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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

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

Codemasters Loves The Xbox One X

September 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Adding virtual reality to Formula One would require “fairly significant” changes, so Codemasters is in no hurry to support the technology with its racing series.

F1 2017 releases for Xbox One, PS4 and PC today, but the publisher has no concrete plans for Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Playstation VR. Given that, like most racing games, F1 lends itself to a seated VR experience it seems like a natural extension for the franchise, but it’s not a simple case of porting the game.

“We’ve certainly given a lot of consideration to VR,” creative director Lee Mather tells GamesIndustry.biz. “As you know, Codemasters did VR for Dirt Rally and we’re certainly interested in doing it for Formula One.

“It’s a little trickier for us because we’re pushing the boundaries when it comes to our physics. We have a lot of elements on screen with the OSD, so that’s a lot of information the player would have to process in VR. The changes to move the game onto VR would be fairly significant, and we wouldn’t want to do it if it meant compromising any area of the game. That’s why we’re holding back on that at the moment, but it’s something we’re considering.”

Mather is much more excited in the potential higher-end consoles lend to his games. F1 2017 will support PS4 Pro and has also been built with the upcoming Xbox One X in mind too. In fact, Codemasters was able to show an early build of the Xbox One X version at E3 earlier this year.

More importantly, improvements for the premium consoles will benefit the standard versions for earlier models.

“Obviously we’ve done a lot of work [this year] on the render tech for those two consoles, but that sort of filters down for the whole range,” Mather explains. “This year, we’ve upped the resolution on Xbox One – last year, it wasn’t quite 1080p and now it’s full 1080p, 60 frames per second. PS4, PS4 Pro and Xbox One S will have HDR support as well.

He continues: “Any work we do to make gains on the new platforms filters down to the older ones as well,” he says. “So, as I said, Xbox One gained a higher resolution because the checkerboard rendering is more efficient in that respect.

“Any work we do to make gains on the new platforms filter down to the older ones as well”

“In terms of the assets we create, it’s actually not a case that we have to do better assets; instead, now we don’t have to knock them down as much, because they’re already authored at a very high quality and then you bring them down to suit the platform you’re running on. In a lot of ways, it’s giving us more opportunities to showcase the quality of the stuff we’re already producing at an even higher level.”

Xbox One X isn’t the only new hardware launch to grab attention in 2017. Nintendo Switch continues to perform well and is currently gearing up for its all-important first Christmas. Codemasters saw moderate success from the Wii versions of its earlier Formula One titles, so could the series make a return to Nintendo platforms?

“Obviously we’ve been watching how the Switch is performing and it’s selling really well,” says Mather. “It probably wouldn’t be suitable to have exactly the same game we have running on Xbox One and PS4, but there’s certainly the possibility we’ll look at doing something on Switch. We’ll see what happens in future. It’s certainly getting the market share to make it a valid place to be.”

F1 2017 is the first in a long line of racing games due for release before the end of the year, pitting it against Forza Motorsport 7, Gran Turismo Sport, Project Cars 2 and the return of Need for Speed. Mather is quick to stress that, while Codemasters aims to be “the No.1 racing studio in the world”, it makes no illusions about directly competing this year given that Formula One is something of a niche.

“We’re a niche within a niche to a degree,” he says. “Racing games are a niche in themselves, and we are unique within that and that’s our big selling point. We aren’t just a racing game; we’re a representation of a full sport. So whereas other racing games may appeal to racing game players, we appeal to Formula One fans as well. We’re pulling in people who love the sport as much as we’re pulling in people who love games and racing. That’s where our place is and that’s why we’ve got such a dedicated fanbase every year.”

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 HTC Gearing Up To Go On The Auction Block?

August 28, 2017 by  
Filed under Consumer Electronics

Signs are emerging that HTC may be in trouble.

The Taiwanese company is exploring its strategic options, according to a report by Bloomberg. That’s business code for shopping itself around because of financial woes. The options range from selling or spinning off its VR arm into a separate business to actually selling the entire company outright, with Google as a possible suitor.

It’s been a long and steady fall for HTC, which was one of the early pioneers of Android phones and a major player in the mobile business. But with Apple and Samsung nudging the competition on premium phones and upstarts like OnePlus and Xiaomi introducing slick budget phones, it’s getting hard to stay interested in HTC phones.

HTC’s newest bet was on virtual reality and its Vive VR system, a partnership with gaming company Steam. But that doesn’t even seem to be working out.

The Vive on Monday got a $200 price cut to boost sales. IDC estimates HTC has sold about 190,000 units in the first quarter, placing it in third place in the VR market behind Samsung (489,000 in the same period) and Sony (429,000 units).

Google, which has pushed its Daydream software as its platform for VR, could use HTC’s hardware know-how. But the search giant previously attempted to run a mobile hardware company in Motorola and ultimately sold it to Chinese PC giant Lenovo.

HTC and Google declined to comment on this report.

Will eSports Make It To The 2024 Olympics In Paris

August 17, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

The 2024 Olympic Games in Paris could be the first to host an official esports event if the bid team is successful.

Esports Insider reports that the team is rallying for the International Olympic Committee to consider adding professional gaming competitions to the program.

The site reports that the Paris 2024 team has been openly discussing this for some time, believing esports will help get more young people interested in the Olympics, although the IOC will make the final decision.

Paris is expected to be confirmed as the host of the 2024 Games in September, while Los Angeles is expected to be announced as the host of the 2028 game.

The IOC’s decision could be influenced by how successfully esports are integrated into similar competitions further east. Earlier this year, the Olympic Council of Asia confirmed esports will be recognised as a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in China.

Esports will also be part of the program at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, although not as a medal sport. Nevertheless, with the Paris program due to take shape in 2019 and be finalized in 2020, the success of esports in Indonesia could prove to be highly influential in getting competitive gaming included in the main Olympic Games.

While there was no esports competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the International eGames Committee ran a “two-day pop-up” competition alongside the event, pitting teams from the UK, US, Brazil, Canada and more against each other.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world of esports, Business Insider reports that Finland is the latest country to officially recognise professional players as athletes. The decision was confirmed by the Finnish Central Tax Board, which will have an effect on what esports players can earn (or, rather, how much of their earnings will be taxed).

Courtesy-GI.biz

Can Rocket League Grow eSports

August 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The stories about esports going to the Olympics, or airing on mainstream TV, are exciting.

In itself, these moments are not that important to the future of competitive gaming. This is a modern sport, there’s no need for BBC broadcasts when millions are watching on Twitch. And as cool as it may be to see gamers at official sporting championships, these competitions are not suited to the complex nature of esports with all those different games.

Yet what these stories highlight is esports’ potential within the mainstream. The dream of seeing esports on the back pages of newspapers, taking prime time slots on Sky Sports and drawing in families around the world rooting for their favorite teams. Millions more watch football than play it – wouldn’t it be great if that was also true of Call of Duty?

Unfortunately, esports is not mainstream. The games are complicated, or violent, or both. Some are hard to follow, while the ones that are easier to grasp are often based on existing sports (such as FIFA or NBA 2K), and the nagging question there is why watch the virtual versions when you can see the real thing?

Last year I attended an event about esports targeted at mainstream media and Government. The organizers wanted to demonstrate esports on stage, but were unsure over which game to use – violent shooters or densely packed MOBAs were just not suitable.

When UK retailer GAME launched its Belong range of stores (effectively local esports areas within a shop) it was faced with a similar challenge. Most of the popular esports games are simply not appropriate to show in the middle of the day in a retail setting.

Both eventually hit upon the same answer: Rocket League.

The car football game is the perfect title for mainstream sports. It’s easy to follow as it is just soccer with cars, but also crazy enough that it can only be done in a video game.

“Rocket League launched in July 2015 and immediately community groups latched onto the game and started to create tournaments,” says Josh Watson, head of esports at developer Psyonix.

“So Rocket League esports was very much born from the community. It is that grass roots support that has made for a passionate community of tournament organizers and fans. Today we have several dozen community groups who are doing hundreds of online tournaments and events annually, so it has really ballooned up from the grassroots.”

VP of publishing Jeremy Dunham adds: “The conversations we’ve had directly with players… they want more opportunities for Rocket League to become a bigger esport. That is something we are focusing on a lot.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make in esports is that they only focus on the smallest possible audience, the 50 to 100 people who are good enough to make a living out of it. We want esports to feel more like little league or football, where people are playing at all levels, from childhood to the pros. That way there is always an opportunity to play Rocket League and be a part of something. That requires a massive plan and a lot of infrastructure, but we’re spending a good amount of time putting that in place.”

That plan is accelerating rapidly. Last year, Psyonix ran competitions in three regions (Europe, North America and Oceania), with $600,000 in prize money. It did well, with 6,000 teams taking part, 1m unique viewers and 10m channel views on Twitch.

Now Psyonix is trying to grow that rapidly, with a $2.5m investment in developing Rocket League as an esport.

The company has since added new in-game functionality, like an esports live button (so people can watch in-game). They’ve added new tournaments, expanded to new regions, offered in-game items to viewers, appeared at more major festivals and has signed deals with NBC, ESL, Gfinity, Dreamhack and a whole lot more.

It has developed the RLCS (Rocket League Championship Series) Overtime show, which airs every week. And its last esports finals became the most watched esport of that week, with 2.8m hours of viewership – 1m more than League of Legends.

“Some of the numbers we saw included 2.29m unique viewers, 208,000 concurrent viewers across seven broadcasted languages… so some pretty big numbers,” says Watson. “To put that in perspective, between Season 2 and 3 we had a 640% increase in video watched, 340% in peak concurrent viewers, 251% increase in social media impressions, and 208% increase in unique viewers. It is incredibly promising for the RLCS moving forward.”

The firm is even attracting non-gaming sponsors, with Old Spice, 7Eleven, Transformers: The Last Knight and Mobil1 all signing up to support their tournaments.

It all sounds good, but then esports figures always do. Millions of concurrent viewer numbers and outlandish prize pools have almost become white noise. It’s all good marketing for Rocket League, but is this actually a profit-generating endeavor?

“One of our focuses is on giving our community a place to play competitively,” Watson acknowledges. “It’s really about servicing this community. They’re hungry for this high level competition.”

Yet big flashy tournaments don’t really service the community. It gives fans something to watch, but ultimately it’s still prohibitive for anyone outside of the most elite gamers. Dunham and Watson keep using the term ‘grass roots’, so how are they looking to support that?

“There is this notion in esports about the path to pro,” acknowledges Watson. “We want to create this ecosystem where you are taking good players who might want to play competitively, but they’re really not sure how, to attending tournaments. We are trying to build out this path to pro, where it is clearly defined how you get to that top tier.”

 

“For RLCS season 4, we are shifting our focus to creating a sustainable environment for players and organizations,” Watson explains. “Teams will be incentivized to plan for the long-term, and the goal is to create an environment where players can hone their skills, which will improve the quality of the gameplay and it should also offer players, owners and sponsors the necessary security to invest in Rocket League for the long-term with confidence.

“We are moving to a promotion and relegation system. The RLCS is basically a big open tournament at the moment, and then it funnels down to the top eight teams, and if you make it to the top eight you can play in a group stage, which happens over a long period of time. What that doesn’t allow for is if you don’t perform well on the day of the qualifiers, then you’re out of luck. That is something we are trying to solve with the promotion/relegation system. Each region will now be comprised of 16 teams, with the top eight making it into the RLCS as we know it now… the top division. And the nine through 16 teams will have access to a challenger, second division. We are hoping to provide players the opportunity to compete at the highest level, whilst being able to cultivate talent for tomorrow’s stars. That means we will have 40 teams across three regions competing in the RLCS.”

“It’s in partnership with Tespa, which is a group that runs some notable collegiate experiences like Heroes of the Dorm,” Watson explains. “We launched with the collegiate Rocket League series in early July, and this is our soft launch into collegiate esports. It is where we are allowing players who are enrolled in colleges all over North America, to make teams of three and play in these competitive environments while earning prizes.”

Watson says he is open to expanding that beyond the US, assuming there’s the demand for it.

It’s certainly commendable, and Rocket League does have a certain simplicity about it that could see it go far. It’s now a case of Psyonix keeping that momentum going.

“One of our visions that we try to hold to is to create a premium sports product in the esports world,” Watson concludes. “That is something that drives us. We do think our game is one of the best suited games for esports in general.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are Publishers Milking Gamers Being With Video Game Remasters

August 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Have you noticed how many remastered video games have been released lately?

Remastering music and film for newer formats has been standard practice in those industries for some time, and the games industry now has enough history behind it to mine older titles and bring them to either nostalgic audiences or players who are experiencing a classic IP afresh.

Given a market in which so many publishers are highly risk averse and costs are typically astronomical, it’s easy to see why the relatively low costs of remastering are so appealing. With consumers hungry for classic content, especially during this nostalgia wave we’re witnessing, it makes perfect sense for publishers to capitalize.

Looking at the UK charts, remasters of Mario Kart, Wipeout, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy XII have all topped the charts in the last two months. And in the US, NPD told us that remastered/ported games have accounted for 11% of total dollar spending life-to-date for physical game sales on PS4 and Xbox One. Nearly 80 remastered/ported games have been released for PS4 or Xbox One (or both) since November 2013, representing about 15% of all titles released at retail for those consoles.

Recently, during Activision Blizzard’s earnings call, Activision Publishing boss Eric Hirshberg gushed over the success of Crash Bandicoot.

“We knew that there was a passionate audience out there for Crash…. but we had no idea – it’s hard to tell whether that’s a vocal minority or whether that’s a real mass audience until you put something out there. And Crash has surpassed all of our expectations by a pretty wide margin,” he said.

“And a couple of stats that underscore that point where it was the number one selling console game in June based on units, even though it was only available for two days during that month. And Sony reported this morning… that Crash is the most downloaded game on the PlayStation Store in July.”

Activision has enjoyed the fruits of remastering before with Modern Warfare Remastered, but you can bet it will look at more easy wins in this category moving forward. In fact, Activision’s counterpart, Blizzard, is planning on releasing a remastered StarCraft in the third fiscal quarter.

“This is a strategy that clearly has our attention… I think you can be confident that there will be more activity like this in the future with more great IP,” Hirshberg added.

As NPD analyst Mat Piscatella noted, publishers are able to offset some of the inherent risk in AAA development by pursuing the remastering trend.

“On average, remasters/ports sell less than games that are new to the platform, unsurprisingly,” he said. “However, given the dramatically lower development costs when compared to new game development, the ability to outsource porting to speciality houses which frees up internal development resources to create new games, and the ability to mitigate risk since a clear demand pattern exists to determine which games should be remastered, the benefits of the practice are readily apparent to publishers.”

Publishers we queried wouldn’t state exact costs, but it’s clearly something that can vary on a case-by-case basis. A much older title would likely need new artwork, whereas something closer to the current generation may only need a touch up with textures or polygons.

THQ Nordic, which has remastered properties like Darksiders, De Blob, Baja: Edge of Control and others, weighed in. “Age plays an important role here and if all the data is complete and accessible,” said director of production, Reinhard Pollice. “Also some projects are already set up in a way that they are perfectly fit for more advanced platforms than they were originally targeting. In general remastering pays off if you do it the right way.”

Sega, too, has had its share of remastering, especially for the PC with titles like Bayonetta and Vanquish. Rowan Tafler, head of brand for Sega Searchlight, the internal team at Sega Europe that oversees PC conversions, commented, “It’s not always a simple process, especially bringing classic titles to PC. With console development, you have reasonably fixed hardware standards – on PC, we need to ensure that the game runs well on a wide range of specifications and that can be a difficult process. Hardware moves on, so a lot depends on how the original assets are archived and whether they can be brought up to date.

“Of course, we need to make sure that development is profitable – that gives us the opportunity to keep doing what we’re doing – but the satisfaction really comes from doing right by our community and our catalogue.”

Satisfying the community is certainly a key goal in remastering, and listening to players’ desires is a helpful way to identify which games should get a modern makeover.

“I think that remastering comes from perpetual and existing interest in a property or brand,” said Tafler. “We’re not going to be able to reignite interest in something if the quality isn’t there in the first place. That wouldn’t be a good business decision.

“Does it increase interest and give players who potentially haven’t experienced the titles before an opportunity to play a title in its optimum form? Yes, absolutely. But we don’t perform a best practice conversion with the intent of piling all the profit into making a new game in the series or using the IP. That sort of decision would be made completely separately.”

THQ Nordic doesn’t always look at popularity, however. “Sometimes we believe also in titles that weren’t that popular in the first place, but we feel they deserve a chance,” Pollice noted.

He added that oftentimes there’s a belief that an old property that didn’t make a big splash can have a new lease of life as a remaster, or that a classic can gain legions of new fans who were just too young to have experienced it years ago. In a sense, by remastering a game, you’ve got built-in marketing for that franchise, which may one day lead to new entries for a series.

“That’s actually our very original thought about remastering a title,” Pollice continued. “We want to make first-hand experiences with the audience and a game’s fan base and understand their wishes and demands. We are fans ourselves of our own franchises but it’s always good to stay in touch with the community and listen.”

Remastering might seem like a cakewalk, but with 4K gaming starting to take hold on consoles, and with PC gamers already accustomed to extra high fidelity visuals, there are more challenges involved in revamping a particular title than you might guess.

“Sometimes it’s a technical challenge to make it look and feel like a recent game,” Pollice acknowledged. “Within these two fields there are tons of tiny challenges. For example, on Darksiders Warmastered Edition the biggest challenge was to remaster the cutscene. In Darksiders 1 the cutscenes were pre-rendered – even the original developers thought we are crazy to go into that.

“First of all, the data to render the cutscenes weren’t complete. So we had to re-create some pieces and puzzle them together as good as possible (actually there are a few tiny differences that are not really a big deal but they are there). Then the cutscenes used a very specific rendering set-up, sometimes custom-made for a given scene or even shot so that it looks cool. In the end it was a huge time-sink but we got those re-mastered – even in 4k on some platforms.”

Sega has gone through similar experiences with its projects. Tafler commented, “Our recent challenges have revolved around porting popular console games from the last 10 years – Valkyria Chronicles, Vanquish and Bayonetta for example – to PC. The format change and the expectation from PC gamers for these titles to be properly optimised for PCs presents our biggest challenge. Can we make run it with unlocked framerates? Can we implement fully optimised PC controls? Can we make it run at 4K? Can we deliver the best experience on a wide range of hardware?

“If the answer to all these questions is yes, then the project has potential. Ultimately, we want the communities playing these games to be able to have the best possible experience playing them.”

The benefits clearly outweigh any difficulties encountered for most companies. Remastering is here to stay. “As technology continues to evolve, I believe remasters and ports will only become more prevalent for the short to mid-term,” said NPD’s Piscatella. “First, we have creators making stories and characters that will continue to resonate. Allowing these characters to come to life through technological improvements is something that will continue to find an audience.

“Second, development of new game content is only going to get more expensive due to the higher fidelity technologies like 4K. Mitigating risk of new game development via releasing remasters/ports at low cost will continue to be attractive to publishers.

“Finally, franchises are more important than ever. Remasters/ports allow publishers to reintroduce characters and storylines before the release of a new game in a series, or allow new people to experience the full backstory without being forced to go to old console tech.”

He added, “In the long-term, the only risk to this remaster-friendly future is the advent of the Games as a Service model. I’m not sure what a remastered version of a live service game would look like, or if it would even be the least bit palatable to consumers.

“I believe we’ll get more of these games, that more dev houses will focus on this type of work as a speciality, and that consumers will continue to show a willingness to support quality remasters/ports.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Can Service Based Video Games Growing The Industry

July 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Long-tail console and PC titles designed to keep players engaged for years will grow the overall games market, rather than make it more difficult, according to Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot.

The chief exec was speaking to a group of journalists today in the publisher’s Singapore studio, the team behind the upcoming pirate multiplayer title Skull & Bones. The game ties in with Singapore’s core focus, which is on both “HD content games” such as the Assassin’s Creed titles, and service-based titles such as its previous hit Ghost Recon Phantoms.

However, the market has become increasingly crowded with games designed to retain players over a longer period of time – whether it’s with the online persistent world of Destiny or the high replayability of Overwatch. Ubisoft itself has plenty of titles that fall into this category, such as Tom Clancy outings Rainbow Six Siege and The Division.

GamesIndustry.biz posited to Guillemot that not only will the publisher have to compel consumers to buy and engage with Skull & Bones, it also has to convince them to stop playing other titles and hope that no rival publisher releases a product that will draw people away from the pirate battler. How is the publisher approaching this challenge?

“It’s a good question,” he said. “There’s a good diversity in what people want to play. It’s not one game against the other. More and more people are playing games and they want different types of experiences. So, for sure, we’ll have to take people from other games, but after five years on one game they might want to try something else.

“Those types of games, we think we’ll be able to increase the number of people playing those type of experiences. The market is also going to grow quite a lot: more countries, more people in each country – because the cost to play those games per hour is less than we used to have. If you look at a 15-hour game that costs $60, that’s $4 per hour. Now you can play games for 200 hours, a thousand hours and still for $60, plus some investment in the game. It’s more like 20 to 40 cents per hour. So you can [justify] playing many of those games if you have time.”

The studio visit is part of a larger push from Ubisoft to highlight the advantages of developing games in South East Asia. Various presentations today cited the strengths specific to Singapore, such as its recognition of English as an official language, it’s high-quality internet, and the amount of tech-savvy recruits in the region.

We asked how Ubisoft expects the games landscape in Singapore to change in the next five years and what role the publisher hopes to play in that.

“It’s difficult to say [what will happen] in five years, but what we see in the short term is that we are here, Bandai Namco is here, and there is now more and more talent appearing around games companies [in Singapore],” said Guillemot.

“There is also a number of indies here, so we’re seeing a pool of talent growing. We think it will continue to grow quite a lot in the next few years, so for us while the talent is here it’s one of the best places for us to create high-quality games.”

Ubisoft Singapore MD Olivier De Rotalier added: “This year is very important for us with Skull & Bones and Assassin’s Creed Origins. We’re really showing that you can deliver very strong games and very promising titles from Singapore. That’s our role: to show that people can see strong success from here. So this year’s key for us.”

Guillemot observed that the evolution of Singapore as a games hub will also make it easier for the studio to recruit. But is Ubisoft not concerned that, as the city state becomes more appealing to international firms, it will find itself competing with Singapore branches for rivals like Electronic Arts?

De Rotalier said the studio is “not really worried because they’re not here”, while Guillemot predicted that “more competition will come from Chinese and Japanese companies.”

GamesIndustry.biz will have more from Guillemot in the next few weeks.

 

Courtesy-GI.biz

Do Video Games Help Critical Thinking

July 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

At the Develop conference in Brighton this week, the team behind a new charitable foundation called The Near Future Society asked developers to embrace games as a tool for critical thinking; an antidote to a cultural landscape in which “fake news, bias and extremism” are increasingly powerful forces.

The Near Future Society was initially conceived by Oliver Lewis, a former diplomat and the current VP of corporate development at Improbable. Lewis was joined onstage by Nick Button-Brown, the COO of Sensible Object and one of Improbable advisers, who became intrigued by The Near Future Society’s belief in the positive influence games could have on society.

“We wondered whether games can develop critical thinking, and help us understand how to think about moral reasoning,” Lewis said. “We started having this conversation, and we decided that it’s much more complicated than ‘can they?’, and that perhaps they already do.”

“People are becoming more extreme. The center ground is disappearing. It has now become okay to ignore opposing viewpoints, it has now become okay to shout them down”

The Near Future Society’s first meeting took place before GDC this year, on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles. “The idea was to get together government, technology, education and entertainment people to talk about how to address the problems of the world,” Button-Brown said. “When we met the government people, the thing they were most worried about was fake news, and the impact fake news has on people’s opinions.

“People are not questioning. We see it, and we see it in our own lives as well. People are becoming more extreme. The centre ground is disappearing. It has now become okay to ignore opposing viewpoints, it has now become okay to shout them down.”

One of the distinctive qualities of games as a medium is the ability to empower players to make choices, and to show the consequences of those choices. Lewis and Button-Brown cited some well known examples of this technique: the admittedly “simplistic” moral split in a game like Knights of the Old Republic, the “Would you kindly?” reveal in Bioshock, and the creeping realization of The Brotherhood of Steel’s true nature in Fallout 4.

“Having spent a lot of time with the UK and the US military, I have an affinity for this group,” Lewis said, referring to his experiences embedded with the military in Afghanistan. “[The Brotherhood of Steel] have some really cool kit. But the more you interact with this group it starts to get a little uneasy, then you start to realize that they’re a little bit fascist.”

Games afford players the freedom to arrive at such realisations, encouraging a degree of critical thinking absent in linear media. This power, Lewis argued, gives developers a responsibility to carefully consider how they present difficult subject matter to the world. Call of Duty, for example, depicts “a type of warfare that’s unrecognizable to the modern Western soldier,” one where the Geneva Convention and “the reality of the law of armed conflict” are not strictly observed.

“If you go into a mission and your objective is to kill the enemy, you are murdering wounded and potentially surrendering soldiers. That is illegal,” he said. “You are potentially using a flamethrower as a weapon. That is illegal. You are told to destroy civilian property and religious buildings. That is illegal. To some extent you’re also committing war crimes.

“A lot of game depictions of war are not accurate emotionally, are not accurate operationally, even if they’re accurate visually. And as we get towards ever more immersive experiences we have a responsibility to represent that moral reasoning.”

“A lot of game depictions of war are not accurate emotionally, are not accurate operationally, even if they’re accurate visually”

However, while there are examples of games that don’t take that responsibility seriously, The Near Future Society was mainly inspired by the games that already do.

“There are just so many games where, fundamentally, we teach players to think analytically,” Button-Brown said. “We teach them to question their environment, and to expect that the people that are talking to them are not necessarily telling the truth all the time. That’s what we do in our stories. We’re already doing it, and we’re actually quite good at it.”

“In the earlier part [of the talk], we deliberately held up some of the areas where we could do better,” Lewis added. “But only as foreground to say that the games industry writ large is already doing so much good in terms of encouraging critical thinking, and encouraging moral reasoning.”

Button-Brown discussed State of Decay and EVE Online as examples of games that use persistence to encourage players to think about the consequences of their decisions. In the case of the former, when one of your companions dies there is no option to restart or bring them back. “I then had to start making decisions about which of my companions I could sacrifice,” he said. “That’s uncomfortable, even in a virtual world.”

Lucas Pope’s Papers Please, which puts the player in the role of a border guard in a fictional country, was also singled out for praise. “It teaches people that there’s a grey area,” Button-Brown said. “Good decisions in Papers Please can end up with bad outcomes. You’re teaching moral action, and also connecting that to the consequences.”

Lewis discussed 11 bit Studios’ This War of Mine as a kind of counterpoint to games like Call of Duty, in the way that it depicts the experience of the people who suffer the most as a result of conflict. “It induces empathy with the displaced person, the people left behind after war,” he said. “Ordinary, normal people who have to try and eke out an existence; to survive and protect the people that we fought for.”

“There’s a decent chance we’re going to have much more influence as an industry over people’s morals”

Lewis and Button-Brown aren’t the only people to have noticed the potential for games to explore difficult subject matter. Last year, 11 bit Studios launched a publishing division with a stated aim of drawing attention to “meaningful games” like This War of Mine and Papers Please. “There are a lot of players who want those experiences,” publishing director Pawel Feldman told GamesIndustry.biz. “We know how to talk about these games. All we need are talented developers.”

The Near Future Society has a similar goal, albeit as a charitable organisation rather than a commercial one. Lewis expressed his belief that “social and political taboos” are ideally suited to games as a medium because, through play, “people are much more likely to engage with them.” An open brainstorming session at the end of the talk proved that developers are eager to explore this new territory; the Near Future Society will attempt to serve as a conduit between interested studios and bodies that might fund and support their work.

“One of the partners that we’re going for is the Roddenberry Foundation,” Lewis said, referring to the organization established by the son of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. “We want many of the early projects that we do support to be deliberately utopian. If you want a living wage and [universal basic income], then let’s use popular culture to explore that, rather than just having a declaration from Mark Zuckerberg.”

Both Lewis and Button-Brown acknowledged that the games industry has a “left-wing bias”, and they were very clear that the goal of the Near Future Society is not to tell people how to think. “In the forum in Los Angeles, one of the greatest concerns of the US and UK government that came along…was that this would be propaganda,” Lewis said. “What we had to make very clear is that any projects that we do, we’ll be very open on who the collaborators are, and indeed what any overt political message is going to be.

“You could say that, within this broad idea of making games more political, you have to state what the politics are rather than hide it with subterfuge.”

Button-Brown added that simply reflecting the bias of any given side of an issue would could be “dangerous”, and it would also ignore the unique strength that games have to allow the player to explore ideas from multiple angles, and make their own choices. “That’s why we ended up at teaching critical thinking,” he said, “rather than ‘Get Trump out’.”

“Games are already the most accessible, arguably the most effective, and the largest provider of moral reasoning and critical thinking education in the world,” Lewis said. “Almost without realizing it, that’s one of the things that you’re providing to the global community.”

Understanding and embracing that idea will only become more important over time, Button-Brown said. “There’s a decent chance we’re going to have much more influence as an industry over people’s morals. We’re going to have much more influence over the way that they think. As people become more immersed in these worlds, it’s going to matter more.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Video Game Development Going Truly Global?

July 18, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The international video games industry owes a considerable amount to the efforts of immigrants from countries like Syria.

Companies like AdMob – founded by Syrian Entrepreneur Omar Hamoui, and later acquired by Google for $750 million – have helped reshape the conventions of game publishing as we know it. Steve Jobs’ own biological father was a Syrian emigrant to the states. On taking that journey, Abdulfattah ‘John’ Jandali unknowingly set events in motion that would lead to Apple’s reinvention of how we play, make and distribute games.

Beyond games there are numerous other examples of Syrian people who have helped better the world through technology, empowered to do so through freedom of travel. People like Sirin Hamsho, a Hama-born engineer who today resides in the United States, and has helped revolutionise renewable energy through her work with wind turbines.

Technology is, of course, progressed by collaboration, and cooperation happens most readily when people can get together. It’s the reason travelling to other countries – be it for a single meeting or a new life – is so often the catalyst for technological change. That’s why most in the games industry go to conferences all over the world; it’s a chance to understand distinct approaches, secure contacts, form alliances and spark collaboration.

When Trump’s long-promised travel ban became a rather chaotic reality, numerous games makers suddenly found their potential severely jeopardised. Suddenly, every US games conference was off the radar of hundreds of developers. No GDC, no E3, no nothing. Studios needing to take a couple of days to attend a meeting with a US publisher had the rug pulled from beneath their feet. Chances to meet new staff and find new partners were thrown into disarray.

That inspired Unity Technologies to conceive the ‘Unity Without Borders’ initiative, which sought to bring 50 developers to the Unite Europe conference in Amsterdam last month. After a selection process, Unity would handle and cover travel, accommodation, visas and anything else needed to afford games makers limited by Trump’s ban to engage with the free exchange of ideas that is the founding spirit of almost any game convention.

Meeting the developers brought to Unite as part of Without Borders, it is clear they greatly appreciate the opportunity. That, perhaps, should be obvious, but there is a sense on the show floor that the effort is about more than one middleware-specific company conference.

Ziad MollaMahmud is a man with many skills. By day he is a .NET developer for web applications, while also doing 3D modelling work in the architectural space. A Syrian based in Turkey, he has in recent years embraced game development, acquiring a taste for AR, which he has explored through modest projects of his own conception.

“This is a very, very good opportunity for me,” MollaMahmud says of his success in visiting Unite Europe as part of Without Borders. “It’s a breaking point in my life, where I can move to a better position and change my way of thinking about the future. I believe coming here will have a very good effect over me and my future.”

That’s not to say MollaMahmud is new to being overseas for his career. He estimates that he has visited some 13 countries during his 20-year career, but with the outbreak of Syria’s civil war – and long before the impact of Trump’s presidency – the ambitious developer started to realise global politics would limit his professional potential.

“It’s not only Trump. There’s a lot of restrictions on Syrian’s travelling and doing other things, and that makes it very hard”

“After the Syrian war started a lot of Middle Eastern countries placed travel bans on Syrians, just because of their nationality,” he says. “I was travelling before – without any visa – but after the war they all started to do these travel bans, and I couldn’t travel to the Middle East. It’s not only Trump. There’s a lot of restrictions on Syrian’s travelling and doing other things, and that makes it very hard.”

Those restrictions – whatever their source or motivation – continue today, and in many other ways that also prevent developers from collaborating. Many Iranian and Syrian studios keen to apply for Without Borders were faced with limitations on web access that impeded their submissions for the initiative. There’s a logic to the internet making face-to-face meetings less relevant today, but when the web you can access is restricted presence at real-world events is all the more important. And that was, Unity says, what inspired the Without Borders initiative.

“In some of their communities – especially in countries like Iran and Syria, where they can’t move around as much – they don’t have a lot of access to a lot of game developers or creators,” says Elizabeth Brown, Chief People Officer at Unity, who has been pivotal in implementing Without Borders. “Coming to a conference not only fuels inspiration, but establishes skill sets, sparks ideas and builds networks. They don’t always have access to a local game development community, so they rely on international conferences to feed them and develop their creations and businesses. When they are limited from going to those conferences, they are super limited. That’s as creators, but also as business owners. Some of them are making their living by making games.”

For Brown, this isn’t just a matter of providing those with a passion for games an exciting opportunity; it is about helping developers put food on their tables. Often, that is incredibly limited for a developer restricted to just their home country, market and development community.

“We don’t have anything like this in Iran,” explains Amin Shahidi, as he glances around the main expo hall of Unite Europe, smiling. Shahidi is team lead, animator and game designer at the Tehran-based studio Black Cube Games, and he’s at Unite thanks to Without Borders. “We don’t have these kind of networks,” he continues. “So in Iran, all the movement of developers is very limited, or even blind. So this kind of event – and the moment of being here – is very, very cool and very, very helpful.”

“It shows us that people actually care about us,” adds Ali Boroumand, a game developer at Dutch studio Ferox Games, and a former colleague of Shahidi’s. “We’re all humans, and we’re all pretty much the same people. So it’s very heart warming to think that, even in hard times, people see game developers as game developers. We’re all game developers, and it doesn’t really matter where we come from. We’re all trying to make good games.

“But before this, we had to rule out contributing to any conferences or studios inside the United States. We couldn’t contribute to anything there, and that’s probably a loss on both sides. And beyond the travel ban, there are quite a few other United States restrictions, mostly on money. Selling games outside of Iran is hard for us.”

Boroumand makes a very important point with regard to what Iranian developers have to offer the rest of the global games development community. Restricting developers’ opportunity to travel doesn’t only harm the game industry in their home countries; it equally detracts from the nations they would otherwise be visiting. Collaborating is at least a two-way process, and the learning, inspiration and innovation it engenders rarely passes only in a single direction.

“Syria, like anywhere, has talented people who can bring a lot of things to games development and all technology,” suggests MollaMahmud. “But we need a chance to open the window and say ‘we are here, you can do things for us, and we can do things for you’. We just need a chance to elevate ourselves and do something not just for ourselves, but for all those that make games. We can help your games when we can travel to you freely.”

Equally, there’s an obvious creative opportunity for any studio looking to bring distinct aesthetics and approaches to the global market.

“Iran has quite a long history,” says Boroumand, who is presently based in Sheffield. “The Persian empires have been around for a few thousand years, so Iranian art and Iranian culture is pretty rich in that respect. Games of Iranian art and Iranian influence can bring something to the rest of the world, definitely; something that isn’t often seen.”

There’s an irony to all this, of course. Trump’s travel ban has afforded the Unity Without Borders teams an opportunity to visit a conference they may never have seen had the US President not targeted the various nations blacklisted. For MollaMahmud, however, the irony of opportunity born from limitations runs a little deeper. Buoyed by his experience of attending Unite, he can be remarkably optimistic about a situation that had s dramatic impact on his life.

He believes the horrific Syrian war, which broke out just a couple of years after he returned to live in the country, offers an ultimate example of the potential opportunity hardship can bring game developers.

“After the war is finished – and I hope that is soon – I believe there will be a very good opportunity in Syria for all kinds of business, including game development and software in general,” he considers. “The war will leave a country that will have to start from scratch. Now there are millions of Syrian refugees outside of Syria. It’s really bad to be a refugee, and I believe a lot of refugees are ready to seize the opportunity – having learned many new things – of heading back to Syria.”

Forced displacement is no better than placing mandatory travel restrictions, of course, but in a strange, counter-intuitive way, migration from conflict could represent what freedom to travel can bring in terms of advantages.

“The war, I hope, will finish soon,” MollaMahmud repeats firmly. “Then a lot of people will come back to Syria, and help build our country from scratch. I always say that Germany after the second world war, for example, started from scratch, and they have built a very good, very beautiful, respected country. Then more of us can make successful games.”

MollaMahmud isn’t suggesting that the development of a healthy national games industry justifies a war; not at all. For one, there are more important things than the games industry to consider when a country emerges from conflict. But if Syrians can pool the experience gained through their peoples’ diaspora and establish a game industry to rival Germany’s, it would contribute a great deal to that renewal and rebuilding.

Movement of people can push technology like little else, for the benefit of everyone involved, regardless of their home or country of origin; Apple and AdMob are proof of that. War will likely exist forever, but its horror doesn’t preclude it from being used to inspire positive movements large and small.

Nobody is calling for the forced displacement of people for the benefit of the game industry, of course. But based on the enthusiasm and appetite for learning of every Without Borders developer at Unite Europe, it’s apparent that supporting thoughtful freedom to travel benefits us all.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will Doom VR Be A Successful Game

June 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Doom is getting a virtual reality (VR) mode that will up the frights and will probably have you clawing at your face.

You know Doom, everyone knows Doom and people are always trying to play it on things that it was never meant to go on, like cash machines and cars, for example.

Doom was born for VR. The facefirst run and shoot game will lend itself very well to the format, and we can admit to wanting a go on it.

There is a reveal trailer, and Doom VFR certainly looks, smells and bleeds like the Doom we have come to know and love. The trailer is marked as unsuitable for some viewers which if you ask us, makes it sound like a perfect trailer for Doom. It is quite a bloody thing, it is certainly exciting, action-packed and violent.

“If you flinched the first time you saw a meaty Mancubus charging at you in last year’s critically acclaimed Doom, wait till you get up close and even more personal with rampaging demons in Doom VFR,” says Bethesda Softworks. “Doom VFR is a new virtual reality game from legendary developer id Software, coming to PlayStation VR and Vive platforms.”

Bethesda and ID Software, the companies behind Doom, said that VR has opened up fresh opportunities for both them and the games that they are aiming it at.

“Developing a Doom game specifically for virtual reality has provided an exciting opportunity to not only surround players with the world of Doom like never before, but also let them experience and explore the UAC and Hell in new ways, playing as new characters with totally unique tools and abilities,” said Robert Duffy, CTO at id Software.

The game’s director, Marty Stratton, explained that Doom VFR gives the fans what they want. “Since the hallmark of any Doom game is combat, we’ve made it our top priority to ensure moving, shooting and killing demons with overwhelming force in virtual reality is as brutal and rewarding as it is in the Doom experience that fans have been enjoying for the past year.”

Courtesy-TheInq

Will The US Video Game Industry Grow To A 28 Billion Dollar Market

June 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

According to the 18th PwC Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2017-2021, which covers a number of major industries (not just games), the total video games revenue in the US is expected to grow at a 6.3% CAGR rate to reach more than $28.5 billion by 2021. The research firm notes that the PC games sector looks a bit rosier than consoles in the next few years in terms of growth. While total PC games revenue in the US is set to grow from $3.7bn in 2016 to $5.0bn in 2021, at a 6.6% CAGR, consoles will only grow at a 2.8% CAGR, hitting $9.4bn in 2021.

Consoles’ slowed growth “can be attributed to the increase in digital full game downloads which is mostly offset by a decline of physical console game sell-through revenue, which is set to drop by a 4.3% CAGR during the forecast period,” PwC noted. At the same time, the PC sector is seeing “healthy growth” in the online/microtransactions department – online PC revenue is expected to climb at a 7.0% CAGR to $4.2bn by 2021. PwC said that much of this can be attributed to the ongoing success of F2P, more subscription services and the rise of eSports. Digital sales on consoles are getting stronger and stronger as well, expected to grow at a 9.8% CAGR to hit $3.7bn by 2021 – but as noted above, the decline in physical is still offsetting much of this growth.

Virtual reality continues to draw lots of attention across the industry, and according to PwC, the segment should grow at an impressive 64% CAGR to reach $5bn by 2021, or roughly 17% of the entire US games business revenue total. The firm estimates that dedicated high-end VR (Rift, Vive, PSVR) should climb to an installed base of 13 million by 2021, while the overall VR headset installed base will reach 68 million. Additionally, “Portable dedicated headsets – a new category of self-contained headset that will emerge from 2017 designed exclusively to render VR experiences – will have an installed base of 5.3mn by 2021 (CAGR of 87.5%) because of their superior capabilities compared to smartphone-based devices, and ease of use,” the firm said.

While games as a technology have been the driver of VR, PwC expects VR content revenues to be driven by non-gaming experiences like VR video, which will “grow at a CAGR of 87.8% to represent 58.3% of overall content spending in 2021. It will surpass interactive experiences and games revenue…in 2019.” PwC remarked that established media like Netflix, HBO and ESPN, would play a big part in driving VR content along with major game publishers; that said, “expect smaller developers like Jaunt to get an increasing share of this content revenue as they act as the technical partners for both the big studios and non-specialist start-ups.”

The other smaller, but quickly growing segment that should boost total industry revenues in the US is, of course, eSports. PwC expects the sector to grow at a 22% CAGR to reach almost $300 million in 2021. Streaming advertising is the lion’s share of that total at $149 million, but sponsorships, voluntary consumer contributions and ticket sales all add to the pie as well.

“The US is the largest market in revenue terms, having overtaken South Korea in 2015, although the latter will stay far ahead in terms of per-capita revenue,” PwC explained. “The development of eSports has grown at a breakneck pace in the US over recent years, receiving perhaps its biggest boost into the mainstream when ESPN began covering major events on both its streaming and regular channels – most notably the August 2015 final of The International, a tournament for Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2). In September 2015 the company even advertised for an eSports general editor, in recognition of the specialist knowledge required to cover the discipline comprehensively.”

Streaming sites are still the dominant medium for eSports viewing, however. Amazon-owned Twitch is said to rank behind Netflix, Google (YouTube) and Apple in terms of peak internet traffic, PwC noted. There’s no doubt that eSports is capturing the attention of major corporations and advertisers. “Companies are moving in swiftly to sponsor both teams and events, with fast-moving consumer goods companies like Coca-Cola, Doritos and Snickers all forging a niche…

“Notably, in September 2016 the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers bought the long-time franchise Dignitas and Apex, which offers a guaranteed spot in the League of Legends circuit. For the 76ers, the purchase offers an opportunity to diversify into a market that is particularly popular with the protean 18-24-year-old market and get a named presence at eSsports tournaments, while their newly signed-up players can also live-stream and create content under their parent owner’s banner. If the space continues to grow exponentially, sports teams such as the 76ers that become early movers will have the upper hand – as well as a usefully sized stadium for hosting tournaments. Certainly signs are positive here, with the NBA in February 2017 announcing plans to create a new league based around the game NBA 2K.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Grand Theft Auto V The Best Selling Video Game Ever

June 12, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Grand Theft Auto V has sold more copies in the US than any other release over the past 22 years.

That’s according to NPD Group analyst Mat Piscatella, who tweeted that Rockstar’s masterpiece is the region’s best-selling game since the market research firm first began tracking.

“Not surprising, but still amazing,” he wrote.

That’s not to say GTA V has overtaken some previous champion, GamesBeat reports – just an interesting factoid Piscatella was keen to share.

As the analyst says, it comes as no surprise. The latest Grand Theft Auto has sold more than 80m units around the worldwide to date – despite originally launching way back in 2013 on the Xbox 360 and PS3.

Subsequent PC, Xbox One and PS4 releases have driven sales further, as have the regular updates for the game’s Grand Theft Auto Online multiplayer mode.

The latter was a significant contributor to the financial performance of Rockstar parent Take-Two, which reported revenues of $1.78bn for the year ended March 31st. Earlier this week, CEO Strauss Zelnick noted this success has come despite his belief the company has been restrained with in-game purchases and is currently “undermonetising” its users.

All eyes are on Rockstar’s next release Red Dead Redemption 2, which was recently delayed to 2018. The original was a huge worldwide hit, although it is perhaps unlikely the sequel can match the success of Grand Theft Auto V.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Can Big Game Developers Keep Innovation Alive

May 12, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The games industry has gone through a series of major transitions and changes over the past couple of decades – changes to the platforms people play on, the way they pay for and interact with games and even to the audiences that are actually playing. Each of those has brought along a series of challenges which the industry has had to surmount or circumvent; none of them, arguably, is a perfectly solved problem. Meanwhile, though, there have also been a handful of challenges running in the background – consistent issues that are even more fundamental to the nature of the games business, less exciting and sexy than the latest great transition but no less in need of clever solutions. Education and skills is one example; tax regimes and the industry’s relationship with governments is another.

Perhaps chief among those issues, though, is one which ties in to a common problem across a wide variety of industries, creative and otherwise. It’s the problem of innovation; specifically, the question of how to make innovation work in the context of a large corporation. The conventional wisdom of modern capitalism is that innovation bubbles up from small start-ups; unencumbered by the institutional, structural and cultural constraints that large, established companies operate within, they’re free to create new things and execute original ideas. As firms grow bigger, they lose that nimbleness and flexibility. Projects become wrapped up in internal politics, in the stifling requirements of handling shareholder relationships, and all too often, in the innovator’s dilemma – the unwillingness to pursue fresh innovation for fear that it’ll disrupt one of your proven cash cows.

As a result, we see a structure in which innovation happens at small start-ups, which large companies tap into through acquisitions. We see this in the games industry too, in the form of big publishers acquiring innovative and successful developers. Such acquisitions usually come with golden handcuffs for the key talent, requiring them to work for their firm’s new owners for a certain amount of time – after which they’re free to go off and create something new, small and innovative again (with a few million quid in their back pocket, to boot). This creates a cycle, and a class of serial innovators who repeatedly build up new, successful small companies to sell to larger, innovation-starved firms.

For many large companies, this isn’t an entirely satisfactory situation. Surely, they reason, there must be some way for a company to scale up without losing the capacity to innovate? Yet for the most part, the situation holds; big companies can create great products, but they are generally iterative and derivative, only very rarely being major, disruptive breaks from what was offered before. There are just too many barriers a game or a product needs to get through; too much politics to navigate, too many layers of management stumped by new ideas or worried about how something hard to explain will play to investors who only want to hear descriptions like “it’s like GTA, but with elements of Call of Duty”, or “it’s like an iPhone, but with a better camera”.

The desire to find some way to bottle the start-up lightning and deploy it within existing corporations runs deep, though, and it’s resulted in a number of popular initiatives over the years. Perhaps the most famous of recent years is the buzz around Eric Ries’ book The Lean Start-Up, a guide to effective business practices for start-up companies which extolled a launch-early, iterate-fast approach. Though it had some impact in the start-up world, The Lean Start-Up seemed to find its most receptive audience among executives at large corporations keen to find some way to create “internal start-ups” – silos within their companies which would function like incubators, replicating the conditions which allowed start-ups in the wild to innovate and iterate rapidly.

For the most part, those efforts didn’t work. The reality is that a start-up inside a company isn’t the same as a start-up in the wild. It doesn’t have the same constraints or the same possibilities available to it; its staff remain employees of a large corporation and thus cannot expect the same rewards, or be exposed to the same decision-making environment, as staff at a start-up. Even something as basic as success or failure can’t be measured in the same way, and in place of experienced venture capitalists (often the final-stage Pokémon evolution of the serial innovators described above) as investors and advisors, an internal start-up finds itself being steered and judged by executives who have often spent a lifetime working within precisely the corporate structure they now claim to wish to subvert. It’s hardly surprising that this doesn’t work very often, either within games or in any other sector.

We haven’t talked about Hearthstone yet, even though it’s right up there in the opening lines. Let’s talk about Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is Blizzard’s card battling game, available across a variety of platforms. It’s a spin-off from the Warcraft franchise, and last year it made somewhere in the region of $350 million (according to estimates from SuperData). This week it topped 70 million unique users, and though the company doesn’t release concurrent user figures, it claims to have set a new record for those following the release of its latest expansion pack in April. It also remains one of the most popular games in the world for streaming. It’s a hell of a success story, and it’s also, in essence, a counterpoint to the notion that big companies can’t do small, innovative things. Hearthstone was prototyped and built by a small team within Blizzard, and ever since its launch it has embraced a distinctly start-up approach – iterating quickly and doing its experimentation in public through features like the “Barroom Brawl”, a sandbox that allows developers to test new mechanics and ideas that might make their way into the main game if they work well.

Given Hearthstone’s commercial success and the relatively small team and infrastructure behind it (relative, that is, to a behemoth like World of Warcraft), it’s probably Blizzard’s most profitable game. The question is, can other publishers and developers learn from what Blizzard did here? There’s a tendency with Blizzard success stories to simply attribute them to some intangible, indefinable “Blizzard Magic”, some sparkling pixie dust which is sprinkled liberally on all of their games but which can only be mined from the secret goblin tunnels under the company’s Irvine campus. In reality, though, Blizzard is simply a very creative and phenomenally well-managed company – one which has, in many respects, placed the solving of the whole question of how to innovate within a large company environment at the very heart of how it structures and defines itself.

One of the most famous things that people in the industry know about Blizzard is that the company is ruthless in its willingness to take an axe to projects that don’t live up to its standards. StarCraft: Ghost never saw the light of day after years in development; Titan, the planned MMO follow-up to World of Warcraft, was similarly ditched (with a core part of its team going on to rapidly develop the enormously successful Overwatch as their “rebound project”). What that means is that Blizzard has developed something within its internal culture that a lot of other firms in the industry lack; a capacity to coolly, rationally judge its own work on a purely creative and qualitative level, and to make very tough decisions without being overly swayed by internal politics, sunk-cost fallacies or other such calculations.

It’s instructive to listen to comments from people who worked on cancelled projects at Blizzard, even at a high level; while it was no doubt an emotional and difficult experience for them, their comments in hindsight usually express genuine agreement with the decision. There appears to be a culture that allows the company to judge projects without extending that judgment to the individuals who worked on them; I don’t doubt that this is an imperfect system and that there’s still plenty of friction around these decisions, but by and large, it seems to work.

There is no magic pixie dust involved in the success of games like Hearthstone (or Overwatch, for that matter). This is a model that can be replicated elsewhere… it’s not dissimilar to the structure of a company like Supercell”

That creates an environment in which a start-up style approach can actually thrive. Small, creative teams can work on innovative games, rapidly prototyping and being effectively judged for their quality along the way. After only a couple of cycles of internal culling and restarting, surviving projects can be pushed out to the market as a kind of “minimum viable product”; not a thinly disguised prototype, but the minimum required to be a viable Blizzard game. Polished, fun and interesting, but designed as a springboard from which the team can go on to iterate and innovate in a way that’s informed by feedback from a real audience, rather than as an expensively developed, monolithic product.

Not every company can accomplish this; it’s not just Blizzard’s exacting standards of quality that permit it, there are also important factors like the company’s opaqueness to investors (which allows it to make products for the market rather than making products for shareholders) and its ability to bootstrap new games with IP from existing franchises (the Nintendo model, in essence) to consider. There is, however, no magic pixie dust involved in the success of games like Hearthstone (or Overwatch, for that matter). This is a model that can be replicated elsewhere, given the right approach and the right people in decision-making roles. In fact, it’s a model that does exist elsewhere; it’s not dissimilar to the structure of a company like Supercell, for example, which helps to explain why Supercell is one of the only mobile developers that’s been able to “bottle its lightning” and consistently develop hit titles. It’s also close, though slightly different in structure, to the way Nintendo has shifted towards working in recent years, which has resulted in titles like Splatoon.

Big companies can be creative; they can be innovative, daring, clever and even disruptive. Hearthstone shows this at work within Blizzard, and it’s also present in a select but distinguished line-up of other game companies that have made it a priority to nurture innovation and to create a culture where good taste and creative excellence are celebrated above all else. For many companies, this would be a radical shift – requiring a change in priorities, in structure and even in staffing – but in the long run, such a shift might end up a lot cheaper than having to pull out your wallet every couple of years to buy the next innovative start-up that came up with an idea your own firm couldn’t conceive of.

Courtesy-GI.biz

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