5 Conclusions - 27/07/18

July 27, 2018
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A regular look at gaming-related stories from the past week or so whereby conclusions are drawn from anything and everything. These may be incredibly well reasoned based on events from the week. Alternatively, they may be highly speculative, drawn from very little evidence. More likely, they will be somewhere in between.

Conclusion One: Steam Chat may need some work

It’s been a long time coming, but Steam Chat finally left beta on Tuesday. It’s composed of features which competitors have had for some time, such as having your favourites at the top of your chat list, and sorting friends by the game they’re playing. As such, competitors like Discord, who have been making hay in the time that Valve has left its chat functionality languishing, are likely to be eyeing up this new tool warily.

However, the launch was far from smooth. Over on Reddit, a poster named u/Presistan managed to find an exploit a day later which let users listen in to their friends without them knowing. Valve managed to fix the issue quickly, but not without slapping the Redditor on the wrist for posting it in the first place:

"We fixed this, thanks for reporting. In the future, it is generally better to report anything you think might be a security issue on HackerOne where we can act on it without first telling the entire world how to exploit it. Then you can responsibly disclose the issue after a fix is out.

Fortunately, in this case, if you were kicked you continued to show up as in the voice chat in your own friends list, and you could leave from there. You were in a weird state transmitting but not receiving, but you would have still seen that you were in the voice chat."

HackerOne is Valve’s white hat vulnerability program which allows hackers to test out Valve’s systems and report bugs in a more responsible manner than posting on a huge discussion board. Even so, something as fundamentally insecure as this chat exploit raises questions about how safe Steam Chat is to use. Our advice: give it a couple more weeks to bed in first.

Conclusion Two: Anthem has to be a success, for BioWare’s sake

If we’re being generous, Mass Effect: Andromeda was just about average. It told a story, even though it wasn’t particularly exciting. It had an open world, which wasn’t particularly exciting. It looked OK… just not particularly exciting. BioWare fans agreed, especially as Andromeda came off the back of the superb Dragon Age: Inquisition which was clearly an influence on the world-building and general feel of the game. It’s a shame given the amount of time and effort put into it, and also given BioWare’s previous stellar output. Aside from the divisive Mass Effect 3, their stable is packed with hits which made this high profile blip even more painful to take.

That’s why their next release, Anthem, is so important. We’ve seen some major studio closures over the last few years, including Visceral, and the commercial failure of OnRush means that Codemasters Evo is the latest big name casualty (more on that below). BioWare has returned to space for their next title, but Anthem isn’t a traditional RPG — it’s online and multiplayer, which is a double-edged sword. New players attracted to the social side of BioWare’s stable may lap it up; lone gamers looking for the next big single-player space opera to succeed the out-of-favour Mass Effect may stay away in droves.

But would Anthem’s failure impact BioWare in the same way as those other studios? Recently departed designer James Ohlen doesn’t think so. A veteran designer who was with the company for over two decades, Ohlen believes EA wants to keep BioWare running and may even forgive another misstep. In an interview with Game Informer, the man involved in hits such as Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic said:

"I think EA is looking for BioWare to be a long-term part of the company. I think EA really respects what BioWare brings to it. BioWare is a lot different than all the other aspects of its business, so, even if Anthem doesn't do as well – and I think it’s going to be great – but if it doesn't do gangbusters I don't think that's the end of BioWare. I think it will simply be a chance for BioWare to learn some lessons and apply it to the next game that comes out."

This feels very optimistic. EA are the epitome of the corporate side of gaming. In their case, and in the case of their shareholders, money talks. It may surprise you to learn that Andromeda actually performed pretty well financially — but only half as well as had been forecast. If a lot of EA’s future revenue is pinned on Anthem’s success, we really can’t see the company brushing it aside a second time. BioWare needs it to be a hit, badly. The future of their studio may depend on it.

Conclusion Three: Give it away is an Epic strategy

Epic Games has been valued as being worth $8 billion, according to a new report by Bloomberg. In 2012 40% of Epic stock was bought by the Chinese behemoth software company Tencent, for just $825 million. That means that in six years, Epic Games has grown by almost a factor of four.

Most of that is due to the ongoing absolute domination of global gaming by the free-to-play phenomenon that is Fortnite. Between September 2017 and May 2018, Fortnite alone scooped up revenues of $1.2 billion. The game has been played by 125 million people.

Now, I mentioned the game is free to play. That means nobody has to pay money to play. All of that comes from microtransactions. Epic Games is not new to giving things away for free. Unreal Engine is made available to anyone who wants it, and in return a royalty from earnings of games made with Unreal Engine is payable.

More free stuff. It wasn’t always this way. Neither the engine nor the game started life as freebies. Perhaps it was always the plan? Recoup development costs and then once all of that is paid off, and none of it is left on the books, anything from then on in is free money. Perhaps that combined with a belief that by giving it away — and knowing the quality of both products was top-notch — would bring more people to the game who would be near certain to get addicted or achieve success with it was part of an overall medium to long-term strategy. We might not know that, but for sure whatever led Epic Games to make things free has been royally rewarded.

Conclusion Four: Don’t bother creating a racing game

It’s a shame that the racing game Onrush (which isn’t really a racing game) did not do as well as it deserved to. It’s even more of a shame when this leads to layoffs of much of the staff (as reported by Eurogamer), who had only joined Codemasters in the past couple of years. This was after they had been made redundant by the closure of Evolution Studios by Sony, after the wonderful Driveclub... did very well but still not well enough.

In 2010 Bizarre Creations, creators of the Project Gotham racing series gave the world the wonderful Blur and one year later they were defunct. Since Outrun we’ve had Need For Speed, Gran Turismo and Forza which have remained and every other racing game has basically died, even if it lasted a while like Project Gotham or Burnout. Why? They’re often delightful games but clearly not something which gets the monies in for the costs out. A crying shame, but one which basically says don’t bother making a brilliant driving game for the genre’s patient fans, as you’ll be out of a job soon enough. Just make another shooter or something, instead.

Conclusion Five: Microsoft will make Sony look like the next Blockbuster

For a long time now we’ve all been waiting on a proper execution of streaming games. One which has the big library, the great latencies and the sensibly attractive subscription options. I had hoped that PS Now would do that but it’s failed hopelessly on at least two of the above counts.

Perhaps Microsoft has sorted it? They’re apparently prepping a family of consoles for the upcoming generation according to Thurrott and part of this plan is because they have solved the latency issue. In terms of subscriptions all they need to do is apply Netflix, or Spotify’s model, rather than creating something else. They just work. If Microsoft get that wrong then again, we can expect failure. I suspect this particular company knows what not to do though, given its experiences in other media and hardware (Zune anyone?). If Microsoft nail this, they win the next generation and perhaps consign Sony to the past, just like Netflix did to Blockbuster.

Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.