Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning has never played well with big corporations. In 2005, following a particularly vicious quarrel with Electronic Arts, his studio Oddworld Inhabitants seemed all but dead, taking the beloved franchise with it. Now it’s back, and barrelling towards a bright new future. At GDC earlier this year, Lanning was keen to explain to GamesIndustry International his new approach to the business – and why he trusts major publishers less than ever.
“I don’t want to be a slave to the big ships, and that’s what was happening with AAA, with publishing and with game devs,” he explained. “Every game dev that I know that’s still doing AAA retail products is trying to figure out a way to get out of it.
“Those deals are just getting worse and worse, even though your expectation of the money is getting higher and higher. Labour’s getting more expensive and the rewards are getting smaller. So that’s why we decided to stop playing for a while until we could start getting our games up digitally, see if we could build our own business. It’s working, it’s funding new content.”
The success of HD re-releases of Stranger’s Wrath and Munch’s Oddysee has provided the resources to create a full remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee, titled Abe’s Oddysee: New ‘N’ Tasty. Lanning hopes that the sales of this latest offering will, in turn, open up further new opportunities. Ultimately the goal is to get Oddworld Inhabitants to a place where it can create a new AAA IP totally independently.
“We’re spending cold cash on this, a couple of million. Not a public company partner. Ourselves. If we lose, we lose big. But if we can get it to that next level where we’re spending five or six million on content, we can do a new IP,” he said.
“It’s not money we’re sticking in our pockets, it’s money we’re leaving in the bank to fund new stuff”
It’s the sort of money he doesn’t think could be raised through crowd-funding – he’s dismissed suggestions that he should run an Oddworld Kickstarter. He’s determined to live up to the “AAA expectations” of Oddworld, and he’s confident that with a cycle of game releases followed by re-investment in the business, they’ll get the funds they need.
“I do think success in the product can raise that money. It’s not money we’re sticking in our pockets, it’s money we’re leaving in the bank to fund new stuff,” he explained. “It’d be nice to be getting paid again! [laughs] That hasn’t been happening for me. It’s all going into the product.”
For Lanning, going independent doesn’t mean going it alone. None of Oddworld Inhabitants’ progress so far would have been possible without their partnership with Just Add Water. The small, Yorkshire-based company has been responsible for the development of all three remakes, with Oddworld Inhabitants taking on a supervisory role and handling publishing. Now Lanning is working with a second studio, mobile developer Square One, who will be producing a port of Stranger’s Wrath to iOS and Android devices.
“What’s nice, working with other indie guys, is that they believe that quality is going to be their lifeline,” he said of his partner studios. “These guys are like, ‘if we’re going to succeed it’s because we build really superb quality products’.”
The indie community as a whole is something he’s keen to embrace. He spoke enthusiastically about cross-promotion plans with developers 17-BIT (Skulls Of The Shogun, Galak-Z: The Dimensional) and Switchblade Monkeys (Secret Ponchos), pointing to an almost union-like spirit of mutual co-operation and support among independent studios. The sort of interactions, he pointed out, that are impossible for studios hitched to major publishers. Among indies, he says, it’s not about competition.
“It’s funny, because people ask me, for New ‘N’ Tasty, ‘who do you see as your competition out there, what titles?’,” he said. “It’s interesting, because if you’d have asked me that for an Xbox release it would be a very specific answer and I’d be trying to convince you why we’re a better offer for your money. But we’re not looking at it that way anymore. We’re looking at it like if you like this type of game, and there’s another type of game like this, we want to be recommending it to you!”
Of course, Lanning’s glowing positivity about the indie community is always framed as a contrast with his misgivings about the past and current actions of major publishers. He pointed to Battlefield 4 as an example of how wrong he feels the developer-publisher relationship can go.
“Why did a title that was so incredible ship prematurely?” he asked. “Now I know, without talking to anyone, if you look at the quality of that title, and if you know how games are built, you know how much hard work went into that, you know how much love and pain and sleepless nights the developers put into it. And you know they were devastated when someone made the decision to release that project before it was ready. Because they’re smart enough not to do that.”
He speaks from personal experience too; the original release of Abe’s Oddysee was criticised for its buggy state, and Lanning places the blame firmly on now-defunct publisher GT Interactive.
“A gold master with all the bugs fixed was in Fed-Ex while someone else made the decision to release a buggy game, because they’re in the sales department and they thought ‘Hey that’s enough time, I don’t need to wait til tomorrow, it’s good enough’,” he recalled. “And then you get stung by the hardcore gamers asking ‘why did you f**k this game up?’. I know what a heartbreak that is.”
In his eyes, it’s the need to impress shareholders taking priority over the need to satisfy customers. “When shareholders are more important than the customers, how long is your business really going to last?” he asks.
Lanning points to the level of trust and transparency indie developers have with their audience, and the more direct relationship that creates. It’s already affecting the way Oddworld Inhabitants do business in a significant way – following the re-release of Munch’s Oddysee, the company polled their audience as to what title they’d like to see developed next. Abe’s Oddysee: New ‘N’ Tasty was the winner. “When creators can go directly to the audience it’s a much better existence,” said Lanning.
“Trust is the most endangered commodity, it’s the rarest commodity today,” he pointed out, referring to the lack of trust consumers have in large businesses. Indie developers, he believes, are in a unique position to gain that customer trust, but it takes a leap of faith. It means being honest even when you don’t know that things are going to go your way.
“You’ve got to answer their questions in a sincere way, even if it’s not what they want to hear. You have to say ‘you know what? You’re right, we f****d up like this or we f****d up like that, but this is where we’re at, this is why we’re doing it, this is what we’re trying to achieve,” he explains.
For Lanning, however, the benefits are absolutely worth the risk. It’s that direct relationship with the fans that has allowed Oddworld Inhabitants to revive itself in the way it has, and will allow it to continue moving forward. Without the resources behind them to do large-scale marketing, they’re relying on word-of-mouth to sell units.
As ever, Lanning is supremely confident, convinced that the fans will come through for him. So far, they have, with the two remakes to date generating impressive figures. Strikingly, Stranger’s Wrath HD has actually out-sold the original, perhaps finally vindicating Lanning’s claims that he was failed by publisher EA’s marketing department when it was first released. He’s enthusiastic about the future, talking excitedly about potential future projects, even mentioning in passing developing something for VR devices.
He’s also convinced he knows where the industry is headed.
“High-end AAA isn’t going away, but within 5 years, I think what we’re going to see is high-end AAAs competing against indies. The indies will be rising up,” he predicted. “More and more sales will be digital and the retailers are going to have a harder and harder time. Some more retail businesses will go out.
AMD posted some rather encouraging Q1 numbers last night, but slow PC sales are still hurting the company, along with the rest of the sector.
When asked about the PC market slump, AMD CEO Rory Read confirmed that the PC market was down sequentially 7 percent. This was a bit better than the company predicted, as the original forecast was that the PC market would decline 7 to 10 percent.
Rory pointed out that AMD can grow in the PC market as there is a lot of ground that can be taken from the competition. The commercial market did better than expected and Rory claims that AMD’s diversification strategy is taking off. AMD is trying to win market share in desktop and commercial segments, hence AMD sees an opportunity to grown PC revenue in the coming quarters. Rory also expects that tablets will continue to cannibalize the PC market. This is not going to change soon.
Kaveri and Kabini will definitely help this effort as both are solid parts priced quite aggressively. Kabini is also available in AMD’s new AM1 platform and we believe it is an interesting concept with plenty of mass market potential. Desktop and Notebook ASPs are flat which is something that the financial community really appreciated. It would not be so unusual that average selling prices were down since the global PC market was down.
Kaveri did well in the desktop high-end market in Q1 2014 and there will be some interesting announcements in the mobile market in Q2 2014 and beyond.
GlobalFoundries should be rolling out 20nm chips later this year and we hope that some AMD 20nm products might actually launch this year. The foundry failed to conquer the world with its 28nm process, but after some delays it got sorted out the problems and managed to ship some high-volume parts based on this process.
GlobalFoundries is manufacturing AMD’s new Kaveri APUs, while TSMC is making the Jaguar-based 28nm parts. We are not sure who is making the new server parts such as Seattle or Berlin, both 28nm designs. It is expected that GlobalFoundries should commence volume production of some 20nm parts later this year and the company has big plans for a faster transition to 14nm.
GlobalFoundries cozying up to Samsung
It is no secret that Intel leads the way in new process transitions and that Intel plans to ship 14nm parts at the time TSMC and GlobalFoundries are struggling to ship their first 20nm parts.
GlobalFoundries has now announced that it will start a strategic collaboration with none other than Samsung for its 14nm transition. It is easy to see that these two big players need each other in order to fight against bigger competitors like Intel and TSMC. GlobalFoundries and Samsung don’t have much overlap, either.
This joint venture will result in faster time-to-market for 14nm FinFET-based products. We see at least two advantages. According to Ana Hunter, Vice President of Product Management at GlobalFoundries, the process design kits are available today and the the foundry should be ready to manufacture 14nm FinFET products by the end of 2014. This sounds a bit optimistic, as we heard these bold announcements before, especially as both companies didn’t really start shipping 20nm parts yet, at least not in high volume high performance parts. It should be noted that Samsung joined the 28nm club quite late and shipped its first 28nm SoC just a year ago, in the Galaxy S4.
Sawn Han, Vice president of foundry marketing at Samsung Electronics, calls this partnership a ‘game changer’ as it will enable 14nm production by a total of four foundries in the world, three from Samsung and one from GlobalFoundries. Samsung will offer 14nm FinFET from S2 Fab in Austin Texas, S3 Fab in Hwa Seong in South Korea and S1 Fab in Gi Heung South Korea. GlobalFoundries is preparing its Fab 8 in Saratoga, New York State, for the 14nm push.
14nm FinFET crucial for next-gen SoC designs
The companies say 14nm FinFET technology features a smaller contact gate pitch for higher logic packing density and smaller SRAM bitcells to meet the increasing demand for memory content in advanced SoCs, while still leveraging the proven interconnect scheme from 20nm to offer the benefits of FinFET technology with reduced risk and the fastest time-to-market.
The 14nm LPE should deliver 20 percent more performance compared to 20nm parts and the power required should sink 35 percent versus 20nm LPE parts. Compared to 20nm parts it will save 15 percent of die space as well making it possible to cram more components into the same die size.
We have yet to see the first mobile 20nm parts in actual products. Qualcomm announced its first Snapdragons based on the new process a few weeks ago, but they won’t be ready for months. You can expect that a SoC manufactured on 14nm could end up 40 to 50 percent faster than its 28nm predecessor and that the power requirement could go down by 50 to 70 percent at best.
The total market for mobility, wireless and computer network storage market is expected to hit around $20 billion by 2017. Of course, everyone wants the piece of that action. The joint venture will offer both 14nm LPE (Low Power Enhanced) and 14nm LPP (Laser-Produced Plasma) process.
All we need now are the design wins from high-volume customers and if we were to bet we would place our money on Samsung, namely its Exynos processors. We would be positively surprised to see 14nm SoC in mobile phones and tablets in 2015, but it is a possibility. Keep in mind that we are still waiting to see the first 20nm SoCs and GPUs in action.
Growth in the tablet market is driven by low-end devices and Android, but AMD’s tablet strategy is driven by Windows and high-performance machines. So AMD’s avoidance of the low end of the market narrows options for people looking for name-brand chips in low-price machines.
AMD chips are in just a handful tablet models. Those AMD chips that are available for tablets are essentially watered-down PC chips with strong graphics capabilities. But the company plans to introduce new chips, code-named Beema and Mullins, for tablets These new chips are based on a new core and designed to provide more performance and battery life.
“If we miss out on some units in the low end, so be it,” said Lisa Su, general manager of AMD’s global business units, during the first-quarter earnings call on Thursday.
AMD executives said they didn’t want to buy their way into the tablet market like Intel, which has been subsidizing tablet makers to use its x86 chips through its “contra revenue” program. Instead, AMD wants to be selective in its product mix, and focus on high-margin and high-value products.
“This idea of contra revenue is foreign to us,” said Rory Read, CEO of AMD, during the call.
AMD could go after tablets priced at $300, but won’t go under that, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.
“They are not chasing bad business,” Brookwood said.
AMD doesn’t have the financial resources to provide subsidies to tablet makers to use its chips, Brookwood said.
Though the tablet market is important, AMD is more concerned about generating revenue from custom chips and other areas, Brookwood said.
AMD makes custom chips for game consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4, which helped drive up revenue by 28 percent in the first fiscal quarter of 2014. AMD’s revenue in the PC, server and tablet chip business declined.
Addressing the wide tablet market isn’t a good idea for AMD and its bottom line, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. AMD is directing more resources out of tablets and into consoles, where there is more financial reward, McCarron said.
But it does need one or two big customers to help their tablet business, he said.
“They are being very judicious in what part of the product stack they are playing in,” McCarron said. “They are working on home-run customers.”
The Openstack-based service also includes an extension of the Red Hat partnership into the Dell Openshift Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Linux Container products.
Dell and Redhat said their cloud partnership is intended to “address enterprise customer demand for more flexible, elastic and dynamic IT services to support and host non-business critical applications”.
The integration of Openshift with Redhat Linux is a move towards container enhancements from Redhat’s Docker platform, which the companies said will enable a write-once culture, making programs portable across public, private and hybrid cloud environments.
Paul Cormier, president of Products and Technologies at Red Hat said, “Cloud innovation is happening first in open source, and what we’re seeing from global customers is growing demand for open hybrid cloud solutions that meet a wide variety of requirements.”
Sam Greenblatt, VP of Enterprise Solutions Group Technology Strategy at Dell, added, “Dell is a long-time supporter of Openstack and this important extension of our commitment to the community now will include work for Openshift and Docker. We are building on our long history with open source and will apply that expertise to our new cloud solutions and co-engineering work with Red Hat.”
Dell Red Hat Cloud Solutions are available from today, with support for platform architects available from Dell Cloud Services.
Earlier this week, Red Hat announced Atomic Host, a new fork of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) specifically tailored for containers. Last year, the company broke bad with its Fedora Linux distribution, codenamed Heisenbug.
Its becoming more obvious lately that Intel and Microsoft are no longer joined at the hip. Intel is trying desperately to make a dent in the tablet market, and with Windows struggling on those devices, Android is where it’s at.
Intel hopes to see its processors used in 40 million tablets this year, and 80% to 90% of those will be running Google’s Android OS, CEO Brian Krzanich said on Tuesday.
“Our mix of OSes reflects pretty much what you see in the marketplace,” Krzanich said during Intel’s quarterly earnings call.
Most Intel-powered tablets running Android today use the older Medfield and Clover Trail+ chips. More Android tablets running the latest Atom processor, called Bay Trail, will ship later this quarter.
That’s not to say Intel is abandoning Windows — far from it. It’s just going where the market is today. Krzanich said he expects Windows to “grow and gain traction,” and more Intel-based tablets running both Android and Windows will be shown in June at the massive Computex trade show in Taipei.
The first Android-based Bay Trail tablet, the DreamTab, was announced in January, but it hasn’t shipped yet.
Intel is chasing ARM, the U.K. company whose processor designs are used in most tablets today, including those running both Android and Apple’s iOS.
The 40 million Intel tablets that will ship this year will give the company 15% to 20% of the tablet market, Intel CFO Stacy Smith said on the earnings call.
Intel is providing discounts and development funds to tablet makers to reduce the cost of using its chips. It’s looking for growth with the white-box Chinese tablet makers, which are expected to ship up to 130 million tablets this year.
Intel chips are available in some tablets now priced under $99, but most will be priced between $125 and $250, Krzanich said.
Microsoft hasn’t made much of a dent yet in Google’s and Apple’s share of the market, but IDC estimated last month that Windows would have 10.2% of the tablet market by 2017. Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard have launched Windows 8 tablets with Bay Trail, and Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 2 uses an Intel Core processor, but the tablets haven’t sold well.
“We know you want features that allow you to move as seamlessly as possible between Office Online and the desktop,” wrote Kaberi Chowdhury, an Office Online technical product manager, in a blog post Monday.
Improvements to Excel Online include the ability to insert new comments, edit and delete existing comments, and properly open and edit spreadsheets that contain Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) code.
Meanwhile, Word Online has a new “pane” where users can see all comments in a document, and reply to them or mark them as completed. It also has a refined lists feature that is better able to recognize whether users are continuing a list or starting one. In addition, footnotes and end notes can now be added more conveniently inline.
PowerPoint Online has a revamped text editor that offers a layout view that more closely resembles the look of finished slides, according to Microsoft. It also has improved performance and video functionality, including the ability to play back embedded YouTube videos.
For users of OneNote Online, Microsoft is now adding the ability to print out the notes they’ve created with the application.
Microsoft is also making Word Online, PowerPoint Online and OneNote Online available via Google’s Chrome Web Store so that Chrome browser users can add them to their Chrome App launcher. Excel Online will be added later.
The improvements in Office Online will be rolled out to users this week, starting Monday.
Office Online, which used to be called Office Web Apps, competes directly against Google Docs and other browser-based office productivity suites. It’s meant to offer users a free, lightweight, Web-based version of these four applications if they don’t have the desktop editions on the device they’re using at that moment.
Double Fine has warned indies of the dangers of devaluing their products, citing its new publishing initiative as a way of protecting against that outcome.
In an interview with USgamer, COO Justin Bailey expressed concern over the harmful side-effects of low price-points and deep discounting for indie games. By giving away too much for too little, he warned, indie developers could reach a similar situation as that found in the casual market.
“I think what indies really need to watch out for is not becoming the new casual games,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a problem from the development side. Indies are approaching it as an artform and they’re trying to be innovative, but what’s happening in the marketplace is indies are being pushed more and more to have a lower price or have a bunch of games bundled together.”
Double Fine is publishing MagicalTimeBean’s Escape Goat 2, the first occasion it has assisted another developer in that way, and it won’t be the last. According to Bailey, what seems to be a purely business decision on the surface has a strong altruistic undercurrent.
“Double Fine wants to keep indies premium. You see that in our own games and how we’re positioning them. We fight the urge to just completely drop the price. That’s one of the things we want to encourage in this program. Getting people to stick to a premium price point and to the platforms that allow you to do that.”
“We’re not looking to replace… we’re trying to augment the system,” he replies. “We’re making small strides right now. Costume Quest 2 is a high-budget game. It’s one that I thought it was best to have a publishing partner who can also spend some marketing funds around it.”
Double Fine is not the first developer to express concern over the tendency among indies to drastically lower prices.
In January, Jason Rohrer published an article imploring developers to consider the loyal fans who buy their games full-price only to see them on sale at a huge discount just a few weeks or months later. Last month, Positech Games’ Cliff Harris went further, suggesting that low price-points actually change the way players see and interact with the games they purchase.
The Intel Education 2-in-1 hybrid has a 10.1-inch screen that can detach from a keyboard base to turn into a tablet. Intel makes reference designs, which are then replicated by device makers and sold to educational institutions.
The 2-in-1 has a quad-core Intel Atom processor Z3740D, which is based on the Bay Trail architecture. The battery lasts about eight hours in tablet mode, and three more hours when docked with the keyboard base, which has a second battery.
Intel did not immediately return requests for comment on the estimated price for the hybrid or when it would become available.
Education is a hotly contested market among computer makers, as Apple pushes its iPads and MacBooks while PC makers like Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo hawk their Chromebooks.
Some features in the Intel 2-in-1 are drawn from the company’s Education tablets, which also run on Atom processors, but have the Android OS.
The 2-in-1 hybrid has front-facing and rear-facing cameras, and a snap-on magnification lens that allows students to examine items at a microscopic level.
The computer can withstand a drop of 70 centimeters, a feature added as protection for instances in which children mishandle laptops and let them fall. The keyboard base also has a handle.
The screen can be swiveled and placed on the keyboard, giving it the capability of a classic convertible laptop. This feature has been drawn from Intel’s Classmate series of education laptops.
The 2-in-1 has software intended to make learning easier, including tools for the arts and science. Intel’s Kno app provides access to 225,000 books. Typically, some of the books available via Kno are free, while others are fee-based.
With Amazon’s Fire TV device the first out the door, the second wave of microconsoles has just kicked off. Amazon’s device will be joined in reasonably short order by one from Google, with an app-capable update of the Apple TV device also likely in the works. Who else will join the party is unclear; Sony’s Vita TV, quietly soft-launched in Japan last year, remains a potentially fascinating contender if it had the right messaging and services behind it, but for now it’s out of the race. One thing seems certain, though; at least this time we’re actually going to have a party.
“Second wave”, you see, rather implies the existence of a first wave of microconsoles, but last time out the party was disappointing, to say the least. In fact, if you missed the first wave, don’t feel too bad; you’re in good company. Despite enthusiasm, Kickstarter dollars and lofty predictions, the first wave of microconsole devices tanked. Ouya, Gamestick and their ilk just turned out to be something few people actually wanted or needed. Somewhat dodgy controllers and weak selections of a sub-set of Android’s game library merely compounded the basic problem – they weren’t sufficiently cheap or appealing compared to the consoles reaching their end-of-life and armed with a vast back catalogue of excellent, cheap AAA software.
“The second wave microconsoles will enjoy all the advantages their predecessors did not. They’ll be backed by significant money, marketing and development effort, and will have a major presence at retail”
That was always the reality which deflated the most puffed-up “microconsoles will kill consoles” argument; the last wave of microconsoles sucked compared to consoles, not just for the core AAA gamer but for just about everyone else as well. Their hardware was poor, their controllers uncomfortable, their software libraries anaemic and their much-vaunted cost savings resulting from mobile game pricing rather than console game pricing tended to ignore the actual behaviour of non-core console gamers – who rarely buy day-one software and as a result get remarkably good value for money from their console gaming experiences. Comparing mobile game pricing or F2P models to $60 console games is a pretty dishonest exercise if you know perfectly well that most of the consumers you’re targeting wouldn’t dream of spending $60 on a console game, and never have to.
Why is the second wave of microconsoles going to be different? Three words: Amazon, Google, Apple. Perhaps Sony; perhaps even Samsung or Microsoft, if the wind blows the right direction for those firms (a Samsung microconsole, sold separately and also bundled into the firm’s TVs, as Sony will probably do with Vita TV in future Bravia televisions, would make particular sense). Every major player in the tech industry has a keen interest in controlling the channel through which media is consumed in the living room. Just as Sony and Microsoft originally entered the games business with a “trojan horse” strategy for controlling living rooms, Amazon and Google now recognise games as being a useful way to pursue the same objective. Thus, unlike the plucky but poorly conceived efforts of the small companies who launched the first wave of microconsoles, the second wave is backed by the most powerful tech giants in the world, whose titanic struggle with each other for control of the means of media distribution means their devices will have enormous backing.
To that end, Amazon has created its own game studios, focusing their efforts on the elusive mid-range between casual mobile games and core console games. Other microconsole vendors may take a different approach, creating schemes to appeal to third-party developers rather than building in-house studios (Apple, at least, is almost guaranteed to go down this path; Google could yet surprise us by pursuing in-house development for key exclusive titles). Either way, the investment in software will come. The second wave of microconsoles will not be “boxes that let you play phone games on your TV”; at least not entirely. Rather, they will enjoy dedicated software support from companies who understand that a hit exclusive game would be a powerful way to drive installed base and usage.
Moreover, this wave of microconsoles will enjoy significant retail support. Fire TV’s edge is obvious; Amazon is the world’s largest and most successful online retailer, and it will give Fire TV prime billing on its various sites. The power of being promoted strongly by Amazon is not to be underestimated. Kindle Fire devices may still be eclipsed by the astonishing strength of the iPad in the tablet market, but they’re effectively the only non-iPad devices in the running, in sales terms, largely because Amazon has thrown its weight as a retailer behind them. Apple, meanwhile, is no laggard at retail, operating a network of the world’s most profitable stores to sell its own goods, while Google, although the runt of the litter in this regard, has done a solid job of balancing direct sales of its Nexus handsets with carrier and retail sales, work which it could bring to bear effectively on a microconsole offering.
In short, the second wave microconsoles will enjoy all the advantages their predecessors did not. They’ll be backed by significant money, marketing and development effort, and will have a major presence at retail. Moreover, they’ll be “trojan horse” devices in more ways than one, since their primary purpose will be as media devices, streaming content from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix and so on, while also serving as solid gaming devices in their own right. Here, then, is the convergence that microconsole advocates (and the rather less credible advocates of Smart TV) have been predicting all along; a tiny box that will stream all your media off the network and also build in enough gaming capability to satisfy the mainstream of consumers. Between the microconsole under the TV and the phone in your pocket, that’s gaming all sewn up, they reckon; just as a smartphone camera is good enough for almost everyone, leaving digital SLRs and their ilk to the devoted hobbyist, the professional and the poseur, a microconsole and a smartphone will be more than enough gaming for almost everyone, leaving dedicated consoles and gaming PCs to a commercially irrelevant hardcore fringe.
There are, I think, two problems with that assessment. The first is the notion that the “hardcore fringe” who will use dedicated gaming hardware is small enough to be commercially irrelevant; I’ve pointed out before that the strong growth of a new casual gaming market does not have to come at the cost of growth in the core market, and may even support it by providing a new stream of interested consumers. This is not a zero-sum game, and will not be a zero-sum game until we reach a point where there are no more non-gaming consumers out there to introduce to our medium. Microconsoles might do very well and still cause not the slightest headache to PlayStation, Xbox or Steam.
The second problem with the assessment is a problem with the microconsoles themselves – a problem which the Fire TV suffers from very seriously, and which will likely be replicated by subsequent devices. The problem is control.
Games are an interactive experience. Having a box which can run graphically intensive games is only one side of the equation – it is, arguably, the less important side of the equation. The other side is the controller, the device through which the player interacts with the game world. The most powerful graphics hardware in the world would be meaningless without some enjoyable, comfortable, well-designed method of interaction for players; and out of the box, Fire TV doesn’t have that.
Sure, you can control games (some of them, anyway) with the default remote control, but that’s going to be a terrible experience. I’m reminded of terribly earnest people ten years ago trying to convince me that you could have fun controlling complex games on pre-smartphone phones, or on TV remote controls linked up to cable boxes; valiant efforts ultimately doomed not only by a non-existent business ecosystem but by a terrible, terrible user experience. Smartphones heralded a gaming revolution not just because of the App Store ecosystem, but because it turned out that a sensitive multi-touch screen isn’t a bad way of controlling quite a lot of games. It still doesn’t work for many types of game; a lot of traditional game genres are designed around control mechanisms that simply can’t be shoehorned onto a smartphone. By and large, though, developers have come to grips with the possibilities and limitations of the touchscreen as a controller, and are making some solid, fun experiences with it.
With Fire TV, and I expect with whatever offering Google and Apple end up making, the controller is an afterthought – both figuratively and literally. You have to buy it separately, which keeps down the cost of the basic box but makes it highly unlikely that the average purchaser will be able to have a good game experience on the device. The controller itself doesn’t look great, which doesn’t help much, but simply being bundled with the box would make a bold statement about Fire TV’s gaming ambitions. As it is, this is not a gaming device. It’s a device that can play games if you buy an add-on; the notion that a box is a “gaming device” just because its internal chips can process game software, even if it doesn’t have the external hardware required to adequately control the experience, is the kind of notion only held by people who don’t play or understand games.
This is the Achilles’ Heel of the second generation of microconsoles. They offer a great deal – the backing of the tech giants, potentially huge investment and enormous retail presence. They could, with the right wind in their sales, help to bring “sofa gaming” to the same immense, casual audience that presently enjoys “pocket gaming”. Yet the giant unsolved question remains; how will these games be controlled? A Fire TV owner, a potential casual gamer, who tries to play a game using his remote control and finds the experience frustrating and unpleasant won’t go off and buy a controller to make things better; he’ll shrug and return to the Hulu app, dismissing the Games panel of the device as being a pointless irrelevance.
The answer doesn’t have to be “bundle a joypad”. Perhaps it’ll be “tether to a smartphone”, a decision which would demand a whole new approach to interaction design (which would be rather exciting, actually). Perhaps a simple Wiimote style wand could double as a remote control and a great motion controller or pointer. Perhaps (though I acknowledge this as deeply unlikely) a motion sensor like a “Kinect Lite” could be the solution. Many compelling approaches exist which deserve to be tried out; but one thing is absolutely certain. While the second generation of microconsoles are going to do very well in sales terms, they will primarily be bought as media streaming boxes – and will never be an important games platform until the question of control gets a good answer.
Microsoft terminated Windows XP support on Tuesday when it shipped the final public patches for the nearly-13-year-old operating system. Without patches for vulnerabilities discovered in the future, XP systems will be at risk from cyber criminals who hijack the machines and plant malware on them.
During an IRS budget hearing Monday before the House Financial Services and General Government subcommittee, the chairman, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) wondered why the agency had not wrapped up its Windows XP-to-Windows 7 move.
“Now we find out that you’ve been struggling to come up with $30 million to finish migrating to Windows 7, even though Microsoft announced in 2008 that it would stop supporting Windows XP past 2014,” Crenshaw said at the hearing. “I know you probably wish you’d already done that.”
According to the IRS, it has approximately 110,000 Windows-powered desktops and notebooks. Of those, 52,000, or about 47%, have been upgraded to Windows 7. The remainder continue to run the aged, now retired, XP.
John Koskinen, the commissioner of the IRS, defended the unfinished migration, saying that his agency had $300 million worth of IT improvements on hold because of budget issues. One of those was the XP-to-7 migration.
“You’re exactly right,” Koskinen said of Crenshaw’s point that everyone had fair warning of XP’s retirement. “It’s been some time where people knew Windows XP was going to disappear.”
But he stressed that the migration had to continue. “Windows XP will no longer be serviced, so we are very concerned if we don’t complete that work we’re going to have an unstable environment in terms of security,” Koskinen said.
According to Crenshaw, the IRS had previously said it would take $30 million out of its enforcement budget to finish the migration.
Part of that $30 million will be payment to Microsoft for what the Redmond, Wash. developer calls “Custom Support,” the label for a program that provides patches for critical vulnerabilities in a retired operating system.
Analysts noted earlier this year that Microsoft had dramatically raised prices for Custom Support, which previously had been capped at $200,000 per customer for the first year. Instead, Microsoft negotiates each contract separately, asking for an average of $200 per PC for the first year of Custom Support.
Using that average — and the number of PCs the IRS admitted were still running XP — the IRS would pay Microsoft $11.6 million for one year of Custom Support.
The remaining $18.4 million would presumably be used to purchase new PCs to replace the oldest ones running XP. If all 58,000 remaining PCs were swapped for newer devices, the IRS would be spending an average of $317 per system.
Facebook released its second government requests report covering the second half of 2013, and it expands its scope from the first one in two ways. First, it includes requests to restrict or remove users’ content from the site, whereas the first report was limited to requests for account information. And second, the report now includes data on Instagram, the photo sharing site owned by Facebook.
Facebook is not breaking out the number of Instagram requests; they’re included in the overall tallies. But Instagram’s inclusion speaks to the popularity of the service, which Facebook acquired in 2012 but didn’t include in its government requests report for the first half of 2013.
The report includes data on government requests to receive data about Instagram accounts and to restrict access to its content.
Facebook receives requests to restrict or remove content based on countries’ laws over what can be shared online. When the request is legally sound, Facebook restricts access to content in the specific country whose government objected to it. If Facebook also determines that the flagged content violates its own standards, it removes the content globally. Separately, Facebook also receives requests for account information and data, many of which relate to criminal cases such as robberies or kidnappings.
Facebook does not hand over data every time it receives a government request — sometimes the requests are overly broad or vague, or do not comply with legal standards, the company says.
In the U.S., Facebook received about 12,600 law enforcement requests in the second half of 2013, up from the range of 11,000-12,000 it tallied in its first report. For the second half of 2013, Facebook said it produced data for about 81 percent of the requests.
Regarding U.S. government requests about national security matters, Facebook reported it may have received none or as many as 999, saying it couldn’t be more specific due to U.S. legal restrictions.
Governments in other countries across the world are also interested in Facebook users’ data. India ranked second behind the U.S. with about 3,600 requests targeting more than 4,700 accounts. Facebook produced data for roughly half of those requests.
More than 1,900 requests came from the U.K., while the governments of France, Germany and Italy each served Facebook with more than 1,600 data requests.
Besides Facebook, other companies like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft periodically release their own government request reports, as part of an effort to be more transparent to users. The tallies have taken on increased significance following leaks about U.S. government surveillance made by former contractor Edward Snowden.
“Grey Goo is remarkable not for what it has added to the RTS formula, but what it has stripped away,” PC Gamer wrote in its reveal of Grey Goo, a new real-time strategy game from the veterans at Petroglyph. Perhaps the same could be said of Grey Goo’s recently formed publisher Grey Box, which is seeking to strip away the more negative aspects of game publishing. Suits and creatives typically will bump heads because the two sides are looking at the creation of games from wildly different perspectives. But what if they actually had the same goals?
Ted Morris, executive producer at Petroglyph, felt an immediate kinship with the team at Grey Box. “As a small [studio] – small being 50, 60 people – we are always talking to publishers to see what deals we can put together. But with Grey Box, I think that we meshed better on a personal level with them as a company and as a group of people than we have ever meshed with another group,” he enthused to GamesIndustry International during GDC. “And we’ve worked with Sega and LucasArts – all the big guys – and certainly talked to everybody else, too – the EAs and everybody – and these guys – man, we just gelled with these guys so well.”
Morris said that Grey Box’s approach to publishing was noticeably different from the start. While other, larger publishers may immediately come up with marketing plans and sales targets, Grey Box found itself on the same page with Petroglyph: fun comes first.
“Every meeting that we have is always a sit down and then people open up financial books and they start talking about what the sales figures are going to be like, and when we sit down with [Grey Box], it’s like ‘how can we make a great game?’ We don’t even talk about money, we talk about ‘how good can we make this game?’ and ‘how successful will it be?’ You know, let the game drive the sales, don’t let the marketing drive the sales, don’t let the sales department drive the sales. It’s really about, if you make a great game, they will come,” Morris continued. “They spoke to that so often, so frequently that we thought, ‘man, these guys just want to help us focus on what’s really important.’”
One of the defining traits for publisher Grey Box is that they’re all gamers at heart, noted Josh Maida, executive producer for the publisher.
“I’m not going to pre-judge any of those other publishers – I mean, for all I know they love games as much as we do. And we do. We all love games. We all come from different areas. I lost a whole grade point in college to Street Fighter, and… we want to be fiscally mindful. You need to make money, but with the money we make, we want to make more games,” he remarked.
“So I think at the core of that is we’re not trying to take away from the industry. We want it to feed itself and go bigger. Quality over quantity is something that we’re mindful of. We also just want to make a good working relationship for our partners… everybody’s in here for fulfillment. The talent we work with, they could all be working in private industries for twice the amount they do, but they’re here because they love to make games, and so we want to be mindful of that. And when people die, they want to know they did great things and so we want to create those opportunities for people.”
Tony Medrano, creative director for Grey Box, criticized other publishers for being too quick to just follow another company’s successful formula.
“We’re not chasing a trend, we’re chasing something we believe in, we’re chasing something we like, and we’re not trying to shoehorn a formula or monetization model onto things that just don’t work because they’re popular,” he added. “I think from the get-go, it’s been all about how can we make the best game, and then everything else follows from that. I think a difference structurally [with other publishers] would be that we have a very lean and mean team. We’re not trying to build a skyscraper and have redundant folks. Everybody that’s here really cares, has some bags under their eyes from late nights… I think it is just that we look at all our partners as actual partners. We let them influence and make the product better, whether it’s the IP or the game.”
Speaking of monetization models, Maida commented that there’s no “secret agenda to Zyngafy RTS or anything.” Grey Goo is strictly being made for the PC, but the RTS genre easily lends itself to free-to-play. Upon the mere mention of free-to-play, however, you could almost feel the collective blood pressure in the room rising. It’s clearly not the type of experience that Petroglyph and Grey Box are aiming for.
For Petroglyph’s Morris, in particular, free-to-play hit a nerve. “I’m going to jump in here, sorry. I’m really annoyed!” he began. “There’s been such a gold rush for free-to-play right now that is driving publishers – I mean, there needs to be a good balance. There’s a great place for free-to-play – I play lots of free-to-play games – but it is driving developers like us to focus on money instead of making great game content. I’m not going to name any examples, but I’ve been disappointed with some of the free-to-play offerings because it’s not so much about making a great experience for the player anymore. It’s about ‘how can we squeeze them just a little bit more?’ or annoy them to the point where they just feel like they have to pay.”
Medrano added, “I get frustrated when I play free-to-play games, and if I purchase something, I feel dirty. I feel like ‘oh, I got cheated, I fell for the trap.’ Or even more modern games where they baby you through the whole thing. There’s no more of that, like, ‘this is tough, so that means if I get good at this, there’s reward – there’s something there.’”
Ultimately, while Petroglyph and Grey Box came together thanks to a shared love of the RTS genre, they feel there’s a real opportunity to bring back hardcore, intelligent games.
Andrew Zoboki, lead game designer at Petroglyph, chimed in, “It’s almost as if the industry has forgotten about the intelligent gamer. They feel like that everyone’s going to be shoehorned in there, and I would say even from a design perspective that a lot of design formulas for a lot of things, whether they be free-to-play or what the mainstream is going to, next-gen and such, that all those titles are kind of a little more cookie-cutter than they probably should be. They’ve tried to shoehorn gamers into a formula and say, ‘this is what a gamer is,’ rather than understanding that gamers are a very wide and diverse bunch of individuals, everyone from the sports jock to the highly intellectual, and they all have [different] tastes… there’s different games that will appeal to different demographics… if you make the games that players want to play, they will come.”
And that really is at the heart of it. Morris lamented how business creeps into the games creation equation far too often. “They’re trying to balance the game with Excel spreadsheets instead of sitting down and actually playing it and having focus tests and bringing people in and actually trying to iterate on the fun,” he remarked about other publishers.
For Grey Box at the moment, the focus is on making Grey Goo the best it can be, but the company does have plans for more IP. It’s all under wraps currently, however.
“We do have a roadmap, but it’s not based off of the calendar year. We do have another game in the works right now and we might announce that at E3. And we have a road map for this IP, as well,” Maida said. “Obviously we want to get it in the hands of players and fans to see what they respond to, but we’ve got capital investment in the IP with hopes to not only extend this lineage of RTS’s but possibly grow out that franchise and other genres as well.”
Grey Box plans to release Grey Goo later this year.
Based on the firm’s Kabini system on chip (SoC), the APU is named the “AM1 Platform”, combining most system functions into one chip, with the motherboard and APU together costing around between $39 and $59.
Launched at the beginning of March and released today in North America, AMD’s AM1 Platform is aimed at markets where entry-level PCs are competing against other low-cost devices.
“We’re seeing that the market for these lower-cost PCs is increasing,” said AMD desktop product marketing manager Adam Kozak. “We’re also seeing other devices out there trying to fill that gap, but there’s really a big difference between what these devices can do versus what a Windows PC can do.”
The AM1 Platform combines an Athlon or Sempron processor with a motherboard based on the FS1b upgradable socket design. These motherboards have no chipset, as all functions are integrated into the APU, and only require additional memory modules to make a working system.
The AM1 SoC has up to four Jaguar CPU cores and an AMD Graphics Core Next (GCN) GPU, an on-chip memory controller supporting up to 16GB of DDR3-1600 RAM, plus all the typical system input and output functions, including SATA ports for storage, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports, as well as VGA and HDMI graphics outputs.
AMD’s Jaguar core is best known for powering both Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 4 (PS4) games consoles. The AM1 Platform supports Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 in 32-bit or 64-bit architectures.
AMD said that it is going after Intel’s Bay Trail with the AM1 Platform, and expects to see it in small form factor desktop PCs such as netbooks and media-streaming boxes.
“We see it being used for basic computing, some light productivity and basic gaming, and really going after the Windows 8.1 environment with its four cores, which we’ll be able to offer for less,” Kozak added.
AMD benchmarked the AM1 Platform against an Intel Pentium J2850 with PC Mark 8 v2 and claimed it produced double the performance of the Intel processor. See the table below.
The FS1b upgradable socket means that users will be able to upgrade the system at a later date, while in Bay Trail and other low-cost platforms the processor is mounted directly to the motherboard.
AMD lifted the lid on its Kabini APU for tablets and mainstream laptops last May. AMD’s A series branded Kabini chips are quad-core processors, with the 15W A4-5000 and 25W A6-5200 clocked at 1.5GHz and 2GHz, respectively.
Nvidia certainly did one thing right with the Shield gaming console. It has learned that users of such devices really like continuous and regular updates that add features and functionality to their devices.
The effort probably would not be worth it, given the limited number of Shield consoles in the wild, but it demonstrates that Nvidia is committed to the concept. Shield today sells for a rather attractive $199 and offers Gamstream support on your home network as long as you have a 5GHz capable router.
With the latest April Update, Nvidia is offering remote Gamestream support. This is good news but we still have to try this in the field in order to make some conclusion about it. Let’s not forget that Nvidia lets you use the Shield in console mode, playing your games on a big screen TV as long as you have the necessary Bluetooth controller. Grid gaming works for some users depending on the region, with California as the epicentre, but this functionality was enabled before the April update. It is required that your ping stays below 150ms and Nvidia will let you try out a dozen games for free. We tried it and it works nice, as long as you don’t get too far away from the 5G router.
The Shield April update also brings mouse and keyboard support in console mode, and it will make your life easier playing Civilisation V, World of Warcraft and similar games from your couch. Nvidia also updated Game touch mapper making it easier to map your favourite touch based games. You can also download predefined settings from the community profiles. The full support for Android 4.4.2 KitKat is certainly a nice addition. Andrew Conrad, Nvidia tech guy and gaming nerd, the face of Nvidia gaming for the new generation also confirms that Gamestream on the go will work via WiFi, tether, MiFi or Hotspot internet connection.
As we already pointed out, Nvidia is clearly putting a lot of effort into Shield on the software front. This is not always the case with niche products, but Shield is part of a much wider strategy that revolves around streaming, blurring the lines between different platforms. Whether or not upcoming generations of the console can gain a mainstream following remains to be seen.