Over Warner Discovery’s Q2 earnings call, the new media behemoth announced plans to merge HBO Max and Discovery Plus as a single service in 2023. While we’ve got a solid year to evaluate if CEO David Zaslav’s bet will be a financial hit, early signs are worrisome.
Sticking to safe, proven programming was always what I expected from the new, post-Netflix dip “content perspective” era. But early signs point to Zaslov and his team taking Warner Discovery into extreme, creatively bankrupt directions. Their actions risk driving away their existing subscriber base.
On the day of the earnings call, low performing TV series and movies disappeared off HBO Max to save residuals. Zaslav and friends also canceled a nearly finished $90 million superhero movie – Batgirl – as a tax write-off. A tone deaf presentation simplified HBO Max as “male skew” when some of the service’s biggest breakouts like Hacks and The Flight Attendant reach much broader audiences.
Most armchair analysts underestimate how instrumental small budget indie games are to Xbox Game Pass’s success. Most will fly by without a splashy marketing presence, buzz on social media, or even a high score on OpenCritic. But given a Game Pass title’s low barrier to entry (a download or through Cloud Gaming, a click), subscribers aren’t wedded to budget, popularity, and review scores. The right mix of under the radar titles isn’t just helpful to keep subscribers afloat between bigger drops, but I think they are increasingly critical to keeping subscribers happy.
I realize the argument runs counter to traditional gaming sales logic, where the same five to ten AAA games (e.g., Call of Duty, FIFA, GTA V) remain perpetual NPD best sellers. It also seems to contradict Microsoft’s first party consolidation. With the likes of AAA stalwarts like Bethesda Game Studios, Activision, and Blizzard under one roof, one could only assume Microsoft’s goals are to continue mega franchise hits like Fallout, Call of Duty, and Diablo as future staples of the Game Pass library.
After a decade of rapid growth, Netflix took a tumble over the past quarter, for the first time losing more subscribers than it signed up. Wall Street’s reaction has been swift, with the market slashing Netflix’s valuation to less than half of its value from a few weeks prior.
Many schadenfreude-fueled takes revel in watching the king of streaming take a hit, but Netflix’s downturn won’t improve film watching habits or shake up streaming’s ascendance. The availability and discoverability challenges on streaming – clunky user interfaces, ruthless algorithms – won’t improve. Mega budget streaming sites will survive. What will change are the type of shows and movies that streaming sites buy, produce, and green light going forward.
Another year, another opportunity for gaming discourse on the proper approach to open worlds. The typical argument puts Elden Ring and Zelda: Breath of the Wild on one side, Horizon: Forbidden West and Ubisoft franchises like Assassin’s Creed on the other. Elden Ring and BOTW have more emergent gameplay, with little hand holding, clearly laid out objectives, and access only gated through character leveling and player skill. Horizon and Assassin’s Creed are more prescriptive. There are icons and waypoints all over the map, with the game’s mechanics, stats, and side quests all laid bare to the player.
Modern critical consensus points to emergent open worlds as generally more satisfying. Prescriptive games drown the player in unfulfilled objectives, busy UIs, and too many icons on a map to follow and check off. The net result can feel like a game on autopilot or lead to “open world fatigue.”
Having played and completed Horizon, I find this argument unfair to Sony’s latest blockbuster, misclassifying its genre and intent. While critical discourse pits Elden Ring and Horizon as open world action RPGs first and foremost, in reality, I view Horizon as more of a linear adventure similar to a game like Uncharted or The Last of Us. Its open world elements are a secondary “hook” to string narrative segments of the game together.
Mainstream movies have crept up in length. A few years ago, feature-length films regularly ran a tight 90 or 100 minutes; today, that brevity feels increasingly rare. Almost half of the movies I watched that came out in 2021 ran for 130 minutes or longer, many from genres that historically tend to be shorter: action (F9, No Time to Die, The Matrix Resurrections, The Suicide Squad), biopics (King Richard), coming of age comedy romances (Licorice Pizza, Red Rocket), and neo-noir (Nightmare Alley). I suspect inflated runtimes trend beyond my tastes.
Superhero movies are a significant influence. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Comics have produced the biggest movies around for almost a decade, seen worldwide with record profits, and generate endless discourse everywhere from film journals to Twitter. They also tend to run long. Most MCU movies have a runtime over two hours, with installments from the popular Spiderman and Avengers series regularly exceeding two and a half hours.
Over the past several years, movies – specifically those that aren’t part of a blockbuster franchise or mega IP – don’t have the audience they used to. Compare four critically acclaimed dramas helmed by well regarded auteur directors, released two years apart: Licorice Pizza and The Power of the Dog in 2021, Parasite and 1917 in 2019. The difference is stark, with the 2021 films performing comparatively weak at the box office and anecdotally having far less attention among my friends and across social media.
Movies are aging into the rock music or baseball of entertainment, still enormously popular among a dedicated core audience, but with declining interest as other forms of media (primarily TV) fill the gap. The twin forces of the pandemic and the economic heft of massive entertainment conglomerates have only accelerated the phenomenon.
A PlayStation rival to Xbox Game Pass, code named Spartacus, appears all but assured to happen. Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier leaked details of the subscription service in December. Sony recently pulled PS Now retail cards from U.K. retailers, suggesting Sony could announce Spartacus details soon.
The Bloomberg piece lays out Spartacus’s offerings, a multi tiered subscription service that improves the popular PS Plus and PS Now services Sony already runs. For me, the more interesting question is less about the what and more about the why and how. Why would Sony take a gamble on a Game Pass competitor now, when their brand is the market leader? Also, how will Spartacus differentiate itself from Game Pass, especially in light of Microsoft’s mega acquisition of Activision Blizzard?
2021 has shaken up my gaming habits. The lingering threat of COVID ramped up stress levels, so I ended up investing more time with games that had relaxed pacing and forgiving difficulty. Becoming an Xbox Game Pass subscriber allowed me to dabble in new games across different genres and budgets I wouldn’t have otherwise given a chance. Life outside of gaming remained busier than ever, which forced me to ditch many lengthy titles if the game didn’t click for me out of the gate.
Even though my gaming tastes and routines have shifted, I still look back on 2021 with five games I enjoyed immensely and would recommend to almost anyone.
It feels like a debate erupts online over video game difficulty every few months. The most passionate want games as challenging as possible without compromise. Psychonauts 2 includes an invincibility mode where players can complete the game and earn achievements with the setting on; angry Twitter gamers view the option as “cheating.” A new Fromsoft game releases (e.g., Bloodborne, Demon’s Souls, Elden Ring), and a similar audience rushes to defend its unyieldingly high learning curve as creator intent.
I couldn’t disagree more with this whole “no easy mode” philosophy; it’s hardcore posturing that should have died off decades ago, back in the SNES era. To me, the proper difficulty is a settled issue: almost every game benefits from having at least one mode that lessens the challenge. We shouldn’t view difficulty as a matter of artist choice, but instead one of accessibility. A game’s challenge can be no different from colorblindness or physical handicaps, a barrier that all the practice and YouTube guides in the world can’t overcome.
Several times this year, I’ve written about the decline of theaters and the rise of streaming, exacerbated through the effects of the pandemic. While there has been a recent theatrical comeback for big franchise properties, smaller budget indies haven’t enjoyed the same success. It’s harder than ever to find movies that aren’t a gigantic four-quadrant blockbuster on the big screen. For the exception of those fortunate enough to live in a film hub like New York or LA, moviegoing is a bifurcated experience: Marvel, James Bond, and other mega family-friendly IPs play at every cineplex around town, transitioning over time to heavily marketed streaming, VOD, and Blu-ray opportunities. Everything else gets quietly dumped off direct to VOD or streaming.
That void in theatrical availability is a lost opportunity that streaming can’t replicate. Powerful sound on a giant screen can give an enveloping, immersive quality to a film. In an increasingly distracted world where multi-tasking is the norm, theaters are a rare setting optimized for focus on a particular movie image. Audience reactions – laughter, clapping, gasps, cheers – provide a unique character.