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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

Blizzard Get Tougher on Bad Gamers

September 7, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy-GI.biz

PlayUnknown’s Battleground Headed The Top

September 6, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

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

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

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

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

Courtesy-GI.biz

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

Is Digital Gaming Facing Global Growth

August 22, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Analyst at Research and Markets’ have just released a report claiming that digital gaming will see double digit growth in the next few years.

According to the “Global Digital Gaming Market 2017” report the global gaming market sales are forecasted to grow by a significant one-digit percentage point in 2017. However, digital games, referring to online, mobile, digital console and computer games, are expected to maintain double-digit growth in the same time frame, championed by mobile gaming. Due to this continuing trend, digital could account for over three-quarters of global gaming revenues by 2021.

Within in the field of mobile in 2017, smartphone gaming significantly trumps gaming via tablet. Gamers from China, the USA, Brazil, the UAE and more all favor smartphone over other gaming devices. In 2016, the popularity of augmented reality games furthered mobile gaming and app sales. In addition, virtual reality (VR) games are also gaining traction after the introduction of VR headsets within the mass market. For instance, one-third of frequent gamers from the USA relayed the intent to purchase these gaming accessories this year.

The market of console and computers games has shown a shift to digital game purchasing as well as microtransactions. Last year, almost one-quarter of computer and console gaming purchases in Germany were digital. Only a single-digit share of total game sales stemmed from boxed games in China, the largest gaming market in the world.

Physical game purchases are not dead yet. This year, over half of console gamers in Brazil stated in a survey that they purchase video games from retail stores as opposed to digitally.

Courtesy-Fud

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

Was The PS3 An Easy Tool For Developers

August 7, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there’s a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what’s next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field’s history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Was PS3 hard to develop for?

The biggest news from 10 years ago this month happened right up front with the delay of Grand Theft Auto IV from its October release window (that had just been announced at E3 the prior month) and would now arrive sometime in the February-to-April stretch of 2008. That was huge at the time, but delays happen, and it’s not the sort of thing we usually lead this column off with. In fact, the reason we’re going over it here is the possible reason for the delay.

The day after GTA IV’s delay was announced, long-time industry analyst Michael Pachter put the blame on the PlayStation 3, saying, “We think it is likely that the Rockstar team had difficulty in building an exceptionally complicated game for the PS3, and failed to recognise how far away from completion the game truly was until recently.” Combined with a contractual obligation to not launch the game early on one platform or the other, that meant pushing back all versions until the next year.

Granted, the deductions of an analyst aren’t confirmation, and Pachter doesn’t have a flawless track record when it comes to bold speculation. (Here’s one from later that same month that he might like back.)

That said, this was far from the only suggestion that developers were having difficulty with the PS3. Sony had already been chastising third-parties for not taking full advantage of the hardware, and it didn’t help having massive publishing partners like Electronic Arts publicly explaining why the PS3 version of Madden NFL was noticeably inferior. It’s particularly damning considering the company didn’t even attempt to refute the game’s inferiority in any way.

“In the case of the next-generation consoles, many publishers have been developing titles for the Xbox 360 for over three and a half years while everyone who publishes now for the PlayStation 3 with the exception of Sony has been developing for the PlayStation 3 for only a little over one full year,” the company said.

At least Ubisoft was a little more diplomatic, with Yann Le Tensorer, co-founder of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfare studio Tiwak calling the idea nonsense, and then basically repeating what EA had said.

“It’s not harder to develop on the PS3 than it is on the 360; it’s just a different console. Developers might say it’s harder because it just takes time to understand the technology. We’re still early in the lifecycle.”

By the time October rolled around and Midway delayed PS3 releases for BlackSite: Area 51, Stranglehold, and Unreal Tournament 3, the PS3’s reputation was essentially set in stone. And while Sony was able to overcome the PS3’s rough start and turn it into a very successful system over the long haul, the “hard to develop for” tag persisted for years.

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

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