Rundown (5/02-5/08) Back 2 Da Office Lyfe

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Wherein I discuss the legal revelation of a clash of industry titans, the continued consolidation, and a tool for the next generation of game devs.

Like many people, I’ve been working from home for the vast majority of this past year, fashioning my desk into a workstation and taking on tasks as they come my way, switching between paid work, NigmaBox stuff, and personal stuff as I see fit. But with American vaccination rates going up, my current employer opened up a small office this past week, and I’ve been helping him with the set-up, customizing his PC, doing mailings, doing some light paperwork, and having in-person meetings.

There is a certain novelty to being in a physical place and working with someone else, but personally, I just find it to be less productive. Like most offices, my new workplace has a very ragtag setup not designed or optimized around what a person needs, and instead settles for being “good enough.” The 15 minute commute there and back, while far from terrible, feels like a loading screen inserted into my day. And while I understand the appeal of using a computer with someone else at your side, that does not really work when your monitors are in the corner of an L-desk. 

These are all minor irritations, but the one thing that just drives me nuts about being in a poorly insulated physical space like this is the noise. With no solid ceilings, thin walls, and thinner doors, noise travels cleanly from one end of the office to the other, and my employer, like many people in their 50s and 60s, has an incredibly loud ‘phone voice.’ And something I almost completely forgot about over this past year is that I cannot tolerate sounds that reach somewhere between 70 and 80 decibels. If it is the sound of machinery, rain, or something ‘environmental’ then I’m fine. But if it is a person talking, then I simply need to get away from them, or plug my ears with something.

This is a lifelong issue for me, dating back to the days of elementary school. Back when I used to shove fingers into my ears when my class got rowdy, or alternatively, nestle up into a corner and suppress my ears with my knees. This got so bad in high school that I started eating my lunch during homeroom, as I could not stand to be in the cafeteria. And during afternoon assemblies, I would hide away in the school restrooms for an hour, reading a book or working on my homework. At least until senior year, when I got a public bus pass and started ditching school during afternoon assemblies. 

…What was my point here again? Oh, right. I am working in an office part-time now, and… I guess that’s fine. It’s something I’m used to, I like the person I work for, I do not mind being around him during my workdays, and while I think I am more productive working from home, as an employee, my ultimate job is to satisfy my employer, so whatever he wants is what I’ll do.

The big source of news this week was the Epic Games Vs. Apple court case, which kicked off in full swing this past week because court cases always take months upon months before they can truly begin. However, the biggest story was arguably not the court case itself, but the confidential information that came out during it. 

Last week, I mentioned how Microsoft changed the revenue sharing model for games sold on the Microsoft Store, going from the industry-standard 70/30 split to a far more reasonable and favorable 88/12 split. Ensuring that a greater deal of revenue goes back to the developers, while still giving the storefront a reasonable fee for processing payments, hosting downloads, and doing some light promotion.

However, according to confidential Microsoft documents, Microsoft intends on not only bringing this favorable revenue split to their PC storefront, but also the Xbox platform. The leaked documents state that they plan on rolling out this change sometime in August 2021, but this change comes with an important caveat. In exchange for this favorable revenue split, Microsoft wants the streaming rights for all games on the Xbox platform, so they can be hosted on their xCloud streaming platform, which they want to be a major part of their line-up going forward. 

I cannot think of a good reason why any publisher would not want their games to be available for streaming, but I understand that this is something that Microsoft needs to put in a contract, and some developers or publishers might not sign the agreement unless they get something from it. And an extra 25.7% (18 divided by 70) of revenue per unit sold sounds like a good reason to sign off streaming rights. Hell, it sounds like a good reason to prioritize the Xbox version of your title over the PlayStation version and to bring all future titles to Xbox, even if there are fewer users.

Now, there is some confusion as to whether or not Microsoft plans on going through with these plans, as a spokesperson claimed that had nothing to announce at this time. But based on my experience, that’s code for “look, we have an information distribution plan, and we don’t want to change it. So be quiet for now and pretend to be surprised when we decide to make our announcement. And stop scopin’ our shaz, ya dank little pignoli.”

However, this was far from the only confidential document that surfaced to light from the Epic Games Vs. Apple court case, as some sleuths were able to find correspondence between Epic and Sony regarding crossplay for games on their platform. Back in 2018, when Microsoft and Nintendo were opening up to the idea of letting their playerbases mingle, Sony was vehemently opposed to the concept, before finally caving in later on in the year. Except that apparently is not the full story. 

Based on the court documents, if you want Sony’s permission to enable crossplay on your game, then you may need to pay them additional fees if they aren’t getting enough microtransaction money. If a player primarily plays the game within the PlayStation ecosystem, but does not make the majority of their monetary transactions within the PlayStation ecosystem, then the publisher, in this case, Epic, needs to provide Sony with additional compensation. So if a player plays Fortnite both on their phone and on their PS4, but buys things mostly on their phone, then Sony believes they deserve a share of the transactions the player purchases on their phone.

From a certain perspective, I understand why Sony is being so persnickety with their transactions and do not want to offer something for free when there is money on the table. But from a better perspective… Who the hell does Sony think they are that they deserve this special treatment? How much of an elitist asshole do you have to be to say that you deserve to be compensated for transactions made on other platforms? They are asking for money, asking Epic to do extra work to track this… just because they feel that they can get away with it. This is something I would expect old man Nintendo to do, but not really Sony.

This really goes to show how swell-headed and pompous Sony’s executives have gotten these past few years, and I have to say, I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.

Speaking of less than favorable turnarounds, Epic also disclosed what they paid to secure certain games as free titles for the Epic Games store and… the prices are laughably low. The image showcasing this table is low resolution, but you can make out that for some of these titles, the ‘buyout price’ ranged anywhere from $45,000 to $1,500,000. Which is just… confusing. Every one of these games were claimed by over 1.2 million people. Meaning that the developers were making pennies on each new license sold and that… that is just such a horrible devaluation of one’s work.

To give one terrible example, the 2017 adventure game RiME was distributed for a buyout price of $45,000. Which, as a game that normally retails for $29.99, amounts to 1,500 sales at full price… but Epic wound up giving the game to 2,434,212 people… what the hell is this math? Who would sign a contract like this? How could Epic, with a straight face, even make an offer like this? 

I get that it is sometimes hard to make money in the games industry, but as developers, you should not accept this. You should not help establish a precedent where your work is not worth something, especially when compared to what AAA games got for exclusivity. Not even a loss of copies sold, just temporary store exclusivity.

I thought this was astounding when I first saw this story, but then I saw what Epic paid for their 6 months of Borderlands 3 exclusivity. Because, when combining all factors, Epic paid a total of $115 million for exclusivity. Which was more than the game, and its DLC, could have reasonably cost to develop. They paid enough to have funded the development of the game… just to have it as an exclusive on their store. And it was not even a truly exclusive launch, as the game came out on PS4 and Xbox One on the same day as its Epic Games store release. 

How can you even do this? How do you justify something like this? What valuation method did they use? How does this make sense? What are these numbers?! What are these GOLDARN numbers?!

Moving onto something more reasonable and with math that I can understand, you probably don’t remember how, back in 2019, US Gamer reported that Walmart was working on their own streaming platform. And after two years of no news, more information about this service surfaced during this messy court case. Keep in mind that these details are two years old and not representative of what this unreleased service is as of today, let alone if it is still in development, but I still think they have some interesting repercussions.

Walmart’s game streaming service, Project Storm, was pitched to various publishers throughout 2019, and the ultimate grand plan for the service was to have it be an open and all-inclusive hub for PC game streaming. Something that would connect and combine player’s libraries from Uplay, Origin, Steam, Epic Games Store, Bethesda Launcher, and Battle.Net, and allow them to be streamed remotely from the data centers owned by Walmart’s subsidiary, LiquidSky, or from users’ own personal machines. 

Project Storm would also feature a storefront of its own, allowing players to buy, stream, and download the games they purchased, while also boasting its own subscription service that, I’d assume, would work similarly to Game Pass, offering a wide variety of streamable games for a monthly fee.

While I would question the size of an audience for a service like this… everything about this pitch sounds great. Players can bring their existing libraries, stream them, and play them remotely, either off of a server or off of their own hardware. It sounds like everything people would really want of a PC-oriented streaming service. However, it also sounds like it would be incredibly difficult to make this idea a reality, which might explain why the service has remained in the dark for so long. 

While all of this hoopla about Epic and Apple was dominating the news, a press release revealed that Electronic Arts is acquiring Metalhead Games, developers of the Super Mega Baseball series. If those names sound familiar to you, Super Mega Baseball is an unlicensed baseball games series that started up in 2014, and just recently released its latest entry. While I do not think the games are super successful, they appear to fill the market for a baseball simulation game. This likely makes them an ideal candidate for EA, who has been trying to grow their sports line in recent years.

This was seen with their acquisition of Codemasters, who owns the F1 license, reboot of EA Sports College Football, and revival of the EA Sports: PGA Tour, which more or less died after Tiger Woods stopped being a marketable individual. And now with a baseball game developer under their bat-like wings, the only question is which license they are going to use, since Sony is holding onto the Major League Baseball license, and I highly doubt they will budge on that for any reason.

Onto brighter news, Nintendo stealth-dropped a Twitter trailer unveiling Game Builder Garage. A game creation tool that relies on a graphical user interface rather than traditional programming, and looks to continue their recent trend of trying to introduce their younger audience to the art of game design. From Super Mario Maker to the slightly-too-technical Toy-Con Garage included with Nintendo Labo, and even 2010’s WarioWare D.I.Y.

Much like these previous efforts, the game looks like an inviting yet versatile toolset that will allow users to introduce themselves to all sorts of things. Level design, mechanic design, 3D modeling, and even world design to an extent. It all looks colorful and inviting enough to lure in younger children, without pushing away an older audience, and while this trailer only offered a snapshot, some of the games shown during the end of the trailer looked rather impressive, and make me wonder just what can be done with this nifty piece of software. Which is set to release on June 11th for an incredibly reasonable $30.

However, I doubt the game will do particularly well in regards to sales figures, mostly due to the long-term reception of Media Molecule’s Dreams. While the game was pretty popular at launch, it lost steam rather quickly, and now the only time a creation really garners much attention is when somebody creates a familiar IP in this game creation tools. Because the game is not regularly talked about, it is easy to assume that it did not succeed in its goal, but that is not necessarily the case. 

The quality of a creation tool like this is not necessarily in what people share and produce for a wider audience, but rather, what they learn while using it. It’s a cliche at this point, but these types of creation tools can prove to be wildly influential in the lives of those who experience them. There are children today playing Dreams, who will play Game Builder Garage, and will walk away with a newfound passion or interest in game or general software creation.

…Also, there is the argument to be made that, while these game creation tools are nice and all, they ain’t got nothing on Roblox. Roblox is free, super intuitive, has a daily active user base of over 30 million players, and is very popular with children. No matter how good your creation tool is, it ain’t gonna top that!

I always consider Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio to be one of the most impressive developers working in the industry. Every year they churn out a wildly impressive open world urban adventure game with a robust story, a plethora of side content, and excellent production values. I sadly have not been able to play any of them yet, as my time management skills leave much to be desired, but I am always impressed by their work, and amazed that their titles, once thought too niche to bring to the west, are now receiving so much attention.

Anyway, the reason for this preamble is that the next title from this developer was announced in the form of Lost Judgment. A sequel to 2019’s Judgment that looks to continue everything the first game did. Offering a bombastic and intricate crime drama story with a barrage of related mechanics ranging from espionage to investigation, all built around the core pillar of brawler-style combat. 

It all looks quite good based on the initial trailer and related footage. However, the most surprising thing about this announcement is how Lost Judgment is slated to release for Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, and PS5 on September 24, 2021… worldwide. Meaning that Sega have streamlined the production of these games enough to write all game text, localize it into English, record all Japanese performances, and record all English performances, in conjunction with the game’s general development. And for a game as text-heavy as this, I always find that to be a massive accomplishment.

…Although, there is an argument to be made that I really should not be impressed by this sort of thing any more. Over the past decade, the Japanese media industry has been doing a fantastic job when it comes to preparing media for localization, establishing the technology, production cycles, and workflow needed to run live services with global servers, simulcast dubs, and make worldwide release dates the norm. This stuff was definitely not the case back before, I don’t know, 2015? Back then you were lucky if it only took 3 months for a major story-driven Japanese game to come westward. 

Header image comes from Switched to the Women’s Bath! by Mashiro no Hihoukan (Kakizato). It’s not a good or super appropriate header image, but I did not want to bust out and repurpose some pixel art assets to make a loose appropriation of my office. Because I’m lazy like that, yo!

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