is in the process of acquiring the studio behind one of the most popular cross-platform games out there, Rocket League. The studio behind Fortnite is buying for an undisclosed sum and bringing its 132 employees onboard. There doesn’t appear to be a ton changing at the San Diego game studio; Epic says the company will continue to support the game on all platforms. The real competitive advantage seems to rely on Rocket League coming to the Epic Games store in “late 2019” and ceasing new downloads on Valve’s Steam store at that time, though Epic specifically notes that users that have already downloaded the title on Steam will continue to have support. The whimsical title has been an unlikely smash success. Rocket League has more than 57 million players, the studio says. Epic owning two of the biggest cross-platform gaming titles is obviously a major boon to the company, and a sign that they’re committed to ensuring that the studio’s success continues long after Fortnite downloads diminish. This is one of their most important acquisitions to date and brings a cash cow exclusive to their games store, which is continuing to aggressively pursue exclusives as it tries to take down Valve, one of gaming’s biggest powerhouses.
On game streaming platforms today, there’s really only one way to earn status within a creator’s community: you have to become a subscriber. game streaming service is today aiming to offering a third path to status through loyalty and participation. In doing so, it hopes to better differentiate itself from larger rivals like Twitch and YouTube. Channel Progression, as this new feature is called, is a system that rewards community members and a streamer’s fans for more than just their financial contributions. It also takes into account other activity within the channel and on Mixer as a whole. Members can level up by participating in the stream’s chat, by their repeat visits, by using Skills (aka other forms of expression like stickers, effects and GIFs that are used in chats), and more. That means that viewers will be able to earn rewards and raise their rank by just participating — watching, chatting, following, subscribing, and later, through other actions, as well. As streamers participate, they’ll rank up, gaining them bragging rights and other perks that will vary by their rank level. They can also check on their rank at any time by clicking on the “Your Rank” button at the bottom left corner of the chat box. The feature is rolling out on Wednesday May 1, 2019 to all streamers on Mixer — not just Mixer Partner, as it’s designed to not only be a way for streamers to grow their own communities, but for Mixer itself to grow. In the future, however, Mixer Partners will be able to also reward monetization actions, like subscribing, gift subscriptions, and for spending Embers (virtual currency). The changes come at a time when there’s been a rise in complaints over how hard it is to get noticed on the leading game streaming site, Twitch. Some smaller streamers told The Verge last summer , and found it difficult to grow their community, despite the effort Twitch has made in this area. More recently, that’s included the , to help creators get discovered. Despite this, Twitch’s longtail continues to grow — according to , the top 1,000 Twitch channels were responsible for 57% of Twitch’s viewership hours in Q1 2019, and the longtail (those beyond the top 10,000 channels) was responsible for 20%. In total, Twitch hit 2.7 billion hours of content watched in Q1, the report claimed. Mixer, by comparison, is much smaller. Its numbers may have quadrupled since Q1 2019, but that’s only going from 22 million hours watched to 89 million. It still has much, much further to go to catch up with YouTube Live, not to mention Twitch. Mixer’s channel progression feature was originally announced in November as part of It launches tomorrow to all on Mixer.com on the desktop and will roll out to all other platforms in the weeks ahead.
VA recreation therapist Jamie Kaplan, left, and U.S. Army veteran Mike Monthervil. (Jeff Young Photo) Microsoft is making gaming more accessible for patients at 22 Veterans Affairs rehab centers by supplying them with its Xbox Adaptive Controllers for players with disabilities. The goal is to allow wounded veterans a social outlet that is also therapeutic and can help with rehabilitation. The $100 controller, which launched last year, looks like an oversized version of a regular Xbox controller in a big box, with two huge programmable buttons. It allows gamers to build out their own custom setups and add devices like buttons and joysticks to suit their needs. The setup works with Xbox One and Windows 10 PC games. “Gaming is now everywhere in the world, and while people tend to think of it as isolating, we’re finding that it actually has the opposite effect and can increase interactions with other veterans and folks who are non-veterans,” Dr. Leif Nelson, director of national veterans sports programs and special events for the VA, said in an . Microsoft is also using the partnership as a way to gather data and improve the device going forward. The accessible device was made by , a nonprofit focused on helping wounded military veterans recover through gaming. In 2015, a group of Microsoft employees created a solution for Warfighter Engaged at an accessibility hackathon to make it easier to outfit vets with gaming devices. The controller made its official debut last year, and Microsoft later put it at the center of a this year that starred a 9-year-old gamer. Microsoft has a long history of creating solutions both for people with disabilities and the U.S. military. The company has over five years to develop artificial intelligence-powered technologies to help people with disabilities. One of Microsoft’s efforts, , is an application that uses artificial intelligence to see and narrate the world for low-vision users. On some Navy submarines, Microsoft game-console controllers are being used . Microsoft is also currently battling Amazon Web Services for the Pentagon’s . But Microsoft’s military work has not always been welcome. Earlier this year, a group of Microsoft employees called on the company to to outfit the U.S. Army with 100,000 HoloLens “mixed reality” headsets. “We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used,” the employees wrote in a letter to CEO Satya Nadella and President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith.
The Princess Zelda PowerA Enhanced Wireless Controller, by PowerA. (PowerA Photo) Back in the day, you didn’t want to be the player stuck with the janky third-party controller. As recently as the days of the PS2 and original Xbox, third-party hardware manufacturers eked out a living making slightly off-brand, less expensive versions of trademark console game pads. A few were successful upgrades, such as a couple of, but most were unresponsive, poorly-designed, or just flat-out didn’t work. You can’t really get away with that anymore, however, and modern third-party controllers are a much safer proposition for the consumer. Even , which made a few nightmares in the 2000s (I still have an old Madcatz Xbox controller that feels like it was designed as a tool for aversion therapy), has mostly managed to rebrand and offer a few quality products. , based in Woodinville, Wash., is a small third-party hardware manufacturer, owned by , that makes a variety of controllers, batteries, and recharging docks for the video game console market. It first got on the national radar in 2012 with the controller, an adaptive controller for mobile gaming that’s since been spun off into its own company. PowerA sent over its newest product, a Princess Zelda-branded Enhanced Wireless Controller for the Switch (US$49.99), for us to test out. It’s the latest in PowerA’s line of branded controllers for the Switch, which offer a less expensive option to Nintendo’s Pro controller (about $20 less than a Pro or JoyCon’s standard retail price) and offer a couple of extra features, in addition to a variety of colorful designs. The PowerA Enhanced Controller in action. (GeekWire Photo / Thomas Wilde) The Princess Zelda controller, available today, doesn’t have the built-in rumble capability of the Pro, which makes it considerably lighter. It shares the Pro’s Bluetooth connection and motion controls, and takes a pair of AA batteries with a possible 20 hours of operational life. What it does offer, aside from the design of Zelda across its face, is a pair of programmable buttons on the handles, around where a typical player’s ring fingers would be. In play, it feels light, but isn’t fragile. There’s a certain weight to a Pro controller, mostly due to the rumble pack, which the PowerA controller doesn’t have. That makes it surprisingly light, which is comfortable for longer play sessions. The sticks and buttons are nice and responsive, and even the D-pad has a nice snap to it. After a few evenings of heated Smash Brothers Ultimate play, I felt like the controller was well-suited to what I was asking from it. The programmable buttons let you re-assign the standard buttons one at a time, which you can clear and re-assign easily. It’s useful both as a customization and an accessibility option, so you can set a command that would otherwise be awkward to a finger and that you ordinarily wouldn’t be using at all. (Looking at you, any game ever that binds “crouch” to pushing in the left stick.) It does take some getting used to, as I found it was easy to hit the extra buttons during frantic moments (read: flailing at my buttons during Classic Smash), but once your muscle memory adapts, I could see them as an asset. It does feel backwards in 2019 to have any video game peripheral without built-in rechargeable batteries. The Xbox One’s standard controller does the same thing, which feels just as goofy there. While some of PowerA’s literature tries to spin the battery port as a positive — after all, it means you don’t have to pitch the whole unit if the battery pack fails — it still means you have to go buy AAs at a store, like some kind of medieval peasant. (Or, more likely, look for one of several recharging options like the ones that PowerA just so happens to offer. How convenient.) You do have to figure that additional expense for batteries into the PowerA Enhanced Wireless Controller, but it doesn’t handle like a shovelware alternative product. Head to head, it’s about as responsive and ergonomic as the original Pro, with a lighter feel. The extra buttons don’t feel like a must-have to me, but I could see them coming in handy for certain games or players. If you’re looking to kit out your living room with a couple of extra actual controllers, so your Smash party doesn’t have to fight over who’s stuck with a JoyCon, PowerA’s lineup is an affordable wireless local option.
has an account hacking problem. After the breach of popular browser game Town of Salem in January, some 7.8 million stolen passwords quickly became the weakest link not only for the game but gamers’ other accounts. The passwords were stored using a long-deprecated scrambling algorithm, making them easily cracked. It didn’t take long for security researcher and gamer to see the aftermath. In the weeks following, the for Amazon-owned game streaming site Twitch — of which Jakubowski is a moderator — was flooded with complaints about account hijacks. One after the other, users said their accounts had been hacked. Many of the hijacked accounts had used their Town of Salem password for their Twitch account. Jakubowski blamed the attacks on automated account takeovers — bots that cycle through password lists stolen from breached sites, including Town of Salem. “Twitch knows it’s a problem — but this has been going on for months and there’s no end in sight,” Jakubowski told TechCrunch. Credential stuffing is a security problem that requires participation from both tech companies and their users. Hackers take lists of usernames and passwords from other breached sites and brute-force their way into other accounts. Customers of and have in recent months complained of account breaches, but have denied their systems have been hacked, offered little help to their users or shown any effort to bolster their security, and instead washed their hands of any responsibility. Jakubowski, working with fellow security researcher , said Twitch no longer accepting email addresses to log in and incentivizing users to set up two-factor authentication would all but eliminate the problem. The Russia connection In out Tuesday, Jakubowski and Xmas said Russian hackers are a likely culprit. The researchers found attackers would run massive lists of stolen credentials against Twitch’s login systems using widely available automation tools. With no discernible system to prevent automated logins, the attackers can hack into Twitch accounts at speed. Once logged in, the attackers then change the password to gain persistent access to the account. Even if they’re caught, some users are claiming a turnaround time of four weeks for Twitch support to get their accounts back. On the accounts with a stored stored payment card — or an associated Amazon Prime membership — the attackers follow streaming channels run by the attackers or pay for for a small fee, which Twitch takes a cut. Twitch also has its own virtual currency — bits — to help streamers solicit donations, which can be abused by the attackers to funnel funds into their coffers. When the attacker’s streaming account hits the payout limit, the attacker cashes out. The researchers said the attackers stream prerecorded gameplay footage on their own Twitch channels, often using Russian words and names. “You’ll see these Russian accounts that will stream what appears to be old video game footage — you’ll never see a face or hear anybody talking but you’ll get tons of people subscribing and following in the channel,” said Xmas. “You’ll get people donating bits when nothing is going on in there — even when the channel isn’t streaming,” he said. This activity helps to cloak the attackers’ account takeover and pay-to-follow activity, said Xmas, but the attackers would keep the subscriber counts low enough to garner payouts from Twitch but not to draw attention. “If it’s something easy enough for [Jakubowski] to stumble across, it should be easy for Twitch to handle,” said Xmas. “But Twitch is staying silent and users are constantly being defrauded.” Two-factor all the things Twitch, unlike other sites and services with a credential stuffing problem, already lets its 15 million daily users on their accounts, putting much of the onus to stay secure on the users themselves. Twitch partners, like Jakubowski, and affiliates are required to set up two-factor on their accounts. But the researchers say Twitch should do more to incentivize ordinary users — the primary target for account hijackers and fraudsters — to secure their accounts. “I think [Twitch] doesn’t want that extra step between a valid user trying to pay for something and adding friction to that process,” said Jakubowski. “The hackers have no idea how valuable an account is until they log in. They’re just going to try everyone — and take a shotgun approach.”Matthew Jakubowski, security researcher and Twitch partner “Two-factor is important — everyone knows it’s important but users still aren’t using it because it’s inconvenient,” said Xmas. “That’s the bottom line: Twitch doesn’t want to inconvenience people because that loses Twitch money,” he said. Recognizing there was still a lack of awareness around password security and with no help from Twitch, Jakubowski and Xmas took matters into their own hands. The pair teamed up to write a comprehensive to explain why seemingly unremarkable accounts are a target for hackers, and hosted a to let users to ask questions and get instant feedback. Even during Jakubowski’s streaming sessions, he doesn’t waste a chance to warn his viewers about the security problem — often fielding other security-related questions from his fans. “Every ten minutes or so, I’ll remind people watching to set-up two factor,” he said. “The hackers have no idea how valuable an account is until they log in,” said Jakubowski. “They’re just going to try everyone — and take a shotgun approach,” he said. Xmas said users “don’t realize” how vulnerable they are. “They don’t understand why their account — which they don’t even use to stream — is desirable to hackers,” he said. “If you have a payment card associated with your account, that’s what they want.” Carrot and the stick Jakubowski said that convincing the users is the big challenge. Twitch could encourage users with free perks — like badges or emotes — costing the company nothing, the researchers said. Twitch lets users to flair their accounts. World of Warcraft maker Blizzard offers , and Epic Games similar incentives to their gamers. “Rewarding users for implementing two-factor would go a huge way,” said Xmas. “It’s incredible to see how effective that is.” The two said the company could also integrate third-party leaked credential monitoring services, like , to warn users if their passwords have been leaked or exposed. And, among other fixes, the researchers say removing two-factor by text message . Xmas, who serves as director of field engineering at anti-bot startup Kasada — earlier this year — said Twitch could invest in systems that detect bot activity to prevent automated logins. Twitch, when reached prior to publication, did not comment. Jakubowski said until Twitch acts, streamers can do their part by encouraging their viewers to switch on the security feature. “Streamers are influencers — more users are likely to switch on two-factor if they hear it from a streamer,” he said. “Getting more streamers to get on board with security will hopefully go a much longer way,” he said. Read more:
(Bigstock Photo) The worldwide video game industry has hit a growth spurt in recent years, with revenues coming in higher and at a faster rate than predicted. Alongside this growth, significant changes are afoot, many of which will reshape how consumers interact with games in the coming years. FlowPlay CEO Derrick Morton. (FlowPlay/The Medium Photo) Financial investors are paying increasing attention to the space, and at the end of 2018, reported that the global gaming spend reached $134.9 billion. There are a variety of factors contributing to this growth, including emerging disruptive technology, fundamental changes in how developers are monetizing their games and how a new wave of consumers is engaging with them. Many experts also attribute the industry’s promising long-term outlook to the popularity of mobile games, the fact that video games can be less expensive to consume than movies and cable, and that consumers are increasingly open to spending money via small, frequent in-game purchases. Consumer behavior will continue to drive change and developer innovation. With 2020 just around the corner, industry insiders anticipate several key areas to evolve between now and then. Decreased dependence on app stores Fortnite is the prime example of how successful a game can be even without participation in the major marketplaces. The game’s ability to reach the mainstream without the app stores has saved it an . More and more game developers – tired of sharing a significant cut of their revenues with the tech giants – are looking to Fortnite as a case study for how to transition away from app store sales. Success in this endeavor in turn will free up more money for developers to invest in creating new experiences, and give gamers more options for how they access, purchase and play games. Google’s recent of its new streaming service, Stadia, demonstrates how even the industry leaders are looking for ways to shift away from app stores, and eventually apps in general. Streaming services will allow players to access the same content across devices, drastically decreasing the need to download individual apps to play games or own expensive consoles. This will free the world from constant app updates, while allowing developers to maintain an “always up-to-date” service, leading to a much simpler interface for playing games. Google announced its Stadia streaming service last month. (Google livestream screenshot) Blockchain technology offers another potential solution for enabling a more open game marketplace. Because blockchain is inherently transparent and accessible to all, a blockchain-based system could provide every developer a stake in the ground, which may ultimately democratize games and remedy today’s over-dependence on app stores. Achieving this at scale will be complicated, but for now, indie developers can actively explore how blockchain and partnership with other indie developers may help them break free of the traditional distribution model. More connectivity Beyond transforming the game marketplaces, streaming gives developers the tools they need to create a seamless cross-device experience. The infrastructure behind it gives developers the flexibility to provide the same experience across any device, so players can pick up where they left off in any game, from anywhere, at any time. Soon, swapping between devices or sharing game updates with other players in real-time will be the new normal in game connectivity. Blockchain also has the potential to impact in-game experiences and increase connectivity between digital worlds. For starters, players will increasingly be given the option to use cryptocurrency to make in-game purchases. This is already happening in many popular games today and will continue to evolve into models in which players can use, store and transfer their crypto-items across multiple games. The ability for a user to connect his/her digital worlds in this way will create countless opportunities for developers to increase engagement, draw larger audiences and reinforce player loyalty. Better delivery of personalized experiences The most successful, sticky games are the ones that give players a feeling that their experience is personal in some way. Nir Eyal’s book , explains in detail how developers can better understand user habits and behavior to build products that will resonate with target audiences over the long term. Eyal’s model is gaining momentum, alongside other schools of thought rooted in leveraging customer input and human behavioral psychology to drive superior customer experience. As game developers become more adept at understanding what players want and need, we’ll see increased personalization and variety in games. Already becoming key staples in personalized gaming are customizable in-game items and rich online communities, which have been major success factors across a number of games. Cross-platform capabilities are also improving, and we’ll see more of that in the coming year. Developers are innovating with to learn more about players, customize gameplay and create immersive worlds that provide a sense of realism and allow users to do wildly creative things. Augmented reality – which AngelList estimates to reach one billion users by 2020 – and new types of VR and other gaming hardware will further enhance the delivery of engaging, custom player experiences. The games industry has been at the forefront of innovation for decades, and will continue to be a heavyweight in the overall technology landscape. While today’s big tech disruptors – AI, blockchain, streaming – may not have started in the gaming industry, they are intersecting within it in exciting and unexpected ways. Before long, these innovations will be solidified as critical pillars of how games around the world are created, marketed, purchased and played.
In The Division 2, the answer to every question is a bullet. That’s not unique in the pervasively violent world of gaming, but in an environment drawn from the life and richly decorated with plausible human cost and cruelty, it seems a shame; and in a real world where plentiful assault rifles and government hit squads are the problems, not the solutions, this particular power fantasy feels backwards and cowardly. Ubisoft’s meticulous avoidance of the real world except for physical likeness was meant to maximize its market and avoid the type of “controversy” that brings furious tweets and ineffectual boycotts down on media that dare to make statements. But the result is a game that panders to “good guy with a gun” advocates, NRA members, everyday carry die-hards, and those who dream of spilling the blood of unsavory interlopers and false patriots upon this great country’s soil. There are two caveats: That we shouldn’t have expected anything else, from Ubisoft or anyone; and that it’s a pretty good game if you ignore all that stuff. But it’s getting harder to accept every day, and the excuses for game studios are getting fewer. (Some spoilers ahead, but trust me, it doesn’t matter.) To put us all on the same page: The Division 2 (properly Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, which just about sums it up right there) is the latest “game as a service” to hit the block, aspiring less towards the bubblegum ubiquity of Fortnite and than the endless grind of a Destiny 2 or Diablo 3. The less said about , the better (except Jason Schrier’s , of course). From the bestselling author of literally a hundred other books… It’s published by Ubisoft, a global gaming power known for creating expansive gaming worlds (like the astonishingly beautiful Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) with bafflingly uneven gameplay and writing (like the astonishingly lopsided Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey). So it was perhaps to be expected that The Division 2 would be heavy on atmosphere and light on subtlety. But I didn’t expect to be told to see the President snatch a machine gun from his captors and mow them down — then tell your character that sometimes you can’t do what’s popular, you have to do what’s necessary. It would be too much even if the game was a parody and not, as it in fact is, deeply and strangely earnest. But I’m getting ahead of myself. EDC Simulator 2 The game is set in Washington, D.C.; its predecessor was in New York. Both were, like most U.S. cities in this fictitious near future, devastated by a biological attack on Black Friday that used money as a vector for a lethal virus. That’s a great idea, perhaps not practical (who pays in cash?), but a clever mashup of terrorist plots with consumerism. (The writing in the first Division was considerably better than this one.) Your character is part of a group of sleeper agents seeded throughout the country, intended to activate in the event of a national emergency, surviving and operating on your own or with a handful of others, procuring equipment and supplies on the go, taking out the bad guys and saving the remaining civilians while authority reasserts itself. You can see how this sets up a great game: exploring the ruins of a major city, shooing out villains, and upgrading your gear as you work your way up the ladder. And in a way it does make a great game. If you consider the bad guys just types of human-shaped monsters, your various guns and equipment the equivalent of new swords and wands, breastplates and greaves, with your drones and tactical launchers modern spells and auras, it’s really quite a lot like Diablo, the progenitor of the “looter” genre. Moment to moment gameplay has you hiding behind cover, popping out to snap off a few shots at the bad guys, who are usually doing the same thing 10 or 20 yards away, but generally not as well as you. Move on to the next room or intersection, do it again with some more guys, rinse and repeat. It sounds monotonous, and it is, but so is baseball. People like it anyway. (I’d like to give a shout-out to the simple, effective multiplayer that let me join a friend in seconds.) But the problem with The Division 2 isn’t its gameplay, although I could waste your time (instead) with some nitpicking of the damage systems, the mobs, the inventory screen, and so on. The problem with The Division 2 isn’t even that it venerates guns. Practically every game venerates guns, because as Tim Rogers memorably paraphrased CliffyB once: “games are power fantasies — and it’s easy to make power fantasies, because guns are so powerful, and raycasting is simple, and raycasting is like a gun.” It’s difficult to avoid. No, the problem with The Division 2 is the breathtaking incongruity between the powerfully visualized human tragedy your character inhabits and the refusal to engage even in an elementary way with the themes to which it is inherently tied: terrorism, guns, government and anti-government forces, and everything else. It’s exploitative, cynical, and absurd. The Washington, D.C. of the game is a truly amazing setting. Painstakingly detailed block by block and containing many of the most notable landmarks of the area, it’s a very interesting game world to explore, even more so I imagine if you are from there or are otherwise familiar with the city. The marks of a civilization-ending disaster are everywhere. Abandoned cars and security posts with vines and grass creeping up between them, broken and boarded up windows and doors, left luggage and improvised camping spots. Real places form the basis for thrilling setpiece shootouts: museums, famous offices, the White House itself (which you find under limp siege in the first mission). This is a fantasy very much based in reality — but only on the surface. In fact all this incredibly detailed scenery is nothing more than cover for shootouts. I can’t tell you how many times my friend and I traversed intricately detailed monuments, halls, and other environments, marveling at the realism with which they were decorated (though perhaps there were a few too many gas cans), remarking to one another: “Damn, this place is insane. I can’t believe they made it this detailed just to have us do the same exact combat encounter as the entire rest of the game. How come nobody is talking about the history of this place, or the bodies, or the culture here?” When fantasy isn’t Now, to be clear, I don’t expect Ubisoft to make a game where you learn facts about helicopters while you shoot your way through the Air and Space Museum, or where you engage in philosophical conversation with the head of a band of marauders rather than lob grenades and corrosive goo in their general direction. (I kind of like both those ideas, though.) But the dedication with which the company has avoided any kind of reality whatsoever is troubling. We live in a time when people are taking what they call justice into their own hands by shooting others with weapons intended for warfare; when paramilitary groups are defending their strongholds with deadly force; when biological agents are being deployed against citizenry; when governments are surveilling and tracking people via controversial AI systems; when the leaders of that government are making unpopular and ethically fraught decisions without the knowledge of their constituency. Ultimate EDC simulator This game enthusiastically endorses all of the previous ideas with the naive justification that you’re the good guys. Of course you’re the good guys — everyone claims they’re the good guys! But objectively speaking, you’re a secret government hit squad killing whoever you’re told to, primarily other citizens. Ironically, despite being called an agent, you have no agency — you are a walking gun doing the bidding of a government that has almost entirely dissolved. What could possibly go wrong? The Division 2 certainly makes no effort to explore this. The superficiality of the story I could excuse if it didn’t rely so strongly on using the real world as set dressing for its paramilitary dress-up-doll fantasy. Basing your game in a real world location is, I think, a fabulous idea. But in doing so, especially if as part of the process you imply the death of millions, a developer incurs a responsibility to do more than use that location as level geometry. The Division 2 instead uses these deaths and the most important places in D.C. literally as props. Nothing you do ever has anything to do with what the place is except in the loosest way. While you visit morgues and improvised mass graves piled with body bags, you never see anyone dead or dying… unless you kill them. It’s hard to explain what I find so distasteful about this. It’s a combination of the obvious emphasis on the death of innocents, in a brute-force attempt to create emotional and political relevance, with the utterly vacuous violence you fill that world with. It feels disrespectful to itself, to the setting, to set a piece of media so incredibly dumb and mute in a disaster so credible and relevant. This was a deliberate decision, to rob the game of any relevance — a marketing decision. To destroy D.C. — that sells. To write a story or design gameplay that in any way reflects why that destruction resonates — that doesn’t sell. “We cannot be openly political in our games,” said Alf Condelius, the COO of the studio that created the game, in a talk before the game’s release. Doing so, he said, would be “bad for business, unfortunately, if you want the honest truth.” I can’t be the only one who feels this to be a cop-out of pretty grand proportions, with the truth riding on its coattails. Perhaps you think I’m holding game developers to an unreasonable standard. But I believe they are refusing to raise the bar themselves when they easily could and should. The level of detail in the world is amazing, and it was clearly designed by people who understand what could happen should disaster strike. The bodies piled in labs, the desolation of a city overtaken by nature, the perfect reproductions of landmarks — an enormous amount of effort and money was put into this part of the game. On the other hand, it’s incredibly obvious from the get-go that very, very little attention was paid to the story and characters, the dialogue, the actual choices you can make as a player (there are none to speak of). There is no way to interact with people except to shoot them, or for them to tell you who to shoot. There is no mention of politics, of parties, of race or religion. I feel sure more time was spent modeling the guns — which, by the way, are real licensed models — than the main “characters,” though it must have been time-consuming to so completely to purge those characters of any ideas or opinions that could possibly reflect the real world. One tragedy please, hold the relevance This is deliberate. There’s no way this could have happened unless Ubisoft, from the start, made it clear that the game was to be divorced from the real world in every way except those that were deemed marketable. That this is what they considerable marketable is a sad sort of indictment of the people they are selling this game to. The prospect of inserting oneself into a sort of justified vigilante role where you rain hot righteous lead on these generic villains trampling our great flag seems to be a special catnip concoction Ubisoft thought would appeal to millions — millions who (or more importantly, whose wallets) might be chilled by the idea of a story that actually takes on the societal issues that would be at play in a disaster like this one. We got the game we deserved, I suppose. Say what you will about the narrative quality of campaigns of Call of Duty and Battlefield, but they at least attempt to engage with the content they are exploiting to sell the game. World War II is marketable because it’s the worst thing that ever happened and destroyed the lives of millions in a violent and dramatic way. Imagine building a photorealistic reproduction of wartime Stalingrad, or Paris, or Berlin, and then filling it not with Axis and Allied forces but simplified and palatable goodies and baddies with no particular ethos or history. I certainly don’t mean to equate the theoretical destruction of D.C. with the Holocaust and WWII, but as perhaps the most popular period and venue for shooters like this, it’s the obvious comparison to make thematically, and what one finds is that however poor the story of a given WWII game, it inevitably attempts to emphasize and grapple with the enormity of the events you are experiencing. That’s the kind of responsibility I think you take on when you illustrate your game with the real world — even a fantasy version of the real world. Furthermore Ubisoft has accepted that it must take some political stances, such as the inclusion of same-sex player-NPC relationships in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey — not controversial to me and many others, certainly, but hardly an apolitical inclusion in the present global political landscape. (I applaud them for this, by the way, and many others have as well.) It’s arguable this is not “overt” in that Kassandra and Alexios don’t break the first wall to advocate for marriage equality, but I think it is deliberately and unapologetically espousing a stance on a politically and societally charged issue. It seems it is not that the company cannot be overtly political, but that it decided in this case that to be political on issues of guns, the military, terrorism, and so on was too much of a risk. To me that is in itself a political choice. I do think Ubisoft is a fantastic company and makes wonderful games — but I also think the decision to completely divorce a game with fundamentally political underpinnings from the real politics and humanitarian conditions that empower it is a sad and spineless decision that makes them look both avaricious and inhumane. I know they can do better because others already have and do. The Division 2 is a good game as far as games go. But games, like movies, TV, and other media, are very much art now, deserving of criticism as to their ideas as well as their controls and graphics; and as art, The Division 2 is as much a barren wasteland scoured of humanity as the D.C. it depicts.
just over a month away, and per usual, the news in the lead up has offered more insight into what we won’t be hearing about at the big gaming show. Late last year, Sony announced that it would be its big annual press conference at the event. The move marks a key absence for the gaming giant for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, as the company will instead be “exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019.” The sentiment should ring familiar for those who follow the gaming industry. Several years ago Nintendo made a similar move, eschewing the in-person press conference for the online Nintendo Direct “Treehouse” it uses to showcase new trailers. It’s a method Nintendo has held to ever since. Game publisher Square Enix this week happily slid into Sony’s prime-time slot, leaving the last of the remaining three major console makers with a press conference at the Los Angeles event. The death of shows like E3 has been overstated throughout the years, of course. These things tend to move in cycles, with much of the hype tied specifically to new system reveals. Microsoft took the wraps off its disc-free this month, leaving many wondering what the company could still have up its sleeve for the June event. Earlier this week, meanwhile, Sony batted away suggestions that the PlayStation 5 was coming soon. Details are, not surprisingly, still vague, but the company says the next-gen console won’t be arriving in the next six months. On its earnings call, Nintendo that it would launch a low-cost version of the Switch. The console has been a wild success for the company on the heels of the disappointing Wii U, but slowing sales have pointed to Nintendo’s longstanding tradition of offering modified hardware. Rumors have largely pointed to a lower-cost version of the system that can only be played in portable mode. None of this is to say we got some kind of preview. Companies love to tease these sorts of things out, but it does appear that the big three are tempering expectations for the show. That leaves some opening for other players — of course, E3 has long been dominated by the big three. Among the other rumors currently circulating ahead of the show is a 2-in-1 gaming tablet from Nvidia.
The of $4 billion spinning brand marks the rise of a wave of interactive fitness startups like , , , and that combine a monthly subscription to recorded and/or live video classes with workout hardware. There’s opportunity beyond this initial “ for X” model, however, when you look at where the gamification of at-home workout experiences can overlap with actual games. We’re in the midst of rapid , the , the . The virtual cycling business is a five-year-old startup that has as a pioneer of fitness-gaming ― physical sport carried out in a virtual world. Athletes join together for group rides and races within a cycling game that hooks up to their own bike trainers at home in order to reflect their movements and physical exertion. Since users are represented as players within a social game, there is the benefit of network effects, opportunities for a in-game commerce, and audience viewing of the competition. I recently sat with Eric Min, CEO and co-founder, at the company’s London office. We discussed why he founded Zwift and how the product has evolved, the potential revenue streams available to an interactive fitness brand, and Zwift’s rise as an esport with ambitions to enter the Olympics. Here’s the transcript: Eric Peckham (TechCrunch): Do you view Zwift as a fitness company or as a gaming company where the bike trainer is just a controller? Eric Min (Zwift): We’re the fitness company born out of gaming. While we’re a fitness brand, we’re also a game and social network, two things that are converging rapidly right now. What we’re trying to do, though, is build this social network around real-time experiences, physical experiences, and I think that’s far more interesting. Crucial to that is being hardware agnostic though. We work with a lot of equipment out there so our users can come to the game easily.
(Sony Screenshots) The best moments in are also its most intense. The game’s not-zombies, “Freakers,” aren’t much of a threat at all if you can fight them one at a time. By pairs, they’re a little more dangerous. If three or four show up, it’s time to get clever or maybe throw a bomb. When Freakers show up in groups of 50, screaming and running headlong at you in a weirdly fluid human wave, your heart jumps into your throat and you immediately have to start improvising. That’s when you can appreciate the game’s craftsmanship. Every environment in Days Gone is a quiet maze of hiding places, back doors, crawlspaces, blind corners, and potential escape routes. The first time I explored a town, it was weird when I saw how many buildings had seemingly random open windows, broken fences, and rooftop exits. Then I had to revisit the same town a couple of hours later with 100 Freakers in hot pursuit, and it all made sense. Days Gone is an exclusive for the PlayStation 4, made by Sony’s SIE Bend Studio in Bend, Ore. known for its Syphon Filter series. The game has been in development since 2015. Playing it feels like a deliberate distillation of a lot of zombie games, shows, and movies from back then, all thrown together into a deliberately grimy post-apocalyptic version of the studio’s backyard. Whenever you’re on the run from a horde, everything you can do to slow them down or split them up becomes crucial, no matter how simple it is. Even if you just buy a second, that’s one extra second in which to slap together a bomb, reload a gun, or throw a distraction. You end up leading several hundred screeching monsters on this “Tom & Jerry” chase scene through half a zip code, diving through windows, setting up traps, ducking through gaps in fences, and whittling them down however you can with whatever you can find. There’s nothing else quite like it in current video games, which makes it a shame that it takes such a low proportion of Days Gone’s running time. For most of it, you play the part of a motorcycle-riding bounty hunter, moving between isolated settlements of survivors in search of odd jobs, supplies, and a frankly insane number of collectibles. The standard 2019 sandbox-game formula is in full effect here, where you spend most of your free time cleaning out enemy camps and capturing bunkers, in order to take over the world map piece by piece. Every time it started feeling a little too routine, though, I ended up running for my life from another hundreds-strong zombie lynch mob, and it got my attention all over again. It also feels like one of those games where they didn’t finish it so much as they finally had to stop developing it. Days Gone is decidedly rough around the edges, especially when compared to a lot of Sony’s recent first-party exclusives. I never ran into any serious crashes, but did have to deal with the occasional worrying framerate drop, the audio cutting out without warning, and rock-stupid enemy AI. Some of the missions end abruptly, or feel as if they’re not quite done, and every so often, the physics engine glitches out and some zombie’s body goes flying into low orbit. Days Gone does have solid fundamentals, though. It’s poised on the same borderline between stealth, action, and survival horror as something like The Last of Us, but successfully transplants those systems into a small, detailed open world. You’ve got a solid toolkit for shooting, driving, and stealth, along with one of the better-feeling motorcycles I’ve ever driven in a sandbox game. It’s decidedly unpolished in some areas, but what it does well, it does very well. The game is set in backwoods Oregon, in a small area of tiny towns, rest stops, and tourist traps, a little over two years since the fall of civilization. A disease broke out that turned most of the human population into cannibalistic, violent Freakers, which drove the survivors out of the cities and into the countryside. Now, the survivors have mostly banded together into a handful of reinforced encampments, built out of vacation homes and roadside attractions, where they try to survive off of what resources and supplies are left in the area. You play as Deacon St. John, an Army veteran and biker who lost his wife in the initial outbreak. These days, he’s a drifter, doing odd jobs for the local camps alongside his buddy Boozer. The game begins when, over the course of a surprisingly short period of time, Deacon’s bike gets stolen, Boozer gets badly injured, and Deacon learns that there was more to the story of his wife’s death than he initially realized. That sends Deacon off on a series of new jobs, in order to save Boozer and finally come to terms with his loss. One of the things I like here is that Days Gone is mostly a story about humans caught in a bad situation, who are dealing with it as best they can. Everyone in it is half-nuts from PTSD, but this isn’t about how humans are the real monsters. It’s just about people, messy and broken and trying to put their lives back together. It’s especially obvious when you run into one of the flashback levels, where the whole game’s color palette instantly expands into a Romantic landscape painting. The main game is so heavily tinged by survivors’ guilt that it’s downshifting the color spectrum. The actual gameplay is fairly standard stuff, albeit executed well. You use stealth and distraction tactics to set up ambushes or avoid conflict, while you scrounge up materials from the environment to turn into gadgets and weapons. You can learn new crafting recipes by knocking over bases and cleaning out ambush camps, which also unlocks new fast-travel points on your map. If a fight does go loud, you can get an early update which activates “Focus Mode,” giving you the ability to slow down time for short periods, allowing you to line up an easy headshot or two. This is utterly crucial early in the game, when you’re stuck with whatever broken-down weapons you can scrounge up, and is just a nice quality-of-life increase later on. What’s impressive is that Days Gone, as noted above, does do both action and stealth reasonably well, if not remarkably. This is actually a rare thing; usually, a game that tries to thread this particular needle ends up favoring one or the other approach. In something like Watch Dogs 2, which is ostensibly trying for the same balance, the stealth is so blatantly the “right” way to play the game that getting into a gunfight feels like it’s a failure condition. Days Gone actually makes both approaches worthwhile and useful. As noted above, though, it does play like it’s a distillation of several previously successful games, and there’s a lot here that’s strictly formula. I groaned out loud the first time the game asked me to take out an enemy stronghold, particularly since you can mark enemies from a distance with Deacon’s binoculars. It felt like I was right back in one of the recent Far Cry games, right down to the chance that random animals will wander into the ambush camp and do most of my work for me. Side note: I’m not even sure why Days Gone has bandit camps at all, since the wilderness outside the settlements is supposed to be so dangerous that Deacon is one of the only people dumb enough to go out there. Who are these people robbing? The big gimmick here, though, which sets it apart, is the Freakers, and the chance that if you aren’t careful, you’ll end up drawing a couple of hundred of them down on your location. In its best, most memorable moments, Days Gone is always one random explosion away from turning into Zombie Mardi Gras, and that constant element of risk is what makes it worth the price of admission. To be fair, I’m an easy mark for zombie games, so take my recommendation with a grain of salt. I’d be happier with Days Gone if it focused more on the Freakers, rather than time-killing map activities like fighting bandits, and it’s decidedly unpolished. I still had a lot of fun with it, and I stayed interested all the way through because I wanted to know what would happen to Deacon. It’s well worth your time. Editor’s note: Sony provided an early digital copy of Days Gone for the purpose of this review.