Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thoughts on Nintendo's fiscal report

Nintendo gave their Q3 financial report to investors yesterday for their current fiscal year, which runs from last April through this March. The presentation was made by Nintendo president Satoru Iwata.

It's not a bad read, with some interesting data from one of the big playas in the industry.

Several points (or omissions) were of particular interest to me:
  1. Teh Global Ekonomies Sux
  2. What We's Done is not What We's Gonna
  3. DS Will Make PS2 Its Be-otch
  4. Reading This? They're After You
  5. Philosophy as Applied to World Domination
  6. Wii Hotness at E3
  7. Wait -- It Ain't All About Us?
  8. Japan -- Not the Center of the Universe
  9. Hey, Number Two!

Teh Global Ekonomies Sux
The global economic downturn is affecting everyone -- Nintendo included. They have been arguably significantly less hit to date, but they set expectations in the report that the boom could lower further, and they have some interesting year-to-year and quarter-to-quarter comparisons where they factor in recent and historical appreciation impacts to the euro and yen.

What We's Done is not What We's Gonna
Interestingly, due to their increased market install base, Mr. Iwata said Nintendo will be changing the rapid business model nature for their hardware cycles, for which they've previously been known.

This is at least true for the DS family, but the implication is that it is across the board (including the Wii).

"Since technology continues to evolve, I do not think any hardware can enjoy eternal life. Someday, we will need a new platform for sure, and of course, Nintendo is always preparing for that. However, now that our customer base has expanded this drastically, we do not think it appropriate to conclude that past platform lifecycle theory can and should be applied to the current generation."

I re-state this as, "Investors, don't plan on new products from us as often as you're used to."

DS Will Make PS2 Its Be-otch
Nintendo is continuing its positioning of the DS -- not the Wii -- against the PS2 for household penetration (and while not stated as such, this is their beachhead strategy).

Reading This? They're After You
Nintendo is growing their "installed base in accordance with the total population, [where] the ultimate business potential should be decided by how many people populate the market". This is tempered by the fact that "they are theoretical potentials and not the actual demands of today" (smart folks ;-) .

This factors into Nintendo's strategy change from a "one DS per household" to their "one DS per person". They have to do this in Japan (see below), and makes sense as a strategy across the board to grow addressable market worldwide.

Philosophy as Applied to World Domination
"... what matters most in our business is not necessarily the effects of the changing economic conditions, but whether or not we are able to provide customers with new proposals and services that are hard to resist one after another before they bore of the old ones. The former president of Nintendo, Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi, often told us, 'In the entertainment business, there are only heaven and hell, and nothing in between,' and 'as soon as our customers bore of our products, we will crash.'"

Wii Hotness at E3
Innovation is going to be needed to continue growth of the Wii, and Iwata said E3 will see some innovative software for the Wii (bring back the glory days of E3!).

Wait -- It Ain't All About Us?
Nintendo is finally thawing on the importance of third-party development, citing the significant increase in those titles selling million units plus (for both Wii and DS), and forecasting the trend to increase. Good thing there's middleware for those folks. ;-)

Japan -- Not the Center of the Universe
Japan has nominally been the nucleus of the gaming industry for years. Has been.

Lately, that part of the world has had a tough time holding onto that particular gaming crown, with big-gun Japanese creative directors and producers saying there is more innovation in the West, Microsoft being the first major platform vendor to basically eschew the Japanese gaming market (even as a beachhead), and Sony focusing tremendously more effort on the U.S. and EU markets (and even third-country developer markets with their legacy PS2 tech).

Add to that Nintendo's "Nintendo Japan First" perception, and you have a global business situation the company needs to address quickly and, thankfully, looks like it is (or it at least it acknowledges it).

I don't have any particular insight, but my sense is Nintendo's various regional headquarters cooperate as well as at least pre-public payments company Visa (made up of its various Visa territories) did.

That is, they don't.

I would be surprised if NOA, Nintendo EU, etc. had as much pull as Japanese-headquartered NOJ. I would be shocked if Nintendo employees of a senior title in the EU had has much influence or information as a person of the same title working for the corporate headquarters. I would be overjoyed if worldwide companies like Nintendo (because this isn't endemic to just to the House that Mario Built) acted like one company, and empowered their peer regions to break open their respective markets with third-party developers, publishers, and retail channels?

Don't think it's a problem? Take the one retail example of slowdown in Wii sales for Japan due to significant overstock, with a stalling of Wii sales in the U.S. and EU due to massive understock (compounded by not being able to just swap localized stock)?

But, like I said, Nintendo at least seems aware of the problem, acknowledging quicker saturation of the addressable market there, and recognizing the downside of quicker brand / retail dissemination being quicker commodity fatigue. they also point out the business significance of things like the DS "showing a rather unique development in each territory". (The biz dev weenie in me likes these numbers and charts.)

Also as a biz dev guy, at the very least, I'd like to see Nintendo not repeat mistakes made in the last console iteration (mistakes arguably being repeated by Sony this generation). But at most, I'd like to see them (and all of the platform makers) knock it out of the park.

Hey, Number Two!
I laugh at "Positioning 101" stuff like this.

Making another comparison to Visa, keep in mind their "but they don't take American Express" campaign wasn't aimed at #2 competitor MasterCard, but #3 American Express. They didn't acknowledge #2, implicitly training their addressable market that you shouldn't either. (Sure, there are other factors for their targeted campaign, like Visa wanted more of that lucrative travel and corporate market, and MasterCard's "Priceless" campaign is tough to do a competitive response campaign.)

Who's not mentioned in Nintendo's fiscal report? They've got freaking graphs showing them compared to Sony's PS2 and PS3, but they don't acknowledge Microsoft -- intentionally, I'm sure.

Microsoft wasn't even supposed to be a contender in the last generation, when they launched their first console offering. And independent of their arguable Perot-affect on Nintendo during that round, they nonetheless established themselves as a contender in and of themselves. This round, they were first out of the gate, have a robust install base and first- and third-party catalogue, have weathered their self-induced hardware failure challenges, and have the premiere online service to beat -- especially when put up against the comparatively non-existent services offered by their competitors.

I don't think it's incidental that they're omitted from Nintendo's presentation.

I'm wicked impressed with Nintendo, both in terms of the creative legacy they've given me and the industry, and in their smart, non-standard business practices (rapid cycling of handheld hardware, Wii as a blue ocean offering not directly competing with Microsoft and Sony, etc.).

I also like how they seem to be adjusting to changes in the global economy, geographic industry power shifts, and challenges brought about their own install base and related scalability successes. I just hope their agile in their response.

And things are going to get more competitive, at the same time that they get more nebulous. Everybody's scrapping to hold onto their place, and/or be #1, at the same time that we enter this "bubble" in preparation for the next iteration of consoles, which many believe to be 2011 or 2012.

It's interesting now. But the ride's about to get a lot more fun ...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Video game middleware pricing, licensing, and positioning

For some time, I've been drafting a post with various directed thoughts around middleware pricing, licensing and product positioning for the vidoe game market -- both in general and relation to Gamebryo from Emergent Game Technologies.

After reading a post Saturday morning from Brett Seyler, Biz Dev manager for GarageGames's Torque SDK, I'm pulling out a subset of that content, and piggy backing off of Brett's post.

First, let me say the GG post has some very good, very candid information. I'm impressed with what GarageGames has done in the market, I personally share several of the same philosophical goals detailed in Brett's post, and he and I share at least some slant common background in that both he and I have had to make "a very weird kind of transition ... from that button up [financial services] world to the laid back, but hyper-competitive world of a startup software company". I probably could not agree more with him that "business is just business, and finding ways to succeed and get more done is universal across those kind of boundaries." (Frankly, the game industry as a whole would do better if they would get over their hubris, acknowledge this, and utilize applicable genuine big gun folks from other industries.)

And I empathize with Brett, because developing pricing and licensing models is wicked hard work -- "throw something at the wall and see what sticks" is a legacy (and potentially company-costing) way to figure out business models.

But ... ;-)

All that said, there's more going on in the GG post than just the listed "Pricing and Licensing" topic. It's a also a product positioning post, and there is intentional or misinformed placement of Gamebryo within the context of the post (which, to be fair, may be due to the candor and scope of the post, so it's almost guaranteed some things will fall out).

First (and easiest) to correct is Brett's mischaracterization of Gamebryo as an "upstart". Gamebryo is, in fact, one of the longest-standing and oft-used game engines in the market, reaching back to it's storied roots with Numerical Design Limited (NDL) and the NetImmerse engine. A lot of the same engine developers have consistently updated, redesigned, and re-architected the engine over the years to meeting the needs of interactive developers, and keep up with that changing landscape of hardware platforms. Gamebryo easily predates Torque (even in it's pre-GarageGames incarnation as the Tribes 2 FPS game engine developed by Dynamix in 2001).

Second, it's easy to see the "competitive positioning 101" marginalizing going on here.

(Hopefully, what follows will be articulate, and still respectful of GarageGames's positioning.)

In positioning your company and / or product, you obviously want to showcase why you're the only right solution for the problem, and why anyone else in the same space is either (a) not really a competitor, and / or (b) is missing the boat for actually solving the problem.

Brett posits the following in his post:
"Gamebryo has some good tech and a good marketing / sales team, but no dedicated studio to consistently test the tech and then demonstrate where they stack up next to Unreal or other AAA competitors, so I think they're doomed to fail in AAA."
Intentional or not, this is a masterful positioning statement. Acknowledging that it does tip its hat to Gamebryo's proven technology, it still attempts to do the following:
  1. Minimize the tech as flash over substance (just "a good marketing / sales team")
  2. Question our credibility (inferring "no dedicated studio" is a negative in Emergent's product / service offering)
  3. Ignore published titles to imply there is no way to measure how we "stack up next to Unreal or other AAA competitors"
  4. Marginalize us as being "only" a triple-A offering
  5. Sow the seed of doubt as to our viability (um, "I think they're doomed to fail")

These are easy enough to answer, and that one sentence gives me not only a springboard to refute the allegations, but a nice framework with which to do so.

Gamebryo: Proven Tech that isn't Flash (Minimize the tech as flash over substance)

Building on the freshly reiterated fact we've been around for a good while, keep in mind Gamebryo's been used in more than 250 titles, with more than a hundred more currently in development. This doesn't include academic, research, some government, and related licensees of ours, which makes this number go waaay up.

All of this is across multiple platforms -- more than any of our major competitors, and also more than Torque (and it may be more than any of our major competitors combined, but I need to fact-check that).

I also find this allegation from GarageGames interesting, since one of the things they try to head off is the perception of Torque (particularly Torque 2D) as being a Flash also-ran. (See, I made a funny with the title of this section, combined with middleware humor. Erm, I also totally dig Flash.)

Emergent's strength is making technology for your game (inferring "no dedicated studio" is a negative in Emergent's product / service offering)

There are pros and cons to developing / publishing games as part of a middleware business model. Same goes for not developing a game.

On one extreme is Epic, who makes their game engine to power Unreal Tournament III and impressive Gears of War 2, and licensing those game feature enhancements as engine enhancements for an ancilliary revenue model.

On the other extreme are hobbyist game engines that do nothing but make the engine (or subsets like math libraries or software rendering), with no vehicles exercising or demonstrating their tech.

Part of Emergent's business model currently is to not make games. We revisit it on a regular basis (like I said, there are pros and cons), but I think it's pretty important that I'm responsible for a product that makes technology so you can make your game. In my smaller moments, I like to say, "Your title won't be unrealized because we're making ours."

This lets us put more people working on the game engine tech and tools (and more people than GarageGames says they're putting on Torque 3D and its "parallel project").

And, we do make sure we dogfood our own technology by creating samples, demos, mini applications, and playable "games" that test, exercise, and showcase the features. We ship these with the product, with full source code and assets for our evaluators and licensees. Some of these we even make publicly available in playable binary form (like last year's GDC zombie shooter). And speaking of GDC, this year's attendees are in for a treat with our show floor demo (full disclosure: I'm the producer).

Like I said, we constantly evaluate our business models, but this is where we are right now. Gamebryo's power is in large part due to its flexibility, and the fact that you can make your game with the tech, rather than just cracking open someone else's game and -- after a boatload o' work -- running the risk of your title looking like you just re-skinned the engine provider's in-house game.

Our licensees showcase their technology -- and ours (Ignore published titles to imply there is no way to measure how we "stack up next to Unreal or other AAA competitors"

This one is odd, because for me the way to at least superficially measure tech is to look at the titles using it -- and like I said above, there are a lot of titles using Gamebryo.

If you look at just a sampling of titles built with Gamebryo, and current triple-A titles in the market, you'll see us included in big guns like PC MMO Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, multiplatform strategy title Sid Meier's Civilization: Revolution, and the upcoming console reincarnation of Splatterhouse. And it's not Crytek's or Epic's logo you'll find on the back of titles like the - current - way - I - spend - my - days - and - nights, Fallout 3.

Sooo ... I think I know how we stack up.

Emergent is AAA -- and then some (Marginalize us as being "only" a triple-A offering)

Gamebryo is proven in the triple-A market, but to marginalize it as being "just" triple-A is a clever way to try to convince licensees (and investors) that GG is going after a different market -- one served just by them.

One of my personal philosophies driving my participation in the game industry is to make the best tech available to people so they can make the best games. That's largely independent of budget or genre. This is a big chunk of why I made the jump from my previous more lucrative financial services gig (that and me just being personally passionate about games; and alliteration).

Sure, Gamebryo is in the headline-grabbing games above. But we're also a great fit for projects of various team sizes, budgets, and project durations -- well below the tens - of - millions - of - dollar, multi-year development cycle titles. And we provide the same great tech and tools to those teams.

As I've written before,

"... Gamebryo actually does hit the sweet spot for developing 3D interactive experiences -- of any size or type -- which for me means making sure we make the best tools and tech available to people making all sorts of games with all sorts of time and budget restrictions. Casual games? Check. Serious Games? Check. Triple A? Check. Commercial titles? Check. MMOs? Check. More? Check."

Not to belabor the point (and acknowledging I don't believe we can be all things to all people), we're also very well-suited for that class of game (with which I join Brett in championing) that is the less than big-box priced, but still innovative, unexpected, and just plain fun title.

As an example, yes, we're in the excellent Sid Meier's Civilization: Revolution. We're also underneath Hidden Path Entertainment's Defense Grid: The Awakening, available from Steam for ~$20.

It's important to say I would in no way characterize Defense Grid as a "budget" title. I would characterize it as that new breed of title that is high production value, great bang-for-the-buck, and innovating under new challenging models of budget and timeline constraints. You should play this game.

Last year, Gamebryo launched our "Casual" program, and while this particular section of the game development market needs a new moniker to showcase the diversity in titles, budgets, timelines, and innovation we're seeing in the space, what hasn't been ambiguous is our success with the initiative. Full Gamebryo, but tailored for your project constraints? Huzzah!

Going back to Brett's contention of shrinking high-end game budgets, I do question his reduction of the AAA addressable market (I'm not sure what he's using to quantify it); though he may just be doing this as an artifact of arguing that's not an addressable market of interest to GG.

While I agree Epic is the well-hyped name in the high-end space (and Brett has some good barbs on that front), budgets for high-end games (and therefore addressable market dollars) have significantly expanded this console generation. While big-budget titles may have had budgets of $10-15M in the Xbox, PS2, and GameCube days, today's titles of the equivalent caliber can run budgets of $25M or more. Since the number of title starts hasn't lessened, linear math says this is ostensibly doubling the addressable market dollars a middleware company could conceivably go after -- but that's independent of the additional growth the industry is/was seeing, at least prior to the economic downturn. If you look at the dollar value of the AAA market as compared to the non-AAA, you could argue triple-A title starts could be anywhere between an eighth to a twenty-fifth of the rest of the market before those addressable dollars started getting smaller than the addressable dollars of those other projects.

Besides, I'm a big fan of scrappy, aspirational companies upsetting the status quo -- regardless of vertical market.

(As an aside, independent of its representational accuracy, for whatever reason I'm tickled by this graphic of Brett's, and Mark Rein's encrumbed face. Dunno what that says. Maybe it's because pecan pie is my favorite?)

Brett Seyler AAA middleware pie diagram

(As an aside aside, I think I've used more parentheticals in this post then I have ever used in a post; if not in a given month.)

We're diversified, and we're here for our licensees (Sow the seed of doubt as to our viability)

Just like middleware is not "our game in a box" (above), it's thankfully also not "your game in a box" (if it was, everybody could make your game, out-of-the-box).

I feel that Gamebryo is a great fit for triple-A projects; but we're not "just" for triple-A titles.

I also believe Gamebryo works well for casual projects; but we're not "just" casual projects (or whatever we name this broad swatch of opportunity that exists between hobbyist and Big Studio).

And while Brett doesn't really talk academics as licensees (which is odd, since I thought roughly half of GG's revenue comes from that constituency), but we've got those folks (including students) covered, too.

I get that Gamebryo isn't for everyone. Being a bit snarky, maybe those folks not needing to save money and time by licensing proven tech that also includes a boatload of additional middleware integrations shouldn't license us.

Being less snarky (and totally honest), I do know Gamebryo isn't for everyone. There are some titles that plan on being so specialized, they don't know if customizing licensed tech will save over building their own from the ground up. There are other projects that might require our tech to be so generalized it would be no good many of our licensees (platform-specific or otherwise).

There are others that don't have the budget or need or for a commercial game engine offering. for some, Flash is a better option (depending on their needs).

And so on.

The good news is we have past licensees who had a later project that wasn't a match for our tech, and come back to us when they have one that does. We have had prospects for whom we genuinely weren't a match, and because we had the conversations and they knew what we were about, they followed up with us when they had projects that were a match -- and they've been tremendously successful.

Multiplatform support, flexibility and extensibility for developers, enabling the power of multiple hardware threads -- these are core product differentiators for us, and they benefit our licensees.

Steady, hardened releases, ongoing new features and functionality, new licensing programs to address customer needs, responsiveness to market and developer requests, tighter platform partnerships benefiting teams at the technology level -- these are all hallmarks of Gamebryo releases.

Those things -- which enable time and cost savings for licensees for all types and constraints -- are what make us successful in the middleware space.

Make no mistake, it's challenging out there right now. There are a bunch of new middleware competitors cropping up. Studios are changing their business models as they react to immediate events, acquisition changes, the "professionalizing" of the industry, a wicked tough global economy, and knee-jerk Wall Street reactions. These all make for the challenging problems we're trying to solve in product positioning, licensing, and pricing models.

Again, I really respect what Brett laid out in his post, and I'm grateful for the springboard it gave me (if you've read this far, maybe you're not ;-).

Comments? Hit me up through my Web page (please include a working Email). Or you can always reach me through LinkedIn, Plaxo, etc.