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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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After 16 years of freeware, Dwarf Fortress creators get their $7M payday

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Enlarge / The quirky work of two brothers’ lives has found a wider audience on Steam and Itchi.io, and now they have some breathing room.

Bay 12 Games

The month before Dwarf Fortress was released on Steam (and Itch.io), the brothers Zach and Tarn Adams made $15,635 in revenue, mostly from donations for their 16-year freeware project. The month after the game’s commercial debut, they made $7,230,123, or 462 times that amount.

“The fairytale ending is reality, but you didn’t kiss the toad,” Zach Adams wrote on Bay 12 Games’ forums. “You gave him money.” He went on to write the kind of grateful response to fans you don’t often see from game developers:

The appreciation you give us is part of our being now. It carries us in the cars we drive. It sustains us as the food that we eat. There is now no longer any existence except the one that you have provided. When we pass from this world, you will be the reason we are remembered.

Tarn Adams noted that “a little less than half will go to taxes,” and that other people and expenses must be paid. But enough of it will reach the brothers themselves that “we’ve solved the main issues of health/retirement that are troubling for independent people.” It also means that Putnam, a longtime modder and scripter and community member, can continue their work on the Dwarf Fortress code base, having been hired in December.

The “issues of health/retirement” became very real to the brothers in 2019 when Zach had to seek treatment for skin cancer. The $10,000 cost, mostly covered through his wife’s employer-provided insurance, made them realize the need for more robust sustainability. “You’re not just going to run GoFundMes until you can’t and then die when you’re 50,” Tarn told The Guardian in late 2022. “That is not cool.” This realization pushed them toward a (relatively) more accessible commercial release with traditional graphics, music, and tutorials.

As of today, Dwarf Fortress’ Steam page summarizes the game’s more than 17,000 reviews as “Overwhelmingly Positive.” “I am speechless to people around me between game sessions,” wrote jozef.sova. “Had my Chief Militia Commander tackle a Giant Cyclops over a waterfall ravine 10 stories killing it at the bottom,” wrote DEV. “Guy couldn’t get out and he drowned, may he never be forgotten.”

While the commercial release of Dwarf Fortress has earned the brothers some breathing room and introduced new players with some quality-of-life offerings, the “classic” version—the one Ars editor Casey Johnston detailed over her 10-hour ordeal—is still free to download.

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PS5 owners won’t get this set of free PS4 games for much longer

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Enlarge / A look at the games available in the PlayStation Plus Collection, which will no longer be offered to PS5 subscribers as of May.

For over two years now, PlayStation Plus subscribers who owned a PS5 got access to the PlayStation Plus Collection, a set of 19 legacy PS4 games available for free download and play via the console’s backward compatibility. This week, Sony announced that it will be ending this subscriber benefit in May. Current PS5 owners will have until then to redeem their free games, which will remain available on their account as long as they stay subscribed to any of PlayStation Plus’ multiple tiers.

Hundreds of legacy PS4 games are still available for download as part of the higher-end PlayStation Plus “Extra” and “Premium” tiers (starting at $14.99/month or $99.99/year). That list includes many of the titles that were part of the PlayStation Plus Collection, including almost all of Sony’s first-party titles. But the PlayStation Plus Collection was also available at the cheapest “Essential” pricing tier ($9.99/month or $59.99/year).

The PlayStation Plus Collection served as a valuable introduction to legacy PlayStation franchises for PS5 owners who never owned a PS4. Sony said in an earnings release last night that such users made up a full 30 percent of the PS5’s monthly active users, suggesting that “the acquisition of new users is progressing,” as the company put it. Players who did upgrade from a PS4 to a PS5, meanwhile, are spending significantly more time and money on the new console on average, according to Sony.

The sunsetting of the PlayStation Plus Collection comes as Sony promises that long-standing retail shortages of PS5 hardware should be easing thanks to increasing supplies and despite “unprecedented demand.” PlayStation Plus currently boasts 46.4 million subscribers across all consoles, Sony said, a number that has remained essentially flat over the last two years.

Microsoft, meanwhile, announced that it had reached 25 million Game Pass subscribers last January, and Sony publicly estimated that number had grown to 29 million by November. Both those subscriber numbers are up significantly from the 18 million Game Pass subscribers Microsoft claimed in early 2021, though that subscriber growth is reportedly well behind Microsoft’s targets.

Subscription numbers for both console subscription services might be hitting a saturation point, though. As Xbox CEO Phil Spencer said in remarks last October, “at some point, you’ve reached everybody on console that wants to subscribe.”

Here’s the full list of the PlayStation Plus Collection games that will be departing in May (games still available on the Extra/Premium tier are noted with a *):

  • Batman: Arkham Knight*
  • Battlefield 1
  • Bloodborne*
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
  • Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy
  • Days Gone*
  • Detroit: Become Human*
  • Fallout 4*
  • Final Fantasy XV*
  • God of War*
  • Infamous Second Son*
  • Monster Hunter World
  • Mortal Kombat X
  • Ratchet and Clank
  • Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
  • The Last Guardian*
  • The Last of Us Remastered
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End*
  • Until Dawn*
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Unofficial Link to the Past PC port is a reverse-engineered gem

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Enlarge / Among the many upgrades made possible by this project, A Link to the Past is now a game you can Alt+Tab out of when a supervisor comes near.

Nintendo / Kevin Purdy

It’s a sad reality among retro emulation enthusiasts: You often spend far more time crafting your perfect setup than playing the games. You get your controller, linear filtering, sound engine, and everything else just right, and then you discover that your favorite game of yesteryear is far slower and more annoying than you remember.

That’s why the hard work of reverse engineers is so valuable. Hobbyist decompilers have worked to turn ROM binaries into thousands of lines of human-readable code, allowing for far deeper audiovisual upgrades, features, and other tweaks. It’s resulted in some impressive new takes on games, including Ocarina of Time, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Grand Theft Auto. And unlike many fan-based projects, reverse engineering generally passes legal muster as long as no copyrighted assets are distributed along with the decompiled code.

And they often far outshine game publishers’ official offerings, which usually amount to little more than officially licensed, lightly tweaked emulation.

Now you can add The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past to the list of classic games reverse-engineered and made great in modern times (first spotted by Neowin). I got the game working on a Windows PC (there are instructions for Mac, Linux, and homebrew-enabled Switches, too). It took about 10 minutes of reading the instructions, futzing with Python and adding a few files—including the extraction of assets from a personal backup copy of the original game.

Side-by-side comparison of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past running next to Snesrev’s reconstructed port.

What resulted was a version of one of the foundational games of my childhood that I’m far more likely to play again. The game fits my modern, high-resolution monitor, and has options for alternate, higher-fidelity music (via drop-in MSU files). It looks mostly the same, though it plays far more quickly and smoothly, without the frame-rate drops and long scene transitions I remember. I’ve enabled several quality-of-life upgrades: fast item switching, breaking pots with a sword, turning off the low-health beep, and some other small fixes. You can go further by messing with all kinds of settings in an .ini file.

For me, this represents an agreeable compromise between nostalgia and modern realities. You can play A Link to the Past with nothing but support for your modern system and screen. Or you can tweak many little things that might irk you and swap out Link’s sprite for Zelda, Hello Kitty, or others. Either way, you’re playing the original game, freed from the limitations of its original hardware, but not significantly altered in any real way.

Less noticeable a feature, but just as remarkable, is this port’s deep fidelity to the original. You can run Snesrev’s version in a way that shows the original machine code version running side by side with their C implementation, with the RAM state compared between each frame by frame, to ensure you’re playing, at a fundamental level, the same game.

Somehow it’s not surprising that this thoughtful rework of a classic game comes not from the copyright holder Nintendo, but from a group of volunteers working diligently to understand what made the original game work and streamline it.

From talking to contributors in their Discord, I gleaned that the disassembly work (from binary to assembly code) came from Spannerisms. Moving the assembly to nearly 80,000 lines of C and creating a playable product, was Snesrev. FitzRoyX cleaned up bugs from the original game, xander-haj maintained the wiki and added item features and sprite swaps. Xander-haj noted that other ports forked from the Snesrev project, including Xbox One and PlayStation Vita.

While projects based on a Nintendo property are often killed by legal threats just as they come to attention, this reverse-engineered project, which specifically makes no use of any original game assets, has a good chance of staying alive. Reverse-engineered code for Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City remains online after Github agreed to a Digital Millennium Copyright Act counterclaim. Courts have previously struck down reverse-engineering-based projects based on end-user license agreements (EULAs). But fully decoupled projects from the likes of the Zelda Reverse Engineering Team march on, giving hope that even more games get their shot at modern tuning.

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