Phil Spencer Visits The Initiative

Great update today with @DGallagher_LA @mattbooty and the team @TheInitiative. Incredibly talented studio challenging themselves to do new things things (and old things :-) ) in new ways.

Phil Spencer tweet on January 28, 2020

Nice to hear Phil traveling to the Xbox Game Studios during the launch year of the Xbox Series X. Also nice to hear that one stop was specifically at The Initiative since I predicted their game would be revealed this year.

Shuhei Yoshida and a Decade of Dreams

Shuhei Yoshida: A Decade of Dreams? – PS I Love You XOXO Ep. 4 — PS I Love You XOXO — Overcast

I think Greg and Blessing flirt right on the edge of my idea that Dreams could become an engine that PlayStation distributes, like I wrote about this week. The article they mentioned from Stephen Tailby at PushSquare quotes Shuhei Yoshida from the recent Impy Awards celebrating Dreams creations. You can see Shuhei’s statement on Twitch. I think the quote below lends itself the most to my theory and makes it feel like a slam dunk. 

I cannot wait to see how this platform develops, and how this tool will enable the future creators of video games that everybody will enjoy.

Maybe I am just hearing what I want to hear, but there is definitely more to Dreams and its Bubblebath engine than meets the eye.

Is PlayStation Entering the Video Game Engine Business?

I have had a thought for the past two weeks. It was sparked by Jason Schreier of Kotaku reporting that Horizon: Zero Dawn could be ported to PC, unheard of for a first-party PlayStation exclusive. Then the flames were fanned by Blessing Adyeoye Jr. of Kinda Funny off-handedly mentioned that Media Molecule may allow creators to port their creations in the upcoming game Dreams to PC.

I cannot shake the thought that PlayStation may just start licensing some of their game engines, specifically Guerrilla Game’s Decima and the creation tools behind Dreams.

This is all speculation, but I have been mulling it over. I have been reading the tea leaves, if you will. Please, indulge me and see how I think PlayStation may be gearing up to sell more than just video games and consoles.

I want to start with Guerrilla Games and their Decima engine. Decima has been used in six games:

  • Killzone: Shadowfall
  • Until Dawn
  • Until Dawn: Rush of Blood
  • RIGS
  • Horizon: Zero Dawn
  • Death Stranding

A short list, but the facts that accompany those titles is interesting. Three of the games were made by second-party studios: Supermassive Games and Kojima Productions. Two of them are PS VR titles and one is confirmed for a PC release (Death Stranding). This says to me that Decima, while seemingly tailored to open-world titles, is pliable. It even can support a strand game with a wide network of players engaging in the same game world, unlike something like Frostbite with Anthem. Decima appears to be powerful and diverse.

Sharing is in the code of Decima too. Here is technical director Michiel van der Leeuw in an interview with Len Mariken Maessen reporting for The Next Web on December 20, 2019:

Inventor types like us don’t just like to make things, we like to share them. Sharing makes you stronger. Sometimes you don’t get anything back but thanks – that’s also nice. But sometimes you find someone who’s on the same track, and it gives you all this creative energy. It’s all just code in the end, anyway: it’s the mindset of the maker that matters.

The sharing has gone beyond the PS4 as well. Death Stranding is releasing on PC this summer and will be published by 505 Games, not by SIE Worldwide Studios. If the report on Horizon making its way to the PC is true, that would have to be a SIE joint. Death Stranding alone proves Decima is capable of porting its games to PC, but Horizon would be a poster-child for the engine’s prowess.

The other half of this equation is Dreams. Media Molecule has been developing Dreams for nearly eight years. The game runs on Media Molecule’s BubbleBath engine and the tools players will use are what the developer used to make Dreams itself. Its long development cycle is just another testament to Sony’s willingness to back their first-party developers to the max and allow for such long development cycles. Sony bought Media Molecule back in 2010 to “secure excellence in game development for current and future PlayStation platforms.” Dreams certainly seems to be nothing if not excellence in game development.

The games that have been developed during the game’s early access period are astonishing to look at from afar. From the picture-perfect food, to the inevitable Star Wars game, to making E3 demos for the masses, to recreating Dead Space(!), the community seems to have taken the tools Media Molecule has created and run with them.

Seeing what people can make with Dreams always made me wonder what if someone made a full-fledged game and wanted to charge for it. If someone used Dreams as their game engine, would there be a way for them to make money off their game. Creative Director Mark Healey has thought about it too. In an interview with Edge Magazine in March 2018, Healey said that people selling Dreams-made games on PSN was a long term goal for the team.

The golden egg for that needs to crack for my theory is porting these Dreams game to other platforms. It appears to be another long-term goal for Media Molecule, according to Media Molecule co-founder Kareem Ettouneym at the View Conference:

The very limited exporting features [at] the moment are like exporting a video, but we have in the long-term [plans for] exporting a standalone game outside of Dreams entirely—exporting to other devices and beyond.

What ties these two engines and this idea I have together is how PlayStation’s leadership has been staked going into the next-generation where ecosystems will be the dominating factor. In 2019, PlayStation saw two new internal promotions to executive positions: Jim Ryan became the CEO and President in April and Hermen Hulst became the studio head of SIE Worldwide Studios, which oversees all first-party development. Both executives have spent their time with the European division of PlayStation. The company has been centralizing key people in the company’s executive leadership in Europe, home to both Guerrilla Games and Media Molecule. You may also recognize Hermen as the (now former) Managing Director of Guerrilla Games.

I agree with Mat Piscatella that ecosystems will be the battle to be won in 2020. It is readily apparent that is what Microsoft believes. It’s a practice that works pretty well for Apple. I think that Decima and Bubblebath can adapt to a wide variety of platforms and ecosystems. We know Decima has some sort of pipeline in place for porting massive open-world games to the PC. It even works with game streaming services based off Horizon joining the PS Now library this month until April. Horizon is technically on PC right now. We know they both work with VR development and it is a safe bet that they work with the PS5. These engines are future-proof for more than a PlayStation.

PlayStation has spent the PS4 generation backing their first-party studios, championing open-world, single player games, and making the PS4 “the best place to play.” As the industry moves into its next-generation, the “place to play” matters less than it ever has. Cross-play barriers are being shattered. Cloud streaming is stepping onto the scene in a big way. Games are no longer trapped in a special box under the TV, they go every where with us. I think PlayStation doesn’t just want to be the “place:” They want to power the play.

Apple TV+ – One in Thirty-Three Million

Why is nobody talking about #LittleAmerica? Oh yeah, it’s on AppleTV+.

I gotta say, out of the four shows I’ve watched on AppleTV+, so far I’m loving three of them (Little America, For All Mankind, & Morning Show). What other network or streaming service has that track record?

– Peter Sciretta via Twitter

Peter’s thoughts echo my feelings about Apple TV+ and the shows that Abby and I have been watching on the service – The Morning Show, For All Mankind, See, and Servant. We just wrapped up For All Mankind not long ago (holy cow, that finale) and devoured Servant week-by-week. We are near the end of The Morning Show and have half of See left. The two of us are shocked how much of a banger we think each of these shows are.

Granted, like Peter says in a follow-up tweet, there are plenty of shows on Apple TV+ that I haven’t watched, either because I am not interested in them (Dickinson and Helpsters for example) or I just haven’t made time due to the flood of new TV shows/rewatching Better Call Saul (Truth Be Told and Little America fit this mold). They can’t all be slam dunks either, right? Although, the press seems to be digging Little America quite a bit.

I certainly hear the praises for some of these shows online and on podcasts, like Upgrade. The echo chamber of Twitter is ringing with endorsements, but I don’t know anyone personally that has even seen these shows. Abby and I have done our due diligence as avid TV watchers. Particularly with For All Mankind, we have bugged my dad quite a bit about checking it out, knowing it would be right up his alley. I’ve told my space-loving friend about it too, but once he heard it is on Apple TV+, he seemed to check out.

I’m not sure if it is bias against Apple and its products (he is a ride-or-die PC and Android user) or just a lack of signing up for yet another streaming service, even as a trial. There is also the hurdle of actually using the service. Without owning an Apple device, users will either watch online or through the app on one of the listed devices/TVs. More platforms are coming soon according to Apple, but it clearly is not as wide spread as streaming titans like Netflix or Hulu. Apple TV+ is just not as convenient.

A major convenience is there for anyone who has bought a new Apple product since September 10, 2019 with Apple offering a free year of Apple TV+. If you don’t buy a new Apple device, the low entry fee of $5 a month is enticing when compared to the $15 or so for Netflix. This is certainly working too with reports of a 33.6 million customer base in the US during Q4 2019. That is over half of Netflix’s 61.3 million reported in that same quarter.

Maybe the odds are not in my favor and I just do not have personal friends within that 33.6 million. I do wonder though that if these shows were on HBO or Netflix, if I’d have an easier time getting friends to give them a shot or even sign up for a service.

As a platform (the Apple TV app) and as a service (Apple TV+), I am slightly reminded of iTunes. Before its death in late 2019, iTunes was a behemoth. It was even a huge deal when Apple brought it to Windows. The Apple TV app and its “+” service are in relative infancy if it is to grow into the platform Apple surely hopes to make it.

The streaming wars are full-steam ahead. While Apple has had a strong start, I wonder if they can keep their user base going after these free trials expire. I wonder if the quality of the content will continue to surpass my expectations (or just be consistent with the bar they’ve set so far, that’d be great too). I wonder what the introduction of even more services will do. I am excited to keep on watching though: Both the shows and the service as they develop.

Upgrading My SNES Cartridge Collection

I finally found the means to actually play all the Super Nintendo games that I have been acquiring over the past few years with the purchase of a Super NT. I love the system. Now that I can actually play these games, I felt like my cartridges needed some sort of upgrade too.

I’m a bit of a completionist when it comes to collecting and displaying my game collection. I love showing off the boxes and I have an immense attachment to the little paper booklets games used to come with called instruction manuals. When it is a game or series I care for, I try to own a complete copy of that game. I did it with all the GameCube Zelda games about a year ago. I feel satisfied when a set is complete.

For my SNES games, they are all loose carts. Most of the games I own for the SNES come in around $100+ for a complete-in-box set. Buying the box, manual, and game separate can sometimes be cheaper, but still is costly.

Outside of the price, these boxes are 30-year-old cardboard boxes that vary in condition. These are inherently more applicable to showcasing than storing cartridges these days. A personal example of this is my N64 copy of Ocarina of Time: The box still has the original shrink wrap around all sides except the opening flap. I’ve removed the game and sealed that box right back up in its protective plastic casing. Looks real nice on a shelf (or stored in a cabinet in my case), but still leaves the game loose.

Some of my SNES games came with tiny plastic dust covers that slide over the bottom of the cartridge. I have three of them, so I chose the three games I wanted to protect the most. Not a fair shake to the other gems I do happen to own.

All of this to say, I found a solution that meets my needs quite nicely. I happened across these SNES game cases dubbed BitBoxes from Stone Age Gamer. They offer these sturdy looking boxes in bundles and provide art that you may either print yourself or have their printer create and cut for a fee. They were exactly what I was looking for. Great looking boxes with even nicer art to protect my carts and show them off at the same time. I ordered 10 of them without the document straps and printed the art myself.

The art selection is real expansive. For most games I looked at, there was an option for a horizontal layout that matches the original boxes and a vertical option that takes the art of the original boxes and unifies the design. A good example is Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. The vertical art captures the spirit of the original box. The back text and images are identical; even the barcodes match! If you can’t already tell, I opted for the vertical design. They all came out of my printer looking sharp and clean.

When the boxes arrived, I was surprised at how thick and sturdy the plastic was. The whole box’s thickness reminds me of a VHS tape box. The inside has a cross cutout in the middle. US SNES game cartridges go vertically, while Japanese and PAL game cartridges go horizontally. The sleeve the art goes into has only one way in with the bottom being sealed off, kind of like a protective sleeve for a playing card. These are high quality boxes.

I do wish I had gotten the document straps though. They are just little plastic straps the cross the left side of the box interior for holding the instruction manuals. I only have one SNES manual (Super Metroid and it is missing the cover). It fits perfectly in the prepared area, but it doesn’t stay put when opening the box, since there is no strap. Certainly something to keep in mind if you have or plan on buying instruction manuals for any games.

Top to bottom, I am throughly impressed. Stone Age Gamer sells boxes for NES, SNES, N64, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Master System, Genesis, 32X, and Game Gear. I am already tallying up what it will cost me some day to buy boxes for my N64 and Game Boy collections.