Tencent has finally come out of a prolonged freeze on game approvals as Beijing granted licenses to two of its mobile games this month.
According to a notice published Thursday by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, Tencent is one of nearly 200 games assigned licenses in January.
That’s big news for the Shenzhen-based firm, which has seen its share price plummet in the past months because the licensing halt crippled its ability to generate gaming revenues. Tencent is best known for its immensely popular WeChat messenger, but games contribute a bulk of its earnings.
Both games approved are for educational purposes so are unlikely to generate income at the level of Tencent’s more lucrative role-playing titles, such as Honor of Kings. Tencent has been at the center of government criticisms on games deemed harmful and addictive, and the firm has subsequently introduced so-called “utility games” in 2018 designed to promote traditional Chinese culture, science and technology.
That said, the tech giant could be raking in big bucks from a third-party game that also got approved this week. The title comes from China’s third-largest game publisher, Perfect World, with exclusive publishing rights handled by Tencent.
“The game is the mobile version of the extremely successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game with the same name,” Daniel Ahmad, an analyst at market research firm Niko Partners, suggests to TechCrunch. “We note that Perfect World Mobile is a core game that is set to be a high revenue generating title when it launches.”
China resumed its game approval process in December after a nine-month hiatus during which it worked to reshuffle its main regulating bodies for games. However, it left Tencent, the country’s biggest game publisher, and runner-up NetEase off its first batch of approved titles that month.
NetEase also scored its first post-freeze license in January and had better luck than Tencent, winning a nod for a multiplayer online role-playing game.
Despite the thawing, industry experts warn that approvals will come at a much slower rate than before as Chinese regulators look to more closely monitor game content, putting the burden on developers and publishers to decipher new industry rules.
“The size of the gaming company does not matter. It matters how fast the company can be adapting to the new set of rules and guidelines,” Shenzhen-based game consultant Ilya Gutov told TechCrunch in December.
“As the review and approval process for games resumes, we are confident that Tencent will be producing more compliant and higher-quality cultural work for society and the public,” a Tencent spokesperson said in December, highlighting its plan to churn out content that fits into China’s ideological agenda.
On January 9—three days after supporters of President Trump started a riot at the US Capitol—Sean Evans decided it was time for action. Evans had seen a post on Nextdoor about neighbors running into hostile Trump supporters the night of the riot, leading to a verbal altercation that had left residents of his corner of Northwest DC on edge. Now, rumors flew online that the upcoming inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden would bring more protesters and more armed violence to the streets of his city. “I don’t want them in my neighborhood,” Evans thought to himself. In fact, he didn’t want insurrectionists in the city at all.
So on Nextdoor, Evans asked his neighbors to stop renting out their properties via Airbnband VRBO. A few hours later, another neighbor devised a hashtag: #DontRentDC.
Separately, a group called ShutDownDC gathered 500 volunteers to message DC area Airbnb hosts. The group sent messages to the managers of 3,400 properties in the region—polite ones, according to ShutDownDC organizer Alex Dodd. The messages alerted the Airbnb hosts to an upcoming threat and asked them to please refrain from booking anyone in their homes in the days surrounding the inauguration.
It worked. On Wednesday, Airbnb said it would cancel and block all Washington area reservations next week. Guests who had booked reservations would be refunded; if hosts had reservations or had canceled them recently, they would be reimbursed for the lost income. Airbnb spokesperson Ben Breit said the company “came to this decision following dialog with Washington, DC, officials, the Metro police department, and members of Congress.” (Earlier in the week, DC’s mayor had asked people not to travel to the inauguration; many customary inaugural events will happen online.)
For Airbnb, the incident is a reminder that all its politics is local. The company, now publicly traded with a value of more than $100 billion, has made its reputation on selling visitors on neighborhood authenticity. But its business model has at times made it a lightning rod for local affairs, and left it scrambling to solve social ills. Airbnb has battled with local governments to allow short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. It has tussled with local officials over taxes and data sharing. It has reshaped the economies of tiny vacation towns. It has tried to prevent big parties in rentals, which have sometimes led to violence. More recently, it has met with the ire of neighbors who don’t want virus-stricken out-of-towners filling up their overloaded ICUs.
In DC this month, residents first tried to respond to insurrectionist violence themselves. Evans, the NextDoor organizer, believed it was easier that way. “I thought it would probably be more difficult for me to get Airbnb management to look at any email we sent them. So I thought, ‘Let’s try to do this from the ground up and contact neighbors within our vicinity.’” Most property owners he contacted were nice about it, he says. Some didn’t know about the security threats surrounding the inauguration. Others asked, Why don’t you get in touch with Airbnb about this?
On the other side of the equation, some Airbnb hosts were frustrated by the company’s inaction in the days immediately following the insurrection. They had received messages from neighbors; they wanted to help. But they also didn’t want to lose income during a recession. On Monday, Airbnb released a Capitol Safety Plan outlining additional reviews and booking requirements for guests in the DC area. Beyond that, renters were left to decide about letting out their properties themselves.
One Airbnb host, who asked not to be identified, has been renting the top floors of his home through Airbnb for a year. (DC regulations require homeowners to live on the property of their short-term rentals, though hosts say those rules often are ignored.) Right before Christmas, he approved a reservation for a group to stay in his apartment for what the renter called a “history sightseeing trip.” On the morning of January 6, he noticed the group filing out the front door in Trump gear. When he saw what was happening at the Capitol, he was freaked out. He called the Airbnb emergency support line to seek advice, and the service agent promised to call him back. He left for a friend’s because he didn’t feel comfortable sticking around to find out who or what the renters would bring back.
Then, a 2021 twist: As the renters returned to his house ahead of the city’s emergency 6 pm curfew, they gathered on the porch, activating the man’s Ring camera. “I stormed the Capitol!” he could hear them brag to each other. Airbnb support didn’t call back.
“Each host was basically on their own,” the host says. After a potential renter canceled for inauguration week, he decided to pull the dates from Airbnb himself. Breit, the Airbnb spokesperson, says the company “apologizes that this case was not urgently escalated as it should have been when [the host] contacted our Community Support team.” The host sent the Ring footage to the FBI, and Airbnb says the renter has been suspended pending an investigation.
The “instant on” feature that’s activated by default on new Xbox Series S/X consoles could suck up a total of 4 billion kWh—the equivalent of a year’s operation for a large power plant—from US owners alone through 2025. That’s according to a preliminary report released this week from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentally focused nonprofit advocacy group.
As the name implies, the “instant on” feature of the Series S/X (and the Xbox One before it) lets users skip the usual startup time when turning the console back on. That saves about 10 to 15 seconds of waiting per power cycle on the Series S/X, down from about 45 seconds on the Xbox One. (This is separate from the Xbox Series S/X’s heavily promoted “quick resume” feature that loads the game state for recent titles directly from the system’s fast SSD storage and works in either mode)
“Instant on” standby also lets the system check periodically for system updates in order to download and install them in between play sessions. But leaving the “instant on” feature active means the Xbox Series S/X draws nine to 10 watts of power 24 hours a day—even when it’s not being actively used—compared to less than 1W if the standby settings are switched to “energy saving” mode.
The Xbox Series S/X initially drew 25 to 28W of “instant on” standby power at launch, but a recent firmware update caused a dramatic reduction, placing the new systems below the ~13W drawn by the Xbox One’s “instant on” mode. The PlayStation 5, by contrast, uses between 1 and 2 watts when sitting idle in “rest mode.”
It all adds up
A power draw in the single digit watt range may not sound like much, but it can add up when millions of systems are left plugged in and idling for years at a time. For a single console, that 9W of additional “instant on” power draw can add up to about 78 kWh in a year, or roughly $10.60 in energy costs for an average US home (going by the October 2020 EIA average of 13.6 cents/kWh).
To estimate the total extra “instant on” power draw across all Xbox consoles, NRDC author Noah Horowitz told Ars he assumed 30 million US sales of the Xbox Series S/X through 2025 (a number itself based on estimated sales of the Xbox One). Most of those sales would be concentrated near the system’s launch in Horowitz’s modeling.
Horowitz then assumed that two-thirds of all Xbox owners would stick with whatever the “default” energy setting is on their system. “We don’t have hard data on this but it’s based on typical anecdotal experience whereby users typically stick with the default option, rather than opting out and selecting something different,” Horowitz said.
With all that factored in, Microsoft’s decision to have “instant on” as the default power mode adds up to 4 billion kWh of additional energy consumption over the next five years. That’s roughly equivalent to the annual output of a 500 MW power plant, and it translates to about $500 million in added energy costs and 3 million tons of additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the NRDC’s reckoning.
“Given those numbers, our hope is that most users would be willing to wait an extra 5 to 10 seconds for their console to restart if they knew the impact,” Horowitz writes.
Uncheck that box
The NRDC is urging Microsoft to change the system’s default settings to “energy saving” mode right out of the box worldwide (this is already the case in Europe, thanks to the region’s energy efficiency directive). That change could be implemented by firmware update for existing systems and at the factory for newly sold systems going forward. Microsoft has yet to respond to a request for comment on the matter from Ars.
The NRDC also notes that high-end games consoles are absolute power hogs when it comes to the simple function of playing streaming movies or TV shows. New consoles draw anywhere from 31W (for the Xbox Series S) to 70W (for the PS5) when streaming from Netflix or Amazon Prime in NRDC’s testing. That’s way more than the 3W or so for a dedicated streaming box like Roku or Apple TV.
“We have repeatedly urged Sony and Microsoft to include a dedicated low-power chip for video playback in their consoles, and this request is even more important today given the potential for long hours of ‘binge watching’ via the console,” Horowitz writes.
The modern era of Marvel Comics television has been a jumpy one, with ABC and Netflix dividing-and-conquering based on available comic series, exclusivity deals, and otherwise trying not to step on Marvel Studios’ gargantuan toes. Fans got some fascinating television out of the process, but those network deals eventually fizzled—perhaps not coincidentally, right around the time that the Disney corporate umbrella began plotting its own content-filled streaming service.
As a result, today’s premiere of Wandavision on Disney+ is far from the first TV series with clear links to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it’s definitely the clearest one yet. Take two major actors from repeat MCU films, slap them into the first-ever TV series that opens with a Marvel Studios logo, and you’ve got yourself one massive statement of intent.
As if that weren’t gutsy enough, Wandavision goes further in terms of ambition with a two-part series premiere that will befuddle fans and outsiders alike. After over a year of squint-worthy reveals, with hints of black-and-white TV throwbacks and superhero-filled intrigue, we have 65 minutes of goofiness, dread, and a sense that this weird series is only going to get weirder.
Doozy me this
Mild spoilers from here on out, based on previously revealed series trailers.
More bluntly, the first 30-minute episode is so odd that it’s unsurprising to see Disney+ break its tradition of “one episode a week” and offer the second episode for immediate binging. The first episode commits severely to the series’ apparent “twin timeline” gimmick by focusing almost entirely on a seemingly idyllic world, trapped in a late 1950s TV sitcom universe. Every man wears a suit; every woman wears a pointy bra and immaculately coiffed hair; and every scene is bathed in absurdly bright lights, black-and-white filters, and artificial audience laughter.
Even if you haven’t followed lead characters Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), Wandavision quickly clarifies their otherworldly superpowers—meaning, each I Love Lucy-caliber moment of laugh-tracked slapstick has a healthy superhero dollop. Tidying the kitchen means juggling a series of hovering dishes. A dated reference to demanding food from the wife is interrupted by a reminder that Vision’s a robot and can’t eat, anyway.
The first episode primarily hints to the series’ underlying layer by peppering the cookie-cutter sitcom setup with increasingly nagging questions. Husband and wife see that today’s date is marked on the calendar with a heart, and at first, we’re led to believe it’s funny that they both can’t remember why it’s there. Anniversary? Special occasion? Wandavision sets a predictable sitcom plot into motion when the couple splits up in making incorrect assumptions about this date, leading to a wacky dinner party where the duo tries to both keep guests comfortable and hide their superpowers. What a doozy!
We get about 20 minutes into the episode before question marks begin piling up, right around the time that the episode’s trope-filled ’50s throwbacks grow a bit tiresome. Olsen and Bettany’s chemistry is the best part about this goofy content, but when they split up for the day, their supporting cast—a dry-as-dirt bunch of office coworkers for Vision, and an absurdly aroused neighbor (Kathryn Hahn) for Wanda—doesn’t live up to that spark. Thankfully, the dinner party gets downright weird, as we come to understand that the date on the calendar was the tip of the couple’s iceberg. Turns out, they’re as confused by this whole 1950s pastiche as we are in the audience.
For which children?
The episode takes a little too long to get everyone onto the same page—and there’s enough foreshadowing through the episode to make viewers begin tapping their watches and saying, “Get on with it.” But the weirdness cultivates enough of a sense of dread that I, at the very least, was willing to commit—but I do wonder if I’d have felt the same way without a guarantee of a second episode to watch immediately after.
Sure enough, this second episode begins cheerfully toying with the fact that Wanda and Vision appear to exist in two places at once, even though the camera continues focusing only on their black-and-white sitcom selves. We also see an advancement in the series’ apparent era, with the following episode looking nearly a decade newer in terms of fashion and video treatment, along with an increasingly clear look at what doesn’t quite add up in this idyllic universe.
A fundraiser event prompts the couple’s neighbors to say the phrase “for the children” in monotone unison—often enough for us to notice that there aren’t any kids around. An inter-office chat peppers dark anti-communist sentiment between playful banter. And a freak radio broadcast includes chatter that seems to be aimed at Wanda, as uttered by whatever man makes a brief cameo at the end of the first episode. That says nothing of the way these first two episodes play around with hints of color, or the fictional commercials that shamelessly tie the series into the larger MCU.
All of this is, once again, stitched together by Olsen and Bettany driving the series with a goofy, adorable chemistry that they would otherwise never get to show off in Marvel Studios films. At the same time, the duo still carves out their own humorous space with superpower sight gags usually relegated to the dustbin of ’80s sitcom history (e.g. Small Wonder, Out of this World). Without this duo in the drivers’ seat, quite frankly, I may not have been eager to recommend the 65 minutes on Disney+ thus far. The show is otherwise an exercise in feeding MCU teases and mysteries, while building an entirely new plotline that seems to borrow from similar Scarlet Witch comics stories (with a few distinct differences thus far, arguably to fit into whatever film follows this series).
Big ups to the House of Mouse
But I also can’t help but enjoy how outright dark and weird the series gets in those moments when the first two episodes’ shimmering, superficial layer starts to crack, revealing a pulsing, disturbing belly beneath. Marvel Studios is clearly cashing in on the combined factors of viewer goodwill, buoyed by millions of Avengers film fans coming in with allegiance and understanding, and the fact that viewers aren’t stumbling onto this show in episodic, network-TV fashion. I imagine a confused comics outsider tuning into the first episode 22 minutes in, when a man begins choking on his dinner while his wife begins berating him in a cold, almost David Lynch-ian manner, and immediately shouting, “There’s something wrong with the TV!” while changing the channel to Wheel Of Fortune.
For that, I applaud the House of Mouse for putting this oddball series front-and-center on Disney+, guaranteeing to confuse at least a few hundred-thousand viewers while delivering a slow-burn story of what the heck has happened to Scarlet Witch and Vision since (or, uh, during?) the events of Avengers: Endgame. It’s another example of Disney making the most of a captive streaming audience and taking existing properties to strange new places, instead of trying to please everyone with every big-ticket character in a film’s two-hour runtime. (Or, as of late, more like 2.5 hours.) Best of all, this two-part premiere isn’t really demanding. Go on, put the episodes on while checking your phone or making a meal. You can always pause and rewind when a glaring red-and-yellow object appears in the otherwise black-and-white frame.