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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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HTC’s newest headsets signal end of Vive’s 5-year “VR for the home” mission

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Today’s VR-centric ViveCon 2021, presented by HTC’s Vive division of VR headsets, kicks off with two new headset models slated to launch this year.

That’s probably the headline HTC wants VR fans to focus on—hooray, new stuff to strap to faces—but a closer examination of both headsets (and feedback directly from HTC’s executive team) puts a damper on that, at least for any average consumer interested in buying either.

The Vive Focus 3, HTC’s newest “all-in-one” untethered VR headset, competes directly with the Oculus Quest 2, but it costs a whopping $1,000 more than the Facebook-branded option, at $1,299 MSRP. And the Vive Pro 2, a long-overdue spec bump to 2018’s Vive Pro, resembles the earlier model all too much while costing either $799 by itself or $1,399 for its “full kit.”

Those high prices aren’t accidents, as the HTC Vive department is full-speed ahead with a focus on business, enterprise, and public entertainment centers (aka “VR-cades”).

HTC doesn’t want to go downstream

When pressed, Vive General Manager Dan O’Brien confirmed that this month’s event has zero announcements in store for its Vive Cosmos line of headsets—which he also admitted is the company’s “consumer offering for PC-VR.” That’s not great news for VR fans outside the enterprise sphere. The Cosmos’ default inside-out tracking remains wonky, even after getting firmware updates, and its default controllers are an unfortunate mix of heavy and power-inefficient. Something like ViveCon would’ve been a great time to offer assurances for either current or future Cosmos customers. The silence there, as far as I’m concerned, speaks volumes.

When pressed about Oculus as VR’s top-selling consumer option, O’Brien was frank: HTC wants to make its VR money from upfront purchase revenue, not from “downstream” opportunities. He described at length the business model of “some brands” subsidizing expensive hardware at a lower MSRP “with the hope of monetizing downstream on shared services” and “maybe using data-mining tactics to understand user behavior and then run a program that also generates downstream income.” (It’s not hard to piece together who he may be talking about.)

O’Brien is instead bullish about targeting companies in the manufacturing and intensive training sectors who “can find the return-on-investment (ROI), their savings on efficiencies, and time to market, within six months of buying” Vive headsets.

But follow-up questions reveal that HTC isn’t necessarily interested in consumers who are willing to spend more for untethered Quest-like options. On paper, the untethered Vive Pro 3 sure seems like a sexy jump from Quest 2. The only spec they have in common is the Snapdragon XR2 as an SoC. Vive Focus 3 is otherwise an across-the-board jump: a 120-degree FOV (compared to Quest 2’s 92 degrees), a default refresh rate of 90 Hz (up from Quest 2’s 72 Hz default, which can scale up to 90 Hz and beyond), 8GB of RAM (up from Quest 2’s 6GB), and a “5K” display that offers a 170 percent jump in pixel resolution over Oculus’ latest model.

Plus, its granular interpupillary distance (IPD) slider will be great news for many head shapes and sizes that don’t conform to Quest 2’s backwards, cost-saving IPD slider. (That remains a sticking point for me, since every time I use Quest 2, its ill-fitting IPD leads me to headaches within 30 minutes of strapping in.)

Vive Pro 2: Resolution, and little else

I’m cautious to call Vive Focus 3 superior to Quest 2, since I’ve yet to test the headset, but I can already call out one major issue: HTC’s unwillingness to unlock its tethered, Android-powered software suite for consumer-facing software. O’Brien confirms that this decision has enterprise in mind, because HTC “doesn’t want to put any concern for our business customers… that their users would access consumer content.” Womp, womp.

With Quest 2’s rise in sales of both hardware and software, it’s no secret that VR apps are shifting away from dedicated PC-VR and toward Android-based ecosystems. Focus 3 will support both tethered PC-VR via a USB 3.0 cable and wireless PC-VR via the Wi-Fi 6 protocol, which is great news for consumers with libraries on PC storefronts. But its Android software restriction will make Focus 3 a tough sell as a future-proofed Quest rival. (That high cost includes a full HTC warranty, repair, and customer service package, to be fair.)

Meanwhile, Vive Pro 2 only improves upon the original HTC Vive Pro by boosting its frame rate and pixel count—and that’s good news for anybody who has stayed within the Vive ecosystem (complete with its tracking boxes and compatible accessories) and simply wants to jump to 120 Hz refresh and a 260 percent higher resolution than 2018’s Vive Pro. But that assumes you’re a fan of the Vive Pro’s design, weight, strap, FOV, and built-in speakers—and that you’re not interested in perks found in 2019’s eye-tracking Vive Pro Eye.

I’ve yet to test Vive Pro 2, but on paper, its resolution is arguably the only real selling point compared to the Valve Index headset, which retails for $499 by itself (and, in my humble opinion, surpasses the original Vive Pro’s elements in every way imaginable, especially FOV). When pressed on one of the Vive Pro’s worst aspects—its dated, heavy wand controllers—O’Brien basically tells consumers to buy Valve’s Index Controllers. I’m not kidding: “Customers have gravitated to the Knuckles, and we want to be supportive of that,” he says. (Sadly, this means anyone buying the $1,399 “full kit” is getting saddled with the old wands—and that means the kit in question is arguably targeted to non-gaming customers by default.)

There’s no place like home?

HTC could astound us all by announcing another Cosmos headset or update by year’s end—or maybe resurface its augmented reality-minded prototype, the Vive Proton, though O’Brien didn’t mention the latter in our call. Even if that were to happen, I was left with a clear indication that HTC is done with the consumer-facing sector. He had much longer answers to offer about business strategy and enterprise customers than he did about consumer-facing products and plans.

If you’ve been holding out for a great, forward-thinking home-VR option from the HTC Vive division, think of this year’s ViveCon as a very, very loud breakup letter. It’s over.

Listing image by HTC

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It’s the battle of the alien symbiotes in Venom: Let There Be Carnage trailer

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Tom Hardy returns to the big screen as the lethal protector Venom, taking on Woody Harrelson’s villainous Cletus Kasady/Carnage, in Sony’s forthcoming film Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road) returns as intrepid reporter Eddie Brock, infected with a parasitic alien symbiote that gives him super powers, in Venom: There Will be Carnage. Directed by motion-capture icon Andy Serkis, it’s the sequel to 2018’s box-office smash, Venom. After being delayed for nearly a year due to the ongoing pandemic, Sony just dropped the official trailer, in which Brock/Venom must battle serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland), infected with another alien symbiote dubbed Carnage.

(Some spoilers for first film below.)

A Venom film was in development at New Line Cinema back in 1997, although the project didn’t really get off the ground until Sony acquired the rights to the character, as well as Spider-Man. Sony initially planned for Venom and Spider-Man to inhabit a shared universe, given their history in the comics. (Spider-Man was Venom’s first host, before moving on to Brock, and the character gradually evolved from villain to more of an antihero.) The disappointing box office performance of 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 changed those plans, and Venom was re-conceived as a standalone film, with Tom Hardy signing on as the star and Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer agreeing to direct.

That first film served as an origin story for our antihero. A bioengineering firm called the Life Foundation discovered a comet covered with symbiotic lifeforms and brought four samples back to Earth. Brock’s then-fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, Fosse/Verdon), shows him classified documents revealing that the foundation is conducting human/symbiote experiments. The symbiotes need oxygen-breathing hosts to survive, but they invariably end up killing those hosts.

Hot on the story, Brock breaks into the research lab and ends up infected with one of the symbiotes, named Venom. Venom reveals that the symbiotes are intent on taking over Earth by possessing/devouring all humans, but Brock ultimately strikes up a bargain with Venom, and they decide to protect Earth instead. Together, they take on Life Foundation CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal), infected with a symbiote called Riot.

Venom was released in October 2018 and was roundly panned by critics, several of whom specifically bemoaned the lack of a Spider-Man connection. Audiences, however, begged to differ. Venom racked up $856 million globally and was the seventh-highest grossing film of the year. Hardy had already committed to two sequels, and a midcredits sequence featured Harrelson’s Cletus Kasady taunting Brock (who is interviewing Kasady for a story) from his cell. Kasady vows to escape and bring “carnage,” leaving little doubt as to the villain’s identity in a sequel.

Audiences particularly responded to the burgeoning relationship between Brock and Venom, who remained secretly bonded at the film’s end as a kind of hybrid vigilante. One scene in particular—Venom giving Brock a lingering French kiss while transferring from Anne’s body back to Brock’s—launched a thousand ships for “Symbrock.” Sony embraced the fan response by marketing the home release with ads playing up romantic-comedy overtones.

The trailer for Venom: Let There Be Carnage plays up more of a bromance/odd-couple angle, opening with Brock and Venom preparing breakfast—with mixed results—as Venom raspily sings along to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Brock’s friendly neighborhood convenience store owner, Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu, Always Be My Maybe), is back to provide comic relief, Williams reprises her role as Anne Weying, and Naomie Harris (Skyfall, Moonlight) plays a secondary villain named Shriek—because even serial killers like Kasady need a love interest, and this one can manipulate sound.

Other than Kasady’s escape and emergence as Carnage, the trailer gives little away as to the actual plot, although there do seem to be elements from the Maximum Carnage storyline. Chances are, if you enjoyed the first Venom film, you’ll like the sequel, too.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage opens exclusively in theaters on September 24, 2021.

Listing image by YouTube/Sony

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Sony says PS5 could be difficult to find into 2022

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Enlarge / This Sony engineer can get a PS5, but millions of others can’t, thanks to short supplies that are likely to continue.

Sony thinks demand could continue to outstrip supply of the PlayStation 5 into 2022. That’s according to a Bloomberg report citing a number of unnamed analysts who listened in on an explanatory call following Sony’s recent earnings report.

“I don’t think demand is calming down this year, and even if we secure a lot more devices and produce many more units of the PlayStation 5 next year, our supply wouldn’t be able to catch up with demand,” Sony CFO Hiroki Totoki reportedly said.

Sony has been warning for months that worldwide shortages of semiconductors and other components have made it hard to increase production for the PS5. But this is the most direct sign that those shortages will extend past this year and into the next.

Sony President and CEO Jim Ryan said in February that he expected PS5 supplies would “get better every month throughout 2021,” leading to “really decent numbers indeed” by the second half of this year. But Totoki amended that statement in April to say that it’s “not likely” Sony could “drastically increase the supply” before the company’s fiscal year ends in March 2022.

Supply problems aside, demand for the PS5 seems to be matching that of the early days of the PS4, which has sold over 115 million units to date. The PS5’s 7.8 million sales through March and 14.8 million additional projected sales in the current fiscal year are broadly in line with sales of the PlayStation 4 at the same point in its life cycle.

But while the PS4 was in short supply in the early months of 2014, by August of that year, Wired was citing the lack of retail PS4 shortages as one reason behind the system’s unexpected success at the time. In other words, the difference between shelves full of PS4s and shelves empty of PS5s is due to the supply, not demand, levels between the two systems.

Totoki reportedly told analysts that he “can’t imagine demand dropping easily” for the PS5, and that situation would continue to put pressure on Sony to increase supplies in any way it can. But with the company already taking a loss on every system sold, spending more money to secure scarce chips over competitors could be difficult (if it’s possible at all).

Put it all together, and you have a situation that could mirror that of the Nintendo Wii, which remained hard to find on store shelves for well over a year after its late-2006 release. That situation got so bad that former Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime had to actively deny that there was a conspiracy to keep Wii supplies artificially low.

Today, of course, Nintendo is facing the same semiconductor shortages as Sony in trying to keep up with demand for the Switch, as are many carmakers. All told, it looks like the “big scramble” for silicon chips is set to continue for a while.

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