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



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 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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After Epic v. Apple namecheck, runs one-day-only dev-friendly promo


on, a digital download storefront that largely sells indie video games, launched its first-ever “Creator Day” on Friday. This one-day-only price promotion is aimed more at developers than consumers, as it comes with a twist: will claim precisely zero dollars in service fees from its developers until the promotion ends at 2:59 am EDT on Saturday, May 15.

The sale comes as Epic and Apple, two massive players in the digital storefront space, continue to face off in court over the percentages charged to game- and software-makers for every sale of a game. may not have wanted to become part of that argument, but the Epic Games v. Apple court case may have forced the company’s hand.

Before the lawsuit’s start, Epic announced that it would allow its Epic Games Store (EGS) users to download and access, thus publicly proving that Epic was willing to host a competitor’s storefront. Epic’s lawsuit revolves around Apple’s unwillingness to do the same on the iOS App Store—a decision that led to Fortnite‘s delisting from the platform.

Last week, Apple’s lawyers pushed back about’s arrangement with the EGS to make a point about Apple’s walled-garden approach to App Store content approval. An Apple attorney described a single game available on, titled Sisterly Lust, and called it a “so-called adult game” with “a list of fetishes which include many words that are not appropriate for us to speak in federal courts.” The Apple attorney then claimed that lets EGS users access software that Epic has not double-checked or moderated.

Apple’s lawyer did not inform the court that games with an “18-and-up” flag require a user’s age confirmation before their details appear in the app or web storefront, and Epic General Manager Steven Allison was unable to clarify’s moderation policies while on the stand. Nevertheless, the shot was fired, and posted a joking response on Twitter soon after: “Guys, Apple’s lawyers just called. They said we need to turn off ALL the games.”

Unspeakably low fees

Creator Day includes no mention of Epic Games v. Apple, nor how’s one-day-only promotion of zeroed-out fees compares to the 12 percent typically charged to devs via the EGS or the 30 percent charged via Apple’s App Store (or any other storefront’s charges). Instead, the promotion included a hint that it may return, with saying, “We hope to make this a regular event to give developers an excuse to share and promote their works.”

This promotion may make zero difference for some games because the company lets its developer community forgo the service’s per-purchase fees if they want to. The service initially launched with zero dev fees; in 2015, began to allow devs to pick the same kind of “pay what you want slider” that it offers consumers. This dev fee defaults to 10 percent, which does not include the fixed processing fees required by payment operators (these fees are not waived as part of Creator Day).

As wrote in 2015:

You might be saying, “that sounds pretty risky, what if everyone sets it to zero?” We think that’s a risk we’re willing to take in the spirit of encouraging the generous and supportive community that’s already developed around’s thousands of games are all over the map in terms of content, complexity, and tone. The storefront is wide-open enough to include options like visual novels, tabletop game rulesets, and award-winning indie fare like Celeste, A Short Hike, and Night in the Woods. Arguably its biggest promotion was June 2020’s Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, which included over 1,700 games and exceeded $8 million in sales that went directly to charity.’s Creator Day promotion largely resembles “Bandcamp Fridays,” a first-of-the-month promotion that began waiving fees for all music purchases through that storefront once the pandemic began affecting its community of touring musicians. The promotion is slated to continue through 2021, with the company saying earlier this month that “although vaccines are starting to roll out, it will likely be several months before live performance revenue starts to return.”

Apple has had a long history of ever-changing moderation practices, and the company has made plenty of questionable decisions. It recently began telling users of the Discord chat service which “NSFW” channels could be accessed on the app’s iOS version. It rejected a speed-testing app that looked for net neutrality-based speed gates (though it later reversed the call). And in the App Store’s earliest days, Apple began a moderation crusade in response to issues with “adult” screenshots in app listings. The company is not always as forthright when the “offense” in question concerns hacks into users’ phones and whether to tell users about them.

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Mass Effect Legendary Edition: Tests, thoughts, and a 10 am EDT Twitch stream



Roughly 60 hours ago, EA and BioWare dumped all 103GB of the upcoming Mass Effect Legendary Edition into my inbox. Then, they told me the embargo would lift today. I proceeded to chug a concentrated energy drink cocktail of Bawls, Red Bull, and lukewarm coffee grounds while taping my eyelids open so I could bring you a full review of all three touched-up Mass Effect games. Every romance option, every side quest, every unnecessarily rude conversation-wheel option: Sure, let’s shotgun the whole thing like an M-11 Wraith in ME3.

…or, uh, maybe not.

Clearly, that was not enough turnaround time for a “full” review. And a full review is arguably unnecessary anyway, since you don’t need us to tell you that the source games in question are very, very good. Yet EA is otherwise letting us run wild with MELE coverage starting right now, ahead of the remastered trilogy’s retail launch tomorrow. So I’ve found enough time to go through Ars-caliber tests of the package’s technical makeup, putting everything through the paces on multiple PCs and Xbox consoles.

In addition to my thoughts, I’ll be hopping onto Ars Technica’s official Twitch channel starting two hours after this article goes live, at 10 am EDT on Thursday, May 13, to not only play the PC version for Ars viewers but to also offer on-the-fly answers, feedback, and tests in the attached chat. (The VOD should be embedded directly above this paragraph, but if it doesn’t appear, head to or subscribe to our channel via that link while you wait.)

Should you miss the stream, which will last for approximately three hours, we’ll preserve its VOD here. But if Twitch embeds aren’t your thing, don’t fret—this article still has plenty of info for aspiring Paragons and Renegades to sink their teeth into.

Now, onto the big question: Are these remasters indeed “Legendary?”

Unable to confirm whether love breaks the game

Yes, EA is insane for sending me a “review” code this close to the game’s launch on Friday, May 14, on Steam, Origin, Xbox, and PlayStation. Just consider exactly what is advertised on the game’s box:

  • All three original campaigns
  • Every piece of DLC at no additional charge, ranging from bonus items to plot-filled campaign content
  • Visual tweaks for all three games for the sake of 4K resolutions and HDR toggles
  • Deeper updates to Mass Effect 1 to bring it up to engine parity with later games

Is there a chance that this megaton package is watertight in its first dozen hours, only to buckle thanks to a hairline fracture in the code as exposed by a ME1 relationship’s metadata being referenced in ME3? Absolutely. I can’t yet offer a technical review of the full package, and if you feel negatively about EA and BioWare’s decision to pace the “review” period so tightly to the retail launch, I invite you to follow that feeling straight into “buy some other time” territory. That’s especially true if you’re interested in the compilation’s PC version. and my woes with EA’s Origin launcher will soon be made quite clear.

So far, at least, MELE feels like a very solid starting point for anyone who has a decent reason to buy the full ME trilogy, plus its scattered DLC packages, at $60 in 2021. As a top-to-bottom touch-up by BioWare, MELE feels just substantial enough to rise above the PC community’s best modding efforts over the past decade-plus—at least, that’s the case for anyone who’d rather hit “install” and have a good-enough experience instead of fussing with old code and various mod downloads. MELE is clearly built in the one-size-fits-all way that you’d expect from a package launching simultaneously on consoles, and the new version’s modding potential isn’t entirely clear yet.

Better light balancing on faces and bodies does a lot to lift the series’ late-‘00s tech out of the uncanny valley.

Still, in its effort to deliver an unmodded, vanilla package, BioWare has struck the right balance between the old, original code and handsome, new updates to everything. Textures, skyboxes, reflections, and revised lighting techniques receive the biggest updates, while BioWare has gone to the trouble of smoothing out various polygonal structures and models to make curved structures and surfaces actually look curvy this time around. Outfits and armor get modern-day texture fidelity and anisotropic filtering, and a mix of manual rebuilds and AI-powered upscales means BioWare retains the original trilogy’s aesthetic and art direction while still advancing the visuals.

For many aspects, particularly character geometry and animation, lighting-based effects do a lot of the remastered games’ heavy lifting. Better light balancing on faces and bodies does a lot to lift the series’ late-’00s tech out of the uncanny valley, though you’ll still see some freakish facial expressions emerge when an eye protrudes a little too excitedly out of a model. Those moments are rare, and they’re not as bad as the earliest state of ME Andromeda, but it happens.

Ambient occlusion has finally been applied across the board, which looks fantastic in outdoor scenes with new infusions of foliage and grass. This visual effect applies a mix of shadows and bounce-lighting effects to the edges of objects close to the ground. But while this makes chest-high cover like stones, boxes, and crates look more realistic, ambient occlusion doesn’t make those rooms look any less ripped out of the Xbox 360 era.

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Steam’s “price parity rule” isn’t wreaking havoc on game prices



Monopoly control is a hot topic in the games industry these days. Lawsuits against Apple, Valve, and Sony all take slightly different tacks in arguing that these companies exercise unfair monopoly control over their platforms’ market for downloadable games.

Each suit also argues that this monopoly control leads to higher game prices for consumers. Platform holders charge higher commission fees than they would in a truly competitive environment, the arguments go, and those higher-than-normal publishing costs are passed on to consumers via higher-priced games.

There’s something intuitively appealing to the idea of game publishers trying to attract more market share by “passing on the savings” of lower storefront commissions by lowering the asking price for their games. In practice, though, prices for the same title tend to remain consistent across platforms, regardless of the competing platform holders’ specific revenue cuts.

Platform price parity

The Epic Games Store’s two-year-plus experiment in reduced platform fees provides plenty of evidence on this score. Just look at any of the dozens of games available on both the EGS (where Epic charges publishers a 12 percent fee) and Steam (where Valve charges a 30 percent standard fee).

In almost every case, those games will be offered at the same base price. Instead of passing on the savings, the publishers just pocket the 18 percentage-point difference between the EGS cut and the Steam cut. The only real exceptions come when a store is having a temporary sale, after which the games revert to identical prevailing pricing standards in almost every case.

This price-matching might be an artificial construct, though. In Wolfire Games’ lawsuit against Valve, the developer argues that the Steam-maker enforces a “Price Parity Rule” to make sure “Steam keys cannot be sold on other sites unless the product is also available for purchase on Steam at no higher a price than is offered on any other service or website.”

Wolfire’s David Rosen expanded on that accusation in a recent blog post, saying that Valve threatened to “remove [Wolfire’s game] Overgrowth from Steam if I allowed it to be sold at a lower price anywhere, even from my own website, without Steam keys and without Steam’s DRM.”

Prices for the same title tend to remain consistent across platforms, regardless of the competing platform holders’ specific revenue cuts.

Sources close to Valve suggested to Ars that this “parity” rule only applies to the “free” Steam keys publishers can sell on other storefronts and not to Steam-free versions of those games sold on competing platforms. Valve hasn’t responded to a request for comment on this story.

Regardless, even if we remove Steam’s alleged price-fixing from the equation, publishers still seem reluctant to pass on the savings from the EGS’s lower cut. This is apparent when you look at the Epic Games Store PC exclusives that are also sold on consoles, where the platform holders each take their own 30 percent cut.

An Ars analysis found that out of 41 such games, only five were offered for a lower price on the EGS. The rest of the games were priced identically on PC and console, except for eight that were actually cheaper on console thanks to a temporary sale. Again, publishers largely aren’t lowering their prices even though Epic has lowered its relative platform cut.

Ubisoft charges the same $60 for <em>Watch Dogs: Legion</em> when it's sold on Uplay (with no platform fee) or the Epic Games Store (with a 12 percent fee).
Enlarge / Ubisoft charges the same $60 for Watch Dogs: Legion when it’s sold on Uplay (with no platform fee) or the Epic Games Store (with a 12 percent fee).

The same phenomenon remains true even if we take consoles out of the equation. Since early 2019, Ubisoft’s new PC games have avoided Steam in favor of distribution on the EGS and Ubisoft’s Uplay platform.

But even though Ubisoft doesn’t pay any platform fees for games sold through Uplay, the prices for games like Watch Dogs: Legion and Anno 1800 are the same across Uplay and the EGS. Ubisoft isn’t interested in “passing on the savings” from avoiding the EGS’s 12 percent cut in these cases, even though doing so would likely make Uplay a significantly more appealing option for cost-conscious players.

Where’s my discount?

This situation runs counter to a prediction that Epic co-founder and CEO Tim Sweeney made to Ars in an interview over two years ago.

“After you go through several cycles of game developers making decisions, you’re going to see lower prices as developers pass on the savings to customers, realizing they can sell more copies if they have a better price,” Sweeney said at the time. “This sort of economic competition is really healthy for the whole industry and will lead the industry to a better place for all developers and for gamers as well. It’s a supply-side thing, this revenue sharing. It’s some sort of business arrangement between developers and a store that [a] gamer generally doesn’t see.”

But industry analysts see digital game pricing less as “a supply-side thing” and more driven by consumer demand and willingness to pay.

“I suspect that developers and publishers see no reason to pass [reduced storefront fees] on to consumers,” F-Squared analyst Mike Futter told Ars. “Consumers believe that $60 (soon $70) is the fair market price because [development] costs went up.”

Futter pointed out that PC games used to routinely sell for less than their console counterparts, even before high-end console game prices rose to $60 in the mid-2000s. Eventually, though, “market tolerance proved $60 was fine on console, so it was fine on PC,” Futter said. “Publishers realized that the market would bear it. No reason to keep it lower, especially as costs have increased.”

Theoretically, a publisher using reduced platform fees to lower its asking price could increase the overall number of copies sold, creating a win-win situation in which the publisher makes more overall profit as well. In practice, though, things don’t tend to work that way.

Lowering the base price of a game from $60 to $50 “isn’t going to move [enough additional] people” to buy a game, Futter said. “I don’t think it would be statistically significant… even if Valve wouldn’t require price parity, the PR nightmare isn’t worth it.” NPD analyst Mat Piscatella agreed, telling Ars that “price sensitivity in games is such that lowering the base price will rarely drive enough incremental sales to offset” the lost revenue per sale.

Price sensitivity in games is such that lowering the base price will rarely drive enough incremental sales to offset.

NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella

But that general rule only applies to the base price for digital games, Piscatella added. When games go on temporary sale, as they frequently do on pretty much every digital storefront, the resulting boost in sell-through can help increase publisher profits for a time.

“Promoted short-term sales carry a sense of awareness and urgency to purchase, so they combine to boost volume,” Piscatella said. “Price changes only boost volume for a short window, then sales continue to decay… the change has a short-term impact, whether or not the price change is temporary or permanent.”

Sales aside, keeping prices consistent across different platforms (with different platform cuts) might be the simplest way to go for many publishers. “Most game publishers in today’s market seem to prefer the same pricing across many stores, no matter what platform cut they receive,” GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless told Ars. “Reduced platform cuts might give them more latitude for greater one-off discounts and other promotions. But price parity often appears to be a commercial decision for uniformity and ease of explanation.”

And regardless of publisher costs and consumer prices, Carless thinks some publishers may have trouble attracting enough potential customers on a relatively unestablished platform like the Epic Games Store in the first place. “Platform cut is really important, but in order to succeed as a platform, you need both a competitive cut and a mass of actual players,” he said.

None of this means that alleged monopoly pricing on digital storefronts doesn’t come at a price or that developers and publishers wouldn’t benefit from keeping a greater share of the sale price for their games. “As developers reinvest more of that 18 percent of additional revenue into building better games, that’s key to the long-term health of the game industry that we all have to look out for,” Sweeney told Ars in 2019.

But if you’re expecting that lower platform fees will lead to lower asking prices for games overall, experience suggests you’ll probably end up disappointed.

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