Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Online Games Market – Part 2

Despite the weakness of the aggregation service business model as it stood, the aggregators market was joined by two major new players, Microsoft and Segasoft with their Zone and services. Whilst Microsoft relied to a great extent on its brand to grow, SegaSoft has secured some promising deals with cable companies @Home and RoadRunner which it is claimed gives it an addressable market of 85% of cable TV users. The Zone is now the most popular aggregation service with some 7m members and 500,000 daily users. Multiplayer games aggregation services remain a viable business model for now although the entry of the publishers themselves into the online games service market represents the beginnings of a trend that could seriously undermine this model.

Enter Stage Right: The Publishers

The expression “content is king” is nowhere more true than in the games market and, as the IPR owners of 90% of games developed (principally because they fund their development), the publishers are in a powerful position. With the rejection of pay per play and monthly subscriptions to aggregation services, the publishers (who received a proportion of the revenue generated) soon realised that these companies added little value to their titles and that they could easily provide the same sorts of services themselves. Thus Blizzard’s, CUC (now Havas)’s, Novalogic’s Novaworld and a number of other publisher services were created and many publishers decided to give these services exclusive use of their hit multiplayer titles. has proven to be particularly successful following a string of best-selling PC games that has resulted in a subscriber base of over 2.1m active users and over 400,000 games played on the service every day. Indeed the success of has proven that aggregators are not needed to generate traffic and enhance retail sales. Having control over how the service is run, and sole access to a substantial and loyal userbase, the advantages to Blizzard are obvious.

This exclusivity was taken a step further with the ground-breaking release of Ultima Online by Electronic Arts (EA). Distributed as a boxed retail product in 1997, Ultima Online has to date sold only 300,000 units (a moderate success, grossing around $15m). However, the game has established not only a new genre (the persistent environment game), but also a new business model, which has proven highly profitable for EA. As the name suggests, Ultima Online can only be played online. It is a role playing game (RPG) in which users create and nurture their own characters and develop them (by gaining items, wealth, property and abilities) within a preset game environment. What is different is the fact that the game environment is an ever-present world that continues to evolve even when users are logged off. It was massively multiplayer too supporting over 100,000 players, all of whom could interact with one another via trade, fights and conversation. The appeal of the game allowed EA to justify a $10 monthly charge and two years after its release the game still boasts some 135,000 monthly subscribers. Indeed, the dedication shown to the game by some players (some of whom were clocking up 48 hour continuous sessions) resulted in some interesting off-shoots, with in-game protests and riots, and with users’ characters changing hands on e-Bay for as much as $3600. With the title grossing some $1.35m dollars/month (as much as 30% of which goes to EA’s network providers for resilient 24/7 connections), Ultima Online, has set a precedent that many publishers intend to follow.

Exit Stage Left: The Retailers and Distributors?

The disintermediation of the aggregators will continue and is being joined by disintermediation of other elements of the games value chain. As homogenous products, games, like any commodity, are ideal for online retailing and although the games e-retail market is mature in the USA, it has only just started to mature in the UK with a number of new entrants such as and promising to substantially undercut retail prices. The short and medium term prospects for games e-retailers are substantial, but they too face an uncertain future as publishers begin selling and distributing direct to consumers. At present, the principal drawbacks to this are twofold: (1) lack of bandwidth needed to distribute the large quantity data most games comprise and (2) the unwillingness of publishers to undercut the retailers on whom they still rely for the vast majority of their sales. As a result, whilst most games companies sell their products online, they do so at retail-level prices (and so benefit from increased margins but not necessarily increased sales). We do not believe that any major publisher will decide to undercut retailers across the board. The disintermediation of the retailer will be more subtle, with publishers initially releasing individual titles, the bulk of whose revenue will be derived from monthly charges (as in Ultima Online). In future, when bandwidth allows, publishers will also start to distribute games online, thus disintermediating both the retailer and the distributor.

As games transition from being commodities to services, it is inevitable that traditional retailers and distributors will suffer. However, it is likely that the publishers will not seek to promote their titles alone and will use heavily trafficked sites for both games promotion and possibly games hosting. EA, the largest games publisher in the world have identified that their future lies in online revenue generation and have predicted that 20% of their total revenues (which last year were $1.2bn) will come from the internet within the next 3 years. EA have also tested the demand elasticity (although not the price elasticity) of online distribution of a full product by offering the most recent iteration of the popular Wing Commander series as a free download. Despite its 130Mbyte size, nearly 400,000 people downloaded the product, a considerable number when one considers that most will have used modems for the (6hr+) download.

A number of factors will facilitate the transition to online distribution:

  • The advent of broadband internet access via xDSL, cable modem and later 3G/UMTS (and possibly also satellite) will dramatically lower the technical barriers for online distribution allowing a CD’s worth of game data to be downloaded in minutes.
  • The decision to provide open connectivity (enabling devices to use any technology) by Sony, Sega and Nintendo for their next generation machines will likely be augmented by deals with telecoms and cable companies. Sega’s Dreamcast internet service has proven popular in Japan with some 250,000 regular users and Sony has indicated that it intends to provide online distribution within a year of its Playstation 2 launch.
  • Online distribution will allow publisher to set their own prices (which they are currently not able to do), take a higher margin whilst lowering end user prices and interact directly with their customers. It will also rid their balance sheets of the inventory risk associated with having to predict demand for manufacturing purposes. These advantages apply to the distribution of both single-player games and multiplayer games and it is likely that different pricing plans will emerge for both.
  • The increasing use of server-based games that require little (or no) client-side storage facilities. This will be particularly suitable for set-top box and hand-held games playing.

What Role The Developers?

As the originators of games ideas and the creators of games products, one would have thought that the developers would wrest control of IPR from the publishers. In theory this is correct. However, as mentioned before, in nine out of ten cases the developers are funded by the publishers and as a result are in the driving seat when it comes to royalty negotiation. We also believe that the financial and commercial relationship between developers and publishers will change.

As it stands, developers receive somewhere between 15%-40% of the net amount per unit received by the publishers. The breadth of the range is due to a number of factors:

  • The extent to which the game has been funded by the publisher/distributor. In general, the higher the proportion of the development funded by the publisher, the lower the royalty paid to the developer.
  • The saleability of the title. A well known development team with a track record of successful products can command considerably more favourable terms with publishers and distributors.
  • The role of the publisher/distributor. The extent to which the publisher or distributor take on responsibilities such as the game’s promotion, localisation, multiplayer server hosting, bandwidth costs etc. also affects the royalty rate.

We believe that this revenue sharing arrangement will remain true for boxed units but average royalties will increase considerably for recurring revenues from online games. However, the roles would be reversed should a developer find the means to fund a title’s development, as in this case it will be able to employ a publisher to market and sell the product online and will effectively be paying the publisher a royalty.

The Online Games Market – Part 1


With a global market size estimated at over $15bn (exceeding that of the Hollywood film industry) and with individual releases that can, on their first day’s sales, gross over $150m in a single territory, the computer and video games industry is clearly no longer child’s play. Not only does the games industry out-gross the film industry, but the business model behind games creation is considerably more attractive, with vastly enhanced returns on investment. Games typically cost between $1m and $3m to develop (few have gone beyond $10m and none beyond $26m) but can take as much as $400m or more at retail.

Despite such advantages and despite the popularity of games as a content area on the internet, the industry has struggled to come up with a solution for profitably transferring their business to an online medium. Indeed, it has only really been in the last year that we have seen the first of what we expect will be a series of profitable online business models. The purpose of this article is to outline the current state of what many have dubbed “the zero billion dollar industry” because of its as yet untapped potential and to outline why we believe that this emerging online industry will radically alter the games market over the next 5 years.
Industry Background

The games market is comprised of a computer games market and a video games market. The Computer games market refers to games played using PCs and Macs. This market has experienced stable growth since the beginning of the decade and we believe that this will continue for the foreseeable future. The video games market refers to games played using consoles (such as Playstation and N64) and hand-helds (such as the Game Boy). Because of the finite sales lives of these games devices, this market has proven highly cyclical to date, and currently stands at a cyclical peak period. A typical console platform sales cycle lasts around 3-6 years, depending on the success of the console. This success is determined by a number of factors although the regular release of a large quantity of quality titles is critical as software sales drive hardware sales.

However, even the most successful console platforms require time to build up their installed base and this can take years. As the market is about to undergo a transitory period (with the Playstation and N64 likely to be pushed down the value chain over the next 2 years while Sony, Sega Nintendo and possibly Microsoft’s next generation machines are introduced), we foresee limited growth and even a minor downturn until 2001/2. Sega’s Dreamcast has now launched in Japan and the USA and is due in Europe during October 99. Playstation2 is due in Dec 2000 and Nintendo’s Project Dolphin is due in the west during 2001. Microsoft is known to be working on a ¥200-¥300 PC-console hybrid which is earmarked for next year. Finally, Nintendo aims to upgrade its Game Boy hand-held next year with the Game Boy Advance. Interestingly all of these future consoles will have connectivity potential built into the device, if not via a modem shipped in the box, then through the use of high speed USB and Firewire ports capable of accepting xDSL, cable modem and other access technologies.

Setting The Scene: The Aggregators

To date, it has been PC users that have dominated the online games market because until the release in Japan in November 99 of the Dreamcast, no console offered any form of internet connectivity. Sega has explored satellite and cable distribution of games for its popular Megadrive console (at its peak between 91-93), but failed to update the service for its next console, the Saturn, which was released in 95.

Online, multiplayer gaming can trace its roots back to a number of developments, although the creation of multi-user dungeons (MUDs – text-based Dungeons and Dragon’s style adventures), was a significant influence. These adventures are indeed still played today. However, in general, games publishers have adopted an attitude of caution towards the internet. The first wave of mainstream titles that supported internet gaming emerged around 1994/5 but gained considerable ground with the release of id Software’s Quake, a first-person perspective shooting game set in a dark, hellish 3D environment. With separate multiplayer environments and support for up to 8 players, it became a considerable multiplayer as well as single player hit, selling over 2m copies (and grossing over $80m). Internet support was provided so that players could log onto the internet via their normal ISP and connect to a “Quake” server and either play in a free for all or as part of a team against others on that server. Quake quickly built up a cult following as hundreds if not thousands of dedicated Quake sites emerged, Quake servers became ubiquitous and Quake teams (known as clans) started to make a name for themselves. However, id Software and its publisher, GT Interactive,made little effort to capitalise commercially on the success of Quake as an internet game, despite the potential of online usage as a value-add that bolsters sales of the boxed product.

As the number of Quake clones and other multiplayer games supporting internet play grew, so the first of the online gaming business models emerged. Aggregation services that supported a number of online games were lead by Dwango, Total Entertainment Network (TEN), MPath and Engage in the US and by BT’s Wireplay in the UK. These services offered a matchmaking service allowing single users or teams to meet and play against or with each other. Revenue models varied widely and rapidly with pay-per play, hourly charges, daily charges and monthly subscriptions coming in and out of favour on a regular basis. The providers quickly found out, however, that there were potential problems with levying charges for such services. In most cases, the games that were hosted were not exclusive to any particular service, and so there was little reason (apart from network performance) to remain loyal to a given service. Some providers did attempt to secure online multiplayer rights to games on an exclusive basis, but this proved to be a costly failure as it proved impossible to secure the exclusivity to some key titles at a technical level (one could play multiplayer games through other means) and thus the appeal was limited.

The aggregation services then began to focus on an advertising-based model and with this came a concerted move towards traffic generation through alliances with heavily trafficked sites and services. The fragile state of this new business model began to claim its first few casualties with Dwango unable to keep up with the competition and with Engage forced to shed a considerable number of employees to bring costs in line with lower revenues. Others turned to equity financing although the reliance on traffic partnerships remained and was displayed poignantly when Kesmai, an online games service, was kicked off the AOL games channel and was forced to dramatically cut its staffing levels back as revenues plummeted by 90%.

Read Part 2