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Are Japanese Gamer’s Disappearing?

July 15, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

There’s a popular narrative about Japan’s game development industry: it’s an industry in trouble, lagging behind the West and running out of ideas. If any Japanese developer wants to get themselves splashed into the headlines, all they need do is trot out a soundbite disparaging their own industry; in a world of click bait headlines, the fall of Japanese development is a sure-fire winner. The apparent decline of Japan’s game developers is linked to a secondary narrative as well, namely the decline of Japan’s internal market for videogames. Once the undisputed gaming capital of the world, Japan seems to be falling out of love with the pastime – at least on consoles, and at least according to some rather unusual readings of the data.

There’s a nugget of truth to both of these stories; just enough to make them worth considering, yet certainly not enough to prevent the majority of reporting and discussion on them from being a torrent of absolute nonsense. Japanese game development is somewhat troubled, but it’s troubled by exactly the same factors that are giving sleepless nights to Western game developers – skyrocketing AAA budgets, new business models, a diversification of platforms and the globalisation of the audience. Japanese development studios remain perfectly capable of making superb games that delight their fans; their problem, just as everywhere else, is figuring out how to make money from those games in a new world where profitability escapes everything but the million-selling megahit.

That links back to the second narrative; Japan is falling out of love with games. On the surface, it’s hard to see this alleged decline. The country’s arcades may not be what they once were, but they’re still far more numerous and spacious, not to mention well-attended, than any such establishments in the west. Dedicated videogame stores remain a fixture of shopping districts, while every large electronics store (and there are plenty of those, dominating most city centre areas) has a large videogames section – a stark contrast with, for example, central London, where actually going out and buying a videogame in a shop is an increasingly difficult task. Food courts and fast-food joints still play host to groups of children and teenagers engaged in the likes of Pokemon and Monster Hunter, and a trip outside in an urban area with a 3DS in your pocket will bag a full complement of Street Pass hits in no time flat.

Where’s the decline, then? Well, as figures released earlier this week by Japanese magazine publisher and industry data agency Enterbrain confirm, it’s not actually a decline so much as a stagnation. Enterbrain’s report, widely reported online after being translated in part by Kantan Games’ boss Serkan Toto on the company’s blog, showed that combined hardware and software sales in the first half of 2014 were almost exactly the same as the first half of 2013 – showing growth of just 0.1%. Toto’s entirely reasonable point was that this is much, much lower growth than Japan’s booming smartphone game market, yet this seems to have been picked up by many outlets as further confirmation of a Japanese gaming decline and specifically of a failure to ignite interest in the PS4.

Let’s be clear – the Japanese smartphone game market is in extraordinarily rude health. Revenues from mobile games, by some measures, surpassed packaged game revenue about three years ago and haven’t looked back since. For every person you see playing a 3DS or a Vita (the latter, I note, becoming vastly more commonplace on trains in recent months), you see dozens engrossed in mobile games. Puzzle & Dragons remains the clear favourite, but a trip on a busy Tokyo commuter line will turn up any number of different games gracing the ubiquitous smartphones. The industry’s revenues are clear to see, too; the vast majority of expensive marketing campaigns for games here are for mobile games, not console titles. Only last week I walked onto a train carriage on the phenomenally busy Yamanote loop line in central Tokyo to find that every advertising space in the carriage was full of Clash of Clans marketing; the huge billboard near my apartment, meanwhile, alternates fortnightly between ads for hopeful Puzzle & Dragons clones and ads for new singles by terrible boybands. There’s a huge amount of cash flowing through mobile games in Japan right now, and from a business perspective, that makes it a more interesting (if vastly more challenging) space than the console market.

Yet that doesn’t change the slowdown of Japan’s console market into a “decline” or a “crisis”. We all know that Japan has been ahead of the curve in terms of the adoption of videogames since the 1980s. 30 years down the line, is it surprising that it has hit a plateau? Gaming as a whole – including mobile, browser and online gaming – continues to grow at a massive rate, but in Japan at least, the console space has reached a point where there simply isn’t much new market to conquer. That may change in future as new devices open up new audiences, but console games as they stand don’t seem to have much further to go in Japan. That doesn’t make them a bad business. It means that if you want to make huge bucks and impress shareholders with your growth figures, you probably want to place your investments elsewhere – but if you want to make great games and make money selling them, a mature, stable market is no worse a place to do that than a growing one.

Moreover, when you consider the underlying factors in Japan’s economy, maintaining a steady market size is actually quite impressive. Japan’s population peaked in 2008 and has slowly declined since then; the most rapid decline being the proportion of young people (the most avid consumers of videogames). So this is a market with less “core” consumers of videogames than before; moreover, a series of ill-targeted reforms and a few decades of economic slump have meant that a very large proportion of those young people are trapped in low-paying work with no job security. Furthermore, Japan’s prices have been in slow but steady decline since the early 1990s. Yes, unlike most western economies, Japanese prices aren’t slowly rising due to inflation – rather, they’re falling due to deflation. This has supposedly been reversed in the past 12 months or so, with tiny inflation figures finally showing up, but most of the change so far has been down to a sharp rise in energy costs (a consequence of expensive imported fuels replacing Japan’s still-offline nuclear power plants) and it generally hasn’t been reflected in consumer goods.

One other economic factor has been mentioned by a handful of writers this week. They pointed out that Japan’s consumption tax went up from 5 per cent to 8 per cent in April, in the middle of this reporting period; if that 3 per cent hike were included in Enterbrain’s figures, it would mean industry revenues actually fell. However, to my knowledge Enterbrain’s numbers are based on pre-tax figures, much as US market data is, and thus the consumption tax rise isn’t a factor – except in that it would have been expected to push videogame sales down, thus making the rise slightly more impressive.

In short – Japan has less consumers for games and it’s charging less for things than it used to. Under those circumstances, a market which was performing precisely as well this year as it did last year would be expected to show a modest decline. Just staying still would mean you’d actually grown by a few percent in relative to offset the underlying audience decline and price deflation. Growing by 0.1% in Japan is comparable to growing by a couple of percent in the USA or much of Europe, where population is still generally growing and prices are being inflated, not deflated.

These factors don’t combine to mean that Japan is magically showing strong growth in defiance of the figures, but they are important to understanding what the figures mean. Japan’s “decline” is more like stagnation, and in the past year, even that stagnation has showed a positive trend. The market for consoles and games remains big and pretty healthy even as the market for smartphone games shoots through the roof; both of them clearly have an important place in the future of the country’s games industry.

As for the supposedly “disappointing” impact of the PlayStation 4? There’s no doubt that the performance of the console has slowed down significantly since a very strong launch, but it’s worth noting that sales of hardware were actually up nearly 7% year-on-year, with the PS4 and the resurgent Vita picking up slack from slower sales of the 3DS. PS4′s software line-up in Japan is still largely composed of western titles with limited appeal to the local audience, and the console probably won’t pick up significantly until more local software is available later this year – it’s notable that the PS Vita’s success in the first half of 2014 is largely attributable to the sudden arrival of software titles that match local tastes, and not (as some commentators would have it) to an upsurge of interest in PS4 Remote Play functionality. Overall, PS4 in Japan continues to perform as you’d expect for a new console with limited software – a great launch, followed by slow but steady sales while it awaits new software to spark purchases from new audiences. It’s done well, but it hasn’t “rescued” the Japanese market; but then again, if you take the time to understand the figures, it should be pretty clear that the Japanese market doesn’t actually need rescuing.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will EA Mimic Mobile Developers?

July 9, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Late last year, Frank Gibeau switched roles at Electronic Arts, moving from president of the PC and console-focused EA Labels to be the executive vice president of EA Mobile. Speaking with GamesIndustry International at E3 last month, Gibeau said he was enticed by the vast opportunity for growth in the mobile world, and the chance to shape the publisher’s efforts in the space.

“One of the things I enjoy doing is building new groups, new teams and taking on cool missions,” Gibeau said. “The idea was that EA is known as a console company, and for our PC business. We’re not particularly well known for our mobile efforts, and I thought it would be an awesome challenge to go in and marshal all the talent and assets of EA and, frankly, build a mobile game company.”

It might sound a little odd to hear Gibeau speaking of building a mobile game company at EA. After all, he described EA as “the king of the premium business model” in the mobile world not too long ago, when the company was topping charts with $7 apps like The Sims 3 or raking it in with paid offerings like Tetris, Monopoly, or Scrabble.

“Two years ago, we were number one on feature phones with the premium business model,” Gibeau said. “Smart devices come in, freemium comes in, and we’re rebuilding our business. I think we’ve successfully gotten back into position and we see a lot of opportunity to grow the business going forward, but if you had talked to me about two years ago and tried to speculate there would be a company called Supercell with that much share and that many games, we wouldn’t even have come close.”

Gibeau expects that pace of upheaval to continue in the mobile market, but some things seem set in stone. For example, Gibeau is so convinced that the days of premium apps are done, he has EA Mobile working exclusively on freemium these days.

“If you look at how Asia operates, premium just doesn’t exist as a business model for interactive games, whether it’s on PC or mobile devices. If you look at the opportunity set, if you’re thinking globally, you want to go freemium so you can capture the widest possible audience in Japan, Korea, China, and so on… With premium games, you just don’t get the downloads you do with a free game. It’s better to get as many people into your experience and trying it. If they connect with it, that’s great, then you can carry them for very long periods of time. With premium, given that there are so many free offerings out there, it’s very difficult to break through.”

Unfortunately for EA, its prior expertise is only so relevant in the new mobile marketplace. Its decades of work on PCs and consoles translated well to premium apps that didn’t require constant updating, but Gibeau said running live services is a very different task – one EA needs to get better at.

“Our challenge frankly is just mastering the freemium live service component of what’s happening in mobile,” Gibeau said. “That’s where we’re spending a lot of our time right now. We think we have the right IP. We have the right talent. We’ve got great production values. Our scores from users are pretty high. It’s really about being able to be as good as Supercell, King, Gungho, or some of these other companies at sustained live services for long periods of time. We have a couple games that are doing really well on that front, like The Simpsons, Sims Freeplay, and Real Racing, but in general I think that’s where we need to spend most of our time.”

As Gibeau mentioned, EA has already had some successes on that front, but its record isn’t exactly unblemished. The company launched a freemium reboot of Dungeon Keeper earlier this year and the game was heavily criticized for its aggressive monetization approach. In May, EA shuttered original developer Mythic.

“Dungeon Keeper suffered from a few things,” Gibeau said. “I don’t think we did a particularly good job marketing it or talking to fans about their expectations for what Dungeon Keeper was going to be or ultimately should be. Brands ultimately have a certain amount of permission that you can make changes to, and I think we might have innovated too much or tried some different things that people just weren’t ready for. Or, frankly, were not in tune with what the brand would have allowed us to do. We like the idea that you can bring back a brand at EA and express it in a new way. We’ve had some successes on that front, but in the case of Dungeon Keeper, that just didn’t connect with an audience for a variety of reasons.”

The Dungeon Keeper reboot wasn’t successful, but EA continues to keep the game up and running, having passed the live service responsibilities to another studio. It’s not because the company is hoping for a turnaround story so much as it’s just one more adaptation to running games with a live service model.

“If you watch some of the things we’ve been doing over the last eight or nine months, we’ve made a commitment to players,” Gibeau said. “We’re sincere and committed to that. So when you bring in a group of people to Dungeon Keeper and you serve them, create a live service, a relationship and a connection, you just can’t pull the rug out from under them. That’s just not fair. We can sustain the Dungeon Keeper business at its level for a very long time. We have a committed group of people who are playing the game and enjoying it. So our view is going to be that we’ll keep Dungeon Keeper going as long as there’s a committed and connected audience to that game. Are we going to sequel it? Probably not. [Laughs] But we don’t want to just shut stuff off and walk away. You can’t do that in a live service environment.”

Much like EA’s institutional experience, there’s only so much of Gibeau’s past in the console and PC core gaming world that is directly relevant to today’s mobile space. But as the segment grows out of what he calls the “two guys in a garage” stage, EA’s organizational expertise will be increasingly beneficial.

“These teams are starting to become fairly sizeable,” Gibeau said, “and the teams and investment going into these games is starting to become much greater. Now they’re much, much less than you see on the console side, but there’s a certain rigor and discipline in approach from a technology and talent standpoint that’s very applicable… If you look at these devices, they will refresh their hardware and their computing power multiple times before you see a PlayStation 5. And as you see that hardware get increasing power and capability on GPU and CPU levels, our technology that we set up for gen 4 will be very applicable there. We’re going to be building technologies like Frostbite that operate on mobile devices so we can create richer, more immersive experiences on mobile.”

Even if mobile blockbusters like Candy Crush Saga aren’t exactly pushing the hardware, Gibeau said there’s still a need for all that extra horsepower. With the increased capabilities of multitasking on phones, he sees plenty of room for improvement before the industry runs up against diminishing returns on the CPU and GPU front. He likens today’s mobile titles to late-generation PS2 games, with PS3 and Xbox 360-level games just around the corner.

“As it relates to games, this is like black and white movies with no sound at this point, in terms of the type of games we’ve created,” Gibeau said. “We’re just starting to break through on the really big ideas is my personal view. If you look at games like Clash of Clans, Real Racing, even Candy Crush, they’re breaking through in new ways and spawning all types of new products that are opening up creativity and opportunities here. So I think computing power is just something we’ll continue to leverage.”

The best part for Gibeau is that the hard work of convincing people to buy these more powerful devices isn’t falling solely on the shoulders of game developers.

“The beauty of it is it’s not a single-use device,” Gibeau said, “so people will be upgrading them for a better camera, better video capability, different form factor, different user inputs, as a wearable… I think there’s so much pressure from an innovation standpoint between Samsung, Apple, Google, and Windows coming in, that they’ll continue to one up each other and there will be a very vibrant refresh cycle for a very long period of time. The screens get better, the computing power gets better, and I don’t have to worry about just games doing it like we were in the console business. Those were pretty much just games consoles; these are multi-use devices. And the beauty of it is there will be lots of different types of applications coming in and pushing that upgrade path.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Blackphone Begins Shipping To Early Adopters

July 2, 2014 by mphillips  
Filed under Mobile

The wait is nearly over for early adopters of Blackphone, an Android-based smartphone that boasts of enhanced privacy and security.

Geneva-based SGP Technologies, the phone’s manufacturer, announced that the Blackphone handsets began shipping Monday to customers who pre-ordered them.

SGP is a joint venture between Silent Circle, a provider of encrypted communications services based in National Harbor, Maryland, and Geeksphone, a smartphone manufacturer based in Madrid. The two companies announced Blackphone, a phone that runs a customized version of Android called PrivatOS and bundles Silent Circle’s secure messaging and calling services, at Mobile World Congress in February.

The device also comes preloaded with several privacy-focused apps and services that provide anonymous Web search, private browsing and secure storage. Those apps include Kismet Smarter WiFi Manager, which prevents connection history and other information leaks to wireless hotspots, Disconnect Secure Wireless for virtual private networking and SpiderOak for encrypted cloud storage.

The phone also has a built-in remote wipe feature, uses Disconnect Search to hide the user’s IP address, browser cookies and other personal information from search engines and comes with a Security Center feature that allows users to control app permissions in detail.

The Blackphone costs $629 and comes with two-year subscriptions to the bundled Silent Circle, SpiderOak and Disconnect secure communications and storage services.

The phone has a 4.7-in. IPS HD screen, is powered by a 2Ghz NVIDIA Tegra 4i quad-core system-on-a-chip coupled with 1GB LPDDR3 RAM and has 16GB of on-board storage space, extensible via a microSD card slot.

According to its creators, the Blackphone was designed to prevent bulk data collection and snooping by cybercriminals and intelligence agencies, but it cannot protect against targeted surveillance that involves the use of more sophisticated methods and exploits.

At the moment the device can’t be bought through its official website because the initial inventory sold out, but SGP Technologies plans to begin accepting new orders on July 14.

 

 

 

Do Game Developers Want A Union?

June 27, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Support for a union among game developers has grown, according to survey results released today by the International Game Developers Association. The group today announced the result of its Developers Satisfaction Survey from earlier this year, which found that more than half of respondents were in favor of unionization.

Of the more than 2,200 developers surveyed, 56 percent said yes when asked if they would vote to form a national union of game developers in their own countries today. That’s up from the group’s 2009 Quality of Life Survey, where just 35 percent of more than 3,300 developers said they would vote in favor of unionizing at that time.

As for whether the IGDA was considering a move in that direction, the group’s executive director Kate Edwards dismissed the notion.

“For the IGDA, we will always be a professional association,” Edwards told GamesIndustry International. “That’s what we exist for, and what we’ll always be. But if we are seeing that developers feel unionization is what they perceive to be a solution, then that’s something we’re going to pay attention to and see where it goes for them.”

“When we asked people how many jobs they’d had in the last five years and the average number was four, that was pretty eye-opening for us.”

IGDA head Kate Edwards

The survey also yielded new findings on gender diversity. While the group determined that men still “dominate” the industry, it isn’t to the same degree as before. The IGDA found 22 percent of respondents identified as female, up from 11.5 percent in 2009. Additionally, the 2009 survey only included “male” and “female” designations; this year’s poll found 2 percent of respondents identifying as male-to-female transgender, male-to female transgender or “other.”

Edwards also found responses on the lack of job security in the industry notable, if not exactly surprising.

“When we asked people how many jobs they’d had in the last five years and the average number was four, that was pretty eye-opening for us,” Edwards said. “But I do think it basically confirms what a lot of us have sort of known and have been hearing anecdotally for a while now.”

The Developers Satisfaction Survey also polled people on their salary, and found that nearly half of developers earn less than $50,000 annually. That stands in stark contrast to the Gamasutra annual Game Developer Salary Survey, which found that last year the average developer made more than $84,000, with QA being the only discipline with a sub-$50,000 average salary (and even that was a little shy of $49,000). Edwards chalked the difference up to a high percentage of the IGDA survey respondents who identified themselves as independent developers, saying they were likely working in freelance or start-up capacities.

A little less than two-thirds of respondents (61 percent) said they planned to work in games indefinitely. Of those who saw themselves leaving at some point, the most frequently given reason (39 percent) was a desire for a better quality of life.

The IGDA will release a summary report of the survey next month, followed up by reports focusing on specific topics within the survey, like diversity, quality of life, and employment practices. The group has said it will use the findings to help identify what its members care about and prioritize its initiatives and advocacy efforts around those subjects. To keep up with members’ needs as they change, the IGDA is planning the Developer Satisfaction Survey as an annual exercise.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Batman Arkham Knight Gets Pushed Back

June 6, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Those who have been eagerly waiting for October to experience the latest adventures of Batman from developer Rocksteady, are going to be very disappointed to learn that the game will not make its originally announced October release.

Instead developer Rocksteady has confirmed that the game will be released in 2015. An exact release date has not yet been decided upon. We are hearing however, that as spring release for Arkham Knight is very likely.

While the exact reasons behind the delay were not announced, but the game is much bigger than previous Batman titles that Rocksteady has done and it is the first all next-generation title that the developer has done which also might be contributing to the delay. The game is still scheduled for release only on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC so the next generation status of the game has not changed.

Courtesy-Fud

Is Sony’s Next Move To Kill The PSP?

June 6, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Word we are hearing is that Sony is planning to discontinue the PSP (or PlayStation Portable) and will end shipments later this year. If this ends up coming to pass, the handheld console which was a first for Sony, was launched way back in 2003 at E3, but it took some time for Sony’s first portable console to be available worldwide.

The PSP has gone through several revisions including the removal of the Universal Media Disc (UMD) and the release of a revised version known as the PSP Go which was a download only version that was a total failure and quickly killed off in 2011. A very popular revision of the console known as the slim and lite version known as the PSP-2000 sold quite well and it was followed by the PSP-3000 version which was tweaked and available in several special edition versions.

Since PSP games can be played on the PS Vita that came from the PlayStation Store, that also had to factor into the company’s decision as well. Word is that the decision to end the sales of the PSP does not and will not have any effect on the PlayStation Vita which will continue on as Sony’s portable gaming platform. Due to the included streaming gaming support that is included with the PlayStation 4 using the PS Vita, it is unlikely that Sony will be planning to discontinue the PS Vita anytime soon, but a lower cost hardware revision is likely in the cards at some point in the near future, sources tell us.

Total sales of the PSP in all of the console revisions is over 80 million consoles worldwide according to a number of sources.

Courtesy-Fud

Is Far Cry Playing With Fire?

May 23, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

In the Far Cry games, fire is a wonderful tool. It spreads dynamically, opening up a wealth of creative and strategic possibilities for players to achieve their goals. However, it also gets out of control in a hurry, potentially coming back to hurt the player in sometimes unpredictable ways.

It’s an appropriate metaphor for the series’ approach to controversial subject matter. Last week, Ubisoft announced the development of Far Cry 4, showing off some key art in the process. The picture depicts a blonde light-skinned man in a shiny pink suit against the backdrop of the Himalayas, smirking as he uses a defaced statue as a throne. His right hand rests on the head of a darker skinned man who is kneeling before him, clutching a grenade with the pin pulled. Though we know very little about the characters depicted, their backgrounds, or their motivations, the art got people talking (and tweeting). Some were concerned about racism. Others were worried about homophobia. Many saw neither. At the same time, details about the game are so scant that it’s entirely possible the problematic elements here are properly addressed within the context of the game itself.

But at the moment, we don’t have that context. It’s promotional art, so to a certain extent, it’s designed to exist out of context, to catch the eye of someone on a store shelf, even if they’ve never heard of the series before. And while we lack the context the actual game would provide, there’s no such thing as “without context.” Here, the context we have is that this is a Far Cry game, the latest entry in a series that has been earning a reputation for boldly storming into narrative territory where other games fear to tread (often with good reason).

Like the fire propagation mechanic, this narrative ambition was introduced to the series with Far Cry 2. What had previously been just another shooter (albeit one in a tropical setting more attractive than most) became a series that embedded its stories within thorny issues. Far Cry 2 cast players as a mercenary in a fictitious African country’s prolonged civil unrest, using blood diamonds, malaria, and Western imperialism as texture in a story emphasizing the moral vacuum of war. Far Cry 3 took things a step further, with players controlling a spoiled rich white kid on a tropical island vacation who suddenly must deal with nefariously swarthy pirates and intentionally stereotypical natives. And just in case that didn’t stir up any controversy, the story also weaves in rape, sex, drugs, and torture. In both cases, some critics and players felt the games offensively trivialized important or tragic subjects.

Given this history, it’s not surprising that Far Cry 4 would not universally receive the benefit of the doubt. Much more surprising (to me, at least) is that Ubisoft is continuing down this path with the franchise. Far Cry 3 sold a staggering 9 million units, putting it in the same class of blockbuster as Assassin’s Creed (last year’s version of which sold 11 million units). However, the publisher’s narrative approach to the two games could not be more different.

Assassin’s Creed is a fascinating case study for dealing with touchy subjects in AAA video games. It wasn’t long after the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq that work on the first Assassin’s Creed started. You know, the one set in the middle of a holy war between Christians and Muslims. Assassin’s Creed II had players attempt to assassinate the pope. Assassin’s Creed III put players in control of a Native American protagonist during the Revolutionary War. Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry saw the gamification of emancipation.

The Assassin’s Creed franchise draws some criticism from time to time for its handling of these subjects, but the series has rarely found itself at the flashpoint of controversy. Part of the reason for that is the Assassin’s Creed developers research their subjects thoroughly. They understand what the concerns surrounding the sensitive topics are, and by virtue of the games’ historical settings, they can point to factual evidence of certain people’s actions, or common situations of each era.

When it comes to dealing with controversy, Assassin’s Creed is much like its stealthy protagonists are imagined to be: quiet, cautious, and efficient. Far Cry, on the other hand, deals with these topics more like the way Assassin’s Creed protagonists behave when I play them: recklessly uncoordinated and endlessly destructive. Even when it’s clear Far Cry’s developers have put plenty of thought into what they’re saying, it’s not always clear they’ve put much thought into what people will hear them saying through their games.

It speaks volumes about how Ubisoft perceives the long-term value of the two series. Assassin’s Creed is the company’s biggest and most adaptable blockbuster, an annual gaming event based on a premise that can be mined and iterated on endlessly in almost any medium, a recurring revenue stream to be nurtured over time. Far Cry, this key art release suggests, is just another first-person shooter, a brand defined primarily by how hard it works to shock people, perhaps because the company doesn’t have faith that it can sell on its other merits. One of them is the kind of project you make a Michael Fassbender film around. The other might be more of an Uwe Boll joint.

I’m not saying that Far Cry should avoid these subjects. I actually love to see games of all sizes attempting to tackle topics and themes often ignored by the industry. But the right to explore those subjects should come with a responsibility to do so with care. These are legitimately painful subjects for many people. If developers want to force players to confront them, they should have a good reason for it that goes beyond pushing people’s buttons, exploiting tragedy for shock value and an early preorder campaign. In video games, we don’t push buttons for the sake of pushing buttons. We push them to do things.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Sony Still On Track?

May 21, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; while I hesitate to apply Dickens’ immortal words to something as fleetingly temporal as Sony’s financial woes, it’s a quote I couldn’t quite shake as I digested this week’s results statement. Here is a company that has just launched one of its most important products in years, the PlayStation 4, to almost universal fanfare and massive sales; whose reputation has risen remarkably in its core markets and whose overseas sales are, finally, being buoyed once more by a sensibly-priced Yen. The best of times! And yet; here is a company whose computer entertainment division can’t turn a profit, a company posting huge losses against all expectations, a company whose already-interminable restructuring is set to last another year. The worst of times.

Sony lost over $1.2 billion last year. Revenues were up, though; over $75 billion poured through the company during the year, a 14.3% increase on the previous year. That’s important context for the scale of the loss, but it doesn’t make the loss itself any smaller. Market analysts expected a small profit. Instead, they got not only a loss overall, but a loss in the videogames division specifically, whose seemingly stellar performance recently could not plug the $78 million gap in its finances.

To add to the company’s woes, its new CFO – the commendably straight-talking Yoshida Kenichiro – says that next year will be another loss. There’s more restructuring ahead, he told analysts at a briefing this week, and it’s going to hit the company’s balance sheet hard in the next 12 months. Yoshida simultaneously promises light at the end of the tunnel, and a rocky road ahead; a travel-related mixed metaphor that probably doesn’t fill any veteran Sony-watchers with confidence.

It’s worth digging a little deeper into Sony’s results to try and understand what’s actually happening here. For all that it has trimmed its operations over the past decade, Sony remains a pretty enormous sprawl of a company, with interests that extend far beyond the consumer electronics for which western consumers recognise the firm. Sony Music and Sony Pictures, of course, are major parts of the business; Sony Computer Entertainment we all know and love; cameras and TVs we understand; but how about Sony’s life insurance businesses, or its banking efforts? How about its semiconductor operations, or its sidelines in making camera components for other firms’ smartphones? How about its fabrication plants for CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, responsible for a huge proportion of the discs on sale around the world today?

The challenge in interpreting Sony results lies in trying to understand the full scale of those business interests and then in trying to figure out where negative results really stem from. We know, for instance, that Sony is taking on major costs in winding down disc fabrication plants in some parts of the world. We know that the television division has been in trouble for years thanks to competition (some of it state-backed) from Asian rivals, and will finally be spun off and left to sink or swim in a major swathe of restructuring this year. That won’t be without its own costs, of course. Other costs or profits may be harder to discern. Clients for component businesses are generally somewhat anonymous; it’s considered an open secret that Sony provides the camera for recent iPhones, but few component contracts are quite so well-known, and thus, their bottom line impact is harder to discern.

What I’m saying is that Sony (and to an even greater extent, its rival Microsoft) is a bloody hard business to read and understand on the basis of financial reports. Companies like Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard really just do videogames, so when their results are poor, it’s easy to discern what’s going on. We know their products, we know their markets and we can usually quite easily discern the weaknesses causing difficulties (although seeing the difficulty and suggesting an effective prescription are two very different talents). Sony, however, is big, complex and obfuscated to no small degree. We get broad outlines; a big loss is a big loss; but the fine detail is hard to get a grasp upon.

None of which is to say we shouldn’t try. Sony is one of the most important companies in the games business; with the success of the PS4 over the past six months, it’s arguably the most important company in the business right now. Hence, yes, it’s a concern that it’s making big losses. It’s doubly concerning that some of those losses are coming out of the seemingly successful computer entertainment division, but we can make some educated guesses at what’s happening here. Firstly, the extremely high sales of the PS4 in its early months are actually a short-term negative to the company’s figures. Sony’s console business is a razor-and-razorblades model, selling hardware at a loss initially but recouping this money through software sales and, ultimately, through more profitable hardware sales down the line when manufacturing costs have fallen. Thus, the more units PS4 sold in its launch period, the more money Sony would lose – but this lost money is really more of an investment, since the firm is betting on getting it back in software sales down the line.

High early sales also contribute to losses in other ways. Sony’s launch plans for PS4 were hugely ambitious in terms of the number of units shipped to each territory; the company did end up somewhat supply-constrained, but it aimed to avoid such constraints where possible with enormous shipments and rapid resupply of inventory. This strategy may have been partially aimed at capitalising on Microsoft’s launch weakness before strategic changes could be made to the Xbox One’s product or pricing, but I’m sure that a wider goal was also in mind. Rapid sales of a new home console would silence some critics expecting tablets and smartphones to destroy this market sector entirely; such rapid sales would require a good supply chain, and those don’t come cheap. The exceptional ramp-up of Sony’s PS4 manufacturing capabilities won’t have been cheap, an expense compounded by the loss the firm will have registered on manufacturing every PS4 shipped to date.

In the short term, that means a loss for SCE; but CFO Yoshida seemed pretty blase about that, and rightly so. In the medium term, it’s a good investment. Sony has a great track record of strong attach rates for its consoles, meaning it will get its money back with interest. Moreover, it has a truly fantastic track record of cost-cutting on console manufacture, even managing to get the tricky Cell-based PS3 into a vastly smaller and cheaper casing in the end. The faster the installed base grows, the faster the bulk discounts to manufacturing costs can be realised; with PS4 selling far faster than PS3 or Xbox 360 did before it, Sony can expect its new console to be in the black well ahead of schedule.

As for the rest of the company; I reiterate my position that Kaz Hirai’s job is not an enviable one. It was said of John Riccitiello’s tenure at EA that he faced the task of trying to explain to shareholders why his company was in the fifth year of a three-year restructuring that was going to take seven years. Hirai’s task is even more tricky, in some regards. He’s only been in the top job for two years, so if his ambitious restructuring can truly be completed by next year (as Yoshida claims, with some authority) then it will actually have been a rather fast turnaround. However, Sony is already restructure-weary; seven years of turmoil under former CEO Howard Stringer left the company and its commentators skeptical of any claims regarding light at the end of the restructuring tunnel. Stringer did many good things and helped to move Sony’s culture to a point where Hirai’s ideas could find fertile soil, but he also permitted (or felt that he could not fight) all manner of poor strategy in core divisions, most notably television, where Sony has stumbled from disastrous strategy to doubly disastrous strategy on a near-annual basis for the past decade.

Hirai, at least, appears to have the confidence and the clout to make his plans work where Stringer’s did not. Separating the almost certainly doomed TV business from the rest of Sony is a good plan, but one that required extraordinary political capital within the firm. Having the respected Yoshida as CFO is also a good move, since it’s given Hirai the cover he needs to bring all of the financial pain of his restructuring plans into the current year and the following year. The temptation would have been to spread things out, but the markets seem to respect Hirai and Yoshida’s honesty in front-loading the costs, anticipating a return to profitability in two years’ time.

That, perhaps, is the big difference between Sony and Nintendo – two companies that have been compared heavily in discussion over their recent financial results. Both have some very profitable divisions (3DS does well for Nintendo, while movies and finance, in particular, are solid performers for Sony), but both have just recorded financial results well below expectations and triggered alarm among market commentators. Nintendo, though, can only suggest vague directions it might take to exit its current situation; it will take a major new product announcement to see whether the company can get back on track, and that’s not likely for a couple of years. Until then, Nintendo’s financial health is largely a matter of faith.

Sony, on the other hand, has a plan. It’s a tough plan, but a solid one; the divestment of loss-making businesses, the refocus on core pillars that actually make money, and more specifically to our industry, the tried-and-tested approach to bringing the PS4 into profitability as rapidly as possible. A CFO like Yoshida can speak plainly about how Sony is going to change, what it’s going to cost and when it’s going to start making money; Nintendo, relying on products still under wraps to give it a relevant future, lacks the ability to be so blunt and straightforward about how it will build future success.

Even the rather tolerant Japanese stock market and its very patient institutional investors have limits, and Sony could yet reach those limits. The company’s restructuring to date would try the patience of even someone playing a very long game; but Yoshida is a credible figure, Hirai seemingly retains the ability to carry out the reforms he plans, and the company’s generally profitable divisions, including games, are still in good shape. Even if another year of pain does loom for Sony, the end might finally be in sight; in 12 months time we can hope to hear of a leaner, tighter and more focused Sony, with black ink finally starting to crop up on its accounts.

Courtesy-GI.biz

 

Mobile Broadband Providers May Share U.S. Military Spectrum

April 28, 2014 by mphillips  
Filed under Mobile

The U.S. military may have to share its radar frequencies with mobile broadband providers under a plan the Federal Communications Commission is developing under the  name Citizens Broadband Radio Service.

CBRS isn’t exactly a broadband version of Citizens Band radio — which still exists, at astonishingly low frequencies around 27MHz — but the FCC’s description of what it might be used for suggests a broad range of options. They include licensed carrier cells, fixed wireless broadband, advanced home networking and other uses, the agency said. It’s seeking public comment on the proposals.

The proposed rules could allow sharing a wide band of spectrum spanning 3550MHz to 3700MHz. Parts of that spectrum are home to high-powered military radar, especially within 200 miles of U.S. coastlines, which is also home to a majority of the country’s population. To prevent interference, the FCC calls for using a dynamic database to keep track of where and when the frequencies can be used. Network equipment can tap into such databases to find out whether a certain frequency is being used in a given area.

Though the concept of spectrum sharing with a database is similar to the so-called “white spaces” that are open to unlicensed use around TV channels, the CBRS band would be a bit different. It would have three classes of users. Federal and non-federal incumbent users would be first, protected from interference from the new services. Next would be “targeted priority access,” including licensees offering mobile broadband.

Finally, “general authorized access” users would be permitted “in a reserved amount of spectrum and on an opportunistic basis,” the agency said. That could include both consumer and business uses.

Mobile operators and some lawmakers have opposed spectrum sharing, saying exclusive, commercial spectrum licenses better serve consumers. But the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended in 2012 that the government find ways to share as much as 1.5GHz of spectrum. It identified the 3.5GHz band as the best target for early sharing.

The 3.5GHz band is higher than the frequencies typically used for mobile broadband, making it better suited to so-called small cells, miniature base stations designed to serve tightly packed urban users over short distances. Technology advances in small cells and in spectrum-sharing systems will help to make CBRS feasible, the FCC said.

 

Cloud-savvy Bluetooth 4.1 Devices Coming This Year

April 28, 2014 by mphillips  
Filed under Consumer Electronics

Bluetooth 4.1, on track to be available by the end of the year, will directly connect devices to cloud services.

Bluetooth is commonly used for wireless connectivity of mobile devices and PCs over short distances. The current 4.0 protocol has a practical range of about 30 meters, but the new 4.1 protocol will indirectly connect devices outside of that range through the cloud, meaning that home users can expand their networks of connected devices, including wearables. The protocol is meant to break the dependence of wearables on smartphones for apps and data transfers.

For instance, sportbands and fitness trackers are being packaged with tailored fitness programs via Web services. With Bluetooth 4.1, fitness trackers or gym equipment will be able to upload data directly to cloud services without the need for a smartphone or tablet as a hub.

It is technically possible for Bluetooth devices to send data to a cloud service today, but only through hub devices with a full OS and supporting drivers or special routers running a software stack. Bluetooth 4.1 will go into “dumb” equipment such as routers or set-top boxes, which can receive Bluetooth data and redirect it to cloud services via a basic software layer in the gateway equipment. The gateways don’t need a full OS the way smartphones and tablets do, with an app in the wearable device specifying the cloud service to receive the Bluetooth data.

“It’s not only connecting sensors to phones, tablets or hubs, but in essence talking to infrastructure in bigger ways,” said Suke Jawanda, chief marketing officer of the standards-setting Bluetooth Special Interest Group. “The scenarios become interesting for remote monitoring and management.”

Bluetooth devices located beyond the generic wireless range will also be able to communicate but may require cloud services. For instance, data captured from health monitors could be dispatched directly to a cloud service, which can send automatic alerts to doctors or relatives if the readings are a concern, Jawanda said. Devices could also be used to switch on lights, or unlock doors or cars from remote locations without the need for proximity detection.

Bluetooth 4.1 devices will also be able to serve as hubs. So, for instance, a cyclist could transfer speed and distance data from a bicycle directly to a smartwatch and other connected device.

The specification was finalized in December and has two parts. The low-power part was built on Bluetooth Smart for sensor and wearable devices, where a radio transmits small bursts of information wirelessly. Bluetooth 4.1 uses smarter timing and technique for low-power data bursts, which can improve the battery life of devices, Jawanda said. Bluetooth 4.1 works in conjunction with LTE to avoid interference on near-band transmissions. The other part of Bluetooth 4.1 covers continuous data transfers at faster rates, which are widely used for wireless audio streams and other applications.

 

 

Installment Plans Are A Hit With Mobile Phone Buyers, Subsidies Losing Steam

April 24, 2014 by mphillips  
Filed under Mobile

Installment plans for mobile phones are starting to out pace the time-honored practice of paying a subsidized price up front, according to AT&T.

Buying installments is catching on in a big way, according to AT&T’s first-quarter financial results Tuesday. About 2.9 million people signed up for the carrier’s Next plan, in which subscribers pay for a phone in monthly installments and can trade it in for a new model after a year. That was more than 40 percent of AT&T’s postpaid customer additions or upgrades for the quarter.

Paying in installments is an alternative to buying phones at a price subsidized by the carrier, the way most U.S. consumers have done it up to now.

AT&T introduced Next in July 2013 amid a flood of new plan options among U.S. carriers that was led by T-Mobile USA. Only 15 percent of AT&T’s new subscribers and upgraders signed up for Next in the fourth quarter last year, so the plan seems to be gaining momentum. However, some of the uptake in the first quarter came from an offer that let customers upgrade their phones early, the carrier said.

U.S. carriers sell most of their phones at subsidized prices to draw customers in and then lock those subscribers into two-year contracts. With installment plans, subscribers still have to pay off their phones if they change carriers before they’ve made all the payments, but the monthly cost of the phone — about US$15 to $50 on Next — is spelled out on each bill. After 20 payments, the handset’s paid for. AT&T says consumers like having a more “transparent” way to pay for their devices.

“Many customers have been choosing to move off the subsidy model,” Chief Financial Officer John Stephens said on a conference call Tuesday. AT&T thinks this trend will continue but it’s not ready to drop the subsidy model yet.

“I wouldn’t suggest it would be eliminated as long as there’s a significant number of customers who enjoy and prefer it,” Stephens said.

If you’re wondering where those trade-in phones go, Stephens said AT&T can sell them to customers of its prepaid plans, use them to fulfill insurance plans that cover phone replacement, or sell them on the wholesale market, as it began doing last year. The fact that AT&T uses the GSM family of network technologies, which is used around the world, helps it get good prices for the used phones, Stephens said.

AT&T’s Mobile Share plans also are growing more popular. About 45 percent of its postpaid subscribers are on the plans, which let customers pay for one monthly bucket of data and use it on multiple devices. A lot of shared-plan users are buying big buckets, too: 46 percent of them have plans with 10GB or more per month, the carrier said.

 

Vevo Sees Dramatic Growth, Monthly Viewership Up Nearly 50 Percent

April 24, 2014 by mphillips  
Filed under Around The Net

Vevo, the online music video hub that is a joint venture of two of the world’s biggest music labels, has enjoyed a nearly 50 percent spike in the number of music videos streamed each month from its platform, according to the company’s top executives.

The company, which is controlled by Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, hit a monthly average of nearly 6 billion views in December, a 46 percent rise from a year earlier, said Rio Caraeff, the chief executive officer.

About 65 percent of the videos are being watched on mobile phones, according to the company.

“On a global stage, it’s really all about mobile,” Caraeff said in Miami, where he was participating in the Billboard Latin Music Conference. “Mobile and tablet and television are where the majority of the views are happening.”

A growing number of people watch music videos from the platform on smartphones, tablets or web-connected TVs using Apple TV, Roku and XBox devices.

Google Inc is a minority stakeholder in New York-based Vevo, which was founded in 2009. Universal Music is a unit of Vivendi SA, and Sony Entertainment is part of Sony Corp.

The online music video service started out distributing videos to AOL and Google’s YouTube, creating revenue from a portion of the advertising revenue it generated.

Of the approximately 6 billion music videos streamed each month, 5 billion occur outside the United States, Caraeff said. The top countries include the UK and Germany. Vevo offers its own service in more than 13 countries and will soon roll out in Mexico.

The most watched video ever is teen pop star Justin Bieber’s “Baby” with over 1 billion streams, according to the company. Last year, Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason” topped Vevo’s list of the most viewed videos.

Caraeff said the company is holding conversations with potential investors as it seeks to expand. He declined to say who the company has spoken with. The Wall Street Journal has reported Vevo held talks with financial services firm Guggenheim Partners.

“We are continuing to speak to investors as we try to find the right partners to grow the business more rapidly than we’ve been able to do so far,” Caraeff said. “We’re still very active in that process.”

Last week, Vevo, which provides some of the most popular content on YouTube, expanded its content partnership with Yahoo in a deal that brings Vevo’s music videos and other programming to Yahoo’s video channel, Yahoo Screen, in the United States and Canada.

The partnership is expected to soon extend to Britain, Germany, Spain, France and Italy as well as the Yahoo Screen mobile app.

 

AT&T Plans To Expand High-speed Fiber Network To 21 New Cities

April 23, 2014 by mphillips  
Filed under Consumer Electronics

AT&T Inc said on Monday it has plans to expand its ultra-fast fiber network and TV services to up to 21 U.S. cities, including Chicago and Atlanta.

AT&T, which is competing against rivals such as Google Inc as well as cable companies with its fiber-based product, is considering providing broadband Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second and its U-verse television service in cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.

Before the company can enter these markets, it must make agreements with local leaders in each city.

The services are currently available in Austin, Texas and some surrounding communities, and will be rolled out in parts of Dallas this summer, the company said.

AT&T also said it may consider expanding its reach to 100 cities eventually.

Earlier this month, AT&T announced it was in discussions with North Carolina Next Generation Network to bring U-verse with high-speed internet to North Carolina.

U-verse launched in 2006 and currently has 10.7 million combined Internet and TV customers.

 

AT&T To Offer Smartwatches This Year

April 18, 2014 by mphillips  
Filed under Consumer Electronics

Smartwatches for use on AT&T’s network will be out this year, so says one of the company’s executives.

“I think you’ll see wide-area, high-bandwidth [smart]watches this year at some point,” said Glenn Lurie, president of emerging devices at AT&T, in an interview.

The company has a group working in Austin, Texas, on thousands of wearable-device prototypes, and is also looking at certifying third-party devices for use on its network, Lurie said.

“A majority of stuff you’re going to see today that’s truly wearable is going to be in a watch form factor to start,” Lurie said. If smartwatch use takes off — “and we believe it can,” Lurie said — then those devices could become hubs for wearable computing.

Right now smartwatches lack LTE capabilities, so they are largely reliant on smartphones for apps and notifications. With a mobile broadband connection, a smartwatch becomes an “independent device,” Lurie said.

“We’ve been very, very clear in our opinion that a wearable needs to be a stand-alone device,” Lurie said.

AT&T and Filip Technologies in January released the Filip child tracker wristwatch, which also allows a parent to call a child over AT&T’s network. Filip could be improved, but those are the kind of wearable products that AT&T wants to bring to market.

Wearables for home health care are also candidates for LTE connections, Lurie said, but fitness trackers may be too small for LTE connectivity, at least for now.

Lurie couldn’t say when smartglasses would be certified to work on AT&T’s network. Google last year said adding cellular capabilities to its Glass eyewear wasn’t in the plans because of battery use. But AT&T is willing to experiment with devices to see where LTE would fit.

“It’s one thing if I’m buying it to go out for a job, it’s another thing if I’m going to wear it everyday. Those are the things people are debating right now — how that’s all going to come out,” Lurie said. “There’s technology and there’s innovation happening, and those things will get solved.”

Lurie said battery issues are being resolved, but there are no network capacity issues. Wearable devices don’t use too much bandwidth as they relay short bursts of information, unless someone is, for instance, listening to Pandora radio on a smartwatch, Lurie said.

But AT&T is building out network capacity, adding Wi-Fi networks, and virtualizing networks to accommodate more devices.

“We don’t have network issues, we don’t have any capacity issues,” Lurie said. “The key element to adding these devices is a majority of [them] aren’t high-bandwidth devices.”

AT&T wants to make wearables work with its home offerings like the Digital Life home automation and security system. AT&T is also working with car makers for LTE integration, with wearables interacting with vehicles to open doors and start ignitions.

 

BlackBerry Plans To Release Patch For ‘Heartbleed’ Vulnerability

April 15, 2014 by mphillips  
Filed under Mobile

BlackBerry Ltd said it will release security updates for messaging software for Android and iOS devices by Friday to address vulnerabilities in programs related to the “Heartbleed” security threat.

Researchers last week warned they uncovered Heartbleed, a bug that targets the OpenSSL software commonly used to keep data secure, potentially allowing hackers to steal massive troves of information without leaving a trace.

Security experts initially told companies to focus on securing vulnerable websites, but have since warned about threats to technology used in data centers and on mobile devices running Google Inc’s Android software and Apple Inc’s iOS software.

Scott Totzke, BlackBerry senior vice president, told Reuters on Sunday that while the bulk of BlackBerry products do not use the vulnerable software, the company does need to update two widely used products: Secure Work Space corporate email and BBM messaging program for Android and iOS.

He said they are vulnerable to attacks by hackers if they gain access to those apps through either WiFi connections or carrier networks.

Still, he said, “The level of risk here is extremely small,” because BlackBerry’s security technology would make it difficult for a hacker to succeed in gaining data through an attack.

“It’s a very complex attack that has to be timed in a very small window,” he said, adding that it was safe to continue using those apps before an update is issued.

Google spokesman Christopher Katsaros declined comment. Officials with Apple could not be reached.

Security experts say that other mobile apps are also likely vulnerable because they use OpenSSL code.

Michael Shaulov, chief executive of Lacoon Mobile Security, said he suspects that apps that compete with BlackBerry in an area known as mobile device management are also susceptible to attack because they, too, typically use OpenSSL code.

He said mobile app developers have time to figure out which products are vulnerable and fix them.

“It will take the hackers a couple of weeks or even a month to move from ‘proof of concept’ to being able to exploit devices,” said Shaulov.

Technology firms and the U.S. government are taking the threat extremely seriously. Federal officials warned banks and other businesses on Friday to be on alert for hackers seeking to steal data exposed by the Heartbleed bug.

Companies including Cisco Systems Inc, Hewlett-Packard Co, International Business Machines Corp, Intel Corp, Juniper Networks Inc, Oracle Corp Red Hat Inc have warned customers they may be at risk. Some updates are out, while others, like BlackBerry, are rushing to get them ready.