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Niantic overhauls Ingress to make it more welcoming for new players – TechCrunch

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Before there was Pokémon GO, there was Ingress. It was Niantic’s first game — and while it never became the overwhelmingly popular phenomenon that GO did, it’s undeniably what allowed GO to exist in the first place.

Now Niantic is taking another swing at it. The company has rebuilt Ingress from the ground up, with the goal of making it prettier, more immersive and — most importantly — more accessible to new players. The new app will ship for iOS and Android later today.

Unfamiliar with Ingress? At its core, it shares its DNA with Pokémon GO; it’s a game that encourages you to walk around the real world, visit nearby landmarks and parks and work together with your self-selected team (or, in Ingress’ terminology, your “faction”).

But Ingress is a good bit more… intense than GO (Ingress players like to poke at GO as being “Ingress Lite.”) There are no cutesie monsters to collect or Pokéstops to spin; instead, you’re “hacking” portals (the same real-world locations, mostly, that act as Pokéstops) and “linking” them together in an effort to conquer as much of the map as you can for your faction. Link three portals and everything in-between becomes your team’s turf. It’s like capture the flag mashed up with one massive worldwide game of tug of war, with a bit of Matrix-y cyberpunk dressing slathered on top.

Ingress Prime, as version 2.0 is known, replaces the original Ingress app with one built on Unity — the same gaming engine that powers Pokémon GO and many thousands of other games.

If you’ve been playing Ingress for a while, many of the changes here are “quality of life”-type tweaks: the UI has been cleaned up, and they’ve added all sorts of shortcuts and gestures to make it faster to do things like attack nearby portals or manage your inventory. The new map interface is easier to pan and zoom around with one hand, with a one-finger control scheme that’ll feel pretty familiar for GO players. The new UI is bound to be a point of contention at first, if only because it means a bit of habit breaking for players who’ve spent hundreds to thousands of hours getting used to the old one, and, well, people don’t like change. Hopefully, they come around.

Speaking of those hours spent in Ingress already: Your progress and badges carry over to Ingress Prime. If you’re Level 16 in the original Ingress, you’ll be Level 16 in Ingress Prime. New here, though, is the ability to “recurse.” Sort of like the “prestige” concept made popular by Call of Duty, recursing sets you back to level 1 to start the grind all over again, but with your myriad unlocks (your lifetime AP score, recharge distance and inventory items) still in tow.

Niantic tells me that certain things moving forward will only be available to those who opt to recurse and start afresh, but didn’t elaborate on what those could be. (With many longtime players approaching Pokémon GO’s level cap of 40, I’d be quite surprised if a similar concept doesn’t make its way into GO eventually.)

It’s the players who are new to Ingress, though — or those who gave Ingress a glance before and were spooked away by the steep learning curve — that Niantic seems most interested in here.

Whereas the original Ingress just sort of dumped you into the thick of it, Ingress Prime offers a bit more handholding out of the gate. A plot-driven tutorial introduces new players to the concepts of portals, hacking, etc., all while starting to plant the seeds of the game’s backstory and lore. You’re introduced to the two factions and the rival AIs behind them, eventually being asked to choose a side.

I ran through a beta build of the game’s onboarding process last week, and, as someone who admittedly fits right into that “gave Ingress a glance and got spooked away” camp mentioned above, Ingress Prime does a much better job of clarifying what the heck is going on. It feels like it could use a bit more play testing (particularly in explaining when I’m doing the wrong thing), but it’s a big step forward. It doesn’t spoon feed you, but it does a much better job of getting the ball rolling.

(Pro tip: The game recommends using headphones, and I don’t think that’s just so you can hear things at the highest fidelity. With the tutorial’s voice-acted tracks talking about hacking systems and controlling minds, anyone playing in public sans earbuds is bound to get some preeeeetty weird looks.)

Once they’ve gotten a new player hooked, Niantic intends to go a bit harder with the aforementioned plot/lore this time around. A weekly live-action web series called the “Dunraven Project” will fill in the game’s backstory, while an anime series (which debuted in Japan in October with an English version coming to Netflix in 2019) is meant to explore the wider universe.

According to Niantic, Pokémon GO was downloaded nearly a billion times. Ingress, meanwhile, capped out at around 20 million downloads.

Will this overhaul get Ingress downloads up into the billions? Probably not. Pokémon GO had that powder keg spark of nostalgia and familiarity to draw in massive crowds right off the bat — but, built on someone else’s intellectual property, there are limitations in what Niantic can do with GO and where GO can… er, go. But by rebooting Ingress, Niantic is using existing IP it already owns/fully controls as a springboard; they’re striving to keep the existing player base happy, while setting it up to grow dramatically by lowering the barrier to entry and expanding the storyline. It’s a tough tightrope act to pull off, but it really seems that they’re starting out on a good foot here.

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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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