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HDMI v2.1 Standards Finally Set

December 4, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

The HDMI Forum has officially published the latest HDMI v2.1 specification, paving the way for up to 10K resolutions, dynamic HDR, and support for variable refresh rate.

According to details provided by the HDMI Forum, the new HDMI v2.1 specification will be backward compatible with all previous HDMI standards but will also need the new ultra high-speed HDMI cable for those new upgrades.

As for those upgrades, the HDMI v2.1 standard will offer 48Gbps of bandwidth, which is a significant improvement over 18Gbps of bandwidth on the HDMI 2.0. It will also bring higher resolution reaching 8K@60Hz without the Display Stream Compression (DSC) and 10K@120Hz with DSC. It also features the new Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM).

Another big novelty for HDMI is support for Dynamic HDR as well as the Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) technology, which should reduce lag, frame stutter, skipping and freezing as well as deal with that pesky frame tearing. Unfortunately, HDMI Forum did not provide a lot of details regarding the VRR technology and we are not sure how different it is from AMD FreeSync.

In addition, the HDMI v2.1 standard will also include eARC, as well as Quick Media Switching (QMS), which eliminates the delay that can result in a blank screen before content is displayed and the Quick Frame Transport (QFT) feature which also aims to reduce latency in gaming and real-time interactive virtual reality content.

According to the press release, the HDMI v2.1 Compliance Test Specification (CTS) will be published in stages from Q1 to Q3 2018 and will notify the HDMI adopters as it becomes available.

Courtesy-Fud

Xbox One X Beats PS4 PRO In The UK

November 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The first week sales of Xbox One X is over 80,000 in the UK, GamesIndustry.biz can reveal.

Retailers have shared data that reveal that Microsoft’s new super-powered console has sold as many units in its first week as Nintendo Switch did in March (hardware figures are up-weighted 20%. Xbox One X raw data is at 67,000).

It’s first week sales are also well ahead of PS4 Pro, which did a little over 50,000 back in November 2016. Indeed, it took PS4 Pro four weeks to reach the same number.

Of course, stock shortages of both PS4 Pro and Switch will have impacted the performance of those machines.

The majority of sales were for the special Project Scorpio version of the machine.

It’s a pleasing performance for Microsoft, which has had a quiet year in terms of new Xbox products so far.

The best-selling Xbox One game of the week was Call of Duty: WWII, followed by Assassin’s Creed Origins (which was promoted with the system), FIFA 18 and the Forza duo: Forza Motorsport 7 and Forza Horizon 3.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Sony’s PSVR Taking Off

November 14, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Sony is increasing the production of its motion-sensitive PlayStation Move controllers ahead of an anticipated deluge of new titles.

Speaking at Develop:VR in London today, Stuart Whyte – Sony London Studio’s director of VR product development – said Sony is tracking the number of players who own Move controllers, and hopes to increase this as the PSVR userbase grows.

“Currently, two thirds of the games released so far on PlayStation VR are Move-compatible or require Move,” Whyte told attendees. “As we see more Oculus and Vive titles come to PSVR, we’re expecting this number to increase. Sony is increasing the Move production capacity to [cater] to this.”

PlayStation Move first launched in 2010 as a response to the huge popularity of Nintendo Wii, but struggled to match that console’s success. However, the tech has been given a new lease on live thanks to its use in PlayStation’s virtual reality titles.

It’s a safe bet that more Oculus and Vive developers will bring their titles to PlayStation’s platform given that it is currently the market leader in VR with over 1m headsets sold. Whyte shared more learnings from the first year of PSVR, revealing that PS4 Pro users are more likely to own the device.

“The ratio of PS4 Pro attachment for PSVR is high,” he said. “One in five PS4s sold now are Pros, but that ratio [for PSVR] on PlayStation Pro is higher again.

“It’s definitely worth supporting the extra power available on Pro when you’re developing for PSVR, but it’s still also super important to run on a base PS4.”

Since PlayStation VR first launched in October 2016, more than 140 titles have been released for us and 75% of this content are games rather than less interactive experiences. Whyte predicts games will continue to be the main sales driver for virtual reality, citing the fact that they already provide 70% of revenue for mobile app stores.

“This is going to be true for VR,” he added.

He continued: “We’re currently sitting at five games sold per headset, so we’re seeing a really strong attach rate from our first year. Many of those games to date are smaller experiences, they’re experiences that we as developers [use to] get to know the platform built around one or two mechanics.

“We feel that for VR to get to the next level, we need bigger, built from the ground up VR AAA experiences.”

Sony London’s answer to this is Blood & Truth, a new VR shooter that is inspired by the London Heist section of last year’s launch title PlayStation VR Worlds. The game will be optimised for PlayStation Move, although Whyte said the team hopes to include standard controls as well.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are Xbox One X Sales Higher Than Anticipated

November 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

At $499, the new Xbox One X isn’t going to attract people in droves, but it’s going to fare better than some might expect. Feedback on pre-orders has been encouraging and analysts are upgrading their forecasts. Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter recently told us that he’s upping his Xbox One X sales forecast from 1 million to 1.5 million for 2017, and now IHSMarkit has raised its numbers as well.

“Feedback on pre-order volume for both the limited-edition Project Scorpio Xbox One X and for the standard version of the X console has led us to increase our 2017 sell-through forecast for Xbox One X,” said IHSMarkit’s Piers Harding-Rolls. “The Project Scorpio limited edition pre-order strategy has been particularly effective in driving what is expected to be a robust launch week in key sales territories. IHS Markit has therefore increased its 2017 forecast from 500,000 to 900,000 units. At this level, Xbox One share of total Q4 2017 Xbox One console family sales will be close to 20 percent, similar to the performance of PS4 Pro at launch. If Microsoft outperforms and delivers sales in excess of this forecast it will be considered a major launch success.”

Harding-Rolls even thinks some PlayStation fans could switch to Xbox One X: “A small share of PS4 Pro gamers that are keen to have the most powerful hardware for playing third-party published games are likely to shift their usage across to the new console, which may moderately shift the sales share of games between the two competing platforms.”

The extra sales for Xbox One X aren’t about to tip any scales in Microsoft’s favor, however: “Xbox One X is poised to give the company a boost in its ambition to compete more effectively with PS4 Pro in strategically important markets of the USA and UK. Other select markets, such as Germany in Europe with its PC gaming heritage, are also forecast to deliver solid launch traction. Overall, however, IHS Markit does not expect Xbox One X to have a dramatic impact on market share between Sony and Microsoft in continental Europe as the market’s current momentum is well entrenched. IHS Markit currently forecasts the Western Europe installed base of PS4 family of consoles to reach 26 million by the end of 2017 compared to 8 million for the Xbox One family of consoles.”

Importantly, while Microsoft is not selling Xbox One X hardware at a profit, the platform should help the company’s bottom line. Harding-Rolls adds, “Sales of the more expensive Xbox One X console will also help mitigate the fall in Xbox One S hardware average sales price which in recent fiscal quarters has undermined the positive impact felt by Microsoft of increased revenues from software and services. As such, Microsoft’s games business-related revenue is expected to increase year-on-year in Q4 2017.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are Optical Audio Options Dying

November 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Optical cable, which was the digital audio transfer method of choice for decades, is starting to die out as Toslink is replaced by HDMI.

Through the ’90s and 2000s, the optical cable was near ubiquitous with it being the best way to get Dolby Digital and DTS from your cable/satellite box, TiVo, or DVD player. But now it is starting to disappear from hardware.

The latest Roku and Apple TV 4K, don’t bother and you can’t find it on many TVs. Chromecast Audio uses an optical connection because of space constraints any technical reason. The Chromecast Audio uses the mini-Toslink variant which fits inside a 3.5mm
analog jack.

This is mostly because it has been eclipsed by HDMI with ARC, even if in theory the optical has more bandwidth. However, as CNET points out, the optical audio connection is far more limited. It can’t transmit the high-resolution audio formats that came out with Blu-ray more than a decade ago, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio.

HDMI has expanded its capabilities significantly over the brief time it’s been available and since no-one could be bothered upgrading optical because HDMI received greater acceptance the tech was toast.

Fibre technology will still be around as the backbone of the world wide wibble, but chances are you will not see it in your home in a few years.

Courtesy-Fud

Nintendo Not Happy With Super Mario

November 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Super Mario Run has now been downloaded 200 million times worldwide, and yet Nintendo still isn’t satisfied with how much money it has made.

Mario’s mobile debut launched in December last year, and it hit 150 million downloads at the end of April. However, despite adding a further 50 million downloads in the six months since then, Nintendo expressed disappointment in how profitable the game has been.

In an investor briefing, the company said that “we have not yet reached an acceptable profit point” with Super Mario Run, and emphasised the amount it has learned that can be used in its future mobile releases. Nintendo is still updating and promoting the game, including a new game mode, Remix10, which was added in September, and a “special price offer” to coincide with the update.

Nintendo saw better performance, relatively speaking, from a different mobile title: Fire Emblem Heroes, which launched in February and, notably, employed a free-to-play business model. In that case, an ongoing program of updates means it is, “on track to meet our overall business objectives, including our profit objectives.”

This difference is arguably evident in the strategy for Nintendo’s next major mobile release, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, which will also use a free-to-play revenue model based on a soft currency called “Leaf Tickets.” Nevertheless, Nintendo described Animal Crossing’s business model as “free-to-start” when presenting to its investors.

“There will be Leaf Tickets, which can be used in a variety of situations within the game, as consumable items. They will be available for free as the game advances but players can also purchase these. Our objective is to offer a service that allows even consumers who do not normally play games on a regular basis to have a little fun each and every day.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are Rising Game Development Cost Hurting Some Studios

October 18, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy-GI.biz

Nintendo Stock Hits A High Road

October 13, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Nintendo shares have hit a ten-year high following the announcement that Switch production is being increased to two million units per month.

As reported by Digitimes, the Switch is upping production from a previous undisclosed number, estimated to be between 800,000 and one million.

Nintendo shares are now trading at their highest value since March 2008 after rising 2.66% in Tokyo on Friday, gaining a total 77% since the beginning of 2017.

The Switch, which was already Nintendo’s fastest selling console, is expected to sell 20 million units by the end of the year, a source told Digitimes, far exceeding the 13 million predicted earlier this year.

The news comes amid speculation that the Switch could soon be released in China following the announcement that the smash-hit mobile game Honour of Kings was coming to western markets via the Switch.

Honour of Kings reportedly accounts for around 50% of publisher Tencent’s mobile revenue and has over 200 million users in the region. By managing to strike a deal with Tencent, Nintendo could be well positioned to release in China, and the portable format of the Switch plays into the handheld dominated market where the Xbox One and Playstation 4 enjoy little success initially.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Is Valve’s Steam Dominance Killing PC Gaming

September 25, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Earlier this week I wrote about a recurring problem in games, and what I was going to do as a member of the media to try and fix it. Today I’m going to talk about something I’m doing to fix it as a customer and gamer.

I hadn’t intended to write a follow-up piece, but I hit a bit of a breaking point this week with the one-two punch of PewDiePie dropping the n-word on stream and Bungie removing a white supremacist symbol from its Destiny 2.

Both events are part of a wretched pattern that has been recurring in games for several years now, a pattern where we see some deep-seated prejudices in gaming culture come to the fore in alarming clarity for a moment, everyone points and decries the awfulness, then everyone else gets angry at the people who didn’t like the awful thing. If we’re very lucky, the people who screwed up in the first place publicly apologize, reflect on their mistakes and try to do better the next time. It’s much, much rarer to see anyone indirectly responsible for this pattern take an honest look at their role in it, and we absolutely need them to if this is ever going to get better.

“People talk about racism, sexism, transphobia and the like as if they are diseases, but maybe we should think of these things less like contagions and more like environmental pollutants”

People talk about racism, sexism, transphobia and the like as if they are diseases, like it’s something binary you either have or you don’t. “This is racist. That is not racist.” But maybe we should think of these things less like contagions and more like environmental pollutants. They surround us at all times, but in varying concentrations. They’re like arsenic in your drinking water, or rat feces in your popcorn; we should aspire to have none at all, but that’s a difficult enough task that we “accept” both in small quantities. (Seriously.) When they are present in very small amounts, the damage they do is manageable. But when the concentration is high enough, they can be fatal.

This is a cultural problem, which means all of us play a small role in making it better or worse. Like riding a bike instead of driving a car or using LEDs instead of incandescent lights, our actions don’t move the needle on their own, but can add up to something significant when combined with the actions of enough others. This week’s events left me wanting to do something to make things better, and that’s when I saw a NSFW tweet with some screen caps of the Firewatch Steam forum.

After PewDiePie dropped his racist interjection, Firewatch developer Campo Santo had the popular streamer’s video of the game pulled from YouTube using the service’s copyright claims process. Angry gamers then began review bombing the title on Steam, and poured into the game-specific forums to flood them with abuse. Because that’s how it’s done now. Because we are gamers and every avenue of feedback available to us must be weaponized so that we can have things our way. Because we’re so upset about a developer using a questionable invocation of the DMCA that we would crusade arm-in-arm with overt racists and human garbage rather than let our rage go unvented for even a moment. (See also: People actually concerned with ethics in games journalism who provided willing cover for virulent misogynists and harassers during GamerGate.)

Most of those threads in the Firewatch forum have since been consolidated, with the most exceptionally racist ones being deleted. But it wasn’t Valve who handled the clean up, because Valve offloads moderation of game-specific forums to the developers. Just like translation of its store pages or curation of its catalog, Valve seems to like nothing more to offload the work on others. That approach might be fine for some functions, but the company cannot abdicate responsibility for the community and culture that has come from its own neglect.

“Valve’s dogmatic commitment to removing human judgment from every aspect of the operation is in effect a judgment call of its own”

That’s why I’m terminating my Steam account.

For as much as Valve’s actions have revitalized the PC gaming scene in the last dozen years, its inaction has been steadily deteriorating gaming culture. Our own Rob Fahey has covered Steam’s community woes before, but the company’s dogmatic commitment to removing human judgment from every aspect of the operation is in effect a judgment call of its own, one that presumes everything is acceptable and there are no limits other than legal ones. And on the rare occasion Valve actually deviates from that approach and enforces some standards, it does so reluctantly.

Right now you can find Hatred, Playing History 2 – Slave Trade, and House Party on the storefront, showing that Valve has no problem with the glorification of mass shootings, the trivialization of atrocities, or the gamification of rape. We can give them some points for consistency though, as the availability of Paranautical Activity suggests Valve is unwilling to take a stand even against death threats to its own founder.

This same approach of course applies to the Steam community, which technically has guidelines, but little interest in enforcing them. Hey, there’s a guideline forbidding racism and discrimination, weird. I guess “Nazi Recruitment Group Order#1” (NSFW) with the swastika logo and 76 members has just fallen through the cracks for the last two years. And that user, “F*** Blacks,” with a graphic avatar of a man fellating himself? I’m sure he just changed it and I just happened to visit the site in the split-second that was online before he was banned.

Nope, still there.

Oh, and this one, “Whites Only,” (NSFW) a group “for any fellow White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and anyone who just hates colored people!” (If you must click through, be warned it only gets more racist from there.) Maybe nobody’s noticed them. Oh wait, no, here’s a post in the Steam help forums asking people to help ban the group for being racist. Well maybe Valve hasn’t seen it. Oh, wait. There’s a post from a Valve community mod locking the thread and linking to the support page on how to report abusive behavior.

That’s one of 29 community mods volunteering their time “to help keep discussions clean and on topic, and remove reported user generated content around the Steam Community.” If you talk about actual Valve employees, people who might theoretically be trained and compensated to do the job, there are apparently only 12 that mod the community. Even they aren’t necessarily focused on the task; they include programmers, software engineers, and UI designers that the company simply says “spend some time” helping out on the forums.

“Whatever its motives, Valve is clearly just fine operating an online toilet that harbors the worst dregs of society”

By the way, Steam had 12.9 million users online at the same time today. Steam is a massive chunk of the gaming community and Valve has offloaded moderation responsibilities to the developers and the users to a staggering degree. The company is so dedicated to having other people fix its problems that when I filed my request to terminate the account because I was sick of the toxicity, the first response I got from Steam Support said, “Please make sure you’re using the ‘Report Violation’ feature to report inappropriate behavior or users on Steam.”

Whatever its motives, Valve is clearly just fine operating an online toilet that harbors the worst dregs of society. But if it isn’t willing to staff up a reasonable amount of dedicated community management people, enforce even the minimal guidelines it claims to have, and excise these bad faith actors from its community, then I have no choice but to believe Valve wants them there. And if Valve wants them there, it’s fair to hold the company responsible for all the vileness they spew from the platform it owns and completely controls. Whatever benefit Steam once offered me has been more than offset by the harm it causes to its marginalized users, gaming culture, and society as a whole. I won’t be a part of that community any longer.

So my Steam account is gone, or presumably will be once Steam Support gets around to fulfilling my request. While I would encourage everyone reading this to consider whether Steam is a community they want to associate themselves with, I have to acknowledge this is not a huge sacrifice for me. I’m losing access to dozens of games and a backlog of purchased-but-unplayed titles, but I’m not primarily a PC gamer.

Having acknowledged that, it would seem unreasonable that my “call to action” be for everyone to delete their Steam accounts, or for developers to pull their games from a store that provides an overwhelming majority of their business. Instead, I would simply ask that everyone do what they can to foster viable alternatives. As consumers, we can stop buying new games from Steam if they are available on GOG.com, itch.io, or an alternative storefront. Developers, make it a priority to get your games on as many storefronts as possible, even if they only incrementally boost the bottom line. Because right now the PC gaming industry is entirely too dependent on a company with entirely too little interest in basic human decency, and it’s hurting us all.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Blizzard Get Tougher on Bad Gamers

September 7, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy-GI.biz

PlayUnknown’s Battleground Headed The Top

September 6, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

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

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

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

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

Courtesy-GI.biz

Do Indy Developers Need a Publisher To Succeed On Steam

August 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Discoverability problems on Steam have reached the stage where it’s essential that indie and smaller developers seek out a publishing deal.

That’s according to Bulkhead Interactive producer Joe Brammer, who spoke to GamesIndustry.biz at Gamescom about indie attitudes towards publishers, lessons learned from his first few releases, and the increasingly crowded PC market.

Back in December, it emerged that more than 4,200 games were released in 2016 alone – accounting for 38% of the marketplace’s entire back catalogue – and there has been no shortage of new releases this year. While the platform has become a go-to destination for self-publishing indies, Brammer says it’s harder than ever to generate decent sales this way.

“Nowadays you pretty much need an indie publisher, or you need to have an amazing game,” he tells us. “It would have to be incredible. That doesn’t mean a ‘good enough’ game is a bad one, but it has to be something really special to be picked up organically – something like PUBG.

“The market is changing. Indie publishers are becoming less like indie publishers and more like smaller publishers, but smaller publishers are totally acceptable. That doesn’t mean they’re worse now.”

Brammer’s own game, the upcoming WW2 multiplayer FPS Battalion 1944, is being published by Square Enix Collective following a successful partnership between the two firms for The Turing Test – an arrangement the producer is more than pleased with.

“They listen to us,” he says. “No other indie publisher can give you the power of a megacorporation like Square Enix, but still let you maintain the finesse of that indie mentality. Not that we’re super indie, of course.”

But why go for a publisher at all? There seems to be the lingering perception that publishers are greedy and out to exploit smaller and independent developers – which has led to many new indie publishers referring to themselves as labels instead.

“Indie publishers are becoming less indie and more like smaller publishers, but smaller publishers are totally acceptable”

Brammer’s desire for a publisher stems from his team’s experience with its first release, Pneuma: The Breath of Life – a launch that also introduced him to how challenging the market on Steam can be. He maintains that while some indies may still feel apprehensive about publishers, they are necessary because “the industry has changed massively.”

While Pneuma wasn’t a critical or commercial hit, it sold well enough to let the developers continue making games and move on to The Turing Test. When it came to launching the puzzle game, Brammer and his team revisited Pneuma’s performance and realised while it had sold well enough on Xbox and PlayStation, Steam sales fell short of the mark.

“We decided if we’re going to do anything on Steam, we need a publisher,” he says. “We need someone with those contacts, someone that can give us a bit of help and the punch that we needed. When we went to Square we said we didn’t need money; we just needed help to get the game on Steam, so they actually only helped us with the Steam version. After doing that, I’d have rather they’d taken the Xbox One version as well because they just did a phenomenal job.”

Brammer admitted his team has probably been guilty of “lowballing ourselves” by not asking publishers for more money in the past, perhaps giving the perception that the games are cheap and therefore of a lower quality.

Steam has already been identified as a difficult market for new developers trying to make their mark, thanks largely to the aforementioned discoverability problems. Valve has attempted to revamp its submission process, killing the previous Greenlight system in favour of Steam Direct, which charges developers $100 to submit a game to the marketplace.

However, following the launch of Direct in June, Steam actually saw a spike in the number of games submitted – as many as 213 in a single week, and 730 in a four-week period. Valve has said that the new system is not necessarily designed to reduce the number of submissions but to ensure those that do get through are genuine.

Brammer believes the issue of discoverability is not one that Valve is particularly motivated to solve: “I had a meeting once with a platform holder and I made a joke about the App Store, saying, ‘It’s terrible, you’ll never get found’ – and they said they’d love to have the App Store. The platform holders would absolutely love to have millions of games come out and the good ones rise to the top, almost organically.

“The community sees [discoverability] as a problem and Steam says they’ll fix it, but all they really do is rehash it”

“Frankly, I don’t think Steam sees it as a problem. The community sees it as a problem and Steam says they’ll fix it, but all they really do is rehash it. I don’t know why they’ve made the changes they made when they got rid of Greenlight, but they’re not really stopping anything; they’re just opening things up even more. That’s just the 2017 market and how it works: removing the barrier to entry and creating more content, hoping the good quality content will rise to the top but it’s very difficult.”

Instead, reducing the number of games flooding the PC marketplace – and by extension improving the chances of discovery and success – will partly come down to developers. Brammer encouraged studios to “be more honest” with themselves about the quality of their game – and if it’s not up to scratch, scrap it. His team did just that with a robot football game it was building before work began on Pneuma.

“After three weeks, we had it working in Unity,” says Brammer. “Then I made a joke saying, ‘Why don’t we switch to Unreal Engine?’ and we all looked at each other and said, ‘Is our game a bit shit?’ So we threw it away – but those three weeks were the most important of my career as it led to me working on Pneuma, The Turing Test and today Battalion 1944.

“So developers need to start effectively nutting up, saying ‘My game is crap, I need to do better’. Learn to read the market, because that’s another major difference now: you can’t just release anything.”

Even if a game is of a high quality, Brammer still encourages studios to seek a publisher rather than hoping for PlayerUnknown levels of surprise success. We asked what studios should look for in a publisher, what they should expect or demand.

“Well, if you need to demand something from a publisher, if it’s something they don’t want to give to you, that’s the start of a bad relationship,” he says. “Debbie [Bestwick] at Team 17 says if you go for a fair deal where both sides are happy, you’ll get a better deal out of it. There’s always a bit of push-pull, but if you have to demand something they don’t want to give, maybe it isn’t the right fit.

“Speak to everyone, get everyone’s opinion, but if you find someone you like working with [that’s key]… because you’re going have to trust people with your game. For me, reliability is one of the most important thing. If you find someone you think you can rely on, you should go with them.

“No one’s going to care about your game as much as you are, so you have to find the guys you think care about it enough.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Microsoft’s Xbox One X Enhanced Games List Keep Growing

August 29, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Microsoft spent its Gamescom livestream detailing some of the games that will be enhanced for Xbox One X.

The company announced over 115 games that have been souped up for Microsoft’s new console, including including Halo 5, Dishonored 2, Halo Wars 2, Killer Instinct, Resident Evil 7, Gears of War 4, Rime, Star WarsL Battlefront II, Project CARS 2, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Smite, Rocket League, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Ark Survival Evolve and a whole lot more. The full list is through here.

The firm also showed some new titles that will utilize the hardware, including Frontier Development’s Jurassic World Evolution, which is a theme-park-style game that’s due next summer (the title is coming to PS4 and PC, too). Microsoft also confirmed the existence of a special edition of last year’s ReCore, which was a big bet from Microsoft that unfortunately failed to deliver at the time.

Elsewhere, the platform holder pledged to support family and casual gamers, and announced that titles such as Disneyland Adventures and Zoo Tycoon will be updated for Xbox One X.

In terms of pre-orders, Microsoft detailed a special ‘Project Scorpio’ edition of Xbox One X. Similar to the ‘Day One Edition’ it created for the original Xbox One launch, this version of the console will feature a custom design and an exclusive vertical stand. It’s available only to those that pre-order.

It wasn’t just Xbox One X, however. Xbox One S bundles were also revealed, including a partnership with Warner Bros on Middle-earth: Shadow of War. The Shadow of War bundles will be priced at $279 for the 500GB S model (not available in the US) and $349 for the 1TB S edition (which is the same price as the current RRP). It will be bundled on October 10th alongside the launch of the game.

Finally, Microsoft showed off a limited-edition Minecraft version of Xbox One S. The newly designed machine will come with a special ‘Creeper’ Minecraft controller, with a second ‘pig’ controller sold separately. It will also include the Minecraft game, and is coming to retail on October 3rd.

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will Crackdown 3 Hurt The Xbox One X

August 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Microsoft has announced a fresh delay for the long-awaited Crackdown 3, which slips into next year.

The open-world action shooter was originally due for release on November 7th, notably as a launch title for the upcoming Xbox One X – Microsoft’s souped-up 4K-ready version of its current console.

However, Microsoft Studios Publishing general manager announced via Twitter that the game has been held back “so we can make sure we deliver all the awesome that Crackdown fans want.”

Now delayed until spring 2018, this means the only new first-party release that will take advantage of the device will be Forza Motorsport 7.

Microsoft will instead be relying on titles likely already in Xbox One owners’ collections to shift the powerful new console. At E3 2017, the platform holder confirmed Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3 and Halo Wars 2 will receive free updates that take advantage of the Xbox One X hardware.

Third parties will also play a vital role in the new machine’s launch. Previously released titles including Final Fantasy XV, Resident Evil VII, Ghost Recon: Wildlands and Rocket League are all due free 4K updates, and forthcoming heavy hitters like Assassin’s Creed Origins and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War will also be compatible with the new console.

With Xbox One’s major rival PlayStation 4 storming ahead at over 60m sales worldwide, Microsoft will no doubt be hoping the X will help close the gap. The platform holder has avoided sharing concrete Xbox One sales figures for some time now, but it’s believed to be significantly behind PS4.

Crackdown seems to have had a troubled development, originally unveiled as far back as E3 2014 with an initial 2016 release date. This is likely due to the game’s ambitious plans to use cloud computing to power fully destructible environments, although this is reported to be exclusive to the game’s multiplayer mode.

GamesIndustry.biz will be speaking to the game’s developer Sumo Digital at Gamescom next week to get an update on the project’s progress.

Courtesy-GI.biz

The Xbox One X To Get Unity Inside

August 23, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Unity has added Xbox One X support to its list of supported platforms.

The update gives users of the engine access to the new Xbox model’s 4K and HDR output. Ultimately, Unity users with an Xbox One development kit can now deploy to the Xbox One, Xbox One S and Xbox One X simultaneously.

“Taking advantage of the increased power and 4K HDR output of the Xbox One X is as easy as changing some quality settings,” asserts a brief blog post on the update from Unity.

The engine maker is now appealing to developers to provide feedback on their experience deploying to Xbox One X, with a view to refining and updating the support.

The Xbox One X offers a more powerful version of the console, but for a price of £449, or $499, leading analysts have collectively suggested it may struggle to sell. The machine, previously known as Project Scorpio, will sell at a loss at its RRP, though some predict Microsoft will shift in excess of 20 million units by 2022.

It is worth noting that the original Xbox One debuted with a $499 RRP.

How appealing the Xbox One X’s increased resolution output will be to Unity’s legion of indie and microstudio users is yet to be seen, but support from such a prolifically employed tool may be seen as a considerable boon.

Courtesy-GI.biz

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