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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.

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 Sony Lost The Handheld Gaming Market?

October 6, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Sony’s Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida was only stating the obvious when he told the audience at EGX that the “climate is not healthy” for a successor to the company’s struggling handheld console, the PlayStation Vita, but sometimes even the obvious makes for an interesting statement, depending upon who’s stating it.

The likelihood of another handheld console from Sony turning up in the foreseeable future is considered to be incredibly low by almost everyone, and it’s notable that there’s never been so much as a whisper about what such a successor might look like or comprise; it’s so vanishingly unlikely to come to pass, why even bother speculating on what might be? Yet for commentators and analysts to dismiss the notion of Sony carrying on in handheld is one thing; for such a senior figure at the company to seemingly join in that dismissal is another. The final step of the long and strange handheld journey which Sony started with the announcement of the PSP’s development all the way back in 2003 won’t come until the Vita reaches its official end-of-life, but Yoshida’s statement is the moment when we learned for certain that the company itself reckons the handheld market is past saving.

It’s not that there’s any lack of affection for the Vita within Sony, including Yoshida himself, whose Twitter feed confirms that he is an avid player of the system. Even as weak sales have essentially rendered AAA development for the Vita financially unsustainable, the firm has done a great job of turning it into one of the platforms of choice for break-out indie hits, and much of the success of the PS4 as a platform for indie games can be traced back to the sterling work Sony’s team did on building relationships and services for indies on the Vita. For that alone, it’s a shame that the console will apparently be the last of its line; there are some games that simply work better on handhelds than on home consoles, and some developers who are more comfortable working within the limitations of handheld systems.

Yoshida is right, though; mobile phones are the handheld killer. They may not be as good at controlling the kind of games that the PSP and Vita excelled at, but mobile devices are more powerful, more frequently updated, carried everywhere and heavily subsidised by networks for most users. Buttons and sticks make for wonderful game controllers, as Yoshida noted, but when the competition has a great multi-touch screen and accelerometer, a processor faster than most laptops only a few years ago, and is replaced every couple of years with a better model, the best set of buttons and sticks on earth just can’t compete for most consumers. Even if Sony could release a Vita 2 tomorrow which leapfrogged the iPhone 6S, within a year Apple, Samsung and others would be back out in front.

That’s not to say that this battle can’t be won. Nintendo has still managed to shift a dramatic number of 3DS consoles despite the advent of the smartphone era – though in typically Nintendo style, it chose not to play the competition at their own game, favouring a continuation of the DS’ odd form-factor, a 3D screen and a low-cost, low-power chipset over an arms race with smartphones (and, indeed, with the Vita). Crucially, Nintendo also pumped out high quality software on the 3DS at a breathtaking pace, at one point coming close to having a must-buy title on the system every month. Nintendo’s advantage, as ever, is its software – and at least in part, its longevity in the handheld market is down to the family-friendly nature of that software, which has made the 3DS popular with kids, who usually (at least in Japan, the 3DS’ best performing market) do not carry smartphones and generally can’t engage with F2P-style transactions even if they do. Vita, by comparison, aimed itself at a more adult market which has now become saturated with phones and tablets.

So; is that the end of Sony’s handheld adventure? Trounced by Nintendo twice over, first with the DS’ incredibly surprising (if utterly obvious in hindsight) dominance over the PSP, then with the 3DS’ success over the Vita, Sony nonetheless carved out an impressive little market for the PSP, at least. Vita has failed to replicate that success, despite being an excellent piece of hardware, and 12 years after news of the PSP first reached gamers’ eager ears, it looks like that failure and the shifting sands of the market mean Sony’s ready to bail out of handhelds. With the stunning success of PS4 and the upcoming PlayStation VR launch keeping the company busy, there’s seemingly neither time, nor inclination, nor resources to try to drive a comeback for the Vita – and any such effort would be swimming against the tide anyway.

I would not go so far as to say that Sony is dropping out of handheld and portable gaming entirely, though. I think it’s interesting, in the context of Yoshida’s comments, to note what the company did at TGS last month – where a large stand directly facing the main PlayStation booth was entirely devoted to the Sony Xperia range of phones and tablets, and more specifically to demonstrating their prowess when it comes to interacting with a PS4. The devices can be hooked up to a PS4 controller and used for remote play on the console; it’s an excellent play experience, actually significantly better in some games than using the Vita (whose controls do not perfectly map to the controller). I use my Vita to do simple tasks in Final Fantasy XIV on my PS4 while the TV is in use, but it wouldn’t be up to the task of more complex battles or dungeons; I’d happily do those on an Xperia device with a proper controller, though.

Remember when the Vita launched and much of the buzz Sony tried to create was about how it was going to interact with the PS4? That functionality, a key selling point of the Vita, is now on Xperia, and it’s even better than it was on the devoted handheld. Sony’s phones also play Android games well and will undoubtedly be well-optimized for PlayStation Now, which means that full-strength console games will be playable on them. In short, though the Vita may be the last dedicated handheld to carry the Sony brand, the company has come a long way towards putting the core functions of Vita into its other devices. It’s not abandoning handheld gaming; it’s just trying to evolve its approach to match what handheld gaming has become.

It’s not a perfect solution. Not everyone has or wants an Xperia device – Japan is the best performing market for Sony phones and even here, Apple is absolutely dominant, with iPhones holding more than half of the market share for smartphones. If Sony is being clever, though, it will recognize that the success of the PS4 is a great basis from which to build smartphone success; if the Xperia devices can massively improve the user experience of the PS4, many owners of those devices may well consider a switch, if not to a new phone then at least to one of the Xperia tablets. It might also be worth the company’s time to think a little about the controllers people will hook up to the Xperia to play games; I love the PS4 controller, but it’s bulky to carry in a bag, let alone a pocket. If the firm is serious about its phones and tablets filling the handheld gap, a more svelte controller designed specifically for Xperia (but still recognizably and functionally a PS4 pad) would be an interesting and worthwhile addition to the line-up.

Nonetheless, what’s happening with Xperia – in terms of remote play, PS Now, and so on – is an interesting look at how consoles and smartphones might co-exist in the near future. The broad assumption that smart devices will kill off consoles doesn’t show any sign of coming true; PS4 and Xbox One are doing far, far better than PS3 and Xbox 360 did, and while the AAA market is struggling a little with its margins, the rapid rise of very high quality indie titles to fill the gap left by the decline of mid-range games in the previous generation means the software market is healthier than it’s been for years. If consoles aren’t going away, then we need to be thinking about how they’ll interact with smart devices – and if that’s what Sony’s doing with Xperia and PlayStation, it’s a strategy that could pay off handsomely down the line.

Can eSports Become A Billion Dollar Industry?

October 1, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Over the last few years, competitive gaming has made huge strides, building a massive fanbase, supporting the rise of entire genres of games and attracting vast prize pots for the discipline’s very best. Almost across the board, the phenomenon has also seen its revenues gaining, as new sponsors come on board, including some major household names. Sustaining the rapidity of the growth of eSports is going to be key to its long term success, maintaining momentum and pushing it ever further into the public consciousness.

In order to do that, according to Newzoo, eSports need to learn some lessons from their more traditional athletic counterparts. Right now, the research firm puts a pin in eSports revenues of $2.40 per enthusiast per year, a number which is expected to bring the total revenue for the industry to $275 million for 2015 – a 43 per cent increase on last year. By 2018, the firm expects that per user number to almost double, reaching $4.63.

That’s a decent number, representing very rapid growth, but it pales in comparison to Newzoo’s estimates on the average earning per fan for a sport like Basketball, which represents a $14 per fan revenue – rising to $19 where only the major league NBA is a factor. To catch up to numbers like this is going to take some time, but Newzoo’s research has listed five factors it considers vital to achieving that aim.


Right now, MOBAs are undeniably the king of the eSports scene, and one of the biggest genres in gaming. The king of MOBAs, League of Legends, is the highest earning game in the world, whilst others like Valve’s DOTA 2 are also represent huge audiences and revenues, including the prestigious annual International tournament. Shooters are also still big business here, with Activision Blizzard recently announcing the formation of a new Call of Duty League.

Nonetheless, MOBAs are still the mainstay and if you don’t like them, you’re not going to get too deeply into competitive gaming as a fan. Although their popularity with the athletes is going to make them a difficult genre to shift, Newzoo says that broadening the slate is a key factor to growth.

Geographic reach

The major tournaments bring players, and audiences, from all over the world, but it’s often only the very top tier of players who can find themselves a foothold in regular competition. Major territories like the US, South Korea and Europe have some local structure, but again League of Legends stands almost alone in its provision of local infrastructure. By expanding a network of regular leagues and competitions to more countries, eSports stands a much better chance of building a grassroots movement and capturing more fans.


Already a problem very much on the radar of official bodies and players around the world, the introduction of regulation is always a tough transition for any industry. However, when you’re putting up millions of dollars in prize money, you can’t have any grey areas around doping, match fixing and player behaviour at events. These young players are frequently thrust into a very rapid acceleration of lifestyle, fame and responsibility – a heady mixture which can prove to be a damaging influence on many. Just like in other sports, stars need protecting and nurturing – and the competitions careful monitoring – in order for growth to occur without scandal and harm to its stars.

Media rights

Dishing out the rights to broadcast, promote and profit from eSports is a complex issue. Whilst games like football are worldwide concerns, with media rights a hotly contested and constantly shifting field, nobody owns the games themselves. With eSports, every single aspect of the games being played is a trademark in itself, with its owners understandably keen to protect them. However, with fan promotion such a key part of the sport’s growth, and services like Twitch a massive factor in organic promotion, governing the rights of distribution is only going to become a murkier and more complex business as time goes on. With major TV networks, well used to exclusivity, now starting to show an interest, expect this to become a hot topic.

Conflict between new and old media

That clash of worlds, between the fresh and agile formats of digital user-sourced broadcasting and the old network model is also going to be source of many of its own problems. One or the other, or even both, is going to have to adapt fast for there to be a convivial agreement which betters the industry as a whole. There’s currently considerable pushback from established media against the idea of eSports becoming accepted as a mainstream activity, fuelled in no small part by their audiences themselves, so a lo of attitudes need to change. Add to that the links between these media giants and many of the world’s richest advertisers and you can start to see the problem.


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.


Amazon, Microsoft Linking Up With Disney’s Cloud Movie Service

September 9, 2015 by mphillips  
Filed under Consumer Electronics

Walt Disney Co’s studio unit announced that customers of Inc and Microsoft Corp’s video services will gain access to the collection on its cloud-based movie storage service .

Studios like Disney, which has made blockbuster films like “Frozen” and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” have been attempting to steer movie fans towards digital purchases as sales of DVDs decline.

Walt Disney Studios added that it would launch the app on video streaming-device maker Roku Inc and Google Inc’s Android TV on Sept. 15, coinciding with the DVD release of “Cinderella.”

The collection in Disney Movies Anywhere can be accessed through its new app for theMicrosoft Xbox 360 and for Amazon’s Fire tablets, Fire TV and Fire TV Stick.

The media company launched Disney Movies Anywhere in February 2014 with Apple Inc’s iTunes, and in November partnered with the Google Play online store and Walmart Stores Inc’s online store Vudu.

The two new additions come on the same day as its early digital release of Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”


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.”

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.

Sony Finally On Solid Ground Thanks To The PS4

July 31, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The PlayStation business has had another phenomenal quarter in the first four months of 2015, selling three million PS4 units and turning in an operating income of $160 million from revenues of $2.365 billion. There are now 25.3 million PlayStation 4 units in the hands of players worldwide – a number achieved in less than two full years.

The console continues to be the company’s fastest seller – outpacing the PS2, which took two years and eight months to reach the 20 million mark. Furthermore, thanks to dropping production costs for PS4 hardware, a 12 per cent increase in sales from the same quarter last year translated to a massive 350 per cent rise in operating income.

A strengthening dollar again hurt Sony’s bottom line, having an estimated impact of 15.6 billion Yen on the revenue total of 288.6 billion Yen, but this was massively outweighed by the increase in sales and the efficiency gains of Sony’s operation. On the strength of the results, Sony has added another 20 billion Yen in operating income to the sector’s full year forecast.

The sales rate of PS4 shows a healthily steady growth in player base, returning to a gradual upswing after a huge blip in Q3, 2014. Sony has upgraded it full year forecast from 16 million units to 16.5 as a result – a figure which would show a substantial increase on 2014′s 14.8 million total. By Sony’s own reckoning, the end of Q1 2016 will see nigh on 40 million of the consoles in homes. Vita sales once again went unmentioned in the report, whilst the gradual decline of PS3 continued.

Hardware wasn’t the only success story. Network, (“Network includes network services relating to game, video, and music content provided by Sony Network Entertainment Inc.”) mad almost as much in revenues, netting around 105.8 billion Yen compared to Hardware’s 129.5 billion. The Other category (Other includes packaged software and peripheral devices) brought in 30.6 billion.

Overall, the corporation turned a healthy profit, banking $676 million in net from sales of nearly $15 billion. Whilst the PlayStation business is very healthy indeed, it’s far from Sony’s only, or even biggest, success story: Devices, Imaging, Financial Services and Music all continue to return a higher operating income.


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.



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.