Last week (Monday 9th January) Microsoft announced that it had “come to the decision to end production” on the highly anticipated upcoming Xbox One/Windows 10 exclusive Scalebound, followed by the game’s developer Platinum Games releasing a statement that suggests the studio has no plans to continue developing the game. The announcement was a shock to many, while games get canceled from time to time rarely do platform holders completely shut down a game e.g. Rime, which was originally being published by Sony, is now being published by Grey Box Games as opposed to being completely scrapped. Clearly something went horribly wrong with Scalebound, and thus we have to ask the question what went wrong, who in this joint venture is to blame, and what the consequences of this announcement will be for both Microsoft and Platinum Games?
When Scalebound was announced at Microsoft’s E3 Conference in 2014 as an Xbox One exclusive, it came as a huge surprise. For starters, Scalebound — with its heavy Japanese influences — didn’t look like your average title for the Western-focused company, with PlayStation being the main home for these heavily Japanese titles. Secondly, Platinum Games seemed to favour Nintendo when it came to creating platform-exclusive titles, releasing its first two titles on the Nintendo DS and Wii respectively and releasing Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2 on Wii U. They even went on to assist Nintendo with the development of Star Fox Zero. Striking a deal with Platinum was a bold and encouraging move from Microsoft, considering the shaky footing the Xbox One was then on when compared to the monumental success Sony was seeing with the PlayStation 4. When Phil Spencer was appointed head of the Xbox Team in March 2014, he promised to refocus the Xbox platform towards delivering great games.
Microsoft came out swinging at E3 2014 with a plentitude of exclusives designed to demonstrate that the Xbox One was a console first and foremost about games, a conference designed to set the record straight. At the time, the conference was fantastic, and showcased the apparent differences Spencer was making and alleviated concerns about Microsoft’s focus on an all-in-one entertainment box. However, looking back in retrospect, their haste to course correct seems to have been all talk.
|Exclusives Present at E3 2014
|Forza Horizon 2||Released 2014||Strong critical and commercial|
|Halo: The Master Chief Collection||Released 2014||Strong critical and commercial|
|Halo 5: Guardians||Released 2015||Strong critical and commerical|
|Inside [T]||Released 2016||Strong critical and commercial|
|Ori and the Blind Forest||Released 2015||Strong critical and commercial|
|Project Spark||Released and then Cancelled||Mixed critical|
|Scalebound||Cancelled||Strong critical and commercial|
|Sunset Overdrive||Released 2014||Strong critical, weak commercial|
Fortunately, it’s not all a case of doom and gloom, as the Xbox One is home to many great games. But, given the inconsistency with which Microsoft is able to deliver on the games that they promise, one has to question the stability of their upcoming lineup. Crackdown and Below were both announced in 2014 and have yet to be released. At the moment, Crackdown appears to be charting a similar course to Scalebound, we’ve seen the game at multiple E3’s yet the game seems just as far off today as it did back in 2014. At the very least, Microsoft may have showed their hand too early with a game that was clearly nowhere near completion in 2014, or more worryingly, if it was near completion, has undergone some serious changes since. The same concerns ring true for Below, although Capybara Games previous success and consistently at least offers some reassurance. Nevertheless, with Below being an Xbox One exclusive, it appears as if Microsoft forced Capybara to talk about their upcoming game before they were ready to do so. What knock-on effects this will have had to the game’s development? Furthermore, are Microsoft, who similar to Scalebound are publishing the game, going to either force Capybara to release the game before it is finished or just pull the plug on it as they did with Scalebound?
Another area where Scalebound is problematic for Xbox, is Microsoft’s seeming inability to attract both a Japanese audience and Japanese games. Being kind, the Xbox One launched to a tepid reception in Japan selling less than 25,000 units compared to over 1,000,000 units being sold at launch in the West1. Since launch, the console has continued to falter in Japan, some weeks selling less than 100 units2 and only passing 70,000 total units sold in November last year. That being said, Japan is far from the futile landscape for console sales that it once was, with the majority of Japanese consumers preferring mobile and handheld devices over the traditional home console. That’s not to say that companies can’t see success in Japan, with both the Wii U and the PS4 selling over 3 million units in the country individually. However, it’s unlikely that if Scalebound had released, it would have had a significant impact on the console’s popularity in Japan.
The bigger problem here is how few Japanese titles actually release on Microsoft’s consoles. Games like Persona 5, Ace Combat 7, Kingdom Hearts (HD remasters), Danganronpa, Street Fighter V, Yakuza, and Final Fantasy VII, X/X-2 HD, and XVI: A Realm Reborn are PlayStation exclusive without Sony even publishing them. Titles like Nioh, Bloodborne, and Death Stranding are exclusives that Sony are publishing, and then there are the games that Sony are both developing and publishing such as the recently released Gravity Rush 2. Quite frankly, if you want to play Japanese games, out of the PS4 and the Xbox One, there is only one console you would choose. This not only accounts for the Xbox One’s weak sales in Japan, but also limits its appeal to the great number of Western consumers who enjoying playing Japanese games. Scalebound, ReCore, and Phantom Dust were amongst the titles supposed to change that narrative, but only one of those games released, and to a poor reception on top of that.
Scalebound’s cancellation is bad news for Xbox; there are no two ways about it. The console has one less exclusive giving consumers one less reason to buy it, fans who were excited for the upcoming title feel let down, questions are being raised about the status of future exclusives, and then there’s the matter of the lost investments. However, the news is far from disastrous. The Xbox One may not (or will ever) sell as many units as the PlayStation 4, but that’s not to say the console isn’t a success with 26 million units sold to date (according to SuperData Research). Fans may feel let down, but is that feeling strong enough that said fans will abandon the platform? There are plenty of exclusives to be excited for; from blockbuster titles such as Crackdown and Halo Wars 2, to beguiling indie titles such as Below and Cuphead. As for the matter of lost investment costs, I’m sure Microsoft can survive without being short of a penny or two, although it could result in a tightening of the purse strings, resulting in the company becoming less committal regarding taking risks to secure exclusive titles.
So now let us move on to Platinum Games and the — much larger — ramifications for them. Platinum Games celebrated its tenth birthday in August last year, releasing a total of 13 titles over their lifetime. For many, the name Platinum stands as a hallmark for quality, or at least it used to. After Platinum released its first two, now-forgotten titles, in 2009 (MadWorld and Infinite Space) the studio released its first hit game Bayonetta. Bayonetta was a huge critical success with a Metacritic critic score of 90 and a user score of 80. Sadly the game failed to deliver commercially, only selling 1.35 million units as of 2010, a figure that disappointed the studio. A year later they released the fantastic Vanquish, a game that I personally hold as one of PS3/Xbox 360’s best titles. Regrettably, the tale for Vanquish was the same as it was for Bayonetta, critically the game was a success with a Metacritic score of 84/84, commercially it was another disappointed struggling to sell even a million copies as of 2011. Three years later and Platinum released their third critical darling, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. The game achieved a Metacritic score of 82/78 and even earned the studio acclaim from Hideo Kojima (speaking to VG247) who was collaborating on the project; “I’m really impressed with what Platinum did. They were very gutsy to take over a project that had fallen apart in the middle of production. They took it on themselves to take this insanely difficult thing to deal with – the free cutting mechanic – and complete the game.”. Revengeance also appears to have been a commercial success with Kojima remarking that it was selling well worldwide, although exact sales figures were not released. I imagine that the name Metal Gear properly helped out quite a bit.
Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Revengeance all shared similar DNA. All three were third-person action games featuring nuanced fast paced combat that took skill to master with equatable difficulty. This mix of speed, skill, and difficulty was a formula that many fell in love with and why so many began to champion the small-ish developer. Platinum then went on to develop two games exclusively for the Wii U, Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2. Once again, Platinum produced two critical darlings with the usual caveat of low sales, with Bayonetta 2 pretty much only existing due to Nintendo funding the game. However, sales aside, the developer kept going from strength to strength and their reputation remained intact, that was until their next game, The Legend of Korra.
Avatar (not the one with blue aliens) is an amazing franchise, it has interesting characters, heartfelt and compelling stories, a rich world, and revolves around the concept of being able to physical bend the elements. The seven TV seasons and accompanying graphic novels are near masterpieces, but sadly the franchise has not seen the same success when it comes to video games. Despite the concept being perfect for a video game, no developer had been able to pull off even a decent Avatar game. When The Legend of Korra was announced it seemed like the perfect mix, Platinum Games would be creating the game’s combat with one of the show’s writers, Tim Hedrick, penning the story – at last, we were going to get a good Avatar game. ‘We’ were wrong. The Legend of Korra was wildly considered to be pretty terrible. It lacked the levels of nuance and depth Platinum was known for, the story was non-existent, and the level design was bland. I actually quite liked it, probably blinded by my deep love for everything Avatar. With a Metacritic score of 49/64, it was Platinum’s worst performing game to date. At the time The Legend of Korra’s failure seemed insignificant, it was Platinum’s first miss and it was a small and cheap download-only game being published by Activision, and indeed many put the game’s failure down to Activision more than they did Platinum. No one believed it was a sign of things to come.
Next up for Platinum was another licensed game Transformers: Devastation. Unlike Korra, Devastation was mostly well received and served as a redemption for Platinum, at least to the small extent that they needed redeeming back in 2015. The game did not live up to the high standards Platinum had become known for, but was more than sufficient for a small licensed Transformers game that had as much to deliver on the nostalgia front than it did a game design front. Besides, it was a small little tide-over until the studio released its next big Action RPG, Scalebound. Last year Platinum released three games, Star Fox Zero and Star Fox Guard. which they co-developed with Nintendo, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan. Star Fox Zero released to middling reviews, with elements such as the instance on motion controls impoverishing the experience for many. I doubt anyone blames Platinum for Zero‘s faults, for starters Nintendo is the handler of Star Fox, and the inclusion of elements such as the wildly criticised motion controls were clearly the work of Nintendo. Even so, Star Fox did little to add to Platinum’s reputation and following their next release, you would be forgiven for looking back at Star Fox Zero and wondering to what extent they did have a hand in the game’s failings.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan was a relatively highly anticipated title prior to its launch, the result of Transformers: Devastation’s success and fondness for the TMNT games of decades past. Sadly expectations were a stark difference from reality. Our own reviewer Jeremy slated the game saying; “Sadly, an uneventful narrative, chaotic combat, meager enemy variety, frustrating boss fights, and an omission of local co-op make this game one of the worst in PlatinumGames’ portfolio.” and scoring it a measly 2/10, our lowest scoring game to date. Other critics weren’t much nicer with the game scoring a 44/54 on Metacritic. Mutants in Manhattan demonstrated that The Legend of Korra was no fluke, something somewhere at Platinum was going wrong. Fast forward eight months to the beginning of this month, and Mutants in Manhattan has been pulled from PSN, Steam, and Xbox storefronts. Five days after that piece of news broke and Scalebound was canceled. If Korra and TMTN were the canaries in coal mine dying, and Scalebound the first casualty of significance, one has to ask how long before Platinum explode?
The writing is not on the wall for Platinum, in total they’ve only produced two bad games out of thirteen, and at least three knockout hits with Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Revengeance. That being said, that after an estimated three to four years and multiple stage showings, that Microsoft felt so concerned about Scalebound, a supposed marquee title for the platform holder, they opted to cancel the game’s development, sacrificing their investment costs and any hopes of recuperating those costs, speaks volumes to the concerns they have about Platinum. Furthermore, that Platinum either decided not to, or failed to, secure the license from Microsoft to continue work on the game suggests that either Platinum themselves had lost faith in their ability to finish Scalebound, or that potential publishing partners shared Microsoft’s assessment of Platinum’s capabilities. I doubt that Microsoft held onto the license out of choice given that by selling it they could have at least recovered some of their sunken funds. So now it falls to the studio’s three upcoming games, the anticipated Nier: Automata, Granblue Fantasy Project Re: Link, and Lost Order. Nier comes out in two months time, and with the studio’s signature skill based fast third-person action gameplay on show, it should offer us a good insight into if Platinum still can create the magic that made them famous in the first place. With Scalebound now dead, Nier is the studio’s most significant upcoming release and it certainly feels like the last strand of hope. Should Nier follow in the vein of Korra and Mutants in Manhattan then it would demonstrate that the ills of those games are a sign of a studio-wide erosion of talent and would call into question Platinum’s ability to survive. With their games constantly suffering from low sales figures the studio has always been on a cliff edge, propped up by the quality of said titles. If that quality is gone, one has to ask: what is left for Platinum to stand on?
1 Over 1,000,000 million units were sold during the console’s first 24 hours across 13 countries; Austraila, Austria, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Spain, United Kingdom, United States, and New Zealand.
2 Xbox One sold 100 units or less in Japan for the weeks: 8th – 14th June 2015 & 11th – 17th January 2016
T Timed exclusive