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China’s new gaming rules to ban poker, blood and imperial schemes – TechCrunch

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Lots of news has surfaced from China’s gaming industry in recent weeks as the government hastens to approve a massive backlog of titles in the world’s largest market for video games.

Last Friday, the country’s State Administration of Press and Publication, the freshly minted gaming authority born from a months-long reshuffle last year that led to an approval blackout, enshrined a new set of guidelines for publication that are set to move some to joy and others to sorrow.

On April 22, China finally resumed the approval process to license new games for monetization. Licensing got back on track in December but Reuters reported in February that the government stopped accepting new submissions due to a mounting pile of applications.

The bad news: The number of games allowed onto the market annually will be capped, and some genres of games will no longer be eligible. Mahjong and poker games are taken off the approval list following a wave of earlier government crackdown over concerns that such titles may channel illegal gambling. These digital forms of traditional leisure activities are immensely popular for studios for they are relatively cheap to make and bear lucrative fruit. According to video game researcher Niko Partners, 37 percent of the 8,561 games approved in 2017 were poker and mahjong titles.

While the new rule is set to wipe out hundreds of small developers focused on the genre, it may only have a limited impact on the entrenched players as the restriction applies only to new applicants.

“It won’t affect us much because we are early to the market and have accumulated a big collection of licenses,” a marketing manager at one of China’s biggest online poker and mahjong games publishers told TechCrunch.

China will also stop approving certain games inspired by its imperial past, including “gongdou”, which directly translates to harem scheming, as well as “guandou”, the word for palace official competition. The life inside palaces has inspired blockbuster TV series such as the Story of Yanxi Palace, an in-house production from China’s Netflix equivalent iQiyi . But these plots also touch a nerve with Chinese officials who worry about “obscene contents and the risk of political metaphors,” Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst at Nikos Partners, suggested to TechCrunch.

Screenshots of Xi Fei Zhuan, a mobile game that lets users play the role of harems to win love from the emperor. Image source: Superjoy Interactive Games

Games that contain images of corpses and blood will also be rejected. Developers previously modified blood color to green to circumvent restrictions, but the renewed guidelines have effectively ruled out any color variations of blood.

“Chinese games developers are used to arbitrary regulations. They are quick at devising methods to circumvent requirements,” a Guangzhou-based indie games developer told TechCrunch.

That may only work out for companies armed with sufficient developing capabilities and resources to counter new policies. For instance, Tencent was quick to implement an anti-addiction system for underage users before the practice became an industry-wide norm as of late.

“Many smaller publishers will have a harder time under this new set of regulations, which will require them to spend extra time and money to ensure games are up to code,” suggested Ahmad. “We’ve already seen that many smaller publishers were unable to survive the temporary game license approval freeze last year and we expect to see further consolidation of the market this year.”

China has over the past year taken aim at the gaming industry over concerns related to gaming addiction among minors and illegal content, such as those that promote violence or deviate from the government’s ideologies. To enforce the growing list of requirements, an Online Game Ethics Committee launched in December under the guidance of the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party to help the new gaming regulator in vetting title submissions.

More than 1,000 games have been approved since China ended the gaming freeze in December, though Tencent, the dominant player in the market, has yet to receive the coveted license required for monetizing its hugely popular mobile title PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

Uncertain waters in the gaming industry have wiped billions of dollars off the giant’s market cap and prompted it to initiate a bigger push in such non-game segments as cloud computing and financial technologies. NetEase, the runner-up in China’s gaming market, reacted by trimming its staff to cut costs.

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Exterminate! BBC drops trailer for Revolution of the Daleks special

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Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is a prisoner of the Judoon in Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks, a holiday special that will air on New Year’s Day 2021.

The series 12 finale of Doctor Who back in March ended on a cliffhanger, with Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor imprisoned and her loyal companions (or “fam”) back on Earth without her. Fortunately, we don’t have much longer to wait to find out what happens. The BBC dropped the official trailer for the upcoming holiday special, Revolution of the Daleks, slated to air on New Year’s Day.

(Spoilers for S12 below.)

As I noted in my review earlier this year, series 12 felt like classic Doctor Who, to the delight of longtime fans disappointed by Whittaker’s first outing. (I thought that first outing was solid and showed a lot of promise.) In the episode “Fugitive of the Judoon,” the Doctor encountered the intergalactic police force-for-hire, the Judoon (introduced in the series three episode “Smith and Jones”). The Judoon were supposedly hunting a man who lived in Gloucester with his wife, Ruth (Jo Martin). But their true target turned out to be Ruth, who recovered lost memories and declared herself to be the Doctor, with her own buried blue police box TARDIS. Yet neither Doctor had any recollection of the other.

In the penultimate episode of series 12, “Ascension of the Cybermen,” the Doctor and her “fam” traveled to the far future and humanity’s last outpost. They discovered a portal leading to the now-ruined planet Gallifrey, out of which popped the Master. In the finale, the Master revealed the truth about a story the Doctor and the Master were told as little Time Tots about a “Timeless Child” (briefly mentioned in last season’s “The Ghost Monument”), who was the source of the Time Lords’ ability to regenerate. It should be painfully obvious that this Timeless Child was the Doctor herself. Doctor Ruth was a prior incarnation she just couldn’t remember, thanks to past memory wipes. And that revelation is definitely going to have plenty of repercussions going forward.

Anyway, with the help of a Lone Cyberman, the Master converted all the dead Time Lords on Gallifrey into “CyberMasters,” and while the Doctor and her allies thwarted his original plan, he escaped with the CyberMasters. The companions safely made it back to Earth in another TARDIS (with the outward appearance of a house), but as the Doctor was making her way back to her own TARDIS, she was arrested by the Judoon and taken to a prison somewhere in deep space.

Ending on such a cliffhanger was a bold move, but showrunner Chris Chibnall promised back in March that the Doctor’s current predicament would be addressed in the upcoming holiday special, chock-full of Daleks, exterminations, and “thrills, laughter, and tears.” Chibnall deliberately avoided bringing in classic Doctor Who villains in his first outing as showrunner, although the Doctor and her “fam” defeated a Reconnaissance Dalek that had managed to rebuild itself after a long hibernation in the 2019 holiday special, Resolution.

Chibnall has said this latest holiday special will be both a standalone episode and a sequel to Resolution. “In a sense, that Dalek gives birth to this next iteration,” he told Radio Times.

In the trailer, we see Jo Patterson (Harriet Walters)—who appears to be the British Prime Minister—introducing two Daleks as “defense drones” in front of 10 Downing Street before peering inside one of the shells along with the villainous Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) and his sidekick Leo (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). We’re also getting more Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman)—we last saw him in “Fugitive of the Judoon,” in which he delivered a cryptic message to the Doctor via her companions to “Beware the Lone Cyberman.”

Per the official description:

Viewers last saw the Thirteenth Doctor at the end of season 12, where her fate was left hanging in the balance as she was locked away in a high-security alien prison with no hope of escape. In the upcoming New Year’s Day special, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are far away on Earth and having to carry on with their lives without her. However, they soon discover a disturbing plan forming. A plan which involves a Dalek. How can you fight a Dalek without the Doctor? Even with Captain Jack’s help, the gang are set to face one of their biggest and most frightening challenges yet.

Alas, it’s been confirmed that Revolution of the Daleks will mark the final appearance of two of the Doctor’s trio of companions over the last two series: Bradley Walsh’s Graham and Tosin Cole’s Ryan. “The fam as a four is no more,” Whittaker said at a recent press conference, pronouncing herself “absolutely devastated” at the cast shakeup. Chibnall was understandably loath to offer many details, particularly on the question of whether the characters might return to the series at some point in the future. But he did say we could expect an emotional exit.

“We’ve all been in tears watching it,” Chibnall said. “It’s a really important part of the mix of the special, lots of thrills, lots of humor, lots of Daleks, and lots of emotions. We don’t shy away from what it means for this family to have its final moments together. I hope it feels like a good send-off for those two characters.”

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks will air on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2021, at 8pm EST on BBC America.

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Twin Galaxies attacks Billy Mitchell as a fraud in new legal claims

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Enlarge / Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day (left) with Billy Mitchell.

Twin Galaxies is going on the offensive in its long-running legal and public relations battle with Billy Mitchell. In a cross-complaint filed last month, the video game score-tracking organization accuses Mitchell and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day of a “decades-long pattern of abuse, impropriety, nepotism, and fraud” intended to falsely “manufacture a persona for Billy Mitchell as the greatest video game player of all time.”

They “knew that these score performances were fake”

The counterclaim, filed in response to Mitchell’s own claims of defamation against Twin Galaxies, goes much farther in attacking Mitchell than the organization’s previous statements. In the past, Twin Galaxies’ defense against defamation has narrowly focused on what it says was a good-faith analysis of the tapes Mitchell submitted for three alleged Donkey Kong high scores, which Twin Galaxies no longer recognizes as legitimate.

In the past, the organization was careful not to speak to Mitchell’s potential motives or any actions that may have led to the creation of those tapes. Instead, it focused on technical anomalies in the video itself that led to the determination that “we now believe that they are not from an original unmodified DK arcade PCB.”

In its new counterclaim, though, Twin Galaxies now directly says Mitchell “lacked the requisite natural skill or ability to be the greatest video game player of all time” and accuses Mitchell and Day (collectively referred to as “Old Twin Galaxies” because of their alleged intractable ties to the corporation) of planning to “return Billy Mitchell’s prestige with fraudulent scores.”

“Both Billy Mitchell and Walter Day knew that these score performances were fake,” Twin Galaxies writes in its complaint of the Donkey Kong score tapes. “But [it] still included the scores on the Twin Galaxies Score Database because of their need for self-aggrandization, their avarice, and their desire to create perceived value for the database so that they could one day sell Twin Galaxies and the Twin Galaxies Score Database and take the money for themselves.”

Questioning the first perfect Pac-Man

While much of Twin Galaxies’ complaint focuses on the heavily discussed issues surrounding Mitchell’s Donkey Kong tapes, the complaint goes farther in alleging that Mitchell and Day sought to suppress scores from other competitors and alter rules in order to secure Mitchell’s position atop the scoreboards.

That includes allegedly rejecting claims from other players who had achieved a “perfect” Pac-Man score of 3,333,360 prior to Mitchell’s 1999 record. That allegation, which has made the rounds in high-score circles for years, would undercut Mitchell’s claim to fame as the first to reach that lofty goal.

In other cases, Old Twin Galaxies allegedly suppressed Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. scores to protect Mitchell’s position, including a number of scores that were central to the drama in the 2007 King of Kong documentary.

Legal and financial interests

Mitchell and Day’s alleged manipulation and lying about old scores has become a legal matter, the counterclaim states, in part because the pair “represented and warranted in the Purchase Agreement that the Twin Galaxies Score Database does not contain any untrue, or misleading statements of fact.”

The alleged lies led to “a loss of value of the assets purchased from Old Twin Galaxies, particularly a loss of value in the Twin Galaxies Score Database because of the association with fraudulent scores,” according to the complaint. That alleged fraud also “fomented distrust in many of these important communities toward Twin Galaxies, thereby diminishing its value” without the new owners’ knowledge, the complaint states.

Mitchell (left) and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day (right) pose with a fan.
Enlarge / Mitchell (left) and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day (right) pose with a fan.

Beyond the score adjudication allegations, the counterclaim accuses Mitchell and Day of mismanaging the funds of “Old Twin Galaxies” to “[treat] the assets of the corporation as their own by paying personal debts with the corporation’s funds.” According to the complaint, the pair co-mingled their own funds with those of the corporation, made promises of stock offerings that it never intended to keep, and stiffed creditors on multiple debts.

The alleged financial improprieties also extend to a previous 2008 sale of the Twin Galaxies assets to Peter Bouvier. That $200,000 sale was reversed, the counterclaim alleges, when Mitchell and Day “took control of the Twin Galaxies Score Database from Peter Bouvier by exercising undue influence over him while he was incapacitated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Twin Galaxies says that this counterclaim wouldn’t have been necessary if the organization had won a dismissal in a recent anti-SLAPP motion against Mitchell’s defamation suit. But now that Mitchell’s suit is heading to trial, he has, “in a sense, forced [Twin Galaxies’] hand to pursue these claims” in order to fully defend itself, according to a statement from Twin Galaxies lawyer David Tashroudian.

Mitchell and his lawyers have not responded to a request from Ars for comment on the new allegations. A hearing on the cross-complaint is due to be argued in Los Angeles County Court on December 11.

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Meet the new generation of puzzle-makers bringing mystery to your door

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Enlarge / Luckily in 2020, there may be an at-home puzzle for everyone.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I broke into a museum.

Well, we didn’t break in, exactly. We had keys, so it was more like, you know, a little light trespassing. The keys came from some guy in a hooded cloak standing around outside, but they worked, and the cops never showed up. So, long story short: there’s an artifact sitting in our living room currently, and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it.

The artifact, alas, exists only digitally (for now, at least). And both the keys and the museum were made entirely of paper. My husband and I both wore cozy pajama pants for the break-in slightly unauthorized entry, which took place on our coffee table while I sipped a glass of red wine.

If all this sounds terribly confusing, know that we were playing a game made by the Curious Correspondence Club, a subscription box filled with mysteries instead of with snacks. It was one of a litany of at-home mystery boxes we’ve played through in the past two years, a stack of adventures each positioned somewhere between an escape room, a puzzle, and an alternate reality game. So it’s not unusual that our home remains full of ancient, furled maps and long-lost artifacts pointing the way to solve mysteries of the ages… none of which existed till, roughly speaking, last Thursday.

The birth of a genre

Escape room games have been available at your local board game (or big box) retailer for a few years now, but they’ve got a new cousin in town via a nascent field that sprang almost out of nowhere in the past three years. These experiences are not board games, nor are they tabletop games in the roleplay sense. Some are monthly or quarterly subscriptions; others are bespoke, painstaking designs. Some rely heavily on Internet interaction; others are entirely hand-crafted physical goods.

The entire genre is so new that no two fans or creators seem to agree on what to call it. Enthusiasts have tried “mystery boxes,” “puzzle boxes,” and “at-home escape room,” but no single name seems to have stuck.

“To me, I think the encompassing genre is ‘tabletop puzzle game,'” designer Rita Orlov tells Ars. “Sometimes those are more narrative. Sometimes they’re really just puzzles. Or sometimes it’s a narrative experience and not even really very puzzling. It seems like there are so many subgenres, even in this kind of very niche genre.”

Orlov personally calls her games narrative playable adventures. The Tale of Ord, which she launched in 2018 to near-universal acclaim, is arguably the growing field’s first blockbuster hit. In the two years since, Orlov herself has become as close to a legend as the growing mystery-puzzle-adventure-narrative scene has, earning respect from players and fellow creators alike. (Every single person I talked to for this story suggested, unprompted, that I should speak with Orlov, too.)

PostCurious, Orlov’s company, only ever made 500 copies of Tale of Ord; used editions have become a hot commodity among collectors. The game unfolds over the course of four separate packages and culminates in something of a final exam puzzle that requires you to put together everything you’ve learned over the first three installments in order to solve and unlock a literal, surprisingly sturdy, wooden box. Its popularity has made Tale of Ord a yardstick against which new experiences are often measured, particularly “found object” style games. But only two years later, the competition has indeed heated up.

20 years in the making…

Many of these new experiences weave their fictions tightly into the history and reality in which most of us live. Solutions to puzzles and hints for where to go next will lie in real historical cues or simply within answers you can find on Google. In short, these new concepts are drawing on a decades-old tradition in digital gaming: the ARG, or alternate reality game.

EA tried launching a paid ARG, Majestic, back in 2001. The game was at the time a new concept, blending real-world phone calls, emails, and Internet scavenger hunts with an X-Files-inspired conspiracy theme. As a commercial venture, it was a fairly spectacular flop. As an idea, however, it kicked off something of a trend.

Microsoft commissioned its own ARG, I Love Bees, a few years later as a marketing tool for Halo 2. According to 42 Entertainment, who developed the game, I Love Bees ultimately drew more than three million players into its “fractured narrative.” Video games, too, were also starting to play with the idea, such as French developer Lexis Numérique’s In Memoriam and Evidence: The Last Ritual. Mr. Robot famously partnered with Mozilla for an ARG that clumsily bled into your Web browser in recent years.

That humble thread—”what if…?”—weaving the real and the unreal is now a core part of a countless number of experiences. Some, like Tale of Ord, send you artifacts and ask you to unravel their mystery. Then there are experiences like Club Drosselmeyer, which draw heavily from interactive theater to create an interactive ambience. (More about that in a bit.)

Yacine Merzouk and Michelle Rundbaken between them are the minds behind the Society of Curiosities, which sells a series of loosely linked experiences in a monthly subscription box format, as well as a handful of online-only one-off games. Weaving their created reality into, well, real reality takes some doing, they explained, but the sense of discovery is worth the work.

“When you play, you have to question: is this real? Is this not real?” Rundbaken said. She drew a line to familiar tales that plant breadcrumbs from reality to fabulous findings: “We’re right there watching Indiana Jones and National Treasure and The Goonies, and that’s the feeling we want our players to have—an adventure.”

A sense of immersion is key to making that feeling of discovery really work, Merzouk said, which admittedly “can be a challenge” to create for players who are in their own homes. Society of Curiosities works to allow players to “feel like you’re part of the adventure in a way that doesn’t require you to create a whole new world in your own mind,” he added. “You’re in your own world, discovering things along with your ‘team’ on the ground. Which I think has been fun for our players.”

One of their stories, for example, takes players to an absolutely fictional coffee and tea shop that, frankly, looks delightful. (I expressed repeated frustration to my husband, when we played the game, that I could not in fact visit it.) But making a fake café show up just enough on the real Internet almost didn’t work.

“We had a moment of panic for the Moonbeam Society,” Merzouk admitted. “We were about to launch the game, and it was not ranking on Google yet. There were too many related keywords online, and it’s kind of out of your hands. If you want to build something immersive, and people can search the actual Web, you have to do this [SEO] dance with Google and make sure you get found.”

The trick is to smudge the lines between the game’s reality and the rest of reality just enough, but not too far. “I wanted to make something that was blurring the lines between fantasy and reality,” Orlov said, describing The Tale of Ord, as well as her upcoming game, The Emerald Flame. “I try to keep the game elements kind of obvious, because I had played a couple things before where I didn’t really know where the edge was, and it ended up being really frustrating.”

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