I jump from my perch on a roof, diving down to my target. In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I am a bird of prey, and my sword is my talon.
I land on an enemy grunt, piercing him with my sword and rolling out of my attack in a seamless and deadly ballet. He never had a chance.
I turn to confront his terrified friend. I swing, but he blocks my attack with his rifle. His strength fails him after my second attack. He stands exhausted and defenseless. My next move is a one-hit-kill Deathblow. His neck sprays blood like a pierced garden hose as he falls to his knees. I feel like a shinobi god as I collect my loot and move on.
Past a large door, there’s another enemy. My adrenaline surges as I see the next few seconds of my life with absolute clarity. I sneak up behind him, run him through, and he’s gone. I am a shinobi god.
In the distance, maybe 20 yards away, two more enemies chat near a small wooden building. They can’t see me. This is going to be easy. I crouch and approach.
A bull the size of a school bus shreds the structure into a hundred shards before I can reach them. He roars and stomps and headbutts everything around him in rage. Fences and enemies fall. The music surges. He turns to me and, as he charges, I notice the flaming tubes of hay where his horns should be. I panic and turn away, running toward what I hope will be safety.
I’m dead within 10 seconds.
This is the joy and agony of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, developer FromSoftware’s new game. It’s a company known for making notoriously difficult games like the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne, and Sekiro shares that lineage. It’s full of masochistic challenges, but it’s also definitely not a Soulsborne game. It’s something new, something intriguing — and a brutal and definitive statement refuting the idea that FromSoftware is a one-trick pony.
[Ed. note: This review is based on our first 50-plus hours of Sekiro (and twice as much between us). We suspect that there may be as much ahead of us as there is in our wake. We’ll continue playing, and will update this review as we complete the game.]
I play as Wolf, a shinobi bodyguard to a royal child. I’m skilled and capable. I have a past and a place in the world.
This is a departure from what I expected based on FromSoftware’s last decade of development — games in which the stories and characters were often obscure and required deep dives into the lore to understand. The story in Sekiro is grounded in relatable details, and I know from the start how I’m connected to it: I’m trying to right a wrong from years ago and fulfill my vow as a bodyguard. The clear focus of the narrative gives me something — and someone — to care about.
There are also bad guys, monsters, and characters who all tell you, through their actions and words, what and why they are. Sekiro is immensely more narratively accessible than its Soulsborne predecessors. It’s a welcome change.
That’s not to say that Sekiro is easy or forgiving. There are bosses, and some other enemies, that kill me with one hit, even dozens of hours into the game. But there’s also a character named Hanbei the Undying who helps me hone my offensive and defensive skills. I return to him whenever I become stuck or confused, and I become a better fighter through his teaching. I usually know what to do next, although I can sometimes become confused and frustrated about how to get there.
There is no map or compass. There are no waypoints or markers. I get general directions, but I’m left to figure out how to navigate Sekiro’s branching paths and locations on my own. Sekiro lets me make mistakes, and I make a lot of mistakes. I rush blindly into an area I should move through slowly and stealthily. I wander into boss fights well before I’m prepared to handle them. I learn.
Sekiro rewards considered play. It’s not just that there’s no defined path through most areas — it’s that there are many paths, and I feel a calling to explore them all. I can run down a main street, where I’ll get stabbed by half a dozen guards, or I can head to the left, where I’ll encounter a guard dog that will alert the guards to my presence … and then I’ll get bitten and stabbed.
Or, I discover, I can use my grappling hook and take to the rooftops, where I can pick off the guards one by one until my path is clear. In the next area, when I try to repeat my rooftop trick, I meet a new type of enemy who shrugs off my attacks and stabs me to death. Sekiro forces me to find yet another way forward.
Combat is a complicated but understandable mixture of defense, dodging, and careful but relentless attacking. It’s not rhythm-based, but it punishes button mashing. Heavy defense might get me through one fight, then cost me my life in the next. Attacking aggressively lets me cut through one enemy, although the next is able to catch me off balance and destroy me. Finding the appropriate combination of thoughtfulness and brutality for each enemy and situation is essential to move ahead.
Gameplay isn’t as dire as the “Prepare to Die” promised on the first Dark Souls’ box, but that rhythm of struggling, dying, learning, and repeating is a huge part of Sekiro. It’s built into the game’s systems: I have the option of resurrection when I fall in battle. And it’s so satisfying to get trounced by someone, wait for them to turn around, and then spring back to life to stab them from behind.
The resurrection option is limited, both mechanically — I have to wait a set amount of time between uses — and through the story. A disease spreads across the world as I continually die and resurrect myself. The characters I talk to — the reformed thief turned vendor, the doctor, the grieving pilgrim — begin coughing and wheezing. And they’ll keep getting worse, unless I fix it.
Suddenly, my get-out-of-jail-free card has consequences, and I find myself questioning my use of it. Is my journey worth hurting someone else to continue, or should I accept defeat and try again with a better and more considered approach? I could save more people if I just died, but then I’d lose half of my loot and experience points.
Each death is an excuse for contemplation, and I often have to take a step back to find the logic and progress that stem from my failures. They’re almost always my fault, which is how FromSoftware gets away with making absurdly punishing games. My lack of progress is a puzzle. Almost every time I fail or get stuck, I conclude that I have everything I need to solve it. I just have to think about what I’m doing or get better at executing my plans. And also I need to calm down, because all of this screaming is scaring the dog.
Rarely do my insights or incremental improvements give me anything close to an easy win, but Sekiro isn’t difficult for difficult’s sake. It gives me hints, but no roadmap. It implies. It finds ways to reward me when I read between the lines. It hands me my ass when I try something a little too clever or panicked or cheap, but it gives me victories when I act with care and react with considered split-second decisions. This is the skill that Sekiro challenges me to accumulate, and it never lets me forget that.
Even though it can take hours of controller-throwing frustration to defeat seemingly insurmountable odds, perseverance begets pleasure. I won that battle because it could be done. I solved the puzzle. I am a shinobi god.
I have to put in a lot of work and effort to meet Sekiro on its own terms, but what might feel ponderous in a lesser game becomes rewarding in one created with this much care. Sekiro meets me with just as much effort and enthusiasm as I’ve put into it. It lets me know I’m capable and skilled, and that I can figure it out.
And then it hands me my ass again.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will be released March 22 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using final “retail” PS4 download codes provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
Sekiro is not Dark Souls or Bloodborne, but it has the bones of both. It’s not a stealth game, but you should play it sneakily. It’s not a role-playing game, but it has RPG elements. It is, in short, a FromSoftware game. It’s weird, brutal, fun, infuriating, and immeasurably satisfying — as long as you persist and don’t throw your controller at a wall.
Like its predecessors before it, Sekiro has the advantage. Our beginner’s guide will help you meet its challenges without ruining or spoiling the fun. We’ve designed this guide to teach you Sekiro’s language — and the faster you become fluent, the better.
What happens when you die
If you’ve played a FromSoftware game from the last decade, you know that death brings a significant penalty. The idea remains the same in Sekiro, but the penalties (and opportunities) for dying are different.
There’s a lot going on, so we’ll break this section down into chunks that deal with the three big concepts: Resurrection, death penalties, and Unseen Aid.
When you die, you can press a button and come back to life right where you fell. This is called Resurrection. Two pink circles at the bottom left of your screen show Resurrection’s availability. As long as at least one circle is full (one refills like a pie chart), you can resurrect.
There’s a cooldown after you resurrect, so you’ll have to wait a few minutes or kill some enemies before you can do it again. You can’t resurrect back-to-back, and you’ll know when it’s unavailable because there’s a black slash through the resurrection icon.
Every time you rest at a Sculptor’s Idol, you’ll get all of your resurrection uses back.
If you can’t (or choose not to) resurrect, you’ll die. When you die in Sekiro, you lose two things:
Half of the experience you’ve gained toward your next Skill Point
Half of the sen (the currency you’ll use to purchase most things in Sekiro) you were holding
Losing half of what you had also means that you’ll keep half of what you had, so death isn’t a total loss. If you were carrying 100 sen, you’ll arrive back at the most recent Sculptor Idol you visited with 50 sen. You can’t recover the other 50 from the place where you died. If you die again before collecting any more money, you’ll arise with 25 sen.
You can’t recover everything you’ve lost unless you receive Unseen Aid.
Receiving Unseen Aid means that you keep the Skill Experience and sen that you’d normally lose when you die. When you arise again, you’ll see an unambiguous overlay that tells you that you’ve received Unseen Aid.
How do you receive Unseen Aid? It’s basically a roll of the dice. As you can see in the image above:
We have a 13 percent chance of receiving Unseen Aid. If we were to die, there’s a bit more than a 1 in 10 chance that we’ll arise again with …
the 703 Skill Experience that we’re carrying and …
the 284 sen we’re carrying.
If we don’t get Unseen Aid, we’ll arise with 352 Skill Experience and 142 sen.
As you die in Sekiro, Unseen Aid’s percentage decreases. It starts at 30 percent, giving you effectively a 1 in 3 chance to recover your sen and Skill Experience.
When you resurrect a lot, you’ll occasionally receive an item called Rot Essence. There’s a story-based explanation for this, but each of the Rot Essence items you receive lowers Unseen Aid’s percentage. In the screenshot above, you can tell we’ve died a bunch and received Rot Essence items because we’re only at 13 percent.
Explore everything and everywhere
Sekiro may be the friendliest FromSoftware game, but that’s relative. It won’t hold your hand, and it’s your responsibility to explore the world.
Here’s a practical example of how that works: Early in the game, you’ll confront enemies holding enormous shields. You could avoid them. Or, with a ton of persistence, you could defeat them with your standard sword. But if you’ve explored the area leading up to your encounter, you’ll find a new weapon that makes the shields a non-issue.
That’s how Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice operates. It’s not an open world game, but you’ll be exploring wide open areas. There’s not something around every corner or behind every wall, but you should explore to find everything.
Sure, you can sprint past optional areas, but you’ll miss out on a lot of helpful items. Be curious. Enter every building. Climb every ledge. Talk to every character. You’ll find items and get hints. They may not make the game easy, but they can make it easier.
Vitality, Posture, and Deathblows
Health in Sekiro works basically like you’d expect, but with a bit of a twist. Everybody has a Vitality bar for health and a Posture bar. Vitality drains as you take damage, but Posture fills as you do things like block or get grabbed. For your enemies, it drains when they block, too.
When an enemy’s Posture damage gauge is full or when they’re unaware of your presence, they’re open to a Deathblow — you’ll also see a red dot appear in their chest letting you know. A Deathblow is almost always fatal. Stronger enemies like mini-bosses and bosses might require multiple Deathblows, but they’re rare, and you’ll see two red dots over their Vitality bar.
The system takes a second to grasp while playing, but understanding — and using it — will help you know how to fight. For example, if you have an enemy whose Posture damage fills with only a couple hits, you know you don’t have worry about timing your attacks — you can just swing away until you drop them.
Always balance offense and defense
Throughout Sekiro, you’ll learn new moves and gain new tools for your fights. Your job is not just to learn to use them, but to learn how to mix them into your repertoire. Skills evolve and compliment each other. You’re never going to stop using the sword you start the game with.
Every new tactic, skill, move, and tool is additive. Applying the fundamentals is the key to winning, even dozens of hours in.
Each enemy has an approach that works against them, from the first guard you fight to the final boss. And Sekiro will tell you — sometimes subtly, sometimes with a sword to the face — what works. Watch your enemies’ Vitality and Posture gauges, and watch how they move.
Watch for things like:
If your first attack fills their Posture damage halfway, you’re probably safe to press the attack until you get a Deathblow.
If they shrug off your Posture damage, it’s time to deal some Vitality (health) damage.
If their attacks cut through your defenses, you should probably be dodging instead.
If they rely heavily on sweeping attacks, use them as an opportunity to deal Posture damage with a Jump Kick.
Plan your attacks and think vertically
Direct confrontation is almost never the best way to approach a fight, and rushing in will get you killed. Instead, survey the area first, preferably from a rooftop or similar vantage point. Come up with a plan, and then execute it.
Sekiro rewards a considered approach. Focus on the low-level guards before you tackle a boss. Take out the archers or gunmen around the periphery of an arena before venturing into the open. Use Ceramic Pieces to draw one at a time away from groups so you can fight one-on-one.
Think about sightlines and plunging attacks. Dropping onto an enemy will almost always take them out of the fight, but it won’t do you any good if it also alerts his friends nearby. Start around the edges of a fight and work your way in. Take the long way around and attack from behind.
Sekiro isn’t a stealth game, and fighting earns you skills
One of the earliest questions we had about Sekiro was whether you could play it like, say, a Metal Gear game: super stealthily. The answer is not so much.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice incentivizes both stealth and combat — and it gives you options and opportunities to employ both in almost every situation. The best and most successful approach balances the two.
Sneaky backstabs should always be your first priority when starting an encounter. They make quick work of low-level grunts, and can cut your fights against mini-bosses in half. A backstab requires your target to be unaware of you, and that means staying out of sight. Luckily, the design of most areas gives you this option, either in deep grass or on rooftops.
You have to fight, though. When you’re out of obvious stealth targets, be offensive and drain your enemy’s Posture with every hit.
Defeating enemies earns you sen, the in-game currency, and Skill Experience. When you earn enough experience, you’ll get a Skill Point. And then you can use the Skill Point to buy — wait for it — skills.
That means Sekiro incentivizes fighting. You don’t have to take out every single enemy, but there’s always a reward when you do.
Always be eavesdropping
Eavesdropping is more than a cute trick in Sekiro. Your enemies’ conversations usually give you a clue about something nearby or an upcoming boss fight. Eavesdropping is a hint system disguised. Keep them in mind while you you explore the area nearby. Combine them with the loading screen tips, and you’ll often be able to piece together a reasonable guess about what you should do next.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), the Black protagonist of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, is introduced to us through his photography: a pregnant Black woman’s belly, close up and in focus, with project housing in the background; next to this image, a dog on a leash treading unpaved ground outside a similar building; urban Black experiences, situated within a broken infrastructure. Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), a blind, white art dealer, is familiar with Chris’ work, and sympathizes with his isolation as seemingly the only Black man at a party thrown by his white girlfriend’s parents, Dean and Rose Armitage.
Jim claims to have taken up art dealing after his own photography was rejected by National Geographic. His easygoing, conversational quality — compared to the other white guests’ strained attempts to chat up Chris — make him seem like he understands, as he puts it, “what real people go through.” However, once the film reveals the ruse of this white suburban cornucopia, Chris is put up for auction, and Jim places the winning bid.
Like Order of the Coagula founder Roman Armitage, who once lost to Jesse Owens in his Olympic qualifier and now runs in the body of a Black man, Jim hopes to capitalize on Chris’ success where he himself has failed. Soon, Jim’s brain will be transplanted into Chris’ body, leaving Chris with bare-minimum consciousness within his own physical being.
While being prepped for the transfer, Chris asks why the subjects for this procedure are all Black. “Please don’t lump me in with that,”Jim says, responding to the implication of racism. “I could give a shit what color you are. What I want is deeper. I want your eye, man.”
Despite this colorblind assertion, Jim Hudson, I would posit, is the single most racist character in Get Out, embodying some of the most insidious historical aspects of white supremacy. While Jim has the desire to see, his phrasing betrays his true intentions: He doesn’t just want Chris’ eyes, but his “eye” — his perspective as an artist — which he believes is deeper, more important than, and even unconnected to Chris’ Blackness.
Jim does not perceive (or perhaps, he ignores) the perspective and lived experience informing Chris’ worldview. Chris captures this outlook through his camera, a device that helps him to both tell Black stories and navigate white spaces. Jim presumes Chris’ “eye” is innate, with no learned element, and he hopes to co-opt Chris’ abilities as a storyteller, thus stealing permission to determine the Black narrative. This desire does not exist in isolation. Rather, it’s part of a larger historical trend.
For centuries, one of white supremacy’s most useful tools in demonizing Blackness was to control images. Take, for instance, the watermelon, so widely understood as having racist implications that its original symbolism has been forgotten: that of post-slavery self-sufficiency. Over the last century and a half — it’s been exactly 150 years since what may be the first racist watermelon cartoon was published — the fruit has become tied up in stereotypical images of Blackness.
The stereotype is rooted in the implication that eating watermelon is an unclean, messy act, partaken in by a lazy people. Pickaninny caricatures and other 19th- and 20th-century racist propaganda used the fruit to stereotype African Americans, a trend that began with the intention of contorting what the watermelon had come to represent for Black freedom. In the 1860s, freed slaves with little economic capital built new livelihoods on selling watermelon, given the ease with which it could be grown. Considering the fruit’s African origins, its twisting by white supremacy to demonize Blackness cuts even deeper.
White media determining images of Blackness is pervasive in cinema, too. The recently released documentary Horror Noirechronicles the history and evolution of Black imagery in Hollywood, beginning with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and culminating, fittingly, in Get Out. Through numerous interviews with Black actors, directors, and critics, Horror Noire speaks of both literal blackface — like exaggerated minstrel impersonations of Blackness — and of a more symbolic blackface, wherein for many years, Black characters in cinema existed exclusively on the terms of whiteness, if they existed at all. The result was similar: African Americans’ larger narrative being driven solely by white perspectives.
By attempting to co-opt the body of a Black photographer, Jim Hudson joins this sinister lineage. While it’s not literal blackface, the Coagula procedure falls in line with the symbolic erasure of authentic Black voices — like those that would need to give way for the likes of Jim, a gallery owner of considerable wealth and influence. The end result is unsettling all the same: Chris recognizes something “off” about Georgina (Betty Gabriel), Walter (Marcus Henderson), and Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), and while he can’t quite put his finger on it, their behaviour stems from white impersonations of Blackness, with authenticity imposed and replaced.
The body snatching in Get Out calls to mind the long history of impersonations of Blackness in American cinema. The Birth of a Nation was part of a long line of films employing literal blackface — white actors playing Black caricatures in exaggerated makeup — a topic that has re-entered the media spotlight thanks to recent political scandals in Virginia. A story of heroic Civil War-era Klansmen protecting white women from animalistic Black men, The Birth of a Nation also became the first motion picture screened at the White House. In the 104 years since its release, it has cemented a place in the canon of greatest American films.
I studied The Birth of a Nation at an American college myself, wherein the film’s racism was treated as a mere caveat in the vein of a “problematic fave,” an obligatory mention swiftly brushed aside by white professors so we could study the film’s influential cinematic techniques. The part of its influence that was not contextualized, however, was how its victorious scenes of “monstrous” Black men being lynched would help revive the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century.
Meanwhile, the history of Black cinema isn’t treated with nearly the same critical or academic reverence. Oscar Micheaux, widely regarded as the first major Black director, released his first film, The Homesteader, exactly 100years ago this month. Based on Micheaux’s novel of the same name, The Homesteader is believed to be the first film with an all-Black cast and crew, and thus one of the earliest examples of visual media being used to reclaim Black identity. Yet Micheaux’s name doesn’t come up nearly as much as Griffith’s. The Birth of a Nation has been painstakingly preserved over the years; it’s available in its entirety on YouTube. The Homesteader, however, is lost. (Luckily, Within Our Gates, Micheaux’s 1920 response film to The Birth of a Nation, can be seen on YouTube as well.)
The struggle to realign Black imagery in the mainstream with authentic Black experiences continues today. The recent Academy Awards bestowed its Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay accolades on Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly and written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Farrelly. Green Book is an occasionally entertaining film, though one with a polarizing understanding of Blackness and Black experiences. The film, which tells the story of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) overcoming his racism in the civil rights era, is born from the perspectives of a white director and white writers, one of whom is Vallelonga’s son. In contrast, the family of prominent Black character Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) — which was never consulted for the film — took issue with the way Shirley is portrayed, calling the film “a symphony of lies.”
Of the eight Best Picture Oscar nominees this year, two deal with issues pertaining to Blackness from the perspective of Black writers and directors. One, BlacKkKlansman, incisively critiques The Birth of a Nation, and garnered Spike Lee the first Best Director nod of his illustrious career. (Lee won Best Adapted Screenplay with co-writers David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott.) The other, Afrofuturist superhero movie Black Panther, was rightly lauded for being a rare American studio film with majority Black cast members and creatives. Micheaux’s The Homesteader was heralded much the same way; newspaper ads in 1919 drew particular attention to the novelty of its all-Black cast. That Black Panther feels new for similar reasons, a full century later, is indicative ofthe uphill struggle to reclaim Black perspective in the American mainstream.
In Get Out, Chris, in his own act of reclamation, uses cotton and the head of a buck (another racist stereotype) to escape his demise, one that would have seen his consciousness relegated to the sunken place. He would have watched his life unfold on a screen, without the ability to influence his own narrative.
Chris escapes the fate of Jim Hudson, a white man, being able to walk around in the visage of a Black storyteller. The worst never comes to pass, though the potential outcome is worth considering in order to understand what’s at stake in the larger world of the film.
Imagine, if you will, Jim returning to Chris’ apartment and seeing the photos on his wall. Would he look at the image of the pregnant Black mother and feel the implication of Black joy just outside the frame, and Black possibility within it? Or would he focus only on the housing project in the background — conditioned, perhaps, to see the mother as a welfare queen (another insidious racial stereotype) and the ill fate of a Black baby yet to be born?
While speaking to Chris, Jim calls his work “brutal” and “melancholy,” which feels disconnected from many of Chris’ photos, like his optimistic low-angle shot of a dove soaring between, and despite, confining buildings. Were Jim to create an image similar to Chris’ photo of the pregnant mother, would he spotlight Black life the way Chris does, contextualizing hope and authentic human experience within a difficult framework? Or would he simply become a race tourist, and put real hardship in the background while patting himself on the back? In Hollywood terms, would he make If Beale Street Could Talk or Green Book?
There is, of course, an element of tourism to any artist portraying someone else’s experiences (or any writer trying to unpack them, like myself), and there will continue to be, so long as we demand more diverse cinema. What stories are told and who gets to tell them may not always progress on an even footing. For every BlacKkKlansman, there’s a Green Book; for every Do the Right Thing, a Driving Miss Daisy. But with each step, and each award, it’s imperative to keep in mind whose voices ought to matter in shaping cultural imagery — and more importantly, why.
Chris’ Blackness isn’t incidental to his art, the way Jim makes it seem. It’s vital to it, the way Blackness is vital to Get Out, and to 2018 films like BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, and Black Panther. Certain images in Get Out — like Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) prepping his operating table, scored by ominous opera — would feel downright goofy out of context. But they become terrifying when framed within a Black story told from a Black perspective, wherein the horror is rooted in real Black fears of whiteness determining one’s destiny.
Siddhant Adlakha is an actor, independent filmmaker, television writer, and freelance film critic. He lives in Mumbai, New York, and online.
As a veteran of multiple console launches at Sony and Microsoft, Phil Harrison has been doing this for the better part of 30 years. By “this,” I mean sitting in a hotel room, being interviewed by a reporter about an Exciting New Thing, answering questions without really giving much away.
In the course of my allotted 30 minute interview with Harrison, I (along with compadre Chris Plante) learned a few things about Google Stadia, a new streaming platform for gaming, that we hadn’t learned at Tuesday’s conference.
But mostly, interviewing him is a useful, enjoyable exercise, in that it’s an opportunity to air the discourse, to shake out the conversation and hang it on the washing line.
It’s not game journalist hyperbole to suggest that Stadia is a really big deal. Potentially, it’s the death knell of everything we know about console games, about hardware generations and the hierarchy of platform holders, publishers, developers, media, and players.
Overused words like “disruptive,” and “revolutionary” don’t do justice to Stadia’s potential to upend gaming, to smash the status quo and replace it with something new. Of course, all of this depends on Google’s ability to deliver on its promise, on Harrison’s ability to marshall and steer the future, on the desires and needs of developers, publishers and, most importantly, consumers.
Here’s our conversation, which has been edited slightly for grammar and brevity.
Polygon: So, Phil, is it going to work?
Harrison: It does work. Everything we showed you yesterday was real. We have been testing in private inside of Google for a number of years. We tested publicly with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in the back end of 2018.
There was a number of technical reasons why we did that test, but one of the non-technical reasons was to shift the narrative a little bit in people’s minds. Oh, actually, game streaming does work and it can do justice to the most challenging and demanding titles.
A little aside. For our presentation yesterday, the live demo — when we went through all of the screen types … When you’re doing a big presentation, you want to de-risk that as much as possible. Our original intention was to bring a dev kit and have it sat in the back of the stage and run it streamed from that dev kit to all of those devices. We had a technical problem on Saturday. So that presentation live on stage was running from a Google data center in South San Jose, 50 miles away. So it was actually easier for us to run our presentation live on the internet than it was to do it locally with a machine in the room.
One of your pitches yesterday was that Stadia is for everyone. We’ve heard that a few times over the years in the games industry, but what does “everyone” actually mean? Here we are in the highly-wired Bay Area where the internet works pretty well. But if I live in South Dakota or Romania, maybe it’s not so fast? Maybe it won’t work? Is that fair to say?
Yes, of course there will be parts of the world that we cannot reach yet, because connectivity does not reach that particular part of the population. And I’m not going to pick on any individual location or country. Having said that, I did get an email from somebody overnight from Romania saying, “our internet is amazing. You should build a data center here.” But the point is that there is a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Connectivity is becoming ubiquitous. It’s not yet ubiquitous and I completely accept that, but our goal is to reach everyone. Over time, that will be based on the continuing build out of fixed-line broadband fiber and other infrastructure to people’s homes.
But there’s a couple of very important technologies that are just over the horizon, principally 5G, which will further accelerate, and give even greater access to even more people. It won’t happen to everyone overnight, but this is the direction of travel.
How do you communicate that to people? How do you say to people here this new amazing thing, but it might not be for you because you might not be in the right place?
The same connectivity challenges that certain physical locations may experience today are the same challenges that prevent them from streaming video, watching YouTube, getting music, playing an online game. While I’m not trying to marginalize those people, it is the reality of the world that we live in. But everything is moving to some kind of digital, some kind of connected future.
So generally speaking, if I can watch Netflix in HD, without any buffering, I’m probably okay to play this?
The example that we use is, if you get a good YouTube experience, you’ll get a great Stadia experience.
How much data will I be using? If I’m sitting home and I’m streaming and I’m playing, what am I looking at for the whole month? And how does that work if I’ve got data caps on my internet service?
So with Project Stream, we recommended and set a threshold of about 25 megabits per second in order to enjoy 1080p, 60 frames per second. In fact, we only used about 20 megabits per second. But we gave ourselves a little bit of a buffer in the calculations.
When we launch, because we’ve made some very significant improvements to our encoder, our streamer and our compression algorithms, we will get 4K, 60 frames per second in about 30 megabits per second.
And then if you are at a lower resolution, you will obviously use significantly less bandwidth.
That could end up being dozens, hundreds of gigs a month. Some telecoms could be using 5G as a way to bring more data caps in. That would be the concern.
I’d point you to the Verizon 5G tests they’re doing though. Those have no caps on them. The ISPs have a very strong track record of adapting, based on consumer behavior. When music streaming started, data caps lifted. The caps lifted when video streaming, particularly driven by Netflix and YouTube, became popular. We are confident that they will continue to lift.
What’s the lowest resolution Stadia will go?
720. Technically it can go lower, but we don’t go lower than 720.
What happens if my internet drops, and I’m in the middle of a game?
We have some very clever technology that will maintain frame rate before we drop resolution. We always try and maintain frame rate as best we can. But a lot of that’s proprietary, so we don’t go into the ins and outs of how we do that. We have some very clever technology.
To go back to the question of universal accessibility, the controller is basically a game controller, with lots of buttons and pads. That’s something designed for gamers with lots of experience with complex games. It doesn’t seem to speak to universal accessibility.
I don’t know how to answer the question in ways that will be satisfying to you. But we understand that. I think what our platform allows is for developers to connect the games with players in a way that allows them to try the game in a way that was previously very complex or costly.
Yes, we have our own controller. But if you have an existing USB controller that uses the HID standard, it will work. And I will need to come back to you to confirm this, but I believe that the incredible work that Microsoft has done with the accessibility controller for Xbox, will work with our platform. But I don’t know that for sure. So let me come back to confirm that with you.
Stadia and the future
If Stadia works, does it really change everything? Consoles are obsolete. The whole order is up for grabs. Or are you just another thing that’s going to squeeze its way into the status quo?
I wouldn’t make any grand proclamations about the … that one thing has to die in order for another thing to be successful. I think that’s up to people like yourself to make those headlines, not me.
We see this as the direction of travel for the future of games. For sure. It won’t happen overnight. It’s not going to be a switch that gets flipped and everyone moves from device-centric to networks in one second.
But when you see the opportunity creatively, distribution-wise, technically, game design-wise, you know that this is going to be a very dramatic shift in the way that games are made and played.
You’ve worked for Sony and Microsoft. You’ve been in those rooms watching competitors make their presentations. What are those guys doing and saying, right now, do you think? Are they scared?
I don’t know. I would point you to the [Microsoft] memo that appears to have leaked that Phil Spencer sent around as a result of yesterday’s presentation. Draw your own conclusion.
If Stadia becomes the de facto way to play games, that puts you in an enormously powerful situation, individually. Your power would be unprecedented in the games industry. Is that something that you’ve thought about, or talked about?
You know me. I don’t really think about power in that sense. I think about helping developers find opportunity.
I’m not going to answer the question directly. But to give you an example. I very purposefully chose GDC as our moment in time to reveal Stadia to the world because I wanted all game developers to be able to experience and understand and sense the vision of the future. So that they can build games and they can build their businesses on top of our platform.
[Google CEO] Sundar [Pichai] talked about this yesterday in his opening remarks. In the last four years we’ve generated $110 billion worth of value for our partners across all of our different platforms. It doesn’t matter what the genre, what the segment is. If we’re not making our partners successful, our platform is not successful.
I was curious that there was no mention of big games publishers like EA and Activision during yesterday’s presentation.
Don’t read it too much into which games we chose, and which games we didn’t choose. We had a series of platform features that we wanted to articulate. We chose a number of games that helped illustrate particular features. But don’t read too much into why so-and-so was there and why so-and-so wasn’t there.
We’ve had deep conversations over a number of years now. We’ve shipped over a hundred development kits already. We’ve got thousands of creatives already underway. So you’ll see a pretty amazing lineup come June.
June. So that’s the next step?
The summer is when we will be next back out in public.
But you’re not confirming E3?
We’re not confirming E3.
Costs, pricing, games
How much does it cost you guys, to develop Stadia? Where is the cost? Is it in cables and data centers and GPU towers? Or is it in research and development?
It’s a bit of both. We don’t break out the specifics of to what the spend is on different categories. But it is a public record that in 2019, Google will be spending $13 billion in infrastructure and capital expenditure. So this is a very significant investment for the company.
It’s unprecedented, in the games industry, that a platform holder owns the means of distribution, the retail component, the hardware and, if you have a powerful first-party games presence, the product too.
I’m not sure it’s unprecedented. I think that the various flavors of mobile phone ecosystems have had that end-to-end model on which independent developers and publishers are wildly successful. And we would apply the same philosophy here.
We’re doing first party studios with Stadia Games and Entertainment, not because we want to have a dominant share of revenue, but because we want to have those beacon and lighthouse experiences that really demonstrate what it means to have the network as your platform, the data center as your platform.
We’re going to have those deep connections with the rest of Google where we can bring machine learning and artificial intelligence and Assistant and other leading edge technologies into games for the first time.
We’re going to make some mistakes. We’re going to have some stumbles along the way. But once we’ve got to the great, then we can share that with the rest of the industry. And that will help everybody get to a great point even quicker.
When YouTube TV launched, it was confined to certain geographic areas, within the United States. Do you have similar plans for the launch of Stadia?
Well, we’ve announced that we’ll be launching this year in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and most of Europe. With Project Stream at the backend of last year, we were live in 12 data centers in the U.S.
We’re already building out the stuff that you can’t see in the infrastructure. It’s known in the industry as “space and power.” So that’s the buildings that you put space into for racks and power and cooling
Those take a long time to build out. In some cases we’re building dedicated buildings and filling them with racks of computers. We showed a couple of beautiful photographs yesterday. They don’t all look that beautiful [laughs].
How many jobs are you going to be creating, directly for game developers, with your first party studio efforts?
I haven’t got a specific answer in terms of numbers of direct employees. But there will be two beneficiaries. There will be studios that we build ourselves, and there will be independent studios that we partner with and invest in. Not at an equity level, but you know, from a support point of view.
We will be helping to grow studios to build games for Stadia. And I think that will be good for the industry.
So Google will be making big, first-party launch games, that will need to have the same resonance as a Halo or a God of War. What stage are you up to with them? Do those games even have names at this point?
There are some really deep areas of R&D that are going on that will bring the best of Google to game design. What that looks like and plays like, I think it’s too early to tell. It’s more building fundamental underlying technologies.
We hinted at it a little bit yesterday with some of the things we showed you. Stream Connect and the scalable multiplayer, distributed rigid body physics. You know, some of the stuff that has historically been impossible to do on traditional platforms, we are now able to do. So you’ll see us lean in deeply into that.
Last year, Jade Raymond was serving a group general manager and senior vice president at EA Motive. We spoke with her at E3 about her vision for the future of games and she emphasized the huge opportunities for companies to make use of in-game data, in new and creative ways. She gave an example of a theoretical game that used player data to select a beloved character to be killed off [as in Game of Thrones]. At the time, that seemed extremely ambitious for EA. But if there’s one company that knows data, it’s Google. How much of her design philosophy influenced your decision to bring her on, as head of Stadia Games and Entertainment?
Let me answer in a couple of different ways. I spoke with a lot of different people about who was going to head up our studios. I saw some incredible talent, people with a rich history of hits. But with Jade we found somebody who could not only imagine the future but could also articulate it in a way that we really liked.
Getting hired at Google is a very complex thing. She is obviously successful in that process. I’m really excited to see what that means for the kind of games and experiences that we build.
To your second point about data, I want to make a really important point here, which is when gamers think about data, they probably think about their data and their personal data. That’s not what we’re talking about.
What we’re talking about is … in our platform, we have very high performing server class infrastructure for memory, and CPU and GPU, but crucially also for storage. We give developers access potentially to petabytes of storage at a very, very high speed.
That allows developers to write out complex databases that would allow the kind of scenario that you mention become real. In today’s distributed world, it would be very slow and complex to bring all of the states of everybody’s individual game into one central place, run machine learning or AI algorithms on it and then propagate it back out to every single member of the game. It’s not that it’s impossible, it would just be really, really slow and very, very costly to do that.
But with our architecture that actually becomes comparatively easy and very fast, like microseconds fast. So that allows game designers to have access to tools or ideas that are going to be pretty radical.
I haven’t asked about pricing because you’ve made no announcements and I suspect you’ve got a canned reply …
So imagine I’ve just given you the canned reply. [laughs]
But if I were a developer or a publisher, I’d want a little bit more than that before I committed to making a huge investment in developing for Stadia. What are you saying to those guys? Are you telling them what your plan is?
We are having conversations that are necessarily commercially sensitive and that are under nondisclosure agreement. They’re not the kind of things that you proclaim from a stage. It’s something that you discuss in a business setting.
Those conversations have been had. We are all really happy with the way that our publishers will be able to be successful on our platform.
Google will sometimes create things, without any intention of profitability. You created Google Photos knowing it will lose money, because the machine learning that you gain from Google Photos is staggering. I look at Stadia, and I wonder if this is somehow bigger than just making a ton of money, right now.
We’re a business. There’s no denying that we’re a business. But we’re a business that thinks very long term, that is probably as long and as ambitious as anybody, certainly in the West.
You can see the evidence of the very public leadership support we have from Sundar, to the investments that we’re making both in capital and infrastructure. We’re in this for the long haul.
At Epic Games’ Game Developers Conference keynote today, the company gave developers and fans an updated look at how the company’s Unreal Engine is bringing us closer and closer to photorealistic computer-generated graphics.
Two short films and a demonstration of Epic’s new physics engine, all of which were rendered in real time, highlighted some of the advancements coming in upcoming versions of Unreal Engine.
“Troll” from Goodbye Kansas and Deep Forest Films stars a digital princess and a group of glowing fairies who play with her enchanted golden crown — all of which is meant to demonstrate ray tracing, cinematic-quality lighting, soft shadows, and reflections in Unreal Engine. The short film was created in Unreal Engine 4.22, which will be released fully in the coming weeks.
During today’s demonstration, Epic Games engineer Nick Penwarden noted that “Troll” was running on a single Nvidia GeForce 2080 Ti graphics card.
“Rebirth” from studio Quixel was created by just three artists using Unreal Engine 4.21, and required no custom plug-ins and no custom code, according to Epic Games chief technical officer Kim Libreri. The short, which is decidedly less organic than Troll, shows off how photogrammetry techniques and Unreal Engine’s asset library can do for real-time graphics.
Quixel said it spent “a month in ice-cold rain and thunderstorms scanning locales in Iceland, returning with over 1,000 scans, capturing a wide range of eco-regions and natural environments” developing the short.
Finally, Epic Games showed off Chaos, the new physics system coming to Unreal Engine 4.23. Using the world of Robo Recall, Epic’s VR first-person shooter for Oculus Rift, the Chaos demo illustrated how real-time destruction and physics in Unreal can provide “Hollywood-quality physical simulations,” showing destruction on varying scales.
Sea of Thieves is turning one year old on March 20, and players have only seen four free expansion packs (along with weekly updates) since the game’s launch. Now that the game’s first anniversary is approaching, Rare has announced a new update. There’s still information to come regarding the specifics of these new features, but based on a new trailer, we can expect the following to be on its way to Sea of Thieves.
Tall Tales looks like a new way to play Sea of Thieves. While we only saw a few moments from Shores of Gold, the first Tall Tale, we got to see what looked like a linear quest through a temple laden with traps and a voyage along the course of constellations. Quest content has been limited to short limited-time campaigns so far, so adding a broader campaign is a big addition to the game — and one that fans have sorely wanted.
Rare will bundle The Arena, a previously announced PVP expansion, into the anniversary update. The Arena, a separate queue from the existing game, will pit crews of friends against opponents in a race to gather as much treasure as possible. What’s especially exciting is that the anniversary trailer showed off what might be a new ship, as well as new ways to damage ships. For instance, one crew took down an opponent’s central mast, which is an inventive way to stop an opponent without sinking them.
Hunting, fishing … harpoons?
Some smaller systems were showcased in the anniversary trailer, including fishing and cooking. We also see one pirate studying a book in the background. It all suggests that some kind of crafting is on the way. We don’t know how, exactly, these systems will work or what benefits they’ll bring, but they will provide new things to do on voyages and potentially new rewards.
We also saw a ship-mounted harpoon that was used in battle against a megalodon, which is very exciting, because I want very badly to harpoon my foes in combat.
The anniversary update, another free addition to the current Sea of Thieves game, will be made available on April 30.
Steve Allison, head of the Epic Games Store, shared some download and sales data during a presentation at the 2019 Game Developers Conference, noting that users downloaded the free games Subnautica and Slime Rancher 4.5 million times in two weeks. But the real news comes from the launch of Metro Exodus, an Epic Games Store exclusive.
Metro Exodus has sold two and a half times more copies on the Epic Games Store than Metro Last Light sold in the same amount of time on Steam. This proves, according to Allison, that “it’s really about your game, not so much about the store [you sell it on].”
Metro Exodus also runs on Unreal Engine 4, which means that the engine licensing fees will come out of Epic’s 12 percent cut instead of being added on top of Steam’s 30 percent revenue share.
The higher sales are only part of the story, as Deep Silver will keep a much higher percentage of the money coming in from the release on the Epic Games Store compared to the revenue it would have made on Steam.
“The Epic Games Store will make many hundreds of millions of dollars for developers this year,” Allison said during the presentation.
What do the Epic Game Store numbers mean?
The message Epic Games would like to get out is that you can make a whole lot of money on the Epic Games Store, even if many fans expressed their anger over the game’s exclusivity online. But Metro Exodus is also just one game, and without hard numbers it’s trickier to tell if this is anything close to an apples-to-apples comparison.
Still, the message is there: There are a lot of players on the Epic Games Store, and they like to buy games through the service. Good stuff.
Meanwhile, Steam remains absolutely massive, with 47 million daily active users and 90 million monthly active users, according to a blog post from January of this year.
Epic’s message is that its store can sell games, but it’s hard to argue with Steam’s continued market dominance. That may matter less due to the larger amount of revenue that Epic gives to developers and publishers, but Steam’s head start in growing a gigantic user base is going to be a hard advantage for anyone to fight for some time.
Exclusives will help, which is why the success of Megro is so important for Epic to share. Even if you bring your games to the Epic Games Store, and nowhere else, you can sell more copies and keep more of the money. The size advantage of Steam doesn’t matter, what matters is how much money each individual company can make with the Epic Games Store.
We’ll see how many developers and publishers listen.
Stadia is Google’s big step into the gaming world, and the company’s 2019 GDC keynote gave us our first big look at the streaming platform. The event was big on ideas and light on particulars, but here’s what we know so far. — Cass Marshall & Ross Miller
Stream games on anything, anywhere
The first, and most ambitious, promise of Stadia is that it can be played on any device. The conference showed Assassin’s Creed Odyssey being played on a low-end gaming PC, Pixel 3, and tablet. Games are streamed at 60 FPS and 4K resolution, and, thanks to the cloud, a player can transfer their progress between devices immediately.
Stadia’s controller connects directly to the cloud
Google Stadia will have its own controller that connects directly to the cloud via wi-fi, rather than to the device the video is streaming on. The controller will have one button to help with the aforementioned sharing, and another button to summon the Google assistant. You’ll also be able to hook your own peripherals up via Bluetooth or USB, if you prefer your current gamepad.
Google promised major multiplayer potential for Stadia, thanks to the limitation of graphical and latency concerns. Google showed off split-screen demos with multiple perspectives on the same world. While Stadia boasts “cross-platform play,” they’ll still be restricted by what Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo allow on their own systems.
Tuesday’s Google Stadia reveal at the 2019 Game Developers Conference was full of announcements and intriguing possibilities, but one of the most immediately promising moments was the Style Transfers demonstration. Style Transfers work off machine learning; neural networks search for meaning within existing images, taking their patterns and shapes and transferring them into new images and formats.
Stadia’s Style Transfers use that machine learning on the video layer of the game, applying any visual style to it. In a video demo, it turned a featureless world into Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a pencil-sketched environment, and even a Pac-Man-style world.
We’ve seen the results of applying neural networks to existing game worlds before, such as in a series of images from modern games combined with masterpieces like Misty Mood or Impression, Sunrise.
Epic Games announced a batch of new exclusive titles for its digital game store at its annual Game Developers Conference keynote today, including two titles from Take-Two’s Private Division label: Obsidian Entertainment’s sci-fi role-playing game The Outer Worlds and Panache Digital’s Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, the new game from Assassin’s Creed creator Patrice Désilets.
The company also had a surprise announcement: Developer Quantic Dream is bringing three of its games — Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and Detroit: Become Human — to PC as Epic Games Store exclusives.
Epic has already made headlines for the store exclusives it’s managed to lock down, including Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 and 4A Games’ Metro Exodus. Here’s a list of the other games coming to the Epic Games Store as PC exclusives:
Afterparty from Night School Studios
Controlfrom Remedy Entertainment and 505 Games
The Cycle from Yager
Dauntless from Phoenix Labs
Industries of Titan from Brace Yourself Games
Journey to the Savage Planet from Typhoon Studios and 505 Games
Kine from Chump Squad
Phoenix Pointfrom Snapshot Games
The Sinking City from Frogwares and Bigben
Spellbreak from Proletariat Inc
Solar Ash Kingdomfrom Heart Machine and Annapurna Interactive
The three most recent games from French studio Quantic Dream — Detroit: Become Human, Beyond: Two Souls, and Heavy Rain — are all PlayStation exclusives at the moment, but they’re on their way to Windows PC with the help of Epic Games, the companies announced Wednesday at the 2019 Game Developers Conference.
PC ports of all three games are scheduled to be released “later this year,” and each one will be sold exclusively in the Epic Games Store for one year, Quantic Dream said in a news release. The company “partnered with” Epic to bring the titles to PC, according to the announcement. It’s unclear if Epic is funding the development of the PC versions, or if the company merely paid for the timed exclusive on the distribution arrangement. We’ve asked the companies for comment, and will update this article with any information we receive.
The news comes as no great shock. In January, Quantic Dream announced that it had taken an investment from Chinese internet company NetEase for a minority stake in the studio. At the time, Quantic Dream executives said they would take their future projects to multiple platforms, suggesting that the company’s long-running exclusive partnership with Sony had come to an end. The wording in Wednesday’s announcement underscored that.
“We are so grateful for twelve fantastic years of collaboration with Sony Interactive Entertainment and all they have allowed us to create and produce,” said Quantic Dream co-CEO Guillaume de Fondaumière. “With this new partnership with Epic, we can now expand our products to a wider fan base and allow PC players to enjoy our titles.”
Paris-based Quantic Dream was founded in 1997 by David Cage, who directs all the studio’s games and also serves as co-CEO alongside de Fondaumière. The company has a reputation for making action-adventure games in the science fiction genre, with a stated focus on telling interactive stories with branching narratives — although the stories themselves, written by Cage, often leave something to be desired. Quantic Dream’s games are also known for pushing the medium forward on the technical front, with high-fidelity performance capture and impressive visuals.
Following the multiplatform releases of its first two games, 1999’s Omikron: The Nomad Soul and 2005’s Indigo Prophecy, Quantic Dream signed an exclusive publishing contract with Sony in 2006. The first project under this deal, Heavy Rain, was released in 2010 on PlayStation 3. Next up was Beyond: Two Souls in 2013, also on PS3; both were ported to PlayStation 4 before the release of the studio’s latest game, 2018’s Detroit: Become Human.
Sony published all three of the PlayStation-exclusive games. But Quantic Dream is an independent studio, and it appears that the developer retains ownership of the intellectual property for its games — otherwise, Sony would have to agree to the PC versions. (Neither Quantic Dream nor Sony responded to requests for comment regarding their publishing arrangement.) We’ve also asked Quantic Dream for information on who is developing the PC ports, and are awaiting details.