TIME Video Games

LeapFrog’s Latest Idea Is LeapTV, a Wii-Like Video Game System for Kids

LeapTV is LeapFrog's bid to hop into the set-top video game market, but with a system aimed squarely -- and solely -- at children aged 3 to 8.


LeapFrog, the company you may know for its popular line of computerized children’s toys like My Pal Scout or the Leapster handheld game system, says it’s getting into the video game space in a big way later this year with a new set-top box it’s calling LeapTV.

In short, LeapFrog’s pitching LeapTV as a video game console designed specifically for post-toddlers and pre-tweens.

No, not another musclebound device engineered to spar with the likes of Sony’s PlayStation 4 or Microsoft’s Xbox One, but something nearer Nintendo’s Wii, power-wise, with a similar focus on motion controls.

When I spoke with LeapFrog about LeapTV last week during an online-guided presentation, the spokesperson described LeapTV as an education-oriented games system, where the games adapt to your child’s play abilities. It’s designed to offer reasonably advanced graphics for the age group it’s targeting — 3- to 8-year-olds — while punching financially somewhere between a light and middleweight entertainment box: LeapTV systems will run $150 when they go on sale this holiday.

The idea behind LeapTV sounds simple enough and maybe even a little head-scratchingly obvious: If you’re the parent of young children, aged somewhere between post-toddlerhood and pre-tween, and they’re clamoring to play video games, what do you give them?


Chances are you hand them a tablet or smartphone today. Maybe you curate the content on your own “grownup” game systems (PC, console). Or perhaps you simply hand them a Nintendo 3DS — arguably the de facto child-angled handheld gaming portal at the moment.

But LeapFrog sees a deficit between today’s all-encompassing game systems (including the 3DS) and the sort of kid-friendly, kids-only gaming frontier it views as yet-to-be conquered. Ergo LeapTV, a device it boldly calls “the best first video game experience for children.”

Why introduce a set-top console for kids in 2014? It sounds counterintuitive, given expectations about mobile device growth (tablets are expected to outsell PCs by next year). Besides, LeapFrog already sells a handheld gaming system (Leapster) as well as a tablet (the LeapPad Explorer). Why not double down on those devices?

LeapFrog’s answer is Nintendo-like: because tablets and phones can’t provide the kind of large scale, full-body, fully active experiences living room game systems cater to. Furthermore, the company wants to control the vertical as well as the horizontal: Nintendo builds its own game hardware and software in part because it views gaming as a holistic endeavor. If you want to craft novel experiences soup to nuts, you need to be both the delivery mechanism and the thing it’s delivering.

Take LeapTV’s unusual Bluetooth controller. You wouldn’t mistake it for a Wii Remote or a traditional gamepad, though it harbors DNA from both, supplemented by its own innovative wrinkle: The handlebars are movable, allowing you to transform it from a boomerang-like gamepad you hold with both hands, into a sword-like pointer you swing with one. The intent, says LeapFrog, is to give kids a range of ways to interact with the system’s games while keeping the interface as simple and compact as possible (no dangling Wii Nunchuk cables, in other words). There’s even a Kinect-like angle: LeapTV employs a motion-sensing camera that supports full body tracking with multiple players, too.

When I asked Leap if LeapTV ran Android — the presumptive partner for so many set-top startups these days — the spokesperson told me the operating system is proprietary to LeapFrog. Whether that means proprietary from the ground up or a custom roll of something already extant wasn’t clear, but what is clear is that Leap wants LeapTV to be perceived as a LeapFrog-concocted product, not another adjunct of someone else’s ecosystem.

The device itself is physically unimposing: a squat, frisbee-like gray and neon-green cylinder — it almost looks like a pint-sized UFO — that sits vertically in a small stand and weighs just over a pound. Under the hood, it’s packing a 1GHz processor (manufacturer unidentified), 1 GB of DDR3 memory, 16GB of flash storage, 1 USB port for the 640-by-480 color camera, Ethernet and HDMI ports (it’ll output up to 720p), and 802.11n Wi-Fi. The $150 asking price includes the camera (with an adjustable TV mount), a 6-foot HDMI cable, the controller (it requires AA batteries, and LeapFrog claims 25 hours per cycle) and one downloadable game — something called Pet Play World — that you get after registering the device.

My question, as the parent of a toddler — and doubtless one early childhood researchers are going to have — is how do we know the content on a device like LeapTV meets educational standards? When LeapTV ships, LeapFrog says it’ll offer access to a library of more than 100 game cartridges, game downloads and videos. Questions of quality aside, how are parents supposed to know any of that content’s genuinely educational?

When I asked LeapFrog about this, the spokesperson told me the company has a team of early childhood experts involved from the get-go with every piece of content created for LeapTV. It’s calling all of those apps “educator-approved” and describes LeapTV’s library as a “best‐in‐class educational curriculum.”


That, of course, could mean any number of things. There’s no ESRB-like ratings system for video games in LeapFrog’s 3-to-8 childhood range (the ESRB lumps everything 10-and-under into a generic “Early Childhood” category). You’re essentially taking LeapFrog’s word, and it’s a word even LeapFrog can only give with so much certainty. Longitudinal research into early childhood interaction with video games, much less ones devised for educational purposes, is still in its infancy. As this 2012 Pearson study on gaming in education puts it, “Although there is much theoretical support for the benefits of digital games in learning and education, there is mixed empirical support.” A device like LeapTV, whatever its merits, is setting sail in largely uncharted waters.

On paper, LeapTV sounds alluring: a device that draws upon thousands of skills in subjects like reading, math and science, and where its apps unfold based on your child’s age, then scale their challenges dynamically based on your child’s abilities. And in theory, it could fill a significant, highly specific games-related gap no one’s really tried to yet. The question is how apt LeapFrog’s approach ends up being, and for the answer to that, only time and further research will do.

TIME Video Games

Tekken 7 Exists, and This Isn’t What It Looks Like

We'll know more about the game at Comic-Con on July 25, says Bandai Namco.


Story-related teaser trailers for games about strategically (or not-so-strategically) mashing gamepad buttons probably aren’t going to do it for you, so think of this more as someone saying “Tekken 7 is real!” for approximately one-and-a-half minutes.

That’s how long the announcement/teaser trailer for Tekken 7 is. After watching it, you’ll know the seventh installment in this venerable fighting series exists, but alas, nothing of what it looks like.

Bandai Namco confirmed that a leaked version of the trailer was in fact legit by posting the official version. The trailer makes it clear we’re to learn more about the game — which uses Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 — at Comic-Con on July 25.

We don’t have a release timeframe yet, nor do we know which systems Bandai Namco’s targeting, but it’s probably not unsafe, given Unreal Engine 4’s March 2014 debut, to presume it’ll at least be available on PS4 and Xbox One. Also of note, not that it’s wildly significant: this is the first fighting game announced using Epic’s new Unreal tech. Given how animation-focused fighting games tend to be, since by nature they can afford to spend lavishly on the fighter models, when Bandai Namco finally shows this thing in action, here’s hoping it knocks our socks off.

TIME Video Games

Answered: 10 Questions About the First Destiny Beta

The beta for Bungie's Destiny -- a massively multiplayer online shooter with Halo DNA -- arrives on July 17.

Bungie’s preliminary Destiny beta soirée kicks off this Thursday, transforming the end of July into more than just a showcase for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us PlayStation 4 remaster.

To help everyone get ready, especially if you’re just tuning in, I’ve cobbled together the essentials from various Bungie news posts, FAQs and press releases, including a late-breaking (though unverified) tidbit that outlines what might be in the beta, content-wise.

How do I get into the beta?

You need a code and one of the following systems: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 or Xbox One. How do you get a code? By preordering the game from one of the retailers listed on this page. And once you have a code, you have to redeem it here before the beta launch period.

Bungie’s handing out codes in packs of threes in hopes that you’ll invite your friends (since the game’s raison d’être at this point seems to be cooperative play). And bear in mind that beta codes are platform-specific: If you want to play on both PS4 and Xbox One, or even Xbox One and Xbox 360, you’ll need to pre-order each version separately.

When does it go live?

July 17, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. PT, though that’s only for PlayStation 3 and 4 owners, who have until a July 21 maintenance break to play.

Why for PlayStation first?

Because Sony cut Bungie a nice big check? Who knows, but Sony locked up the whole “play it here first” thing and clearly wants gamers to think of the PlayStation 4 as Destiny‘s lead platform. It’s not, of course, and this beta business is just a timed exclusive.

What about Xbox owners?

Bungie plans to take Destiny offline for maintenance on both July 21 and 22, after the initial PlayStation-only beta wraps.

On July 23 at 10:00 a.m. PT, it’ll turn the beta back on, this time for every platform the game’s being developed for: PS3 to PS4 and Xbox 360 to Xbox One. Note that Bungie has made it clear that the Xbox versions will require Xbox Live, while the PlayStation versions will somewhat cryptically require PlayStation Plus “for some activities.”

Bungie says it’ll begin emailing PlayStation players their Destiny Beta access/download codes on July 17, followed by Xbox players on July 23.

And it ends for everyone when?

July 27 at 11:59 p.m. PT.

Is it compatible with all PS3 and Xbox 360 systems?

Good question, because it’s actually not: the Destiny beta will run on all PS3 and Xbox 360 systems save the following four “due to Destiny’s hard drive requirement.”

  • Xbox 360 Arcade
  • Xbox 360 4GB
  • Xbox 360 Core
  • PlayStation 3 12GB

What do you mean, “first” beta?

Let me confuse you some more. The beta launching on July 17 isn’t really the first beta — unless, that is, you believe the polished, perfectly playable “First Look Alpha” that dropped during E3 2014 a few weeks ago was really an alpha. Alphas, back when that word meant something development-wise, were barely playable frameworks, not slick, virtually bug-free experiences. That, and games usually hit that mark a year or more — not a few months — before their launch date.

Semantics aside, my guess, bearing in mind that it’s no more than a guess, is that Bungie’s going to run some kind of final test, stress or otherwise, in the weeks leading up to the game’s official September 9 release.

What’s in the beta? What am I actually playing here?

We don’t know officially, but a Reddit user (though Reddit, so mind the gap) claims to have laid hands on a GameStop dispatch to its employees that lays out a few details.

According to the Reddit user, the letter says the beta will include four story-related chapters, four competitive multiplayer maps, one cooperative strike mission and “a huge world to explore with your own unique Guardian.”

That said, Bungie says the beta will have five play modes: Tower (“third-person social space”), Story (“play through some of Destiny’s epic story campaign”), Crucible (“competitive multiplayer”), Strike (“Form a Fireteam and infiltrate an enemy stronghold”) and Explore (“Explore the wild frontier in this free roam mode”).

How stable is the game at this point?

Your guess is as good as mine. The “alpha” seemed pretty stable to me. But Bungie’s going to be meddling in the background, possibly breaking things just to see what happens. As the developer wrote in its weekly news update last Friday: “The Destiny Beta is a test. Make no mistake. This isn’t some circus stunt. This is science – and you’re the lab rat.” Followed by:

We’d love to tell you that everything will go according to plan, but that wouldn’t be any fun. That wouldn’t teach us a thing. Even if the Beta is working perfectly, one of the alpha-geeks in the operations center is gonna kick it to see if it still works. Fortunately, we’ll be going to great lengths to keep you informed and keep you in the game.

In other words: expect a bit of turbulence, clear air or otherwise.

Where can I keep tabs on Bungie’s official beta status updates?

Pay attention to the developer’s @BungieHelp Twitter account as well as help.bungie.net, which Bungie says will get “a serious facelift” when the beta launches this week. And if you’d like to see what your comrades in arms are saying or to pick the brains of its volunteer “Mentors,” Bungie recommends keeping an eye on its support forum.

TIME Opinion

Here’s Hoping No Man’s Sky Isn’t the Next Elder Scrolls: Arena

How deep can a sci-fi game about "exploration and survival in an infinite procedurally generated universe" really be?

I want to think well of No Many’s Sky, a game — at least I think it’s a game — about ripping off into an infinitely big, infinitely procedural, infinitely beautiful universe and doing, well, we’re not sure exactly what yet.

Exploring? Check. Cataloging other species? Maybe. Dogfighting in a spaceship? Perhaps. Wondering a lot what the point of No Man’s Sky is? Sounds like it.

If you want to know a little more, GameSpot’s just done a superlative series of videos on the game — each about 10 minutes long — and gleaned a few more details from Guildford-based developer Hello Games. You can find those videos clustered here.

The promise of No Man’s Sky isn’t so much that it looks amazing, like a reified Roger Dean painting, but the moment in that initial surprise reveal trailer back in 2013 where, down on an otherworldly planet, someone swims out of a sparkling azure ocean, strides across a beach bounded by crimson and gold grass and climbs into an X-Wing-like spaceship (without the wings). The canopy pops down, the music kicks up, and the ship rockets into the sky…then flies out of that sky and into starlit orbital space, bustling with asteroids and plasma-trailed fighters and Brobdingnagian capital ships, all of that rendered as one balletic, seamless sequence — a beautifully choreographed wish-fulfillment tease.

That go-anywhere, do-anything premise may be one of the oldest and most anticipated and most often broken promises on the books. Games have been making it for decades, this notion that a video game (or whatever you want to call these things now, as they pull against that term’s shackles) can be a portal to another world — a place as real as reality, and as lovely, dark and deep.

But we know it’s still a false promise in 2014, how easy it is to shatter the illusion when you brush against the simulated world’s facades. And so playing massively-single-player games that purport to simulate towns or cities or worlds or universes requires a psychological ingredient without which the games wouldn’t work: projection. Humans are masters of interpolation, and to play a game that’s partly a world-building exercise on its own terms, you have to suspend entire mountain ranges of disbelief.

We’ve come parsecs over the decades, graphics-wise, but made very little headway in world-building games when it comes to genuinely simulating said worlds. The occupants of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim are only slightly smarter (if prettier) signposts and semaphores than the ones we pinballed between in The Elder Scrolls: Arena 20 years ago. The guards in Assassin’s Creed IV are mostly brain-dead obstacles you have to puzzle past — weaponized dots on a map not so different from the ones we slunk past in Castle Wolfenstein or the original Metal Gear. The juking, jiving citizens wandering the streets of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V are props you’re meant to experience in passing, if at all: jostle or walk on by, pull out a gun and threaten or simply ignore.

It’s the cost of doing business given today’s technological limitations: build the stage, staff it with actors roughly as versatile as brainless animatronics, then let you wander around a sandbox filled with sand you’re only allowed to sculpt into a handful of things. Today’s go-anywhere, do-anything games are far nearer souped-up Choose-Your-Own-Adventures than the sort of idealized virtual reality experiences involving at least Turing test-passable encounters we’ve been dreaming about (in books and movies and games) for decades. They’re the sum of their mechanics (racing, shooting, flying, this or that mini-game, etc.) and little else.

To be fair, No Man’s Sky isn’t promising the moon (or at least not that sort of moon). Hello Games hasn’t created some exotic form of in-game artificial life, or devised a way to let you literally do whatever you like in the game (say become an interplanetary rock star, or a solitary backwater spinner of clay pots), or — and I say this presumptively but assuredly — found a way to eliminate the telling facades. No Man’s Sky will have limits, and I’d wager they’ll be as profound in the end at the micro level as the game claims to scale at the macro one.

But will it be any fun to play? That’s the question, once you’ve throttled any pretense of it being a game about letting you do whatever you like. What do you do in No Man’s Sky, and what makes it worth doing? Will that list of to-dos, once they’ve been enumerated, wind up looking like so many others? A lot of the novelty of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Arena vanished, for instance, once you smacked into its procedural seams and wound up surrendering to its rail-like “go to this dungeon, get this widget” story rhythms.

Will No Man’s Sky end up in the same shortfall trap? Will I care once I’ve cataloged my 134th kind-of-sort-of-dinosaur-thingy? Splashed around in my 532nd alien ocean? Destroyed my 43rd capital ship? Collected my umpteenth bounty?

Hello Games doesn’t want to say what the point of the game is. I admire their reluctance to, but I’m also worried about their reluctance to. I’d like to think there’s a rabbit in the hat (or maybe a whole bunch of rabbits waiting to pop out), but I’m a skeptic. I’ve been here too many times before. I want to believe No Man’s Sky‘s going to be more than just a pretty bauble of a game, but history and hindsight haven’t been kind to dreamers when it comes to open-ended games.

I suppose that’s what No Many’s Sky has going for it most at this point, having fired our imaginations. We’re still in the dreaming stage, and between now and the game’s unspecified future release, there’s still hope.

TIME Video Games

Watch Dogs Has Shipped 8 Million Copies to Date, Says Ubisoft

The Montreuil, France-headquartered international games developer reports record first quarter revenue, thanks in part to bumper sales of its newest gaming IP.

This is what lots of buildup and unparalleled anticipation will buy you: 8 million copies shipped of a game that’s really not too shabby, but at the same time nothing like the breakthrough event Ubisoft pitched it as in the lengthy lead-up to its debut. (I reviewed the game here.)

Ubisoft just announced the figure in its first quarter 2014-15 sales report. Note that’s 8 million copies shipped, not sold, but still indicative of the game’s popularity — it sold over 4 million copies during its first week on shelves, so wildly successful by any measure. Watch Dogs launched on May 27 for Windows, PS4, Xbox One, PS3 and Xbox 360, and a Wii U version is due later this year.

And it sounds like everything else is coming up roses for the company, financially: Ubisoft reports it had record first quarter sales of €360 million ($490 million), up 374% over the same period last year and notably higher than Ubisoft’s declared €310 million target. Ubisoft also cited strong digital sales growth — up 149% to €84 million ($114 million) thanks in part to Watch Dogs, but also the company’s free-to-play mobile games as well as standalone others like Trials Fusion, Child of Light (reviewed here) and Valiant Hearts: The Great War.

The company’s second quarter outlook is to do €85 million in sales ($116 million), and full-year sales of €1.4 billion ($1.9 billion) — the latter’s just a confidence update and the company upholding an already-announced target. The company’s key releases this calendar year remain Assassin’s Creed Unity (October 28), The Crew (November 11) and Far Cry 4 (November 18).

In any case, the chances we won’t see a Watch Dogs 2 are now infinitely less than zero.

TIME Video Games

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Suggests the Future of Xbox Could Be Mobile

Microsoft's CEO responds to concerns he might spin off the company's games division, doubling down on Microsoft's commitment to Xbox gaming.

Fresh-minted Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has a lot to say about the company in a mammoth missive released this morning that outlines his vision for Microsoft rolling forward, soup to nuts. I’m going to focus on just a portion of it, specifically the part about halfway through where he addresses the Xbox.

Speculation in recent months, driven by presumptive sideline analysts and echo chamber punditry, to be fair, was that Nadella might try to spin off the Xbox brand at some point. Why? Because, assumed said analysts and pundits, Nadella’s a software guy, not a hardware guy. And so naturally he’d want to divest himself of something he hadn’t had much to do with, at least directly, during his tenure with the company.

That, no surprise to me, is effectively the opposite of what Nadella’s saying in his publicly promoted “fiscal year 2015″ email to company employees.

How important is Xbox to Nadella’s Microsoft? Not the company’s core, which he defines elsewhere as a “productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world.” But he follows by stating, “It’s important to make smart choices on other businesses in which we can have fundamental impact and success.”

“The single biggest digital life category, measured in both time and money spent, in a mobile-first world is gaming,” writes Nadella in the letter, adding that Microsoft is “fortunate” to have the Xbox brand, and that the company “will continue to vigorously innovate and delight gamers with Xbox.”

And then he trumpets all the gaming-spawned technologies feeding other aspects of Microsoft’s platform-sphere: core graphics, NUI in Windows, Skype speech recognition, Kinect for Windows camera tech, GPU-related Azure cloud improvements and so forth. “Bottom line,” says Nadella, “We will continue to innovate and grow our fan base with Xbox while also creating additive business value for Microsoft.”

It’s as bold a line in the sand as you’d want from a CEO on strategic direction — as surely aimed at those wrongheaded analysts and nervous pundits as existing Xbox 360 owners and the company’s burgeoning Xbox One base.

Curiously, Nadella then shifts the conversation to mobile, noting we’re in the “infant stages” of a mobile-first world, saying that in the coming years, we’ll see significant category growth in mobile experiences “that span a variety of devices of all screen sizes.” I don’t think that statement’s proximity to Nadella’s confidence-bolstering paragraph about the Xbox is coincidental.

What Nadella must surely realize, though he doesn’t say or even allude to it here, is that Xbox is a pretty clunky-sounding brand name when you start thinking about it in terms of devices that aren’t actual boxes. The Xbox One isn’t just a box, it’s a 1990s-era desktop-computer-style boat. A phone obviously isn’t an Xbox, nor a watch, nor a pair of glasses, nor anything else you’re going to put on your person. People and mobile and things you’d describe as “boxes” don’t mix. So my bet is that whatever happens in the living room space with set-tops, there’s less an abandonment strategy in the offing for Microsoft’s highly visible and profitable gaming wing, so much as a rebranding one.

TIME Video Games

Here’s Hoping Dovetail’s Version of Microsoft Flight Simulator Is a Bona Fide Flight Simulator

If you're going to make a flight simulator, then make a flight simulator.

Good news for Microsoft Flight Simulator fans, or at least I think it is: Dovetail Games, the Britain-based publisher of the Train Simulator (nee Railworks) series as well as Dovetail Games Fishing just managed to get its mitts on the license for Microsoft’s Flight Simulator franchise. The licensing agreement gives Dovetail the right to “develop and publish all-new flight products” derived from Microsoft’s technology, and Dovetail says it expects to have something new to market by next year.

What that initial piece might look like is anyone’s guess, be it a standalone product or an expansion to an existing product, say a belated appendage to Microsoft Flight Simulator X — the last generally respected simulation-grounded release Microsoft put out before its ill-fated dalliance with free-to-play.

Speaking of Flight Simulator X, Dovetail says it’s also secured the rights to redistribute a version of that eight-year-old game bundled with its 2007 Acceleration expansion by way of Valve’s Steam digital download service. The new version will be called simply Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition. Look for that to appear later this year, says the company.

It’s not clear how Dovetail plans to adjust, development-wise, to the challenge of digging deep into the nuances of aeronautics and avionics. Trains are hardly planes, obviously, so I assume there’s going to be some hire-on (perhaps ideally involving former Flight Simulator team members, though now I’m speculating wildly).

After the Microsoft Flight debacle, for me anyway, it’s as simple as this: If you’re going to make a simulator, then make a simulator, not something dumbed down or parceled out to broaden its appeal or sales potential. Figure out how to make ends meet by catering to the demographic that your genre, by definition, appeals to. When it comes to flight simulation, or really simulators in general, that’s going to be a niche, and it’ll always be a niche, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

TIME Video Games

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

Final GameStop logo

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


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.


Lindsay Lohan Should Win Her GTA Lawsuit

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

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.

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