TIME Video Games

Video Game Music: 2014 GANG Apprentice Award Winner Explains How He Did It

P.J. Tracy, who won GANG's Student/Apprentice audio award at GDC 2014. Tim Feeney

Two decades ago, P.J. Tracy and I crouched in a tiny Minnesota college dorm room -- a pair of music majors marveling at the tunes in SNES games like Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link to the Past, Contra III and, above all others, Super Castlevania IV.

I once aspired to write music for games. This was in 1995, and I’d submitted some sequenced tunes composed on a monstrously heavy 16-track Korg 01/W Pro X workstation to game developer Konami on a whim. The company responded with a letter asking for more, which I sent them, thinking this might be it — my big break. Instead, a few weeks later, I got a “thanks but no thanks” letter. I still have that rejection slip somewhere, typed on Konami letterhead with the company’s trademark orange and red logo.

Instead of swinging for the fences, I detoured to other pastures, but my closest friend then and now — a gifted Minneapolis-based pianist (and former college roommate) named P.J. Tracy who got me to buy that Korg and think about game audio in the first place — made music his vocation. He started off as a performing and session musician (he’s played with members of Prince’s band, Kid Jonny Lang & The Big Band and many others) and went on to do professional audio work for dozens of institutions. In 2008, he won an Emmy for a television spot with Minneapolis’ WCCO-TV (that’s him singing if you click the link). He’s been part of Sonic State’s pro-audio podcast scene for years and he’s had musical works performed at festivals and art centers around the world (including the Magma Arts Festival in Naples, Italy and the Boston Visual Music Marathon).

Last Thursday, March 20, having submitted a piece to a Game Audio Network Guild-judged contest for aspiring video game music composers, he won the guild’s 2014 Student/Apprentice award, hosted by GDC, for a clever little tune designed around a hypothetical 1970s-era sports game. You can listen to the piece below — it’s titled “Downhill! You Dig?” — as well as on his website.

I caught up with him this weekend on his way home from the show to ask him about winning the award.

You’ve been a working musician for almost as long as we’ve known each other. How did you get involved with GANG, and what led you to submit something this year?

Last April, I attended a conference sponsored by the American Composers Forum, of which I’m a member. It was titled “Game On” and covered the topic of composing for video games. On the first evening of the event, I had the privilege of hearing the Alpine Quartet perform some selections from the soundtrack to Red Orchestra 2: Rising Storm, composed by Lennie Moore. It was a very moving experience.

Two days later, I began studying adaptive composition with Lennie. Adaptive composing is the term the industry uses to signify the specialized techniques and methods that are required when writing for and implementing music in a video game.

I had been aware of GANG for some time, but Lennie Moore encouraged me to think about membership, and so I joined GANG last August as an Apprentice member. When Dren McDonald, head of GANG development, announced the Student/Apprentice competition, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been a working composer for many years, and I saw this as a chance to open a door (or at least a small window) into the video game community.

Tell us a little about the piece you wrote, what inspired it and how you went about creating it.

Those who chose to participate in the competition were given a brief for an imaginary game called “70’s Snow Sports!” This was supposed to be a game based on the Winter Olympics, but set in the 1970s. The game would be comprised of a set of mini-games, all of which would be one minute races: skiing, bobsled, speed skating, etc. The player would enter a bonus round that unfolded in 15 second increments if they scored well during the initial race. We were asked to write a one minute track, and a 15 second long looping track for the bonus round, as well as a stinger, which is a short piece that signifies the game has ended. The stinger has to work musically with both the main track and also with the 15 second bonus round piece.

Usually, I would have several conversations with a client to outline what they’re expecting musically. Music must convey the emotion that the developer wants a player to feel, and in a game, it has to dovetail with the gameplay aesthetic.

But GANG left the brief open to interpretation, and so I made the subjective assumption that a game called “70’s Snow Sports!” might be slightly campy, action packed and nostalgic. Given that, I drew upon musical references like Billy Preston, James Brown, game show themes and even the music for the PBS children’s program The Electric Company. I wanted to convey whimsy, humor and a sense of place while still driving the action inherent to this style of game, thus the track name “Downhill! You Dig?”

The GANG awards are probably the biggest audio-related event in gaming-dom. How do you feel about winning the Student/Apprentice award?

The amount of talent and level of professionalism in the game audio space is staggering. I am truly humbled and honored to be recognized by GANG.

What’s your strongest memory of music in a video game that opened your mind to the possibility of composing in this space?

The third level of Castlevania IV on the Super Nintendo! You and I played that game together, and I remember thinking “Wow, that’s some really funky and interesting jazz…and it’s happening in a horror adventure game!” The surreality of that moment stuck with me and made me intensely curious about the compositional possibilities of a medium that’s inherently about experimentation. I believe some of the best and most interesting music over the past 20 years has been video game music.

What are the challenges, in your experience, of composing music for games? Isn’t a central tenet the notion that your compositional grammar has to be almost endlessly broad?

Assuming that, as a composer, you have a strong musical vocabulary and a deep knowledge of current music production techniques, the real challenge is in the various and unique ways music is written for and integrated into a game. Music in many games responds dynamically to a player’s actions within a game.

For instance, if a player is exploring and chances on a handful of enemies, the music will transition to reflect the new danger. And if while fighting those enemies, a massive army appears, or a boss, the music should get bigger and more foreboding to reflect the new peril. The way in which the music reacts to the gameplay has to feel intentional and not pull the player out of the gaming experience. It must also reflect and reinforce what the game designer wants the player to feel — in this case, impending doom!

Game audio and music admiration tend to fall into more of a niche than recognition of graphical prowess, perhaps for the same reasons people identify a movie like Avatar with 3D but couldn’t name the film score’s composer. Do you think it’s this notion that visual technology continues to evolve more dramatically? Where do you see game audio going over the next decade?

I think it’s simple biology. Visual information has a higher priority in the brain. Gameplay is often strongly dependent on visual feedback. However, there are very good blind and visually impaired gamers. I am visually impaired, and consider myself to be a pretty good gamer. That said, most games would be hollow without the incredible audio design and music. Your brain winds up swimming as much in the aural as the visual.

There are many interesting concepts emerging in games. For instance, audio games like Papa Sangre II. These games have no visual component at all, and require the player to navigate vast environments through the use of audio cues. These games are both challenging and incredibly fun!

You’ve had to struggle with some interesting challenges over the course of your career: you can’t drive, and when we were music students, you had to learn classical pieces from recordings instead of reading sheet music.

As I mentioned, I’m visually impaired, but I’ve never let that concept define me or limit my aspirations. I love both composing and performing music, and I’m passionately driven to pushing my own creative and professional boundaries. I often compose for visual media, for instance, and one of the advertisements I wrote the music for wound up winning an Emmy award, so I’ve been very fortunate to be able to transcend what I or others might have expected I’d be capable of.

Are there any composers in this industry of whom you’re a particular fan or that inspired you? Any less well-known composers you feel deserve broader recognition?

Lennie Moore (Rising Storm, Star Wars: The Old Republic) for certain; Koji Kondo, of course (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda); Peter McConnell (most of LucasArts’ catalog); Rod Abernethey (RAGE, Dead Space) and Austin Wintory (the first-ever video game Grammy-nominated Journey score) are all fantastic composers. As far as lesser known composers, Jon Hare (Cannon Fodder, Sensible Soccer), and definitely check out the work of Vancouver-based composer Marcus Zuhr — his work is really great.

What’s your next step after winning this award?

I have a bunch of upcoming shows with my instrumental band, Tortuga!, and I plan on connecting with the new friends I’ve made at GDC, and, hopefully, working with some of them to create amazing and inspiring new gaming experiences.

TIME Virtual Reality

7 Promises Oculus Made After Getting Bought by Facebook

Oculus Rift Facebook
A gamer wears a high-definition virtual reality headset, manufactured by Oculus VR Inc., at the Eurogamer Expo 2013 in London, Sept. 28, 2013. Matthew Lloyd—Bloomberg/Getty Images

If you're wondering how the Reddit community is responding to the Facebook-Oculus news, "with skepticism" would be an understatement.

Maybe you’re upset at Oculus VR and co-founder Palmer Luckey for selling the company to Facebook for $2 billion, but give Luckey credit for at least one thing: He spent hours last night answering questions from distressed Oculus fans on Reddit, and went right back to it this morning.

Most of those comments are being downvoted into obscurity. But a glance through Luckey’s comment history reveals a lot of big promises about Oculus’ future under Facebook. Here are some of the most noteworthy quotes from Luckey’s Reddit Q&A:

“You will not need a Facebook account to use or develop for the Rift.”

This was in response to a user threatening to be “done” with the Rift if certain conditions were not met. Luckey made a similar comment last night, when asked to guarantee that users wouldn’t have to log into their Facebook accounts to use the VR headset. “That would be lame,” he said — and it would surely scare off the developers who are sticking around.

“We are not going to track you, flash ads at you, or do anything invasive.”

In terms of Oculus promising not to adopt any of Facebook’s creepier tendencies, this is probably as clear-cut as it gets. It’s understandable to worry that our virtual behavior could eventually be grist for Facebook’s ad mill, though this would likely cause an even bigger backlash if not handled with extreme caution. Many Redditors are choosing not to believe Luckey’s promises. Time will tell who is right.

“None of our gaming resources will be diverted.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made clear that the ultimate goal is to expand virtual reality beyond gaming, eventually creating “a new communication platform.” This has naturally led some Oculus fans to wonder whether the company’s commitment to gaming will be diminished. Luckey says that won’t be the case, because Oculus now has more resources for gaming than it did before. That includes more money to invest in indie developers. A bigger question is for how long Oculus will stay deeply invested in gaming. Again, there’s no way to know right now.

“We are not going to lock people out because they compete.”

Some gamers and developers are worried that Oculus will require all games to go through an official Facebook ecosystem. That’s not the plan, Luckey said. While Oculus is working on its own app store and launcher for VR games, developers won’t have to use it. “Facebook has no interest in changing that, they believe in what we have been doing all along,” Luckey said.

“Our relationship with the community is not going to change, and we are not going to spy on anyone.”

These are two separate concerns, in response to one Redditor. The first concern is that Oculus will stop being so close to its community and become less relaxed with interviews. The second is that Facebook is just using Oculus to reap user data and spy on users. Luckey, in response, gave his word that “nothing will change for the worse.” (See quote number two above.)

“This deal specifically lets us greatly lower the price of the Rift.”

We don’t know what the price of the finished product would have been, but the latest developer kit costs $350, so presumably the first consumer version will be much cheaper. The news was received warily by the Reddit community, which of course wondered about Facebook’s motives if it’s not looking to profit on hardware. The most likely answer is that Facebook is looking to build up Rift and refine its technology, so that it can eventually be used in mainstream, non-gaming applications. If virtual reality changes communications the same way Facebook did, the opportunities to make money will follow.

“Facebook is going to give us access to massive resources, but let us operate independently on our own vision.”

Luckey repeatedly insisted that Oculus will operate with autonomy, and said Facebook has a good track record for letting acquired companies do so. But the truth isn’t so clear-cut. Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012, operates independently but began sharing user data with Facebook several months after the acquisition. Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is still pending regulatory approval, so it’s far too early to say how independent it will be. In reality, Oculus will be a major test of Facebook’s promised autonomy.

If you’re wondering how the Reddit community is responding to these statements, “with skepticism” would be an understatement. Many commenters seem to think that Oculus has ceded all decision-making to Mark Zuckerberg, and that Luckey’s promises can be overridden with the wave of a hand. That seems a bit extreme, especially since we haven’t seen the full terms of the deal, but the underlying concerns are valid. Luckey has given his word that things will only change for the better. We’ll see what that word is worth over the next few years as Oculus and Facebook build virtual reality together.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

With Remote Play, Nvidia Shield’s Killer PC Game Streaming Hits the Road

Jared Newman for TIME

PC gamers will soon be able to play from anywhere if the connection's fast enough.

Starting next week, Nvidia Shield owners won’t have to be at home to tap into their PC gaming collections.

An update for Nvidia’s gaming handheld, scheduled for April 2, will add Remote GameStream as a beta feature. If you have a good enough Nvidia graphics card and upload/download speeds of at least 5 Mbps, you can stream your PC’s entire game library to Shield over the Internet. Nvidia is also adding wake-on-LAN support and remote login for PCs that have entered sleep mode or require a password.

I’ve been using a Shield and compatible graphics card on loan from Nvidia for about two months now, streaming games to the handheld over my local Wi-Fi network, and it has profoundly changed my gaming habits. Being able to play high-quality PC games on a handheld device means I don’t have to hog the living room television or isolate myself in my office. That means I can sneak in more gaming sessions than I would have otherwise. While performance isn’t flawless — occasionally I’ll have to go to my PC to deal with some windowing error, or restart streaming to clear up some choppiness — it’s usually good enough to play games at a high level of skill. (Here’s a longer review of GameStream that I wrote for PCWorld last month.)

But on the road, Nvidia Shield isn’t as useful. Sure, you can play Android games with it — particularly those that offer controller support — but they’re no replacement for full-blown PC games.

I have my doubts about whether GameStream will run smoothly over a remote connection, but then again, I was originally skeptical of Shield’s in-home streaming as well. And even if remote streaming isn’t flawless, it could still be useful for puzzle or strategy games that don’t require precise timing. I’ll be eager to check out remote streaming next week.

Nvidia is adding a bunch of other GameStream features as part of the update:

  • Bluetooth keyboards and mice will be supported when Shield is plugged into a television via HDMI.
  • Notebook PCs with Nvidia Kepler- and Maxwell-based graphics cards are getting beta support.
  • You can manually add games to GameStream even if they’re not officially supported. (Previously, you had to access unsupported games through Steam Big Picture mode.)
  • You can pair multiple PCs to one Shield.
  • Advanced settings let users adjust bitrates, frames per second and other streaming preferences.
  • USB Y-cable support will let users charge the Shield with one cable while connecting it to Ethernet with another cable.

The Android side of Shield is getting some enhancements as well. A new interface for Nvidia’s TegraZone app will make organization easier, and Nvidia is making some usability improvements to its Gamepad Mapper software, which lets you graft controller support onto touch-based Android games. Nvidia is also updating the Shield to Android 4.4.2 KitKat.

Just to sweeten the deal a little more, Nvidia is cutting the price of Shield to $199 through the end of April, down from $249 previously. It’s still an expensive proposition, especially if you don’t already have the requisite Nvidia graphics card. But it could be a luxury worth having if you’d rather not be tethered to your desk.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Nvidia’s GTX Titan Z Will Do 5K ‘Supercomputer’ Gaming for $3,000

Nvidia

If it had eyes, it'd shoot laser beams that'd probably melt your face off.

Imagine, if you can, an even further souped-up Titan-family Nvidia graphics card that would, in theory, offer radically higher-end performance than the last Titan-family card, launched a little over a year ago. It’s a little like unveiling a jet-fuel-propelled roadster when you already sell some of the world’s fastest cars.

Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announced the new GTX Titan Z today during his company’s annual GPU Technology Conference, describing the card as sporting a pair of Kepler GPUs (Kepler is Nvidia’s codename for its 600- and 700-series of GPUs) with 5,760 processing cores (2,880 per GPU) and 12GB of 7 Gbps GDDR5 memory.

Why in heaven’s name would anyone, anywhere possibly need that sort of gaming power when no single game has (yet) been designed to take advantage of it? Gaming with multiple monitors, or at resolutions up to 5K, according to Nvidia.

That’s right, I typed “5K,” not “4K.” 4K, which is still little more than an interesting idea a long way off from broad consumer adoption, involves playing at ultra-high resolutions in the vicinity of 4096 by 2160 pixels. That’s a doubling of today’s highest-of-high-end mainstream 1080p standard, or 1920 by 1080 pixels.

5K gaming, by contrast, would take you up to something like 5120 by 2700 pixels, which is unprecedented outside elite professional circles. In fact, 5K is one of these resolutions you won’t find much written about, it’s so far-flung from the here and now. It’s perhaps best identified with the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company, which makes extreme high-end digital cinema video cameras used by folks like Peter Jackson. Jackson put The Hobbit together using a bunch of RED Epic cameras to film at 5K, in 3D and at 48 frames per second.

“If you’re in desperate need of a supercomputer that you need to fit under your desk, we have just the card for you,” Jen-Hsun said, according to Reuters.

Add “and you have $3,000 burning a hole in your pocket” to that: the GTX Titan Z will list for the old-school price of an extremely high-end computer unto itself — roughly three times what Nvidia sold the original Titan chip for.

When is it going to be time to lock your wallet in a safe and bury the key somewhere in the backyard without a map? April, looks like.

[Reuters]

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Xbox One Price, Come On Down: Retailers Slashing Titanfall Bundle All Over

Microsoft

Microsoft’s Xbox One is $500. If you’re a gamer you know this, and you also know Sony’s PlayStation 4 is $100 cheaper. That, along with Sony’s availability in a much broader array of territories at the moment, is the most likely reason Sony appears to be creaming Microsoft in international units sold.

Microsoft’s online-only shooter Titanfall could change some of that sales distribution when official figures emerge next month…or then it might not, depending on how well Sony’s Infamous: Second Son does (critically speaking, both games landed in the same ballpark).

But something else could be about to have a significant impact: several U.S. retailers have unceremoniously slashed Microsoft’s already deeply discounted $500 Xbox One Titanfall bundle by $50, taking the system price down to $450 — well into PlayStation 4 territory when you take into the account the triple-A (and otherwise-sold-for-$60) pack-in title. Assuming you want to buy Titanfall as your next-gen platform entry point, we’re talking a total savings of $110. (We’re also talking Nintendo 3DS proportions of price-drop craziness.)

The list below is of retailers participating so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if more follow suit, though as of this posting, the elephant in the room — GameStop — is holding steady on the bundle at $500. I’ll update the list below if others join the promotion.

  • Amazon ($449 plus variable shipping; have to enter “XIAMAZON” discount code at checkout)
  • Best Buy ($449, free shipping; add to cart to see discount price)
  • Target ($449 plus variable shipping; add to cart to see discount price)
  • Walmart ($449 plus variable shipping; add to cart to see discount price)

Microsoft’s own Microsoft Stores are offering “limited time savings” on the Xbox One that correspond to the $449 retailer deals above, though in Microsoft’s case, the deal extends to a Forza 5 bundle that itself would normally sell for $500 (Like Titanfall, Forza 5 standalone is $60).

Why now, when everyone’s assuming the Xbox One should be experiencing a sales renaissance in the wake of Titanfall‘s release? Isn’t a price drop counterintuitive? That’s conventional wisdom, so I’m not sure exactly what’s happening here.

The cynical view would be that privately, Microsoft isn’t happy with Titanfall‘s impact on Xbox One sales and so it’s embracing the cut, if not officially endorsing it beyond its own MS Store promotions. The equally cynical but alternate view would be that Microsoft just wants to ratchet up the margin by which it can claim it whooped Sony’s PS4 when official sales figures emerge next month, thus regaining partial control of the crucial sales popularity narrative.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME

Little By Little, Violent Video Games Make Us More Aggressive

Video Games
Getty Images

New research suggests that hours of exposure to violent media like video games can make kids react in more hostile ways compared to ones who don't spend lots of time controller-in-hand, reigniting the debate about children and gaming

Ever since Columbine, in which two students went on a deadly rampage at their high school, television, movies, and video games have been a popular target for senseless acts of violence. After the shooting, the media pushed the narrative that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s inclinations for violent video games, not to mention metal music and goth subculture, were partly to blame for the horrific incident.

Nearly 15 years later, that hasn’t discouraged teens from playing video games, especially of the violent ilk. Approximately 90% of children in the U.S. play video games, and more than 90% of those games involve mature content that often includes violence. The connection between violent media and aggression has also spawned a body of research that has gone back and forth on the issue.

Worries about how violence in virtual reality might play out in real life have led legislators to propose everything from taxing violent video games to proposing age restrictions on who can buy them. The inconsistent state of the literature was enough to prompt President Obama in 2013 to call for more research into how violent video games may be influencing kids who use them. While there are studies that don’t show a strong influence between violent media and acts of violence, an ever growing body of research does actually support that violent games can make kids act more aggressively in their real-world relationships.

In the latest work to address the question, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, scientists led by Craig Anderson, director of the center for the study of violence at Iowa State University, found hints that violent video games may set kids up to react in more hostile and violent ways.

MORE: Children Who Hear Swear Words on TV Are More Aggressive

Working with 3,034 boys and girls in the third, fourth, seventh, and eighth grades in Singapore, Anderson and his colleagues asked the children three times over a period of two years detailed questions about their video game habits. They were also given standardized questionnaires designed to measure their aggressive behavior and attitudes toward violence.

Overall, the students’ scores on aggressive behavior, as well hostile attitudes and fantasies about violence against others, declined slightly throughout the study. That’s because children tend to act less aggressively as they get older, and learn more mature ways of dealing with conflicts than lashing out.

But a closer look at kids who played more hours of violent video games per week revealed increases in aggressive behavior and violent tendencies, compared to those who played fewer hours a week. When asked if it was okay for a boy to strike a peer if that peer said something negative about him, for example, these kids were more likely to say yes. They also scored higher on measures of hostility, answering that they would to respond with aggressive action when provoked, even accidentally. The more long-term gamers were also more likely to fantasize about hitting someone they didn’t like.

MORE: Violent Video Games Don’t Make Us Less Caring

“What this study does is show that it’s media violence exposure that is teaching children and adolescents to see the world in a more aggressive kind of way,” says Anderson. “It shows very strongly that repeated exposure to violent video games can increase aggression by increasing aggressive thinking.”

Brain imaging studies also hint that exposure to violent gaming may actually temporarily change the brain. In a 2011 study, for example, after a week of daily video gaming, brain scans of a small group of volunteers showed less activity in the regions connected to emotions, attention, and inhibition of impulses compared to participants who played non-violent video games. The effect appeared to be reversible, but the results suggested that extended periods of play could lead to more stable changes in the brain.

Previous studies have suggested that the short-term effects of spiking stress hormones–typical of the fight-or-flight response–can rev up players’ sensitivity to slights or provocations, and that playing violent games can lead to longer-term suppression of empathy. Another recent study purported to find a link between violent video games and racism. Anderson and his team, however, did not see any significant difference in empathy among the players who played more or fewer hours. That confirmed earlier lab-based studies that showed both undergraduates who played violent games and those that played non-violent ones were equally likely to help scientists pick up dropped pens.

MORE: How Playing Violent Video Games May Change the Brain

The evolving literature is why some researchers, including Christopher Ferguson, chair of the psychology department at Stetson University, insist there isn’t strong evidence that exposure to violent video games leads to more aggressive behavior. He notes, for example, that the rise in popularity of video gaming has not been matched by a similar rise in violent crime among adolescents who are most likely to play them. Studies that link violent video games to violent behavior, he says, often fail to account for other factors that can contribute to aggression, such as violence in the home, abuse, and mental illness.

Anderson acknowledges that his own study isn’t perfect, and that it’s not likely to be the last word on this controversial topic. While he used measures of aggressive behavior and violent thinking that are well-established scientific tests, these required the children to report on their own actions and attitudes, which isn’t always as reliable or as consistent as an objective measure.

The fine point of this continued debate, though, is that not all players of violent video games are destined to commit violent crimes. What studies like this highlight is the need for a more nuanced picture of the tipping point between violent games and violence, and a better understanding of how the virtual influences regulate real-life behavior.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Retail

This Is Walmart’s 5-Step Plan to Conquer Absolutely Everything

Wal-Mart
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The world's largest retailer is implementing new tools, policies, sales, and retail formats that target and step up the competition. Among them are more dollar stores and the ability of customers to trade in their used video games for gift cards

GameStop, 7-Eleven, Dollar General, CVS, Target, Home Depot, and Food Lion are among the many, many retailers that have new reason to worry about competing with Walmart.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, prides itself on selling pretty much anything a consumer needs or wants. That means that Walmart essentially competes with almost every retailer under the sun. Lately, Walmart has been rolling out new tools, policies, sales, and retail formats that target and step up the competition with these store categories in particular:

Video Game Stores
This week, thousands of Walmart stores will start allowing customers to trade in used video games. Instead of turning in the games for cash, customers will receive Walmart gift cards which, depending on a game, could be worth anywhere from a couple bucks to $35. Understandably, analysts view Walmart’s program as a major threat to video game specialists like GameStop, as well as general electronics retailers such as Best Buy—both of which already offer video game exchanges.

Supermarkets, All-Purpose Retailers
Walmart has had a price-matching policy in place for years, in which the onus is on the shopper to ask a store clerk to match a Walmart competitor’s sale price of an item. While the burden is still on the shopper to proactively seek a price match, Walmart has made the job easier (in theory) by launching a new online “Savings Catcher” tool in select markets. Customers are expected to type in their receipt numbers into the “Savings Catcher” page of a walmart.com account within seven days of purchase. The tool then compares prices for all grocery items with brick-and-mortar competitors in the local vicinity, possibly including Target, Dollar General, CVS, and a wide range of grocery chains. As the Associated Press explained, online prices are not searched or matched, and electronics and general merchandise aren’t factored in either.

Convenience Stores
Last Wednesday, Walmart opened its first Kwik-E-Mart. Or rather, it opened Walmart To Go, a new convenience store pilot concept near the company’s Arkansas headquarters that’s about the size of a 7-Eleven, with similar offerings to boot: It’s roughly 2,500 square feet, it features a gas station, and it’s selling snacks, drinks, prepared foods (deli sandwiches, pizza), and a few staples such as milk, bread, and eggs.

(MORE: Walmart’s Big Push to Go Small and Destroy Your Neighborhood Dollar Store)

Dollar Stores
Earlier this year, Walmart announced it was significantly stepping up plans to open more Walmart Express and Walmart Neighborhood Market stores, which are far smaller than a Walmart Super Center, though still much larger than a convenience store. In other words, they’re about the size of a typical dollar store—the category that Walmart hopes to battle it out with via these two emerging retail formats.

Home Improvement Stores
Springtime is a peak sales period for Lowe’s and Home Depot, as the long winter comes to a close and homeowners finally have the opportunity to tackle yard projects in anticipation of summer. Walmart, which has blamed this year’s cold, snowy winter as one of the reasons sales totals have underwhelmed in early 2014, is obviously encroaching on the home improvement category’s turf by kicking off the season with a huge lawn and garden sale this week.

TIME Video Games

‘Obama Plays Titanfall’ Is a Thing and It’s Pretty Incredible

For the record, I want to live in a world where the president -- regardless of who's in office -- plays multiplayer first-person shooters in order to raise awareness for some sort of cause, push some sort of agenda or curry favor for votes.

If you saw President Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, you might be forgiven for thinking the leader of the free world has also been playing Titanfall with the username “HealthcareGov” in order to remind the uninsured Titanfall-playing demographic (probably similar to the demographic that watches Beyond Two Ferns) to sign up for health care by March 31.

Once the pseudo-president drops a few F-bombs and talking about aliens emerging from his anus, however, all bets are off. Unless it’s really Obama, in which case he’s taking campaigning to an entirely new level.

Here are the first three videos in the “Obama Plays Titanfall” series by Game Society Pimps. As mentioned, there’s some salty language.

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Someone’s Pretending To Be Obama While Playing Titanfall [Kotaku]

TIME Video Games

Assassin’s Creed Unity Has Guillotines, Ramparts and One Gorgeous Cathedral

Ubisoft

The Assassin's Creed series is heading home at last.

If Ubisoft keeps up this pace, it’ll be vying with Call of Duty for the “most flogged franchise” cup. The next Assassin’s Creed exists, it’s called Assassin’s Creed: Unity and it’ll be here later this year. That’s right, 2014: a year on from Black Flag, which arrived last October.

Not that I have a problem with flogging a good franchise, which, on balance, the Assassin’s Creed games remain. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was arguably the most satisfying launch title for either the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.

Where the last two games were staged in the Americas, Unity (if I’m counting right, it’ll be the 7th main series installment and 16th overall) will transpire in revolutionary France. That has additional resonance because France is Ubisoft HQ — Montreuil-sous-Bois, just east of Paris, to be precise.

The company says the game will be for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows only, and that it’s been working on it for “more than three years.” That’s roughly the amount of time Black Flag had been in the hopper when we first learned of it in early 2013. The company’s said it’s been able to keep these games rolling annually (without design sacrifices — they’re sprawling) because it has multiple studios working on different Assassin’s Creed titles simultaneously.

The video below doesn’t tell us much: The game’s obviously going to focus on the French Revolution, so late 18th century, perhaps early 19th, though who knows the total span. Prior installments, namely Assassin’s Creed III, have covered dozens of years and involved multiple generations of assassins. There’s certainly enough material in this period and geopolitical sphere (imagine all the potential in Napoleonic France and the Corsican’s eponymous wars) to sustain a franchise unto itself. I assume “unity” relates to the contemporaneous motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and with any luck, we’ll see Ubisoft exploring the many, many socio-economic and political paradoxes of the period, too.

The teaser sequence shown below is all rendered in-game, says Ubisoft — it’s certainly gorgeous, despite claims that it’s “alpha” footage. Full, somewhat embarrassing disclosure: as the camera rounds on a certain flying-buttressed cathedral along a certain illustrious river, I couldn’t help but hear Paul Kandel singing what he sings in a certain 1996 Disney movie. (Thanks for that, Alan Menken.)

TIME Television

Sony and Microsoft Are in New Kind of Break-Neck Race

Customers buy Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.'s PlayStation 4 video game console box during the launch event in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 17, 2013.
SeongJoon Cho—Bloomberg/Getty Images

It’s been a while since video game consoles were just about video games. Sony’s PlayStation 2 was initially a hot seller partially because it came equipped with a DVD player in the early days of that technology. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 offered a wide range of distractions besides games thanks to digital stores for movies and native apps for services such as Netflix and HBO Go. The next step in the transformation of the game console into an entertainment center? Original TV shows made exclusively for your Xbox or PlayStation.

Both Sony and Microsoft are prepping original programming for their newly launched PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles. On Wednesday Sony revealed that it is developing an hour-long supernatural drama series called “Powers” that will air on the PlayStation Network, the service that PS3 and PS4 owners use to play games online and stream video content. That’s in addition to the Internet-based TV service Sony has planned that will feature live programming from cable networks. The company didn’t disclose whether the new show would be bundled with the pay-TV service but cast them as independent initiatives.

Sony is actually playing catch-up to Microsoft, though. The software giant launched Xbox Entertainment Studios in 2012, a production outfit helmed by former CBS executive Nancy Tellem that will make television-like programming for the console. The marquee project is a live-action series based on the popular Halo video game franchise that will be produced by Steven Spielberg. Other shows in the works include a documentary about the video game industry crash of 1983, a reality series about urban soccer leagues and a show based on the life of rapper Nas, according to Deadline.

For these tech giants, expanding consoles’ functionality beyond video games is a necessity in a world of multi-purpose devices. Gadgets that serve a single purpose (like Nintendo’s poorly performing Wii U console, for instance) no longer appeal as much to consumers, says Brian Blau, research director in consumer technologies at Gartner. “They have to show value in many different arenas,” he says.

Even without original shows, consoles have already proven formidable entertainment hubs. Microsoft revealed years ago that gamers spend more time streaming video content like Netflix and ESPN than playing Xbox games online. Ten percent of all digital movie rentals and purchases were made through Xbox consoles in 2013, according to research firm IHS Screen Digest. The PS3 has also been successful beyond gaming, with its users spending 17 million hours per week using entertainment apps on the console. It’s the most popular device for streaming Netflix to the TV, at times even eclipsing Netflix usage on the PC. “The game consoles have both been significant players in the rise of [Internet-based] video consumption,” says Dan Cryan, the research director for digital media at IHS Screen Digest.

Strong original content will only heighten the appeal of the consoles to casual gamers seeking a versatile entertainment device. Though the shows announced so far skew heavily toward the young male demographic typically associated with PlayStation and Xbox, Blau predicts the companies will craft content with a wider appeal as their consoles hit cheaper price points. “They really want to bring in a wider portion of the family in front of the television and even get some of the non-gamers in the family to pick up the controller,” he says.

Still, it’s not clear whether Microsoft and Sony will be able to craft shows that can compete with the glut of online video content coming from the likes of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Google. Sony already has huge production studios that have made hit TV shows like Breaking Bad. But analysts say the company has had trouble creating synergy between its Hollywood studios and its consumer electronics divisions in the past. Microsoft has little background in television, but neither did Netflix before it spent hundreds of millions of dollars to commission critical hits like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. Microsoft strong-armed its way into the gaming industry by buying up talent and racking up huge monetary losses—it could do the same to establish itself as a player in television content.

Even as the giants of gaming are expanding to video, though, other tech companies are eyeing their video game turf. Amazon acquired the game developer Double Helix in February, perhaps to provide content for the company’s upcoming set-top box. Rumors persist that Apple is prepping a new Apple TV device that will include an app store for video games, and last year the Wall Street Journal reported that Google was developing a video game console running on its Android operating system.

The basic functionality of living room gadgets from all tech companies is likely to look increasingly similar in the coming years. That will heighten the importance of exclusive content—be it a hit video game or a popular television show—to stand out from the crowd. “These devices are now acting as effectively entry points for a smorgasbord of entertainment,” Cryan says. “The more value you add to that, the more people will use them and the more appealing they become.”

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

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