Axios Gaming

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May 01, 2023

Happy Monday.

You can listen to me talk about the U.K. blocking the Activision-Blizzard deal (and expound on the state of games media) on the newest episode of Overcome's Visionaries podcast.

Today's edition: 1,196 words, a 4.5-minute read.

1 big thing: EA's busy hit-maker

Photo Illustration of Vince Zampella from Electronic Arts

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios, Photos: EA

A career loaded with hits has led to an expanded portfolio — and added pressure — for EA executive Vince Zampella, whose team released Star Wars Jedi: Survivor to stellar reviews last week.

Why it matters: Zampella is helping reforge EA’s rep as a game maker after years of the mega-publisher’s under-achievement in creating games in key categories, including Star Wars.

Be smart: Jedi: Survivor comes from one of the teams at Respawn Entertainment, the studio co-founded by Zampella that EA purchased in 2017.

  • It follows Respawn and EA’s 2019 hit Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, which sold more than 10 million copies, rewriting EA’s battered rep on Star Wars games and, according to Zampella, exceeding internal expectations.

State of play: Respawn is now developing at least two more Star Wars games — a strategy title made in concert with new studio Bit Reactor and a first-person shooter made in-house.

  • Respawn operates Apex Legends, a battle royale game launched in 2019 that remains one of the few viable competitors to Epic’s Fortnite.
  • And while it is not working on a sequel to its beloved Titanfall franchise (it would love to but nothing's in the works, Zampella tells Axios), that series’ game director, Steve Fukuda, is leading a “very small,” “skunkworks” team at Respawn: “The mission is to find the fun in something new.”
  • Oh, and in December 2021, EA put Zampella in charge of its repeatedly underperforming Battlefield military shooter franchise to turn it around.

What they’re saying: “At the end of the day, it's interactive entertainment, so that interactive portion has to feel good,” Zampella tells Axios, drawing a throughline across his teams’ many successful games.

  • “The story can be great, and it has to be great, especially in Star Wars, right? But if it doesn't feel good, who cares?”

Catch up fast: Zampella didn’t get this amount of responsibility by accident.

  • In 2002, after making Medal of Honor games for EA, Zampella formed a new studio, Infinity Ward, which created Call of Duty for EA rival Activision.
  • Through sequels and refinement, IW made Call of Duty one of the biggest and most influential gaming series of all time.
  • An acrimonious split with Activision led Zampella to co-found Respawn, where the team made Titanfall and then pitched EA a Star Wars game, initially rejected, that became Fallen Order.

Yes, but Respawn has seen a string of departures, including its co-founder and top Apex Legends developers in the last year, forming new studios outside of EA.

  • “We’ve had an abnormally low rate of turnover, so this is just more in line with what you see realistically in the industry,” he said.
  • Zampella attributes some of the exits to talented developers wanting to try new things and the limits on how many projects can be greenlit at the company.

Between the lines: Survivor was developed mostly while its developers worked remotely due to the pandemic. It had been delayed from a planned March release because “it just wasn’t ready,” Zampella says.

  • Reviews have been strong, though the game runs poorly on some PCs, sending EA and Respawn rushing to promise patches to fix performance.
  • It’s an iterative sequel that expands and improves many aspects of Fallen Order, offering more dynamic combat options, more acrobatic moves for its playable Jedi and a much larger set of sci-fi worlds to explore.
  • “It's not just about telling the second part of the story,” Zampella says of the sequel. “It's about refining what you do.”

2. Battlefield on deck

Getting EA's Battlefield in a good spot is one of Zampella's biggest challenges.

Why it matters: Battlefield is supposed to be a marquee military shooter franchise for EA, but launches over the last several years have been shaky.

It's best not to think of it simply as a Call of Duty competitor, Zampella says.

  • It has a “specialness around the squad play” and “those only-in-Battlefield moments where you can kind of see something come together where it just blows your mind.”
  • “I can't really say too much, just because we're not really talking about it yet, but there's a lot that we can do there.”

3. Sony's unstoppable PS5

Photo illustration of a PS5 controller and abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Olly Curtis/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Sony expects to sell 25 million PlayStation 5s in the 12 months ending March 31, 2024, the company’s CEO told investors Friday.

  • That’s 6 million more than it sold in the prior year and would be the most PlayStations ever sold in a year since Sony got into gaming in the 1990s.
  • PS5 supply chain issues are fading, while demand remains strong.

Why it matters: Sony is on a roll this generation, posting rising quarterly PS5 unit sales in the same week Microsoft announced a 30% drop in year-on-year Xbox consoles sold.

Yes, but: Sony is projecting lower first-party game sales for the year and largely flat sales from third-party game makers.

  • That’s despite some massive launches ahead, including the PS5-only Final Fantasy XVI from SquareEnix and Activision Blizzard’s multiplatform Diablo IV.
  • Sony’s only announced first-party title for the next year is Marvel’s Spider-Man 2.

4. Need to know

💰 "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" has exceeded $1 billion in global box office, Variety reports. The movie keeps getting posted to Twitter, where one version was viewed more than 9 million times, according to The Verge.

☁️ Microsoft has signed another 10-year cloud gaming commitment, this time to stream Activision Blizzard games to European platform NWare, should Microsoft’s $69 billion bid for the game maker clear regulatory hurdles.

  • U.K. regulators blocked the deal last week over cloud gaming concerns, saying such deals were too narrowly defined.
  • European Commission regulators’ decision on whether to approve the deal is expected by May 22.

😲 The impact of Xbox Game Pass is evident in new player stats for Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo’s Wo: Long Fallen Dynasty, which has sold more than 1 million copies and drawn nearly 4 million players. Since its March 2023 launch, the game has been available at no added cost to Game Pass subscribers.

☹️ Waypoint, Vice’s gaming subsite that focused on the people and culture of video games, was shut down last week by its struggling digital media parent. The loss was swiftly mourned. (Disclosure: Current and former Waypoint staff worked for me and did great work, as far as I’m concerned.)

5. Development costs balloon

Animated GIF of an air pump pumping up a dollar bill balloon

Illustration: Sarah Grillo

One game publisher says it has spent $660 million developing one of its games, plus another $550 million spent on marketing costs.

  • That’s according to anonymized industry disclosures included in the U.K.’s Competition & Markets Authority’s decision (section 9.19) to block the Microsoft-Activision deal (via IGN).

Why it matters: Games are getting really expensive to make, though it’s rare to see the price tag.

  • Other top publishers reported development budgets ranging from $80 million to $350 million.

Be smart: A timeline of game development costs published in Kotaku in 2014 showed the dollars spent making a game rise from seven figures in the 1990s to the high eight figures in the 2010s.

  • As that outlet notes now, rising development costs intensify the financial risks tied to blockbuster games and incentivize conservative creative directions.

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🐦 Find me on Twitter: @stephentotilo.

Thank you to Scott Rosenberg for editing and Kathie Bozanich for copy editing this newsletter.

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