February 27, 2023

Happy Monday.

After the ending of Paper Mario: The Origami King brought my daughter to tears, I told her that there's a better ending that unlocks if you find every hidden thing in the game. Seems it'll take me weeks, but she's asking me for a progress report each morning.

Today's edition: 1,278 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Slow progress hiring Black game developers

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Advocates say it’s too soon to tell whether the small rise in the number of Black employees in the video game industry will be sustained or meaningful.

Why it matters: The percentage of Black people making video games professionally has been stubbornly low for decades.

  • But a glimmer of improvement appeared last summer when the International Game Developers Association’s annual industry survey showed that representation of Black people in game development had reached 5% in North America in 2021.
  • Years of prior studies showed the count hovering at 2%.
  • The 5% mark has been a goal for Black in Gaming (BiG), an industry advocacy group that has noted the chronically low numbers.

What they’re saying: “I think 5% was really about: When you get 5%, OK, we can have some discussions and have some conversation about, ‘What are the structural inadequacies?’” Carl Varnado, board member and former director of BiG, tells Axios. “Because, at 2%, you don't have the people to have a conversation.”

  • Varnado said he and BiG members experienced going to conferences of 5,000 people and finding barely 20 Black people in attendance.
  • “We’re worse than the mining industry,” Varnado said, accurately.

The big picture: The lack of diversity in game development has been a continued concern for people around the industry. Many believe it costs talented people opportunities, chases those who made it into the field back out and results in problematic or less interesting video games.

  • The Entertainment Software Association estimates that 8% of America's 215 million gamers are Black players. (The U.S. Census says Black people are nearly 14% of all Americans.)

Numbers: Video game companies have begun publishing reports on the demographics of their workforce, generally showing low numbers of Black employees, but with some signs of improvement.

  • In 2019, Riot Games said that 2.2% of its U.S. staff were Black workers; it was up to 3.1% in 2021.
  • At Electronic Arts, Black representation in its U.S. workforce was 3.6% two years ago and 3.8% a year later.

Between the lines: Varnado attributes any recent increases to a confluence of factors.

  • George Floyd’s murder in spring 2020, he said, made more people at senior levels of game companies “sympathetic to the idea that well maybe there is bias in our system” and led to more programs to improve diversity in hiring and employment.
  • It also gave workers trying to advocate from within more likelihood of being heard.
  • Remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic broadened hiring pools as well, Varnado said.

Yes, but any gains are fragile, subject to employers’ commitment to increasing diversity, and even recent reports don’t show notable improvements at the leadership level.

  • For example, Take-Two Interactive’s first public diversity report showed that 5% of its staff in the U.S. were Black workers as of the end of 2021, but only 4% were Black people managers, and less than 1% were at the VP level or above.

The bottom line: A bigger percentage alone can’t be the whole goal, Varnado says.

  • “Now it's about: Can we get a more inclusive industry across the board? And can we create programming that will help people become successful from when they enter university basically until they've become CEOs of their own companies?”

2. Call of Duty's revised mobile approach

Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile. Image: Activision Blizzard

Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile, which connects to PC and console versions of the hit Activision Blizzard game, represents a major rethink of how best to extend a hit franchise to cellphones.

Driving the news: Warzone Mobile won’t let mobile players compete against PC/console players, but it does allow for cross-progression, meaning that playing one version of the game will advance a user’s progress toward unlocking content in the other versions.

  • In the parlance of the genre, all versions of Warzone will share a battle pass, a calendar of unlockable cosmetic rewards earned through continued play.

Be smart: Warzone Mobile, released only in Australia so far, is a multiplayer battle royale, like its PC/console counterparts.

  • It’s developed by four Activision Blizzard teams, led by Solid State Studios, and had more than 25 million people pre-registered to play as of last November.

What they’re saying: “We just want to make sure that you have that kind of shared continuity,” Activision’s co-head of mobile Chris Plummer told Axios.

  • “It also gives our community a unified chase, a unified backdrop for conversation.”

This is a different approach than Activision took with Call of Duty Mobile, its current, ongoing phone spinoff of its war-game franchise.

  • CoD:M, developed externally by Tencent’s TiMi studios, runs its own seasons and battle pass, functionally existing in its own silo.
  • Activision rival EA recently surprised players by saying it would shut down its externally developed mobile spinoff to hit console/PC game Apex Legends, citing the limits of its siloed approach and the need for a more unified experience across PC/console/mobile versions of the game.

Yes, but: CoD: Warzone Mobile will also have some unique unlockable rewards, Plummer says, because mobile players expect even more content.

3. Need to know

🏆 Elden Ring and God of War: Ragnarök won a combined 12 out of 23 trophies at The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ 2022 video game awards, one of the industry’s top sets of annual accolades.

🤔 The highly anticipated role-playing game Baldur’s Gate 3 is only announced for release on PlayStation 5 and PC for now, because its development studio is not yet confident it can make the game’s splitscreen run well enough on Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and weaker Xbox Series S consoles, IGN reports.

👀 Nintendo has confirmed an earlier IGN report that it will break from tradition and not be at E3, “since this year’s E3 show didn’t fit into our plans," VGC reports. It’s unclear if its lack of participation means it won’t air its standard E3-timed online showcase or simply won’t have a booth at the show, where it previously had one of the event’s biggest footprints.

😲 Mortal Kombat 12 has been announced, not with a trailer or brand tweet, but by Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, during an earnings call last week. Release window: 2023.

💰 Sons of the Forest is the latest red-hot survival game on Steam, selling 2 million copies on its first day of early access release, according to its developers.

🎓 An esports-themed high school in Tokyo that was meant to train professional gamers has instead attracted students who were otherwise chronically absent from their schools due to a range of anxieties, The New York Times reports.

4. Time to sleep

A non-final glimpse of Pokémon Sleep from today's online showcase. Image: The Pokémon Company via YouTube

Surprising at least one expert, the Pokémon Company did in fact show off Pokémon Sleep this morning during a video preview of upcoming franchise releases.

Why it matters: Sleep was announced in 2019, followed by years of near-silence.

Details: Pokémon Sleep is the Pokémon Company’s take on sleep-tracking apps, inviting users to rest their phone on their bed to track how they sleep — but with the added perk that they’ll be partnering with the pocket monster Snorlax.

  • According to the press release: “The longer you sleep, the higher your score in the morning, and the more Pokémon you'll see appear around Snorlax.”
  • Every Pokémon game involves collecting. For this one, players are discovering different “sleep styles” for the creatures.
  • The app will be released for iOS and Android in the summer.

The intrigue: As for a major new franchise release in 2023 for Switch, the Pokémon Company’s showcase today made that seem unlikely.

  • The company announced a late 2023 set of expansions for last November’s hit Pokémon Scarlet & Violet games (20+ million copies sold).
  • That means any actual new Pokémon release for Switch this year is more likely to be a franchise spinoff, of which there have already been many.

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🐦 Find me on Twitter: @stephentotilo.

Thank you to Peter Allen Clark for editing and Kathie Bozanich for copy editing this newsletter.

My son's reaction to finishing Paper Mario.