It is possible that one day we will report on which companies made it through the night without being hacked or without exposing their users.
For now, though, the opposite is the norm and today we are reporting about a problem with gaming system Steam that, you guessed it, has dangled the personal details of punters within the reach of ne’er-do-wells.
The news is not coming out of Steam, or parent Valve, directly, but it is running rampant across social networks and the gaming community. The problem, according to reports and videos, was a bad one and made the overtaking of user accounts rather a simple job.
No badass end-of-level boss to beat here, just a stage in the authentication process. A video posted online demonstrates the efforts required, while some reports – with access to Steam’s PR hot air machine – say that the problem is fixed.
A statement released to gaming almanac Kotaku finds the firm in apologetic clean-up mode.
Steam told the paper that some users would have their passwords reset, those being the ones who might have seen their log-in changed under suspicious circumstances, and that in general users should already be protected from the risks at hand.
“To protect users, we are resetting passwords on accounts with suspicious password changes during that period or may have otherwise been affected,” the firm said.
“Relevant users will receive an email with a new password. Once that email is received, it is recommended that users log-in to their account via the Steam client and set a new password.
“Please note that, while an account password was potentially modified during this period, the password itself was not revealed. Also, if Steam Guard was enabled, the account was protected from unauthorized log-ins even if the password was modified.”
The firm added its apologies to the community.
The last of the console makers is ready to sign up to AMD chips, according to the latest rumor
Some details are now coming to light on Nintendo’s upcoming NX console. The console will be in the shops in a year’s time, but we might know who’s building the NX’s chips.
AMD will manufacture the CPU + GPU combo, giving the outfit total control of the console market. It was pretty much a no brainer. AMD created the APUs found inside the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Although it is getting increasingly difficult to tell the consoles apart.
AMD’s CEO, Lisa Su, confirmed that the company had a new chip contract. Su said the deal could generate billions, but she did not identify the customer .
It now seems she was referring to the Nintendo deal, which means she is more optimistic about the products’ success than us.
The NX will be based around the Android operating system and should released some time next year. Nintendo is saying nothing about the deal at the moment.
AMD is needs more deals like this if it is going to turn around its dependence on the ever-shrinking PC market. There are only so many consoles that made every year and AMD appears to be inside them all.
The launch of Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One consoles in China hasn’t attracted much fanfare, perhaps because both firms were aware from the outset of what an uphill struggle this would be, and how much potential for disappointment there was if expectations were set too high. Last week saw the first stab at estimating figures, from market intelligence firm Niko Partners, who reckon that the two platforms combined will sell a little over half a million units this year; not bad, but a tiny drop in the ocean that is China’s market for videogames.
These are not confirmed sales figures, it’s important to note; market intelligence firms essentially make educated guesses, and some of those guesses are a damn sight more educated than others, so treating anything they publish as hard data is ill-advisable. Nonetheless, the basic conclusion of Niko Partners’ report is straightforward and seems to have invited no argument; the newly launched game consoles are making little impact on the Chinese market.
There are lots of reasons why this is happening. For a start, far from being starved of a much desired product, the limited pre-existing market for game consoles in China is actually somewhat saturated; the country is host to a thriving grey import market for systems from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. This market hasn’t gone away with the official launch of the consoles, not least because the software made officially available in China is extremely limited. Anyone interested in console gaming will be importing games on the grey market anyway, which makes it more likely that they’ll acquire their console through the same means.
Moreover, there’s a big cultural difference to overcome. Game consoles are actually a pretty tough sell, especially to families, in countries where they’re not already well-established. Their continued strength in western markets is largely down to the present generation of parents being accustomed to game consoles in the home; cast your mind back to the 1980s and 1990s in those markets, though, and you may recall that rather a lot of parents were suspicious of game consoles not just because of tabloid fury over violent content, but because these machines were essentially computers shorn of all “educational” value. I didn’t own a console until I bought a PlayStation, because my parents – otherwise very keen for us to use and learn about computers, resulting in a parade of devices marching through the house, starting from the Amstrad CPC and ending up with a Gateway 2000 PC in which I surreptitiously installed a Voodoo 3D graphics board – wouldn’t countenance having a SNES in the house. That’s precisely the situation consoles in China now face with much of their target audience; a situation amplified even further by the extremely high-pressure nature of Chinese secondary education, which probably makes parents even more reluctant than mine when it comes to installing potentially time-sucking entertainment devices in their homes.
Besides; Chinese people, teens and adults alike, already play lots of games. PC games are enormously popular there; mobile games are absolutely huge. This isn’t virgin territory for videogames, it’s an extremely developed, high-value, complex market, and an expensive new piece of hardware needs to justify its existence in very compelling terms. Not least due to local content restrictions, neither PS4 nor Xbox One is doing that, nor are they particularly likely to do so in the future; the sheer amount of content and momentum that would be needed to make an impression upon such a mature landscape is likely to be beyond the scope of all but a truly herculean effort at local engagement and local development by either company – not just with games, but also with a unique local range of services and products beyond gaming – and neither is truly in a position to make that effort. It’s altogether more likely that both Sony and Microsoft will simply sell into China to satisfy pre-existing local demand as much as possible, without creating or fulfilling any expectations higher than that.
Is this important? Well, it’s important in so much as China is the largest marketplace in the world, with a fast-growing middle class whose appetite for luxury electronics is well-established. Apple makes increasingly large swathes of its revenue in China; companies with high-end gaming hardware would like to do something similar, were the barriers to success not raised so high. Without building a market in China, the global growth potential of the console business is fairly severely limited – the established rich nations in which consoles are presently successful have a pretty high rate of market penetration as it is, and growing sales there is only going to get tougher as birth-rates fall off (a major factor in Japan already, but most European and North American states are within spitting distance of the Japanese figures, which is worth bearing in mind next time someone shares some moronic clickbait about sexless Japan on your Facebook feed). So yes, the failure of consoles to engage strongly in China would be a big deal.
The deal looks even bigger, though, if you view China as something of a bellwether. It’s a unique country in many regards – regulations, media environment, culture, sheer scale – but in other regards, it’s on a developmental track that’s not so different from many other nations who are also seeing the rise of an increasingly monied urban middle class. If the primary difficulty in China is regulations and content restrictions, then perhaps Sony and Microsoft will find more luck in Brazil, in India, in Indonesia, in the Philippines and in the many other nations whose rapid development is creating larger and larger audiences with disposable income for entertainment. In that case, China may be the outlier, the one nation where special conditions deny consoles a chance at market success.
If the problem with China is more fundamental, though, it spells trouble on the road. If the issue is that developing nations are adopting other gaming platforms and systems long before consoles become viable for launch there, creating a huge degree of inertia which no console firm has the financial or cultural clout to overcome, then the chances are that consoles are never going to take root in any significant degree in the new middle class economies of the world. Games will be there, of course; mobile games, PC games, games on devices that haven’t even been invented yet (though honestly, Niko Partners’ tip of SmartTV games as a growth market is one that I simply can’t view from any angle that doesn’t demand instant incredulity; still, who knows?). Consoles, though, would then find themselves restricted geographically to the markets in which they already hold sway, which creates a really big limit on future growth.
That’s not the end of the world. The wealthy nations which consume consoles right now aren’t likely to go anywhere overnight, and the chances are that they’ll continue to sustain a console audience of many tens of millions – perhaps well over 100 million – for years if not decades to come. Moreover, the future of games is inevitably more fragmented than its present; different cultures, different contexts and different tastes will mean that it will be a truly rare game which is played and enjoyed to a large degree in all quadrants of the globe. There’ll still be a market for a game which “just” does great business in North America, Europe and so on; but it’ll be an increasingly small part of an ever-growing market, and its own potential for growth will be minimal. That, in the end, is a fairly hard cap on console development costs – you can’t spend vastly more money making something unless your audience either gets bigger, or more willing to pay, and there’s little evidence of either of those things in the console world right now.
The real figures from China, if and when they’re finally announced, will be interesting to see – but it’s unlikely that Niko Partners’ projections are terribly far from the truth. Whether any console company truly decides to put their weight behind a push in China, or in another developing country, over the coming years may be a deciding factor in the role consoles will play in the future of the industry as a whole.
Sony is denying that its PlayStation Vita is dead in the water, despite ignoring it during its E3 2015 presentation.
Slim PlayStation Vita went on sale in February and was greeted by a loud sounding yawn by the hand-held game community. Since then we have heard very little about it, and like most of the world, including Sony, did not really care.
PlayStation Europe boss Jim Ryan insisted to Gamespot that the system is still selling well and has “hundreds” of games in development.
“We’re still selling respectable quantities. We have a hundred games in development, and you might say, ‘Well yeah but they’re all indie games’, but many of these games review very highly. Also the PS4′s Remote Play feature is something that is valued a lot.”
Ryan also insists that the handheld market still exists, despite being gutted by tablets and smartphones.
He admitted that it was not as big as it used to be, but hell what these days is.
” A much smaller market than when the DS and PSP were in their glory days. But that market still does exist,” he added.
Despite his enthusiasm we don’t hold out much hope.
Amazon has looked at the gaming market and felt that it is an area it can make a pile of dosh.
So far its games have been restricted to mobile devices. But it looks like that’s about to change: Amazon Game Studios is currently hiring for what it describes as an “ambitious new PC game project using the latest technology.”
It looks like this will be Amazon’s first ever PC release. Amazon hired notable developers like Kim Swift, designer of Portal, as well as Clint Hocking, who previously worked on franchises like Far Cry and Splinter Cell.
It has spent a small fortune licensing the CryEngine, the same one used to make high-end PC games like Crysis 3 and bought the game streaming service Twitch last August for $970 million, and made gaming a big focus for its Fire TV media box.
In a statement Amazon said: “We believe that games have just scratched the surface in their power to unite players,” the job posting reads, “and will produce some of the future’s most influential voices in media and art.”
For a while now, people had been wondering what the next Wii would be called, with smart money being on the Number 2. However it seems that the new console dubbed the Nintendo NX has a few surprises under the bonnet.
According to Nikkei Nintendo is planning an Android console so that game developers would be able to port their games over with relative ease.
This could also indicate that games developed for the Nintendo NX could extend to other Android-powered devices like smartphones and tablets, play nice with the console.
Games developers have been ignoring the Wii U in droves so this might actually help Nintendo get back into the race.
Android-powered consoles have appeared before but they died horribly in the market place.
There’s something genuinely surreal about sitting down to write an article about region locking in 2015. It feels archaic and almost nostalgic; I might as well be writing something about blowing into cartridge ports to get games to work, or bemoaning the long load times for cassettes. Yet here we are. Years into the era of digital distribution, long after we reached the point where it became technically harder to prevent customers from accessing games from anywhere in the world than it is to permit the same, region locking is back in the news. Thanks, Nintendo.
The focus of this week’s headlines is the Humble Bundle promotion which Nintendo is running for a number of indie titles on 3DS and Wii U. It’s a great deal for some excellent games and is raising money for a solid cause; plus it’s wonderful to see console platform holders engaging with the Humble Bundle approach, which has been so successful at bringing indie games (and other creative works) to wider audiences on the PC. It ought to be a win, win, win for Nintendo, gamers and indie developers alike.
Unfortunately, though, the bundle only works in the Americas; North America and some bits of Central and South America. Customers elsewhere are entirely locked out, a matter which has been a source of deep frustration not only to those customers, but also seemingly to Nintendo’s own staff working on the project. The result is that what ought to have been a straightforward PR win for the company has turned bittersweet; there has been more widespread news coverage of the region locking debacle in the past few days than there has been for the bundle itself.
Although this is a terrible shame for the developers involved – and I sincerely hope that Nintendo can pull its thumb out of its backside and launch an international version of the bundle in short order – no sympathy is due to Nintendo in this situation. It’s a problem entirely of the company’s own making; the firm made a deliberate and conscious decision to embrace region locking even as the internationalisation of digital distribution made that look increasingly ridiculous, and until that stubbornly backwards piece of decision making is reversed, it’s going to continue causing PR problems for the firm, not to mention genuine problems for its most devoted customers.
Remember, after all, that the rest of the gaming world has ditched region locking en masse – Sony gave it up with the PS3, even making it painless to use digital content from different regions by creating multiple accounts on the same console, while Microsoft made region locking optional on Xbox 360 (making a bit of a mess where some publishers enforced it and others didn’t) before ditching it entirely on the Xbox One. At the same time Nintendo, ever the merry contrarians, went the opposite direction, not only maintaining region locking on the Wii and Wii U, but even extending it to the 3DS – in contrast to the company’s prior handheld consoles, which had been region free.
The idiocy of a region locked handheld is staggering; these are systems which are quite simply at their best when you’re traveling, yet lo and behold, Nintendo don’t want you to buy any games if you go on holiday or on a business trip. The excuses trotted out were mealy-mouthed corporate dishonesty from start to finish; it was all about protecting customers, honest, and respecting local customs and laws. Utter tosh. Had those things been a genuine issue, they would have been an issue in the previous decades when Nintendo managed to sell handheld consoles without region locking; they would also have been an issue for Sony and Microsoft when they removed region locking from their systems.
In truth, there’s only one reason for region locking in this day and age – price control – and Nintendo’s calculation must have been that they had more to lose from the possibility, real or imagined, of people buying cheaper 3DS games from countries overseas, than they had to lose from annoying a chunk of their customer base, be they keen gamers who wanted to try out titles unlikely to be released in their regions, expats who want to play games brought from their home countries or parents who find that a game bought in the airport on the way home from holiday results not in a pacified, happy child on the flight but in an angry, upset child with a game that won’t work.
In Nintendo’s defence, Satoru Iwata has recently been musing publicly about dropping region locking from the Nintendo NX, whenever that turns up. That the company is clearly planning to move down that path does rather confirm that it’s been fibbing about its motivations for region locking all along, of course, which might be why Iwata is being cautious in his statements; it’s a shame if such face-saving is the reason for Nintendo failing to keep up with industry moves in this regard, because the company is going to keep being periodically beaten with this stick until the problem is fixed.
Admittedly, there would be problems with removing region locking from its existing consoles – not least that Nintendo’s agreements with publishers probably guarantee the region locking system, so even if it could be patched out of the 3DS and Wii U with a software update, that can’t happen legally due to the contracts it would breach. What Nintendo could and should do, however, is to offer gamers a gesture of good faith on the matter by dropping region locking from all its first-party software from now on – and perhaps emulating Xbox 360 era Microsoft by making it optional for third-party publishers as well. I can envisage no legal barrier to that approach; it would earn the company enormous kudos for responding to its audience and dealing with the problem, and would cost them precisely nothing. There aren’t that many easy PR wins floating around the industry right now; Nintendo should leap on this chance to show itself to be on the customers’ side.
Wheels turn slowly in Kyoto, though, and it’s probably too much to expect the company to react in a startup-like way to the region locking issue. In some ways it’s Nintendo’s strength that it reacts slowly and thoughtfully rather than jumping on every bandwagon, but in recent years, it’s also been a weakness far too many times – and the thoroughly wonderful software that the company has been turning out in the past few years, perhaps the finest line-up it’s produced in decades, has been regularly undermined by bad decisions in marketing and positioning of its platforms, many of which can be traced to a failure to understand where the market is and where it’s moving.
Region locking isn’t the biggest problem. Fixing it would be cheap and easy but would hardly be a panacea for Nintendo’s issues – but it’s a problem that’s symptomatic, emblematic even, of the broader problems Nintendo has with putting its customers first and applying the same care and attention to its corporate aspects which it always applies to its software development. Fix a problem like this in a proactive, rapid way, and we might all start to believe that the company has what it takes to get back on top.
Valve is no stranger to its ventures having a somewhat rocky start. Remember when the now-beloved Steam first appeared, all those years ago? Everyone absolutely loathed it; it only ever really got off the ground because you needed to install it if you wanted to play Half-Life 2. It’s hard now to imagine what the PC games market would look like if Valve hadn’t persisted with their idea; there was never any guarantee that a dominant digital distribution platform would appear, and it’s entirely plausible that a messy collection of publisher-owned storefronts would instead loom over the landscape, with the indie and small developer games that have so benefited from Steam’s independence being squeezed like grass between paving stones.
That isn’t to say that Valve always get things right; most of the criticisms leveled at Steam in those early days weren’t just Luddite complaints, but were indeed things that needed to be fixed before the system could go on to be a world-beater. Similarly, there have been huge problems that needed ironing out with Valve’s other large feature launches over the years, with Steam Greenlight being a good example of a fantastic idea that has needed (and still needs) a lot of tweaking before the balance between creators and consumers is effectively achieved.
You know where this is leading. Steam Workshop, the longstanding program allowing people to create mods (or other user-generated content) for games on Steam, opened up the possibility of charging for Skyrim mods earlier this month. It’s been a bit of a disaster, to the extent that Valve and Skyrim publisher Bethesda ended up shutting down the service after, as Gabe Newell succinctly phrased it, “pissing off the Internet”.
There were two major camps of those who complained about the paid mods system for Skyrim; those who objected to the botched implementation (there were cases of people who didn’t own the rights to mod content putting it up for sale, of daft pricing, and a questionable revenue model that awarded only 25% to the creators), and those who object in principle to the very concept of charging for mods. The latter argument, the more purist of the two, sees mods as a labour of love that should be shared freely with “the community”, and objects to the intrusion of commerce, of revenue shares and of “greedy” publishers and storefronts into this traditionally fan-dominated area. Those who support that point of view have, understandably, been celebrating the forced retreat of Valve and Bethesda.
Their celebrations will be short-lived. Valve’s retreat is a tactical move, not a strategic one; the intention absolutely remains to extend the commercial model across Steam Workshop generally. Valve acknowledges that the Skyrim modding community, which is pretty well established (you’ve been able to release Steam Workshop content for Skyrim since 2012), was the wrong place to roll out new commercial features – you can’t take a content creating community that’s been doing things for free for three years, suddenly introduce experimental and very rough payment systems, and not expect a hell of a backlash. The retreat from the Skyrim experiment was inevitable, with hindsight. With foresight, the adoption of paid mods more broadly is equally inevitable.
Why? Why must an area which has thrived for so long without being a commercial field suddenly start being about money? There are a few reasons for the inevitability of this change – and, indeed, for its desirability – but it’s worth saying from the outset that it’s pretty unlikely that the introduction of commercial models is going to impact upon the vast majority of mod content. The vast majority of mods will continue to be made and distributed for free, for the same reasons as previously; because the creator loves the game in question and wants to play around with its systems; because a budding developer wants a sandbox in which to learn and show off their skills to potential employers; because making things is fun. Most mods will remain small-scale and will, simply, not be of commercial value; a few creators will chance their arm by sticking a price tag on such things, but the market will quickly dispose of such behaviour.
Some mods, though, are much more involved and in-depth; to realise their potential, they impact materially and financially upon the working and personal lives of their creators. For that small slice out of the top of the mod world, the introduction of commercial options will give creators the possibility of justifying their work and focus financially. It won’t make a difference at all to very many, but to the few talented creative people who will be impacted, the change to their lives could be immense.
This is, after all, not a new rule that’s being introduced, but an old, restrictive one that’s being lifted. Up until now, it’s effectively been impossible to make money from the majority of mods. They rely upon someone else’s commercial, copyrighted content; while not outright impossible technically, the task of building a mod that’s sufficiently unencumbered with stuff you don’t own for it to be sold legally is daunting at best. As such, the rule up until now has been – you have to give away your mod for free. The rule that we’ll gradually see introduced over the coming years will be – you can still give away your mod for free, but if it’s good enough to be paid for, you can put a price tag on it and split the revenue with the creator of the game.
That’s not a bad deal. The percentages certainly need tweaking; I’ve seen some not unreasonable defences of the 25% share which Bethesda offered to mod creators, but with 30% being the standard share taken by stores and other “involved but not active” parties in digital distribution deals, I expect that something like 30% for Steam, 30% for the publisher and 40% for the mod creator will end up being the standard. Price points will need to be thrashed out, and the market will undoubtedly be brutal to those who overstep the mark. There’s a deeply thorny discussion about the role of F2P to be had somewhere down the line. Overall, though, it’s a reasonable and helpful freedom to introduce to the market.
It’s also one which PC game developers are thirsting for. Supporting mod communities is something they’ve always done, on the understanding that a healthy mod scene supports sales of the game itself and that this should be reward enough. By and large, this will remain the rationale; but the market is changing, and the rising development costs of the sort of big, AAA games that attract modding communities are no longer being matched by the swelling of the audience. Margins are being squeezed and new revenue streams are essential if AAA games are going to continue to be sustainable. It won’t solve the problems by itself, or overnight; but for some games, creating a healthy after-market in user-generated content, with the developer taking a slice off the top of the economy that develops, could be enough to secure the developer’s future.
Hence the inevitability. Developers need the possibility of an extra revenue stream (preferably without having to compromise the design of their games). A small group of “elite” mod creators need the possibility of supporting themselves through their work, especially as the one-time goal of a studio job at a developer has lost its lustre as the Holy Grail of a modder’s work. The vast majority of gamers will be pretty happy to pay a little money to support the work of someone creating content they love, just as it’s transpired that most music, film and book fans are perfectly happy to pay a reasonable amount of money for content they love when they’re given flexible opportunities to do so.
Paid mods are coming, then; not to Skyrim and probably not to any other game that’s already got an established and thriving mod community, but certainly to future games with ambitions of being the next modding platform. Valve and its partners will have to learn fast to avoid “pissing off the Internet” again; but for those whose vehement arguments are based on the non-commercial “purity” of this corner of the gaming world, enjoy it while it lasts; the reprieve won this week is a temporary one.
It’s going to be another big year for games, as Newzoo is projecting that 2015 will see global gaming revenues jump 9.4 percent year-over-year to $91.5 billion. The future looks bright as well, with the research firm’s upcoming Global Games Market Report projecting worldwide revenues to reach $107 billion in 2017.
As the overall market grows, the distribution of where that money is coming from will also shift. Newzoo’s projections for this year have a surging Chinese market narrowly overtaking the US as the single biggest revenue contributor, bringing in $22.2 billion (up 23 percent) compared to the American market’s $22 billion (up 3 percent). As far as regions go, Asia-Pacific is far and away the largest source of gaming revenue, accounting for $43.1 billion (up 15 percent). Latin America is the smallest of the four major markets with just $4 billion in revenues, but it is also growing the quickest, up 18 percent year-over-year.
The platforms on which people spend money gaming are also in flux. Tablet revenues are expected to be up 27 percent year-over-year to $9.4 billion, with smartphone and watch revenues jumping 21 percent to $20.6 billion. However, PCs are the most popular platform for games, bringing in $27.1 billion (up 8 percent) from standard titles and MMOs, while casual webgames will draw an additional $6.6 billion (up 2 percent). Newzoo grouped TV, consoles, and VR devices into their own category, projecting them to bring in $25.1 billion (up 2 percent) in game revenues. The only market segment not seeing growth at the moment is the dedicated handheld, which Newzoo expects to bring in $2.7 billion in revenue this year (down 16 percent).
While the firm’s grouping of VR and smartwatch revenues in other categories may be unusual, it said both segments are too small to report for now.
“Short- to medium-term VR revenues will be limited and largely cannibalize on current console and PC game spending as a share of game enthusiasts invest in the latest technology and richest experience that VR offers,” Newzoo said. “Smartwatches will be a success but not add significant ‘new’ revenues to the $20.6 billion spent on smartphones this year.”
EA is shuttering four high-profile free-to-play games, all of them allied to popular IP like Battlefield and FIFA.
Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield Play4Free, Need for Speed World and FIFA World will all continue for another 90 days, at which point they will be taken offline for good. Further development on the games has stopped already.
“In more than five years since most of these titles launched, how we play games has changed dramatically,” said Patrick Soderlund, EVP of EA Games, in a statement. “These were pioneering experiences, and we’re humbled that, over the years, so many of you joined us to enjoy the games and the community.”
In terms of EA’s growing interest in free-to-play models, the real pioneer among that group is Battlefield Heroes, which was pitched at “frustrated, restricted” gamers back in 2008. Need for Speed World and Battlefield Play4Free followed, launching over the second half of 2010.
By the start of 2012, EA was reporting a combined total of 25 million players across the six games in its “Play4Free” initiative, with Battlefield Heroes and Need for Speed World contributing 10 million players each.
However, FIFA World is by no means a forerunner. It only reaching open beta late in 2013, and so it is being shuttered after substantially less than two years of public availability. This wouldn’t imply a slow decline in interest, but a lack of interest in the first place.
That’s in stark contrast to FIFA Online, the free-to-play version of the game made specifically for markets in Asia. In 2012, EA’s Andrew Wilson claimed that FIFA Online was making $100 million a year in revenue. A year later, FIFA Online 3, the most recent iteration, was the leading online sports game in both traffic and revenue in Korea.
One thing is certain, take these four titles away from EA’s free-to-play games on Origin, and you’re left with only Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances and Star Wars: The Old Republic – in his statement, Soderlund stressed the latter’s “enthusiastic and growing” community, and reiterated EA’s commitment to providing new content.
The remainder of the company’s free-to-play catalog is composed of games like Outernauts, The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Bejeweled Blitz. Casual, social, call them what you will, but they are intended for a very different audience to Need for Speed World and Battlefield Play4Free, and that audience has just lost two-thirds of the games EA had made to satisfy its needs.
The deal that helped Crytek recover from its recent financial difficulties was Amazon, according to a report from Kotaku.
The online retail giant signed a licensing deal for CryEngine, Crytek’s proprietary game engine. Sources within the company put the deal’s value at between $50 million and $70 million, and suggested that Amazon may be using it as the bedrock for a proprietary engine of its own.
However Amazon uses the technology, though, the importance of the deal for Crytek cannot be overstated. Last year, during the summer, it became apparent that all was not well at the German developer. Employees hadn’t been fully paid in months, leading to an alleged staff walkout in its UK office, where a sequel to Homefront was in development. Koch Media acquired the Homefront IP and its team shortly after.
When the company’s management eventually addressed the rumors, it had already secured the financing necessary to take the company forward. No details of the deal were offered, but it’s very likely that Crytek got the money it needed from Amazon.
We have contacted Crytek to confirm the details, but it certainly fits with the perception that Amazon could emerge as a major creator of game content. It has snapped up some elite talent to do just that, it acquired Twitch for a huge sum of money, and it has been very open about where it plans to fit into the overall market.
During a presentation at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, Boss Fight Entertainment’s Damion Schubert suggested the industry to drop the term “whales,” calling it disrespectful to the heavy spenders that make the free-to-play business model possible. As an alternative, he proposed calling them “patrons,” as their largesse allows the masses to enjoy these works that otherwise could not be made and maintained.
After his talk, Schubert spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about his own experiences with heavy spending customers. During his stint at BioWare Austin, Schubert was a lead designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic as it transitioned from its original subscription-based business model to a free-to-play format.
“I think the issue with whales is that most developers don’t actually psychologically get into the head of whales,” Schubert said. “And as a result, they don’t actually empathize with those players, because most developers aren’t the kind of person that would shell out $30,000 to get a cool speeder bike or whatnot… I think your average developer feels way more empathy for the free players and the light spenders than the whales because the whales are kind of exotic creatures if you think about them. They’re really unusual.”
Schubert said whales, at least those he saw on The Old Republic, don’t have uniform behavior patterns. They weren’t necessarily heavy raiders, or big into player-vs-player competition. They were just a different class of customer, with the only common attribute being that they apparently liked to spend money. Some free-to-play games have producers whose entire job is to try to understand those customers, Schubert said, setting up special message boards for that sub-community of player, or letting them vote on what content should be added to a game next.
“When you start working with these [customers], there’s a lot of concern that they are people who have gambling problems, or kids who have no idea of the concept of money,” Schubert said.
But from his experience on The Old Republic, Schubert came to understand that most of that heavy spending population is simply people who are legitimately rich and don’t have a problem with devoting money to something they see as a hobby. Schubert said The Old Republic team was particular mindful of free-to-play abuse, and had spending limits placed to protect people from credit card fraud or kids racking up unauthorized charges. If someone wanted to be a heavy spender on the game, they had to call up customer service and specifically ask for those limits to be removed.
“If you think about it, they wanted to spend money so much that they were willing to endure what was probably a really annoying customer service call so they could spend money,” Schubert said.
The Old Republic’s transition from a subscription-based model to free-to-play followed a wider shift in the massively multiplayer online genre. Schubert expects many of the traditional PC and console gaming genres like fighting games and first-person shooters to follow suit, one at a time. That said, free-to-play is not the business model of the future. Not the only one, at least.
“I think the only constant in the industry is change,” Schubert said when asked if the current free-to-play model will eventually fall out of favor. “So yeah, it will shift. And it will always shift because people find a more effective billing model. And the thing to keep in mind is that a more effective billing model will come from customers finding something they like better… I think there is always someone waiting in the wings with a new way of how you monetize it. But I do think that anything we’re going to see in the short term, at least, is probably going to start with a great free experience. It’s just so hard to catch fire; there are too many competitive options that are free right now.”
Two upstart business models Schubert is not yet sold on are crowdfunding and alpha-funding. As a consumer, he has reservations about both.
“The Wild West right now is the Kickstarter stuff, which is a whole bunch of companies that are making their best guess about what they can do,” Schubert said. “Many of them are doing it very, very poorly, because it turns out project management in games is something the big boys don’t do very well, much less these guys making their first game and trying to do it on a shoestring budget. I think that’s a place where there’s a lot more caveat emptor going on.”
Schubert’s golden rule for anyone thinking of supporting a Kickstarter is to only pledge an amount of money you would be OK losing forever with nothing to show for it.
“At the end of the day, you’re investing on a hope and a dream, and by definition, a lot of those are just going to fail or stall,” Schubert said. “Game development is by definition R&D. Every single game that gets developed is trying to find a core game loop, trying to find the magic, trying to find the thing that will make it stand out from the 100 other games that are in that same genre. And a lot of them fail. You’ve played 1,000 crappy games. Teams didn’t get out to make crappy games; they just got there and they couldn’t find the ‘there’ there.”
He wasn’t much kinder to the idea of charging people for games still in an early stage of development.
“I’m not a huge fan of Early Access, although ironically, I think the MMO genre invented it,” Schubert said. “But on the MMOs, we needed it because there are things on an MMO that you cannot test without a population. You cannot test a 40-man raid internally. You cannot test large-scale political systems. You cannot test login servers with real problems from different countries, server load and things like that. Early Access actually started in my opinion, with MMOs, with the brightest of hopes and completely and totally clean ideals.”
Schubert has funded a few projects in Early Access, but said he wound up getting unfinished games in return. Considering he works on unfinished games for a living, he doesn’t have much patience for them in his spare time, and has since refrained from supporting games in Early Access.
“I genuinely think there are very few people in either Kickstarter or Early Access that are trying to screw customers,” Schubert said. “I think people in both those spaces are doing it because they love games and want to be part of it, and it’s hard for me to find fault in that at the end of the day.”
Microsoft’s Xbox division is in a much healthier state today than it was a year ago. It’s had a tough time of it; forced to reinvent itself in an excruciating, public way as the original design philosophy and marketing message for the Xbox One transpired to be about as popular as breaking wind in a crowded lift, resulting in executive reshuffles and a tricky refocus of the variety that would ordinarily be carried out pre-launch and behind closed doors. Even now, Xbox One remains lumbered with the fossilised detritus of its abortive original vision; Kinect 2.0 has been shed, freeing up system resources and marking a clear departure for the console, but other legacy items like the expensive hardware required for HDMI input and TV processing are stuck right there in the system’s hardware and cannot be extracted until the inevitable redesign of the box rolls around.
All the same, under Phil Spencer’s tenure as Xbox boss, the console has achieved a better turnaround than any of us would have dared to expect – but that, perhaps, speaks to the low expectations everyone had. In truth, despite the sterling efforts of Spencer and his team, Xbox One is still a console in trouble. A great holiday sales season was widely reported, but actually only happened in one territory (the USA, home turf that was utterly dominated by Xbox in the previous generation), was largely predicated on a temporary price-cut and was somewhat marred by serious technical issues that dogged the console’s headline title for the season, the Master Chief Collection.
Since the start of 2015, things have settled down to a more familiar pattern once more; PS4 consistently outsells Xbox One, even in the USA, generally racking up more than double the sales of its competitor in global terms. Xbox One sells better month-on-month than the Wii U, but that’s cold comfort indeed given that Nintendo’s console is widely seen as an outright commercial failure, and Nintendo has all but confirmed that it will receive an early bath, with a replacement in the form of Nintendo NX set to be announced in 2016. Microsoft isn’t anywhere near that level of crisis, but nor are its sales in 2015 thus far outside the realms of comparison with Wii U – and their installed bases are nigh-on identical.
The odd thing about all of this, and the really positive thing that Microsoft and its collaborators like to focus on, is that while the Xbox One looks like it’s struggling, it’s actually doing markedly better than the Xbox 360 was at the same point in its lifespan – by my rough calculations, Xbox One is about 2.5 million units north of the installed base of Xbox 360 at the same point. Oddly, that makes it more comparable with PS3, which was, in spite of its controversy-dogged early years, a much faster seller out the door than Microsoft’s console. The point stands, though, that in simple commercial terms Xbox One is doing better than Xbox 360 did – it just happens that PS4 is doing better than any console has ever done, and casting a long shadow over Microsoft’s efforts in the process.
The problem with this is that I don’t think very many people are under the impression that Microsoft, whose primary businesses lie in the sale of office and enterprise software, cloud services and operating systems, is in the videogames business just in order to turn a little profit. Ever since the departure of Steve Ballmer and the appointment of the much more business-focused Satya Nadella as CEO, Xbox has looked increasingly out of place at Microsoft, especially as projects like Surface and Windows Phone have been de-emphasised. If Xbox still has an important role, it’s as the flag-bearer for Microsoft’s brand in the consumer space; but even at that, the “beach-head in the living room” is far less important now that Sony no longer really looks like a competitor to Microsoft, the two companies having streamlined themselves to a point where they don’t really focus on the same things any more. Besides, Xbox One is being left behind in PS4′s dust; even if Microsoft felt like it needed a beach-head in the living room, Xbox wouldn’t exactly be doing the job any more.
But wait, we’ve been here before, right? All those rumours about Microsoft talking to Amazon about unloading the Xbox division came to nothing only a few short months ago, after all. GDC saw all manner of talk about Xbox One’s place in the Windows 10 ecosystem; Spencer repeatedly mentioned the division having Nadella’s backing, and then there’s the recent acquisition of Minecraft, which surely seems like an odd thing to take place if the position of Xbox within the Microsoft family is still up in the air. Isn’t this all settled now?
Perhaps not, because the rumours just won’t stop swirling that Microsoft had quietly put Xbox on the market and is actively hunting for a buyer. During GDC and ever since, the question of who will come to own Xbox has been posed and speculated upon endlessly. The console’s interactions with Windows 10, including the eventual transition of its own internal OS to the Windows 10 kernel; the supposed backing of Nadella; the acquisition of Minecraft; none of these things have really deterred the talk that Microsoft doesn’t see Xbox as a core part of its business any more and would be happy to see it gone. The peculiar shake-up of the firm’s executive team recently, with Phil Harrison quietly departing and Kudo Tsunoda stepping up to share management of some of Microsoft Game Studios’ teams with Phil Spencer, has added fuel to the fire; if you hold it up at a certain angle to the light, this decision could look like it’s creating an internal dividing line that would make a possible divestment easier.
Could it happen? Well, yes, it could – if Microsoft is really determined to sell Xbox and can find a suitable bidder, it could all go far more smoothly than you may imagine. Xbox One would continue to be a part of the Windows 10 vision to some extent, and would probably get its upgrade to the Windows 10 kernel as well, but would no longer be Microsoft hardware – not an unfamiliar situation for a company whose existence has mostly been predicated on selling operating systems for other people’s hardware. Nobody would buy Xbox without getting Halo, Forza and various other titles into the bargain, but Microsoft’s newly rediscovered enthusiasm for Windows gaming would suggest a complex deal wherein certain franchises (probably including Minecraft) remain with Microsoft, while others went off with the Xbox division. HoloLens would remain a Microsoft project; it’s not an Xbox project right now and has never really been pushed as an Xbox One add-on, despite the immediate comparisons it prompted with Sony’s Morpheus. Xbox games would still keep working with the Azure cloud services (Microsoft will happily sell access to that to anyone, on any platform), on which framework Xbox Live would continue to operate. So yes, Xbox could be divorced from Microsoft, maintaining a close and amiable relationship with the requisite parts of the company while taking up residence in another firm’s stable – a firm with a business that’s much more in line with the objectives of Xbox than Microsoft now finds itself to be.
“None of Xbox’ rivals would be in the market to buy such a large division, and no game company would wish to lumber itself with a platform holder business. Neither Apple nor Google make the slightest sense as a new home for Xbox either”
This, I think, is the stumbling block. I’m actually quite convinced that Microsoft would like to sell the Xbox division and has held exploratory talks to that end; I’m somewhat less convinced, but prepared to believe, that those talks are continuing even now. However, I’m struggling to imagine a buyer. None of Xbox’ rivals would be in the market to buy such a large division, and no game company would wish to lumber itself with a platform holder business. Neither Apple nor Google make the slightest sense as a new home for Xbox either; the whole product is distinctly “un-Apple” in its ethos and approach, while Google is broadly wary of hardware and almost entirely disinterested in games.
Amazon was the previously mentioned suitor, and to my mind, remains the most likely purchaser – but it’s seemingly decided to pursue its own strategy for living room devices for now, albeit with quite limited success. I could see Amazon still “exploring options” in this regard with Microsoft, but if that deal was going to happen, I would have expected it to happen last year. Who else is out there, then? Netflix, perhaps, is an interesting outside possibility – the company’s branching out into creating original TV content as well as being a platform for third-party content would be a reasonably good cultural match for the Game Studios aspect of Xbox, but it’s hard to imagine a company that has worked so hard to divorce itself from the entire physical product market suddenly leaping back into it with a large, expensive piece of hardware.
This, I think, is what ultimately convinces me that Xbox is staying at Microsoft – for better or worse. It might be much better for Xbox if it was a centrepiece project for a company whose business objectives matched its strengths; but I don’t think any such company exists to take the division off Microsoft’s hands. Instead, Spencer and his talented team will have to fight to ensure that Xbox remains relevant and important within Microsoft. Building its recognition as a Windows 10 platform is a good start; figuring out other ways in which Xbox can continue to be a great game platform while also bringing value to the other things that Microsoft does is the next challenge. Having turned around public perception of the console to a remarkable degree, the next big task for the Xbox team will be to change perceptions within Microsoft itself and within the investor community – if Xbox is stuck at Microsoft for the long haul, it needs to carve itself a new niche within a business vision that isn’t really about the living room any more.
Nintendo has formed a comprehensive new alliance with DeNA that will make every one of the company’s famous IPs available for mobile development.
The bedrock of the deal is a dual stock purchase, with each company buying ¥22 billion ($181 million) of the other’s treasury shares. That’s equivalent to 10 per cent of DeNA’s stock, and 1.24 per cent of Nintendo. The payments will complete on April 2, 2015.
What this will ultimately mean for the consumer is Nintendo IP on mobile, “extending Nintendo’s reach into the vast market of smart device users worldwide.” There will be no ports of existing Nintendo games, according to information released today, but, “all Nintendo IP will be eligible for development and exploration by the alliance.” That includes the “iconic characters” that the company has guarded for so long.
No details on the business model that these games and apps will be released under were offered, though Nintendo may well be reluctant to adopt free-to-play at first. The information provided to the press emphasised the “premium” experiences Nintendo currently offers on platforms like Wii U and 3DS. Admittedly, that could be interpreted in either direction.
However, Nintendo and DeNA are planning an online membership service that will span Nintendo consoles, PC and smart devices. That will launch in the autumn this year.
This marks a significant change in strategy for Nintendo, which has been the subject of reports about plans to take its famous IPs to mobile for at least a year. Indeed, the company has denied the suggestion on several occasions, even as it indicated that it did have plans to make mobile a part of its core strategy in other ways.
Analysts have been offering their reflections on the deal, with the response from most being largely positive.
“Nintendo’s decision to partner with DeNA is a recognition of the importance of the games app audience to the future of its business,” said IHS head of gaming Piers Harding-Rolls. “Not only is there significant revenue to be made directly from smartphone and tablet consumers for Nintendo, app ecosystems are also very important in reaching new customers to make them aware of the Nintendo brand and to drive a new and broader audience to its dedicated console business. Last year IHS data shows that games apps were worth $26 billion in consumer spending globally, with handheld console games worth only 13 per cent of that total at $3.3 billion.
“The Nintendo-DeNA alliance is a good fit and offers up a number of important synergies for two companies that are no longer leaders in their respective segments.
“DeNA remains one of the leading mobile games company’s in Japan and, we believe, shares cultural similarities with Nintendo, especially across its most popular big-brand content. The alliance gives Nintendo access to a large audience in its home market, which remains very important to its overall financial performance. Japanese consumers spend significantly more per capita on mobile games than in any other country and it remains the biggest market for both smartphone and handheld gaming. While the partnership gives Nintendo immediate potential to grow its domestic revenues through this audience, gaining access to DeNA’s mobile expertise is important too to realise this potential.
“This alliance makes commercial sense on many levels – the main challenge will be knitting together the cultures of both companies and aligning the speed of development and iteration that is needed in the mobile space with Nintendo’s more patient and systematic approach to games content production. How the new games are monetised may also provide a challenge considering the general differences in models used in retail for Nintendo and through in-app purchases for DeNA.”
In a livestreamed press conference regarding the DeNA deal, Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata reassured those in attendance that the company was still committed to “dedicated video game systems” as its core business. To do that, he confirmed that the company was working on a new console, codenamed “NX”.
“As proof that Nintendo maintains strong enthusiasm for the dedicated game system business let me confirm that Nintendo is currently developing a dedicated game platform with a brand new concept under the development codename NX,” he said.
“It is too early to elaborate on the details of this project but we hope to share more information with you next year.”
There’s not a lot to argue with the consensus view that Valve had the biggest and most exciting announcement of GDC this year, in the form of the Vive VR headset it’s producing with hardware partner HTC. It may not be the ultimate “winner” of the battle between VR technologies, but it’s done more than most to push the whole field forwards – and it clearly sparked the imaginations of both developers and media in San Francisco earlier this month. Few of those who attended GDC seem particularly keen to talk about anything other than Vive.
From Valve’s perspective, that might be just as well – the incredibly strong buzz around Vive meant that it eclipsed Valve’s other hardware-related announcement at GDC, the unveiling of new details of the Steam Machines initiative. Ordinarily, it might be an annoying (albeit very high-quality) problem to have one of your announcements completely dampen enthusiasm for the other; in this instance, it’s probably welcome, because what trickled out of GDC regarding Steam Machines is making this look like a very stunted, unloved and disappointing project indeed.
To recap briefly; Steam Machines is Valve’s attempt to create a range of attractive, small-form-factor PC hardware from top manufacturers carrying Valve’s seal of approval (hence being called “Steam Machines” and quite distinctly not “PCs”), running Valve’s own gaming-friendly flavour of the Linux OS, set up to connect to your living room TV and controlled with Valve’s custom joypad device. From a consumer standpoint, they’re Steam consoles; a way to access the enormous library of Steam content (at least the Linux-friendly parts of it) through a device that’s easy to buy, set up and control, and designed from the ground up for the living room.
That’s a really great idea, but one which requires careful execution. Most of all, if it’s going to work, it needs a fairly careful degree of control; Valve isn’t building the machines itself, but since it’s putting its seal of approval on them (allowing them to use the Steam trademark and promoting them through the Steam service), it ought to have the power to enforce various standards related to specification and performance, ensuring that buyers of Steam Machines get a clear, simple, transparent way to understand the calibre of machine they’re purchasing and the gaming performance they can expect as a result.
Since the announcement of the Steam Machines initiative, various ways of implementing this have been imagined; perhaps a numeric score assigned to each Machine allowing buyers to easily understand the price to performance ratio on offer? Perhaps a few distinct “levels” of Steam Machine, with some wiggle room for manufacturers to distinguish themselves, but essentially giving buyers a “Good – Better – Best” set of options that can be followed easily? Any such rating system could be tied in to the Steam store itself, so you could easily cross-reference and find out which system is most appropriate for the kind of games you actually want to play.
In the final analysis, it would appear that Valve’s decision on the myriad possibilities available to it in this regard is the worst possible cop-out, from a consumer standpoint; the company’s decided to do absolutely none of them. The Steam Machines page launched on the Steam website during GDC lists 15 manufacturers building the boxes; many of those manufacturers are offering three models or more at different price and performance levels. There is absolutely no way to compare or even understand performance across the different Steam Machines on offer, short of cross-referencing the graphics cards, processors, memory types and capacities and drive types and capacities used in each one – and if you’ve got the up-to-date technical knowledge to accurately balance those specifications across a few dozen different machines and figure out which one is the best, then you’re quite blatantly going to be the sort of person who saves money by buying the components separately and wouldn’t buy a Steam Machine in a lifetime.
“Valve seems to have copped out entirely from the idea of using its new systems to make the process of buying a gaming PC easier or more welcoming for consumers”
In short, unless there’s a pretty big rabbit that’s going to be pulled out of a hat between now and the launch of the first Steam Machines in the autumn, Valve seems to have copped out entirely from the idea of using its new systems to make the process of buying a gaming PC easier or more welcoming for consumers – and in the process, appears to have removed pretty much the entire raison d’etre of Steam Machines. The opportunity for the PC market to be grown significantly by becoming more “console-like” isn’t to do with shoving PC components into smaller boxes; that’s been happening for years, occasionally with pretty impressive results. Nor is it necessarily about reducing the price, which has also been happening for some years (and which was never going to happen with Steam Machines anyway, as Valve is of no mind to step in and become a loss-leading platform holder).
Rather, it’s about lowering the bar to entry, which remains dizzyingly high for PC gaming – not financially, but in knowledge terms. A combination of relatively high-end technical knowledge and of deliberate and cynical marketing-led obfuscation of technical terminology and product numbering has meant that the actual process of figuring out what you need to buy in order to play the games you want at a degree of quality that’s acceptable is no mean feat for an outsider wanting to engage (or re-engage) with PC games; it’s in this area, the simplicity and confidence of buying a system that you know will play all the games marketed for it, that consoles have an enormous advantage over the daunting task of becoming a PC gamer.
Lacking any guarantee of performance or simple way of understanding what sort of system you’re buying, the Steam Machines as they stand don’t do anything to make that process easier. Personally, I ought to be slap bang in the middle of the market for a Steam Machine; I’m a lapsed PC gamer with a decent disposable income who is really keen to engage with some of the games coming out in the coming year (especially some of the Kickstarted titles which hark back to RPGs I used to absolutely adore), but I’m totally out of touch with what the various specifications and numbers mean. A Steam Machine that I could buy with the confidence that it would play the games I want at decent quality would be a really easy purchase to justify; yet after an hour flicking over and back between the Steam Machines page launched during GDC and various tech websites (most of which assume a baseline of knowledge which, in my case, is a good seven or eight years out of date), I am no closer to understanding which machine I would need or what kind of price point is likely to be right for me. Balls to it; browser window full of tabs looking at tech spec mumbo-jumbo closed, PS4 booted up. Sale lost.
This would be merely a disappointment – a missed opportunity to lower the fence and let a lot more people enjoy PC gaming – were it not for the extra frisson of difficulty posed by none other than Valve’s more successful GDC announcement, the Vive VR headset. You see, one of the things that’s coming across really clearly from all the VR technology arriving on the market is that frame-rate – silky-smooth frame-rate, at least 60FPS and preferably more if the tech can manage it – is utterly vital to the VR experience, making the difference between a nauseating, headache-inducing mess and a Holodeck wet dream. Suddenly, the question of PC specifications has become even more important than before, because PCs incapable of delivering content of sufficient quality simply won’t work for VR. One of the appealing things about a Steam Machine ought to be the guarantee that I’ll be able to plug in a Vive headset and enjoy Valve’s VR, if not this year then at some point down the line; yet lacking any kind of certification that says “yes, this machine is going to be A-OK for VR experiences for now”, the risk of an expensive screw-up in the choice of machine to buy seems greater than ever before.
I may be giving Steam Machines a hard time unfairly; it may be that Valve is actually going to slap the manufacturers into line and impose a clear, transparent way of measuring and certifying performance on the devices, giving consumers confidence in their purchases and lowering the bar to entry to PC gaming. I hope so; this is something that only Valve is in a position to accomplish and that is more important than ever with VR on the horizon and approaching fast. The lack of any such system in the details announced thus far is bitterly disappointing, though. Without it, Steam Machines are nothing more than a handful of small form-factor PCs running a slightly off-kilter OS; of no interest to hobbyists, inaccessible to anyone else, and completely lacking a compelling reason to exist.