Orcs Must Die! Studio Robot Entertainment is a rare breed nowadays – in an age where you’re either indie or AAA, the Plano, Texas-based company (one of several Texas developers that rose from the ashes of Age of Empires studio Ensemble) has managed to succeed as a mid-sized outfit. When Robot was formed in 2009, the company operated on a small scale, but things really changed when it landed a major investment from Chinese media giant Tencent in 2014. That enabled Robot to scale up and to benefit from Tencent’s knowledge at the same time.
“We made the first Orcs Must Die! as a semi-indie studio. We were about 40-45 people. We’re about twice that size now. And we were able to do Orcs Must Die! and Orcs Must Die! 2 with that. We kind of kept following the franchise and following what the fans were asking for in that game and we knew the next version was going to be bigger. We had to make a strategic decision – were we going to stay small and try to do another small version of that game or did we want to be ambitious and try to do something a little bit bigger? And that was going to necessitate a different type of arrangement for us to find financing. Because, you know, just selling a $15 or $20 game on Steam over and over is tough to support a studio to make a bigger game,” Robot CEO Patrick Hudson told GamesIndustry.biz.
“We also did some licensing deals for this game. As an online game, we didn’t necessarily have an ambition of setting up a European publishing office or an Asian publishing office. So we went to Europe and we partnered up with GameForge and licensed the rights for them to publish the game for us. And that comes with some advances and license fees, which help us make the game. We did the same thing with Tencent in China and that led to an investment. So we are in that mid-space. I think you’re right that there are fewer people in that space right now. It would probably be harder for us to stay in that space if we didn’t have really strong partnerships with folks like GameForge and Tencent.”
Investments and partnerships can clearly make a difference to any game company, but it’s also easy to mismanage a studio’s growth. Before you know it, one department doesn’t know what the other is doing, and things spiral out of control.
“It’s all in how you manage it. You’re either afraid of that growth or you embrace it, put a process and structure in place to allow for that. There’s no question we have to run our studio differently at 90 people than we did at 45. There’s more structure in place, there are more layers of leadership to help the project along. We’ve done a decent job of managing the growth… We went through the same kind of growth curve at Ensemble and we actually spent a lot of time talking about what went well, what didn’t go well, ‘What did we learn from that experience that we could have managed the growth better, how do we apply that to Robot?’ So we try to be a little bit smarter about that. Talking to other friendly studios [helps also] – ‘Hey, what did you guys do through this kind of growth? What pains did you experience? What did you learn?’ So we’ll grow as much as it takes to support Orcs Must Die! or as little to support it,” Hudson continued.
While everyone was devastated when Microsoft seemingly shut down a successful Ensemble Studios for no good reason, Hudson takes it as a learning experience.
In Ensemble’s case, Hudson discovered that scale ultimately held back some of its better talent. “Age of Empires attracted a lot of really good game talent to the studio, either people who were starting fresh in the games industry and learned how to make great games inside of Ensemble or we recruited really talented people to Dallas to work on the Empires franchise and, ultimately, Halo Wars. So we had just a tremendous amount of pent up talent in what was not a huge studio. At its peak it was 120 people. So it was very densely populated with talent. When you’re a studio that size, you have a lead structure within each department, but not everybody gets a chance to take those leadership positions and do their own games. Once Ensemble went away, you saw all these talented people go off in different places and show what they were capable of,” he remarked.
Working at Ensemble instilled a certain level of dedication to quality in all the developers who worked there too. “We held ourselves to a really high standard of making games that everyone took with them to their next places. I would say, in addition to that… all of us worked for another six years for Microsoft post-acquisition, so we got to learn the industry as both indie developers and inside a publisher. We got to learn the entire space, how the whole ecosystem is close to the publishing side. So that was a very valuable experience that maybe a lot of other devs don’t get,” Hudson said.
There’s no animosity or regret about Ensemble either, as far as Hudson is concerned: “Six years is a long time to be with a company post-acquisition. It was actually, for the most part, six good years. Microsoft treated us well. I think we worked well with the people we worked with at Microsoft. You do see some [studios] that get acquired and they’re gone within a year or two. We didn’t have that experience. I kind of view six years as a nice success.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson that Hudson and Robot have learned, even before the rise of Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, is that listening and responding to a vibrant community is critical. Discoverability has become a nuisance to deal with, and you need the fans behind you in order to succeed. If you have expectations that a platform holder will feature you, your marketing strategy needs an overhaul.
“As some of those previous PC developers that came into mobile are now migrating back to PC, discoverability on PC has become not quite as bad as mobile, but it’s not easy. There’s a lot of content on Steam now. There’s no easy space. Games is more competitive and a harder business than it’s probably ever been. There’s just a lot of great developers out there making a lot of great content and there’s just no barriers to putting your content out there to players, and players move quickly from game to game. They’re going to seek the best content,” Hudson noted.
He continued, “When I talk to the Valve or Apple or Google folks, they know the problem. They see it. But it’s an almost impossible problem to solve… Everyone wants to be featured, right? It’s funny, when you talk to a new mobile developer and be like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna make this great game. We’re gonna be featured.’ Probably not. You’re probably not going to be featured. Unless you’re doing something really cool and innovative and very different that really shows off the platform.
“They all have different programs to try and help you get noticed but you can’t make that the core of your strategy. It’s really up to you to make a great game. If you don’t have a marketing budget to cultivate a community, start with a small community, really cultivate it and listen to them and speak to them and let them organically grow. It’s not the platform holder’s job to make it successful.”
Beyond building a robust community, selecting the right business model for your game is crucial. While free-to-play is almost the default option in today’s market, Hudson said that premium games are coming back too.
“We really do think of it as a case-by-case. There are interesting trends in the market where you’re seeing paid games come back in certain areas – even in China where we’re seeing an uptick in paid games, customers in China buying paid games. [That's] never happened before. So it’s really going to depend on the game, the needs of the game,” he commented.
For Orcs Must Die! Unchained, which just entered an open beta about a month ago, free-to-play just made sense for Robot, as it’s a big multiplayer MOBA-style tower defense game; Robot wants as many people online for matchmaking as possible. Hudson and Robot have tried free-to-play before with Hero Academy in 2012, but he fully admitted, “We made a ton of mistakes, we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was a very successful game critically. It probably should’ve been a little more successful for us commercially, but we learned those lessons and hopefully we’re applying some of those.
“[Unchained] will be our first big free-to-play PC title. And we get a lot out of our partners too. GameForge has been operating free-to-play titles forever. Tencent has been operating free-to-play titles forever and we really lean on their expertise and we ask them to be involved with us as we design the game. The nice thing about both of those partners is… monetization follows. They start with making a great game, get the players around, keep the players around, [and then] hopefully they’ll pay you down the road. But don’t solve for money up front. So we’ll see. This will be our first foray into it. We’ll make a few more mistakes I’m sure but hopefully we learn quickly.”
Right now Robot remains 100 percent committed to Orcs Must Die! and the studio is bringing the game to PS4 later this year, but that doesn’t mean it expects to be pigeonholed with that one franchise. Hudson said that Robot continues to brainstorm new IP ideas, but nothing has made it too far along in development to warrant a release. “We’ll definitely do a new IP again. We started a couple of prototypes in the past few years that haven’t panned out. It happens all the time, right?” he said, adding that the company also remains interested in mobile but is “very cautious.”
“I think what’s interesting about mobile over the last couple of years is how non-dynamic the market is as far as the top games. The games that have lived in the top charts have been there now for 2 or 3 years. They get there and they stay there and they’re really good at staying there and it’s hard to break in and become the new thing. There are some good case studies for that. Certainly not nearly as many as there are on PC,” he said.
Hudson on VR
Likewise, virtual reality, although enticing, is just too risky for a studio like Robot, Hudson noted.
“It comes back to a company our size and where we sit. For us to overinvest in a market where it’s hard to know what the growth curve is going to be would be pretty risky at our size. We can’t afford to be wrong on something this new and this different… We love the options it provides for new and compelling experiences in games. We’ve brainstormed plenty of ideas for Orcs Must Die! in VR and we’ve got some pretty good ones, but it’ll be a while before we seriously invest in it,” he said.
Hudson joked that Robot is “living vicariously” though a couple of ex-Ensemble studios in Dallas that are working on VR now.
A conservative and cautious approach is probably one of the reasons Robot has managed to survive in an increasingly challenging environment. Even for eSports – an area of the industry that Orcs Must Die! clearly could excel in – Hudson isn’t jumping in headfirst.
That being said, Hudson is definitely optimistic about eSports as a sector. “I think it’s going to become an increasingly large aspect of the industry. And there will be the games that work and the games that don’t work for it. There will be a lot of companies chasing it and probably crash on the rocks trying to get there, but it’s going to continue to grow. I think you’ll see it across platforms too. I think you’ll continue to see eSports be popular in mobile. It’ll continue to grow there. You think of it as a PC thing now but it’s not. I think it’s going to encompass all aspects of games,” he said.
Steam saved PC gaming. As retailers aggressively reduced the shelf space afforded to PC titles – blaming piracy, but equally motivated, no doubt, by the proliferation of MMO and other online titles which had little or no resale value – Valve took matters into its own hands and delivered on the long-empty promises of digital distribution. It was a bumpy ride at first, but the service Valve created ushered in a new and exciting era for games on the PC. Freed from the shackles of traditional publishing and retail, it’s become a thriving platform that teems with creativity and experimentation. Steam still isn’t all things to all people, but it saved PC gaming.
Sometimes, though, you look at Steam and wonder if PC gaming was worth saving. All too often, browsing through Steam to look for interesting things to try out leaves you feeling not so much that you want to close the application in disgust, but that you’d like to set the whole damned thing on fire. The reason isn’t usability, or bugginess, or anything like that – Steam has its issues, but by and large it’s a solid piece of technology – but rather the “community” that Valve has allowed to thrive on its platform. On a platform that aims to expose and promote great games from newcomers and relatively unknown indies, community feedback, reviews and recommendations are vital components, but a legacy of poor and deeply misguided decision making from Valve has meant that engaging with those aspects of Steam can all too often feel like swimming through hot sewerage.
The problem is this; Steam is almost entirely unmoderated, and Valve makes pretty much zero effort to reign in any behaviour on its platform that isn’t outright illegal. As a consequence, it’s open season for the worst behaviours and tactics of the Internet’s reactionary malcontents – the weapon of choice being brigading, whereby huge numbers of users from one of the Internet’s cesspits are sent to downvote, post terrible reviews or simply fill content pages with bile. Targets are chosen for daring to include content that doesn’t please the reactionary hordes, or for being made by a developer who once said a vaguely liberal thing on Twitter, or – of course – for being made by a woman, or for whatever other thing simply doesn’t please the trolls on any given day. The reviews on almost any game on Steam will often contain some pretty choice language and viewpoints, but hitting upon a game that’s been targeted for brigading is like running headlong into a wall of pure, frothing hatred.
Of course, Steam’s not the worst of it in most regards; the places that spawn these brigades in the first place, places like Reddit and 4chan, are far, far worse, and concoct many other malicious ways to hurt and harass their targets. That Steam permits this behaviour on an ongoing basis is, however, a huge problem – not least because Steam is a commercial platform, and provides harassers and trolls with an opportunity to directly damage the income of the developers they target.
It’s not that Valve doesn’t care about the quality of its platform. Just this week, it implemented a new feature allowing customers to see scores from recent reviews, rather than overall scores, so you can get a sense of how a game has changed since its original launch. It’s a good, pretty well considered feature. Yet its arrival really just highlights how little Valve seems to care that its storefront is being used as a tool by harassers, and filled up on a regular basis with vicious, abusive reviews and comments that no customer wants to be confronted with when browsing. Sure, traditional retail may have been hanging PC gaming out to dry all those years ago, but at least I’m reasonably sure that most traditional retail stores would have kicked out anyone who ran into their store and started screaming obscenities in the face of the first girl they saw.
“traditional retail may have been hanging PC gaming out to dry all those years ago, but at least I’m reasonably sure that most traditional retail stores would have kicked out anyone who ran into their store and started screaming obscenities in the face of the first girl they saw”
And look – I get that community moderation is hard. It’s really hard. Much harder than throwing in a quick algorithm to compute review scores from recent reviews only, which is why that got tackled first; but harassment and brigading isn’t a new problem on Steam, or on the Internet in general, and there are only so many times that you can claim to simply be picking low-hanging fruit before someone points out that you haven’t even brought a ladder to the orchard. You’re not even trying. You don’t even want to try. I stated earlier on that Steam ended up this way because of bad decision making down the years, and this is what I meant; there has never been a sense that Valve wants to tackle this problem. Rather, they’ve given the impression that they hope they can fix it with some clever engineering tweak, some genius little bit of code that’ll somehow balance the need for community feedback to expose good games against the need to stop harassers and trolls from treating the platform as a 24 hour public toilet.
That’s not how community moderation works. It’s a fundamental, obtuse misunderstanding of how any sort of system designed to manage, build and support a community works – from statecraft right on down to housemate meetings to discuss unwashed dishes. You need people; you need actual people doing actual moderation jobs, granted the training and the authority to step in and put the community back on the rails when it falls off. It’s hard, and it’s actually pretty expensive, and it takes a lot of care and attention – but it’s not impossible. Look at the progress Riot Games has made in turning around the community of League of Legends, which was formerly one of the most grossly toxic communities in gaming. It’s still by no means perfect, but Riot has shown that it cares, and that it’s willing to fight to improve things, and LoL is by far a better, more welcoming and more fun game for it. Some of that was achieved with tweaks to systems and protocols; but in the end, it takes a real, breathing, thinking human to counteract attempts by other humans to be unpleasant to one another, because if there’s one thing our species has demonstrated extraordinary affinity for over the centuries, it’s finding creative ways to skirt around rules in pursuit of being unpleasant to other people.
Riot’s done a good job of this because, I believe, Riot genuinely believes that it’s the right thing to do. Therein lies the rub; I don’t think Valve cares. It should care. It has a damn-near monopoly on PC game distribution through its storefront, and that gives it responsibilities – if it doesn’t like or want those responsibilities, that’s sad in and of itself, but I’m sure a quick dip in the swimming pools they’re filling with money from Steam might take the edge off the pain. It should also care, though, because there’s a hard limit on how much a business can grow if it permits abusive behaviour towards whole classes of customers or clients. Anyone making a game that tackles a tough subject, or aims at a non-traditional audience, or who is themselves a member of a minority group; well, they’d probably love to be on Steam, but they’re thinking twice about whether it’s a good move. That’s not conjecture – it’s something I hear almost every week from developers in that position, developers whose starry-eyed view of Steam from only a few years ago has been replaced with absolute trepidation or even outright rejection of the idea of exposing themselves to the storefront’s warped excuse for a “community”.
Today, that might just mean Steam is losing out on a few bucks here and there from creators and customers who have had enough of the toxic environment it permits; but markets diversify as they grow. Steam took over when retailers failed to serve customers with an appetite for PC games. What, then, will happen to Steam if new waves of customers – younger and more diverse – find that games and creators they like are treated abysmally by the service? Valve shouldn’t need a commercial incentive to fix this problem; they should fix it because it’s the right thing to do, because tacitly enabling and permitting abuse is really little better than engaging in harassment yourself. If that’s not enough, though, there absolutely is a commercial incentive too; Steam may be dominant, but it’s not the only option for either consumers or creators. There are far more sales to be lost from permitting abuse than from telling harassers they’re no longer welcome. Valve should give the latter a try.
Researchers at Oxford University think that virtual reality could soon be being used to treat psychological disorders such as paranoia.
In the British Journal of Psychiatry, which we get for the horoscope, the researchers explained who they stuck paranoid people into virtual social situations. Through interacting with the VR experience, subjects were able to safely experience situations that might otherwise have made them anxious. We would have thought that paranoid people would not even have put on the glasses, but apparently they did.
By the end of the day more than half of the 30 participants no longer suffered from severe paranoia. This positive impact carried through into real world situations, such as visiting a local shop.
Paranoia causes acute anxiety in social situations – after all they believe that everyone is out to get them. About two percent of the population suffer from paranoia which is sometimes connected to schizophrenia.
Treatment methods for anxiety often involve slowly introducing the source of anxiety in a way that allows the patient to learn that this event is safe rather than dangerous. The VR experiment, used a train ride and a lift scene taught subjects to relearn that they were really safe.
The VR simulation did not use very photo-realistic graphics, which raises another question about if realism is important to have a positive impact.
Recently, Sony Computer Entertainment filed a patent with the USPTO to integrate a camera into a wearer’s contact lens, complete with the imaging sensor as well as data storage and a wireless communication module. The technology, powered wirelessly and controlled by blinking, also offers the possibility of auto-focus, zooming and image stabilization.
Sony is the second to file a patent for integrating a wearable camera into a contact lens, after it was discovered that Samsung filed a patent in South Korea for a similar concept on April 5th. Sony’s patent is filed under the name “Contact Lens and Storage Medium” and is slated to become a full-fledged camera device, complete with a lens, main CPU, imaging sensor, storage area, and a wireless communication module. The camera unit also includes support for autofocus, zooming, and image stabilization.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen wireless sensor technology integrated into a contact lens. In January 2014, Google announced its ambitions to create a glucose-level monitoring contact lens for the diagnosis and monitoring of blood sugar levels for diabetic patients. Google’s project integrates several miniscule sensors loaded with tens of thousands of transistors that measure glucose levels from a wearer’s tear drops, along with a low-power wireless transmitter to send results to other wearable devices along with smartphones and PCs.
More recently on April 7, it was discovered that Samsung could be working on mass-marketing a CMOS imaging sensor into a contact lens thanks to a new patent discovered by SamMobile and GalaxyClub.nl. The patent application, filed in South Korea, includes a display that projects images directly into a wearer’s field of view and includes a camera, an antenna, and several sensors for detecting movement and eye blinks.
Sony’s contact lens patent could be successor to its HMZ 3D displays
Rather than placing focus solely as a healthcare solution, Sony’s patent appears to become a more biologically integrated implementation of the company’s early head-mounted displays (HMDs) with wireless video streaming. The big difference this time, however, will be the inclusion of a camera lens and near-undetectable appearance, depending on how well Sony manages to camoflauge any chips and modules into its first-generation contact lens units.
In November 2011, Sony introduced its first-generation HMZ-T1 head mounted 3D display, complete with dual 1280x720p OLED displays, support for 5.1 channel surround via earbuds and signal input from an HDMI 1.4a cable. This model weighed 420g / 0.93lbs with a launch price of $799.
In October 2012, Sony introduced the second-generation HMZ-T2 follow up in Japan. This model reduced weight by nearly 20 percent (330g / 0.73lbs) and replaced earbuds with a dedicated 3.5mm headphone jack, complete with near-latency free wireless HD viewing (dual 1280x720p displays), 24p cinema picture support, and signal input via HDMI 1.4a cable.
In November 2013, Sony introduced the HMZ-T3W, the third-generation of its head mounted 3D viewer with near-latency free, wireless HD viewing (dual 1280x720p displays) with a 32-bit DAC delivering 7.1 channel audio (5Hz – 24KHz), and signal input via MHL cable and HDMI 1.4a. This device was not available in the United States and launched in Europe for a stunning £1,300 ($2,035) and is alternatively available as an import from Japan for $1090.
Will not come cheap
Based on the initial launch prices of Sony’s previous HMZ headsets ($799 and above) and the Google Glass launch price of $1499, and depending on the company’s target market, we might expect Sony’s first-generation contact lenses to be somewhere in between these two price points when they begin mass-production within the next couple years.
Acer’s boss Jason Chen says his company will not make its own VR devices and will focus on getting its gaming products to work with the existing VR platforms.
Eyebrows were raised when Acer released its new Predator series products which support virtual reality devices. The thought was that Acer might have a device of its own in the works. However Acer CEO Jason Chen said there were no plans and the goal was to get everythink working with the four current major VR platforms Oculus, HTC’s Vive, OSVR and StarVR.
He said that VR was still at a rather early stage and so far still has not yet had any killer apps or software. Although that never stopped the development of tablet which to this day has not got itself a killer app. But Chen said that its demand for high-performance hardware will be a good opportunity for Acer.
Acer is planning to add support for VR devices into all of its future Predator series products and some of its high-end PC products.
Chen told Digitimes that said Acer was investing in two robot projects, the home-care Jibo and the robot arm Kubi in the US, and the company internally has also been developing robot technologies and should achieve some results within two years. Acer’s robot products will target mainly the enterprise market.
Virtual reality is, without a doubt, the most exciting thing that’s going to happen to videogames in 2016 – but it’s becoming increasingly clear, in the cold light of day, that it’s only going to be providing thrills to a relatively limited number of consumers. Market research firm Superdata has downgraded its forecast for the size of the VR market this year once more, taking it from a dizzying $5.1 billion projection at the start of the year to a more reasonable sounding $2.9 billion; though I’d argue that even this figure is optimistic, assuming as it does supply-constrained purchases of 7.2 million VR headsets by American consumers alone in 2016.
Yes, supply-constrained; Superdata reckons that some 13 million Americans will want a VR headset this year, but only 7.2 million will ship, of which half will be Samsung’s Gear VR – which is an interesting gadget in some regards, but I can’t help but feel that its toy-like nature and the low-powered hardware which drives it isn’t quite what most proponents of VR have in mind for their revolution. Perhaps the limited selection of content consumers can access on Gear VR will whet their appetite for the real thing; pessimistically, though, there’s also every chance that it will queer the pitch entirely, with 3.5 million low-powered VR gadgets being a pretty likely source of negative word of mouth regarding nausea or headaches, for example.
This is a problem VR needs to tackle; for a great many consumers, without proactive moves from the industry, word of mouth is all they’re going to get regarding VR. It’s a transformative technology, when the experience is good – as it generally is on PSVR, Rift and Vive – but it’s not one you can explain easily in a video, or on a billboard, because the whole point is that it’s a new way of seeing 3D worlds that isn’t possible on existing screens. Worse, when you see someone else using a VR headset in a video or in real life, it just looks weird and a bit silly. The technology only starts to shine for most consumers when they either experience it, or speak to a friend evangelising it on the basis of their own experience; either way, it all comes down to experience.
That’s why it was interesting to hear GameStop talk up its role as a place where consumers can come and try out PlayStation VR headsets this year. That’s precisely what the technology needs; where at the moment, there are a handful of places you can go to try out VR, but it’s utterly insufficient. VR’s objective for 2016 isn’t just to get into the hands of a few million consumers – it’s to become desired, deeply desired, by tens of millions more. The only way that will happen is to create that army of evangelists by creating a large number of easily accessible opportunities to experience VR – and GameStop is right to position itself as the industry’s best chance of doing so in the USA. Pop-up VR booths in trendy spots might excite bloggers, but what this new sector needs in the latter half of 2016 is much more down to earth – it needs as many of America’s malls as possible to be places where shoppers can drop in and try out VR for themselves.
In a sense, what’s happening here is deeply ironic; after years of digital distribution and online shopping making retail all but irrelevant, to the point where it’s practically disappeared in some countries, the industry suddenly needs retail stores again – not to sell games, because those are, in truth, better sold online, but to sell hardware, to sell an experience. How exactly you structure a long-term business model around that – the games retailer as showroom – is something I’m honestly not sure about, but it’s something GameStop and its industry partners need to figure out, because what VR makes clear is that games do sometimes need a way to reach consumers physically, in the real world, and right now only games retail chains are positioned to do that.
This isn’t a one-time thing, either – we know that, because this has happened before, in the not-so-distant past. Nintendo’s Wii enjoyed an extraordinary sales trajectory from its first Christmas post-launch into its first full year on the market, not least because the company did a good job of putting demo units (mostly running Wii Sports, of course) into not only every games store in the world, but also into countless other popular shopping areas. It was nigh-on impossible, in the early months of the Wii, to go out shopping without encountering the brand, seeing people playing the games and having the opportunity to do so yourself – an enormously important thing for a device which, like VR, really needed to be experienced in person for its worth to become apparent. VR, if anything, magnifies that problem; at least with Wii Sports, observers could see people having fun with it. Observing someone using VR, as mentioned above, just looks daft and a bit uncomfortable.
GameStop has weathered the storm rather better than some of its peers in other countries. The United Kingdom has seen its games retail devastated; it’s all but impossible to actually walk into a specialist store and buy a game in many UK city centres, including London. Would a modern-day version of the Wii be able to thrive in an environment lacking these ready-made showrooms for its capabilities on every high street and in every shopping mall? Perhaps, but it would take enormous effort and investment; something that VR firms, especially Sony, are going to have to take very seriously as they plan how to get the broader public interested in their device, and how to break out beyond the early adopter market.
Much of the VR industry’s performance in 2016 is going to be measured in raw sales figures, which is a bit of a shame; Vive and Rift are enormously supply constrained and having fulfillment difficulties, and the numbers we’ve seen floating around for Sony’s intentions suggest that PSVR will also be supply constrained through Christmas. The VR industry – ignoring the slightly worrying, premature offshoot that is mobile VR – is going to sell every headset it can manufacture in 2016. If it doesn’t, then there’s a very serious problem, but every indication says that this year’s key limiter will be supply, not demand.
The real measurement of how VR has performed in 2016, then, should be something else – the purchasing intent and interest level of the rest of the population. If by the time the world is mumbling through the second line of Auld Lang Syne and welcoming in 2017, consumer awareness of VR is low and purchasing intent isn’t skyrocketing – or worse, if the media’s dominant narratives about the technology are all about vomiting and migraines – then the industry will have done itself a grievous disservice. This is the year of VR, but not for the vast majority of consumers – which means that the real task of VR firms in 2016 is to convince the world that a VR headset is something it simply must own in 2017.
Troubled camera brand GoPro is going for broke and getting into the emerging VR market.
The outfit has GoPro has announced a new channel dedicated to 360-degree or VR content, which it calls GoPro VR. It has also unveiled a new version of its HeroCast wireless streaming tool, LiveVR, that’s dedicated to VR content. It seems to think that this effort will bail it out of its financial woes.
Meanwhile it has been talking up its VR camera rig. This is a six-camera Omni VR which will cost $5,000 for a complete bundle which can create extreme 360-degree content. It is even offering a $1,500 discount for those who already have a stack of GoPro cameras.
Pre-orders for the Omni VR camera will be opening up today, which is when the GoPro VR platform will also be launching. Today will also see the launch of GoPro VR apps for iOS and Android. Much of GloPro’s VR work is based around Kolor Eyes which was a 360-degree software specialist GoPro acquired around this time last year.
We expect to see the rest of the VR product line-up at the NAB show that starts in Las Vegas later today.
Software giant Microsoft has moved to deny a daft internet rumor that it was responsible for the ongoing Oculus Rift supply issues.
Oculus Rift customers were kept in the dark about the delays following the 28 March release date. Oculus confirmed that a component shortage was to blame for the long delays in supplying its VR headset to those who had pre-ordered. Then a rumour started that the mysterious “missing component” was actually the Xbox One control pad.
The rumour got a fair bit of traffic among the IT press which did not check the facts and liked making Microsoft the villian for all its woes. A moment engaging brain would have knocked the rumor stone dead. The source of the rumor came from a Reddit post from a bloke who claimed to have an inside source who told him. In journalism this is called a “man you met down the pub” source. You get around it by naming the source or using the information to stand the story up.
Someone finally did the right thing and asked Redmond, they were promptly told that the rumor was totally false and if anyone had any question about Rift delays they should ask Oculus VR.
This morning Reddit marked the post as a “confirmed fake.” An Oculus customer support worker, whose identity was verified, also dismissed the claim.
“Totally fake, but super-entertaining,” he said. “Thanks for this! Keep the fanatic coming!”
Clearly who ever fabricated the leak did not know what a supply issue really is. It is when there is not enough bits ordered to make up the final machine. Sometimes it is caused by a batch of faulty components, but normally it is because someone did not order enough.
Oculus has assured customers that it is working to overcome its supply issues. “We’ve taken steps to address the component shortage, and we’ll continue shipping in higher volumes each week,” reads its statement.
“We’ve also increased our manufacturing capacity to allow us to deliver in higher quantities, faster. Many Rifts will ship less than four weeks from original estimates, and we hope to beat the new estimates we’ve provided.”
When was the last time you played as a black character in a game who wasn’t either a) the sidekick to a strapping white dude or b) a stereotypical gang member? We Are Chicago, from Indie studio Culture Shock, offers something different: a realistic representation of the life of a person of color in Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods.
“It was interesting to think about how you make a game about something that’s actually happened, a true story, and still give the player agency,” explains studio founder Michael Block.
“So we were talking about those ideas. We’re from Chicago and at the time we had started doing some volunteer stuff and talking to some people on the South Side, a very racially-segregated section of the city, very poor and has a lot of issues with gangs and violence. We realized it’s a really interesting story and nobody is talking about this stuff.”
This was the moment that led to the game I played a few weeks ago at GDC, which Block calls a documentary game, a game which gives players an insight into the world of high school student Aaron. During the very first scene, Aaron’s family sits down to dinner, only to hear the sound of gunshots. It’s shocking not because I’ve never heard a gunshot in a game before, but because the family carries on with dinner, discussing their situation but accepting the violence as part of the background to their lives.
“We brought on a writer from one of the neighborhoods to write the actual dialogue”
Scenes like this aren’t just based on Culture Shock’s preconceived ideas about the South Side, but on the sort of research that would make any journalist proud.
The growth of narrative games
“Part of it comes to down to places like Telltale, I think what they were able to do which has been super helpful, and they’ve been paving the way for everyone else to do all this stuff, is because they had this tie-in to an IP that people really liked and then they were able to tell a really compelling story with that IP. I think that got people into that genre.
“That has benefited us in unimaginable ways because it allows people to come into it with an open mind and know what they’re getting.”
“At the beginning we did interviews. We actually got really lucky: there was a non-profit group that we were volunteering with that basically blanketed the city with volunteers and they had a survey that could have been written for our game. Things like, what are you seeing in your neighbourhood that could be problematic? What are the things that you’re seeing are really good? Are you seeing any solutions that are working well? What do you wish was there?”
“From that we were doing interviews with people at bus stops on the South Side and we just asked a bunch of people all these questions and then gave that all back to the non-profit. Then we met a whole bunch of people who we were volunteering and people that they knew and put us in touch with and we did more in-depth interviews.”
As well as researching their subject matter, We Are Chicago took their commitment to representing the stories into the studio via recruitment.
“We brought on a writer from one of the neighborhoods to write the actual dialogue. So we had the outline in place, we had the ideas that we wanted to talk about and we went to him and said ‘let’s figure out how to make this into a narrative arc’. Then we brought on environment artists as well from the neighborhoods that we were looking at to work on the content of the game and they’ve also looked over the script and made sure everything makes sense to them as well.”
Block and his team also plan to continue working with the non-profits of Chicago, taking a build of the game to a couple of schools in Chicago to do play-testing with young kids and to make sure that the game is true to their experiences. He also reveals that he plans to do a revenue share with some of the non-profits, as a way of giving back.
That’s Block’s motivation here, and it’s a noble one. We Are Chicago is a difficult game to make and difficult game to sell, but its importance to its creators goes beyond simple profit and loss.
“I’m working on this project because for all of my career – I’ve worked on Organ Trail and I’ve worked at mid-sized studios before and released other games – I didn’t really feel like they were having the impact I wanted to have. I wanted to do something that was positive for our society and our community and so this feels very important to me personally because it feels like I’m able to achieve that,” says Block.
“We’ve had some really great responses from people. Seeing some people express more racist sentiments and ideas and then after playing the game actually not express those things is really validating and really satisfying, to think that we might actually be able to have that impact. It’s a very strong connection for me because I’m hoping that we can prove that this is possible with games and that we’re doing it.”
We Are Chicago will be released this year on PC, Mac and Linux.
The dark satanic rumor mill has manufactured a hell on earth yarn which claims that the outfit which nearly killed off VR gaming with its “Virtual Boy” wants to get back into the industry.
More than 20 years ago Nintendo came up with its $179.95 Virtual Boy it was marketed as the first “portable” video game console capable of displaying “true 3D graphics.” It failed because it was too pricey, was not really portable and made users sick. It was pulled within a year and was cited as proof as to why VR was not ready yet.
Not surprisingly Nintendo didn’t want to go back to that AI place. Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aime even claimed it “just isn’t fun” enough. Now that appears to have changed and Nintendo saying it was “looking at VR” but wouldn’t be in a position to give more details any time soon.
Carnegie Mellon University professor and game designer Jesse Schell outlined his 40 predictions for VR and and Augmented Reality on the list was Schell’s belief that the Japanese company is already working on a headset, and that it could be the one which takes the industry in a new direction.
Schell feels that by 2022, most of the cash spent on VR will be related to portable, self-contained systems that are not dependant on other mobile tech (like Samsung’s Gear VR, which needs a Samsung smartphone to function) or require a PC or console, and are free from cables and wires which restriction movement and immersion.
Sony’s entry into the virtual reality market may be just a few short months away, thanks to an interview segment with GameStop CEO Paul Raines with Fox Business on Monday.
According to the interview segment, Raines told the network that GameStop is being centrally positioned for the launch of several major virtual reality (VR) projects, which he claims will be a “lucrative business.”
“We are right now preparing for the launches of the major VR products,” Raines told Fox Business. “So we’re now in discussions with Oculus, with HTC Vive, and with Sony. The market size is really hard to measure right now, but there are a lot of different measurements — all of them start with a [billion]. In fact, I saw a Goldman Sachs report the other day that said that the virtual reality segment will be worth about $80 billion by 2025. So it’s a big launch. We’re getting ready for it. We will launch the Sony product this fall, and we are in discussions with the other two players.”
Although the GameStop CEO did not refer to the headset by name, there is not much doubt that he was referring to Sony’s PlayStation VR, previously known by the codename “Project Morpheus.”
The first time the public learned about Sony’s Project Morpheus was during the 2015 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco last spring, where a prototype was revealed using a 5.7-inch 1920x1080p OLED display (960x1080p per eye) with an RGB sub-pixel matrix running at 120 frames per second. The headset uses custom curved lenses to magnify and stretch the display across a wearer’s field of vision.
The stereoscopic 3D headset features a 100-degree field of view (FOV), six degrees of freedom (up, down, back, forward, right, left, yaw), and unwrapped (flat) output to a TV for use with a separate display or for viewing by others. Sony claims this is to prevent the unit from becoming a solitary experience, as it sees VR as a multi-user technology. The unit is controlled with a standard DualShock 4 game controller for most games, a PlayStation Camera to track physical movements, and can also be used with PlayStation Move wand controllers to simulate hand interactions in virtual game environments.
There are currently 82 games listed for the PlayStation VR, only sixteen of which have been announced so far with a 2016 release date. Some notable titles include Ace Combat 7 (Namco Bandai), Battlezone (Rebellion Developments), Eagle Flight (Ubisoft), Earthlight (Opaque Media), EVE: Valkyrie (CCP Games), Job Simulator (Owlchemy Labs), The London Heist (Sony Computer Entertainment), Robinson: The Journey (Crytek), Tekken 7 (Namco Bandai) and Vector 36 (Red River Studio), among others.
Software giant Microsoft is planning to get its Xbox business back in gear by making it follow the same sort of business model which worked for it on Microsoft office.
CEO Satya Nadella said that Microsoft has shifted its focus away from trying to strong-arm competitors out of the market, and towards a future of providing apps and services on the iPhones, Android phones, and Macs.
For example Microsoft Office is already on a subscription-based service available via the Internet. With the Office 365 service, customers pay their $10/month (or more if they’re a business) and get access to all the Office apps they can eat.
Redmond recently announced that it had 48 million monthly active users of its Xbox Live gaming service, across both the last-generation (but still popular) Xbox 360 console and the newer Xbox One.
Redmond sells this in two subscription tiers: Silver, which is free, and Gold, which is $60 per year. Silver subscribers can buy games, movies, and TV shows from the Xbox’s digital store they are also expected to swim while wearing pajamas. But subscribing at the Gold level gets you some crucial perks, including the ability to play multiplayer games online and a handful of “free” games every month. Gold subscription will also mean that people start calling you ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ and take their hats off when they talk to you.
What is different is that the new Windows 10 operating system can push Microsoft’s subscription services on you including the Xbox live. It has all been dubbed as “Xbox as a service.”
The latest game from Microsoft “Quantum Break,” was supposed to be an Xbox exclusive. It was announced that there also be a PC version, which buyers of “Quantum Break” for the Xbox One get for free. Most important, you also can sync your saved games across the two via the cloud.
Xbox boss Phil Spencer said that this would be a “platform feature” for the Xbox and Windows 10. Basically it means you buy the game once, get two copies that you can play anywhere.
Sony is behind in this because it does not have Windows 10 as its trump card. It offers “cross-buy support” for some while on select games, letting you buy a game once and play it on your PlayStation 4 or the handheld PlayStation Vita console.
Google is researching into a more virtual realtiy technology which will probably just end up in the beta stage before the search engine gives up on the whole project.
Google is apparently developing a new virtual-reality headset for smartphones, and adding extra support for the technology to Android in a cunning plan to give Oculus a run for its money. We are not holding our breath, we keep getting announcements like this from Google and they always turn to be vapourware like Google Glass..
Anyway this one is to be a successor to Cardboard, the cheap-and-cheerful mobile VR viewer that Google launched in 2014 and you can sort of buy and sold more than than 5 million units.
This one will feature better sensors, lenses and a more solid plastic casing, according to people familiar with its plans. The smartphone-based device will be similar to the Gear VR, a collaboration between Samsung and Oculus that went on sale to consumers late last year.
Google is expected to release its rival headset, alongside new Android VR technology, this year. Like Cardboard and Gear VR, the new headset will use an existing smartphone, slotted into the device, for its display and most of its processing power. But it will still be VR for dummies. Google Cardboard relies solely on sensors already built into modern smartphones to detect the position of a user’s head while real VR kits are a bit better and suffer less from latency issues.
The updated Google headset will be compatible with a much broader range of Android devices than Gear VR, which only works with a handful of recent Samsung Galaxy smartphone models, as the Alphabet unit tries to bring the technology to a wider audience.
The thought is that by improving resolution and latency, the combination of better Android software and the new headset will allow viewers to spend longer in VR and enable developers to create more sophisticated apps.
Nintendo’s finances took a dip in the company’s third quarter report for FY 2015 – sales stayed relatively stable with just 3.9 per cent shrinkage to 427.7 billion Yen ($3.5bn), but profits dropped by 32 per cent year-on-year to 40.5 billion Yen ($336m).
Although the bottom line failed to excite, plenty of familiar faces performed well for the publisher’s software arm, as well as a few new names. Top seller was Child friendly Wii U shooter Splatoon, shifting over four million units. Super Mario maker wasn’t far behind on 3.34 million, whilst Animal Crossing Happy Home Designer reached 2.93 million. Collectively the 3DS family sold 5.88 million units of hardware and 38.87 million games. The Wii U totalled 3.06 million consoles and 22.62 million pieces of software. 20.50 million Amiibo figures were sold, and approximately 21.50 million Amiibo cards.
Those eagerly awaiting news of either the new NX system or the company’s first smartphone game will be disappointed – neither was mentioned in the company’s forward looking statements. Instead, the publisher focused on relatively known quantities.
“For Nintendo 3DS, we will globally release a special edition hardware pre-installed with Pokémon title(s) from the original Pokémon series on February 27 which marks the 20th year since the original Pokémon series release,2 read the accompanying statement.
“Furthermore, Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and key titles from third-party publishers are scheduled for release. For Wii U, we will strive to maintain the attention level of Splatoon and Super Mario Maker, which are continuing to show steady sales, while introducing new titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD. Meanwhile, for Amiibo, we will continue to expand the product lineup in order to maintain momentum. At the same time, we will aim to further expand sales by offering new gaming experiences with the use of Amiibo. In addition, the first application for smart devices, Miitomo, is scheduled for release.”
The company has maintained its full year target of 35 billion Yen in profit.
Virtual reality (VR) will not be supported on most consumer computers as the technology booms and manufacturers prepare to introduce it on a consumer level this year, Nvidia has warned.
Jason Paul, the firm’s general manager of Shield, gaming and VR, told Venturebeat that graphics processors need to be about seven times more powerful than in a standard PC game to run VR, and that there will be only about 13 million PCs in the market that will be powerful enough to run them by next year when the first major PC-based VR headsets ship, at least on PCs.
However, Nvidia said that this number could be extended to 25 million if the VR game makers use Nvidia’s GameWorks VR software (of course), which is said to make the VR processing more efficient.
GameWorks VR is aimed at games and applications developers, and includes a feature called VR SLI, which provides increased performance for VR applications where multiple GPUs can be assigned to a specific eye to dramatically accelerate stereo rendering.
The software also delivers specific features for VR headset developers, including Context Priority, which provides control over GPU scheduling to support advanced VR features such as asynchronous time warp. This cuts latency and quickly adjusts images as gamers move their heads, without the need to re-render a new frame.
There’s also a feature in the SDK called Direct Mode, which treats VR headsets as head-mounted displays accessible only to VR applications, rather than a typical Windows monitor, providing better plug-and-play support and compatibility for VR headsets.
Nvidia said that GameWorks VR is already being integrated into leading game engines, such as those from Epic Games, which has announced support for GameWorks VR features in an upcoming version of the popular Unreal Engine 4.3. However, considering Paul’s comments, it mustn’t be getting implemented as much as the firm would like.
VR is becoming increasingly prevalent as device manufacturers try to offer enhanced experiences, especially in gaming. Oculus has been showing off what it can do for some time, and it seems its official debut is not too far away. But it was Oculus that seemed to kick-start this upward trend and, since it hit the headlines, we’ve seen a number of big technology companies giving it a go, especially smartphone makers.
The HTC Vive is one, for example. But, like Oculus, the headset is still in the initial rollout phase and not yet on sale commercially, requiring any developers wanting to have a pop at writing code for it to enter a selection process for distribution, which began only this summer.
Sony, another smartphone maker, has also dipped its toe in the world of VR via Project Morpheus, a headset like HTC’s Vive that looks to enhance gaming experiences, but specifically as an accessory for the PlayStation 4, which we assume won’t come with the concerns Nvidia has as it should work with the console right out of the box.