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Xbox One X Beats PS4 PRO In The UK

November 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are Xbox One X Sales Higher Than Anticipated

November 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

At $499, the new Xbox One X isn’t going to attract people in droves, but it’s going to fare better than some might expect. Feedback on pre-orders has been encouraging and analysts are upgrading their forecasts. Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter recently told us that he’s upping his Xbox One X sales forecast from 1 million to 1.5 million for 2017, and now IHSMarkit has raised its numbers as well.

“Feedback on pre-order volume for both the limited-edition Project Scorpio Xbox One X and for the standard version of the X console has led us to increase our 2017 sell-through forecast for Xbox One X,” said IHSMarkit’s Piers Harding-Rolls. “The Project Scorpio limited edition pre-order strategy has been particularly effective in driving what is expected to be a robust launch week in key sales territories. IHS Markit has therefore increased its 2017 forecast from 500,000 to 900,000 units. At this level, Xbox One share of total Q4 2017 Xbox One console family sales will be close to 20 percent, similar to the performance of PS4 Pro at launch. If Microsoft outperforms and delivers sales in excess of this forecast it will be considered a major launch success.”

Harding-Rolls even thinks some PlayStation fans could switch to Xbox One X: “A small share of PS4 Pro gamers that are keen to have the most powerful hardware for playing third-party published games are likely to shift their usage across to the new console, which may moderately shift the sales share of games between the two competing platforms.”

The extra sales for Xbox One X aren’t about to tip any scales in Microsoft’s favor, however: “Xbox One X is poised to give the company a boost in its ambition to compete more effectively with PS4 Pro in strategically important markets of the USA and UK. Other select markets, such as Germany in Europe with its PC gaming heritage, are also forecast to deliver solid launch traction. Overall, however, IHS Markit does not expect Xbox One X to have a dramatic impact on market share between Sony and Microsoft in continental Europe as the market’s current momentum is well entrenched. IHS Markit currently forecasts the Western Europe installed base of PS4 family of consoles to reach 26 million by the end of 2017 compared to 8 million for the Xbox One family of consoles.”

Importantly, while Microsoft is not selling Xbox One X hardware at a profit, the platform should help the company’s bottom line. Harding-Rolls adds, “Sales of the more expensive Xbox One X console will also help mitigate the fall in Xbox One S hardware average sales price which in recent fiscal quarters has undermined the positive impact felt by Microsoft of increased revenues from software and services. As such, Microsoft’s games business-related revenue is expected to increase year-on-year in Q4 2017.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

As Microsoft Gaming Division Revenue Has A Slight Revenue Increase

November 7, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Microsoft’s gaming revenue has stalled according to the latest quarterly report.

While overall Microsoft revenue reached $24.5 billion, a year-on-year increase of 12%, gaming revenue was up by only 1% (0% in constant currency).

Gaming revenue for the quarter ending September 30, 2017 reached $1.89 billion, edging up slightly from $1.88 billion over the same period last year.

Xbox software and services revenue grew up 21% (20% CC) driven by continued momentum in digital distribution and strong game title performance, but offset by a lower hardware revenue.

The number of Xbox Live active users sits at 53 million, meaning a year-on-year increase of 13%. However, the number has not grown from the previous quarter and remains lower than it was during the three-month period ending December 31, 2016 where it reached 55 million.

Looking forward to the next quarter, Microsoft CFO Amy Hood said: “We expect revenue growth from the launch of the Xbox One X console and continued healthy growth of software and services revenue. In Q2, the higher mix of gaming hardware revenue will significantly impact both the segment and company gross margin percentages.”

Company-wide net income was $6.6 billion, a year-on-year increase of 16%.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said: “Our results reflect accelerating innovation and increased usage and engagement across our businesses as customers continue to choose Microsoft to help them transform.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are Digital Games Catching Up With Physical Media Games

November 6, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The tipping point for digital in the UK console space is approaching faster than previously expected.

Confidential digital data, shown to GamesIndustry.biz, reveals that the digital-to-physical split on some AAA console games now exceed 45% in the UK.

Last year, the split was estimated at between 15% and 25%, depending on the game.

GfK data, which only counts physical sales, showed that some recent games have sold below their predecessors – titles such as Destiny 2, FIFA 18, Wolfenstein II, The Evil Within 2, Forza Motorsport 7 and Assassin’s Creed Origins. However, according to the data shown to us, some of these games were actually up over their previous titles due to the significant increase in downloading.

It’s a potential blow to the physical retail market, although one publisher told us that it’s the lack of discounting from retailers that may have resulted in this rapid switch.

“UK retailers have been selling new games closer to their RRP, so although digital titles are still quite expensive, they’re now closer to their physical counterparts in terms of price,” a senior source said. “Some consumers have clearly found that the convenience of digital offsets the now slight premium – whereas before they were paying upwards of £15 more for the privilege, that’s not the case this year.”

Another publishing boss said: “The challenge retailers face is how they react to this. To protect their revenue, the temptation may be to keep prices high, but this might only cause the digital acceleration to speed up further.”

EA’s financials this week showed that 36% of their PS4 and Xbox One sales are digital on a global basis, and that includes territories with lower broadband penetration. Last year that number was 30%. The firm says that 25% of FIFA 18’s sales have been digital after three weeks, whereas FIFA 17’s number was just 16%. Madden’s download share is also up 9% to 34% of total sales.

EA believes its games may have a lower download penetration generally, with its sports title being more mainstream and therefore appealing to consumers that perhaps don’t use download services.

“We were very pleased and a bit surprised at the strength of digital downloads, both for FIFA and Madden,” said CFO Blake J. Jorgensen in EA’s latest financial call. “FIFA, in particular, since it’s such a global game and sold in many markets where digital is not as strong as it is in some of the more mature markets. So it’s great to see the movement towards digital. And we attribute that to some digital-only promotions that we did, some special digital packages, as well as the continued involvement of everyone with Ultimate Team, which is 100% digital, and I think that’s driving the adoption.”

Meanwhile, the latest UK stats from October show that physical software sales were down 16% compared with the year before. However, early reports state that physical pre-orders for upcoming titles such as Call of Duty: WWII and Star Wars: Battlefront II are strong, and coupled with continued demand for Nintendo Switch and the upcoming Xbox One X, the expectation is that Christmas 2017 may still prove to be a strong one for physical stores.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are Optical Audio Options Dying

November 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Optical cable, which was the digital audio transfer method of choice for decades, is starting to die out as Toslink is replaced by HDMI.

Through the ’90s and 2000s, the optical cable was near ubiquitous with it being the best way to get Dolby Digital and DTS from your cable/satellite box, TiVo, or DVD player. But now it is starting to disappear from hardware.

The latest Roku and Apple TV 4K, don’t bother and you can’t find it on many TVs. Chromecast Audio uses an optical connection because of space constraints any technical reason. The Chromecast Audio uses the mini-Toslink variant which fits inside a 3.5mm
analog jack.

This is mostly because it has been eclipsed by HDMI with ARC, even if in theory the optical has more bandwidth. However, as CNET points out, the optical audio connection is far more limited. It can’t transmit the high-resolution audio formats that came out with Blu-ray more than a decade ago, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio.

HDMI has expanded its capabilities significantly over the brief time it’s been available and since no-one could be bothered upgrading optical because HDMI received greater acceptance the tech was toast.

Fibre technology will still be around as the backbone of the world wide wibble, but chances are you will not see it in your home in a few years.

Courtesy-Fud

Is The Olympic Committee Beginning To Take eSports Seriously

October 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Esports’ battle for mainstream acceptability has yet another endorsement, this time from the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement following a summit of the IOC, it was announced that esports “could be considered a sporting activity.”

According to the IOC, “the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports.”

While acceptance comes with certain caveats – esports must not “infringe on the Olympic values” and there must be “an organization guaranteeing compliance with the rules and regulations of the Olympic Movement” – the announcement is a huge coup for the rapidly expanding industry.

The decision by the IOC is the latest in what is slowly becoming the prevailing consensus. The first major development came in July 2013 when the US State Department recognized professional League of Legends players as athletes, with a number of other nations following their lead including Finland and the Philippines.

Additionally, the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China will recognise esports as a medal event, and the Paris bid for the 2024 Olympics is considering a program of esports.

From here the IOC will work alongside the Global Association of International Sports Federations “in a dialogue with the gaming industry and players to explore this area further and to come back to the Olympic Movement stakeholders in due course.”

While the IOC has conceded that there is room for esports in the Olympics, there is a notable apathy toward the idea from esports fans.

According to a recent report from Nielsen, only 53% of fans from the four largest markets (UK, France, Germany, and US) consider esports to be an actual sport, and only 28% felt that esports should be included in the Olympics.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are Loot Boxes Good For Video Games

October 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The loot box debate rages on, but very few members of the industry have joined in the discussion.

As games sites become awash with reports and opinion pieces on each blockbuster’s new monetization system, picking apart the model with which publishers are attempting to retain and monetize players through this Q4’s biggest releases, the consensus seems to be that loot boxes are another attempt to nickel and dime the unassuming consumer.

Attempts to sell in-game items through full-price titles such as Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Star Wars Battlefront 2, Forza Motorsport 7 and Destiny 2 have triggered discussions as to whether AAA gaming has become akin to gambling, and driven thousands of people to sign government petitions as they demand that action be taken.

While ratings boards have agreed the use of loot boxes does not technically class as gambling, it’s easy to understand the upset that surrounds them. Having already paid $60/£60 for a AAA title, consumers are indignant at the idea of having to spend more money in order to fully enjoy their purchase. Implementation varies between each game, with some examples – such as the Star Wars Battlefront 2 beta’s implication that multiplayer progression will be locked behind loot boxes – prompting more ire than others.

Getting an official response as to why these systems are becoming more prevalent is nigh on impossible – GamesIndustry.biz received a polite ‘no comment’ from Activision, Warner Bros, Microsoft, Electronic Arts and several other publishers we asked to weigh in on the subject – but those who do point the finger of blame squarely in one direction: the rising costs of both development and marketing.

This is something we already discussed at length last week, and it seems to ring true for developers across the industry. In the case of Battlefront, this has dramatically increased since EA decided to forego the usual Season Pass model and provide maps and extra content for free, but it still needs to fund development.

But according to one studio director – who wished to remain anonymous – it’s not just that costs are increasing, but that the disparity between how much publishers are charging and what consumers are spending is also growing.

“Development costs of AAA titles are five to ten times the price they were in the ’90s,” the person told us. “As technology moves forward, costs go up and teams get larger. Salaries also go up in that time both for starters and people employed for those periods of time.

“But sales and prices have remained pretty static – especially given the ‘sale culture’ nowadays.”

Ben Cousins, CEO of The Outsiders and a former EA and DICE exec, agrees: “The number of full-priced games console gamers are buying a year is dropping and the cost of developing games is increasing, while the actual audience for console games remains static. They need to find ways for full-priced games to continue to be profitable. Big publishers have been working on plans like this for over a decade.”

In recent weeks, UK sales of Shadow of War, Destiny 2, FIFA 18, Forza 7 and The Evil Within 2 are all trending below their predecessors, and this is likely to be the case in other markets. Digital downloads may be making up for some of that shortfall, but not all of it – and there’s certainly no sign of significant growth in terms of audience’.

Meanwhile the ‘sale culture’ is also likely to be impacting revenues. Last year’s Black Friday promotions saw sales of recent releases soar once available for £30 or less, many of which had been at full price just a few weeks before – and no doubt this will be repeated with this year’s Q4 hits next month.

Jason Kingsley, co-founder and CEO of Rebellion, emphasises that loot boxes don’t even need to convert every player into a payer in order to help offset those costs.

“Some big games are just not selling enough copies to make the development and marketing costs viable,” he says. “Loot boxes mean more revenue from those who are interested.

“For the biggest games that are made by thousands of staff, then yes the simple boxed copy sales may not be enough to make the economics work.”

Larger teams and more advanced technology aren’t the only things driving this increase. Hidden Path’s Jeff Pobst, who previously discussed this subject with us, says the audience has contributed to escalating costs.

“What players may not realize is their expectation that each game in a series gets bigger and better and has more content and looks more modern than before… means it is likely going to cost more to make. The creators are going to want to find a way to cover those new costs as well.”

Then there are the sales expectations of the publishers bringing each game to market. Just yesterday, in the wake of Visceral Games’ closure, former Dead Space level designer Zach Wilson tweeted that the second game in the series cost $60 million to make, and another $60 million to market. The title sold a seemingly respectable 4 million copies, but Wilson reports that “wasn’t enough.”

Again, this emphasizes the damage the aforementioned ‘sales culture’ can have; if all 4 million copies had sold at the full price of $60, EA would have received $240 million. While this may seem to be double the combined marketing and development cost, once you take into account the retailer’s share, distribution and manufacturing costs, plus tax, the publisher’s share actually diminishes (In the comments below, analyst Nicholas Lovell estimates closer to $150m than $240m). The lower the sales price, thanks to promotional discounts and so forth, the lower the publisher’s take.

Still, the dominant element of the loot box debate seems to be the consumer outrage and the notion that greedy publishers are simply trying to extract every last penny from customers already paying for their products. Naturally the most extreme reactions are amplified by social media, but are they in fact the minority? Does the very presence of microtransactions in full-price games really affect that many people, especially when so many publishers stress that they are optional?

“I don’t know the numbers, but my experience tells me this is probably the case,” says Cousins.

He continues: “Until we have hard data that the presence of loot boxes in a given title is negatively affecting sales and profitability, rather than just being a thing people talk about on the internet, we should not worry about messaging issues.”

Kingsley adds: “That’s hard to quantify but it’s clearly an issue as it’s getting coverage. Whether it’s an issue for most or even the majority is not as relevant as it being a big issue for some I suppose.

“The reactions to them seem to be based largely on how they are handled and whether the contents are game changing or just cosmetic.”

Pobst suggests that the source of the anger is not, in fact, the transactions themselves. Instead, it stems from the changing perception of the game: initially purchased as a piece of entertainment, but starkly highlighted as a commercial product by the immersion-breaking call to spend real-world money.

“Personally, I’m not sure that individual game mechanics or features such as loot boxes are themselves the driving issue for players when you see outcry or concern about the fairness of a game, its feature set, or its monetisation,” Pobst explains. “Typically if you go looking, one can find examples of where those same features or mechanics are used in other games and the players there are happy and enjoying themselves. 

“I think the underlying issue is really about the relationship between the product and the players, and how the expectations are set by the people making and marketing the product: the “promise” to the player by the product, as Gearbox President Randy Pitchford likes to say.”

The problem most often comes, Pobst posits, when firms add monetisation mechanics to a title or series where they were previously absent. Certainly this was the case with Bungie’s Destiny 2 – the earliest example in the recent wave of microtransaction controversies – where shaders that were previously reusable became one-time consumables, with the game offering to sell more to players in exchange for real money.

“Sometimes publishers and developers don’t recognize that changing the monetization can be a more significant impact in changing the promise of the game to the player than they may expect,” Pobst continues. “The gameplay and content promises are still there, but the monetization part of the promise has changed in that case. And depending on the game and the monetization changes, players may or may not feel like the promise they are excited about is being maintained.”

Equally, some consumers seem to have an entirely different view on how the relationship between themselves and the publisher or developer works. Fundamentally they seem to forget that while games are indeed provided as both art and entertainment, they are also commercial products and subject to inherent pressures.

“Regardless of development costs, developers and publishers are going to attempt to make money – it’s a business,” says Niles Sankey, developer of first-person psychological thriller Asemblance. Sankey previously spent ten years working at Bungie on both Halo and Destiny, although he stresses that he was not involved in monetization.

“Developers have retirement to save for and families to feed… If people don’t like loot crates and microtransactions, they shouldn’t support the game by purchasing them. And I’d suggest not buying games made by companies that have previously demonstrated insincere business practices.

“I stopped developing investment heavy games and I no longer play them. In my opinion, there are better ways to spend your time and life. There are so many great non-addictive/investment games to play.. and there’s so much more to life than video games.”

This is also a message that sometimes gets lost in the outrage: in most cases, microtransactions in full-price games are entirely optional. Following the initial outburst, Shadow of War design director Bob Roberts told our sister site Eurogamer that the team had developed the entire game without the loot boxes activated in order to ensure balance.

Our anonymous developer has no qualms declaring that he has spent money on such items, adding: “It’s normally to accelerate my progress. I don’t have as much time to play now as I did 20 years ago.”

Emphasising that loot boxes are optional seem to do little to assuage consumer concerns. Common arguments range from accusations that developers have slowed normal in-game progress in order to sell boosters, or that the very presence of microtransactions psychologically draws players into what Cousins refers to as the “compulsion loop”.

There is also an inconsistency to player reactions, albeit driven by the different implementations of monetization. For all the flack Electronic Arts has received over the proposed monetization system shown in the Battlefront 2 beta, it still generates $800 million per year with FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode – a prime example of successfully monetizing a full-price game in the long term.

Similarly, while Shadow of War and Forza 7 have been virtually crucified on Twitter, titles such as Rainbow Six Siege and Overwatch escape unscathed, despite the presence of loot boxes – although Cousins says, “Blizzard get a free pass on pretty much everything, as do Valve. Never try to get learnings from them, as they are outliers.”

The consumer reaction (particularly in the run-up to launch) has the potential to be highly damaging, further preventing publishers from recouping costs and exploring new methods of monetisation. Our anonymous developer pointed to one particular practice that has hindered the debate around loot boxes.

“Review bombing exaggerates issues and causes damage to everyone,” they say. “Which is why most won’t talk about it as they don’t want to be targeted unfairly next.”

And, ultimately, such tactics are a fruitless endeavour. Despite the controversy around recent titles and their microtransactions, publishers will inevitably continue to experiment with new business models. Especially as a recent report proves that games-as-a-service systems have tripled the industry’s value.

Just today, Activision was granted a patent for a matchmaking system designed to encourage more consumer spending; a system the publisher stressed has not been implemented in any game, but is something it may well consider in future. And experimentation is fine – it’s essential the evolution of any industry – but as our own Rob Fahey warns, publishers need to be careful to cross the line, no matter how poorly defined that line may be.

 

Courtesy-GI.biz

Did The Latest Final Fantasy Save Franchise

October 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Square Enix’ Final Fantasy franchise is arguably in the rudest health it’s ever been right now. The main series latest title, FFXV, launched to critical and commercial success and is being supported by a string of fine content updates; the MMO, FFXIV, is closing in on the peak players record set by World of Warcraft; and across mobile and other platforms, the franchise is enjoying success both with entirely new titles (such as Final Fantasy Brave Exvius on mobile) and with those tapping into nostalgia for the series’ past (mobile and console re-releases of classic games, or remixes like the mobile title Final Fantasy Record Keeper). The public’s appetite for the venerable franchise seems limitless, and Square Enix’ capacity to meet that demand is firing on all cylinders.

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, the state of Final Fantasy right now represents one of the most dramatic turnarounds by a major franchise in the history of the industry. Turn the clock back five years and the whole brand looked like it was bound for disaster. Final Fantasy XV was deep in development hell with no end in sight, and few held much hope for whatever game would eventually crawl out of the car crash. Final Fantasy XIV had endured almost two years of critical lashings and subscriber discontent, and was on the verge of shutting down. The franchise’s mobile efforts, too, were underwhelming, largely made up of ports of old games and re-developed titles from Japan’s long-in-the-tooth, pre-smartphone iMode service.

Had anyone at that point stood up to predict that Final Fantasy XIV and XV would both be not only immensely successful in their own right, but tentpole titles for one of the most commercially successful console generations ever, the most likely reaction would have been laughter. The sheer depth and breadth of Final Fantasy’s legacy meant that few would have been confident in writing off the series’ capacity for reinvention or resurrection; but for the franchise’s current iterations to be turned around so utterly would have been dismissed as impossible.

Such a feat bears closer scrutiny; not just because Final Fantasy is a beloved franchise whose resuscitation is interesting in its own right, but because it holds important lessons for other franchises that hit rocky patches. It’s worth noting also that the decline hadn’t started with the issues with instalments XIV and XV; rather, it dates back right to the outset of the PlayStation 3 era, when an ambitious plan to expand the franchise ended up delivering, instead, the poorly received FFXIII games and the eternally locked in development hell FFXV, originally planned as a companion piece to, rather than a distant successor for, the thirteenth game.

This is a franchise, then, whose development and critical reception really hadn’t been on solid ground since the PlayStation 2 era, and arguably one in much more trouble (though with a far deeper wellspring of goodwill and nostalgia at its disposal) than recently indisposed franchises like Mass Effect.

How Square Enix approached turning the entire franchise around is a lesson in bold steps and confidence. It took the unprecedented step of shutting down FFXIV and launching an entirely revamped version with a new creative boss at the helm; A Realm Reborn, the relaunched game, carries on from the story of the original (there was actually a creatively fascinating in-game narrative event wherein the shutdown of the old servers was accompanied by the actual destruction of the world, with the new game’s story commencing five years after those events) but is in almost every other respect a new game.

Consider the extraordinary effort Blizzard undertook to rework and modernise all of its original World of Warcraft content when it released the Cataclysm expansion at the peak of the game’s popularity; now consider that Square Enix took the decision to do precisely that with a game which was loathed critically and drooping commercially. That such a wild gambit has succeeded is a testament to the talent and vision of Yoshida Naoki and his team; that it was taken at all speaks to a confidence and willingness to take risks that is to the credit of Square Enix’ executive team.

What happened to FFXIV happened in public, of necessity; the original game had already launched when it became clear that it needed to be reworked from the ground up. Yet it is apparent that no less dramatic a transformation happened to FFXV as it finally hit the home stretch in its development (a home stretch, incidentally, longer than the entire development process of many other major titles).

The FFXV that eventually launched is a game that’s easy to like, but also a curious beast, one that clearly bears the marks and scars of dramatic surgery during its development. It’s a game whose sprawling scope belies a remarkably tight and stripped down core. There are moments where strange scars across the game’s design speaks to the excising of huge, ambitious ideas, or where the game’s systems curiously seem to try to flex phantom limbs; ideas and mechanisms amputated years ago in favour of a mostly streamlined story of four boys on a road-trip at the end of the world.

That the process of killing FFXV’s darlings happened behind closed doors does not make it any less dramatic than what happened to FFXIV in public; and while the creative teams responsible for the decisions were different, the solutions they hit upon are quite similar. Both teams found ways to use what had gone before, balancing a willingness to discard even very expensively developed content that just wasn’t working with a deft hand at ensuring the baby stayed firmly in place while disposing of the bathwater.

Often in the games industry, there’s a kind of masochistic satisfaction taken in talking firmly about how good a company is at throwing out ideas that aren’t working, or how quick they are to can games that don’t look like they’re up to scratch. That’s absolutely an important skill, but while vital in fast-moving and still (relatively) cheap fields like mobile, it’s one that’s increasingly irrelevant to AAA development. There, it’s been superceded by the more economically sensible task of actually figuring out how expensively developed assets, code and systems can be recycled into things that actually work.

That’s obviously a much tougher and more skilled job than simply canning something and tossing a casual reference to “sunk cost fallacy” over your shoulder as you walk away from the ensuing explosion. As development costs soar, however, the kind of highly skilled salvage work Square Enix has demonstrated on both FFXV and FFXIV is already becoming economically essential. There comes a point where so much money has gone bad that figuring out how to strategically, intelligently throw good money after it to claw back some value becomes a vital survival skill for a studio or publisher.

That Square Enix has become so proficient at this task is very much to its credit. It had little choice, in ways; allowing Final Fantasy games to fail in succession would have been an indelible stain on the company’s most valuable IP, after all. Still, it has achieved what few other companies have managed – bringing games back from the brink of disaster to become enormous hit titles, and charting a future course for a major franchise in the process.

The stature of Final Fantasy may be unique, but the challenges Square Enix faced in bringing about its resurgence were not. What those studios did, and what they do next, should be watched closely by anyone in the industry with an interest in how to sustain a major franchise or turn around a troubled game.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will Atari’s New AtariBox Console Succeed

October 5, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Atari has revealed more juicy details about its upcoming Ataribox console, due for release in 2018.

The Ataribox will be based on PC tech, and as such won’t be tied to any one ecosystem. Now, usually this would send us screaming for the hills, but we know this one is going to get funded, so we’re not sweating about sharing some more info.

Thanks to a report in VentureBeat including an interview with Feargal Mac, the creator of the device and reviver of the company, we now know it’ll be an Indiegogo job, which means there’s less of the “all or nothing” fear attached with Kickstarter.

“I was blown away when a 12-year-old knew every single game Atari had published. That’s brand magic. We’re coming in like a startup with a legacy,” Mac said. “We’ve attracted a lot of interest, and AMD showed a lot of interest in supporting us and working with us. With Indiegogo, we also have a strong partnership.”

It should ship in Spring 2018, if all goes well, and will come with a custom AMD processor, with AMD Radeon Graphics. The Linux operating system will be customizable and will run not only Atari emulators, but potentially other app portals such as Steam.

Here’s the return of the Mac: “We wanted to create a killer TV product where people can game, stream and browse with as much freedom as possible, including accessing pre-owned games from other content providers.”

Projected price is $250-$300 but as we all know, when it comes to crowd-funding, timescales can slip and prices can rise.

The important thing is that this is more than just another retro console. It will boast a customized Linux interface for TV, and users will be able to do as much tinkering about under the bonnet as they like.

We’re not looking at a gaming powerhouse, but it should be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with a good, non-game-specific PC.

The big draw, of course is that looks-wise, it is a sleek, more refined version of the classic Atari 2600, walnut wood finish and all.

Courtesy-TheInq

Is Valve’s Steam Dominance Killing PC Gaming

September 25, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Earlier this week I wrote about a recurring problem in games, and what I was going to do as a member of the media to try and fix it. Today I’m going to talk about something I’m doing to fix it as a customer and gamer.

I hadn’t intended to write a follow-up piece, but I hit a bit of a breaking point this week with the one-two punch of PewDiePie dropping the n-word on stream and Bungie removing a white supremacist symbol from its Destiny 2.

Both events are part of a wretched pattern that has been recurring in games for several years now, a pattern where we see some deep-seated prejudices in gaming culture come to the fore in alarming clarity for a moment, everyone points and decries the awfulness, then everyone else gets angry at the people who didn’t like the awful thing. If we’re very lucky, the people who screwed up in the first place publicly apologize, reflect on their mistakes and try to do better the next time. It’s much, much rarer to see anyone indirectly responsible for this pattern take an honest look at their role in it, and we absolutely need them to if this is ever going to get better.

“People talk about racism, sexism, transphobia and the like as if they are diseases, but maybe we should think of these things less like contagions and more like environmental pollutants”

People talk about racism, sexism, transphobia and the like as if they are diseases, like it’s something binary you either have or you don’t. “This is racist. That is not racist.” But maybe we should think of these things less like contagions and more like environmental pollutants. They surround us at all times, but in varying concentrations. They’re like arsenic in your drinking water, or rat feces in your popcorn; we should aspire to have none at all, but that’s a difficult enough task that we “accept” both in small quantities. (Seriously.) When they are present in very small amounts, the damage they do is manageable. But when the concentration is high enough, they can be fatal.

This is a cultural problem, which means all of us play a small role in making it better or worse. Like riding a bike instead of driving a car or using LEDs instead of incandescent lights, our actions don’t move the needle on their own, but can add up to something significant when combined with the actions of enough others. This week’s events left me wanting to do something to make things better, and that’s when I saw a NSFW tweet with some screen caps of the Firewatch Steam forum.

After PewDiePie dropped his racist interjection, Firewatch developer Campo Santo had the popular streamer’s video of the game pulled from YouTube using the service’s copyright claims process. Angry gamers then began review bombing the title on Steam, and poured into the game-specific forums to flood them with abuse. Because that’s how it’s done now. Because we are gamers and every avenue of feedback available to us must be weaponized so that we can have things our way. Because we’re so upset about a developer using a questionable invocation of the DMCA that we would crusade arm-in-arm with overt racists and human garbage rather than let our rage go unvented for even a moment. (See also: People actually concerned with ethics in games journalism who provided willing cover for virulent misogynists and harassers during GamerGate.)

Most of those threads in the Firewatch forum have since been consolidated, with the most exceptionally racist ones being deleted. But it wasn’t Valve who handled the clean up, because Valve offloads moderation of game-specific forums to the developers. Just like translation of its store pages or curation of its catalog, Valve seems to like nothing more to offload the work on others. That approach might be fine for some functions, but the company cannot abdicate responsibility for the community and culture that has come from its own neglect.

“Valve’s dogmatic commitment to removing human judgment from every aspect of the operation is in effect a judgment call of its own”

That’s why I’m terminating my Steam account.

For as much as Valve’s actions have revitalized the PC gaming scene in the last dozen years, its inaction has been steadily deteriorating gaming culture. Our own Rob Fahey has covered Steam’s community woes before, but the company’s dogmatic commitment to removing human judgment from every aspect of the operation is in effect a judgment call of its own, one that presumes everything is acceptable and there are no limits other than legal ones. And on the rare occasion Valve actually deviates from that approach and enforces some standards, it does so reluctantly.

Right now you can find Hatred, Playing History 2 – Slave Trade, and House Party on the storefront, showing that Valve has no problem with the glorification of mass shootings, the trivialization of atrocities, or the gamification of rape. We can give them some points for consistency though, as the availability of Paranautical Activity suggests Valve is unwilling to take a stand even against death threats to its own founder.

This same approach of course applies to the Steam community, which technically has guidelines, but little interest in enforcing them. Hey, there’s a guideline forbidding racism and discrimination, weird. I guess “Nazi Recruitment Group Order#1” (NSFW) with the swastika logo and 76 members has just fallen through the cracks for the last two years. And that user, “F*** Blacks,” with a graphic avatar of a man fellating himself? I’m sure he just changed it and I just happened to visit the site in the split-second that was online before he was banned.

Nope, still there.

Oh, and this one, “Whites Only,” (NSFW) a group “for any fellow White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and anyone who just hates colored people!” (If you must click through, be warned it only gets more racist from there.) Maybe nobody’s noticed them. Oh wait, no, here’s a post in the Steam help forums asking people to help ban the group for being racist. Well maybe Valve hasn’t seen it. Oh, wait. There’s a post from a Valve community mod locking the thread and linking to the support page on how to report abusive behavior.

That’s one of 29 community mods volunteering their time “to help keep discussions clean and on topic, and remove reported user generated content around the Steam Community.” If you talk about actual Valve employees, people who might theoretically be trained and compensated to do the job, there are apparently only 12 that mod the community. Even they aren’t necessarily focused on the task; they include programmers, software engineers, and UI designers that the company simply says “spend some time” helping out on the forums.

“Whatever its motives, Valve is clearly just fine operating an online toilet that harbors the worst dregs of society”

By the way, Steam had 12.9 million users online at the same time today. Steam is a massive chunk of the gaming community and Valve has offloaded moderation responsibilities to the developers and the users to a staggering degree. The company is so dedicated to having other people fix its problems that when I filed my request to terminate the account because I was sick of the toxicity, the first response I got from Steam Support said, “Please make sure you’re using the ‘Report Violation’ feature to report inappropriate behavior or users on Steam.”

Whatever its motives, Valve is clearly just fine operating an online toilet that harbors the worst dregs of society. But if it isn’t willing to staff up a reasonable amount of dedicated community management people, enforce even the minimal guidelines it claims to have, and excise these bad faith actors from its community, then I have no choice but to believe Valve wants them there. And if Valve wants them there, it’s fair to hold the company responsible for all the vileness they spew from the platform it owns and completely controls. Whatever benefit Steam once offered me has been more than offset by the harm it causes to its marginalized users, gaming culture, and society as a whole. I won’t be a part of that community any longer.

So my Steam account is gone, or presumably will be once Steam Support gets around to fulfilling my request. While I would encourage everyone reading this to consider whether Steam is a community they want to associate themselves with, I have to acknowledge this is not a huge sacrifice for me. I’m losing access to dozens of games and a backlog of purchased-but-unplayed titles, but I’m not primarily a PC gamer.

Having acknowledged that, it would seem unreasonable that my “call to action” be for everyone to delete their Steam accounts, or for developers to pull their games from a store that provides an overwhelming majority of their business. Instead, I would simply ask that everyone do what they can to foster viable alternatives. As consumers, we can stop buying new games from Steam if they are available on GOG.com, itch.io, or an alternative storefront. Developers, make it a priority to get your games on as many storefronts as possible, even if they only incrementally boost the bottom line. Because right now the PC gaming industry is entirely too dependent on a company with entirely too little interest in basic human decency, and it’s hurting us all.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will Gamers Support CoD Going GaaS

September 8, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Eric Hirshberg has addressed suggestions that Call of Duty could evolve into an ongoing, persistent product rather than follow the yearly cycle of new releases it has followed for more than a decade.

In an interview with Game Informer, it was suggested that the introduction of the Headquarters social space (among other things) points to Activision’s flagship shooter franchise moving towards a games-as-a-service model. The CEO responded: “It already is in many ways.”

He pointed to the “very high percentage” of players that buy each new Call of Duty on a yearly basis, and shift with their friends to the next multiplayer mode in order to maintain social ties.

He continued: “Now, I understand that the properties it doesn’t have are that sort of continuous world with expansions and a continuous string of accomplishments that carry over from game to game, so it doesn’t have those things that I think classically people associate with a persistent platform, but it does have a very stable community that has been very committed to the franchise and very ‘sticky’ for a very large number of people, which is, I think, one of the main benefits of a game as a service.

“I think that we have tried to find the right solution for each franchise individually, and Call of Duty has really benefitted from that annual innovation moment, that annual reengagement moment where a lot of people, who maybe played for a couple months and had a great experience but moved on to other things, come back and check out the new game.”

The conversation moved to a comparison with Destiny, perhaps the most high profile games-as-a-service product to emerge from the console space. While the Bungie franchise has done an admirable job of retaining its community with regular in-game events and multiple expansions, Hirshberg notes that there are disadvantages too.

“We see that sometimes it’s harder to bring a new player into an environment where they feel like ‘Oh, I’m three years behind my buddy who’s been playing persistently for that length of time’,” he said. “So I think there are gives and takes on both sides.”

Hirshberg said Activision will continue to service the Call of Duty community based on which game they’re playing, citing the release of a new DLC pack for Black Ops III earlier this year – two and a half years after the game’s launch.

He concluded: “I think that our goal is to not necessarily completely reinvent the things that are working, but to make the experience for “I’m a Call of Duty player, I like multiple titles within the franchise” – make that experience better, create more benefits for being a loyal player, those are things that we’re working on and trying to improve.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Blizzard Get Tougher on Bad Gamers

September 7, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Blizzard has reassured its community that it will be clamping down on those who are consistently abusing other players or demonstrating bad behaviour in Overwatch.

A user post on the official forums described the community as “toxic” and the reporting system “a failure”. Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan responded to this with more details on what the developer plans to do.

In the short term, the Overwatch team plans to re-evaluate which punishments are assigned to various offences, and as “in the process of converting silences over to suspensions”, according to Kaplan. Suspensions will also be extended as the original user post observed that a one-week ban isn’t particularly threatening to some players.

Blizzard plans to eventually phase out silences and rely solely on suspensions and bans, although users causing violations with their BattleTag name will be forced to change.

Repeated offenders within the Competitive Play mode will face permanent bans. Currently bans are only in force for the rest of the current season, but if Blizzard bans the user for more than a certain number of seasons, they will not be allowed to play this mode ever again.

Kaplan promised Blizzard will be “way more aggressive” during the upcoming sixth season of Competitive Play.

An email system will also be introduced that informs players if someone they reported has been punished, as well as an in-game notification system that delivers similar information. While the emails won’t offer full details, the idea is to encourage more users to report abusive behaviour by showing that it is acted upon.

Kaplan finished by calling on Overwatch players to help identify the most toxic members of the community, and hopes that one day effort spent on dealing with them can be put to better use.

“In the long term, we really want to work on systems that encourage positive behavior and reward good players. It really bums us out to spend so much time punishing people for being bad sports. We like making cool, fun game systems — that’s what we do for a living. But because people seem to lack self-control or because people like to abuse anonymity and free speech we’re put in a position of spending a tremendous amount of our time and resources policing the community. We will do this as it is our responsibility but we’d like to spend more time rewarding good players rather than having to focus on poor sportsmanship and unacceptable bad behavior so much.

“Like it or not, this is an ‘us, the OW community problem’ and not just an ‘OW team problem’. For better or for worse, we’re in this together. We’re working hard to make changes. I hope you all do too.”

A video update about plans for a stronger regulation system has already been filmed and will go live soon, although Kaplan was not sure when.

Courtesy-GI.biz

PlayUnknown’s Battleground Headed The Top

September 6, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

It was a big weekend for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, as Bluehole’s breakout hit saw the conclusion of the ESL Gamescom PUBG Invitational tournament and reached a new milestone to boot.

On Saturday morning, the game’s creative director Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene tweeted that the game had surpassed 800,000 concurrent players on Valve’s Steam storefront, sandwiched between a pair of Valve-developed evergreen hits on the service, Dota 2 (839,000 players at the time) and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (538,000 players). By Sunday morning, Greene’s game had climbed ahead of Dota 2, 878,000 concurrent players to 843,000 concurrent players.

Battlegrounds has been in uncharted territory for non-Valve games on Steam for some time already. Last month, Greene tweeted a game-by-game list of highest record player counts on Steam. Battlegrounds’ record at the time of 481,000 players was already the third-best ever, and the highest for a non-Valve game with Fallout 4 the next best at 472,000. This weekend may have moved Battlegrounds into second place all-time ahead of Counter-Strike, which as of last month had a record of 850,000 peak concurrent users.

Battlegrounds still has a ways to go before it can claim the all-time record (held by Dota 2, which drew 1.29 million players in March of 2016), but if it somehow kept growing as it has during the summer, it would surpass that mark next month.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Do Indy Developers Need a Publisher To Succeed On Steam

August 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Discoverability problems on Steam have reached the stage where it’s essential that indie and smaller developers seek out a publishing deal.

That’s according to Bulkhead Interactive producer Joe Brammer, who spoke to GamesIndustry.biz at Gamescom about indie attitudes towards publishers, lessons learned from his first few releases, and the increasingly crowded PC market.

Back in December, it emerged that more than 4,200 games were released in 2016 alone – accounting for 38% of the marketplace’s entire back catalogue – and there has been no shortage of new releases this year. While the platform has become a go-to destination for self-publishing indies, Brammer says it’s harder than ever to generate decent sales this way.

“Nowadays you pretty much need an indie publisher, or you need to have an amazing game,” he tells us. “It would have to be incredible. That doesn’t mean a ‘good enough’ game is a bad one, but it has to be something really special to be picked up organically – something like PUBG.

“The market is changing. Indie publishers are becoming less like indie publishers and more like smaller publishers, but smaller publishers are totally acceptable. That doesn’t mean they’re worse now.”

Brammer’s own game, the upcoming WW2 multiplayer FPS Battalion 1944, is being published by Square Enix Collective following a successful partnership between the two firms for The Turing Test – an arrangement the producer is more than pleased with.

“They listen to us,” he says. “No other indie publisher can give you the power of a megacorporation like Square Enix, but still let you maintain the finesse of that indie mentality. Not that we’re super indie, of course.”

But why go for a publisher at all? There seems to be the lingering perception that publishers are greedy and out to exploit smaller and independent developers – which has led to many new indie publishers referring to themselves as labels instead.

“Indie publishers are becoming less indie and more like smaller publishers, but smaller publishers are totally acceptable”

Brammer’s desire for a publisher stems from his team’s experience with its first release, Pneuma: The Breath of Life – a launch that also introduced him to how challenging the market on Steam can be. He maintains that while some indies may still feel apprehensive about publishers, they are necessary because “the industry has changed massively.”

While Pneuma wasn’t a critical or commercial hit, it sold well enough to let the developers continue making games and move on to The Turing Test. When it came to launching the puzzle game, Brammer and his team revisited Pneuma’s performance and realised while it had sold well enough on Xbox and PlayStation, Steam sales fell short of the mark.

“We decided if we’re going to do anything on Steam, we need a publisher,” he says. “We need someone with those contacts, someone that can give us a bit of help and the punch that we needed. When we went to Square we said we didn’t need money; we just needed help to get the game on Steam, so they actually only helped us with the Steam version. After doing that, I’d have rather they’d taken the Xbox One version as well because they just did a phenomenal job.”

Brammer admitted his team has probably been guilty of “lowballing ourselves” by not asking publishers for more money in the past, perhaps giving the perception that the games are cheap and therefore of a lower quality.

Steam has already been identified as a difficult market for new developers trying to make their mark, thanks largely to the aforementioned discoverability problems. Valve has attempted to revamp its submission process, killing the previous Greenlight system in favour of Steam Direct, which charges developers $100 to submit a game to the marketplace.

However, following the launch of Direct in June, Steam actually saw a spike in the number of games submitted – as many as 213 in a single week, and 730 in a four-week period. Valve has said that the new system is not necessarily designed to reduce the number of submissions but to ensure those that do get through are genuine.

Brammer believes the issue of discoverability is not one that Valve is particularly motivated to solve: “I had a meeting once with a platform holder and I made a joke about the App Store, saying, ‘It’s terrible, you’ll never get found’ – and they said they’d love to have the App Store. The platform holders would absolutely love to have millions of games come out and the good ones rise to the top, almost organically.

“The community sees [discoverability] as a problem and Steam says they’ll fix it, but all they really do is rehash it”

“Frankly, I don’t think Steam sees it as a problem. The community sees it as a problem and Steam says they’ll fix it, but all they really do is rehash it. I don’t know why they’ve made the changes they made when they got rid of Greenlight, but they’re not really stopping anything; they’re just opening things up even more. That’s just the 2017 market and how it works: removing the barrier to entry and creating more content, hoping the good quality content will rise to the top but it’s very difficult.”

Instead, reducing the number of games flooding the PC marketplace – and by extension improving the chances of discovery and success – will partly come down to developers. Brammer encouraged studios to “be more honest” with themselves about the quality of their game – and if it’s not up to scratch, scrap it. His team did just that with a robot football game it was building before work began on Pneuma.

“After three weeks, we had it working in Unity,” says Brammer. “Then I made a joke saying, ‘Why don’t we switch to Unreal Engine?’ and we all looked at each other and said, ‘Is our game a bit shit?’ So we threw it away – but those three weeks were the most important of my career as it led to me working on Pneuma, The Turing Test and today Battalion 1944.

“So developers need to start effectively nutting up, saying ‘My game is crap, I need to do better’. Learn to read the market, because that’s another major difference now: you can’t just release anything.”

Even if a game is of a high quality, Brammer still encourages studios to seek a publisher rather than hoping for PlayerUnknown levels of surprise success. We asked what studios should look for in a publisher, what they should expect or demand.

“Well, if you need to demand something from a publisher, if it’s something they don’t want to give to you, that’s the start of a bad relationship,” he says. “Debbie [Bestwick] at Team 17 says if you go for a fair deal where both sides are happy, you’ll get a better deal out of it. There’s always a bit of push-pull, but if you have to demand something they don’t want to give, maybe it isn’t the right fit.

“Speak to everyone, get everyone’s opinion, but if you find someone you like working with [that’s key]… because you’re going have to trust people with your game. For me, reliability is one of the most important thing. If you find someone you think you can rely on, you should go with them.

“No one’s going to care about your game as much as you are, so you have to find the guys you think care about it enough.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Sony Facing Another Class Action Lawsuit

August 30, 2017 by  
Filed under Mobile

A US Federal Court has approved a class action lawsuit against Sony for ‘deceptively advertising’ its Xperia smartphones and tablets as “waterproof”. 

The lawsuit, first reported on by The Verge, alleges that Sony’s Xperia devices have been misrepresented as “waterproof” as they are not designed for or capable of ordinary underwater use and are more on the “water-resistant” level of protection.

“Sony exploited certain international water resistance ratings in order to launch a deceptive marketing campaign promoting the devices,” the lawsuit claims. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about Sony’s dodgy “waterproof claims”. Back in 2015, the Japanese firm warned buyers of its Xperia Z5 that, despite having advertised the smartphone as ‘waterproof’, getting it wet could void the warranty.

The class action seeks a 12-month warranty extension for recently purchased devices or a reimbursement of up to 50 per cent off the affected device’s suggested retail price, which means owners of an Xperia Z4 Tablet, for example, could receive a $300 reimbursement.

However, The Verge notes that “this may not be the final value the company is liable to refund”, as Sony will still need to settle with the court again on 1 December and agree on final terms.

The lawsuit is also calling for Sony to make changes to its packing, labelling and advertising. 

Devices included in the class action include the Xperia Z2 Tablet, Xperia Z3 Tablet, Compact Xperia Z4 Tablet, Xperia M2 Aqua, Xperia M4 Aqua, Xperia ZR Xperia Z Ultra Xperia Z1, Z1s, Z1 Compact Xperia Z2 Xperia Z3, Z3 Compact, Xperia Z3v, Xperia Z3+, Xperia Z3+ Dual, Xperia Z5, and the Xperia Z5 Compact.

The class action only applies to customers in the US. Those eligible and interested in taking part of the claim can sign up here by 30 January 2018. Affected customers will need to have a record of their interactions with Sony or they will not be eligible.

Courtesy-TheInq

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