October 23, 2023

Happy Monday.

Got surprised by yet another amazing upcoming game that I can't wait to tell you about when I'm allowed to ... next week.

Today's edition: 1,535 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Remedy's layers of unreality

Sam Lake and his Alan Wake II character Alex Casey. Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photos: Courtesy of Remedy Entertainment

Sam Lake didn't just write Alan Wake II, the new survival horror game from Remedy Entertainment. He's in it, playing FBI agent Alex Casey, a character who, in another twist, shares the same name — and maybe more — with a fictional detective featured in books written by in-game novelist Alan Wake.

Why it matters: It's all supposed to be a bit confusing in the latest game from Remedy. The studio has been building a following for decades in part by blending layers of reality.

  • Its newest release, Alan Wake II, is out Friday. In the game, players split their time playing as Casey's partner, FBI investigator Saga Anderson, and Alan Wake, as they investigate killings and try to survive in a world seemingly gone mad.

What they're saying: "It just felt like an opportunity that couldn't be missed with all the meta layers going on," Lake tells Axios, of his decision to go beyond serving as the game's creative director and playing Casey.

  • Lake had just sat through a playthrough of a brief portion of the game in which Wake is confronted by Casey, whose face and body is based on Lake's. (Other actors, Matthew Porretta and James McCaffrey, did the voicework for Wake and Casey, respectively).
  • "I've learned a ton, especially about directing and writing, by having to be on the other side of this," Lake said. The process made him appreciate the challenge "from the actors' perspective of shifting from one emotion to another."

The big picture: Remedy's playful blending of real and fictional, an unusual signature element for a game studio, can be traced to 2001's Max Payne, in which a photo of Lake was the basis for Payne's face.

  • In 2010's Alan Wake, a thriller centered on the question of whether Wake was writing the horrors of his books into reality, Lake appeared as himself as the guest of an in-game talk show.
  • Remedy's 2016 sci-fi game Quantum Break intercut playable chapters with 20-minute live-action scenes starring the same characters and recorded in multiple ways. (Alan Wake II is not structured this way, but does include "a feature film's worth of live action" content, Lake says.)
  • Remedy's 2019 hit Control established an official "Remedy Connected Universe," name-checking Casey and eventually featuring an expansion about Alan Wake.

Between the lines: Remedy's experimentation has earned it loyal fans, but Lake says it took three major tries to get the sequel greenlit.

  • Original publisher Microsoft passed after the first Alan Wake released, preferring something new, he says. A second pitch morphed into Control.
  • The third attempt found backing in Epic Games, which published a remaster of the original and this week's sequel, which began production in 2019.
  • Lake and co-director Kyle Rowley credit an uptick in interest in horror games thanks to the success of the 2019 release of a Capcom's Resident Evil 2 Remake, as well as renewed industry enthusiasm for the kind of single-player adventures Remedy specializes in. Lake name-checks the success of Sony solo blockbusters like 2018's God of War for that.

The intrigue: One other layer of reality-warping to consider is that "Sam Lake" isn't a real name. The creative director's last name is really Järvi, which means "lake" in his native Finnish.

  • When reporters struggled early in Remedy's run with getting his team's Finnish last names right, Sam Järvi switched to a pseudonym that's proved real enough.

2. Sony's new "fastest-selling" game

Screenshot: X

PlayStation exclusive Marvel's Spider-Man 2, developed by Sony-owned Insomniac Games, is now the company's fastest-selling game, Sony said today.

Driving the news: Sony says it sold 2.5 million copies to customers in the first 24 hours since the game's release.

  • In the U.S., the basic version of Spider-Man 2 sells for $70, though Sony also sells a deluxe version for $80 and a collectors edition with a statue for $230.

Between the lines: Sony's first-party games are among the industry's most critically acclaimed and are regularly touted by Sony as record-breakers.

  • 2018's first Insomniac-made Spider-Man game achieved "fastest-selling" status with 3.3 million copies in three days, per Sony
  • 2020's The Last Of Us Part II became Sony's "fastest-selling" game with 4 million copies in three days.
  • 2022's God of War: Ragnarök got the "fastest-selling" label from Sony with 5.1 million copies sold in five days.

The intrigue: Sony's highly polished and largely single-player blockbusters are undoubtedly successful but present a tough model for competitors to imitate.

  • Poorly redacted documents from the FTC's lawsuit against Microsoft's bid for Activision revealed The Last of Us Part II cost about $220 million to make.
  • As a publisher of its own games, Sony doesn't have to pay the platform fee that third-party game makers do to sell their titles on PlayStation (or Switch, Xbox, iOS, etc). But Spider-Man, being a license, does incur a fee to rights-holder Disney that a PlayStation-born franchise like God of War or The Last of Us does not.

The bottom line: The development and marketing budget for Spider-Man 2 isn't public, but if its first 2.5 million copies sold for at least $70 each, that'd be a $175 million first-day haul.

3. Game Pass pay target dropped

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's performance incentives for the 12 months ending June 30, 2023, did not include a specific target for Xbox Game Pass subscriber growth, after that metric was included as a component in recent years.

Why it matters: A shift to a broader metric, Xbox content and services revenue growth, could reflect a broader measure for gaming success at Microsoft.

  • The shift denies Axios Gaming a trifecta of articles about Nadella's Game Pass pay targets. (See our 2021 and 2022 reports.)

Details: For 2023, the portion of Nadella pay relating to Xbox content and services revenue, was tied to a growth target of 4.4%, but the division achieved growth of 0.7%, when adjusted for currency exchange rates, according to a new Microsoft filing.

  • Other sections of Nadella's performance-based pay came closer to their targets or exceeded them, as was the case with goals tied to total LinkedIn sessions and growth in Microsoft Teams usage.
  • Nadella's overall cash and stock compensation for 2023 is listed by Microsoft at $48.5 million, down from $54.9 million in 2022.

Between the lines: Game Pass subscriber growth exceeded Nadella's pay target for the popular all-you-can-play service in 2020 but fell short the following two years.

  • In 2022, the Nadella pay target called for 73% growth for Game Pass but it achieved growth of 28%.
  • Microsoft said in January of last year that Game Pass had 25 million subscribers.

Be smart: Executive pay targets aren't an actual business plan. Nadella's goals don't necessarily indicate the numbers Microsoft needs its divisions to hit to be successful.

  • But they can show what a company's general goals are.
  • Such goals sometimes involve corporate strategies that are directly relevant to the video games people play.

4. Need to know

🎮 Publisher Devolver Digital is donating to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinian families amid the Israel-Hamas war, and is asking its followers to do the same, the company said on X.

🤔 FaZe Clan, the esports and influencer organization whose stock tanked since going public last year, has been sold to GameSquare in an all-stock deal, Bloomberg reports.

💰 Streamer Nick "Nickmercs" Kolcheff has signed a $10 million, one-year deal to primarily play games live on Twitch competitor Kick, Forbes reports.

  • He's the latest in a parade of streamers drifting from Amazon-owned Twitch, Polygon explains.

☹️ PlayStation workers at Sony's Visual Arts Service Group took to social media last week to say they were laid off, VGC reports, though the exact number of cuts is unknown.

👀 A new King Kong game that became a laughingstock on social media last week due to its bad graphics and uninspiring gameplay was developed in just one year by an overworked, frustrated development team, The Verge reports.

5. The new Mario, according to my kids

Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Screenshot: Nintendo

I recently played a whole lot of the new Super Mario Bros. Wonder with my 6-year–old twins. Then I secured separate, exclusive interviews with both of them about it.

  • They didn't request anonymity, but I'm granting it.
  • The conversations have been condensed, but not by much.

Did you like the game?

  • Son: Yes.
  • Daughter: Kind of, but I think people will like it.

What was your favorite part?

  • Son: When [you reach] the levels close to Bowser, they are difficult, but they are actually really fun. In one of these, you have to get on these [redacted to avoid spoiling one of the game's coolest moments.]
  • Daughter: That it was flat. That you could go this way and that way [gestures with her hands up, down, side-to-side].

Is this your favorite Mario game?

  • Son: Yes. Because the levels are easier and the stuff is a little easier and more fun.
  • Daughter: I like Super Mario Odyssey better.

Who were your favorite characters?

  • Son: Mario and Luigi, too.
  • Daughter. Daisy. Princess Peach. Toad.

Anything you didn't like?

  • Son: Yes. Some of the levels are very difficult and they make it not very fun.
  • Daughter: How the levels get harder and harder.

What do you like better? "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" or Super Mario Bros. Wonder?

  • Son: I feel like it's the same.
  • Daughter: The movie. [How come?] I don't know.

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🐦 Find me on Twitter or Threads, @stephentotilo.

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

I'm real. I promise.