Rundown (2/07-2/13) Welcome to Tax Hell

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Wherein I discuss even more gosh darn acquisitions, an attempt to bring back a gaming convention, the revival of possible military propaganda, and the expansion of a series both simple and clean.

When I changed my work schedule for 2021, I was under the assumption that I would be working 24 hours a week, with that figure expanding to maybe 40 hours during the month leading up to major tax deadlines. But if this past week was any indication… that was a complete lie. In short, I worked basically 50 hours this past week, and when you work 50 hours, you really don’t have time to pursue more personal or creative projects, which really sucks, because that’s what Nigma Box is. 

I’m hoping that my schedule evens out as I make progress with the one ‘problem’ client my employer and I are working with, but I’m not optimistic about how the upcoming two months are going to go, and if I need to take a prolonged hiatus from Nigma Box to help nice people and messy people do their taxes, then I’ll need to put all of my current planned projects on the back burner. Because while Nigma Box has become my life’s passion, I do have other responsibilities, and if I don’t do certain things, then nobody will.

Speaking of taxes, we are also coming towards the end of the 2021 fiscal year, and in preparation for that, we have even more acquisitions! 

I seriously am not even trying to pick up these stories at this point. They just keep popping up in my news feed and I note them, as I consider the machinations, closures, and mingling of companies in the games industry to be fairly significant news, as it affects the future landscape of the industry and who is making what games.

Now, my thoughts on this matter, much like with every matter, is in a constant state of development as I am forced to face questions again and pick up on new perspectives that change my own. And I should probably specify what I consider good or bad acquisitions. To me, good acquisitions are ones where similar smaller companies join together to ensure greater financial stability. While bad ones see big companies get bigger, expand their influence over the industry, and become increasingly more likely of letting employees go through systematic layoffs, limiting freedom, or shuttering subsidiaries haphazardly. The games industry has no shortage of big bad corporate players and seeing them grow more power through acquisitions makes me upset. Because I have seen how they treat subsidiaries, and I know to be wary of any industry that shrinks down into a corporate oligopoly.

So hearing how Electronic Arts will acquire Glu Mobile, a mobile live service developer who has dabbled in licensed projects ranging from Disney to brand name celebrities, just strikes me as another way for EA to strong-arm and money-hat their way into another facet of the industry, similar to how Activision acquired Limited back in 2016. The acquisition itself was for $2.1 billion, is set to be finalized on June 30th, and reading the press release makes it clear just how business-minded these two entities are, with their talk about active users, recurring revenue, user retention, and access to valuable licensed or owned IPs. It is always telling when an acquisition in an artistic medium like games only focuses on the business and viewed the medium as little more than a means to eek money out of players, and that’s precisely what is happening here.

Meanwhile, when two AA-tier developers decide to band together, I view it as a good thing, as it allows for resources, knowledge, and risk to be shared, and for teams to take on more ambitious and potentially lucrative projects. As is the case with the next story on my loosely organized list, as Meteorise has fully acquired Alfa System. For those who do not recognize these names, such as myself, Meteorise is a developer with a background in mobile games who somehow got contracted as a co-developer on ecchi action games such as Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni and Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit! While Alfa System is a developer with an illustrious and fascinating back catalog of titles ranging from Neon Genesis Evangelion 2, Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines, and the Castle Shikigami series.

While no clear reason was given why Meteorise acquired Alfa System, I have a theory based on just a casual glance of their output these past few years. It very well could be that Alfa System, a studio that has primarily gotten by through working on smaller games for larger publishers, was struggling to find work and looking to join and merge with another studio in order to take on more console-quality projects. I don’t have anything to support this theory beyond their release history, as the only major project they put out these past 3 years has been Sisters Royale, a budget vertical scrolling shooter that received mostly tepid reviews. And if the decision is between acquisition or another legacy Japanese game developer biting the dust, I’d rather see them join up with a fairly new developer to preserve their talent and legacy.

Okay, then how about a publisher acquiring a developer? Well, that does provide greater financial security, and if they had a close relationship, then both parties are already deeply interwoven, and all that ideally would functionally change is things on the administrative end. And if the developer is on the smaller end of things, and features a team size that could fit inside of a minivan, then I honestly struggle to even consider that a true “acquisition.” A more accurate way to phrase this would be that a publisher hired an existing team of developers, purchased their IP rights, and granted the team greater security by allowing them to make games without worrying about bookkeeping or making sure that their friends get paid promptly and fairly.

I bring this example up because this is precisely what indie publisher TinyBuild has acquired three developers. Totally Reliable Delivery Service developer We’re Five Games, Black Skylands developer Hungry Couch, and Cartel Tycoon developer Moon Moose. A trinity of companies and games that I have never heard of until now, but are all currently developing a game for TinyBuild, and presumably all parties liked each other enough to become a single unified entity. While I don’t know much about TinyBuild, they seem like a decent publisher, approve games with more creative angles or goals, and do not seem like the people who would underpay their workers or strictly limit their creativity, so this could very well be a positive change for the developers they now employ, as they have both freedom and stability.

That covers it for acquisitions, but Tencent has been keeping itself busy by making minority stake investments with just about any company in the game industry that will accept their investment. While Tencent themselves have done little that I would consider egregious, they are subjected to the same governmental oversight and influence as other massive Chinese corporations, and China’s government is a nasty little shit, to put it simply.

Anyway, they popped up in my news feed yes again after they nipped up strategic minority investment in Bohemia Interactive, the developer behind AMRA, DayZ, and a survival game creation platform called Yilands, which Tencent is apparently going to publish in the Chinese market as part of the terms of this investment. As always, I don’t blame Bohemia, a private company, for taking on this investment in exchange for greater financial resources and likely some very nice bonuses for its executives. And I don’t even blame Tencent for using their money to invest in other companies like this and playing the long-game by only asking for minority stakes and influencing their investees. I just don’t like this whole damn system.

Golly gee, can I talk about something a touch more uplifting? Well, yes, actually. If I had to place one good thing about this pandemic, it’s how people realized how many things can be done remotely using modern technology. You don’t need to commute, you don’t need to travel to a place for a convention, and anybody can host a live stream for anything, including video game press releases.

This begs the question of what needs to be done with the old guard, the ghosts of gaming conventions and live press conferences. Personally, I am of the mind that… they are a waste of time and money. Just put together a nice live stream instead. Well, the ESA, the organization that runs E3, has recently looked into a more digital direction with their planned slate of events for E3 2021 and released a proposal they sent out to publishers and partners that, naturally, was picked up on and summarized by the fine folks from VGC.

Read their article for the full details, but the gist is that they would be three days of live streamed content including two-hour keynotes, an awards show for some reason, and various other streams from smaller publishers. Oh, and game demos would also be remotely streamed to the press, while others would be released for the public to enjoy. It honestly sounds like a better approach than putting together an actual convention… but we don’t need all of the announcements to be in one period, where the news gets lost, only a few massive reveals are remembered, and content creators need to work themselves to the bone to keep up with everything.

We have so many alternatives that cropped up from last year that the idea of a centralized gaming media frenzy just sounds exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, I love E3. It is a time of great fervor and happiness, an event that encapsulates all the good feelings Christmas evokes in people who enjoy festivities, and I adore every part about it. The excess, the cringe, the hype, the leaks, the act of working on summary articles that nobody will ever read— it’s great! But I think it is far healthier and better for smaller publishers and developers if the events and announcements are staggered out and divided between bigger publisher showcases that act like E3 press conferences or more ragtag operations such as the New Game+ Expo and Summer Games Fest, both of which are returning for 2021. 

In summation, I love ya E3, and you were a great time, but you have been replaced, and we do not need you anymore. If you do somehow survive into 2021, then I hope you are good. And if you die… all of your value will live on elsewhere.

That being said, this is the game industry, and while most things that die stay dead, sometimes things manage to crawl up from the grave long after they have been buried, paved over, and erased from the cultural consciousness. As is the case with Six Days in Fallujah

Okay, where to begin with this one… Back in the mid-2000s, a developer by the name of Atomic Games was doing some side work on training tools for the US military when a group they were working with was called to Iraq, where they took part in the second battle of Fallujah. When the surviving members of this group returned, they discussed the battle with the developers and they began production on a game based on the experience of these soldiers, to illustrate the conflict and chronicling the soldier’s perspective on the battle, biases, and all, in the form of an interactive medium.

The project was announced on April 6, 2009, but it quickly faced a backlash from the mainstream media, causing this game’s publisher, Konami, to end their relationship with Atomic on April 27, 2009. Atomic was unable to form a relationship with another publisher. With no more funding, Atomic Games went out of business and the game was shelved.

At least until 2016, when former Atomic Games CEO, Peter Tamte, formed a new publisher by the name of Victura with the intention of reviving Six Days in Fallujah and releasing more games of a similar ilk. After securing funding, Tamte subsequently hired Highwire Games, a studio founded by some former Bungie employees, to bring this game to life on modern hardware, where it is set to launch in 2021 for PC and undisclosed consoles.

For the better part of a decade, Six Days in Fallujah always held a loose place in my mind as an example of the industry caving under pressure and the weak integrity of video game publishers who put marketability over creative expression and making a statement. Mostly because it was positioned like that, and only that, in an old episode of Extra Credits. And nowhere in that time did I actually pause and realize that… this game was and is probably going to be pro-military propaganda that positions the US military as heroes or people worthy of respect or renown with a noble goal. As opposed to being a gaggle of young men who are the playing pieces for a nation that uses them to expand their influence and sustain the power structures that were erected following World War II.

Part of me still holds onto this more reverent interpretation, but looking over the promotional material, it is hard to not interpret this game as being a piece of pro-war media that is coming long after America lost interest in Middle Eastern conflicts and has instead looked inwards and begun identifying Americans as the real threat to the American way of life. I want to think that the game will still hold true to its original premise: a survival horror title that treats frontline warfare with weight and respect. But I don’t think you can really even do that due to how messy and complicated of an issue real-life wars are, especially ones that happened so recently. 

Regardless, I will definitely try to keep tabs on this game, if only because of the novelty behind its legacy. If this was a wholly new game, then I probably wouldn’t care.

To close out this past week, Epic Games made a few headlines this week, and for two reasons. One, they offered a sneak peek at MetaHuman creator. A cloud-based streaming app that offers the developers toolsets to create realistic humans using in-depth, albeit somewhat limited, character creator, and export assets that can be tinkered with, animated, and imported into game engines. It is a middleware that, at least in theory, could do a lot to streamline the process of creating character models in games with more realistic art styles, and even if it doesn’t quite reach those heights, I also find this to be an impressive technical showcase. 

While lighting and animation are still a touch ‘gamey,’ these humans look about as realistic as I can imagine, with their individually modeled eyebrows, pores, and imperfections in their complexion. It really makes me wonder how much better graphics can get… but I was asking that last generation, so I’m probably just a naïve fool with a limited imagination.

However, this announcement coincided with Epic hosting another sale on their limited and technically spotty storefront and announcing another wave of timed exclusives. This includes Binary Smoke, Magic: Legends, Oddworld: Soulstorm, and Axiom Verge 2. However, those were all comparatively small potatoes next to the biggest announcement— That the entire Kingdom Hearts series is coming to the Epic Games Store!

Yes, after receiving a series of PlayStation re-releases and a wave of Xbox ports, Square Enix and Disney have finally agreed to bring the entire series to the Epic Games Store as a timed exclusive on March 30th. This includes Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 Remix, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, Kingdom Hearts III + Re Mind, and Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, and represents one of the last stranglers of console exclusives finally making their way to the PC.

I would think this would be a great opportunity to get into the series for people who lost interest after a point or never were invested in Sony platforms, but I can’t say I’m interested in checking this game out. Not because of the convoluted terminology and needless side stories, but because I lack the time for such a commitment and hold no true fondness for any of Disney’s intellectual properties. Except for Futurama. I quite liked that show growing up, the original run holds up to this day, and it helped establish many minute things about my personality and preferences. However, that is not ‘real’ Disney, and whenever I see the Disney stuff in Kingdom Hearts… it just feels like product placement. I would far in a way prefer the series if it was just an edgy chuunibyou nonsense action RPG— you know, the thing people talk about when discussing Kingdom Hearts. Not the wholly unnecessary corporate fanfiction bullcrap.

God, Kingdom Hearts would be so much better if it was just a Square Enix IP crossover… 

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