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What happened with Microsoft's Switch publishing experiments?

by Simon Carless on 10/19/20 07:17:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter, which you can subscribe to now, is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Another week in game platform paradise, and we’re starting out this time with an interesting area of research. What? How Microsoft playing nice with other platforms (particularly the Switch) looks to have been an attempt to extend the Xbox ecosystem to those very platforms….

Microsoft’s discovery strategy on ‘rival platforms’

It may not have escaped your knowledge that - besides Minecraft, which already had a multiplatform strategy and roll-out when Microsoft bought the game back in 2014 - other Xbox Game Studios games have been popping up on other console platforms.

It’s not surprising that Minecraft continues to get updated for pretty much all platforms. And it’s also not incredibly eye-opening that franchise extensions like Minecraft Dungeons end up debuting on PlayStation 4 and Switch as well as Xbox and PC.

But I was legitimately surprised when the Microsoft Game Studios-published Cuphead (which was funded extensively to completion by Xbox) ended up getting released on Nintendo Switch in April 2019. And then came Ori & The Blind Forest, announced in August 2019 and debuting in September 2019. These are Xbox-exclusive portfolio titles - why would Microsoft do this?

But now it’s late 2020, and this excellent Kotaku interview with Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer added a little flavor to the current state of the Microsoft/Switch crossover:

So that seems to be an indication that this strategy is coming to an end. But why did it start in the first place? Well, one intriguing clue I found was this March 2019 announcement that Xbox Live features were going to be patched into Cuphead on Switch after release.

Specifically, the GDC 2019-themed announce said that “fans will now have the opportunity to experience StudioMDHR’s award-winning debut game on Nintendo Switch with Xbox Live! We’ll be working with StudioMDHR to implement Xbox Live features into Cuphead on the Nintendo Switch in the coming months.”

And guess what - this Xbox Live patch for Cuphead never happened. (Though it’s a little unclear if this is to do with the long-delayed Cuphead DLC, or something else.) Nonetheless, Ori & The Blind Forest did launch with Xbox Achievements baked into the Switch version, if you logged onto your Microsoft account.

However, as Kotaku’s Mike Fahey commented at the time of release: “Though it does connect to my Microsoft account, Ori Switch achievements don’t show up on my feed... It feels very cosmetic, just Microsoft Studios making sure I don’t forget where the game came from, as if I could forget.” (And the cross-platform achievements later broke/got flaky.)

So this is a little piecemeal and, as noted, ‘cosmetic’. And perhaps Microsoft was hoping or was even promised that Nintendo would open up its platform even further, maybe even to xCloud or Game Pass. But it didn’t happen, and now Microsoft is backing away. (Actually makes me wonder if the Switch port of the Ori sequel, which just got published via iam8bit, was originally asked for at one point by Microsoft.)

What’s interesting here is that Microsoft is clearly now open to unconventional ‘ecosystem partners’. A good example is them signing with physical/digital retailer GameStop to “share in the lifetime digital sales revenue - including for full game downloads, DLC, and subscription plans - for any Xbox console sold through its stores.”

And when it comes to Steam on PC, Xbox Game Studios has started publishing even more content there recently - partly because people can subscribe to PC Game Pass (or Game Pass Ultimate) using the same computer. So you can clearly see the advantages of getting 6 months of ‘Xbox Game Pass for PC’ for the cost of buying Microsoft Flight Simulator on Steam. (Though that hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of people from buying it on Steam!)

But clearly, although Nintendo has come along for part of the ride, (requiring a Microsoft logon for multiplayer on Minecraft Dungeons on Switch, for example, with Xbox achievements working), full Xbox ecosystem integration isn’t happening on Switch in the near - or even far - future.

After all, this cross-OS stuff just turns into UI/code spaghetti with multiple partners. For example: “Nintendo Switch uses a player’s Nintendo Nickname before they link their Microsoft account. After linking with their Microsoft account, the players in-game name will be their chosen Xbox Live Gamertag (note: You must link your Nintendo account with a Microsoft account if you wish to play online).” Argh…

In conclusion, it seems unlikely we’ll see more non-Minecraft titles from Microsoft on Switch. (Or Sony platforms, haha. Although Cuphead just turned up on PlayStation in July, so I don’t know what to think about that!) Actually, the Kotaku interview digs into this idea of not needing multiple platforms with regard to Xbox’s recent Bethesda acquisition, with Spencer commenting: “I don’t have to go ship those games on any other platform other than the platforms that we support in order to kind of make the deal work for us.”

And in general, all Microsoft roads now lead to Game Pass. But the detour along the way was an intriguing one?

More Steam insights? More Steam insights…

Although this is the second time we’ve returned to this (sorry!), a recent Gamasutra blog from Mason Remaley delves into the recent GamePlaySpace Q&A with the Steam team.

Although we previously covered this Q&A in some detail, the notes here are additionally useful in a couple of places I’d like to highlight, as follows:

  • With the exception of the Steam Game Festivals and other Valve-run events, the team commented that “which games are featured [in specific third-party organized Steam showcases] is up to the event organizers”. I’ll also add that the amount of featuring on Steam’s front page can vary for each of these events, depending on what they’ve negotiated with Steam. So def. ask your showcase partner about that before signing up!

  • There’s a section on whether you can predict sales from wishlists, which I find extremely interesting: “Valve doesn't think you can predict things using wishlist data since it's extremely noisy… Every game is different, people wishlist games for different reasons.” As you may recall, I did a survey on this in June, discovering a massive disparity in possible outcomes, even for games with a similar amount of wishlists. In addition, I think the rise of pre-release featuring via showcases is driving wishlist-to-sale ratios rapidly down. Time for another survey soon?

  • Finally, an interesting note on whether Steam had considered ‘abandoned cart’ reminders if people had added a game, but then not followed through and bought it. “Customer privacy is important, feels like an invasion to comment on the fact that they left stuff on their cart… Not spamming players is important… They thought about this and decided against it.” This is in line with Valve tending to resist things such as referral codes which ‘clutter’ the experience.

Anyway, lots more there. But the general point is - data is indicative and somewhat directional. A lot is dependent on the quality of your game, wishlists, and who actually wants to play your game when it comes out. Yet the platform and your actions still matter - otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this newsletter, right?

The game discovery news round-up..

There’s a lot going on this week, so let’s get to it. What else is there out there in game discovery land which you might all care about? Well for starters, this stuff:

  • Game developer PSA: Did you have a demo in the 2020 Steam Game Festival: Autumn Edition? If so, Chris Zukowski is conducting a survey about your demo's wishlists/results & will compile the results for all. (Here’s his survey results for the Summer Game Festival.)

  • Unity has announced the Game Growth Program - funding user acquisition and helping with monetization, specifically for F2P indies. Good metacommentary via the Master The Meta newsletter“With this move, Unity is following in the footsteps of AppLovin and ironSource, who not only own ad networks but also help publish games through Lion Studios and Supersonic Games… [and] throwing its hat in the competitive ring of notable mobile gaming UA partners, such as Tilting Point, N3twork, and SuperScale.” If you can get empirically profitable via ads on F2P, the sky’s the limit scalewise, so I get it.

  • This week (starting on Wednesday the 23rd!) is the Steam Digital Tabletop sale/fest, one of the more comprehensive/organized themed Steam sales of the year, with lots of good streamed video panels. It includes this one on card games including the folks from Slay The Spire, Floppy Knights, Shadow Hand, No More Robots’ Nowhere Prophet, & more. Anyway, worth keeping an eye on.

  • Denny Unger at Cloudhead Games notes that “we've seen a 10X increase in Pistol Whip sales since the launch of [Oculus] Quest 2. This is an incredible sign for the VR industry in general!” Given the complexity of the games and the fragmented/low user base, most VR games have been a lousy ROI to date. So perhaps things are improving, at least for the top games? I see the Oculus Store has a real-time top selling chart here - Pistol Whip (pictured) at #8 with almost 5,000 reviews to date.

  • Flexing another of the muscles it has to promote Apple Arcade, Apple is “offering anyone who buys a new iPhone, iPad, Mac, iPod touch, or Apple TV after October 22nd a free three-month trial of Apple Arcade.” I recently got a new iPhone and got a free year of Apple TV+ - these tasters are a good way to get people interested. Will they keep paying (or remembering they signed up!) after the free trial? Apple will see, I guess!

  • Looks like ‘daily deal site’ Chrono.gg - intended to be streamer-promoted - is closing down in favor of the team continuing to develop ‘custom streamer storefront’ Nexus.gg, which we talked about a while back. Given where Chrono ended up, seems to makes sense?

  • For those keeping up with hypercasual (free, ad-supported mobile games), here’s the latest market share rundown via Apptopia.data, and the amount of games downloaded in this space is insane: “Across its games library, Voodoo racked up 529 million downloads in Q3, which is 105 per cent more than that of the second-place publisher, Lion Studios, who hit 258 million installs.” Hoping those dev payment ethics issues are still being worked on over there..

  • An interesting Steam tidbit via Jake Birkett, and also confirmed by Valve’s Alden Kroll (and NMR’s Mike Rose): “We just published a game and it sent quite a lot more emails than pre-launch wishlists… does it also email publisher page followers?” (It does.) You may have been aware. But if not, all the more reason to keep pushing people to follow your dev/publisher page in addition to your game pages.

  • Microlinks: 19 lessons from a record label owner that might be thought-provoking for game publishers/devs; GameClub for iOS adds brand new subscription-exclusive content to Breach & Clear; latest Steam top 10 topped by Phasmophobia.

Finally, Mat Piscatella from NPD has a lengthy chart-filled Twitter thread about the September 2020 U.S. console hardware and console/PC software charts that you might want to check out. For example, here’s their take on the top-selling large scale games of the year so far:

Sure, NPD still runs a permission-based digital element to their charts, making digital download coverage patchwork quilt-esque and major legacy publisher-centric. But there’s still some neat indicative data in here, and there’s even a free 6-minute YouTube presentation compiling the free information.

[This newsletter is handcrafted by GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We’ll be launching a ‘Plus’ paid newsletter tier with lots of extra info/data - watch out for it soon.]


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