Apple is about to announce some new services on Monday. While everybody expects a video streaming service as well as a news subscription, a new report from Bloomberg says that the company might also mention its gaming subscription.
Cheddar first reported back in January that Apple has been working on a gaming subscription. Users could pay a monthly subscription fee to access a library of games. We’re most likely talking about iOS games for the iPhone and iPad here.
Games are the most popular category on the App Store, so it makes sense to turn this category into a subscription business. And yet, most of them are free-to-play, ad-supported games. Apple doesn’t necessarily want to target those games in particular.
According to Bloomberg, the service will focus on paid games from third-party developers, such as Minecraft, NBA 2K games and the GTA franchise. Users would essentially pay to access this bundle of games. Apple would redistribute revenue to game developers based on how much time users spend within a game in particular.
It’s still unclear whether Apple will announce the service or launch it on Monday. The gaming industry is more fragmented than the movie and TV industry, so it makes sense to talk about the service publicly even if it’s not ready just yet.
More posts by this contributor For AR/VR 2.0 to live, AR/VR 1.0 must die Chinese …
In September of 1997, Final Fantasy VII was released for the original Playstation in North America. The watershed game swapped the series’ swords-and-sorcery-and-sun-dappled-forests motif for bombs and machine guns in a dark, rainy futuristic urban metropolis. It was a time before the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, a time when sci-fi and cyberpunk were ascendant and the stodgy old wizards and sword-wielding heroes of fantasy worlds reeked of the distant past (say, 1992).
While FFVII wasn’t the sequel I had been expecting, eventually even SNES JRPG diehards like me came to appreciate the change in style, as well as the sheer scale and ambition of what it was trying to accomplish. Nobody had ever told a story that big on consoles, and moving away from the 2D sprites into a (sort of) 3D world was a huge technical step forward for RPGs and gaming in general.
Thanks to a corrupted third-party memory card, I was never able to beat the game on that original hardware. It wasn’t until this year that the Switch re-release (and coronavirus-imposed lockdown) gave me the chance to breed the chocobos, find the KOTR materia, destroy JENOVA, and kill Sephiroth.
That’s when I found that, over 20 years after the initial release, FFVII’s ending still had the power to shock. Whatever I was expecting from the game’s conclusion, it wasn’t what I took to be the end of both human life and civilization.
Gaming for the environment
The final cut scene is set hundreds of years after the events of the endgame, when Cloud and the gang are, presumably, very dead. We see party member/space coyote Red XIII (whose species lives for thousands of years) and his children roaming the weedy ruins of the world’s forgotten, unpopulated metropolis of Midgar.
As nature reclaims the land and the coyotes frolic, not a single sign of human life is seen. It appears that mankind and all traces of its civilization had perished from the earth due to the summoning of METEOR.
It’s a shocking narrative moment, especially compared to the endings of most ‘90s video games. Hooray, you beat the game, kids! Also, humanity had a nice run, yeah?
But the ‘90s did see environmental themes popping up all over gaming. Niche games like Ecco the Dolphin made this explicit, but even iconic hits like Sonic the Hedgehog asked the player to free imprisoned and adorable forest animals whom Dr. Robotnik was attempting to transform into cyborgs. As they return to their habitat, the birds and squirrels bound and flutter offscreen, chirping cheerfully.
Final Fantasy VII, however, made an extraordinary leap in asking the player to assume the role of violent ecoterrorists bent on blowing up a reactor inside a densely-populated metropolis. One of the game’s early, epic cutscenes ends with the bomb going off and the reactor being destroyed. Sure, some people died as “collateral damage,” but it’s OK… you’re the good guys!
In the game’s finale, the planet itself is saved, but at what appears to be the cost of all human life. No matter how you choose to interpret the ending, it’s thought-provoking.
With almost 13 million units sold worldwide, FFVII had a huge influence on an entire generation of gamers. It also helped move Final Fantasy, and RPGs, into the Western mainstream. It’s easily among the best-loved and most influential games ever.
But its impact wasn’t limited to the industry—the game’s radical environmental themes and Shinto-tinged philosophies wound up influencing a generation of environmentalists.
Pay attention, children
Bobby Pembleton, now an Enterprise Executive at a top European University (and a member of my international Mario Kart online group) is among those who found FFVII’s environmental message stuck with him. And he’s got the tattoo to prove it.
“Me and both of my siblings were totally radicalized by the game,” Bobby told me. “When we first finished it back in the day, our takeaway was, ‘Oh, civilization ended, and this is a good thing.’”
“We hadn’t seen an uncertain ending (in any media), that level of complexity was new to us,” he added. “It took a few days to sink in, but we concluded all humans were dead, and this was a good ending.”
Bobby’s youngest sibling, Jaclyn Dean, now works in healthcare. Jaclyn was 8 years old at the time so more of an observer at first, but recalled “I would actually assign characters to my brothers, enlist them to do character voices with me, and really act out the dialogue to immerse us in the story.”
After a year or two Jaclyn would pick up the game herself. “As I developed my agency, I thought, ‘hey I can do this too, girls can play video games!’ ” Eventually she went as far as printing out a strategy guide, becoming the first Pembleton to 100% the game.
Dylan, the middle Pembleton child who now works in the film industry, recalled that the ending made them all feel “we need to be stewards of the land, like these ancient talking coyotes. Our takeaways were that major industrialization is bad, and understanding how the lifestream and the planet works is much more important—because look how cute those coyote puppies are!”
Dylan says it’s hard to overstate the game’s impact on his choices as an adult. “FFVII affects the way I vote…everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve started a community garden. I’ve worked as a horticulturist. I know what I’m trying to do, and yeah, it’s essentially based on the philosophies of FFVII.”
“At the time we didn’t realize [Final Fantasy VII] could be an allegory for what was going on with extraction of capital from working masses, extraction of oil and resources from the planet, the distribution of that to the top .01%, up in Midgar,” Bobby remembers. “It was very influential for us all. We spent two years playing the game, again and again. We left the Playstation on as we went to bed so we could drift off to that opening theme music.”
“It primed us for this concept of a battle between workers and a hyper-capitalist machine hellbent on extracting every ounce of value from the planet,” he continued. “Soon after [the game came out] 9/11 happened, the Iraq war… there was an increasing comprehension [for us] that evil things were being done for the sake of making people rich.”
“Twenty-five years ago playing this game we didn’t realize how important that fight was—increasingly, [now] we do realize how important it is. Now people are going vegan, trying to help the world move to a well-being based economic system—we’re all considering increasingly extreme actions ourselves in order to fight the fight.”
Tudor England was a treacherous place for ambitious courtiers, as the steady rise and sudden tragic fall of Thomas Cromwell—one of the chief architects of the English Reformation under King Henry VIII—makes clear. Cromwell had just completed work on a magnificent private mansion in London when he fell out of the king’s favor and was summarily beheaded. Now, a British historian has produced the most detailed analysis yet of both that mansion and the townhouse in which Cromwell lived prior to its completion, presented in a new paper published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.
“These two houses were the homes of this great man, they were the places where he lived with his wife and two daughters, where his son grew up,” said Nick Holder, a historian and research fellow at English Heritage and the University of Exeter, who authored the new paper. “It was also the place he went back to at night after being with Henry VIII at court and just got on with the hard graft of running the country. No one else has looked at these two houses in quite as much detail comparing all the available evidence. This is about as close as you are going to get to walking down these 16th-century corridors.”
There was a time when historians considered Thomas Cromwell to be a rather insignificant court figure during Henry VIII’s reign. That view began to shift in the 1950s, as historians realized just how much Cromwell may have influenced the king and Parliament during a particularly chaotic period in British history. Much of that chaos, it must be said, stemmed from the monarch’s impetuous nature, particularly when it came to wives.
Cromwell’s star had already been rising at court when Henry VIII first stated his desire to have his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. It was Cromwell who first tried, and failed, to get the pope’s approval for the annulment. So naturally he became a staunch champion of the so-called doctrine of royal supremacy, which claimed that the reigning king was also the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thereby granting Henry the power to annul the marriage himself.
Cromwell was instrumental in getting the House of Commons to recognize royal supremacy in March 1532. Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor soon after, marking a huge victory for Cromwell and the reformation movement. Parliament enacted legislation to formally break with Rome in 1534, and Cromwell became the king’s principal secretary and chief minister. More was subsequently executed for refusing to swear an oath of succession to accept the king’s new powers.
Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn on January 25, 1533, and Cromwell’s position at court seemed secure; the king named him Royal Vicegerent in 1535. Then the marriage to Anne began to sour, driven in part by her inability to give Henry a male heir. But she also instructed her chaplains to speak out against Cromwell because of a legislative disagreement over what to do with the proceeds from the dissolution of monasteries. Plus, the king’s notorious wandering eye had by now fallen on Jane Seymour.
Most historians agree that Cromwell played a key role in smearing Anne’s reputation with accusations of infidelity. She was executed on May 19, 1536, and by the end of the month, Henry had married Jane Seymour, forcing Parliament to issue a new Act of Succession to recognize the new queen. Cromwell’s faithful service was again richly rewarded: he became Lord Privy Seal and was named a baron in 1536. By then, construction of his grand London manor on Throgmorton Street was already underway.
Holder has been researching the medieval friaries of London for more than a decade, and his earliest reconstructions of the floor plans for both the manor and Cromwell’s tenement house near Austin Friars were included in his 2011 doctoral dissertation. This latest paper is the first time Holder has fully presented the historical evidence he gathered to make those reconstructions, drawing on letters, leases, surveys, and inventories. And it includes an artist’s illustration, based on all that research, of what the mansion probably looked like.
Cromwell likely paid 4 pounds a year in rent for his London townhouse—one of ten tenements owned and rented out by an Augustinian friary. There were 14 rooms across three stories, with at least one cellar and a handful of attic garrets in the roof for servant housing. It was Cromwell’s primary family residence; his book-lined private office was located in the ground-floor parlor.
For his reconstruction, Holder relied upon two inventories of the house and its contents, providing a room-by-room description, including the coats of arms of two former patrons: Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Grey. According to Holder, this suggests that, despite his ruthless reputation at court, Cromwell still retained some private loyalties.
“In the 1520s [Cromwell] seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”
Those inventories also provide some insight into Cromwell’s religious leanings. “We think of Cromwell as Henry VIII’s henchman, carrying out his policy, including closing down the monasteries, and we know that by about 1530 Cromwell became one of the new Evangelical Protestants,” said Holder. “But when you look at the inventory of his house in the 1520s, he doesn’t seem such a religious radical, he seems more of a traditional English Catholic. He’s got various religious paintings on the wall, he’s got his own holy relic, which is very much associated with traditional Catholics, not with the new Evangelicals, and he’s even got a home altar. In the 1520s he seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”
Cromwell had been quietly buying up properties around his London townhouse for several years, including acquiring (by apparently illegal means) a 22-foot strip of land that technically belonged to a neighbor, in order to have a larger garden. Construction was delayed in late 1536 when most of the workmen were conscripted to put down a rebellion in Yorkshire (the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising). Holder estimates that Cromwell spent roughly 1,600 pounds on the residence, which seems to have served multiple functions: family residence, administrative base, and an excellent venue for entertaining prestigious visitors.
The new mansion boasted 58 rooms, plus at least a dozen servants’ garrets and several storage cellars for wine and beer. It spanned two main blocks built around three courtyards, linked by a long frontage on Throgmorton Street and by connecting galleries at the rear of the house with windows overlooking the courtyard. There were several kitchens (including a separate pastry kitchen) on the ground floor, a good-sized larder, a buttery and pantry, a chapel, a stable, and a porter’s lodge.
A large stair tower led to the first floor, which featured a waiting room and parlor, as well as several bedrooms—including what was likely Cromwell’s private and family chambers, located in the west block with a view of the garden. “The family apartment even included a separate bathroom with a plaster ceiling,” Holder wrote. The heated halls were likely hung with rich tapestries, and one of the halls featured bay windows—an unusual architectural feature in Tudor homes. The second floor consisted of a series of bedchambers along the street frontage, likely reserved for Cromwell’s staff and senior household servants. The other servants were probably housed in the various attic garrets.
There was also a storage space for Cromwell’s considerable personal armory, including several sets of German plate armor, almost 100 head pieces and helmets, and 759 bows with hundreds of sheaves of arrows. The large, detached garden may have included a bowling alley and tennis court, although it’s possible these were never finished.
The mansion was completed in the summer of 1539, but Cromwell did not enjoy the luxury for long. Jane Seymour had died in 1537, and Cromwell convinced the king to marry Anne of Cleves, passing on reports of her beauty and a flattering portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. But Henry was not at all happy when he finally met Anne in person, declaring, “I like her not!” He still went ahead with the wedding but apparently had trouble performing on their wedding night because he found her so unattractive. The marriage was never officially consummated.
Cromwell was one of only two courtiers who knew that secret, and when it inevitably leaked at court, Cromwell was blamed. Blabbing about the king’s humiliating inability to perform sexually wasn’t exactly solid legal grounds for execution, but Cromwell had made plenty of enemies during his rise to power, and they were all too happy to manufacture a variety of trumped-up charges: corruption, protecting people suspected of Catholic sympathies, and so forth. “This then is my reward for faithful service!” Cromwell reportedly said, right before he was tossed in the Tower of London and condemned to death without trial.
Meanwhile, Anne of Cleves was just fine with having the marriage annulled and was rewarded handsomely for her cooperation. Henry next married Catherine Howard on the very day Cromwell was beheaded: July 28, 1540. (Howard suffered the same fate the following year, and Henry subsequently married his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr.) I’m sure it was little consolation to Cromwell that the king later expressed regret for executing “the most faithful servant he ever had.” Naturally, Henry blamed his ministers for presenting him with “pretexts” and false accusations.
As for Thomas Cromwell’s grand London mansion, it was among the assets seized by the state; some of the furniture went to Anne of Cleves as part of her annulment settlement. The house remained unused for three years and was then purchased by a trade group called the Drapers’ Company in 1543 for an estimated 1,200 pounds, per Holder. And it’s a good thing that the drapers did, since the group’s archives held a “treasure trove” of relevant documents—including the surveys and inventories Holder used to create such a complete picture of Cromwell’s London homes.
DOI: Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 2021. 10.1080/00681288.2021.1923812 (About DOIs).
Anyone who has played a flight simulator knows that screen real estate is imperative. Your average 16:9 TV or monitor is fine for most video games, but flight simulators are all about the spatial awareness of sitting in a cockpit, peeking at a massive console of virtualized buttons and screens, and having your midair view framed by a plane’s windshields and windows.
A wider monitor is better for that simulation, while a freakin’ virtual reality headset opens up the virtual skies—but at the cost of VR’s high processing demands.
Since July 2020, the teams responsible for Microsoft Flight Simulator have been pledging to deliver a truly playable VR version. That pledge kicked off months later with serious turbulence, and after my earliest tests, I strongly urged interested fans to prepare their stomachs for a bumpy ride.
The only stutters should come from the air up there
This week, my tune has changed. I now recommend that everyone with a strong gaming PC and a VR headset do whatever they can to test MSFS‘s VR mode. This comes in the wake of a giant patch, timed alongside the new Xbox Series X/S version of the game. The patch targets the game’s CPU-based performance and delivers far more stable frame rates, whether on your favorite standard monitor or spread across a pair of VR headset lenses.
The biggest difference comes from a direct comparison to my earliest VR testing scenario, as run on a rig with an i7-8700K CPU, Nvidia RTX 3080 GPU, and 32GB of DDR4-3000 RAM. In December 2020, I noted that I was unable to get the game up to a 90 fps refresh at the lowest VR settings while the resolution was scaled down to 60 percent of the native count. Using the same rig this week, I can bump up various graphics settings slightly higher, run the native resolution at 70 percent of native count, and hit a frame rate that hovers much closer to 90 fps.
One huge contributor to the VR mode’s performance can’t be broken out into a “frame rate average” count: frame time spikes. The number of in-game stutters and spikes has dramatically dropped thanks to the PC version’s latest updates, so even when you fly over a more populated city and MSFS can’t keep up with the demands of a 90 fps refresh, it still hovers somewhere close to 80 fps.
That improvement is the secret sauce to enduring lower frame rates in VR. You may very well be fine with a slower refresh within the confines of a slow-moving virtual airplane, especially since MSFS revolves around the intentional, careful piloting of realistic planes, as opposed to whiplash-inducing dogfights. If that means you’d rather run this game on slower hardware or crank up various settings to reach a maximum frame rate of 72 fps or even 60 fps, then more power to you. Now, with CPU-based stutter dramatically reduced, I can safely recommend that PC-VR enthusiasts no longer need the most expensive rig imaginable to see what MSFS‘s VR mode might feel like.
Like in my tests of the console version, I spun up cherry-picked locales that I’m familiar with to conduct my VR tests. Some are filled with massive cityscapes. Others are boring, desolate stretches of flat land. And a few require that I fly through valleys with intense terrain and strong weather systems to match. I found that dense cities were more likely to trigger mild drops in frame rate than massive stretches of nature, while all scenarios were still subject to occasional, bizarre pauses lasting as long as 10 seconds. I’m not sure how much those pauses had to do with the game’s servers being pounded by new console owners, but they were certainly annoying—though I’ll take those kinds of pauses over the constant stutters in the VR and PC versions of old.
Also, be warned: geometric detail still weirdly morphs as you approach it in VR. That’s because an aggressive Level of Detail (LoD) slider keeps the demanding game running at a smooth rate. Between that issue and lower-resolution elements like textures and water reflections, your brain won’t necessarily be tricked into believing that you’re in real-life flight, even if you surround your VR rig with realistic and satisfying PC control systems. Unless you own a supercomputer from the future, you’re in VR for increased visibility and general comfort, not photo-realistic visuals. (Though in certain settings, particularly the Seattle gallery above, MSFS can still look mighty fine in VR, thanks to how well many of its weather systems run.)
I also spun up a few VR flights with AMD’s RX 6800XT in the same rig and was surprised to see that version struggled more to reach comparable frame rates. I’m hopeful fixing this is a matter of small patches for either Xbox Game Studios or AMD, especially since I had expected AMD to win this particular battle (since Xbox Series X/S consoles leverage AMD’s RDNA 2 GPU architecture already).
One caveat: blurry instrument panels
The same optimizations can be found throughout the game’s non-VR version on PC. This is fantastic news for anyone who might have previously tested MSFS via a temporary Game Pass subscription and then bailed. If that was your specific woe, I recommend flying MSFS on PC once again.
As far as optimizing MSFS in VR, your best path to higher average frame rates will come from lowering the resolution within MSFS‘s VR graphics menus. After that, just make your peace with as few shadow-related toggles as possible. Ambient occlusion is a fantastic graphics option to enable far more realistic touches of shadow on objects in your cockpit. At the same time, it drops VR frames way more than it’s worth. For your own rig, start by going into SteamVR’s “Developer” settings tab, then turning on “Display Frame Timing” or “GPU Performance Graph.” That will put a wacky little box in your view at all times. Once that’s on, boot a quick VR flight instance in New York City or London, wait a minute for any possible cloud-streamed data to trickle in, pause, fiddle with various graphics settings, and hit “apply.” You’ll see an immediate effect on the frame time graph while paused midgame, and you’ll want a count of roughly 11.1 for 90 fps, 12.5 for 80 fps, or 13.9 for 72 fps. Once you see a count approaching any of those refresh rates, unpause, fly normally, and keep an eye on the graph for performance variance before going back into the menus and adjusting once more.
Your favorite performative result will most likely require downscaling the resolution severely. That will mean some blurry text on your favorite instrument panels—but also some solid default resolving of distant details via the game’s built-in antialiasing methods. (In other words: if you’re on a newer VR set like Valve Index, HP Reverb G2, or Oculus Quest 2 and look in the distance, it won’t look like a blurry HTC Vive 1.0 scene of old.)
Just be sure to disable all “reprojection” options in SteamVR for MSFS. This system does a particularly bad job of resolving a blurry, constantly moving propeller in your line of sight.
Should you take the VR dive as a result of this article, or if you’ve already rushed to do so since the update’s launch roughly 24 hours ago, I’d love to hear your own test results and recommendations in the comments section below.
Listing image by Xbox Game Studios / Asobo Studios