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Northzone’s Paul Murphy goes deep on the next era of gaming – TechCrunch

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As the gaming market continues to boom, billions of dollars are being invested in new games and new streaming platforms vying to own a piece of the action. Most of the value is accruing to the large incumbents in a space, however, and the entrance of Google and other big tech companies makes it difficult to identify where there are compelling opportunities for entrepreneurs to build new empires.

TechCrunch media analyst Eric Peckham recently sat down with Paul Murphy, Partner at European venture firm Northzone, to discuss Paul’s view of the market and where he is focusing his dollars. Below is the transcript of the conversation (edited for length and clarity):


Eric Peckham: You co-founded the hit mobile game Dots before moving to London and joining Northzone last year. Are you still bullish on investment opportunities in mobile gaming or do you think the market has changed?

Paul Murphy: I’m bullish on mobile gaming–the market is bigger than it has ever been. There’s a whole generation of people that have been trained to play games on mobile phones. So those are things that are very positive.

The challenge is you don’t really have a rising tide moment anymore. The winners have won. And so it’s very, very difficult for someone to enter with new content and build a business that’s as big as Supercell or King, regardless of how good their content is. So while the prize for winning in mobile gaming content big, the likelihood is smaller.

Where I’m spending most of my time is not on content, it’s on components within mobile gaming. We’re looking at infrastructure: different platforms that enable mobile gaming, like Bunch which we invested in.

Their product allows you to do live video and audio on top of mobile games. So we don’t have to take any content risk. We’re betting that this great product will fit into a large inventory ecosystem.

Peckham: New mobile game studios that are launching all seem to fall under the sphere of influence of these bigger companies. They get a strategic investment from Supercell or another company. To your point, it’s tough for a small startup to compete entirely on its own.

Murphy: It’s possible in mobile gaming still but it’s really, really hard now. At the same time, what you’ve seen is the odds of winning are lower. It is hard to reach the same scale when it costs you $5.00 to acquire a user today, whereas when Candy Crush launched, it was $0.05 per user. So it’s almost impossible to achieve King-like scale today.

Therefore, you’re looking at similar content risk with reduced upside, which makes that equation less attractive for venture capital. But it might be perfectly fine for an established company because they don’t need to do the marketing, they have the audience already.

The big gaming companies all struggle with the challenge of how to create the next hit IP. They have this machine that can bring any great game to market efficiently, with a large audience they can cross promote from and capital they can invest to build a big brand quickly. For them, the biggest challenge is getting the best content.

So it’s natural to me that the pendulum has swung towards strategic investors in mobile gaming content. Epic has a fund that they set up with Improbable, Supercell is making direct investments, Tencent has been making investments for years. Even from a content perspective, you’re probably going to see Apple, Google, and Amazon making more content investments in mobile gaming.

Image via Getty Images / aurielaki

Peckham: Does this same market dynamic apply to PC games and console games? Do you see a certain area within gaming where there’s still opportunity for independent startups to create the game itself and find success at a venture scale?

Murphy: The reason we made our investment in Klang Games, which is building an MMO called Seed that people will primarily play through PC, is that while there is content risk–you’re never going to get rid of the possibility that the IP doesn’t fly–if it works, it will be massive…an Earth-shattering level of success. If their vision comes to life, it will be very, very big.

So that one has all the risks that you’d have in any other game studio but the upside is exponentially larger, so the bet makes sense to us. And it so happens that it’s going to be on PC first, where there’s certainly a lot of competition but it’s not as saturated and the monetization methods are healthier than in mobile gaming. In PC, you don’t have to do free-to-play tactics that interfere with the gameplay.

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After 16 years of freeware, Dwarf Fortress creators get their $7M payday

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Enlarge / The quirky work of two brothers’ lives has found a wider audience on Steam and Itchi.io, and now they have some breathing room.

Bay 12 Games

The month before Dwarf Fortress was released on Steam (and Itch.io), the brothers Zach and Tarn Adams made $15,635 in revenue, mostly from donations for their 16-year freeware project. The month after the game’s commercial debut, they made $7,230,123, or 462 times that amount.

“The fairytale ending is reality, but you didn’t kiss the toad,” Zach Adams wrote on Bay 12 Games’ forums. “You gave him money.” He went on to write the kind of grateful response to fans you don’t often see from game developers:

The appreciation you give us is part of our being now. It carries us in the cars we drive. It sustains us as the food that we eat. There is now no longer any existence except the one that you have provided. When we pass from this world, you will be the reason we are remembered.

Tarn Adams noted that “a little less than half will go to taxes,” and that other people and expenses must be paid. But enough of it will reach the brothers themselves that “we’ve solved the main issues of health/retirement that are troubling for independent people.” It also means that Putnam, a longtime modder and scripter and community member, can continue their work on the Dwarf Fortress code base, having been hired in December.

The “issues of health/retirement” became very real to the brothers in 2019 when Zach had to seek treatment for skin cancer. The $10,000 cost, mostly covered through his wife’s employer-provided insurance, made them realize the need for more robust sustainability. “You’re not just going to run GoFundMes until you can’t and then die when you’re 50,” Tarn told The Guardian in late 2022. “That is not cool.” This realization pushed them toward a (relatively) more accessible commercial release with traditional graphics, music, and tutorials.

As of today, Dwarf Fortress’ Steam page summarizes the game’s more than 17,000 reviews as “Overwhelmingly Positive.” “I am speechless to people around me between game sessions,” wrote jozef.sova. “Had my Chief Militia Commander tackle a Giant Cyclops over a waterfall ravine 10 stories killing it at the bottom,” wrote DEV. “Guy couldn’t get out and he drowned, may he never be forgotten.”

While the commercial release of Dwarf Fortress has earned the brothers some breathing room and introduced new players with some quality-of-life offerings, the “classic” version—the one Ars editor Casey Johnston detailed over her 10-hour ordeal—is still free to download.

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PS5 owners won’t get this set of free PS4 games for much longer

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Enlarge / A look at the games available in the PlayStation Plus Collection, which will no longer be offered to PS5 subscribers as of May.

For over two years now, PlayStation Plus subscribers who owned a PS5 got access to the PlayStation Plus Collection, a set of 19 legacy PS4 games available for free download and play via the console’s backward compatibility. This week, Sony announced that it will be ending this subscriber benefit in May. Current PS5 owners will have until then to redeem their free games, which will remain available on their account as long as they stay subscribed to any of PlayStation Plus’ multiple tiers.

Hundreds of legacy PS4 games are still available for download as part of the higher-end PlayStation Plus “Extra” and “Premium” tiers (starting at $14.99/month or $99.99/year). That list includes many of the titles that were part of the PlayStation Plus Collection, including almost all of Sony’s first-party titles. But the PlayStation Plus Collection was also available at the cheapest “Essential” pricing tier ($9.99/month or $59.99/year).

The PlayStation Plus Collection served as a valuable introduction to legacy PlayStation franchises for PS5 owners who never owned a PS4. Sony said in an earnings release last night that such users made up a full 30 percent of the PS5’s monthly active users, suggesting that “the acquisition of new users is progressing,” as the company put it. Players who did upgrade from a PS4 to a PS5, meanwhile, are spending significantly more time and money on the new console on average, according to Sony.

The sunsetting of the PlayStation Plus Collection comes as Sony promises that long-standing retail shortages of PS5 hardware should be easing thanks to increasing supplies and despite “unprecedented demand.” PlayStation Plus currently boasts 46.4 million subscribers across all consoles, Sony said, a number that has remained essentially flat over the last two years.

Microsoft, meanwhile, announced that it had reached 25 million Game Pass subscribers last January, and Sony publicly estimated that number had grown to 29 million by November. Both those subscriber numbers are up significantly from the 18 million Game Pass subscribers Microsoft claimed in early 2021, though that subscriber growth is reportedly well behind Microsoft’s targets.

Subscription numbers for both console subscription services might be hitting a saturation point, though. As Xbox CEO Phil Spencer said in remarks last October, “at some point, you’ve reached everybody on console that wants to subscribe.”

Here’s the full list of the PlayStation Plus Collection games that will be departing in May (games still available on the Extra/Premium tier are noted with a *):

  • Batman: Arkham Knight*
  • Battlefield 1
  • Bloodborne*
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
  • Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy
  • Days Gone*
  • Detroit: Become Human*
  • Fallout 4*
  • Final Fantasy XV*
  • God of War*
  • Infamous Second Son*
  • Monster Hunter World
  • Mortal Kombat X
  • Ratchet and Clank
  • Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
  • The Last Guardian*
  • The Last of Us Remastered
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End*
  • Until Dawn*
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Unofficial Link to the Past PC port is a reverse-engineered gem

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Enlarge / Among the many upgrades made possible by this project, A Link to the Past is now a game you can Alt+Tab out of when a supervisor comes near.

Nintendo / Kevin Purdy

It’s a sad reality among retro emulation enthusiasts: You often spend far more time crafting your perfect setup than playing the games. You get your controller, linear filtering, sound engine, and everything else just right, and then you discover that your favorite game of yesteryear is far slower and more annoying than you remember.

That’s why the hard work of reverse engineers is so valuable. Hobbyist decompilers have worked to turn ROM binaries into thousands of lines of human-readable code, allowing for far deeper audiovisual upgrades, features, and other tweaks. It’s resulted in some impressive new takes on games, including Ocarina of Time, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Grand Theft Auto. And unlike many fan-based projects, reverse engineering generally passes legal muster as long as no copyrighted assets are distributed along with the decompiled code.

And they often far outshine game publishers’ official offerings, which usually amount to little more than officially licensed, lightly tweaked emulation.

Now you can add The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past to the list of classic games reverse-engineered and made great in modern times (first spotted by Neowin). I got the game working on a Windows PC (there are instructions for Mac, Linux, and homebrew-enabled Switches, too). It took about 10 minutes of reading the instructions, futzing with Python and adding a few files—including the extraction of assets from a personal backup copy of the original game.

Side-by-side comparison of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past running next to Snesrev’s reconstructed port.

What resulted was a version of one of the foundational games of my childhood that I’m far more likely to play again. The game fits my modern, high-resolution monitor, and has options for alternate, higher-fidelity music (via drop-in MSU files). It looks mostly the same, though it plays far more quickly and smoothly, without the frame-rate drops and long scene transitions I remember. I’ve enabled several quality-of-life upgrades: fast item switching, breaking pots with a sword, turning off the low-health beep, and some other small fixes. You can go further by messing with all kinds of settings in an .ini file.

For me, this represents an agreeable compromise between nostalgia and modern realities. You can play A Link to the Past with nothing but support for your modern system and screen. Or you can tweak many little things that might irk you and swap out Link’s sprite for Zelda, Hello Kitty, or others. Either way, you’re playing the original game, freed from the limitations of its original hardware, but not significantly altered in any real way.

Less noticeable a feature, but just as remarkable, is this port’s deep fidelity to the original. You can run Snesrev’s version in a way that shows the original machine code version running side by side with their C implementation, with the RAM state compared between each frame by frame, to ensure you’re playing, at a fundamental level, the same game.

Somehow it’s not surprising that this thoughtful rework of a classic game comes not from the copyright holder Nintendo, but from a group of volunteers working diligently to understand what made the original game work and streamline it.

From talking to contributors in their Discord, I gleaned that the disassembly work (from binary to assembly code) came from Spannerisms. Moving the assembly to nearly 80,000 lines of C and creating a playable product, was Snesrev. FitzRoyX cleaned up bugs from the original game, xander-haj maintained the wiki and added item features and sprite swaps. Xander-haj noted that other ports forked from the Snesrev project, including Xbox One and PlayStation Vita.

While projects based on a Nintendo property are often killed by legal threats just as they come to attention, this reverse-engineered project, which specifically makes no use of any original game assets, has a good chance of staying alive. Reverse-engineered code for Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City remains online after Github agreed to a Digital Millennium Copyright Act counterclaim. Courts have previously struck down reverse-engineering-based projects based on end-user license agreements (EULAs). But fully decoupled projects from the likes of the Zelda Reverse Engineering Team march on, giving hope that even more games get their shot at modern tuning.

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