Microsoft plans to merge PC and Xbox gaming

Subject: General Tech | March 1, 2016 - 04:05 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, windows 10, uwp, uwa, universal windows platform, pc gaming, microsoft, consoles

If my editorial from yesterday didn't get you interested in this discussion, then perhaps a new line of talking from Microsoft's Phil Spencer will do the job. During its spring presser, the company's gaming lead talked about a plan to merge the PC and Xbox gaming experiences with cross platform gaming, universal applications and compatibility for upgraded Xbox consoles. I found a great write up over at The Guardian that I will pick some of the quotes from and then offer up my views.

Now it seems Microsoft’s plan is to shift the entire development model towards universal applications that run across PC and console – indeed any machine that’s compatible with the Universal Windows Platform. This could have radical implications for the console model, which so far has always been based on the idea that the hardware has to remain largely unchanged throughout the machine’s lifespan.

Much like I detailed in yesterday's story, the Universal Windows Platform and applications are the key here, with the goal of allowing developers to code a single game or program that will run on the entire gamut of PCs in the world including desktops and tablets, as well as on the Xbox One game console. 

“In other [consumer technology] ecosystems you get more continuous innovation in hardware that you rarely see in consoles because consoles lock the hardware and software platforms together at the beginning and they ride the generation out for seven years or so,” said Spencer. “We’re allowing ourselves to decouple our software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs.”

I am actually incredibly excited for the idea of more, and more frequently, updated Xbox hardware from Microsoft. Like it or not, with UWP or without it, consoles and their hardware capability have always been a somewhat limiting factor on how much effort game devs put into creating new games for the PC. If we can depend on newer console hardware, and that games will more ably handle newer, faster components, then it raises the ceiling for image quality, new features, experiences like VR, etc.

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“We can effectively feel a little bit more like what we see on PC where I can still go back and run my old Quake and Doom games, but then I can also see the best 4K games coming out. Hardware innovation continues and software takes advantage. I don’t have to jump generation and lose everything I played before.”

Expect to see some rolled eyes as you read this quote from Spencer; as PC gamers we already HAVE that capability and the move to UWP and UWAs is threatening to hinder that for us going forward. The PC has seen Steam, Origin, DRM-free gaming, an accelerated path to digital distribution, mods, overlays, benchmarking - all things that were held back or outlawed on consoles.

The Xbox chief ended his keynote by reiterating the importance of the PC as a gaming platform. He promised that UWAs will support multiple different graphics processors and that issues with V-Sync ( a setting that matches the game framerate with your monitor’s screen refresh rate) would be resolved.

Enabling support for different GPUs is a good promise, but much more important than just saying it is knowing HOW that support will be handled. As we saw based on our testing and research with Ashes of the Singularity, just supporting Radeon and GeForce cards isn't enough. What about features unique to each GPU? What about SLI and CrossFire? Variable refresh rate monitors? Enabling maximum performance with exclusive fullscreen modes? There is a lot to be answered and discussed. 

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Quantum Break will be on PC, exclusively as a Unified Windows App

This also marks the second time I have heard Spencer mention a "fix" for Vsync issues. I'd love to hear what they have in mind, and I have asked MS several times, but so far I haven't gotten any kind of solid answer. The real question is: does MS understand the problem and the gaming community on the PC well enough to even know what the problem is they are trying to fix?

The big question now is how onboard the development community is with the UWA concept. In theory, these apps should run seamlessly on top of PC and Xbox One architectures, with abstractions to exploit the graphics processors, system memory and other hardware features, as well as compatibility with Microsoft’s DirectX application programming interface (API) for enhanced graphics performance. But will the reality match the promise?

"In theory" and "in practice" are two wildly different things, and we've already seen one example of this not going as planned. I do believe that game developers would jump at the chance to have true cross compatibility as long as the hiccups and issues we are discussing can be dealt with in a reasonable way. It just makes sense: this eases development hurdles and expands the possible customer base.

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Outside of Microsoft, it will be interesting to see how studios react. “In principle UWA sounds like a good idea,” says Byron Atkinson-Jones, a veteran games programmer, now running his own indie studio, Xiotex, and working on sci-fi puzzler, Caretaker. “It offers a more unified platform or environment rather than a fragmented operating systems running on an even more fragmented hardware base. However, this is all reliant on just how hard it is to develop for and how much of a closed shop it will become.

“The best thing about PC is that anyone can make a game for it and UWA sounds like it’s going to become a curated system that will probably require some developer registration to get on.”

Exactly this. The benefit of the PC is its openness, even when running on Windows (as opposed to SteamOS or Linux, for example.) If you take that away, will developers and gamers start to walk? 

Given that Microsoft is promoting UWP as a catch-all platform for Windows 10 that encompasses Xbox one, what does this mean in terms of support for the console’s hardware specifications? “As it stands currently, if you are making an Xbox one game you can be sure on what kind of hardware it’s running,” says Atkinson-Jones. “If developers are then forced down a UWA route, is it going to be the case that this certainty is gone and we get back to the situation on PC where you have to start specifying a minimum spec – which kind of renders a unified platform redundant?”

I disagree that having a minimum spec makes a unified platform less useful, it simply sets a standard for which experience and gameplay can be measured. Even Apple iPhones and iOS implement this to some degree and they have as locked down of a software ecosystem as you can get. If it's handled correctly, Microsoft could be the arbiter of hardware classification and certification, as they kind of already are with WHQL, making sure that any PC hardware or updated Xbox hardware will pass the test for previous and upcoming gaming titles.

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But that is a very difficult task and is likely why MS would like to integrate some restrictions through the API and Windows compositing engine to help them hold that promise moving into the future.

But he will have to convince not just gamers, but the development community. “Microsoft has tried this before with Games for Windows and that was a disaster,” says Atkinson-Jones. “There will be many game developers who had to go through that monstrosity shaking their heads in disbelief that history may just be about to repeat itself.”

Oh yeah, that...remember Games for Windows Live? Remember when it cratered and we had to deal with the fallout of some games not working without GWL servers running? Or just the complication of needing a unique sign-in that often tied the game down in unwieldy ways? That's the dystopian future that PC gamers want to avoid.

All of that being said, I'm still hopeful that Microsoft can turn this into a positive movement. Removing the 7 year upgrade cycle for the Xbox One means that PC gamers will benefit from moving specs on the consoles, giving game developers the ability to target higher end hardware as the platform evolves. I do believe that cross platform games will mean an increase in innovative titles with expanded audiences and more opportunity for developers to make money for their work. But all of this has to be done with more sensitivity to the PC ecosystem than it is being addressed with currently. If nothing else, PC gamers are a loud and easily started group.

Be sure you read the full story over at The Guardian!

Source: The Guardian

JPR Notes Huge Increase in Enthusiast AIBs for 2015

Subject: Graphics Cards | February 29, 2016 - 07:06 PM |
Tagged: nvidia, amd, AIB, pc gaming

Jon Peddie Research, which is market analysis firm that specializes in PC hardware, has compiled another report about add-in board (AIB) sales. There's a few interesting aspects to this report. First, shipments of enthusiast AIBs (ie: discrete GPUs) are up, not a handful of percent, but a whole two-fold. Second, AMD's GPU market share climbed once again, from 18.8% up to 21.1%.

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This image seems contradict their report, which claims the orange line rose from 44 million in 2014 to 50 million in 2015. I'm not sure where the error is, so I didn't mention it in the news post.
Image Credit: JPR

The report claims that neither AMD nor NVIDIA released a “killer new AIB in 2015.” That... depends on how you look at it. They're clearly referring to upper mainstream, which sit just below the flagship and contribute to a large chunk of enthusiast sales. If they were including the flagship, then they ignored the Titan X, 980 Ti, and Fury line of GPUs, which would just be silly. Since they were counting shipped units, though, it makes sense to neglect those SKUs because they are priced way above the inflection point in actual adoption.

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Image Credit: JPR

But that's not the only “well... sort-of” with JPR's statement. Unlike most generations, the GTX 970 and 980 launched late in 2014, rather than their usual Spring-ish cadence. Apart from the GeForce GTX 580, this trend has been around since the GeForce 9000-series. As such, these 2014 launches could have similar influence as another year's early-2015 product line. Add a bit of VR hype, and actual common knowledge that consoles are lower powered than PCs this generation, and you can see these numbers make a little more sense.

Even still, a 100% increase in enthusiast AIB shipments is quite interesting. This doesn't only mean that game developers can target higher-end hardware. The same hardware to consume content can be used to create it, which boosts both sides of the artist / viewer conversation in art. Beyond its benefits to society, this could snowball into more GPU adoption going forward.

Source: JPR

Warren Spector Returns to Game Development

Subject: General Tech | February 18, 2016 - 07:15 PM |
Tagged: system shock, pc gaming, otherside entertainment, night dive studios

Warren Spector helped create several classic video games, including Wing Commander, Ultima, System Shock, Crusader, Thief, and Deus Ex. His most recent titles were Epic Mickey 1 and 2, which took the classic, mischievous Mickey Mouse and gave it fairly adult game mechanics. Following the release of Epic Mickey 2 in 2012, he departed from the games industry to teach at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Image Credit: His Twitter Avatar

Meanwhile, Otherside Entertainment was created from several Looking Glass Studios alumni. The company launched a crowd-funding campaign for a “spiritual successor” to Ultima Underworld, which they called Underworld Ascension. A year later, they announced that they purchased the rights to System Shock 3. It turns out that Warren Spector was interesting in joining this studio, because he just did yesterday (after being an adviser to them for years).

Yay!

According to his quote, via GamesIndustry.biz, he was lured by the opportunity to directly work on both titles. Warren Spector makes complex games, and adding his name to these revival projects should be exciting for those who miss the way PC gaming used to be. There really isn't much to say about this news; it's just promising to have one of the pioneers of PC gaming back in the industry.

Quantum Break Will Require Windows 10 (and DirectX 12)

Subject: General Tech | February 17, 2016 - 11:47 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows 10, pc gaming, DirectX 12

Last week, Microsoft announced that Quantum Break would arrive on the PC. At the same time, they listed the system requirements, which included the requirement of Windows 10. It will only be available on Windows 10 (outside of Xbox One). They also mentioned that the game would require DirectX 12, which made the issue more interesting. It wasn't that Microsoft was pushing their OS with first-party software, they were using an API that is only available in Windows 10, and it had the potential to make a better video game.

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Then they announced that it would only be available on Windows Store, which swings the pendulum back in the other direction. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

In all seriousness, we'll probably see games begin to deprecate DirectX 11 once DirectX 12 (or Vulkan) becomes ubiquitous. These new APIs significantly change how content is designed and submit to GPU(s), and do so in ways that seem difficult to scale back. Granted, I've talked to game developers and I've yet to have my suspicions validated, but it seems like the real benefit of the APIs will be when art and content can be created differently -- more objects, simpler objects, potentially splitting materials that are modified into separate instances, and so forth.

Quantum Break will come out on April 5th, along with a few other DX12-based titles.

Source: PC Gamer

Crystal Dynamics Reveals Minimum Specifications for Rise of the Tomb Raider on the PC

Subject: General Tech | January 22, 2016 - 07:06 AM |
Tagged: tomb raider, pc gaming, min specs, can it run

Crystal Dynamics has revealed the minimum system requirements for Rise of the Tomb Raider on PC. This latest Lara Croft adventure sees the ever-resilient tomb raider following in the footsteps of her father in search of an artifact said to grant immortality amidst the lost city of Kitezh. Fortunately for gamers, Rise of the Tomb Raider has quite a low bar for entry with modest minimum system requirements. You will need more powerful hardware than its 2013 predecessor (Tomb Raider), but it is still quite manageable.

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PC gamers will need a 64-bit version of Windows, a dual core Intel Core i3-2100 (2 core, 4 thread at 3.1 GHz) or, for example, AMD FX 4100 processor, 6 GB of system memory, 25 GB of storage space for all the game files, and, of course, a graphics card with 2 GB of video memory such as the NVIDIA GTX 650 or AMD Radeon HD7770. Naturally, hardware with higher specifications/capabilities will get you better performance and visuals, but the above is what you will need to play.

Minimum PC System Requirements:

  • Dual Core Processor (e.g. Core i3-2100 or FX 4100)
  • 6 GB RAM
  • 25 GB Available Storage Space
  • 2 GB Graphics Card (e.g. GTX 650 or Radeon HD7770)

For those curious, Tomb Raider (2013) required XP SP3 32-bit, a dual core Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 or Athlon 64 X2 4050+ CPU, 1 GB of RAM (2 GB for Vista), and an NVIDIA 8600 or AMD HD2600 XT GPU with 512MB of video memory.

Rise of the Tomb Raider will reportedly add new stealth and crafting components along with new weapons and options for close quarters combat. Further, the game will feature day and night cycles with realistic weather which should make for cold snow-filled nights in Siberia as well as opportunities to sneak up on unwitting guards freezing their buns off!

The game is set to release on January 28th for the PC and joins the the Xbox One version that launched back in November 2015 where it will be a timed exclusive (it will come to the PS4 later this year).

Personally, I am excited for this game. I picked up its predecessor during a Steam sale for super cheap only to let it sit in my inventory for about a year. It was one of those 'I'll play it eventually, but it's not really a priority' things where the price finally got me (heh). Little did I know how wrong I was, because once I finally got around to firing up the game, I played it near constantly until I beat it! It was a surprisingly fun reboot of the series, and I am hopeful that RofTR will be more of the same! 

Source: Bit-Tech

Awesome Games Done Quick 2016 Wraps Up

Subject: General Tech | January 12, 2016 - 06:36 PM |
Tagged: pc gaming

The end to the 24-hour, week-long speedrun stream occurred on Sunday morning. Donations are still trickling in, but the current total (when this news was published) is $1.213 million USD. This is almost exactly how much Summer Games Done Quick 2015 raised last July, which raised $1.216 million USD for Doctors Without Borders, but a little shy of last AGDQ's $1.576 million USD.

You may now resume your regularly scheduled Netflix and PC Perspective podcasts...

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... actually, not quite. Sure, watch our content, but before you watch old Fast & Furious movies (don't judge me) there is a recording that you may want to check out. Very early on Friday the 8th, Graviton did a 100% speedrun of Blast Corps for the AGDQ event. You may have missed it, but this run was also an interview with Martin Wakeley, lead designer of Blast Corps (and Jet Force Gemini). He spent about an hour and three quarters recounting his time at Rare. One interesting story was about a Pacman-style bonus level that had to be modified due to a Namco patent, as Graviton was running it.

If you enjoy listening to developer interviews, this is a good one.

Far Cry Primal System Requirements Slightly Lower than 4?

Subject: Graphics Cards, Processors | January 9, 2016 - 12:00 PM |
Tagged: ubisoft, quad-core, pc gaming, far cry primal, dual-core

If you remember back when Far Cry 4 launched, it required a quad-core processor. It would block your attempts to launch the game unless it detected four CPU threads, either native quad-core or dual-core with two SMT threads per core. This has naturally been hacked around by the PC gaming community, but it is not supported by Ubisoft. It's also, apparently, a bad experience.

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The follow-up, Far Cry Primal, will be released in late February. Oddly enough, it has similar, but maybe slightly lower, system requirements. I'll list them, and highlight the differences.

Minimum:

  • 64-bit Windows 7, 8.1, or 10 (basically unchanged from 4)
  • Intel Core i3-550 (down from i5-750)
    • or AMD Phenom II X4 955 (unchanged from 4)
  • 4GB RAM (unchanged from 4)
  • 1GB NVIDIA GTX 460 (unchanged from 4)
    • or 1GB AMD Radeon HD 5770 (down from HD 5850)
  • 20GB HDD Space (down from 30GB)

Recommended:

  • Intel Core i7-2600K (up from i5-2400S)
    • or AMD FX-8350 (unchanged from 4)
  • 8GB of RAM (unchanged from 4)
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 (up from GTX 680)
    • or AMD Radeon R9 280X (down from R9 290X)

While the CPU is interesting, the opposing directions of the recommended GPU is fascinating. Either the parts are within Ubisoft's QA margin of error, or they increased the GPU load, but were able to optimize AMD better than Far Cry 4, which was a net gain in performance (and explains the slight bump in CPU power required to feed the extra content). Of course, either way is just a guess.

Back on the CPU topic though, I would be interested to see the performance of Pentium Anniversary Edition parts. I wonder whether they removed the two-thread lock, and, especially if hacks are still required, whether it is playable anyway.

That is, in a month and a half.

Source: Ubisoft

CES 2016: Activision Blizzard Confirms MLG Purchase

Subject: General Tech, Shows and Expos | January 5, 2016 - 04:44 AM |
Tagged: pc gaming, mlg, esports, blizzard, Activision

On New Year's Day, rumors flew about MLG being purchased by Activision Blizzard for $46 million USD. At the time, the vast majority of available information discussed how this would affect shareholders, particularly those with lower-class stock in the eSport company. (As it turns out, very poorly.) I wondered why Activision Blizzard would want MLG's assets, especially considering their heavy involvement with ESL, afreecaTV, and others.

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According to a press release from Activision Blizzard themselves, they intend to “create the ESPN of esports.” The Activision Blizzard Media Networks division will be led by the former CEO of ESPN, Steve Bornstein, and the co-founder of MLG, Mike Sepso. The other co-founder of MLG, Sundance DiGiovanni, will remain at MLG. It was previously rumored, during the investor's leak, that he was replaced by the former CFO of MLG, Greg Chisholm. While I expect that some shuffling has occurred, DiGiovanni will apparently remain in a management role at MLG. Granted, it could be equivalent to Hideo Kojima's “holiday” last October, but that would just be silly.

As far as I can tell, other broadcasters have not commented on what this means to them.

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Rumor: MLG "Assets" Sold to Activision Blizzard

Subject: General Tech | January 2, 2016 - 03:08 AM |
Tagged: pc gaming, mlg, esports, blizzard, Activision

Update (10:10pm ET): Forgot to add "rumor" to title.

So I didn't expect this. According to eSports Observer, MLG has basically been liquidated to Activision Blizzard for $46 million USD. Neither company has confirmed the report. The source is a leaked letter that was allegedly sent to stockholders, many of whom, if the rumors are true, were not informed prior to the sale. That's kind-of crappy.

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We will probably hear this story evolve, if true, over the next couple weeks. The organization was said to have been running on a substantial amount of debt, relative to the company's size, for quite some time. If the organization shuts down as it seems it will, then many investors will probably get next to nothing.

On the other hand, it is interesting to see what Activision Blizzard will do with their acquisition. The publisher holds several popular spectator titles, such as Call of Duty, StarCraft, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, World of Warcraft, and soon to be Overwatch. I doubt that the company would roll their games into their own eSport service, especially as they are growing closer to rival ESL, so I would have to expect that these “assets” will be used to support (or leverage control) over third-party broadcasters and/or leagues.

Final Fantasy IX PC Version Confirmed (for Japan)

Subject: General Tech | December 31, 2015 - 09:23 PM |
Tagged: square enix, pc gaming, final fantasy

Back in September, SquareEnix announced that Final Fantasy V was coming to the PC. I took the opportunity to list all the main-line Final Fantasy titles, sorted by generation, and classified them as having a PC release (or not). The odd one out was Final Fantasy IX. It belongs in the set of three original PlayStation titles, but, unlike VII and VIII, was not given a PC release at the time. I was worried that SquareEnix might not go through the trouble for just a single game.

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Apparently, they are doing a version for PCs and Smartphones. It looks somewhat similar to the handheld remake of Final Fantasy III, although that is similar to the PlayStation graphics. It is possible that it will not make it to a worldwide release, but, since the website is fully translated into English, you would expect that the game would be localized, too. If the game is localized, there's very little reason to block it off geographically.

They only have system requirements for iOS. They will probably list Windows system requirements at a later date, which I assume the disable “System” button refers to. Android 4.1 is required for that platform, but they don't say anything about hardware. Regardless, I doubt that this will require much.

Source: Square Enix