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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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Resident Evil 4 VR announced for Oculus Quest 2 as a first-person remake

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Capcom

On Thursday, Capcom announced that its megaton horror series Resident Evil will soon return to virtual reality. But instead of adding a VR mode to the upcoming Resident Evil VIII: Village, slated to launch next month, the game maker threw horror fans a curveball. The project, as it turns out, is Resident Evil 4 VR, a wildly revised port of the 2005 classic, and it appears to be an Oculus Quest 2 exclusive.

You read that correctly: Quest 2, as opposed to Rift or other PC-VR platforms. No release date or estimate has yet been confirmed.

The VR port was announced as part of the latest announcement frenzy otherwise dedicated to May 7th’s RE8, and it confirmed that Oculus Studios and Armature Studios (made up of ex-Metroid Prime developers) are leading the VR port’s production. Because of Armature’s recent ties to Oculus, in terms of releasing exclusive VR games for its Rift and Quest systems, that collaboration points to this game remaining an Oculus exclusive.

Representatives for Oculus and Facebook have so far only described the port as a product for “Quest 2,” as opposed to a more generic platform description that might hint to the “Oculus Link” system, which streams PC games to the otherwise portable Quest headset family. If Facebook wants to clarify any additional ways to play the game, we’ll have to wait for next week’s Oculus Gaming Showcase, which will premiere on Twitch and YouTube on Wednesday, April 21.

The port appears to heavily revise the original game, which launched on Nintendo GameCube in 2005 as a third-person, over-the-shoulder adventure—and one that revolutionized how the series would play for years to come. Some of that action, particularly the twitchy gun-driven combat, will likely be a solid match for the first-person view of a VR game, but RE4‘s cinematic scenes and massive bosses are another story.

Thursday’s debut trailer avoided clarifying exactly how the original game’s more ambitious moments will translate to VR. Instead, Armature and Oculus took the opportunity to show some basic combat, including a moment where the player held a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other, along with a VR-friendly inventory management screen, a puzzle that required turning a lever with hands in virtual space, and some “reload a gun using both hands” gimmickry.

Amusingly, this port serves as a reminder that the game’s original 2004 announcement came as part of a “Capcom Five” press conference of exclusive games for Nintendo’s then-struggling GameCube platform. Months later, Capcom was forced to clarify that RE4 would indeed launch on the era’s dominant PlayStation 2 after all, and it wound up being ported to roughly 4,000 other consoles in the 16 years since.

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The looming software kill-switch lurking in aging PlayStation hardware

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Enlarge / These consoles could eventually be large paperweights if Sony doesn’t fix a problem looming in their firmware.

Unless something changes, an issue lurking in older PlayStations’ internal timing systems threatens to eventually make every PS4 game and all downloaded PS3 games unplayable on current hardware. Right now, it’s not a matter of if but when this problem will occur.

This ticking firmware time bomb has been known in certain PlayStation preservation and hacking circles for a while. But it’s gaining new attention amid Sony’s recently announced decision to shut down the online stores for PS3, PSP, and Vita software. While that impending store shutdown won’t impact players’ abilities to play and re-download previously purchased software for now, the eventual wider shutdown of PSN servers for these aging consoles could have a much more drastic effect on the playability of a wide swath of games.

What’s the problem?

The root of the coming issue has to do with the CMOS battery inside every PS3 and PS4, which the systems use to keep track of the current time (even when they’re unplugged). If that battery dies or is removed for any reason, it raises an internal flag in the system’s firmware indicating the clock may be out of sync with reality.

After that flag is raised, the system in question has to check in with PSN the next time it needs to confirm the correct time. On the PS3, this online check happens when you play a game downloaded from the PlayStation Store. On the PS4, this also happens when you try to play retail games installed from a disc. This check has to be performed at least once even if the CMOS battery is replaced with a fresh one, so the system can reconfirm clock consistency.

Why does the PlayStation firmware care so much about having the correct time? On the PS3, the timer check is used to enforce any “time limits” that might have been placed on your digital purchase (as confirmed by the error message: “This content has a time limit. To perform this operation go to settings date and time settings set via internet”). That check seems to be required even for downloads that don’t have any actual set expiration date, adding a de facto one-time online check-in requirement for systems after their internal batteries fail.

On the PS4, though, the timing check is apparently intended to make sure PSN trophy data is registered accurately, and to prevent players from pretending to get trophies earlier than they actually had. You’d think this check could be segregated from the ability to load the non-trophy portions of the game, but player testing has shown that this seems to be a requirement to get PS4 games to load at all.

An eventual issue

None of this is a huge problem for most PlayStation owners right now. Yes, the 10- to 20-year lifespan on your average CMOS battery is slowly running out, especially for the earliest PS3 hardware. But replacing the battery and resyncing the internal timer with PSN is a relatively minor annoyance for the time being (assuming you can find a Wi-Fi hotspot and PSN isn’t suffering one of its rare outages).

But nothing lasts forever, as Sony’s recent decisions regarding older PlayStation online stores shows. At some point in the future, whether it’s in one year or 100 years, Sony will shut off the PSN servers that power the timing check for hardware it no longer considers important. After that, it’s only a matter of time before failing CMOS batteries slowly reduce all PS3 and PS4 hardware to semi-functional curios.

Sony could render the problem moot relatively easily with a firmware update that limits the system functions tied to this timing check. Thus far, though, Sony hasn’t publicly indicated it has any such plans, and hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment from Ars Technica. Until it does, complicated workarounds that make use of jailbroken firmware are the only option for ensuring that aging PlayStation hardware will remain fully usable well into the future.

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Fast and Furious 9 drops a new trailer ahead of June 25 release

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This past weekend, with little to do thanks to the pandemic, I marathoned through the Fast and Furious franchise. That was fortuitous timing, because on Tuesday a new trailer dropped for F9, the next installment, which arrives in theaters on June 25.

We actually got our first look at F9 well over a year ago, when the first trailer dropped at the end of January 2020. Family has been a central theme to the F&F movies, and that continues here. Dominic Torreto (played by Vin Diesel) and the gang have to confront his younger brother Jakob (John Cena), described as “the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they’ve encountered.” He’s working with criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron), who sports a much more flattering haircut than in Fate of the Furious, the movie where she improbably hacked a bunch of old cars to drive themselves.

Also returning to the series is Han Lue (Sung Kang), who we all thought died at the end of Tokyo Drift. (This was revealed to be the work of Deckard Shaw (Jason Stratham) who was bad in Furious 7 but then turned out to be good in Fate of the Furious and Hobbs and Shaw.)

Based on this second trailer, the plot for F9 appears to involve magnets, and at one point Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) don makeshift pressure suits and take to the skies in what might be a DeLorean with rocket boosters strapped to the roof.

As my colleague Jennifer Ouellette explained last year, “F&F9 will probably make about as much sense as its predecessors—in other words, not much sense at all. And fans wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I know I wouldn’t.

Listing image by Universal Pictures

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