Tag Archives: microsoft

Microsoft Rolls Out Customizable Text Filters For Xbox Messages

Rolling out starting today to Insider preview members and coming soon to Xbox One owners everywhere, Microsoft’s new Xbox text filters give users the ability to tailor the level of offensive content they’re exposed to through private messages and, eventually, in profiles, clubs, and their activity feed. Don’t worry, “none” is an option.

Detailed in a post on the Xbox Wire website, the new “Message Safety” settings feature four levels of protection against offensive content. There’s “Unfiltered”, which just lets the profanity slide on through. “Medium” allows in some more common profanity while filtering harsher words or terms associated with bullying. “Friendly” is the lowest setting and the default for child accounts, automatically hiding profanity and offensive terms. “Mature” only hides terms and phrases Microsoft has determined are “almost always harmful” to those on the receiving end. When a message with offensive content per the user’s selected filtration level comes through, it is is automatically hidden.

Users can further tailor settings by applying one level of filtration to friends and another to strangers. Upon initial rollout, the filters will only apply to private messages, but Microsoft plans on implementing them across all methods of Xbox messaging, including Looking for Group (LFG) and Clubs. Some 21 languages will be supported at launch, with more added over time. The filters will work over PC and mobile Xbox apps as well as on the console.

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The new filters are the latest step in Microsoft’s plan to make online gaming more friendly and “less hostile”. Nice to see an added layer of protection from internet creeps being laid down. Microsoft might have done this sooner, but hey, better late than never.

Source: Kotaku.com

Everything Announced During Today’s Inside Xbox

Photo: Microsoft

Following Sony’s “State of Play” livestream earlier today, Microsoft jumped in with an Inside Xbox presentation featuring new content and services coming to its platform.

More games are coming to Xbox Game Pass. On Xbox One, Jump Force, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Lego Worlds are being added. On PC, Cities: Skylines, Saints Row 4, Bad North, and Dirt Rally 2.0.

The Xbox Game Pass app itself will be updated as well with improvements to the interface. More indie games will also be coming to Game Pass, including Genesis Noir, Lonely Mountains Downhill, and Demon’s Tilt. The rest of the lineup will be shown off in an [email protected] Game Pass video on September 26.

Additionally, Felix the Reaper, a comedy-puzzle game about death, will be available October 17, and will be available on Game Pass that day.

Project xCloud, the service that will let people play Xbox console games on phones, tablets, et cetera via streaming, will have a public preview beginning in October. If you’re in the U.S., the U.K., 0r Korea, you can apply today. Halo 5 Guardians, Gears 5, Sea of Thieves, and Killer Instinct will be the four games available in the preview. You’ll need a wireless Xbox One controller and an Android phone to try it.

xCloud is a distinct service from what Microsoft calls “console streaming,” aka using your own console to remotely stream games to your device. This, it said, is coming at a later date.

Four new characters and many other updates are coming to Gears 5. (The hosts also reminded players that if they want to unlock Batista as a character in the game, you have to do that before October 28 or the actor-wrestler will go “back in the vault.”)

Atlas, the pirate MMO that released into Early Access on Steam last year, will be arriving on Xbox One on October 8. Content will arrive simultaneously on Xbox and PC as Atlas is updated, making it the “exact same game on both platforms.”

New Xbox One X and Xbox One S hardware bundles will include Forza Horizon 4 and its Lego Speed Champions expansion.

Other trailers and footage shown during the livestream included Children of Morta (out now on PC, October 15 on Xbox One/PlayStation 4), Code Vein (September 27), The Outer Worlds (October 25), Afterparty (October 29), Tropico 6 (September 27), Ghost Recon: Breakpoint (beta this weekend, full game October 4), Hitman 2‘s Haven Island expansion (today), new DLC for Ace Combat 7 (September 25), and the new map for DayZ, called “Livonia” (coming soon).

Source: Kotaku.com

Video Game Companies Vow Action On Climate Change, But Critics Say They Need To Do More

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Within a couple generations, after climate change has more visibly ravaged the Earth, the easiest way for humanity to interact with lush forests and icy glaciers might be video games. It’s a bleak, maybe science-fiction potential future, but not an improbable one; according to some analyses, we have just 12 years to suppress catastrophic climate change.

Yet at the same time as games present themselves as tempting vehicles for environmental escapism, the hard reality is that the games industry is a significant contributor to the demolition of our planet.

Gaming consoles rely on minerals mined using techniques that can leave behind toxic water. Factories for hardware produce massive amounts of energy and chemicals. Console and game shipments rely on supply chains networked across the globe, which, in turn, rely on fuel for airplanes and trucks. Every year, PC gamers use 75 billion kilowatts hours of electricity—25 power plants’ worth, according to retired Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Evan Mills. And then there’s e-waste. When the PlayStation 5 comes out, your PlayStation 4 might become e-waste, reintroducing chemicals back into the environment. According to Greenpeace, in 2017, there was enough e-waste to bury San Francisco under 14 feet of used electronics.

Against this background, it’s hard to envision a world where video games are anything but disastrous for the environment. And yet, yesterday, during the United Nations Climate Action Summit, 21 gaming companies, including Sony and Microsoft, announced an industry-wide initiative to combat climate change called Playing for the Planet. In what might be a brilliantly-timed PR move or an earnest effort to change the tides of global climate catastrophe, these companies have made pledges ranging from reducing supply chain emissions by 30 percent by 2030 to, a little less impressively, “putting green nudges” into games’ plots.

Playing for the Planet says commitments they received from gaming companies will help reduce CO2 emissions by 30 million tons by 2030. Here are some of the major ones, as detailed in Playing for the Planet’s press release:

  • Sony Interactive Entertainment will unveil new progress and plans to utilize energy efficient technology (on-track to avoid 29 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030), to introduce low power suspend mode for next generation PlayStation, to assess and report their carbon footprint and to educate and inspire the gaming community to take action on climate change.
  • Microsoft will announce the expansion of its existing operational commitment to carbon neutrality, established in 2012, into its devices and gaming work. It will set a new target to reduce its supply chain emissions by 30 per cent by 2030–including end-of-life for devices–and to certify 825,000 Xbox consoles as carbon neutral in a pilot program. In addition, Microsoft will engage gamers in sustainability efforts in real life through the Minecraft ‘Build a Better World’ initiative, which has seen players take more than 20 million in-game actions.
  • Google Stadia, which is set to launch later in the year, will produce a new Sustainable Game Development Guide as well as funding research into how “green nudges” can be effectively incorporated into game play.
  • Supercell (Clash of Clans) will offset the entire footprint of their community, Rovio (Angry Birds) has offset the carbon impact from their players charging their devices, and Sybo (Subway Surfer) and Space Ape (Fastlane) will offset 200 per cent of their studio and their gamers’ mobile energy use. Guidance documents will assist other companies to take similar actions.
  • Wild Works (Animal Jam) will integrate restoration elements in games and, like Green Man Gaming, they will focus on restoring some of the world’s forests with major tree-planting initiatives.
  • Ubisoft will develop in-game green themes and will source materials from eco-friendly factories.
  • Sports Interactive will eliminate 20 tonnes of packaging by switching from plastic to a recycled alternative for all future Football Manager releases.

Commitments from Nintendo, Take-Two Interactive, Activision Blizzard and King—four of the biggest gaming companies—are notably absent from the list. Kotaku has reached out to these companies for comment on why and has not heard back.

Evan Mills, a retired senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who has studied the environmental impact of gaming, applauded the alliance’s effort in a press release while pointing out that Intel, AMD and NVIDIA were absent from it. “The focus seems to be mostly on the console-gaming space, which is meaningful since consoles use much more energy in aggregate than desktop gaming. That said, missing from the participants are leading makers of desktop and console gaming componentry,” he said. Gaming companies are often allergic to taking a stance.

Of the herd, Microsoft and Sony announced some of the most sweeping changes. In a blog post earlier this week, Microsoft justified its decisions to reduce its supply chain emissions and shift from carbon neutral operations to carbon neutral products with the statement that “It’s clear, given the science, that targets should be even more ambitious than the Paris Accord targets, which mapped to a 2 degree rise.” Sony’s blog post says that the PlayStation 5 will “will include the possibility to suspend gameplay with much lower power consumption than PS4.” If one million users enable it, it added, “It would save equivalent to the average electricity use of 1,000 US homes.”

The initiative’s report on how gaming “can deliver for people and the environment” goes quite easy on companies that make consoles and games—in its words, “fastest growing sub-segment of data usage.” “The video game industry is making a tidal shift towards sustainability,” the report begins before stating its two main directives: goals for restoration of forests and reforestation, and ‘nudges’ that move companies and individuals towards more planet-friendly choices.” Most of the report deals with how the content of games can be leveraged to make gamers more aware of climate change. The report never once references the word “minerals,” and doesn’t meaningfully discuss gaming’s carbon footprint until page 20 of 25.

There’s a question of accountability. Commitments are good, but not without follow-through. Although the alliance consists of a lot of different members, ranging from game developers to retailers, UN Environment representative Sam Barratt told Kotaku that Playing for the Planet says that accountability is possible. “The alliance will facilitate the sharing of best practices, ensuring commitments are met and then bring in other key partners in this industry.”

When asked whether Playing for the Planet’s report or the commitments made to the initiative went far enough, Gary Cook, author of the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, told Kotaku, “Largely, no. It’s great you have a mix of companies saying, ‘Hey, we are concerned about climate change and want to be doing something,’ but the actions they’re taking here, for the most part, are not going to move the needle and are not reflective of the significant impact the gaming industry has on the environment.” Cook thinks that, unless gaming companies acknowledge that significant impact, “they’re just giving lip service to a problem without actually doing anything.”

Cook’s biggest concerns are the manufacturing, use-phase power-suck and impact of the waste (less than 20 percent of electronics are recycled, according to a United Nations University report, which impacts the demand for mined materials like cobalt). Cook cited a recent study claiming that gaming takes up five percent of electricity consumption for residential use. And although some companies like Google aim for a future where the processing burden shifts from home electronics to the Cloud, Cook says, “Your local energy use might not have changed, but you’re consuming as much power as one or three refrigerators from the Cloud side.” (Google recently made the biggest renewable energy purchase in history, however, the impact of Cloud gaming is not mentioned in the Playing for the Planet report.)

“A lot of their future customers are really concerned about climate change and are demanding that governments and corporations take action and treat it like the emergency it is,” said Cook of gaming companies.

Yesterday, when 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg uttered the words “How dare you!” to the room of international world leaders assembled for the United Nations climate summit, Gen Z’s damned future felt nearer than ever. Her speech rode on the tails of the enormous, worldwide Global Climate Strike, led by millions of youth. Gen Z is stepping up and pressuring leaders to do the right thing, at the same time as they’re known as the most tech-addicted generation yet.

Gaming companies will need to reflect the concerns of their consumer bases. At the same time, they ought not to shift the onus to subvert climate disaster on their customers when the companies constitute the “structure” in “structural change.” 

Source: Kotaku.com

Smash Bros. Creator Just Made “Xbox” Trend On Twitter In Japan

Here is the moment that Sakurai recommended that people play Banjo-Kazooie on Microsoft’s hardware.
Screenshot: All screenshots: Nintendo 公式チャンネル
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During a special Nintendo Direct for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Masahiro Sakurai introduced the Banjo-Kazooie DLC. Not only does he want you to get that, but he would also like you to play the original game on Xbox.

The original Banjo-Kazooie games were released on Nintendo hardware, but as Sakurai explained, Microsoft now owns the rights to the series. In 2002, Microsoft bought Rare, the studio behind Banjo-Kazooie, from Nintendo.

Sakurai acknowledged that Microsoft and Nintendo had rival platforms, but the American tech giant is allowing Banjo-Kazooie to entry the fray in this Switch game. “I’m incredibly grateful,” Sakurai said. He’s so grateful that he’s willing to recommend that rival’s platform.

“If you are going to play Banjo-Kazooie, you can play it on Xbox,” Sakurai said, causing the people filming the Direct to giggle off-camera. “I’m saying this even though this is a Nintendo broadcast. Please, by all means, play it on Xbox!”

After saying this, the word “Xbox” started trending on Twitter in Japan. It even reached the number one spot!

Microsoft has always had a hard time reaching players in Japan. Maybe it should’ve enlisted Sakurai’s help sooner?

Source: Kotaku.com

Little Kid’s Hand-Written Xbox Fan Mail From 2002 Is Very Wholesome

Seamus Blackley, one of the key people involved in the creation of the original Xbox console, was going through some old stuff the other day when he came across an adorable piece of fan mail written 17 years ago by little Mitchell Riley. Realizing he’d never replied, Blackley decided to track him down and make amends.

First though, the letter itself, which is infinitely more wholesome than any of the correspondence developers must receive in 2019:

And now for the amends! With a little bit of detective work from fans, it turns out Mitchell wasn’t just still into his Xbox games; he was still such a Halo fan that last week he was at Halo Outpost Discovery, a show in Houston where he met the voices behind master Chief and Cortana:

That must be pretty cool for original Xbox/Halo developers to see something like this and realize that their console and game series are old enough for childhood fans to have become grown-ass adults in a way we normally only associate with companies like Nintendo and Sega.

As for Mitchell, his wholesome online adventures may soon be coming to an end; he only made a Twitter account to respond to Blackley’s search, and so is sure to find things are all downhill from here.

Source: Kotaku.com

Everything Microsoft Showed On Today’s Inside Xbox

Microsoft showed off Gears of War 5‘s horde mode, NBA 2k20‘s career mode, and the new games coming to Game Pass during its latest episode of Inside Xbox.

The episode spanned over an hour and a half, and while it was mostly full of new trailers for games we already new about, there were a few interesting bits of new information sprinkled throughout.

Here’s the full rundown:

  • Devil May Cry 5 is coming to Xbox Game Pass today, alongside Stellaris: Console Edition, while Age of Empires: Definitive Edition will be available on the PC side. Ape Out and Kingdom Come: Deliverance will get added on August 22, while Bard’s Tale IV: Director’s Cut will join on August 27.
  • Blair Witch will get added to Game Pass on both the console and PC sides when it releases on August 30.
  • Humans Fall Flat will be getting a free new level on both PC and Xbox One on August 27 (the game is also on Game Pass).
  • Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition will release on November 14 on both Steam and the Microsoft Store. It adds better AI, 4K graphics, and a number of other improvements, including four new factions. Anyone who already owns the HD version on Steam will be able to get the new version at a discount.
  • Gears Pop! will be out August 22 on iOS, Android, and Windows 10. The Gears of War player-vs.-player strategy game was originally announced at E3 2018 as one of two new Gears spinoffs, the other being the XCOM-inspired Gears Tactics.
  • British actor Idris Elba will be in NBA2k20‘s career mode, as well Rosario Dawson and many other famous people.
  • Ghost War, the multiplayer mode for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, will feature eight players facing off in two teams of four fighting in maps that appear to have storms closing in around them similar to a battle royale game. It’ll also have dedicated servers.
  • PUBG will be getting cross-play between PS4 and Xbox One in an update due out sometime in October.
  • There are two new Xbox One controller designs, one called Night Ox that’s camouflage and one called Sport Blue that has a subtle geometric pattern on the fins.
  • Empire of Sin has a release window of Spring 2020.
  • Microsoft is holding a fan event called X019 on the weekend of November 14 in London featuring the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, and other members of the Xbox team.
  • Metro Exodus’s The Two Colonels DLC is coming out August 20 (tomorrow) and will feature a big flamethrower for all those post-apocalyptic cookouts.
  • Microsoft closed out its stream by showing off Gears of War 5‘s horde mode, which will feature player ultimates this time around. Like in Destiny or Overwatch, players will have custom special abilities like going invisible, X-ray vision, and calling in airstrikes that they’ll be able to deploy throughout the match.

Source: Kotaku.com

Long-Promised Minecraft Graphical Overhaul Is Canceled

Screenshot: Microsoft (Minecraft)

Today, Mojang announced that it has ceased development on Minecraft’s Super Duper Graphics Pack, citing technical difficulties. It’s been just over two years since the feature was announced on stage at E3 2017,

“Some of you might remember us announcing the Super Duper Graphics Pack during E3 2017,” the studio announced on its website today. “Super Duper was an ambitious initiative that brought a new look to Minecraft but, unfortunately, the pack proved too technically demanding to implement as planned.”

Mojang’s statement went on to say that the studio wasn’t happy with how the update was performing across the different platforms Minecraft on which is currently available, which range from Xbox One X to smartphones. Mojang is instead “looking into other ways for you to experience Minecraft with a new look.”

The Super Duper Graphics Pack, which was going to add new textures and visual effects to the game, including on Xbox One X where it would run in 4K, was originally slated to release in the fall of 2017, but was ultimately delayed until 2018. It didn’t arrive that year either, however, leaving Minecraft fans to wonder what had happened to the project.

While today’s announcement is the first time Mojang has addressed the issues with the Graphics Pack in an official statement from the studio at large, individual developers at the company have previously spoken out on Reddit and elsewhere, explaining the problems the development team was facing, including needing to rewrite much of the graphics portion of the game’s Bedrock Engine from scratch to accommodate the potential improvements.

Minecraft is the only first-party Microsoft game not to have Xbox One X enhancements, and it’s unclear whether this is the end of the road when it comes to that. Microsoft and Mojang did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Source: Kotaku.com

Microsoft Is Eavesdropping on Your Skype and Cortana Activity

Screenshot: David Murphy

A number of companies are starting to have reservations about using real people to “improve” their digital assistants by reviewing what you’ve said to your smart speaker or phone. I’m willing to bet that Microsoft will also soon about-face on this practice, but right now, contractors might be listening to what you tell Skype Translator and Cortana.

According to Vice’s Motherboard, an unnamed Microsoft contractor was able to provide recordings—which tend to vary in length from 5–10 seconds, but aren’t limited to that—of people using Skype’s translation feature. To help Microsoft improve the feature’s capabilities, these contractors listen to what users have said and select from a list of possible translations or, in some cases, provide their own.

When asked about this setup, Microsoft representatives told Motherboard that the company makes these recordings available through a secure online portal, and that it takes steps—not described—to remove any associated information that could be used to identify a user after the fact. However, that doesn’t stop people from revealing information about themselves (like their address) when talking to a digital assistant like Cortana, and it doesn’t appear as if there’s any setup in place to prevent Microsoft’s contractors from analyzing that kind of spoken data.

According to a statement Microsoft provided to Motherboard:

“Microsoft collects voice data to provide and improve voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation or translation services. We strive to be transparent about our collection and use of voice data to ensure customers can make informed choices about when and how their voice data is used. Microsoft gets customers’ permission before collecting and using their voice data.”

“We also put in place several procedures designed to prioritize users’ privacy before sharing this data with our vendors, including de-identifying data, requiring non-disclosure agreements with vendors and their employees, and requiring that vendors meet the high privacy standards set out in European law. We continue to review the way we handle voice data to ensure we make options as clear as possible to customers and provide strong privacy protections.”

Can you stop Skype from sending what you say to Microsoft?

In a word, no. At least, when we published this article, I didn’t see any indication on Microsoft’s privacy FAQ for Skype Translator that you can restrict the company from collecting voice data. The practice is spelled out somewhat clearly:

“When you use Skype’s translation features, Skype collects and uses your conversation to help improve Microsoft products and services. To help the translation and speech recognition technology learn and grow, sentences and automatic transcripts are analyzed and any corrections are entered into our system, to build more performant services. To help protect your privacy, the conversations that are used for product improvement are indexed with alphanumeric identifiers that do not identify participants to the conversation.”

I say somewhat, as Microsoft doesn’t indicate in its FAQ that your speech is being analyzed by real people. In fact, this description almost implies that it’s a fully mechanical process, which it is not—nor could it be, since a machine wouldn’t be able to pick the correct translation. The entire point is that a human being has to train the system to get better.

I also didn’t see any settings within the iOS Skype app that would let you opt out of this “improvement” process, but it’s possible that Microsoft will change this approach going forward. It would be great to have an opt-out switch or, even better, an opt-in switch for permitting analyses of voice data.

What about Cortana?

As Vice’s report notes, Cortana commands are also fair game for contractors to listen to. However, you can opt out of this practice. To do so:

  1. Pull up the Settings app in Windows 10
  2. Click on Privacy
  3. Click on Speech on the left-hand sidebar
  4. Disable the “Online speech recognition” feature
Screenshot: David Murphy

The problem? Disabling this feature also hamstrings Cortana. You can still use the digital assistant to access information, but you won’t be able to talk to it and have it respond to your commands.

Your better bet might be to remind yourself to regularly review the Cortana voice data Microsoft is storing. To do that, visit your Microsoft Account page and click on the Privacy tab at the top. Scroll down to “Voice Activity” and click the “View and Clear Voice Activity” button. Look for the “Clear activity” link in the upper-right corner of your data list, and click that. Delete all the things.

Screenshot: David Murphy

I couldn’t get my data to clear, of course, but I hope you have better luck.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Also note that this still might not prevent a Microsoft contractor listening to what you’ve told Cortana—it all depends on whether you delete this data before it’s used to “improve Microsoft’s feature.” We have no idea how much time you have to delete your recordings before Microsoft uses them for something else, or even if this process deletes the single and only instance of the recording. It’s certainly possible that Microsoft simply makes a copy of what you’ve said, “anonymizes” it, and uses that instead.

Ultimately, not using services that process your voice on a company’s servers is the best way to ensure nobody else can hear what you’ve said, but that’s the trade-off we make for convenience in today’s digital world. If you want a digital assistant or an app to figure out what you’re saying and act on that information, you’re going to have to give up a little privacy to benefit from it. At least, that’s the setup until more companies recognize that it’s important to give customers a choice about whether they want their speech potentially processed by another person.

Source: Kotaku.com

The Video Game Industry Can’t Go On Like This

At about this time next year, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what the next generation of video games will look like. New consoles will likely be shown off, bold new streaming initiatives will begin to launch, and we’ll see all the wonderful kinds of games they will bring us. All these new things will come, and we’ll close the book on a generation that saw the industry that makes games come under greater scrutiny than ever before, as studios shuttered, developers burned out, and toxic work culture fostered environments hostile to marginalized people.

These are not problems that have been resolved, but the wheels of the games industry keep turning, in spite of the strain. So how much bigger can video games get? Video games are only getting more costly, in more ways than one. And it doesn’t seem like they’re sustainable.

There’s the human cost, which Kotaku has chronicled extensively. Contract workers are continually undervalued and taken advantage of, as Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 developer Treyarch is reported to do. Artists who work on gory cinematics integral to games like Mortal Kombat suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Unrealistic demands and lofty investor expectations lead to disastrous development cycles for video games like Anthem, which in turn leads to developer crunch. Every week, news breaks about the toll video game development takes on the people who make them, and we carry on as if it’s all going to be fine.

Mortal Kombat 11
Image: NetherRealm Studios (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment)

That’s only the start of it. When you adjust for inflation, the retail cost of video games has never been cheaper, and it’s been this way for some time. The $60 price point for a standard big-budget release has held steady for nearly 15 years, unadjusted for inflation even as the cost to make big-budget video games has risen astronomically with player expectations. (Here’s some math that gives you an idea of just how absurdly expensive games are to make.)

Since changing the price point seems to be anathema, we’ve seen the industry attempt to compensate with all manner of alternatives: higher-priced collector’s editions, live service games that offer annual passes or regular expansions a la Destiny, microtransactions, and free-to-play games. Then you have loot boxes, which in many cases boil down to slot machine-style gambling inserted into retail and free-to-play games alike—something that is coming under increased legal scrutiny that might potentially cut off what has quickly become a major source of revenue in the industry.

These aren’t all necessarily responses to thinning profit margins in the face of rising inflation. Game publishers are often publicly-held companies, with investors that need to be shown endlessly increasing profits that are then used to justify ridiculously large executive paychecks. Perhaps that’s a problem that needs solving, too.

Because of all this, $60 is often just the minimum buy-in, the ante in the pot, for some of the biggest releases. If you want every character in a game’s roster, or every map in its playlists, you’ll have to pay more, and increasingly, you have to. Big-budget single-player games that deliver a single-serving experience with minimal strings attached have largely disappeared from the lineups of major third-party publishers.

Sea of Solitude.
Image: Jo-Mei Games (Electronic Arts)

Let’s run down the Big Three. We’re more than halfway through 2019, and Electronic Arts has only published one single-player game, the indie Sea of Solitude. Last year was much the same, with two indies as its only single-player releases: Fe and Unraveled 2. Activision’s portfolio of single-player games looks even thinner: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the only exclusively single-player, non-remake game that the publisher has released since 2015’s Transformers: Devastation—which itself is no longer available, thanks to an expired licensing agreement.

Ubisoft is an exception, regularly releasing entries in single-player game franchises like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed. But it buttresses them aggressive microtransactions and extensive season pass plans. (And the occasional diversion like Trials Rising and South Park: The Fractured But Whole.) The big-budget single-player experience is now almost entirely the domain of first-party studios making marquee games for console manufacturers, which bankroll games like Spider-Man and God of War. The economics of first-party exclusives are totally different—they’re less about making money by themselves and more about drawing players into the console’s ecosystem.

This is worth considering, because as big publishers prioritize live, service-oriented games, the number of games on their schedules has dropped. If you look at the Wikipedia listings for EA, Ubisoft, and Activision games released by year, you’ll get a stark—if unscientific—picture of how each big publisher’s release slate has thinned out in the last five years, relying on recurring cash cows like sports games and annualized franchises and little else. In 2008, those three publishers released 98 games; in 2018 they released just 28, not including expansions.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Image: FromSoftware (Activision)

In short, the single-player game was not sustainable. So why should we think the current model is?

The smaller release slates make for a precipitous state of affairs where too much is riding on too little, a shaky foundation for big-budget game development to rest on. Granted, there are other publishers, like those in Japan, that are still very interested in single-player games. Independent games have also filled the single-player void and achieved greater visibility than ever before. But each of these alternatives face their own challenges in a volatile market, one where just five years ago conventional wisdom held the Japanese games industry was dead. Independent developers, meanwhile, continue to fight for the smallest slice of an impossibly crowded market. No matter where you sit on the games industry ladder, stability remains elusive.

That’s the present of video games. Let’s talk about the future. The intersecting trends of games-as-a-service and the increased emphasis on streaming mean an increased reliance on off-site computing with data centers and server farms distributed across the globe.

Microsoft’s Project xCloud wants to use the company’s data centers to provide high-end console and PC gaming to anyone with a good enough internet connection. Google Stadia is a service that pitches something similar if not even more wide-reaching, angling for the big-budget video game experience in a web browser. And Sony already offers a streaming service, PlayStation Now, which is likely to expand in the next generation.

A 2016 study from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory gives us an idea of the sort of things to consider in this arena. The outlook gives reasons to both be alarmed and also be hopeful.

The foremost takeaway is that while data centers are growing in number, their energy consumption is starting to plateau out of necessity, as the dramatic increase in cloud computing has actually forced tech companies to become more efficient. The biggest companies, according to the Berkeley Lab report, are actually remarkably efficient.

Data center efficiency is measured by power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating. PUE is found by measuring a facility’s total power delivered divided by the power used by its IT equipment. Under this rating, the platonic ideal is a PUE of 1.0: power input and output perfectly balanced. Google, then, is in pretty good shape as far as this standard goes, with the average PUE of all its data centers currently at 1.11.

Efficiency, however, can remain good as power consumption increases, and consumption is going to remain a problem.

Data center energy consumption has been a concern for some time now, particularly in the United States, where data center energy consumption dwarfs that of the rest of the world at 1.8 percent of all energy used in the countrySmaller data centers, which estimates say make up 60 percent of data center energy-use, are inefficient compared to the biggest players, and with no legal standard or universal benchmark, there’s no way to ensure that efficiency gap is closed.

A Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Photo: Google

Making this problem even more dire is our current political climate, where developing sources of clean, renewable energy is an idea met with hostility by countries like the United States throwing their weight behind fossil fuels, even outside of its own borders. That doesn’t even account for the ways games contribute to the world’s electronic waste problem. E-waste is toxic, and only 40 percent of it is properly recycled.

And all that is before you even start to think about climate change, and the urgent action needed to avert a major crisis in our lifetime.

Video games cannot do this forever. If any of these things were to collapse—the people who make them, the economy they’re sold in, the ecosystem we’re all a part of—it would be catastrophic. All of them at once? That’s a disaster we need to talk about, openly. Because there are solutions to these problems.

Some of them are small, like making sure you know how to properly dispose of e-waste, should you need to throw out a busted console or peripheral, and doing what you can to live sustainably, even though climate change certainly requires the sort of large-scale action that only governments can enact To that end, you can take more involved action, like calling your local congressperson or government representative and asking if climate change and environmental concerns are on their agenda, and keeping apprised of any legislation up for voting in local elections.

Other solutions are harder to parse. How do we account for the data center sprawl of tech companies and their energy consumption? Is it ethically sound to use a service like Project xCloud or Google Stadia or Playstation Now, knowing all this? Should we push for a global green tech agreement of some kind, so companies that contribute to server sprawl and energy consumption do so in a sustainable way? A carbon tax seems like a good start, but this is a problem in need of many answers, not one.

Some solutions are thankfully, underway. Labor practices have come under scrutiny and developers are beginning to discuss organizing in earnest. Unionization is not going to solve every problem, but it can lead to meaningful progress in a lot of ways that trickle outward into other arenas. More equitable practices can mean the relentless pace of development is slowed down, which could make for fewer, better games and a course correction in supply and demand. Or it might only make things marginally better.

Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have stated sustainability initiatives and reports, but these programs are all buried in corporate sites and paperwork—a better approach would be to make sustainability as big a talking point as load times or ray-tracing. Something we could look at and compare to the previous year, and make note of how better off we are.

These are big, insurmountable seeming problems, but like all incredibly big projects—like, say, game development—they’re things that can be done, slowly, a little bit at a time. We just have to start.

It’s unlikely that video games will ever truly go extinct. We’ll probably always have something called “video games,” but what those games will look like is still very much in flux. There’s no guarantee that the way games are currently made will remain viable for another 10 years—games aren’t even made today the same way they were 10 years ago. They will look different. They will change because they can, and because they must. Hopefully, all the ways games change will be on our terms—otherwise disaster will change them for us.

Source: Kotaku.com

Sony, Microsoft, And Nintendo Come Out Against Trump’s Tariffs On Gaming Consoles

Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have joined forces to tell the U.S. government that its newly-proposed tariffs on goods imported from China would hurt consumers, put jobs at risk, and stifle innovation, according to a joint letter sent by the companies to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

As part of its ongoing trade war with China, the Trump administration has proposed $300 billion in tariffs, or taxes on foreign goods, on most consumer goods. This would include a 25 percent tariff on video game consoles. “For those purchases that do go forward despite tariffs, consumers would pay $840 million more than they otherwise would have,” the console manufacturers argue, citing a report by the Trade Partnership Worldwide economic group.

In the joint letter dated June 17, the companies say that 96 percent of video game consoles imported by the U.S. are manufactured in China and that due to the custom hardware inside of them, they can’t easily be made elsewhere. “The video game console supply chain has developed in China over many years of investment by our companies and our partners,” the companies say. “It would cause significant supply chain disruption to shift sourcing entirely to the United States or a third country, and it would increase costs—even beyond the cost of the proposed tariffs—on products that are already manufactured under tight margin conditions.”

They go on:

“Each video game console comprises dozens of complex components sourced from multiple countries. A change in even a single supplier must be vetted carefully to mitigate risks of product quality, unreliability and consumer safety issues. Tariffs would significantly disrupt our companies’ businesses and add significant costs that would depress sales of video game consoles and the games and services that drive the profitability of this market segment.”

The companies don’t speculate what the 25 percent tariff would do the the prices that consumers will pay at the cash register, but they do argue that the effects of the increased costs would be felt throughout the industry, including by companies both big and small who make games.

“Because of the deep interdependence of video game consoles and game software, and due to the price sensitivity of video game console purchasers, tariffs on video game consoles would not only harm our companies, consumers, and retailers, but will also disproportionately harm the thousands of small and medium-sized software and accessory developers in the United States,” the companies say. “Thus, these tariffs would have a ripple effect of harm that extends throughout the video game ecosystem.”

It’s still not completely clear if and when the new round of tariffs will go into effect. Trade talks between the U.S. and China are currently ongoing, and yesterday Bloomberg reported that the new tariffs could be suspended from going into effect if progress is made at the Group of 20 summit taking place in Osaka, Japan this weekend.

Source: Kotaku.com