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Will eSports Make It To The 2024 Olympics In Paris

August 17, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

The 2024 Olympic Games in Paris could be the first to host an official esports event if the bid team is successful.

Esports Insider reports that the team is rallying for the International Olympic Committee to consider adding professional gaming competitions to the program.

The site reports that the Paris 2024 team has been openly discussing this for some time, believing esports will help get more young people interested in the Olympics, although the IOC will make the final decision.

Paris is expected to be confirmed as the host of the 2024 Games in September, while Los Angeles is expected to be announced as the host of the 2028 game.

The IOC’s decision could be influenced by how successfully esports are integrated into similar competitions further east. Earlier this year, the Olympic Council of Asia confirmed esports will be recognised as a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in China.

Esports will also be part of the program at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, although not as a medal sport. Nevertheless, with the Paris program due to take shape in 2019 and be finalized in 2020, the success of esports in Indonesia could prove to be highly influential in getting competitive gaming included in the main Olympic Games.

While there was no esports competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the International eGames Committee ran a “two-day pop-up” competition alongside the event, pitting teams from the UK, US, Brazil, Canada and more against each other.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world of esports, Business Insider reports that Finland is the latest country to officially recognise professional players as athletes. The decision was confirmed by the Finnish Central Tax Board, which will have an effect on what esports players can earn (or, rather, how much of their earnings will be taxed).

Courtesy-GI.biz

Angry Bird’s Rovio Returns To Profit, Possible IPO

August 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Finnish mobile games and animation studio Rovio Entertainment Ltd announced that its sales in the first half of the year nearly doubled following the success of “The Angry Birds Movie.”

First-half revenue rose to 152.6 million euros ($179.7 million) from 78.5 million a year earlier, while adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization increased to 41.8 million euros from 11.0 million a year ago.

Following years of falling earnings, job cuts and restructuring, Rovio returned to profit in 2016 as the 3D Hollywood movie release revived the Angry Birds brand and gave a boost to game sales.

First-half revenue from games increased by 76 percent to 117.9 million euros. Rovio’s main titles include “Angry Birds 2,” “Angry Birds Friends” and the new multiplayer game “Battle Bay.”

This year’s growth is also due to movie revenues that had not shown in Rovio’s numbers previously.

The company is now planning a sequel to the Angry Birds movie with Columbia Pictures, scheduled for release in 2019.

Citing unnamed sources, Bloomberg reported earlier this week that Rovio was planning a possible initial public offering.

Rovio, which had earlier said a listing could be possible in the future, declined to comment.

Can Rocket League Grow eSports

August 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The stories about esports going to the Olympics, or airing on mainstream TV, are exciting.

In itself, these moments are not that important to the future of competitive gaming. This is a modern sport, there’s no need for BBC broadcasts when millions are watching on Twitch. And as cool as it may be to see gamers at official sporting championships, these competitions are not suited to the complex nature of esports with all those different games.

Yet what these stories highlight is esports’ potential within the mainstream. The dream of seeing esports on the back pages of newspapers, taking prime time slots on Sky Sports and drawing in families around the world rooting for their favorite teams. Millions more watch football than play it – wouldn’t it be great if that was also true of Call of Duty?

Unfortunately, esports is not mainstream. The games are complicated, or violent, or both. Some are hard to follow, while the ones that are easier to grasp are often based on existing sports (such as FIFA or NBA 2K), and the nagging question there is why watch the virtual versions when you can see the real thing?

Last year I attended an event about esports targeted at mainstream media and Government. The organizers wanted to demonstrate esports on stage, but were unsure over which game to use – violent shooters or densely packed MOBAs were just not suitable.

When UK retailer GAME launched its Belong range of stores (effectively local esports areas within a shop) it was faced with a similar challenge. Most of the popular esports games are simply not appropriate to show in the middle of the day in a retail setting.

Both eventually hit upon the same answer: Rocket League.

The car football game is the perfect title for mainstream sports. It’s easy to follow as it is just soccer with cars, but also crazy enough that it can only be done in a video game.

“Rocket League launched in July 2015 and immediately community groups latched onto the game and started to create tournaments,” says Josh Watson, head of esports at developer Psyonix.

“So Rocket League esports was very much born from the community. It is that grass roots support that has made for a passionate community of tournament organizers and fans. Today we have several dozen community groups who are doing hundreds of online tournaments and events annually, so it has really ballooned up from the grassroots.”

VP of publishing Jeremy Dunham adds: “The conversations we’ve had directly with players… they want more opportunities for Rocket League to become a bigger esport. That is something we are focusing on a lot.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make in esports is that they only focus on the smallest possible audience, the 50 to 100 people who are good enough to make a living out of it. We want esports to feel more like little league or football, where people are playing at all levels, from childhood to the pros. That way there is always an opportunity to play Rocket League and be a part of something. That requires a massive plan and a lot of infrastructure, but we’re spending a good amount of time putting that in place.”

That plan is accelerating rapidly. Last year, Psyonix ran competitions in three regions (Europe, North America and Oceania), with $600,000 in prize money. It did well, with 6,000 teams taking part, 1m unique viewers and 10m channel views on Twitch.

Now Psyonix is trying to grow that rapidly, with a $2.5m investment in developing Rocket League as an esport.

The company has since added new in-game functionality, like an esports live button (so people can watch in-game). They’ve added new tournaments, expanded to new regions, offered in-game items to viewers, appeared at more major festivals and has signed deals with NBC, ESL, Gfinity, Dreamhack and a whole lot more.

It has developed the RLCS (Rocket League Championship Series) Overtime show, which airs every week. And its last esports finals became the most watched esport of that week, with 2.8m hours of viewership – 1m more than League of Legends.

“Some of the numbers we saw included 2.29m unique viewers, 208,000 concurrent viewers across seven broadcasted languages… so some pretty big numbers,” says Watson. “To put that in perspective, between Season 2 and 3 we had a 640% increase in video watched, 340% in peak concurrent viewers, 251% increase in social media impressions, and 208% increase in unique viewers. It is incredibly promising for the RLCS moving forward.”

The firm is even attracting non-gaming sponsors, with Old Spice, 7Eleven, Transformers: The Last Knight and Mobil1 all signing up to support their tournaments.

It all sounds good, but then esports figures always do. Millions of concurrent viewer numbers and outlandish prize pools have almost become white noise. It’s all good marketing for Rocket League, but is this actually a profit-generating endeavor?

“One of our focuses is on giving our community a place to play competitively,” Watson acknowledges. “It’s really about servicing this community. They’re hungry for this high level competition.”

Yet big flashy tournaments don’t really service the community. It gives fans something to watch, but ultimately it’s still prohibitive for anyone outside of the most elite gamers. Dunham and Watson keep using the term ‘grass roots’, so how are they looking to support that?

“There is this notion in esports about the path to pro,” acknowledges Watson. “We want to create this ecosystem where you are taking good players who might want to play competitively, but they’re really not sure how, to attending tournaments. We are trying to build out this path to pro, where it is clearly defined how you get to that top tier.”

 

“For RLCS season 4, we are shifting our focus to creating a sustainable environment for players and organizations,” Watson explains. “Teams will be incentivized to plan for the long-term, and the goal is to create an environment where players can hone their skills, which will improve the quality of the gameplay and it should also offer players, owners and sponsors the necessary security to invest in Rocket League for the long-term with confidence.

“We are moving to a promotion and relegation system. The RLCS is basically a big open tournament at the moment, and then it funnels down to the top eight teams, and if you make it to the top eight you can play in a group stage, which happens over a long period of time. What that doesn’t allow for is if you don’t perform well on the day of the qualifiers, then you’re out of luck. That is something we are trying to solve with the promotion/relegation system. Each region will now be comprised of 16 teams, with the top eight making it into the RLCS as we know it now… the top division. And the nine through 16 teams will have access to a challenger, second division. We are hoping to provide players the opportunity to compete at the highest level, whilst being able to cultivate talent for tomorrow’s stars. That means we will have 40 teams across three regions competing in the RLCS.”

“It’s in partnership with Tespa, which is a group that runs some notable collegiate experiences like Heroes of the Dorm,” Watson explains. “We launched with the collegiate Rocket League series in early July, and this is our soft launch into collegiate esports. It is where we are allowing players who are enrolled in colleges all over North America, to make teams of three and play in these competitive environments while earning prizes.”

Watson says he is open to expanding that beyond the US, assuming there’s the demand for it.

It’s certainly commendable, and Rocket League does have a certain simplicity about it that could see it go far. It’s now a case of Psyonix keeping that momentum going.

“One of our visions that we try to hold to is to create a premium sports product in the esports world,” Watson concludes. “That is something that drives us. We do think our game is one of the best suited games for esports in general.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are Publishers Milking Gamers Being With Video Game Remasters

August 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Have you noticed how many remastered video games have been released lately?

Remastering music and film for newer formats has been standard practice in those industries for some time, and the games industry now has enough history behind it to mine older titles and bring them to either nostalgic audiences or players who are experiencing a classic IP afresh.

Given a market in which so many publishers are highly risk averse and costs are typically astronomical, it’s easy to see why the relatively low costs of remastering are so appealing. With consumers hungry for classic content, especially during this nostalgia wave we’re witnessing, it makes perfect sense for publishers to capitalize.

Looking at the UK charts, remasters of Mario Kart, Wipeout, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy XII have all topped the charts in the last two months. And in the US, NPD told us that remastered/ported games have accounted for 11% of total dollar spending life-to-date for physical game sales on PS4 and Xbox One. Nearly 80 remastered/ported games have been released for PS4 or Xbox One (or both) since November 2013, representing about 15% of all titles released at retail for those consoles.

Recently, during Activision Blizzard’s earnings call, Activision Publishing boss Eric Hirshberg gushed over the success of Crash Bandicoot.

“We knew that there was a passionate audience out there for Crash…. but we had no idea – it’s hard to tell whether that’s a vocal minority or whether that’s a real mass audience until you put something out there. And Crash has surpassed all of our expectations by a pretty wide margin,” he said.

“And a couple of stats that underscore that point where it was the number one selling console game in June based on units, even though it was only available for two days during that month. And Sony reported this morning… that Crash is the most downloaded game on the PlayStation Store in July.”

Activision has enjoyed the fruits of remastering before with Modern Warfare Remastered, but you can bet it will look at more easy wins in this category moving forward. In fact, Activision’s counterpart, Blizzard, is planning on releasing a remastered StarCraft in the third fiscal quarter.

“This is a strategy that clearly has our attention… I think you can be confident that there will be more activity like this in the future with more great IP,” Hirshberg added.

As NPD analyst Mat Piscatella noted, publishers are able to offset some of the inherent risk in AAA development by pursuing the remastering trend.

“On average, remasters/ports sell less than games that are new to the platform, unsurprisingly,” he said. “However, given the dramatically lower development costs when compared to new game development, the ability to outsource porting to speciality houses which frees up internal development resources to create new games, and the ability to mitigate risk since a clear demand pattern exists to determine which games should be remastered, the benefits of the practice are readily apparent to publishers.”

Publishers we queried wouldn’t state exact costs, but it’s clearly something that can vary on a case-by-case basis. A much older title would likely need new artwork, whereas something closer to the current generation may only need a touch up with textures or polygons.

THQ Nordic, which has remastered properties like Darksiders, De Blob, Baja: Edge of Control and others, weighed in. “Age plays an important role here and if all the data is complete and accessible,” said director of production, Reinhard Pollice. “Also some projects are already set up in a way that they are perfectly fit for more advanced platforms than they were originally targeting. In general remastering pays off if you do it the right way.”

Sega, too, has had its share of remastering, especially for the PC with titles like Bayonetta and Vanquish. Rowan Tafler, head of brand for Sega Searchlight, the internal team at Sega Europe that oversees PC conversions, commented, “It’s not always a simple process, especially bringing classic titles to PC. With console development, you have reasonably fixed hardware standards – on PC, we need to ensure that the game runs well on a wide range of specifications and that can be a difficult process. Hardware moves on, so a lot depends on how the original assets are archived and whether they can be brought up to date.

“Of course, we need to make sure that development is profitable – that gives us the opportunity to keep doing what we’re doing – but the satisfaction really comes from doing right by our community and our catalogue.”

Satisfying the community is certainly a key goal in remastering, and listening to players’ desires is a helpful way to identify which games should get a modern makeover.

“I think that remastering comes from perpetual and existing interest in a property or brand,” said Tafler. “We’re not going to be able to reignite interest in something if the quality isn’t there in the first place. That wouldn’t be a good business decision.

“Does it increase interest and give players who potentially haven’t experienced the titles before an opportunity to play a title in its optimum form? Yes, absolutely. But we don’t perform a best practice conversion with the intent of piling all the profit into making a new game in the series or using the IP. That sort of decision would be made completely separately.”

THQ Nordic doesn’t always look at popularity, however. “Sometimes we believe also in titles that weren’t that popular in the first place, but we feel they deserve a chance,” Pollice noted.

He added that oftentimes there’s a belief that an old property that didn’t make a big splash can have a new lease of life as a remaster, or that a classic can gain legions of new fans who were just too young to have experienced it years ago. In a sense, by remastering a game, you’ve got built-in marketing for that franchise, which may one day lead to new entries for a series.

“That’s actually our very original thought about remastering a title,” Pollice continued. “We want to make first-hand experiences with the audience and a game’s fan base and understand their wishes and demands. We are fans ourselves of our own franchises but it’s always good to stay in touch with the community and listen.”

Remastering might seem like a cakewalk, but with 4K gaming starting to take hold on consoles, and with PC gamers already accustomed to extra high fidelity visuals, there are more challenges involved in revamping a particular title than you might guess.

“Sometimes it’s a technical challenge to make it look and feel like a recent game,” Pollice acknowledged. “Within these two fields there are tons of tiny challenges. For example, on Darksiders Warmastered Edition the biggest challenge was to remaster the cutscene. In Darksiders 1 the cutscenes were pre-rendered – even the original developers thought we are crazy to go into that.

“First of all, the data to render the cutscenes weren’t complete. So we had to re-create some pieces and puzzle them together as good as possible (actually there are a few tiny differences that are not really a big deal but they are there). Then the cutscenes used a very specific rendering set-up, sometimes custom-made for a given scene or even shot so that it looks cool. In the end it was a huge time-sink but we got those re-mastered – even in 4k on some platforms.”

Sega has gone through similar experiences with its projects. Tafler commented, “Our recent challenges have revolved around porting popular console games from the last 10 years – Valkyria Chronicles, Vanquish and Bayonetta for example – to PC. The format change and the expectation from PC gamers for these titles to be properly optimised for PCs presents our biggest challenge. Can we make run it with unlocked framerates? Can we implement fully optimised PC controls? Can we make it run at 4K? Can we deliver the best experience on a wide range of hardware?

“If the answer to all these questions is yes, then the project has potential. Ultimately, we want the communities playing these games to be able to have the best possible experience playing them.”

The benefits clearly outweigh any difficulties encountered for most companies. Remastering is here to stay. “As technology continues to evolve, I believe remasters and ports will only become more prevalent for the short to mid-term,” said NPD’s Piscatella. “First, we have creators making stories and characters that will continue to resonate. Allowing these characters to come to life through technological improvements is something that will continue to find an audience.

“Second, development of new game content is only going to get more expensive due to the higher fidelity technologies like 4K. Mitigating risk of new game development via releasing remasters/ports at low cost will continue to be attractive to publishers.

“Finally, franchises are more important than ever. Remasters/ports allow publishers to reintroduce characters and storylines before the release of a new game in a series, or allow new people to experience the full backstory without being forced to go to old console tech.”

He added, “In the long-term, the only risk to this remaster-friendly future is the advent of the Games as a Service model. I’m not sure what a remastered version of a live service game would look like, or if it would even be the least bit palatable to consumers.

“I believe we’ll get more of these games, that more dev houses will focus on this type of work as a speciality, and that consumers will continue to show a willingness to support quality remasters/ports.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will Desktop Computers Grow Next Quarter?

August 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Computing

While desktop demand was rubbish in the first half of 2017, it expected to start growing in the third quarter driven by new products from AMD and Intel for the gaming and high-end desktop markets.

Digitimes researchers, talking to suppliers, said that AMD and Intel will kick off a surge in buying. AMD’s new top-end 16-core Ryzen Threadripper 1950X and 12-core 1920X will hit the shops on August 10, while its 8-core 1900X is scheduled to be released at the end of August.

Several vendors have already begun accepting pre-orders for desktop models using AMD’s latest top-end CPU processors since the end of July, including the Alienware Area-51 Threadripper from Dell.

AMD recently announced its new Vega-based GPUs including the Radeon RX Vega 64, using liquid or air cooling modules, and Radeon RX Vega’s prices start from US$399. AMD offers free games and discounts on hardware including Samsung’s CF791 monitor as well as price-cuts on CPU/motherboard bundles to help consumers save up to US$300.

Intel is releasing its next-generation 14nm Coffee Lake processors in the near future and will initially launch products such as the Core i7 8700K. Coffee Lake will also force users to buy a nice new motherboard.

AMD and Intel are also seeing growing sales in the server segment. AMD’s EPYC 7000 series processors were unveiled at the end of June. Although the processor series currently only accounts for less than one percent of the server market, orders for related server makers have been picking up recently and are expected to stay strong in the second half of 2017 with players including Microsoft, Baidu, Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Supermicro, Inventec, Wistron, Asustek Computer, Gigabyte Technology and Tyan eagerly promoting their systems.

Intel debuted its Purley server platform in July which is seeing strong orders from enterprises looking to replace their existing server systems. Some market watchers believe the replacement trend will last for a whole year and shore up Intel’s profitability and revenues.

Courtesy-Fud

Is Zynga Making A Comeback

August 8, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Quick, somebody pop the cork on that champagne bottle! After a grueling year with a $108 million loss, Zynga is now profitable in its second quarter of the 2017 fiscal year, with $5.1m in net income. The company started its fiscal year off on the right foot with a significantly narrowed loss in Q1, and at the time CEO Frank Gibeau promised us that profitability is around the corner.

In a phone call with GamesIndustry.biz earlier today, Gibeau explained, “Q2 we beat on the top and the bottom. We posted our best revenue and bookings performance in four years. We saw some of the things that we’ve been investing in really take hold, like CSR and our mobile momentum. In mobile, we’ve really been focusing in on live ops, and in trying to drive higher quality experiences there and we saw a big lift in our audience and in our revenue there. Our audience was up 28% y-o-y, which is pretty awesome. Our in-app purchase revenues were up 33% y-o-y. 90% of our audience now is on mobile, which if you think of just a few years ago how much Zynga was ‘The Facebook Company,’ now that…is quite a sea change for the company.”

Total revenues for Zynga were up 15% to $209.2m and bookings came to the same total, representing a 20% jump. Furthermore, the company’s operating cash flow came to $37.8m, which was its best quarterly performance in five years. Importantly, Zynga’s mobile transition is nearly complete. Not only is 90% of the audience there, but the company saw 86% of revenues and 87% of bookings come from mobile. Its mobile base now stands at 19m average daily active users, which is up 28% year-over-year and represents the strongest year-over-year growth since Q4 2014. Apart from its Social Slots offering, the big driver for Zynga in Q2 was racing sequel CSR2.

“CSR was strong,” Gibeau said. “We had really good partnerships with Fast and The Furious, and with Universal. We did some cool stuff with Lamborghini. As you know, I’ve been working on racing games a lot in my career. It’s a lot of fun to have such a high quality experience to play around with. Its mobile revenue was up 14% quarter-over-quarter, and up 18% on bookings level. The audience was up almost 10% and it’s the number one racing game in the App Store. And we’ve had over 1.1 million five-star reviews.

“So CSR, and our mobile momentum, it’s resulting in this portfolio which is the strongest mobile portfolio the company has ever had. You’ve got Poker, Words with Friends, CSR, our Casino products, and in addition to that our Match 3 business is coming on and we’ve still got a lot of growth in front of us, particularly in places like Invest Express and Action Strategy. But in general I feel really good about the portfolio and where it’s at in our life cycle.”

CSR is doing so well that Zynga now considers it one of their “forever franchises.” NaturalMotion’s newer IP, Dawn of Titans, isn’t having that same level of success and was merely a footnote again in the company’s earnings statement. Last quarter Gibeau acknowledged that some games can take a long time to reach their full potential, and he elaborated on Dawn of Titans again this quarter, especially in light of Zynga’s improved operating efficiencies and how it treats projects. The mobile Mafia Wars project, for example, was shut down last month because Zynga did not believe it could become a forever franchise. And if Zynga can’t be near the top in a category, its new philosophy is to not devote the resources to that category.

“We’re a continuous learning organization,” Gibeau remarked. “I’ve had a long career in gaming and you learn everything you can from every launch, whether it’s a success or it doesn’t hit its potential. I think some of the learnings from Dawn of Titans actually informed the decision on Mafia. Dawn of Titans was a game that had been in soft launch for an extraordinarily long time, it had been under development for a very long time, and the key learning from me coming into that project was a sharper decision making tree for how we go through different stages of development.

“On Mafia Wars we really looked at how we went into soft launch, what were our goals, and what did the category look like overall and what did it take to compete? Because we don’t want to be in a category if we can’t be a one or a two. We want to be in that position – otherwise we should use our talent and our dollars in a different way, because mobile games is a tough category. You can’t be everywhere. So when we looked at Mafia Wars, we gave it a healthy soft launch and we just didn’t see the KPIs. When we looked at what it was going to take to get it into position to be a number one or number two game against some of the big competition that’s out there, it didn’t feel like the right decision. It felt like we could redeploy those individuals, those talented people and those dollars on other ideas that would help Zynga grow faster and in a more predictable way.”

Gibeau added that knowing when to scrap a game is actually a very important part of the process for the best mobile companies.

“It’s always hard to stop development,” he continued. “You have to be really sober sometimes and say we have to take hope out. What can we actually achieve? And if we’re not going to get to that level of performance then you make the call. And you want to do it in a way that is timely and that you don’t drag it out, which was the key learning for me on Dawn of Titans; we could have been more decisive earlier in the development process. So that’s what we did. We believe in the Mafia Wars brand as a universe and it’s something that we’ll probably come back to in another time, maybe in a different category with a different design. But we thank the team for their hard work. Honestly, killing a game in soft launch is a strength in a lot of ways of an organization. If you look at some of the developers out there they talk about the number of games that they bring into soft [launch] that they don’t finish.”

All that being said, Gibeau insists that Dawn of Titans isn’t about to get its plug pulled. There’s a lot of potential there, and Zynga is confident that the game will get there.

“If you look at Dawn of Titans, it did have a tremendous amount of expectations over the years,” Gibeau said. “We put it out, and it hit a certain level of performance and it’s kind of leveled out in terms of audience and retention. We’ve been looking at the game very carefully and what we keep coming back to is that we think it’s a high quality experience, we think it’s got great intellectual property and we think the team has the capability of really bringing that potential out. It hasn’t really done it yet, and if it gets to a point where we don’t believe it can reach its full potential then we’ll do something else. But we are not there.

“There is a long track record of mobile games that come out and find there way and eventually have a breakthrough and they leap into the charts. I’ve been on some of those games. We believe in Dawn of Titans, we’re committed to the franchise, we’re making prioritized decisions right now to make sure the features that we’re putting in the game are what the players want most… Candidly, we wish we were further along but it doesn’t change the focus and it doesn’t change the commitment. We just had a review on the product last week and I like the plan that they have going forward so we’re going to stick with it.”

NaturalMotion is a very talented studio, so what is it about Dawn of Titans versus CSR that’s enabling one to thrive while the other just barely keeps its head above water?

“I think CSR benefited from the fact that it was a sequel and the racing category has a lot more knowns in terms of design decisions,” Gibeau explained. “It had an approach and a reputation and an audience expectation that they were able to execute upon. That’s why I’m so bullish on NaturalMotion and Dawn of Titans; I see all the goodness of CSR2 and I know we can get there. So from my perspective, it’s a real-time strategy game on mobile that has a very different play mechanic compulsion loop than CSR2. It’s an obviously very different experience, not just a genre difference, but just the core experience. And it was a new team [whereas] the CSR team had been together for a while… If we can get CSR and Dawn of Titans to be operating at the same level of performance that’s going to be great.”

Apart from updates on its portfolio, Gibeau also talked about how his company is striving to get costs down all around. The firm has reduced R&D expenditures, and importantly in the expensive city that is San Francisco, Zynga has managed to find a long-term tenant for its building: AirBnB.

“Our R&D cost is down about 10 points y-o-y as a percentage of revenue, and we’ve been investing in India and some new locations like Finland that’s really starting to come to scale,” Gibeau noted. “And we also are a building owner as you might know, and sometimes part of my job is being a landlord, so we were real fortunate to in sign a 9-year lease with AirBnB. Our footprint in San Francisco is a lot smaller than it was when we IPO’d so bringing in a group like AirBnB to be a partner in the building as a tenant was really a big milestone for us because it helps us get a lot more efficient in terms of how we are as a company.”

Looking forward, Gibeau expressed some interest in the mobile VR/AR trend but Zynga doesn’t have anything to announce yet. High-end VR still isn’t mainstream, but mobile VR is gaining more traction thanks to Samsung Gear and Google Daydream. And now that Apple is getting into the AR mix with its ARkit for iOS, Gibeau is optimistic that the category will yield some opportunities.

“One of the reasons I’m so excited about our potential as a company is that mobile is the most dynamic gaming platform out there,” he said. “It’s the biggest, it’s continuing to grow and I think it has a tremendous amount of innovation in front it as highlighted by the VR/AR stuff but also in chat, and in platform innovations from Google and Apple, and they’re constant. So from my perspective we want to have a very nimble company at this level where we’re not missing out on the next big thing, the next big innovation.

“There’s an old saying that we have, which is ‘Transition is our friend.’ So we want to look forward to those things. And AR is definitely something we’re looking at. I’m less bullish on VR on mobile right now – I’m more bullish on AR, just because of the context and how you use the device… [Pokemon GO developer] Niantic has done a tremendous job in making AR not a gimmick but actually a core part of the experience. I think we’re scratching the surface of what’s going to be possible there.”

For the third quarter, Zynga has provided guidance of $210 million in revenues, net income of $7 million, bookings of $205 million and adjusted EBITDA (including the impact of changes in deferred revenue) of $30 million. Zynga did caution, however, that some of its growth could be “offset by declines in our web and older games, as well as continued softness in advertising.” Zynga also has found that seasonality plays a part, as Q3 has historically had dips in player activity on live services, the company said.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Was The PS3 An Easy Tool For Developers

August 7, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there’s a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what’s next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field’s history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Was PS3 hard to develop for?

The biggest news from 10 years ago this month happened right up front with the delay of Grand Theft Auto IV from its October release window (that had just been announced at E3 the prior month) and would now arrive sometime in the February-to-April stretch of 2008. That was huge at the time, but delays happen, and it’s not the sort of thing we usually lead this column off with. In fact, the reason we’re going over it here is the possible reason for the delay.

The day after GTA IV’s delay was announced, long-time industry analyst Michael Pachter put the blame on the PlayStation 3, saying, “We think it is likely that the Rockstar team had difficulty in building an exceptionally complicated game for the PS3, and failed to recognise how far away from completion the game truly was until recently.” Combined with a contractual obligation to not launch the game early on one platform or the other, that meant pushing back all versions until the next year.

Granted, the deductions of an analyst aren’t confirmation, and Pachter doesn’t have a flawless track record when it comes to bold speculation. (Here’s one from later that same month that he might like back.)

That said, this was far from the only suggestion that developers were having difficulty with the PS3. Sony had already been chastising third-parties for not taking full advantage of the hardware, and it didn’t help having massive publishing partners like Electronic Arts publicly explaining why the PS3 version of Madden NFL was noticeably inferior. It’s particularly damning considering the company didn’t even attempt to refute the game’s inferiority in any way.

“In the case of the next-generation consoles, many publishers have been developing titles for the Xbox 360 for over three and a half years while everyone who publishes now for the PlayStation 3 with the exception of Sony has been developing for the PlayStation 3 for only a little over one full year,” the company said.

At least Ubisoft was a little more diplomatic, with Yann Le Tensorer, co-founder of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfare studio Tiwak calling the idea nonsense, and then basically repeating what EA had said.

“It’s not harder to develop on the PS3 than it is on the 360; it’s just a different console. Developers might say it’s harder because it just takes time to understand the technology. We’re still early in the lifecycle.”

By the time October rolled around and Midway delayed PS3 releases for BlackSite: Area 51, Stranglehold, and Unreal Tournament 3, the PS3’s reputation was essentially set in stone. And while Sony was able to overcome the PS3’s rough start and turn it into a very successful system over the long haul, the “hard to develop for” tag persisted for years.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Battlefield 1 Still Going Strong

August 3, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Electronic Arts has released a few new snippets about its best-selling first-person shooter Battlefield 1.

The game has now engaged more than 21 players, hitting this milestone at the end of June. The updated figure comes from the publisher’s most recent quarterly financial report, spotted by GameSpot, and means Battlefield 1 has gained 2m new players over the past three months.

EA hopes to transform Battlefield 1 into a “content-rich live service”, giving it a longer tail than previous AAA shooters. Its efforts to achieve this have so far entailed two hefty expansion packs, the second of which – In The Name of the Tsar – is due for release in September.

Additional content is also teased in the financials, expected to be revealed at Gamescom later this month.

CEO Andrew Wilson described the new offering as “the richest Battlefield 1 experience yet”, adding that it will include “the all-out warfare, epic multiplayer battles and War Stories campaign that have defined the game, plus new maps, deeper progression, and additional fan-favorite game modes, all in a single package.”

It’s a safe bet this is either a third expansion, a Game of the Year edition or perhaps both, but means there could be a fresh retail release on the horizon to further grow Battlefield 1’s player base.

Electronic Arts has another first-person shooter heading to shelves before Christmas in the form of Star Wars Battlefront 2. Drawing on feedback from the previous game, and further pushing towards a service model, the publisher has decided to drop the Season Pass and make all additional content free.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is GTA-V A Gaming Phenomena

August 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

A lot of exciting things have happened in the games industry since 2013. That time has seen the mobile game space rise to maturity; it’s seen Sony return to console dominance with PS4, and Nintendo bounce from its greatest heights to its lowest ebb.

And yet one thing has stayed consistent throughout that entire four-year period. Through it all, Grand Theft Auto V has steadily, unstoppably continued to sell huge numbers every single week. In 2017 so far, it’s the best-selling game in the UK; in the United States it charts in fourth place.

Previous entries in the Grand Theft Auto series were, of course, landmark titles in their own right – both culturally and commercially. Their content sparked controversy and, from the point when the series shifted into an extraordinary open world with Grand Theft Auto 3, their enormous sales pushed them into a mainstream consciousness that had generally glossed over videogames up to that point. Grand Theft Auto came to be the series that defined perceptions of games in the 2000s, perhaps even more so than Mario or Sonic had done in the 1990s.

Grand Theft Auto V, however, has quietly gone beyond that and become something even more. I say quietly, because it’s not necessarily something that you see if you’re an ordinary game consumer. For most of us, Grand Theft Auto V was a game – a really great, beautifully made, fantastic game – that we played for a pretty long time a few years ago. We’ve moved on, though sometimes it comes up in conversation, or you see a really crazy stunt video on YouTube; it’s part of gamer consciousness, but arguably no more than a number of other superb games of the same era.

Yet unlike all those other games, GTAV keeps on selling. People keep walking into shops and buying it; 340,000 copies in the UK alone this year. The only way to explain those sales is to assume that they are representative of GTAV being purchased along with, or soon after, the upgrades being made by many consumers to next-gen consoles or higher spec PCs. Far more than its predecessors, the game has become a cultural touchstone – something that you simply buy by default along with a new game system.

Of course, individual game consoles have had must-own games before; how many people bought Halo with the original Xbox, or Mario 64 with the Nintendo 64? Never before, however, has there been a game like GTAV, which has served as a touchstone for an entire era of gaming. The closest point of comparison I can think of is something like The Matrix, which was the go-to DVD for people buying new DVD players in the late 1990s, or Blade Runner’s Directors’ Cut, which served a similar role for Blu-Ray. Nothing before now in the realm of videogames comes close.

Something we don’t know, however, is what people are actually doing with those new copies of GTAV; the huge question is whether they’re buying them for the game’s excellent single-player experience, or whether they’re diving into GTA Online. The online game has been a runaway success for publisher Take Two, and has definitely helped to prolong the longevity of GTAV, but it’s hard to quantify just how much it has to do with the continued strong sales of the game itself.

That question is important, because if people are primarily buying GTAV as an online game, it makes it a little easier to categorize that success. In that case, it would belong alongside titles like League of Legends, World of Warcraft or Destiny; enormous, sprawling games that suck up years upon years of players’ attention.

From a commercial standpoint, the industry is still a little unsure what these games are or what to do about them; they are behemoths on the landscape that everyone else needs to navigate around, but while many people share an intuition that they collapse revenues for other games in the same genre, it’s not entirely clear as yet what influence they really have on everything else on the market. If GTAV fits in with those titles, albeit on a level of its own to some degree, then it makes sense; it fits a pattern.

My sense, however, is that GTAV is something entirely different. It’s not quite, as Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick rather bombastically claimed at E3, that there are no “other titles… clustered around GTA from a quality point of view.” GTAV is a brilliant game, but it’s hard to support the claim that there’s nothing else out there of similar quality.

Rather, it’s that GTAV has struck a series of notes perfectly, stitching together a combination of elements each of which is executed flawlessly and which combined to make a game that is memorable, replayable, funny, challenging, and – vitally in this era – a never-ending source of entertaining video clips for YouTube or Twitch. Almost every aspect of GTAV is good, but there’s no single part you can point to and say, “this is why this is the game that defines an era.” The magic lies in the sum, not the individual parts.

And perhaps it’s something more than even that; perhaps GTAV isn’t just the right game, it’s also a game that’s appeared at the right time.

Think of the average age of a game consumer, which is well into the thirties at this point. Think of how games have come to be a part of our cultural conversation; no longer in a dismissive way, but as a field of genuine interest, a source of inspiration for other media, a topic of watercooler conversation. Think too of how videogames have begun to inform the aesthetics of the world, from the gloss of Marvel’s movies to the more obvious homages of Wreck-It Ralph or (god help us) Pixels. Somehow they’ve even managed to rope Spielberg into adapting inexplicably popular execrable teenage gamer fanfiction novel Ready Player One. Games are embedded as part of the world’s culture and, more importantly, part of how we talk about that culture.

GTAV arrived, in stunning, endlessly discussable, endlessly uploadable form right at the moment when that transition was being completed. There’s no way to quantify this, but I’ll wager GTAV holds a special record that’ll never go in Guinness’ book. I’ll wager it’s the most talked-about game of all time. Not because of controversy or scandal; it’s a game that’s just been talked about in conversation after conversation, four years of discussing stunts and jokes and achievements and easter eggs, until the game became embedded in our collective consciousness until it was The Game You Buy When You Finally Get A PS4.

There’s never been a game that occupied a place in the public consciousness quite like GTAV; but now that such a place exists for games in our collective cultural consciousness, perhaps it won’t be very long before more fantastic games roll up to take on similar roles.

Courtesy-GI.biz  

Is AMD Making A Comeback

August 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Computing

AMD has announced its Q2 2017 results and they are a bit better than Wall Street expected with $1.22 billion revenue versus an expected $1.16 billion.

AMD managed to score $1.222 Billion revenue or 19 percent year over a year from $1.027 Billion in the same quarter last year. Compared to the previous quarter, AMD had a 24 percent increase from $984 million to $1.222 billion. Traditionally, Q2 is not a fast quarter for CPU / GPU companies.

AMD had 33 percent non-GAAP gross margin. Non-GAAP operating expenses were at $381, 25 million in licensing gain and managed to decree its debt from $,.408 to $1,375 quarter to quarter. This is not a great difference quarter to quarter but year over year the debt dipped from $2,012 million to $1,375 in just a year.

This was enough to get AMD’s share price to rise to $15.50  or 9.85 percent up from the previous close. The jump mainly is a result of an expectation that the third quarter revenue will increase about 15 percent year over year. This could imply revenue about $1.50 billion, beating Wall Street predictions of $1.39 billion. Once again, people who should know things are surprised and didn’t do their homework well.

Operating income of $25 million doesn’t seems like a lot but compared to a $29 million loss in Q1 2017 it does look like an improvement.

The revenue on computer and graphics increased 51 percent year over the year and this means one thing. Zen is working quite well for the company as both Ryzen and Epyc. GPU sales of R500 series to miners contributed a lot, let alone the normal demand from mainstream gamers.

Net revenue in computer and graphics jumped to $659 million with $7 million operating income in Q2 17. A year ago, in Q2 2016, AMD made $435 million from the same segment with an $81 million loss in the process. Quarter over quarter, AMD jumped 11 percent.

Fudzilla expects that in Q3 2017 these numbers will further increase as Threadripper, EPYC.  Ryzen 3, EPYC and Vega will gain some traction too. All eyes are on Threadripper, EPYC as well as Ryzen 7 and 5 parts, that have a good chance of increasing profitability and gross margin.

AMD expects that the gross margin will rise from 33 percent in Q2 to 34 percent Q3 2017. The gross margin in financial 2016 was only 31 percent and you need higher margins to fuel your R&D and operations.

Quarter to quarter, AMD expects that Q3 might be 23 percent (plus or minus 3) and gross margin increase to 34 percent. Overall, 2017 can be up mid to high teens percent from $4.272 million revenue in financial 2016.

Lisa pointed out that AMD returned to non-GAAP net income profitability in the quarter, driven by strong growth in its Computing and Graphics segment.
The Enterprise, Embedded and Semi-Custom segment for AMD showed a slight revenue decline of five percent year-over-year and increased 44 percent sequentially, due to seasonality. Microsoft will start shipping Xbox One X in November, featuring the semi-custom SoC from AMD. AMD reminded us that Sony recently passed a milestone of 60 million PlayStation 4 consoles shipped, meaning things are good in the console business.

Mayor PC OEMS have announced premium Ryzen-based desktop systems with wide availability for the back-to-school and holiday seasons. Ryzen 3 should start shipping later this week while Ryzen Threadripper should be available in early August.

Ryzen Pro is schedule for availability in Q3 and Ryzen Mobile following later this year to complete the circle.

Overall AMD is improving, and competition is a good thing. 2018 will definitely be an interesting year but we expect a lot of pressure from Intel and Nvidia for back to school and the holiday season.

Courtesy-Fud

Can Service Based Video Games Growing The Industry

July 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Long-tail console and PC titles designed to keep players engaged for years will grow the overall games market, rather than make it more difficult, according to Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot.

The chief exec was speaking to a group of journalists today in the publisher’s Singapore studio, the team behind the upcoming pirate multiplayer title Skull & Bones. The game ties in with Singapore’s core focus, which is on both “HD content games” such as the Assassin’s Creed titles, and service-based titles such as its previous hit Ghost Recon Phantoms.

However, the market has become increasingly crowded with games designed to retain players over a longer period of time – whether it’s with the online persistent world of Destiny or the high replayability of Overwatch. Ubisoft itself has plenty of titles that fall into this category, such as Tom Clancy outings Rainbow Six Siege and The Division.

GamesIndustry.biz posited to Guillemot that not only will the publisher have to compel consumers to buy and engage with Skull & Bones, it also has to convince them to stop playing other titles and hope that no rival publisher releases a product that will draw people away from the pirate battler. How is the publisher approaching this challenge?

“It’s a good question,” he said. “There’s a good diversity in what people want to play. It’s not one game against the other. More and more people are playing games and they want different types of experiences. So, for sure, we’ll have to take people from other games, but after five years on one game they might want to try something else.

“Those types of games, we think we’ll be able to increase the number of people playing those type of experiences. The market is also going to grow quite a lot: more countries, more people in each country – because the cost to play those games per hour is less than we used to have. If you look at a 15-hour game that costs $60, that’s $4 per hour. Now you can play games for 200 hours, a thousand hours and still for $60, plus some investment in the game. It’s more like 20 to 40 cents per hour. So you can [justify] playing many of those games if you have time.”

The studio visit is part of a larger push from Ubisoft to highlight the advantages of developing games in South East Asia. Various presentations today cited the strengths specific to Singapore, such as its recognition of English as an official language, it’s high-quality internet, and the amount of tech-savvy recruits in the region.

We asked how Ubisoft expects the games landscape in Singapore to change in the next five years and what role the publisher hopes to play in that.

“It’s difficult to say [what will happen] in five years, but what we see in the short term is that we are here, Bandai Namco is here, and there is now more and more talent appearing around games companies [in Singapore],” said Guillemot.

“There is also a number of indies here, so we’re seeing a pool of talent growing. We think it will continue to grow quite a lot in the next few years, so for us while the talent is here it’s one of the best places for us to create high-quality games.”

Ubisoft Singapore MD Olivier De Rotalier added: “This year is very important for us with Skull & Bones and Assassin’s Creed Origins. We’re really showing that you can deliver very strong games and very promising titles from Singapore. That’s our role: to show that people can see strong success from here. So this year’s key for us.”

Guillemot observed that the evolution of Singapore as a games hub will also make it easier for the studio to recruit. But is Ubisoft not concerned that, as the city state becomes more appealing to international firms, it will find itself competing with Singapore branches for rivals like Electronic Arts?

De Rotalier said the studio is “not really worried because they’re not here”, while Guillemot predicted that “more competition will come from Chinese and Japanese companies.”

GamesIndustry.biz will have more from Guillemot in the next few weeks.

 

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Virtual Reality Diverging

July 27, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Last week, Bandai Namco opened the world’s largest VR arcade in Tokyo – specifically in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho, a rapidly gentrifying red-light district that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s played games in the Yakuza series.

VR Zone Shinjuku, as the huge facility is called, is set to operate for at least two years; it follows a more short-lived VR arcade popup on the other side of the city last summer. Bandai Namco reckons the new facility can handle about 1500 visitors per day, and while tickets are somewhat expensive (approaching $50 for a pass that lets you play a handful of games), the impressive line-up of Japan’s most beloved pop culture IP that the company has built its VR experiences around means it won’t want for customers. Mario Kart, Evangelion, Gundam, Ghost in the Shell and Dragonball Z are among the properties with unique VR versions at the arcade – catnip for both Japanese customers and many tourists alike.

Only a few days later, another development at quite the other end of the VR scale; hand-tracking technology firm Leap Motion received a fresh investment of $50 million, which will fund further development of hardware and software designed to translate precise hand and finger movements into virtual space. Leap Motion’s existing hardware can be used essentially in two ways – as a small box that creates a virtual space above a desk in which hand movement is tracked, or stuck to the front of a VR headset to track a user’s hand movements wherever they turn.

“We’re rapidly heading back into territory the games industry hasn’t been in for more than two decades – a situation where the kind of experiences that can be provided in an out-of-home arcade setting are materially, significantly different from those you can have at home”

What’s interesting about these two news stories – otherwise related only by the VR buzzword – is the divergent paths they imply, at least in terms of the scale of the VR experience.

VR Zone is a big building (dwarfed admittedly by nearby hotels and the gigantic Toho Cinema complex across the square) whose games take up a lot of space; each is room-scale at minimum, with custom controllers, special rigs to sit in or attach yourself to, and in the case of its Ghost in the Shell game, an expansive play area for players to move around in that’s all wired up for VR. The vast majority of the experiences you’ll have in VR Zone (which Bandai Namco hopes to roll out in other cities and countries eventually) are experiences that the vast, vast majority of consumers will never have on a home VR setup of any kind.

Leap Motion, on the other hand, is building technology that’s suggestive of a different future. It’s not that their technology couldn’t be integrated into room-scale VR in some fashion; rather, it’s that it strongly hints at a future where VR hardware is far more small-scale and far less intrusive. One can think of Leap Motion’s hand tracker as being ideal for “desk-scale VR”, where the objective is to manipulate objects (for work or play) in a VR or AR space that’s pretty much fixed to within a square metre or so; or for “sofa-scale VR”, experiences that see the player staying pretty much still apart from head and hand motions. It’s pretty much the far end of the spectrum from the “room-scale VR” people will queue up for at VR Zone, or even the “arena-scale VR” offered by the Ghost in the Shell combat game.

Recognizing the divergence between these scales is important, I think, for a realistic understanding of where VR is headed and how it can fit alongside the rest of the industry. There’s been a lot of fuss and noise around room-scale VR setups ostensibly aimed at the home – but it’s extremely hard to see these ever being anything more than an absolutely tiny niche within a niche. Room-scale VR requires rigging sensors around a dedicated space, and even as the technology improves and eliminates wires, it’s going to run into the same essential problem that Kinect had in all of its iterations – most people, especially outside US suburbs, do not have enough space in their home for this kind of setup, let alone enough space to devote an area to VR on a regular enough basis to make it worthwhile. Even those who do will only be getting a bare-bones version of the kind of experiences VR Zone and its ilk will provide; one interesting thing about those experiences is just how much custom hardware is set up for each individual game.

In other words, we’re rapidly heading back into territory the games industry hasn’t been in for more than two decades – a situation where the kind of experiences that can be provided in an out-of-home arcade setting are materially, significantly different from those you can have at home. The sort of games you’ll be playing with a Leap Motion equipped headset, or a PlayStation VR rig, are simply not going to be the same as the sort of games you’ll be playing in arcades; the physical difference between these settings is going to ensure that games are not simply ported across from one to the other, but developed explicitly with a target “scale” in mind. There will in essence be two different VR platforms, not in the sense that Vive and Oculus are different platforms, but in a much more fundamental sense; out-of-home and in-home VR will share some technology but develop along divergent lines.

It’s even possible that we’ll see one thrive while the other withers; it’s worth noting that even with the relative success of PSVR, the existence of a major home market for VR remains largely hypothetical, and the paradigm of being “something you go to do with friends” rather than “something you do in your living room” could easily be the one that takes off. Meanwhile, desk-scale VR/AR tech like Leap Motion could well turn out to be more suited, in commercial terms, to workplaces than to entertainment.

“If VR Zone Shinjuku’s initial two-year run is a success, the company may indeed have a formula that will achieve something long thought impossible – a revival of interest in arcades and a boost for the commercial fortunes of out-of-home gaming”

The rapid pace of change and advancement in VR technology – the displays and the various motion tracking, control and feedback systems which surround them – made it somewhat inevitable that there would be a settling process as the market figured out what to actually do with all this new tech. That’s what we’re in the middle of right now; VR exists, it works and it’s really pretty impressive – now we have to work out in what contexts people want to experience it and, arguably even more important, what they’re willing to pay for. High-powered gaming PCs with expensive headsets and room-scale sensor rigs are not a viable market; the question is to what extent you have to scale down that ambition to get to something commercially sensible, and further, in what contexts you can actually use all that cool tech to build something different.

PSVR looks like the sensible answer to the former question, for now, though what Leap Motion and other players are doing is also very interesting, and the question of whether it’s workplace applications, entertainment applications or both that will drive small-scale VR is still an open one.

Meanwhile, Bandai Namco is the company making the most interesting attempts to answer the latter question. If VR Zone Shinjuku’s initial two-year run is a success, the company may indeed have a formula that will achieve something long thought impossible – a revival of interest in arcades and a boost for the commercial fortunes of out-of-home gaming. Even in Japan, arcades have largely been on life support, giving over more and more of their floor space to UFO Catcher crane games and sort-of-kind-of gambling games each year; VR Zone could be the most important shot in the arm for the sector in two decades.

No doubt other players in the VR space will be watching its fortunes closely; how it fares will help to define the commercial shape of the VR industry for years to come.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Do Video Games Help Critical Thinking

July 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

At the Develop conference in Brighton this week, the team behind a new charitable foundation called The Near Future Society asked developers to embrace games as a tool for critical thinking; an antidote to a cultural landscape in which “fake news, bias and extremism” are increasingly powerful forces.

The Near Future Society was initially conceived by Oliver Lewis, a former diplomat and the current VP of corporate development at Improbable. Lewis was joined onstage by Nick Button-Brown, the COO of Sensible Object and one of Improbable advisers, who became intrigued by The Near Future Society’s belief in the positive influence games could have on society.

“We wondered whether games can develop critical thinking, and help us understand how to think about moral reasoning,” Lewis said. “We started having this conversation, and we decided that it’s much more complicated than ‘can they?’, and that perhaps they already do.”

“People are becoming more extreme. The center ground is disappearing. It has now become okay to ignore opposing viewpoints, it has now become okay to shout them down”

The Near Future Society’s first meeting took place before GDC this year, on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles. “The idea was to get together government, technology, education and entertainment people to talk about how to address the problems of the world,” Button-Brown said. “When we met the government people, the thing they were most worried about was fake news, and the impact fake news has on people’s opinions.

“People are not questioning. We see it, and we see it in our own lives as well. People are becoming more extreme. The centre ground is disappearing. It has now become okay to ignore opposing viewpoints, it has now become okay to shout them down.”

One of the distinctive qualities of games as a medium is the ability to empower players to make choices, and to show the consequences of those choices. Lewis and Button-Brown cited some well known examples of this technique: the admittedly “simplistic” moral split in a game like Knights of the Old Republic, the “Would you kindly?” reveal in Bioshock, and the creeping realization of The Brotherhood of Steel’s true nature in Fallout 4.

“Having spent a lot of time with the UK and the US military, I have an affinity for this group,” Lewis said, referring to his experiences embedded with the military in Afghanistan. “[The Brotherhood of Steel] have some really cool kit. But the more you interact with this group it starts to get a little uneasy, then you start to realize that they’re a little bit fascist.”

Games afford players the freedom to arrive at such realisations, encouraging a degree of critical thinking absent in linear media. This power, Lewis argued, gives developers a responsibility to carefully consider how they present difficult subject matter to the world. Call of Duty, for example, depicts “a type of warfare that’s unrecognizable to the modern Western soldier,” one where the Geneva Convention and “the reality of the law of armed conflict” are not strictly observed.

“If you go into a mission and your objective is to kill the enemy, you are murdering wounded and potentially surrendering soldiers. That is illegal,” he said. “You are potentially using a flamethrower as a weapon. That is illegal. You are told to destroy civilian property and religious buildings. That is illegal. To some extent you’re also committing war crimes.

“A lot of game depictions of war are not accurate emotionally, are not accurate operationally, even if they’re accurate visually. And as we get towards ever more immersive experiences we have a responsibility to represent that moral reasoning.”

“A lot of game depictions of war are not accurate emotionally, are not accurate operationally, even if they’re accurate visually”

However, while there are examples of games that don’t take that responsibility seriously, The Near Future Society was mainly inspired by the games that already do.

“There are just so many games where, fundamentally, we teach players to think analytically,” Button-Brown said. “We teach them to question their environment, and to expect that the people that are talking to them are not necessarily telling the truth all the time. That’s what we do in our stories. We’re already doing it, and we’re actually quite good at it.”

“In the earlier part [of the talk], we deliberately held up some of the areas where we could do better,” Lewis added. “But only as foreground to say that the games industry writ large is already doing so much good in terms of encouraging critical thinking, and encouraging moral reasoning.”

Button-Brown discussed State of Decay and EVE Online as examples of games that use persistence to encourage players to think about the consequences of their decisions. In the case of the former, when one of your companions dies there is no option to restart or bring them back. “I then had to start making decisions about which of my companions I could sacrifice,” he said. “That’s uncomfortable, even in a virtual world.”

Lucas Pope’s Papers Please, which puts the player in the role of a border guard in a fictional country, was also singled out for praise. “It teaches people that there’s a grey area,” Button-Brown said. “Good decisions in Papers Please can end up with bad outcomes. You’re teaching moral action, and also connecting that to the consequences.”

Lewis discussed 11 bit Studios’ This War of Mine as a kind of counterpoint to games like Call of Duty, in the way that it depicts the experience of the people who suffer the most as a result of conflict. “It induces empathy with the displaced person, the people left behind after war,” he said. “Ordinary, normal people who have to try and eke out an existence; to survive and protect the people that we fought for.”

“There’s a decent chance we’re going to have much more influence as an industry over people’s morals”

Lewis and Button-Brown aren’t the only people to have noticed the potential for games to explore difficult subject matter. Last year, 11 bit Studios launched a publishing division with a stated aim of drawing attention to “meaningful games” like This War of Mine and Papers Please. “There are a lot of players who want those experiences,” publishing director Pawel Feldman told GamesIndustry.biz. “We know how to talk about these games. All we need are talented developers.”

The Near Future Society has a similar goal, albeit as a charitable organisation rather than a commercial one. Lewis expressed his belief that “social and political taboos” are ideally suited to games as a medium because, through play, “people are much more likely to engage with them.” An open brainstorming session at the end of the talk proved that developers are eager to explore this new territory; the Near Future Society will attempt to serve as a conduit between interested studios and bodies that might fund and support their work.

“One of the partners that we’re going for is the Roddenberry Foundation,” Lewis said, referring to the organization established by the son of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. “We want many of the early projects that we do support to be deliberately utopian. If you want a living wage and [universal basic income], then let’s use popular culture to explore that, rather than just having a declaration from Mark Zuckerberg.”

Both Lewis and Button-Brown acknowledged that the games industry has a “left-wing bias”, and they were very clear that the goal of the Near Future Society is not to tell people how to think. “In the forum in Los Angeles, one of the greatest concerns of the US and UK government that came along…was that this would be propaganda,” Lewis said. “What we had to make very clear is that any projects that we do, we’ll be very open on who the collaborators are, and indeed what any overt political message is going to be.

“You could say that, within this broad idea of making games more political, you have to state what the politics are rather than hide it with subterfuge.”

Button-Brown added that simply reflecting the bias of any given side of an issue would could be “dangerous”, and it would also ignore the unique strength that games have to allow the player to explore ideas from multiple angles, and make their own choices. “That’s why we ended up at teaching critical thinking,” he said, “rather than ‘Get Trump out’.”

“Games are already the most accessible, arguably the most effective, and the largest provider of moral reasoning and critical thinking education in the world,” Lewis said. “Almost without realizing it, that’s one of the things that you’re providing to the global community.”

Understanding and embracing that idea will only become more important over time, Button-Brown said. “There’s a decent chance we’re going to have much more influence as an industry over people’s morals. We’re going to have much more influence over the way that they think. As people become more immersed in these worlds, it’s going to matter more.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Virtual Reality To Expensive For The Masses

July 20, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The current generation of virtual reality is not dead, but it’s not exactly full of life, either. What once was a pulsating buzz has faded into the background of an industry, not because there are newer, shinier toys to play with, but simply because for all the newness and shine of VR, there has been little evidence that a significant audience exists for the experiences we can deliver at this time.

Earlier this week, Oculus instituted a temporary $200 price cut of the Rift, dropping the headset and its Touch controllers to a $400 bundle that comes packed with seven free games (including Lucky’s Tale, Medium, Toybox, and Robo Recall) and an Xbox One controller for good measure. That’s in addition to the $200 price cut Oculus rolled out in March for the headset and Touch combo, meaning the company has slashed the price by 50% in just four months.

On its own, this could actually be an encouraging sign, but taken in context of the rest of the news coming out of the VR sector, it’s more concerning than convincing. For one, Oculus looks to be bringing up the rear among the three major high-end VR options on the market, despite being a first mover and having the significant financial backing of Facebook. Through the first half of this year, tracking firm Superdata put the Rift’s installed base at just 383,000 units, compared to HTC Vive’s 667,000 units and PlayStation VR’s 1.8 million.

Even ignoring its relative sales position, Oculus is already in a tough spot in the enthusiast VR fight, technologically a step behind the more expensive Vive, but still more expensive (when considering the cost of a VR-capable PC) and less mass market than the PSVR. That’s a difficult problem for marketing anything, doubly so when what you’re selling is an experience that by its nature needs to be experienced to be fully understood, triply so when you’re drastically scaling back the number of demo units in retail locations where interested customers could get their first taste of VR.

I also question Oculus’ decision to shutter its in-house Story Studio, which was set up with Pixar veterans to show how VR could shift the medium of film as much as it could games. The studio’s Henry won an Emmy in 2016. Its follow-up, Dear Angelica, premiered at Sundance earlier this year to rave reviews and has been submitted for Emmy consideration at this year’s awards, which are still a few months away. In short, Story Studio was exactly the sort of investment in a potentially disruptive medium you would expect a company with long-term ambitions to keep. Instead, they cut it loose, with head of content Jason Rubin essentially saying it was time for external filmmakers to pick up the narrative VR ball (albeit with some $50 million in funding from Oculus).

There’s a bit of a theme there. Just a couple months before closing Story Studio, Rubin pointed out for GamesIndustry.biz at GDC that Facebook–and by extension, Oculus–isn’t a content creation company.

“Facebook’s not a media company,” Rubin said. “So there may be a day where Facebook says we’re going to head towards our core competency… That’s why I don’t have internal teams. I have exactly one group of three people besides Story Studios because that didn’t exist outside.”

Facebook didn’t pay $2 billion for Oculus in 2014 because it wanted to make games. It wanted VR to be a popular thing it could leverage for its social network. If HTC Vive or Sony or Microsoft can make VR work better than Oculus, that still gets VR where the social network wants it to be. That’s not ideal for Facebook, but after the Rift’s slow start, the hundreds of millions it already owes in court judgments, the hundreds of millions more it might be made to pay in the future, and seeing the face of the VR revolution leave under a cloud of controversy, one could understand if the company’s commitment to VR began to waver.

Speaking of the competition, I’m not terribly optimistic with what they’re bringing to the table. Sony’s PSVR is leading the pack, but I’m still skeptical whether the company’s interest in the hardware will be any longer lasting than its support for Vita, or Wonderbook, or PlayStation TV, or Move, or EyeToy, or stereoscopic 3D. Sony’s E3 conference featured some promising games in Polyarc’s Moss, two titles from Until Dawn developer Supermassive, and Skyrim VR, but little that stands out as a system-seller the way that Resident Evil 7, or even the prospect of last year’s Batman and Star Wars VR experiences might have. When asked at E3 about whether that lineup would boost PSVR adoption, Sony’s Jim Ryan was unsure.

“I think we are still really just learning about VR,” Ryan said. “When hopefully we meet in a year’s time, I will be able to give you a better answer to this question. It still won’t be a perfect answer, but I’ll know more.”

That’s not exactly an overwhelming vote of confidence from PlayStation’s chief marketer. I’m not sure I want to bet the future health of VR on Sony’s continued support for a market that is (for now, at least) peripheral to its core business.

The situation with HTC and the Vive underscores another issue when trying to establish an emerging field like VR. Vive launched at the cutting edge, but since then has rolled out object tracker peripherals and a wireless adaptor, respectively giving developers more options and addressing a key complaint around high-end VR. In both cases, they would be better served as being part of the core hardware package rather than optional add-ons for what is already the most expensive option on the market. For the next generation of VR, perhaps they’ll be standard.

But who will invest in the next generation of enthusiast VR–on either the consumer side or the manufacturer side–if this generation disappoints? How long does a VR generation need to be before someone who spent $800 on a Vive (not to mention the cost of a VR-capable PC) feels they got their money’s worth and would re-up for a successor? How many great games does it need to have? How many generations does an HTC or Facebook need to take a bath on before the business turns around and justifies the continued investment?

Then there’s Microsoft, which will enter the fray this holiday season with its “mixed reality” VR headsets for Windows that are cheaper and require less of a set up than Oculus or Vive, but appear to make compromises on the technical side to get there. It’s telling that even with Microsoft launching the high-end, VR-capable Xbox One X this year, it is foregoing any sort of console VR push and relying on higher resolutions and better frame rates for Xbox One games as the sales pitch for a One X. Phil Spencer told us at E3 that VR was still years away from the mainstream for gamers, suggesting the company was waiting to launch its console VR until it had a proper wireless solution ready.

At this point, it seems more likely to me that the current enthusiast VR market is an expensive R&D exercise that won’t produce successful systems, but will lay the groundwork for the actual mass market VR, which will instead evolve both in audience and use-cases from the mobile VR world. (We call it mobile VR, but I don’t think I’m alone in having never once seen someone using a mobile VR headset on the subway, in the security line at the airport, or in the waiting room at a dentist.)

A number of the VR developers I’ve spoken to have mentioned wires, price, system-selling software, and installed base as key issues VR needs to tackle to become truly mainstream. As Google Daydream and the Oculus-powered Gear VR have shown, the first two are all but solved problems in mobile VR thanks to the use of existing smartphones. As for the other two, when your system is only $100 or so, the definition of a system-seller changes dramatically, which then has plenty of beneficial implications for the installed base. (Promotions like Samsung giving away Gear VR with new Galaxy phone purchases don’t hurt, either.)

All mobile VR really needs are better interfaces and more powerful phones. The Gear VR motion controller is a good first step for the former, and the latter is improving all the time. If VR is really going to go mass market, doesn’t it make more sense for it to grow not from the high-end early adopter market who would have dropped $600 on a PS3, but from the masses who made a compelling novelty like the $250 Wii a phenomenon?

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Video Game Development Going Truly Global?

July 18, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The international video games industry owes a considerable amount to the efforts of immigrants from countries like Syria.

Companies like AdMob – founded by Syrian Entrepreneur Omar Hamoui, and later acquired by Google for $750 million – have helped reshape the conventions of game publishing as we know it. Steve Jobs’ own biological father was a Syrian emigrant to the states. On taking that journey, Abdulfattah ‘John’ Jandali unknowingly set events in motion that would lead to Apple’s reinvention of how we play, make and distribute games.

Beyond games there are numerous other examples of Syrian people who have helped better the world through technology, empowered to do so through freedom of travel. People like Sirin Hamsho, a Hama-born engineer who today resides in the United States, and has helped revolutionise renewable energy through her work with wind turbines.

Technology is, of course, progressed by collaboration, and cooperation happens most readily when people can get together. It’s the reason travelling to other countries – be it for a single meeting or a new life – is so often the catalyst for technological change. That’s why most in the games industry go to conferences all over the world; it’s a chance to understand distinct approaches, secure contacts, form alliances and spark collaboration.

When Trump’s long-promised travel ban became a rather chaotic reality, numerous games makers suddenly found their potential severely jeopardised. Suddenly, every US games conference was off the radar of hundreds of developers. No GDC, no E3, no nothing. Studios needing to take a couple of days to attend a meeting with a US publisher had the rug pulled from beneath their feet. Chances to meet new staff and find new partners were thrown into disarray.

That inspired Unity Technologies to conceive the ‘Unity Without Borders’ initiative, which sought to bring 50 developers to the Unite Europe conference in Amsterdam last month. After a selection process, Unity would handle and cover travel, accommodation, visas and anything else needed to afford games makers limited by Trump’s ban to engage with the free exchange of ideas that is the founding spirit of almost any game convention.

Meeting the developers brought to Unite as part of Without Borders, it is clear they greatly appreciate the opportunity. That, perhaps, should be obvious, but there is a sense on the show floor that the effort is about more than one middleware-specific company conference.

Ziad MollaMahmud is a man with many skills. By day he is a .NET developer for web applications, while also doing 3D modelling work in the architectural space. A Syrian based in Turkey, he has in recent years embraced game development, acquiring a taste for AR, which he has explored through modest projects of his own conception.

“This is a very, very good opportunity for me,” MollaMahmud says of his success in visiting Unite Europe as part of Without Borders. “It’s a breaking point in my life, where I can move to a better position and change my way of thinking about the future. I believe coming here will have a very good effect over me and my future.”

That’s not to say MollaMahmud is new to being overseas for his career. He estimates that he has visited some 13 countries during his 20-year career, but with the outbreak of Syria’s civil war – and long before the impact of Trump’s presidency – the ambitious developer started to realise global politics would limit his professional potential.

“It’s not only Trump. There’s a lot of restrictions on Syrian’s travelling and doing other things, and that makes it very hard”

“After the Syrian war started a lot of Middle Eastern countries placed travel bans on Syrians, just because of their nationality,” he says. “I was travelling before – without any visa – but after the war they all started to do these travel bans, and I couldn’t travel to the Middle East. It’s not only Trump. There’s a lot of restrictions on Syrian’s travelling and doing other things, and that makes it very hard.”

Those restrictions – whatever their source or motivation – continue today, and in many other ways that also prevent developers from collaborating. Many Iranian and Syrian studios keen to apply for Without Borders were faced with limitations on web access that impeded their submissions for the initiative. There’s a logic to the internet making face-to-face meetings less relevant today, but when the web you can access is restricted presence at real-world events is all the more important. And that was, Unity says, what inspired the Without Borders initiative.

“In some of their communities – especially in countries like Iran and Syria, where they can’t move around as much – they don’t have a lot of access to a lot of game developers or creators,” says Elizabeth Brown, Chief People Officer at Unity, who has been pivotal in implementing Without Borders. “Coming to a conference not only fuels inspiration, but establishes skill sets, sparks ideas and builds networks. They don’t always have access to a local game development community, so they rely on international conferences to feed them and develop their creations and businesses. When they are limited from going to those conferences, they are super limited. That’s as creators, but also as business owners. Some of them are making their living by making games.”

For Brown, this isn’t just a matter of providing those with a passion for games an exciting opportunity; it is about helping developers put food on their tables. Often, that is incredibly limited for a developer restricted to just their home country, market and development community.

“We don’t have anything like this in Iran,” explains Amin Shahidi, as he glances around the main expo hall of Unite Europe, smiling. Shahidi is team lead, animator and game designer at the Tehran-based studio Black Cube Games, and he’s at Unite thanks to Without Borders. “We don’t have these kind of networks,” he continues. “So in Iran, all the movement of developers is very limited, or even blind. So this kind of event – and the moment of being here – is very, very cool and very, very helpful.”

“It shows us that people actually care about us,” adds Ali Boroumand, a game developer at Dutch studio Ferox Games, and a former colleague of Shahidi’s. “We’re all humans, and we’re all pretty much the same people. So it’s very heart warming to think that, even in hard times, people see game developers as game developers. We’re all game developers, and it doesn’t really matter where we come from. We’re all trying to make good games.

“But before this, we had to rule out contributing to any conferences or studios inside the United States. We couldn’t contribute to anything there, and that’s probably a loss on both sides. And beyond the travel ban, there are quite a few other United States restrictions, mostly on money. Selling games outside of Iran is hard for us.”

Boroumand makes a very important point with regard to what Iranian developers have to offer the rest of the global games development community. Restricting developers’ opportunity to travel doesn’t only harm the game industry in their home countries; it equally detracts from the nations they would otherwise be visiting. Collaborating is at least a two-way process, and the learning, inspiration and innovation it engenders rarely passes only in a single direction.

“Syria, like anywhere, has talented people who can bring a lot of things to games development and all technology,” suggests MollaMahmud. “But we need a chance to open the window and say ‘we are here, you can do things for us, and we can do things for you’. We just need a chance to elevate ourselves and do something not just for ourselves, but for all those that make games. We can help your games when we can travel to you freely.”

Equally, there’s an obvious creative opportunity for any studio looking to bring distinct aesthetics and approaches to the global market.

“Iran has quite a long history,” says Boroumand, who is presently based in Sheffield. “The Persian empires have been around for a few thousand years, so Iranian art and Iranian culture is pretty rich in that respect. Games of Iranian art and Iranian influence can bring something to the rest of the world, definitely; something that isn’t often seen.”

There’s an irony to all this, of course. Trump’s travel ban has afforded the Unity Without Borders teams an opportunity to visit a conference they may never have seen had the US President not targeted the various nations blacklisted. For MollaMahmud, however, the irony of opportunity born from limitations runs a little deeper. Buoyed by his experience of attending Unite, he can be remarkably optimistic about a situation that had s dramatic impact on his life.

He believes the horrific Syrian war, which broke out just a couple of years after he returned to live in the country, offers an ultimate example of the potential opportunity hardship can bring game developers.

“After the war is finished – and I hope that is soon – I believe there will be a very good opportunity in Syria for all kinds of business, including game development and software in general,” he considers. “The war will leave a country that will have to start from scratch. Now there are millions of Syrian refugees outside of Syria. It’s really bad to be a refugee, and I believe a lot of refugees are ready to seize the opportunity – having learned many new things – of heading back to Syria.”

Forced displacement is no better than placing mandatory travel restrictions, of course, but in a strange, counter-intuitive way, migration from conflict could represent what freedom to travel can bring in terms of advantages.

“The war, I hope, will finish soon,” MollaMahmud repeats firmly. “Then a lot of people will come back to Syria, and help build our country from scratch. I always say that Germany after the second world war, for example, started from scratch, and they have built a very good, very beautiful, respected country. Then more of us can make successful games.”

MollaMahmud isn’t suggesting that the development of a healthy national games industry justifies a war; not at all. For one, there are more important things than the games industry to consider when a country emerges from conflict. But if Syrians can pool the experience gained through their peoples’ diaspora and establish a game industry to rival Germany’s, it would contribute a great deal to that renewal and rebuilding.

Movement of people can push technology like little else, for the benefit of everyone involved, regardless of their home or country of origin; Apple and AdMob are proof of that. War will likely exist forever, but its horror doesn’t preclude it from being used to inspire positive movements large and small.

Nobody is calling for the forced displacement of people for the benefit of the game industry, of course. But based on the enthusiasm and appetite for learning of every Without Borders developer at Unite Europe, it’s apparent that supporting thoughtful freedom to travel benefits us all.

Courtesy-GI.biz

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