It’s time for PC game demos to make a comeback

 

I’ve been privately lamenting the lack of PC game demos lately. There was a time when demos were commonplace: a chunk of a brand new game you could try out for free before you bought the full game. Demos gave us a chance not only see what a game had to offer and whether or not we enjoyed it, but also allowed us to continually tweak the settings and try different graphics options to see how our PCs handled it. Plus, instead of waiting months for a sale to try the game without a lot of risk, you could play right when the game came out, while everyone else was still talking about it.

While I was at PDXCon this past weekend I spent a few minutes talking with Kim Nordstrom, former general manager of Swedish game company King and current leader of Paradox Interactive’s mobile initiative. We chatted about PC and mobile games, and especially about Introversion’s Prison Architect, which is making an unlikely appearance on mobile platforms with Paradox as the publisher. Nordstrom’s plan for Prison Architect provide a few lessons PC games could learn from with its unusual, almost shareware-era approach to pricing.

Mobility

Big, meaty mobile games have a challenge when it comes to sales. The roots of mobile are in free games, or exceedingly cheap ones: 99 cents, maybe a couple of dollars. Pricing a mobile game at $15 or $20 is a dubious prospect, which is why so many are free-to-play with microtransactions: get the game into players’ hands first, and try to get money out of them later. The issue is that ‘microtransaction’ has become something of a dirty word, and that’s mostly true on PC as well. While there are a number of great free-to-play games on PC like Dota 2 and League of Legends, there are scores more that have left us highly suspicious of the F2P model, with gated progress and gameplay designed around making you so damn impatient you’ll pay just to advance at a reasonable pace.Image result for It's time for PC game demos to make a comeback

On mobile, Prison Architect will cost around $15. That feels like a fair price for what you get—it’s a complex management simulation and a great gameone of my favorites from 2015—but Nordstrom knows simply plopping it on mobile stores with that price tag probably won’t fly. So it will be free to download, and unlocking the complete game lands somewhere between free-to-play and full-price.

“It’s not a free-to-play with microtransactions, nothing like that, it caps at $15 right now,” Nordstrom told me. “But we basically just made it so anyone can install it, and it’s a try before you buy.”

Nordstrom holds out his hands a few inches apart, then widens them as he describes how the game unlocks more content for those who purchase it in chunks. “And the game size is this big, we offer you this much for free, and then we’re very clear on if you pay whatever dollars, you get the sandbox, if you pay [more] you get the chapters, and if you pay the full price you get the full game.”

So, you get to play a portion of the game as much as you want for free, just like a PC demo. Inside the game itself there’s a store that lets you unlock the rest of the features at certain price points. While that sounds suspiciously like microtransactions, there’s a difference: the total amount you can spend is capped. You won’t be nickel-and-dimed forever. If you decide to spend money, you’ll know exactly how much, in advance, it will cost you, and once you’ve spent it, you’re done. You own everything, and you’re never prompted or even tempted to spend more.

The demo, man

As Tyler concluded recently, big-publisher games can cost a lot on PC, especially when you factor in their many special editions, and that along with having no way to try a game before buying it has kept me away from a lot of games in the past few years. With Steam refunds, you can play a game for two hours before returning it or deciding to keep it but as we pointed out recently with Prey, which had a console demo but irritatingly none on PC, that’s nothing like a proper demo at all. (The reason given by Prey’s co-creative director Raphael Colantonio was “It’s just a resource assignment thing. We couldn’t do a demo on both the console and on the PC, we had to choose.”)

Sometimes there are free weekends for games, which are great, but that’s usually well after launch (this weekend’s Rising Storm 2 beta excepted) and usually long after people are actively talking about the game and your friends are still playing it. I’ve never bought a game just for a pre-order bonus, because pre-purchasing isn’t a great idea and the bonuses aren’t much to speak of (what am I really going to do with a digital art book, besides either flip through it once and forget it, or completely forget to flip through it at all). And pre-orders don’t always include a discount, so there’s rarely any real reason to pre-purchase anything.

We do get a few demos nowadays—though most often they don’t arrive as a game is released, such as Dishonored 2’s demo which came months after launch—but we need more, and more games with something like Prison Architect’s mobile model. If Deus Ex: Mankind Divided had been downloadable for free on day one, with a nice chunk of it playable indefinitely (like Prison Architect’s mobile version), players who were undecided about purchasing it for $60 could have gotten a good long look at what it has to offer. It would have given players like me time to play with a selection of augs and try out different playstyles. And it would’ve provided us with a good chance tweak the settings to see how well the it ran on our PCs, something the two-hour Steam refund window simply doesn’t allow for (and really shouldn’t be used for anyway).

If a potential customer such as myself ultimately decides not to buy the rest, what does the publisher really lose? I know creating game demos means more work, and that it’s not as simple as cutting off a slice of the game and plopping it in a folder. But in addition to demos being beneficial to gamers, developers and publishers can gain valuable information from making free demos available. As Kim Nordstrom told me, there’s value not just in the sales a company makes but in having information about the sales they didn’t make.

“The problem is that we as a company, we would never learn if we [had] a $4.99 price point in a storefront, or even a $14.99, because we wouldn’t know,” Nordstrom said. “We would just know who bought it, [but] we wouldn’t know who didn’t [buy] it.”

Information on who didn’t buy your game is useful. How many people were interested enough to download it but were turned off by something in the opening hours? How many people were willing to pay some, but not all, of the full price? Plus, it could whet the appetite of some customers who would then buy later during a sale instead of simply forgetting about it. This strikes me as a net positive for both developers and players.

Even if people don’t buy Prison Architect on mobile after trying it for free, Nordstrom says, “…they’ll play the game and if they enjoy it they might get interested in the company, or the brand, or Introversion’s games, and such. And they might spread it in terms of [word of mouth], and some people say ‘Holy crap, this is a great game, I’m going to buy it.'”

For publishers and developers, demos put a game in front of more players on launch day, provides them with additional information on how their game is being played and received, and can increase interest in their games even if not everyone who tries them, buys them. They can even get more technical feedback if their game is having problems on launch day. For players, they’re given a chance to sample more new games, to properly try before they buy, and less incentive to abuse Steam’s refund policy or wait months for a sale. PC demos are good for everyone, and it’s time for them to make a comeback.

Nokia plans comeback on back of virtual reality

Analysis The Nokia as we traditionally know it is no more, and the reborn company of today is pinning a core part of its future business strategy on emerging virtual reality (VR) technologies.

In the run-up to the National Association of Broadcasters trade show next week in Las Vegas, Nokia has announced the launch of OZO Reality – an updated set of technologies for supporting the delivery, creation and end user experience of VR content.

Nokia is hoping to propel uptake of its OZO camera, a $40,000 piece of kit with eight sensors and eight microphones, by bundling in its updated software packages to provide producers with a tempting all-round tool set.

The specs and partners look impressive, but perhaps OZO’s only serious challenger in the space at present is Facebook, which has just unveiled the second generation of its Surround 360 camera this week.

The creation side of the update includes OZO+, an upgraded version of Nokia’s VR camera solution, as well as the OZO Live 3D 360 stream and audio system. OZO Creator has also been given a revamp for VR image processing techniques and stereoscopic software, which now includes something Nokia calls mixed reality enablement – meaning the integration of features such as advertising and game engine elements. Delivery is a thorn in the side of the VR industry, so Nokia’s OZO Deliver software component claims to enable partners of the OZO Reality platform to ingest and manage immersive experiences – delivered at lower bandwidth to broader audiences.

A key feature is Nokia’s OZO Player SDK, which is being integrated by a number of partners to provide a single interface for all major VR and 360 video platforms and apps – which it says now includes depth rendering with occlusion to provide real-time integration of the aforementioned mixed reality elements.

Perhaps more significant and exciting from Faultline’s point of view is the technology vendors which have jumped into bed with Nokia for its OZO VR ventures as part of this week’s announcement; vendors with tried and tested expertise in specific steps of the OTT content delivery chain which bodes well for shaping the VR experiences of the future. Those vendors are Akamai, AWS Elemental, Harmonic, NeuLion, Youku, 3stage Design, Accedo, Haivision, Ideal Systems, Kaltura, LiveLike, Nibiru, Primestream, Ratio, Qello, and China Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC).Image result for Nokia plans comeback on back of virtual reality

Many of these are brand new names to collaborate with Nokia in VR, while Akamai and Elemental have been on board since OZO debuted in January 2016, and NeuLion first announced a partnership with Nokia and its OZO camera in September last year. Companies integrating the OZO Player SDK or OZO Reality platform into their existing suites of VR products or services are 3stage Design, Accedo, Ideal Systems, Kaltura, LiveLike, Primestream, Nibiru, and Ratio. More encoding technologies are being provided by Haivision, while Qello is supplying Nokia with a monetization platform, and CICC is planning to produce VR documentaries.

NeuLion’s involvement hints heavily at a collaborative effort to live stream a major sporting event in VR, but so far all Nokia’s live 360˚ events, including concerts, music festivals, sports and political events, have all been powered by Elemental. NeuLion is definitely in competition with Elemental and is emphatic that it does not need the Elemental encoding platform.

Now Harmonic has thrown its encoding capabilities into the hat, just in case there wasn’t enough clout already – which just goes to show how exhaustive the encoding efforts for streaming VR content is. Harmonic is probably in the lead on encoding VR experiences as it has some University derived tiling encoders, which only encodes in full resolution the central screen of a nine screen potential view. Faultline reckons they are a step ahead of anyone else right now in VR.

NeuLion has built much of its own technologies to lead the way in live sports, but it has also amassed technologies from DiVX, for its HEVC SDK, and Saffron Digital’s SVoD software and electronic sell-through services.

Nokia’s previous live VR tests have involved an Elemental encoder for packaging at acceptable bit rates, installed with Akamai Accelerate Ingest software, which accepted the TCP POSTs from the local encoder and delivers them via UDP over the general internet to an Akamai Ingest server. Cisco hardware has also been used to offload video traffic and optimize stream quality to UHD VR headsets.

A collaborative drive in developing VR technologies will be key to getting VR viewing formats into the mainstream and living up to the hype of market forecasts. Faultline has identified the viewing platform as the major obstacle for take-off above the 100 million device level.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s new Surround 360 camera, for its Oculus Rift headsets, comes in two models, the x6 with 6 cameras and the more heavy duty x24 with 24 cameras – both capturing footage in 8K with six degrees of freedom (6DOF).

6DOF is a specialist method used by Hollywood special effects team, but Facebook and other VR firms are working on lowering the costs of this exclusive technology to broaden availability.

Facebook claims the new Surround 360 is the most advanced on the market today, and believes its hardware and software are easier to use than other technologies out there. Facebook has been keeping quiet about its VR partnership deals so far, as its developments go on behind closed doors at Area 404, but it recently teamed up with the South Korean government to cooperate in funding VR and AR startups in the country.

Paul Melin, VP of Digital Media, Nokia Technologies, commented on the announcement, “We are developing new innovations that work together to empower storytellers, enable audiences to participate in content anywhere on any platform, and deliver on the promise of transformative experiences that help the human family feel more together.

“As VR and AR fast approach a tipping point that will lead to explosive growth, OZO products and technologies are well-positioned to be key drivers for the future of an industry that could top $100bn in less than a decade.”

The $100bn figure comes from a revenue forecast by Digi-Capital and IDC’s Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide.

Copyright © 2017, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week’s events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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HTC needs more than great hardware to make a comeback

 

HTC has had a rough few years.

Back in the days of the HTC One, the company’s hardware was class-leading. No other manufacturer had made a phone quite like the HTC One, with a unibody aluminum design that looked just as great as it felt. The new Boomsound speakers blew away every hint of competition on the market, as no one had really seen dual speakers quite like this before. Though the company opted to iterate on this design for another three generations, other manufacturers began to catch up. Samsung moved from a plastic-y, cheap-feeling set of flagships to the all-glass unibody designs we see today. Even smaller brands like ZTE and Huawei started producing high-quality options at extremely competitive prices.

It’s no secret that HTC still produces incredibly interesting hardware. The Edge Sense feature present on the new HTC U11 may seem strange to some, but it is absolutely different than any hardware manufacturers have  put out in quite a long time. The company is working to step away from their all-metal unibody designs in order to differentiate themselves from the pack, but is interesting hardware enough to get customers to buy devices again?

READ MOREHTC U11 review

While the industry was evolving to compete with HTC’s hardware, quite frankly, HTC hasn’t done much to improve its software. Many manufacturers have chosen to lean down their software offerings but still contribute great additions to Android, and HTC has joined them to cut down Android to a pretty extreme extent. In fact, HTC’s version of Android is pretty much as barebones as you can get on a non-Pixel or Nexus device. You may be fine with that, as quite a few of us have been asking manufacturers to slim down their customizations for a long time. But at a certain point, you need to ask – what makes these phones so exciting? HTC’s software trim happened almost four generations ago, and yet the UI has barely evolved ever since.

The gallery above shows screenshots from the HTC One M9, HTC 10, and HTC U11. Do you see what I’m getting at? Sure, there are a few differences here, but overall we’re getting an extremely similar look and feel here. Quoting our HTC U11 review:

Sense is still one of the cleanest takes on Android, but it is starting to feel a little dated and in need of a refresh. The U11 was a perfect opportunity for HTC to do that, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

So what exactly does HTC need to do to make a comeback? The company’s hardware is definitely innovative, but it doesn’t excite people like it used to during the metal unibody days. Edge Sense is pretty innovative, but is is enough to attract customers that have moved on to adopt offerings from Samsung and others? There is so much amazing competition on the market these days, it’s becoming quite difficult for HTC to climb their way back to the top.

Price is a huge factor that HTC is going to need to consider moving forward. The company wants to be seen as a premium brand and prices their devices that way, but the public no longer considers them in that vein. Especially when you make anti-consumer moves such as getting rid of the headphone jack simply to follow the trend of the industry, your customers are not going to want to purchase your devices. When phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 are cheaper than HTC’s flagship, that is going to be a strong point for customers to consider. Why would you buy a phone with less features when your largest competitor comes in cheaper?

And the competition isn’t only coming from Samsung. Companies like OnePlus are hitting the industry hard with more value-oriented options that continue to impress us. Heck, even HTC is competing with HTC. Now priced at $499 and even cheaper on sale, the HTC 10 continues to be a solid option which could be seen as higher quality and a better option than the U11 on many fronts.

HTC may need to take the value-oriented approach to move their way back to the top. Some might argue that it shouldn’t do that as it might tarnish its reputation, but offering a competitively-priced device with top-of-the-line specs could vastly improve sales. Sure, this would reduce revenue, but at least it would move more phones. Have you seen anyone out in the wild with an HTC 10, U Ultra, or U11? Probably not. Customers need a better reason to purchase these phones over offerings from Samsung and others, and pricing could be a great way to do that.

Last but not least, the company needs to make sure it can keep these things in carrier stores. The HTC 10 was and still is a fantastic device, but whatever spat they had with AT&T absolutely destroyed the sales of the device. Reviews were very solid on release, and the body was very reminiscent of original HTC One M7. Heck, the thing even had a DAC that many audiophiles acclaimed as one of the best ever included in a smartphone. I’m not sure what happened between AT&T and HTC that caused this thing to be unavailable from the carrier, but not offering a device on the 2nd largest carrier in the world is not good for sales.

The company hasn’t offered a flagship directly from AT&T since then, so it’s going to be more difficult for customers to actually purchase these devices. As much as the industry is starting to move towards buying devices outright, carrier subsidization is still alive and well. Most customers still buy their phones from physical stores, and HTC is going to have a hard time making their way back to the top if they can’t get these devices into consumer’s hands.

What do you think HTC needs to do to make a comeback? Would better pricing be enough? Does it need to rethink its software? Let us know your thoughts. We’d love to see the company come back into the limelight.