China may have hit the pause button, and the stock markets around the world tanked. Game investments and game industry acquisitions fell sharply in 2015, even as venture capital got a huge boost thanks to the creation of so many “unicorns,” or startups with a billion-dollar-plus valuation. But as far as game revenues go, 2015 was a pretty good year for the overall industry. The numbers aren’t completely in yet, but I suspect that most things in gaming expanded, rather than contracted, during the past year.
I was lucky to travel the world in 2015. I saw thriving game industries not only in places such as San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, but also in places such as Shanghai, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Marseilles, and Montreal. These strong regional game economies showed me in the most tangible way that the craft of making games has spread worldwide, even to places like Siberia.
Market researcher NPD reported yesterday physical sales of video game software, hardware, and accessories were flat in the U.S. compared to 2014. That’s not a bad outcome, considering all of the competition that the industry faces on the digital front in the form of free-to-play PC games and mobile titles. In fact, market researcher SuperData Research reported that digital sales on consoles worldwide were $3.9 billion, up from $3.0 billion a year earlier. Digital console game sales in the U.S. were $1.3 billion, up from $949 million.
Liam Callahan, analyst at NPD, said that after 26 months on the market, the combined cumulative sales of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 exceeded the 26 month total of the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation by 47 percent. So console gamers are buying the current-generation hardware at a faster rate. December 2015 was the best month yet for PS4 and Xbox One console sales. And 2015 was the best year for PS4 and Xbox One hardware sales. In other words, the consoles aren’t dead.
Nintendo, to be sure, is pretty shaky right now with the weakness of the Wii U console and the 3DS under assault from mobile devices. Indeed, console game software grew 2 percent in the year, while portable game sales fell 34 percent. But the Japanese company is expected to play some big cards in mobile and next-generation consoles in 2016. If Nintendo is weak and vulnerable right now, you can think of that as a temporary state.
Activision Blizzard noted that Call of Duty: Black Ops III was the No. 1 game of the year, retaking the top spot. As I noted in my own review, it was a much better game this year, both as a single-player campaign and multiplayer.
And to date, more than 250 million Call of Duty games have been sold. That suggests revenue in excess of $10 billion over the 12-year lifespan of the game series. Star Wars Battlefront, buoyed by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (even though it had no single-player campaign and the subject matter didn’t cover the new movie) also did well. And Grand Theft Auto V also had a remarkable year, Callahan said. Fresh titles such as Fallout 4, Rainbow Six: Siege, and Just Cause 3 also did well.
Market researcher Newzoo said the mobile game market grew to more than $30 billion in 2015, up from $24.5 billion the year before. During 2015, we saw a couple of milestones, according to Newzoo. China became the world’s biggest game market, both in mobile and overall. And the mobile game business outgrew the console market.
Meanwhile, Apple said that it paid $20 billion to developers in 2015. The majority of that money probably went to game companies. To date, the App Store has generated $40 billion for developers since 2008, and it has created an estimated 1.9 million jobs in the U.S. alone. We also saw additions of another 1.2 million jobs in Europe and 1.4 million jobs in China. Again, you can bet that a large chunk of those jobs are attributable to games, which, along with social networking and entertainment, are the most popular app categories.
Games such as Clash of Clans, Monster Strike, Game of War: Fire Age, and Fantasy Westward Journey continue to occupy the top-grossing positions on the app store. During the month of December, revenues in the app store were close to $1 billion, up 18 percent from the prior month’s $847 million, according to app optimization and intelligence firm Sensor Tower. Downloads grew to 179 million in December, up 26 percent from November in the U.S. Worldwide, game downloads grew 20 percent from 510 million in November to 614 million in December. Sensor Tower estimates that game app revenue in 2015 was $9.19 billion. That’s a huge addition to the console and PC revenue numbers.
The No. 1 download was Piano Tiles 2 (Don’t Tap the White Tile 2) from China’s Cheetah Technology. Tencent made a splash on the global stage with the Chinese debut of CrossFire: King Shootout, a mobile version of its extremely popular PC first-person shooter, CrossFire. These are worth mentioning because the top downloads charts aren’t static, in contrast to the top-grossing charts, on a worldwide basis.
We even saw the dawn of a new platform, in the form of virtual reality on mobile. The $99 Samsung Gear VR debuted in November, and it sold out. It wasn’t a spectacular product, but the immersiveness of VR could potentially draw in broad audiences that even mobile games are hitting. I know because I tried it out on three grandmothers during the holidays, and it was a big hit.
Other major VR headset launches for the PC — from Facebook’s Oculus VR and Valve-HTC — were postponed until 2016. But VR has had its start. And it hasn’t made us all throw up just yet. When the PC-based systems arrive next year, I think we’re going to see some spectacular experiences.
So when you look back on the game industry in 2015, and consider this vintage compared to past years, I’ll think you’ll agree it was a very good year. The core business held together, even as gaming grew at the edges on new platforms and new territories. Some cool new platforms are arriving next year, and that will boost the industry in 2016.
That’s a pretty good result for an industry that brings joy to the world.