TIME Video Games

GameStop CEO Paul Raines: ‘You Won’t See Us Involved in the Creative Process’

Final GameStop logo
GameStop

GameStop's CEO explains what the company's up to in the games development and exclusive content space, and why he thinks gamers will continue to buy a certain amount of digital content through retail stores.

Games retail behemoth GameStop stirred the waters this week when an investor note from R.W. Baird analyst Colin Sebastian revealed the company was considering funding game development in trade for exclusive content through its retail ecosystem. The presumption by the company’s critics: giant corporate retailers shouldn’t muck about in artistic mediums.

GameStop has nearly 6,500 stores worldwide, making it one of the largest retailers on the planet by any measure. And in recent years, as digital sales have grown, it’s been a target for critics who view its brick-and-mortar buy-sell model as terminal at some point. You can’t trade in content you don’t physically own, after all, and at some point (though some of this is up in the air, legally speaking) all we’re likely to “own” are 1’s and 0’s stored on a platter or integrated circuit.

I spoke with GameStop CEO Paul Raines by phone on Tuesday. Here’s what he told me about the company’s plans to tinker with game development and what he calls “GameStop 3.0.”

I used to work for you guys, you know, long, long ago.

I heard that.

Back when the company was Neostar, and much smaller.

Oh man, you go way back. You know who was on the board of the company at that time? A little trivia, Mitt Romney was on the board of Neostar back then, believe it or not.

Wait, really?

Yeah, our founders, Dan DeMatteo and Dick Fontaine, you probably know who they are, when they first came to Dallas, Len Riggio bought Neostar out of bankruptcy and it was a Bain Capital company. And apparently Mitt was on the board.

I didn’t know that. I was at Grapevine for the manager’s conference in 1996, the year they were going through all that, you know, chapter 11, then worries about chapter 7, and then Len stepping in to pick up what was left.

The history of the company, a lot of people don’t know it, but people say to us today, you’re moving so fast on all of these changes, and I go “I think the company’s history is kind of filled with rapid change. It’s a little bit in our DNA.”

You’ve done a lot of interesting things over the years. I happen to be in the state, right down the street in fact, from the company you purchased Impulse from just a few years ago — Brad Wardell and Stardock.

Tell him we said hello. It was a great acquisition, we picked up some great team members and technology. It’s funny though, at the time, we perceived there to be these barriers to entry into a series of different kinds of gaming technologies. But once we acquired some of that technology, we found a lot of people interested in distributing with us. That goes back to GameStop Digital Ventures, $100 million we earmarked for marketing and advertising back in probably 2009-ish, which was when we started that process.

Speaking of, I remember the company back in 1996 bringing in these arcade-style demo units that were essentially skiing games, but that you were supposed to control with brainwaves by putting something on your head and “thinking” left or right to make the onscreen skier go in the corresponding direction. It was bizarre.

[Laughs] Wow, no, I missed that. Well, we’re not afraid to try stuff, that’s for sure.

Can you comment on this story making the rounds by way of investment company R.W. Baird and analyst Colin Sebastian about GameStop getting involved in game development early in the process for the sake of creating GameStop-exclusive content?

I think there’s a few things we could talk about, and we’re always in conversations with publishers so we can’t share everything. But I guess the first point I would make is that we’ve been in the exclusive content business for a while, if you consider that we’re always seeking exclusive gameplay items, levels, weapons and so forth.

Remember Call of Duty: World at War, where we had that, I think it was a level 20 M1 Garand rifle, and you would get that item if you bought the game at GameStop? If you remember that year, we drove 90 percent of the growth of that title year-over-year. A lot of it had to do with that exclusive. And so publishers have always participated with us on exclusives whether that be different levels, skins for characters and so forth. I would say exclusivity is attractive to us and also to publishers. That’s always been a little bit of that in the DNA.

The other point I would make, is that through our Kongregate digital casual games platform, we’ve been publishing mobile games for about a year-and-a-half. We’ve been fairly successful, we have probably eight to 10 games on the iOS App Store and Google Play store today. So we’re in the publishing business on the mobile side, and you’ll see us be aggressive on that side going forward.

As far as getting into development, we’re an organization that’s all about gaming, and our publishers of course see the kinds of advantages we bring with PowerUp Rewards [GameStop’s purchase-related customer rewards program], having 34 million members around the world, and our store footprint and our online presence and so forth. Our market share continues to grow, and that’s because gamers prefer to buy from GameStop for a lot of different reasons. When you think about the business of gaming and the cost of developing games, we think there’s an opportunity to put capital at risk with publishers and developers in exchange for exclusive content that would be distributed through our online platforms, in stores, our download business, et cetera.

So you can imagine that’s a long lead time process, and our discussions that we’ve been having and will continue to have revolve around how we could participate in some of the activity around funding or putting games at risk. It’s very early on, but I do foresee a world where we can help facilitate great content. The upside for developers will be much stronger guarantees around distribution and audience with our loyalty program and so forth.

But there’s been backlash against the notion of you — of a giant corporate retailer — getting involved in the development process. What would you tell someone who thinks getting involved in the creative process isn’t something a company like GameStop ought to be doing?

I think it’s pretty clear to me, and that’s that you won’t see us involved in the creative process. That’s not something we do well. We love to play games, and unlike our competitors all we do is gaming. But we will not be involved in the artistic or creative process. That’s not really our domain.

What we do think though is that capital for this industry is always challenging, and has been through the decline of the console cycle. So we’ve made strategic investments in ImpulseDriven.com and Kongregate.com and BuyMyTronics.com. And with Kongregate we’re already funding developers.

So all we’re talking about is extending that capital and distribution skill-set into the console publishing and development space. But I don’t think that involves any creative controls or influence at all. I think we’d be foolish to tell developers how to develop games or publishers how to bring product to market. That’s what they do extremely well. What we’ll do well is put capital at risk and help distribute and connect with PowerUp Rewards customers. That’s really the extent of what we’re talking about. I think the day you see us in the creative side is when you can tell me we’ve officially lost our minds.

When we talk to developers in the mobile space, one of the biggest challenges for the industry, and I would say this is probably true of console as well, is connecting with customers. You’ve got this huge barrier of distribution and publishing and how do you get to the people who want to play your games. We play a lot of indie games here, trying to find interesting ideas and concepts, and I see some great games that never get published or distributed because of the cost associated with it. So we kind of feel like it’s a little bit of an emancipation of the development community if we can find a way to connect them directly with customers.

NPD Group reported in May that roughly half of $1.5 billion spent on games was for digital content. There’s some question about the accuracy of digital sales estimates, of course, but what’s your reaction to the narrative that this shift toward digital distribution threatens GameStop’s longevity?

As far as NPD data, the NPD physical data is point-of-sales based, it’s real sales data coming from resellers. Digital data, as I understand it, is survey panel data, so I’d be cautious with those estimates.

But having said that, there’s no question there’s a lot of digital gaming out there. In fact we sold last year $730 million dollars or so of digital content gaming, PC and console. We understand digital gaming and think it’s good for GameStop. Our business in the digital side is mostly console, and most of the console business is DLC. We just had a huge launch of Watch Dogs, and about 30 percent of all copies sold had digital content attached to them. So we like the growth of digital.

I also think interesting numbers are floating around out there. I don’t know if you saw recently, but Microsoft revealed that 40 percent of their digital sales happen at retail. And of course we’re going to be the biggest player at retail, and we believe our digital market share is pretty close to our physical market share. There’s not great data around that yet, but we’re clearly playing a big role in digital sales. We create an entertainment destination for consumers to come buy content. When we do a midnight launch, people come to buy digital content to go with their physical content, and it’s easy to find the digital content in our stores.

Second, you have trade credits. The GameStop buy-sell trade model funds the sale of new product. That new product includes digital content. Last year, there were over $1 billion of trade credits given to consumers at GameStop. 70% of the time those trade credits go to a new sale, and a lot of that is digital.

Third, we have PowerUp Rewards. People want their PowerUp Rewards points, they want that on their account, and to be able to use that account to buy cool stuff. So all of those things — including Kongregate and our PC digital downloads business, which is doing very well — make us pretty bullish about digital sales.

What about PC game sales? There was this moment when you picked up Impulse in 2011, that I think a lot of people thought you were going to square off with Valve and Steam. What happened?

There was a day here, years ago, where we saw ourselves as on opposite sides of the sale of PC content. If we couldn’t sell it, we were competing with people who were selling downloads.

But the new GameStop is more of a collaborative approach. So we’ve been in a relationship with Steam, we’ve been selling Steam digital currency probably for the last two-and-a-half years, and we’ve been very successful. In fact I think we sell Steam currency in all 15 countries that we’re in.

We of course sell our own downloads on our website, but we also carry EA’s Origin games as well as Ubisoft’s PC downloads. So I would say we changed our philosophy a couple years ago from trying to compete with PC developers and publishers to being more of a distributor and collaborator, you know, how can we make your PC business bigger, how can we leverage PowerUp Rewards and trade credits to grow your business with us. So we’re very bullish on PC.

Back in April you unveiled what you called GameStop 3.0, which seems pretty clearly like a product leveraging move given industry inevitabilities, even if you assume a certain contingent of consumers are going to buy digital at retail. And since those other products – – AT&T, Apple and so forth — don’t involve games, is there a point at which you might have to stop calling yourself GameStop?

I would leave the name question for the last priority, because our name is iconic with people and I don’t know that we’ll ever change that. But certainly with GameStop 3.0, we’re describing old GameStop through about 2007 as GameStop 1.0, and that’s that physical console business you’re familiar with. GameStop 2.0 I think was when we were diversifying our gaming concepts, so the acquisition of Impulse, the acquisition of Kongregate, Jolt Gaming, BuyMyTronics, all those things were efforts at expanding into digital gaming and other forms of gaming. With $730 million of revenue last year I think we’ve been successful with that.

There are some things we could have done better. You know, our Spawn Labs investment on streaming, we announced that we were closing that. We still own the patents, but we just couldn’t find a consumer model that worked. But if and when streaming becomes interesting like on PlayStation Now, we will sell that and distribute it.

GameStop 3.0 is when we looked around starting about a year ago and said “Okay, we’re going to be strong in gaming for a long time, the console cycle is going to recover and grow, what other areas do we have skills for?” And as we looked at the world, we said “We’re pretty good on real estate. We’re pretty good on human talent. We have this incredible buy-sell trade business that works in gaming, and we’ve discovered it works in phones and tablets, and probably other wearable devices. We have this PowerUp Rewards program that’s 34 million members strong, and are there other products these customers might want from us? And then we’re a very low debt, strong balance sheet.”

So as we looked around, we saw that the Apple ecosystem was very interesting, and we went to Apple and had a conversation around how could support their efforts to build distribution. We discovered there aren’t a lot of Apple dealers in rural markets. Apple has stores in big cities, but nothing, say, in Lubbock, Texas. All there were were big boxes. So we acquired SimplyMac, and we’re building out SimplyMac as a secondary market Apple dealer with full support from Apple.

And then we continued looking and got into the wireless space. The wireless space has both postpaid and prepaid models. We approached AT&T and were fortunate to sign an exclusive agreement with AT&T. So we, today, are the third biggest dealer of AT&T stores in the U.S. And we’re also one of the fastest growing Cricket prepaid dealers. We’ve got great people, we’re flipping leases of GameStop stores into phone stores, we’re bringing associates over from the gaming space there.

The bottom line is, we’re trying to redefine ourselves as a family of specialty retail brands to make the most popular technologies affordable and simple. I don’t know that it’s been attempted in electronics, but that’s what we’re trying to do.

TIME Video Games

Microsoft Is Paying Xbox 360 Owners to Buy an Xbox One

Microsoft

A Canadian gamer booted up an Xbox 360 games console and unearthed a $75 surprise.

How much would it take to get you off your duff and over to your local game depot to pluck an Xbox One off the shelf? $5? $25? $50?

How about $75? That’s how much NeoGAF poster BeforeU discovered Microsoft was offering to incentivize Xbox 360 owners to pick up an Xbox One, effectively reducing the regularly $400 system’s price tag — assuming you plan to buy games or peripherals immediately — to $325.

The message, says BeforeU, appeared after powering up an Xbox 360, and reads:

Thanks for being an Xbox fan. Hi [blanked out]. As our way of saying thanks we’re giving YOU, one of our very best customers, an exclusive $75 Xbox promotional code with the purchase of any Xbox One or Xbox One Bundle from Microsoft Store or your local retailer. Your code can be used for games, add-ons, movies, and more!

The ad then redirects viewers to http://www.xbox.com/xboxoneconsole to “learn more.”

Users must purchase and activate a new Xbox One console (with or without Kinect) from July 7 at 12:00am PT through July 31 at 11:59pm PT. Microsoft says the $75 promotional credit will be sent to the Xbox One console’s message center direct by August 15, and then you have until October 15, 2014 to redeem it and October 14, 2015 to spend it.

User BeforeU is in Canada and already has an Xbox One, but the promotional fine print indicates the deal is valid in “the 50 U.S. & D.C.” TIME reached out to Microsoft for clarification, and the company confirmed the promotion is in fact valid and not a hoax. Per a Microsoft spokesperson:

This short-term promotion is offered to select Xbox fans in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. We are always looking for opportunities to bring promotions like this to our customers, but we have nothing further to share at this time.

TIME

Lindsay Lohan Should Win Her GTA Lawsuit

Lindsay Lohan in 2007; Lacey Jonas in 2014
Clark Samuels—Startraks; Rockstar Lindsay Lohan in 2007; Lacey Jonas in 2014

I'm no legal expert, but I know my tabloid stars, and I see the evidence that Grand Theft Auto's Lacey Jonas shares some Lohan DNA

I don’t think anyone in their right mind would suggest that the lawsuit Lindsay Lohan filed last week against the makers of Grand Theft Auto isn’t annoying. Yes, it would be nice if Lindsay would go back to being an actual movie star, rather than wasting precious time insisting that her “unequivocal” similarity to Lacey Jonas, a minor character in Grand Theft Auto 5, entitles her to compensation. And yes it would be nice if this weren’t Lohan’s third similar lawsuit. But the fact is, like her or not, the 28-year-old actress/docu-drama subject/paparazzi bait might in fact have a bare, slightly bruised leg to stand on.

Lindsay Lohan is not someone you’d want taking care of your grandmother or even your guppy. But that’s not what’s in question here. What is—put so well in Forbes by intellectual property attorney Kim Landsman—is this: “How recognizable is Lindsay Lohan as the Lacey Jonas character? Would it be recognized specifically as her or as a generic, blond, bimbo actress?” It seems to me that the answers are a. very and b. yes.

Obviously there’s the fact that the hotel in the game, Gentry Manor, brings to mind Chateau Marmont, a place Lindsay has frequented. Then there’s the whole running away from the paparazzi thing that’s pretty Lilo-esque. But let’s get to the stuff that’s more exclusively her. First of all, Lacey’s voice. The way that she makes a declarative, despairing statement “This is a disaster!” and then rambles “Oh my God, I’m so f—ing fat. Oh my God! They cannot get a shot of me!” and then throws out a generally desperate and kind of unanswerable question “How’s my hair? Do I look cute?” Sorry, Rockstar — that is not a “generic” voice, or “generic” speech patterns. No one else sort of wails at the end of everything she says quite like Lohan. And if you don’t know what I mean, please enjoy this clip of Lohan on her reality show upbraiding her assistant for not getting her new keys made fast enough.

Then there are the outfits, which Lacey wears not only in the game but also in promotional material, that the lawsuit mentions explicitly and at great length as being Lohann-y. If I were the Lohan legal team I would forget about the stuff that sort of looks like Lohan would wear it — Lohan did not invent or perfect the short-short, high-heels, 800-necklace look — and concentrate instead on the image for Grand Theft Auto’s cover, which is a blonde model in a bikini giving the peace sign and taking a selfie. Model Shelby Welinder posed for the ads in 2012, but the Lohan photo that looks EXACTLY like it was taken in 2007. Also, if you said to three million people, “Hey, you know that picture of a blonde chick taking a selfie and giving the peace sign, in a bikini? Who is she?” two million of them would say “What?” but the other million would say “Lindsay Lohan,” and the number of people saying, ‘Oh, isn’t that Shelby Welinder?” well, that would be zero.

Finally, there’s Lacey’s personality. She’s demanding, yelling to the poor motorcycle racing protagonist she’s forced into giving her a ride “Go faster! Go faster.” But demanding is pretty basic. Lacey could just as well be channeling Mariah Carey. Or even Katherine Heigl, if Heigl weren’t more of a stay-at-home complainer, with no personality to rip off. If demanding is too broad a category to make GTA 5’s work “unequivocally” Lohan-inspired, then there’s the arrogance: Lacey shouts “I’m really famous!” and is generally appalled that the motorcyclist doesn’t know who she is. Only a few actors have been caught pulling the fame card, Lindsay among them. (Lindsay’s mother Dina even asked someone “Do you know who I am?”)

Lindsay Lohan might not be the classiest person around, but she’s special in other ways. Not everyone can say theyowe the Chateau Marmont $46,000. Not everyone can claim to be America’s sweetheart and then run over it all with a limo. And not everyone can lie to Oprah. There is only one Lindsay, and surely, at this point, she’s at least got a right to that.

Sarah Miller writes for NewYorker.com and The Hairpin, among other outlets, and has published two novels, Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl.

TIME technology

Here Comes the Sharknado Video Game You Secretly Kind of Wanted

NBCUniversal / AP

It was really only a matter of time

On July 30, viewers will be treated to (or, depending on your perspective, tortured with) a sequel to Sharknado, the “exquisitely ridiculous” Syfy movie that took social media by storm in 2013. To accompany the release of Sharknado 2, we’re also getting a video game. It will be released sometime before the movie’s premiere, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The game, which will be available for the iPad, iPhone and iPod, will allow users to race through New York City, fending off sharks with the help of chainsaws. Laugh all you want, but you know that sounds like fun.

TIME Video Games

2K Announces Battleborn, But Do We Need Another MOBA?

To be fair, it may be the first first-person cooperative shooter MOBA on the block.

World, meet the vaguely-named new shooter (kind-of-sort-of) from publisher 2K and Borderlands creator Gearbox Software, Battleborn. Battleborn, meet your nomenclature-cynical readership.

What’s in a name? To be fair not much when it comes to this sort of thing. It’s the alliterative front, the epitome of anodyne label, the rolls-off-the-tongue-like-a-sugar-pellet fishhook you quickly forget once you’re playing the thing. So let’s forgive Gearbox its lapse in titular creativity and focus on what they’re promising Battleborn is and might do.

For starters, and I apologize if this makes you want to close you browser’s view tab, it’s a MOBA, or multiplayer online battle arena, which is the somewhat superfluous cool-kids way of referring to a real-time strategy game with action-angled house rules.

Gearbox calls it a “hero-shooter,” and that’s the twist: that it’s a cooperative shooter which Gearbox boldly proclaims will offer “an experience unlike anything you’ve played before.” Given the track record for such multiple-times-daily claims, I highly doubt that, but there you have it.

Here’s the narrative summary, which could really be any narrative summary:

Set in a distant future, the only hope for the last star in a dying universe is a new breed of warriors who must put aside their differences to drive back an unstoppable menace. Players choose from a myriad of powerful heroes and fight together alongside their friends in a narrative-driven co-operative campaign, or battle against them in fast-paced competitive multiplayer matches.

If you want a smidgen more, Game Informer has the exclusive reveal, else there’s some stylish prancing and leaping around to think deeply about in the reveal trailer above.

TIME Video Games

PlayStation 4, PC Lead Development in European ‘State of the Industry’ Report

PC and mobile games lead all once again, while Sony's PlayStation 4 is the development platform of choice by a notable margin.

The annual GDC Europe meetup is nearly here — it transpires in Cologne, Germany in early August — and in advance, Game Developers Conference Europe just released a boatload of demographic development information about who’s doing what with PC, mobile and console games looking down the road.

The results come from the UBM Tech Game Network-run show’s second annual European State of the Industry Survey, and indicate — no great surprise here — that PC and mobile remain the platforms of choice across the pond. Mobile edges out PC development slightly, with 65 percent of respondents indicating they’re working on a mobile title versus 58 percent on PC. Those percentages are reportedly higher than last year, which GDC Europe says suggests European developers are more focused on PC and mobile than in North America (again, not surprisingly, given PC gaming’s strong and sustained historical presence in Europe).

Switching to consoles, the survey has the PlayStation 4 leading for the second time consecutively, with 18 percent indicating they were working on PS4 titles (versus 13 percent for Xbox One). Furthermore, 33 percent of respondents expect their next game to be a PS4 project, versus 23 percent for Xbox One.

How many European developers plan to crowdfund their next project? “A startling 41 percent,” says GDC Europe — up from 10 percent currently. This, despite legal barriers in Europe that the group says “makes it trickier to crowdfund.”

And the winner of the annual “best place to build your development empire” poll? Sweden, according to the survey, home to Minecraft, the Battlefield games, Paradox Interactive’s sprawling history-minded strategy titles, and of course, Goat Simulator.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

 

TIME Video Games

Here Are the 15 Best Games of 2014 (So Far)

As we slide pass the year's halfway mark, let's glance back at some of the strongest games to grace 2014 so far.

With E3 in our rearview mirrors, everyone’s laser-locked on up-and-comers like Destiny, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Grand Theft Auto V remastered this holiday, but 2014’s been a pretty solid year for gaming so far. Here’s our list of picks so far.

  • Bravely Default

    So what if it’s basically Final Fantasy V reimagined, or that the game’s latter half has serious shortcomings if you’re not a fan of repetitive filler? Bravely Default stands as a love letter to fans of fantasy games that eschew restrictive D&D-style class systems and make no apologies for combat mechanics that unfurl turn by turn, though in Bravely Default‘s case, the latter design vamp seems novel enough: a hedging system, whereby you can either save or deficit spend battle points against enemies.

    Nintendo 3DS

  • Child of Light

    Ubisoft’s budget-priced side-scrolling fable — told using poetic stanzas — riffs on roleplaying tropes while serving up an evocative, hand-drawn fantasy pastiche with traces of Yoshitaka Amano and Hayao Miyazaki. It’s an experience that deftly melds its painstakingly painting-like environs and allegorical fable-inspired narrative to a first-rate battle system: one unapologetically inspired by Final Fantasy-style roleplaying games, but with its own hidden depths and wrinkles.

    PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, PS Vita

  • Dark Souls 2

    Does it matter whether Dark Souls 2 is the greater (or lesser) Dark Souls? It shouldn’t — not when it’s this good. Series newcomers Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura recapture most of what makes Dark Souls feel like a Dark Souls, scaffolding to foundation, the world swathed in plaintive John Barry-ish piano strains, melancholy lighting and baffling alien architecture. Ironically risk-averse, the sequel plays like an extended version of the original moody hack-and-slash.

    PC, PS3, Xbox 360

  • Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

    Everything’s lovably off-kilter and kaleidoscopic in Nintendo’s throwback Donkey Kong Country platformer, which tills well-plowed ground, but deftly. It’s not the breakthrough Wii U game Mario Kart 8 turned out to be, so much as a reminder that games like this can still be guilty pleasures if you’re not allergic to throwback side-scrollers replete with clever puzzling twists.

    Wii U

  • Entwined

    You can’t really lose in Entwined, you just swing back and forth along a tug-of-rope-style progress meter, which fits the game on a shelf somewhere between “relaxation exercise” and “pattern puzzler.” The goal is to unite an origami-like fish and a bird, which you do by piloting each discretely with left and right thumbsticks through target chains. The trick is getting your single-tasking brain to coordinate those left and right actions simultaneously.

    PS4, PS3, PS Vita

  • Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

    Part of the allure of Blizzard rolling its bejeweled horse carriage through the hoof-tramped mud of a played-out genre is the Blizzard name. And that’s what you’ll get in this free-to-play confectionary: an otherwise vanilla collectible card game wrapped up in Blizzard’s trademark audio-visual razzle-dazzle. Playing Hearthstone is too easy and compulsive not to play Hearthstone, which is why the game’s clocked over 10 million accounts since it launched in March 2014.

    PC, iPad

  • Infamous: Second Son

    Infamous: Second Son gets unfairly compared to Grand Theft Auto V because they’re both lazily categorized as “open world” games. But Infamous: Second Son is about letting you do crazy, cathartic, building-bounding superhero stuff in the best-looking metropolis-playground yet devised for a video game (until GTA V remastered arrives late this year, anyway). That, and developer Sucker Punch spins a decent yarn with more than passing emotional resonance, thanks in part to visual technology that allowed it to craft character performances even more lifelike than the ones being touted in Activision’s ballyhooed Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare spots.

    PS4

  • Mario Kart 8

    Imagine a carnival of race tropes, a grab bag of driver profiles, tactics and race types, a melange of little gameplay iterations and configuration tweaks and “Holy crap, I’m racing up and down that?” moments jammed into a single game. To sum up my affection for this best-of-all-Nintendo’s-Mario-Karts-to-date in a few words: lavish, kaleidoscopic, gasp-inducing, ingenious, exotic, balletic and — let’s switch from words to statements — something worth playing for a long, long time.

    Wii U

  • Nidhogg

    Remember Karateka? Nidhogg feels kind of like that: a game about dueling to your left or right with some light environmental (walls, ledges) vamping. Part of the charm’s in the pixellated look, of course, coupled with the overblown kinetic scenery and crazed, oscillating backgrounds teeming with strange, wriggling creatures.

    PC

  • Shovel Knight

    Shovel Knight would have been a winner had it arrived back in the 1980s alongside obvious inspirations, like DuckTales for the original Nintendo. Bask in its unabashed genuflection to 1980s game design tropes. Bathe in its classic NES color palette. Chuckle at the notion of a horn-helmed knight nobly brandishing a sharpened spade he can bounce on like a pogo stick. William Faulkner said it best: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner would have understood (and probably played) Shovel Knight.

    PC, Wii U, 3DS

  • South Park: The Stick of Truth

    No one expected much from this oft-delayed South Park tie-in, but Obsidian delivered the goods: a comedy roleplaying game that lets you explore the looney, deftly satirical world Trey Parker and Matt Stone built. And the funny stuff’s really funny for a change, not just funny-for-a-video-game.

    PC, PS3, Xbox 360

  • Titanfall

    Titanfall is for that certain kind of highly competitive someone with more of an e-sports mentality. If that’s you, Titanfall plays like hitting the jackpot. It’s not a galvanic shift in shooter-dom, it’s about placating highly competitive, multiplayer-only, twitchy shooter wonks with an oiled smorgasbord of shooter tropes and tactical wrinkles.

    PC, Xbox One

  • Transistor

    Transistor may not be quite up to Bastion‘s sky-high standards, but it’s still an interesting foray for developer Supergiant Games. In some ways it’s bolder, shifting its focus from Bastion‘s clever narrative payouts to a complex turn-based battle system that reads, literally, like a stack of math equations. The tactical engine suffers slightly in asking that you make exacting choices using an inexact isometric interface, but on balance, it gains more than it loses for trying.

    PC, PS4

  • Watch Dogs

    Watch Dogs was supposed to be this grand genre-bending hacking game, but you’ll do almost nothing of the sort. That’s a good thing, though what you do instead — mostly shooting, sneaking and speeding around a fantasy version of Chicago — dithers between inspired and imitative. The reason to play Watch Dogs isn’t its forgettable story, its boring lead character, or its dull side-activities, but the battles, where you’ll hop around the field disembodied, zipping camera to camera like a cyber-poltergeist, triggering hazards or distractions — like cranking the volume in a guard’s headset to ear-splitting levels or pulling the virtual pin on someone’s belted grenade. It’s combat through a laboratory lens, and a blast every time.

    PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U

  • Wolfenstein: The New Order

    At times, Wolfenstein: The New Order feels as calculated and observant as BioShock, if in the end, less ambitious. When it swerves from camp to cool cogitation, it does so knowingly, the latter moments unfurling during interludes spent wandering a resistance base chatting up other resistance members, your patriotic gusto threatened by a mirror MachineGames keeps holding up. It’s that unexpected attention to The New Order‘s world-building that makes this single-player-only game more than just a shooting gallery with a few new tricks — the sort of camaraderie and reflection in adversity, steeped in creeping dread and philosophical exposition, that made something like The Matrix more than just an expo for bullet time.

    PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360

TIME Video Games

Virtual Reality and Eye Tracking: Sony’s Vision of the Future

Sony envisions a future where virtual reality is king

After Nintendo’s “smash hit” Wii, Sony realized that raw horsepower wasn’t necessarily the be all, end all for a video game console. Jump to the beginning of 2013, when Playstation formed Magic Lab: a special R&D arm at PlayStation tasked with dreaming up the next generation of gaming experiences.

“We had the concept in 2012 for this group which would use technology to really explore new experiences,” said Richard Marks, Director of PlayStation’s Magic Lab. “We really focused a lot on technology in the past, and [now] we really want to focus more on the new experiences that technology enables. One of the things that we believe strongly in is actually prototyping things; we call it: experiencing engineering.”

Since joining Sony, Richard Marks has been responsible for the development of Sony’s PlayStation Eye, PlayStation Move controllers and now Sony’s foray into virtual reality: Project Morpheus, a wraparound headset designed to work with the company’s PlayStation 4 games console. The headset’s revelation came in tandem with Facebook’s high-stakes maneuver to put virtual reality on the map for non-gamers per its recent $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift.

So far, Sony’s touted Morpheus to game designers at shows like the Game Developers Conference and E3 to drum up development interest (though the technology’s still far from a commercial product — it currently has no release date). Morpheus’ display still has a few issues, too: there’s a stutter effect on some demonstrations caused by high latency, and Morpheus’ Field of View (FOV) doesn’t cover everyone’s vision completely. The technology also has various critics predicting that it lacks a mass market appeal. But then again Morpheus is only a prototype, as are the various Oculus Rift iterations.

“There’s a trade-off. There’s a fixed amount of resolution. So you can either give that to a really wide field of view or you can make [the resolution] feel higher, but the [field of view] narrower. We’re trying to get a good balance of that. Right now we’re still working on the issue of the display. Right now we have a great prototype system for our developers … [but] for the commercial system, we’re still working on that.”

And as a prototype, Project Morpheus is an amazing portal into what VR could look like for the future. The technology is so electrifying that creators and entrepreneurs outside the games industry are seeing VR’s potential, which is why Facebook put up the cash in the first place. For instance, currently Sir David Attenborough is creating a VR nature documentary, companies are looking into how VR can impact education and Hollywood is looking into virtual reality movies.

Whether VR will succeed as a mass market product or not remains to be seen; in the meantime, PlayStation’s Magic Lab is tinkering with its notion of what the future of gaming might look like.

During the launch of the PlayStation 4 in November 2013, Marks and fellow Magic Lab researcher Eric Larsen were demoing their eye tracking or “gaze tracking” technology. “A lot of different people are looking at how to track your eyes. Our focus is more on, if you can track your eyes, what do you do with it?” Marks said.

The technology has a lot of potential applications, like as a targeting assistant for shooter games, as Marks and Larsen demonstrated with the game Infamous: Second Son. One of the more interesting applications Marks noted is the ability to pick up on subtle, non-verbal communication cues. “Where someone is looking conveys a lot of information about what the person is interested in, what they intend to do, and it’s a very unconscious thing that people do,” Larsen said.

In the demonstration, the player interacts with a computer store merchant who’s trying to sell the player different products. The eye gazing technology detects what products the player is looking at and uses that information to decide what products to pitch the player. “You can make the characters smarter because they kind of react in a way that is more intelligent because they know what you’re looking at,” Marks adds.

On top of that, Magic Lab is also looking into biometrics, partnering with UC San Francisco to research brain waves as a feedback mechanism for how a game affects players.

Magic Lab, like Google X — responsible for the creation of Google Glass and Google’s Driverless Car — seems to be Sony’s take on “experiencing engineering” without the red-tape. Whether Magic Lab will create products with the same hype factor as Google X’s ideas is anyone’s guess, but if Morpheus is any indication, Marks and his team are off to a promising start.

MORE: What Gaming Industry Professionals Think of Virtual Reality:

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

PlayStation Owners Can Hop Into Bungie’s Destiny Beta on July 17

Xbox owners have to wait until the following week, and the everyone has until July to 27 to blast each others' faces off.

Bungie’s official Destiny beta has a date: July 17 at 10:00am PT. That’s a Thursday, so you might as well take Friday off and make a long weekend of it. Just pretend it’s Labor Day come early, or the Fourth of July come late.

The catch is that it’s only available on the PlayStations 3 and 4 on July 17. If you want to mess with it on the Xbox One or Xbox 360, you’ll have to wait slightly less than a week longer for those versions to drop: July 23 at 10:00am PT.

To be fair, PlayStation owners won’t have it for a full week. According to Bungie, the beta will be offline on July 21 and 22 for “scheduled maintenance.” And then it’ll only run through July 27 at 11:59pm PT. When I spoke with Bungie at E3, my understanding was that they were planning multiple beta phases, so this probably won’t be the last chance you’ll have to play Destiny before it launches on September 9.

Activision’s using the beta announcement to highlight its collectible tiers, which I won’t bother detailing here (I dislike collectibles, mostly because companies often send them my way unasked for, stuffed with generally forgettable junk). Suffice to say, you can pay $60 for the base game, $90 for the “Guardian Edition,” $100 for the “Limited Edition” or $150 for the “Ghost Edition,” each with various physical or digital download additives — the full details are here.

TIME Video Games

Kinect v2.0 for Windows Will Cost Half an Xbox One on July 15

Microsoft

Microsoft's revised motion-sensing peripheral will run you $200 -- half the price of a $400 Xbox One -- when it goes on sale later this month.

Wisdom was Microsoft removing Kinect from its Xbox One, but for all our ennui with the peripheral as a home theater interface, we’re quick to forget where the real Kinect story played out: Microsoft’s motion and voice recognition sensor bar was a boon for armchair tinkerers who figured out how to use the peripheral to control real-world robots, play Heart and Soul like Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia, open toilet bowls without touching the lids or play World of Warcraft without a controller.

You hear about that stuff less the last year or so, in part because the Kinect v1.0 is now three-and-a-half years old, and Kinect v2.0 hasn’t been available apart from the Xbox One. That’ll change on July 15, when Microsoft begins selling its “Kinect for Windows v2 Sensor” as a standalone part for $200.

That’s right, $200, making it roughly twice the presumptive price of the part based on Microsoft’s subtractive Xbox One pricing. The Xbox One dropped from $500 to $400 on June 9, and the only difference in the SKU was the removal of the Kinect sensor.

To be clear, there’s no official Kinect for Xbox One standalone SKU. You can’t go out to Amazon or GameStop or Microsoft’s own product store and purchase Kinect for Xbox One separately (Microsoft’s said such a part is coming, but not how much it’ll cost). Assuming Kinect v2.0 for Windows was going to be $100, therefore, was simply that: an assumption.

But $200 does seem a little spendy, even if it’s $50 less than what we initially paid the first time around for Kinect v1.0 for Windows (back in 2012). For $200, you get Kinect v2.0, that’s it — no software, nada. If you want to develop anything for it, you’ll have to hook up with the Kinect for Windows SDK 2.0, which Microsoft notes is licensed separately.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

 

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