A recent Chinese-language Economic Daily News report claims that Mediatek wants the spun off business to drive VR sales. It all sounds pretty good but MediaTek have sort of denied the rerport.
Well we say sort of denied it. What it has told the Taiwan Stock Exchange that it was not the report’s source, which is not quite the same thing.The spin off could go ahead, but MediaTek is denying that it told the EDN its cunning plans. But then again the EDN did not name its source either. Without a denial from the company we are none the wiser.
MediaTek’s VR unit was set up between end-2015 and early-2016 to focus on the development of the company’s VR solutions for handsets, the EDN thought.
While some publishers establish their own eSports divisions and appoint chief competition officers, Take-Two is approaching the competitive gaming trend with a bit more caution. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz in advance of the company’s financial earnings report today, CEO and chairman Strauss Zelnick said the field was promising, but still unproven.
“eSports we find very interesting,” Zelnick said. “It is, however, still more a promotional tool than anything else. And most people see eSports as an opportunity to increase consumer engagement in their titles, and depending on the title, to increase consumer spending within the title.”
To date, Take-Two’s biggest eSports endeavor has been an NBA 2K tournament with 92,000 teams competing for a $250,000 prize. The final 16 teams are set to compete in a single-elimination tournament this weekend, with the finals taking place during the NBA Finals next month.
“It’s just the beginning for us,” Zelnick said of the tournament. “It’s very gratifying so far, but we have yet to see it as a stand-alone profitable business. We see it more as an adjunct to consumer engagement in our titles.”
Zelnick also addressed the company’s digital revenues, which for the first time made up more than half of its revenues for the year. While the industry has shifted heavily toward digital in recent years, Zelnick doesn’t see this as some sort of tipping point or a harbinger that physical goods are in for declines from here on out.
“This year was a little different because we had a very significant portion of this year’s revenue through digital distribution,” Zelnick said. “And that’s a reflection of the power of titles like Grand Theft Auto Online as well as PC titles, 90 percent of which are digitally delivered. With frontline console releases, your numbers are more like 20 percent from digital distribution. So physical distribution remains the lion’s share of our revenue.”
While Zelnick acknowledged the growth of digital distribution is a good thing for Take-Two, he specified that it wasn’t a strategy for the company because it’s ultimately out of his hands.
“We want to be where the consumer is, and we’re not really the ones who vote,” Zelnick said.
Almost every sci-fi telivision program has tablets and monitors which are transparent and it seems that Samsung has finally build them. The only problem is that they are not that great to use.
Samsung unveiled the first commercial installation of its cutting-edge mirror display at an upscale hair salon in Seoul, South Korea. The 55-inch display units act as a mirror while playing media over the mirrored image.
The display represents a (90%) transparent layer over an underlying mirror, and is a genuinely transparent display. The Planar LookThru OLED Series offered something similar but cost too much for the great unwashed to use.
Using Intel 3-D camera technology, Samsung’s displays can also show customers in different hair styles, colors and trends, allowing the hairdressers at the Leekaja Hairbis’ Jamsil salon to provide customized, interactive consultations with their clients. Samsung expects mirror displays to be used in retail, interior design, furniture and fashion markets in the future. Similar 55-inch Samsung mirror displays will be available for purchase worldwide in fall 2016.
The Samsung mirror display ML55E provides 90 per cent transparency and 55 per cent reflectivity, designed to minimize visual distraction and provide clarity, both in the reflective mirror surface and in the media content overlays. It has been suggested that the technology could be a money spinner – one study shows the market for plastic and flexible OLED displays is expected to rise to $16 billion by 2020, with TV and industrial/professional use to make up half of the market share.
But the tech is still pretty expensive. One unbranded transparent OLED screen will set you back $1190.00. But there is another problem. Transparent OLED displays might work in sci-fi movie directors, but that is because they allow the camera to interact better with actors in a hard to film situation. Practically though see-through displays which have no touch capability are all really only useful in the exhibition sector.
The changes will be aimed at enterprises, the only customer group Microsoft recommends running IE11 in the new operating system.
“We recognize that some enterprise customers have line-of-business applications built specifically for older web technologies, which require Internet Explorer 11,” the company said in a blog post.
Previously, Microsoft included “Enterprise Mode” in Windows 10, a feature that lets an IT staff limit IE11′s operation to specific legacy websites or web apps.
Starting with the Anniversary Update — Microsoft’s name for the one major upgrade it will deliver for 10 this year — the “interstitial” page, one that pops up between running Edge and IE11 when Enterprise Mode kicks in, will vanish.
Currently, a switch from Edge to IE11 opens a page that states, “This website needs Internet Explorer 11″ before IE11 fires up. With the Anniversary Update, the interstitial will no longer appear: IE11 will simply open atop Edge when the user steers to a site or app on the Enterprise Mode whitelist.
The same no-interstitial-page behavior will take place when a worker running IE11 types in an URL that is not on the list: Edge will open without a pause.
Microsoft will also introduce a new group policy for IE11 that will limit the browser’s use to only those sites on the whitelist, barring users from running IE11 for the bulk of their browsing. “Enabling this setting automatically opens all sites that are not included in the Enterprise Mode Site List in Microsoft Edge,” Microsoft said.
IE and Edge have a rapidly-shrinking share of the browser market, but the former will remain important to businesses with older apps and customized internal sites, which unless rewritten will require the older browser. Together, IE and Edge were run by 41.3% of the world’s users in April, a new low that dropped Microsoft into second place behind Google’s Chrome browser.
Nvidia has been talking about its Tesla M10 GPU designed to run on the latest version of the company’s GRID technology.
For those who came in late, GRID technology is supposed to give servers a kick in the graphics back-end. It powers virtual desktops and support cloud-powered gaming.
Nvidia says the Tesla M10 GPU can support up to 64 desktops per board and 128 per server with two boards. This means shedloads of virtual machines which are potentially dead and alive.
The new graphics card ccan support Citrix’s XenApp and virtual PCs running Windows, or power virtual workstations that need the performance for professional graphics work.
The M10 is a bit like the M6 and M60 as a GPU accelerator – unlike the M10 motorway which is a disappointingly short road connected the M1 to the A414 just south of St Albans.
Companies making use of virtual machines or looking to substitute hardware for more efficient virtual systems can access the GRID and Tesla tech for less than $2 per month per user for use with virtual apps and remote desktop sessions, and the firm will provide virtual PCs for less than $6 per month per user.
Orcs Must Die! Studio Robot Entertainment is a rare breed nowadays – in an age where you’re either indie or AAA, the Plano, Texas-based company (one of several Texas developers that rose from the ashes of Age of Empires studio Ensemble) has managed to succeed as a mid-sized outfit. When Robot was formed in 2009, the company operated on a small scale, but things really changed when it landed a major investment from Chinese media giant Tencent in 2014. That enabled Robot to scale up and to benefit from Tencent’s knowledge at the same time.
“We made the first Orcs Must Die! as a semi-indie studio. We were about 40-45 people. We’re about twice that size now. And we were able to do Orcs Must Die! and Orcs Must Die! 2 with that. We kind of kept following the franchise and following what the fans were asking for in that game and we knew the next version was going to be bigger. We had to make a strategic decision – were we going to stay small and try to do another small version of that game or did we want to be ambitious and try to do something a little bit bigger? And that was going to necessitate a different type of arrangement for us to find financing. Because, you know, just selling a $15 or $20 game on Steam over and over is tough to support a studio to make a bigger game,” Robot CEO Patrick Hudson told GamesIndustry.biz.
“We also did some licensing deals for this game. As an online game, we didn’t necessarily have an ambition of setting up a European publishing office or an Asian publishing office. So we went to Europe and we partnered up with GameForge and licensed the rights for them to publish the game for us. And that comes with some advances and license fees, which help us make the game. We did the same thing with Tencent in China and that led to an investment. So we are in that mid-space. I think you’re right that there are fewer people in that space right now. It would probably be harder for us to stay in that space if we didn’t have really strong partnerships with folks like GameForge and Tencent.”
Investments and partnerships can clearly make a difference to any game company, but it’s also easy to mismanage a studio’s growth. Before you know it, one department doesn’t know what the other is doing, and things spiral out of control.
“It’s all in how you manage it. You’re either afraid of that growth or you embrace it, put a process and structure in place to allow for that. There’s no question we have to run our studio differently at 90 people than we did at 45. There’s more structure in place, there are more layers of leadership to help the project along. We’ve done a decent job of managing the growth… We went through the same kind of growth curve at Ensemble and we actually spent a lot of time talking about what went well, what didn’t go well, ‘What did we learn from that experience that we could have managed the growth better, how do we apply that to Robot?’ So we try to be a little bit smarter about that. Talking to other friendly studios [helps also] – ‘Hey, what did you guys do through this kind of growth? What pains did you experience? What did you learn?’ So we’ll grow as much as it takes to support Orcs Must Die! or as little to support it,” Hudson continued.
While everyone was devastated when Microsoft seemingly shut down a successful Ensemble Studios for no good reason, Hudson takes it as a learning experience.
In Ensemble’s case, Hudson discovered that scale ultimately held back some of its better talent. “Age of Empires attracted a lot of really good game talent to the studio, either people who were starting fresh in the games industry and learned how to make great games inside of Ensemble or we recruited really talented people to Dallas to work on the Empires franchise and, ultimately, Halo Wars. So we had just a tremendous amount of pent up talent in what was not a huge studio. At its peak it was 120 people. So it was very densely populated with talent. When you’re a studio that size, you have a lead structure within each department, but not everybody gets a chance to take those leadership positions and do their own games. Once Ensemble went away, you saw all these talented people go off in different places and show what they were capable of,” he remarked.
Working at Ensemble instilled a certain level of dedication to quality in all the developers who worked there too. “We held ourselves to a really high standard of making games that everyone took with them to their next places. I would say, in addition to that… all of us worked for another six years for Microsoft post-acquisition, so we got to learn the industry as both indie developers and inside a publisher. We got to learn the entire space, how the whole ecosystem is close to the publishing side. So that was a very valuable experience that maybe a lot of other devs don’t get,” Hudson said.
There’s no animosity or regret about Ensemble either, as far as Hudson is concerned: “Six years is a long time to be with a company post-acquisition. It was actually, for the most part, six good years. Microsoft treated us well. I think we worked well with the people we worked with at Microsoft. You do see some [studios] that get acquired and they’re gone within a year or two. We didn’t have that experience. I kind of view six years as a nice success.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson that Hudson and Robot have learned, even before the rise of Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, is that listening and responding to a vibrant community is critical. Discoverability has become a nuisance to deal with, and you need the fans behind you in order to succeed. If you have expectations that a platform holder will feature you, your marketing strategy needs an overhaul.
“As some of those previous PC developers that came into mobile are now migrating back to PC, discoverability on PC has become not quite as bad as mobile, but it’s not easy. There’s a lot of content on Steam now. There’s no easy space. Games is more competitive and a harder business than it’s probably ever been. There’s just a lot of great developers out there making a lot of great content and there’s just no barriers to putting your content out there to players, and players move quickly from game to game. They’re going to seek the best content,” Hudson noted.
He continued, “When I talk to the Valve or Apple or Google folks, they know the problem. They see it. But it’s an almost impossible problem to solve… Everyone wants to be featured, right? It’s funny, when you talk to a new mobile developer and be like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna make this great game. We’re gonna be featured.’ Probably not. You’re probably not going to be featured. Unless you’re doing something really cool and innovative and very different that really shows off the platform.
“They all have different programs to try and help you get noticed but you can’t make that the core of your strategy. It’s really up to you to make a great game. If you don’t have a marketing budget to cultivate a community, start with a small community, really cultivate it and listen to them and speak to them and let them organically grow. It’s not the platform holder’s job to make it successful.”
Beyond building a robust community, selecting the right business model for your game is crucial. While free-to-play is almost the default option in today’s market, Hudson said that premium games are coming back too.
“We really do think of it as a case-by-case. There are interesting trends in the market where you’re seeing paid games come back in certain areas – even in China where we’re seeing an uptick in paid games, customers in China buying paid games. [That's] never happened before. So it’s really going to depend on the game, the needs of the game,” he commented.
For Orcs Must Die! Unchained, which just entered an open beta about a month ago, free-to-play just made sense for Robot, as it’s a big multiplayer MOBA-style tower defense game; Robot wants as many people online for matchmaking as possible. Hudson and Robot have tried free-to-play before with Hero Academy in 2012, but he fully admitted, “We made a ton of mistakes, we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was a very successful game critically. It probably should’ve been a little more successful for us commercially, but we learned those lessons and hopefully we’re applying some of those.
“[Unchained] will be our first big free-to-play PC title. And we get a lot out of our partners too. GameForge has been operating free-to-play titles forever. Tencent has been operating free-to-play titles forever and we really lean on their expertise and we ask them to be involved with us as we design the game. The nice thing about both of those partners is… monetization follows. They start with making a great game, get the players around, keep the players around, [and then] hopefully they’ll pay you down the road. But don’t solve for money up front. So we’ll see. This will be our first foray into it. We’ll make a few more mistakes I’m sure but hopefully we learn quickly.”
Right now Robot remains 100 percent committed to Orcs Must Die! and the studio is bringing the game to PS4 later this year, but that doesn’t mean it expects to be pigeonholed with that one franchise. Hudson said that Robot continues to brainstorm new IP ideas, but nothing has made it too far along in development to warrant a release. “We’ll definitely do a new IP again. We started a couple of prototypes in the past few years that haven’t panned out. It happens all the time, right?” he said, adding that the company also remains interested in mobile but is “very cautious.”
“I think what’s interesting about mobile over the last couple of years is how non-dynamic the market is as far as the top games. The games that have lived in the top charts have been there now for 2 or 3 years. They get there and they stay there and they’re really good at staying there and it’s hard to break in and become the new thing. There are some good case studies for that. Certainly not nearly as many as there are on PC,” he said.
Hudson on VR
Likewise, virtual reality, although enticing, is just too risky for a studio like Robot, Hudson noted.
“It comes back to a company our size and where we sit. For us to overinvest in a market where it’s hard to know what the growth curve is going to be would be pretty risky at our size. We can’t afford to be wrong on something this new and this different… We love the options it provides for new and compelling experiences in games. We’ve brainstormed plenty of ideas for Orcs Must Die! in VR and we’ve got some pretty good ones, but it’ll be a while before we seriously invest in it,” he said.
Hudson joked that Robot is “living vicariously” though a couple of ex-Ensemble studios in Dallas that are working on VR now.
A conservative and cautious approach is probably one of the reasons Robot has managed to survive in an increasingly challenging environment. Even for eSports – an area of the industry that Orcs Must Die! clearly could excel in – Hudson isn’t jumping in headfirst.
That being said, Hudson is definitely optimistic about eSports as a sector. “I think it’s going to become an increasingly large aspect of the industry. And there will be the games that work and the games that don’t work for it. There will be a lot of companies chasing it and probably crash on the rocks trying to get there, but it’s going to continue to grow. I think you’ll see it across platforms too. I think you’ll continue to see eSports be popular in mobile. It’ll continue to grow there. You think of it as a PC thing now but it’s not. I think it’s going to encompass all aspects of games,” he said.
Moving forward with his attempt to attract Indian customers and developers, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook announced that the company was setting up a new development center for its Maps product in Hyderabad in south India.
Apple earlier on Wednesday announced it would set up by early next year a facility in Bangalore to focus on helping developers on best practices and to improve the design, quality and performance of their apps on the iOS platform.
Cook is on his first visit to India, where the company saw a 56 percent year-on-year growth in iPhone sales in the first quarter even as its global iPhone sales and overall revenue dropped.
Apple’s new center will focus on the development of Maps for Apple products such as the iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch. The investment will accelerate Maps development and create up to 4,000 jobs, the company said.
The Cupertino, California, company did not disclose the size of its investment in the center though some reports have placed the figure at $25 million.
A large number of U.S. companies, including Texas Instruments, Oracle, Microsoft and IBM, have set up software, chip design and product development centers in India, to tap the country’s large pool of engineers.
“The talent here in the local area is incredible and we are looking forward to expanding our relationships and introducing more universities and partners to our platforms as we scale our operations,” Cook said in a statement.
India is the third-largest smartphone market in the world, after China and the U.S., according to Gartner research director Anshul Gupta.
The ever shrinking Biggish Blue is working on a cheaper alternative to DRAM by making it denser.
Dubbed phase-change memory (PCM) the technology could give enterprises and consumers faster access to data at lower cost. IBM says it’s achieved a density rating of three bits on each cell, which is 50 percent more than the company showed off in 2011 with a two-bit form of PCM. The denser the RAM is the more capacity can be squeezed out of the pricey tech.
PCM works by changing a glass-like substance from an amorphous to a crystalline form using an electrical charge. Like NAND flash, it keeps storing data when a device is turned off. PCM responds to data requests faster than flash: In less than one microsecond, compared with 70 microseconds.
It also lasts longer than flash, to at least 10 million write cycles versus about 3,000 cycles for an average flash USB stick.
Three-bit PCM could find its niche as a faster tier of storage within arrays, including all-flash arrays, so the most-used data gets to applications faster. It could also take the place of a lot of the DRAM in systems, cutting the cost of technologies like in-memory databases.
IBM said that a customer who stores their OS on three-bit PCM would have their phone up and running a few seconds.
Three-bit PCM needs the backing of a chip maker. IBM wants it for its Power architecture, but that will make it less popular.
Biggish Blue isn’t predicting when three-bit PCM will be in mass-market systems, partly because the company doesn’t make memory and will have to find a partner. It might take two to three years for large-scale availability, the company said.
On Thursday, sources within Microsoft’s upstream supply chain have reported that the second-generation refresh to the company’s Surface Book is expected to be delayed. The sources cited “design issues” for the launch setback, indicating that the company could be preparing to redesign some critical areas to the final consumer product before launch.
The sources report the device will launch sometime after 2016, but do not specify whether design-related issues are hardware or software related. They they also confirm that the second-generation Surface Book will be upgraded from a 3000x2000p display to a 4K UltraHD (3840x2160p) display, perhaps in an effort to adopt a more industry-standard resolution that scales well across connected displays.
The second-gen Surface Book, or “Surface Book 2,” will also feature at least one Thunderbolt 3 port based on Intel’s Alpine Ridge controller. This will provide up to 40Gbps of bi-directional bandwidth and the ability to daisy-chain up to six devices simultaneously – including up to dual 4K displays at 60Hz or a single 5K display (5120x2880p) at 60Hz.
Microsoft’s original Surface Book design
The current Surface Book’s design was influenced by the variety of 2-in-1 convertible tablets that have hit mainstream retail shops since they emerged as an industry trend at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Microsoft developed a special hinge on the keyboard that would maintain the device’s weight-to-balance ratio, a move that allows the device to be used similarly to a clipboard and as a traditional notebook.
The Surface Book and Surface Pro series are both constructed using a magnesium metal “glass” that is melted in an oxygen-free environment and rapidly cooled to prevent crystallization. Of course, general chemistry tells us that magnesium catches fire when exposed to air. With this design, however, some claim the devices would need to be heated to between 500 and 600C to see any real effects, and these temperatures are far outside the rated device operating specs.
Perhaps Microsoft’s reported sign issues with the second-generation Surface Book have more to do with cosmetics, hinges and weight ratios than the construction material, but this is only an educated guess.
Current Surface Book Specifications
The current Surface Book, released in October 2015, measures 12.3 x 9.14 x 0.9 inches (312.4 x 232.2 x 22.9mm) and weighs 3.34 pounds (1.51kg) as a laptop, or just 0.3 inches thick (7.62mm) and 0.76kg (1.6 pounds) as a detachable tablet.
The device features a 13.5-inch 3000x2000p display (267ppi) and includes either a 2.4GHz Core i5 6300U (Skylake) or 2.6GHz Core i7 6600U (Skylake) CPU, 8 or 16GB of LPDDR3 RAM, an optional Geforce 940M 1GB GPU, 128GB to 1TB of SSD storage, dual-band 802.11n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, two USB 3.0 ports, a Mini DisplayPort, an SDXC card reader, an 8-megapixel rear 1080p camera, a 5-megapixel front camera, dual microphones, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and is compatible with a variety of stylus pens.
Surface Book vs. Surface Pro sales still unknown
In January, Microsoft reported that it sold 2.5 million Surface-series devices in Q4 2015 (October through December), or $888 million dollars’ worth. However, we are unsure how many of these sales are specifically Surface Book units versus Surface Pro 3 and 4 units. In total, the company sold 6 million Surface series devices in 2015. This is compared with a previous 4 million sale estimate for the year, according to sources in the upstream supply chain.
EA is telling the world that it wants into the third-person action market with an open world game, but it does not appear to be happening any time soon.
EA Studios VP Patrick Söderlund told us in 2015 that EA wanted to expand its portfolio into gigantic action games like Assassin’s Creed or Batman or GTA and CFO Blake Jorgensen said something similar.
“We feel like there’s a huge opportunity for us to continue to invest in new areas of the business like the action genre where we haven’t competed historically. There’s a very ripe opportunity for us to invest in and we’ve been able to bring great talent in to build out that part of the business.”
But according to Game Radar it is not going to happen any time soon. Blake is quoted as saying that the outfit was building an action genre product that’s probably will appear in three or four years.
We can expect something new from EA next year which has not been announced, Blake said. But this will not be anything like the big games which have captured popular attention.
Nvidia forecast better-than-expected revenue for the current quarter demand for its chips has risen, while its rival, AMD has a knap while waiting for its Zen technology to arrive.
Shares of the company, which also reported profit and revenue above analysts’ estimates, were up 7.5 percent in extended trading.
The chipmaker last week unveiled its GeForce GTX 1080 and 1070 graphics processors based on its Pascal technology.
Chief Executive Jen-Hsun Huang said the new Pascal GPU architecture will give a giant boost to deep learning, gaming and VR. The processors were in full production and would be available later this month.
Revenue from its gaming business, which designs graphics cards such as GeForce for PCs, rose 17 percent to $687 million.
The company has weathered a shrinking personal computer industry by focusing on game enthusiasts, who are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for processors used in playing graphically demanding games. Revenue from its data center business, which includes its Tesla processors, rose 62.5 percent to $143 million.
The company said it expected second-quarter revenue to be $1.35 billion. Analysts were expecting $1.28 billion for the quarter. Nvidia’s net income rose to $196 million in the first quarter ended May 1 from $134 million a year earlier. Revenue rose 13.4 percent to $1.31 billion, while analysts were expecting $1.26 billion.
The company also said it intends to return about $1 billion to shareholders in fiscal 2017 through quarterly dividends and share buybacks.
Apple has found itself in the middle of another accusation that it may not invented some of the technology it made a fortune from.
VoIP-Pal (VPLM) claims that Jobs’ Mob owes it $2.8 billion because of the way its iMessage and FaceTime services work.
“Apple employs VPLM’s innovative technology and products, features, and designs, and has widely distributed infringing products that have undermined VPLM’s marketing efforts,” the complaint reads.
iMessage apparently deals with the classification of a user and the manner in which the call is routed.
VoIP-Pal originally initiated its lawsuit against Apple back in February in a US District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada, but delayed the lawsuit until May, since it wants to reach an “amicable resolution” with Apple. “
Clearly that did not happen. The Tame Apple Press has called the company a Patent Troll because it does not generate income. VoIP-Pal said that Digifonica, which was acquired by the former back in 2013, started design on its system in 2004.
This is not the sort of thing that Apple needs right now. It is sales for the iPhone are dropping down the loo and unlikely to pick up at all this year. Apple has piles of cash it is sitting on, but it would rather not spend it on paying off people for technology it claims to have invented.
The Sunrise Calendar app will be no more as of on Aug. 31, the team behind it announced in a blog post. In the next few days, the app will no longer be available from the iOS App Store and Google Play Store.
Users will have a few months to keep using it without support, before the company switches off the service at the end of August. This is happening because Microsoft acquired the company behind Sunrise last year and put its team to work on improving Outlook instead.
According to the blog post, working on Outlook means the Sunrise team doesn’t have time to support the app they created. They’ve been integrating popular features from Sunrise into different versions of Outlook, including a recently released Calendar Apps feature on iOS and Android that lets users bring information from outside services into their Outlook calendar.
Sunrise users who want many of the features offered in the app can follow the Sunrise team over to Outlook, but its current capabilities aren’t a perfect match for the app that’s being shut down.
The Sunrise team says that they’re hard at work bringing loved features from the app over to Microsoft’s.
For Microsoft watchers, none of this comes as a surprise. The company said last year that it planned to shut down Sunrise.
It’s a reminder that software delivered as a service can be shut down at any time, more easily than an app you’ve installed on your own computer.
Test Pilot, which Mozilla dabbled with six years ago, was then aimed at gathering data on how people were using the web in general, Firefox in particular. In its original format, Test Pilot used a Firefox add-on to collect browsing and usage data, and provide tools to answer feedback questions.
Mozilla’s goal this time around the Test Pilot block is different.
“Test Pilot is a way for you to try out experimental features and let us know what you think,” Nick Nguyen, vice president of Firefox, wrote in a post to a company blog.
In fact, while Test Pilot is the project’s name, it’s actually based on a 2015 concept that Mozilla called “Idea Town.” Mozilla renamed Idea Town as Test Pilot in January.
Idea Town was billed as a way for Firefox users to try out new features, and for developers to evaluate user reaction before deciding whether to stick the proposed tools into the browser.
The first three features run through Test Pilot were a visual-heavy new tab page, dubbed “Activity Stream,” that displayed thumbnails of both frequently-visited sites and selected past pages from the browser’s history and bookmark lists; “Tab Center,” which shoved tabs into a vertical stack on the left rather than show them along the top; and “Universal Search,” which combined Firefox’s current dual search fields.
Other browsers adopted a single search field long ago; Firefox was the last of the top five to stick with the old-school split search.
Desktop Firefox users, whether running the browser in Windows, OS X or Linux, can participate in Test Pilot by downloading the add-on. A Firefox Account — typically used for synchronizing the browser across multiple devices and platforms — is required.
Nguyen warned users to expect problems with the features put through the Test Pilot mill. “As you’re experimenting with new features, you might experience some bugs or lose some of the polish from the general Firefox release, so Test Pilot allows you to easily enable or disable features at any time,” he said.
Steam saved PC gaming. As retailers aggressively reduced the shelf space afforded to PC titles – blaming piracy, but equally motivated, no doubt, by the proliferation of MMO and other online titles which had little or no resale value – Valve took matters into its own hands and delivered on the long-empty promises of digital distribution. It was a bumpy ride at first, but the service Valve created ushered in a new and exciting era for games on the PC. Freed from the shackles of traditional publishing and retail, it’s become a thriving platform that teems with creativity and experimentation. Steam still isn’t all things to all people, but it saved PC gaming.
Sometimes, though, you look at Steam and wonder if PC gaming was worth saving. All too often, browsing through Steam to look for interesting things to try out leaves you feeling not so much that you want to close the application in disgust, but that you’d like to set the whole damned thing on fire. The reason isn’t usability, or bugginess, or anything like that – Steam has its issues, but by and large it’s a solid piece of technology – but rather the “community” that Valve has allowed to thrive on its platform. On a platform that aims to expose and promote great games from newcomers and relatively unknown indies, community feedback, reviews and recommendations are vital components, but a legacy of poor and deeply misguided decision making from Valve has meant that engaging with those aspects of Steam can all too often feel like swimming through hot sewerage.
The problem is this; Steam is almost entirely unmoderated, and Valve makes pretty much zero effort to reign in any behaviour on its platform that isn’t outright illegal. As a consequence, it’s open season for the worst behaviours and tactics of the Internet’s reactionary malcontents – the weapon of choice being brigading, whereby huge numbers of users from one of the Internet’s cesspits are sent to downvote, post terrible reviews or simply fill content pages with bile. Targets are chosen for daring to include content that doesn’t please the reactionary hordes, or for being made by a developer who once said a vaguely liberal thing on Twitter, or – of course – for being made by a woman, or for whatever other thing simply doesn’t please the trolls on any given day. The reviews on almost any game on Steam will often contain some pretty choice language and viewpoints, but hitting upon a game that’s been targeted for brigading is like running headlong into a wall of pure, frothing hatred.
Of course, Steam’s not the worst of it in most regards; the places that spawn these brigades in the first place, places like Reddit and 4chan, are far, far worse, and concoct many other malicious ways to hurt and harass their targets. That Steam permits this behaviour on an ongoing basis is, however, a huge problem – not least because Steam is a commercial platform, and provides harassers and trolls with an opportunity to directly damage the income of the developers they target.
It’s not that Valve doesn’t care about the quality of its platform. Just this week, it implemented a new feature allowing customers to see scores from recent reviews, rather than overall scores, so you can get a sense of how a game has changed since its original launch. It’s a good, pretty well considered feature. Yet its arrival really just highlights how little Valve seems to care that its storefront is being used as a tool by harassers, and filled up on a regular basis with vicious, abusive reviews and comments that no customer wants to be confronted with when browsing. Sure, traditional retail may have been hanging PC gaming out to dry all those years ago, but at least I’m reasonably sure that most traditional retail stores would have kicked out anyone who ran into their store and started screaming obscenities in the face of the first girl they saw.
“traditional retail may have been hanging PC gaming out to dry all those years ago, but at least I’m reasonably sure that most traditional retail stores would have kicked out anyone who ran into their store and started screaming obscenities in the face of the first girl they saw”
And look – I get that community moderation is hard. It’s really hard. Much harder than throwing in a quick algorithm to compute review scores from recent reviews only, which is why that got tackled first; but harassment and brigading isn’t a new problem on Steam, or on the Internet in general, and there are only so many times that you can claim to simply be picking low-hanging fruit before someone points out that you haven’t even brought a ladder to the orchard. You’re not even trying. You don’t even want to try. I stated earlier on that Steam ended up this way because of bad decision making down the years, and this is what I meant; there has never been a sense that Valve wants to tackle this problem. Rather, they’ve given the impression that they hope they can fix it with some clever engineering tweak, some genius little bit of code that’ll somehow balance the need for community feedback to expose good games against the need to stop harassers and trolls from treating the platform as a 24 hour public toilet.
That’s not how community moderation works. It’s a fundamental, obtuse misunderstanding of how any sort of system designed to manage, build and support a community works – from statecraft right on down to housemate meetings to discuss unwashed dishes. You need people; you need actual people doing actual moderation jobs, granted the training and the authority to step in and put the community back on the rails when it falls off. It’s hard, and it’s actually pretty expensive, and it takes a lot of care and attention – but it’s not impossible. Look at the progress Riot Games has made in turning around the community of League of Legends, which was formerly one of the most grossly toxic communities in gaming. It’s still by no means perfect, but Riot has shown that it cares, and that it’s willing to fight to improve things, and LoL is by far a better, more welcoming and more fun game for it. Some of that was achieved with tweaks to systems and protocols; but in the end, it takes a real, breathing, thinking human to counteract attempts by other humans to be unpleasant to one another, because if there’s one thing our species has demonstrated extraordinary affinity for over the centuries, it’s finding creative ways to skirt around rules in pursuit of being unpleasant to other people.
Riot’s done a good job of this because, I believe, Riot genuinely believes that it’s the right thing to do. Therein lies the rub; I don’t think Valve cares. It should care. It has a damn-near monopoly on PC game distribution through its storefront, and that gives it responsibilities – if it doesn’t like or want those responsibilities, that’s sad in and of itself, but I’m sure a quick dip in the swimming pools they’re filling with money from Steam might take the edge off the pain. It should also care, though, because there’s a hard limit on how much a business can grow if it permits abusive behaviour towards whole classes of customers or clients. Anyone making a game that tackles a tough subject, or aims at a non-traditional audience, or who is themselves a member of a minority group; well, they’d probably love to be on Steam, but they’re thinking twice about whether it’s a good move. That’s not conjecture – it’s something I hear almost every week from developers in that position, developers whose starry-eyed view of Steam from only a few years ago has been replaced with absolute trepidation or even outright rejection of the idea of exposing themselves to the storefront’s warped excuse for a “community”.
Today, that might just mean Steam is losing out on a few bucks here and there from creators and customers who have had enough of the toxic environment it permits; but markets diversify as they grow. Steam took over when retailers failed to serve customers with an appetite for PC games. What, then, will happen to Steam if new waves of customers – younger and more diverse – find that games and creators they like are treated abysmally by the service? Valve shouldn’t need a commercial incentive to fix this problem; they should fix it because it’s the right thing to do, because tacitly enabling and permitting abuse is really little better than engaging in harassment yourself. If that’s not enough, though, there absolutely is a commercial incentive too; Steam may be dominant, but it’s not the only option for either consumers or creators. There are far more sales to be lost from permitting abuse than from telling harassers they’re no longer welcome. Valve should give the latter a try.