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Steam fights for future of game stores and streaming – TechCrunch

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For more than 15 years, Steam has been the dominant digital distribution platform for PC video games. While its success has spawned several competitors, including some online stores from game publishers, none have made a significant dent in its vice-like grip on the market.

Cracks, though, are seemingly starting to appear in Steam’s armor, and at least one notable challenger has stepped up, with potentially bigger ones on the horizon. They threaten to make Steam the digital equivalent of GameStop — a once unassailable retail giant whose future became questionable when it didn’t successfully change with the times.

The epic launch of an Epic Store

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Ubisoft

Epic Games has, in a remarkably short period of time, positioned itself as the successor to Steam. In December, the creator of the billion-dollar Fortnite franchise announced it was getting into the game retail business with the Epic Games store. Less than two months later, it had landed limited exclusivity deals with two publishers that chose to bypass Steam as they launch upcoming titles.

First up was Ubisoft, which announced the PC version of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, a highly anticipated action game, would be semi-exclusive to the Epic Games store (it will also be available on Ubisoft’s digital storefront). Ubisoft also said that “additional select titles” would be coming to Epic’s store in later months.

“We’re giving game developers and publishers the store business model that we’ve always wanted as developers ourselves,” said Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games. “Ubisoft supports our model and trusts us to deliver a smooth journey for players, from pre-purchase to the game’s release.”

Three weeks later, publisher Deep Silver abruptly discontinued pre-sales of its survival shooter Metro Exodus on Steam and announced the game would be available moving forward solely through the Epic Games store (previous Steam orders will be honored).

Steam’s past success is hitting new blocks

To be clear, Steam is hardly struggling. Last October at Melbourne Games Week, Steam announced it had 90 million monthly active users, compared to 67 million in 2017. Daily active users, it said, had grown from 33 million to 47 million.

Much of that growth came from China, where players are looking to circumvent the government’s crackdown on games. Domestic numbers, though, have been trending down, according to SteamSpy, a third-party tracking service.

Valve Software, which owns Steam, did not reply to requests for comment on this story. It did, however, post a statement on the Metro Exodus Steam page soon after Deep Silver announced its partnership with Epic, saying, “We think the decision to remove the game is unfair to Steam customers, especially after a long pre-sale period. We apologize to Steam customers that were expecting it to be available for sale through the February 15th release date, but we were only recently informed of the decision and given limited time to let everyone know.”

So what’s the draw for game makers to sell via the Epic Games store? It is, of course, a combination of factors, but chief among those is financial. To convince publishers and developers to utilize their system, Epic only takes a 12 percent cut of game-sale revenues. That’s significantly lower than the 30 percent taken by Valve on Steam (or the amounts taken by Apple or Google in their app stores).

To woo developers who use its Unreal graphics engine, Epic also waives all royalty fees for sales generated through the store. (Developers who use Unreal in their games typically pay a 5 percent royalty on all sales.)

The reason for those notably lower commissions, perhaps not surprisingly, ties back to Fortnite.

“While running Fortnite we learned a lot about the cost of running a digital store on PC,” says Sweeney. “The math is simple: we pay around 2.5 percent for payment processing for major payment methods, less than 1.5 percent for CDN [content delivery network] costs (assuming all games are updated as often as Fortnite), and between 1 percent and 2 percent for variable operating and customer support costs. Because we operate Fortnite on the Epic Games launcher on such a large scale, it has enabled us to build the store, run it at a low cost and pass those savings onto developers.”

Owning the game customer

Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Higher commissions are just one of the issues developers and publishers have with Steam. While none were willing to go on the record, for fear of retribution from Valve or because they were not authorized to officially speak on their company’s behalf, the complaints generally echoed each other.

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Robert Pattinson broods and batters his way through new The Batman trailer

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Robert Pattinson stars as billionaire Bruce Wayne, aka the Caped Crusader, in director Matt Reeves’ forthcoming film, The Batman.

Robert Pattinson is appropriately dark and brooding and beating up bad guys in the latest trailer for The Batman, which debuted at DC FanDome this weekend. Directed by Matt Reeves, the film’s release has been delayed multiple times, but will finally hit theaters next March.

As I’ve written previously, the original plan was to set the film within the DCEU, after the events of Justice League. But as Warner Bros. was rethinking the shared-universe model for its superhero films in favor of standalone films and franchises, Affleck announced he was stepping down as director, and the studio replaced him with Reeves. Affleck would eventually withdraw from the project altogether, following his divorce from Jennifer Garner and a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse.

Reeves brought a very different vision to The Batman, saying that he wanted it to be “an almost noir-driven, detective version of Batman,” focused on Bruce Wayne’s second year fighting crime as the Caped Crusader, rather than once again retelling the character’s origin story. 

Reeves said that the plot would follow a series of murders, revealing the history of corruption in Gotham and how Bruce’s family is linked to that corruption. The classic bad guys—the Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman—are also in the early stages of their development into full-fledged villains. Reeves has cited Alfred Hitchcock films as a major influence on the overall look and feel of his film, as well as Chinatown, The French Connection, and Taxi Driver.

Filming was paused in March 2020 due to COVID-19—dialect coach Andrew Jack died from the disease shortly thereafter—after a quarter or so of the film had been shot. And three days after filming resumed in September 2020, Pattinson tested positive for COVID-19, briefly shutting down production again. Filming didn’t wrap completely until March of this year, and the studio pushed the film’s release to 2022 as a result.

In addition to Pattinson, the cast includes Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) as Commissioner Jim Gordon; Colin Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin; Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as Bruce Wayne’s butler and mentor, Alfred Pennyworth; John Turturro (Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski) as crime boss Carmine Falcone; Paul Dano (Okja, 12 Years a Slave) as Edward Nashton/The Riddler; and Zoë Kravitz (X-Men: First Class) as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. (Kravitz voiced the character in The Lego Batman Movie.)

Enlarge / Zoë Kravitz plays Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman

YouTube/Warner Bros

The first teaser dropped during last year’s DC FanDome, and the Warner Bros. CinemaCon panel this past August featured a brief sizzle reel of new footage. This latest trailer opens with the arrest of Dano’s Riddler in a coffee shop, although we don’t see his face—just the question mark pattern in the foam of his cappuccino. We get a bit more footage of Batman beating up street goons, some serious sparkage with Selina/Catwoman, and a fiery confrontation with Oswald Cobblepot. But it’s the Riddler who seems to dominate the proceedings, with an ominous voiceover: “What’s black and blue and red all over? You.”

In other Batman news, Warner Bros. dropped a short sneak peek of footage for The Flash film that’s been in development for a good 17 years. It’s loosely based on the 2011 comic crossover story Flashpoint, in which Barry travels back in time to prevent the death of his mother, and accidentally unravels space and time as a result. This new footage confirms that. Ben Affleck is rumored to reprise his Batman, along with Michael Keaton, who last played the Caped Crusader in 1992’s Batman Returns. Yep, we might be getting a mutliverse version of the DCEU.

We don’t see the face of either Affleck or Keaton in this footage, but we do see Barry approach Batman from behind and ask, “Are you in?” And that does sound like Keaton in the voiceover. The studio doesn’t seem to have released the footage on their own YouTube channel, but a version is embedded below. You can watch the full streamed DC FanDome event here.

The Batman is slated for release on March 4, 2022. The Flash is scheduled to hit theaters on November 4, 2022.

Batman returns in teaser trailer for the forthcoming film The Flash.

Listing image by Warner Bros.

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John Cena shows off comedic chops in extended teaser for Peacemaker series

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John Cena reprises his role as Peacemaker for the forthcoming HBO Max spinoff series Peacemaker.

John Cena’s Peacemaker was among the standout characters in The Suicide Squad‘s star-studded ensemble cast, so we were intrigued by the news that a spinoff series was in the works. We knew that Peacemaker was being written and directed by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), and that the series will explore will explore the origins of the character and his subsequent missions. And now we have our first look, thanks to HBO Max, which released an extended teaser trailer for the series during the DC FanDome event.

(A couple of spoilers for The Suicide Squad below.)

Gunn wrote the series last summer during the COVID-19 lockdown, just for fun, but then DC Films approached him about a possible spinoff series for one of the characters in The Suicide Squad. I’m not sure Peacemaker would have been my first choice—Cena’s performance was terrific, but I haven’t quite forgiven the character for the Very Bad Thing he did in that film—but Gunn’s instincts are pretty impeccable, and he clearly felt there was more story to tell.

“He’s not an evil person, he’s just a bad guy,” Gunn told Variety in August. “He seems sort of irredeemable in the film. But I think that there’s more to him. We didn’t get a chance to know him [in The Suicide Squad] in the way we get to know some of the other characters. And so that’s what the whole show is about.” HBO Max was sufficiently impressed with his take that it ordered Peacemaker straight to series.

The eight-episode series is set after the events of The Suicide Squad, specifically after the post-credits scene, in which we learned that Peacemaker had survived what had appeared to be a fatal shooting. That scene hinted that the US government still had some use for him. The teaser makes that hint explicit, as Peacemaker (aka Christopher Smith) is recruited by Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji) for another mission in order to avoid going back to prison.

That mission is even less noble than the one he was assigned by Amanda Waller: he’s basically an assassin, but hey, at least he’s only killing bad people. He gets assistance from John Economos (Steve Agee)—warden of the Belle Reve penitentiary—NSA agent and former Waller aide Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), and new team member Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks). The cast also includes Robert Patrick as Peacemaker’s crusty father, Auggie Smith (who thinks his son is a “nancy-boy”); Freddie Stroma as Adrian Chase, aka Vigilante, a district attorney who fights crime and has rapid healing abilities; and Nhut Le as Judomaster.

The teaser is heavy on the cheesy, off-color bro-humor, including shots of Peacemaker bending over to to shoot at a target during practice, as well as having Vigilante fire at a bottle held at groin level. Then there’s the whole bizarre conversation about “butt babies.” But in Gunn’s capable hands, the irreverent, over-the-top tone is note-perfect—very much in line with the character and with the tone of The Suicide Squad (which I loved)—and we already know Cena has a remarkable gift for physical comedy, shown to good advantage here. Honestly, we’ll be tuning in to just watch him dance in his apartment in his underwear, and bond with a bald eagle. (“Oh my god. He’s hugging me.”)

Peacemaker debuts on January 13, 2022, on HBO Max.

Enlarge / John Cena’s Peacemaker gets his own spinoff series on HBO Max and a brand new team—including a bald eagle because why not?

YouTube/HBO Max

Listing image by YouTube/HBO Max

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Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds exhibit comes to LA’s Skirball Center

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Back in 2016, the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle unveiled an immersive new exhibit, Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds, in its Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame–a tribute to the hugely influential long-running franchise. The exhibit embarked on a national tour two years later and has been traveling around the country ever since. And now it’s come to the final stop on its journey: the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, California, where Gene Roddenberry first created his visionary series, Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS).

“Star Trek’s vision resonates deeply with the Skirball’s commitment to using the power of arts and storytelling to help build a society in which everyone belongs,” museum director Sheri Bernstein said during the press preview last month.

Among the highlights of the exhibit are Captain Kirk’s command chair, and the wooden helm and navigation console from TOS, fully restored. There are plenty of props: different designs of tricorders, communicators, phasers, and P.A.D.Ds; a model of a Borg cube; and lots of weaponry, including a Klingon disruptor pistol.  

And of course, there are many, many models of the various spacecraft featured in the franchise over the decades, including filming models for the Enterprise, the USS Excelsior, and the Deep Space Nine space station. “I love spaceship models,” MoPOP’s Brooks Peck, curator of the exhibit, admitted. “Now it’s all digital, but back then it was all about plastic and wood models, so there’s a wonderful craft to those pieces.”

Peck is also proud of the fact that the exhibit showcases the captain’s uniforms from all the major Star Trek TV shows. His personal favorite? Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager. “Best Star Trek captain ever,” Peck joked. “I will fight you over that.” There are also many original costumes worn by cast members of the various series, from TOS —including the tunic worn by evil Captain Kirk in the episode “Mirror, Mirror”—all the way through to Star Trek: Discovery.

On the interactive side of things, visitors can crawl through a Jeffries tube, or be “assimilated” by the Borg. A transporter simulation lets people create short films of themselves beaming down to to the surface of an alien planet. There’s a station where one can listen to people reminisce about their favorite Star Trek films and shows, and what the franchise has meant to them. And of course, there are tons of tribbles lurking throughout, for eagle-eyed visitors who want to try and spot them.

In his press preview remarks, Peck emphasized that the characters and themes of TOS were quite radical when it first aired in 1966. This was a time when the Cold War was in full swing, and there was a great deal of racial tension in the US, despite passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. This was the broad cultural backdrop against which Captain Kirk and the crew of the USS Enterprise had their adventures, all infused with Roddenberry’s optimism for the future.

“Roddenberry believed not that we would get past our differences, but that we would, in fact, embrace our differences, in the sense of diversity,” said Peck. “Sadly, this is a rough time in this nation. We’re seeing a lot of division again. So I’m pleased that we can take some time to look at Star Trek, and its idea of inclusion and working together to build a better and just society, and to hold that up in a fun, artistic form. What Star Trek brings is this optimistic vision of the future that is really inspiring to people.”

Laura Mart, managing curator for the exhibition, also expressed her hope that the exhibit would channel the original Star Trek ethos, ending her remarks with an especially apt quote from Roddenberry:

I believe in humanity. We are an incredible species. We’re still just a child creature, we’re still being nasty to each other, and all children go through those phases. We’re still growing up. We’re moving into adolescence now. When we grow up, man, we’re going to be something.

Listing image by Skirball Center/MoPOP

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