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You soon won’t need to pay for Xbox Live to play free-to-play games

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Xbox Live gamers will soon have a new reason to rejoice.

Xbox owners soon won’t need to pay for an Xbox Live Gold subscription to enjoy otherwise free-to-play games on their consoles. Wednesday’s update to the Xbox Alpha Insiders Update Preview program (version 2104.210323-0000) notes that “Multiplayer in Free-to-play games, Looking 4 Groups and Party Chat on Xbox no longer requires an Xbox Live Gold membership.” These features are being tested for Insiders “ahead of general availability,” according to the update.

Microsoft first announced this move back in January, as the company was busy rolling back a controversial planned increase in Xbox Live Gold prices. Back then, Microsoft said the free-to-play change was coming “as soon as possible in the coming months,” but the rollout to Insiders suggests it will be reaching all Xbox players imminently.

Microsoft’s decision here brings the service in line with its major console competitors. When Sony started charging for multiplayer gameplay on PlayStation Network in 2014, it included a specific carve-out for “a selection of free-to-play multiplayer titles [that] will be available without a PS Plus membership.” Nintendo included a similar carve-out for free-to-play titles like Fortnite when it started charging for its Switch online service in 2018.

But Microsoft has required a paid Xbox Live Gold subscription for access to console multiplayer games since the days of the Xbox 360. In fact, users needed an Xbox Live Gold subscription to access streaming media apps like Netflix and Hulu on Xbox consoles (on top of the subscription fees for those services) until 2014.

Back in July, Microsoft announced that the upcoming Halo Infinite would include a free-to-play multiplayer component, in addition to the standard, paid single-player campaign. But in August, the company swatted down rumors that it was getting rid of Xbox Live Gold or making the service free. “We have no plans to discontinue Xbox Live Gold at this time,” the company said. “It is an important part of gaming on Xbox today, and will continue to be in the future.”

Still, the basic $5/month Xbox Live Gold online service has seemed like less of a focus for Microsoft in recent years, eclipsed by Xbox Game Pass and its massive selection of downloadable and streaming games. Since 2019, Microsoft has periodically offered to let users convert up to three years of Xbox Live Gold subscription time to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (which also includes all the features for Xbox Live Gold) for just $1. That suggests Microsoft is eager to get current Xbox Live subscribers on board with the more expansive, $15/month Game Pass Ultimate plan, in the long term.

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Ubisoft’s first NFT plans make no sense

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Enlarge / Galaxy brain, meet Ubisoft brain…

Ubisoft became the first big-name game publisher to jump on the non-fungible token bandwagon Tuesday. After teasing its interest in the space last month, the company is officially rolling out Quartz, a system of in-game cosmetic items powered by a new kind of NFT, called “Digits.”

By using a decentralized NFT blockchain, Ubisoft promises its Quartz system will “grant players more control than ever” and “more autonomy and agency” in order to “genuinely make players stakeholders of our games.” But as currently described, Ubisoft’s Quartz system seems like an overcomplicated repackaging of a run-of-the-mill system of DLC cosmetics—but now with extra buzzwords and artificial scarcity layered on top.

And despite all the bold talk of “decentralization,” the Quartz system is still so deeply controlled by Ubisoft that we wonder whether a simple internal database managed directly by the company would be a better fit.

Quartz, explained

Quartz—which rolls out later this month—is simply a system that provides access to cosmetic items for a single game, Ghost Recon Breakpoint. The first three such cosmetics—representing a specific gun, a face mask, and “enhanced pants” in the game—will be available for free on three days in the coming weeks.

Unlike traditional DLC, where supply is unlimited and every purchased copy is identical, Ubisoft stresses three ways in which Quartz cosmetics are unique:

  • Limited editions: Each Quartz NFT “edition” will be limited to a set number, ranging from “a few units to a few thousands,” Ubisoft says. It’s not clear how many will be available for each of these first three “free” editions.
  • Serial Numbers: Each individual NFT in a single edition has a unique serial number that “is displayed on the collectible and on the in-game item.”
  • Player names: A Digit’s metadata will contain “the history of its previous owners,” represented by their Ubisoft player names.
The first three
Enlarge / The first three “editions” of Quartz NFTs will be available at specific times later this month.

So in practice, your “Wolf Enhanced Helmet A” will look and function a lot like mine. But if you look closely, you’ll see a different number etched into the virtual forehead of that helmet. And if you dig into the NFT’s metadata, you’ll be able to see who used to own that particular copy of the helmet.

Ubisoft seems to foresee a chase-the-collectible metagame forming around these minor differences. “Owning a Digit will make you an actual part of its history,” the company says in its FAQ. Elsewhere, Ubisoft encourages players to “be the first owner of a particular Digit or chase the one of your favorite streamer.”

OK, sure. Maybe some people will get really excited about “owning” the only digital pair of Wolf Enhanced Pants numbered “69420” and once owned by Ninja. We can’t say that we’re excited about it, but there may be some market for such a thing.

But marketing rare or unique in-game items—and letting players resell them—isn’t a new thing. Ubisoft doesn’t need NFTs or “the blockchain” to enable this kind of artificially scarce digital collectible; a basic centrally controlled database could do the same thing much more simply.

Anyone who has sold a special-edition ship in Eve Online‘s strictly regulated economy knows how this can work. The same goes for anyone who bought and sold Artifact cards on the Steam marketplace or those who remember the ill-fated Diablo III real-money auction house.

All these examples and more predated the widespread adoption of NFTs and didn’t need the technology for any of the features Ubisoft is touting here.

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Halo Infinite’s PC version looks like it needs more work

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Enlarge / Get ready for choppy frame rates on this bad guy’s animations, even on your most powerful PC, thanks to certain missing optimizations on Halo Infinite‘s upcoming PC version.

Xbox Game Studios / 343 Industries

Ars Technica will eventually go hands-on with Halo Infinite‘s campaign on PC, but as I noted in my feature-length review, our repeated requests to test the game on PC were declined.

So ahead of the version’s Wednesday launch, we’re left sifting through reports from the few outlets that were deemed worthy of getting a PC-specific look at the Infinite campaign. The most comprehensive analysis thus far, delivered by Digital Foundry PC gaming legend Alex Battaglia, ends with a pretty strong judgment.

“I will not be playing to beat the campaign to completion until a number of issues I mentioned are sorted out, as I really want to have a super-smooth Halo experience that the current game does not always offer,” Battaglia says.

See for yourself (kind of)

Head to Steam or the Windows Store right now, and you can download the free-to-play competitive multiplayer version of Halo Infinite. If you do, you’ll find a pretty robust settings menu that includes the all-important toggles for visual settings, along with sliders for both your field of view and your monitor’s aspect ratio.

The best news ahead of the campaign’s launch is that the PC ultrawide monitor ratios—which can reach extremes like 32:9, compared to the HDTV standard of 16:9—seem to be working well in the versus modes, which focus primarily on first-person combat, along with brief cinematic camera pulls before and after a match.

The Infinite campaign will arguably put more of an emphasis on arbitrary monitor ratios, as it includes a lot of cut scenes. These scenes also play with Master Chief’s perspective in clever ways, as they move from his in-helmet view to third-person perspectives at a moment’s notice. Previous promotional footage for Infinite confirmed that the game’s PC development team has focused on making sure those cut scenes work with ultrawide monitor ratios. So far, though, we haven’t seen anyone test these perspective-shifting cut scenes, nor Infinite‘s ambitious open-world environment, on screens beyond the 16:9 standard.

Not feeling so dynamic

Exactly how much will this scene stutter in <em>Infinite</em>'s PC version? According to Digital Foundry, perhaps quite a bit.
Enlarge / Exactly how much will this scene stutter in Infinite‘s PC version? According to Digital Foundry, perhaps quite a bit.

Xbox Game Studios

Battaglia also says there are a few curious issues with the PC build’s performance that aren’t found in the console versions. The biggest problem is a constant “frame time” bump when the game’s dynamic resolution scaling (DRS) system is enabled.

Infinite can strain an average gaming PC’s CPU, even when the game is running at a 720p resolution and low visual settings. The problem occurs on both Intel and AMD CPUs. Because of this, Battaglia recommends enabling Infinite‘s built-in dynamic resolution setting so that pixel counts can rise and fall to help stabilize performance during frantic, open-world encounters.

But something about this DRS system is triggering a constant, predictable freeze in the game’s frame time steadiness. Worse, the freeze is triggered by some form of rendering measurement inside the engine. So if you crank your frame rates higher, the freeze happens more often—like every four seconds when running at 120 fps. Yikes.

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Tesla’s center-screen games can now be played while the car is moving

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An August video shows a game being played on a Tesla central console while the car is in motion.

When we covered the first video games available on Tesla’s center-console video screen back in 2019, we noted that the feature only worked when the car was parked. Now, though, those Tesla games can apparently be played even when the car is moving, a feature that could run afoul of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines and state laws designed to combat distracted driving.

While the ability to play Tesla games outside of Park is being highlighted in a New York Times report today, the change was seemingly rolled out months ago. A YouTube video from January shows Solitaire being played on a Tesla screen while the car is shifted into Autopilot mode, for instance (though other games appear not to work with Autopilot in the same video).

In another video posted in July, a Tesla owner shows space shoot-em-up Sky Force Reloaded being played while the car is shifted into drive. That video says the new capability was added as an unannounced feature of July’s 2021.12.25.6 firmware update.

While Tesla also added the ability to stream video services such as Netflix and Hulu on the car’s central console in 2019, those services are still completely disabled when a Tesla is not in park (though some owners have tried to find ways around this limitation). “When full self-driving is approved by regulators, we will enable video while moving,” Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted ahead of that streaming-video rollout.

When it comes to games, though, Tesla’s software now notes the possibility of titles running while the car is moving. “Use of Touch Arcade while the vehicle is in motion is only for passengers,” reads a warning that pops up before a game launches in the second video. Users must confirm that the player is a passenger. “Please check local laws prior to playing,” the warning says.

Laws and regulations

Those “local laws” seem aligned against the idea of having a game visibly running while a car is in motion, even if the driver isn’t the one playing. A 2014 round-up from the Consumer Electronics Association found “video screen restriction” laws on the books in 34 states and the District of Columbia. While the specific laws vary, most regulations are focused on the operation of “television” screens that are visible to the driver while the car is in motion (California’s law more broadly restricts the use of any “video monitor or a video screen or any other similar device that displays a video signal”).

Enlarge / Sky Force Reloaded running on a Tesla’s central screen while the car is driving down the road.

The NHTSA also suggests that showing active gameplay on a Tesla’s central console is likely to be a significant distraction to drivers. The agency’s 2013 “distraction guidelines” (PDF) suggest that “displaying images or video not related to driving” on a monitor visible to the driver will “inherently interfere with a driver’s ability to safely operate the vehicle.”

The NHTSA specifically calls out any display of “video and continuously moving images” and includes “things such as video phone calls and other forms of video communication, as well as prerecorded video footage, and television” as examples of what to disable when a car is in motion.

True, these laws and safety guidelines generally don’t mention video games on an in-car display specifically. But that’s likely because the concept of playable games on a car’s central console wasn’t even in consideration when the laws were written. Video games are specifically mentioned in a handful of laws targeting cell phone use while driving, however.

“It’s a big concern if it plays in view of the driver, for sure,” Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told The New York Times about games on a car’s console screen. It’s a problem that “is crying out for NHTSA to provide some guidance and regulation,” he added.

Tesla has come under fire recently for dangerous failures of its “Autopilot” system, including many in which a distracted driver was allegedly not actively monitoring the car as required. Last year, police filed charges against a North Carolina man who was watching a movie on his phone when his Autopilot-enabled car crashed into a police cruiser. And forensic data from a fatal 2018 Tesla crash suggests the driver may have been playing mobile game Three Kingdoms when his Autopilot-driven car crashed into a concrete lane divider.

Listing image by YouTube / Cf Tesla

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