TIME Video Games

Xbox One to Launch in 29 New Markets: Why It Matters

Until now, the Xbox One has been available in a fraction as many markets as Sony's PlayStation 4.

Today, Microsoft’s Xbox One lives in 13 markets worldwide, whereas you can officially buy Sony’s PlayStation 4 in 72.

That’s neither as vast a difference as simple subtraction makes it look, nor one as trivial as some seem to believe. It’s also a divide that’s about to get significantly smaller for the first time since the Xbox One debuted a little over nine months ago.

Xbox group honcho Phil Spencer said in an Xbox Wire brief that Microsoft will bring the Xbox One to 28 new countries (totaling 29 markets: Taiwan’s on the list) in September, with a 29th country — Argentina — in the offing near-term. When September goes, that’ll bring the Xbox One’s tally to 41 countries.

Sony moved much faster than Microsoft off both consoles’ November 2013 launches, deploying PlayStation 4s across the planet starting in Canada and the U.S. on November 15, then sweeping through Europe, the U.K., Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Central America, South America, the Middle East, South Africa, several Asian countries and Japan by February 2014. Microsoft’s 13, by contrast, include the U.S. and Canada, the U.K., a smattering of European countries (Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain), Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Brazil.

The PlayStation 4 lays claim to over 10 million units sold worldwide, according to Sony. When last we heard from Microsoft way back in April, the Xbox One had shipped (as opposed to sold) 5 million units worldwide, the latter still a perfectly respectable figure: significantly higher than Xbox 360 sales for the same period, and contrasted against a runaway-popular system even Sony admits is selling way above its own wildest best-case estimates.

Since then, Microsoft has said Xbox One sales “doubled” off the console’s $100 price drop in early June, but we’re still in the dark on units shipped worldwide, suggesting Microsoft is unhappy enough with the Xbox One’s sales performance to play dumb (remember when it couldn’t help but brag monthly and precisely for years about Xbox 360 sales?), making direct sales comparisons impossible.

A word about unit sales comparisons, for those who find them tedious or silly: Console sales matter for the same reasons anything to do with volume matters in a market economy. Publishers and studios, indie to mega-corporate, are each and every one gambling with demographics each time they heap piles of cash into whatever company’s developmental framework. What we’re able to play and where thus depends heavily, if not exclusively, on publisher-studio projections about platform adoption and investment return.

The sales-crippled Wii U’s dearth of third-party games exemplifies what happens when you have a perfectly interesting and logistically competent piece of technology, but can’t secure publisher commitments to assure potential buyers they’ll be able to play multi-platform, mega-popular games like Tomb Raider, Borderlands 2, Grand Theft Auto V and the latest Battlefield or Call of Duty. Contrast with the inverse content deluge for the Wii during its halcyon years (and it had plenty of those before it fizzled), a system significantly less powerful than either the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, putting the lie to arguments that these things boil down to raw calculative potential.

The Xbox One’s 29-market expansion stands to shore up at least some of Microsoft’s sales disparity with Sony, putting Microsoft’s console in two more South American countries, Chile and Columbia (September 2), Japan (September 4), a slew of European and Middle Eastern countries (September 5), Israel (September 15), several Asian countries, China and South Africa (September 23), and Russia (September 26). The console will still be short of Sony’s total by several dozen markets, but for the first time in its lifecycle, it’ll be in places the PlayStation 4 isn’t yet, specifically Israel and China.

Israel accounts for a fraction of global gaming revenue (crazily, the Xbox 360, which launched worldwide in 2005, debuted in Israel just two years ago). But China is a behemoth, currently on the verge of surpassing the U.S. as the greatest source of annual gaming revenue in the world, according to a report published by researcher Newzoo in early June.

Predicting precisely how much money one new market or another’s going to add to Microsoft’s coffers is a fool’s errand, of course. Unless you’re pouring buckets of cash into statistical models fueled by troves of sufficiently accurate longitudinal per-market data, you might as well pull out a bow and lob arrows at the moon. Even the public version of Newzoo’s report is problematically diffuse for predictive purposes: a macro-level aggregation of game revenue that pulls everything into all-encompassing figures, without differentiation between platforms.

Newzoo says its figures tap “consumer revenues generated by companies in the global games industry and excludes hardware sales, tax, business-to-business services and online gambling and betting revenues.” So at least we’re not muddying the waters with online gambling and betting, which by itself has been estimated to draw in the tens of billions revenue-wise annually. But Newzoo’s figures also exclude “hardware sales,” thus physical platforms — including video game consoles — are off the books. We’re left with a general sense of overall game activity in these countries.

Considering other sources narrows the focus slightly: According to this GameSummit infographic culled from a global gaming report by research firm IDATE, in 2013 console sales, North America accounted for about 10 million units; Europe, the Middle East and Africa accounted for between 8 and 9 million units; the Asia-Pacific region tallied between 4 and 5 million units; and Latin America was somewhere between 1 and 2 million units.

Of all the Xbox One’s new markets, China’s is the most intriguing, mostly because it’s terra incognito, console-wise. China banned foreign console sales 14 years ago, claiming (ridiculously) that they were impacting the mental health of players (it lifted the ban in January). And so today, PC and mobile games are dominant in the country. Game consoles have been available through China’s gray market, but we don’t know what that slice of the pie amounts to, nor where demand for consoles versus PC games and mobile games is today, nor what impact the gray market may (or may not) have rolling forward with regard to demand for state-legitimized systems.

Price sounds like it’ll be a factor in the latter case, because what Microsoft’s asking for the Xbox One without Kinect in China sounds exorbitant: 3,699 yuan, or just over $600 (the Kinect-less Xbox One currently goes for $400 in the U.S.), though some of that’s down to China’s 17% tax on imported goods. But it stands to reason — given estimates that the average annual Chinese private-sector worker salary amounts to 28,752 yuan a year (about $4,682) — that a lot of would-be Chinese Xbox One buyers are going to balk, even with Microsoft’s pledge to sell games for less, from 99 yuan to 249 yuan ($16 to $41).

According to an online poll of more than 5,000 respondents conducted by Chinese news site Sina Tech (via Wall Street Journal) at the end of July, 59% said they wouldn’t buy a Chinese Xbox One, while just 22% indicated they would. If you’re making just 28,752 a yuan a year, would you spend roughly 13% of your annual take-home on a game system? If you could buy the same system for significantly less through back channels?

Sony plans to sell the PlayStation 4 in China as well, and announced a manufacturing partnership with a Shanghai-based company to do so back in May. But as of today, we have no idea when the console will launch, or where it’ll clock in price-wise.

The other market of interest is Japan, which has roughly one-third the population of the U.S., but relatively high per-capita console sales. Historically, Microsoft’s Xbox consoles have fared very poorly in Japan: a mere 1.6 million, compared with over 10 million PlayStation 3 units (and surpassed last February by Nintendo’s Wii U). The original Xbox, launched in 2001, couldn’t even muster half a million.

At least the Japan launch price for the Kinect-free Xbox One isn’t out of the ballpark: 39,980 yen, or about $381. That, and Sony’s had a tough time moving PS4s in Japan, totaling (as of mid-July) about 620,000 units since the console’s February launch. Sony chalks that up to poor Japanese developer support pre-launch (no one expected the PS4 to be so successful, says Sony, which actually sounds plausible given Sony’s own sales underestimates).

Assuming Sony’s claims are correct, the corollary, of course, is: Does Microsoft have Japanese developers lined up for the Xbox One? The company wants us to think so. In April it laid out 48 “regional” companies signed up to develop for the system (“regional” meaning a mix of native Japanese as well as Western developers with Japanese branches), then expanded that list by several dozen in June. But the 29 launch titles are decidedly Western-biased (Polygon has the full list here), and it’s hard to see any of those games — many of them already availably on the PS4 in the country — driving the system to stratospheric heights.

Microsoft’s greatest challenge selling Xbox Ones at this point is psychological. There’s the narrative about the Xbox One’s horsepower, given its inability early on to match the PS4’s output in multi-platform games pixel for pixel. There are presumptions about the console’s lackluster unit sales (fueled by Microsoft’s sudden reluctance to provide specifics). There’s the confusing Kinect-as-initially-pivotal-but-now-peripheral boondoggle, the system’s imposing physical footprint (it’s ginormous compared to the PS4, as big as an old-school desktop computer), and there’s the lingering miasma from a cavalcade of walked-back “features,” ranging from hypothetically intrusive Kinect-related activities to truly awkward, customer-unfriendly DRM policies.

At least two of those issues are behind the system at this point. The Xbox One has been at price parity with Sony’s PS4 since June, and the removal of Kinect ostensibly freed up horsepower to help developers wring a little more from the system. But the system’s biggest hurdle at this point is perceived momentum. And while the mainstream’s going to focus (not wrongly) on the system-sales-bolstering impact of exclusives like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Forza Horizon 2 and maybe (make that an emphatic maybe) Sunset Overdrive in all the established markets this fall, it’ll be interesting to see the launch returns in the coming months.

Some of these new markets have enormous sales potential. The question is whether Microsoft in 2014 has the marketing savvy and catalog appeal to drive those sales home.

TIME Video Games

Destiny Launch Guide: 16 Facts to Get You Ready for the Game

Bungie

If Bungie’s Destiny demos and beta are representative of the final game, then Halo may have spawned a new sub-genre. Call it “Halo-like.”

And Destiny seems like a card-carrying subscriber. A few months ago at E3 when I asked Bungie COO Pete Parsons why Destiny felt so much like playing Halo, I expected him to challenge the premise. Instead, he surprised me by embracing it.

While Destiny is clearly its own game with divergent gameplay ideas, Parsons spoke of a Bungie DNA that flows through all of its games (back to the company’s Mac-exclusive Marathon days, in fact). If you played the Destiny beta and you’re familiar with Halo‘s conventions, those strands — coiling through the game’s control scheme and user interface — are pretty much unmissable.

So is the game itself, if you’re paying even casual attention to the mega-marketing campaign. Over the weekend, running FXX’s The Simpsons as background noise in a vacation hotel room, the lofty-sounding Destiny trailer seemed to crop up every other commercial break. Publisher Activision, doubtless hoping Destiny has even longer legs than Halo, is clearly sparing the game no expense.

Here’s a rundown of everything (salient) that we know about the game in the run-up to its worldwide launch next week.

What is Destiny?

For the uninitiated: a first-person shooter that’s neither a single-player adventure nor a massively multiplayer online game, though it combines elements of both.

Imagine, to use Bungie’s terminology, a science fiction universe that’s “alive,” and which you can access while playing alone or with drop-in multiplayer companions. By “alive,” Bungie intends the game to be open-ended enough that unplanned events may occur, though whether that means the final version apes Guild Wars 2‘s player-driven events model, or something we’ve not yet seen, is still unclear.

Plot-wise, the game takes place several hundred years from now in a post-utopian period, after an event that leads to the near-extinction of humanity. You play as one of an elite group of “Guardians,” a band of super-soldier warriors, defending humanity from various hostile alien races.

When will it be available?

September 9 for PlayStation 3 and 4 as well as the Xbox One and Xbox 360.

Is there a launch trailer?

Of course:

There’s also a competitive multiplayer trailer, an “E3 Gameplay Experience” trailer and a bunch of locale-specific trailers that highlight the game’s various planetary battlegrounds.

How many versions are there?

The standard version is $60, whether you’re grabbing the retail or digital version, though GameStop’s offering in-game exclusives like an upgrade for the Sparrow (think Return of the Jedi‘s speeder bikes) if you order through them. And if you preorder the standard retail edition (by 2:00 p.m. PT on September 5) through the Microsoft Store, Microsoft will send along a $10 Xbox gift card and ensure your copy arrives by September 9.

Let’s step through the special editions, from most expensive to least.

  • If you’re in the market for a PlayStation 4, Sony’s selling a white PS4 bundled with the game and various PlayStation-exclusive in-game bonuses for $450.
  • On the retail side, Microsoft’s selling a Destiny “Ghost Edition” with the usual trinkets and geegaws for $150.
  • The “Limited Edition” for both the PS4 and Xbox One as well as the Xbox 360 (but not the PS3) includes upgraded packaging, a guide, a star chart and a few in-game items for $100.
  • On the digital end, the “Guardian Edition” for both PS4 and Xbox One as well as PS3 (but not the Xbox 360) includes a slew of in-game starter content.

The special editions each include the “Destiny Expansion Pass,” which goes for $35 by itself and unlocks “new story missions, cooperative and competitive multiplayer arenas, and a wealth of all new weapons, armor, and gear to earn,” as well as the game’s first two expansion packs: “Destiny Expansion I: The Dark Below” and “Destiny Expansion II: House of Wolves.”

What’s this I’ve seen about mobile versions?

Bungie’s released free companion apps for iOS and Android that let you keep tabs on your Guardian, analyze your stats, compare your scores and access the game’s forums.

Will the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions both run at 1080p?

Yes. The beta Xbox One version ran at a slightly lower resolution, but the ship-time PS4 and Xbox One versions will share the same 1920-by-1080 resolution. (If you want to quibble over subtle differences in frame rates or screen tearing or rendering techniques, you’ll have to wait for the inexorable Digital Foundry breakdown.)

Are the PlayStation versions really getting exclusive content?

Yes: a cooperative mission, a multiplayer map, class-specific gear, two weapons and three ships. You’ll find all the details here.

Can I preload the game?

If you buy the digital version, yes. The game is available for preload on PlayStation and Xbox stores now. If you preload, you’ll be able to play as soon as the servers go live on September 9.

When specifically on September 9 do the servers go live?

This one’s a little confusing. Here’s Bungie’s official word on the matter via Twitter:

Assuming no launch snafus (and to be fair, that’s a bold assumption), the game’s servers should be accessible in the United States as early as 8 a.m. ET on September 8. That’s no typo: according to that tweet, Destiny, according to the temporal logistics of the International Date Line (which passes through the Pacific Ocean), should be playable in the U.S. by early Monday, September 8.

That’s assuming you have a playable copy of the game, of course. It sounds like you’ll need a retail copy for the privilege: Both Sony and Microsoft list their respective digital versions of Destiny as being playable “starting midnight PST,” or at 3:01 a.m. ET on September 9.

How do you secure a retail copy prior to your local retailer’s midnight launch party on September 9 (in whatever time zone you live)? You’ll have to make your own inquiries: As Bungie says, it’s “between you and your retailer.”

How much disk space will Destiny take up?

The digital versions for PS4 and Xbox One list the game’s footprint as 18.6GB and 18GB, respectively, but that’s just the preload size. After unpacking and the game pulling down any additional launch timeframe data, the game’s footprint will be much larger.

On Sony’s official storefront for the game, it writes “40 GB hard drive storage (or its equivalent) is required.” That’s apparently the case for the Xbox One version, too, assuming this photo of the game’s retail packaging is authentic.

Will the PlayStation and Xbox versions be cross-platform playable?

Nope, nor will PS3 players be able to play with PS4 ones, or Xbox One players with Xbox 360 ones. Each platform is a universe unto itself.

Do I have to pay a monthly fee?

Not to Bungie, no, but after you’ve purchased the game, it requires Xbox Live ($60 a year) to play either of the Xbox versions. And while you can play parts of the PlayStation versions without a $50 PlayStation Plus subscription, the latter is required for “some activities” (certain game modes, though it’s not clear at this point which ones).

Can I play it offline?

No. While Destiny includes the option to play solo, it requires an Internet connection.

What about local split-screen?

I get this question from a surprising number of people about all sorts of online games: but no, alas, local split-screen isn’t supported.

Will there be a PC version?

Bungie co-founder Jason Jones may or may not have said no way back in early 2013, but design lead Lars Bakken told Eurogamer earlier this year that designing a PC version would be “pretty complicated,” but that it “doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the future, it just means it won’t happen right now.”

So not yet, but maybe.

Is there anything else I should know?

Bungie just announced something called “Destiny Planet View,” which uses Google technology to let you poke around the game-verse’s versions of Mars, Venus and the Moon right now.

Says Bungie:

While the experience only reveals a small slice of Destiny’s massive worlds, users will be able to step through each area and discover useful lore, gameplay tips and even a few hidden real-world and in-game incentives along the way.

And here’s the “Destiny Planet View” trailer:

TIME Video Games

Firewatch Is One of the Most Gorgeous Games You’ll See All Year

Looks like 2015 can't come around fast enough

Firewatch, the first, much-anticipated game from Camp Santo, unveiled its first trailer this week. The video the plight of the game’s main character as well as his companion, a voice on the distant end of a radio. Campo Santo is a new studio that includes designers Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, both of Telltale Games’ acclaimed Walking Dead series. The group also includes Nels Anderson who worked on Mark of the Ninja and graphic designer Olly Moss. The game is planned for release on Linux, Mac and Windows sometime in 2015. You can watch the entire trailer here, or check out some of the most beautiful bits below.

[Campo Santo]

Campo Santo Productions
Campo Santo Productions
Campo Santo Productions
firewatch_5
Campo Santo Productions
Campo Santo Productions
TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 29

1. We must confront the vast gulf between white and black America if we want to secure racial justice after Ferguson.

By the Editors of the Nation

2. As ISIS recruits more western acolytes, it’s clear military might alone can’t defeat it. We must overcome radical Islam on the battleground of ideas.

By Maajid Nawaz in the Catholic Herald

3. Kids spend hours playing the game Minecraft. Now they can learn to code while doing it.

By Klint Finley in Wired

4. One powerful way to raise the quality of America’s workforce: Make community colleges free.

By the Editors of Scientific American

5. Restrictions on where sex offenders can live after prison is pure politics. They do nothing to prevent future offenses.

By Jesse Singal in New York Magazine’s Science of Us

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Video Games

The Head of the Company Behind Angry Birds Is Flying the Coop

CHINA-FINLAND-INTERNET-GAMES-PARK
A visitor walks through Shanghai's first Angry Birds Activity Park at Tongji University in Shanghai on October 31, 2012. Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

The CEO of Rovio, the video game developer behind the mobile megahit Angry Birds, will step down at the end of the year, the company announced Friday. Mikael Hed, who has led the Finland-based Rovio since Angry Birds first hooked millions of smartphone users in 2009, will hand the reins over to Pekka Rantala, currently the CEO of Finnish beverage maker Hartwall.

Rantala will take over a company in the midst of a tough transition in the mobile environment: Freemium games like Candy Crush Saga, wherein users are pushed to make lots of in-game purchases, have come to dominate the mobile landscape, and Rovio has yet to develop another hit with anything close to the impact of Angry Birds. The company’s profit dipped by more than 50% last year to around $35 million, and its overall revenue in 2013 increased only slightly from the previous year, to around $206 million. About half the company’s revenue now comes from merchandise licensing rather than games.

Despite its challenges, Rovio is continuing to get a lot of mileage out of the Angry Birds brand. The games in the series have racked up more than 2 billion downloads collectively, and the characters are featured in a currently-running animated series and a feature film planned for a 2016 release.

TIME Video Games

Kinect for Xbox One by Itself Will Set You Back $150

Microsoft

It'll cost a little more than many probably hoped, but it comes with a pack-in game and it's less expensive than the Windows version.

When Microsoft launched its Xbox One games console in November 2013, it cost $500: $100 more than Sony’s PlayStation 4, and $150 to $200 more than Nintendo’s Wii U.

That steep price tag arguably cost Microsoft launch sales as well as momentum heading into 2014. Sony now claims over 10 million PlayStation 4 units sold worldwide, a record for any games console in a similar period, whereas at last check (in April, the last time we saw a formal number), Microsoft said its Xbox One had shipped to stores (distinct from sold to consumers) some 5 million units.

Surely because of that lack of momentum, Microsoft dropped the Xbox One’s price from $500 to $400 in early June, but at the expense of removing its Kinect motion-control sensor from the system.

Since June, you’ve been able to buy the Xbox One without Kinect, but if you wanted to buy the Kinect sensor separately, you couldn’t because here wasn’t a standalone Kinect SKU.

Microsoft never intended to sell Kinect as a standalone SKU, because Kinect was supposed to inextricable from the Xbox One experience. It’s removal was the boldest sea change in a series of philosophical reversals the company’s made since the system debuted.

The standalone Xbox One Kinect SKU finally has a price tag and a launch date: Microsoft announced it’ll cost $149, and you can buy it on October 7. That $149 includes a copy of Dance Central Spotlight, an upcoming music video game in the Dance Central series due out on September 2.

Yes, the math seems wonky at first blush. I suspect most assume that if the Xbox One was $500 with Kinect and $400 without, Kinect by itself ought to be $100. But there’s packaging to consider, plus intangibles like the development value of being able to depend on Kinect’s presence in a given home. And of course there’s Microsoft’s right to jack up the price any way it likes. This is a company that, for years, managed to sell a proprietary Wi-Fi USB dongle for the Xbox 360 at two to three times the asking price for similar PC parts, after all.

Microsoft says, “Kinect remains an important part of the Xbox One experience.” Never mind that claim: how important is going to come down to evidence in the coming years. Either the company’s going to release groundbreaking games and media center features or it won’t. If it doesn’t, Kinect becomes like any other secondary peripheral in the annals of console-dom: somewhat interesting, occasionally amusing, and utterly niche.

Note that Microsoft currently sells a Windows version of Kinect as well, a part that launched in July for $200 without a pack-in game. So at least from a PC gamer’s standpoint, you could argue console gamers are getting a pretty good deal.

TIME Home entertainment

GOG.com Is Getting Into the DRM-Free Movie and TV Business

GOG.com, nee "Good Old Games," is throwing its hat in the DRM-free video ring, hoping to eventually persuade the big studios to liberate all movies and TV shows.

GOG.com–the encyclopedically stocked go-to site for older versions of PC games refurbished to play on existing Windows, Mac and Linux computers–is getting into the DRM-free movie business, or it’s trying to anyway. The company just announced that it’s going to pull the trigger on a slew of film and TV content that it’ll let buyers download or stream at leisure.

Movies and television shows would be completely new territory for GOG.com, media content and distribution mechanisms it’s had no experience with to date…save for one crucial component: the DRM-free part.

Today, say you want to watch movies at home, you have any number of options: stream from a service like Netflix or Hulu, buy and download from an e-tailer like iTunes or Amazon, or if you’re old-school (or like my wife’s parents who live at the ends of the earth in rural Iowa, stuck in an Internet black hole) you rent something on a physical disc from your local grocery store or Redbox vending machine.

But grabbing any of the above without digital rights management is essentially verboten. The content isn’t yours: It’s either borrowed or earmarked for use with a proprietary distribution mechanism. Short of poking around websites that catalog video in the public domain, attempting to decouple physical discs you’ve purchased and want to rip for backup or playback purposes from their copy protection bulwarks, or flat-out turning to piracy, DRM-free video isn’t an option in today’s world.

GOG.com’s position on DRM is, you could argue, its primary PR cachet. The site’s mantra is “you buy it, you own it,” period. No copy protection, no download or reinstallation or backup limits. Nada. That philosophy’s allowed the site to carve out significant space in the currently Steam-dominant downloadable PC gaming scene, and it’s apparently driving a sustainable business model.

In that light, wading into film and television with a DRM-free angle makes a certain amount of sense. It’s by no means clear the company’s going to succeed, of course. The deal starts with “over 200 partners in the gaming industry,” so publishers like EA, Square Enix and Ubisoft alongside various indie studios. That means documentaries, largely, at first, though much of it will start off unique to the site. GOG.com says the service will include world premieres like Gamer Age, The King of Arcades and Pixel Poetry, as well as award-winners off the festival circuit like Indie Game: The Movie.

But I’d wager most people see the phrase “movie and TV” used in a sentence with DRM and want to know when they’re going to be able to download a DRM-free copy of the first season of shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective. (That’s what I’d want to know, anyway.)

“Our initial idea was to start with the big guys, but the process is not easy,” says Guillaume Rambourg, GOG.com VP for North America. “In our first round of talks, the response was largely, ‘We love your ideas, but we do not want to be the first ones. We will gladly follow, but until somebody else does it first, we do not want to take the risk.’”

Rambourg claims most studio officials agree with GOG.com that DRM is “pointless,” but says they wind up punting to conservative legal departments, which of course have no intention of lowering their respective DRM drawbridges. GOG.com says it decided to regroup and prove the concept first, thus it’s launching its DRM-free film section “with documentaries catering directly to its existing community: gamers and geeks.”

GOG.com says these films, which can be streamed or fully downloaded as preferred, will include additional content, and that two of the launch titles–Art of Playing and TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard–will be available free of charge. Buy a video on GOG.com and you’ll get a file, says the company, which you can play whenever and wherever you want. New movies should arrive thereafter at a rate of at least once a week, and it sounds like the company’s starting with a flat price model: $5.99 a piece.

So no, not the place to go if you want to own shows like Treme or Fargo free and clear, but it’s a start, and who else is offering even that much? GOG.com says it’s “aiming high,” of course, and that its goal is to free “all movies and TV series from DRM.” It’s hard to imagine any of the major studios cozying up, but then the idea that you’d be able to buy hundreds of legacy PC games for peanuts, play them on modern machines and outright own them, DRM-free, after decades of code-wheels and pass-phrases and all sorts of other copy protection shenanigans, was just a pipe dream until GOG.com came along six years ago and proved it could be done.

TIME Video Games

With Infamous: First Light, Sucker Punch Aims for a ‘Relatable’ Female Lead

Sucker Punch cofounder Chris Zimmerman talks about how his design team approached its first female lead in the studio's DLC prequel to Infamous: Second Son.

Infamous First Light is hardly the first game to foreground a female superhero.

Think about Final Fantasy‘s Lightning, Metroid‘s Samus Aran, the Tomb Raider reboot’s rendition of Lara Croft, Beyond Good & Evil‘s Jade, Perfect Dark‘s Joanna Dark, The Longest Journey‘s April Ryan or Mirror’s Edge‘s Faith Connors. Strong female leads to a one, whatever you want to say about their quality or psychological depth contrasted with female characters in other longer-lived mediums like film or literature.

But those games are also outliers, a handful of titles in an ocean of shackling tropes and stereotypes, despite video gaming’s meteoric transition over the past several decades from niche past time to one of the highest grossing entertainment mediums in the world by revenue.

And so Sucker Punch’s standalone DLC prequel to its PlayStation 4 action-adventure Infamous: Second Son, debuting today amidst increased scrutiny of gender representation (sexualization, objectification, stereotyping) in video games, is noteworthy simply because it’s part of a still-all-too-small club: games with formidable female leads.

Even then, it looks a little like a compromise on paper: Delsin, the male protagonist of Second Son, got his own 15- to 20-hour-long game, whereas First Light‘s female protagonist, Abigail “Fetch” Walker, stars in a fractionally priced ($15 vs. the original’s $60) downloadable followup that lasts just four to five hours. That’s a crude, reductive way to think about anything, of course, but a way some will, nonetheless, given how gender-skewed gaming remains in 2014.

“In general, there are correlations between gender and genre–they’re not many letters off each other after all,” says Sucker Punch cofounder Chris Zimmerman during a phone interview on the eve of First Light‘s release. “Our games tend to skew a little bit more towards women than most games do, but we’re not wildly out of band with other third-person action titles.”

I ask Zimmerman whether he knew the demographic breakdown for Infamous: Second Son: how many women versus men played the original game. He doesn’t have specifics, but says “it kind of depends.”

“The fact that Sucker Punch, like all video game companies unfortunately, has a relatively male-skewed gender balance probably does influence our outlook on things, but we don’t make an explicit point of that,” he tells me. “When we started work on First Light, we didn’t think of it in terms of a male or female lead. When we were deciding whether the protagonist should be Fetch or not; gender didn’t even come into the conversation.”

Zimmerman says Fetch was just a character the company saw as appealing to people in general, regardless of gender. “It didn’t seem like an issue when we were talking to people, so we really didn’t consider it,” he says. “On the other hand, all of the characters in our games are very explicitly designed not to be objectified or gender-distorted.”

Zimmerman brings up Delsin, the male protagonist of Second Son and proverbial every-geek, a middle-of-the-road, rumpled-looking, quip-slinging dude. The stereotypical gamer, in other words.

“Delsin as a character is a regular-looking guy. He does not look like a superhero. He looks like a dude,” says Zimmerman. He then launches into an anecdote about randomly running into someone while walking in downtown London, however improbably dressed like Delsin, and how that drove home the utter ordinariness of the character the studio had designed.

“This is like the world’s easiest cosplay,” he says. “Just get a denim jacket, some buttons, do some painting on the back, you’re done. You don’t have to fabricate a giant sword, you just have to wrap a chain around your wrist. That’s all very intentional on our part. The Infamous games are about relatability. It’s about setting a world up where you can’t help but say ‘What would I do?'”

Sony

But Fetch is an altogether different persona in Sucker Punch’s X-Men-like world, a psychologically fractured, super-powered killer in the midst of a mental fugue. When we meet her in Second Son, she’s euphemistically described as a vigilante, when she’s in fact a homicidal maniac, assassinating drug dealers willy-nilly and leaving behind creepy neon tableaus. Where Delsin’s led an uneventful life up to the point he’s handed superpowers, Fetch is grappling with a borderline schizophrenic crackup: parental rejection, years of substance abuse and addiction and paranoia, long-term incarceration, a spree of violent murders, and topping it all, her unspeakable role in the death of her brother. Second Son was in part her redemption story, whereas First Light chronicles her descent into madness.

Still, says Zimmerman, the team’s goal with Fetch was to make her just as relatable as Delsin.

“It was important to us that Fetch looked like a normal person,” he says. “She’s like someone you’d see on the streets of Seattle. She’s not wearing bikini armor, she’s just wearing clothes. She has her own sense of style. They’re not clothes I would wear, but I’ve absolutely seen people wearing clothes like that. And it’s not just the female characters we’re thinking about like this, it’s the male characters, too. We want to make sure that our characters are real, that they look like real people.”

There’s a flip side to relentless political scrutiny, where quashing stereotypes can unintentionally become witch hunting, a game’s accomplishment reductively discarded along with its shortcomings. I put the question to Zimmerman: How do artists or creators go about creating games in a gender-skewed industry without it feeling like a quota-fulfillment exercise?

“It’s a super question, and as a content creator, I can say it’s a hard thing to do,” says Zimmerman. “I love my job. It’s a great job. I love being able to come to work everyday and be excited about what I’m doing. But it’s not easy.”

“There are lots of constraints on what we do,” he says. “I think at the end of the day, our primary role is to build entertainment that people want to consume. We want to create experiences that are meaningful to people, but at the same time, we want to tell our own stories. I think the best commercial art happens when those two elements come together. When we make a game with a strong female protagonist, it’s not because we’re trying to change the world, it’s because we’re trying to remain true to the character. And hopefully the story we’re trying to tell is a story people want to play.”

TIME Video Games

Amazon Explains Why It Just Paid Nearly $1 Billion for Twitch

Amazon Said To Buy Twitch For $1 Billion As Google Bid Fails
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg / Getty Images

Amazon VP of games Michael Frazzini and Twitch CEO Emmett Shear talk about Monday's surprise high-price acquisition and what it means for the popular game-streaming service going forward.

The rumor mill got it wrong.

Twitch, an online service that lets people watch other people play video games, was supposed to go into the arms of Google. That was the received wisdom until late Monday afternoon anyway, when Amazon capsized expectations and announced it would pay $970 million for the fledgling company, an amount said to be less than what Google was offering (the rumor mill pegged that amount at around $1 billion, though never backed it up), but an enormous sum by any measure. It also the most Amazon’s paid for any company to date.

Why the heck would the world’s largest e-tailer–in the news more these days for its consumer electronics and apparent hopes to conquer time and space by deploying fleets of personalized delivery drones–buy a games-streaming startup? This is where knowing a little about Twitch helps.

These days everyone has big numbers, but this one’s genuinely impressive: Twitch says it had 55 million unique visitors to its site in July 2014 alone, and all of those visitors eyeballed over 15 billion minutes of games-related content. The number of people generating all that content? One million, says Twitch, comprising an audience of amateur and pro gamers, game publishers and studios, video game news sites and eSports-related events (eSports being the term gamers call video games played in professional matches). All sorts, in other words, from content creators and consumers to critics and video gaming “athletes.”

Here’s another way to look at it: the Wall Street Journal reported in February that Twitch accounted for nearly 2% of peak Internet traffic in the U.S., or fourth overall during peak hours. The only three companies that scored higher were Apple (4.3%), Google (22%) and Netflix (32%). Think about that for a minute: Twitch, a company that arrived in 2011, accounted for more peak U.S. traffic in February than Facebook.

But why Amazon of all companies? When I put the question to Twitch CEO Emmett Shear Monday night, he said it came down to two words: like minds.

“Talking to Mike [Frazzini, VP of Amazon Games] along the way, it really became clear that we have a shared vision for the gaming industry. We see the same trends in the same space,” said Shear. “And it’s also their culture. Amazon thinks about problems and solving those problems in the same way we do at Twitch. They think about how you can build things for customers, and how to do that in the long run.”

That sense of philosophical camaraderie over the course of multiple meetings culminated in formal negotiations, said Shear.

“One of the things I was really impressed by during the deal discussions was Amazon’s commitment to making Twitch a fully-owned subsidiary, which means I get to remain the CEO, we keep our office, we keep our culture, we keep our strategy,” said Shear. “But we get access to all of these resources and products that Amazon has that’ll let us do all of that better and faster.”

Amazon, for its part, looks less like an outlier and more like a natural home for a gaming-centric service like Twitch when you add up its recent moves. Where rivals like Apple and Google still hold gaming at arm’s length, building platforms and ecosystems to lure third party creators in lieu of crafting first-party content, Amazon’s been quietly cultivating its own gaming stable, edging step by step more toward the sort of holistic approach a Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo might take in securing ownership of both the hardware and software ends of the bargain.

When I asked Frazzini if Amazon paying beaucoup bucks for an enthusiast-angled video game operation is further evidence that Amazon intends to square off directly with gaming’s 800-pound gorillas, though, he was quick to couch the move as strictly consumer-driven.

“I was never, like, ‘How does this, that or the other company do it, and maybe we should,'” said Frazzini. “I’ve always thought about it in much simpler terms, through the lens of the customer experience and what we wanted to create, where we thought we could built inventive new experiences that would resonate. That’s been the driving motivation. If you look at Amazon fairly high-level, what you end up with is, we have a commerce business, and games are a very important part of the commerce business.”

Amazon loves people who buy games through Amazon, said Frazzini, because gamers tend to come back and buy all sorts of other things. But it’s also about more than consumers, he said, talking about the importance of catering to the sort of premium content developers the company’s been wooing with its cloud-focused Amazon Web Services model–which is just another way of saying Amazon’s Twitch purchase is (at least in part) about growing its gaming cred.

Consider Amazon’s two most recent games-related acquisitions: Amazon bought developer Double Helix Games in February, a studio known for the survival horror game Silent Hill: Homecoming as well as its work on a revitalized version of Killer Instinct, an arcade-style fighting game for Microsoft’s Xbox One. And in April, Amazon rolled out Fire TV, a $99 set-top box that not only plays high-fidelity games, but supports them with an optional gamepad–one a traditional console- or PC-gamer wouldn’t be embarrassed to wield.

“I think it’s fairly safe to say at this point that on anything with a screen, games are the number one or two activity,” said Frazzini. “Obviously if we’re going to be in the devices business, we have to be thinking hard about games. And at the center of that is the customer experience, which is what’s so interesting about Twitch for us. Twitch has that same point of view. They think long term. They think a lot about invention.”

Frazzini is naturally effusive when talking about Twitch’s accomplishments since the service’s debut in 2011, going on to call it “just the beginning” of a process that’s about anticipating “where games are going.” Clearly Amazon sees that destination as more than another overloaded app store or slew of iterative mobile devices. Put another way, no one spends close to $1 billion on a gaming service whose most vocal proponents identify as core gamers if they aren’t serious about wooing and winning them over.

The acquisition makes even more sense when you think about services like Amazon Instant Video. Amazon’s been in the video-on-demand business since 2006, and with its recent shift to an all-you-can-eat Amazon Prime streaming video model, whereby Prime members gain access to scads of video content (including the company’s coup-of-coups exclusive deal with HBO) for a Netflix-ian flat fee, capturing new eyeballs by adding a service like Twitch fits hand-in-glove with the company’s ostensible goals. And think of what else the purchase buys Amazon in terms of new eyeballs: Twitch is already an entrenched and critical presence on both Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One.

And for those worried that Amazon’s purchase could somehow harm or curtail the house Twitch built, it’s not clear yet what the actual relationship between Amazon and Twitch will be, but Twitch’s Shear said the most immediate benefits (for Twitch, and thereby its user base) translate as exponentially greater scalability.

“This year we spent a huge amount of money growing our network footprint, and I hope that next year we can spend three times as much money or just leverage some of the network footprint Amazon already has,” said Shear. “Now we can move into locations Amazon already has servers. And that alone is super exciting to me.”

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