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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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Warner Bros. will release entire 2021 film slate in theaters and on HBO Max

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Enlarge / WarnerMedia dealt another blow to struggling movie theater owners by announcing it will release its entire 2021 slate of films simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.

Just a few weeks ago, we learned that Wonder Woman 1984—whose release has been delayed multiple times in the face of continued theater closures due to the pandemic—will keep to its new December 25 theater release date. The catch: it will also debut on HBO Max that same day. Now WarnerMedia has announced that it will follow a similar concurrent digital/theater launch plan for all the movies slated for release in 2021, Variety reports. It’s yet another staggering blow to movie theaters still struggling amidst a raging pandemic that shows no sign of slowing down, particularly in the United States.

“After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months,” said CEO Jason Kilar in a statement. “Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.”

Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate of films will be available to HBO Max subscribers for 31 days, after which they will only be playing in theaters. Once the traditional time has elapsed between theater and home release, the films will be available to rent via the usual online platforms (Amazon, iTunes, or Fandango). The current slate includes The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In the Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Reminiscence, Malignant, Dune, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard, Cry Macho, and Matrix 4.

In a statement, WarnerMedia chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff referred to the model as a “unique one-year plan,” given the unprecedented challenges inflicted on the industry by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This is not expected to continue into 2022. Per Sarnoff’s statement:

We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group. No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.

With this unique one-year plan, we can support our partners in exhibition with a steady pipeline of world-class films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see our amazing 2021 films. We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors, and we’re extremely grateful to our filmmaking partners for working with us on this innovative response to these circumstances.

Just how many movie theaters can survive another year like 2020 remains an open question. So far, only one chain has responded to the news. An unnamed Cinemark rep told Deadline Hollywood: “In light of the current operating environment, we are making near-term booking decisions on a film-by-film basis. At this time, Warner Bros. has not provided any details for the hybrid distribution model of their 2021 films.”

At least HBO Max subscribers won’t have to pay extra to watch these films, unlike the Disney+ strategy for Mulan. The streaming platform charged a $30 premium purchase to Disney+ subscribers, although it was released theatrically in territories where the streaming platform is not available. (FYI, Mulan will become available free of charge to all Disney+ subscribers this Friday, December 4, 2020.)

Wonder Woman 1984 will face off against Disney-Pixar’s animated film Soul, which is launching on Disney+ the same day. (It, too, is included as part of the standard Disney+ subscriptions.) And for those (like Ars’ own Samuel Axon) who had been put off by the prospect of watching Wonder Woman 1984 at a measly 1080p with no HDR and sluggish bit rate, Director Patty Jenkins tweeted that Wonder Woman 1984 will be the first film to stream in 4K HDR (UltraHD) on HBO Max when it premieres. It will also stream with Dolby Atmos audio. Hopefully that bodes well for the digital future of the 2021 releases, too.

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A suave gentleman thief attempts a high-risk heist in trailer for Lupin

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Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop in the new Netflix series Lupin, a contemporary retelling of the classic French story about a gentleman thief and master of disguise.

A man seeking revenge for the death of his father attempts a risky museum heist in Lupin, a new series premiering on Netflix in January starring French actor and comedian Omar Sy. The series is a contemporary reimagining of a classic character in French detective fiction, Arsène Lupin, a gentleman thief and master of disguise who was essentially the French equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.

Suave, stylish, and sophisticated, Lupin is the creation of Maurice Leblanc, who based the character partly on a French burglar/anarchist. Leblanc was also familiar with the gentleman thief featured in the work of Octave Mirbeau as well as E.W. Hornung’s famed gentleman thief, A.J. Raffles, and he also knew about Rocambole, a character whose adventures were recounted in a series of stories published between 1857 and 1870 by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail.

Relentlessly pursued by a detective named Ganimard, Lupin is captured stealing a woman’s jewels on board a ship. Although he is imprisoned, he ultimately escapes before standing trial and goes on to pull off many other colorful heists. In a June 1906 story, “Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late,” Lupin meets the aging detective, although for legal reasons—Arthur Conan Doyle objected—the name was changed to “Herlock Sholmes” when the story was included in the first book of collected stories. The Sholmes character appeared in a few more stories later on. All told, Leblanc wrote 17 novels and 39 novellas featuring Lupin.

The Netflix series is the creation of Louis Leterrier , who directed the 2013 heist thriller Now You See Me, in which a band of magicians pull off ingenious robberies. So it’s easy to see why he might be drawn to this project. Per the official premise: “As a teenager, Assane Diop’s life was turned upside down when his father died after being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. 25 years later, Assane will use Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar as his inspiration to avenge his father.”

“We’re gonna steal it”

The trailer opens with a voiceover by Diop, explaining that he works as a janitor at the Louvre, surrounded by artwork worth millions. Currently on exhibit is a jeweled necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, in advance of a public auction to sell the piece to the highest bidder. (I’m guessing this particular plot line is based on the Lupin short story “The Queen’s Necklace.”) “We’re gonna steal it,” he tells his partners in crime. “Go in as janitors, come out millionaires.” While his cronies are pulling the actual heist, Diop disguises himself as a wealthy potential buyer and crashes the auction.

The Louvre heist is personal. Diop’s father was unjustly accused of stealing Marie Antoinette’s necklace from the wealthy Pellegrini family, for whom he worked as a chauffeur. Diop is out for revenge. We learn that Diop’s father gave him copy of Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar as a child, and he passes that copy down to his own son. We also meet a police detective—clearly modeled on Ganimard—who is also a Lupin uber-fan, and he notices the similarities between Diop’s work and the fictional gentleman burglar (“the method, the panache, the style, the talent!”). His partner is unimpressed: “What’s next? D’Artagnan and the Three Little Pigs?”

All in all, the series looks enticing, although it’s a shame the trailer is dubbed. Lupin debuts on Netflix on January 8, 2021.

Listing image by Netflix

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Fortnite’s Nexus War event could expose Twitch streamers to DMCA problems

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Enlarge / Luckily you can’t hear this image—it might result in a DMCA strike if you could.

Epic Games

Epic Games and Twitch are warning streamers who broadcast during Fortnite‘s season-ending Marvel-crossover “Nexus War” event last night that they may need to delete their VOD clips to avoid the risk of DMCA copyright strikes.

The event, which saw players take on the world-eating Galactus in a ten-minute battle, featured AC/DC’s Demon Fire as a licensed background song during a portion set in the game’s iconic Battle Bus. Thus, shortly before the event started, the official Fortnite Status Twitter account warned Twitch streamers that “we cannot prevent your VOD/clip content from getting flagged by the platform’s copyright detection systems. The general recommendation is to either mute your VoDs or turn off VODs/clips entirely to protect yourselves against any kind of claims or strikes as best as possible.”

Shortly after the event, Twitch Support tweeted out a similar warning, telling users who streamed unmuted sound from the game that they may “want to be cautious about DMCA risk from the music in that event” and “consider exporting/downloading and then deleting any related VODs or Clips.”

A bit more than 130,000 Twitch channels were streaming Fortnite at its peak Tuesday night, reaching nearly 1.6 million viewers, according to stats gathered by TwitchTracker. That’s way up from peak streaming between 10,000 and 15,000 accounts and peak viewership between 200,000 and 300,000 throughout November.

A continuing problem

The warnings over the Fortnite event music come weeks after many Twitch users were hit by vague warnings from Twitch that some of their archived VODs would be deleted in a matter of days thanks to DMCA takedown notifications. Rather than specifying which content would be deleted—and giving those streamers their rightful opportunity to file a counter-claim—Twitch unhelpfully recommended that affected users “review your Clips, VODs, and any other content in your Creator Dashboard and delete anything that includes unlicensed copyrighted material. If you are unsure about the contents of your archive, you can delete all of it.”

The Fortnite Nexus War event. The licensed music can be heard around the 6:30 mark.

Last month, Twitch publicly apologized for how it handled that copyright crackdown and for the lack of granular tools available for streamers to manage potentially infringing music content. But the service also warned that users should simply “[not] play recorded music in your stream unless you own all rights in the music, or you have the permission of the necessary rights holder(s). Doing this is the best protection for your streams going forward.”

The Fortnite Status account specifically called out Twitch for a “lack of solutions similar to Lickd,” a reference to the service that lets YouTubers quickly and easily purchase music licenses for their videos. Twitch recently introduced SoundTrack, a library of rights-cleared music that streamers can add to their videos as background music.

But that service doesn’t help with licensed music that might appear in the streamed games themselves, as in the case of this Fortnite event. Those games are often subject to their own EULAs that could place additional restrictions on streaming rights as well.

Twitch says it is “actively speaking with the major record labels about potential approaches to additional licenses that would be appropriate for the Twitch service,” but that those talks are complicated by the fact that “the vast majority of our creators don’t have recorded music as a part of their streams, and the revenue implications to creators of such a deal are substantial.”

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