PAX East 2014: The Foundation for Fun

This weekend marks the first PAX since the arrival of the next wave of consoles (now the current generation), and a lot has changed for this round of dedicated gaming hardware as our esteemed panelists for Console Launches: A Post Mortem discussed at PAX East 2014. Featuring a well known group of Kevin Dent, Larry “Major Nelson” Hyrb from Microsoft Xbox, Andrea Rene from The Escapist and Jeff Green (best known for his stints with Computer Gaming World and PopCap Games), the talk started off with Major Nelson’s assertion that May 22, 2013 was a defining day for Microsoft as it really felt the full impact of how social media has changed a platform creator’s relationship with their audience.

As a result, decisions are more data driven than ever for console makers, especially with the rise and proliferation of social media as well as the transition from fixed hardware products at launch to an ongoing platform experience. The need to rapidly evolve and improve to adapt to changing consumer expectations is now a requirement, and a challenge that each platform stakeholder must account for. With most of the audience declaring their next gen console ownership of an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4 and half of the crowd owning both, the battleground for mind and financial share is more aggressive than at any other point in video game history.

Messaging is also more complex than ever with the proliferation and immediacy of social media, which inspired Green to mention Adam Orth as a cautionary tale. His specific interactions with gamers on social media created the #DealWithIt backlash, which drove a lot of the next gen console narrative in a negative direction.

To this day, the fact that a lot of gamers have transitioned to digital and proven that the projection for and business case built around that transition was accurate is obscured by the remnant distaste for that backlash from 2013. Members of the panel as well as the crowd noted that Sony had more popular messaging before launch but hadn’t delivered on a lot of those stated goals so far: Major Nelson emphasized that 100 games announced is not the same as 100 games that will ship to gamers. He also admits that the Xbox One was very complex to explain, and needed to be clearer on why the customer should get the product during the announcement period.

The Major’s definition of a console as a managed portfolio (which includes standards such as certification) is also memorable as a key business term, which illustrates both the increasing complexity and integration into company-wide initiatives that modern consoles must provide for. Dent also brought up the fact that so much of console development happens between launches now, creating a cost that is much higher for platform creators. These factors unarguably create additional pressure to find or increase existing revenue streams such as gross sales for licensing cuts and driving more subscribers to plan based purchases and micro transactions to recoup those additional expenses.

When asked to pick their favourite games for this generation so far, the selections spanned from Major Nelson choosing Dead Rising 3 for its sheer scope of unique creature generation and Andrea Rene’s appreciation for Need for Speed Rivals’ integration with friends lists, to Jeff Green’s love for Resogun and its ability to create a high quality visual experience for a classic game format (2D scrolling shooter). When asked if launch day purchasers would get a free bonus in light of Microsoft starting to offer pack-in games such as Titanfall, Forza Motorsport 5 and FIFA 13, Nelson cheekily stated that “We thank you for your support, and you’ve had 6 awesome months of gaming”. He also seriously states that “I don’t care what you own (although obviously I care if you own an Xbox One), I just care that you’re a part of our industry”.

The console was a lot of fun, and focused more on the broad strokes if console launches over the specific details (which has been covered at PAX Prime 2012 and elsewhere). The key takeaways for me were that decisions that often seem simple are unimaginably complex, and that we need to understand that when products fall short of our expectations, it isn’t for a lack of interest: no one wants to make a bad game, which seems like as good a note as any to end on.

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