It was another momentous week for games as I traveled to Disneyland for the Casual Connect USA 2018 event, which drew 1,400 attendees to Anaheim, California. While I was listening to talks on subjects including diversity and blockchain, the game industry decided to play musical chairs with some of its most important leaders.
Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s head of games, kicked himself upstairs and promoted a replacement, Matt Booty, who is now responsible for game software. Judging by the response on social media, gamers want Booty to commission more blockbuster exclusive games, as Microsoft has lagged behind Sony in this generation. I would say that his should be his top task.
Then Eric Hirshberg announced that he was leaving the top job of Activision Publishing in March. He’s going out on a high note after big success with Call of Duty: WWII and Destiny 2. Over eight years, he has had an epic ride in shepherding the biggest of the industry’s billion-dollar franchises. Activision is in good shape, though it saw weakness in the rise and fall of its Skylanders property. In my opinion, Activision has to experiment more and turn more small ideas into the next big games. At the same time, it shouldn’t screw up its existing mega games.
In smaller news, we got the scoop on Florian Hunziker leaving the top job at Sony for courting third-party developers for the PlayStation 4. Hunziker was on the job for a year, and he followed the charismatic predecessor Adam Boyes. The change follows other departures, including Andrew House’s resignation from the top game job at Sony. All of these changes mean that the game industry is about to press reset and embark on a new journey to deliver the next big thing for gamers.
Will esports be that next big thing? Blizzard’s Overwatch League took off with a blast. Executives such as Peter Levin of Lionsgate, Mike Sepso of Activision, and Kevin Chou of KSV Esports were ecstatic over the viewership numbers for the league’s first week, with more than 10 million people watching. It also drew new sponsors such as Toyota. And that Overwatch League audience isn’t just in esports-crazed places like China.
“It blew way past my expectations for the opening,” Sepso said in a session at Casual Connect. “I think we’ll be surprised at how big the domestic audience is.”
Meanwhile, Chris Hewish, executive vice president at Skydance Media, told me in a session that he was bullish on the long-term potential of virtual reality. I tried out the Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire VR experience at The Void: Step Beyond Reality in the Disney District. It was tantalizing, but not quite as thrilling as I had hoped (I’ll have more to say about that later). I’m not sure I share his enthusiasm that VR will climb out of its current lull, but I think it makes sense for Skydance to stay out of the PC and console fray and try to establish itself in one of gaming’s emerging sectors.
Disney came back to the gaming fold after staging a huge retreat. Disney executive Kyle Laughlin announced his company had licensed its properties to four mobile game companies — Ludia, Glu, Gameloft, and PerBlue. Instead of making its own games, Disney will rely on outside parties to make games, and it looks like it isn’t going to be shy about bringing on new partners for new games.
I was happy to watch talks on diversity, accessibility, and Muslim representations in games. The speakers delivered eloquent words on what it means to be inclusive and how that will help broaden the game industry’s reach. Megan Gaiser of Contagious Creativity symbolically passed me the Compassion Games torch for my own work in promoting diversity at our events. That was quite an honor, but I was also disappointed that the Casual Connect diversity sessions didn’t have bigger audiences.
Instead, the shiny new thing at Casual Connect was blockchain and cryptocurrency. While the Bitcoin cryptocurrency has seen its spectacular rise and scary collapse, entrepreneurs are creating potentially game-changing enterprises using cryptocurrency tokens and blockchain ledger technology. The Casual Connect sessions that focused on these innovations were very well attended, reflecting the hype around the opportunity to catch a ride on the next big thing.
I was fascinated to see Brian Fargo, CEO of InXile and a 30-year veteran of games, dive into a blockchain startup to disrupt app stores such as Steam on the PC. Instead of taking 30 percent of every game sale, Fargo’s Robot Cache will only take 5 percent. It will share 95 percent with game publishers and developers, and it will pay them nearly immediately, in contrast to 60 days for current app stores. Robot Cache will also embrace the resale of digital games to consumers. The consumer keeps 25 percent of that sale, Fargo keeps 5 percent, and the developers and publishers make 70 percent, which means they make the same percentage on a used game’s sale as on a brand new game sale on Steam.
Fargo’s Initial Coin Offering (ICO) of the Iron currency certainly sounds disruptive, but it is a long shot. Some people wondered if Fargo could get the biggest publishers to defect from the Steam store and embrace his own app store, or if the publishers would be scattered among dozens of alternative app stores. Fargo thinks he has some tricks to draw traffic to Robot Cache. That may sound like the overconfidence of the bubble-crazed cryptocurrency types. But if anyone has the right connections to get the developers, publishers, and gamers on board, it’s someone like Fargo.
The events of this week were quite exciting and gratifying, and they remind me why I’ve spent my life in game journalism.
Disclosure: The organizers of Casual Connect paid my way to Anaheim. Our coverage remains objective.