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A chat with Niantic CEO John Hanke on the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite – TechCrunch

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Just shy of three years ago, Pokémon GO took over the world. Players filled the sidewalks, and crowds of trainers flooded parks and landmarks. Anywhere you looked, people were throwing Pokéballs and chasing Snorlax.

As the game grew, so did the company behind it. Niantic had started its life as an experimental “lab” within Google — an effort on Google’s part to keep the team’s founder, John Hanke, from parting ways to start his own thing. In the months surrounding GO’s launch, Niantic’s team shrank dramatically, spun out of Google, and then rapidly expanded… all while trying to keep GO’s servers from buckling under demand and to keep this massive influx of players happy. Want to know more about the company’s story so far? Check out the Niantic EC-1 on ExtraCrunch here.

Now Niantic is back with its next title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Built in collaboration with WB Games, it’s a reimagining of Pokémon GO’s real-world, location-based gaming concept through the lens of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.

I got a chance to catch up with John Hanke for a few minutes earlier this week — just ahead of the game’s US/UK launch this morning. We talked about how they prepared for this game’s launch, how it’s built upon a platform they’ve been developing across their other titles for years, and how Niantic’s partnership with WB Games works creatively and financially.

Greg Kumparak: Can you tell me a bit about how all this came to be?

John Hanke: Yeah, you know.. we did Ingress first, and we were thinking about other projects we could build. Pokémon was one that came up early, so we jumped on that — but the other one that was always there from the beginning, of the projects we wanted to do, was Harry Potter. I mean, it’s universally beloved. My kids love the books and movies, so it’s something I always wanted to do.

Like Pokémon, it was an IP we felt was a great fit for [augmented reality]. That line between the “muggle” world and the “magic” world was paper thin in the fiction, so imagining breaking through that fourth wall and experiencing that magic through AR seemed like a great way to use the technology to fulfill an awesome fan fantasy.

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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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