Rockstar is still working on delivering the multi-player online version of crime game Grand Theft Auto V (GTA 5).
The firm has been working to give players a consistently good experience since it launched the online version of the game last week, and this weekend started rolling out what it must hope is a solution to its PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.
If still having GTA Online tech issues pls visit our reg updated @rockstarsupport status article http://t.co/ZAaLtLMHLw Sub for auto updates
— Rockstar Games (@RockstarGames) October 5, 2013
According to its most recent update all is well in the Sony Playstation camp, but Xbox 360 owners are still waiting.
In a separate Twitter message the firm thanked punters for their patience, although there is not much evidence of patience in the comments, and promised that it is working hard to please them.
“We’re working around the clock on any and all tech issues to smooth out ASAP,” it said 14 hours ago.
The firm’s last post to the Rockstar GTA support pages appeared on 6 October. In that it admitted that people were still struggling with some elements of the tutorial stage and were losing progression and possessions in their main games.
“We are continuing to investigate the causes of the lost progress and what can be done to minimize the impact until a permanent fix is in place. Also, we have not forgotten about the requests for restoration,” it said.
“We are in the process of determining the options for addressing the issues for those players who have been affected.”
Where users are having problems they are taking a few forms. Typical ones are repeated cut scenes and dropped sessions.
With today’s (admittedly rocky) launch of Grand Theft Auto V’s microtransaction-equipped GTA Online mode, Take-Two has taken the first steps to monetizing its blockbuster game’s player base well beyond the $60 retail price point. Digital goods research firm Superdata today revealed its projections for the success of that effort, saying it expects Take-Two to bring in $206 million of additional digital sales in the game’s first 12 months.
About $165 million of that total is expected to be taken up by downloadable content packs. While Rockstar hasn’t fully detailed its DLC strategy yet, Superdata’s figure assumed two add-on releases within the next year. The remaining $41 million will be accounted for by microtransactions, sales of virtual currency that can be used to purchase new equipment within the game.
Over an expected five-year lifespan, GTA V was projected to bring in $93 million in microtransactions, and $344 million for DLC purchases for a digital sales of secondary content total of $437 million. While considerable, it would still fall far short of the game’s retail haul. Take-Two confirmed that GTA V generated more than $1 billion in sales in its first three days on sale.
Superdata noted that the microtransaction model is still unproven for major retail releases, and said the player base for GTA V may still be unfamiliar with the practice. Additionally, because the microtransactions will be optional tools to speed up progress rather than hard and fast roadblocks to progress, Superdata expects a smaller percentage of players will wind up being converted to purchasing customers than would be seen in a typical free-to-play hit.
“This isn’t the game’s next billion dollars, as some have supposed microtransactions will make Take-Two,” Superdata said, adding, “It is, however, a successful foray into the microtransaction world for a console title. Games like Borderlands 2, though with an admittedly smaller player base, saw just over $10M in total digital content revenues in its first year.”
Next week, players will get a chance to play Grand Theft Auto V’s microtransaction-powered online multiplayer mode, GTA Online. In an odd state of affairs, Rockstar decided not to release GTA Online when GTA V came out. Rockstar co-founder and Grand Theft Auto V writer Dan Houser told Polygon that part of the reason for the delay was logistical.
“To make games on this scale is very, very hard and anyone you speak to who works on those big games will, if they’re honest, admit that there are a lot of moving parts,” Houser said. “So, we were concerned that trying to finish them both for the same day would lead to a compromise in quality. On a practical level, it was very important that they each get a period when they can be really focused on by large numbers of the team to iron out as many problems as possible.”
The second reason behind the staggered launch is focus: players would be too busy with GTA V’s single-player to care about the adjoining GTA Online. With the delayed release, players have had two weeks to come to terms with the world of GTA V before jumping online.
“I think we were concerned that some of our previous games, while they still had a very fun multiplayer component to them, it was almost like it was being cannibalized by the enormity of the single player game,” Houser said. “People were just not focusing on it. So by moving it, we really wanted to go all in and make this much bigger, much more encompassing, a stand-alone product essentially. By making it separate you give people a reason to look at it as a different thing.”
“You can play single player,” he added. “You can really learn how the game works, learn the mechanics. You can start multiplayer after two weeks and it will really give them a real focus on where to look at the thing. I think that separating it out will just help people look at it as different products in their own mind a bit more and really give it a good chance to try and play it and enjoy it. Otherwise, you try it for two minutes, it’s hard to connect because it’s day one, and back you go to the single player, play that and never go back into playing online.”
Houser still sees significant value in single-player games, even with the rise in online multiplayer titles.
“I think the well executed multiplayer game clearly attracts a big audience, but it doesn’t attract as big an audience as in a single player game. It just doesn’t do that yet,” Houser explained.
“Not everybody, not even with Call of Duty, not everyone is playing the multiplayer,” he said. “There’s a huge audience for people who love single-player adventures. And I think what we make is action adventure-games. Games with ever stronger mechanics and an ever stronger adventure component. They’re not quite RPG’s but it’s getting harder and harder to say what the difference is between an RPG and what we do. The space between the two has in the past few years has gotten smaller and smaller.”
“I think a short single player game struggles. That’s what’s happened. But a big single player adventure can do well if it’s a good game. Just as a focused multiplayer game can do well if it’s a big game. The only area where it’s become tough is for a short single player campaign without multiplayer. That’s become a tough market, I believe. The rest of it, everything is just moved in one direction without moving away from the other direction.”
Multiple sources have told us that AMD spent between $5 and $8 million to secure the Battlefield 4 deal.
The part of the deal was to make Battlefield 4 as a part of AMD exclusive bundle, only available to select AMD partners, as well as to make sure that showcases of the game are done on AMD hardware.
This is a big commitment for EA, AMD and Dice, but all sides will benefit from it. AMD will also gave the exclusive right to Dice to play with Mantle, a new AMD API that is set to become a third player in gaming APIs next to OpenGL and DirectX.
Dice has promised to bring a Mantle update to BF4 in December 2013 and we will have to wait and see if this brings any performance increase on the existing game. Mantle is supposed to talk to “metal” directly on the transistor level, potentially making everything faster and delivering some new effects that are outside DirectX 11.2 specification.
The deal that is said to be worth between $5 million and $8 million will give AMD a new “face” in the eyes of gamers and with very good Hawaii R9 and R7 cards to launch just in time for the game, this has a chance to become quite successful PR stunt for AMD.
The question if you can really make that money on the Battlefield 4 deal and justify and a sizable investment remains to be seen, but new way of doing marketing and PR for AMD is a refreshing and brings about some much needed change.
It’s been a turbulent three months for the Xbox business. The unveiling of a new games console was fumbled badly with unpopular announcements and assumptions about consumer behaviour – a situation that benefited rival Sony as much as it harmed Microsoft. Since then, the company has u-turned on its original digital vision, shelving always-on requirements, cutting back Kinect functionality and opening up to used games. And it was slow to talk about its support for independent publishing on Xbox One, only revealing detailed plans last month at Gamescom while rival Sony had spent months publicly shaking hands and kissing the babies of indie game development.
But those reveals already seem a long way off when the launch of two new home systems is only two months away. Microsoft now appears to have a more coherent message about the Xbox One and has gradually answered the awkward questions, and as the campaign to put the system at the forefront of consumer and developer minds hots up, the business is developing a stronger public presence.
Q: We should catch up on the independent publishing plans. It’s been four weeks since you first publicly revealed the indie publishing initiatives for Xbox One – what’s been happening since then?
Phil Harrison: We’ve had an avalanche of interest from all corners of the globe. It’s what we expected but it’s great to see. Now we’re working through applications and creating that dialogue with developers. As we said at the time, we have phase one where we give away development kits and loan them to the teams that inevitably will have to pass some kind of a qualification to justify a limited number of dev kits being given to them. That process is ongoing. Eventually our goal is that every retail Xbox One console becomes a dev kit. And then we open up to the widest possible audience.
Q: How many applications have you had for the programme?
Phil Harrison: Within hours it was hundreds. I actually don’t know the number now but I’m assuming it’s in the thousands.
Q: How do you streamline that process. That’s a lot of applications to go through and developers needs to know if they’re in the queue, if they’re rejected, whether they should come back in 6-12 months time…
Phil Harrison: The team with Chris Charla are the guys who have that enviable task of managing that process. That’s the exact process Chris is going through now.
Q: You’ve announced your indie programme but to show it really works we’re going to need to see the games, the way they are integrated into the Xbox One retail environment, how they are promoted and supported through digital channels. When are we going to see the first releases?
Phil Harrison: There’s been a lot of debate about what is an independent developer? Is it Capy with two people, or is it Crytek with 200 people? I think it’s both and it’s everybody in between. There’s been too much focus on the financial structure as to whether they qualify for being an indie. For me, it means they are independent of their own design decisions, they’re independent in thought, they’re independent in motivation and creative direction. The current structure of retailer and publisher and financial investor in a studio inevitably means there are a load of executive producers. Executive producers are a good thing, they add value, but they can also mean that certain kinds of games get built over and over again because they are more predictable in nature. They’re more easy to forecast, easier to sell to a retailer and easier to pigeon hole.
“Executive producers are a good, thing they add value, but they can also mean that certain kinds of games get built over and over again”
Q: Bringing it back to the original question – when are we going to see the indie products released on Xbox One?
Phil Harrison: I don’t think we’re going to see things at launch. I don’t think it’s realistic to see a developer get the programme and build a game and get it into the market on November 22. It’s reasonable to expect in early 2014 we’ll start seeing the first games come through.
Q: From an infrastructure point of view I guess it’s to be expected. A lot goes into launching a new console globally.
Phil Harrison: Under the radar, invisible to the consumer and hopefully invisible to the developer, there are a lot of tools on our side to ingest the content and stand the content up on our stores around the world. That requires a lot of investment in tools and technology. It’s plumbing but it’s important plumbing.
Q: When you first announced the Xbox One there was a lot of focus on the digital future, digital delivery, digital retail, sharing of content and online connectivity. And you took a lot of flak for that. Not all of that was justified. There’s an acceptance that if you play MMOs you’re connected to the internet, if you use Steam for your games there’s a lot of connectivity issues there, DRM is accepted in some services more than others. When Microsoft announced similar elements for the Xbox One there was an instant revulsion that this was going to happen in console gaming. What was your reaction to that, considering a number of policies have been scaled back or changed entirely?
Phil Harrison: Our long term vision hasn’t changed at all. We haven’t diluted our long term vision, which is all of the benefits of a connected ecosystem and what that means for all of the stakeholders – us, developer, publisher and crucially, the player. None of that has changed. What we recognised was when you put a disc slot in the front of a machine certain expectations come with that disc slot. We had to adapt some of our policies and it was best that we did those before we launched, which we’ve done. All of that can be handled in the vacuum of the pre-launch activity. And it allows the players to have a choice. They can consume the content through the medium they like the best and fits with their particular situation. I don’t think there’s a negative to that.
Q: Do you think you underestimated the reaction from the consumer? And I don’t just mean Microsoft and the Xbox One, but the games business as a whole. Is the consumer reluctant to fully embrace the digital future? Because this is the way entertainment consumption is heading, regardless.
Phil Harrison: I don’t think it was underestimated. The moment you put a disc slot in there are certain expectations and functionality that I’m used to as a consumer. I don’t think it actually net-net changes anything.
This will sound like a random anecdote but I was sat buying a pair of shoes in the Nike store and while I was waiting there were two guys who worked there talking about their Xbox One preorders. It was amazing to me just how clear they were about their reasons for purchase, their motivations for purchase and what games they wanted to play. There was no discussion about DRM, there was no discussion about digital this or digital that. The passion was about the games, their friends on Xbox Live. The passion was about what the game is going to do for them and their enjoyment of the entertainment. That’s what we’ve got to remain focused on.
Q: I’m sure once the launch is out of the way the pre-launch issues will be forgotten as the focus shifts to the games, the services and the experience.
Phil Harrison: And that’s where we feel very happy about the launch line-up we have and the launch window of games we’ll be bringing to market. And the reaction from the specialist media and the people who have strong opinions of these things from both E3 and Gamescom. That lineup is very, very strong. And Titanfall is turning into the huge megahit that we expected it to be.
Q: Do you think games consoles can still innovate in the digital space? A lot of digital innovation over the past couple of years has come from mobile, tablets, app stores and digital services that have introduced new business models. Or will consoles always be playing catch up as they have been in the last half of this generation?
Phil Harrison: The Xbox Live Marketplace and the PSN marketplace were stood up before the App Store and iOS. The biggest screen in the house, having the most powerful CPU and GPU attached to it, is still going to be the best place for a lot of game types. Not all, we’re seeing games across multiple screens which is great for the industry, but if you want the most sophisticated combination of CPU, GPU, input mechanism, biggest screen and best sound, it’s going to be on console.
Ten years of Xbox Live has given us a pretty good understanding of what consumers like, what is important to them and where we can continue to innovate. Look at some of the things we’re doing on Xbox One with the marketplace re-imagined, and with trending and recommendations built into the store. We’re really pushing hard on this, we’re not standing still by any means. Also the virality we’re building into the platform that you won’t see on competing stores.
If you look at our Upload service you’ll see it’s more than viral marketing. We’re trying to complete the circle where people see friends rating games, they see an upload of the game and there’s a button that says “buy me now”. This is strongly related to the ID@Xbox programme too, where these viral tools will help independent developers connected with their audiences. Upload is a feature that accrues benefits to any developer or publisher, irrespective of type or size. It’s going to be a big, big win for games discoverability.
One of the number one questions that any independent developer has to ask themselves, irrespective of platform, is what is our acquisition strategy? How do we connect our smart game idea with the audience? It’s no longer about buying a couple of double page ads in the specialist press and getting a preview, review and tips over three months. It’s a bit more sophisticated than that.
Q: When it comes to digital sales, one of the biggest complaints from consumers is that the price is too high. Digital products should be cheaper than boxed products – they cut out the retailer, the box-shifting, the physical manufacturing. Why aren’t digital console games cheaper to buy?
Phil Harrison: You could take that point of view. But you could also take the point of view that the only way in which our industry can continue to grow is if the margin structure enriches game development. Meaning that as much as the consumer spend as possible accrues back to the creator. Striking a balance between those two extremes is going to be tricky. Particularly when you have this direct A-B comparison of Tesco selling a packaged version of the game and an online service selling the digital version of exactly the same bits and the pricing is easily comparable. What we’re seeing is a trend where new business models that are going to exist only online are going to potentially be the ones that last the longest. Look at some of the free-to-play investments that we’re making on Xbox 360 with World of Tanks and Warface. They won’t be retailer experiences, they will be digital experiences, you won’t have that direct A-B comparison.
Q: When you say as much of that consumer spend has to come back to the creators as possible, are you suggesting that games are costing more to make? Will they be more expensive to make on next-generation consoles?
Phil Harrison: The biggest production value games continue to be very expensive to build. The data points aren’t so clear but what is interesting to me is what we call Gen 8 – Xbox One – is not ten times the price of Gen 7. Even though the format is about ten times more powerful, that doesn’t accrue to ten times the development costs. We saw a huge jump between Gen 5 and Gen 6, and Gen 6 and Gen 7. That was logarithmic exponential increases in cost. It seems to be tailoring out. Partly because of better middleware and tools and one artist being able to create more content from their workstation with efficiencies in the tool chain. And partly because games can now have an initial release and a series of downstream post-release expansions which are more closely linked to audience size.
So you don’t have such a huge amount of investment upfront. It’s not about the total investment because some games will be about hundreds and hundreds of millions of cumulative investment. The real question is what is my peak negative cash flow before I get my first dollar of revenue back? How much have I sunk in the ground before I get to my first point of revenue? The first point of revenue is going to get earlier in the cycle, and that’s good.
Q: Another concern from the consumer is whether the Xbox One is an entertainment device or a games device. I know your answer is it’s both, but how do you balance that marketing message, particularly at launch? You’ve been criticised for focusing on entertainment and sport rather than games, for example.
Phil Harrison: The short answer is we built the platform to accommodate both. The longer answer is the technology choices and the architectural choices we made in the operating system allow you to seamlessly flip between the two in a very elegant way. On Xbox 360, to load a game, unload a game, load an app, unload an app – it takes time. And is therefore very difficult to support both behaviours or both states at the same time. It was laborious. What we did on Xbox One was to build an operating system that will allow you to seamlessly switch between those two. You have both running at the same time by snapping one to the side of the screen and have these two coexist. But you can also have instant – one or two frames of time – to switch between the two. That increases the utility of the machine and increases the breadth of enjoyment that you would get from the console.
Q: How do cloud services factor into all of this and how does that change not just the games experience but the hardware itself – now you’re not so focused on what’s physically inside the box?
Phil Harrison: We will see the cloud come into play this year with Forza Motorsport 5 and the Drivatar features, we’ll see it in dedicated servers for Call of Duty, we’ll see it a little bit later in Titanfall and Kinect Sports Rivals using persistence in the cloud to really deepen the games experience. Some people will say that’s just dedicated servers and there’s nothing particularly unique about that. But it’s the way in which we’re providing the services to developers to make them really easy to access. The way in which we’re creating that ubiquitous global coverage so that quality of experience for the player is very high and in a scalable way.
Our experience with the cummulative knowledge in the Azure part of the business is second to none. We’re leveraging all of that power. That’s one of the things that really impressed me about Microsoft was that these Azure investments have been going on for some time and they are multiple billions of dollars investment behind the cloud. This is not some future promise, it’s a real business now.
Xbox One and Xbox 360 are high performance examples of our Azure business but Office 365 and other parts of the business have multiple billions of investment entrusted to our cloud. Microsoft is just going through a reorganisation to align these investments more tightly.
Q: What was your reaction to the Nokia acquisition, and how that might influence the Xbox business in the future?
Phil Harrison: Forgive me for not going into too much detail as it’s not possible for me to talk about the Nokia relationship until the deal closes, which won’t be for some months. To answer you question in a slightly different way we recently reorganised our studios into a new business unit inside of Microsoft Devices and Studios. It’s our hardware investment in Xbox, in Surface, phone and some other hardware investment and tightly aligning them with the showcase content experiences that are built around the world by the studios. That’s a very logical pairing inside one organisation with one vision.
Q: It was only 5 or 6 years ago that a lot of smaller teams and studio were being bought up and pulled in-house by publishers and bigger studios. But in a digital future where there are multiple publishing opportunities, has that changed your relationship with indies and devs? Is there such a need to acquire studios anymore?
Phil Harrison: There will always be opportunities for outright acquisition of a studio because you want to keep something unique or exclusive to your platform. Or you want to acquire the capability or the technology. I do think you’re right, these indie programmes, not just ours but others in the industry, have the benefit of increasing the access points to the industry. And I’m not taking a particular platform view but an industry view. That’s exciting because it gives an on-ramp to working in our space. When I started the on-ramp was the Commodore 64, you turned it on and you had a flashing cursor and off you went. That on-ramp is not so easy now because of the platform complexity. All of the various initiatives that are going on, the best thing that will ever happen to our industry is getting more talent into it.
Though just a concept, the idea has been put forward as part of the IC Tomorrow’s Digital Innovation games contest, a program launched by the UK Technology Strategy Board, which is offering five businesses up to £25,000 each to develop innovative digital applications and meet the objectives of five prolific technology companies, including Crytek, Sony and Google.
Crytek’s technical director of research and development Jake Turner spoke at the programmer’s launch event on Thursday, challenging developers to help integrate the free map data with existing games engines such as Crytek’s Cryengine 3 Sandbox.
Turner said, “We had probably spent a year making a city in America of our games and it’s taken a year to before we could actually start to play the game and experience it, involving how big that city should be, how detailed that city should be, so one of the challenges here is ‘how can we do this instantly?’”
“Why do we have to use people to make a city when there’s consistent open source street data out there which is very detailed, it’s got buildings, lights, it’s got streets – material data. Why can’t we just press a button and instantly see that?”
The challenge Crytek is putting forward is for developers to built an app so that we can “instantly drop into any part of the world” and see, in 3D, data being streamed in from the open source street map data.
“One of the ultimate goals, we would like to start an office in the UK and be able to fly at the press of a button all the way to the office in Frankfurt, and drive around Frankfurt, or any place in the world,” Turner added.
“Aimed primarily to purpose-make these virtual worlds based on real world environments, opened instantaneously without processing, we’d be able to see it instantly streamed over the cloud.”
Turner revealed that if successful, the project could be made part of future games, where users themselves can decide which city in the world they would like to play in, simply jumping from one to another with the scenery being generated instantly for the player.
However, he did add that this is still “a very long way away”.
Activision Blizzard’s moves to separate from its parent company Vivendi has been put on hold. The move, which surprised many, angered one shareholder that he sued to prevent this from happening.
Delaware Chancery Court was told that the whole move is a huge waste meant to cover a power grab. But now the court has put the move on hold until it can be argued in court. In order for the separation to continue, either the injunction must be modified on appeal or a majority vote by non-Vivendi stockholders must come down in favor of continuing the process.
Activision Blizzard said it was exploring options to ensure it still takes place. Vivendi has been trying to get rid of Activision Blizzard for nearly a year now in hopes of boosting its shares.
That estimate puts considerable pressure on the PS4, meaning it would have to outsell its predecessor by 1.5 million in its opening year. The PS3 had a similar global window to hit that 3.5 million target, although it focused on different launch territories. Last time round, Sony opted to leave Europe waiting, dropping the PS3 in the US and Japan in November 2006 but waiting until March 2007 for a European launch. This time, the US remains the first market to be served, launching on November 15, with Europe following a fortnight later. Sony’s home territory, where it will be virtually unopposed by Microsoft, has to wait a further three months until February 22, 2014.
Numbers are already looking good, however, with pre-orders already in excess of those for the PS3, likely aided by the new machine’s lower price point. Because of its PC-based hardware, meaning lower R&D costs, the PS4 likely costs less to produce than the PS3. Some of that saving is clearly being passed on to consumers, but many analysts feel that Sony’s precarious financial situation demands that the machine still be sold at a profit, something that the PS3 didn’t achieve until quite late in its lifecycle.
“I think they are almost certainly making a profit there,” industry analyst Michael Pachter explained. “A $399 retail price tag is about $370-375 at wholesale… our add up on the costs of materials is about $325, so I think they make a little bit of money, $25-55. And I think Sony has to make a profit, the corporation is not doing well financially, I don’t think there’d be any tolerance internally to sell anything at a loss.”
GTA V has “unprecedented pentup demand,” says RW Baird analyst Colin Sebastian, and he expects the game to bring in a flood of revenue when it goes on sale at midnight tonight. In a note sent to investors today, Sebastian remarked that the game should generate over $1 billion in retail sales in its first month alone.
“To-date, Take Two has shipped roughly 25 million units worldwide of GTA IV, and our checks suggest an uptick in catalog sales in the weeks ahead of tonight’s GTA V launch. Given the significantly higher installed base of relevant console platforms at launch, greater sales concentration among the top video game franchises, and unprecedented pentup demand, we expect GTA V to outpace GTA IV sales, and generate roughly $1 billion in retail sales during the first month,” he said.
Sebastian is estimating that shipments of the game will hit about 12 million during the September quarter and should reach 20 million by the end of the fiscal year in March. “Given strong pre-order volumes, little direct competition in the launch window, and strong follow-on sales likely through the holiday period, we believe there is good visibility in Take Two hitting these GTA targets, and potentially exceeding our estimates,” he added.
While many in the industry have been concerned about sluggish sales this year, GTA V could mark the beginning of a real uptick in overall sales. Sebastian believes that if Rockstar’s game performs as well as most expect, it could have a domino effect of sorts for other AAA titles.
“We believe that consumer demand for GTA V is a useful yardstick to measure potential sales momentum for other key 2013 releases, most notably Call of Duty Ghosts (ATVI), Battlefield 4 (EA) and Assassin’s Creed IV (UbiSoft). Our retail checks suggest that Activision and EA are both aggressively courting GTA buyers to pre-order titles,” he said.
PlayStation 4 fans waiting for Gran Turismo 7 will still have a bit of a wait till it arrives. Kanzunori Yamauchi producer at Polyphony Digital says it is about one to two year out from being ready. In fact Gran Turisnmo 6 for the PlayStation 3 is only about 80 percent completed.
Yamauchi told Famitsu that they are working hard to get the sixth game in the series completed and they are focused on making the December release date for the US and Europe. The majority of the game is completed, but they will be working right up till release day in fine tuning the game before it releases.
News that Gran Turismo 7 is quite a ways off for the PS4 might not sit well with fans of the franchise, but it is something that fans will be looking forward to seeing it inch its way toward release. Turn 10 Studios will have a significant jump with the release of Forza 5 which is Microsoft’s star racing franchise arriving for the Xbox One on launch day.
In a sense, a whole generation has already grown up with virtual reality. The technology was a staple of science fiction films of the 1980s and 1990s, from the neon dreamscapes of Tron via the squishy organic ickiness of Cronenberg’s eXistenZ to the slick totalitarian nightmare of The Matrix. Even in films where it wasn’t a core story element, VR headsets or virtual worlds were movie shorthand for “hey, we’re in the future”.
Hey – we’re in the future. It’s now clear that Sony is working seriously on a VR headset for PlayStation 4, which will compete with the Kickstarter sensation that is Oculus Rift – the HD version of which has been wowing almost everyone who tries it out. After countless abortive attempts at VR tech, laid low by poor framerates, awful resolution, glitchy head tracking and, in many cases, the sheer discomfort of wearing the heavy headsets themselves, the message from both Oculus and Sony seems to be “this time it actually works” – a message borne out from personal brief experience, and more usefully from acres of positive coverage of more long-term testing.
In the midst of the warranted enthusiasm about these strides forward in a technology many of us have dreamed about since childhood, there’s a question nobody seems particularly keen to ask. Is this a mainstream technology, or simply a sideshow for a dedicated band of early adopters? VR unquestionably has applications in a host of serious fields – medical treatment, military training, search and rescue and many others – but does it have a future as a well-supported entertainment device? Can anyone really picture a time when a couple of VR headsets snuggle on charging cradles below the living room TV?
” We don’t want to ask those questions, I suspect because we fear that we already know what the answers are. A world that has heavily adopted VR in the home genuinely is quite hard to envisage. The technology is, by its nature, antisocial – as long as you assume that “social” is confined to real rather than virtual environments, of course. It’s designed from first principles to exclude the world around you in favour of a constructed virtual world. Where something like Google Glass augments reality (and plenty of people find that creepy enough in itself), Oculus Rift and its ilk replace reality outright. That’s an intriguing prospect but one which seems, at least to most people, like one with a very limited set of usage scenarios.
After all, think about how the “dream” of VR was presented in all of those movies of the 80s and 90s. We may have watched them as children and thought about how cool it would be to step into a virtual environment – but even if you leave aside the scary hand-waving “dangers of the virtual world” storylines (seriously, if you’ve written the line “if we die in the game, we die in reality!” in a story or script, go out, get some fresh air, and consider a career change), the depiction of VR was never all that positive. Science fiction is generally a moral tale about today dressed in the speculative clothing of tomorrow – within those parables, VR mostly served as a warning about how isolated and confined technology could make us. VR users were at best, drooling vegetables whose minds were engaged far away from the people around them; at worst, withered tube-fed husks who didn’t even know the real world existed.
These depictions were contemporary comment more than anything else – a statement about fears that we were becoming more and more absorbed in technology and media to the exclusion of the real world and those around us. VR was the ultimate expression of that fear – a technology which would entirely replace the real world. To those of us who view games as escapist fantasy, that’s beguiling, but it’s easy to see how such complete escapism can be no different to isolation or disconnection. For exactly the same reason that film makers of previous decades used VR to express their fears about technology, I’m not convinced that VR has a place as a mainstream entertainment device – it’s simply a step too far in disconnection from your surroundings. It will undoubtedly find a great niche market among a specific class of core gamer (and I’ll be happy to be among them), but ultimately, it is a class of device that belongs in the den or the bedroom, not the living room, and it will concern and disturb enough people to keep it locked out of many homes for years to come.
There is a counter-argument to this, if I may be permitted to play my own Devil’s Advocate – smartphones. If you had made a film in the 1980s in which everyone on a train carriage stared and tapped on panes of glass, unspeaking, for the duration of their journeys, or in which a family sat around a television engaging with the black slabs in their hands rather than in conversation with one another, it would have looked like a dystopian nightmare. “Nobody will ever permit that to happen to society,” you might have thought – yet here we are, a nation of people who decry those who can’t stop checking their phones while out for a dinner date, yet secretly can’t wait for our date to take a bathroom break so we can reach into our pockets.
It’s not a dystopian nightmare, unless you’re a utterly miserable luddite – the kind of person who sniffs at smartphones and honks out “well mine makes phonecalls just fine!”, as if a completely bone-headed misunderstanding of technological progress makes you into the smartest guy in the room and not just an earth-shattering bore. It’s just a bit socially annoying. We got used to this new reality in small steps – it’s the new normal. Who is to say, then, that VR headsets won’t also become the New Normal?
In the very long term, I think that reasoning is probably sound. I buy it with regards to Google Glass style HUD systems, a product I don’t like very much right now but which I fully expect will become normal for us all within the coming decade, just as smartphones did this decade. As VR headsets become smaller, lighter and less intrusive – ultimately, a few decades down the line, probably being built into contact lenses or something of that sort – they will indeed become the new normal, at least for some people. In the medium term, though, VR seems destined to be an exciting niche, at best. I personally can’t wait to see what kind of experiences we can have on future versions of Oculus Rift and Sony’s headset, but I have no expectation that this will break out of the core gamer market (a few tens of millions of consumers, which is admittedly not to be sniffed at) for years to come.
One of the most sensible rules that anyone talking about the future – be it serious speculation or pure science fiction – ought to follow is “never say never”; the best way to look like a fool down the line is to proclaim anything to be impossible. With regard to mainstream adoption of VR, then, I’m certainly not prepared to say “never” – but with a slightly heavy heart, I’m definitely prepared to say “not yet”.
With the rise in digital distribution and robust game creation tools like Unity, veteran developers are finding themselves returning to titles they’ve felt passionate about or worked on in the past. Those developers are planning new versions of those games, but without the brands they so love. This has led to the rise in ‘spiritual successors’: games that recall older titles, but without the original IP behind them. InXile’s Torment: Tides of Numenera, Chris Robert’s Star Citizen, Precursor’s Shadow of the Eternals, and Keiji Inafune’s recently-announced Mighty No. 9 have all banked on fan’s love and a creator’s previous work on an older title.
One of these spiritual successors was Hardware: Shipbreakers, an RTS title being developed at Blackbird Interactive. Blackbird is comprised of former Relic members who worked on the original Homeworld games and Shipbreakers was their chance to make a fresh start for the ideas that made Homeworld a fan-favorite.
This weekend, Blackbird Interactive and new Homeworld IP owner Gearbox Software announced a partnership, which sees Hardware: Shipbreakers become Homeworld: Shipbreakers. What once was a spiritual successor is now simply a successor. GamesIndustry International sat down and spoke with Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford, Blackbird Interactive chief executive officer Rob Cunningham and Blackbird chief creative officer Aaron Kambeitz to dig deeper into how Gearbox put on its new publisher’s hat and made this deal happen.
Pitchford told us that Gearbox chief creative officer Brian Martel was instrumental in the acquisition of the Homeworld IP. Martel had a deep love for the property and he convinced the rest of Gearbox executive team to bid on the assets when they went up in THQ’s auction.
“THQ acquired Relic and they also ended up having the Homeworld property, but they weren’t doing anything with it,” Pitchford told us. “THQ went away and the assets were put up for auction. There was a lot of folks who were interested in Homeworld. What was clear is one of the pseudo-publishers or smaller publishers was just going to grab it, exploit the back catalog, and not be in a position to invest more. It’s a cool property, what you can do in the space is cool, but it needs investment. We ended up winning the bid on that and it went for $1.35 million just to acquire the franchise.”
Gearbox is already hard at work on getting the original Homeworld games out into the world. The games are coming in their classic untouched states, but there are also HD remakes coming to PC. Pitchford admitted that the studio didn’t have a long-term plan for the series when it first acquired Homeworld and the executive team knew that Gearbox didn’t have the ability to begin work on a sequel immediately.
“We didn’t have a clear long-range plan when we started,” said Pitchford. “The other folks that were bidding are great people, but their interests were different. Knowing how important it was to Brian, we had to know that it was not going to end up with folks who were treating it like a commodity. Even if we might not be optimal to make the next game, there’s a whole body of very talented, very creative people. The right kind of team can be put together to do something wonderful. Even though we had no clear path, we had a lot of trust and confidence that the plan would appear.”
“We’re kind of busy. Borderlands became a massive thing. We’ve put a huge amount of our mindshare and effort into that. Also the next-generation of console is really exciting to us,” he added. “So, Gearbox has begun developing two original properties. Two new original things for the next-generation. We haven’t announced what those are yet, but the consequences of all that is that our internal mindshare has been very tapped. For us to internally start an effort to make a sequel to Homeworld would have wait.”
Prior to Gearbox’s acquisition, Cunningham and his team at Blackbird had already started work on Hardware: Shipbreakers. The game wasn’t intended to be a Homeworld title, but Blackbird still approached rights holder THQ to see if the publisher was interested in the title. Cunningham said that talks went nowhere.
“We did approach THQ, but it was very, very early on,” Cunningham explained. “It was before we had a prototype, it was before we had a game. We weren’t talking about it being Homeworld obviously. I think not only were we a very quiet voice because we were so small, we were also so far away and speaking in a different language. I don’t think the message really got through. Even if we did have a strong enough message, we weren’t far enough along for them to take us seriously.”
“We didn’t have a clear long-range plan when we started. Even though we had no clear path, we had a lot of trust and confidence that the plan would appear”
Gearbox president Randy Pitchford.
“We had financed the game up until this point with private equity,” added Cunningham. “And then we realized at a certain point that to really do this thing justice we need a lot more money. That’s when we started looking for partners.”
During the THQ auction, both Gearbox and Blackbird made offers on the Homeworld assets, but Gearbox came out on top. Blackbird congratulated Homeworld’s new owners at the auction, a move Cunningham said “started the dialog.”
“These guys had a project that they had already started talking about right around the time that we were going through the acquisition process,” said Pitchford. “These guys were making a Homeworld game, but they didn’t have Homeworld. I’m also not sure we’re the best people in the world to do it. We haven’t made RTS games before. We love the property and we want great things to happen, but it’s not our property.”
“These guys were going to fight that fight without Homeworld. We hadn’t even finished the acquisition process when we first started talking,” he said.
Gearbox is investing in Blackbird’s title, not just loaning them the IP. The deal took six weeks from start to finish, according to Martel. Pitchford said it was a situation where “we needed them and they needed us.” In fact, the paperwork for the deal was signed live onstage at PAX Dev, during Pitchford’s keynote.
“I did the opening keynote on Wednesday morning and we actually signed the agreement. It happened to be finished the night before,” said Pitchford.
“These guys phoned me up the night before and said ‘can you please make it to Seattle?’” Cunningham laughed.
“We’re not a publisher, which is maybe why we were able to go so fast,” said Pitchford. “The mission that Rob presented to me is going to be wonderful, but these guys needed millions of dollars to achieve it. So it takes an investment. I’m really glad we’re in a spot where we’re able to do that.”
Gearbox’s success has allowed the developer to collect a sizable warchest, and the Blackbird partnership is part of paying that success forward.
“We’ve done really well with a lot of our games, so we’re at a spot where out limiting factor isn’t ‘what can we do,’ it’s talent to execute on the opportunities,” said Pitchford. “We have resources. We can take what we’ve earned and apply towards why we got into this industry to begin with. It feels really good to create cool shit. You always want to try to make the world more interesting by adding entertainment that can create joy and happiness for people.”
“These guys have an amazing team, but the mission they have is larger than what their team is. There’s a opportunity for people to join them and be a part of it. They’ve got a foundation of talent that knows how to make and ship games.”
For Blackbird, it’s a chance to finally continue what began in Homeworld 1 and 2. The studio has the chance to make a full-fledged successor – Homeworld: Shipbreakers will actually be a prequel to the previous Homeworld titles – without having to worry about changing designs to avoid calling back to Homeworld too closely. It’s a chance a number of other developers can only hope to have.
“It felt like reuniting the brands was something that was in the future. I won’t say that I designed [Hardware: Shipbreakers] as a Homeworld property, but I will say that I made sure that it wasn’t designing it out. The number one thing that fits [Homeworld and Shipbreakers] together is the relationship we built with Gearbox: we share the same values in what we believe makes a great game,” said Kambeitz. “We have an attachment to Homeworld because we see what it is and what it could be in the future. Our fear was that someone would pick it up and exploit it for the back catalog or do something strange like make an MMO. It was a delight to find out that [Gearbox was] interested in collaborating with us and helping us. It was meant to be.”
“It’s divine intervention. It’s not a brilliant business strategy or anything, it’s just blind, fantastic luck. It feels great. When something is meant to be and happens, you have this relaxed feeling,” said Cunningham.
Gearbox is still figuring out how Homeworld: Shipbreakers will be released. The deal came together quickly because the studio isn’t a publisher, but that lack of experience means it will have to learn to navigate in new territory.
“When people are passionate about it, they have talent and capability, and there are resources there: shit, there’s going to be cool stuff. Just let it happen”
Gearbox president Randy Pitchford.
“We can do right by the brand, we can certainly promote it, but we’re going to have to figure out the publishing path for this game,” said Pitchford. “There’s a lot of options. Digital is a nice, clean, easy option, but there’s still a lot of value in retail. That’ll be fun to navigate. There’s a lot of interesting, stimulating problems in the business of [making games].”
Pitchford is glad the situation came together the way it did, putting talented developers together with available resources. Instead of the Homeworld IP continuing to sit stagnant, Gearbox and Blackbird have a chance to evolve the series.
“I wish this happened more. I don’t know why it doesn’t happen more, because to me, it’s always obvious that the best stuff comes when capable talent is very passionate about what they’re trying to do,” said Pitchford. “You never get a win unless you start with people that really fucking care. As developers ourselves, we’ve always been very pro talent. I’m the president of Gearbox, but I did not come at this industry as a business guy. There’s a lot of people in our industry on the business side where it’s a means to an end. To me, games are the end. In the whole of human purpose, there’s no greater thing than the experience of joy and happiness. I’m so grateful for people that become doctors and police officers, but I want to dedicate my life to creating happiness and joy.”
“When people are passionate about it, they have talent and capability, and there are resources there: shit, there’s going to be cool stuff. Just let it happen.”
“Look for the world premiere of the official GTA Online Gameplay Video as well as coverage of first press previews,” Rockstar announced today.
The trailer will be viewable at rockstargames.com/gtaonline, a website that has yet to go live, on 15 August, though we aren’t sure what time yet.
Other than the announcement saying that we are soon to see the game, there’s not much more that we know about GTA Online other than that it will feature classic character skins for multiplayer, such as Niko Bellic, the protagonist from Grand Theft Auto IV.
We assume it’s going to look and feel like the upcoming GTA V and Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 Multiplayer, as Rockstar’s co-founder has said in the past that the game will share its Crew system, allowing players of the latter game to import their setups through Rockstar’s Social Club. It is said to be “deeper and richer” than rival offerings.
Rockstar is also remaining tight lipped about GTA Online’s pricing and release date.
The games house released a video showing off the first gameplay action from the upcoming Playstation 3 (PS3) and Xbox 360 video game Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) in July. That video paraded the three leading protagonists of the game, a format that is a first for a GTA release, which usually features just one. It also showed a flash of GTA Online, but nothing worth getting excited about.
GTA V is set to be released on 17 September. The game can be preordered for the Xbox 360 and PS3 from Rockstar’s online store.
While much of the attention this holiday season will be the start of the “next-gen console war,” on the software side there may be no bigger showdown than Call of Duty: Ghosts vs. Battlefield 4. During his days as EA CEO, John Riccitiello seemed to be obsessed with dethroning Call of Duty from the shooter market, and even after leaving the company Riccitiello still felt strongly that Battlefield would achieve that goal this year. If you ask Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin, however, that’s really just an executive and marketing perspective.
Rubin said he actually very much enjoys seeing what other high-profile shooters are doing. It’s more about developer camaraderie and elevating games as a medium together than it is a competition.
“It’s less antagonistic, from a developer’s side – sure marketing and stuff is all [about that] but on a developer’s side it’s like, ‘Oh, did you see that stuff they’re doing? That’s so cool!’ We could do something that’s like this and that and we get excited about seeing that kind of stuff. So from a developer’s side, it definitely pushes us [to do better]. But it pushes us in a – I don’t know if other studios feel this way – but I hope in a sort of camaraderie type sense. ‘Oh, those guys are doing awesome stuff. Let’s jack up our game.’ But not like two opposing teams. Rather, like the same team pushing in the same direction,” he explained.
“I think that the intellectual realization is we want everyone to be successful because if gaming is successful then we’re all successful”
“We all want gaming, in general to be awesome, because if gaming isn’t good, then we all lose our jobs in a sense. So for us, I think that the intellectual realization is we want everyone to be successful because if gaming is successful then we’re all successful.”
Interestingly, Infinity Ward plays psychological games with itself, so the studio doesn’t rest on its laurels. When a big franchises repeatedly breaks sales records, it’s easy to become self-assured, but Rubin wants to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“Every year, every time we made a new one it was the same thing [in terms of competition], and I like that. I think that’s the part that keeps us hungry, that keeps us… we don’t want to feel like the top dog, necessarily. We want to feel like it’s a struggle every time. We want to feel that almost ‘Rocky moment’, which is kind of a weird thing to say, but we do want to feel like that. We want to feel like we’ve got a huge challenge in front of us. We can’t just phone this in and ship a game and expect it to sell. We actually really have to do harder work this year than we did last year,” Rubin stressed.
One of the big things EA DICE has been stressing with Battlefield 4 is how next-gen is going to drive emotions and connect players with the in-game characters. Rubin agrees that this is a key element and he said that Ghosts will seek to offer that emotional connection on a couple fronts, with the military dog and the two brothers in the game.
“We actually didn’t make that big of a deal about the dog – it was just in a trailer and all of a sudden the internet blew up and made the dog became this sensation… People are so in love with the dog. They’re already emotionally invested. It’s amazing how many Twitter messages I get saying – in all caps – if you guys kill the dog, I will never play another…and I’m like, ooh, you’re emotionally attached…”
As for the two brothers in the game, Rubin noted, “We’re really trying to push – paying attention to just those two guys the whole story through and their emotional story and have the world have an emotional impact on it.” Rubin emphasized that the storyline has benefited enormously from Hollywood veteran Stephen Gaghan, who’s completely embraced the video game medium.
“He really is looking at this in a way that I’ve never seen a Hollywood writer look at it. He looks at writing for a game as an amazing chance at an artistic challenge as a writer,” Rubin said. “One of the things he described was… he goes, ‘As a writer, this is like art film. Basically, think about it. Your main character, your main star of your movie, is never seen and never talks. And so you have to craft a story that deals with that.’ Think about it. If you took a game, our game, and you put it into a film where the main character never talked, never spoke, you never saw him – it would be like one of those black and white crazy French films. So he really loves the challenge of it and he’s been really engaged with everything.”
“There’s a disconnect between Hollywood and the game industry. They have two different languages. And they haven’t in the past talked very well. And I think that’s changing,” he added.
One of the big challenges for Infinity Ward this year is not only to launch another top selling Call of Duty experience, but also to ensure the current-gen versions are just as impressive as the next-gen SKUs. After all, the bulk of sales this holiday will still be for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
“Having an agnostic start, even before next-gen came out, really helped us get into this. We’re not making one platform and then porting. All the platforms are actually made at the same time. When somebody checks some work in, they have to make sure every platform works and that that check doesn’t break on one platform… The other part of it is, the new engine that we created is across all platforms. It’s not just next-gen. So the current-gen is actually getting a lot of benefit out of this new engine,” he said.
“I think we are better future proofed for making Call of Duty going forward. And we may or may not have done this if not for that [tumultuous] event.”
Rubin also described how Infinity Ward made “a semi-dramatic change on our pipeline internally” when it comes to art assets. “What we’ve done with this generation change, especially for the art pipeline, that being the biggest difference, is we’re making our big art assets at cinema quality, not even PC quality, but above next-gen. It’s at this really amazing looking cinema quality asset. What we’re doing, we use that and we create assets for each platform that are the best for the platform. So now every platform, instead of having a sort of average art asset, they’re getting the best asset for that platform,” he said.
A project the size of Call of Duty requires a massive amount of resources, but Infinity Ward likes to keep its size fairly small for a AAA studio. Rubin explained how the difficult past with Vince Zampella and Jason West leaving (followed by around half of the staff) actually forced Infinity Ward to reevaluate its ways and in the end, the entire studio is stronger for it.
“I’ve been at the studio since Call of Duty 2. It was, on a personal level, a pretty rough time. And the cool thing was for those of us who decided to stay, we were looking at having to do a new game with Modern Warfare 3 and to rebuild the studio, so we had to figure out how to do that,” he said. “It could have gone in any number of directions. We could have hired on a bunch of people quickly, just really mass higher and bulk up. We could have grown slowly and hired a bunch of art outsourcing companies and outsource a lot of the work. But these outside companies aren’t personally invested in the game; you give them a list of stuff to do, they do it and send it back. What we decided on – and Activision was great about supporting what we wanted to do – we found a studio in Sledgehammer who could be as passionate about the game as we would be if we did co-development. That actually worked out really well for us.”
“We were able to make Modern Warfare 3, and make it at the level and quality that we would expect, and not have to do the ballooning growth, and instead we were able to hire over time. That hiring process continued throughout Modern Warfare 3 and into Ghosts, and now we’re at the largest we have ever been. We are at 125 people, which is actually a medium to small studio nowadays for the size of the title. If you look at most other studios they are around 300 or 400 people. We feel 125 is the culturally right number to be at.”
Rubin said that the slow rehiring process actually let Infinity Ward tap into some Hollywood CG talent, and it also made the studio realize that for the long-term, working with other studios is ultimately beneficial.
“When we set out to rehire, and we said let’s make sure that bar is really high, it actually opened some interesting new doors for us, and particularly in art, animation and effects. By being in LA, we’ve ended up having to really tap into the Hollywood CG talent, and we’ve actually gotten a number of guys who’ve never done games – they’re all film guys – but they bring just a different level of quality and some new tech ideas. A lot of the tech that you see in the new engine is based on feedback from them with things like Sub-D (subdivision modeling), which is something that Pixar developed years ago and Hollywood’s been using for years but always in a pre-rendered state. For us, having it real-time in engine was a big feat for us and something we’re really happy with,” he said.
“And from an industry standpoint games are getting harder to make and they’re taking bigger and bigger budgets and bigger teams, and so this gave us an opportunity to sort of retool some of the structure internally. I think we are better future proofed for making Call of Duty going forward. And we may or may not have done this if not for that [tumultuous] event. It forced our hand to go down that route, which in the long run turned out to be good for us. I think we are much more capable now of doing these big projects. We are only 125 people and it does take more than that to make these big games, so one of the things we learned from MW3 is how to work with outside studios. That’s something we’ve never done the past. The previous games were all very insular, and that’s not really possible now. Working with outside studios like Sledgehammer was a difficult transition but now we’ve gotten past that learning phase, and so on this game we’re getting a lot of help from other studios, Raven and Neversoft.”
Ubisoft Toronto studio head Jade Raymond thinks there’s still innovation in the AAA space, but sees it threatened in the future by the continually rising costs of development. In the lead up to this month’s launch of Ubisoft Toronto’s debut Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Raymond shared her concerns with Digital Spy.
“I think the big question to me, as the expectations of these big triple-As keep on growing and the consoles become more powerful and teams get bigger, is how do we keep the costs in line,” Raymond said. “That’s for sure one of the things that is going to stifle innovation eventually. Anytime you want to make a big triple-A, you’re spending, let’s say $100 million, you’re not going to want to take a chance. It’s got to be, I’m making the next Call of Duty or the Assassin’s Creed and I know it’s going to make ‘X’ amount, so we’ll make money. I think that’s the tougher thing.”
Her solution for maintaining innovation in the AAA space is a two-pronged approach. First, bring development costs down.
“I think it depends on what type of game you’re making, but all games I think we have to invest in tools to make people more efficient, to perhaps make 10 times the amount of content that we were making before with the same amount of effort,” Raymond said. “That’s the only way we’re going to keep up. So there has to be a big investment there.”
Next, investigate some alternative business models.
“The reality is the industry is changing, the way people are consuming games is changing, the expectations are changing,” Raymond said. “More stuff is online. What does that mean? There are some games like The Walking Dead which are starting to have interesting episodic [content], but that doesn’t apply to all games. What’s the business model that makes sense to you? What’s going on with free-to-play, what does that mean for the console market?”
Raymond name-checked Team Fortress 2 as one particularly effective treatment of the free-to-play business model. The game’s microtransaction hats don’t impact competitive balance, and Valve’s decision to let players create and sell their own hats has made it so people in the community are making money off the game as well.
“I think that’s a great business model to investigate for some games,” Raymond said.