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3 lessons from Roblox’s growth to gaming dominance – TechCrunch

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Our recently published EC-1 on Roblox recounts the origin story and growth prospects of the company. But there’s one more piece to the story: what Roblox’s impact will be on gaming and the broader startup industry, if the company manages to multiply its current 90 million users.

Sources: TechCrunch, VentureBeat, Roblox

We’ve distilled three key ideas out of the EC-1 — lessons that may apply not only to game developers and gaming entrepreneurs, but also to the broader startup industry.

Lesson 1: UGC is a missed opportunity in games

Roblox has shown that user-generated content (UGC) is a missed opportunity for much of the game industry. The company aspires, in a way, to be the YouTube of games. And it is succeeding, with 50 million experiences from 2 million creators to date.

The game industry generally has two problems with UGC. One is the games themselves: AAA games today are too complex, and lack the flexibility and simplicity needed for robust UGC. Roblox shows that a simpler look and feel is a valid alternative to today’s super-sized, beautiful AAA games. (Minecraft proved much the same.)

The other problem is the greater complexity of making games than, say, videos or music. Roblox solved this problem by building its own game engine, which is designed solely to output Roblox-style experiences.

But increasingly, engines like Unity are capable of accomplishing similar feats: games are getting easier to build. It’s now possible that savvy entrepreneurs could build a platform like Roblox, without building an entire game engine.

Lesson 2: New opportunities in gaming are still coming

The game industry is infamously cyclical. New platforms emerge, become promising, then grow overcrowded and competitive. Usually, this cycle relates to hardware (the iPhone, virtual reality helmets, game consoles like the Nintendo Switch) or massive changes in consumer behavior (the emergence of Facebook, the early growth of the internet). But Roblox, a pure software play, shows that exceptions could exist.

It’s still early days. Roblox reported that it paid out $30 million to game developers in 2017, doubling to $60 million in 2018. Developers receive a quarter of the revenue made from their games, with another quarter covering payment processing and another quarter covering cloud hosting. Its top 10 developers made about $3 million on average each. Seven of its games have also entered a “billion plays” club:

Adopt Me, a newer game, hit 440,000 concurrent users in June, a new record for the platform.

When a new platform appears, it’s usually found by amateur developers first. That’s certainly the case with Roblox: its successes are being created almost exclusively by first-time game developers in their teens and twenties. At some point, professional developers are likely to conclude they can do at least as well. The current market is particularly exciting because many games are fairly simple and lightweight — recent breakout hits like Camping 2 and Weight Lifting Simulator 3 are significantly smaller than comparable games on other platforms.

For entrepreneurs interested in creating new platforms or portals Roblox’s success as a combined game engine and self-contained platform also shows that opportunities still exist — if you have the patience to wait for them to mature.

Lesson 3: Patience can create amazing growth cycles

It took Roblox 15 years to grow to its current point. But most of that growth is recent: as seen in the chart above, Roblox experienced 10x growth in about 3 years, from 9 million users in February 2016 to 90 million in April 2019.

So what went into the decade or so during which Roblox was a much smaller platform? As we tell it in the origin story: a great deal of work, and very little paid acquisition.

In its early years, Roblox did buy users, to seed a user base while it worked on an impossibly large vision that included a game engine, platform, social features, a creator community, and its own games. But after a few years, it stopped buying users.

All of its growth since has been organic. That’s from two main sources: word of mouth, and YouTube users who watch one of the many Roblox streamers. Of course, any company can try to do the same. But Roblox had the patience to build a unique product — one which took years of work to even reach partial completion.

The key to it all was long-term adherence to a long-term goal: the creation of a new category, which it calls “human coexperience”. Today, Roblox still can’t be called part of a new category; it’s a game platform. But with more years of work, it may eventually get there.

For more on the Roblox story, see Part 1: The Origin Story, and Part 2: The Business Plan.

Update: TechCrunch corrected “2 million experiences” to be 50 million experiences from 2 million creators. We also provided more context of the revenue breakdown of payments made on Roblox to developers.

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New Nintendo Switch production to begin in June, will be 4K when docked

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Enlarge / Ars’ Kyle Orland tries out the Nintendo Switch in its portable mode.

Nintendo’s next Switch hardware revision has long been rumored, but details on what to expect from a possible “Switch Pro” finally began firming up on Wednesday, thanks to an apparent leak from its screen supplier.

Bloomberg Japan has the scoop, and it points to Samsung as the source of Switch’s next panel type: a 7″ OLED panel, currently estimated at 720p resolution. That Samsung OLED production line will begin cranking in June, according to Bloomberg’s unnamed sources familiar with “internal matters.” Meanwhile, other Nintendo hardware assemblers will begin receiving the panels “around July.”

For sizing comparisons, the current standard Nintendo Switch uses a 6.2″ 720p LED panel, while 2019’s Nintendo Switch Lite shrunk its LED panel to 5.5″ (but is also 720p in resolution).

How might “Pro” get to 4K?

Such a timetable would put Nintendo in a position to unveil the hardware “this year” and “prop up [Switch] demand in time for the holidays,” Bloomberg reports. Whether this means a new, larger Nintendo Switch would land on store shelves by year’s end, however, was not entirely confirmed by the report.

The report also didn’t clarify exactly how the system’s internals may be improved, but it did allege one key feature: a bump to “4K graphics when paired with TVs.” This appears to confirm that a new Switch model will continue to employ its hybrid “home-and-portable” gimmick.

How might a “Switch Pro” jump to 4K resolution, especially if the handheld version remains locked at 720p? Bloomberg’s report doesn’t speculate. In the meantime, we’re wondering whether its TV dock might be updated to include extra processing chips (and thereby leverage a “split motherboard” proposition, much like Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5), and/or whether Switch SoC manufacturer Nvidia has any DLSS-like tricks it can add to neatly upscale standard Switch games to 4K resolution.

Either way, Nintendo has limited history with midgeneration console refreshes that add boosts to older software. Portable systems like Game Boy Color, DSi, and “New” Nintendo 3DS were all capable of applying processing boosts to software, but this required specific compatibility in each game—as opposed to, say, a blanket boost to 4K resolution for any Switch game imaginable.

The report also doesn’t clarify whether a larger Switch will remain compatible with existing, detachable Joy-Con controllers or whether Nintendo might roll out a larger pair to match the newly larger Switch’s base hardware. (The large hands among Ars Technica’s staff would appreciate the latter.)

As recently as February, Nintendo told its shareholders that Switch was in the “middle” of its life cycle, suggesting another 4-5 years of support, while the company offered a vague assurance about new Switch versions not being announced “anytime soon.” Previous rumors about a “Switch Pro” emerged as recently as early 2019, but these fizzled, with only Switch Lite eventually emerging from that pool of rumored hardware refreshes.

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EA confirms it isn’t secretly “fixing” FIFA matches

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Enlarge / EA has convinced a set of class-action lawyers that there isn’t a secret algorithm affecting the results for FIFA Ultimate Team squads like this one.

A group of California players has dropped a class-action lawsuit accusing Electronic Arts of secretly using a “Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment” (DDA) to covertly affect the outcome of FIFA: Ultimate Team matches. The group did so after EA proved that the controversial, patented system is not in use in the game.

We first covered EA’s Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment system back in early 2018, after a late-2017 academic paper laid out the basic framework. That research found that automatically adjusting a match-three puzzle game’s difficulty based on the player’s demonstrated skill level led to a 9 percent “improvement in player engagement,” (i.e., players wanted to play a bit more). On the other hand, it had a “neutral impact on monetization” (i.e., it didn’t lead to players spending more money). EA filed for a patent on the same basic idea in 2016, and the patent was granted in 2018.
Some FIFA players have long suspected that patented technology was at work in at least some of their “Ultimate Team” games. To hear these players tell it, the game secretly uses a hidden, scripted “momentum” system to adjust the results of specific shots or touches based on the current state of the game. It’s all part of an effort to manipulate players to spend more money on better Ultimate Team player cards, as outlined by that DDA patent. Or so the theory goes.

EA has stated a number of times that it doesn’t use DDA in FIFA and that Ultimate Team results are a matter of player skill and sometimes the vagaries of random number generation. But those statements didn’t stop three California players from filing a class-action lawsuit last November over their suspicions that EA was lying, alleging in part:

EA’s undisclosed use of Difficulty Adjusting Mechanisms deprives gamers who purchase Player Packs of the benefit of their bargains because EA’s Difficulty Adjusting Mechanisms, rather than only the stated ranking of the gamers’ Ultimate Team players and the gamers’ relative skill, dictates, or at least highly influences the outcome of the match.

This is a self-perpetuating cycle that benefits EA to the detriment of EA Sports gamers, since Difficulty Adjusting Mechanisms make gamers believe their teams are less skilled than they actually are, leading them to purchase additional Player Packs in hopes of receiving better players and being more competitive.

That brings us to today, when EA announced that the lawsuit has been dropped. That move comes after EA says it provided plaintiffs with “detailed technical information and access to speak with our engineers, all of which confirmed (again) that there is no DDA or scripting in Ultimate Team modes. This is the right result.”

EA went on to reconfirm that DDA technology “never was in FIFA, Madden, or NHL, and never will be. We would not use DDA technology to give players an advantage or disadvantage in online multiplayer modes in any of our games and we absolutely do not have it in FIFA, Madden or NHL.”

It’s nice to have that further confirmation from EA, especially with the additional commitment that it applies to the company’s other sports games and into the future as well. And now those statements also come with sufficient added verification from EA’s own engineers and documents to apparently satisfy a set of litigiously minded players (and/or their lawyers).

On the downside, the next time one of your shots in FIFA sails wide, you won’t have a scary secret algorithm to blame.

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AMD’s RX 6700XT GPU launches March 18 for $479

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Enlarge / The RX 6700XT GPU reaches retailers soon. When will it reach average customers, however? Honestly, who’s to say at this point?

AMD’s RDNA 2 push continues on March 18 with a newly announced RX 6700XT graphics card, starting at $479 and featuring just about the exact downscaled options you might expect from a card costing $100 less than last year’s RX 6800.

Before we talk specs, of course…

AMD chose YouTube for the announcement—and, perhaps foolishly, left the chat function on. This allowed fans to spam the livestream chat with “sold out” and “out of stock” cries for a full 15 minutes. Weirdly, the video’s host acknowledged that “demand for GPUs is at an all-time high,” only to offer about as worthless a pledge as you’ll get about availability: that the GPU will be sold both at AMD.com and at “e-tailers and retailers across the globe on day one.”

Hence, we have no idea how many RX 6700XT GPUs will be made available this month, nor whether AMD or any retailers have plans in place to deal with scalpers and buying bots. (The same goes for Nvidia, of course, with GPUs like its new RTX 3060, starting at $329, instantly selling out last week.)

A little less “Infinity”

The above gallery begins with an all-important AMD spec table, and it sees the 6700XT scaling down from the 6800 in a few significant categories. Compute units are down 44.5 percent, while texture units are down 33 percent; L3 cache (which AMD calls “Infinity Cache”) has dropped from 128MB to 96MB; and VRAM has dropped 25 percent to a reasonable 12GB GDDR6. AMD has also seen fit to crank the GPU’s core clocks a bit, listing an “up to” number of 2424 MHz, which exceeds both the 6800 and 6800XT.

Last year’s new RDNA 2 cards didn’t necessarily live up to AMD’s claims that they had released a killer 4K line, and they’re not bothering with such a sales pitch with the downscaled 6700XT. AMD talked up the fact that most PC players opt for 1080p and 1440p resolutions (without crediting services like Steam for capturing those metrics), then assured fans that the 6700XT was designed for optimal 1440p gaming at high refresh rates.

But the announcement didn’t otherwise have good counters to the feathers in Nvidia’s cap—namely, the competition’s dedicated cores for ray tracing and deep-learning super-sampling (DLSS). AMD’s potential answer to the latter, FidelityFX Super Resolution, was faintly teased in the Wednesday presentation, but we’re still waiting to hear exactly how it works, when it will launch, and how many games and software suites it will support. Until AMD implements its own clever upscaling system, it’s simply in no position to compete on the ray-tracing side of things, as our tests last year demonstrated.

In better news, AMD’s sales pitch about unifying your entire rig behind its brand to access the company’s proprietary “Smart Access Memory” feature has been updated to support the older Ryzen 3000 series of CPUs, in addition to the existing feature on Ryzen 5000 products. The idea here is to let the CPU and GPU talk to each other more efficiently and thus fork over complete GPU memory pool access as needed, and with AMD’s clear CPU gains in recent years, you’re likely in a position to take advantage. However, motherboard compatibility remains locked to 500-series boards, and the Ryzen 5 3400G and Ryzen 3 3200G are not compatible with the feature.

It’s worth noting that one of AMD’s charts compares the 6700XT to Nvidia’s RTX 2080 Super—a card whose performance has been summarily trounced by newer Nvidia releases. That’s up for us to shake out in future independent testing, so we’ll do our best to pit the 6700XT against similarly priced GPUs in an upcoming article. And yes, “similarly priced” in 2021 might require a careful scanning of auction and reseller listings, which we’re poised to do at this point.

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