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Sidestepping App Stores, Facebook Lite and Groups get Instant Games – TechCrunch

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HTML5 almost ruined Facebook when baking in the mobile web standard to speed up development slowed down the performance of the social network’s main iOS and Android apps. For a brief moment in 2011, Facebook even tried to build an HTML5 gaming platform codenamed Sparta to escape the taxes of Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems. But at the time, HTML5 wasn’t powerful enough for great gaming. Facebook eventually ditched HTML5, rebuilt the apps natively, and Facebook became one of the most powerful players in mobile.

Now Facebook is giving HTML5 another shot as a way to expand its Instant Games like Pac-Man and Words With Friends to the developing world through Facebook Lite, and to interest communities via Facebook Groups. With improvements to smartphone processing power and the underlying mobile browser app technology, HTML5 can now support snappy, graphically-complex games like Everwing seen below.

Instead of having to download separate apps for each game from the Apple App Store or Google Play, Instant Games launch in a mobile browser. That keeps Facebook Lite’s file size small to the benefit of international users with slow connections or limited data plans. And it lets Instant Games integrate directly into Groups so you can challenge not only friends but like-minded members to compete for high scores.

90 million people each month actively participate in 270,000 Facebook Groups about gaming, and now they’ll see Instant Games in the Groups navigation bar next to the About and Discussion tabs. Facebook is also considering making games an opt-in feature for non-gaming Groups. In Facebook Lite, Instant Games will appear in the More sidebar so they’re not too interruptive.

The expansion demonstrates how serious Facebook is about becoming a gaming company again. Back in its desktop days, the games platform dominated by developers like Zynga racked up tons of usage, virality, and in-game payments revenue for Facebook. That revenue declined for years after mobile usage began to dominate in 2014, but recently stabilized at around $190 million per quarter. Apparently someone is still playing FarmVille.

Facebook launched Instant Games in late-2016 to give people something to do while they’re waiting from friends to reply to their messages. Around the same time, Facebook launched Gameroom — a Steam-like desktop software hub for mid-core gamers, though there’s been less news on that product since. Instant Games rolled out worldwide in mid-2017, and opened to all developers in March of this year. It’s since been expanding monetization options for developers to make building Instant Games a sustainable business. That includes making Instant Games compatible with Facebook’s playable ads that let developers lure in users from the News Feed.

Facebook won’t actually be earning money from in-app purchases on Instant Games on iOS where it doesn’t allow IAP due to Apple’s policies, or on Android since it began forgoing its cut last month. It does take 30 percent on desktop though. But the bigger monetization play is in ads where Facebook is a juggernaut.

With Instant Games on Messenger, Facebook’s desktop site and main mobile app via bookmarks, its new Fb.gg standalone gaming community app, and now Facebook Lite and Groups, the company is prioritizing the space again. That seems wise as gaming becomes more mainstream thanks to players livestreaming their commentary and phenomena like Fortnite. And with Facebook’s expansion into hardware with the Portal smart screen and a forthcoming TV set-top box, it will have more places than ever for people to play or watch others duke it out.

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Sweeping report alleges inequity, sexual harassment at Nintendo’s American HQ

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Nintendo

Through the first half of 2022, Nintendo of America has been in the crosshairs of critics and the US National Labor Relations Board thanks to reports and formal complaints about working conditions for its contracted employees, all brought into the spotlight after a reported layoff allegedly involved pro-union sentiment. In the months since that story broke out publicly, Kotaku reporter Sisi Jiang has tracked down even more allegations about the famed game publisher’s American headquarters—and the allegations land squarely in the domain of sexual harassment and gender inequity.

A sweeping report published at Kotaku on Tuesday recounts roughly one decade of internal incidents among NoA’s pool of temporary employees, dating back to “the early Wii U era,” backed by a number of on-the-record allegations from former Nintendo staffers along with anonymous reports. The report includes attempts to reach out to Nintendo of America’s leadership, an associated temp agency, and individual staffers who were named as workplace sexual harassers, but Kotaku says it never received answers to its questions.

Many of the reported issues revolve around a divide between full-time employees, colloquially known as “red badges,” and the rest of the company’s American workforce, which was managed by temp hiring agency Aerotek before that company was absorbed into another company during a recent reorganization. The women who spoke to Kotaku both on and off the record collectively suggest that their hopes for turning part-time status into a full-time Nintendo career were strained by being women. One anonymous source said, “your chance was probably worse as a girl,” while another who spoke on the record suggested women weren’t given work-related goals or metrics to grow their careers, instead being told to essentially increase “face time” with male colleagues.

According to the sources, this unclear path to advancement led to issues where women faced workplace sexual harassment, then had to brush it off in order to not be perceived as “overly sensitive” and have a clearer path to becoming a red badge, complete with more stable pay and benefits.

She left the company after being “warned to be less outspoken.”

One former QA tester suggests she found this out the hard way after reporting a male translator’s uncouth behavior in a workplace Microsoft Teams chat room in 2020, which included comments about his favorite Pokemon character to have sex with and his attraction to a clearly underage female character in the free-to-play video game Genshin Impact. The staffer in question, who spoke anonymously, says she left the company after Aerotek not only failed to act on the report but also “warned her to be less outspoken,” all while colleagues figured out that she had filed the complaint and “blamed her” for doing so.

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When context is key: “Hunger stones” go viral, but news first broke in 2018

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Enlarge / A hunger stone in the Elbe River in Děčín, Czech Republic. The oldest readable carving is from 1616, with older carvings (1417 and 1473) having been wiped out by anchoring ships over the years.

Stories have been circling around the Internet this past week about the re-emergence in certain Czech and German rivers of so-called “hunger stones”—rocks embedded in rivers during droughts to mark the water level and warn future generations of the likely famine and hardship to come whenever the stones became visible again. The coverage has been fueled largely by an August 11 tweet noting one stone in particular, inscribed with a dire warning: “If you see me, weep.”

Hunger stones (hungerstein) are very much a real thing with a long and fascinating history. And Europe is in the midst of a historically severe drought—severe enough that water levels may indeed be sufficiently low for the stones to re-emerge once more. But that August 11 tweet and the related coverage are actually rehashing a series of news stories from 2018, when the re-emergence of the hunger stones in the midst of that year’s extreme drought in Europe made headlines.

It’s hardly an egregious case of misinformation, but it does provide an illustrative example of why including context is so important in the digital age—even in a relatively simple tweet enthusing about newly acquired knowledge.

The stone referenced in the August 11 tweet is located on the Elbe River in Děčín, Czech Republic—one of the oldest such landmarks in the region. The earliest readable inscribed date is 1616, but older carvings marking the droughts of 1417 and 1473 were wiped out by anchoring ships over the centuries. Other drought years carved in the stone include 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892, and 1893. It’s actually possible to see this particular stone some 126 days out of the year, thanks to the construction of a dam that was built on a tributary of the Elbe in 1926.

The stone also features an inscription likely added in 1938: “Neplač holka, nenaříkej, když je sucho, pole stříkej” (“Girl, don’t weep and moan, if it’s dry, water the field”). Another Elbe stone can be found near Bleckede, with the inscription Geht dieser Stein unter, wird das Leben wieder bunter (“When this stone goes under, life will become more colorful again”).

A 2013 paper examining the history of drought in the Czech region from 1090 to 2012 relied in part on hunger stones as “epigraphic data” of past droughts, supplementing evidence gleaned from annals, chronicles, diaries, tax documents, religious records, letters, printed manuscripts, and modern instrumental data. (Apparently in 1393, the drought was so severe it was possible to cross the River Vltava on its bed, and the water was “as green as grass.”)

Frankly, that paper is worth reading just for the historical anecdote concerning a priest named Prokop Diviš, known for serendipitously constructing one of the earliest grounded lightning rods. Diviš set up his “weather instrument” at his parsonage in June 1754. It was composed of several tin boxes and more than 400 metal spikes, and Diviš thought it could drive off storms. (The scientific community at the time was less than impressed with his theories.)

Five years later, in the fall of 1759, local villagers demanded Diviš remove it, convinced that it had been the cause of that summer’s drought. The authors suggest the priest’s personal enemies had riled up the crowd. The following March, the villagers broke the chains holding the instrument down, and a thunderstorm the following night knocked it over. But their victory was short-lived. There were so many thunderstorms that summer, damaging the fields and vineyards, that the villagers asked him to re-install his weather instrument. “His response was not positive,” the authors wrote.

Hunger stone at Dresden-Pillnitz, near the stairs of Pillnitz Castle's western sphinx. Inscriptions record droughts in the years 1778, 1893, 1904, 2003, 2018.
Enlarge / Hunger stone at Dresden-Pillnitz, near the stairs of Pillnitz Castle’s western sphinx. Inscriptions record droughts in the years 1778, 1893, 1904, 2003, 2018.

Dr. Bernd Gross/CC BY-SA 3.0

When Central Europe was yet again besieged by drought in 2018, the Elbe plummeted to its lowest levels in more than half a century, and news stories began circulating about the re-emergence of some of the hunger stones. The Associated Press, NPR, Smithsonian, and Atlas Obscura were among the outlets that covered the story.

So why has the story re-emerged now? Kim LaCapria, writing at Truth or Fiction, thinks it started with an August 10 post to the subreddit r/todayilearned, linking to the Wikipedia entry on hunger stones “simply as a point of interest.” Perhaps not coincidentally, two days before that, low-water levels in Lake Mead due to the extreme megadrought resulted in the discovery of yet another set of human remains—the fourth body found so far. So, as conversations about drought and climate change circulated in the ether, they created the perfect conditions to reignite interest in the hunger stones, sparking a fresh flurry of news stories—like this one.

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Will the Nintendo Switch ever see a price drop?

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Mark Walton

In a recent interview with Nikkei Asia, Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa said the company has no plans “at this point” to increase the price of the Switch. Despite “rising production and shipping costs” for the system, Furukawa said Nintendo wants to “avoid pricing people out” of its console ecosystem (a worry apparently not shared by Meta, which recently raised the asking price of its Quest 2 VR headset).

While some are overreading the “at this point” phrasing as suggestive of a future Switch price increase, all this talk has us focused on some different questions. Namely, why haven’t we seen a price drop for the Nintendo Switch in the last five-plus years? And can we ever expect Nintendo to offer the system for less than its launch price?

A historical anomaly

When it comes to consistent console pricing, the Switch is truly in a class by itself. As of this writing, the Switch has been available in North America for over five years—nearly 2,000 days—yet it’s still being sold in the US for the same $299.99 you would have paid when the system launched in March, 2017.

Accounting for inflation, the $300 Switch is still one of the cheaper consoles.
Enlarge / Accounting for inflation, the $300 Switch is still one of the cheaper consoles.
While most consoles see a distinct downward pricing trend shortly after launch, the Switch has sat still for five years.
Enlarge / While most consoles see a distinct downward pricing trend shortly after launch, the Switch has sat still for five years.

To say this is unprecedented in the game industry is an understatement.

Looking back through the history of game console pricing, we found that the vast majority of consoles see their first price drop within a year or two of launch. It’s a pattern that encompasses successful systems like the PS2 (which dropped from $300 to $200 about 17 months after its US launch) to stinkers like the Wii U (which saw a $50 price drop just 10 months after launch), and almost everything in between.

The few consoles that do make it out of their second full year without a price drop almost invariably see some sort of reduction in year three. The Switch, on the other hand, has now shot through years three, four, and five at its original price.

We know there's a lot going on in this graph, but it's still pretty easy to identify the Switch as a major outlier.
Enlarge / We know there’s a lot going on in this graph, but it’s still pretty easy to identify the Switch as a major outlier.
If the Switch were an
Enlarge / If the Switch were an “average” console, it would be selling for around $150 to $180 today.

After five years on the market, the average game console (that hasn’t stopped production entirely by that point) sells for an average price that’s about 50 to 60 percent of its nominal launch price (depending on whether you look at the mean or the median). The Switch, which is still at 100 percent of its nominal launch price over five years after launch, is a huge outlier.

The only previous console that’s really in the same price-stability ballpark as the Switch is the Nintendo Wii. That system finally dropped from $250 to $200 in November of 2009, just over 1,100 days after its late-2006 launch. The Switch, for its part, is now threatening to double that record.

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