18 December, 2011



Star Wars: The Old Republic debuts on Tuesday as one of the most ambitious games ever

Posted: 18 Dec 2011 08:00 AM PST

BioWare’s epic new online game Star Wars: The Old Republic debuts on Tuesday. A persistent world known as a massively multiplayer online game (MMO), the title is one of the most ambitious video games in history. One of its many lofty goals is to challenge World of Warcraft, the seven-year-old fantasy role-playing world that is the world’s biggest money-making online game with more than 10.3 million paying subscribers and around a billion dollars a year in revenue. Another is to take the Star Wars fan base and bring it into the modern age of the MMO, ensuring that George Lucas’s franchise lives on in the age of massive blockbuster games. And it is also aimed at bringing in a steady stream of revenue for Electronic Arts, elevating it and its developer BioWare into the stratosphere of the game industry, where respect and revenues go hand in hand.

If the game is a home run for EA, then the company will enjoy a cash-generating franchise for years to come, much like its EA Sports games that generate revenues every time a new sports season comes around. And it could give EA more financial might to take on its larger rival, Activision Blizzard, and fend off challengers such as Zynga in social games and smaller rivals in smartphone and tablet games. This kind of risk-taking is almost unheard of in the game industry these days.

The title is as big a bet as they come, with a long history behind it. BioWare began working on its first MMO around five years ago, opening a new satellite studio in Austin, Texas. The developer was then majority owned by Elevation Partners, which took a majority stake in two development firms, BioWare/Pandemic, for $300 million in 2005. Elevation partner John Riccitiello was then named CEO of Electronic Arts and EA announced it would acquire BioWare/Pandemic for $860 million in October 2007, with the deal closing in 2008. One of the reasons that BioWare/Pandemic had doubled in value in just two years was that then-secret online game was expected to generate a lot of revenues in the future.

EA announced that both LucasArts and EA would publish the BioWare Star Wars game in October 2008. At that time, BioWare co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk announced that the game has more content planned than all of BioWare’s previous games, including the 2003 title Knights of the Old Republic. Twelve writers were working on the story full-time, and they were putting BioWare’s signature emotion-driven storytelling into the game. Those writers are needed, along with a huge team of developers, because the game is envisioned as a never-ending service, with new installments of episodic content coming out on a regular basis. It is a major shift for EA from one-time purchases toward games-as-a-service.

Then EA acquired LucasArts’ co-publishing position and opted to publish the game on its own. Industry observers have guessed that the game’s budget must be around $100 million, but EA has said that previous estimates were wrong and that it isn’t disclosing the precise figure. Besides setting up the studio in Texas, EA also created its Origin online game distribution service and opened a 200-employee customer service center in Galway, Ireland, to handle support calls related to the game.

During the long development, the video game industry has changed. World of Warcraft challengers and virtual worlds have fallen by the wayside. Console game sales have stalled in the U.S., and free-to-play online games created by companies such as Nexon, which raised $1.2 billion in an initial public offering last week, have grown dramatically. Zynga was born and grew to a giant size in Facebook gaming and even held its $1 billion IPO all within a shorter time span than the making of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Still, EA has kept a steady hand, investing in the game during lean times and during its recovery.

Earlier this year, Riccitiello said Star Wars: The Old Republic needs 500,000 paying subscribers to break even and 1 million subscribers to be profitable. If Electronic Arts gets 1.5 million to 2 million subscribers, it will be enough to "make it look like a great investment and justify the purchase of BioWare Pandemic, Riccitiello said. The high-end numbers may seem overly ambitious, but in the past year, World of Warcraft has lost around 1.7 million paying subscribers, leaving plenty of former Warcraft fans ripe for the picking. But other games are attempting to grab Activision Blizzard’s users as well, such as the fantasy role-playing game world Rift, launched this year by Trion Worlds. Trion has said that more than 1 million players signed up for Rift in its first four months.

Atul Bagga, an analyst at Lazard Capital Markets, said in a recent note that his survey of MMO players suggests a “strong tailwind” for Star Wars: The Old Republic. He estimated that the game may find a receptive audience among 3 million to 4 million players within the World of Warcraft subscriber base. About 50 percent of World of Warcraft subscribers plan to buy the EA game. Among those who played the beta test, about 90 percent plan to buy the game. And 87 percent have either pre-ordered or plan to pre-order the game. And it seems that Facebook isn’t stopping those players from trying out the Star Wars game. About 55 percent of the players surveyed are currently playing games on Facebook. But Bagga said that a weaker-than-expected reception for the Star Wars game could very well hurt EA’s stock price.

Bobby Kotick, chief executive of Activision Blizzard, has suggested that EA will likely have to spend a lot of its profits to pay Lucas for the rights to the Star Wars franchise on an ongoing basis. EA dismissed that as sniping from a competitor. In many ways, World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic are complementary, as one is fantasy and the other is science fiction. On the other hand, there have been a limited number of gamers who are willing to pay $15 a month for an MMO subscription.

Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said, “I think SWTOR is on track to sell 2 million units the first few weeks, and if the game is good after 30 days, I expect 1.5 million of the initial purchasers to sign up for subscriptions. Let's see if the game is good, first, then we can talk about its potential.”

EA has also touted some promising preorders and beta test numbers. EA has said that millions of players have already tried the game and they have already formed more than 78,000 guilds. Those who pre-ordered the game were able to start playing on Dec. 13, and on Tuesday, Dec. 20, other players can join in. EA has promised a smooth launch. The game costs $60 to purchase, and monthly subscriptions cost $14.99 a month, the same as World of Warcraft, or $77.94 for six months. The game will have English, French and German versions.

Reviewers have come in with a variety of opinions. Game Informer magazine has proclaimed that "The Old Republic is poised to reshape the MMO landscape," and MSNBC said that "Star Wars: The Old Republic is looking strong and the attention to story is paying off in a big way."

The story is set thousands of years before the classic Star Wars films, when the Jedi ruled the galaxy. Players can go on quests and engage in combat across a number of iconic worlds such as Tatooine, Alderaan, Hoth and others. The game has eight different character classes, all of them voiced by an army of actors. There’s no Darth Vader in this era, but there are plenty of Sith and other forces to battle. The game play emphasizes cinematic stories and forces the players to make meaningful personal choices.

In an interview with Industry Gamers, Zeschuk said, “We have research that shows that a lot of people have been waiting for this game. We’re seeing huge demand for it, and we plan to support it long-term.”

And BioWare co-founder Muzyka said, "There’s more competition for entertainment dollars now than ever before from social and play for free, and all sorts of entertainment, which I think is actually really healthy from an entertainment industry perspective. But I agree with Greg that there’s a space for a certain number of premium products that are subscription based or whatever the premium pricing model is. But they have to merit it, they have to earn that from a consumer trust perspective and delivering and exceeding expectations. I think The Old Republic is definitely in that triple-A premium category. That’s the feedback reading from the players and data testing.”

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Sony launches the PlayStation Vita in Japan to big crowds

Posted: 17 Dec 2011 05:36 PM PST

Sony finally launched its PlayStation Vita portable game system in Japan today as thousands of game fans lined up early to buy it. The device will launch in North America and Europe on Feb. 22.

The launch appeared to go off without any major problems. The timing of the launch is very late in the holiday season, so it isn’t clear just how popular it will be. The device will face strong competition from all sorts of new devices, from Nintendo’s 3DS to Apple’s iPad 2 and iPhone 4S as well as a plethora of Android smartphones and tablets. If the launch goes well, it could help offset growing losses; Sony expects to lose more than $1 billion in the fiscal year ended March 2012.

Sony is hoping to beat the competition with a superior high end device. The Vita comes with a five-inch multitouch capacitive touch screen, two analog sticks, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and optional 3G connectivity. It has a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 microprocessor and a separate graphics chip. It is backward-compatible with Sony PlayStation Portable games released in digital form on the PlayStation Store. And it is integrated with the PlayStation3 game console, with features such as Twitter and Flickr.

The system has 17 ways to control the action in a game, including a novel backside touchscreen. It also has front and back cameras and can be used to play against PS 3 players via the PlayStation Network. I played such a cross-platform match with the new Wipeout game, which has cool water simulations.

In Tokyo’s Ikebukuro shopping district, some 300 game fans lined up outside a major electronics chain that opened early for the event. In the U.S., the system is expected to cost about $250 for Wi-Fi only and $300 for a 3G/Wi-Fi model.

“I’m so happy to see so many people lining up for PS Vita so early in the morning,” Sony Computer Entertainment Japan President Hiroshi Kono wrote in his official blog after touring several Tokyo stores. “I can tell they had anxiously waited for today’s launch.”

The Vita has about two-dozen launch titles and many more coming after the launch in 2012. Of those I’ve seen, Uncharted Golden Abyss, Resistance Burning Skies and Unit 13 look the best. The graphics on these titles look very console-like and can run circles around most free or 99-cent Apple App Store games.

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The United States of Innovation (infographic)

Posted: 17 Dec 2011 04:44 PM PST

Innovation infographic from Good magazine, 640 pixel version

Innovation has gone global. The United States is no longer the majority source of patents in the world — though it does lead other countries by a wide margin, at least as measured by the number of innovative companies that call the U.S. home.

In this infographic from Good Magazine, the world map shows what percentage of Thomson Reuters’ “Global Innovators” list is headquartered in each country. The U.S. leads, with 40 percent of that list’s companies based here. It’s followed by Japan (with 27 percent), France (11 percent) and Sweden (6 percent).

The most innovative industries on Thomson Reuters’ list were electronics and semiconductors, followed by chemical manufacturing, computer hardware, consumer products, machinery and telecom equipment.

Click on the image above to see the full-size version.

Image credit: Good Magazine.

Hat tip: Amy

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Jury fails to settle ancient suit between Microsoft and Novell

Posted: 17 Dec 2011 03:19 PM PST

Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in 2002A seven-year old lawsuit over a fifteen-year-old operating system and a thirty-year-old word processing program has finally ended. With a hung jury.

Novell’s $1.4 billion lawsuit against Microsoft ended in a mistrial December 15 after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict, Bloomberg reports.

That could be considered a victory for Microsoft. Novell’s suit, filed in 2004, was based on Microsoft’s alleged lack of support in Windows 95 for WordPerfect, a word-processing program acquired by Novell in 1994.

Those of us who have been in the computer industry long enough remember WordPerfect as a beautifully fast, flexible, text-based word processing program that thrived in the pre-graphical days of DOS. It probably reached its peak with WordPerfect 5.1 in 1989. WordPerfect became a big enough company that it could throw lavish parties at Comdex, then the largest computer industry gathering. I remember attending one party where Ray Charles performed, in a small Las Vegas auditorium, for a group of several hundred WordPerfect execs, customers and press.

By the time Windows started achieving serious momentum in the early 1990s, WordPerfect was looking pretty dated. The company made a serious attempt to transition into the Windows world, but it never stood a chance against Microsoft Word, which was not only made by Microsoft but also increasingly sold as part of an office software suite that included Excel, PowerPoint, and eventually Access, Publisher, Visio, a kitchen sink, a free toaster and an assortment of useful knives that never needed sharpening.

To avoid antitrust allegations, Microsoft claimed that there was a “Chinese wall” between its operating system developers and the programmers who created its office software, so that the latter had no special advantages over outside developers like WordPerfect. But, Novell’s suit alleged, that wasn’t strictly true.

Novell’s suit claimed that Microsoft led Novell to believe that Windows 95 would include a feature to make Novell’s applications work seamlessly with the OS. But then Microsoft dropped support for that feature, harming the market for Novell’s software.

Novell sold WordPerfect for a $1.2 billion loss in 1996, after less than two years of owning the word processor.

Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates testified in the trial last month that WordPerfect was a “bulky, slow, buggy product” and that it didn’t work well with Windows 95.

"We are hoping that in retrial, although it is technically complicated, that we can convince a jury that Novell's claims are valid," Novell’s lawyer Jim Lundberg told Bloomberg.

Microsoft’s lawyers were smugly happy and undaunted.

“We remain confident that Novell’s claims don’t have any merit and look forward to the next steps in the process,” said Steven Aeschbacher, Microsoft’s associate general counsel, as reported by the AP.

Photo credit: World Economic Forum/Flickr

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The fast, fabulous life of 32-year-old billionaire Sean Parker

Posted: 17 Dec 2011 02:45 PM PST

Sean ParkerIf you ever wondered what it would be like to be a billionaire before forty, look no further than Sean Parker.

His fabulous, $20 million townhouse in New York’s West Village has an indoor swimming pool, features Byzantine icons and two massive, six-foot portraits by Spanish Renaissance painter Alonso S├ínchez Coello, is large enough to accommodate a party of 800, and has at least four floors. Oh, and it’s called “Bacchus House,” which might give a clue to the Dionysian delights it’s meant to convey. When a New York Times reporter visited him recently, the house was swarming with staff and a hairstylist was waiting upstairs for Parker, who had just arrived via private jet from California, where he recently bought another home (in San Francisco).

These details come from a glowing, almost fawning profile of Parker in the New York Times style section today.

Parker, who cofounded Napster and then went on to play a key role in the early days of Facebook, was in many ways lucky to be in the right places at all the right times. But he’s also clearly a smart businessman with vast social skills and an eagerness to reinvent the music industry.

It’s not clear what he’s actually started, though. In fact, the profile points out that he’s been forced out of at least two companies by its venture capital investors. At Plaxo he “clashed with the company’s venture capital partners and was fired.” (The key active venture capital board members at Plaxo were Sequoia Capital and Ram Shriram, a founding investor of Google, though the Times doesn’t note that.) Then in 2004, he was hired as Facebook’s president, but got forced out less than a year later by Facebook’s investors, including Accel, Greylock and others. In other words, the blue-chip firms of Silicon Valley.

And in the early days at Napster, he managed to bring the ire of an army of lawyers on his company’s head by boasting that Napster was going to take out the music industry.

So, maybe his social skills are a little overrated.

"At every point I am besieged by people who would like me to conform to some social norm of whatever sort of social group they expect me to be a part of," Parker says in the profile. "I never have any identification with these social groups."

What he does have is an appetite for indulging in the high life, from Oscar parties to Washington D.C. schmoozefests and London charity fundraisers. With his fortune, he can do that. Just 32 years old, his net worth is estimated to be about $2.1 billion, thanks mostly to his stake in Facebook.

He also said he was “mortified” by his portrayal as a sleazy party boy in last year’s movie, The Social Network, writes the Times.

Among other revelations from the NYT story: He suffers from asthma, is allergic to nuts and shellfish, and carries dissolving strips of Benadryl in his wallet.

When asked if he’d ever used drugs, he responded: “I'm a believer in any method of mind expansion whether facilitated by meditation, religious experience or drug use. There is a value in using tools available to us, even if it is pharmacological in nature, if it expands the mind.”

That’s not exactly a “no,” is it?

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Week in review: Zynga goes public, while we go holiday shopping

Posted: 17 Dec 2011 01:40 PM PST

Don’t panic: It’s only a week until Christmas.

To help you procrastinate on your shopping (not to mention Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice preparations), we’ve assembled this list of ten of the best tech business and gaming stories of the week.

We’ll start with a a gift guide, so you can pretend this is actually helping you accomplish your holiday goals.

Editor’s Picks


Holiday Gift Guide: Our favorite gadgets under $200
Got gadget lovers on your gift list? Start with this handy guide by Jolie O’Dell, covering a bunch of awesome gadgets that don’t cost an arm and a leg.

RIM sings a happy tune for Q3 despite falling revenue, dismal PlayBook sales
We’re starting to wonder if RIM’s two CEOs are living in the same world we are. Their company’s revenue is tanking, its stock is in the Dumpster, and it’s got a huge lineup of phones nobody really wants. Devindra Hardawar reports on the company’s strangely sunny earnings report.

How Occupiers are using live streaming and "Skype" for a cohesive voice
Meghan Kelly talks about how the Occupy movement has used smartphones and livestreaming services — plus a special, crowd-friendly way of using Skype — to stay connected while encamped.

How Zynga grew from gaming outcast to $9 billion social game powerhouse
Dean Takahashi’s definitive history of Zynga starts at the beginning, with the unlikely leadership of Mark Pincus, and describes how the company went on to redefine the video game industry. If you don’t like clicking through a multi-part web article, you can also buy the story as a $3 Kindle e-book.

The Last of Us could be one of the best new original games
Naughty Dog’s upcoming PlayStation 3 game features remarkable graphics, a chilling atmosphere, and a story driven by a father-daughter pair of characters. Dean Takahashi seems won over by the combination.

Why a streaming movie service from Verizon & Redbox is bad news for Netflix
Tom Cheredar explains how a team-up between Verizon and Redbox could unseat the current king of streaming movie content.

Most popular

Don’t miss these posts, which were burning up the traffic meters on VentureBeat’s web servers this week.

10 of the most anticipated video games of 2012
Already bored of Portal 2, Batman: Arkham City, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Minecraft, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3? Well, 2011 has nothing on 2012. Stefanie Fogel lists the ten games that will blow you away in 2012.

Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga, rings the NASDAQ opening bellHow Zynga grew from gaming outcast to $9 billion social game powerhouse
Dean Takahashi’s history is one of our editor’s picks above. Not surprisingly, given that Zynga went public this week, it was also one of the site’s most popular stories this week.

Nokia's Lumia 800 Windows Phone matters more than you think
It may lack the absurdly high-end specs of current Android superphones, and it doesn't have the hype of Apple's iPhone, but for Nokia and Microsoft, the Lumia 800 represents the viability of their joint mobile future. It also looks like a damn good phone. Devindra Hardawar explains.

Google Shoot View is the creepiest use of Google Maps ever
It’s a simple, hilarious, and very disturbing idea: Overlay a videogame machine gun on Google Street View, add a soundtrack and some sound effects, and you can walk around your neighborhood shooting things up. Sean Ludwig brings you the news. (And Google is not amused.)

The 10 Best Gaming Videos of 2011
This year has been a great one for gaming. To celebrate, Dan Crawley brings you 10 of the finest gaming related videos to have hit the scene in 2011. Some are fan-made, some are by big game studios, but all are worth watching.

Dead Island family waves goodbye

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“Groupon for good” launches a service for charitable group buys

Posted: 17 Dec 2011 01:05 PM PST

logo for The MutualGroup buying services have grown explosively over the last few years. Groupon, LivingSocial, Yipit, Foursquare and even Google have jumped into the suddenly hot arena of offering consumers discounts on local merchants’ products and services.

Yet another new player has just launched in the field of group buying, but this time, with a twist. The Mutual, a Brooklyn-based startup, is pitching its service as the "Groupon for Good." Its goal is to reward buyers for donating to a suite of environmental charities. More akin to a subscription service, a buyer will "join" The Mutual for $10 a month, $8 of which goes to charity and $2 of which goes to The Mutual to support its operations and recruit new retailer “Perks.” As such, 80 percent of the cost of membership to The Mutual is indeed tax deductible.

The Mutual’s Perks will include VIP service, early access to tickets and discounts from partner businesses such as Brooklyn Brewery, uncommon goods and Zimride, which the founders hope will create an "economy for good." 

Although the majority of The Mutual’s current Perks are for New York-based businesses, it is launching the site nationally, hoping to grow to other cities, such as San Francisco and Washington D.C., in the near future.

For the charitable side of The Mutual, founders Daniel Vallejo and Matt Pestritto have vetted 5 charities who they believe are the right blend to create the greatest collective impact on the environment. These partners include Carbonfund.org, which addresses clean air issues; Oceana, which addresses oceans management; The Trust for Public Land, which conserves land; World Resources Institute, which focuses on reform and the relationship between humans and the environment; and the Center for Ecoliteracy, which expands and improves environmental education. 

So far, The Mutual has already donated about $2,000 to its causes, from 38 individual members.

Vallejo thinks The Mutual will further what he calls "profitable activism," which he defines as any activity that "brings the business and philanthropic worlds a little closer together in a practical way." He knows a bit about this approach from his background at global advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, where he started its respected sustainability practice, OgilvyEarth.

What does a business get for working with The Mutual (as opposed to Groupon or LivingSocial or Gilt Groupe even)?  On top of zero cost to participate, The Mutual takes no cut of any deal. It believes other group-buying services destroy margins and alter customer loyalty, and in addition to wanting to create incentives for more charitable giving, it would like to foster loyalty and repeat business to its retailers.

Nonprofits are happy about the potential "to help foster more consistent micro-donations and help reach a new audience," said Chris Perceval, director of corporate relations at the World Resources Institute.  Buyers and retailers can be happy that their discounts also do good by the environment, not just by their wallets.

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What Zynga taught the game industry: Consumers are in charge

Posted: 17 Dec 2011 11:46 AM PST

Zynga’s IPO yesterday marks a major milestone for the games business. It marks something more important and profound than validation of Facebook’s ecosystem or proof that the free-to-play business model is here to stay. It’s far simpler — in games now, just as in music, video and books, consumers, not media companies, are in charge.

Fifteen years ago, consumers worshipped at the altar of material advancements in technology, whether it was the iPod, DVD player or Playstation. As consumer electronics companies introduced technology that leapfrogged their predecessors in ways that were undeniably attractive to end users, a dependency was created. All of us were willing to tolerate non-standard formats, expensive software/media and less than ideal usability (storage, sharing, no ability to try before you buy) in order to get the latest and greatest technology. Over the past few years, that dependency has been forever broken in how we consume music, video and books. Yet, until Zynga arrived on the scene, the game business had remained unmoved by this user driven media revolution.

Zynga’s games (and those of its closest competitors) have far lower graphic fidelity than what you find almost anywhere else. Charitably, one might say that its games are graphically on par with PC and console games from 20+ years ago. And no one is going to confuse the quality of Zynga's game design and depth of user engagement with beloved game titles that have populated the bestseller lists the past 25 years.

Yet here Zynga is, going public with a valuation near $10 billion. Zynga’s genius has been its focus on delivering games that fit today’s digital lifestyle.  Zynga's games can be accessed instantly — there is no brick or mortar or online store to visit, no waiting for the game to download, and no need to manage installation particulars. You simply hit a button and a few short seconds later you're playing. You can effortlessly play Zynga's games with friends — there is no need to make sure your friend has the same “system” or “OS".

The user interface and user experience dynamics of Zynga's games are designed to eliminate the steep, frustrating learning curves and ponderous manuals or guides that are typical of most hit packaged goods games. If you only have five minutes to play, Zynga can accommodate you. And in a world where time is quickly eclipsing money as the most valuable currency, this is transformative. Finally, Zynga lets you experience the game before having to pay for it, eliminating the angst and risk aversion that accompany any consumer choosing a $60 console or PC game.

By embracing today’s digital lifestyle, Zynga has done something profound. It has built a multibillion dollar company that creates products that almost no one particularly likes. Their virality is a forcing function of their design and is not based on word of mouth. Very few of their users ever choose to pay for the experience (and the length of time the games provide entertainment for the users could almost be termed disposable). This is not necessarily a criticism but rather recognition of the role these games have played in leading a fundamental disruption of the industry.

Better games are coming, if not from Zynga, then from the myriad development houses inspired by what Zynga has done. These will be games users fall in love with and want to share with friends, not because they were prompted to but because they felt inspired. Games whose graphic fidelity fire the imagination and whose designs prompt delightful addiction.

But for those games to succeed, they will need to nod their heads in acknowledgement to Zynga for demonstrating that the definition of a great product has as much to do with how it's delivered, how easy it is to understand and how seamlessly it fits into the life of the consumer. The rise of the digital lifestyle demands more of us as software artists. It requires a service mentality. We must entertain our players on their terms.

Greg Richardson is CEO of mobile- and browser-based game developer Rumble.

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