Intel Aims To Push VR Forward With Esports Platform

Intel has partnered with Oculus and ESL on the inaugural VR Challenger League. The companies are launching a pair of online tournaments featuring Insomniac Games’ The Unspoken and Ready At Dawn Studios’ Echo Arena across North America and Europe with more than $200,000 in cash and prizes available. The online competition will have four regional finals spread across Oculus Connect on October 11-12 in San Jose, ESL One Hamburg October 28-29, IEM Oakland November 18-19 and DreamHack Winter November 30-December 3. All of this leads to the final event at Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) at Katowice, Poland in March 2018.

Jeffrey Clark, director of business strategy for gaming and esports at Intel, told AListDaily that the company wants to give competitive VR gaming a genuine global platform to showcase the possibilities to the esports community.

Jeffrey Clark, director of business strategy for gaming and esports at Intel

“Intel has been an active participant in esports for well over a decade,” Clark said. “We launched Intel Extreme Masters in 2006, developing it into a global entity with a passionate fan-base in the tens of millions in terms of online viewership. Over the years, we’ve worked with our partner ESL to push the boundaries to expand and evolve the esports experience, so it seemed only natural that we would pioneer one of the world’s first competitive VR tournaments. IEM offers the biggest global stage for esports, and we’re actively exploring the best way to integrate competitive VR.”

Intel piloted an initial competitive experience of The Unspoken at the first IEM Season 12 stop in Sydney this past May.

“Technology is our ethos—it’s at the very heart of our brand,” Clark explained. “We’ve been investing in gaming and esports for years and the emergence of VR and competitive VR gaming introduces an exciting new dimension to the world of esports. We’ve built relationships with game studios over the years, and VR is forcing developers to modify their approach to game development. A truly immersive VR experience, one that’s photorealistic and life-like where you genuinely feel like you’ve entered into a different domain, requires things like advanced physics and spatial audio. We’ve collaborated with developers like Ready at Dawn, Insomniac Games and others to expose these capabilities by helping them take better advantage of the CPU’s compute performance.”

Clark said Intel is committed to accelerating competitive VR gaming as well as the global growth of esports.

“One of the reasons Intel is excited about VR esports is because it adds a new dimension to the spectator experience,” Clark said. “So far, only a small percentage of the global esports audience has had the opportunity to view a competitive virtual reality title in VR, but for those that have, the experience is—more often than not—transformative. Most hardcore esports enthusiasts already have the hardware necessary to experience VR, and our view is that the emergence of VR esports will help accelerate VR’s adoption. Of course, for those that don’t have the necessary hardware, our belief is that VR provides a compelling reason to upgrade to a VR-ready system with the latest Intel 7th Generation Core processor (or 8th Generation later this year).”

Each season, Intel’s goal is to make IEM even more exciting and experiential for fans.

“Continuing to give attendees access to the latest technologies in PC gaming and VR is something we’re very proud of, and Oculus has been a key partner in bringing VR to massive audiences at IEM,” Clark added. “This year, Intel is integrating the latest VR technologies throughout the events, and part of that is with Oculus, including on-site VR tournaments, new interactive demos, and viewing experiences to let fans see firsthand what VR can enable. On the competitive front, we will host one of the VR Challenger League qualifiers with Oculus and ESL at IEM Oakland, and the championship will play out at IEM Katowice. We can’t wait to bring that spectator experience to fans in ways they haven’t seen before.”

The total prize pool for the VR Challenger League is over $200,000 in cash and prizes, distributed during qualifying stages and the finals.

“Prizing is a key part of esports and is a great motivator, but we also see it as a way to recognize the players’ achievements and investments,” Clark said. “IEM offers very competitive prize pools, but our focus is also on offering a consistent lineup of quality events which fans can expect year after year, to foster growth in the esports industry, and provide a stage for innovation and competition. VR esports are no different. VR is still fairly new so VR esports adoption will take time to grow, as will prize pools. VR esports has the ability to open up competitive gaming to a whole new segment of gamers, so recognizing their efforts and commitment to establishing VR esports with proportionate prize pools as the category grows will be important.”

Clark believes competitive VR gaming represents a new frontier in esports.

“Intel’s view is that VR esports has a future, but we acknowledge that it may take time, continuous innovation and investment before VR esports attracts a similar level of attention from major professional teams that traditional esports currently enjoys,” Clark said. “Games like The Unspoken, Echo Arena and the upcoming Sprint Vector from Survios are blazing new trails and inspiring a new breed of esports content. However, we will likely need a critical mass of HMDs in the market before the competitive VR genre can take the next big leap.”

Clark added that broader HMD adoption could be the catalyst that drives an increase in player-vs-player esports content, improvements to the spectator experience, and the building of VR esports communities, leagues and infrastructure.

“All of these things happening together should bolster the credibility, the excitement and enthusiasm of VR esports. Once that happens, we would expect to see more professional teams developing competitive VR talent and establishing dedicated teams,” Clark added.

Content drives esports and titles like CS:GO, League of Legends, DOTA 2 and Overwatch, which have built loyal fan bases consisting of hundreds of millions of global gamers because the gameplay and competitive components are compelling.

“The other key component is the spectator experience, and that was a big factor in Intel wanting to work with Insomniac Games and Ready at Dawn,” Clark explained. “Each of the studios developed their respective titles with esports in mind, which really helped distinguish them as best-of-breed games in this emerging genre. We collaborated with the studios during the development stages to ensure that The Unspoken and Echo Arena could tap into the incredible performance of our Intel Core i7 processors to deliver the highest quality, most immersive games. Both of those titles feature a fantastic blend of competitiveness and immersiveness, but they’re also really fun to watch.”

YouTube’s Complicated Relationship With The Music Industry

At the staggering rate in which Google’s video streaming site flags copyrighted music, one would assume the two of them were fast friends. However, YouTube’s global head of music, Lyor Cohen, says there is a disconnect—something he intends to fix.

“I get why some in the music industry would be skeptical of their relationship with YouTube. They were late to the subscriptions party and YouTube’s focus for many years was largely just on ads,” Cohen wrote on the YouTube blog. “While they have been at subscriptions for a year, and the numbers are very encouraging, YouTube must prove its credibility when it comes to its ability to shepherd their funnel of users into paid subscriptions.”

YouTube may be struggling with credibility with marketers—particularly when it comes to brand safety—but the site is already proving its credibility to consumers. Sixty-eight percent of the total US population has used the video portal to watch music videos or listen to music, according to Edison Research. In 2015, YouTube reported that 25 percent of American adults call YouTube their top source for discovering new music.

YouTube Red has merged with Google Play Music to create a single offering, but its success will rely on both brand awareness and partnerships with the music industry itself. Speaking on a panel at the New Music Seminar conference in New York, Cohen—a veteran of Def Jam and Warner Bros. Records—said, “In my mind, the missing piece on building these businesses is collaborating with the [music] industry, and not just making deals and going away and seeing how it works.”

Despite music’s popularity on the site, music industry executives see YouTube as a threat to its sustainability—creating what Frances Moore, chief executive of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) calls a “value gap.”

She said that the biggest threat for continued growth is “a growing mismatch between the value that user upload services such as YouTube extract from music, and the revenue returned to those who are creating and investing in music.”

In IFPI’s annual state of the industry report, Moore said, “The whole music community is uniting in its effort to campaign for a legislative fix to the value gap and we are calling on policymakers to do this. For music to thrive in a digital world, there must be a fair digital marketplace.”

Some 900 million people use services such as YouTube and pay around $553 million to rights holders in revenue. By contrast, according to IFPI’s “conservative estimates,” the much smaller base of the 212 million users of licensed audio subscription services (both paid and ad-supported) such as Spotify and Apple Music paid more than $3.9 billion last year.

Cohen understands the concern but hopes to correct misconceptions during his time at YouTube.

“Critics complain YouTube isn’t paying enough money for ad-supported streams compared to Spotify or Pandora,” he said. “I was one of them! Then I got here and looked at the numbers myself. At over $3 per thousand streams in the US, YouTube is paying out more than other ad-supported services.”

While music executives dismiss Cohen’s claims as “fake news,” YouTube says knowledge is power.

“The real solution here is data transparency,” a YouTube spokesperson told Music Business Worldwide. “This can be achieved if labels and publishers offer artists and songwriters direct access to YouTube Analytics.”

From Conception To Consumption, VR Is Creating New Kinds Of Creators

Virtual reality is creating a whole-new perspective on film making, from conceptualization to consumption. Hollywood has portrayed the science fiction technology for decades, but now it’s real-world adoption offers immersion into film worlds like never before.

In 2018, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg will bring Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One to the big screen. While the on-screen story is fictional, Spielberg hopes that someday, it won’t be.

“We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square, whether it’s a movie screen or whether it’s a computer screen,” Spielberg said on a 2013 panel for the future of entertainment at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “We’ve got to get rid of that and we’ve got to put the player inside the experience, where no matter where you look you’re surrounded by a three-dimensional experience. That’s the future.”

VR filmmaking is still in its infancy, leaving the trail wide open to be blazed by anyone brave enough to do so. Independent filmmakers are answering the call for innovation, and the Tribeca Film Festival this year introduced a showcase of VR experiences across the world.

Thanks to VR, directors are able to step inside massive set environments before they’re built. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the first to utilize this technology.

The film’s writer, Gary Whitta, described the experience to AListDaily. “The director and I would walk inside the rebel base in virtual reality and he would say things like, ‘Can we make this corridor a little bit longer?’ Or ‘can we make sure that this wall can pop off so we can shoot it from the side with the camera?’ And they would say ‘yes.’ So we walked around the set of the film before it was built, which was incredible.”

Of course, VR content means a potential for VR advertising, as well. Branded VR and 360-degree content has become a common means for film promotion, and often uses the same actors, sets and CGI assets for continuity. Such was the case for Suicide Squad 360, Alien Covenant: In Utero and The Mummy: Zero Gravity Stunt VR.

In a study testing the effectiveness of marketing in VR, brand recall was at least eight times more effective and resulted in double the intent to share.

The fact that Netflix is the most-used VR app shows that consumers are willing to watch videos in a virtual environment. As with traditional TV, this holds tremendous potential for traditional advertising.

Pitchfork Plans VR Presence With New Music Channel

Pitchfork is positioning its online music magazine and video strategy in the immersive vertical of virtual reality.

The Condé Nast-owned publication and festival purveyor is partnering with platform and studio Inception to combine music and VR for the launch of a new channel.

The new VR video plan is designed to offer stronger storytelling opportunities for artists and musicians and additional engagement avenues for fans.

Pitchfork, a trusted voice for journalism in the music industry, was born at the dawn of the digital era in 1995. The media organization launched a video vertical in 2008 producing documentaries, live performances and web series. It’s now uniting forces with Inception—a company that wants to be the Netflix for VR—to create a consistent VR content pipeline. The first piece from the partnership will be published in the coming weeks.

Adam Krefman, Pitchfork’s director of brand development, RJ Bentler, Pitchfork’s vice president of video programming and Inception CEO Benny Arbel joined AListDaily to talk about how VR will impact their industry.

What kind of content can we expect on the Pitchfork VR Music Channel? 

Bentler: We’ve been approached with a number of VR opportunities over the last couple of years. But when we first started talking to Inception, what I liked about them—aside from their technical expertise—is that they’re very interested in what Pitchfork wanted to do. While we’re not putting any limits on what we may do down the road, at the moment, we’re singularly focused on creating VR music videos. Music videos have been a huge driver of the digital medium for at least a decade, and have helped shape and define the form. It’s an infinitely malleable format, and the immersive and interactive nature of VR opens up an equally infinite number of possibilities for visualizing and experiencing music.

How does this deal open up new marketing avenues for Pitchfork? 

Krefman: We see VR as a natural extension of events we—or our advertising partners—are already doing. Whether that’s tapping into the Pitchfork Music Festivals in Chicago or Paris, or other events, we’re excited about bringing experiences to people with VR devices, and amplifying through Facebook 360. There’s also a subset of marketing partners who we think will be open to taking a chance by creating content with VR in mind.

What is your plan to shift Pitchfork’s strategy in the original content, branded video production and partnerships space?

Bentler: The digital video space has changed dramatically in the last couple of years. We’ve moved from a mono-platform, YouTube-centric medium into multi-platform and multi-format medium. Things move fast, and new formats and platforms are emerging all the time. While I don’t think we can be everything to everyone, or that every emerging trend or format lends itself to Pitchfork, there are a number that do. When we see these opportunities, and believe that we can innovate within the form, we act decisively. The best agencies, brands and sponsors know they’re operating in this multi-platform and multi-format world, too, and are most interested in working with partners who’re engaging with the audiences in a meaningful way. That, more than anything, is what we try to do—engage audiences—because that’s what’s most valuable to everyone, including Pitchfork.

How will you be creating and distributing the experiences?

Arbel: We’re fortunate to partner with Rachel Rossin, one of the leading VR artists in the world who is doing some really amazing work in the medium. What helped a lot was the collaboration, and being on the same page from the very start. Distribution is done through the Inception platform, which is built to make it easy for us and other creators to roll content out across all platforms quickly. The platform is also built specifically to enhance VR streaming experiences to make sure that users get the best possible playback, with none of the buffering or lag issues that VR can sometimes have.

The content will be distributed widely on all VR platforms in addition to both social and editorial support by Pitchfork, including the 360 version of the experience that will live on their channels. Why did you identify Pitchfork as a perfect partner?

Arbel: Music is a key pillar for our audience and a genre that is perfectly tuned for VR. We knew that to make an impact in the space, we needed to bring in the very best elements and that is exactly what Pitchfork represents. They’re not just a destination—they’re part of the culture of music, and one that has been able to consistently innovate. From their storytelling and creative prowess to the respect they garner from audiences and talent alike, this was a no-brainer and we feel very fortunate to have them as a partner.

How will VR and 360-degree content impact online video moving forward? 

Bentler: I see a number of potential paths for VR and 360-degree video. Although the technology has been around for decades in various forms, the immersive and interactive palette and potential of VR and 360 still feels fairly embryonic. We’re excited to be in the trenches with our partners at Inception, and with some of the most creative musicians, artists, animators, programmers and directors in the world. It feels wide open, and everyone working in this space has the opportunity to change the game. That said, I think it’s the interactive side of VR that has the most infinite potential.

How is VR going to change music marketing? 

Arbel: This is an entirely new way for fans to experience their favorite song, album or artist in ways that have not been possible before. One of the things that makes VR special is its ability to immerse the user in an experience unlike anything else, and that allows for deeper connections to form. Instead of just watching a concert you can be on-stage right next to your favorite musician or become an object or character in their newest music video. It allows fans to be an active participant in these experiences and from a marketing standpoint. That type of engagement can do wonders.

Krefman: So much has happened in the last year alone that reduces or eliminates the amount of time and space between an event—or, in our case, a concert or festival—and the wider world’s access to it. Think about Facebook Live or Instagram Stories—they barely existed a year ago. In terms of marketing, we see VR as another similar opportunity, but with even deeper engagement. Arguably, the most interesting opportunities will be happening in scripted and produced content, where we will be able to create entire worlds alongside the music we love.

How do you envision the music video space evolving with VR? What potential does it hold? 

Bentler: Do I think that in two years every band will have a VR music video? Probably not. There’s still a bit of a barrier to entry in the space, and while there have been a number of significant creative achievements with VR music videos, it’s still fairly open. One of the cool things about our partnership with Inception is that we’re offering artists and musicians the opportunity to experiment within a medium that is (probably) completely new to them. But, I firmly believe that the music video format and its potential for almost infinite reinvention offers a really interesting format for experimentation in the space.

How would you best assess the current digital video market?

Bentler: The hard part is on the advertising and monetization side of things, but that’s the case in publishing, television . . . pretty much everywhere. At the moment, though, I do think that digital video represents the most stable and valuable forms of digital advertising—be it pre-roll, mid-roll, branded content and white label production, among others.

How is video being consumed? What needs to change?

Bentler: It’s being consumed everywhere. In my office right now, there are four screens within five feet of me but only one of them is on. I swear! In my mind, the thing that should change is the value of digital video advertising, and I think it will. There’s a death grip on legacy advertising formats. Pre-roll has been a part of the equation for some time, but obviously, there are a number of other platforms—particularly on the social side of things—that are emerging faster than ad formats can be created. But that’s the way it works. Monetization will come eventually, so we’re focusing on creating great programming to accentuate each platform and on building an audience—the fun stuff.

Why is it critical for brands to implement immersive VR experiences in their current marketing campaigns?

Krefman: You can start making content and learning about it now, or you can wait and run the risk of falling behind because it’s not going away.

Colonel Sanders Teaches KFC Cooking ‘The Hard Way’ Using VR

Colonel Sanders, who lives on in the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) brand, has been showing up in some of the most unusual places. Not only has he been featured in the pages of DC Comics, but he has appeared in “Tender Wings of Desire,” a Mother’s Day romance novel, a WWE activation called “Sandoslam” and numerous commercials featuring comedians such as Billy Zane, Rob Lowe, Jim Gaffigan, Rob Riggle and Norm Macdonald.

Now the Colonel is coming to virtual reality in a training experience called The Hard Way.

Inspired by the Colonel quote, “A real meal is a meal made the hard way,” the VR experience combines an abbreviated training program with a lighthearted escape room theme, all tied together using the humorous voice of the Colonel, which guides you through the five-step process of making their original recipe chicken by hand.

Press and KFC fans were invited to try out the 10-minute experience at a debut event in New York City on Wednesday. There, they had to don aprons, hairnets and plastic gloves before putting on Oculus Rift headsets.

The experience locks you in a virtual room while the voice of the Colonel guides players through the process of making fried chicken by hand. Equipment and ingredients come popping in through hidden panels and the task is accompanied by humorous moments and Easter eggs for those who follow KFC’s history.

For example, laser beams fire from the Colonel’s portrait to vaporize dropped chicken pieces, and as a robotic assistant appears, the Colonel remarks about how silly it would be for robots to make chicken—a nod to how human cooks make the food, despite how select KFC drive-thrus were once outfitted with a robotic Colonel Sanders that repeated everything the drive-thru operator said with the Colonel’s Southern accent. It then concludes in a home kitchen, where an old KFC commercial featuring the Colonel plays on a CRT television.

Although The Hard Way could easily work as a sponsored VR game to promote the restaurant brand, KFC intends to use it to supplement its training program.

George Felix, director of advertising for KFC US

“The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that we have cooks in every single one of our KFCs that are hand-preparing chicken every day,” George Felix, director of advertising for KFC US, told AListDaily at the showcase event. “There’s a robust training called Chicken Master Certification that they all go through, and that’s a process that we take a lot of pride in because it’s different from a lot of quick serve restaurants. VR gives you an immersive platform where you can start to understand that process, interact with it, and [it can] bring a sense of pride to our team members while supplementing our training in an interesting way.”

Felix said that the Colonel believed in unrelenting quality control and that there was never room for shortcuts. The process itself hasn’t changed that much since it was created 70 years ago, and the VR experience takes users through the core five steps of inspecting the chicken, rinsing it, breading it by hand, racking it and then pressure frying it for that signature KFC taste.

And who better than the Colonel to teach someone how to make fried chicken the right way?

“Honestly, the best way to teach someone how to make the original recipe would be from the Colonel himself,” said Felix. “So, through the magic of technology, we found what we think is a fun way to bring the Colonel into the process to start instilling those values. The impetus was that everything we do has the Colonel at the core of it, so we wanted to bring him into this process using VR.”

However, the voice of the Colonel is not performed by any of the celebrity actors that have portrayed him in past commercials.

“As you know, we’ve had a number of different celebrities that have played the role of Colonel Sanders over the last couple of years in our advertising, and we plan on continuing that,” said Felix. “Whereas The Hard Way VR training simulation is something we anticipate being around for a long period of time. So, we didn’t want to be tied to one particular Colonel in a moment in time—rather, we wanted to have a timeless Colonel voice.”

As for whether The Hard Way will ever become commercially available, Felix said, “It’s currently focused on trainees and internal use. As far as the future goes, we may look at a broader consumer release. But in the short term, we’re looking for this to be a training tool for our team members.”

To that end, KFC will be looking for ways to integrate the VR experience into existing training platforms. Felix said that general managers come to the KFC headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky on a quarterly basis and franchisees periodically have meetings around the country, so that’s where KFC will start looking for opportunities to bring VR into the training curriculum.

This is KFC’s first venture into VR, and even though its purpose is for training, there’s no telling where it might lead. It might attract new talent to come work at the restaurants. Furthermore, once word of the VR training simulator gets out, it could bring new customers to its restaurants.

“I think that not only showing a 70-year-old brand, but a brand that’s relevant in 2017, is something we’re always striving for. Whether it’s bringing in new customers or attracting high caliber team members who want to work at KFC, we want to be a brand that resonates with younger people today.”

Felix also explained how a technology like VR fit with a 70-year-old brand that came into existence long before computers were even an idea.

“I think that because we’re a 70-year-old brand, we have to find ways to continue making our brand relevant to a new generation of people who didn’t necessarily grow up with it,” Felix explained. “So, we’re always looking at ways to modernize the brand and bring the Colonel in using new and interesting ways. Whether it’s integrating the Colonel into DC Comics or bringing him into a VR experience, we feel that that’s exactly what he would have done if he were around in 2017.”

Felix then mused about whether the VR experience opened an opportunity for the Colonel to appear in a video game.

“You’ll have to stay tuned,” said Felix. “I think anything is possible and we’re always looking for ways to bring the Colonel to new and unexpected places.”

Gambitious Rebranding Applies Lessons Learned

Video game veteran Mike Wilson, who co-founded Devolver and Gambitious is at it again. He, along with the team of game makers and entrepreneurs, have launched a new publishing label called Good Shepherd Entertainment, which essentially rebrands the five-year-old Gambitious and continues to shepherd new indie games with full support from investment to development to marketing and PR.

On the heels of raising significant capital from its network of over 100 private accredited investors, Wilson, the chief creative officer of Good Shepherd, told AListDaily that the company has grown its team to support more indie developers as well as new game investors.

“We have a deep understanding of all of the aspects of this business that allows us to see eye-to-eye with everyone involved, and make certain that we’re always working hard to do right by both the developers and the investors,” Wilson explained. “Everyone has to win for this to be a sustainable, positive experience.”

The co-founding partners of Devolver (Harry Miller, Rick Stults and Mike Wilson), along with Serious Sam developer Croteam, remain the largest stakeholders in Good Shepherd.

“We are getting much more proactive about helping indies achieve higher production values than their experience and budgets would normally allow for, and we’re refining our investor platform as well to go out and aggressively grow that side of our business for the first time,” Wilson said.

Good Shepherd will apply lessons learned from Gambitious, which was one of the few companies to seek private investors rather than the crowdfunding approach that Fig, IndieGogo and Kickstarter employ.

“I feel like the early days of crowdfunding was a bit of an irresponsible gold rush, without proper respect for people’s money,” Wilson said. “We saw this coming, and knew that a great many of these projects would never see the light of day from a lack of structure, experience and accountability, and that’s why we invested in this company in the first place. We have to provide a consistently positive experience to all those heroes out there trusting us with their money, rather than a string of disappointments and apologies. New money coming into indie games is of paramount importance to the art form, and it needs to be taken seriously.”

Wilson believes that what makes Good Shepherd truly stand out is its executives’ track records, and the fact that the company offers its investors the same terms that the owners get and invest alongside them in each and every title.

And on the developer side, the company is taking steps to fine-tune its game projects.

“We’ve learned that while it is crucial that we stay true to our principles of keeping creative control in the hands of our developers at all times, even in marketing efforts, there are areas of production that we can get more involved in to help these indies get to where they want to go,” Wilson said. “We’ve seen the difference that our involvement in helping with writing, music and voice acting can make, and we’re getting very serious about making sure that we’ve helped in every way we can when working with up-and-coming teams who need support the most.”

Beyond funding, marketing, public relations, quality assurance and localization help, Wilson said Good Shepherd is looking to significantly raise the level of polish on small indie games to give them their best chance to stand out in a competitive marketplace.

“We’re working with a wide range of game genres and budgets, but the focus is definitely in the land of ‘indies-that-seem-bigger,’ mostly in the sub-$1 million range,” Wilson said. “We don’t take on any projects that we aren’t prepared to invest a significant amount of capital and people in. That model just isn’t going to work anymore, as the landscape continues to get more crowded and competitive.”

Good Shepherd has five games currently in progress and is looking to sign more soon. Wilson said the goal is to release six-to-eight titles next year. The first announced game is Dim Bulb Games’ Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, which is described as “bleak American folklore.”

“It will be a careful ramp-up,” Wilson said. “We’ve been patient for this long, and are excited and confident about what we can deliver with this new team in place, but we also want to keep our track record intact. There is no pressure to grow too aggressively, which is the great thing about our partnership.”

July Digital Game Sales Hit $7.8 Billion; SNES Classic Will “Go Gangbusters”

The worldwide digital video games market grew 16 percent year-over-year in July to $7.8 billion, according to SuperData’s monthly report. Free-to-play MMOs experienced the most growth in terms of genre, at 29 percent.

Mobile and console segments experienced significant growth last month as well—up 17 and 21 percent, respectively while premium PC grew only few eight percent year-over-year.

GTA V Steals The Spotlight

Digital growth in the US was led by the console segment, thanks to a 20 percent rise in console digital revenue year-over-year and an 18 percent increase in free-to-play PC revenue. Now that the Xbox One X and SNES Classic Edition consoles are available for pre-order, the global console segment is expected to remain on an upward trajectory.

“I have no doubt that the SNES Classic will go gangbusters,” SuperData CEO Joost van Dreunen told AListDaily. “It’s really the year of Nintendo in terms of turning both consumer and investor sentiment around. Initial appetite for the Xbox One X appears to be strong, with pre-orders on Amazon currently outperforming PS4. That’s not to be undervalued given the relatively high price point of the new device.”

In terms of software, Grand Theft Auto V held the number one console spot for July—a position held since June—enjoying the success of its most popular DLC, Gunrunning, released last month. Through its microtransactions model, GTA Online grew significantly year-over-year for the month of July across console and PC, SuperData said, although that it did not outperform its record-breaking numbers in June.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered broke into the console top 10 (at number nine) after having a standalone release on PS4 late in June and releasing late this month on Xbox One.

PUBG Battles For Supremacy

League of Legends (LoL) dominated the top of the PC charts last month, also holding its number one spot from June.

Climbing the ranks is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), which rose one spot from number seven in June to number six for worldwide digital game revenue in July. The breakout hit sold another 1.6 million digital units last month, pushing total sales over six million, and its user base grew to 4.9 million.

While the popularity of PUBG is fueled by livestreams and competitions—ESL is hosting a tournament at Gamescom this week, for example—van Dreunen warns not to rely too heavily on esports to sell games.

“Esports has proven to be an increasingly important component, especially to digital-only game publishing,” said van Dreunen. “Despite having a positive effect on sales, esports should be regarded as a catalyst rather than a solution to mediocre game design. For games like PUBG and LoL, the competitive circuit has particularly benefitted both firms’ marketing efforts and extended the player lifecycle.”

Roblox achieved record high monthly active users (MAU) on PC, in July. Coming in at number 10 on the PC charts, the game continues its push with a sequential-month gain in MAU. “On the other hand,” SuperData noted, “monthly revenue appears to have temporarily leveled off due to a slight drop in both conversion and ARPPU.”

Gotta Catch . . . Well, More Than Last Month, Anyway

Pokémon GO returned to the top 10, enjoying a boost from their anniversary event. Pokémon GO has grown month-over-month, experiencing its strongest month of the year so far in July. Despite the uptick in revenue, however, this is still lower than the $150+ million generated last July when the game launched.

Honour of Kings held its top spot for mobile revenue, and Fantasy Westward Journey did the same at number two. Coming in at number three, however, is NCSoft’s breakout hit, Lineage M that launched in South Korea June 21. Despite launching less than ten days before the end of the second quarter, Lineage M contributed the majority of NCsoft’s ₩93.7 billion ($83.1 million) mobile game revenue. The fantasy MMO knocked Clash of Kings down the charts to number six.

‘South Park: The Fractured But Whole’ Captures Look, Feel And Humor Of TV Show Brand

Despite its crude humor (or perhaps because of it) and an animation style that looks like paper cutouts, the South Park television show created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker remains as strong as ever. It’s now preparing for the launch of its second video game developed and published by Ubisoft.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole releases in October for PC and consoles and is the direct sequel to 2014’s The Stick of Truth, which was the third-bestselling game in North America behind Titanfall and Infamous Second Son when it launched. In February, Ubisoft announced that it had shipped five million copies of the game.

The Fractured But Whole brings players to the town of South Park as “the new kid,” and they play superheroes alongside recognizable characters from the animated show. If the title isn’t enough of an indicator, South Park isn’t shy about its particular brand of humor, which was further evident with the E3 Fractured But Whole demo, which included a character named Captain Diabetes. Attendees were tasked with helping him to find lost cats at a local strip club.

Speaking with AListDaily, Kimberly Weigend, associate producer for South Park: The Fractured But Whole, said, “we’ve taken some of the concepts from the first game and beefed them up.” Improvements include changes to the combat system, the inclusion of a crafting system and a tweaked role-playing system, all making for a bigger and better sequel.

“Making a sequel has been challenging and very fun,” said Weigend. The development team looked at the comments it received from fans of the first game, making sure what they liked from the first game were kept and enhanced. Meanwhile, the parts that were not as well received were kept in mind so that those issues wouldn’t necessarily arise in the new game.

“We looked at the feedback from gamers from the first game and we’re taking that into account,” said Weigend. “We work with Matt and Trey and they’ve given us a whole new story to tell, so you’re not going to be rehashing the same things—it’s all brand new. I think it’s over two seasons worth of content in our game, so they’re working hard, [and] we’re working hard to tell the best story we possibly can.”

Weigend expanded on how Ubisoft has been working with the South Park creators and the show’s crew in developing The Fractured But Whole by explaining how the development team meets with them almost every day. “They’re with us every step of the way,” said Weigend. “We’ll get scripts from them, we’ll react to those scripts by reading them and seeing what we have to do [and] we’ll put things in motion.”

They mostly converse about gameplay mechanics, but Weigend added that “the timing of our game is very important because it’s a comedy game, and a big part of comedy is timing. We work very closely with them [the South Park crew]—it’s a very collaborative and iterative process and it’s been a lot of fun.”

This year’s E3 marked the first time Ubisoft has shown a public demo for The Fractured But Whole.

“We’re actually seeing gamers get hands-on experiences with our game and it’s really exciting to see their reactions,” said Weigend. There were things and characters that they knew gamers and South Park fans wanted to see in the game, and she said, “we were able to see that it’s paying off. I think people at E3 were in love with it—we had some great reactions and some shocked reactions from what they were playing and seeing. I think they were very excited to see what the full game will have.”

South Park is notorious for its crude, edgy humor, and the games reflect that. Weigend discussed how much of that adult-oriented humor Ubisoft decided to show at a public demo.

“You know what? We have not held back at all,” said Weigend. “We are not pulling any punches. This is our game and it’s South Park’s brand, so there’s no reason to hide any of it. We have a demo that I think people have been surprised to see and I think it solidified in their minds that, ‘yes, this is a sequel to Stick and it’s going to be just as good, if not better.’ We’re not holding anything back.”

The South Park TV series has been around for over 20 years, and Weigend says it makes it an enduring brand to capture.

“A big part of the South Park brand is not only the comedy and the voice of Matt and Trey coming through their characters, but there’s also the look and the feel,” Weigend explained. “We really wanted this game to look just like an episode of the show, just like the first one did.”

Actual show assets are included in the game and the South Park TV show team reviews the game and provides feedback to make it feel even more like an episode.

“I think that’s really hitting the brand pretty well,” said Weigend.

Seismic Games Plans To Play In Multitude Of Mobile AR And VR Arenas

Independent mobile developer Seismic Games focuses on the worlds of original and licensed IPs like Clan Wars for Call of Duty and Skylander Battlecast, among others.

In December, the six-year old, Los Angeles-based studio expanded their creative, technical and development talent by acquiring Grue Games.

They now have over 75 employees from triple-A production and tech startup backgrounds working toward launching their own IP, location-based attractions, expanding into augmented-and-virtual reality games and titles based on major movie universes.

John Linden, president of Seismic Games, sat down with AListDaily to dish details on how his company plans on making an impact in the industry.

John Linden, president of Seismic Games

What are the games you are working on now?

We’re really excited to get the five projects in development out pretty soon. We have a big game we’ll be announcing soon. It’s a big sci-fi universe—a big brand game that we’re working on right now. That’s exciting. And that’s the other side of Seismic. Most of our products right now are tied to big brands. That’s been our background. We have Clan Wars for Call of Duty and Skylanders Battlecast on one side, then we have Star Wars Battlefronts, Mercenaries and Lord of the Rings on the other. We’ve really focused a lot around having big brands titles and bringing the right game for that brand to the right platform.

One thing that we found is that the days of pre-announcing a game seems to be not as important now, partly because there’s so much noise out there. We did that with Skylanders Battlecast, which we had announced nine months before it came out. And literally by the time that it comes out people are kind of like, “wait a second . . . didn’t that already come out?” For us we like announcing it officially 30-to-45 days before the game comes out.

Do you consider Seismic Games a mobile-first company? 

We really play in three areas—mobile, VR/AR and location-based entertainment products. But mobile is our foundation, and we are mobile-first for sure. It’s the division of our company that pays all of our bills and allows us to play in other spaces, too. I think companies that [pigeon-hole] themselves are in for very risky business. We’ve taken what we know, built out some great products on the mobile side and then allowed ourselves to kind of play and figure out what’s working, and what’s not working. 

What is the key to new game discovery in such a crowded market? How are you guys separating yourselves from the pack?

That’s one of the reasons we work with big brands. They already have built-in marketing resources. There are so many games that are tied to these now, but it’s great. We’re kind of taking the ones that have movie releases coming out, and ones with big consumer recognition already. That helps us. It’s one of the reasons we like doing that. We’re playing around with original IPs, and those are a whole different world. You have to be very creative on how to get the game out. But that’s one of the areas why we create that foundation with big brands. You can publish a game and at least your first couple million users just buy into it based on brand recognition alone. Frankly, it’s easier to market.

How is partnering with potential cross promotional and movie tie-ins a strategy you’re really planting at Seismic? What are the opportunities out there for you?

It’s one that we’ve done very well. I think because of our backgrounds, too, we’re getting deals coming to us. That’s kind of our foundational work, I’d say. We’ll continue to do that. It’s just something we love to do. We love playing in these beautiful universes, too. But we’ll kind of offset that in the future with a couple of original ideas as well.

Do do you believe subscription services for mobile games is a viable strategy?  

We tried it with Skylanders Battlecast, which was our last game we did at Activision. It was actually one of our higher in-app purchases. It started with a lot of the JRPG games where you pay $5.99 a month and you get something every day. It’s not necessarily a true subscription, but it’s a prepaid for a period of time. So now you’re starting to see $5.99 models for 30 days, $9.99 for three months, $24.99 for an entire year. I like that model because you’re not tying a person to recurring billing. That’s not a great experience for consumers. We don’t want our consumers to be frustrated with the billing mechanics. But I love the concept of, “hey, you’re playing a lot, pay us a little bit of money and we’ll give you something every single day for 30 days.” So it’s kind of a meta subscription. Then if they want it, they can easily buy it again at the end. You do little things like general reminders saying, “hey it expires in three days.” Stuff like that. It’s subscription-light, but it’s not a true auto-billing type thing for mobile. That’s what we like to play.

How does that lead into the long-term engagement? How are you building that journey so that players can follow along?

It’s mostly through content. I think you have to be dedicated to releasing content often for core games. DLC and the like is important. We try and break up every game so that there are big content refreshes every two or three months. It really depends on the game. With weekly events, we give special items, or it’s just a way to play as a team. That’s the way we look at engagement. That’s a lot of work but that’s the driver of keeping people coming back often.

With Apple announcing AR support in June, is that going to have any impact on the direction of how you’re going to be developing games? 

There’s going to be some amazing innovation in AR, but I still think it’s a little early to build entire long experiences and games that you have to hold your iPad and try to balance it. I think there’s still that factor that’s not addressed quite yet, but I think it’s going to get better and better over time. Skylanders Battlecast was an AR game. Here’s the interesting thing—we started off that game at Activision as a full AR game. You put physical cards on a table, you hold your iPad over it and you can battle them playing in AR. The problem we had, honestly, was that it’s a tough experience still. It’s hard to hold your phone or iPad stable and play an entire game. What we found is that we used AR intermittently. We used AR for transactions, like “make this character jump out of the card.” He becomes a digital part of the game. We found that worked beautifully, so we kind of called it a “real world exchange” for digital games. Having a real-world item that you could scan or use AR around to unlock something worked really well for us.

What are your thoughts on current VR and AR market? Is it a bigger or smaller deal this year? How can the games industry overcome the potential lull in VR?

That’s a great question. If you’re looking to get rich in VR as a developer, that’s not going to happen quite yet. Developers are spending time in VR now learning different mechanics. How you move in a game is different. How you pull people back in repeatedly is different. Getting through that now, as the market continues to grow, is really important for early developers to get into. From a technical perspective, Google earlier announced two new non-tethered headsets. We’ve had a great opportunity to play with those. One of our projects is for that—those are amazing experiences. Those kinds of devices will change the landscape of VR in a massive way. It’s what VR should be, when you’re not tethered to a massive PC or using your phone. It’s just this all-in-one experience. I think that’s truly going to change the perspective.

Do you think that will alleviate some marketing challenges in the industry as well?

We’ll see what happens with it. I think there’s going to be a continued push. I honestly think the movie Ready Player One will do a lot for VR, too, because the entire thing is VR. It’s a world you live in. VR is becoming more and more mainstream, the devices are becoming more available, sales continue to climb, so the pools are going to be there to continue keeping it as a main piece. I definitely believe VR is still the future. We’re just trying to figure out that timing of when are we’re actually going to make some good money from it.

Gamescom 2017 Trends Include Esports, Hardware And History

Gamescom 2017 is underway in Cologne, Germany and this year’s trends have already become apparent: hardware, esports and history-based games are hot.

While E3 is all about the big announcements, Gamescom reinforces the hype with demos and additional information, strategically presented before the big holiday shopping season.

Esports Is Kind Of A Big Deal

The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) may not recognize esports as a sport, but competitive gaming is alive and well in Cologne this week. The nearly 54,000 square foot ESL Arena is hosting high profile tournaments during Gamescom featuring CS:GO, FIFA 17, League of Legends, Rainbow Six: Siege and this year’s breakout hit, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds.

Even mobile esports will be a prominent player this year, with Tencent Games bringing its 5v5 MOBA Arena of Valor to the ESL Arena. Players can challenge professional MOBA esports players to win an iPhone 7 Plus and other prizes, before watching them battle each other in the first major Arena of Valor show match in Europe.

Clash Royale will also bring mobile esports to fans this week—32 players coming from qualifiers will fight to win the Clash Royale title and a cash prize worth €5,000 ($5,880).

Other competitions taking place during Gamescom include the Crossfire European Tournament Finals, the Project Cars World Final, the Blade & Soul European Regional Championship, PlayStation Masters, the World of Warcraft European Championship Finals, the Hearthstone Global Games Finals, Heroes of the Storm: Showdown and more.

Esports is even part of German Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel’s election campaign platform. In fact, Gamescom opened its doors on Tuesday with words of praise from the Chancellor, herself.

“Computer and video games are of the utmost importance as cultural assets, as a driving force for innovation and as an economic factor, which is why I was also very pleased to come to Cologne to provide this developing industry with my recommendation,” the Chancellor said, addressing over 300 invited guests and journalists.

It’s All About That Hardware

Video game hardware sales have enjoyed a boost this year thanks to the Nintendo Switch, and publishers want to keep that momentum going into the holiday season.

Microsoft announced that the Xbox One X and its Project Scorpio Edition (the collector’s edition that uses the longtime code name) are now available for pre-order. There are currently more than 100 enhanced titles confirmed for the console when it launches November 7, including Rise of the Tomb Raider, Halo 5 and The Witcher 3. With an 8-core Custom AMD CPU, 326 GB/sec memory bandwidth, 4K graphics and more, Microsoft is betting big on “the world’s most powerful console” to be a hit this fall.

However, the company didn’t forget its other Xbox family, revealing a special limited edition Minecraft Xbox One S and brand new Shadow of War bundle, both available for pre-order to be delivered October 3 and 10, respectively.

Even Xbox One is getting three new Kinect games, originally released for Xbox 360, including Disneyland Adventures, Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure and Zoo Tycoon.

Nintendo continues the hype for its Switch console by showing off Splatoon 2ARMSSuper Mario Odyssey and Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. The SNES Classic Edition will have an instant rewind feature, Nintendo announced, allowing players to briefly scroll back through the section of the game they just played to grab missed items, master difficult portions and more.

There is also an SNES-themed 3DS XL on the way, although it’s not clear whether North American retailers will offer the nostalgia-fueled handheld.

PlayStation is riding high with the best-selling console, but the company isn’t satisfied with marketing only to core gamers. PlayStation’s head of global marketing and sales Jim Ryan believes that appealing to a new market outside of core gaming communities will help propel the platform to 100 million units.

“We’ve now sold through 60 million PS4s, so the core gamer audience [has] bought in,” he told Inside PlayStation. “So now we’re looking for ways to appeal to a new audience, a less engaged audience, a younger audience—perhaps even an older audience. So people who may be a little bit intimidated by the DualShock 4 and all of its buttons, so the thinking was to find an interface that people are very familiar and comfortable with, and there’s nothing better than a smartphone.”

Core gamers weren’t left out of the Gamescom announcements, however, as evidenced by a GT Sport-inspired limited edition PS4 Pro console.

HP is also targeting core gamers with its Omen X laptop, designed for performance over high resolution—unless you dish out up to $3,699 for the 4K version. The high-end laptop features overclocking support, parts that are easily upgraded and custom RGB LEDs.

Historical Games Are So Hot Right Now

Video games take us to worlds beyond our imaginations, and many of the popular titles this year share something in common—being inspired by world history

Gamers everywhere are “playing their history” with top games like Battlefield 1. EA unveiled Battlefield 1 Revolution, which includes the complete game as well as its Premium Pass and the game’s four expansions: They Shall Not Pass, In the Name of the Tsar, Turning Tides, and Apocalypse.

Fans got their first look at Call of Duty: WWII‘s Headquarters Mode, a 48-player gathering space modeled after the Allies’ Normandy beach encampment a few days after D-day.

World of Tanks will get a new update for Xbox One and PlayStation called War Stories, a narrative-driven campaign mode that employs alternate history for 20th-century tank battles. An upgraded version will also become available for the new Xbox One X.

Spanning multiple ancient civilizations, Age of Empires IV was officially announced, as well, and players are invited to join the closed beta.

Set in ancient Egypt, Assassin’s Creed: Origins received a new gameplay trailer at Gamescom, as well that showcases detailed environments from the land of the Pharaohs.