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Google gets into game streaming with Project Stream and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in Chrome – TechCrunch

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Earlier this year, we heard rumors that Google was working on a game-streaming service. It looks like those rumors were true. The company today unveiled “Project Stream,” and while Google calls this a “technical test” to see how well game streaming to Chrome works, it’s clear that this is the foundational technology for a game-streaming service.

To sweeten the pot, Google is launching this test in partnership with Ubisoft and giving a limited number of players free access to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for the duration of the test. You can sign up for the test now; starting on October 5, Google will invite a limited number of participants to play the game for free in Chrome.

As Google notes, the team wanted to work with a AAA title because that’s obviously far more of a challenge than working with a less graphics-intense game. And for any game-streaming service to be playable, the latency has to be minimal and the graphics can’t be worse than on a local machine. “When streaming TV or movies, consumers are comfortable with a few seconds of buffering at the start, but streaming high-quality games requires latency measured in milliseconds, with no graphics degradation,” the company notes in today’s announcement.

If you want to participate, though, you’ll have to be fast. Google is only taking a limited number of testers. Your internet connection has to be able to handle 25 megabits per second and you must live in the U.S. and be older than 17 to participate. You’ll also need both a Ubisoft and Google account. The service will support wired PlayStation and Xbox One and 360 controllers, though you can obviously also play with your mouse and keyboard.

While it remains to be seen if Google plans to expand this test and turn it into a full-blown paid service, it’s clear that it’s working on the technology to make this happen. And chances are Google wouldn’t pour resources into this if it didn’t have plans to commercialize its technology.

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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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Ubisoft comes crawling back to Steam after years on Epic Games Store

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Enlarge / Artist’s conception of Valve watching the return of Ubisoft games to its Steam platform.

Since early 2019, Ubisoft has made a point of moving its PC releases away from Steam and toward the Epic Games Store and its own Ubisoft connect platform. That years-long experiment now seems to be ending, as Ubisoft has confirmed at least three recent PC releases will be getting Steam versions in the near future.

A page for 2020’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was officially added to Steam Monday, listing a December 6 launch date on the platform. Ubisoft has also told Eurogamer that 2019’s Anno 1800 and Roller Champions will be coming to Steam, confirming earlier rumors to that effect.

The coming Steam versions are Ubisoft’s first non-DLC releases on the platform since 2019, when Trials Rising and Starlink: Battle for Atlas launched on Steam. Since then, releases from Far Cry 6 and Watch Dogs Legion to Immortals: Fenyx Rising and Ghost Recon: Breakpoint have all been unavailable on Valve’s industry-dominating PC storefront.

“We’re constantly evaluating how to bring our games to different audiences wherever they are, while providing a consistent player ecosystem through Ubisoft Connect,” a Ubisoft spokesperson said in a statement provided to the press.

That statement is a major reversal from 2019, though, when Ubisoft Vice President for Partnerships and Revenue Chris Early told The New York Times that Steam’s business model—and its 30 percent commissions—were “unrealistic” and didn’t “reflect where the world is today in terms of game distribution.”

Steam’s prodigal publishers

Ubisoft’s return to Steam comes after Activision Blizzard ended a similar years-long Steam absence for the ultra-popular Call of Duty franchise. This year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the first series game to appear on Steam since 2017’s Call of Duty WW2, with intervening releases available only on Activision Blizzard’s Battle.net launcher.

In 2019, EA also ended a years-long effort to avoid Steam releases in favor of its own Origin storefront. That’s when Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order became the publisher’s first Steam release since 2012.

While Ubisoft eschewed Steam releases voluntarily, Epic continues to pay huge amounts of money for specific high-profile games to launch as timed exclusives on the Epic Games Store. That includes a $146 million up-front payment against royalties on Borderlands 3, whose exclusive launch on the Epic Games Store in 2019 attracted 750,000 new users to Epic’s platform, according to company documents revealed during the Epic vs. Apple trial. When Borderlands 3 came to Steam months later, though, Take Two CEO Strauss Zelnick said sales on Valve’s platform “exceeded our expectations.”

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