Archive for the ‘Opinion Piece’ Category

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by L.W. Barker aka ‘Sarge’ Founder/President Gamer’s Outpost

Marvel’s Spider-Man – The Heist DLC Black Cat Reveal Trailer is despicable. As of this writing, the game isn’t even released yet but this paid DLC (which was obviously cut out of the main story line) is being shown? This is pure greed at its finest, and a new low for Marvel, and Insomniac Games.

We are being played by this Industry, and quite frankly enough is enough! Yes, I understand that DLC adds a sense of longevity to our games, but the Industry also needs to understand that we will no longer pay for content that shoud be free in the first place.

Simply put, the industry has played the gaming community like a foolish fiddle and it needs to end! For if not, these publishers and developers will continue to take advantage of us with the twisted mindset that raping our pockets is the right thing to do.

My advice (and its something I practice) is to wait for our games to be released as Special Editions with ALL the DLC included and buy at that time at a discount. Yeah I know waiting sucks, but doing so will tear a proverbial hole in the Industry’s greedy pockets, and put that money where it belongs…in our own.

#ByeFelicia Gamer’s Outpost

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by David M. Ewalt via Paste Magazine

Melvin the Barbarian is angry at the dirty goblin sniping arrows at him from behind a tree. I can hear it in his voice; my earphones convey every nuance of his bellowed threats, even if the avatar I see in my headset remains passive, resembling less a raging half-Orc than a featureless robot. I can’t see when he swings his greataxe, but I know the attack connects. The little blue die Melvin tosses across our virtual play area comes up 20, and that means the goblin has fired his last shot.

The fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is usually played with pencils and paper, around a table, with no gadgetry involved. But recent innovations in the field of virtual reality allow characters like Melvin to team up with other players inside high-tech simulated worlds. I don’t know the real name of the person playing this raging barbarian, or his physical location, or anything about him other than the sound of his voice. But here we are, slaying monsters together inside an online game space constructed by a company called AltspaceVR. We haven’t really met, but I think I’ve made a new friend.

In the 44-year history of D&D, emerging technologies have usually been the game’s foe. When home video game consoles became popular in the mid-1980s, the hobby lost millions of players; in the ‘90s, online role-playing games (RPGs) like Everquest and World of Warcraft took away even more. But it turns out that 21st-century technologies that create immersive, simulated environments are complementary to tabletop gaming’s social vibe. Virtual reality could be the best thing to happen to D&D since polyhedral dice.

Until now, players have struggled to replicate the tabletop gaming experience using the tools of the digital age. In the ‘80s, I tried to play a few times with my friends all dialed into a telephone party line, but it was too noisy and chaotic. In more recent years, I’ve been in one or two games played successfully over Skype or Google Hangouts, which allow you to see your friends’ faces. And a few specialized bits of software like the website Roll20 and the application Fantasy Grounds combine video conferencing with shared maps and dice-rolling tools. If you can’t meet in person, they’re good enough for a few hours of fun.

But I’d never been excited about playing D&D over a computer until a new generation of virtual reality hardware, like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, met the social VR spaces created by companies like AltspaceVR. In 2015, D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast cut a deal with Altspace (then a startup, now a subsidiary of Microsoft) to bring officially licensed D&D assets to a tavern-themed virtual game room. Users put on their VR headsets, gather around a 3D table and appear as individual avatars inside the space. They can build a map using dungeon, wilderness and city themed terrain tiles; record their characters on official D&D character sheets; and move around figurines representing various D&D player classes as well as monsters (including gelatinous cubes and dragons).

VR may be the ultimate “you have to see it to believe it” experience. But as a one-time skeptic of the technology, I can testify that I was surprised how much Altspace’s virtual game room felt like the real thing. When you’re immersed in these simulated worlds, you forget where you are; the table in front of you seems solid, the people around you move and everyone seems to be gathered in the same room.

Sure, the virtual version of D&D is far from perfect. While today’s VR hardware can create surprisingly convincing simulations, it’s no fun wearing a VR headset for more than an hour. The graphics are still relatively primitive—more Lawnmower Man than The Matrix—and your fellow players are represented by cartoonish avatars, not realistic depictions of their actual selves. But VR is good enough in 2018 to provide proof of concept; it actually feels like D&D. The problems are just technical hurdles, and we’ll clear them in time.

In five years, I suspect playing D&D in virtual reality will be almost as good as playing around a dining room table. Next generation headsets will be lighter and more comfortable; graphics will get to a point comparable to the most realistic 3D video games. Tracking technologies will allow you to see where players are looking, make eye contact and read expressions on their faces. Our digital selves will convey body language and gestures, making it feel like you’re in the same place as your friends.

And the virtual tabletops will be even better than the real thing. When you’re playing D&D on a friend’s dining room table, the game is limited by physical accessories like dry-erase battle maps, pre-printed terrain tiles and miniatures to represent characters. In a virtual world, those elements can come alive. Animated, photo-realistic maps can slowly reveal themselves as players advance through a dungeon, and their minis can actually move and fight. Imagine the Millennium Falcon’s holographic chess game, but more realistic than any animation Industrial Light and Magic could pull off.

But the best thing about D&D in VR isn’t the bells and whistles—it’s how it will bring people together. For decades, too many RPG campaigns have been crippled by the limitations of geography; all too often, it’s impossible to get enough players together in one place. With VR, it doesn’t matter if your Dungeon Master moves to Timbuktu. VR will let you step into a game room and play with people around the world.

And when it comes to D&D, the gathering is more important than the game itself.

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The future is the new Xbox

Posted: July 28, 2018 in Opinion Piece

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by Navneet Alang via The Week

Technology is inherently unpredictable. But tech analyst Benedict Evans has a good rule when it comes to predicting the future: Whatever people dismiss as just a toy is very often the next big thing.

There are few areas in which that has been truer than in video games. While the gaming industry has been dismissed as merely juvenile — and indeed in terms of its culture, it often is — it has nonetheless prefigured many of the major shifts in tech, from the rise of artificial intelligence to the importance of online community.

And now, with rumors that Microsoft is planning to make the next generation of its Xbox console reliant on cloud streaming, akin to a Netflix for games, that predictive power may be especially potent. What it points to is not just what’s next for video games, but also the general direction of tech. The future is the merging of the cloud, artificial intelligence, and ubiquitous computing.

There is a reason that Microsoft has its eyes fixed on the next few years in gaming. While its Xbox 360, which was released in 2005, was a smash hit, its successor, the Xbox One, has not done nearly as well. It has been outsold nearly two to one by rival Sony’s PlayStation 4, while Nintendo’s Switch console has been a huge success. Although Xbox saw a 39 percent jump in revenue in Microsoft’s most recent quarterly results, clearly a sign of improving fortunes, overall the company is scrambling to catch up.

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But Microsoft has committed itself to gaming. In 2017, Xbox chief Phil Spencer was promoted to executive vice president reporting directly to CEO Satya Nadella, suggesting that the company sees gaming as core to its mission. The company also sought to correct its initial mistake of releasing an underpowered Xbox One by releasing the Xbox One X last year, still the most powerful console on the market. Additionally, in an effort to kickstart its own exclusive content — an area in which it has been seriously outclassed by Sony over the past few years — Microsoft announced that it’s funding the creation of numerous development studios.

If this is the start of a recommitment, then the next generation of Xbox hardware is likely going to reflect a changing strategy. As Microsoft enthusiast site Thurrott.com reports, at least one of the next Xbox consoles will focus on streaming — that is, an online service in which games are accessed remotely over the internet, rather than being stored on a disc or device as they are now. The upside to such an approach would be to offer gamers hundreds of games to play immediately, rather than forcing them to buy individual titles. It will also likely lower the entry cost versus a traditional standalone console.

The persistent problem in that approach has been the lag as information moves back and forth between the console and server, something that is a particular problem for fast-paced games. But Microsoft will try to get around the issue by processing some tasks with dedicated hardware and others remotely, and combining them with machine learning. It’s a technologically intriguing idea.

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But it also represents Microsoft’s broader ambition to turn Xbox into a service, like a Netflix for games. They have already started with their Play Anywhere program, which lets someone buy a game on a PC and also play it on an Xbox One, and vice versa. This next move will then raise the potential revenue stream via monthly subscriptions. Microsoft could even combine both services so that games attained through a subscription could be accessed from a Windows 10 PC. Meanwhile, for those core gamers who might blanche at streaming, the company will still release a high-powered standalone sequel to the Xbox One X.

Whatever Microsoft does release will likely be running on a new version of Windows based on something called Cshell. It is the next phase of Windows, and both siphons off the legacy code that still bogs the operating system down, while also being customizable for different devices, whether a digital whiteboard, a laptop, or a gaming console.

What Microsoft is attempting to do with Cshell, as well as a console that streams games, is to link together its work in hardware, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cloud solutions. The operating system connects those disparate elements to ideally make the end-user experience seamless.

The Windows company is not alone. Google is hard at work on a project called Fuschia, a new operating system that may replace Android and will unify its efforts in mobile, artificial intelligence, and the “internet of things” — those increasingly popular smart devices.

What it all points to is a shift in the nature of computing in general — from being a thing located in individual devices, to something more akin to a service or a layer, accessed not only from many devices, but in many different ways: through a traditional keyboard and mouse, touch, voice, or AI that predicts what you need before you ask for it. It’s about changing the idea of computing from one of gadgets to simply being everywhere, accessible through a variety of different interfaces.

Whether Microsoft can pull together the technical know-how and marketing to make their streaming idea work remains to be seen. Gamers are not only notoriously conservative, they are also highly sensitive to the minutiae of performance. All the same, it represents a significant opportunity for Microsoft.

Rather than merely being a toy, the next Xbox will be a testing ground for the future of computing itself.

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by Paul  Tassi via Forbes

The storm around a lack of cross-play on PS4 has not abated in the wake of the news out of E3 that not only can you not play with Xbox or Switch players if you have a PS4-linked Fortnite account, but that you cannot use that account at all on either of those platforms.

Sony has issued a statement that somehow manages to boast about its sales numbers while dodging the account-locking part of the problem entirely. Epic has now thrown up error messages throwing indirect shade at Sony for the problem, but don’t seem to be interested in picking a fight other than simply saying “we wish this could happen.”

But now someone else is making news. That would be John Smedley, the former head of Sony Online Entertainment (and current head of Amazon Game Studios), who seems like he’d have some pretty good insight into the situation. And it appears he does.

After calling for “pressure” on Sony to make the issue go away, Smedley went on to explain via Twitter the reason that Sony gave for why they don’t want cross-play:

“btw when I was at Sony, the stated reason internally for this was money. They didn’t like someone buying something on an Xbox and it being used on a Playstation. simple as that. dumb reason, but there it is.”

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This is, of course, what many people assume is happening, despite statements like the one below, given by then head of PlayStation global sales and marketing, Jim Ryan after E3 2017 when it was Minecraft cross-play being debated:

“We have a contract with the people who go online with us, that we look after them and they are within the PlayStation curated universe,” said Ryan. “Exposing what in many cases are children to external influences we have no ability to manage or look after, it’s something we have to think about very carefully.”

No one really took this seriously at the time, and “we’re doing it for the children” practically became a meme afterward. But combined with the statement from the former president of SOE, this really does not look great for Sony.

I get it, it’s a business, Sony wants money and wants everyone to own games on PlayStation and buy all their games on PlayStation. And yet clearly that’s not what fans want and where the industry is moving as a whole. Sure, Microsoft may be able to embrace the whole cross-play thing because they’re behind in sales, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t pro-consumer all the same. Sony, after years of besting Microsoft at almost every turn this generation, is clearly on the wrong side of the issue here, and now with Nintendo getting involved, a market leader itself with seemingly no qualms about cross-play, it makes them look even worse.

I have to imagine that there are frantic discussions behind the scenes here between Epic, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo to try and work this out, and yet as has been pointed out, if Sony caves for Fortnite, they’ll have to cave for all games that want cross-play, and it’s very clear they do not want to open those floodgates. At this point, I’d put more money on them trying to ride out the storm than actually changing anything, but clearly this is not going to be the last time this issue comes up.

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by Dave Smith via Business Insider

The PlayStation 4 is the market leader in terms of game consoles sold this generation, by a long shot. With sales so gargantuan — 79 million PS4s sold, and 80 million monthly active users on the PlayStation Network — you’d think Sony would be confident about the PlayStation 4.

But Sony’s stance on cross-play between the PS4 and rival consoles, like the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One, is not only backward, it’s downright cynical, and it makes the company look more vulnerable than it really is.

This isn’t a new stance on Sony’s part, but as more and more games are made for multiple platforms, like “Fortnite,” it’s become increasingly obvious that keeping players from being able to access their accounts on multiple consoles, or letting people play with their friends on different consoles, only makes Sony look borderline fearful.

In contrast, Nintendo and Microsoft come off looking nice and open when it comes to issues of cross-play. Their actions obviously speak volumes — “Minecraft” players on Xbox can play with their Nintendo Switch brethren, and so forth. But while neither company’s statements have called out Sony by name, it’s quite obvious who they’re talking about.

Just listen to what Xbox chief Phil Spencer told Business Insider correspondent Ben Gilbert this week at E3, when asked about cross-play (emphasis mine):

“Say you’re not into gaming, and it’s your kid’s birthday. You buy them a console. I buy my kid a console. We happen to buy consoles of different colors — you bought the blue one, I bought the green one. Now those kids want to play a game together and they can’t because their parents bought different consoles.

I don’t know who that helps. It doesn’t help the developer. The developer just wants more people to play their game. It doesn’t help the player. The players just want to play with their friends who also play games on console. So, I just get stuck in who this is helping.”

Obviously, if you don’t consider what people actually want and only the sales numbers, you can see why Sony doesn’t want cross-play. Right now, if you want to play games with your friends that own a PlayStation 4, you have to go out and buy a PlayStation 4 yourself. If you could play those same games with your friends on a more affordable console, like a Nintendo Switch or Xbox One, that’s one less reason for people to buy a PS4. So, Microsoft and Nintendo have much to gain from cross-play being a thing, if you look at it that way.

But to only consider console sales — a single metric — is a cynical and short-sighted attitude, especially since Sony’s stance on cross-play doesn’t necessarily make PlayStation 4 owners happy either. I own a PlayStation 4 and a Nintendo Switch, for example, and I was really bummed to learn this week that I couldn’t play “Fortnite” on my Switch unless I created a new account specifically for the Switch.

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Considering how so many of the 2+ million people who downloaded “Fortnite” for Switch in its first 24 hours of availability had the same issues I did, and reacted over social media in kind, Sony was forced to release a statement addressing the cross-play furor on Thursday. But the statement itself was carefully worded so as to not mention the millions of Nintendo Switch and Xbox One customers frustrated by Sony’s decision.

“We offer ‘Fortnite’ cross-play support with PC, Mac, iOS, and Android devices, expanding the opportunity for ‘Fortnite’ fans on PS4 to play with even more gamers on other platforms,” Sony told the BBC.

If Sony were smart, it would at least allow cross-play for certain titles, where it has less to gain from being restrictive. The case of “Fortnite” is less about cross-play and more about letting one access an account on multiple game consoles, but “Fortnite” is a game that millions of people play every day, even on smartphones; cross-play should be allowed there. Similarly, millions of people — especially little kids — play “Minecraft” every single day, and I bet they would be very happy if they could all play together whether they own a PlayStation 4 or Nintendo Switch or Xbox One.

Sony is the clear market leader in game consoles this generation, and its future looks bright with so many excellent games coming from Sony-backed studios over the next several years. Those games can only be played on the PlayStation 4, and Sony should be confident in those titles, and the other features that set PlayStation apart. But for customers’ sake, and for the company’s own PR, it should learn that there are occasions where it makes sense to play nice with others.

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by Dave Thier via Forbes

As far as announcements go, it barely qualified. Microsoft’s head of Xbox Phil Spencer was giving his standard end of E3 press conference talk about the state of gaming and the passion of the Xbox teams. The hardware team, he mentioned, was hard at work on the next Xbox. This is something we all assume, of course, just like we assume that their counterparts at Sony are doing the same thing on the PlayStation 5. And yet it’s still uncommon to make any mention of the next generation outside of a tightly choreographed reveal much closer to launch, mostly because it makes people look forward when you want them buying your hardware now. For Spencer, it made sense to mention it now. Just you wait, he seemed to be saying.

You could see the next Xbox make its appearances elsewhere, as well. Those who don’t work in video games probably didn’t pay much attention to the tech giant’s studio acquisitions, but those in the industry saw them as big moves by a company that’s far from given up on exclusive games. No, those announcements didn’t come with shiny trailers or 2019 release dates, but they were the company’s way of signaling that it doesn’t want to be caught in this exclusive drought ever again.

And when a Microsoft engineer told us about how the company was using machine learning to improve Game Pass performance it felt like a strange, technical detail to include as an announcement on an E3 stage. But the message there felt the same: that Xbox is working on developing backend technologies designed to make games load and play quicker, the sort of thing that likely has lots of applications beyond Game Pass. Again, the spotlight seemed to be shining on a not-so-distant future.

At a certain point, Spencer and co. must have realized that there was no “winning” this console generation, certainly not in terms of sales. Xbox One got off on the wrong foot and never recovered, PlayStation 4 rocketed out of the gate and only accelerated from there. You didn’t need Microsft’s internal analytics to see that. And so Spencer smartly pivoted to building out services like backwards compatibility, cross-play, cross-buy and Game Pass, things that were unlikely to shift the tide in the current generation but could set up the next machine for genuine differentiation from the competition while repairing the company’s tattered reputation with gamers.

The next console generation may well be the last, as Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot predicted the other day: Spencer made another mention of the sort of streaming services that we’ve been talking about for years but could still render local game computing irrelevant at some point in the distant future. For right now, however, it’s clear that Microsoft is biding its time and gathering its resources to avoid losing the next generation the way it lost this one.

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by Dave Thier via Forbes

You’ve got to feel for Bethesda Game Studios. It’s a big developer that’s only growing, with a clear ambition to make new, interesting experiences both in the genres and worlds that have defined it in the past and outside of them. It’s got plans for the future that we’re going to start seeing more of this year at E3. And yet fans are basically here shouting “Freebird!” from the back of the venue, Freebird in this instance being The Elder Scrolls 6. Such is the way when you’re in the studio that makes Elder Scrolls games. Though I suppose the studio sort of brings it on itself by releasing Skyrim for every platform known to man.

In previous years, Bethesda has gone out of its way to get us to stop asking about The Elder Scrolls 6, and I don’t expect things to be that different at E3 this year. Last year, the line was that Bethesda Game Studios was working on two big AAA scale games to announce before it would even start thinking about The Elder Scrolls 6, and at least one of those games is clearly Fallout 76, currently headlining Bethesda’s E3 this year. I’m not sure if Rage 2 counts because it’s being developed by Id and Avalanche, but there are also rumors about this project Starfield, a Bethesda-style open world RPG in an entirely new setting. Regardless, the message in the past few years has been clear: there are other projects coming up before The Elder Scrolls 6, and we’ll be excited to talk about those.

That being said, The Elder Scrolls 6 is somewhat confirmed, in the sense that Bethesda tends to talk about it as an inevitability, albeit an inevitability that the studio expects to be informed by the work it’s doing on more proximal titles. I still don’t expect it to show up at the show this year.

Is it possible that we’ll see some sort of official confirmation of The Elder Scrolls 6, with maybe with a setting? Sure, it’s possible. We have no clue if Bethesda is far along enough to even have a confirmed location, but again, not impossible. It’s a longshot, however.

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