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Fraggle Rock is back as Apple TV+ quarantine fodder—so here’s our fan-fiction

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Apple TV+ / The Jim Henson Company

You may have noticed news of delays, cancellations, and general scrambling from most major TV and film production companies over the past few months. Today, Apple TV+ showed up with a surprise bit of good pandemic-timed news: a classic Muppet series’ return, built from the ground up to function within the constraints of stay-in-place orders across the world.

Fraggle Rock, a Jim Henson TV series that ran on HBO in the United States through the 1980s, has returned as a Muppets-in-Zoom concept. The new series, titled Fraggle Rock: Rock On!, will premiere a new five-minute “mini-sode” every Tuesday for the foreseeable future, and it sees familiar characters like Red, Gobo, and Mokey teleconference with each other. In the Fraggle universe, this is enabled by the series’ Doozer characters creating a series of “Doozertubes” to connect citizens in their natural, underground habitat.

How the first episode of <em>Fraggle Rock: Rock On!</em> looks in action.
Enlarge / How the first episode of Fraggle Rock: Rock On! looks in action.

Apple TV+ / The Jim Henson Company

In real life, meanwhile, Apple is advertising the fact that every Muppeteer and contributor is filming their sequences with iPhone 11 handsets while abiding by stay-in-place orders across the globe, though Apple hasn’t clarified anything else about the series’ production pipeline (not even a mention of Final Cut Pro). The first attempt is a sweet-and-chipper statement of purpose, complete with the distant-but-connected Fraggles joining together to sing a song (something that’s not necessarily easy to coordinate via shared Internet video feeds).

Since this new Apple TV+ version revolves around optimism and cheer, it doesn’t go too deeply into the original series’ gimmick of Uncle Matthew venturing into “Outer Space” (aka aboveground on modern-day Earth). Thankfully, we have some overactive imaginations at Ars Technica and have taken it upon ourselves to imagine what one of Uncle Matthew’s letters to his nephew Gobo might look like in early 2020, if they weren’t written through the family-friendly filter of the Jim Henson Company.

Here’s Ars Technica’s Lee Hutchinson with the Fraggle Rock fan-fiction you didn’t know you needed.

My dearest nephew—

Everyone is gone. The Silly People have vanished.

I roam a world newly made desolate and empty, as the machinery of the Silly Peoples’ once-great civilization slowly falters like a watch that lacks for winding. Their empires once stretched across this great globe—globe, yes, for my travels have revealed to me the hidden truth that the world is indeed a sphere without edge or border, bound by an Ouroboros of intertwined oceans—but the Silly People lie where they have all fallen, effaced, defeated by a nameless horror so small that a Doozer could hold a trillion trillion of them in its hand and not espy the thing’s deadly temperament.

For a people so outsized both in stature and manner, the Silly Peoples’ passing itself came to pass without bluster. Their end was marked not with the firmament-rending clarion foretold in their ancient texts, or under the false dawn of their terrible weapons, but with the wracking gasps on the lips of an uncountable multitude of mouths… an invisible fever, spread by the invisible wind. A plague, truly, to end all plagues.

I long to see the Rock again—to feel the crisp water of the swimming hole, to savor the taste of radishes and the feel of the adamant stone that shapes and surrounds our Fraggle world. And yet—

<em>Fraggle Rock</em>'s Uncle Matthew will indeed appear in the new Apple TV+ series. Just, er, maybe not exactly the way we imagine it in our fan-fiction.
Enlarge / Fraggle Rock‘s Uncle Matthew will indeed appear in the new Apple TV+ series. Just, er, maybe not exactly the way we imagine it in our fan-fiction.

Apple TV+ / The Jim Henson Company

—and yet, I cannot. For the Silly People, you see, have given me one last gift.

The tightness in my chest now creeps, like a worm in the moss. Last night I lay awake long past the fall of evening, through the watches of the night, into the hour of the wolf, and I beheld a Moon not pale and light but drenched in a fell vermilion, even as a cold fist seized my heart, my eyes widened, and Luna seemed to crash down from her throne in the heavens toward me, plummeting even as I was pulled toward her in madness, in sick, febrile dreams that stain my pith helmet in sweat and damp my mustaches to a face gone sallow with corruption.

Though I still travel, I know I am already dead. The dark seed of the Silly People’s gift has taken root, and it sprouts a terrible tree.

Remember me, dear Gobo. Mourn me, perhaps. But—I beg you—do not follow me. There is naught here to find, save ashes.

Perhaps I shall visit the sea again, the soft sands lapped by unending water. The crying of the gulls shall be the last sounds I hear, a final song to sing me home. Think of me dreaming there.

Forever your uncle,
Matthew

And now that you’ve read that brutal darkness, enjoy the actual, cheerier Apple TV+ trailer for the new Fraggle Rock series, which is now live for paying Apple TV+ subscribers.

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Patent detects in-game “collusion” by tracking “external connections”

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Enlarge / Call it a hunch, but something tells me these two players are working together…

Do you ever feel like your opponents in a free-for-all online game are trying to get you, specifically? It might not just be paranoia; it might be collusion among your opponents. And in a newly published patent, Electronic Arts details some potential tools and data points—both inside and outside the game—that it could use to detect and root out this unfair practice.

EA’s simply titled “Detecting Collusion in Online Games” patent, published earlier this month, defines collusion as when two or more players/groups that are “intended to be opponents” instead “contribute to a common cause” to “gain an unfair advantage” over others. In battle royale shooter, for instance, a small group of players communicating outside the game could stay together and gain a decided firepower advantage against their single opponents.

Many of the patent’s potential methods for discovering this kind of collusion use simple and obvious in-game data. If two or more ostensibly opposed players or teams show abnormal amounts of “time spent in proximity… without engagement,” for instance, there’s a good chance they’re working together. Even if those players show some cursory opposition at points, metrics like damage per second can be compared with the average to see if this is just opposition “for appearance sake.”

Dropping items that another team or player consistently picks up is another potential sign of collusion, as is the same player or players showing up on opposing teams consistently in match after match. Colluding players may also tend to finish in similar ranked positions during their matches, especially “once the unfair advantage provided by colluding is nullified” as some of the colluding players are eliminated.

Big Brother is watching (for collusion)

Beyond easy-to-detect in-game data, though, EA’s patent details other signs of collusion that can be gleaned from things like “social relationships and communications” and “third-party system connections and interactions” outside the game. That kind of data ranges from simple relationships like a “friends list” provided by the gaming platform to completely external relationships like “social media connection data.”

The patent mentions “a cross team shared community metric” that counts “the number of group or community memberships… where players from both teams are members.” Things like “the number of posts by a player in a particular community” shared with another player could also signify potential collusion.

Just some of the internal and external factors that EAs patented method could use to detect collusion among players.
Enlarge / Just some of the internal and external factors that EAs patented method could use to detect collusion among players.

Even “the content of extra-game communication” could be fed into the algorithm, according to the patent, such as “messages to a forum which players from both teams are participating.” A “machine learning algorithm” could be used to glean any collusion-related context from this kind of out-of-game communication, or a simple keyword search could be used, according to the patent.

To be clear, the patent is upfront in saying that any player data used in any of these detection algorithms “would be in compliance with privacy policies that respect players’ privacy, and in accordance with player privacy settings or preferences.” That said, there’s something a little Big Brother-y about the prospect of a publisher like EA scanning your Twitter posts and Reddit community memberships to see if you’re trying to coordinate cheating in their online game.

Then again, in a world where players will go to extreme lengths to hide their cheating using external devices, maybe this kind of external social graph analysis is needed to root out some of the worst colluders (or at least some of the least-careful ones).
In any case, having a patented design doesn’t mean EA is (or ever will) use this kind of system in the wild. For now, it’s just an interesting look at how one company is thinking about potential ways to detect the human side of online cheating as well as the technical side.

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Report: FTC “likely” to file suit to block Microsoft/Activision merger

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Enlarge / Just a few of the Activision franchises that will become Microsoft properties if and when the acquisition is finalized.

Microsoft / Activision

The Federal Trade Commission will “likely” move to file an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft and Activision Blizzard to block the companies’ planned $69 billion merger deal. That’s according to a new Politico report citing “three [unnamed] people with knowledge of the matter.”

While Politico writes that a lawsuit is still “not guaranteed,” it adds that FTC staffers “are skeptical of the companies’ arguments” that the deal will not be anticompetitive. The sources also confirmed that “much of the heavy lifting is complete” in the commission’s investigation, and that a suit could be filed as early as next month.

Sony, the main opponent of Microsoft’s proposed purchase, has argued publicly that an existing contractual three-year guarantee to keep Activision’s best-selling Call of Duty franchise on PlayStation is “inadequate on many levels.” In response, Microsoft Head of Xbox Phil Spencer has publicly promised to continue shipping Call of Duty games on PlayStation “as long as there’s a PlayStation out there to ship to.” It’s not clear if the companies have memorialized that offer as a legal agreement, though; The New York Times reported this week that Microsoft had offered a “10-year deal to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation.”

Numerous statements from Microsoft executives, including Spencer, have suggested the company is less interested in bolstering its position in the “console wars” and more interested in boosting its mobile, cloud gaming, and Game Pass subscription offerings. Beyond Call of Duty, Politico reports that the FTC is concerned over how Microsoft “could leverage future, unannounced titles to boost its gaming business.”

Microsoft “is prepared to address the concerns of regulators, including the FTC, and Sony to ensure the deal closes with confidence,” spokesperson David Cuddy told Politico. “We’ll still trail Sony and Tencent in the market after the deal closes, and together Activision and Xbox will benefit gamers and developers and make the industry more competitive.”

Plenty of speed bumps remain

The reports of a potential FTC lawsuit add to a growing list of troubling signals about the proposed purchase from various international governments. Earlier this month, the European Commission said it was moving on to an “in-depth investigation” of the deal. In the UK, a similar “Phase 2” investigation by the country’s Competition and Markets Authority has scheduled hearing for next month.

Those international investigations are expected to wrap up in March, ensuring the proposed deal won’t close before then and giving the FTC some time before it would have to file suit. Any such lawsuit would need to be approved by a majority of the four current FTC commissioners and would likely start in the FTC’s administrative court. And whatever the outcome, legal maneuvering in the case could easily delay the planned merger past a July 2023 contractual deadline, at which point both companies would have to renegotiate or abandon the deal.

An FTC lawsuit in this matter would also be a the strongest sign yet of a robust antitrust enforcement regime under FTC chair Lina Kahn, a big tech skeptic who was named to the post in June. Back in July, Kahn announced an antitrust lawsuit against Meta (formerly Facebook) and its proposed $400 million purchase of Within, makers of VR fitness app Supernatural.

Three months after Microsoft’s proposed purchase was announced in January, a group of four US Senators wrote an open letter strongly urging the FTC to take a close look at the deal. Last month, merger news site Dealreporter said FTC staff had expressed “significant concerns” about the deal. And this week, the New York Times cited “two people” in reporting that the FTC had reached out to other companies for sworn statements laying out their concerns about the deal, a possible sign of lawsuit preparations.

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Crypto and NFTs aren’t welcome in Grand Theft Auto Online

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Enlarge / Cold hard (virtual) cash only in GTA Online, please.

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs have been formally disallowed from Grand Theft Auto Online‘s popular role-playing (RP) servers. That’s according to a new set of guidelines posted on Rockstar’s support site last Friday.

In the note, the game’s publisher says its new RP server rules are aligned with Rockstar’s existing rules for single-player mods. Both sets of rules prohibit content that uses third-party intellectual property, interferes with official multiplayer services, or makes new “games, stories, missions or maps” for the game. This means RP servers based on re-creating Super Mario Kart in the Grand Theft Auto world, for instance, could face “priority in enforcement actions” from Rockstar.

But the new RP guidelines surpass the existing single-player mod guidelines in barring “commercial exploitation.” That’s a wide-ranging term that Rockstar says specifically includes selling loot boxes, virtual currencies, corporate sponsorships, or any integrations of cryptocurrencies of “crypto assets (e.g. ‘NFTs’).”

It’s all been done before

The new guidelines seem to directly respond to “The Trenches,” a role-playing community launched in September by OTF Gaming and rapper Lil Durk. That server advertised integration with both “endemic and non-endemics brands in the gaming space” and a “Trenches Pass” NFT drop to access specific on-server content.

“We’ve been asked to cease all operations of Trenches,” OTF Gaming said in a statement on social media. “We have no choice but to comply with their demands, as we intend to do right by Take-Two and Rockstar. We will be working with them to find an amicable solution to this matter.”

If this situation sounds familiar, it might be because developer Mojang similarly barred NFT integration from its online servers in July. At the time, Minecraft-based crypto project NFT Worlds said it was hoping to work with Mojang to “find an alternative outcome that’s beneficial to the Minecraft player base.”

Days later, though, NFT Worlds said it gave up on that and began work on a new game that will be “based on many of the core mechanics of Minecraft” but which will be “completely untethered from the policy enforcement Microsoft and Mojang have over Minecraft.”

In Minecraft‘s case, Mojang said that the “scarcity and exclusion” inherent to NFTs “does not align with Minecraft values of creative inclusion and playing together.” That reasoning applies less to GTA Online, though, a game that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually by selling in-game currency and exclusive items for use by players.

If anything, things like NFTs and loot boxes could be seen as competition for GTA Online‘s official monetization efforts. With that competition cut off, though, Rockstar sounds eager to allow RP servers to continue to operate within reason.

“Rockstar Games has always believed in reasonable fan creativity and wants creators to showcase their passion for our games,” the company writes. “Third-party ‘Roleplay’ servers are an extension of the rich array of community-created experiences within Grand Theft Auto that we hope will continue to thrive in a safe and friendly way for many years to come.”

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