September 28, 2023

Happy Thursday.

This was going to be a short one, but the gaming news cycle is relentless. Let's dig in.

Today's edition: 1,543 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: PlayStation boss to exit

Outgoing Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan. Photo: Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Jim Ryan, who has run Sony's successful PlayStation division since 2019 and been part of its video game operation since 1994, is retiring early next year, Sony announced Wednesday.

Why it matters: Ryan's exit caps off a successful run, but comes at a pivotal time for Sony's powerful gaming brand.

Driving the news: Ryan will step down as Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO on March 31, with Sony chief operating officer Hiroki Totoki assuming the role of interim division CEO until a successor is found.

  • Totoki will also serve as SIE chairman starting in October.

What they're saying: "I've found it increasingly difficult to reconcile living in Europe and working in North America," British exec Ryan said in a statement.

Between the lines: Sony's PlayStation 5 console, launched under Ryan in 2020 in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, has become one of the company's most successful gaming launches, selling 40 million units through July.

  • Its first-party titles like last November's God of War Ragnarök are consistently critically acclaimed multimillion sellers, and its PS4 hit The Last of Us Part II was adapted by HBO into one of 2023's best reviewed and most-watched TV shows.
  • But Sony's expensive return to virtual reality with a new headset in February failed to make waves. And its game studios are in the midst of an extended pivot toward making more live-service games as the company chases the economic model of free-to-play, third-party games such as Fortnite and Counter-Strike.
  • Sony's next big hardware release, the November-slated PlayStation Portal, is a handheld that only plays games streamed from a user's PS5, an unproven approach to portable gaming.

The intrigue: Under Ryan, Sony has been a voracious acquirer of game studios, including Destiny-maker Bungie, which was acquired last year for $3.6 billion.

  • Ryan also led efforts to bring PlayStation games beyond PlayStations to PCs, on which many of Sony's games have thrived, and to mobile, where efforts have yet to bear much fruit.
  • Ryan made headlines the last two years for his vociferous opposition to Microsoft's attempted purchase of Call of Duty maker Activision Blizzard. But after the Federal Trade Commission failed to secure an injunction against the deal this summer, Ryan's team struck a deal with Microsoft to secure Call of Duty on PlayStation for the next decade.

The bottom line: In 2021, Ryan told Axios that PlayStation's competition went beyond rival game companies. "We are an entertainment company with a community of more than 100 million gamers with really extraordinary levels of commitment and engagement.

  • "I would say unequivocally that we are competing for leisure hours, and that any definition of competition has to extend way beyond the boundaries of what has traditionally been defined as gaming."

What's next: Sony won't name Ryan's successor for some time, but history has shown that the company has typically selected its game division leaders from within, usually from marketing or other other executive roles outside of game production.

2. Epic's massive layoffs

Fortnite. Screenshot: Epic Games

Fortnite maker Epic Games announced deep cuts today, citing a slowdown in the popularity of its marquee game, as layoffs continue in the games industry despite market growth.

Driving the news: Epic will lay off around 870 employees and part ways with 250 others, CEO Tim Sweeney told employees today in a note Epic published to its website and first reported by Bloomberg. The moves come as it divests from music site Bandcamp and spins off "most of" kidstech marketing platform SuperAwesome.

  • Sweeney said two-thirds of the cuts are outside the company's core businesses and said Epic will focus on more Fortnite content and projects codenamed: Del Mar, Sparks and Juno.

What they're saying: Sweeney blamed the cuts on unrealistic growth expectations at the privately held company.

  • "For a while now, we've been spending way more money than we earn, investing in the next evolution of Epic and growing Fortnite as a metaverse-inspired ecosystem for creators."

Between the lines: Epic seldom releases monthly active user stats, but Fortnite remains one of the world's most played games according to store rankings on game consoles.

  • Its game creation technology, the Unreal Engine, is one of the most widely used in the industry, behind rival Unity, which itself laid off 600 people, or 8% of its workforce, this year.
  • Epic released a version of Unreal this year that lets Fortnite users create new experiences in the game, as it pursues a Roblox-style model of enticing users to create the content that will entertain the rest of its audience.
  • Epic said yesterday it is raising the price for V-Bucks, Fortnite's in-game currency, due to inflation, among other factors. 2,800 V-Bucks will cost $22.99 starting in October, up from $19.99.

Between the lines: Until recently, Epic had demonstrated significant financial strength. The company bought Bandcamp in March 2022.

  • Epic raised $1 billion in investment in 2021, including $200 million from Sony and another $2 billion last year from Sony and Lego parent company Kirkbi.

The big picture: The year has been terrific for game players, thanks to an unprecedented cascade of top-reviewed video games, but it has been brutal for industry workers.

3. PlayStation vs. Xbox, charted

Chart: Keystone Strategy

A chart released among the exhibits in the Federal Trade Commission's lawsuit against Microsoft's bid for Activision shows the possible impact that exclusive games and new consoles have on gaming's long-running console battle.

  • The chart, prepared for Microsoft by Keystone Strategy, shows the monthly shifts in North American market share between Xbox and PlayStation, from 2015-19.

Why it matters: Microsoft's intent was for the chart to show the limited impact of any one exclusive game, but it's also insightful just to see which games moved the needle and which did not. (Check out the sizable shifts associated with Halo 5 and Uncharted 4, for example.)

4. Need to know

☹️ Sega is restructuring its European operations, citing regional inflation cutting into profits. The changes will result in the cancellation of some games, including Creative Assembly's Hyenas, but Sega did not say if there would be layoffs.

🔥 SAG-AFTRA members voted overwhelmingly to authorize organizers to call a strike against game companies. Negotiations between the industry and union reps for voice and performance actors resumed Tuesday.

😲 Valve surprise-launched Counter-Strike 2 last night, rolling it out as a free update to its popular multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike GO. Since midnight, the game's peak concurrent player count surged to nearly 1.5 million users.

⚽️ EA has delisted FIFA 23, its big soccer game released last year, leading into the launch of EA Sports FC 24, following the expiration of its FIFA license. FIFA 23 will continue to run online.

👀 The Federal Trade Commission plans to resume its in-house case against the Microsoft-Activision merger, but only 21 days after an appeals court rules in the FTC's federal lawsuit against the deal. That ruling isn't likely until 2024, and Microsoft says it still expects to close the merger this October.

👩🏻‍⚖️ Epic and Apple are both asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the split-ruling in the firms' lawsuit over Fortnite and in-app payments. Epic wants to be able to offer its own store on iOS; Apple doesn't want to be forced to drop anti-steering rules that bar apps from linking to external websites for alternate ways to make payments.

🥽 Meta's latest "mixed reality" headset, the Quest 3, will launch Oct. 10, for $500-$650, depending on internal storage.

⚔️ Netflix's upcoming animation slate will include shows based on Castlevania, Tomb Raider, Sonic, Far Cry and — newly announced — Devil May Cry.

5. The week ahead

I doesn't exist. Screenshot: LUAL Games/DreadXP

Friday, Sept.29

Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 30-Oct. 1

  • 3D Realms' online showcase Realms Deep 2023 is held on Saturday.

Monday, Oct. 2

  • A quiet day.

Tuesday, Oct. 3

Wednesday, Oct. 4

  • A quiet day.

Thursday, Oct. 5

Friday, Oct. 6

6. I played ... Cocoon

Cocoon. Screenshot: Geometric Interactive

With an abundance of great games to play this season, I'm struggling to stick with any one title.

  • Even just getting my attention is an achievement, and the beautiful Cocoon (three hours played on PC, also coming to consoles) has grabbed it, at least for a moment.

Details: Cocoon is a gorgeous exploration and puzzle game set in a sci-fi world full of spider-like machinery.

  • I'm about 34% in and barely broken a sweat, but I've gawked plenty at Cocoon's amazing landscapes. This is one of those games in which even the intricate way its doors open is a sight to see.
  • The game's chief creator, Jeppe Carlsen, was the lead gameplay designer of the similarly sumptuous Limbo and Inside.

Will I play more? I'd like to, but ... isn't that Assassin's Creed around the corner? And Spider-Man? And Mario? Busy, busy.

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🐦 Find me on Twitter or Threads, @stephentotilo.

Thank you to Megan Morrone for editing and Kathie Bozanich for copy editing this newsletter.

If you forgot what happened in Star Wars, here's a reminder.