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The state of the gaming union

We see that there is a lot to rejoice about, yet there is in equal measure the need to take a moment, to stand still and realise that we have come to the crossroads. Some might realise that crossroads aren’t merely places where you take decisions, it is also a place where an 18-wheeler drives over you and that driver will not even notice the minimalized bump in the road that you at that point represent.

For Nintendo the initial ‘bad news’ moment is seen (at https://gamingbolt.com/jefferies-analyst-believes-switch-sales-will-see-a-slowdown-this-year), where we get: “even Jefferies’ Atul Goyal, widely considered to be the most optimistic of all analysts when it comes to Nintendo’s prospects on the market, has slashed his price target for the company by more than 10 percent, attributing his depressed outlook on a concern that Nintendo’s sales for the Switch in 2018 may not meet expectations“, which is an interesting way to put the setting, where we see that in two years, even with diminished sales, it implies that in March 2019, 38 million Nintendo Switch consoles are to be sold. Reconsider the number; by March 2019 Nintendo will crush the total lifetime sales of the Xbox One. So when I hear the utter BS approach on the ‘not the metrics of success‘, I wonder if they actually had an overwhelming presence, if they would be in the same stack of those in denial.

So as Variety gives us (at https://variety.com/2018/gaming/news/xbox-one-sales-1202796674/) the quote “Microsoft reiterated that it still doesn’t share the number of Xbox One sold, but this time explained why, noting that it’s using a different “key metric for success.” “We are continuing to look at engagement as our key metric for success and are no longer reporting on total console sales,” a spokesperson told Variety“, which is nice in a pigs eye. You see it is only 25 years ago when we were drowned in facts like: “The number of licensed users of Windows now totals more than 25 million, making Windows the most popular graphical operating system in the world“. That was nice, we agree that they did some good in those days, or should I say that this does not the reflection of a winner when they are left to announce that ‘the most powerful console in the world‘, is about to become the worst selling one. The fact that they always thought themselves so much better than Nintendo, with what some insiders hinted at was technologically not as powerful (that was a statement on the Nintendo GameCube against the first Xbox). Now that this so called overpowered console is merely number three is what I expected they were heading, the moment the world presentation of the Nintendo Switch was on everyone’s YouTube screen.

Now that the realisation is here (well almost) on their retinas, now they change the metrics. Its fair enough, they are allowed to do this. It is how you present a failure, one that could have been prevented 5 years ago. Now that the second tier of opposition could move against Microsoft, they need to realise that implied settings are up. With the need for new directions, we see that Microsoft now goes into other directions on marketing a new setting. Wired gives us this (at https://www.wired.co.uk/article/xbox-scarlett-game-streaming-xbox-two), with “However, the Project Scarlett rumour suggests that rather than its tried and tested business model of releasing a high-powered console to sit under your TV, the potential successor to the Xbox One will instead be a bespoke unit to stream games from the cloud” we see an optional path that could optionally backfire even more. You see, the shift that is speculated on with: “The prevailing rumour, spotted by Thurrott, is that Microsoft will release both a traditional console for high-end enthusiasts – likely building on the powerful Xbox One X, released in 2017 – as well as a cheaper model that will be streaming-only“, so how long until we see congestion on a new system, whilst the previous developed system is just too shallow? That and the overbearing marketing that every console shows are in equal measure showing to be aggravating to too many gamers at present. So when we see “Although Game Pass titles are downloaded to your local console, it could show Microsoft is developing a server structure to support streaming games to players in future. The Xbox Game Pass payment model would also be easily transferrable to a hypothetical ‘Xbox Cloud’ subscription for owners of the proposed streaming box“, we do see a solution that works from the Microsoft point of view, yet as games get bigger, and when we consider the recent blunder by intellectually challenged Bill Morrow of NBN when we were treated to “Morrow “didn’t ‘blame’ online gamers for congestion on the fixed wireless network”, because the real culprit is “concurrency” (that is, too many users hitting the network at once with bandwidth-hungry applications. Like video streaming. Or gaming), “in addition to higher-than-expected take-up and consumption”“, so he rephrased him blaming the gamers, yet with ‘Like video streaming. Or gaming‘, that whilst the clear evidence was that this was clearly the wrong statement to make. Two replies give us “Online gaming requires hardly any bandwidth ~10+ megabytes per hour. A 720p video file requires ~ 500+ megabytes per hour. One user watching a YouTube video occupies the same bandwidth as ~50 video gamers. The NBN chief might not be suitably qualified for this role.” So as non-qualified as Bill Morrow is expected to be, the second part is “The NBN is unable to cope with current demands, so projected increase in demands points to a crippled system in the near future. Billions wasted and potential destroyed“, this now reflects back on part of the speculated Xbox Johansson, nay Scarlett. You see, when those on a small budget are forced to stream, apart from the internet connection that they might no longer be able to afford, gives us that the Australian NBN congestion is pressured by an expected few millions of Scarlett users. Yup! That should solve it and even as we see an increasing amount of congestion articles pop their heads up; we see Microsoft moving into a cloud set streaming solution. So instead of fixing the flaws they had, they merely push their heads in the sand and give us another path to frustration. So as Network World gives us: “As enterprises accelerate their move to cloud, including the growing trend toward cloud office suites, such as Office 365 and Google Suite, where users expect LAN-like performance, challenges are mounting. According to Microsoft, Office 365 is growing at 43 percent, and as of the end of 2017 was boasting 120 million active users. A 2017 survey by TechValidate noted that despite increasing both firewall and network bandwidth capacity, nearly 70 percent of companies experienced weekly network-related performance issues after deploying Office 365. Gartner’s 2018 Strategic Roadmap for Networking, released earlier this year, noted that nearly all enterprises will need to look beyond MPLS and at re-architecting the WAN to optimize for cloud“, Microsoft is now ready to push as many gamers as possible in the setting where minimum packet settings are stretched to the age of 8-bit gaming. Yes, that was always going to be a good idea. Oh, and if you think that this is harsh, consider those providers taking the cheap way out initially in offering 5G like services on their 4G systems. Yes, these are different systems, yet the WAN is still used to push data across and now add 10 million players all downloading the speculated size of an 85 GB 4K game, so how long until that starts backfiring?

Now, we understand that Microsoft had to act and over time, the cloud would actually be for some a solution, that whilst we need to store the games somewhere, so what happens when up to 30 million Xbox gamers have to download amounts like that on a weekly foundation? How long until the pricing setting of the internet changes? How long until gamers are pushed into a corner on usage? When those gamers actually need the bandwidth of those watching 4K movies via a YouTube solution? This goes a lot wider than merely Australia and the UK, when we look at current congestion in New York, New Jersey, California and Texas, when those points get a setting that is no longer YouTube to gaming as 50:1, now it shifts to 4:1. How long until systems start to buckle?

Lets all be realistic, we do not know what the Xbox Scarlett is exactly, but the setting that the lifespan of the Xbox One X is to be less than 2 years, that is still a setting that is worrying for anyone who bought the Xbox One X this year. In the end, Wired speaks about the ‘genius step’ and gives us “Those who favour a physical collection, lack sufficient internet speeds, or simply want the bragging rights of having an incredibly powerful console can get the latter, while more casual or progressive – depending on how you view it – players can opt for a streaming device with an ever-evolving backend. With Sony and Nintendo investigating streaming, too, it might not only be Microsoft betting its future on the clouds“, we need to realise that the setting of ‘lack sufficient internet speeds‘, is partial denial. It is the setting of congestion that comes with the setting that gamers are likely to face as everyone is downloading the Netflix and subscription fee software solutions. All this did not require the New Xbox Scarlett; it merely required the Xbox One to have decent storage, something many have thrown into the faces of Microsoft. And there is nothing against the Scarlett, over time (2021-2023) that need would have optionally been clear, but in this stage where bandwidth is a bottleneck in many places, now it is about lousy timing, whilst we see the lack of care towards the gaming community by Microsoft. So even as they are in a stage where they look at ‘different metrics‘, the chances of many more future ‘former Microsoft fans‘ are moving to another platform.

In all this Sony has been on a similar step, we saw that with “Sony has been experimenting with cloud gaming through its PlayStation Now service since 2015, which allows players to stream classic and contemporary PlayStation titles to both PS4 and PC“. We see that there is in part a path here, but the setting that we need to see is ‘classic and contemporary PlayStation titles‘, games that tend to not go beyond 5GB, just like the Xbox 360 Games, and it is a perfect and as Microsoft is re-enabling those games on the Xbox ne, their gamers rejoice, no one denies that, yet try that with AC Origin 4K at 105 GB, or Assassin’s Creed Odyssey 4K 110 GB (speculated). Now stream that to all those users. There are no clear sales numbers for AC Origin (over all systems), but it goes into the millions, AC Origin was able to recapture many lost fans and that is likely to press towards even better sales of AC Odyssey. So when those are all cramping the networks, how long will it take to get it all on the systems and more important, is there even space for that game on non-PC systems?

This is the state of gaming. We are faced with more needs, better connection and more bandwidth. Some of it will be felt no later than the end of the year. The question becomes is it mere folly from some?

Is it folly or foiled folly?

With Microsoft that is hard to say, the steps are not outlined, so we need to take care not to rely on rumours until the official unveiling is done. Even the more reliable places (GamesRadar and Wired) are full of speculation and ‘expectations’, which is a dangerous setting to have. Even I am in a dangerous place, because my speculations are based on several settings, but not on the official word from Microsoft (which has been a lot less reliable lately). I personally believe that the hardware and OS fixes could give the Xbox One X at least 2-3 years, whilst we see the optional maturity of GamePass and other streaming solutions. No one denies that these paths will give options and opportunities, but remain sceptical on the setting that is relying on an infrastructure that is showing fatigue and dangers of buckling in several places, angering Microsoft gamers even more, in a time that Microsoft really cannot afford angering their gaming population.

All this is about to be the second round in the console wars, we have seen the equally speculated setting of the PS5, and there are already the speculated articles on how one is better and more optional in versatility then the other. Yet in all this Microsoft never stopped harassing the users, even after it had to back paddle on ‘always online‘, this is a setting that is still fresh in the mind of players, so there is that issue to consider, in addition, all this comes to light AFTER the Nintendo Switch will have surpassed the Xbox One total sales within 2 years, so there is that stinging pain for Microsoft to consider. In addition, the Nintendo Switch hit Sony equally hard, even as Nintendo cannot surpass total sales of the PS4, the monthly sales has set Sony to the number two spot behind Nintendo, so they too need to up their game. Even as we see that the Sony following is massive, the next generation will not be about total consoles, it will be about software sales and at present Nintendo Switch is breaking all the records.

I also predict that there will be a shift in gaming on another level. As we see the records that Fortnite is breaking, we need to realise that the indie developers are going to be a lot larger next time around. We have seen great work from some of them and even as we will not deny that Ubisoft and Bethesda take the lead, the Gran Turismo of outer space (Elite Dangerous) has now surpassed 2.75 million copies sold, in a multi-billion dollar industry that mile stone gets noticed by everyone. Add to that Subnautica, one of the most original RPG survival games this decade, which is now at the 2 million copies market, all three makers realise that as software sales is king in the next round, the indie developers will take a much more central role in gaming than ever before. I still have high hopes for the slightly delayed remastered masterpiece called System Shock. Nightdive is showing to up the ante by a fair bit and even as some have played the game before (close to 100% of all kick-starters), the setting that we forget is that some titles are even grander then the original was, because the remastered edition gets to enjoy 20 decades of gaming evolution, whilst the gamer was unaware of that shift. The same is seen with the new Resident Evil 2, so when it comes to gaming, some of the amazing works in the past are likely to be even more overwhelming in the new jacket, so as consoles are given new opportunity to create engagement, both Sony and Microsoft have forgotten to adhere to those levels of engagement in almost equal measure. There are other opportunities here, but that lies with some of the visionaries that also heeded the calls I made last week, making me correct in all this one additional time.

Even as the future of gaming might be uncomfortable to some degree for one of the players, it seems clear that overall gaming remains gaining forward momentum, that is, unless some will rely on congestion not to become an issue ever, at that point all bets are off.

Yet, for the Switch, their prospects are actually better than ever before, even as some claim that the targets will fall short by 10%, the selling for games in Japan alone surpassed the 5 million mark this year, which is actually excluding all the sales in the eShop, so they are already making quite the leap forward. In equality, Microsoft with GamePass is seeing large gains there too, giving us the clarity that the gaming future will be about the software sales to a much larger extent than ever before.

 

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Burning out your life

Yesterday’s news in the Guardian is skating on an interesting side. Yes, there are more games awards coming, there are new releases and there are all kinds of events coming into play. So when I read ‘Crunched: has the games industry really stopped exploiting its workforce?’ (at http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/18/crunched-games-industry-exploiting-workforce-ea-spouse-software), I read it with a different set of eyes.

The first part is “EA relied on vagaries of American law that classify some IT professionals as exempt from overtime pay. The settlement in the second case featured a quid pro quo: employees would be reclassified in order to get overtime but would give up their stock options“, I can guarantee you that I have been in the same set of shoes, Market Research is at times as caring as a steamroller driving over Miss Daisy. It is nice to see the claim ‘stock options‘, yet that flavour of reward tends to be for the managers and the heads of development, not for all the programmers. They tend to get an evening of free food and booze. Take 35 programmers each having done 100-250 hours of extra time, getting paid off with a $300 meal, works out great for the manager getting his 25,000 stocks at $0.50, not so great for others. I am not stating that this works exactly like that in gaming, but I have seen it in other areas of software.

The most common theory is that the industry is simply too young and too fast-moving to integrate proper management techniques. “Our project was huge and our overall quality assurance process at the time was very basic and waterfall-esque,” recalls one quality assurance worker at EA“, is the second part. This has been shown in several games of late, if we look at the flawed releases of 2014, we can clearly see a lacking scale of QA. It then refers to the work of Fred Brooks on how company size influences efficiency. There is no denying that. Proper management is required, especially when the group grows faster than projected. A special mention of the honour guard must be given to the Marketing department who then also changes the timeline, to get that extra revenue, like marketing COULD have figured that part out at the very beginning. All this will add to the burden of quality delivery and the stress of the workers.

This quote is important, as I consider this to be a stronger part of the sliding quality scale “I was a quality assurance tester at Rockstar, and at its worst, we worked 72 hours a week“, a decent reason for quality to slide (irritating that Rockstar still pulled of a 90% plus rating, although they had a few start-up issues), especially when you consider the following quote “if you had issues with it, you were told ‘Well, you can go stack shelves at Tesco instead or answer phones at a call centre’. You were treated as disposable“, not an entirely unknown event for some in the IT pool. When we consider ““Developers and managers should never have to work more than 40 hours a week,” he says. “It’s a fun job, but it shouldn’t be an exploitative one. Everyone has a life. Let them live it, it’s short enough as it is”“, that sounds partially as a solution, but only if it affects the entire range of staff.

I personally see this all as a reason on why there has been a sliding scale of quality. Is there a chance that Ubisoft has been on this track? This is NOT an accusation! You see, too many hours result in burnout, burnout influences creativity and resolve, crunch time, might give a little extra resolve, but in the end it costs more then it brings. I think that the power of innovation will always win, if balance and rest (to some extent) is made available to revive the soul and the mind.

I think that the next quote sounds nice, but is it enough? “Over the past 18 months, EA has been making significant investments in new quality assurance tools and automation technology, implementing ongoing testing right from the beginning of game conceptualisation. These changes are ultimately improving game quality, as well as reducing the need for the crunch periods”. These tools need proper implementation, they need proper assessment and the people need to properly use them. It tends to add a strain to all levels for a little while. More important, it is only one side of the game (pun intended). For example Mass Effect 4, the engine, the locations, the interface, all are under stress to be made. What if a solution throws the gaming experience? What happens then? What happens when the initial reception is ‘average’, what will marketing do then and more, what will the size of crunch become at that point? You see, the article ignores one little part. For all intent and purpose, games tend to surf at the very edge of technology.  In some cases the makers will attempt to get the max of a system that is at times a little buggy and when you try to use 99% of the system, things tend to go pear shaped really fast. We can offer that the danger of being over ambitious is a bad thing, but this is how some games came into existence. The very first Unreal and Unreal tournament were both chartering the maximum of graphical capability when they were released. Some people invested hundreds of dollars to get a Diamond Labs Graphics card to get the maximum of the game. This is only the tip of the iceberg, when we see consoles there is less manoeuvrability, yet getting the maximum of a game has never stopped the developers. That part is not addressed and that part is every bit as important in dealing with the timeline and QA of a game.

Yet, it is not as much as it was (or so they say), but making the great hit at the E3 or another main release date is the main drive of crunch, especially when the final piece of the development puzzle does not quite fit. That part might be addressed in the management charter, but we must also be realistic that a great game takes time to develop, which made a statement given by Ubisoft “We are able to offer people a new Assassin’s Creed every year because they want Assassin’s Creed every year” nothing more than a joke. Especially if they wanted to rule the gaming industry. In addition I would like to raise that the next big thing is supposed to be ‘No Man’s Sky‘ which will arrive in 2015. We must realistically anticipate that the hype gets away from us all, but it is still seen as the big thing. It took several years, which gives additional view to the hilariousness of: “Ubisoft: No Annual ‘Assassin’s Creed’ Would Be ‘Very Stupid’“, it is such an issue because true innovation takes time, consider on how certain glitches had been around in AC2, AC2B, AC3 and AC Revelations. I can understand that some of these glitches were around in the second game, but to still have those issues 2 games after that is just a laughing matter. There is a reason for me to mention Ubisoft, not because I am ‘so’ against them (I truly am not), but their track record speaks for themselves. So will 2015 be an EA year? That part remains to be seen, however, as I see it at present, there is enough indication that Ubisoft had been hit by burnout staff (assumption on my side). Will a change of atmosphere give us better games? I certainly hope so, because games thrive on the creative and innovative mind, a state that crunch time seems to destroy. This is not just my view, there are loads of views out in the open, some scholarly, some less so, most of them all agree that crunch time and creativity are opposites, so why rely on it? My personal view is that in several cases, these companies (the big ones) didn’t choose the wrong style of management, they choose the wrong sort of manager altogether.

If you doubt my words (which is always fair enough), then consider which games were the true big hits and how they were made. The age old example remains the strongest one. Minecraft was never a big project, yet Microsoft regarded it to be worth over 2 billion. a simple low res game, addictive as hell is worth more than the bulk of the gaming industry, you see, Ubisoft and Electronic Arts both made the same mistake, as they ‘relied’ on a business approach with BI solutions and spreadsheets, they forgot their number one part. If a game is no fun, you lose all your customers really fast. They both made that mistake in huge ways. Both forgetting that their games rely on innovation and creativity, both have ad massive losses in that regard. Will Ubisoft recover? That is hard to say, the EA machine is claiming improvement and it seems that Mass Effect 4 will be their greatest test. EA got hurt badly by Sims 4 and Battlefield, we should also look at ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition is great, but here are 8 things it could do much better‘ on GamesRadar, because when we read that this is a 100 hour game and it loses momentum, we can agree that $100 for a game that could be played within 2 weeks is a little demotivating. It goes back to long before Infamous: Second Son (which is just one of the games that could have been legend), I think that the makers need to retrace their steps on how many hours a game should offer. No matter how good the graphics are, I finished Tombraider in one weekend, which is not good mojo money, especially when you consider that the initial edition (on PS1, 19 years earlier) took a lot longer and was riddled with juicy little challenges. Aren’t games supposed to go forward on more sides than mere graphical resolution?

So as we judge those who make the games we desire, we see that those thinking that they are pushing towards what we desire, only end up delivering a lessened product due to pressures from too many sides, not in the least pressures that they internally created. Even delays (Watchdogs and Elder Scrolls Online) end up not being solutions, in case of the Elder Scrolls, with so many delays that the latest tells us June 2015, has been the reason for many people to just cancel the order altogether. The fact that Elder Scrolls has dropped the subscription part shows just how dangerous their position has been. Here I do want to brag a little, because I came up with an entirely new Elder Scrolls almost two years ago, one that could have saved them many issues as they tried to ‘fix’ their MMO approach. Just as consoles require great games to survive, great games require the right people, people who need to be well rested to get them that golden idea that will make legend. Watchdogs did get a lot closer due to the delay, but what if the difference between 84% and 93% was two weeks of rest? That one golden idea that drove the game to legend status? Is it realistic? You see in hindsight that is all good and well for me to claim, but that is AFTER the fact. I believe my view is the right one, they just needed the right manager to inspire them a little further along, but as always, it is a personal view and it is a debatable one, I do admit to that part.

 

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