Overshadowing all other news this week was Valve's announcement of it's new home console, the 'Steam Machine'. Other news included China officially lifting it's ban on the sale of home consoles, some legal wranglings between EA and the NCAA as well as Activision-Blizzard and Vivendi, and the reveal of Grand Theft Auto 5's online micro-transaction model.
Valve's announcement of the new SteamOS and accompanying Steam Machine hardware has been a long predicted development. Building on the recent Steam platform overhauls of Big Picture Mode (which effectively allows select Steam games to play like their console counterparts) and Linux support (which is lessening Steam's dependence on the Windows platform) it has become clear that Valve desires to move on the lucrative home console market. This move makes a ton of sense, Valve has dominated the PC market for the digital distribution of software and has the capital to find new areas to stretch their business. The home console market is a logical area of expansion but Valve faces much stiffer competition in this arena. While details on the capabilities of the various Steam Machine SKUs are scarce, it is going to be a difficult challenge to fit top tier PC hardware into a price point that is competitive with other consoles. That said, Valve has demonstrated an intimate understanding of the gaming industry and over the past decade has built a reputation for high quality products and service; if anyone has a shot of playing with the big boys in the home console market, it is Valve.
China Allows Selling of Consoles
The wheels to legally allowing the sale of consoles in China were, no doubt, greased by Microsoft's $250 million partnership with China's BestTV to launch a streaming service. The ban was ostensibly in place for the protection of citizens but was implemented amid a wave of anti-Japanese rhetoric from the government and was likely motivated at hurting Sony and Nintendo (Japanese companies). While I think it is fantastic news that consoles can now be legally sold, it isn't like systems were previously difficult to find. China's notorious black market and loose stance towards piracy had already led to robust home console base even if none of the money from the software and systems sold was making it back to the originally manufacturers. The home console giants all face an uphill battle against piracy in China and will ultimately need tangible support from the government (instead of empty words) to turn a profit. In the end, I think any news on the opening of the Chinese market is good for all sides.
EA/NCAA lawsuit settled
The NCAA launched a lawsuit in 2009 alleging that EA unduly profited from the use of the likeness of student athletes in their popular sports franchises. While a court still needs to approve the settlement, and monetary details will not be released until this point, NCAA representatives have indicated they are quite pleased with the result. After what appeared to be a mutually beneficial relationship, the NCAA opted to not renew their partnership with EA this year and consequently new iterations of the collegiate based titles have been shelved (at least for this year). I understand the NCAA's wanting to get out of licensing agreements to protect their image as a representative for college athletes but gamers are losing here.
Activision-Vivendi split woes
In other legal news, the separation of Activision-Blizzard from parent Vivendi hit a rough patch as the Delaware Chancery Court put a hold on proceedings pending investigation into allegations that shareholders were not properly briefed of the pending sale. All told, about $8.2 billion is at stake in the deal. While most analysts agree that the injunction only represents a stall and unlikely to kill the deal entirely, both sides are likely none to happy about having to wait. Vivendi desperately needs cash to cover outstanding debt and Activision-Blizzard has been struggling for independence for a few years now. For gamers, it is hoped that Activision-Blizzard regaining independence will lead to more original titles and less reliance on yearly iterations of proven franchises. Further, some are hoping that this will be just the first step into Blizzard becoming independent again (although this would still be a few years away).
GTA5 multiplayer to have micro-transactions
While Grand Theft Auto 5 continues to rake in the money, details on the upcoming multiplayer mode (to be implemented in a free patch later this year) has been slowly trickling out. Rockstar announced that in game currency would be available for purchase with real world cash but that no asset would be unavailable to those who weren't willing to spend real money. While I can't blame Rockstar for following suit and tapping an additional revenue stream, I find myself more and more frustrated by the micro-transaction model. In fairness, no pricing details have been released yet but, invariably, the cost for virtual goods is unduly high.