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Snapchat launches Mario Party-style multiplayer games platform – TechCrunch

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Snap is unlocking a new revenue stream while giving you something to do between chats and Stories. Today Snapchat debuts its Snap Games platform that lets you play real-time, multiplayer games while texting and talking with your friends. The platform is based on Snap’s secret late-2017 acquisition of PrettyGreat, an Australian game studio with talent from HalfBrick (which built Fruit Ninja). That team built Bitmoji Party, a Mario Party-style mini-game fest, to show off the platform that includes five games from developers like Zynga and ZeptoLab. The games are rolling out worldwide on iOS and Android starting today.

To monetize the platform, Snapchat will let users opt in to watching six-second unskippable commercials that reward them with a power up or bonus in-game currency. Snapchat will share revenue from the ads with developers, though it refused to specify the split. It could be a little weird watching ads to more easily beat your friends. But down the line it’s easy to imagine Snapchat selling cosmetic upgrades via in-app purchases akin to Fortnite.

Snap announced the new Snap Games platform at its first-ever press event, the Snap Partner Summit in Los Angeles, where it also announced an augmented reality utility platform called Scan, an ads network and a way to put its Stories in other apps. “We wanted to build something that makes us feel like we’re playing a board game with a family of over a long holiday weekend. Something that makes us feel like we’re sitting with friends, controllers in hand, looking at the same screen,” says Snap’s head of gaming, Will Wu. The Information’s Tom Dotan and Amir Efrati first reported Snap was building a gaming platform and Cheddar’s Alex Heath reported it would end up launching today.

Snap Games could be considered a real-time spin on Facebook Messenger’s Instant Games platform, which has focused on porting to HTML5 well-known asynchronous games like Pac-Man and other arcade titles. Similarly, Snap Games don’t have to be downloaded separately, as they’re piped in from the web. Users can browse available games by tapping a new rocket ship button in the chat bar.

With Bitmoji Party, your avatar competes with up to seven friends simultaneously in a series of mini games where you have to stay balanced on a giant record as a DJ scratches it, or avoid getting knocked in the pool. You also can have another 24 friends spectate and rotate in. Winners earn coins they can use to buy dances to stunt on their competition. And with an ever-present chat bar, users can use text or voice to talk trash.

Rather than port in known IP, Snap recruited developers to build games exclusively for its vertical, real-time multiplayer format. These include:

  • Alphabear Hustle from SpryFox – a fast-paced word puzzler
  • C.A.T.S. (Crash Arena Turbo Stars) Drift Race from ZeptoLab – a cutesy racing game
  • Snake Squad from Game Closure – a reimagining of the classic Snake game set in outer space
  • Tiny Royale from Zynga – a top-down battle royale shooter game that feels like a Game Boy version of Fortnite  top-down battle royale game
  • Zombie Rescue Squad from PikPok – a zombie shooter

Snapchat’s partner games (from left): Tiny Royale, Snake Squad, C.A.T.S. Drift Race

Snap’s game platform has huge potential to boost time spent in the app and the ads views that generates because gaming is perfect for its demographic. “In the United States, Snapchat now reaches nearly 75 percent of all 13 to 34-year-olds, and we reach 90 percent of 13 to 24-year-olds. In fact, we reach more 13 to 24-year-olds than Facebook or Instagram in the United States, the U.K., France, Canada and Australia,” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel revealed today. This is the age group with the free time and dense social graphs to make use of multiplayer real-time games.

The big question is whether Snap’s reward-incentivized video ad views will generate enough cash to keep developers coming to the platform. If not, a limited line of titles could get old quick. Snap has entirely avoided in-app purchases since shutting down its Lens Store in early 2016. There’s understandable concern that kids could rack up huge bills on their parents’ credit cards. But given how Fortnite has normalized paying for no-utility cosmetic upgrades for this same demographic, with the right controls Snapchat could do the same to make itself and its partners a lot more money. And given you’re always playing with your friends, not strangers, there’s an even deeper urge to buy funny costumes and dances to impress them.

Snapchat’s overarching strategy right now is to build an orbit of time-wasters surrounding chat. What began with Stories now includes Discover publications, premium Shows, augmented reality toys and now games. It may never become a favorite with the 35+ age group. But since messaging is the top mobile behavior, Snap can use it to keep people coming back and then distract them while they’re waiting for a reply or need a social alternative to small talk.

 

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Microsoft promises Call of Duty for Nintendo consoles in surprise 10-year deal

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Aurich Lawson

Nintendo fans hoping that the ultra-popular Call of Duty series would eventually come to the Switch got an unexpected boost last night. That’s when Microsoft’s Xbox chief Phil Spencer announced that the company had reached “a 10-year commitment to bring Call of Duty to Nintendo following the merger of Microsoft and Activision Blizzard King.” The announcement comes alongside a similar announcement promising to keep Call of Duty on Steam for the same period of time.

If the “10-year commitment” part of those announcements sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s the same length of time Microsoft has reportedly formally offered to keep the Call of Duty franchise on PlayStation consoles. That followed a September offer to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation for three additional years, which Sony called inadequate in public statements. But Spencer has gone much further in his public statements, saying in October that Microsoft would continue to ship a PlayStation Call of Duty “as long as there’s a PlayStation out there to ship to.”

Real ones remember.
Enlarge / Real ones remember.

The Nintendo announcement is significantly more surprising, though, considering that Call of Duty hasn’t appeared on a Nintendo console since Call of Duty Ghosts hit the Wii U in 2013. That game came one year after Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 became a surprise launch title for the ill-fated console.

Switching things up

From a business perspective, the bestselling Switch is a much more appealing target for Activision and/or Microsoft than the Wii U ever was. But the limited hardware power of the Switch makes Call of Duty something of an awkward fit for a series that’s always aimed for top-of-the-line presentation on modern consoles and PCs.

Then again, limited hardware power didn’t stop a series of scaled-down Call of Duty conversions for the Nintendo DS up through 2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – Defiance. Other developers have turned to streaming versions to get their high-end games available on the Switch, especially in Japan.

Modern FPS titles from Warface and Doom have seen low-res ports squeezed onto the Switch in recent years with mixed results. But persistent rumors of a more powerful “Switch 2” in the coming years would definitely make any potential Call of Duty ports less of a development lift.

<em>Doom</em> on the Nintendo Switch runs well below 1080p resolution but is still suitably creepy.
Enlarge / Doom on the Nintendo Switch runs well below 1080p resolution but is still suitably creepy.

The possibility of a Switch version of Call of Duty hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere for Microsoft. At an October Wall Street Journal Live event, Spencer said, “When I think about our plans, I’d love to see [Call of Duty] on Switch and playable on many different screens.” In practically the same breath, though, he said that “this opportunity is really about mobile” and the 3 billion potential customers who could play Call of Duty on a smartphone.

“Microsoft is committed to helping bring more games to more people—however they choose to play,” Spencer said in his Tuesday night announcement.

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Two months of Intel Arc driver updates begin to fix low performance in old games

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Enlarge / Intel is talking up big performance gains in some old, but noteworthy, games.

Intel

In the run-up to the launch of Intel’s Arc graphics cards, the company emphasized for months that the cards might not perform well in games that didn’t use newer graphics APIs like Vulkan and DirectX 12. The GPUs are actually quite price-competitive with aging midrangers like Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3060 if you’re playing newer games, but performance in older games is mixed.

For Intel Arc owners attracted to the cards’ price, salvation may come in the form of continued driver updates. Since the October launch of the A770 and A750, Intel has released a handful of driver updates, each of which has fixed specific bugs or provided small performance improvements in individual games. But in today’s beta driver release (31.0.101.3959, for those keeping track), Intel is offering a “significant” boost in older DirectX9 titles, with frame rates that can improve by as much as 80 percent.

DirectX9 was the graphics API of choice in the Windows XP era, and the Windows XP era lasted for a very long time. The API is also used in still-popular multiplayer games like Counter-Strike: Global OffensiveLeague of LegendsTeam Fortress 2, and Starcraft II, making performance improvements in DirectX9 games particularly noteworthy.

Specific performance numbers. This isn't the difference between playable and unplayable, but they might be noticeable on monitors with super-high refresh rates.
Enlarge / Specific performance numbers. This isn’t the difference between playable and unplayable, but they might be noticeable on monitors with super-high refresh rates.

Intel

Because these are pretty old games we’re talking about, these performance improvements aren’t necessary to hit 60 frames per second on the A770 (though the improvements also apply to the entry-level Arc A380 GPU, which might need the extra help. These increases will mostly benefit competitive players, for whom super-high frame rates and low response times are critical. Some of the increases from the new driver are minor, but at 1080p, Intel says Stellaris and Starcraft II frame rates improved by around 50 percent, while League of Legends improved by 37 percent and CS: Go went up by 80 percent.

Intel had previously said it was using a Microsoft-provided translation layer to support DirectX9 games. With these improvements, the company says it’s introducing a “hybrid” approach, using the D3D9On12 layer “when a better experience can be delivered” and a native implementation when it benefits performance. This makes some sense—Intel can use translation for any given 15-year-old DirectX9 PC game while providing a more optimized native implementation for the DirectX9 games that lots of people are still actually playing.

Intel will decide when to switch individual titles over to the native DirectX9 implementation rather than the translated one and will deliver those changes via driver updates along with other improvements.

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Diablo IV preview: Embracing the series’ dark past and open-world future

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Enlarge / Stop, drop, and roll!

It’s not a stretch to say that the Diablo series is one of the most influential role-playing game franchises of all time. As one of the early action-focused loot games, it offered a deeply compelling and satisfying take on the classic concept of the dungeon crawl. Its many sequels advanced its foundations of rewarding character growth and addictive loot collection. The Diablo games are still well-loved today, but other titles have picked up the baton and taken the genre in new directions.

So with the upcoming Diablo IV, developer Blizzard is seeking to reinvent the classic action RPG, taking the series’ first steps into a dark open world filled to the brim with gruesome violence. While staying true to the game’s isometric action-RPG and dark fantasy roots, Diablo IV brings a more ambitious and freeform adventure, with many new ways to customize your hero as you adventure across the land.

I was able to play over 12 hours of Diablo IV’s opening act in an early beta preview of the game, which showcased its expansive open world and gave a sample of how much power a budding adventurer can attain. It’s already apparent that Diablo IV is less about providing a series of linear dungeon crawls and more about opening the player to a wider world filled with monsters to fight and loot to collect.

Embracing a dark past

Several decades after the defeat of Malthael in Diablo III, things have not improved in the world of Sanctuary. With humanity falling into despair, a desperate group of adventurers seeking loot and power summons the malevolent arch-demon Lilith, who embarks on a brutal campaign to retake the ruined world. With the land poised to plunge even further into darkness, a Barbarian, a Rogue, a Sorceress, a Druid, and a Necromancer take their first steps into Sanctuary. They team up to amass power and infamy, all in pursuit of gaining the strength to defeat Lilith and her army throughout the world of Sanctuary.

According to Diablo IV director Joe Shely, the development team felt it needed a more consistent and striking tone for their trip back to Sanctuary. “[Diablo IV] is much closer to the horror and fantasy roots than recent interactions of the IP,” Shely said during a pre-game presentation. “We want the world of Sanctuary to be scary, challenging, and engaging, but we also want it to be a place worth fighting for. The main theme of the game is ‘hatred.’ Hate will consume Sanctuary and the hearts of our characters, and we will explore its lore and its dire consequences.”

The dark tone of <em>Diablo IV</em> extends to the color palette in scenes like this.
Enlarge / The dark tone of Diablo IV extends to the color palette in scenes like this.

From the game’s opening hours, it was clear that Diablo IV is the series’ darkest and most violent entry. The bloody opening act—filled with undead monsters, human sacrifices, and lots and lots of blood—effectively sets the mood for this grim adventure. If Diablo III was akin to Peter Jackson’s director’s cut of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Diablo IV is much more in the vein of the dark gothic horror of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

This dark atmosphere will be familiar to anyone who remembers the first two Diablo games and their vision of a dark, gothic fantasy world. But Diablo IV’s take on the genre feels more brutal and grotesque. The violence and bleak atmosphere of the game can be a lot to take in at times, but it all connects to the more significant vision of a ruined world.

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