A Year In The Making, Machine Zone Launches Game of War, An Impressively Large MMO For iOS

WorldMap-War

While iOS games started out as either simple physics or casual simulation titles when the platform launched about five years ago, the bar has gotten steadily higher and more hard-core. Midcore studios like Kabam started to rise in prominence.

Now the iOS platform might be seeing is most hardcore title to date – a very, very massive multi-player title from YC- and Menlo Ventures-backed Machine Zone.

The company, which started out doing text-based RPGs a couple years ago like iMob, is launching Game of War: Fire Age. It’s a title where players build and grow empires, train massive armies, forge alliances with other players to win kingdoms.

The game can handle hundreds of thousands of players concurrently in the same universe, which is not an easy technical feat. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, in contrast, typically handles a few thousand players simultaneously in a single realm. All movement on the game’s map is visible to everyone else.

“We wanted to take the company to the next level and be really ambitious,” said Machine Zone CEO Gabriel Leydon. “We decided to build some things that had never been done before. We had the capital to do it and the willpower.”

Leydon didn’t hire just typical game designers to build the title. He also found people who had experience in scaling massive systems. The game’s user interface is in HTML5 and is rendered natively, allowing the company to handle different screen sizes.

The other really cool thing about the game’s social capabilities is that there is a mechanical turk-like translation system where the players themselves translate chat in exchange for virtual currency rewards. That helps Game of War have really interactive play with a proper critical mass of users who can talk to each other, even if they don’t speak the same language. The in-game chat system helps Game of War get manage slang and gamer speak, which a third-party translation system probably wouldn’t handle correctly. If say, 50 players translate the same words in the same way, then the game will start using that translation automatically.

“It’s like a highly structured Facebook,” Leydon said. “My goal as a game designer was to create a feeling of what it would be to be a king, where you’d have a lot of people under you. You’d have to subjects, wealth and land.”

Assuming say, the game grows to 1 million players, there might only be 20 kings in the game. To reach that level, players have to woo others to form alliances with them. Within those alliances, there are ranks for different officers.

“This is a very hardcore game. This is not Candy Crush,” he said. “This is a complex system with a lot of potential trees of outcomes. If you’re the type of person that’s fascinated by systems like this, then this is for you.”

Machine Zone used to be known as Addmired, and rebranded last year when it took $8 million in funding from Menlo Ventures. Leydon said this is what the company took the round for, even though its older titles like Original Gangstaz and iMob 2 were pretty lucrative early on.


Honest Trailers Minecraft! So much yes!

Honest Trailers Minecraft! So much yes!

Minecraft gets the Honest Trailers treatment and it’s worth the watch. Anyone who’s a fan can relate to everything in the trailer as it really hits home but in a good old fashioned funny way. Give it a watch and let me know what you think.

The post Honest Trailers Minecraft! So much yes! appeared first on Don't Hate The Geek.

With New CEO Mattrick At Helm, Zynga Reports Loss of $16M And Revenue Decline Of 31%

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Zynga’s revenues for the second quarter of 2013 declined 31% year-over-year to $231 million in the midst of a challenging transition that saw former CEO Mark Pincus hand over the reins to Don Mattrick.

The company had a net loss of $16 million compared to last year’s net loss of $22.8 million during the same quarter (which also had $95.5 million of stock-based compensation expenses). If you account for that then, the company’s net loss was $6.1 million compared to last year’s net loss of $4.6 million based on non-generally accepted accounting principles. Zynga said when it laid off nearly 20 percent of its staff last month that it expected to see a net loss of between $39 million to $28.5 million so this is actually a slight earnings beat.

“We need to get back to basics and take a longer term view on our products and business, develop more efficient processes and tighten up execution all across the company,” wrote Mattrick in the release. “We have a lot of hard work in front of us and as we reset, we expect to see more volatility in our business than we would like over the next two to four quarters.”

Last quarter, COO David Ko said the company was in the midst of a “pause” to re-evaluate its entire game slate and that this decision would be financially apparent in this quarter.

This quarter’s revenue is projected to be even lower in the range of $175 million to $200 million, with a net loss of $43 million to $14 million.

Through the company’s pivot onto iOS and Android, Zynga has had to compete against older and historically smaller rivals from the Facebook platform like King and Kabam. Both of those companies have fared well with King’s Candy Crush Saga bringing it the top grossing spot and numerous Kabam titles in the top 25.

In contrast, Zynga just has its longstanding Poker franchise in the U.S. top grossing 25. Even today, nearly 70 percent of the company’s monthly active users remain on the web.

The losses in Zynga’s user base from not being able to hold onto its core Facebook customers are staggering. The company’s level of daily active users is not much higher than half of where it was a year ago at 39 million this quarter compared to 72 million in 2012. It also saw 187 million monthly active users, down from 306 million users in the same time period a year before.

The company’s launches like Draw Something 2 have also underperformed without any slots in any of the top 100 charts and Zynga’s other big mobile launch, Running With Friends, remains in 45th place in the U.S. top grossing chart. Zynga had six major releases this quarter including War of the Fallen, Draw Something 2, Battlestone, Solstice Arena and Running With Friends.

But older franchises like FarmVille and FarmVille 2 continue to do well as both games have grown combined bookings by 29 percent year-over-year.

Zynga’s struggles in diversifying away from Facebook and missing the pivot to mobile ultimately convinced Pincus to give up the CEO role, although he remains chairman of the board and serves as chief product officer. It’s now Mattrick’s 15th day on the job.

Xbox 360 dashboard update beta in October

Microsoft is getting ready to launch a major update for its Xbox 360 dashboard later this fall, with beta testing to roll out in October. The revamped interface will mean easier, faster navigation, and integration of more Kinect voice commands to search for movies, music, games, and more.

VentureBeat got an early preview and had generally positive things to say: “Overall, it’s a big improvement on the user interface.” The upgrade is all about making the process of accessing content much faster and making content more discoverable. This is especially important because of the growing amount of content on the Xbox 360, which has already gone way beyond just games.

The interface redesign looks like a step towards merging Xbox LIVE with Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8. The new dashboard interface uses large tiles that are reminiscent of the Windows Phone 7 Live Tiles and the scrolling is sideways rather than up and down, similar to what we’ve seen with the Windows 8 tablet UI.

The update also brings more Kinect integration for improved speech and gesture commands, a new Beacon feature for non-expiring game invitations to friends, a more integrated and less restricted Microsoft Bing search, and YouTube support.

Zynga Won’t Pursue Real-Money Gaming License In The U.S.; Shares Drop 13% In After-Hours

zynga poker

Zynga is giving up what many investors had hoped might be its trump card: a real-money gaming business in the U.S. The company, which has been testing out real-money casino games in the U.K., said it won’t be pursuing a U.S. license after all in its second quarter earnings report today.

Sources tell us this is a decision to focus and not spread the company too thinly between real-money gaming, diversifying onto mobile and maintaining a core on Facebook. If it weren’t for the political and legal complexities of opening up real-money gaming in state after state, the business could have been interesting for Zynga, especially considering how long Zynga Poker has dominated both on the Facebook platform and on iOS and Android. None of Zynga’s social casino games, which use virtual currency, are affected by this. Shares declined 13 percent in after-hours to $3.02.

In the release today, Zynga said:

Zynga believes its biggest opportunity is to focus on free to play social games. While the Company continues to evaluate its real money gaming products in the United Kingdom test, Zynga is making the focused choice not to pursue a license for real money gaming in the United States. Zynga will continue to evaluate all of its priorities against the growing market opportunity in free, social gaming, including social casino offerings.

Zynga has long been exploring real-money gaming. It partnered with operator Bwin.Party to offer titles in the U.K. Then last November, the company took its first steps toward real-money gaming in the U.S. by applying for a “preliminary finding of suitability” from the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

It’s not that this option is forever off the table. It’s just that the company is in the middle of a significant platform transition now, and real-money games – which would probably only be available to players in Nevada at first anyways – could be distracting.

Zynga’s New CEO Don Mattrick Says It Won’t Be Quick Or Easy To Get The Company Back On Track

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Don Mattrick, the new Zynga CEO announced at the beginning of the month, offered his initial on-the-job observations today during the conference call discussing the company’s second-quarter earnings.

Mattrick (on the right of the photo with Zynga founder and former CEO Mark Pincus) started out by offering some positive commentary, saying that the company “caught lightning in a bottle” and “achieved in only a few years what most companies took a decade or more to do.” However, he acknowledged, “We’re missing out on platform growth that Apple, Google, and Facebook are seeing. In short, we can do better.”

So how is he going to try to turn things around? He said he’s going to be working with the company’s leadership to “challenge previous assumptions” and to focus on “business fundamentals – which, candidly, we’ve struggled with over the past year.” Mattrick predicted that there will be two to four more quarters of volatility as the company tries to find a new direction.

“Getting a business back on track isn’t easy and isn’t quick,” he said.

Pincus, now Zynga’s chief product officer, was also on the call, and among other things, he said he was impressed that Mattrick set up his desk in the middle of the Farmville studios. Both Pincus and Mattrick described their relationship as one between “partners”.

Mattrick said he’s also going to discuss his priorities on this call – I’ll update this post when he does.

Update: Later in the call, Mattrick said his priorities for his first 90 days on the job include “getting under the hood” to evaluate the business, identifying the real market opportunities, improving product quality, looking at how people are deployed across the company, and reassessing the product pipeline. He also suggested Zynga is a young company that has “the ability to break some bad habits” but that while he’ll be in listen-and-learn mode initially, “When it becomes clear what change is necessary, I’ll move quickly and decisively to do what’s in the best long-term interests of our players, our employees, and our shareholders.”

He concluded, “There are some good winds at our back, and my job is to get our sails up and Zynga pointed in the right direction.”

Oculus Rift Will Be a “No-Motion-Sickness Experience,” and 4K Display in the Works, CEO Says

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Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe pledged today that the company’s upcoming virtual-gaming headset, the Oculus Rift, will not cause people to get motion-sick when it launches.

And that still-unannounced consumer launch date definitely won’t be in 2013, Iribe noted.

Iribe, who appeared at D: Dive Into Media in February, discussed “The Future of the Rift” at the Gaming Insiders Summit today in San Francisco. He said the combination of improving screen quality and decreasing latency between motion in the game and virtual-reality vision will make the new class of games – or at least the ones not designed to cause motion sickness – nausea-free.

“It is going to work,” Iribe said. “It’s gonna work for everybody.”

The CEO used his own experience to back up the claim: His own company’s previous hardware made him sick within two minutes, every time he tried it in the past. But with the latest internal build of the Oculus Rift, Iribe said he played for 45 minutes straight with no issues.

Iribe also dropped two new notes about the Rift’s use cases: The headset will eventually have a 4K display, and it might work with big gaming consoles, as well as with PCs and mobile devices.

“You can’t imagine what it’s going to look like when it’s 4K,” he said. “It’s not now, but it’s coming.”

As for consoles, Iribe talked up the Rift’s ability to project 2-D content on an IMAX-like field of view. Curiously, the way he chose to describe that 2-D-within-3-D experience was, “You can play Playstation 4 or Xbox One on this IMAX screen at home.”

Now, that’s far off from an official announcement, but, as founder Palmer Luckey told me back in May:

There’s no technical reason that the Rift can’t work on consoles. It has standard input/outputs, it wouldn’t be a lot of work. It’s just a matter of console manufacturers deciding to license it as a peripheral. They’re the gatekeepers.

What Games Are: Self-Publishing On Console Will Not Create The Next SuperCell. But Microconsoles Might.

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

To the joy of many, Microsoft announced another Xbox One pivot: Rather than try to maintain a fortress of solitude, the console will support indie publishing. You’ll be able to use your console as a dev kit (traditionally dev kit licenses could be very expensive) to make and publish your games. Microsoft even promises to remove some of the category barriers that segregated indie games to a backwater page in the Xbox dashboard.

These moves can be read in two ways. The first is largely as a reaction to Sony. Sony has been flirting with the indie developer community for a while, quietly building up relationships and facilitating the publishing of a number of games such as Journey and Thomas Was Alone. As part of PS4 the company has significant plans to allow small developers to self-publish on the system, although still under a dev kit model. It promises to send free kits to developers that need them.

The second read is to consider these moves in light of wider trends. Outside of giant thousand-man studios and tiny indies, most mid-sized gaming companies are nowhere within 100 kilometers of consoles these days. There’s just no place for them in a sector that values its 20m+ unit hits, and they can’t afford to compete at that level. All of those people have shifted to mobile, tablet or social instead, where they are finding success.

The move to attract indies sits semi-uncomfortably. The console industry is used to acting like a car showroom, developing specific pieces of beautiful game content and then engaging in a large sales push toward success. Fans of consoles (including many developers) are also used to this model, and tend to think of this activity as “real games,” as well as the most economically significant activity in the industry. Much as Hollywood still thinks that box office means something, console game executives tend to be more impressed by stories involving unit sales rather than residuals.

That showroom mentality is what led Microsoft down the path of making Xbox One into a mega-hub, which nobody understood, or Sony make a very similar thrust with PlayStation 3. The pivots away from those big plays may at first glance seem like attempts to atone or to broaden out their relationships with game makers, but I tend to think otherwise. What they’re actually about is developing a few show-bikes to go alongside the show-cars.

Indies vs Independents

There are several meanings of the term “indie.” For some it simply means financially independent, able to make games and revenue and be self-sustaining. For others the term is political, expressive of points of view and meaning. This second version is far more popular in the games press because it has more of an emotional component. Indies stand for something and become heroes fighting an unspecified “man.”

It may surprise you, but in the console-ist view the political kind of indie game is more desirable because it ticks the art-game box. Art games are rarely expected to make their money back, and certainly not to become big franchises. Yet there’s a lot of value in having them. If you can have a few notables like Jonathan Blow talking up your platform, a few Phil Fishes and a few “thatgamecompanys” making signature games, then this is a great story. It aligns you with the kind of story seen in Indie Game: The Movie and at GDC. Most important is that it gets the press on side, which is hugely important in the mutually assured destruction of console platforms. Appearing to be indie is worth acres of PR.

At the same time, supporting a few such indies allows platforms to retain their essential power. While PC gaming has always reserved much more power to the developer and treated hardware makers as little more than component makers, console gaming has always worked the other way. The console is the main brand and the platform story. The games all appear on the console with the holder’s say-so. The publishing model places the console brand front and center, and the games are in support, and the market tribally responds along those lines.

Taken in that vein, the modern console industry’s understanding of allowing indies to enter into its playpen is pointed but they are not embracing an ecosystem any time soon. From the standpoint of where they’ve been, modest steps to change their model may seem like great leaps for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Like TV executives who are still tentative about streaming, there’s a sense of not going too fast for fear of losing everything.

This is why Microsoft’s newfound message of developer liberation is still pretty garbled. The exact plans for how Xbox One will go indie-friendly come across as a bit hazy. They smack of a recent decision at the executive level which will need some thoughtful re-engineering time to figure out on the practical level, so don’t expect it for launch. Also how it reconciles with some other showroom features (like the heavy push on mainstream TV) is anyone’s guess.

Not to let Sony off the hook, its plans for indie liberation are similarly convoluted. Sony still wants some forms of concept approval, which – even though the company promises a speedy turnaround – still sounds every bit as ludicrous as Roku wanting concept approval for movies it streams. It should make any developer pause and think seriously about what it implies.

Yet the bigger issue is that both plans are not enough. They do not represent change real enough that indies in the first sense of the word (financially viable) would find attractive. It’s also woefully out of step with just how far games have come. Developers are far more empowered today than they have been since the days of microcomputers in the 80s and are not keen to sacrifice that freedom.

You Are Free To Do What We Tell You

It used to be imperative to placate Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft for any game to have a chance of being published. This was expensive between concept approvals, extensive technical requirements and laborious quality assurance and certification processes. But what could you do? They were the gatekeepers, it was largely a relationships business, and that was that.

Even when they moved into digital markets they were choosy, taking an active role in content selection and publishing. Games were released on schedules to give a window for sales to build and platforms were managed like topiary. Not too many games of one genre or another, just a few key ones and a heavy sense of curation. All very bonsai.

Then Apple and Facebook upended that model with something more organic and irrevocably changed how developers thought of success. Success was no longer to be like Jonathan Blow or Ubisoft. It became being like SuperCell. The console industry has never been able to fully understand the depth of that shift.

The way that developers approach making games on Facebook, iOS and Android is radically different to how things used to be when console platforms (and PCs) was all there was. They just do it, no dev kits, relationships, publishing schedules or concept approvals required. They may need to pass some curation (particularly from Apple) but those conditions tend to be far narrower in scope than anything the console industry ever imposed. Essentially don’t crash, no porn, no defamation and you’re good to go.

That new model is the one that breeds true independent game development success. The bonsai paradigm of consoles prevents developers from expanding too much, meaning that a thatgamecompany gets to make cool games but not really grow (if they want to, of course). Whereas the iOS/Android/Facebook model gives birth to Rovios and Zyngas (in happier times perhaps). When platforms get out of the way and let software be software, software becomes wildly successful and the platform itself grows.

Obviously Rovio is an extreme case, but many other smaller studios have managed to forge their own destinies in a similar fashion. Studios like Spry Fox and NimbleBit make the games they want to make, how they want to make them, with whatever business model they desire, and it’s no big deal. So they are free to innovate and they do. Same for us at Jawfish.

Enter the Micros

Console makers do realize that they’ve painted themselves into a corner, want to change and get some press goodwill. Yet not to the extent that they detonate their existing business. Especially not when many of their fans prefer to cheer for stasis and buy into predictable franchises over innovation.

I don’t envy them, but that gap is why microconsoles are a real threat. OUYA, GamePop, GameStick, Mad Catz and whatever Google might be cooking up are relatively unencumbered by old constraints, and therefore able to empower indies in the first sense. The fact that they’re mostly using a common operating system helps, but their main advantage is the potential flexibility and the focus that being simple provides.

The first generation of microconsole hardware is less than stellar. Of course it is. The idea is brand new and still finding its way. The OUYA’s joypad, for example, isn’t good. The processors for most microconsoles are probably underpowered, and there are lots of early firmware and operating system issues. Look past these early-phase issues, however, and take in the longer view.

Microconsoles can iterate on hardware quickly, like phone makers, where Sony is stuck with a fixed spec for the next seven years with PS4. Big consoles have to be static because big publishers (like Activision) need the spec to be stable enough to master in order to make the next Call of Duty. A SuperCell, on the other hand, doesn’t. An iPad doesn’t. Indeed most every other form of electronics has figured out how to move to an annualized cycle except console makers.

Beyond hardware issues the next issue is the customer. Who are microconsoles for? Everyone. Everyone who likes to play games cheaply, for fun, with simple controllers and low (or free) prices. As we’ve seen on phone, tablet and Facebook, that translates to a hell of a lot of people. And before we get too worried about TV being somehow special in this regard, consider that that is a self-cyclical piece of thinking born of consoles being pretty bad as devices. They are only now getting into the idea that maybe they should have power/resume states like every other device you’ve owned since the turn of the millennium. Part of the reason why they have that special gamer aura is because they are a hassle. There’s no reason for micros to follow the same path.

Power Shifts

The future that I see for console gaming is one where hardware incrementally cedes power to software. Pushed by microconsoles offering a vastly cheaper option on the one hand, and developers of incredible games with the right business models on the other, the prospect of all three current console platform holders being reduced to only vertically satisfying their core fans is very real. The prospect of big publishers taking a bath is also very real.

It will take a couple of iterations to get their hardware and business models right. It may take the entrance of a big player like Google or Samsung to validate it (much as Amazon did for ebooks). There will also be that initial flurry of press coverage that will swamp all channels with talk of PS4 vs X1 (and ill-advisedly lamenting Nintendo) for the next 18 months. That will cover over the real story to an extent, allowing OUYA et al room to breathe and pivot.

But in the medium term? The new SuperCells will not be coming from these revamped “indie” console offerings. They’ll come from a very different kind of device entirely.

(If you’d like to hear more, come see me talk about microconsoles some more at Casual Connect this week in San Francisco.)

Tiny Tower now available on Android

At long last, Tiny Tower – the 16-bit game that crams SIM City into a skyscraper – is available on Android. You control “blitzens” who live and work in the building as you erect new floors and businesses. The elevator is obvious mode of moving up and down, and you can easily start and stop, making this a great game for those down times when you don’t want to get too terribly involved.

Tiny Tower’s free, and you can download it now from the Android Market.

Magicka Wizard Wars First Gameplay Trailer Released (video)

The new Magicka Wizard Wars currently under development is not expected to launch until next year, but today its developers Paradox North have released the first trailer of gameplay from Magicka Wizard Wars to whet your appetite.

The new Magicka Wizard Wars is a fastpaced action PvP game that utilises the humour and dynamic spellcasting system of Magicka. Watch the video after the jump to see the gameplay of Magicka Wizard Wars in action.

Magicka Wizard Wars