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Fortnite-maker aims for Steam’s head with Epic Games Store – TechCrunch

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Fortnite-maker Epic Games is capping off their insanely successful 2018 with an even more ambitious product launch: a desktop games store built to take on Valve’s Steam Store.

The store, which is “launching soon” on PC and Mac, is going to be an attractive proposition to game developers with a revenue split that leaves them taking 88 percent of revenues on the store.

“As a developer ourselves, we have always wanted a platform with great economics that connects us directly with our players,” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said in an emailed statement. “Thanks to the success of Fortnite, we now have this and are ready to share it with other developers.”

Valve’s Steam Store is by far the most dominant presence in online PC game sales; they’ve enjoyed years of prosperity with rather light rivalry from competing stores that haven’t been able to match the scale of Steam. Valve, in a very conveniently timed announcement yesterday, announced that it was rehashing its revenue split with developers in a bid that they hope will keep higher-earning developers on the platform. While Valve will continue to take an App Store-like 30 percent from sales of game makers with less than 10 million in revenue, that figure drops to 25 percent until they hit 50 million revenue, from which point the slice drops to 20 percent.

It’s a more complicated revenue split that obviously benefits successful game makers more so than indies. For Valve, holding onto big-game publishers is mission critical. Epic Games already has the benefit of a close working relationship with many major PC game developers that are using the company’s Unreal Engine to build their titles.

Epic Games earns money with their Unreal Engine by taking a slice of revenues from game makers. Generally that share is 5 percent after the title is released, though Epic also does deals with developers for higher upfront costs with a lower royalty rate. Publishers like EA, Sony Interactive, Microsoft Studios, Activision and Nintendo have titles out that are built on the Unreal Engine.

A big sell for developers using Epic’s game engine is that the company says it will forego that Unreal revenue cut for any sales of the titles in the Epic Games Store. Depending on the early success of the game store, this could be a big threat to other game engines like Unity.

A 12 percent overall revenue slice for Epic Games is incredibly competitive and could have left a lot of big developers grumbling about the 30 percent cut they were missing out on because of Steam’s take.

Epic Games has notably eschewed storefront revenue splits on Fortnite wherever they can. The app isn’t on Steam for starters, but even on Android, users are forced to download it directly from the Epic Games site as well. This kind of highlights the sway that big studios hold in the market. This year that studio happens to be Epic Games, but in the future that will be some other studio and Valve likely doesn’t want the next blockbuster side-stepping their storefront.

Valve still has a lot going for them. Their store is a massive presence, and die-hard users already have a library of titles built up with little incentive to switch unless their favorite game makers are the ones to decide to shift their allegiances.

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We test GeForce Now’s new “3080” upgrade, discover unmatched cloud-gaming power

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Enlarge / GeForce Now works on all of these devices. But you’ll want to double check whether your ideal combination of hardware, screen, and Ethernet connection will get you up to either 1440p resolution and 120 fps, or 2160p resolution and 60 fps. If so, GeForce Now’s new 3080 subscription tier might be perfect for you.

Nvidia

The prospect of buying a reasonable new GPU in 2021 remains a crapshoot, and that says nothing about your hopes of buying a higher-end option anywhere near MSRP values. In a chip-shortage universe, there’s not a ton we can do to change this unfortunate reality, outside of asking greedy cryptominers to please donate their high-end GPUs to people who want to play games with the things.

For some people, cloud gaming might be a good alternative. This concept lets gamers connect their much weaker hardware (netbooks, set-top boxes) to supercomputer farms. So long as they can maintain a decent broadband connection and endure hits to button-tap latency (and bandwidth overages), they can, on paper, expect higher-end gaming. But so far, we haven’t seen impressive computing power in that marketplace. Stadia in particular launched as a woefully underpowered service, while the biggest PC-centric cloud option, Nvidia GeForce Now, has a mix of power limitations and usability frustrations.

This week, Nvidia moves forward with its most intriguing cloud-gaming service upgrade yet: GeForce Now 3080, named after its powerful RTX 3080 GPUs. Preorders for that service are now officially live, and depending on your willingness to compromise, you might want to look into it.

We’ve tested its pre-release version for the past week, and the results have, quite frankly, been dreamy. This $198/year service tier works on two fronts: it opens up connections to more powerful Nvidia servers, and it unlocks more options on the local end for anyone using the service. The result is a white-hot stunner that rivals the computing power you can muster with a locally owned RTX 3080 Ti.

How GeForce Now fits into the stream-iverse

The catch, of course, is that GeForce Now is still the most unwieldy cloud-gaming option on the market. To its credit, the service is also the most flexible and storefront-agnostic.

Thus, before I get to the best parts of Nvidia’s new “GeForce Now 3080” option—its faster performance, its higher maximum resolution, and its higher maximum frame rate—I should set the stage for how the service works and compares to its contemporaries, so bear with me.

Most cloud-gaming services demand that you rely on their store ecosystems in one way or another. You can only play games on Google Stadia if you buy those games’ Stadia-exclusive versions (or access freebies via the paid Stadia Pro subscription service). If you want to stream games within Xbox Game Streaming, you have to pay for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, and you can only stream that service’s selection of approximately 200 games—as opposed to additional Xbox games you individually purchase. And Amazon Luna offers a variety of “channels,” each with individual costs and unique content, that you can pick and stack the same way you might do with video-streaming subscription services.

The cost of GeForce Now, conversely, has nothing to do with games you might buy or borrow and everything to do with the Nvidia hardware you’re leasing in the cloud. In some ways, GeForce Now is just a cloud computer that you can use as you see fit. When you use GeForce Now, you log into other storefronts on its server farm, load games you’ve already purchased, and play them using their profiles and save files. Nvidia’s cloud-gaming service doesn’t care where or how you buy games. It just wants to power them.

One big catch, however, is that some game publishers do not allow Nvidia to stream their games. (Remember: when you buy a game via an online storefront, you’re only paying for access to a license. This, among other things, means publishers can yank your access around in exactly this way.) Upon the service’s 2019 launch, Nvidia was forced to remove games that it originally supported after certain publishers cried foul—particularly games from Activision Blizzard’s Battle.net service. In good news, over time, many more games have been added to the service from the following storefronts, now totaling a little over 1,100 games:

  • Steam
  • Epic Games Store
  • Ubisoft Connect
  • EA Origin

Up until this week, GeForce Now only had two tiers: $98/year or free. The latter includes performance downgrades and required waits in server queues, so if too many people are using the service, you have to wait behind paying customers. That free option is a decent way to basically confirm that your ideal streaming device—a smartphone, a set-top box, or a weak netbook—can connect to the service and translate your gamepad taps or keyboard-and-mouse frenzies to cloud-streamed video games. But it’s not great for image quality or computing power.

RTX 3080 tier wins, even at a higher resolution

The paid version, meanwhile, includes rudimentary “Nvidia RTX” support. Its server instances include Nvidia’s proprietary GPU cores that are dedicated to ray tracing and Deep Learning Super-Sampling (DLSS), but only a few per instance, as powered by an RTX-upgraded variant of Nvidia’s Tesla T10 server-grade GPU. The results are generally powerful enough to get average, modern PC games up to a steady 1080p, 60 fps refresh, usually with a number of graphical bells and whistles enabled.

As I’ve previously attested, if you’re within the right geographic range of Nvidia’s servers and have a low-ping wired Ethernet connection, you can expect all-but-unflinching performance while playing with mouse-and-keyboard on a variety of shooters on the service. But 1080p resolution at 60 fps and medium settings is basically what the rest of the streaming fray offers. How much more juice can the same Nvidia app ecosystem muster, especially if Nvidia itself, manufacturer of so many high-end GPUs, applies its own hardware upgrade?

The best way to answer that is to let a few of its compatible games do the talking. These are the exact same PC versions of games that you might install on your own computer, after all, and some come with built-in benchmark sequences. Thus, I ran a few tests on the existing $98/year service, dubbed the “founders” tier, before Nvidia invited me to a pre-release test of the $198/year “3080” tier so I could compare the sheer power of both server options.

The above benchmarks for the computationally brutal Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (no ray tracing) and Watch Dogs Legion (substantial ray tracing) are explained in their captions. To summarize: all tests from the newer 3080 service tier are run at a higher 1440p resolution, yet they still soundly outpace the same tests run at a lower 1080p resolution on the service’s founders tier. Sadly, we couldn’t run these tests with a frame time chart attached, so we’re left with Ubisoft’s vague, squiggly line charts. Still, all of those benchmarks do come with crucial “lowest 1 percent” counts, and when those are higher (which they are, by a large margin, in the 3080 tier), you can expect fewer frame time stutters and refresh rate dips.

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Pixar’s Lightyear turns Buzz into a non-toy astronaut—with new voice—in 2022

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Enlarge / Coming in June 2022 to “theaters.”

While nobody was necessarily asking for an origin story film about Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear, the combined powers of Disney and Pixar sure seem intent on making such a concept look as appealing and epic as possible. Seriously: if you think the concept sounds like a straight-to-VHS cash-in on paper, we strongly encourage that you watch Wednesday’s dramatic reveal of Lightyear, coming “to theaters” (and no mention of Disney+ thus far) on June 17, 2022.

The film’s debut 90-second trailer, embedded below, skips over the important context found in its “read more” crawl on YouTube, which suggests that the toy version of Buzz Lightyear, who was embraced by Toy Story‘s Andy as a toy, an animated series character, a video game star, and more, was based on someone else entirely. As Disney Pixar explains:

The sci-fi action-adventure presents the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear—the hero who inspired the toy—introducing the legendary Space Ranger who would win generations of fans.

However, this description doesn’t clarify whether the more realistic-looking version of Lightyear in next year’s film is as real in the Toy Story version of Earth as characters like Andy (and that this version of our planet is patrolled by “Space Ranger” astronauts) or if this is another fictional story inside that world, from which more cartoonish Buzz Lightyear versions eventually followed. While waiting for Al “Chicken Man” McWhiggin to return our emails on the question, we instead found a definitive answer at Entertainment Weekly, whose reporter Nick Romano interviewed film director Angus MacLane on the matter.

“In the Toy Story universe, [Lightyear] would be like a movie that maybe Andy would have seen, that would have made him want a Buzz Lightyear figure,” MacLane explains to EW. In other words: it’s as if the Michael Keaton version of Batman came before the campier Adam West turn. (Also, if supersonic, interstellar space travel exists on Andy’s Earth, it has yet to be chronicled with definitive logic and science by Disney Pixar. We’ll keep waiting for that spinoff.)

Lightyear‘s premiere teaser emphasizes exploration and a variety of interstellar locales, since it’s otherwise mostly devoid of any dialogue—with the massive exception of new character voice actor Chris Evans (Captain America) offering an abbreviated blurt of “and…” at its conclusion. He says this to his apparent crewmate, a new character named Alicia Hawthorne, who begins the sentence with the familiar call-out of “to infinity.” As of press time, Hawthorne’s voice actor is uncredited—though throughout the trailer, we see this new character in both full Space Ranger regalia and in more subdued control-room garb, so she’s likely to figure largely in the final film.

If you’re looking for an epic sci-fi universe worthy of Andy’s childhood adoration, this trailer has it in spades. A swampy, Dagobah-like planet, which Lightyear examines with a rusty, bipedal droid at his side. A NASA-grade preparation, countdown, and launch sequence, punctuated by a mysterious power source being loaded into a spaceship. A hyperspeed blast of a one-man spacecraft toward and past an apparent version of Earth’s Sun. Lightyear’s eerie, lonely stare-down of a colonized, Mars-like planet while dressed in sweats. A harrowing dive through inky-black space, with the only light coming from his own deteriorating spaceship. And a creepy, talking robo-cat that Lightyear apparently befriends at some point but is clearly reluctant about.

The trailer is punctuated by arguably the 18 quadrillionth use of David Bowie’s “Starman” in a film trailer, albeit with its traditional guitars and percussion replaced by a full string section and thunderous drums. Today’s reveal caps off a vague mention that sneaked past a lot of fans in March of this year, when Disney’s massive slate of internal, Marvel, Pixar, Fox, and other studios’ films included a text-only blurb on something called “Lightyear” coming in June 2022. That’s apparently what this film is, though a ton of questions—particularly about connections to other fictional characters in the Buzz Lightyear toy-verse—will likely remain unanswered until the film gets closer to its theatrical launch.

Lightyear premiere trailer.

Listing image by Disney Pixar

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US Copyright Office OKs right-to-repair for video game console optical drives

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Enlarge / Feel free to repair this PS3 disc drive.

Getty Images | sydmsix

The librarian of Congress has provided a new exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that will let people repair optical drives on video game consoles. The new rule will also let users perform “diagnosis, maintenance, and repair” of other types of software-enabled devices marketed to consumers.

The US Copyright Office today announced the decision, which came from a set of recommendations by Register of Copyrights Shira Perlmutter. The office simultaneously released a final rule in which Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden adopted the recommendations.

“For the reasons discussed in the Register’s Recommendation, the Register recommended expanding the existing exemption for diagnosis, maintenance, and repair of certain categories of devices to cover any software-enabled device that is primarily designed for use by consumers,” the final rule said. “For video game consoles, the Register concluded that an exemption is warranted solely for the repair of optical drives.”

Copyright law often used as “legal battering ram”

The video game console exemption stems from a petition filed in September 2020 by consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge and iFixIt.

“The Copyright Office’s recommendations to allow consumers to repair software-enabled consumer devices and to repair the optical drive on their video game consoles is a victory for consumers, Public Knowledge, and right-to-repair advocates,” Public Knowledge Policy Counsel Kathleen Burke said today. “Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has often been used as a legal battering ram to prevent consumers from repairing devices they own and has significantly limited the independent repair services available to consumers.”

The right-to-repair fight is far from over because today’s ruling “does not solve the larger issues with Section 1201,” Burke also said. “The 1201 process is more broken than I could have imagined. Device manufacturers hide behind trade associations that fear-monger about pirating movies, games, and music—copyrighted works that most of the locks in question do not even protect. It’s quite possible that the only copyright some locks protect is the software copyright in the lock itself. At a minimum, future 1201 proceedings should include more technical expertise and information from device manufacturers about how their locks really work.”

The US Copyright Office reviews DMCA exemption requests once every three years.

Limited exemptions

The new exemption for software-enabled consumer devices allows circumvention of “Computer programs that are contained in and control the functioning of a lawfully acquired device that is primarily designed for use by consumers, when circumvention is a necessary step to allow the diagnosis, maintenance, or repair of such a device, and is not accomplished for the purpose of gaining access to other copyrighted works.”

The exemption for video game consoles really is limited to fixing optical drives. The Register found “that the distinct record for repair of video game consoles, and the unique concerns raised by circumvention of TPMs [technological protection measure] on those devices, warrant a more limited exemption.” The Register also wrote:

With respect to video game consoles, the recommended exemption is limited to one specific type of repair—namely, repair of optical drives. To be clear, if a console does not contain an optical drive, it is not eligible under this exemption; and if circumvention is done to repair any part of a console other than the optical drive, that activity too falls outside the scope of the exemption. Narrowing the exemption for consoles in this manner appropriately balances the specific adverse effects experienced by users against opponents’ legitimate concerns over links between console circumvention and piracy.

Proponents of the exemption “contend that authorized repair services are inadequate, particularly for certain legacy consoles that manufacturers no longer support,” the Register of Copyrights noted.

Industry opposed console-repair exemption

The optical drive exemption was opposed by the Motion Picture Association, Alliance for Recorded Music, and Entertainment Software Association (referred to as the “Joint Creators” in the Copyright Office documents). The Joint Creators argued that console repair would enable “unauthorized access to and use of works distributed through consoles, including television programs, movies, and sound recordings,” that “the market for the firmware would deteriorate if it was compromised,” and that “circumventing access controls on console firmware enables consoles to load and run infringing games and other content, regardless of the circumventor’s stated purpose.”

The Register disagreed, writing:

For essentially the same reasons that the Register concludes that repair of software-enabled consumer devices is likely to be fair use, the Register finds that certain video game console repair is also likely fair use. Accessing console firmware for the limited purpose of repairing an optical drive to restore the console’s functionality is unlikely to affect the value of such software, for which there appears to be no independent market separate from the console itself.

The final rule notes that repair is defined as “the restoring of the device to the state of working in accordance with its original specifications and any changes to those specifications authorized for that device. For video game consoles, ‘repair’ is limited to repair or replacement of a console’s optical drive and requires restoring any technological protection measures that were circumvented or disabled.”

Today’s decision also expanded an existing exemption for land vehicles to also cover marine vessels, and provides “a new exemption allowing circumvention of TPMs restricting access to firmware and servicing materials on medical devices and systems for the purposes of diagnosis, maintenance, and repair.”

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