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Is The Steam OS Really Good?

November 19, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Computing

Benchmarks for Valve’s Steam machines are out and it does not look like the Linux powered OS is stacking up well against Windows.

According to Ars Technica the SteamOS gaming comes with a significant performance hit on a number of benchmarks.

The OS was put through Geekbench 3 which has a Linux version. The magazine used some mid-to-late-2014 releases that had SteamOS ports suitable for tests including Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Metro: Last Light Redux.

Both were intensive 3D games with built-in benchmarking tools and a variety of quality sliders to play with (including six handy presets in Shadow of Mordor’s case).

On SteamOS both games had a sizable frame rate hit. We are talking about 21- to 58-percent fewer frames per second, depending on the graphical settings. On our hardware running Shadow of Mordor at Ultra settings and HD resolution, the OS change alone was the difference between a playable 34.5 fps average on Windows and a 14.6 fps mess on SteamOS.

You would think that Valve’s own games wouldn’t have this problem, but Portal, Team Fortress 2, and DOTA 2 all took massive frame rate dips on SteamOS compared to their Windows counterparts.

Left 4 Dead 2 showed comparable performance between the two operating systems but nothing like what Steam thought it would have a couple of years ago.



Is Activision’s Move To Buy King A Smart One?

November 6, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Activision Blizzard has bought King Digital Entertainment for $5.9 billion, marking not only one of the largest acquisitions in videogame history but one of the largest deals ever made in the entertainment business. Comparing this to previous entertainment deals highlights just how extraordinary the figures involved are; the purchase price values King at significantly more than Marvel Entertainment (acquired by Disney for $4.2 billion), Star Wars owner Lucasfilm (Disney again, for $4.1 billion) and movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (acquired by Sony for almost $5 billion). The price dwarfs the $1.5 billion paid by Japanese network SoftBank and mobile publisher GungHo for Supercell back in 2013 – though it’s not quite on the same scale as the $7.4 billion price tag Disney paid for Pixar, or in the same ballpark as the $18 billion-odd involved in the merger that originally created Activision Blizzard itself.

How is $5.9 billion justified? Well, it’s a fairly reasonable premium of 20% over the company’s share price – though if you’ve been holding on to King shares since its IPO in 2014, you’ll still be disappointed, as it’s far short of the $22.50 IPO price, or even the $20.50 that the shares traded at on their first day on the open market. The company’s share price has been more or less stable this year, but Activision’s offer still doesn’t make up for the various tumbles shares took through 2014.

A better justification, perhaps, lies in the scale of King’s mobile game business. The company is a little off its peak at the moment. Candy Crush Saga, its biggest title, is on a slow decline from an extraordinary peak of success, and other titles aren’t growing fast enough to make up for that decline, but it still recorded over half a billion monthly active users (MAUs) in its recently reported second quarter figures. In terms of paying users, the company had 7.6 million paying users each month – more than Blizzard’s cash cow, World of Warcraft, and moreover, the average revenue from each of those users was $23.26, far more than a World of Warcraft subscriber pays. King took in $529 million in bookings during the quarter, 81 per cent of it from mobile devices – a seriously appealing set of figures for a company like Activision, which struggles to get even 10 per cent of its revenues from mobile despite its constant lip-service to the platform.

In buying King, Activision instantly makes itself into one of the biggest players in the mobile space, albeit simply by absorbing the company that is presently at the top of the heap. It diversifies its bottom line in a way that investors and analysts have been crying out for it to do, reducing its reliance on console (still damn near half of its revenues) and on the remarkable-but-fading World of Warcraft, and bulking up its anaemic mobile revenues to the point of respectability. On paper, this deal turns Activision into a much more broad-based company that’s far more in line with the present trajectory of the market at large, and should assuage the fears of those who think Activision’s over-reliance on a small number of core franchises leaves it far more vulnerable than rivals like Electronic Arts.

That’s on paper. In practice, though, what has Activision just bought for $5.9 billion? That’s a slightly trickier question. The company is, unquestionably, now the proud owner of one of the most talented and accomplished creators and operators of mobile games in the world. King’s experience of developing, marketing and, crucially, running mobile games at enormous scale, and the team that accomplished all of that, is undoubtedly valuable in its own right. Those are talents that Activision didn’t have yesterday, but will have tomorrow. Are those talents worth $5.9 billion, though? Without wishing for a moment to cast doubt on the skills of those who work at King, no, they’re not. $5.9 billion isn’t “acquihire” money, and when that’s the kind of cash involved we simply can’t think of this as an “acquihire” deal. Activision didn’t pay that kind of money in order to get access to the talent and experience assembled at King. It paid for King itself, for its ongoing businesses and its IP.

Open the shopping bag, and you might struggle to understand how the contents reach $5.9 billion at the till. King has one remarkable, breakthrough, enormously successful IP – Candy Crush Saga, which still accounts (not including heavily marketed spin-off title Candy Crush Soda Saga) for 39 per cent of the company’s gross bookings. No doubt deeply aware of the danger of being over-reliant on revenues from this single title, King has worked incredibly hard to find success for other games in its portfolio. But even its great efforts in this regard have failed to compensate for falling revenues from Candy Crush, and it’s notable that a fair amount of the “non-Candy Crush Saga” revenue that the company boasts actually comes from Candy Crush Soda Saga. Other titles like Farm Heroes Saga and Pet Rescue Saga are no doubt profitable and successful in their own right, and King would be a sustainable business even without Candy Crush. But it would be a much, much smaller business, and certainly not a $5.9 billion business.

Despite being generally bullish about King’s prospects, then, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the company has done incredibly well out of this acquisition. The undoubted talent and experience of its teams aside, this is, realistically, a company with one IP worth paying for, and unlike Star Wars or the Avengers, Candy Crush is a very new IP whose longevity is entirely untested and whose potential for merchandising or cross-media ventures is dubious at best. King has done better than most of its rivals in the mobile space at applying some of the lessons of its biggest hit to subsequent games and making them successful, but it shares with every other mobile developer the same fundamental problem: none of them has ever worked out how to bottle the lightning that creates a mega-hit and repeat the success down the line. Absent of another Candy Crush game, the odds are that King’s business would slowly deflate as the air escaped from the Candy Crush bubble, until the company’s sustainable (and undoubtedly profitable) core was what was left. Selling up to Activision at a healthy premium while the company is still “inflated” by the likely unrepeatable success of Candy Crush is a fantastic move for the company’s management and investors, but rather less so for Activision.

Perhaps, though, the whole might be more than the sum of its parts? Couldn’t Activision, holders of some of the world’s favourite console and PC game IP, work with King to leverage that IP and the firm’s reach in traditional games, creating new business at the interaction of their respective specialisations? That’s a big part of what made Pixar so valuable to Disney, for example; the match between their businesses was of vital importance to that deal, and the same can broadly be said for Disney’s other huge acquisitions, Lucasfilm and Marvel. (SoftBank’s purchase of Supercell, by comparison, was rather more of a straightforward market-share land grab.) What could this new hybrid, Activision Blizzard King, hope to achieve in terms of overlap that enhances the value of its various component parts?

Certainly, Activision has some properties that could work on mobile (I’m thinking specifically of Skylanders here, though others may also fit); some Blizzard properties could also probably work on mobile, though I very much doubt that Blizzard (which retains a strong degree of independence within the group) is a good cultural fit for King, and is deeply unlikely to work with it in any manner which gives up the slightest creative control over its properties. King’s properties, meanwhile, don’t look terribly enticing as console or PC games, and conversions done this way would almost certainly defeat the entire purpose of the deal anyway, since the objective is to bolster Activision’s mobile business. The prospect of a mobile game based on Call of Duty or another major console IP may seem superficially interesting, but we’ve been down this road before and it didn’t lead anywhere impressive. Sure, core gamers are on mobile too, but they’ve by and large been nonplussed at best and outraged at worst by the notion of engaging with mobile versions of their console favourites. It’s genuinely hard to piece together the various IPs and franchises owned by King and Activision and see how there’s any winning interaction between them on the table.

This is what makes me keep returning to those other mega-deals – to Star Wars, to Marvel, to Pixar – and finding the contrast between them and Activision / King so extraordinary. Each of those multi-billion dollar deals was carried out by Disney with a very specific, long-term plan in mind that would leverage the abilities of both acquirer and acquired to create something far more than the sum of its parts. Each of those deals had a very clear raison d’être beyond simply “it’ll make us bigger.” Each of those companies fitted with the new parent like a piece of a puzzle. King’s only role in Activision’s “puzzle” is that they do mobile, and Activision sucks at mobile; there’s no sense of any grand plan that will play out.

In all likelihood, Activision has just paid a huge premium for a company which is past the peak of its greatest hit title and into a period of managed decline, not to mention a company with which its core businesses simply don’t fit in any meaningful way. King’s a great company in many respects, but its acquisition isn’t going to go down as a great deal for Activision – and we can expect to see plenty of that $5.9 billion being frittered away in goodwill write-downs over the coming few years.

Will The PC Gaming Space Grow To 30B By 2018?

October 29, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Jon Peddie Research have come up with the recent analysis of the PC hardware gaming market and claim the market is set to grow in the next few years.

Apparenlty, the total gaming hardware marker in 2014 was more than  $24,936 billion in 2014 and it slightly declined in 2015 to $24,684 billion. However, in 2016 it looks like that the gaming hardware market will increase to $26.118 billion and it will reach  $28.253 billion in 2017.

However the record year for gaming hardware will be three years from now as in 2018 JPR believes that the gaming hardware market is set to grow to $30.092. Of course by then we will have forgotten that Mr Peddie made his prediction so if he gets it wrong no one will remember.

PC Gaming Hardware Market 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Total – numbers in   millions $24,936 $24,684 $26,118 $28,253 $30,092

In his report, Ted Pollak, Senior Analyst at JPR wrote

“This cycle, unlike any for the past 15 years, will inspire gamers to upgrade their displays. 27 inch and larger 4K/UHD displays are reaching mass market pricing levels and produce an incredible experience allowing much wider field of view and greater detail. The financial outlay for these display upgrades alone is billions of dollars over the coming years”.

Jon Peddie, President of JPR adds

“In addition to the cost of the new display technology, gamers are going to need the computing muscle to drive Triple A game engines at over 60 frames per second, and that horsepower comes at a premium”. Sixty frames per second is considered the gold standard in PC gaming and many prefer even faster speeds, at least twice that number if VR is involved. ”

It is interesting to note  that the PC gaming peripherals market is projected to make $3.6 billion in 2015. These are cheaper and easier to change and  gamers wear out mice, keyboards and headset much faster than  other components.

JPR believes that mainstream gaming notebook and desktop will have to fight with TV gaming optimised PCs including the ones from Alienware iBuyPower and a few others. We do agree that many gamers will be changing their monitors to at least 25×14 or the full 4K experience. To run high end triple A games at 4K you would need a lot of gaming power and a card such as Greenland with HBM 2 from AMD or Pascal high end class from Nvidia. Both of these will arrive in 2016. Gamers who want over 60 FPS in current high end titles might want to get two of the Geforce GTX 980 or higher end cards or a dual Fury from AMD.

If you want the VR glasses in 2016 you will need double the power but we will have to see the adoption rate of these gaming devices before we think that will take off. VR gaming will become significant segment eventually  but definitely not overnight.



Did Japanese Game Development Leave With Kojima

October 22, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Hideo Kojima has left the building. The New Yorker has confirmed that the famous game creator’s last day at Konami has come and gone, with a farewell party attended by colleagues from within and without the country – but not, notably, by Konami’s top brass. Only a couple of months after his latest game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, clocked up the most commercially successful opening day’s sales of any media product in 2015, Kojima has left a studio facing shutdown – its extraordinary technology effectively abandoned, its talent scattered, seemingly unwanted, by a company whose abusive and aggressive treatment of its staff has now entered the annals of industry legend.

It’s not exaggerating to say that an era came to a close as Kojima walked out the door of the studio that bore his name for the last time. For all of Konami’s the-lady-doth-protest-too-much claims that it’s not abandoning the console market, actions matter far more than PR-moderated words, and shutting down your most famous studio, severing ties with your most successful creator in the process, is an action that shouts from the rooftops. Still, there’s some truth to Konami’s statements; it’s unlikely to abandon the console versions of Winning Eleven / Pro Evolution Soccer, or of Power Pro Baseball, any time soon, though more and more of the firm’s focus will be on the mobile incarnations of those franchises. The big, expensive, risky and crowd-pleasing AAA titles, though? Those are dead in the water. Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill (whose reincarnation, with acclaimed horror director Guillermo del Toro teaming up with Kojima at the helm, is a casualty of this change of focus), Suikoden, Castlevania, Contra… Any AAA title in those franchises from now on will almost certainly be the result of a licensing deal, not a Konami game.

One can criticise the company endlessly for how this transition has been handled; Konami has shown nigh-on endless disrespect and contempt for its creative staff and, Kojima himself aside, for talented, loyal workers who have stuck by the firm for years if not decades. It richly deserves every brickbat it’s getting for how unprofessionally and unpleasantly it’s dealt with the present situation. It’s much, much harder to criticise the company for the broader strokes of the decisions being made. Mobile games based on F2P models are enormous in Japan, not just with casual players but with the core audience that used to consume console games. The transition to the “mid-core” that mobile companies talk about in western territories is a reality in Japan, and has been for years; impressively deep, complex and involved games boast startling player numbers and vastly higher revenue-per-user figures than most western mobile games could even dream of. Konami, like a lot of other companies, probably expects that western markets will follow the same path, and sees a focus on Japan’s mobile space today as a reasonable long-term strategy that will position it well for tomorrow’s mobile space in the west.

Mobile is the right business to be in if you’re a major publisher in Japan right now. It’s where the audience has gone, it’s where the revenues are coming from, and almost all of the cost of a mobile hit is marketing, not development. Look at this from a business perspective; if you want to develop a game on the scale of Metal Gear Solid V, you have to sink tens of millions of dollars (the oft-cited figure for MGSV is $80 million) into it before it’s even ready to be promoted and sold to consumers. That’s an enormous, terrifying risk profile; while the studio next door is working on mobile games that cost a fraction of that money to get ready for launch, with the bulk of the spend being in marketing and post-launch development, which can be stemmed rapidly if the game is underperforming badly. Sure, mobile games are risky as all hell and nobody really knows what the parameters for success and failure are just yet, but with the time and money taken to make a Metal Gear Solid, you can throw ten, twenty or thirty mobile games at the wall and see which one sticks. The logic is compelling, whether you like the outcome or not.

Here’s what nobody, honestly, wants to hear – that logic isn’t just compelling for Konami. Other Japanese publishers are perhaps being more circumspect about their transitions, but don’t kid yourself; those transitions are happening, and Konami will not be the last of the famous old publishers to excuse itself and slip away from the console market entirely. When Square Enix surveys the tortured, vastly expensive and time-consuming development process of its still-unfinished white elephant Final Fantasy XV, and then looks at the startling success it’s enjoyed with games like Final Fantasy Record Keeper or Heavenstrike Rivals on mobile, what thoughts do you think run through the heads of its executives and managers? Do you think Sega hasn’t noticed that its classic franchises are mostly critically eviscerated when they turn up as AAA console releases, but perform very solidly as mobile titles? Has Namco Bandai, a firm increasingly tightly focused on delivering tie-in videogames for Bandai’s media franchises, not noticed the disparity between costs and earnings on its console games as against its mobile titles? And haven’t all of these, and others besides, looked across from their TGS stands to see the gigantic, expensive, airship-adorned stands of games like mobile RPG GranBlue Fantasy and thought, “we’re in the wrong line of work”?

Kojima isn’t the first significant Japanese developer to walk out of a publisher that no longer wants his kind of game – but he’s the most significant thus far, and he’s certainly not going to be the last. The change that’s sweeping through the Japanese industry now is accelerating as traditional game companies react to the emergence of upstarts grabbing huge slices of market share; DeNA and Gree were only the first wave, followed now by the likes of GungHo, CyGames, Mixi and Colopl. If you’re an executive at a Japanese publisher right now, you probably feel like your company is already behind the curve. You’ve studied plenty of cases in business school in which dominant companies who appeared unassailable ended up disappearing entirely as newcomers took the lion’s share of an emerging market whose importance wasn’t recognised by the old firms until it was too late. You go home every evening (probably around midnight – it’s a Japanese company, after all) and eat your microwave dinner in front of TV shows whose ad breaks are packed with expensive commercials for mobile games from companies that hadn’t even appeared on your radar until a year or two ago, and none from the companies you’d always considered the “key players” in the industry. You’re more than a little bit scared, and you really, really want your company to be up to speed in mobile, like, yesterday – even if that means bulldozing what you’re doing on console in the process.

This is not entirely a bleak picture for fans of console-style games. Japanese mobile games really are pushing more and more towards mid-core and even hardcore experiences which, though the monetisation model may be a little uncomfortable, are very satisfying for most gamers; the evolution of those kinds of games in the coming years will be interesting to watch. Still, it will be a very long time before there’s a mobile Metal Gear Solid or a mobile Silent Hill; some experiences just don’t make sense in the context of mobile gaming, and there is a great deal of justification to the fears of gamers that this kind of game is threatened by the transition we’re seeing right now.

I would offer up two potential silver linings. The first is that not all companies are in a position to break away from console (and PC) development quite as dramatically as Konami has done. Sega, for example, is tied to those markets not least by its significant (and very successful) investments in overseas development studios, many of which have come about under the auspices of the firm’s overseas offices. Square Enix is in a similar position due to its ownership of the old Eidos studios and franchises, along with other western properties. Besides, despite the seemingly permanent state of crisis surrounding Final Fantasy XV, the firm likely recognises that the Final Fantasy franchise requires occasional major, high-profile console releases to keep it relevant, even if much of its profit is found in nostalgic retreads of past glories. Capcom, meanwhile, is deeply wedded to console development – it’s a much smaller company than the others and perhaps more content to stick to what it knows and does well, even if console ends up as a (large) niche market. (Having said that, if a mobile version of Monster Hunter springs to the top of the App Store charts, all bets are probably off.)

“Hideo Kojima left Konami because he wants to make a style of game that doesn’t fit on mobile F2P – and that’s, in the long run, probably a good thing”

The other silver lining is perhaps more substantial and less like cold comfort. Hideo Kojima left Konami because he wants to make a style of game that doesn’t fit on mobile F2P – and that’s, in the long run, probably a good thing. He joins a slow but steady exodus of talent from major Japanese studios over the past five years or more. The kind of games which people like Kojima – deeply involved with and influenced by literature, film and critical theory – want to make don’t fit with publishers terribly well any more, but that doesn’t mean those people have to stop making those games. It just means they have to find a new place to make them and a new way to fund them. Kojima’s non-compete with Konami supposedly ends in a few months and then I suspect we’ll hear more about what he plans; but plenty of former star developers from publishers’ internal studios have ended up creating their own independent studios and funding themselves either through publisher deals or, more recently, through crowdfunding. Konami’s never likely to make another game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but that doesn’t stop Koji Igarashi from putting Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on Kickstarter. Sega knocked Shenmue on the head, but a combination of Sony and Kickstarter has sent Yu Suzuki back to work on the franchise. Keiji Inafune also combined crowdfunding money with publisher funding for Mighty No. 9. Perhaps the most famous and successful of all breakaways from the traditional publishing world, though, is of a very different kind; Platinum Games, which has worked with many of the world’s top publishers in recent years while retaining its independence, is largely made up of veterans of Capcom’s internal studios.

Whichever of those avenues Kojima ends up following – the project-funding style approach of combining crowdfunding and publisher investment, or the Platinum Games approach of founding a studio and working for multiple publishers – there is no question of him walking away from making the kind of games he loves. Not every developer has his sway, of course, and many will probably end up working on mobile titles regardless of personal preference – but the creation of Japanese-style console and PC games isn’t about to end just because publishers are falling over themselves to transition to mobile. As long as the creators want to make this kind of game, and enough consumers are willing to pay for them (or even to fund their development), there’s a market and its demands will be filled. The words “A Hideo Kojima Game” will never appear on the front of a Konami title again; but they’ll appear somewhere, and that’s what’s truly important in the final analysis.

Will 2016 Be The Year For Virtual Reality Games?

October 15, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

As the end of 2015 rapidly approaches (seriously, how on earth is it October already?), the picture of what we can expect from VR in 2016 is starting to look a little less fuzzy around the edges. There’s no question that next year is the Year of VR, at least in terms of mindshare. Right now it looks like no fewer than three consumer VR systems will be on the market during calendar 2016 – Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Valve / HTC Vive. They join Samsung’s already released Gear VR headset, although that device has hardly set the world on fire; it’s underwhelming at best and in truth, VR enthusiasts are all really waiting for one of the big three that will arrive next year.

Those fuzzy edges, though; they’re a concern, and as they come into sharper focus we’re starting to finally understand what the first year of VR is going to look like. In the past week or so, we’ve learned more about pricing for the devices – and for Microsoft’s approach, the similar but intriguingly different Hololens – and the aspect that’s brought into focus is simple; VR is going to be expensive. It’s going to be expensive enough to be very strictly limited to early adopters with a ton of disposable income. It’s quite likely going to be expensive enough that the market for software is going to struggle for the first couple of years at least, and that’s a worry.

Oculus Rift, we’ve learned, will cost “at least” $350. That’s just for the headset; you’ll also need a spectacularly powerful PC to play games in VR. No laptop will suffice, and you’re certainly out of luck with a Mac; even for many enthusiasts, the prospect of adding a major PC purchase or upgrade to a $350 headset is a hefty outlay for an early glimpse of the future. It’s likely (though as yet entirely unconfirmed) that Valve’s Vive headset will have a similar price tag and a similarly demanding minimum PC specification. The cheap end of the bunch is likely to be PlayStation VR – not because the headset will be cheap (Sony has confirmed that it is pricing it as a “platform” rather than a peripheral, suggesting a $300 or so price tag) but because the system you attach it to is a $350 PS4 rather than a much more expensive PC.

It is unreasonable, of course, to suggest that this means that people will be expected to pay upwards of $600 for Sony’s solution, or $1500 for the PC based solution. A great many people already own PS4s; quite a few own PCs capable of playing VR titles. For these people, the headset alone (and perhaps some software) is the cost of entry. That is still a pretty steep cost – enough to dissuade people with casual interest, certainly – but it’s tolerable for early adopters. The large installed base of PS4s, in particular, makes Sony’s offering interesting and could result in a market for PlayStation VR ramping up significantly faster than pessimistic forecasts suggest. On the PC side, things are a little more worrying – there’s the prospect of a standards war between Valve and Oculus, which won’t be good for consumers, and a question mark over how many enthusiasts actually own a PC powerful enough to run a VR headset reliably, though of course, the cost of PCs that can run VR will fall between now and the 2016 launch.

All the same, the crux of the matter remains that VR is going to be expensive enough – even the headsets alone – to make it into an early-adopter only market during its first year or so. It’s not just the cost, of course; the very nature of VR is going to make it into a slightly tough sell for anyone who isn’t a devoted enthusiast, and more than almost any other type of device, I think VR is going to need a pretty big public campaign to convince people to try it out and accept the concept. It’s one thing to wax lyrical about holodecks and sci-fi dreams; it’s quite another to actually get people to buy into the notion of donning a bulky headset that blocks you off from the world around you in the most anti-social way imaginable. If you’re reading a site like, you almost certainly get that concept innately; you may also be underestimating just how unattractive and even creepy it will seem to a large swathe of the population, and even to some of the gamer and enthusiast market VR hopes (needs!) to capture.

The multi, multi million dollar question remains, as it has been for some time – what about software? Again, Sony has something of an advantage in this area as it possesses very well regarded internal studios, superb developer relations and deep pockets; combined with its price and market penetration advantages, these ought to more than compensate for the difference in power between the PS4 and the PCs being used to power Rift and Vive, assuming (and it’s a big assumption) that the PS4′s solution actually works reliably and consistently with real games despite its lack of horsepower. The PC firms, on the other hand, need to rely on the excitement, goodwill and belief of developers and publishers to provide great games for VR in its early days. A handful of teams have devoted themselves to VR already and will no doubt do great things, but it’s a matter of some concern that a lot of industry people you talk to about PC VR today are still talking in terms of converting their existing titles to simply work in 3D VR; that will look cool, no doubt, but a conversion lacking the attention to controls, movement and interaction that’s required to make a VR world work will cause issues like motion sickness and straight-up disappointment to rear their ugly heads.

If VR is going to be priced as a system, not just a toy or a peripheral, then it needs to have software that people really, really want. Thus far, what we’ve seen are demos or half-hearted updates of old games. Even as we get close enough to consumer launches for real talk about pricing to begin, VR is still being sold off the back of science fiction dreams and long-held technological longings, not real games, real experiences, real-life usability. That desperately needs to change in the coming months.

At least Hololens, which this week revealed an eye-watering $3000 developer kit to ship early next year, has something of a roadmap in this regard; the device will no doubt be backed up by Microsoft’s own studios (an advantage it shares, perhaps to a lesser degree, with Sony) but more importantly, it’s a device not aimed solely at games, one which will in theory be able to build up a head of steam from sales to enterprise and research customers prior to making a splash in consumer markets with a more mature, less expensive proposition. I can’t help wondering why VR isn’t going down this road; why the headlong rush to get a consumer device on the market isn’t being tempered at least a little by a drive to use the obvious enterprise potential of VR to get the devices out into the wild, mature, established and affordable before pushing them towards consumers. I totally understand the enthusiasm that drives this; I just don’t entirely buy the business case.

At the very least, one would hope that if 2016 is the year of VR, it’s also the year in which we start to actually see VR in real-life applications beyond the gaming dens of monied enthusiasts. It’s a technology that’s perfectly suited to out-of-home situations; the architect who wants to give clients a walkthrough of a new building design; the museum that wants to show how a city looked in the past; the gaming arcade or entertainment venue that wants to give people an experience that most of them simply can’t have at home on their consoles. VR is something that a great many consumers will want to have access to given the right software, the right price point and crucially, the right experience and understanding of its potential. Getting the equipment into the hands of consumers at Tokyo Games Show or EGX is a start, but only a first step. If VR’s going to be a big part of the industry’s future, then come next year, VR needs to be everywhere; it needs to be unavoidable. It can’t keep running on dreams; virtual reality needs to take a step into reality.

Has The Game Console Market Reached Capacity?

September 24, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The console business will hit a wall in terms of sales in this generation, and that’s okay. According to Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter, the subsequent shift away from the traditional console model will be a catalyst for even more growth.

Speaking at DICE Europe last week, Pachter discussed a provocative and divisive topic: the end of the console era.

“The console installed base is as big as it’s ever going to get,” he said. “[This] generation is not going to be bigger than the last generation. We’re going to be about the same.

“The Wii U is going to sell 20 million units compared to 100 million for the Wii. The PlayStation 4 is going to sell 120 million or 130 million – that’s great. The Xbox One will sell 100 million to 110 million – that’s great. Add it all together and it’s 260 million units, maybe, and the last cycle was 270 million.”

This take on the trajectory of the PS4 / Xbox One generation must be assessed in the context of a world that contains far more people who play games than at any time in history – thanks in part to the impact of the Wii, and in larger part to the rapid emergence of smartphones and the app economy. If Pachter’s analysis proves to be accurate, it would suggest that consoles are a limiting factor on the growth potential of the games industry, putting some of the medium’s best and most alluring products beyond the reach of the vast majority of people.

“This is the last real console cycle,” Pachter continued. “I don’t mean that Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo will go bankrupt and shut down – they will not. Each of them will make another console, some people will buy them, and the next console cycle will be to this console cycle what the 3DS is to the DS. The 3DS is selling about 15 million units a year, the DS had five consecutive years where it sold more than 26 million. So about half as big.

“So when I say that this console cycle is the last console cycle, the reason is that console games shouldn’t require a console. And I’m not talking about the cloud.”

What games require, Pachter said, is a CPU, a GPU, storage, a controller, and a display. In the coming years, the need to purchase a console to access the first four will be diminished as smartphone and set-top box hardware becomes more sophisticated. By the time this console generation nears its end, “you’re going to have a CPU/GPU in your house that is connected to your television,” whether that be the latest model of the iPhone or a Fire TV box from Amazon.


The switch, Pachter suggested, was simply a matter of the hardware reaching a certain degree of technical sophistication; to use one of his own examples, the point when an affordable set-top box from Amazon can run Call of Duty, a brand chosen by Pachter due to its popularity among online console players. For a publisher like Activision that switch would be easy to justify, opening up the possibility of controlling the multiplayer revenues that currently go to Microsoft and Sony in the form of Xbox Live and PSN subscription fees.

For the consumer, the benefit is the removal of the need to purchase a console, and the ability to exert more control over their gaming habits.

“What happens when you lower the entry so nobody has to buy a console?” Pachter asked. “If Activision sells 20 million copies of Call of Duty to people with a console, how many people would buy it who don’t have a console? I’m guessing 20 million more. To make it easier for the Europeans in the room, how many more people would play FIFA if a console wasn’t required? Another 20 million.

Pachter shared some detailed speculation on how this structure might work, from a publisher charging a dollar or two for monthly access to its biggest online game, to the major publishers forming a consortium that charges one fee and portions out revenue according to which games received the most play. The point, though, is that console publishers have a clear incentive to work out the details, and the consumer has every reason to embrace the change.

“There’s plenty of 30 or 40-somethings who would like to play FIFA or Call of Duty, but they can’t,” Pachter continued. “They’re not going to buy a console for one game, and I’d say that’s true of every single [console] game made. There’s a market of probably several million people who would never buy a console to play the game, but would absolutely buy the game.”

This could be a solution to the problem that flat console hardware sales in a world crammed with gamers highlights. As the number of players on mobile and other accessible platforms continues to grow, making the biggest brands in gaming available to people who see no value in a $400 box makes a great deal of sense.

“I think the traditional gamer market – which has high standards – does broaden. But the only way you actually see a step function change in that is to pull the console out of the equation, and make it open to people who can’t afford or won’t buy a console,” Pachter said.

“I think this shift to full-game digital downloads, where everybody has the opportunity to play a game without having to invest $399 is a huge opportunity. It’s an opportunity for everyone in the value chain, except the retailer and maybe the console manufacturer.”


Is Sony Dropping Morpheus?

September 21, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Sony has pulled back the curtains on its virtual reality headset, giving it an official introduction to the wild and a real-life name.

That name is PlayStation VR, which is an obvious but uninspired choice. The name that the unit had earlier, Morpheus, which was probably a nod towards starts-great-but-ends-badly film series The Matrix, had a bit more glamour about it.

The firm has shown off the hardware to the local journalistic crowd at the Tokyo Game Show, and provided the general press with information, details and specifications.

PlayStation VR was first discussed in March 2014 when it had the cooler name. Since then the firm has been hard at work getting something ready to announce and sell, according to a post on the PlayStation blog.

A game show in Tokyo would seem the most likely place for such an announcement.

Sony said that the system is “unique”, apparently because of a special sound system, and makes the most of the Sony PS4 and its camera. The firm is expecting the device to have a big impact on PlayStation gamers and gaming.

“The name PlayStation VR not only directly expresses an entirely new experience from PlayStation that allows players to feel as if they are physically inside the virtual world of a game, but reflects our hopes that we want our users to feel a sense of familiarity as they enjoy this amazing experience,” said Masayasu Ito, EVP and division president of PlayStation product business.

“We will continue to refine the hardware from various aspects, while working alongside third-party developers and publishers and SCE Worldwide Studios, in order to bring content that delivers exciting experiences only made possible with VR.”

Specifications are available, but they relate to a prototype and are subject to change. Sony said that the system has a 100-degree field of view, a 5.7in OLED display, a 120Hz refresh rate, and a panel resolution of 960×RGB×1080 per eye.

This will not put it at the high end of the market, as the field of view is only 10 degrees greater than with Google Cardboard, and 10 degrees under that of Oculus Rift. Some rivals go as wide as 210 degrees.

And no, no release date or price have been mentioned. We predict that these will be 2016 and expensive.


Does The Xbox One Mini Exist?

September 1, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The rumor mill might have been a bit broken when it was announced that Microsoft was about to launch an Xbox-mini.

The rumor claimed that Microsoft would be holding a launch event in October where people could expect the company to launch the Surface Pro 4, Lumia flagships and an “Xbox One Mini.”

It was claimed that the X-box mini would be third the size of the current console and lack a Blu-Ray drive.

However Microsoft’s Phil Spencer has now debunked this theory, stating that the rumors are simply “not real”. Although he didn’t say the project didn’t exist just that the rumor that it was coming out in October was “not real.”

Given the nature of reality, and theories that the universe is a holographic game being played two-dimensional gods, we are not ready to dismiss out of hand yet.

While the Xbox One Mini definitely won’t be happening the Lumia flagships; Cityman and Talkman, new Surface tablets including the Surface Pro 4, the eagerly awaited Band 2 and perhaps even a slimmer Xbox One is still a possibility at the event.


Is Metal Gear Solid V Going To Be A Hit?

August 26, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

If Hideo Kojima really is on the outs at Konami, he’s at least going out with a bang. The embargo for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain coverage hit last night, and the first batch of reviews are glowing.

IGN’s Vince Ingenito gave the game a 10 out of 10, lavishing praise on the way it adapted the series’ stealth-action formula to an open-world environment.

“Right from the moment you’re told to get on your horse and explore the Afghan countryside, Phantom Pain feels intimidating, almost overwhelming in terms of the freedom its open world affords and the number of concepts it expects you to grasp,” Ingenito said. “It’s almost too much, especially given the relative linearity of previous Metal Gears. But what initially appeared to be an overly dense tangle of features to fiddle with instead unraveled into a well-integrated set of meaningful gameplay systems that provided me with a wealth of interesting decisions to make.”

Vince Ingenito

Whether players choose to sneak their way to victory or go in guns blazing, The Phantom Pain affords them a number of avenues to do so. The game’s day/night cycle and changing weather systems can make certain strategies viable (or not) at any given time. At the same time, a private army management meta-game lets players raid battlefields for resources and new recruits, which can then be put to use researching new technologies or using their skills to open up a variety of other strategic alternatives.

However, a perfect score doesn’t mean a perfect game, and Ingenito does identify at least one weak point in the game.

It’s a somewhat surprising criticism of the game, given Metal Gear Solid 4′s penchant for frequent and extended cutscenes larding the action with exposition and plot twists. While The Phantom Pain shows flashes of that approach (Ingenito noted the “spectacular” opening sequence), it ultimately produces a narrative he found “rushed and unsatisfying.”

Obviously, that failing was not enough to tarnish an otherwise fantastic game in Ingenito’s eyes.

“There have certainly been sandbox action games that have given me a bigger world to roam, or more little icons to chase on my minimap, but none have pushed me to plan, adapt, and improvise the way this one does,” he said. “Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain doesn’t just respect my intelligence as a player, it expects it of me, putting it in a league that few others occupy.”

GameSpot’s Peter Brown likewise gave the game a 10 and praised its adaptable approach to missions, but enjoyed the story considerably more than his counterpart at IGN.

Peter Brown

“After dozens of hours sneaking in the dirt, choking out enemies in silence, and bantering with madmen who wish to cleanse the world, The Phantom Pain delivers an impactful finale befitting the journey that preceded it,” Brown said. “It punches you in the gut and tears open your heart. The high-caliber cutscenes, filled with breathtaking shots and rousing speeches, tease you along the way. Your fight in the vast, beautiful, and dangerous open world gives you a sense of purpose. The story is dished out in morsels, so you’ll have to work for the full meal, but it’s hard to call it ‘work’ when controlling Big Boss feels so good, with so many possibilities at your fingertips.”

Brown said prior knowledge of the series isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying The Phantom Pain, but added that “Fans of the series will find their diligence rewarded in ways that newcomers can’t begin to imagine.” They’ll also, in his estimation, be enjoying the pinnacle of the franchise.

“There has never been a game in the series with such depth to its gameplay, or so much volume in content,” Brown said. “The best elements from the past games are here, and the new open-world gameplay adds more to love on top. When it comes to storytelling, there has never been a Metal Gear game that’s so consistent in tone, daring in subject matter, and so captivating in presentation. The Phantom Pain may be a contender for one of the best action games ever made, but is undoubtedly the best Metal Gear game there is.”

Matt Wales

Eurogamer hasn’t published its full review yet, but Matt Wales weighed in with his impressions to date. Like Brown and Ingenito, Wales underscored the narrative approach as a major departure for the series.

“Beyond an outlandish, action-packed opening sequence… The Phantom Pain is a remarkably economical affair, telling its tale of ’80s cold war subterfuge through snatches of radio dialogue (courtesy of Ocelot), and the occasional return to Mother Base between missions,” Wales said. “It’s fascinating to see such restraint from Kojima, a man well known for his self-indulgence and excess, especially considering that The Phantom Pain is likely his Metal Gear swan song.”

On the gameplay side, Wales said The Phantom Pain “isn’t exactly a radical reinvention of the stealth genre,” but acknowledged the increased freedom players are given to accomplish the familiar assortment of objectives.

“Metal Gear Solid 5′s open world might not be vast, varied or stuffed full of things to do, but it’s a place of constant movement,” Wales said. “Night falls, day breaks, sandstorms sweep in, patrols come and go – and this organic sense of life means that missions are never predictable (no matter how often you play them) with tactical possibilities arising all the time. It’s a game of planning and reacting in a world that refuses to stand still, making every minute matter and every success feel earned.”

“The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima’s ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged.”

Joe Juba

He also applauded the way The Phantom Pain managed to adopt an open-world design without the genre’s standard glut of padding.

“[E]verything you do feels meaningful and consequential,” Wales said. “Guard posts and roaming patrols aren’t simply there for colour as you traverse the world: one careless move into hostile territory and every single enemy on the map will know you’re coming, with more search parties and increased security radically altering the way a mission unfolds. And while other games tout choice and consequence as a headline feature, the Phantom Pain just gets on with it. Even the smallest action can have unexpected consequences – some significant and others barely perceptible.”

Game Informer’s Joe Juba gave the game a 9.25, currently one of the lowest scores the game has received on Metacritic (where it has a 95 average based on 15 critic reviews). Like some of the above reviewers, Juba was a bit disappointed at The Phantom Pain’s approach to storytelling, but noted that having the narrative take a step in to the background puts the focus on the game’s strongest point, its open-ended gameplay.

“A series can’t survive this long without evolving, and The Phantom Pain is a testament to the importance of taking risks,” Juba said. “An open world, a customizable base, a variable mission structure – these are not traditional aspects of Metal Gear, but they are what makes The Phantom Pain such an exceptional game. The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima’s ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged.”

Is Microsoft Besting Sony In Video Game Software Space?

August 20, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The validity of framing the console market as a ‘race’ or a ‘war’ is open to question, but there’s no doubt that it’s a lot more fun when you do. The notion that there is a hard, immovable line between winning and losing simply doesn’t make much sense from a business perspective, but it makes for lively debate and – from an entirely selfish perspective – good copy.

For the first six months of this console generation that was certainly the case: the Xbox One tripping, stumbling and backtracking, with the PlayStation 4 marketing department lying in wait, pointed comments at the ready. Microsoft is dealing with the fallout from that disastrous period even now, its own reluctance to disclose hardware sales figures compounded by Sony’s eagerness to provide an update at every opportunity. At the last count, in July, the PlayStation 4 had sold more than 25 million units. The Xbox One, on the other hand, has sold…. well, we haven’t been given an official worldwide figure in 2015 so far.

In terms of sales, then, it’s very clear which console is ‘winning’ the generation, and it has been from the very first day. In terms of content, though, the debate is more nuanced, the outcome far less certain. Sony’s development resources have long been regarded as a unique strength when compared to Microsoft, effectively guaranteeing a superior crop of exclusive games regardless of how well the PlayStation hardware is selling. Whether that’s still true in terms of first-party studios is almost besides the point, because in terms of available, exclusive games there’s a strong argument that the Xbox has been a more attractive platform since the launch of Titanfall more than a year ago. By the end of this year, that point may well be beyond debate.

“I wouldn’t even say the gap has closed,” says Kudo Tsunoda, one of the leading executives in the Xbox games business. “We’ve got a lot more exclusive games than any other platform.”

Tsunoda and the various studios he oversees are celebrating the second Xbox showcase in less than two months. The first, at E3, is generally regarded as a key battleground within the console war, and a significant proportion of those who watched this year believed that Microsoft emerged victorious despite an impressive showing from Sony. The second, at Gamescom, was an Xbox victory by default, with Sony electing to steer clear of the event for the first time in years. Even so, Microsoft presided over 90 minutes of new games, not all of which were exclusive to the Xbox One, but none of which were on show at E3. Whether those exclusives came from first-party studios (Halo and Gears of War) or via chequebook-and-pen (Tomb Raider and Quantum Break) is largely irrelevant. For perhaps the first time in this console generation Xbox owners have an undeniable right to feel smug.

“There’s a reason we’re able to put on two shows of content together,” Tsunoda continues. “We’ve got seven exclusives coming this holiday, and then everything coming in 2016. Not just the blockbusters, but the ID@Xbox games, the indie games. We’re giving people a lot more.”

Microsoft’s early mistakes have been formative for the Xbox One, its underlying strategy switching from closed and controlled to open and inclusive. Sony recorded several huge PR victories by simply responding to those initial bad choices, but Microsoft has since proved more committed to the stance that Sony initially claimed as its own. An early indicator was Sony’s refusal to allow EA Access onto the PlayStation Network due to stated concerns that it didn’t offer “good value” to the consumer, but just as likely down to competition with its own planned streaming service, PlayStation Now. Microsoft allowed its customers to make that choice for themselves. Had you been asked to guess the stance each company would adopt even a few months before, it’s likely those roles would have been reversed.

Tsunoda repeats the idea that MIcrosoft is ‘listening to the fans’ throughout our interview, making it quite clear that it’s a message the company wants us to hear. However, while it would be naive to believe that any multinational corporation is motivated principally by altruism, the strategy for Xbox One is increasingly guided by consumer demand.

Two incoming services perfectly illustrate the degree to which Microsoft has pivoted since the days of mandatory online checks and a prohibition on used games. Xbox Preview is a more tightly controlled version of Steam Early Access, and just the sort of concept that walled gardens were formed to exclude. Backwards compatibility, meanwhile, demands little in the way of explanation. Equally, its importance cannot be overstated, to the consumers who spend so much on games every console generation, and to those who believe that companies like Microsoft should be treating their creative heritage with more respect.

“With backwards compatibility, it isn’t something that we just think gamers might want,” Tsunoda says. “We know. We’re looking for and soliciting that feedback. It was the number one most requested feature for Xbox One by far.”

Sony has no plans to match Microsoft in this respect, and the possibility of monetising those games through PlayStation Now makes it very unlikely that it ever will. For Microsoft, it’s part of a broader view of gaming with Windows 10 at its core, which should, in theory, unite the previously disparate tendrils of Microsoft’s sprawling organisation. PC and console, past and present, existing in harmony, each interacting with and complementing the other. Cross-Buy, Cross-Play, console to PC streaming; one might say that Microsoft should have been doing this for years already. According to Tsunoda, this is a first step.

“For a long time we’ve had PC gamers and console gamers who weren’t really able to play together,” Tsunoda says. “That’s why Cross-Play is still such a powerful idea. You should be able to play what you love, and play together, regardless of what device you’re playing on. It’s about connecting people.

“With backwards compatibility, it isn’t something that we just think gamers might want. We know”

“It’s a really unique value that only we can offer. You still need very gamer-focused values, but there are lots of things you can do with our technology. We’ve really got a lot more going on [than our competitors]. We’re doing things that can’t be done on any other console.

If Microsoft is pushing towards a more holistic approach to its games business, then a few reminders of its clumsier past still remain. One is perched just below the television directly to our left: Kinect, a device once positioned as an integral part of the future of Xbox, a future that Tsunoda was instrumental in selling to the press and public. These days, though, it feels additive, and that’s being kind. In more than 150 minutes of press conferences across E3 and Gamescom Kinect barely merited a single mention, while a new announcement, the Chatpad, offered a core-friendly alternative to the search and chat functions that represent a huge chunk of why anyone might still use it.

“I don’t think it’s an alternative [to Kinect]. It’s just about giving people a choice in how they can do things,” Tsunoda replies. “There’s still a lot of great voice capabilities that you can use with Kinect, but there’s also a lot of great possibilities for communication with the Chatpad. You can also customise a lot, with specific buttons for specific functions. With everything we do, we’re trying to give people the choice.”

In terms of games, though, Tsunoda offers only Just Dance 2016 as a specific example – which is developed and published by Ubisoft – accompanied by the vague promise that, “There’s still Kinect games coming as well.” This may be what ‘choice’ starts to look like when Microsoft loses faith in one of its possible futures. It should be noted that Kinect is now listed under the “More” section on the Xbox One Accessories page, beneath “Controllers,” beneath “Headsets and Communication,” grouped in the same vague category as the Xbox One Digital TV Tuner and the Xbox One Media Remote.

The fear of obsolescence created by the doldrum in which Kinect now resides also haunts the HoloLens, another promising device that Microsoft has just finished thrusting into the public eye. It stole the show at E3 with an immaculately orchestrated Minecraft demo, only for its limited field-of-view to be scrutinised by the press, and its early utility as gaming hardware to be questioned by none other than the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella.

For Tsunoda, who is also closely involved with the development of HoloLens, the difference between watching a demonstration and actually experiencing it first-hand is more pronounced than any product he’s ever worked on – including Kinect. However, there is more common ground between the two devices than one might think.

“You should think about it in the same way that you would a phone or your computer. It does a lot of things,” Tsunoda says. “Obviously, gaming is a big part of what you do on those machines as well. But that’s what it is: an untethered holographic computer. You can do a lot in the gaming and entertainment space, but it has a lot of other functionality as well.

“Microsoft is a leader in depth-sensing technology: with Kinect, but also the stuff we’re doing with HoloLens as well. A big part of what we’re doing there is an environmental understanding that comes from having pushed our knowledge in depth-sensing. That’s what you’ll see us do as a company. [Kinect] is still a part of the platform, and there’s still Kinect games coming of course, but then also we’re pushing that depth-sensing technology forward with what we’re doing with HoloLens.”

It’s all a part of Microsoft’s future of gaming, whatever that turns out to be. Right now, though, Xbox might finally have emerged from PlayStation’s shadow.

Console Software Sales Strong And Growing

August 13, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

As the 7th console generation was coming to an end several years ago, there was much pessimism regarding the impending launch of the 8th generation. Just as 7th generation software sales were starting to lag, mobile gaming exploded, and PC gaming experienced a renaissance. It was easy to think that the console players were going to be going elsewhere to find their gaming entertainment by the time the new consoles hit the scene. However, the 8th generation consoles have had a successful launch. In fact, the Sony and Microsoft consoles are as successful as ever.

A comparison of the year over year console software sales suggests that the 8th generation is performing better than the 7th generation – provided you exclude the Nintendo consoles. The following graph shows physical and digital software sales for years 1 through 3 of each generation for the Xbox and PlayStation platforms.

The annual numbers take into account the staggered launch cycle, so year 1 comprises different sales years for Xbox 360 and PS3. The data shows that the Sony and Microsoft platforms have outperformed their 7th generation counterparts, especially in the first two years of the cycle. The 8th generation outperforms the 7th generation even in an analysis that excludes DLC, which now accounts for an additional 5-10 percent of software sales.

However, the picture is far different if we include the Nintendo platforms. The graph below shows the same data, but now includes the Wii and Wii U in their respective launch years.

The data shows how much the “Wii bubble” contributed to the explosive growth in software sales in 2008, the year the Wii really took off as a family and party device. This data corroborates a broader theme EEDAR has seen across our research – new, shortened gaming experiences that have added diversity to the market, especially mobile, have cannibalized the casual console market, not the core console market. People will find the best platform to play a specific experience, and for many types of experiences, that is still a sofa, controller, and 50 inch flat-screen TV.

The shift in consoles to core games is further exemplified by an analysis of sales by genre in the 7th vs. 8th generation. The graph below shows the percentage of sales by genre in 2007 versus 2014, ordered from more casual genres to more core genres. Casual genres like General Entertainment and Music over-indexed in 2007 while core genres like Action and Shooter over-indexed in 2014.

It has become trendy to call this console generation the last console generation. EEDAR believes one needs to be very specific when making these claims. While this might be the last generation with a disc delivery and a hard drive in your living room, EEDAR does not believe the living room, sit-down experience is going away any time soon.

Does Steam Have A Security Issue?

July 28, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

A security problem with the Steam gaming on-demand system means that players and their personal details are at risk.

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.



Nintendo Goes AMD

July 21, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

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.



Can Cansoles Ever Crack The Chinese Market?

July 14, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

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.

Should Nintendo Drop E3?

June 24, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Computing

You know a company has had a particularly miserable E3 when, before the show is even over, one senior executive finds himself having to officially deny that another senior executive has apologized for the state of their E3 offerings. That’s exactly the situation Reggie Fils-Aime found himself in earlier this week, as the disappointment at Nintendo’s extremely weak showing crystallized around a single tweet sent by company president Satoru Iwata. The tweet was in Japanese; various translations floated around, some more accurate than others, and the media gleefully seized on an interpretation which had Iwata promising to “do better” at E3 in future. It was the perfect stick with which to beat Nintendo for failing to live up to the standards accomplished by Microsoft and, even more spectacularly, by Sony on the previous day; look, even the company’s own president thinks it was rubbish!

As it happens, Fils-Aime is quite right; Iwata did not apologize for Nintendo’s conference. He said that the company was listening closely to feedback and would work hard, in future, to meet the expectations of even more people. This was prefaced with a comment related to the extremely late hour at which the show was broadcast in Japan (it didn’t start until 1am JST; the Sony conference the previous day was at a rather more comfortable 10am JST, and nobody in Japan really cares about the Microsoft conference). In context (and context is king in the Japanese language), Iwata’s comment is clearly a generic “thanks for your feedback, we’ll work hard in future too”, coupled with a tacit promise to try not to mess up the scheduling for Japanese viewers in future.

Iwata didn’t apologize. Of course he bloody didn’t; the Nintendo boss is often frank and refreshingly direct in his manner, but the content of his statements is always, always on-message. The idea that he was going to take to Twitter to say “sorry, that was a load of old bollocks wasn’t it?” after his company’s event is ludicrous. Yet, at the same time, the fact that it seemed plausible to so many people is a reflection of something troubling; Nintendo’s event was genuinely bad enough to make an apology from Iwata himself seem, if not realistic, then at least not ridiculous.

Nintendo, or at least a part of Nintendo – perhaps the Japanese part – didn’t want to be at E3. That’s partially related to NX; the company is the only platform holder which has acknowledged that it’s working on future hardware, but isn’t going to say anything further about it until 2016. It’s also too early to talk about its mobile titles (and E3 probably isn’t the venue for that anyway), and Iwata confirmed prior to the event that it wouldn’t talk about its health, lifestyle and education related projects at a purely gaming event like E3. Nonetheless, there’s plenty that Nintendo could have talked about but didn’t. The choice to reveal only games that are locked in for release within the next 10 months or so isn’t confirmation of a time-of-death being decided for Wii U (they did the same thing for 3DS, which has an installed base twice the size of the PS4 and isn’t going anywhere any time soon), it’s a decision which was taken, along with the decision to do an online broadcast rather than a live event – cutting out the whooping crowds and the spectacle that usually defines an E3 conference.

These are decisions which say, “we’re not playing your game” – the game in question being E3 itself. Nintendo doesn’t feel like it fits well with E3 right now. It’s not just troubled by the dismal sales of the Wii U, it’s also deeply uncomfortable with being the only major company in the industry that’s still seriously committed to family entertainment. It knows that no matter how wonderful its software and franchises are – and I maintain that Nintendo is in a genuine golden age regarding the quality of its games – they make problematic bedfellows for the mainstream of distinctly adult-focused games and the monetization of violent nostalgia for thirty-somethings. I think it’s genuinely wonderful that the games industry’s wings are spread so wide, even in the AAA space, that it can accommodate both the charming, gentle fun of Yoshi’s Wooly World and the gut-wrenching, visceral violence of the Doom reboot; at the same time, I can understand why the creators of the former don’t see much value in investing heavily in promoting it alongside the latter. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong audience. It’s no accident that one of the very few third-party games to appear in the Nintendo event was Skylanders, a hugely successful franchise that’s equally uncomfortable standing shoulder to shoulder with Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.

By going digital rather than having a staged event, by replacing its executives with loveable puppets, by giving developers lengthy, meandering videos to chat about their creative process after showing off their new trailers, by refusing to talk about anything but the immediate future of its software line-up – by all these decisions and more, Nintendo said “we’re not playing the E3 game” and attempted to dodge the inevitably negative contrasts with Sony and Microsoft.

It didn’t work. It didn’t work because it’s an intrinsically dishonest approach, one which not only failed to establish a “Nintendo difference” that denied negative contrasts, but which also robbed the company of the chance to make a decent fist out of its showing. Nintendo hobbled its own event, making it even more disappointing than it needed to be, and all it achieved was to make itself look even weaker, even more troubled, next to the might of Sony and Microsoft.

Here’s what Nintendo should have done – should have had the courage to do – nothing. They should have held no digital event. Some of Nintendo of America’s activities, like the entertaining and light-hearted Nintendo World Championships, fit nicely with the week, but the digital event shouldn’t have happened at all. The company is absolutely correct to think that its approach and its products don’t fit E3 as it stands, but absolutely wrong to think that it can avoid the resulting negativity by just down-scaling its involvement. Pick a lane and stick with it; given the choice to go big or go home, Nintendo’s decision ought to have been “go home”, not “can’t we just go a bit small and hope for the best?”

This would not be unprecedented. Faced with a similar disconnect between their games and much of the rest of the industry’s direction, Nintendo – by far the largest games company in Japan – has spurned involvement in the Tokyo Game Show for many, many years. Being at TGS makes no sense for the company. It can achieve better exposure for its games in a more positive environment by holding its own event, digital or otherwise, at a different time; a month or two before the show, or after the show. This decision has never hurt Nintendo one jot – not in the way that a rubbish, half-hearted TGS conference every year would have.

Precisely the same logic applies to E3. Imagine if Nintendo had skipped E3 entirely; sure, there would have been a bit of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching in the media over it, but it would have been over soon, and a few people writing “Nintendo were conspicuous by their absence” in their show reports is hardly the end of the world. Then this week’s digital event could have been held as an ordinary digital event a month or six weeks later; call it “Nintendo’s preview of the next six months”, or whatever. In that context, it would actually have been a pretty great show. Tack on a few seconds of new footage from the upcoming open-world Zelda game and one of Miyamoto’s work-in-progress Gamepad titles, and you’d have a digital event that everyone would consider pretty strong, instead of an E3 show that everyone considered awful and weak.

To make this work, though, Nintendo needs to commit to the strategy. This year, it tried to have its cake and eat it; to participate in E3 without committing to it, without making a big deal of it. It failed so miserably that the Internet spent a few hours genuinely believing that Iwata had apologized for the whole sorry affair. Skipping E3 entirely – or at the very least, dropping all pretense of holding a conference during E3 week – would have been preferable, and ought to be the company’s strategy for the future.