly a fair chunk of AI scaling applied, which does mean some blur shows up often enough, and makes the character sprites “pop” more than I recall. You also get access to the fast forward option that only NG+ gave prior, which has a very marginal amount of use. Auto-battle is there too, but it’s not a whole lot of use because you can generally avoid fights you don’t want to pick.

At it’s core, the rest of the game is mostly untouched. The same characters, skills, balance, abilities and so on are present. This is a visual remaster, not a remake in any sense. Which brings me to a very interesting part of my experience.

It would appear that the original engine is still the foundation for the game, including visual rendering. The has an effect that there are framerate issues, if not outright stalling of the game. This typically only happens as the world transitions from map to battle, but it also happens when certain spell effects occur in battle. The net effect is that the game performs worse than the original, and absolutely worse than any emulated version I have played. It’s more than playable, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also extremely jarring.

Square-Enix has a horrendous track record when it comes to milking older games. It’s a strange path, where they are premium priced and generally perform worse than emulated versions (not to mention the recently released pixel versions CUT content previously released). Say what you will about Skyrim being on every device made, but the game works.

I’m sure there will be optimization along the path here, but this also gives a tremendous argument against Nintendo’s model for monetizing nostalgia (including their subscription service). The modding community is delivering some crazy quality and ease of use options… and if the Steam Deck or similar products can reach more of the market, that will eat into this world very quickly.

This nit picking aside, the game is still as good, and as confusing, as it was when it launched in 1999. It won’t go on sale for the Switch, nothing ever does, so maybe wait a bit until they patch in performance issues.

Lost Ark – Part 2

I’m far enough (?) now to have unlocked most systems, and have a few more thoughts on the game. By now I have:

  • Stronghold
  • Ship
  • Level 50
  • Item Level 460

The game has multiple phases to it. The period from start until you unlock the ship, it’s borderline Diablo. You have a ton of action skills, combat is explosive, the bosses are engaging, and there’s tons of voice acted content. A few systems are explained up til this point, but it primarily focuses on harvesting and stronghold upgrades. The stronghold is a time-gated construction bit, and still seems to serve no real purpose. Maybe for battle potions later.

When you unlock the ship, the game opens like floodgates. The rather linear map turns into a real world that you actually need to navigate. The sailing mechanics are relatively simple, and ship upgrades are meaningless (and I think impossible) until a much later point. There’s just tons of content to be had here… it’s really quite astounding. The open world areas are thematic, and while some may seem repetitive, there are others that are really well done. It’s not terribly challenging, at least for anyone with ARPG experience, so it feels a bit like fast food. Then you hit the first real content gate.

Lost Ark has item levels for the gear. By the final quest you will have a set of ilvl 302 gear, which is more than ample for all the content you just did. To access the next bit, you need to get it to ilvl460. Now, the thing about this is that increasing your level only comes from honing, or rather using material to increase your current gear. Each piece needs to be upgraded 8 times. Getting that material comes from 2 main activities – island quests or chaos dungeons. It’ll take a day or two to get it all sorted out.

I disliked this part, tremendously. Mostly because it was so jarring. While you do get your ship a lot earlier, exploring any of the islands at that time feels very disconnected from the rest of the game. Chaos dungeons are OK I guess, just a set of waves of enemies you need to clear within a timeframe. You get extra rewards twice a day, which can accumulate over time. Plus, there’s an RNG mechanic when upgrading gear – it’s possible for it to fail, moreso the higher the ilvl. This would be the long tail of the game…which seems, from Steam at least, to be less than 2% of the playerbase.

I haven’t gotten into any of the other systems or currencies in the game yet. The card decks, engravings, and stones give some flexibility or min/maxing for combat – very obtuse RNG systems that are akin to legendary farming in Diablo. There appears to be something like 100 currencies in-game, most of which are island specific. This is closer to reputation farming from MMOs, but super confusing because you’ll see a vendor and have no idea how to get any of the currency. It in turn means that over 90% of the currency is meaningless. This isn’t a complaint as much as a statement… look at WoW… how much content prior to Shadowlands is even remotely relevant today? Seems a similar thing here.

I do have 1 particular peeve with this game, and it relates to the approach to instancing and death. When you die, you can either resurrect on the spot (a plume, which are super limited, or bought in the store) or revive in town. The latter is obviously preferred. The former is an interesting decision point depending on the instance you are in… if you die, you need to restart the entire instance. It’s not like 2 minutes to get back to a corpse either, odds are it’s a major boss fight after trekking the entire instance once again. It feels a bit like raiding in an MMO where the trash instantly respawns after a death. It’s an annoyance more than much else.

I’ve got more stuff to do here no doubt. Finishing this content will give me access to the final bit of Tier 1 dungeons to get to ilvl600. Getting to ilvl 802 apparently means using the auction house…odd that bit. ilvl 960 to get to the final bit of Tier 2. Tier 3 starts at ilvl1100 and currently ends just after ilvl 1415. the moment to moment gameplay is really quite amazing. Not so sure the west is actually in the mindset for the RNG grind required for tail end progress… certainly not when my game library is overflowing. I’ll have another post up in a month to see how this plays out.

Lost Ark Quick Thoughts

February was a damn good month for games. And only games it seems.

Lost Ark came out, with a few years of content already onboard. And there is a lot of content. Almost too much.

I find these types of localized releases quite interesting, because the western sensibilities to F2P are much different than the east. Allods Online is still burned into my brain as to how to lose an entire playerbase with a single swoop (they put in a resurrection sickness that could only be cured with a cash stop item).

From what I can tell so far, Lost Ark doesn’t have a huge burden with their cash stop. The typical acceleration items are there, potions and random boxes and whatnot. The actual gameplay doesn’t seem to suffer from it though… and PvP is normalized, so even if you did boost a character with money, it wouldn’t go very far.

I should note that as with any F2P game with a cash stop, there is a plague of bots. They only seem to be in the city, and they zip through walls. Guess they are running an easy quest to make currency to sell. Literally dozens of them, one on top of the other.

But enough about that. There are plenty of other reviews, videos, and blog posts that praise the game. I am certainly impressed. What I want to point out is one simple matter.

This is what Diablo 4 should have been.

It’s really that simple. The combat itself is tight, there are plenty of skill options, there’s min/maxing, a long tail that is more than about gear score, group content that is more than just DPS. The whole demon/angel bit. This isn’t so much a dig at Blizzard – I certainly could – but more a reflection of how there isn’t a revolutionary bit to Lost Ark. They took the best parts of ARPG games, figured out how to include actual group mechanics, and plopped a rather effective cash stop on the side. Hell, this might be the first game Amazon Studios (as publisher) actually gets right.

I’ll be giving the game a bit more time over the next month, see what comes out of it. So far, it scratches all the right places.

A ridiculous Yoda attempt. Like John Carpenter good/bad.

Switch and Steam Deck

I was browsing the Nintendo e-store and found the primary reason why the Switch has a interesting battle ahead. This is a narrow sample of prices on the Switch and then on Steam

  • FF7 $22/$17
  • FF9 $28/$24
  • FF10/2 $60/$33
  • FF12 $60/$66
  • Hades $32/$29
  • XCOM 2 $60/$15
  • Cuphead $26/$22
  • Death’s Door $26/$22

Somehow, Breath of the Wild is still selling for the same price as launch, as well as nearly every other first party game. The perks of exclusivity I suppose. Not to mention Steam can manage to have a sale seemingly every other day.

All consoles are built on a software library. The size and quality of that library is the largest factor of that success. Not only does Steam already dwarf every other console, but it offers lower prices in almost every single case, often by huge amounts. I’m waiting for the next hardware version to come out, and most certainly giving it a go.

That said, nearly every time we thought Nintendo was out for the count, they’ve somehow managed to come back up.

Mining Nostalgia – Square Enix

This is a weird topic, brought to you mostly by Square Enix themselves.

Without opening the history books too far back, quite a few gamers cut their teeth on Square Enix games, especially the RPGs (Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, notably). There’s a nostalgia factor here, where we are on iterations that have gone on for 30 years. Here in the West, we haven’t been fully exposed to that library – which has a substantial set of franchises.

Now here’s where things get a bit odd. Square Enix appears to have 3 main arms. First is FF14, which is without question their cash cow. Second is their modern IP development stream – which includes Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, and new IP such as Outriders. Finally, there’s the nostalgia miners, the remakes of older games sold on other platforms. The FF pixel remasters are a great example of supremely low effort development, with high margins on sales. There really aren’t any other dev/publishing arms that are able to get all 3 streams working… perhaps Nintendo if they could figure out how emulation worked properly.

Compounding this is the Square Enix board’s bar for success. The Tomb Raider remake sold 3.4m copies in a month and was “below expectations“. FF15 had DLC cancelled. Outriders sold gangbusters and didn’t turn enough of a profit to pay the developers. Marvel Avengers was an attempt at games as a service without understanding how that model actually works. Babylon’s Fall, which met with amazingly low review scores, saved a few bucks in development by simply taking them from FF14.

I have no doubt that game development is expensive, especially when you add in the AAA flavors. It takes a crazy amount of sales to recoup the costs of a big dev team. Somehow we can get Horizon Forbidden West, without any microtransactions to turn a profit, or at least be worth the investment. There’s some sort of challenge here in managing expectations – and Square Enix appears to be extremely optimistic in their projections.

A known IP has a chance of breaching the million copies sold threshold, not a guarantee. It has to be both working and good. (Cue the death of the SimCity). There’s a balance to be had here, where timing and luck have some factor. Titanfall 2 is arguably the best FPS in years, but it launched in the wrong window. BF2042 had a ton of pre-orders, launched broken, suffered refunds, and is all but gone now.

A new IP has a tremendous mountain to climb to get any attention, let alone sales. Hades, a game of the year winner, barely broke a million sold. Dead Cells hit 5m. There are literally thousands of games released every month, how does one stand out from the rest? Babylon’s Fall had rather poor PR before launch, plays like crap, and is nowhere to be found now. It’s a heroic effort to launch a game, let alone a good one.

Cash cow is too disparaging for FF14, more like it’s the sustainable mine. There’s little argument that the game delivers the best MMO experience in it’s genre. There’s also little argument that the cash stop has some of the craziest price points possible. Enough conspiracies that new items go up when another game fails to meet its objectives.

The nostalgia mining is also quite evident. Chrono Trigger was/is available on nearly every device imaginable. FF games have been sold, remastered, remade, and resold for over a decade – often at $30 or more. This is easy money, for the most part. They can’t yet figure out how to get fonts to work properly in any of these games, but the function mechanically and scratch that itch. I’ve had various remakes of the games over time, mostly on my (still functioning!!!) Nintendo DS. Very high odds I’ll pick up Chrono Cross too.

All of this makes Square Enix a very strange company to predict. For every Outriders, we see a dozen Babylon Falls. Somehow 3m games sold is a disappointment. Or that Marvel Avengers is deemed worth saving (perhaps this is due to the IP contract with Disney). I do hope that they learn from the past games so that we don’t end up with the EA approach of completely unrealistic goals that close studios. Not everything can be Game of the Year quality, and experimentation is good. Perhaps this is the best way to fund that innovation.