The first day of the week-long Game Developers Conference began with a number of announcements that give a glimpse of where the industry is headed, giving attendees and onlookers plenty to talk about. Meanwhile, attendees had a variety of sessions held on topics such as community, design, programming, education, and more. The week will be jam-packed with massive amounts of information and discussions, which means getting a high-level view of what’s happening isn’t easy — but it’s critical for setting strategies in the year ahead.
World of Warcraft Goes F2P… Sort Of
One of the more interesting announcements comes from Blizzard’s World of Warcraft: The game is going free-to-play, in a way. How’s that It’s similar to the way EVE Online’s Plex system works: Players can use in-game currency to buy tokens that give you subscription time. The economy is strictly controlled — the tokens are ‘soulbound’ to the players, meaning they can’t be resold. Each token allows 30 days of subscription, with the in-game currency value determined dynamically via supply and demand.
“We’ve heard feedback from players that they’d be interested in a secure, legitimate way to acquire gold that doesn’t involve the use of unauthorized third-party gold-selling services-one of the primary sources of account compromises,” the official Blizzard blog post reads. “We also know players who’ve amassed large amounts of gold through regular play would be interested in the ability to trade some to other players in exchange for game time, helping cover their subscription costs. The WoW Token feature gives players on both sides of the equation a secure and straightforward way to make that exchange. It opens up a new kind of payment option for World of Warcraft players, and we hope that it will also help lead to fewer account compromises and a better game experience overall.”
Yes, this helps the battle against gold farmers, but it also opens the game up to more players, especially in China. Will this stop or slow the expected erosion of subscribers, possibly. It’s a major step towards full free-to-play status, though, and a sign that the last holdout for the full subscription is gradually falling to the free-to-play juggernaut. Hopefully this will keep World of Warcraft going strong as it heads into its second decade.
Unity 5 and Unreal Engine 4 Go Free… Sort Of
The battle for the hearts and minds of developers is also taking place over their wallets, as Epic Games takes Unreal Engine 4 free . . . in a way, and Unity 5 is announced — and it’s basically free, as well. The idea in both cases is to create broader acceptance of the development tools, and with that greater usage of the money-making stores that both development tools offer.
Unreal Engine 4 has been making the journey from AAA console development tool to widespread usage for some time. Last year Epic began the $19 a month subscription fee for Unreal Engine 4, and saw its market skyrocket. Now the $19 a month subscription fee has been completely dropped, although Epic is still asking developers for the previous five per cent royalty share on gross revenue over and above $3000 for each quarter. “It’s a simple arrangement in which we succeed only when you succeed,” said Epic’s Tim Sweeney. “This is the complete technology we use at Epic when building our own games. It scales from indie projects to high-end blockbusters; it supports all the major platforms; and it includes 100 per cent of the C++ source code. Our goal is to give you absolutely everything, so that you can do anything and be in control of your schedule and your destiny. Whatever you require to build and ship your game, you can find it in UE4, source it in the Marketplace, or build it yourself – and then share it with others.”
Meanwhile, Unity 5 was announced. Like its predecessors, Unity 5 will be available as a Personal version for free, or in a Professional version available for a $75 monthly subscription plan or as a $1,500 perpetual license. The big difference is in the nature of the features locked behind a paywall. In Unity 4, developers had to pay for 3D texture support or optimized visual effects like depth of field or motion blur. In Unity 5, all the features of the engine and editor will be available to Personal and Professional users alike. However, those who spring for the Professional version will get access to a number of other features, like cloud-powered features from Unity Cloud Build, a team license tool for managing dozens of people working on the same project, Unity’s own analytics utility (currently in beta), and game performance crash reporting (currently in preview).
In broader terms, Unreal Engine has been striving to bring its high-end rendering to a broad audience, while Unity has been trying to bring higher-end rending to its broad audience. In terms of scope, Unity is far ahead, especially on mobile platforms. What’s great about this battle for developers and for gamers is that it’s making it easier to bring games to more platforms than ever before.
VR and AR Continue to Gain Mindshare
We’ve already had a major VR hardware announcement, and another one is likely coming tonight. Meanwhile, vendors are announcing tools to make VR/AR development better. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are still in the realm of the demo, though, without firm release dates, prices and tech specs — or a clear idea of the experiences that you’ll be able to get.
Valve and HTC broke the story of their new HTC Vive immersive VR headset, which is heading to developers soon and consumers later this year. Tonight Nvidia is rumored to be showing off their VR solution, and hopefully some idea of when we might be able to buy it in a store. Sony will be giving game developers more time with Project Morpheus this week, and Oculus will have plenty of face time available for GDC attendees as well. Microsoft may well talk a bit more about its HoloLens, and Magic Leap looms in the background. AMD announced its LiquidVR technologies along with Oculus to help improve VR development.
Still, while money pours into VR and AR ($2 billion for Oculus, about $600 million for Magic Leap, and unknown amounts from Samsung, Razer, Nvidia, Valve/HTC, and others), it’s still very much in the “what a cool demo” stage. Predicting the eventual consumer or business acceptance of these technologies is a complete guess at this point, when we have yet to know any of the key substantive information about any of these devices: Price, specs, ship date, and content.
Ultimately, it’s going to be content that drives VR and AR hardware sales. Even if the hardware is clunky and expensive to start with, and perhaps doesn’t work as well as its creators might wish, those things will all improve with time. What matters is whether any of these companies or other developers succeed in delivering compelling experiences — compelling enough to overcome any drawbacks like price or discomfort. Keep your eye on the content, because that’s what will ultimately define the size of the market for VR and AR.