Spotify has had its knuckles rapped by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) for an email that contained an uncensored “f” word.
The promotional email had the subject line, “Have you heard this song by Lily Allen? Give it a try. F-ck You”.
Contextually, the phrase refers to the song “Fuck You” on Lily Allen’s album “It’s Not Me, It’s You”, and the suggestion was genuine, generated automatically based on the listener’s previous selections.
Unfortunately, this particular Spotify customer chose to take it the wrong way and made a complaint to the ASA, which announced it would uphold the complaint on Wednesday.
Defending against the claim, Spotify said it “believed there was a clear difference between deliberate language use such as that and the context in which it was used in the ad” and that “…around 36 million recommendations were sent to users by e-mail every month and therefore over the years a significant proportion of its users would have had the same song recommended to them”.
However, the ASA had not received any other complaints, Spotify said. Upholding the complaint, the ASA ruled that it “considered the use of ‘Fuck’ was likely to cause serious offence to some recipients of such e-mails and therefore concluded that the ad breached the Code”.
Although no action is taken in isolated instances like this, the ASA chose to uphold the complaint “to ensure [Spotify's] future advertising contained nothing that was likely to cause serious or widespread offence”.
But what songs had this customer been listening to that would trigger this recommendation? Perhaps he or she is a fan of Cee Lo Green or the Dead Kennedys?
The two companies didn’t offer many details, only saying that users will be able to see Twitter messages on the homescreens of selected Android-based smartphones sometime next year. The collaboration will initially cover Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, Greece and Croatia, the operator said in a statement.
For Twitter the partnership is about increasing its user base, while Deutsche Telekom wants to add value to its devices and remain relevant as subscribers choose to communicate using means other than text messages and phone calls, according to Paolo Pescatore, director at market research company CCS Insight.
As of mid-November there were 230 million Twitter users globally, and 76 percent accessed the service on a mobile device, according to Twitter.
Twitter isn’t the first social networking vendor to work directly with operators and handset makers. Facebook has been the most aggressive, but has struggled to make an impact with smartphones featuring physical Facebook buttons; the most prominent phone integration with Facebook, the HTC First, was not a success.
Pescatore doubts that Twitter will succeed where Facebook struggled. Most users will likely just continue to use existing apps, he said.
Last month, Twitter updated its mobile apps for both Android and Apple’s iOS devices to give users better search tools.
The company also expanded options for marketers, allowing them to choose what smartphone models and OS versions they want to target with advertising.
Deutsche Telekom didn’t comment on plans for working with Twitter on operating systems other than Android.
The phablet cannibalization trend is so significant that IDC lowered its long-term tablet forecast. The research firm slightly lowered its previous 2013 forecast from 227.4 million tablet shipments worldwide to 221.3 million.
IDC lowered its 2017 tablet forecast even further, pegging shipments at 386.3 million, down from the previous 407 million units.
In some markets, especially the Asia Pacific region, consumers have already decided to buy a large smartphone rather than a small tablet, IDC analysts said. Tablet purchases in South Korea have declined while larger smartphone purchases have increased. IDC researchers there are forecasting that 2013 tablet shipments will drop below 2012′s figures.
“Korea is a unique case, but it could very well be the precursor to that happening in more countries and regions,” said Tom Mainelli, an IDC analyst.
“People in some countries have limited money to spend, so they tend to go for a large phone because they can call and browse on it and read email, as opposed to getting a small phone and a tablet,” added IDC analyst Jitesh Ubrani. The phablet becomes the “jack of all trades.”
The cannibalization of tablets is less of a concern in the U.S. and Canada where expendable income is more available. In North America, analysts are more worried about market saturation, with tablets bought up in huge numbers going back to 2010. The market is set to turn from high growth to “mostly a replacement market,” Mainelli said.
IDC also found that tablets in emerging countries aren’t as popular as phablets because there is less Wi-Fi at home and less traditional home PC usage. “We think many of those cheap whitebox tablets being used in emerging markets are essentially replacing DVD players, with the content side-loaded onto them from various sources,” Mainelli said. “Also, larger smartphones took off there first.”
In addition to large smartphones’ cutting into tablet sales, Mainelli said IDC believes that wearable devices and other new computing categories will temper tablet growth in coming years. He didn’t estimate by how much, however.
As large phone use rises, Mainelli said it’s possible that the tablet market will shift back to larger tablets in a reversal of the recent trend toward sub-8-in. tablets. “I tend to think that is what will happen in the U.S.,” he said. One example is the new iPad Air, with a 9.7-in. display.
IDC predicts about 220 million tablets with screens that are under 8 inches will ship globally in 2017, with another 145 million tablets shipping that are between 8 inches and 11 inches, and about 20 million with screen sizes of more than 11 inches.
Analyst firm Canalys said in November that phablets larger than 5 inches accounted for 22% of all smartphones shipped in the third quarter.
The phablets, made mainly by Samsung and running the Android operating system, include the 6.3-in. Galaxy Mega and the 5.7-in Galaxy Note 3. Apple’s new iPhone 4S and 4C are still 4-in. devices, but the company launched a smaller tablet, the iPad mini, with a 7.9-in. screen in November 2012.
Canalys recently predicted that tablet shipments will reach 285 million units in 2014, about 15 million higher than IDC’s forecast for 2014 of 270.5 million.
Also in 2014, Canalys said tablets will almost outship all PCs combined, a category including desktops and laptops.
Sony has promised to have “substantial” resupplies of the PlayStation 4 before the end of the year, but has given no indication as to what qualifies as substantial. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has stepped in to fill that information void, telling investors in a note this morning that he believes Sony is making PS4s at the rate of a million systems per month.
Pachter followed up on Sony’s announcement today that it had sold 2.1 million systems worldwide, saying that number fits well with previous estimates that Sony began manufacturing PS4s for retail on September 1, and that it faces a gap of up to three weeks from a system’s creation to the time it arrives on shelves.
“We expect Sony to continue to ship 1 million consoles per month, so as of the end of January, we believe Sony will have manufactured a cumulative 5 million consoles and will have shipped 4.25 – 4.5 million,” Pachter said. “We expect the 55 percent allocation to North America to continue through January, and then revert to a more normalized 40 percent of units once Sony launches in Japan and other countries. We think that Microsoft is on a similar production schedule, with similar allocations to North America.”
Pachter added that specialty retailer GameStop has been receiving roughly half of the systems shipped to North America, and that it will continue to take up that share of the allocations through December. In the New Year, Pachter expects the company’s share to be dialed back to a “more customary” 30 percent.
If the shipment projections are accurate, the PS4 would be more than holding up its part of publishers’ predictions that Sony and Microsoft would combine to ship 10 million units of their new systems by the end of March.
Spotify has responded to criticism of the royalty amounts it pays to music artists.
Music industry figures including Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke have long called for fellow artists to boycott the Swedish music streaming service, which Yorke described as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”.
In launching the new Spotify For Artists website, Spotify has been proud to boast that it has paid out more than $1bn, over half of which it has paid in the past year. However, digging deeper the truth emerges that this equates to between $0.006 and $0.008 per play.
That’s fine if you’re Lady Gaga or Beyonce, but for musicians at the grassroots level this represents a massive hole in their finances. Or to put it in perspective, it would require a five piece band to be played 5,477 times just to be able to buy themselves a round of drinks. For a new, untested and undiscovered artist, that simply isn’t enough to get by.
A play on Great Britain’s BBC alternative radio station 6 Music nets an artist approximately five cents. Not a king’s ransom, but a huge amount compared to Spotify’s rates. In contrast, Bandcamp, the service designed to allow artists to self release their music, lets artists set their own prices for music, or even leaves it up to consumers to pay what they believe the work is worth.
This is the way that the internet is supposed to empower artists. The internet has made it possible for anyone to be a star, or at least make a living from their music, if they are good enough.
But accepting the payment of these tiny amounts of money is actually far worse for the industry than so-called ‘piracy’, because copyright infringement will always be considered wrong, while streaming for fractions of pennies normalises the practice of underpaying for creative talent and creates the kinds of gatekeepers that have made the giant music industry companies such a cartel. A cartel that is starting to implode.
Companies from Panasonic Corp to Toshiba Corp are pulling engineers and money away from their TV operations and into developing ‘smart appliances’ after losing out in the living room to cheaper Asian rivals.
A fridge that texts pictures to show what’s for dinner, a voice-controlled washing machine -appliances like these are being designed to talk to each other via the cloud to cut energy bills.
For now, they’re expensive, deterring buyers: a Japan-only Toshiba smart fridge with camera runs to about $2,800 versus less than $800 for a basic model. Yet as more products come on the market and competition cuts prices, global smart appliance sales will rocket to $35 billion by 2020 from just over $600 million last year, according to technology intelligence firm Pike Research.
As the industry prepares to descend on Las Vegas next month for CES, the world’s biggest tech trade fair, that’s mouth-watering for all electronics makers. But none more than Japan’s.
They’ve been squeezed into billions of dollars of losses in recent years, caught between high manufacturing costs, aggressive competition from the likes of Samsung Electronics Co and the strong yen, making exports of consumer staples like TVs more expensive.
To prosper in the new niche, Japanese companies must not only convince consumers to shell out for a whole new set of appliances, which need to be all from the same brand to guarantee compatibility. Further down the line, they’ll also have to hold their own against the same cheaper Asian rivals that stole their thunder in leisure electronics.
“Everyone says having the same brand of goods would be more energy-efficient, but in the end it comes down to the price and function of each product,” said Satomi Wakamatsu, a 41-year old housewife from Hiroshima. She owns a Hitachi Ltd fridge and washing machine, and an air conditioner made by Daikin Industries Ltd.
Wakamatsu considered buying smart appliances. But she balked when she added up the cost of all-new appliances, in addition to the home energy management system (HEMS) needed to connect them to each other to monitor and cut energy usage – a further $2,000-$3,000.
Sales of Japanese companies’ HEMS were helped over the last year by hefty government subsidies designed to stimulate energy efficiency – but they ended in October. Panasonic sold 20,000 HEMS units between April and September, double its full-year target, but said it’s unsure if that pace can be sustained without the subsidy.
Toshiba, meanwhile, wants 20 percent of its appliance sales to be from ‘smart’ goods by the end of fiscal 2014.
A Harvard scientist has come up with a way to 3D print rechargeable batteries. Jennifer Lewis has created some new inks and create special nozzles and extruders for 3D printing batteries and other simple electronic components.
These functional inks contain nanoparticles of different compounds such as lithium for batteries and silver for wires. They get printed at room temperature as a liquid, but become a solid after printing. It also means that electronics and batteries can be manufactured together and in configurations that have not been possible before.
Lewis printed a battery that is just 1mm square with an accuracy of 100nm and the reliability of a commercial battery. Functional inks, nozzles and extruders was first introduced back in June and is still at the early stages. However, Lewis has reached a point now where patents exist covering how they function, and the tech is starting to be licensed.
She wants to get them into the hands of manufacturers, but also doesn’t see a reason why a 3D printer couldn’t be offered for home users.
With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the scene, the next console generation has finally begun. While a new generation usually brings the promise of more graphical power, great graphics are only part of the gaming equation. What will these new consoles allow developers to do creatively?
In its last two titles, Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, independent developer The Chinese Room focused on pushing the first-person game away from the shooting mechanics that usually dominate. The studio’s next title, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, is coming to PlayStation 4 with some help from Sony Computer Entertainment. For The Chinese Room, next-gen helps their creative juices just by being easier to work with.
“The blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity”
The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck
“I think the major thing, from the perspective of actually building games, is less for us about the power – that’s brilliant of course, and having significantly higher budgets makes a big difference – but it’s more about the ease of working with PS4,” The Chinese Room creative director Dan Pinchbeck told GamesIndustry International. “So far, it’s just been a dream bit of kit to work with. We’ve got the advantage of working with CryEngine, another great piece of tech of course, but even then it’s been remarkably smooth to get things up and running quickly. That’s worth its weight in gold from a production standpoint, and the blunt reality is that easier production equals more creative freedom and opportunity.”
According to Braid creator Jonathan Blow, aiming for a single, next-generation set of specifications allowed the team behind The Witness to settle on a single visual style for the game. That title is also heading to PlayStation 4 in 2014.
“Creatively, we build and we assume that we have enough power in rendering,” explained Blow. “When we were planning the look of the island, we had a couple of choices. Do we target the PlayStation/Xbox 360 class of machines or do we move to next-generation consoles? Because development was going long, we decided we were going to be in the next console cycle anyways.”
“If we’d ended up on lower-spec machines, it wouldn’t just be that [The Witness] would have lower-poly models. It would’ve affected the style all over the place; the style of the game would’ve been different. I don’t think it would’ve been as nice.”
For Ghost Games, the new shepherd of EA’s Need for Speed franchise, next-gen does come down to “more power”. This power – and the new set of expectations that come with it – frees the team to think outside of the box when it comes to gameplay innovation. A new generation allows developers to think about what’s possible instead of wringing more blood from a worn-out stone.
“It makes us think differently. Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible.”
Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson
“It makes us think differently,” said Ghost Games executive producer Marcus Nilsson. “Every time there is a transition we start thinking about what would be possible. We are not locked into old boundaries anymore. From that we get great innovations like AllDrive. The systems are giving us power to do more, more AI, more particles etc. Just turning everything up really.”
Nilsson also noted that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One provide other options, including social networking features and second-screen modes, which “opens up creative solutions around cross-platform play.”
One of the highlights of Sony’s launch window slate for the PlayStation 4 is Infamous: Second Son from Sucker Punch. While the game simply looks amazing, improved graphics and horsepower also mean the human element of Infamous can be pushed forward.
“[Infamous: Second Son] is all performance captured,” Sucker Punch co-founder and director of development Chris Zimmerman told us. “We actually use all kinds of cameras, with dots on the actors’ faces getting mapped through 3D scans. As you see people in the game, you’ll see their faces move in realistic ways.”
“See the wrinkles appear?” Zimmerman pointed out in a demo of Second Son, “we are actually animating 15,000 vertexes in his face 30 times a second to get that to happen that well. The thing that really matters for a game like this is you can actually see the characters act. You can read his face. You have a million years of human evolution that’s trained you to read people expressions and their faces; now we can bring that to you. That is the expression that these actors had when they did the scene. If we show you the video of their faces and then show you the in-game feature, you’ll be like ‘that’s the expression that guy had on.’ It seems dumb, but it matters.”
In some case though, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will just allow what previous generations have allowed: more, better-looking things onscreen in our games. And even that can improve the player’s experience. For BioWare Edmonton and Montreal general manager Aaryn Flynn, next-gen means a more immersive and interactive game world for BioWare fans.
“With the next generation of consoles, the most important question we ask ourselves is ‘How does this help our storytelling?’ As we’ve worked with them, we think it starts with a density and dynamism that wasn’t possible previously,” said Flynn. “‘Density’ in the sense of more interesting things on the screen that help immerse you in the game world, and ‘dynamism’ in that they are more interactive than ever before.”
The generation has only just begun. Developers still have plenty of time to learn how to make the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One dance and sing. What’s been shown so far is pretty damn good, so let’s sit back and enjoy the future.
The issue was discovered by Bogdan Alecu, a system administrator at Dutch IT services company Levi9, and affects all Android 4.x firmware versions on Google Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4 and Nexus 5. Alecu demonstrated the vulnerability at the DefCamp security conference in Bucharest, Romania.
Class 0 SMS, or Flash SMS, is a type of message defined in the GSM specification that gets displayed directly on the phone’s screen and doesn’t automatically get stored on the device. After reading such a message, users have the option to save it or dismiss it.
On Google Nexus phones, when such a message is received, it gets displayed on top of all active windows and is surrounded by a semi-transparent black overlay that has a dimming effect on the rest of the screen. If the message is not saved or dismissed and a second message is received it gets placed on top of the first one and the dimming effect increases.
When such messages are received, there is no audio notification, even if one is configured for regular incoming SMS messages. This means that users receiving Flash messages won’t know about them until they look at the phone.
Alecu found that when a large number of Flash messages — around 30 — are received and are not dismissed, the Nexus devices act in unusual ways.
The most common behavior is that the phone reboots, he said. In this case, if a PIN is required to unlock the SIM card, the phone will not connect to the network after the reboot and the user might not notice the problem for hours, until they look at the phone. During this time the phone won’t be able to receive calls, messages or other types of notifications that require a mobile network connection.
According to Alecu, a different behavior that happens on rare occasions is that the phone doesn’t reboot, but temporarily loses connection to the mobile network. The connection is automatically restored and the phone can receive and make calls, but can no longer access the Internet over the mobile network. The only method to restore the data connection is to restart the phone, Alecu said.
On other rare occasions, only the messaging app crashes, but the system automatically restarts it, so there is no long term impact.
A live test at the conference performed on a Nexus 4 phone with the screen unlocked and running Android 4.3 did not immediately result in a reboot. However, after receiving around 30 class 0 messages the phone became unresponsive: Screen taps or attempts to lock the screen had no effect. While in this state, the phone could not receive calls and had to be rebooted manually.
A second attempt with the screen locked also failed to reboot the phone because only two of over 20 messages were immediately received. This may have been caused by a network issue or operator-imposed rate limiting. The messages did arrive later and the phone rebooted when unlocking the screen.
Alecu said that he discovered this denial-of-service issue over a year ago and has since tested and confirmed it on Google Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 phones running various Android 4.x versions, including the newly released Android 4.4, or KitKat.
Around 20 different devices from various vendors have also been tested and are not vulnerable to this problem, he said.
Take-Two Interactive Software has repurchased all of the Icahn Group’s stock, a deal worth $203.5 million and involving 12.02 million shares.
“This share repurchase reflects our confidence in the Company’s outlook for record results in fiscal 2014 and continued Non-GAAP profitability every year for the foreseeable future,” said Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick.
“With our ample cash and strong expected cash flow, we are able to pursue a variety of investment opportunities, including repurchasing our Company’s stock. On behalf of our board and management team, I would like to thank Brett, James and Sung for their support, dedication and service to our organisation. They leave Take-Two better positioned than ever for continued success.”
The move was funded by cash and cash equivalents on hand and Take-Two explained the move is “part of an ongoing strategy to buy back its shares.”
Take-Two and Icahn gave no reason for the sale of the shares, but as previously agreed, Icahn’s Brett Icahn, Jim Nelson, and SungHwan Cho and have resigned from the Take-Two board.
The Icahn Group is overseen by activist investor Carl Icahn and this year Forbes named him one of its 40 Highest-Earning hedge fund managers. In the past he’s tried to acquire Dell, Marvel Comics and owns a ten percent stake in Netflix.
[UPDATE]: Investors did not greet the news warmly, as Take-Two shares traded at twice their average volume and ended the trading day down 5.49 percent to $16.
AMD has announced that its proprietary Mantle graphics API is attracting more interest as some big names sign up. Rebellion Entertainment has entered the game with its Asura engine and officially adopted Mantle for their upcoming Sniper Elite V3.
It looks like the first title that will be supported by Mantle will be Sniper Elite 3. So far no one is saying what advantage there will be for Asura to run on Mantle, it seems likely that it will give boosts in performance as well as enhanced graphics quality. Chris Kingsley chief technology officer and co-founder of Rebellion Entertainment said in a press release that his studio was pushing technology as far as it could.
“We are excited about the possibilities that Mantle brings to PC gaming and the industry as a whole. We believe that supporting Mantle will enable us to stay on the bleeding edge of PC gaming and ensure that we don’t leave any performance on the table when it comes to offering gamers amazing experiences,” he said.
Mantle, a cross-platform application programming interface for windows designed specifically for graphics processing units based on graphics core next (GCN) architecture, presenting a deeper level of hardware optimisation. Mantle is supposed to bypass bottlenecks in modern PC/API architectures and enables nine times more draw calls per second than DirectX and OpenGL thanks to lower CPU overhead, AMD claims.
In less than a week, both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One will have launched in the world’s most lucrative console markets. If you had to plant a flag to mark the start of a new generation, you’d do well to find a more appropriate spot.
Well, praise be. Microsoft was justifiably lambasted for its early direction and messaging, but the ill-feeling created by that string of fumbled choices was untroubled by all subsequent attempts to retrench and appease. Since then, Sony has walked a blessed path; not exactly free of mistakes and questionable decisions, but bolstered by the knowledge that the scrutiny of both the press and the forum-dwelling public was focused elsewhere. Perhaps now hard numbers can replace the speculation and supposition. Perhaps now we will be able to see the true measure of the policy reversals and resolution deficiencies.
There is, after all, a bigger picture to consider. It can be fun to get lost in the manufactured rivalry of a console war, but both Sony and Microsoft understand that this generation must be about more than the chips in their little – and not so little – black boxes. Gaming has never been more popular, or more culturally prevalent, but a lot has changed since the console companies last played this billion-dollar crapshoot.
So much of the industry’s recent growth has happened away from the traditional world of AAA blockbusters, where audience gains have been handily outmatched by soaring expenses. The early debate may be dominated by familiar concerns over framerates and dots-per-inch, but the terms of this generation will be different from the last. Sony’s mistakes with the PlayStation 3′s esoteric architecture didn’t go unnoticed by either party, and it shows in the hardware.
“The last generation created a bunch of artificial work. You had to do things in a very different way and, in the end, it wasn’t like you got a massive amount of technical performance out of it. It was time that didn’t go into making the games better,” says Nick Button-Brown, general manager at Crytek.
“I like the fact that, this time, it’s all built on architecture that we can understand. If you look at the PS3, people only started to get the most out of the system at the end of the cycle, but that’s five or six years on. That’s terrible. I want to start getting at the most nearer the start. That’s the advantage with simpler and more similar architecture – we’ll be seeing much more from the first games out.”
Crytek is the studio responsible for Ryse: Son of Rome, a standard-bearer for the Xbox One. Button-Brown admits that, while setting a visual benchmark was the not the main objective of the project, it was a side-mission of sorts, and the pride with which he describes Crytek’s work indicates that he considers the mission very much accomplished. The smoke, the fire, the beads of sweat running down the lined, wrinkled faces of the characters, the way those characters plant their feet; these are, he boldly claims, new heights for console gaming.
“I do think we’re going to set a visual benchmark; it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat our visual performance. We put a lot of work into facial, a lot of work into animation, just making it all feel much more real,” he says. “Is there further we can go? Definitely. We have some high-end cinema tools that don’t run in real-time even on high-end PCs now – we’re talking one, two frames per second. Eventually, we’ll be able to run those in real-time.”
In the absence of stiff competition, Ryse has as strong a claim to the pinnacle of visual excellence as any other launch title, but Button-Brown understands that such victories are short-lived. After all, in blockbuster development, a better looking game is always just over the next hump of the release schedule. Crytek will no doubt persist in that direction, but the impact of this generation’s visual performance will not be as profound as the jump to HD, and the differences between the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hardware will matter less still. This time, exactly what constitutes the “cutting-edge” will be harder to pin down.
“There’s always more we can do [visually], but I do think you reach a point where, for the user, they feel that it looks as good as it’s going to get, and they’re not going to see a huge difference between [the consoles],” he says. “For us, the leap is about the details. It’s not about one or two big things. It’s about being able to do small things much better: more stuff on-screen, more AI, more physics.”
It would be churlish to ignore the fact that Ryse has failed to stir the imaginations of the critics, eliciting unanimous praise for its visual detail and precious little else. My interview with Button-Brown was conducted prior to the publication of those reviews, but even then he was cognisant of the gamble creating a launch title for this particular generation represented. In the past, there were obvious, powerful hooks for developers to work with – the advent of 3D graphics and HD graphics, the availability of a hard-drive, online play as a usable tool – but this generation is more diffuse.
“Going into launch, I don’t know whether we’ve spent the resources in the right place. I don’t know whether we’ve focused our efforts in the right place. I’m only going to know that when people get to buy it,” he says.
“We talk to publishers a lot, and one of the most painful questions is, ‘Tell me what next gen gameplay is gonna be?’ It’s not something you can define. Nobody delivers gameplay because it’s next gen; you’re delivering gameplay because it’s good. That’s one of the things we struggled with [in Ryse's E3 demo]. We showed a cut-down version of the gameplay and we were criticised for that. We didn’t see that coming. We were too close, and we cut it down further than people wanted to see.”
However, while the criticisms leveled at Ryse may well be justified, a part of the problem may be that, at the dawn of a new generation, nobody is quite sure what they want to see. They only know what has gone before, and will resist any attempt to smuggle what are regarded as the bad habits of the past into the $400 future. Ryse signalled its intent with combat that closely resembled a QTE. That was never likely to go down well with the press, who instantly suspected Crytek of trying to coast on graphics alone.
“The generational leap is not as clear cut now,” Button-Brown admits. “Maybe in a year’s time we’ll have a better understanding of what the leap really is this time, as people start playing things and we start to see what really matters. I think with hindsight we’ll be able to look back and see, ‘yeah, that was the big step.’”
Perhaps it’s naive to expect more clarity on what might define this generation from developers working so closely with the hardware, but in any case, that would be no slight against Crytek. Apart from Kinect 2.0 on the Xbox One – which may finally have the hardware to honour some of the promises made four years ago – in terms of new game experiences there isn’t an obvious wellspring for original ideas on either console. Indeed, the most obvious differences in the early days of the generation are likely to be found in the service layer: social integration, voice control, multimedia functions, and other areas often dismissed as secondary to the tasks for a which a console should be designed.
This is one of the key ideas I took away from my conversation with Michiel van de Leeuw, technical director at Guerrilla Games. Essentially, the moment-to-moment experience of established genres will remain the same, but innovation will arise from, “a deeper, underlying layer.”
“It’s not like we have that one gizmo to make everything really good or different, but the way that the operating system and the games work together, it’s much more of a marriage of those two things,” says van de Leeuw. “It’s a much more holistic approach to the console. How do people use it? How do people want to use it? How do we make sure that every hour of using your console is an hour spent having fun? And almost nothing is more fun than sharing experiences with other people. It’s all integrated, and under the hood there’s a lot of complexity to make sure that you don’t notice it. A lot of magic is necessary to make it look simple.”
As a subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment and the developer of a key launch title, Guerrilla Games was part of the inner circle that formed around Mark Cerny during the PlayStation 4′s creation. The most taxing problem, the subject of the most meetings and debates, was how to improve the experience around and outside of the games – streaming, background downloads, switching between applications, and so on. For Cerny, “immediacy” was a watchword.
When it came to the fundamental hardware architecture, however, van de Leeuw says that the directive was relatively simple: “give us more…as many graphical gizmos as you can afford.” The extra power was a given rather than the main focus.
“I like to ask people about what the next generation should be about, and everyone says, ‘it has to be a photo-realistic, and everything has to be more. There has to be thousands of people and blah, blah, blah.’ But why is that fun? If you have 1000 people around you, do you feel more attached to them than if you just had one or two? Technology does not immediately result in a more satisfying experience. The first layer that people think about is better graphics, more of everything. And then they think, ‘What do I need more of? I don’t know, really, but there must be more of something‘.”
There it is again: the great, unknowable ‘something’ that, nevertheless, everyone is waiting impatiently to see. Killzone: Shadow Fall has fared better with the critics than Ryse, but the expectation of clear, identifiable progress is used as ammunition in the majority of its negative reviews. For van de Leeuw – who also spoke to me prior to the publication of his game’s review scores – launch titles are not necessarily supposed to alter the way people look at games as a whole, but he also makes no secret of the increasing complexity of productions on the scale of Killzone. More power can make life easier in some respects, but certainly not all.
“You have to focus on 1000 things at the same time, and at the same time as that you need to grow your company, because you need more people to focus on all of those things. That, by itself, becomes a problem, because it becomes difficult to manage the complexity brought by all of those extra people. It’s very challenging.
“We’re working with first-person shooters, and look at how incredibly complex these things are. You’re not just selling one game: you’re selling a movie, and a game, and a multiplayer experience that needs to fit with eSports, and it’s all packaged together. And it all has to be good, because the competition is incredibly, and increasingly, good.”
Indeed, it is the progress evident in individual games, rather than the super-charged hardware, that truly plants a gauntlet at the feet of the industry’s developers. Umpteen gigabytes of GDDR5 memory is not nearly as powerful a motivator to do better work as the release of, say, The Last of Us or The Walking Dead. New hardware may give developers more options, but the real skill lies in making the right decisions. When there is enough of an installed-base to offer a safety net, van de Leeuw says, the industry’s most talented developers will start taking creative risks, and new genres will emerge.
But will that innovation be exclusive to a specific platform? When a consumer makes their decision to buy either a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One, is the potential for new ideas a relevant factor? From the developer side, ven de Leeuw says, the differences in the hardware of this generation may not offer the sort of rewards that Naughty Dog and Guerrilla wrung out of the PlayStation 3′s distinctive Cell processor. Today, with teams spiralling into the hundreds, budgets on the rise and a dozen other platforms to consider, the emphasis is on efficient tools and flexible engines. Microsoft and Sony made a conscious choice to be more similar than different in terms of architecture, with developers’ needs firmly in mind.
“Being able to squeeze more out of the console by really focusing on it allowed us, in the past, to create experiences that couldn’t be done, or would be much harder to do if we had to split our focus. But I think we’re coming to the day where the amount of effort you have to put in to do that, it’s questionable whether it’s worth it.
“Our games are getting so big. We try to make our experiences richer for gamers, but at some point… there are pros and cons. Sometimes we wished that things were easier. The [PlayStation 3] was difficult to program for, but I still sometimes I miss it because it was also very powerful. You could do a lot of stuff that’s still very difficult to replicate, but the time for bespoke architectures is slowly going away.
“If you look back, raw assembly and raw power were what enabled new experiences. Nowadays, experiences are defined or limited by how efficient our toolsets are, how smooth our workflow is, how quickly we can develop, and how much time we have to spend on mundane distractions… Bespoke architecture allows you to do cool and crazy stuff, and from a technical point-of-view I’m still in love with that sort of thing, but I have a 230-person studio that wants to make a killer title.”
Despite what many executives have claimed in calls to their investors, both van de Leeuw and Button-Brown either strongly imply or directly confirm that the cost of making those “killer titles” will rise this generation – not to the same degree as they did with the Xbox 360 and PS3, perhaps, but certainly beyond the already precarious conditions that exist today. While we pore over screenshot comparisons, declaring winners and losers over slight differences in observable visual performance, it’s worth considering what any third-party would actually stand to gain from making one version of a game significantly better than another. Indeed, at companies like Epic, EA and Crytek, the emphasis has been on creating cost-saving tools that work seamlessly across all platforms, effectively glossing over aspects of the hardware that could lead to substantial gains in performance. First-party developers will still pursue that, of course, but, according to Button-Brown, for everyone else the base-level of AAA acceptability now sits at a daunting height on both platforms.
“If anything is just okay, it’s now terrible. ‘Solid’ is a failure. You now have to be so good,” he says. “The teams are getting larger and the risks are getting higher. We’re trying to do a lot of procedural stuff in this next generation to keep costs under control. It’s one of the ways we’re trying to keep that down, but it’s still a cost increase. Each asset needs to be so much better, so much more defined, than it was in the previous generation. No amount of procedural is going to change the fact that your underlying asset just has to be that much better.”
All of that hard-scrabble at the top end of the industry – essentially, fewer companies using more resources to create and market a smaller number of increasingly large games – will have a clear upside for independent developers. Indeed, right now, the beneficial ramifications of Sony’s decision to court indies as early as possible is arguably the most significant difference between the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. It always felt like a smart move, and that feeling will be further justified as the paucity of $60 blockbuster releases becomes more apparent.
Microsoft’s early digital strategies and the Xbox One’s evidently underpowered hardware may have monopolised the headlines, but Oddworld Inhabitants’ Lorne Lanning believes that it’s Microsoft’s belated effort to secure the diverse, free-flow of content from the indie sector that has truly given Sony the advantage. That reluctance to open up the Xbox platform, he argues, is tied to a big-business mentality that no longer works in a connected entertainment medium – the very same mentality that led to the unanimously derided online check-ins and multimedia focus that dominated the Xbox One’s early messaging.
“ID@Xbox was a bittersweet victory,” Lanning says. “If you have your ear to the ground today, you could see that those policies were going to blow up in its face, particularly when you see what [Sony] was doing. That was an old way of thinking, a way of thinking that was all about control. It’s a trickle down from being a monopoly. There’s a reason there was a class-action suit [against Microsoft]. There’s a reason there was an SEC, antitrust thing. There’s a very good reason for that. They wanted to control everything. The people who made those policies were still thinking very much in that way, and it blew up in their faces.”
For Lanning, this will be a generation defined by consumers getting what they want, rather than what they’re given. The generation where consumers wrest control of gaming back from the companies that have controlled it for so long – platform holders, publishers, retailers – and seek satisfaction from the most agile creative forces. There may be some lingering resistance from those with vested interests in established models, but Lanning believes any company seeking to stand in the way of this intractable change is unlikely to emerge with much credit. There will be more products offering a wider variety of experiences than on any previous generation, with price-points to suit every wallet. The lines of communication are wide open. There is nowhere left to hide.
“As people are becoming more informed and more connected, the shenanigans are becoming more transparent. And with that, what we’ll get is more diversity,” Lanning says. “The industry made up of five publishers really isn’t that long ago, and now what’s going on? How many self-publishing indies are there that can get a 1.5x return on each game and keep building? Maybe they can’t grow and be 500 people by the next year, but they can add 5 more by the next year.”
I mention the prevailing fear that the marketplaces on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will become too crowded – that by making consoles a more accessible place for independent developers, they will lose the focus that created huge successes like Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy and Braid. For Lanning, it’s a worthwhile trade, and one of the most important ways that indies need to “grow up” to take advantage of the incredible opportunity this generation represents. The Battlefields and the Assassin’s Creeds will continue to exist and thrive, but the average consumer knows that already. What they don’t know about are games like Octodad, Below and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and more fool the studio who leaves it up to Microsoft or Sony to raise their profile.
“If we sell a game now for $10, we get $7 on digital networks. Once upon a time, we weren’t even getting $7 on a $60 game,” Lanning says. “It’s a whole different thing, but you have to bring your own visibility. That’s your responsibility. Beyond just designing the game, we have to design how to build the relationship with our audience. People know that they want the GTA and the Call of Duty, and they’re gonna be on both systems. But they also want the surprises, and they want to experiment with those surprises at below the $60 price range. The audience always wants more choice.
“The biggest earners are gonna be the big AAA titles, because they have the $100 million marketing campaigns. You can’t compete with that. But in the years to come, the big properties at E3, the $100 million properties, they will have started off in the indie space. They’re gonna innovate cheaper, faster and more with their audience right away. That’s a guarantee.”
Esoteric business software maker, which no one is really certain what it does, SAP is debating whether to accelerate moving more of its business to the cloud.
The move would be a change in strategy which might initially have only a small impact on its sales. Co-chief executive Jim Hagemann-Snabe said the change would generate more sales by 2017 particularly in markets like the US where there is a big push onto the cloud.
Talking to a Morgan Stanley investor conference this morning, Hagemann-Snabe said that this would have impact on the 2015 level, I don’t expect enormous impact but it would have some impact because you are delaying some revenues. In the long term however it makes a lot of sense, which is not the sort of thing people expect from SAP.
HP’s Mesquite tablet, which has a 7-inch screen, will go on sale this coming Friday, according to Intel . The Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday is one of the biggest shopping days in the U.S. Locations of Walmart retail outlets offering the product were not immediately available.
A source familiar with the plan said the tablet will have an Atom chip code-named Medfield. Further product details were not available.
Intel has said that its chips will power Android tablets starting at under $100. But the Medfield chip is not Intel’s latest, and it does not deliver the applications or graphics performance of Intel’s latest Atom tablet chip code-named Bay Trail.
To meet the sub-$100 price tag, device makers usually leave out some features from tablets. Sub-$100 tablets tend to have low-resolution screens, limited storage and an older version of Android. But for some buyers the devices represent impulse buys, as the tablets provide basic functionality without hurting their wallets.
Tablets from other vendors are also expected to sell at under $100 through the end of the year. Many of them may come with ARM processors, which are used in most tablets today including in models from Google, Acer, Samsung and Asustek. Micro Center on Friday was selling for $99.99 a 7-inch Asus Memo Pad tablet with an ARM processor, a 1280 x 800 pixel screen, 1GB of storage, rear and front cameras and Android OS.
Intel has a small presence in the tablet market, and discounted tablets could be one way to challenge ARM’s dominance. Many other Intel-based tablets, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1, which runs on an older Atom chip code-named Clover Trail+, will also be available at discounted prices.
The price of tablets with Intel’s latest Bay Trail Atom chips and 8-inch screens is expected to fall as low as $220 as part of promotions. Bay Trail tablets are currently available only with Windows 8, though Intel has said a handful of 32-bit Android tablets will become available. Intel earlier this week said Bay Trail tablets with 64-bit Android would ship next year.
MakerBot, a 3D printer maker which opened two new retail stores last week, is among the companies trying to bring the cutting-edge digital manufacturing technology to Main Street consumers, but skeptics say the debut may be premature.
MakerBot, a unit of Stratasys Ltd, opened retail stores this week in Boston and in Greenwich, Connecticut, both of which are twice the size of MakerBot’s first store, 1,500 square feet in downtown Manhattan.
The company offers designs for more than 100,000 items through its “Thingiverse” online user community. The products range from knick-knacks like zombie sculptures to jewelry, sink drains and even medical devices. They are printed using its line of corn-based plastic fibers in more than a dozen colors.
“For most people 3D printing is futuristic science fiction. We’re here to make it real,” said CEO Bre Pettis, who cut the ribbon at the store on Boston’s fashionable Newbury Street using scissors made on one of MakerBot’s Replicator printers which start at $2,199.
Pettis, who has purchased splashy magazine ads to promote 3D printers as holiday gifts, believes there could soon be a 3D printer on every block in America.
Yet some technology experts say 3D printers may not be ready for prime time because they are still much less user friendly than most modern consumer electronics.
“There is so much hype,” said Pete Basiliere, an analyst at technology research firm Gartner. “People are getting a little bit misled as to how easy it is,” he said.
Some investors also are skeptical of 3D printing’s readiness for the market. Short-seller Citron this week published an article questioning the earnings of Germany’s voxeljet AG’s, and shares in the sector fell, including those of MakerBot parent Stratasys and rivals 3D Systems Corp and ExOne Co.