Oct 19, 2021

Axios Gaming

Hello! Stephen here.

Got a "WarioWare" question wrong in game trivia last night and haven't quite recovered.

⚡️ Situational awareness: Activision just filed court documents asking for California's sweeping misconduct lawsuit against the gamemaker to "be put on pause." It wants to find out more about alleged ethical violations by California's lawyers raised by the federal agency that also sued the company.

Today's edition is 1,252 words, a 4.5-minute read.

1 big thing: “Assassin’s Creed,” but for schools

Image via Ubisoft

For the third time since 2018, Ubisoft is releasing a nonviolent version of its latest “Assassin’s Creed” game as part of a unique effort to turn one of the medium’s most popular series into an educational tool.

Driving the news: Viking Age: Discovery Tour” transforms last year’s “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” from a bloody 150-hour game about Viking conquest in 9th century England into a peaceful four-hour game about merchants and monks.

  • It comes as a free downloadable expansion to “Valhalla” or as a $20 standalone game.
  • It’s the work of about 30 full-time developers at “Assassin’s Creed" publisher Ubisoft and follows versions set in ancient Egypt and Greece.

Between the lines: This year’s edition is more game-like than its predecessors, a change encouraged by educators and “Assassin’s Creed” players, the franchise’s world design director Maxime Durand told Axios.

  • While previous installments let players explore the game’s re-creation of historical settings via virtual tours akin to walking through a museum, this one puts players in control of characters meant to be living in the era.
  • Users will play through intertwining stories, one of a Viking merchant and his wife, modeled off of fateful Viking sagas, and one of an Anglo-Saxon monk, told in the idealized style of that culture’s chronicles, Durand said.
  • Chapters are designed to last no longer than an average history class and focus on shipbuilding, monastic life, treaties and so on.
  • Playing as characters puts an emphasis on “learning by doing," Durand said. “We wanted to convey the information through narrative rather than narrators.”
Screenshot: Ubisoft

“Discovery Tour” versions of “Assassin’s Creed” change the games.

  • For “Viking Age,” that meant developers hiding virtual corpses and swapping out warriors for more nuns.
  • It also means being more explicit, through in-game annotations, about where “Valhalla”’s developers took liberties with historical accuracy and why.
  • Some past changes have been criticized, namely the censoring of naked statues in the ancient Egypt release. “I think we’ve been maybe overzealous in the past,” Durand said, attributing it to the initial uncertainty of what was acceptable to include in a game meant for schools that still had to get a content rating.

The big picture: The Discovery Tour projects stand out as positive efforts from a company rife with workplace misconduct scandals and fan backlash against recently announced projects.

  • Durand, who has worked as a historian on “Assassin’s Creed” games since 2010, called the company’s sexual harassment problems, which first surfaced in mid-2020, “devastating.”
  • Regarding the company’s expressed reforms, he said, “I look for the change to continue.”
2. Xbox Game Pass subs up but miss target

Subscriber growth for Microsoft’s signature gaming service, Xbox Game Pass, was slower than the company hoped for in the past year, according to a new financial filing.

Why it matters: Xbox Game Pass is often touted as the best deal in gaming and its subscriber count is a shorthand measure of Microsoft’s gaming success.

By the numbers: For the 12 months ended on June 30, Xbox Game Pass subscriber growth was up 37%, but the company had set a 48% growth goal.

  • In the company's prior fiscal year, which ran from mid-2019 through mid-2020, Game Pass subs were up 86%, exceeding a target of 71%.

For those who just want to see actual subscriber counts, that’s the catch. Microsoft hasn’t been sharing them lately.

  • The most recent confirmed figure is 18 million, as of January.
  • The service costs $10/month for console or PC players, or $15/month for a combo.

Between the lines: While it’s notable that Microsoft missed one target, it's also of interest that Game Pass subs are a target at all.

  • In 2019, the company added Game Pass subscriber growth to a short list of performance goals for top executives, including CEO Satya Nadella.
  • It’s the only pure gaming metric listed in the execs’ payment plan, and sits alongside other priority targets including a number of LinkedIn sessions and usage of Microsoft Teams.
  • Reaching certain targets over the course of three years pays out more stock to those executives.

The big picture: Game Pass is core to Microsoft’s model of gaming’s future, one in which players subscribe to the all-you-can-play service and play its games on Xbox consoles, PCs, phones and, eventually, smart TVs, via streaming if necessary.

  • But if Microsoft is struggling to get Game Pass where it wants, it will have a strong sales hook 13 months from now with the release of Bethesda's highly anticipated exclusive “Starfield.”
3. Four priorities for reaching Black gamers

Fom left: Grizzy, BasicallyIDoWrk, Kiera Please and Khleo Thomas. Image via 3 Black Dot

A new series of video shows called Gaming While Black has been designed by media company 3 Black Dot to overcome the systemic issues that often keep well-intentioned projects focused on diversity from succeeding.

What they’re saying: 3 Black Dot CEO Regi Cash told Axios his team focused on four vectors for sustainable success:

  • Access — The people who might want to participate needed to see a way to get involved.
  • Representation — The content had to reflect its audience. “I firmly believe that you have to see yourself in it to believe that it's possible for you,” says Cash.
  • Integrity of the project — Representation couldn’t just be in front of the camera. Cash said it was important that the show’s producers, writers and technical people were diverse too.
  • Economic equality — No doing things on the cheap or asking underrepresented people for favors because it’s a good cause. “We wanted to make sure that we did it on a basis where the economics were equal.”
4. Need to know

🤔 The SEC’s long-awaited report on GameStop stock mania dismissed conspiracy theories, Axios’ Courtenay Brown reports. It suggested that celebratory animations and “gamelike” elements of stock-trading apps merit more scrutiny.

💰 Sony Pictures is selling its 400-person mobile gaming outfit GSN to publisher Scopely for $1 billion. PocketGamer notes that GSN focuses on casino and solitaire games.

🎮 Nearly half of “frequent gamers” — people who play weekly for 12+ hours — watch other people play games over streaming services, according to a new digital media trends survey from Deloitte. 38% of those frequent gamers also stream their own gameplay.

🚴‍♀️ In an unusual promotional move, Ubisoft is offering a free, four-hour trial of its upcoming extreme sport game “Riders Republic” starting this Thursday, with the trial expiring just as the game launches next week.

🚫 A recently leaked Twitch “do not ban” list was a little dated but does show ways top streamers may have received preferential treatment from the popular service, The Washington Post reports.

5. Worthy of your attention

“Far Cry 6” is a failed chance to put Spanish front and center [Diego Arguello, The Verge]

Games that prioritize Spanish over English are few and far between, even when their settings are inspired by local cultures and regions. For small studios trying to break through internationally, this can vary greatly. The Game Kitchen, a team based in Seville, Spain, initially wrote the script for "Blasphemous" in Spanish. As the developers mentioned in an interview, months prior to the end of development, they decided to release the game in English. Budget constraints couldn’t justify having both languages, so they opted for the “right commercial choice” between the two.
6. Game recommendation: “Dungeon Encounters”

Screenshot: Square Enix

Fans of minimalism, consider “Dungeon Encounters(Switch, PS4, PC), a new game from some of the top creators of legendary role-playing game franchise “Final Fantasy.”

  • But there’s basically no story.
  • And barely any scenery or graphical flourishes.
  • You’re just walking across grids, fighting monsters and leveling up allies.

My impressions: I’m four floors deep into this 99-floor adventure and am hooked. Who needs visual and narrative garnish when you can just focus on deceptively deep strategic combat?

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🐦 Find us on Twitter: @megan_nicolett / @stephentotilo.

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