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Did EA Screw Up SW Battlefront II With Microtransactions

November 22, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

EA has suspended microtransactions in Star Wars Battlefront II following a furor over loot boxes, hours before the game’s launch earlier today.

Loot boxes have been increasingly controversial in recent months but the backlash towards Star Wars Battlefront II has eclipsed the debate.

While other developers and publishers have been embroiled in the controversy, EA has taken the brunt due to the imbalance potentially caused by randomized loot in a competitive multiplayer shooter.

“We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases,” said DICE general manager Oskar Gabrielson in a statement. “We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing, and tuning.”

The option to purchase in-game currency will be taken offline until a later date while the team make changes to the game. Until then, all progress will be earned through gameplay.

“Our goal has always been to create the best possible game for all of you – devoted Star Wars fans and game players alike,” added Gabrielson.

launch, it’s clear that many of you feel there are still challenges in the design. We’ve heard the concerns about potentially giving players unfair advantages. And we’ve heard that this is overshadowing an otherwise great game. This was never our intention. Sorry we didn’t get this right.”

Just yesterday DICE took to Reddit for an Ask Me Anything session which was met with derision from the community due to the the developer’s vague, non-committal answers.

The news comes just days after it was announced that the Belgian and Dutch gambling authorities are investigating whether loot boxes in Battlefront II and Overwatch constitute gambling.

 

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

 

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

Are Rising Game Development Cost Hurting Some Studios

October 18, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Making games is expensive. Let me rephrase that: making games is really, really expensive.

Obviously, that’s no secret, but the numbers involved are even surprising to those of us who follow the industry every day. Last month, Kotaku reported many studios budget around $10,000 per person per month to cover salaries plus overhead. Considering that many of the more polished games on the market can take years to create, budgets can spiral out of control very easily and this has a impact on the entire ecosystem.

Moreover, that $10,000 figure is actually lower than many studios spend, industry veterans Brian Fargo (inXile Entertainment) and Jeff Pobst (Hidden Path Entertainment) tell me.

“I used $10,000 per man-month [for budgets] when I was a producer for Sierra online in 2000,” Pobst notes.

Fargo concurs: “I would say [$10,000 is] on the low side. I think Tim Schafer pointed out a couple of years ago that this is why these things cost so much to make. There’s a big difference between small developers cutting their teeth that have no overhead versus a team of people who’ve been in the business for two decades. They have families and expect medical insurance, and so it’s not going to be something that costs less than $10,000 on average for my people.

“That’s on the low end by maybe 20% or 30%. I don’t think we’re seeing double that, but certainly it’s the trajectory we’re all going towards. I think that’s a fair number. It’s always been a funny disparity. We talk about making a game with a budget of, say, $10 million and the smaller developers tend to look at it and go, ‘How do they waste so much money?’ And then the triple-A guys say, ‘How do they do it for so cheap?’

“That seems to be the perpetual argument on these budgets when you want to do something that is ambitious, and that’s ultimately what we get rewarded for. Any title that comes out that is ambitious in some way is more likely to be rewarded than one that isn’t.”

Ambition is a wonderful thing, and most developers have ambitious visions for their games, but then they meet the reality of what ambition costs. The double-A space is now having to invest more than is reasonable for small or mid-sized studios.

“The industry continues to get more binary between the haves and have nots,” Fargo continues. “When I see something like salaries going to as high as $20,000 per man-month in San Francisco, that really only affects the smaller to mid-size companies. The big companies – take Blizzard, for example – they can drop $70 million on a project, kill it and then start all over again. Rockstar can spend five years on a game.

“The extra salaries really don’t affect them, in my opinion, as much as it does the smaller to the mid-size companies. So yeah, it definitely puts pressure on us.

“Also, what I’m seeing recently is that there was the single-A and double-A indie space that was sort of ripe for opportunity for a while – us included, and we’ve been doing well – but that’s getting more competitive. And the budgets of the double-A products are starting to approach triple-A budgets of 10 years ago.”

Citing Ninja Theory’s Hellblade and Larian’s Divinity: Original Sin 2 as recent examples, Fargo laments that expectations for games coming out of the double-A space are rising too rapidly.

“All of a sudden double-A developers are spending in excess of $10 million,” he says. “And it’s only a matter of time before this rises to $20 million. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some at those values already. So now what you’ve got is the triple-A people who are unaffected by the salaries and they’re going to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars between production and marketing, and then you’ve got the double-A companies now starting to spend significant money. What that’s going to do is to create an expectation from a user’s perspective of what the visuals should look like.

“It creates a harder dynamic for even the smaller companies, because some product is at $39 or $44.95 that doesn’t have a multi-million dollar marketing budget. It’s still going to have production values that are incredible, and so what will people expect out of a smaller developer? That’s the cascading effect of all these different things, and of course you layer on top of that the discoverability issue we’ve all got with an un-curated platform and it makes it very tricky.”

While the major publishers like Activision or EA still manage to reap massive profits, other studios are certainly not getting wealthy by making games. California, where so much of the industry is based, makes the cost equation even more difficult.

“Consumers don’t fully understand how truly expensive it is to put out a AAA game now,” says Turtle Rock GM Steve Goldstein. “If you start looking at what it costs for someone to be employed in southern California, working in the knowledge industry, it’s a lot. And the most frustrating thing actually, and it’s something I complain about at the studio all the time, is that we got people here that are working their butts off, who do well, but still can’t afford to buy a house in southern California. It’s ridiculous. The cost of doing business in tech is so high, especially in California, [that] unless you are the biggest of the biggest, there’s a real risk of being able to continue in this medium.

“For us to make a new IP that’s AAA and that’s a boxed product just doesn’t make sense. Because the publisher’s going to have to spend $50 to $100 million, which, as your math just points out, isn’t making anybody rich over in development. They’re going to make that investment… They’ll release [that IP] during the holiday season so they can get that additional sales push, but it’s going to be coming out amidst a ton of other titles and established franchises, so you have to try to get above the noise level just to get the IP known – it just doesn’t pencil out.”

When you combine the continued escalation of costs with the challenge of getting above the noise upon release, it can feel like a Sisyphean task for a small or mid-sized games studio.

Fargo offers, “It feels like the budgets for the double-A products have doubled to tripled just in the last five years. Back in 2012 when Broken Age and Pillars [of Eternity] came out, I know what our budgets were then [for Wasteland 2] and I know what the budgets are going to now. I have a sense of what Larian and Obsidian are spending, and I know these numbers have gone up significantly.

“Curation has always been a hot topic. One might argue there’s a greater risk of a game being lost in a sea of products, than that of a great game not making it through the quality bar to be in the store. The stats of more and more and more games hitting Steam have not been favorable for any of us… You’ve got kind of a one, two, three-punch against the smaller publishers/developers.”

The shift to digital storefronts and the rise in the sheer number of titles flooding those digital shelves is not ideal, Pobst agrees, and it’s making life hard for the really small indies out there.

“For a period of time… we could sell games that were not $60 top price games, and we could make good money… and we could get the opportunity to make more games,” he says. “That opportunity is being challenged because there is such a large number of games at low prices in the marketplace. That takes the market, which gives lots of people choice and is really good for gamers in the one sense, and it splits the amount of money against a large number of people.

“I know a large number of individual indies who are closing up shop because they aren’t now even making enough money to pay for their own well-being. And that used to be a pretty sure thing. If you had a three-person shop or a four-person shop, you could sell enough to actually make a living. Now that’s becoming challenging with so many games available for purchase.”

One way to alleviate the sting of rising costs has been to use crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, and while that has been a boon for the mid-size studios like Double Fine or inXile, in some ways the crowdfunding phenomenon has been a double-edged sword when it comes to setting expectations on budgets, says Pobst.

“If there’s a financial pressure, it’s really hard for people to get together and actually make great entertainment. So this is hard; this is really hard. And the only reason I think that there is a surprise is in part because of the Kickstarter phenomenon, where people were looking to raise the last $500,000 of a $2 million game, and people thought the game was made for $500,000… Games are really expensive to make, especially the kind that the consumer really desires.

“What we saw with the crowdfunding experience, that we went through ourselves as well as many others, is that the average experience where you get a certain amount of money or you just make your minimum, becomes an expectation of what it takes to actually create product, and that’s pretty much not true. You’re typically investing some of your own money or another investor’s money into the product and, often, people are using crowdfunding to complement that so that they can have enough to make the whole thing.”

The $10,000 man-month figure, while scary, is not necessarily universally applicable. Location of your studio and cost of living certainly is a factor in how much employees get paid, and smaller indies aren’t going to have the same overhead as double-A teams filled with veterans. Beyond that, there are different approaches to what kind of team to build.

Pobst explains: “If you visit a development studio there are going to be several different models. The model we [use] at Hidden Path, and I’ve heard places like Crystal Dynamics, is to try and favor a smaller staff with more highly compensated people… The philosophy is that, if you have people who know each other really well and work together really well, their output is going to exceed what the other model [yields].

“The other model is a few highly experienced people that you compensate very highly because they’re your leadership, and then [you hire] a larger number of younger and more inexpensive people. You tend to have more of those people to do the same amount of work, and there’s a lot more management overhead. That can work, and there are many companies that use that model. In fact, if you start looking at successful titles, you’re going to find examples of both. There is no one right model.”

While the cost per head may not compare perfectly on a project-to-project or company-to-company basis, the budgets for games continue to go up no matter what. What can the mid-size studios do to compensate for this worrying fact?

“It depends on the genre you’re in, but the scope and scale of the thing is what you really need to keep an eye on,” Fargo advises. “The visual and audio expectations are rising as the budgets for the double-A games has risen… I would tell developers to keep a really close eye on the scope of the product; better to have something that’s very small and tight and polished than something that’s overly large… and hits a lot of different things but don’t quite visually hold up to the others.”

The other issue to contend with is how games are transforming to games-as-a-service, which could be a positive in terms of generating more revenue or a negative because of the need to support staff year-round.

“As I look out towards the future, we are most definitely looking to incorporate aspects of that business model,” Fargo notes. “The plus sides of it, of course, is that there’s no piracy, and you’re able to do better business in some territories where piracy is extremely high. But also it allows you to build a community and have a live-ops team and do [fewer] products, but keep people on it everyday and make it better – doing tournaments and all of those things… It’s a very compelling thing to have [but] it does put pressure on a single-player experience game.”

Turtle Rock’s Goldstein sees the games-as-a-service model going one step further, effectively becoming Netflix-like subscriptions to access content; something big publishers like Ubisoft and EA have predicted is on the horizon. Subscription revenue could be a way to help mitigate rising costs.

“I can absolutely see something like that happening down the line,” he says. “Netflix is now playing with budgets that are approaching blockbuster films, so I could see those numbers working for each of the publishers, where they have their users paying a subscription and they release a certain number of really high-end titles as well as a bunch of indie titles… I could see that in five years.”

Rising costs have been putting the squeeze on mid-sized studios, but that’s not to say triple-A developers and publishers are immune. As Pobst points out, “There used to be a lot more publishers than there are now.” As the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and smaller companies have a chance to succeed by being more nimble.

“Adapting is part of the game industry,” Pobst continues. “You try and find the areas to adapt to that match your skill set. If you’re a great narrative designer and your team makes great narrative games, you probably don’t go into mobile and focus on free-to-play monetization. It’s not really playing to your strengths.”

Being nimble allows a studio to try new things. VR is the perfect example of that. Both Hidden Path and Turtle Rock are taking a chance on the emerging medium in the hope that it does become a growth market, and their respective experience should set them up well for the future if VR truly goes mainstream.

And if a studio manages to create a hit, suddenly you have a built-in audience that’s more likely to purchase your next title, based on studio reputation alone.

“You’ve got to give Bungie credit for creating Halo after several other games before that, and then creating Destiny after Halo – that’s a big challenge to do,” Pobst says. “And then the folks as Blizzard, they’ve created multiple different hits, which is fairly rare in our industry. If you can build trust with an audience and they can really buy into the anticipation of whatever you’re going to do, your ability to spend more to get it right is there.

“Once you do cross over that threshold, Bungie or Blizzard, their budgets are going to be much, much larger than anything you or I have talked about. Their per head rate or the amount of money they’ll put into a game is much, much higher for two reasons: one, they know that if they deliver something quality, people will buy it because of the reputation they have. And two, by spending more money, they are putting a greater distance between them and the next competitor. And that greater distance will pay off in the long run.”

If a studio does manage to cross that threshold, a huge advantage is unlocked. Suddenly, you’re not worried as much about the money to achieve your creative vision, Pobst says.

“If I’m really focused on the dollars…then I’m not actually focused on the best entertainment I can possibly create. If you know that the audience is going to come in a disproportionate way to what you spend, spending stops becoming the problem. A lot of these [bigger] studios are really focused on: ‘How do I execute the best? How do I have my team work well? How do I know exactly which features to invest in and which features not to invest in?’ You get to a whole set of problems that are far beyond the money problems.”

Some have made comparisons to Hollywood and the drastic divide between indie film labels and behemoth studios like Universal, but for all the talk of haves and have nots, Fargo concedes that game creators have a chance at success for lower investments – for now, at least.

“You look at PUBG, that would be considered a smaller Hollywood film and it sells 15 million copies, but that’s more profitable than most of the Hollywood blockbusters,” he says. “I don’t know that there’s a parallel in the film business where people on a semi-regular basis are spending under $10 million on a movie yet it’s producing blockbuster Hollywood profits. The games business does continue to do that – Rocket League, for example.

“There’s enough cases where these smaller titles have just nailed it, but the effect of that is their next ones are going to see a huge difference in budget.”

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

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

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