Posts Tagged‘free’

The Engine Revolution: Free is the New Paid.

I remember when I was a doe eyed teenager thinking that it would be great to make games (I know better now, of course) if I could only afford the fees to get a good engine. You see back then commercial engines were licensed for inordinate sums of money and the technical hurdle of building your own engine was fraught with danger. Over time though that has changed with old engines being open sourced, new products entering the fray and licensing models shifting to be more palatable to those who might not be able to afford huge upfront costs. Today it seems that free is now the way to go as 3 major platforms have just announced that their engines are free for all who want them, opening up a wealth of possibilities to indies and big development houses alike.

Free Game Engines

Unity has been the mainstay of many indie games for quite a while now, enabling many to create games that would’ve otherwise been impossible. They’ve also long been sympathetic to the cause, offering free (but often cut down) versions of their engine to anyone who’d ask for them. The difference between the free and paid tier has been eroded completely with both versions containing all the same features and editor. This is a big step for Unity as there was a definite rift between the paid and free versions, something that was abundantly clear to me when I was tinkering around with it. Now the difference between the tiers comes in the form of additional services and can be had for a measly $1500 (which includes a team license) or $75/month if that’s too rich for your blood. Suffice to say that I think Unity is likely to remain the king of indie engines for a long time now as even the pro tier is well within the grasp of aspiring devs.

Not to be outdone by Unity Unreal announced on the same day that their new Unreal 4 engine, which has had some incredibly impressive demos, is now free to any and all comers.The barrier to entry wasn’t particularly high before, they only charged $19 to get access to the engine and all its source, however that’s enough to stop some people from considering it in the first place. Now you’ll be able to get it everything that program gave you for free and you won’t have to pay a dime until you’re able. The limit on revenue isn’t particularly high though, only $3000 per product per quarter, before you have to shell out 5% of gross revenue something which could be a killer for some devs. Still it’s hard to deny what the engine is capable of producing so it might be an easier sell for more established dev houses.

Lastly Valve has swaggered into the picture debuting their new Source 2 engine and announcing that it will also be free to anyone who wants it. It’s been not-so-secretly released as part of the DOTA 2 development tools for the better part of a year now and by all accounts seems like a really capable next-gen engine. Source 2 appears to be the most “free” of the free engines that have debuted in the past couple days with Valve wanting no money up front for the engine nor any backend revenue should you make it big. However there is the caveat that the resulting game be released on Steam which means all sales on there give Valve their 30% cut although you’d incur this same cost regardless of which engine you used if you sold on Steam. Source 2 is then something of a loss-leader for future sales, a clever move by Valve to bring more developers onto their platform (as if there wasn’t enough already).

With this many options available now developers are now spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting an engine for a game, something you really couldn’t say even a few years ago. Whilst I think Unreal will probably be the least likely one to be used out of the current 3 I think there’s going to be some stiff competition between Unity and Source 2 as time goes on. Unity has the head start in this regard as their tools really are top notch for both novice and advanced developers alike but Source 2 has the potential to turn into something amazing based on the community that Valve seems to develop around every one of its products. The real winner in all of this is us, the gaming public, as it means more games will get made and more concepts will be explored.

Raspberry Pi 2 to Run Windows 10.

It’s not widely known that Microsoft has been in the embedded business for quite some time now with their various versions of Windows tailored specific for that purpose. Not that Microsoft has a particular stellar reputation in this field however as most of the time people find out that something was running Windows is when they crash spectacularly. However if you wanted to tinker with it yourself the process to do so was pretty arduous which wasn’t very conducive to generating much interest in the product. Microsoft seems set to change that however with the latest version of Windows 10 to run on the beefed up Raspberry Pi 2 and, best of all, it will be completely free to use.

Raspberry Pi 2

Windows has supported the ARM chipset that powers the Raspberry Pi since the original 8 release  however the diminutive specifications of the board precluded it from running even the cut down RT version. With the coming of Windows 10 however Microsoft is looking to develop an Internet of Things (IoT) line of Windows products which are specifically geared towards low power platforms such as the Raspberry Pi. Better still the product team behind those versions of Windows has specifically included the Raspberry Pi 2 as one of their supported platforms, meaning that it will work out of the box without needing to mess with its drivers or other configuration details. Whilst I’m sure the majority of users of the Raspberry Pi 2 will likely stick to their open source alternatives the availability of a free version of Windows for the platform does open it up to a whole host of developers who might not have considered the platform previously.

The IoT version of Windows is set to come in three different flavours: Industry, Mobile and Athens; with a revision of the .NET Micro framework for other devices that don’t fall into one of those categories. Industry is essentially the full version of Windows with features geared towards the embedded platform. The Mobile version is, funnily enough, geared towards always-on mobile devices but still retains much of the capabilities of its fully fledged brethren. Athens, the version that’s slated to be released on the Raspberry Pi 2, is a “resource focused” version of Windows 10 that still retains the ability to run Universal Apps. There’ll hopefully be some more clarity around these delineations as we get closer to Windows 10’s official release date but suffice to say if the Raspberry Pi 2 can run Universal Apps it’s definitely a platform I could see myself tinkering with.

These new flavours of Windows fit into Microsoft’s broader strategy of trying to get their ecosystem into as many places as they can, something they attempted to start with the WinRT framework and have reworked with Universal Apps. Whilst I feel that WinRT had merit it’s hard to say that it was successful in achieving what it set out to do, especially with the negative reception Metro Apps got with the wider Windows user base. Universal Apps could potentially be the Windows 7 to WinRT’s Vista, a similar idea reworked and rebranded for a new market that finds the feet its predecessors never had. The IoT versions of Windows are simply another string in this particular bow but whether or not it’ll pan out is not something I feel I can accurately predict.

Windows 10: Free (For a Year), Packed With…Stuff.

The rumour mill has been running strong for Microsoft’s next Windows release, fuelled by the usual sneaky leaks and the intrepid hackers who relentlessly dig through preview builds to find things they weren’t meant to see. For the most part though things have largely been as expected with Microsoft announcing the big features and changes late last year and drip feeding minor things through the technical preview stream. Today Microsoft held their Windows 10 Consumer Preview event in Redmond, announcing several new features that would become part of their flagship operating system as well as confirming the strategy for the Windows platform going forward. Suffice to say it’s definitely a shake up of what we’d traditionally expect from Microsoft, especially when it comes to licensing.

ms-event-2015-01-21-win10-46-741x416

The announcement that headlined the event that Windows 10 would be a free upgrade for all current Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 customers who upgrade in the first year. This is obviously an attempt to ensure that Windows 10’s adoption rate doesn’t languish in the Vista/8 region as even though every other version of Windows seems to do just fine Windows 10 is still different enough for it to cause issues. I can see the adoption rate for current Windows 8 and 8.1 users to be very high, thanks to the integration with the Windows store, however for Windows 7 stalwarts I’m not so sure. Note that this also won’t apply to enterprises who are responsible for an extremely large chunk of the Windows 7 market currently.

Microsoft also announced Universal Applications which are essentially the next iteration of the WinRT framework that was introduced with Windows 8. However instead of delineating some applications to the functional ghetto (like all Metro apps were) Universal Apps instead share a common base set of functionality with additional code paths for the different platforms they support. Conceptually it sounds like a great idea as it means that the different versions of the applications will share the same codebase, making it very easy to bring new features to all platforms simultaneously. Indeed if this platform can be extended to encompass Android/iOS it’d be an incredibly powerful tool, although I wouldn’t count on that coming from Microsoft.

Xbox Live will also be making a prominent appearance in Windows 10 with some pretty cool features coming for XboxOne owners. Chief among these, at least for me, is the ability to stream XboxOne games from your console directly to your PC. As someone who currently uses their PC as a monitor for their PS4 (I have a capture card for reviews and my wife didn’t like me monopolizing the TV constantly with Destiny) I think this a great feature, one I hope other console manufacturers replicate. There’s also cross-game integration for games that use Xbox Live, an inbuilt game recorder and, of course, another iteration of DirectX. This was the kind of stuff Microsoft had hinted at doing with Windows 8 but it seems like they’re finally committed to it with Windows 10.

Microsoft is also expanding its consumer electronics business with new Windows 10 enabled devices. The Microsoft HoloLens is their attempt at a Google Glass like device although one that’s more aimed at being used with the desktop rather than on the go. There’s also the Surface Hub which is Microsoft’s version of the smart board, integrating all sorts of conferencing and collaboration features. It will be interesting to see if these things see any sort of meaningful adoption rate as whilst they’re not critical to Windows 10’s success they’re certainly devices that could increase adoption in areas that traditionally aren’t Microsoft’s domain.

Overall the consumer preview event paints Windows 10 as an evolutionary step forward for Microsoft, taking the core of the ideas that they attempted with previous iterations and reworking them with a fresh perspective. It will be interesting to see how the one year free upgrade approach works for them as gaining that critical mass of users is the hardest thing for any application, even the venerable Windows platform. The other features that are coming along as more nice to haves than anything else, things that will likely help Microsoft sell people on the Windows 10 idea. Getting this launch right is crucial for Microsoft to execute on their strategy of it being the one platform for time immaterial as the longer it takes to get the majority of users on Windows 10 the harder it will be to invest heavily in it. Hopefully Windows 10 can be the Windows 7 to Windows 8 as Microsoft has a lot riding on this coming off just right.

Day One DLC: The Hate, The Reasoning and The Understanding.

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of DLC. Whilst there are many games that I enjoy going back to it’s not usually because there’s a sliver more of content available for them, it’s because the games themselves warranted it. The trend now however is to continue to release bite sized chunks of additional game play after it’s been released rather than the more traditional model of expansion packs which delivered what amounted to a game in its own right. Still there have been some notable exceptions like the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution Missing Link DLC which I’ve heard is quite lengthy and well worth the play through (I’ve still yet to play it, though). What irks me, and most gamers, is when a company releases DLC on the same day that they release the full game and an upcoming release has brought this issue to the table once again.

My first encounter with day one DLC wasn’t that long ago, it was with Dragon Age: Origins. I was a fair way through the game, not completely understanding the camp mechanic, when I saw a new character appear. Starting the conversation with them led to a quest (like it almost always does) but before he would accept it I was told that I’d need to pony up the cash to play it. Since the quest didn’t appear necessary and I had little interest in paying another $10 for a game I had just bought I left the optional DLC by the wayside and never looked back. Since then I’ve had several encounters with games that have had day one or close to it DLC and every time my reaction has been the same.

There is one exception though. Since my tendency is to buy the collector’s edition of games I’m usually treated to a free ride for most early DLC. This hasn’t changed my opinion on it though and in fact my experience with such DLC has reinforced my original stance that of if the game developers have time to develop early DLC then it should probably be included as part of the game. One of my all time favourite games will soon be releasing a sequel however and the outrage from the day one DLC has revealed that my current position might be somewhat ill informed.

The game in question is Mass Effect 3. Long time readers will know that my fanboyism for this game approaches near ridiculous levels: I bought a Xbox360 just to play it (I’ve bought other games for it, but make no mistake that Xbox360 was there for one reason only), I’ve got multiple characters and each time I’ve bought the collector’s edition. Had I done a Game of the Year post for 2010 it is quite likely that Mass Effect 2 would have come out on top. What I didn’t mention at the time was that there was some day one DLC included and whilst I did play it I didn’t feel like it added anything (nor distracted from) to the main core of the game. Indeed it could have been left out entirely and I wouldn’t have noticed a difference.

It has been revealed that Mass Effect 3 will have day one DLC, free to collectors and charged to everyone else. This put the community up in arms with many (myself included) wondering why this wasn’t part of the core game. Bioware came out and defended it fervently and revealed a point that I hadn’t really considered. The certification process for consoles is a long one, filled with all sorts of radical testing like clicking buttons thousands of times to ensure most of the bugs have been stamped out. This takes approximately 3 months and during that time many publishers elect to have the developers work on DLC rather than move them onto other projects (or do nothing at all). Since there’s less certification required to release DLC you then end up with a finished DLC product right on release day, much to the dismay of the fans.

That’s changed my view on day one DLC significantly, but it probably won’t change my purchasing patterns. Indeed I can understand why people are particularly frustrated about this particular DLC, it seems like a particular character (who’s previously appeared in the series) will only be available through it. That’s enough to put some people off it and I wouldn’t be too happy with somewhat plot critical elements being thrown into paid for DLC either. If it wasn’t included in the collector’s edition I certainly wouldn’t be bothered with it and my review later would reflect that.

For this case at least it looks like day one DLC didn’t come at the cost of the game itself but the gaming community is going to have a hard time swallowing that line from every publisher. It might then be worth delaying DLC to some time after the initial release in order to avoid this kind of negative publicity. Still I don’t have the numbers on this and if day one DLC works financially then you can bet on seeing more games with it in the future. I may not support it financially but so long as the core game isn’t affected by it I won’t say anything bad about it, but if  said DLC does impact on the game you can rest assured I’ll give them a thorough panning on here.

Poisoning The Well That Once Sustained You.

A company is always reliant on its customers, they’re the sole reason that they continue to exist. For small companies customers are even more critical as losing one for them is far more likely to cause problems than when a larger company loses one of theirs. Many recent start ups have hinged on their early adopters not only being closely tied to the product so that they form a shadow PR department but also many of them hobbyist developers, providing additional value to their platform at little to no cost to them. Probably the most successful example of this is Twitter who’s openness with their API fostered the creation of many features (retweets, @ replies, # tags) that they had just never seen before. It seems however that they think the community has gone far enough, and they’re willing to take it from here.

It was about two weeks ago when Twitter updated their terms of service and guidelines for using their API. The most telling part about this was the section that focused on Twitter clients where they explicitly stated that developers should no longer focus on making new clients, and should focus on other verticals:

The gist of what Sarver said is this; Twitter won’t be asking anyone to shut down just as long as they stick within the required api limits. New apps can be built but it doesn’t recommend doing so as it’s ‘not good long term business’. When asked why it wasn’t good long term business, Sarver said because “that is the core area we investing in. There are much bigger, better opportunities within the ecosystem”

Sarver insists this isn’t Twitter putting the hammer down on developers but rather just “trying to be as transparent as possible and give the guidance that partners and developers have been asking for.”

To be honest with you they do have a point. If you take a look at the usage breakdown by client type you’ll notice that 43% of Twitter’s usage comes from non official apps, and diving into that shows that the vast majority of  unofficial clients don’t drive that much traffic with 4 apps claiming the lion’s share of Twitter traffic. A developer looking to create a new client would be running up against a heavy bit of inertia trying to differentiate themselves from the pack of “Other Apps” that make up the 24% of Twitter’s unofficial app usage, but that doesn’t mean someone might not be capable of actually doing it. Hell the official client wasn’t even developed by Twitter in the first place, they just bought the most popular one and made it free for everyone to use.

Twitter isn’t alone in annoying its loyal developer following. HTC recently debuted one of their new handsets, the Thunderbolt.  Like many HTC devices its expected that there will be a healthy hacking scene around the new device, usually centered on th xda-developers board. Their site has really proved to be invaluable to the HTC brand and I know I stuck with my HTC branded phones for much longer than I would have otherwise thanks to the hard work these guys put in. However this particular handset is by far one of the most locked down on the market, requiring all ROMs to be signed with a secret key. Sure they’ve come up against similar things in the past but this latest offering seems to be a step above what they normally put in, signalling this a shot across the bow of those who would seek to run custom firmware on their new HTC.

In both cases these companies had solid core products that the community was able to extend upon which provided immense amounts of value that came at zero cost to them. Whilst I can’t attribute all the success to the community it’s safe to say that the staggering growth that these companies experienced was catalyzed by the community they created. To suddenly push aside those who helped you reach the success you achieved seems rather arrogant but unfortunately it’s probably to be expected. Twitter is simply trying to grab back some of the control of their platform so they can monetize it since they’re still struggling to make decent revenues despite their huge user base. HTC is more than likely facing pressure from carriers to make their handsets more secure, even if that comes at the cost of annoying their loyal developer community.

Still in both these situations I feel like there would have been a better way to achieve the goals they sought without poisoning the well that once sustained them. Twitter could easily pull a Facebook maneuver and make all advertising come through them directly, which they could do via their own in house system or by simply buying a company like Ad.ly. HTC’s problem is a little more complex but I still can’t understand why the usual line of “if you unlock/flash/hack it, you’re warranty’s void” wasn’t enough for them. I’m not about to say that these moves signal the down fall of either company but it’s definitely not doing them any favors.

Touché OnLive.

OnLive and I have a very strange relationship. In the beginning I thought it was a potential money winner that would be hamstrung by the company’s desire to monetise their service from the get go. 9 months later I changed my tune somewhat when they announced that they’d be offering free trials to a decent handful of people and believed that the service could survive as a niche service for city dwelling casual gamers. I started to come around to the idea in its entirety when one of its competitors demoed World of Warcraft running on the iPad, something which I thought could easily be a common use case for their target market. With almost one and a half years separating my first post on them and today’s entry I have to say back then I didn’t expect them to come as far as they have today, nor for them to go in the direction they have.

My initial complaints about the service having a monthly fee were probably the biggest sticking point for many potential users. Having to pay US$15 per month to access the games (which you also have to buy) is something people just aren’t comfortable doing when digital distribution platforms like Steam do it for free. They won my approval when they offered quite a few people free trials that extended past a year which I believed would help get them that critical mass of users they needed in order to be attractive for their investors. In reality the opposite was true since free users won’t necessarily migrate to a paid product but paying customers are paying customers, ensuring that you not only have a viable product but also a viable market.

I really hadn’t heard anything more about the service until yesterday when I stumbled across one of their blog posts that detailed something quite extraordinary:

It’s official: There will be no base monthly fee for the OnLive Game Service going forward. WOOT!

Free Instant-play Demos, Free Massive Spectating, Free Brag Clip™ videos, messaging, friending.

No credit card needed, unless you decide to buy a 3-day, 5-day or Full PlayPass. And ongoing access with no monthly fee. Of course, we’ve had a promotion waiving the monthly fee for the first year, so this announcement is confirming what we had hoped—that we can continue without a monthly fee beyond the first year. Although we wish we could have confirmed no monthly fee from the get-go, pioneering a major new video game paradigm is hard: we had to first grow to a large base of regular users before we could understand usage patterns and operating costs. Now that we’ve reached that stage, we can confidently say a monthly fee is not needed, which deserves a double WOOT! WOOT!

I must say it really took me by surprise when I read that. Knowing that video streaming services are extremely bandwidth intensive and highly unprofitable (YouTube still isn’t profitable) I struggled to see how they could make a decent amount of money without charging monthly access fees. OnLive of course knows their finances better than anyone and it appears that the monthly fees were just a temporary measure to get them over that initial hump of users required to get them a steady stream of funding from their primary market: games sales. I hadn’t really looked into how they were doing this but having a quick look around their website I can see where the potential revenue is coming from.

For most games there’s 3 different purchase options. The 3 and 5 day play pass let’s you play the game in question for their amount of time from the day you purchase it. This isn’t game time mind you so it’s more like you’re renting that game for 3 or 5 days. The last option is the full play pass which allows you to play the game for as long as it is available on OnLive’s servers. They state in their support section that all games will be supported for at minimum 3 years from the point they’re first available so in essence even the full pass is still a rental, just one with an uncertain end date.

The 3 and 5 day passes seem to be reasonably priced with the most expensive of their being $6 and $9 respectively. For many throw away games that you’ll only ever play once this is a pretty reasonable price and would open up quite a few games to those who’d traditionally shy away from them because of the price. It’s akin to Netflix’s idea of taking the pain out of renting rentals by letting you conduct the entire process from your home. In my opinion this is where OnLive will draw most of its sales as that’s the area where the service shines. The full play pass however is riddled with problems.

For starters the cost of full play passes aren’t universally cheaper than their digital download counter parts with many of them being the same price or higher, for example:

  • Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands ($49.99 OnLive, $39.99 Steam)
  • Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days ($49.99 on both)
  • Defense Grid Gold: ($13.99 on both, assuming “Gold” means all the additional packs)

This also doesn’t take into account any multi-pack sales that Steam is famous for.

Sure I can understand the point that you’re paying for the ability to play a game anywhere and thus the costs aren’t really comparable but for anyone with a machine less than 3 years old (my current one is 2) you could easily play any of these games without needing OnLive anyway. This is due solely to the consolisation of PC games and won’t be changing for anytime in the foreseeable future. Thus whilst you do gain flexibility from buying these games in OnLive you can only guarantee them to be there for 3 years and once they decide to stop supporting it you’re sweet out of luck. There’s no way to download your purchase once they’ve decided to flip the kill switch, effectively ending your ability to use your purchase forever.

This is the one aspect of OnLive that I absolutely detest, it’s the ultimate DRM that games publishing companies have been salivating over for years. Users of OnLive can’t trade their games with friends nor sell them to a used game shop in order to buy additional games. Effectively this turns all game “purchases” in OnLive into rentals under the control of the games publishers and the OnLive service, stripping away any freedom the end user might have once had. It is purely based on this fact that I will never, ever buy a full play pass from OnLive and will be extremely hesitant to use it for anything save reviewing the service itself as I can not condone this kind of behaviour from any corporation.

OnLive at its heart is a brilliant idea to bring gaming to those who can’t afford the time or monetary investment to stay on the cutting edge of gaming but still have a desire to. However every time I find something to love about the service I find yet another thing to hate about it and as it stands today I can not recommend it for anything past renting a throwaway game. The core ideas are solid and should OnLive make an effort to improve their service through say letting you download full purchases through their client then I’d have no trouble recommending them. For now though I’ll have to abstain from what is the worst form of DRM I’ve ever encountered and hope that everyone else will do the same.

First One’s Free.

In this rapidly changing technologically driven world many new up and comers find it hard to differentiate themselves from amongst the hundreds of similar projects. In an effort to drive people to use their services we’re seeing more and more companies going the route of providing some or all of their products completely free to the end user. Whilst I believe this is a great idea there is, of course, always some catches when it comes to accepting free gifts from corporate overlords.

A great example I can think of is the good old de facto corporate communication device, the Crack(Black)Berry. Recently at my current gig for the Australian government my department decided to do a trial of these in order to see if there was any value in implementing it. Of course Telstra comes to the table offering a free 3 month trial with pretty much everything included. The handsets were sent out to the executives and we went through about 2 days of configuration work to get it all done for them. It didn’t matter that we’d already installed Exchange Activesync, which would allow them to use any Windows Mobile device and wouldn’t cost them a cent since we’d bought the license in a bundle. So since the Blackberrys had been in the Qantas lounge magazines we were basically stuck with trialling this technology for them, and we all knew where it was going.

Fast forward to the end of the trial and we have half the execs praising the new system, a few dissenters and the rest on the fence. It was pretty obvious from the onset that once this was in place they would not give it up, even though the corporate directive is to investigate all possible solutions and judge them on their merits.

The same situation has been used in many different situations with online services. LinkedIn used to be a completely free service for professional social networking, and it did a great job at that. It was basically a no frills Facebook, something which is handy when you’d be browsing it at work. Of course the creators saw that they could then add in extra features and offer them as premium accounts, something which is akin to buying an expensive car in real life. Sure, it will probably improve people’s impression of you (if they’ve never met you before) but past that it’s value is rather small. Since many people use LinkedIn in order to build a professional network and hopefully generate business from that the paid services might hold some value there. There’s still no substitute for good old fashioned real life networking though, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to charge for that, either.

However, there are those that still buck the trend when it comes to providing services for free and staying away from the premium service charge. Google has released service after service that, whilst most of them still carry the beta tag on them, remain free after many years in service. This can all be put down to their ruthless precision in refining down an advertising model that appeals to every business, which is built upon their solid leadership as a search engine.

In reality most new up and coming technologies these days are being offered as a free baseline with the additional features costing you a couple pennies more. It’s all done to drive up market adoption and it is a great thing for the consumers, who get a lot more for their dollars since they can try before they buy. Just don’t be too shocked when your favourite free service starts asking for your credit card 😉