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Tony Hawk goes mobile – TechCrunch

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For three years, Tony Hawk has been conspicuously absent from the video store shelves. For most game developers, that’s little more than a blip between titles. When your name and face are attached to 16 titles in 15 years, however, everyone starts to notice when you’re gone.

“It’s usually the first topic of discussion with me,” Hawk laughs. The first, that is, once the world’s most famous skateboarder’s identity has been firmly established.

That question was finally answered this week with the arrival of Skate Jam, the first of Hawk’s titles created exclusively for a mobile platform. The game also marks the skater’s first collaboration with mobile app acquisition group Maple Media — marking a split with longtime publisher Activision.

It was a partnership that ended with a whimper, with the arrival of 2015’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5. The final installation of the beloved series was heavily criticized for being uninspired and rushed, and Hawk ultimately opted to move on from a relationship that helped turn his name into a $250 million a year brand at its peak.

The unceremonious end of the Activision deal left the future of the franchise in jeopardy, with Hawk exploring his options. “My contract with Activision ended, and I was exploring a few options, including some VR stuff,” he tells TechCrunch. While he says he’s still open to a future Tony Hawk virtual reality title, the medium ultimately proved too tricky for the first skater to land a 900. “It’s a pretty daunting task to figure out how to make skateboarding work in VR without people getting sick.”

Advances in mobile platforms, on the other hand, have made a smartphone version far more appealing than it would have been at the height of the franchise’s success. “Maple Media came and said they would like to expand on their skate games,” says Hawk. “When I played their most recent engine, I felt there was something there, akin to what I felt when I first played the THPS engine. I felt that, with my input and expertise, we could make something that would be truly authentic for gamers and skaters alike, for a new generation.”

As far as whether Skate Jam’s release portends the rebirth of the franchise, Hawk is ultimately a bit more cagey. He explains that the team is more focused on building out the current title than committing to Pro Skater’s annual release schedule.

“We’re going to see a lot more development in terms of growing this title,” Hawk says. “It’s much more streamlined and we can do it on a regular basis. We’re not planning to develop a new title, per se, but are planning to grow and develop this one.”

Skate Jam is now available for Android and iOS.

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This 3D-printed soft robotic hand beat the first level of Super Mario Bros.

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A team led by University of Maryland mechanical engineering Professor Ryan Sochol has created a soft robotic hand agile enough to manipulate a game controller.

A team of engineers at the University of Maryland has built a three-fingered soft robotic hand that is sufficiently agile to be able to manipulate the buttons and directional pad on a Nintendo controller—even managing to beat the first level of Super Mario Bros. as proof of concept, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances. The same team also built two soft robotic turtles (the terrapin turtle is UMD’s official mascot) using the same multimaterial 3D-printing process that produced the robotic hand.

We traditionally think of robots as being manufactured out of hard, rigid materials, but the subfield of soft robotics takes a different approach. It seeks to build robotic devices out of more flexible materials that mimic the properties of those found in living animals. There are huge advantages to be gained by making the entire body of a robot out of soft materials, such as being flexible enough to squeeze through tight spaces to hunt for survivors after a disaster. Soft robots also hold strong potential as prosthetics or biomedical devices. Even rigid robots rely on some soft components, such as foot pads that serve as shock absorbers or flexible springs to store and release energy.

Harvard researchers built an octopus-inspired soft robot in 2016 that was constructed entirely out of flexible materials. But soft robots are more difficult to control precisely because they are so flexible. In the case of the “octobot,” the researchers replaced the rigid electronic circuits with microfluidic circuits. Such circuits involve regulating the flow of water (hydraulics) or air (pneumatics), rather than electricity, through the circuit’s microchannels, enabling the robot to bend and move.

Although this solution is ingenious, it brings its own set of challenges. These include the high cost (clean room facilities are required) and time necessary to fabricate those microfluidic systems and then integrate them with the system as a whole. “Recently, several groups have tried to harness fluidic circuits to enhance the autonomy of soft robots,” said co-author Ruben Acevedo. “But the methods for building and integrating those fluidic circuits with the robots can take days to weeks, with a high degree of manual labor and technical skill.”

As an undergraduate, Acevedo worked in the lab of University of Maryland mechanical engineer Ryan D. Sochol, who was interested in moving beyond having to manually connect fluidic circuitry components to soft robots in favor of embedding these functions directly in the soft robotic systems. His team found the answer in PolyJet 3D printing, in which several different layers of materials are stacked on top of each other. The printer sets down one liquid layer, lets it solidify, then sets down the next layer, and so on.

Enlarge / University of Maryland mechanical engineer Ryan D. Sochol shows off his team’s soft robotic hand.

YouTube/UMD A. James Clark School of Engineering

“The incorporation of materials that differ in rigidity serves to enhance performance by allowing the material properties of specific features to be tailored to complement desired functionalities,” Sochol et al. wrote in their paper. Components like diaphragms and O-rings must be able to deform during operation, so a soft rubber-like material was used to make them, while a more rigid, plastic-like material was chosen to make components that need to be stable (fluidic channels, access ports, and structural casings, for instance). Finally, the team used a water-soluble material to serve as scaffolding during the printing process, which was then removed from both the exterior and internal voids and channels—first by dissolving the stuff with water, then manually removing whatever scaffolding material remained.

Microfluidically controlled soft robots typically require distinct control inputs for every independently operated soft actuator. By integrating the fluidic circuit, the UMD team could operate the hand by varying the pressure strength between low, medium, and high. In other words, a single source of fluid could send different signals just by changing the pressure, so that each finger could move independently. Even better, the one-step 3D-printing process for the hand and the two turtle-bots—encompassing soft actuators (moving parts), the fluidic circuits, and robot body—took a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

The team tested the performance of the robotic hand by having it play Super Mario Bros. To make Mario walk, the team used a low pressure, so only the first finger pressed the controller. The researchers used a medium pressure to make Mario run and a high pressure to make the hand press the correct button on the controller to get Mario to jump.

The soft robotic hand plays a round of <em>Super Mario Bros.</em>
Enlarge / The soft robotic hand plays a round of Super Mario Bros.

YouTube/UMD A. James Clark School of Engineering

As for why they chose Super Mario Bros., Sochol told Scientific American that it was the very first Nintendo game he had played as a child. But the choice wasn’t just a matter of nostalgia. The timing and specifics of the game are well-established; the robot hand simply needed to time its responses in accordance with the preprogrammed moves. And there are actual consequences for failure: a single mistake will cost Mario a life. The hand performed so well, it was able to successfully beat the first level of the game in less than 90 seconds.

“We are freely sharing all of our design files so that anyone can readily download, modify on demand, and 3D print—whether with their own printer or through a printing service like us— all of the soft robots and fluidic circuit elements from our work,” said Sochol, who estimates that printing one’s own soft robots would cost about $100 using the team’s software on GitHub. “It is our hope that this open-source 3D printing strategy will broaden accessibility, dissemination, reproducibility, and adoption of soft robots with integrated fluidic circuits and, in turn, accelerate advancement in the field.”

DOI: Science Advances, 2021. 10.1126/sciadv.abe5257  (About DOIs).

Listing image by University of Maryland

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How one game’s delisting pokes a hole in the Xbox Game Pass promise

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Enlarge / Another sim racer bites the dust—and this time without a new one in its place.

Microsoft has long boasted about the backward compatibility of its Xbox consoles, letting you play hundreds of past-gen games on newer systems like the Series X/S. But the game publisher and console maker is quieter about taking older games down from its digital storefronts—and this week’s latest casualty, in the form of a popular first-party game, presents problems for Xbox’s recent sales pitches.

On paper, the basic announcement may look humdrum to savvy modern-gaming fans. Starting September 15, 2021, the sim racing game Forza Motorsport 7 will no longer be available on Xbox’s digital download shops. That date marks roughly four years past the game’s 2017 launch on Xbox One consoles, and “four years” is key. Since the Xbox Live download store has been in operation, other Forza games, both in the Motorsport and Horizon camps, have been delisted at a nearly identical cadence. This suggests that the game’s car licenses factor into the cutoff dates.

Knocked out of the usual lineup

Look closely enough at major licenses in classic video games and you’ll see a similar trend. Arguably the most prominent early example came when Nintendo began reprinting copies of its 1987 sports-action classic Punch-Out!! in 1990 without re-upping its original license deal with Mike Tyson, and it’s not uncommon to see publishers either strip licenses from older games or give up on them altogether. For most of the modern gaming industry’s history, four-year-old games have usually been relegated to bargain bins—especially if they receive regular sequels—so such a licensing term doesn’t seem egregious.

FM7 is a different story, however, for a few reasons.

One is that the series’ regular sequel cadence has come to a grinding halt. Series creator Turn 10 Studios usually spends a few years between entries, a fact masked somewhat by the introduction of Forza Horizon, the series’ arcade-minded, open-world jelly to Motorsport‘s sim-focused peanut butter. Microsoft would publish a new Motorsport game, then a new Horizon, and repeat. That schedule also guaranteed that, when an older game was delisted, a newer version was usually there to take its place.

Thanks to that historic release tempo, a new Motorsport seemed right around the corner. Horizon 4 arrived in 2019, and one year later, the Xbox Series X/S debut included “real gameplay” teases of an upcoming Motorsport sequel.

But this year, during the usual June hype cycle, Forza Motorsport didn’t pull up to the starting line. Instead, an ahead-of-schedule Horizon 5 appeared with a November 2021 release date. As a result, when FM7 is delisted on September 15, there won’t be a newer Motorsport game available to purchase via Xbox Live for the first time in that storefront’s existence.

A rare content lapse in a Game Pass era

Arguably the bigger differentiator this time is an entirely new sales proposition for all things Xbox: the Game Pass subscription service. FM7‘s delisting means it will vanish from Game Pass and leave a car-sim-sized hole, proving that Microsoft won’t always have “at least one” sim racer available for people who subscribe to Game Pass for the promise of premier, first-party game access. (To be clear, that very differentiation is one reason Game Pass’s reputation has taken off compared to Sony’s similar PlayStation Now service.) No other first-party Xbox series is similarly subject to license expirations and delistings, which is why the service still offers every title from Microsoft-published series like Gears of War, Halo, and Fable.

If you’re paying attention and want to lock down future FM7 access right now, you can buy the “standard” edition for $10 (which includes every racetrack) or the “ultimate” edition for $20 (which includes most of the game’s add-on cars). Buying either now means you’ll still be able to access the game’s online and offline modes after September 15, and the same goes for existing owners of the FM7‘s disc and digital versions.

FM7‘s Game Pass version is the “standard” one, and if you had previously bought any DLC for the game as a Game Pass user, you’ll soon get a notification within Xbox’s interface of a “token” that lets you own FM7 outright once it’s delisted. That token concept suggests that perhaps Microsoft could have given away tokens to anyone who has recently played FM7 via Game Pass. Speaking of retail specifics: FM7 will go down in history as the most microtransaction-laden Motorsport entry to date. The developers rectified those issues after launch, at least, but it’s still a reminder to future Forza buyers that any games-as-a-service approach comes with potential support shutdowns (though, again, FM7 will still continue working in both offline and online modes until further notice).

What’s arguably annoying for existing, savvy Xbox users may prove all the more confusing and unclear for future, brand-new console buyers—not to mention anyone who dips their toes into Xbox Game Streaming and notices that its selection of cloud-streamed games is limited to “active” Game Pass Ultimate games. As game-purchase expectations transition from “buy the disc and own it forever” to “convenient subscriptions,” FM7-sized potholes are likely to become more common and more frustrating.

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Putting the PS5’s 10 million sales in context

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When Sony announced Monday that it had sold 10 million PS5 consoles to consumers, it trumpeted the system as “the fastest-selling console in Sony Interactive Entertainment history.” That statement certainly sounds impressive, but it lacks the specificity we need to judge just how impressive the PS5’s sales have been so far (despite component shortages that could make the system hard to find into next year).

To add more context to Sony’s announcement, we looked at how quickly some other recent consoles took to sell their first 10 million systems worldwide. While different launch dates and staggered international launches skew some of these comparisons, the data overall shows how the PS5 is selling as fast or faster than some of the most popular consoles of the recent past.

We also looked at newly revealed sales data for PS5 exclusives Returnal and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and compared their sales rates to similar early system-sellers on the Switch.

Sales rates for first ~10M sales

Sony

  • PS1 – 7,723 / day (11.5M in 1,489 days – Source)
  • PS2 – 27,066 / day (10.61M in 392 days – Source)
  • PS3 – 25,373 / day (10.53M in 415 days – Source)
  • PS4 – 37,313 / day (10M in 268 days – Source)
  • PS5 – 40,322 / day (10M in 248 days – Source)

Nintendo

  • GameCube – 15,345 / day (10.45M in 681 days – Source)
  • Wii – 41,569 / day (9.27M in 233 days – Source)
  • Wii U – 10,492 / day (10.01M in 954 days – Source)
  • Switch – 35,211 / day (10M in 284 days – Source)

Microsoft

  • Xbox – 15,878 / day (9.4M in 592 days – Source)
  • Xbox 360 – 24,752 / day (10M shipped in 404 days – Source)
  • Xbox One – 28,169 / day (~10M shipped in 355 days – Source)

PlayStation sales milestones

PS5

  • 4.5M – 49 days
  • 7.8M – 139 days
  • 10M – 248 days

PS4

  • 2.1M – 18 days
  • 4.2M – 46 days
  • 5.3M – 85 days
  • 7M – 142 days
  • 10M – 268 days

PS3

  • 1.68M – 50 days
  • 3.61M – 140 days
  • 4.32M – 231 days
  • 5.63M – 323 days
  • 10.53M – 415 days

Software sales rates

Software sales as a percent of total hardware sales, measured nine to 10 months after launch:

PS5

  • 5.6% – Returnal
  • 11% – Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart

Switch

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