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News Shelf: 25/10/12

And now, all the game news that’s fit to print. And put on your shelf. Made of dorks.

Gaming press ethics, part 322

Geoff Keighley

Eurogamer recently posted an editorial by Robert Florence about the perhaps-too-comfortable relationship between writers and PR people in the video games industry. In it, Florence notes that he has a mental list of writers who make the most of press junkets, eagerly accepting freebies and getting in too close with the PR and marketing teams they work with on a regular basis. He stops short of naming names in the article — but not for want of trying.

A short editor’s note hints at the identity of at least one aggrieved party. An earlier version of the editorial referenced tweets from Lauren Wainwright, a staff writer at UK publication MCV, about her approval of game writers posting a specific game-related hashtag in order to win a free PS3. After she lodged a complaint with Eurogamer, the publication removed all references to her and Dave Cook, news editor for VG247, from the story. In response, Florence stepped down from his columnist duties at Eurogamer, alleging that Eurogamer was forced to amend the article under threat of legal action.

John Walker, writer for UK publication Rock, Paper, Shotgun who was also mentioned in the original editorial, noted several links between Wainwright and Square Enix in a response to the growing controversy. Only a few hours later, he responded again, this time in an attempt to rein in the backlash against Wainwright.

Whether this incident becomes a major crisis of confidence in the UK game press or just a blip on the radar remains to be seen. One thing’s for certain: this is probably not the kind of thing you expected to spring from a picture of a defeated-looking Geoff Keighley drowning in promotional video game tie-ins.

PAX heads down under

PAX Australia

Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), has quickly become one of the largest- and highest-profile North American gaming conventions. But if Boston and Seattle, the two venues for the twice-yearly event, are just too close for your tastes, you’ll be glad to know that PAX has opened a third outpost in the warm climes of Australia.

Melbourne is the site of the newest PAX, and though the convention is almost a year away — July 19-21, 2013, to be exact — three-day passes are already dwindling quickly after being on sale for less than a week. That’s about as fast as PAX East tickets sold out less than a month ago, so if you’re considering a trip to your favourite former penal colony, act quickly.

There are few details of what you can expect from the newest Expo, but one thing you can rely on is an emphasis on indie games — like the Seattle and Boston iterations, PAX Australia will feature an indie showcase. Melbourne’s version, of course, will take on a distinctly local flavour, specifically inviting Australian developers to show off their wares.

Apple unveils the iPad Mini

iPad Mini

It’s got a 7.8-inch screen, most of the innards of an iPad 2, and a $329 starting price tag. Either you’ve already started waiting in line for an iPad Mini or you’re busy posting dismissive screeds about Apple on the internet with your Nexus 7. Game developers, meanwhile, seem mostly positive about the announcement, saying that supporting the new device should be relatively easy.

Apple’s tiny tablet will be out November 2, but you can pre-order it and its larger, refreshed cousin starting today. And since we’re on the subject of tablets, it’s also worth noting that the first of Microsoft’s Surface tablets also arrives today, and Google is rumoured to have a larger Nexus slate ready to announce on October 29.

In summary, tablets tablets tablets. Tablets.

Zynga’s rollercoaster week

Zynga - Farmville

While the Apple press conference was going on, rumours of an altogether more sinister sort popped up on Twitter regarding layoffs at social gaming titan Zynga. Eventually, CEO Mark Pincus made a formal statement about the layoffs, announcing that about 5% of the company’s workforce of over 3,000 will be let go, including significant staff reductions in its Austin studio and the closure of its Boston studio. Offices in the U.K. and Japan are also under threat.

The news was just the latest in a string of stories about Zynga’s misfortunes, which recently came to a head with the revelation that Zynga’s market cap had fallen below the market value of its assets, including the San Francisco office building the game publisher calls home. Put another way, Zynga as a business is worth less than Zynga as a collection of buildings, investments and bags of cash, at least as far as investors are concerned.

The situation was grim enough that when the company announced a net loss of $52.7 million for the quarter a few days later, its stock price rose. Why? Because Zynga still managed to beat market expectations, which have kept pace with the publisher’s plunging financial numbers. Part of the $52.7 million loss can be attributed to the purchase of OMGPOP, makers of one-time game-of-the-moment Draw Something, and revenue projections are actually higher than in 2011, so future profitability is still a possibility for Zynga.

Square Enix signs on for Unreal Engine 4

Square Enix Unreal Engine 4

Epic Games has found its first official licensee for the latest version of its Unreal Engine technology, and it’s someone you might not immediately think of. Square Enix has a long history of internal research and development — its current trilogy (so far!) of Final Fantasy XIII games was built on the in-house Crystal Tools engine, and more recently the Japanese publisher unveiled a tech demo for its Luminous Studio engine at this year’s E3.

But apparently Square Enix doesn’t like to keep all its eggs in one basket — a fair decision, given the  international scope of its game development, thanks to its acquisition of Eidos. In that light, Square Enix’s agreement with Epic to license Unreal Engine 4 for multiple future games makes a lot more sense.

Whether Square Enix will attempt to build any of its big Japanese franchises like Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts on Unreal Engine tech is anyone’s guess, of course, but it’s already built a game on Unreal Engine 3, and the involvement of Epic Games Japan in the partnership implies it won’t just be Square Enix’s western studios that benefit.

Patch Notes:

  • Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition is the most-played game on Xbox Live this week, dethroning Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. How big of a deal is this? Call of Duty and Halo games have dominated the charts for over four years — you have to go all the way back to May 19th, 2008 to find a game besides Halo or Call of Duty at the top of the charts (Grand Theft Auto 4, if you’re keeping count).
  • Star Citizen, the brainchild of Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts, has met its crowd-funding goal of $2 million, a total that combines the initial campaign on the Roberts Space Industries website and the subsequent Kickstarter campaign. The $2 million is not the entire budget for the game; Roberts intends to use the money to entice other investors who have expressed interest and ultimately raise $12-14 million.
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