Tag Archives: gamers

Microsoft sets sights on gamers with low-end Surface Book

Costing $200 more than the most basic Surface laptop, this model features an Nvidia GeForce graphics chip rather than relying on graphics tech built into the main processor.

Microsoft has tweaked its Surface Book lineup just before next week’s launch by adding a low-end model designed to lure gamers with better graphics.

This new version of the most basic Surface Book laptop, spotted Thursday by TechRadar, adds a separate Nvidia GeForce graphics chip rather than relying on graphics tech integrated directly into the model’s Intel Core i5 processor. Separate graphics chips cost extra but help endow video games with lavish landscapes and snappy performance. Until now, the GeForce option was available only on higher-end Surface Book models.

This low-end, gamer-friendly Surface Book, which includes 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, costs $1,699 (£1,100 or AU$2,350). That’s $200 more than the same model without the GeForce chip. This new version is set for release Monday, the official launch date for all Surface Book models, but is not available for preorder. All other models are showing at least four-week to seven-week waits before shipping, according to Microsoft’s site.

The Redmond, Washington-based company has touted the Surface Book, with its detachable keyboard, touchscreen display and atypical hinge, as the “ultimate laptop.” Microsoft’s first homegrown laptop, the Surface Book embodies an ambitious transformation for a company that, aside from its Xbox game console, chiefly sold software for most of its history. That has changed with the release of the first Surface tablets in 2012, as well as the Lumia smartphones released since Microsoft bought Nokia’s devices and services business in 2014.

The Windows 10 laptop is entering a crowded market, but Windows 10 has helped fuel Microsoft’s strong quarterly results, released Thursday. The Surface Book will compete not just with Apple MacBooks but with laptops from Microsoft’s own business partners that sell Windows-powered machines. Microsoft launched Windows 10 this summer in an attempt to improve a reputation damaged by the confusing Windows 8.

Microsoft has apparently been rejiggering its final Surface Book lineup since the October 6 unveiling. It also added a top-end Surface Book with 1TB of storage for $3,199 earlier this week, though that model shows a January 22 shipping date on Microsoft’s site.

The extra Nvidia graphics capabilities add $200 (£130 or AU$275) to the price of the most basic $1,499 Surface Book. The $1,699 price tag is the same as an upgrade on the most basic model to 256GB of built-in storage. Customers in that price range will need to decide whether more storage or improved graphics is a better bet for them.

One unknown factor: Microsoft hasn’t detailed which Nvidia graphics processor is in the Surface Book other than to say it will have 1GB of GDDR5 high-speed memory.

Advertisements
Tagged , , ,

Testing mobile G-Sync with the Asus G751JY: Boutique gaming’s killer feature?

Last January, we previewed how mobile G-Sync might perform on an Asus G751JY laptop that wasn’t fully certified for the feature but supported it well enough to give us a taste of what G-Sync could deliver. Today, we’re revisiting the topic, armed with a fully certified Asus G751JY-DB72. This system is nearly identical to the G751JY that we tested earlier this year, but with a handful of upgrades. Specifically, the G751JY-DB72 uses a Core i7-4720HQ CPU, 24GB of DDR3, a 256GB SSD, and a backup 1TB HDD for conventional mass storage. The system still uses a GTX 980M (4GB of RAM) and a 1,920-by-1,080, 17.3-inch screen.

AsusG751JY

At $1999 from Asus, it’s not a cheap laptop, but it’s one of the nicest and best-balanced systems I’ve ever tested. Because mobile G-Sync is a big enough feature to warrant its own treatment, we’re going to discuss the laptop’s performance and capabilities in a separate piece. For now, it’s enough to say that this is one of the best boutique laptops I’ve ever tested, even if the base model debuted a year ago.

How mobile G-Sync works

Mobile and desktop G-Sync accomplish the same goal, but they achieve it in different ways. Nvidia’s desktop G-Sync displays rely on a separate, Nvidia-built scaler unit. This scaler controls the monitor’s timing and synchronizes the display’s output with the video card. In 2013, when Nvidia debuted G-Sync, its custom scaler technology was the only way to achieve this kind of synchronization in a desktop display. That’s since changed with the launch of the VESA-backed Adaptive Sync standard (AMD calls its own implementation FreeSync). Laptops, however, don’t require custom scaler hardware — the ability to synchronize refresh rates is part of the embedded DisplayPort specification that both AMD and Nvidia use.

GSync-1

In order to qualify for the mobile G-Sync moniker, Nvidia requires laptop manufacturers to prove that their hardware meets certain standards. We don’t know all the details on what panels need to have, but we do know that they must support variable overdrive. Nvidia has stated that it works with ODMs to ensure that the G-Sync implementations in each laptop are tuned to the specifications of the underlying panels.

LCD-Response

As the name implies, variable overdrive allows the display to decrease pixel ghosting by anticipating what color a pixel may need to be on the next refresh cycle and adjusting voltage accordingly. Nvidia has noted that this could result in a slight decrease in color accuracy in some conditions, but the net result should still be improved color reproduction.

G-Sync: A Goldilocks solution:

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how mobile G-Sync works, let’s talk about its specific implementation in the Asus G751JY. This laptop uses a 75Hz panel, which is important to know, because it specifies the maximum refresh speed at which G-Sync can operate. If you have a 75Hz panel and your game is kicking out a steady 200 FPS, G-Sync disables automatically and the game will switch to either V-Sync on or off. By default, NV switches to V-Sync on, since this is much less jarring then the sudden appearance of tearing, but if you prefer to disable V-Sync when the frame rate exceeds 75 FPS, you can specify that at the control panel.

This might seem less-then ideal, since gamers are typically taught to prefer high frame rates, but the relative advantage of faster FPS is subject to diminishing marginal returns. The higher the frame rate, the less visible a missed frame is.

If the frame rate falls below a certain level, however, G-Sync can run into another problem. While it doesn’t shut off due to low FPS, the GPU will automatically interpolate and insert multiple frames to smooth playback. If performance is relatively steady, this is an excellent way to smooth the game without impacting playability. If the frame rate is changing significantly from moment to moment, however, some frames will end up repeated and some will not.

PC Perspective wrote an excellent report on how FreeSync and G-Sync handle low frame rates. The graph below shows how G-Sync inserts additional frames, boosting the refresh rate as a result.

gsync2

As the frame rate fluctuates, the number of frames G-Sync injects to smooth presentation can vary as well. While the end result can still be superior to not having G-Sync on at all, a variable frame rate below ~35 FPS doesn’t produce the buttery smoothness that Adaptive Sync and G-Sync provide at higher refresh rates.

This ideal window is why we call G-Sync (and Adaptive Sync) a Goldilocks solution. Both technologies work best when your frame rate is neither too high nor too low. In this case, users should target an average consistent frame rate between 40 and 60 FPS.

Testing G-Sync

One of the intrinsic problems with testing a feature like G-Sync is that it’s hard to capture the output difference without a high-speed camera. One website, Blurbusters, has built a G-Sync simulator that you can use to examine the relative impact of having G-Sync enabled vs. disabled. You can see and select various display modes to compare the output, but if you choose G-Sync, be advised that the frame rate will rise until it reaches your monitor’s maximum refresh rate, then drop and start again. You can compare the output in this mode against the various other options (V-sync enabled, disabled, frame rate drops, etc).

The best video demonstration we’ve found of G-Sync vs. V-Sync On is embedded below. I’d recommend watching it full-screen and not trying to focus too hard on any one area of the image. If you relax your eyes and focus on the green line between the two rotating outputs, you’ll see that the V-Sync output on the left has a small but noticeable stutter that the G-Sync output lacks. The relevant portion of video is at 1:10.

One problem with testing a feature like G-Sync is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the human tendency to look for evidence that confirms a hypothesis while ignoring or discounting evidence that could disprove it. If I know that G-Sync is enabled, I may claim that a game looks better because I expect G-Sync to deliver a marked improvement. We avoided this problem by using a single-blind A/B test.

Before each test, the laptop was configured to enable or disable G-Sync. I was then asked to choose whether G-Sync had been enabled or disabled based on how the game/benchmark ran. No frame rate information or third-party tools like FRAPS, that might inadvertently hint at whether or not G-Sync was enabled, were enabled and I was not allowed to alt-tab the game or check my results until after the entire set of test runs had been concluded.

Our initial tests of BioShock Infinite failed because the game was either running well above the 75 Hz refresh rate on the Asus G751JY (and enabling V-Sync at these higher frame rates rather than using G-Sync), or running below the 30 FPS mark when we tested at 4K using Dynamic Super Resolution. We discussed the situation with Nvidia and chose IQ settings that kept the game at the 40-50 FPS mark where G-Sync’s impact is most noticeable. Once we did, I could successfully identify whether BioShock Infinite used G-Sync or not in every single test.

BioShockInfinite

We also tested The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, though in its case, we had to install additional texture mods to pull frame rates low enough for G-Sync to kick in. Again, I was able to correctly determine whether or not G-Sync was enabled in every single test. In most cases, it took just seconds — camera pans and movement are much smoother when G-Sync is enabled.

Skyrim2K

As someone who would benchmark a llama if I could find one with a PCIe slot, I’m loathe to issue an opinion that comes down to “Trust me, it’s awesome.” In this case, however, that’s what’s called for. With G-Sync enabled, camera pans are much smoother. V-Sync just doesn’t deliver an equivalent experience — not unless your game is already holding a steady 120+ FPS frame rate and you own one of the handful of monitors that support a refresh rate that high.

Is G-Sync worth it?

The FreeSync vs G-Sync battle between AMD and Nvidia has mostly played out in the desktop space, where FreeSync / Adaptive Sync displays have generally been cheaper than their G-Sync counterparts. The situation is different in mobile, where multiple vendors are shipping G-Sync-enabled laptops, while FS/AS appear to be a no-show thus far. We’ve heard rumors that this could change in the next few months, but for now, mobile G-Sync is the only show in town.

It’s true that getting G-Sync up and running properly can require some fine-tuning, but we’re not talking about anything extravagant — if you’re comfortable adjusting in-game video settings, you can tune a game to work well in G-Sync. Older titles may require some additional intervention, but if you’re comfortable installing graphics mods, it’s easy to find frame rates that showcase the feature.

Sometimes, buying into a new technology when it initially rolls out means paying a premium for a less-than ideal experience — but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. The Asus G751JY is a well-balanced system, and the GTX 980M is unmatched in mobile GPUs. True, Nvidia now offers a desktop-class GTX 980 in an ostensibly mobile form factor, but we have some significant concerns about just how that solution will actually work in the real world. The 980M, in contrast, is a proven high-performance solution.

AMD will likely counter with its own solutions — the first FreeSync demos were originally doneon a mobile platform — but for now, if you want this technology, Nvidia is the only game in town. It’s a feature that makes a significant difference, and if we were in the market for a boutique gaming laptop, we’d put G-Sync high on our list of desired features.

Tagged , , , , , ,

League of Legends: Bidding war over e-sports team

A bidding war has broken out during the sale of a professional team of players of the fantasy game, League of Legends.

The UK’s Team Dignitas has two pro League of Legends teams on its books but tournament rules for the game state that they can only oversee one.

Bids for one of their teams have gone far beyond $500,000 (£323,000), a Dignitas spokesman told the BBC.

The final details of the sale and the team’s new owner will be revealed by the end of the month.

Big bids

The massively popular League of Legends game has an associated World Championships that pits the tops teams against each other for large cash prizes.

The five players who were world champions in 2014 shared $1m (£650,000) in prize money.

The teams meet in a virtual arena and are tasked with destroying the heart of their rivals’ base while defending their own.

Michael O’Dell, manager of Team Dignitas, said one of its teams had been part of the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) for some time. This year, he said, Dignitas’s second or “challenger” team has also qualified for the LCS.

“The rules state that you can only manage one, so we are in the process of selling one of the teams at the moment,” he told the BBC.

Mr O’Dell confirmed they had found a buyer but would not be drawn on which team would be sold or who had bought them.

The last few weeks had seen a series of bids for the team come in from many pro-game management firms, individuals and other organisations.

“E-sports is growing so fast at the moment,” he said. “There are millionaires and billionaires coming in buying teams and there are sports stars looking to buy teams.

“It’s really strange dealing with billionaires over this,” he said.

Pro-players could also cash in later in October at the start of the 2015 transfer season, which often sees top players garner large fees to change teams.

Tim Edwards, an editor at the PC Games N website, said the size of the deal over the LoL team reflected the growing interest in e-sports by traditional media firms, brand managers and advertisers.

“It would be hard for them to reach that gaming audience any other way,” he said.

The quarter-finals of the League of Legends World Championships are being streamed on BBC Three over three days.

Tagged , , , ,

Star Wars Battlefront on the PC: Impressions and performance

For the past few days, EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront has been in open beta. We spent some time in the game in all three modes — both the Battle of Sullust, Walker Assault on Hoth, and the single-player missions that pitch you against waves of stormtroopers and other attack vehicles in a survival mode. Unlike the console players, who are stuck dealing with either 900p on the PS4 or 720p on the Xbox One, PC gamers get the full monty — as much resolution as your monitor can handle, and quality settings that truly bring Star Wars to life around you.

It’s difficult to know what to write about Star Wars: Battlefront, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that this was a beta with just three game modes. The overwhelming and immediate thought when you first fire up the game is “I’m playing Star Wars!” On that front, Dice has succeeded beautifully. This game feels like a love letter to every kid who ever raced through the house clutching Han Solo’s DL-44 and making blaster noises. As you race to recover escape pods on Sullust, the capital ships overhead fire on each other (and occasionally on the planet).

Battlefront

I’m even willing to forgive the fact that Dice shows Imperial Star Destroyers as in-atmosphere craft over both Sullust and Hoth when they ought to have used Victory or Venator-class Star Destroyers instead.

This nostalgia is particularly strong on Hoth, whether you play as Imperial stormtroopers or the Rebel Alliance. The map is asymmetrical, meaning the two sides have vastly different goals and strategies for winning. The Rebels must activate satellite uplinks that enable Y-wing bombers to make attack runs on the advancing Walkers. The Imperials must defend the walkers against these attacks, which means keeping the satellite uplinks out of commission. As the battle progresses, you’ll fight past the iconic Kuat ion cannon and into Echo Base itself.

RebelScum

I know that there’ve been previous Battlefront games, but the last version came out in 2005 — long before the advent of DirectX 11, 12, or modern hardware. While that 2005 game holds up reasonably well, considering its age, it’s got nothing on the models and levels of detail Dice has brought to the table. As a nostalgia play and crazy-fun dip into first person Star Wars combat, Battlefront is a true achievement.

Simplistic design

Where Battlefront falls a bit flat is its mechanics and map design. True, we haven’t seen the entire game yet, but I played in the Battlefield 3 and BF4 betas, too. In both cases, the maps and scenarios offered to early testers were much larger and more complex than what we’ve seen this past few days. The Battle of Sullust is fun, but it’s ultimately a relatively small map with only limited use of terrain. The Battlefield series prides itself on urban environments that can be aggressively “remodeled” based on player action.

There’s none of that in any of the beta designs that were shown — even in Echo base, hurling thermal detonators or implosion devices doesn’t damage the X-Wing sitting in the hangar below. You can similarly throw thermal detonators into the ice walls carved out of Hoth, but you won’t see any terrain deformation when you do. For a company that’s built its reputation on deformable terrain and evolving combat conditions, such ommissions are surprising.

EchoBase1

The simplicity carries over into the combat and loadout options that we saw teased so far. While there are options like a smart rocket and sniper rifle, these are unlocked with in-game credits and cannot be fired repeatedly. You get one sniper shot every ten seconds, period — while the weapon is on cooldown, you can’t even equip it. The vehicles of the BF series are gone, replaced by power-ups that you pick up and use at will. This allows for some additional flexibility, since you can trigger a TIE fighter or Airspeeder launch at will, but feels less cohesive. Without squads or classes, every trooper you face is likely to be carrying the same handful of weapons or power-ups, and the various blasters are all extremely similar. The lack of recoil may be thematically accurate, but it makes the weapons feel more similar.

Also, every single air vehicle feels like someone mounted an ion engine on a sofa. This might make sense for TIE fighters, which aren’t supposed to operate in atmospheres and have enormous square wings, but the problem extends to every single craft. Airspeeders have the turning radius of a manatee with multiple sclerosis. Even the A-Wing, a Rebel fighter specifically designed for speed and agility, feels sluggish. None of the Battlefield games are known for great flying mechanics, but flying starfighters in land-based Battlefront missions isn’t much fun.

Other game decisions are equally odd. You can buy a personal shield, but have to pay to charge it with in-game currency, unless you pick up in-game power charges. You can play as Luke Skywalker (in RoTJ costume) or Darth Vader in the Hoth mission, but both characters feel more like afterthoughts, nods to the hero units of earlier Battlefronts, than fleshed out concepts. I really enjoyed my time in-game, but I’m not convinced that this title has the staying power that EA seems to think it does. It’s missing most of the tactical underpinnings that made Battlefield interesting, and the sheer joy of playing in the Star Wars universe may not be an adequate substitute.

Performance

Guru3D has done an extensive performance workup on Battlefront under D3D11 (DirectX 12 support is planned, but not currently implemented. We attempted to sneakily activate it anyway, but when Dice says the feature isn’t ready for prime time in this version of the game, they weren’t kidding). Guru3D has quite a bit of data on the game’s current performance at various detail levels, but here’s the 10,000 foot overview:

Battlefront performance

There’s a lot of great news buried in this graph. First, the game runs beautifully on older / slower card. The Radeon R9 370 can hit 44 FPS in 1080p mode, as can the GTX 950. The R9 370, aka the Radeon 7850, was a midrange card when it was introduced in Q1 2012, but it can handle Ultra detail levels at 1080p just fine. Stepping up the stack, we see the R9 290 outperforming the GTX 970 (Nvidia can’t be thrilled about that) the R9 390X edging out the GTX 980, and the Fury X and GTX 980 Ti duking it out at the top of the stack. The Fury X has an edge at 4K, but isn’t quite as fast in 1080p.

If you own a GPU built in the last three years, chances are you can play this game at high detail levels and at least 1080p. Performance is good enough that it wouldn’t surprise us if APUs and even Intel GPUs can get in on some of this action, albeit at lower resolutions and detail levels.

Pricing, preliminary verdict

The one downside to all of this is EA’s decision to announce a $50 season pass alongside a $60 retail price. It’s a tone-deaf move for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a bad idea because the last game Dice launched, Battlefield 4, was an utter disaster. While the game ran reasonably well in beta, with relatively light server loading, things collapsed in the final iteration in ways that took Dice nine months to fix. You can blame EA for this if you like, since the publisher is ultimately responsible for kicking the game out the door, but there’s precious little reason to bet on Battlefront nailing everything by ponying up for a season pass.

I’ve written in defense of DLC before, and I stand by that, but as of now, EA is asking players to pony up $60 for a base title and $50 for four DLC packs along with “Pay to Win” freebies like the DL-44 blaster, ion grenade, ion torpedo, and two-week early access to each DLC if you pay for the season pass up front. After the mediocre Battlefield Hardline and the awful launch of Battlefield 4, neither Dice nor EA deserve that kind of pre-order cash. I strongly recommend waiting to see how you like the base game and whether it launches in playable condition before buying into any additional packages.

Tatooine is used in single-player missions.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d say that Battlefront absolutely nails the nostalgia and evocative aspects of the game. The lack of a single-player campaign to tie things together is a huge loss — it’s been more than a decade since we got a Star Wars single-player FPS and ten years since the last Battlefront. If you want to run around playing Star Wars, Battlefront delivers. If you’re looking for a deeper, more tactical FPS, I’m not sure this is it. And I’d wait and see how the final game reviews before ponying up for any DLC package, regardless of what enticements EA tries to offer. A game you can’t play isn’t enjoyable.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Cyber-thieves hit YouTube Fifa gamers

Six of the most successful Fifa video gamers to feature on YouTube have been targeted by cyber-thieves.

The hackers stole millions of Fifa coins, the games virtual currency, and sold players worth thousands of pounds.

They are thought to have convinced manufacturer EA Sports to transfer their victims’ Origin accounts to email addresses the hackers controlled.

Many other well-known players who do not make videos are also believed to have been hit.

AnesonGib, W2S, Nepenthez, Nick28T, Bateson87 and matthdgamer have more than five million YouTube subscribers between them.

Matthew Craig, the man behind matthdgamer, told the BBC: “There have been about 10 or more accounts which have been hacked over the last two weeks, me included.”

In a video, Nick28T said: “Basically, someone called in pretending to be me and… got in to my account.”

An EA representative said: “We encourage all Fifa players to secure their accounts with authentication and verification steps, which we outline on our help and our product sites.

“We are consistently working through our customer experience teams to secure accounts and make sure players are educated when account compromises are made.”

Mr Craig said EA had apologised to him about the attack and had moved quickly to help him once he had reported it.

“They got my account back, added four or five more security measures, and my account has been fine since,” he said.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Valve employee surprises girlfriend, turns tech demo into virtual reality marriage proposal

Kelly Tortorice was already having a pretty special day: unlike the rest of us, she was at Valve’s Headquarters in Bellevue, WA, testing out some pretty nifty unreleased virtual reality technology. But in between painting with fire, exploring the Alps, and wandering through an sunken ship, something appeared out of the digital ether: a big ol’ fairy tail ring. She reached out and grabbed it, and when she took off her VR headset, the virtual jewelry became a very real engagement ring.

KELLY TORTORICE

The clever (and delightfully nerdy) wedding proposal was conjured up by her boyfriend Chandler Murch. He just so happens to work at Valve, so getting his hands on the HTC Vive headset probably wasn’t too difficult. But it was the virtual reality system’s inventive controllers that allowed the proposal to go off without a hitch: by holding the controller out in front of his girlfriend, Murch was able to line up the virtual ring and the engagement ring.

Fortunately for Murch, Kelly said yes. Now we just have to wonder: will the wedding be in virtual reality, too?

Tagged , , , , ,

William Hill bets on virtual reality racing

Anyone who has been to a racecourse will know the excitement when the horses pound towards the finish line.

But this thrill of the ride is something that many customers who bet in shops or online do not experience.

Bookmaker William Hill is keen to recreate it with virtual reality technology.

The UK’s Gambling Commission said that it would be monitoring innovations such as virtual reality to ensure that they did not encourage excessive gambling.

Using virtual reality headsets, combined with GPS racetrack data, it is giving customers the chance to view the race from the jockey’s perspective.

“Currently you place a bet and not much happens between that and the outcome,” said Crispin Nieboer, William Hill’s director of innovation.

“We want to bring customers closer to the sporting action, to experience the thrill of the ride.”

To test the possibilities, the team at William Hill labs built a 3D mock-up of Kempton Park racecourse and collected live data, via GPS trackers fitted on horses, during a training race at the course.

People trying out VR racing

Combining the data created a virtual race users can view via either Google Cardboard or an Oculus Rift.

The technology is not yet available to the public but was on show at an open day at the firm’s technology laboratory in Shoreditch.

Users first choose the horse they want to race on. Accompanied by live commentary, wearers can turn and look at other horses as well as activating a data display about the horse’s heart rate, stride and race position.

William Hill plans to add more courses and live races next year.

“Currently there are some gaps in the data so the horses suddenly accelerate in a live race, but we hope to have a proof-of-concept system ready by Christmas,” said Mr Nieboer.

The plan is to launch the service as part of the William Hill app.

“Users can choose the option to watch the race as a standard video or they can be the jockey,” Mr Nieboer said.

It could also be available in some betting shops, said Mr Nieboer, while Google Cardboard headsets were likely to be given out free at racecourses.

It is estimated that in the UK about 350,000 people have a gambling addiction, with over £7bn spent annually.

The proliferation of online betting has been blamed for making it easier to gamble and some feel services such as virtual reality could add to the problem.

The market is regulated by the UK Gambling Commission, which said that it “monitors innovation in the gambling market in order to ensure operators continue to comply with the conditions of their licences”.

“Operators are required to ensure that they offer gambling in a responsible manner, which will include offering tools to allow customers to manage their gambling activity as well as having policies and procedures in place to identify potentially problematic behaviour and interact with customers who exhibit that behaviour,” a spokesman added.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Sony to skip PlayStation Vita 2, blames mobile gaming for handheld’s decline

Earlier today, we covered how the PlayStation TV can be hacked to play Vita titles. Today, Sony executive Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, more-or-less confirmed that Sony was planning to exit the dedicated handheld business once the Vita reaches the end of its lifespan. When asked about the possibility of a follow-up to Sony’s PSV, Yoshida noted that mobile gaming has created a tough climate for handhelds and called the possibility of a successor a “tough question.”

Yoshida put blame on the general rise of smartphone gaming, the advent of free-to-play titles, and the fact that handhelds have different hardware control schemes that simply don’t translate well to modern touch-based smartphones, Eurogamer reports. Of these points, the last is definitely true — games that try to ape the functionality of a joystick or buttons by providing virtual touch-based interfaces are often difficult to control and reserving screen space for a joystick chews up valuable real estate.

There’s no doubt the advent of smartphones created a challenging environment for handheld gaming, but I’m not convinced iPhones and Android are entirely to blame. When Sony announced in June 2013 that the PlayStation Vita would have a new feature, Remote Play, that allowed it to stream games from the PS4, sales of the Vita began to spike ahead of the PS4 launch. As this chart from VGChartz illustrates, PSV sales exploded from October to December, 2013. The Vita has sold 12.26 million units since it launched — and moved nearly 15% of them in those three months.

Chart courtesy of VGChartz. Click to enlarge

Clearly, the problem wasn’t with the Vita hardware, which always held up well in comparison with the Nintendo DS. Nor was it an issue of an intrinsically limited market. If it was, Nintendo’s 3DS would never have broken the 50-million mark. While that’s just a fraction of the Nintendo DS, the DS was produced for a decade, while the 3DS is just 4.5 years old. It may never reach the DS’ sales volume, but it should have no trouble racking up another 10-20 million units over the course of its life.

There are multiple reasons why Sony’s Vita sits at 12 million units shipped as compared to 53 million for Nintendo that have nothing to do with mobile gaming. Remote Play was billed as a late-launching Vita feature, but it’s has always had asterisks attached to it. While it works, the Vita doesn’t have an identical set of inputs as the PS4, which means certain functions are emulated using the rear touch panels. Lag is also a common problem, unless you’re sitting on top of the PS4.

But the problem isn’t just Remote Play’s lackluster implementation. From the beginning, Sony has gouged users for memory cards ($100 for a 32GB Vita-compatible card, instead of $18 for a standard model), offered lackluster ports, and published just a handful of titles relative to Nintendo. Nintendo published 35 of the top 50 games for the 3DS, as measured by total sales. Sony published just 13 of the top 50 Vita titles. The bestselling title for the Vita, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, moved 1.47 million copies worldwide — which puts it at 26th place on the 3DS chart.

Even today, Sony continues to lock games behind whitelists or simply ignores them. There’s a universe of potential PS2 games that could be playable on Vita, but aren’t. Time and time again, the company has ignored its handheld division, and while it has a reputation as a great platform for indie games and JRPGs, that’s not enough to sustain it in the face of competition from mobile and Nintendo.

When the DS debuted and promptly tanked, I wondered if there was still a market for dedicated handhelds. Nintendo proved there was, provided you hit price points and committed to supporting it over the long term. Sony didn’t — and that fact explains far more of the difference between the two companies than all the smartphones in the world.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Virtual reality: So near, yet so far

The biggest competition for virtual reality is something it’ll never beat – the real world.

As many readers of this blog like to point out, a virtual reality environment will never be a substitute for actually experiencing something.

No-one, even in the corridors of Oculus Connect, a conference for the virtual reality industry, would suggest otherwise.

Owned by Facebook, Oculus is credited with breathing new life into the virtual reality industry which had faded out after an almost cringe-worthy first-go in the nineties. Its headset, the Oculus Rift, hits shelves next year. Anticipation is huge.

But today we had a reminder of just how far we are from enjoying anything that comes even close to producing an fully-immersive world – one that can recreate common human feelings and emotions; the sense of being somewhere else, with other people, feeling different sensations.


The announcements

Oculus and Facebook made a range of announcements relating to VR today. Here are the most significant:

  • Minecraft. Veteran games maker John Carmack, now chief technology officer at Oculus, described Minecraft coming to Oculus as the biggest “win” they’ve had. It didn’t come easy – Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft boss Satya Nadella had to sit down and iron out some issues before the deal was done.
  • Netflix, Hulu and others signed up. The on-demand giants are on board with VR – you’ll be able to watch titles on the likes of Netflix and Hulu within the headset, giving the impression of watching it on a huge screen. Many have questioned how comfortable that would be after more than about 15 minutes.
  • A $99 (£65) Gear VR. Aside from the premium Oculus Rift headset, due to be released early next year, Oculus and Samsung have created the Gear VR, a low-cost headset that uses a Samsung smartphone to power the visuals. It’s not the full VR experience, but it’s intended to be gateway for newcomers. The next headset will be $99 and work with Samsung’s Galaxy S6 range.
  • Oculus Ready. The Oculus Ready PC programme is a stamp of approval designed to help people buy computers that will be good enough to power VR. PC makers onboard include Asus, Dell and Alienware.

To hammer this home, Oculus’ chief scientist Michael Abrash took a refreshing approach to his keynote – outlining all the things Oculus could not yet do.

The problems are so great the team is not even trying to solve them – something for the next generation to tackle.

One is providing a sense of smell, a sensation so integral to experiencing, and later remembering, a new place.

Brendan Iribe, Oculus CEO

Another challenge is the ability to taste something, or hear realistically in a way that does not feel as if we’re just wearing headphones. Perhaps the biggest barrier is a sense of touch.

Haptic technology is only just beginning to recreate basic touch sensations – but it remains that in VR, it’s going to be years before you’ll stop putting your hand through virtual tables, killing the illusion in an instant.

Tough crowd

But virtual reality enthusiasts shouldn’t feel disheartened.

Right now, VR is what Space Invaders is to Call of Duty. They’re both games, sure, but they’re worlds apart. The now-primitive blip-blip-blip of 1970s arcade games were the building blocks needed to get us to where we are now.

And so the feeling among Oculus Connect is that this is just the beginning, and there’s still a long way to go.

A screen from Space Invaders, from a display at London's Science Museum

Gamers and the wider public may take a while to reach the same level of excitement felt within the industry.

Mr Abrash told delegates that they’re living in the “good old days” of VR – a time that will be looked back upon as the start of something significant.

Except it’s not quite the start. We’ve been here before. Journalists in the 1990s were writing about VR as the next big thing just as I am now. But the technology wasn’t ready then.

Is it now? There are a few veterans prowling the halls here, enticed back to the action after some time away. One was Greg Panos, who has been studying virtual and augmented reality for over two decades.

I asked him if this latest wave of VR was any different to what happened in the 90s.

Yes, he said – the difference now is that VR is good enough, and cheap enough, for companies to start making some serious money. And so it starts.

Palmer Luckey, founder at Oculus

The first battleground for VR will be gaming. Therefore the best games will win – in theory – so efforts from HTC Vive headset could disrupt Facebook’s ambition. HTC has partnered with legendary games maker Valve, and so the games should be terrific. And the Vive goes on sale first.

Sony is jostling in, too. Its Morpheus headset has two things going for it. One, it’s tied to the already immensely successful PlayStation 4, and so will likely be bundled with the console.

Shrewd move

But with the announcements made today, Facebook is giving itself a huge headstart in a new, exciting world of entertainment.

Deals with Netflix and Minecraft could give Oculus the edge, even if other competitors have better hardware, as has been the suggestion. Content, as always, is king. Vive and Morpheus will need to compete with that.

The possibilities are mind-blowingly enormous – from gaming to tele-presence, education to blockbuster movies, Facebook is trying to nurture a platform that one day could rival the mobile app ecosystem in its scale.

But – and it’s a big but – Facebook still needs to pull it off. One year on from Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR, we’ve still not seen the technology really hit the market in any meaningful way. That means Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg’s $2bn bet in VR bet is still wide-open.

Will that purchase be seen as a shrewd move on par with Google’s bargain-tactic $1.65bn purchase of YouTube in 2006?

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO at Facebook

Or will Oculus be Mr Zuckerberg’s MySpace – a service with great early momentum, bought by NewsCorp for $580m, only to be later offloaded for $35m? It was a newcomer that took what MySpace started and made it much much better, killing the business in the process.

That newcomer being Facebook, of course, Mr Zuckerberg certainly knows how this game works.

It’s presumably why he appeared, unannounced, at Thursday’s event, seemingly with one key purpose – to manage the expectations of developers, the press and the public.

“All of you are inventing the next major platform,” he told delegates. “This is going to go very slowly.

“Facebook is committed to this for the long term.”

He doesn’t expect “millions” of units to be sold – at least not for a while.

He was there to reassure developers that even if things don’t pick up and make millionaires straight away, he’s committed to sticking with it.

But he’s not the only one – and it could be competitors that take what Oculus has started and does things better – giving Mr Zuckerberg the MySpace treatment.

Tagged , , , ,

Devs Shine Light on Halo 5’s Overhauled Engine

Weeks away from the launch of Halo 5: Guardians, 343 Industries and Microsoft on Tuesday revealed some of the technical ingenuity behind what’s expected to be the biggest Xbox One game of the 2015 holiday season.

The game’s developers have been raving about their playtime with the upcoming sci-fi shooter. For starters they’re promising first-class digital tourism in Halo 5: Guardians, with galactic locales ranging from life-filled jungles to snowcapped mountains. Also promised is a compelling narrative that will slow down the action and drive forward a story that presents players with several possible futures as they Hunt for the Truth.

The Halo 5 Experience

Between the campaign’s battles, players can explore levels that range from relatively quiet quests to huge maps rendered by Xbox Live cloud compute and rigged for destruction.

The game’s levels, built on top of the game’s new engine, have been painted with colors from “seven distinct art palettes.”

That overhauled engine includes light-rendering technology that’s based on the physical makeup of meshes and models in Halo 5.

Possibly the biggest news for pro gamers was confirmation of a stable 60 frames per second, rendered via variable resolution.

For scenes with a high density of object, all of which request power to render, the game engine will scale the graphics back from its 1080p base resolution to keep the workload down and the frame rate stable at 60 fps.

Halo 5 Guardians

That has significant implications in the world of e-sport, according to Jon Peddie Research’s Ted Pollak, senior analyst for the games industry.

“Using dynamic resolution adjustment is an interesting strategy to maximize the game’s performance on the Xbox One’s hardware,” he told TechNewsWorld, “and it will give competitive players a better experience.”

Along with high-fidelity cosmetics and what’s promoted as an engrossing campaign, there’s another thing Halo 5: Guardians has going for it, according to Mario R. Kroll, principal at ÜberStrategist.

Halo 5: Guardians will beat several big titles to the punch by weeks, he said.

Launching early and tactfully doesn’t always ensure success, but historically it has helped, and Halo held its own in the past.

“Rather than waiting for November, when there is huge competition from the latest Call of Duty (Black Ops III), the expertly hyped fan favorite Fallout 4 — and finally, the force-driven Star Wars: Battlefront, which has everyone [but single-player campaign fans] drooling, Microsoft decided to launch its latestHalo installment this October,” Kroll told TechNewsWorld.

Halo for the Holidays

Halo’s early start on the holiday rush will benefit from several supporting moves Microsoft has planned: the special edition Xbox One, which has a fattened 1-TB fusion drive; the recently launched Halo Wars 2; and a Windows 10 experience that’s due to deliver in November.

“I believe that between superior pricing over the PS4 and Halo 5 as platform exclusive, it will certainly help Microsoft gain some ground with the Xbox One,” Kroll said.

The list of reasons for holding out on moving from Xbox 360 to Xbox One continues to shrink, Kroll noted. Halo 5: Guardians, possibility Microsoft’s biggest game for a while, is poised to drive Xbox Ones out of the storerooms and into the living rooms.

“There are a number of impressive multiplatform titles coming out that will benefit both XBox One and PlayStation 4,” Kroll said, “but arguably, Halo 5should have the biggest impact as a new release console exclusive game on the XBox One platform, in terms of encouraging sales of that hardware this fall/holiday season.”

With Sony shipping PlayStation 4s at roughly twice the volume of Xbox Ones, Microsoft needs more “arrows in its quiver,” said Kroll. With Halo, at least, Microsoft has proven time and time again it can generate impressive sales figures.

“There’s no question that the Halo franchise is highly successful and very important to Microsoft’s Xbox strategy,” Pollak said. “It behooves them to remind fans of any significant developments to keep the buzz going ahead of the upcoming holiday shopping season.”

Tagged , , , , , ,