TIME Rumors

Stick or No, an Amazon Streaming Games Console Would Have an Audience Conundrum

Amazon.com Illustrations Ahead Of Earnings
Andrew Harrer—Getty Images

Streaming games, at the mercy of the mercurial Internet, just don't have mainstream gamer appeal.

TechCrunch reports Amazon’s long-rumored set top box isn’t going to be a box at all, but a stick, Chromecast- and Roku-style. If that’s true — and TechCruch claims multiple sources familiar with the device are confirming it is — minimalists can rejoice, but mainstream gamers are probably going to shrug.

That’s because a device the size of a USB dongle in 2014 isn’t capable of delivering native-powered games (or all but the simplest ones, anyway), so it would almost certainly have to stream them (and indeed, TechCrunch’s source claims it’ll support streaming PC games, though whether it’ll plug into anyone else’s existing service or use an Amazon-brewed vintage is unclear at this point). I’m talking about a service similar to OnLive (an almost-failure purchased by Lauder Partners that recently reemerged with a Steam games streaming angle), or Gaikai (purchased by Sony to pipe streaming games through its PlayStation Network). The games live in the cloud and you interface with them as you would a streaming video.

The problem is that streaming games continue to be something of a novelty among mainstream gamers: a service a handful might use to test-drive a game before buying a non-streaming copy, but that — due to the intrinsic limitations of Internet network protocols in 2014 — doesn’t resonate as a stable, optimal interface for games that tend to specialize in visual embellishment and cater to extremely low-latency wonks.

I’m talking about games like Battlefield 4 or Metro: Last Light, of course, not Sudoku, someone’s ten-thousandth gambling casino riff, or Angry Birds. The sort of gamer that plays the former wants gorgeous, uncompressed, rock-solid graphics, not the sort of glitchy, mercurial, often artifact-riddled visual feed OnLive tried so hard to sell as revolutionary technology.

Local streaming is different, of course. Nvidia’s Shield and Nintendo’s Wii U offer a very different, much more dependable experience from the one cloud-based streaming services do. You can control your local network experience, which is going to function dozens of times faster and have radically lower latency.

The Internet, by comparison — from your ISP’s activities, to the number of router hops between you and the streaming provider, to the efficiency of the streaming provider’s cloud technology — is another story. Amazon may be hoping to square OnLive’s “good enough” circle by attracting a more casual demographic. but OnLive couldn’t, and it’s by no means clear Sony’s going to be able to with Gaikai. I’d be surprised, once the doublespeak marketing dust settles, if Amazon would able to if this latest rumor proves true.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

The PlayStation 4 Won February, but by a Lot Less Than It Did in January

Sony

But the Xbox One crept up on the PlayStation 4, and the reasons why may be related to December's results.

I’m a little late getting to these figures because I was out last Friday, but the NPD data for February is in, and continuing an unsurprising trend in month-to-month hardware sales, Sony’s PlayStation 4 beat Microsoft’s Xbox One.

I say unsurprising because the PS4 remains 100 simoleons less than Microsoft’s $500 Xbox One. Kinect or no, if the PS4 wasn’t in the lead, given the historical relationship of dominant game consoles to their prices, then I’d be surprised.

But Sony thumped Microsoft in January by a ratio of 2-to-1 (according to Sony), whereas in February, it appears Sony only beat its rival by tens of thousands of units. This is all transpiring a month before the arrival of Titanfall, mind you, which presents something of a conundrum if your predictive theory of success hinges on economics alone.

Recall that in December, the Xbox One outsold the PS4 in this country by hundreds of thousands of units. Sony reacted to the news by claiming the PS4 had been sold out everywhere much of the month, and that it was still outselling the Xbox One worldwide. In short: Sony was implying it hadn’t been able to meet demand in this country given that the PS4 was available in many more markets than the Xbox One (53 countries at the time, compared to the Xbox One’s 13).

That may partly or wholly explain what happened in February, though it also may not, because it’s speculation extracted from a marketing claim. The New York Times notes that PlayStation marketing executive Guy Longworth said the PS4 was experiencing “severe inventory constraints,” but that’s an unverifiable claim, and it’s worth bearing in mind how important it is to control the narrative when courting buyers who view these systems — not incorrectly — as risk-related investments. A sense of momentum is critical, especially early on, before the Halos and Uncharteds start showing up. When you’re shelling out $400 to $500 on a platform, it’s in hopes of being able to play all the non-exclusive stuff you’d want to down the road, and we need only look at Nintendo’s beleaguered Wii U to get a taste of what third-party abandonment looks like.

What’s missing from this picture? Worldwide sales. If Sony’s producing as many or more PS4s as Microsoft is Xbox Ones, the question is who’s selling the most, all told, and to what extent that’s impacting allocation. Sony just launched in Japan in February 22, which probably impacted its U.S. allocation (Microsoft hasn’t yet announced a Japan launch date for the Xbox One). At last count, Sony said it had sold 5.3 million units worldwide, and that was as of mid-February [Update: Sony announced PS4 sales recently surpassed 6 million worldwide]. The last we heard from Microsoft in early January, the Xbox One had sold in the vicinity of three million units worldwide.

March should be interesting because it’ll test both systems in unique ways: New IP Titanfall is going to give the Xbox One a major boost, if only because Microsoft marketed the bejesus out of it, so count on that. But Sony has inFamous: Second Son shipping late this week (March 21), exclusive to PS4, and both of Sucker Punch’s prior inFamous games were as critically lauded as Titanfall‘s been (that, and however anticipated Respawn’s online-only first-person shooter was, inFamous has the incumbent advantage).

Then again, if Sony really is experiencing inventory issues and it hasn’t sorted them by week’s end, it could be in for a stateside drubbing when NPD’s next report drops a month from now.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

This Is the Hottest Online Video Service You’ve Never Heard Of

It's already bigger than Hulu, Amazon, and Facebook video

How many gamers does it take to catch a Pokemon? 1.1 million, apparently. That’s how many people played the Game Boy classic Pokemon Red—together—on the video game streaming website Twitch.tv in February. As the game streamed online, people used a chat client to submit 122 million button inputs, often simultaneously, to control the movements of the main character as he pursued his quest of becoming a Pokemon master. It was an impractical but oddly hypnotic way to try to beat a video game. After two and a half weeks of wildly scrolling through menus, running in erratic circles, and occasionally defeating enemies, the gamers collectively toppled the Elite Four and saw the end credits roll. But the true victor of the endeavor was Twitch itself, which is quickly becoming one of the hottest entertainment properties on the Web.

Begun in 2011 as an offshoot of the live-streaming website Justin.tv, Twitch allows users to broadcast virtually any video game live online. Players can offer live color commentary or, as with Pokemon, let viewers help control the game through a chat window that runs next to the gameplay. The site now attracts 45 million unique viewers and 1 million broadcasters each month. In February it comprised 1.8 percent of total Internet traffic during peak hours, beating Hulu, Amazon and Facebook.

The idea that people would enjoy sitting back and watching video games, the most interactive of media formats, might seem counterintuitive. But Twitch CEO Emmett Shear says the halcyon days of gaming in the ‘80s and ‘90s were as much about watching as playing. “When you think about what it was like to play video games in the arcade, you put your quarter on the arcade machine and you waited your turn,” he says. “What did you do while you were waiting your turn? You watched the people who were up there playing.”

The popularity of arcades collapsed in the late ‘90s as people began playing competitively online instead of face-to-face. Communal gaming experiences became more rare. But as live streaming via the Interent became more common in the late 2000’s, gamers began using video sites to stream gameplay of PC titles. Shear, a cofounder of Justin.tv, watched an increasing number of StarCraft II streams popping up on the site saw the opportunity to spinoff this emerging usage into its own business. The company debuted Twitch.tv at the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo, the huge annual video game conference in Los Angeles.

In the ensuing two and a half years, Twitch has become the go-to source for live-streaming games. Players use it to watch and broadcast speedruns, a popular competitive format in which people complete games as quickly as possible. Matchups among professional gamers in competitive titles like League of Legends are regularly streamed on the service. And now, thanks to the Pokemon experiment, the emergent field of crowd-sourced gaming is becoming popular with other titles like Super Mario Bros. and Tetris.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 2.26.41 PM
In Twitch Plays Pokemon, users can input commands through a chat window to control the game’s main character

Twitch may have finally figured out how to translate video games into lean-back entertainment, a goal that has eluded the television industry for years. Comcast launched the gaming-focused cable channel G4 in 2002, but it consistently suffered low ratings and cancelled the last of its programs related to video games in 2012. Shear says Twitch’s focus on actual gameplay instead of news and reviews gives it an edge over TV’s offerings. “G4 never actually had video games on it,” he says. “[Twitch] is the best players in the entire world showing off their skills at this game.”

The company won’t say whether its rapid growth has led to profits. Twitch sells both display ads and pre-roll video ads, as well as $4.99-per-month subscriptions for the most popular channels. The company splits the revenue from the ads and subscriptions evenly with broadcasters. Matthew DiPietro, vice president of marketing, says Twitch appeals to advertisers because it attracts millions of tech-savvy young males, a sought-after group that is sometimes hard to reach through traditional channels. “Gamers are a particularly savvy and particularly fickle bunch,” he says. “They tend to be cord cutters. They’re a very valuable demographic for brands but they’re also very hard to reach.” Brands such as Samsung, Unilever and Mountain Dew have advertised on Twitch, in addition to many video game companies.

Twitch is poised to grow even more in 2014 as it expands beyond its PC roots. The PlayStation 4 came equipped with the ability to live stream to Twitch’s website when it launched in November. Twenty percent of Twitch’s broadcasters now stream from the device. The Xbox One added the same functionality this week, just in time for the console’s first big exclusive, the Electronic Arts shooter Titanfall. With hardcore gamers in its pocket, the company is aiming for casual gamers next—last week the company released developer tools which could potentially let people live stream mobile games like Candy Crush Saga and Flappy Bird.

Now that Twitch has proven there’s a large appetite for live games, competitors are starting to swarm the sector. Ustream, a larger competitor that live-streams all kinds of content, can also broadcast from the PS4. YouTube, a hugely popular website for gaming footage, released developer tools last year to make live streaming games easier and recently broadened the number of people who can live stream content.

For now, though, Twitch is available on the most platforms to the widest audience. And it has a passionate user base—Twitch Plays Pokemon, the oddball experiment turned Internet phenomenon, wasn’t developed by Twitch staff but instead by a regular user of the site. “That’s actaully the most exciting thing to me about it,” Shear says. “We built a platform where it’s flexible enough and powerful enough that other people can come up with really cool new things that have never been seen before.”

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Tell (Real) Stories with Video Games

Gaming has evolved from Pong to cinematic worlds. But we can do more: We can play history

Ink Stories

Khonsari is the founder of iNK Stories and the creator of 1979 Revolution, a game based on the Iranian revolution.

TIME Google

Google Snaps Up a Defunct Android Gaming Company

Green Throttle Games, a company that aimed to transform tablets into game consoles, has been partially acquired by Google.

According to PandoDaily, Google will snag some of Green Throttle Games’ employees, including co-founders Matt Crowley and Karl Townsend. Green Throttle’s other co-founder, Charles Huang, will retain the rights to the existing business, which is more or less defunct. Other terms of the detail were undisclosed.

Green Throttle sold a Bluetooth game controller that works with Android devices and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD tablets. The company also offered an app, called Arena, that helped users find and play controller-supported games. The idea was that you’d plug your tablet into a television via HDMI, effectively turning it into a low-end game console.

But in November, Green Throttle gave up on that idea and removed the Arena app from Amazon’s and Google’s stores. The controller is, strangely, still available, but at this point it’s no different than any other Bluetooth Android controller on the market.

There are a few different theories for why Google wanted to acquire Green Throttle’s remnants.

Pando posits that Google could use gaming as an anchor for its own rumored set-top box–an idea we’ve certainly heard before. The acquisition, according to this theory, “revolved around helping enhance its potential controller’s Bluetooth powers.” I’m skeptical of that claim; while I haven’t used Green Throttle’s controller, I’m not aware of anything special about its Bluetooth capabilities.

The Verge, meanwhile, wonders if the acquisition has more to do with talent:

Karl Townsend joins Google having worked on the original Palm Pilot, and Matt Crowley has previously worked at both Nokia and Palm. Combined with Google’s recent purchase of Nest and Boston Dynamics, it’s clear the company is looking at bringing in hardware talent in areas outside of smartphones and web services.

That makes a little more sense, though I’d point out that Nest and Boston Dynamics are both cutting-edge companies that were poised for success even without Google. Nokia, Palm and Green Throttle were all flailing before being pursued by Microsoft, HP and Google, respectively.

So here’s my (completely speculative) theory: With Green Throttle’s “parts and labor,” as Pando put it, Google could finally get serious about controller-based gaming, not just on its own TV set-top box, but on a wide range of devices.

I’ve said before that controller-based Android gaming is sort of a Wild West, with multiple protocols, designs and companies competing to establish themselves as the de facto standard. Google hasn’t contributed much to these efforts, and at the moment doesn’t offer an easy way to find controller-supported games through the Google Play Store. Helping developers add controller support, and helping players find those games, is exactly what Green Throttle did.

Meanwhile, a lot of companies that started selling Android-based microconsoles last year–including Ouya, GameStick and GamePop–are shifting away from hardware-centric business models. Instead of selling a single product, they’re trying to offer a platform for other companies’ televisions and set-top boxes. Perhaps that’s the wiser strategy, but it’s one that Google might have better luck at, due to its considerable resources and existing app store.

Sure, Google already tried and failed once at that strategy with Google TV, but it’s having more success with Chromecast, and plans to eventually bring Chromecast capabilities to more televisions and set-top boxes. It’s not hard to imagine a gaming element down the road (and some Android developers are already toying with the idea). On some level, connecting phones, tablets and televisions is what Green Throttle was trying to do–only Google has managed to remove the wires.

TIME Video Games

Flappy Bird Creator Considers Relaunching the Game — He’s Working On New Games, Too

VIETNAM-SOCIETY-GAMES-INTERNET
The Vietnamese developer behind the smash-hit free game 'Flappy Bird' has pulled his creation from online stores. Hoang Dinh -- AFP / Getty Images

Don't call it a comeback... yet. But if it happens, let's definitely call it a comeback.

Now that Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen has enjoyed a month out of the spotlight, he’s thinking about bringing back his hit game, and releasing some new ones.

Rolling Stone’s David Kushner managed to track down Nguyen in his home town of Hanoi, Vietnam, where he’s been hiding out at a friend’s house and dodging most media requests. And apparently, he’s feeling a lot better now:

Since taking Flappy Bird down, he says he’s felt “relief. I can’t go back to my life before, but I’m good now.” As for the future of his flapper, he’s still turning down offers to purchase the game. Nguyen refuses to compromise his independence. But will Flappy Bird ever fly again? “I’m considering it,” Nguyen says. He’s not working on a new version, but if he ever releases one it will come with a “warning,” he says: “Please take a break.”

Kushner also got a glimpse at a few new games Nguyen is working on, including a cowboy-themed shooter, an “action chess” game and a vertical flying game called Kitty Jetpack. He plans to release one of the games this month.

The entire story is worth a read if you’re obsessed with Flappy Bird and were baffled by its sudden disappearance from the iOS App Store and Google Play. Here’s one more snippet, which explains how Nguyen took a previous game, Shuriken Block, and stripped the idea down further so players didn’t have to look at where they tapped on the screen.

He modeled the game on one of the most masocore analog creations ever: paddleball. The toy was a simple design – just a wooden paddle with a string attached to a rubber ball. But players would be lucky to bounce the ball more than a few times in a row.

Like paddleball, he limited his game to just a couple of elements – the bird and the pipes – and resisted the usual urge to lard the action with new elements as the player progressed. He tuned the physics so that the bird was fighting gravity so strong, even the slightest wrong tap would kill it.

Nguyen didn’t just accidentally make a brilliant game. He iterated until he had something that deserved its viral success.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Need a One-Handed PlayStation 4 Controller? How About for Xbox One?

Imagine all the buttons on one side.

+ READ ARTICLE

According to the Amputee Coalition, the number of people living with limb loss in the United States is nearly two million, and 500 Americans lose a limb every day. While the majority of cases involve lower body amputations, the most common type of amputation according to the National Center for Health Statistics relates to the hands, where loss can involve one or more fingers. That’s followed, in statistical terms, by the loss of one arm.

And that’s just amputations. Many grapple with other forms of physical impairment that limit their ability to use interfaces most of us take for granted, say a gamepad or keyboard and mouse. According to a 2004 IGDA white paper, 48 million people in the U.S. alone identify as “disabled.”

Back when Computer Gaming World was still around, I wrote about an inspiring fellow named Robert Merritt. He had a moderately disabling condition known as hemiplegia, which had paralyzed his right side, right hand and right leg to varying degrees — the result of complications from a surgical procedure performed shortly after his birth to correct a rare heart defect. The surgery induced stroke-like attacks that damaged the left side of his brain and rendered the right side of his body partially immobile. Needless to say, this complicated his relationship with gaming.

A gamer from the age of five (his first experiences was with Magnavox’s Odyssey in 1974) he’d managed to work around the problem over the years by configuring various controllers — joysticks, gamepads, keyboards, multi-button mice and so forth — to allow him to play games like Battlefield, Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic. And not just play these games, but according to him, play them competitively.

At the time, Merritt told me he was against specially adapted controllers, so I’m not sure what he’d make of all these newfangled contraptions gizmo-maker Ben Heckendorn has crafted in recent years, but I’d like to think he’d find Heckendorn’s latest contributions intriguing — like these one-handed versions of gamepads for both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

In short, Heckendorn took both controllers apart, then put them back together with all the buttons on one side, allowing someone to play one-handed (assuming their ability to master managing twice as many buttons with a single paw).

The video up top promotes an upcoming episode of Heck’s show during which he’ll apparently pore over the creation of the PS4 controller in detail, and you can check out the Xbox One controller clip below.

TIME Video Games

Titanfall Launch Didn’t Break the Internet (or Titanfall)

Microsoft

A patch for Titanfall designed to fix Private Lobby wait times is live.

Grand Theft Auto Online‘s launch was a minor mess. So was Final Fantasy XIV‘s when it relaunched on the PlayStation 3 last year. SimCity‘s debut was both a DRM debacle and connectivity catastrophe. Diablo III loosed a parade of “Error 3006″ server connection face-slaps. The list of botched game launches is as long as the list of MMOs released since forever. It’s like that children’s book, Everyone Poops, only for online games.

But Titanfall, Microsoft’s goliath-sized mech combat game that launched for Xbox One and Windows last night? It did pretty well, and continues to do well by most accounts, which, given the hype machine plus the Xbox One’s bumper sales, makes the launch’s relative smoothness something of a minor miracle.

Maybe it’s an audience size thing. The Xbox One’s just getting rolling with an install base a fraction of the Xbox 360’s. (Who said being an early adopter had to be all bad?) Wait for Titanfall‘s Xbox 360 launch in exactly two weeks time. That’ll be the crucible.

That’s not to say everything’s ham and jam: poke around and you’ll find people complaining of connection issues. The folks running the game’s official Twitter account reacted in the wee morning hours:

And Microsoft, whose “Azure” cloud servers are the power behind the throne (and thus in the hot seat here), announced a patch to remedy some of those issues in a note early this morning, writing:

We’re aware that some users may have experienced early issues on PC and Xbox One. We’ve just pushed a patch that’s now recovering servers quickly. Players will load into Private Lobbies much faster and we’re continuing to monitor.

EA confirms this on its official support page for the game, writing, “Things are starting to recover quickly now – you should get onto that Private Lobby server much faster now.”

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Dark Souls 2 Launch Trailer Mocks You, as It Should

What if Dark Souls 2 made a prog rock video?

+ READ ARTICLE

The most important game to hit this side of E3 is out tomorrow, and no, it’s not Titanfall. That’s the launch trailer up top. You know we’re talking about you, Final Fantasy X HD.

Just kidding, though I’m stoked about Square Enix’s high fidelity update, and it is out tomorrow, too.

But you’re here to see the Dark Souls 2 launch trailer, because you’re planning to stand in line somewhere tonight, and come midnight, buy a copy before scurrying home for a sleepless night followed by a workless day spent, err, working your way through a Sisyphean exercise in armchair masochism. Because you can’t wait until April for the Windows version. Because this is Dark Souls 2, and what else are you going to play? Some giant online robot combat game?

Just kidding, Titanfall, you’re pretty terrific yourself. But Respawn and Microsoft are all about the “parkour style wall running” and “massive double jumps” and “Life is better with a Titan” blurbing in this sheet attached to my review copy.

Dark Souls 2? Dark Souls 2 just makes fun of you. “You will die, that much is certain,” says the narrator in the trailer. It’s also just as non sequitur-ish as Dark Souls. If you watch the trailer long enough, you might think you’re in a music video for Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Train,” because you are, which sounds like…well, whatever sound a pair of waterskis sailing over a dorsal fin makes. Though when you stop and think about that song’s lyrics, I’m not sure anything says Dark Souls better.

TIME Video Games

High-Res Hopes: Titanfall Could Hit 1080p with a Patch

Microsoft

Respawn is experimenting with different resolution upgrades.

Part of the reason we can’t have nice things, say intelligent conversations about a game’s visual particulars, is that we’re our own worst enemies. Use the words “Xbox One” and “720p” (or “not 1080p”) in a sentence, for instance, and you might as well be Pavlov ringing his bell. But let’s try anyway, because I know some of you care in the clinically interested sense.

Titanfall, Microsoft’s brightest star for the Xbox One, launching tomorrow, runs at a slightly odd-sounding 792p, or 1408 by 792 pixels, same as the beta. That’s according to visual design descrambler Digital Foundry, which confirmed as much speaking to Titanfall developer Respawn’s lead engineer Richard Baker.

But that’s only where things stand out of the gate: Baker says the studio is still fiddling with the game and trying to ratchet up the visuals for a post-release patch, admitting things could rise as high as 1080p when all’s said and done.

“We’re going to experiment. The target is either 1080p non-anti-aliased or 900p with FXAA,” Baker told DF. “We’re trying to optimise… we don’t want to give up anything for higher res. So far we’re not 100 per cent happy with any of the options, we’re still working on it. For day one it’s not going to change. We’re still looking at it for post-day one. We’re likely to increase resolution after we ship.”

DF does its best to reverse-engineer Baker’s comments and speculates about the bottlenecks, which in this case may be the Xbox One’s ESRAM — not the GPU itself. According to Baker, the challenge now is in trying to get a lot of Titanfall’s particle- and physics-related effects working more in parallel.

That said, I played the beta on a 720p LCD and it looked gorgeous. I’ve been less impressed by the whole rock-em-sock-em, generic future skyscrapers and giant mechs aesthetic, because I’ve seen it done so many times (and better) elsewhere, and nothing about the beta leapt out at me novelty-wise. But I had zero complaints about the performance of the game, or its obvious achievements on the object complexity and distance rendering scale, both leaps and bounds beyond the Xbox 360’s purview.

 

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

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