Businesses

EA Buys Out a Game Studio After Shutting Another One Down 3 Weeks Ago (arstechnica.com) 57

EA has acquired the video game studio Respawn Entertainment. "The studio, co-founded by former Infinity Ward chiefs and Call of Duty co-creators in the wake of their departure from Activision, has been bought out in a deal whose total value could reach $455 million," reports Ars Technica. "The news by itself may seem odd, considering that EA shut down one of its other wholly owned studios, Visceral Games, only three weeks ago." From the report: A report from Kotaku sheds light on why EA made the move: as a response to another game publisher, Korea's Nexon, making a formal bid to buy Respawn outright. Nexon currently publishes a mobile spinoff of Respawn's Titanfall shooter series. Kotaku, citing sources close to the matter, claims that Nexon had bid to buy the company outright. EA exercised its contractual right to match the offer, Kotaku says, and it ultimately outbid Nexon. Among other things, the buyout preserves Respawn's continued work on an upcoming EA game set in the Star Wars universe; EA currently enjoys an exclusive license to making Star Wars-related video games, and any takeover by another company would have to resolve whether or how such a project would continue in production. Respawn's Star Wars project still does not have a title, a release date, or revealed gameplay footage. Respawn announced its work on an additional, unnamed VR game at Oculus Connect 4 last month; the EA statement says that project will continue apace, as well.
AI

Humans Are Still Better Than AI at StarCraft (technologyreview.com) 142

29-year-old professional StarCraft player Song Byung-gu won 4-0 in the world's first contest between AI systems and professional human players, writes MIT Technology Review. An anonymous reader quotes their report: One of the bots, dubbed "CherryPi," was developed by Facebook's AI research lab. The other bots came from Australia, Norway, and Korea. The contest took place at Sejong University in Seoul, Korea, which has hosted annual StarCraft AI competitions since 2010. Those previous events matched AI systems against each other (rather than against humans) and were organized, in part, by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a U.S.-based engineering association.

Though it has not attracted as much global scrutiny as the March 2016 tournament between Alphabet's AlphaGo bot and a human Go champion, the recent Sejong competition is significant because the AI research community considers StarCraft a particularly difficult game for bots to master. Following AlphaGo's lopsided victory over Lee Sedol last year, and other AI achievements in chess and Atari video games, attention shifted to whether bots could also defeat humans in real-time games such as StarCraft... Executives at Alphabet's AI-focused division, DeepMind, have hinted that they are interested in organizing such a competition in the future.

The event wouldn't be much of a contest if it were held now. During the Sejong competition, Song, who ranks among the best StarCraft players globally, trounced all four bots involved in less than 27 minutes total. (The longest match lasted about 10 and a half minutes; the shortest, just four and a half.) That was true even though the bots were able to move much faster and control multiple tasks at the same time. At one point, the StarCraft bot developed in Norway was completing 19,000 actions per minute. Most professional StarCraft players can't make more than a few hundred moves a minute.

Upgrades

Xbox One X is the Perfect Representation of the Tech Industry's Existential Crisis (mashable.com) 190

A reader shares commentary on the newly launched Xbox One X gaming console: Fundamentally, Xbox One X is the same machine that Microsoft released in 2013. It plays the same games, runs the same apps, depends on the same operating system. You can still plug your cable box into it and watch OneGuide magically sync with your local TV listings. Most of the things you can do look a little better and run a little faster/more efficiently, sure. The actual casing is smaller than the previous iterations, too. It's a gorgeous $500 machine. That's why I keep eyeballing it. My brain screams, "Why do you exist?" The Xbox One X does not answer. This is a familiar problem in 2017. Look around at all the tech in your life and do a quick, informal poll: How many of those items become outdated every year or every few years when a newer, shinier version of the same thing comes along? I'm talking about your iPhone and iPad. Your Amazon Echo and Kindle. Your Pixel and Daydream VR headset. Your Apple Watch. Your Roku, your Apple TV, your Chromecast. Incremental upgrades that push features like 4K! HDR! Wireless charging! Slimmer design! No headphone jack! (Wait, no, that last one is awful.) Breathless bullet point after breathless bullet point. Some of these additions have genuine utility and add value to the product. Many don't, or depend on you also possessing some other piece of incrementally upgraded tech (like the kinds of fancy-shmancy TVs that play the nicest with Xbox One X).
Cellphones

Razer Unveils Gaming Smartphone With 120Hz UltraMotion Display, 8GB RAM and No Headphone Jack (cnet.com) 168

Computer hardware company Razer has unveiled its first smartphone. While the design doesn't appear to be up to par with the competition, it does pack some impressive specifications under the hood. The Razer Phone features a 5.7-inch, 2,560x1,440-resolution display, Snapdragon 835 chipset with 8GB of RAM, 12-megapixel dual camera with a wide-angle lens and 2x optical zoom, 4,000mAh battery, dual front-facing stereo speakers, and Android 7.1.1 Nougat running out of the box. While there is a microSD card slot for expandable storage, there is no headphone jack, no waterproofing, and no wireless charging. The device also won't support CDMA carriers like Verizon or Sprint. CNET reports: [W]here most new flagship phones are shiny rounded rectangles with curved screens, the Razer Phone is unabashedly a big black brick. It flaunts sharp 90-degree corners instead of curved edges. You can even stand the phone on end. The 5.7-inch, 2,560x1,440-resolution screen is flat as a pancake, and you'll find giant bezels above and below that screen, too -- just when we thought bezels were going out of style. When the Razer Phone ships Nov. 17 for $699 or £699 -- no plans for Australia at launch -- the company says it'll be the first phone with a display that refreshes 120 times per second, like a high-end PC gaming monitor or Apple's iPad Pro. And combined with a dynamic refresh technique Razer's calling Ultramotion (think Nvidia G-Sync), it can mean beautiful, butter-smooth scrolling down websites and apps, and glossy mobile gameplay.
Games

Game Studio CCP Scales Back Virtual Reality Development (bbc.com) 43

Developer CCP Games has significantly cut the time and money it is investing in virtual-reality based games. From a report: The Iceland-based studio is best known for sci-fi title Eve Online but has also created several VR-centred games. Spaceship dog-fighting simulator Eve Valkyrie helped launch the Oculus Rift headset and CCP also made the Sparc VR ball-tossing game for the PlayStation. CCP boss Hilmar Petursson said the company would re-invest in VR when market conditions improved. The move was a "blow to the viability of VR as a major gaming platform," said Adam Smith on the Rock, Paper Shotgun gaming news website, adding that Valkyrie was one of the few games that tempted him to try VR. The changes come just over a month after CCP overhauled Valkyrie in a bid to get more people playing it. CCP has cut its investment in VR as part of a broader restructuring effort. The structural changes mean more focus on PC and mobile games, it said in a statement. It is closing its Atlanta, US, office and selling off the development studio it maintains in Newcastle. The VR development work done at both locations will move to London.
Businesses

GameStop Is Launching An Unlimited Used Game Rental Subscription, Says Report (polygon.com) 38

According to a leaked advertisement, GameStop is rolling out a used game rental subscription service. Subscribers will be able to pick any used game, play it, return it and get another as often as they like. The service will reportedly cost $60 for six months, and players get to keep the last game they borrow. Polygon reports: The advertisement was first seen at ResetEra, the new gaming forum. It appears to be from the newest issue of Game Informer (which is published by GameStop). The "Power Pass" subscription lasts six months and costs $60, according to the advertisement. Sign ups will begin on Nov. 19. The fine print says the Power Pass must be activated by Jan. 31, 2018, possibly hinting at when this service will go live. The subscription requires that the user be a PowerUp Rewards member, and the offer will be available only to the used game catalog in a store (i.e. physical discs), not from GameStop's online library. The PowerUp Rewards requirement apparently is there to help GameStop track the game currently in a user's possession.
First Person Shooters (Games)

Thousands of Videogame-Playing Soldiers Could Shape the Future of War (theatlantic.com) 216

An anonymous reader quotes the Atlantic: As far as video games go, Operation Overmatch is rather unremarkable. Players command military vehicles in eight-on-eight matches against the backdrop of rendered cityscapes -- a common setup of games that sometimes have the added advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars in development budgets. Overmatch does have something unique, though: its mission. The game's developers believe it will change how the U.S. Army fights wars. Overmatch's players are nearly all soldiers in real life. As they develop tactics around futuristic weapons and use them in digital battle against peers, the game monitors their actions.

Each shot fired and decision made, in addition to messages the players write in private forums, is a bit of information soaked up with a frequency not found in actual combat, or even in high-powered simulations without a wide network of players. The data is logged, sorted, and then analyzed, using insights from sports and commercial video games. Overmatch's team hopes this data will inform the Army's decisions about which technologies to purchase and how to develop tactics using them, all with the aim of building a more forward-thinking, prepared force... While the game currently has about 1,000 players recruited by word of mouth and outreach from the Overmatch team, the developers eventually want to involve tens of thousands of soldiers. This milestone would allow for millions of hours of game play per year, according to project estimates, enough to generate rigorous data sets and test hypotheses.

Communications

EA Shuts Down Fan-Run Servers For Older Battlefield Games (arstechnica.com) 132

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Since 2014, a group of volunteers going by the name Revive Network have been working to keep online game servers running for Battlefield 2, Battlefield 2142, and Battlefield Heroes. As of this week, the team is shutting down that effort thanks to a legal request from publisher Electronic Arts. "We will get right to the point: Electronic Arts Inc.' legal team has contacted us and nicely asked us to stop distributing and using their intellectual property," the Revive Network team writes in a note on their site. "As diehard fans of the franchise, we will respect these stipulations."

EA's older Battlefield titles were a victim of the 2014 GameSpy shutdown, which disabled the online infrastructure for plenty of classic PC and console games. To get around that, Revive was distributing modified versions of the older Battlefield titles along with a launcher that allowed access to its own, rewritten server infrastructure. The process started with Battlefield 2 in 2014 and expanded to Battlefield 2142 last year, and Battlefield Heroes a few month ago. It's the distribution of modified copies of these now-defunct games that seems to have drawn the ire of EA's legal department. Revive claimed over 900,000 registered accounts across its games, including nearly 175,000 players for the recently revived Battlefield Heroes.

Math

The Geometry of Islamic Art Becomes a Treasure of a Game (arstechnica.com) 213

Sam Machkovech from Ars Technica reviews the game Engare, describing it as a "clever, deceptively simple, and beautiful rumination on geometry and Islamic art-making traditions." The game consists of relatively simple puzzles and a freeform art toy that unlocks its puzzles' tools to allow you to make whatever patterns you please. From the report: The game, made almost entirely by 23-year-old Iranian developer Mahdi Bahrami, starts with a 2D scene of a circle repeatedly traveling along a line. Above this, an instructional card shows a curved-diagonal line. Drop a dot on the moving circle, the game says, and it will generate a bold line, like ink on a page. As the ball (and thus, your dot) rolls, the inked line unfurls; if you put the dot on a different part of the circle, then your inked line may have more curve or angle to it, based on the total motion of the moving, rotating circle. Your object is to recreate this exact curved-diagonal line. If your first ink-drop doesn't do the trick, try again. Each puzzle presents an increasingly complex array of moving and rotating shapes, lines, and dots. You have to watch the repeating patterns and rotations in a particular puzzle to understand where to drop an ink dot and draw the demanded line. At first, you'll have to recreate simple turns, curves, and zig-zags. By the end, you'll be making insane curlicues and rug-like super-patterns.

But even this jaded math wiz-kid couldn't help but drop his jaw, loose his tongue, and bulge his eyes at the first time Engare cracked open its math-rich heart. One early puzzle (shown above) ended with its seemingly simple pattern repeating over and over and over and over. Unlike other puzzles, this pattern kept drawing itself, even after I'd fulfilled a simple line-and-turn pattern. And with each pass of the drawing pattern, driven by a spinning, central circle, Engare drew and filled a new, bright color. This is what the game's creator is trying to shout, I thought. This is his unique, cultural perspective. This looks like the Persian rugs he saw his grandmother weave as a child.

Microsoft

Microsoft Has Stopped Manufacturing The Kinect (fastcodesign.com) 61

Manufacturing of the Kinect has shut down, reports FastMagazine: Originally created for the Xbox 360, Microsoft's watershed depth camera and voice recognition microphone sold about 35 million units since its debut in 2010, but Microsoft will no longer produce it when retailers sell off their existing stock. The company will continue to support Kinect for customers on Xbox, but ongoing developer tools remain unclear. Microsoft shared the news with Co.Design in exclusive interviews with Alex Kipman, creator of the Kinect, and Matthew Lapsen, GM of Xbox Devices Marketing. The Kinect had already been slowly de-emphasized by Microsoft, as the Xbox team anchored back around traditional gaming to counter the PS4, rather than take its more experimental approach to entertainment. Yet while the Kinect as a standalone product is off the market, its core sensor lives on. Kinect v4 -- and soon to be, v5 -- power Microsoft's augmented reality Hololens, which Kipman also created. Meanwhile, Kinect's team of specialists have gone on to build essential Microsoft technologies, including the Cortana voice assistant, the Windows Hello biometric facial ID system, and a context-aware user interface for the future that Microsoft dubs Gaze, Gesture and Voice (GGV).
Software

Why Xbox One Backward Compatibility Took So Long (ign.com) 62

A new report from IGN this morning explains why it took so long for backwards compatibility to be supported on the Xbox One. Microsoft veteran Kevin La Chapelle says the answer to the question can be found in 2015 -- the year that Phil Spencer announced backwards compatibility at Microsoft's Xbox E3 media briefing. From the report: The fan-first feature has evolved from an experiment conducted by two separate Microsoft Research teams into a service planned for Xbox One's launch -- complete with hardware hooks baked into the Durango silicon -- until the well-publicized changes to the Xbox One policies (namely, stripping out the always-online requirement for the console) forced it to be pushed to the back burner. It's obviously back for good now, and expanding into original Xbox compatibility of select titles on Xbox One (the first batch of which we announced today). Even the Xbox One X is getting involved, with a handful of Xbox 360 games getting Scorpio-powered enhancements like 10-bit color depth, anisotropic filtering, and up to 9x additional pixel counts displayed on screen. [...]

It was 2007. One of [the research] teams was working on PowerPC CPU emulation -- getting 32-bit code, which the 360 uses, to run on the 64-bit architecture that the third-generation Xbox would be using. The other team, out of Beijing, started writing a virtual GPU emulator based on the Xbox 360 GPU architecture. "These were like peanut butter and chocolate," Microsoft VP of Xbox software engineering Kareem Choudhry recalled. "[So we thought,] 'Why don't we put them both together?'" Choudhry did just that, and so the first steps to Xbox One backwards compatibility were taken, long before the console had a name or anything remotely resembling final specifications. As Durango crystallized, so too did plans for Xbox 360 compatibility on the new machine. "This was primarily a software exercise, but we enabled that by thinking ahead with hardware," Gammill explained. "We had to bake some of the backwards compatibility support into the [Xbox One] silicon." This was done back in 2011. Preliminary tests showed that support for key Xbox middleware XMA audio and texture formats was extremely taxing to do in software alone, with the former, Gammill noted, taking up two to three of the Xbox One's six CPU cores. But a SOC (system on chip) -- basically an Xbox 360 chip inside every Xbox One, similar to how Sony put PS2 hardware inside the launch-era PS3s -- would've not only been expensive, but it would've put a ceiling on what the compatibility team could do. "If we'd have gone with the 360 SOC, we likely would've landed at just parity," he said. "The goal was never just parity." So they built the XMA and texture formats into the Xbox One chipset...

DRM

Denuvo's DRM Now Being Cracked Within Hours of Release (arstechnica.com) 113

Denuvo, an anti-tamper technology and digital rights management scheme, isn't doing a very good job preventing PC games from being copied. According to Ars Technica, Denuvo releases are being publicly cracked within a day of their launch. From the report: This week's release of South Park: The Fractured but Whole is the latest to see its protections broken less than 24 hours after its release, but it's not alone. Middle Earth: Shadow of War was broken within a day last week, and last month saw cracks for Total War: Warhammer 2 and FIFA 18 the very same day as their public release. Then there's The Evil Within 2, which reportedly used Denuvo in prerelease review copies but then launched without that protection last week, effectively ceding the game to immediate potential piracy. Those nearly instant Denuvo cracks follow summer releases like Sonic Mania, Tekken 7, and Prey, all of which saw DRM protection cracked within four to nine days of release. But even that small difference in the "uncracked" protection window can be important for game publishers, who usually see a large proportion of their legitimate sales in those first few days of availability. The presence of an easy-to-find cracked version in that launch window (or lack thereof) could have a significant effect on the initial sales momentum for a big release. If Denuvo can no longer provide even a single full day of protection from cracks, though, that protection is going to look a lot less valuable to publishers.
Patents

Activision Patents Pay-To-Win Matchmaker (rollingstone.com) 133

New submitter EndlessNameless writes: If you like fair play, you might not like future Activision games. They will cross the line to encourage microtransactions, specifically matching players to both encourage and reward purchase. Rewarding the purchase, in particular, is an explicit and egregious elimination of any claim to fair play. "For example, if the player purchased a particular weapon, the microtransaction engine may match the player in a gameplay session in which the particular weapon is highly effective, giving the player an impression that the particular weapon was a good purchase," according to the patent. "This may encourage the player to make future purchases to achieve similar gameplay results." Even though the patent's examples are all for a first-person-shooter game, the system could be used across a wide variety of titles. "This was an exploratory patent filed in 2015 by an R&D team working independently from our game studios," an Activision spokesperson tells Rolling Stone. "It has not been implemented in-game." Bungie also confirmed that the technology isn't being used in games currently on the market, mentioning specifically Destiny 2.
AI

DeepMind's Go-Playing AI Doesn't Need Human Help To Beat Us Anymore (theverge.com) 133

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Google's AI subsidiary DeepMind has unveiled the latest version of its Go-playing software, AlphaGo Zero. The new program is a significantly better player than the version that beat the game's world champion earlier this year, but, more importantly, it's also entirely self-taught. DeepMind says this means the company is one step closer to creating general purpose algorithms that can intelligently tackle some of the hardest problems in science, from designing new drugs to more accurately modeling the effects of climate change. The original AlphaGo demonstrated superhuman Go-playing ability, but needed the expertise of human players to get there. Namely, it used a dataset of more than 100,000 Go games as a starting point for its own knowledge. AlphaGo Zero, by comparison, has only been programmed with the basic rules of Go. Everything else it learned from scratch. As described in a paper published in Nature today, Zero developed its Go skills by competing against itself. It started with random moves on the board, but every time it won, Zero updated its own system, and played itself again. And again. Millions of times over. After three days of self-play, Zero was strong enough to defeat the version of itself that beat 18-time world champion Lee Se-dol, winning handily -- 100 games to nil. After 40 days, it had a 90 percent win rate against the most advanced version of the original AlphaGo software. DeepMind says this makes it arguably the strongest Go player in history.
Software

EA Shuts Down Visceral Games, Shifting Development On Its Star Wars Game (kotaku.com) 75

Visceral Games, the studio behind games like Battlefield Hardline and Dead Space, is being shut down by EA. The Star Wars game in development at Visceral will be revamped and moved to a different studio. Kotaku reports: "Our Visceral studio has been developing an action-adventure title set in the Star Wars universe," EA's Patrick Soderlund said in a blog post. "In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game. Throughout the development process, we have been testing the game concept with players, listening to the feedback about what and how they want to play, and closely tracking fundamental shifts in the marketplace. It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design." Soderlund added that Visceral will be "ramping down and closing" and that "we're in the midst of shifting as many of the team as possible to other projects and teams at EA." "Lastly," he said, "while we had originally expected this game to launch late in our fiscal year 2019, we're now looking at a new timeframe that we will announce in the future."

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