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Google Launches New Artificial Intelligence Research Center

December 14, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Alphabet Inc’s confirmed plans to open an artificial intelligence (AI) research center in China to target the country’s local talent, even as the U.S. search firm’s products remain blocked in the country.

Google said in a statement the research center is the first of its kind in Asia and will comprise a small team operating out of its existing office in Beijing.

Chinese policy makers have voiced strong support for AI research and development in the country, but have imposed increasingly strict rules on foreign firms in the past year, including new censorship restrictions.

Google’s search engine is banned in the Chinese market along with its app store, email and cloud storage services. China’s cyber regulators say restrictions on foreign media and internet platforms are designed to block influences that contravene stability and socialist ideas.

While tightening restrictions are likely to hamper a re-entry to the Chinese market for Google, the firm has increasingly focused on exposing its AI products in China.

This year Google held a Go tournament in cooperation with local authorities in eastern China, pitching its AI against Chinese world champion Go player Ke Jie. The event was highly publicized overseas but local media was muted.

Earlier this month Google CEO Sundar Pichai made an appearance at a conference run by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top cyber regulator, where he steered away from market access issues to discuss the potential of AI.

Google said the new Chinese AI research center will join a list of similar overseas centers operating in New York, Toronto, London and Zurich.

Can EA Learn From Rainbow Six Siege With 25 Million Players

December 12, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Ubisoft has announced that two years after launch, Rainbow Six Siege has over 25 million registered players.

Now entering its third year, Ubisoft has lined-up more content to prolong the life of the game for another season, proving that games-as-a-service can be done properly in the AAA space.

When Siege launched at the tail end of 2015, critics took the game to task over its threadbare offerings, which featured a single PvP mode, no campaign, and only a handful of maps, not to mention a litany of bugs.

Since then, however, many of the criticisms have been dealt with and Siege has held a regular spot in the UK top 20.

What’s especially interesting about the success of Siege is how quiet it’s been. With each competitor that shambles onto the market, whether that be Star Wars Battlefront II or the latest addition to the monolithic Call of Duty franchise, Siege has rarely attracted the same level of controversy, despite employing the most common games-as-as-service monetization techniques.

With games-as-a-service reportedly having tripled the value of the industry, and EA looking to replace annual sports games with live services, has Ubisoft laid out the framework for how to do it right?

“Player investment has been core to the success of the game with longevity being always very important to us. As the game progressed, we continued to develop it with the community in mind,” said Alexandre Remy, Rainbow Six Siege brand director in a statement.

A community-centric approach is the obvious answer to increasing the longevity of any game. Over recent months, we’ve seen a great deal of discussion around finding the “sweet spot” for monetization techniques, and we’ve also seen the fallout of what happens when communities feel disrespected. Loot boxes and season pass DLC can work, Siege has demonstrated that, but striking that delicate balance is something publishers have long struggled with, and continue to do so.

That said, it’s important to consider the particular niche that Siege operates in. Yes, it’s a competitive online shooter, but unlike many of its contemporaries, it’s a much more strategic and team-focused affair. While there is definitely a crossover between Call of Duty players and Siege players, the latter has a niche appeal the former cannot possibly hope to replicate without disenfranchising its mainstream audience.

The likes of Activision and EA can certainly learn from Ubisoft’s approach to games-as-a-service. With no immediate Siege sequel on the horizon, a further cash investment into the game is a relatively easy thing for consumers to justify.

However, when players know that the life of a game will be artificially shortened by an annual release, rather than extended by DLC, it becomes difficult to rationalize spending anything above the $60 entry price, especially when the monetization techniques are perceived to be so aggressive.

Ubisoft is not the only publisher to have successfully implemented these techniques with minimal backlash. Blizzard, for example, kept its hands relatively clean with Overwatch and only recently got caught-up in the Belgian Gambling Commission’s investigation which mainly cast its attention towards Star Wars Battlefront II.

But with Siege, Ubisoft has employed the delicate and reasoned approach that’s been missing from the industry’s clumsy, heavy-handed adoption of the games-as-a-service model. As a result, the two-year-old game boasts a large, dedicated community that numbers in the millions and is willing to spend.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is EA Screwing Up The Planned Move To Games As A Service

December 8, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Every now and then, a major publisher goes through a bit of a rough patch in PR terms; the hits just seem to keep on coming, with company execs and representatives seemingly incapable of opening their mouths without shoving their feet right inside, and every decision being either poorly communicated or simply wrongheaded to begin with. At present it’s EA that can’t seem to put a foot right, from Battlefront 2’s microtransactions to lingering bad feeling over the closure of Visceral; every major company in the industry, though, has had its fair share of turns in the barrel.

These cycles come around for a couple of reasons. Part of it is just down to narrative; once something goes wrong for a company, they are scrutinised more closely for a while, and statements that might have slipped under the radar usually are blown up by the attention. Another part of it, though, is genuinely down to phases that companies go through; common enough periods in which the balance between the two audiences a major company must serve, its consumers and its investors, is not being managed and maintained expertly enough.

Most companies encounter this difficulty from time to time, because the demands and desires of shareholders are often damned near diametrically opposed to those of customers. The biggest problems arise, however, when a firm ends up having to take a Janus-faced approach, presenting a different picture in financial calls and investor conferences to the one it tries to convey in its customer-facing PR and marketing efforts.

That’s broadly speaking the situation EA has found itself in once again; forced to be conciliatory and diplomatic in talking to customers about everything from loot boxes to its commitment (or lack of same) to single-player experiences, while simultaneously being bullish with investors who want to see clear signs of progress in the shift towards a set of business paradigms core consumers volubly dislike.

CFO Blake Jorgensen’s comments at Credit Suisse’s conference earlier this week are archetypal of this genre of corporate communication; from a blunt denial that the company’s microtransaction strategy on Battlefront 2 is changing overall to a throwaway comment about Visceral’s closure being related to declining popularity (by which, being a CFO, he meant revenue) of linear game experiences, Jorgensen spoke to investors in a way that was quite markedly different from how the rest of the company has addressed its actual customers on these issues.

You can argue quite reasonably that this approach is dishonest in spirit if not in substance; even if the words of each statement are chosen carefully so the investor messages don’t technically contradict the consumer messages, the intent is so clearly tangential that consumers have every right to feel rather miffed. I think it’s worthwhile, however, to look beyond that to the motivation and strategy behind this – not just in terms of EA’s month of bad PR, but looking beyond that to the industry as a whole, because pretty much every major publisher is undertaking a similar strategic shift in a direction they know perfectly well is going to annoy many of their core customers, and they’re all going to have their own turn in the barrel as a consequence.

At the heart of this issue lies the fact that for many investors and executives, the business model that has sustained the games industry for decades has started to look frustratingly quaint and backwards. “Games as a Product”, whereby a game is made and sold, perhaps followed up by a handful of add-ons that are also made and sold (essentially smaller add-on products in their own right), is a model beloved of core consumers – but business people point out, not entirely unfairly, that it has many glaring flaws.

Some of those flaws are very real – the product model creates a high barrier to entry (you can’t attract new customers without convincing them through expensive marketing to spend $50 to $60 on trying out your game), hence limiting audience growth, and has not scaled effectively with the rising costs of AAA development. More controversially, they dislike the fact that the product model creates a relatively low cap on spending – after buying a game, there’s only so much money a consumer can spend on DLC packs (each of which has its own associated development costs) before they hit a hard limit on their purchases.

Hence the pressure to move to a “Games as a Service” model, which neatly – if not uncontroversially – solves each of these issues. The service model can be priced as low as zero to create a minimal barrier to entry, though for major titles with a big brand attached publishers still show a preference for having their cake and eating it, charging full AAA pricing for entry to an essentially freemium-style experience. An individual player’s spending may be theoretically limitless, as purchases of cosmetic or consumable items could run to many thousands of dollars in some cases – hence also allowing the game’s revenue to scale up to match the huge AAA development and marketing budgets that went into its creation.

You can “blame” mobile games for this if you wish, but in a sense they were merely the canary in the coalmine; the speed with which the mobile gaming market converged on the F2P model and the aggression with which it was pursued was a clear sign that the rest of the industry would eventually try to move in a similar direction. The reality is that mobile games shone a light on something a few industry types had been saying for years; that there was a massive, largely untapped audience for games out there, who would never climb over the barriers to entry to the traditional market but who could potentially be immensely valuable customers of games with lower barriers to entry.

The correct height for those barriers turned out to be “free games for devices you already own”, and yet this market did turn out to be enormously valuable; and now much of the industry is eyeing up the model that works on smartphones, looking at their own rising costs and shrinking slice of the pie, and wondering how to get from over here to over there.

The problem is that making that crossing – from being a successful creator or publisher of core games to being a successful company in a smartphone-style paradigm – is damned tricky to do when the business model you (and your investors!) want to have is anathema to many of the customers you actually have right now. Not all of them, by any means – plenty of core gamers are actually pretty relaxed about these models, for the most part – but enough of them to make a lot of noise and to potentially put a major dent in the bottom line of a company that genuinely manages to drive them away.

Hence, much of the approach we’ve seen in 2017 (and prior) has really been akin to the parable about putting a frog in cold water and gradually raising the heat; companies have slowly, softly been adding service-style features and approaches to their games, hoping that the slowly warming water won’t startle its occupants too much.

When things spill over as they have done for EA in the past month, it tends to indicate that someone got impatient; that investors were too demanding or executives pushed too hard, and the water started to heat up too rapidly. The course will be corrected, but the destination remains the same. Short of a really major pushback and some serious revenue damage across the board from these approaches – which bluntly seems unlikely to materialise – the move towards games as a service is inexorable, and 2018 will bring far, far more of the same. Whether you view that as the industry’s salvation or its ruin is really a matter of personal perspective, but it’s a new reality for AAA titles that we’re all going to have to make some kind of peace with.

Courtesy-GI.biz

HDMI v2.1 Standards Finally Set

December 4, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

The HDMI Forum has officially published the latest HDMI v2.1 specification, paving the way for up to 10K resolutions, dynamic HDR, and support for variable refresh rate.

According to details provided by the HDMI Forum, the new HDMI v2.1 specification will be backward compatible with all previous HDMI standards but will also need the new ultra high-speed HDMI cable for those new upgrades.

As for those upgrades, the HDMI v2.1 standard will offer 48Gbps of bandwidth, which is a significant improvement over 18Gbps of bandwidth on the HDMI 2.0. It will also bring higher resolution reaching 8K@60Hz without the Display Stream Compression (DSC) and 10K@120Hz with DSC. It also features the new Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM).

Another big novelty for HDMI is support for Dynamic HDR as well as the Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) technology, which should reduce lag, frame stutter, skipping and freezing as well as deal with that pesky frame tearing. Unfortunately, HDMI Forum did not provide a lot of details regarding the VRR technology and we are not sure how different it is from AMD FreeSync.

In addition, the HDMI v2.1 standard will also include eARC, as well as Quick Media Switching (QMS), which eliminates the delay that can result in a blank screen before content is displayed and the Quick Frame Transport (QFT) feature which also aims to reduce latency in gaming and real-time interactive virtual reality content.

According to the press release, the HDMI v2.1 Compliance Test Specification (CTS) will be published in stages from Q1 to Q3 2018 and will notify the HDMI adopters as it becomes available.

Courtesy-Fud

Disney Very Protective Of IP and Brand

December 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

A decade or two ago, a common topic of speculation in the games business was which of its giant publishers would be the one to topple Disney from its position as the world’s most important warehouse of intellectual property. EA, then the industry’s big beast, was comfortably the favorite, especially as it seemed set on weaning itself off its reliance on licensed sports titles in favor of building new IP. Activision was on the radar for some; Nintendo, though the industry’s most obviously ‘Disney-like’ company, seemed slow to produce and capitalize on new IP at the time.

History didn’t play out that way. EA became embroiled in a decade long turnaround and restructuring effort; Activision, though boosted massively by its merger with Blizzard and the success of games like Call of Duty and Destiny, has fumbled in its management of properties outside the high-spending core. Nintendo’s library of IP has grown and thrived, of course – but none of these companies can come close to matching what’s happened at Disney. Since the time when we speculated over when EA might overtake them, Disney has absorbed first Pixar, then Marvel, then Lucasfilm, placing itself beyond any reasonable challenge. It is the world’s most valuable IP holder, and will be for years to come.

Along the way, Disney has largely given up its ambitions of being a game developer or publisher – at least for now. It shuttered studios. It shut down internal projects in favor of licensing its properties to other developers and publishers. There is a slight twist of irony to the fact that, in the process, Disney has gone from being a second- or third-tier publisher to being arguably the most powerful company in the games business; a licensor absolutely aware of the value of its IP, and willing to protect that IP and its development regardless of the cost to any partner company.

This month we’ve seen two examples of Disney flexing that muscle. The company severed ties with Gazillion Entertainment, developer of licensed Diablo-esque RPG Marvel Heroes; what happened behind the scenes to precipitate this is unclear as yet, but there were signs that Disney was dissatisfied with the developer or with its relationship for some time, and the company ultimately pulled the plug on the game. Just a few weeks later, a much bigger firm, Electronic Arts, also got a taste of Disney’s willingness to exercise its power; the controversy over pay-to-win loot box mechanics in Star Wars Battlefront 2 took an abrupt turn when pressure from Disney forced EA to remove premium currency from the game before its launch, pending a re-engineering of the game’s monetization systems.

For Gazillion, the consequences are stark; the firm has shut down, with staff claiming on social media that they are not receiving severance pay or PTO. The chances of refunds for players who bought expensive items in the free-to-play game seem slim. EA, of course, won’t face anything remotely that drastic as a consequence of the changes to Battlefront, but that’s more to do with the scale of EA and its capacity to absorb losses than anything else.

The company’s financial projections for Star Wars Battlefront 2 were based on the assumption of a premium currency and loot box system that worked in a certain way and attracted a certain amount of revenue. It set its development budget based on those projections, spent money on marketing based on those projections; Disney has now unceremoniously dumped those projections in the bin.

Entirely independent of the conversation over whether EA’s monetization model was ill-conceived or not, there can be little doubt that the company’s bottom line for this project will be hit by the removal of premium currency, even temporarily. Without seeing the company’s internal figures it’s hard to say, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that, given high enough costs for licensing, development and marketing, this change could even leave EA struggling to stay in the black on what should have been one of its most profitable titles of the quarter.

For Disney, these decisions no doubt make absolute sense. To a large extent, Disney’s choices about games are based on the same rationale as Nintendo’s have been; an understanding that preservation of the value of the IP needs to come ahead of short-term profitability of any one product based on that IP. Just as Nintendo will severely delay games and leave its release schedule looking anaemic at times in order to ensure quality of its finished products and preserve the value of the IP, Disney will shut down, delay or change games that look like they pose a threat to that value – even at risk of damaging business relationships and thoroughly screwing over partners.

Disney has a dual objective with every licensing deal it signs for a major property, such as a game or a TV show. It wants to make money, of course, but it also wants to support the IP it’s licensing; keeping it relevant and in the public eye, preferably boosting its appeal, and whatever else, no matter what, absolutely not damaging or devaluing it.

This makes working with Disney – even for a company as big and powerful in its own right as EA – into something of a risky and challenging business. It’s natural that any developer or publisher would jump at the chance to work on Star Wars, a property tied in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or something related to a major Pixar movie, but these deals are not the license to print money they may look like at first glance.

Disney’s willingness to aggressively protect its IP and flex its muscle in these arrangements makes it vital to bear in mind that Disney and the companies that license its IP to make games have different objectives; of course both parties want to make money, but for Disney that comes with a powerful and often overruling caveat. It will sacrifice profit for long-term health, and a developer or publisher, with no financial interest in that long-term health, may be hung out to dry as decisions made in service of profitability are reversed.

In a sense, Disney’s position in the games industry has become similar to Apple’s in the hardware business. Apple makes some of the best-selling high-end products in the world, but for a manufacturing firm to join that supply chain is actually a double-edged sword, because the company is famous for micro-managing the processes of its suppliers and shaving their margins down to the knuckle. Working with Apple can mean enormous contracts to supply high-end parts for globally famous products; it can also mean paper-thin margins, constant supervision and tough contract terms from a company whose business objectives do not always align neatly with those of its suppliers.

Of course, the lure of working on Disney IP will not diminish. These are among the world’s most valuable brands, and for game creators they’re a treasure chest. But before diving into those waters, even the biggest of companies would do well to think about whether their intentions actually align with what Disney will permit. This is a company at the peak of its power; the rewards for working with it may be great, but no publisher should fool itself that Disney will ever put a business relationship ahead of its own central interest in the protection of its IP.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Did The Star Wars Battlefront 2 Fiasco Hurt The Franchise

November 27, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The run-up to launch for Star Wars: Battlefront II has been, to put it bluntly, a fiasco. I would suggest that it has also provided a model for publishers to follow in the future.

When Electronic Arts announced at E3 that it was scrapping the Season Pass model for Battlefront II, the move was met warmly by players. After all, the Season Pass split the player base into people with the DLC and without, preventing them from enjoying new maps and game modes together. At the time, the understanding was that EA would introduce a system for unlocking content within the game, where progress could either be earned through gameplay or purchased through microtransactions. And for the most part, people were fine with that.

But as the company revealed exactly how the system would be implemented, details like how long it would take to unlock things without paying and what sort of advantages paying players could expect in multiplayer matches rankled players. EA’s repeated insistence that it was taking the feedback seriously and changing the system in response did little to appease the angry fans. The uproar seemed to gain more traction as the game’s release approached until, on the literal eve of launch day, EA announced that it was shutting off the game’s microtransactions, reinstating them at a later date when the progression system had been properly fine-tuned.

You could characterize it as a desperate move to salvage the launch of a massive publisher’s holiday lynchpin release, or you could point to it as a new standard, a potential solution to a problem that has dogged the AAA industry since Oblivion’s horse armor first debuted over a decade ago. Why don’t more AAA games launch with a microtransaction-free grace period?

The benefits to the players are fairly clear. By not having microtransactions turned on at launch, publishers know they have to provide an experience that is fun and engaging for non-payers, and ensures that in-game systems won’t be designed around an intolerable grind pushing people into spending more money. It dissuades developers from locking content that players would consider essential (like, say, playing as Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader in a Star Wars game) behind unreasonably high progression walls. In short, it “keeps them honest,” while the early adopters who pay full price (or close to it) for a new release get to enjoy a premium, limited-time experience without the constant pressure to spend more money.

At the same time, it provides publishers with plenty of upside as well. For one, they get to monitor how paying customers are behaving in their game under real-world conditions for a length of time to help with balancing the microtransaction system. And assuming they design the game to be fun without the microtransactions, they’ll almost certainly benefit from better word of mouth and review scores at launch.

And most crucial of all, publishers who adopt a grace period before instituting microtransactions will be mitigating some of the harmful effects of the AAA marketing hype cycle. It’s no coincidence that the backlash to Battlefront II’s microtransactions has grown as the game has neared launch, even though EA has apologized and downgraded the aggressiveness of its approach multiple times in response.

The company’s successful marketing campaign was designed to generate interest and excitement and passion in such a way that would crescendo at launch. And it did. But as we’ve seen too many times in recent years, “passion” in the player base is not an exclusively positive thing. Passion is a multiplier of other emotions. It makes those who love a game get tattoos, and those who hate it lob death threats online. Waiting until after the launch window to turn microtransactions on allows publishers to benefit from the passion they’ve spent so much time and money building, while putting off one obvious source of potential backlash until people have cooled down a bit and the monetization scheme of last holiday’s big shooter release just doesn’t seem like something worth grabbing a pitchfork over. This is especially true given how many members of the pitchfork mob will have purchased the game, played it, and traded it in or redirected their enthusiasm to the next big release in the meantime.

And what would it cost the publishers to do this? A couple months’ worth of microtransaction revenues in games that are designed and intended to be live services. For a successful live service game, the first months of revenue are well worth sacrificing if it might buy you the traction you need for the long run. (Grand Theft Auto Online is four years old and just had its most lucrative quarter ever.)

Microtransactions are a powerful force for the games industry these days, opening up a slew of alternative business models and providing potential answers to many of the problems that have long dogged publishers. EA may have unwittingly showed us a way to finally bring balance to the Force.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Belgian’s Decide Star Wars Loot Boxes Is A Form Of Gambling

November 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The Belgian Gambling Commission has decided that loot boxes in Star Wars Battlefront II constitute gambling, and the practice should be banned.

Last week the gambling authority turned its eye towards the issue and since concluded that loot boxes present a danger to children.

VTM News reported that Belgian minister of justice Koen Geens said the gambling commission will take the matter to Europe.

The Dutch authorities joined the recent investigation too, and while a decision has yet to be reached, arriving at the same conclusion as Belgium doesn’t seem unlikely.

Accompanying the news was an announcement that Hawaiian legislators are also considering action against loot boxes in games.

At a press conference, Hawaiian democratic state representative Chris Lee described Battlefront II as a “Star Wars-themed online casino,” warning that it was a “trap” for children.

“We’re looking at legislation this coming year which could prohibit access, or prohibit sale of these games to folks who are under age in order to protect families, as well as prohibiting different kinds of mechanisms within those games,” he said.

“We’ve been talking with several other states as well, with legislators there who are looking at the same thing. I think this is the appropriate time to make sure that these issues are addressed before this becomes the new norm for every game.”

At the same press conference, fellow representative Sean Quinlan draw comparison to ’80s and ’90s cigarette mascot Joe Camel.

“We didn’t allow Joe Camel to encourage our kids to smoke cigarettes, and we shouldn’t allow Star Wars to encourage our kids to gamble,” he said.

Writing recently for GamesIndustry.biz, Rob Fahey warned against interference from legislators if publishers overstepped the mark with loot boxes.

“There’s a real chance that companies involved in this are on the hook for permitting minors access to a gambling platform,” he suggested.

“If the games business doesn’t figure out where the sensible limits to this kind of business model lie, they risk a public outcry leading to regulators stepping in.”

Avoiding a moral panic has never been a strength of games, but with politicians across the world diving into the fray, the industry could find itself facing another assault from the mainstream media and outside pundits.

Courtesy-GI.biz

CBS Channels Go Dark On Dish Network

November 22, 2017 by  
Filed under Consumer Electronics

CBS Corp’s TV stations no longer broadcasting for Dish Network Corp’s customers over a network carriage deal dispute, the companies said early Tuesday.

Dish said in a statement that CBS rejected its offer to extend their contract while negotiations continued.

“This particular dispute is yet another example of the company punishing its subscribers instead of negotiating a fair carriage deal that reflects the current marketplace,” CBS said in a separate statement.

CBS and 28 other CBS-owned local television stations were blacked out across 26 states.

The Smithsonian Channel, Pop, and CBS Sports Network would also be unavailable on Dish networks in cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, CBS said.

China’s Tencent Surpasses Facebook In Value

November 22, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Tencent Holdings Ltd has had an impressive week – becoming the first Chinese firm to be worth more than $500 billion and surpassing Facebook to be the world’s fifth-most valuable company.

Earnings for China’s biggest social network and gaming firm have surged on the popularity of its smartphone games led by titles such as Honour of Kings – a fantasy role-playing game, which has as many active players as the population of Germany.

 Also driving earnings has been its messaging-to-payment super app WeChat which has amassed 980 million monthly active users, with 38 billion messages sent daily, while its Youtube equivalent, Tencent Video, has become the video streaming service with the largest paying subscriber base in China.

That success has helped Tencent’s stock more than double this year, making it Asia’s most valuable company worth $522 billion on Tuesday and easily outpacing a 36 percent rise in the benchmark Hang Seng Index.

Led by Chinese billionaire Pony Ma, Tencent this month reported a better-than-expected 69 percent rise in third-quarter net profit.

“Tencent’s high growth, as demonstrated by its quarterly results, has supported the rally in its shares,” said Steven Leung, a sales director at UOB Kay Hian.

“Since the company has been able to deliver on its earnings, the stock is still worth holding onto despite its current high level.”

In addition to robust earnings, Tencent has also burnished its luster after some units and affiliates have made some eye-catching market debuts.

An executive recently also told Reuters the company is close to making Malaysia the first foreign country to roll out its WeChat ecosystem, pitting it against Alibaba as they scramble for new growth opportunities outside China.

Did EA Screw Up SW Battlefront II With Microtransactions

November 22, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

EA has suspended microtransactions in Star Wars Battlefront II following a furor over loot boxes, hours before the game’s launch earlier today.

Loot boxes have been increasingly controversial in recent months but the backlash towards Star Wars Battlefront II has eclipsed the debate.

While other developers and publishers have been embroiled in the controversy, EA has taken the brunt due to the imbalance potentially caused by randomized loot in a competitive multiplayer shooter.

“We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases,” said DICE general manager Oskar Gabrielson in a statement. “We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing, and tuning.”

The option to purchase in-game currency will be taken offline until a later date while the team make changes to the game. Until then, all progress will be earned through gameplay.

“Our goal has always been to create the best possible game for all of you – devoted Star Wars fans and game players alike,” added Gabrielson.

launch, it’s clear that many of you feel there are still challenges in the design. We’ve heard the concerns about potentially giving players unfair advantages. And we’ve heard that this is overshadowing an otherwise great game. This was never our intention. Sorry we didn’t get this right.”

Just yesterday DICE took to Reddit for an Ask Me Anything session which was met with derision from the community due to the the developer’s vague, non-committal answers.

The news comes just days after it was announced that the Belgian and Dutch gambling authorities are investigating whether loot boxes in Battlefront II and Overwatch constitute gambling.

 

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

 

Verizon Wireless To Sign A Streaming Deal With NFL

November 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Mobile

Verizon Communications Inc, no. 1 U.S. wireless carrier, is closing in on a deal  with the National Football League for digital streaming rights, Bloomberg reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

With the new agreement, Verizon will be able to give subscribers access to games on all devices, including big-screen TVs, and not just phones, according to the people, Bloomberg said.

Verizon will lose exclusive rights to air games on mobile devices, Bloomberg quoted two people as saying. Verizon’s rights will include the NFL’s Thursday night games, among others, one of the people said, according to Bloomberg.

Financial details and the duration of Verizon’s contract with the NFL could not immediately be learned, Bloomberg said.

Neither NFL nor Verizon could immediately be reached for a comment by Reuters.

Xbox One X Beats PS4 PRO In The UK

November 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The first week sales of Xbox One X is over 80,000 in the UK, GamesIndustry.biz can reveal.

Retailers have shared data that reveal that Microsoft’s new super-powered console has sold as many units in its first week as Nintendo Switch did in March (hardware figures are up-weighted 20%. Xbox One X raw data is at 67,000).

It’s first week sales are also well ahead of PS4 Pro, which did a little over 50,000 back in November 2016. Indeed, it took PS4 Pro four weeks to reach the same number.

Of course, stock shortages of both PS4 Pro and Switch will have impacted the performance of those machines.

The majority of sales were for the special Project Scorpio version of the machine.

It’s a pleasing performance for Microsoft, which has had a quiet year in terms of new Xbox products so far.

The best-selling Xbox One game of the week was Call of Duty: WWII, followed by Assassin’s Creed Origins (which was promoted with the system), FIFA 18 and the Forza duo: Forza Motorsport 7 and Forza Horizon 3.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Can The Nintendo Switch Handle Virtual Reality

November 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The response to Nintendo’s portable/console hybrid has been incredible thus far, with sales almost on track to match that of the original Wii. While the VR market has yet to see mainstream appeal on a level anything close to the Switch, Cloudhead Games CEO Denny Unger does believe that it could benefit from a device that offers similar mobile functionality but when at home can “dock” or tether to a PC to utilize its full power. Moreover, he thinks such a device could help to solve one of the more frustrating issues that VR developers have faced in the early days: market fragmentation.

“I think there’s some frustration in the industry internally with the fragmentation of the market,” he says. “We’ve got this weird separation between high-end VR and lower tier VR, mobile VR, and consumers have a real tough time going into this understanding the differences, what kind of impact those different technologies have on the experience, which makes it a big challenge for developers to target one or the other or all. To target all platforms is a huge financial investment because you can’t build a high-end VR experience and then cleanly port it to Gear VR or some lower-end VR platform. It just doesn’t work that way.

“So what you tend to get is developers making something for Cardboard or Gear VR and then trying to up-sell it to Oculus or the Vive, but it’s not as good of an experience because it started on the lowest common denominator. If you’re working from the opposite end of the spectrum, you can’t really backport it. It doesn’t even work. There’s no motion control. There’s no 6DOF tracking. There’s no positional tracking.”

To that end, Unger says he’s amazed that none of the headset makers have worked towards a hybrid device that can scale based on how it’s being used – something you can throw in your bag and use on-the-go with lower performance capabilities or tether to your PC when at home for a high fidelity experience. It would be a natural solution to the fragmentation problem, and developers would likely embrace it rapidly.

“I want a headset that connects to my PC, utilizes all the power of that platform, uses room-scale, uses motion controllers, but then I can unplug the thing and take it with me and suddenly it becomes a mobile computing platform,” he explains. “It’s got a lower tier, a lower bar of entry, and I can only play certain experiences on it, but I can take the same exact headset with me and it does that job on its own. Then I can bring it back to my PC, plug it in, and I have all that power again. That’s what I want to see as a developer. They must’ve considered it.”

Unger doesn’t have anything against Oculus and others beginning to introduce mid-tier standalone VR headsets like Go or Santa Cruz, but he’d prefer to see more unification around standards and devices.

“This is just kind of a general frustration that I hear from other developers as well. We should be trying to harmonize and come to some kind of platform parity instead of spreading it out so far,” he adds.

The odds are, Unger notes, that some company has already thought about this idea behind closed doors, possibly even prototyped it. But costs could get in the way.

“[Companies are] trying to get price points down… I think that to smash all of these bits of technology into a single headset that is a hybrid and does both things is cost prohibitive,” he says. “But I also believe that a smart company could take that and make the system modular and let people add on things to that headset to make it more capable or less capable. So they could start with a lower baseline product, but if they want to bump up its capabilities, they can add a couple things for tethering to the PC and whatever. There’s a bunch of ways to do it.”

Unger remarks that the frustration around market fragmentation ultimately is borne out of the fact that small studios like Cloudhead have been doing the heavy lifting in VR, and he’d love to see the manufacturers do a bit more.

“Smaller studios are taking the biggest risks in VR right now to really drive adoption for these hardware companies. I guess we want some kind of meaningful voice within that development of stuff. We can’t dump money into every platform. It’s just not possible,” he says.

Another area that he’d love to see more of a unified voice around is in educating the masses on VR and what good VR should feel like in general. This is especially true when developers have to deal with players’ expectations around game length and a title’s pricing. Cloudhead’s communications lead actually took to the Steam forums to address this very issue and the “mistrust” that many gamers unfortunately have of VR developers right now.

“The big problem, and you probably heard this from other developers, is the numbers just aren’t there in terms of adoption, in terms of the headsets,” Unger says. “So consumers come into it and, rightfully so, they expect pricing models that are standard PC gaming pricing models. Because in that market you’re dealing with millions of PCs and because there’s such a density of platform attachment there, you can artificially reduce your price point. You can say, ‘Well, even though it cost us X amount to produce this product, we can drive that price point down to $5 or $10 a unit because we know we’re going to roughly hit a 30% attach rate or a 20% attach rate or a 10% attach rate even, and we’ll still make our money back.’ But VR fundamentally just doesn’t work that way because the numbers aren’t there.

“So, especially when it comes to a product that’s got high production values, like Call of the Starseed or Heart of the Emberstone, our pricing model reflects the actual production costs… And a lot of consumers come into it thinking, ‘Oh, this is just like Telltale Games and you’re just doing episodes and why is it so expensive?’ Again, the reality is it’s a lot more like when Valve did Half-Life 1 and Half-Life 2. They were episodes, but each time they launched a new product, they were dealing with new advancements in the tech. Because of that, there was a deeper production emphasis on research and development and creating new systems or new designs to make this thing better. VR is very, very much like that. It’s heavily front-loaded with R&D.”

Consumers who come into the VR ecosystem expecting some sort of parity with traditional PC gaming are unfortunately going to have a problem accepting how developers price their games currently.

“The big problem for people in VR across the landscape is educating consumers about the slow growth curve of the market and what developers actually have to work with in terms of numbers,” Unger says. “So prices directly reflect that, unless you’re being supported by a third-party entity or you’ve got investors or you’ve got Valve or you’ve got HTC or Oculus supporting you somehow on the back end.

“As a developer, I really wish we had more help from the industry, from the hardware makers, from people who have really strong voices in the industry, to help describe why it’s different, why pricing models are the way they are, why it’s hard, where the effort and energy must go to create good experiences in VR. I would love to see an education campaign to help people out.

He continues, “I think the reason they don’t do that is because it would show some kind of weakness, some kind of systemic, ‘Oh, well then VR’s not doing very well, if we have to educate people on the why.’ So, as developers, we kind of get stuck with that bill and have to try to educate ourselves. But you have to be careful doing that, because then you look like an asshole, right? If you’re saying, ‘Well, it’s because of this, this, and this,’ people don’t care. They don’t want to hear that.”

Getting nasty emails or reading harsh feedback on forums from the audience is all too common for developers nowadays. So as much as Cloudhead may not have enjoyed seeing people complain online, dealing with player toxicity online comes with the territory in 2017.

“What really helps me personally, and it helps most of us in the studio, is to recognize that this isn’t just a VR problem,” Unger notes. “This is a games industry problem in general. And, even in traditional PC gaming, you have people complaining about price versus content and time. And a lot of times they’ll [not think about], well where’s the quality in that equation? Was it a quality experience? Did you have a good experience? Sure, it was two or six hours long, but was it good? That seems to be missing from the conversation. But it’s endemic in the entire video game industry.

“I don’t take it personally. As with any other video game in the industry, yeah, we’re pouring 16-hour days into production. Especially in VR, we’re taking substantial risks and there’s a lot of innovation and invention that happens alongside standard video game production. So it increases the workload for your small team substantially. So it’s hard not to take it personally when somebody attacks the game for being too short, or whatever the thing is. It does help to re-frame it in your head as, this is just the industry that we’ve somehow created together over the last 20 years. It’s what people of privilege tend to do.”

Cloudhead has been one of the leaders in VR since the beginning. It’s narrative adventure, The Gallery: Call of the Starseed, was a hit and the Vancouver-based studio has committed to making at least three episodes in the franchise. Episode 2, Heart of the Emberstone, recently released to rave reviews.

“The Gallery: Call of the Starseed was one of the top five selling games in VR of all time. Because it was so successful initially, even though it was a small market, all of the funding from that went directly into Episode 2. And we went from a 12-ish team to an 18-person team and dumped all of the money into upping production value across the board,” Unger says.

Interestingly, although Episode 2 offers several more hours of gameplay and has more to explore, it actually cost Cloudhead a bit less to make. “We actually started Episode 1 in early 2013. We were using prototype Oculus Rift hardware at the time,” Unger explains. “That was before motion controls and stuff too, so even though we were doing R&D… that was like a three-year span of development. So we actually put more money into Episode 1 than Episode 2, because Episode 2 was a year and a half of production. That was kind of the beauty of Episode 2 – we got into just refining systems, because we’d already done all that hard work. We knew what we were going to do. We could just kind of blow out the length and complexity of what we were doing.”

Cloudhead had a clear vision and plan in place, but that doesn’t make the VR space suddenly less risky for the team. Unger advises any developers interested in joining the VR industry to tread very carefully at this stage.

“It’s incredibly risky to get into VR and you have to do it from kind of a place of purity, honestly,” he comments. “You have to really believe that you’re bringing something new to the table and you’re pushing the conversation a bit further in terms of what the medium is and what it means. If you don’t care about that stuff, you’re probably getting into it for the wrong reasons. It is very costly. There is a lot of R&D involved. And you’re doing things that have never been done before. Because of the very nature of that, things fall apart or don’t work and you have to redo them. So if you’re not in a studio that’s highly experimental, or isn’t willing to put in the extra time and funding to do those things properly, then [it’s] probably not the industry for you right now.”

While the risk in VR remains high at the moment – just ask CCP Games – Unger believes the big turning point is about a year away for the industry. Christmas 2018, in fact, is when the stars may align for the world of VR.

“We constantly have our heads in numbers that are public and not public about where this market is going. We see an uptick in adoption happening sometime after Christmas 2018. So our internal goal is actually to get there. And we’ve been told this by many industry insiders as well – they want Cloudhead to be there – and if we get there, we’re going to be sitting in a really, really good position,” Unger says.

Investors and others staying out of VR simply because AR is on the horizon could be making a mistake, too, he says. Even with Apple getting involved, the AR market will take a long time to become established, while VR meanwhile continues to gain a better footing.

“AR is still a good five years out. I say that because we’ve seen some stuff being worked on and they have a lot of hard challenges,” Unger explains. “Everyone’s touting how amazing AR is going to be, and it will be, but it’s not going to be there for a long time. You’ll start seeing stuff coming out that is developer or enthusiast friendly, but it’s not the kind of thing that consumers are going to want to put on their face. It’s going to have the same trough and dips and ups and downs as VR will. It’s going to take longer. The thing about VR is we’ve already established this design language for what constitutes kind of a stable, good experience in VR. Developers, at this point, can jump in and do some pretty astounding stuff. On the same token, I see a lot of wave shooters and just garbage flooding the market, because that same group of people isn’t willing to take the risk or the investment risk into doing brave and different new things and figuring out what it does best.”

An industry that could give VR a leg up is Hollywood. There’s already been interest from famous directors like James Cameron and Jon Favreau, and the truth is that Hollywood very much needs video game talent in order to make VR work. Some cross-pollination of talent is inevitable, and that’s something Unger embraces. He recently attended an event called VR On The Lot, where he spoke to numerous people in film about why 360 video isn’t the best use for VR.

“I gave the example of, what I really want to do is be in an environment with my family. I want to see them in some way,” he says. “I want to be on the wall with Legolas and he’s shooting orcs with arrows on the top of the wall. I want to watch that narrative kind of play out. And it’s not going to stop no matter what I do with my wife. But if my kids get bored, they can get up and grab some bows and start nailing orcs as well, right?

“There’s a way to build a story that’s very movie-like that has a progression that you can be a part of but you’ve got a limited interactive influence over it. And you can choose to be as much a part of it as you want to be. So driving towards that I think is really important. And, personally, I want to see ports of beloved movies brought to VR. I want to make Indiana Jones in VR. I want to make a completely pitch perfect version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And I want users to experience that. I want them to be Indiana Jones. That’s the kind of stuff I want to build towards.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

SportsCenter Show Comes To Snapchat

November 14, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

U.S. sports broadcaster ESPN rolled out its flagship SportsCenter program on messaging app Snapchat on Monday, reimagining the show that provides sports highlights and commentary into a short-form series.

The new show deepens the relationship between ESPN parent Walt Disney Co and Snapchat parent Snap Inc.

The sports network, which has made Snapchat content since 2015, is trying to reach a younger audience, while the social media app, whose messages disappear after viewing, is adding more content in an effort to grow its user base beyond its core youth demographic.

The partnership is a two-year deal and Snap and ESPN will share revenues, Snap said, though it declined to give specifics.

SportsCenter will air twice a day on Snapchat during weekdays, and once a day on weekends. A roster of six hosts will give commentary and perspectives, including ESPN anchors Katie Nolan and Elle Duncan, and ESPN Radio host Jason Fitz, Snap said.

Sean Mills, Snap’s head of content programming, said SportsCenter helps round out the app’s stable of daily shows, which already includes news shows from CNN and NBC News, as well as an entertainment show called “The Rundown” from E! Network.

Along with daily shows, Snap launched a joint venture studio with NBCUniversal last month to produce scripted shows to air on the app.

Is Sony’s PSVR Taking Off

November 14, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Sony is increasing the production of its motion-sensitive PlayStation Move controllers ahead of an anticipated deluge of new titles.

Speaking at Develop:VR in London today, Stuart Whyte – Sony London Studio’s director of VR product development – said Sony is tracking the number of players who own Move controllers, and hopes to increase this as the PSVR userbase grows.

“Currently, two thirds of the games released so far on PlayStation VR are Move-compatible or require Move,” Whyte told attendees. “As we see more Oculus and Vive titles come to PSVR, we’re expecting this number to increase. Sony is increasing the Move production capacity to [cater] to this.”

PlayStation Move first launched in 2010 as a response to the huge popularity of Nintendo Wii, but struggled to match that console’s success. However, the tech has been given a new lease on live thanks to its use in PlayStation’s virtual reality titles.

It’s a safe bet that more Oculus and Vive developers will bring their titles to PlayStation’s platform given that it is currently the market leader in VR with over 1m headsets sold. Whyte shared more learnings from the first year of PSVR, revealing that PS4 Pro users are more likely to own the device.

“The ratio of PS4 Pro attachment for PSVR is high,” he said. “One in five PS4s sold now are Pros, but that ratio [for PSVR] on PlayStation Pro is higher again.

“It’s definitely worth supporting the extra power available on Pro when you’re developing for PSVR, but it’s still also super important to run on a base PS4.”

Since PlayStation VR first launched in October 2016, more than 140 titles have been released for us and 75% of this content are games rather than less interactive experiences. Whyte predicts games will continue to be the main sales driver for virtual reality, citing the fact that they already provide 70% of revenue for mobile app stores.

“This is going to be true for VR,” he added.

He continued: “We’re currently sitting at five games sold per headset, so we’re seeing a really strong attach rate from our first year. Many of those games to date are smaller experiences, they’re experiences that we as developers [use to] get to know the platform built around one or two mechanics.

“We feel that for VR to get to the next level, we need bigger, built from the ground up VR AAA experiences.”

Sony London’s answer to this is Blood & Truth, a new VR shooter that is inspired by the London Heist section of last year’s launch title PlayStation VR Worlds. The game will be optimised for PlayStation Move, although Whyte said the team hopes to include standard controls as well.

Courtesy-GI.biz

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