Picture of a gaming controller.
Aug 16, 2021

Axios Gaming

Hi, everyone. It's Stephen Totilo kicking off a solo week of newslettering.

Today's edition is 1,309 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: A new hope for video game movies

Screenshot: 20th Century Studios

Movies based on video games are often a bust critically, commercially, or both. But the weekend box office success of Ryan Reynolds' comedy “Free Guy” is a sign that trend is changing.

Why it matters: Everyone knows what happens when Hollywood notices something is working. Be optimistic. Be worried. Your pick.

Between the lines: “Free Guy” earned $28.4 million in the U.S. to take the top spot for the weekend, with another $22.5 million abroad, Variety reports.

  • The movie stars Reynolds as an NPC, or nonplayer character, who discovers he exists within a violent open-world video game. It’s also a romance and features cameos from top game streamers Ninja and Pokimane.
  • Games and entertainment site Polygon called it “competently entertaining.”
  • And there’s more coming: Reynolds tweeted on Saturday that Disney “officially” wants a sequel.

On its own, the success of “Free Guy” could just be a blip that has more to do with how it was released.

  • It only debuted in theaters, testing Hollywood’s pre-pandemic business model against the new one that also puts premieres on streaming services.

But there’s a trend developing of good news springing from gaming movies.

The big picture: For a long time, the games industry chased Hollywood by trying to make games that were more movie-like. Hollywood, meanwhile, turned out largely bad adaptations of games.

  • Now, both sides seem to be loosening up.
  • On the movie end, a major film festival now recognizes games are their own thing, and a movie like “Free Guy” suggests the concepts of games can be appealing without a gaming brand attached.
  • On the gaming end, industry leaders and creators increasingly sound confident about their field’s own success, even as top creators branch out to work more directly on new movies (and HBO shows) tied to their work.

What’s next: Three big gaming movies for 2022.

  • “Uncharted” — A test of whether Sony Pictures will do right by Sony PlayStation.
  • “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” — co-starring Idris Elba.
  • “Super Mario” — The date could slip, but Nintendo is so invested it put the movie’s producer on its board of directors.
2. 🚨 Breaking: California presses Riot

California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing is pressing “League of Legends” giant Riot Games to let its current and former employees know they can speak freely with the agency about sexist conduct at the studio.

Why it matters: The DFEH has been in the news for its industry-shaking anti-discrimination lawsuit against Activision Blizzard.

  • It also has had Riot in its sights since finding that a settlement between Riot and women who worked there was inadequate. It has a pending action against the company.

Between the lines: In a filing to LA Superior Court today, the DFEH said Riot was stalling on informing workers they could speak to the agency.

  • The department contends that language in Riot’s settlement and separation agreements “suggested” those who signed weren’t free to talk.
  • Such restrictions violate anti-retaliation and anti-interference provisions of the law, DFEH director Kevin Kish said. That led to an agreement between Riot and the DFEH to inform workers they could do so.
  • A Riot representative did not reply by press time.
3. A different kind of sports game

"Ultimate Rivals: The Court." Screenshot: Bit Fry

Upstart gaming studio Bit Fry is betting that people want sports video games that are more over the top, as it tries to build a franchise called “Ultimate Rivals.”

Why it matters: Sports gaming is booming these days, but the most heavily marketed efforts involve heavyweights EA and Activision turning out more realistic football, basketball, golf and hockey games.

Between the lines: Enter Bit Fry founder Ben Freidlin, who reminisces about the action-arcade sports games of the '80s and '90s, the likes of “Blades of Steel,” “NBA Jam” and “NFL Blitz."

  • “There’s been a lot of really great franchises that have sort of been abandoned in the race for realism,” Freidlin tells Axios. (EA, which owns the rights for “Jam,” hasn’t released a new one in a decade.)
  • Bit Fry’s “Ultimate Rivals” debuted on Apple Arcade in late 2019 with a neon-lit hockey game called "The Rink," and it followed last month with a flashy basketball title called “Ultimate Rivals: The Court.”
  • The vibe of those games, Freidlin explains, is a mashup of “NBA Jam” and “Street Fighter.”

The hook for “Ultimate Rivals” is that these games are made with the participation of a host of top leagues and players.

  • Bit Fry boasts deals with the leagues and player associations tied to MLB, the NBA, the WNBA and the NHL, along with the NFL Players Association and soccer’s U.S. Women’s National Team.
  • That has resulted in "The Rink" putting USWNT’s Alex Morgan on the ice against NFL players or “The Court” letting NHL stars dunk on The Rock (they’re getting wrestlers involved, too.)
  • Freidlin said the NHL was the first of the big leagues to get involved, but that others wanted in. “Even if you’re the biggest one of the four, you have people to win over from other fanbases,” he said.

What’s next: Bit Fry’s games have only been sold through Apple’s subscription so far, but they’ll get a chance to stand on their own as they’re released to PC through Steam in the coming months.

  • Freidlin says they’ve got a football game coming.
4. A new graphics card competitor

Intel is getting into the video game graphics card business with a line called Arc, the company announced today.

Why it matters: Nvidia and AMD are the big players here, but Intel is no tiny upstart trying to nose its way in.

  • As IGN notes, “Intel says that its Arc graphics cards will offer mesh shading, variable-rate shading, video upscaling, as well as real-time ray traying,” along with AI-accelerated supersampling that could compete with Nvidia and AMD tech that is designed to make ordinary games look amazing.

What’s next: The first Arc graphics card, named Alchemist, is set for release in the first quarter of 2022. Subsequent cards will be called Battlemage, Celestial and Druid, because, video games.

5. Need to know

⌨️ A “revitalized edition” of classic 1996 first-person shooter “Quake,” will probably be revealed during Thursday’s QuakeCon keynote, according to an official — and subsequently edited — schedule for the event. Well-regarded studio MachineGames appears to be involved.

📈 Chinese National Radio has criticized video games that present an inaccurate version of the country’s history, another critique of the medium that has hurt the stock price of local gaming powers such as Tencent.

💰 Investment group Altor has taken a majority stake in indie publisher Raw Fury. In a press release announcing the deal as a partnership, incoming chair Mattias Miksche said the publisher is “well underway to become a gaming powerhouse.”

6. Worthy of your attention

"An interesting gamedev thing I don't see talked about enough is the size of the market. It's HUUUGE." (Twitter thread by "Slime Rancher" lead developer Nick Popovich):

"And so, I guess the point here is that the market is actually huge and diverse and discovering its nooks and crannies could make you much more successful that trying to fit your art into whatever generic slot is available to you
7. Metal Gear Broken

The "Metal Gear Solid" speedrunning community is abuzz over a new way to skip time when racing through the game.

  • Twitch streamer Boba discovered that taking fire while standing in front of a locked door can bounce players into areas where they're not yet supposed to be.
  • A skip like this can transform the speedrunning scene around a game, but it's also just delightful when there's video of a person making the accidental discovery and breaking out in song to celebrate.

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

Working on getting some NFL and WNBA stars to help write the newsletter.