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Posts tagged ‘Microsoft’


‘Fantasia: Music Evolved’ and its origins in the Kinect-hacking scene

The developers at Harmonix aren’t afraid to hit the reset button if something isn’t working correctly. Chances are, strumming a plastic Stratocaster changed quite a bit before you ever even started playing “Creep” by Radiohead in Rock Band. Same goes for stepping to the beat of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” in Dance Central, too. That willingness to start from square one time and again? Well, it’s carried through to the developer’s latest Kinect title, Fantasia: Music Evolved, out now for Xbox 360 and Xbox One, as well. The team’s aim, seemingly regardless of project, is for whatever you’re doing in one of their titles to seem perfectly obvious and natural.

“There’s a huge willingness to throw stuff away and start over,” Fantasia‘s lead programmer Mike Fitzgerald says. “It feels like [the final product] just works, when in reality it took a long time and a ton of work to make [gameplay] invisible.”

The Police’s “Message in a Bottle” in Fantasia: Music Evolved

To do that this time around, Harmonix turned to the Kinect-hacking scene for its Disney-funded project. At the outset, the team was keeping a close eye on what garage-based developers (and likely a few rock stars) were doing with Microsoft’s do-all sensor, using its SDK as they saw fit for all manner of things. Harmonix brought in Jason Levine. He’s well-known in the Kinect community, and has done live stage performances using Redmond’s camera setup to track his body position for real-time visualizer backgrounds. He seemed like a perfect fit to consult on a game that ultimately turns you into a conductor on songs ranging from “Night on Bald Mountain” to more contemporary fare like “Royals” from Lorde.

Levine’s position-tracking input can be seen in the game: the silhouette at the bottom of the screen that reflects your motions back to you. That bit became one of the game’s core design elements, letting you see what it was the Kinect was watching you do in real-time as a sort of positive reinforcement. “It’s different from Fruit Ninja [Kinect] in that you have to manage your silhouette,” lead designer Jonathan Mintz says. Meaning, it’s getting the rhythm of your movements synced with the actions onscreen — not just swiping at fruit randomly as it flies in front of you. “We don’t care about positions; what we care about is timing,” he adds. “We let the player find a style of motion that works for them; then they listen to the music and watch the [gesture] cues to get a sense of rhythm.”

Jason Levine at New York City’s Hardware Hack Lab

The inherent problem with basing a game off of hacks, apparently, is teaching others how to use them. “If you build a tool for yourself — like a 3D DJ controller-like Kinect hack — you can perform it really well,” Mintz says, “but it’s got this really steep learning curve.” That can make it hard for anyone else to use. “It’s probably more frustrating than learning an instrument, where at least you know what fret you’re holding.” he adds. He likens it to learning a theremin, an electronic instrument that you don’t even touch for it to produce different sounds. “You have to learn how to move in space and you can get these outrageous results.”

To combat this with Fantasia, individual movements are taught to the player on a song-by-song basis until the training wheels come off and songs start getting more and more complex.


A group of French theremin players

Mintz says that while creating a hack might look impressive, making it fun is completely different. That’s where partnering with Disney has its advantages. Mintz says that Walt and Co. afforded the team “a lot” of time to get the actual game aspects of their hack right and, perhaps most importantly, to make it enjoyable. Implementing a structure that guides players through the complexities of the title at a deliberate pace before taking the training wheels off completely was paramount as well. “That’s where having the time to figure out the structure that would help as many people be able to do that as possible was really great,” Mintz says. In practice, the progression in the game feels pretty natural and after a few songs of training, the skills that make it feel like you’re behind the music control come in.

“Getting something functional on the hardware is doable, right? That’s why you see all these cool hacks out there,” he says. “Taking the time to build that into a game context where there’s a really strong design around it, where there are goals and things for the player to explore with it? That seems like the harder part.”

It’s difficult because any tech demo can be fun for five minutes, but stretching it into a 10-hour or more experience that people actually want to come back to takes work, along with, naturally, some talent and a willingness to keep exploring new avenues when older ones aren’t panning out. It takes a bit of a maturity to not have tunnel vision or get stuck on an incorrect solution to a problem, too — something forged in the hobbyist scene. If something isn’t doing what you want, you either have to find a creative way around it, or just take a step back in the project and start fresh.

“Night on Bald Mountain,” from Fantasia

In the embryonic stages, Fantasia was more like a puzzle-based point-and-click adventure, but with gesture controls. That led to an issue of trying to avoid overwhelming the player with the user interface so that he or she wouldn’t literally be flailing about, not knowing what to do next — actions that clashed with the game’s target audience of kids and families.

“It always felt to me that it was giving players a point-and-click adventure’s inventory puzzle, but the inventory was anything you could physically do in front of the camera,” Mintz says. There was much waving about in vain attempts to solve puzzles, and the feature was ultimately scrapped, but it led to Fantasia‘s 3D cursor system in the end. What’s in place now is nigh-invisible, and surprisingly intuitive.

There was even a two-handed mode at one time, where each extremity represented a cursor, and you were spreading paint around a given scene. While it might seem like a waste, these failures eventually led to the game’s final form: more or less putting you in Mickey Mouse’s wizard cap to conduct an orchestra (or pop song) — often two hands at a time, and remix music set to some pretty wild visuals.

“It’s a matter of seeing [a hack] in a game context and with a whole host of other problems,” says Fitzgerald. “Not the least of which is what will people pay you for? [laughs]“

[Image credit: AFP/Getty Images (Theremin players)]

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‘Don’t freak out!’ and other tips for surviving layoffs as a video game developer

Halo Spinoff

The game industry is capable of building incredible worlds, engrossing us with believable characters, and empowering us to destroy (or create!) both. The unfortunate side of all that enchantment is the shaky business models that much of the industry are built on, which leads to cyclical, annualized layoffs that affect even the most successful franchises. Just look at the recent history of Joystiq‘s layoffs tag: it’s ridiculous. Why is this the case? Kotaku‘s Jason Schreier did an excellent job reporting that last year, right here, so we’re not going to duplicate efforts. This piece is about what you can do, should you find yourself being put through the wringer this holiday.

Oh, and yes, the annualized layoffs tend to happen around the holidays (which coincides with many companies’ financial quarters ending). Sucks, right?

Seattle-based animator Floyd Bishop took to his website, GameDevTalk, and laid out a list of best practices should you encounter the ever-swinging scythe of layoffs. First and foremost? Make sure you actually listen when human resources is walking you through the proceedings.

“There will be lots of information, and you’re still reeling from the initial shock. Try to write things down, if you can. If you didn’t hear something, or have a question, ask it now. They may also have some hand outs ready for you that tell you what happens next. Be nice! This is not a fun day to work in human resources.”

Okay, okay — that’s pretty general “I got laid off” advice. Fair enough. If you’re of the game developer variety, though, Bishop’s got targeted advice too. For instance, get your work online immediately, and sign up for job newsletters from the biggies. “Sites like Gamasutra, Creative Heads, and even Indeed have both job listings and job alert email lists,” Bishop points out.

Despite video games going mainstream, the industry that creates those games remains surprisingly small. As such, Bishop recommends, “Do not instantly talk trash about the studio you were just let go from.” Is it tempting? Sure is! These are the bastards who just fired you, right? Yes, they are, and they may also be the people who hire you for a new project in five years.

Bishop of course has far more detail than we’ve put in here, so we suggest heading over and reading the full piece if you’re in the regrettable position of being laid off as a game dev this holiday.

[Image credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson]

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Source: GameDevTalk


Microsoft is finally dropping the ‘Nokia’ from Lumia

Microsoft Lumia logo

Over a year after the acquisition was first announced, Microsoft is officially replacing the Nokia Lumia brand. In a blog post today, the software giant revealed its upcoming smartphones will now be known as Microsoft Lumia. The new Microsoft branding will appear on future phones from the company, with a plain black version of the company’s four-squared logo also set to make an appearance.

Tuula Rytilä, Microsoft’s SVP of Marketing for Phones, says the company is looking to unveil its first own-brand Lumia phone “soon.” Rytilä is also keen to note that the change in nomenclature will not affect the support of current Nokia devices. Although the Nokia name will no longer be used for smartphones, low-end phones — the company calls out the Nokia 130 — will still be sold under the banner. Nokia still has brand cachet in Europe and developing markets, and it’s likely that Microsoft will continue to exploit that fact for years to come.

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Source: Microsoft (Nokia Conversations)


Microsoft is doing great, and so are Surface Pro 3 and Office 365

Microsoft Store

The cloud has been a solid source of income for Microsoft in recent times, and while the company is still in the middle of a huge transition, the future is looking bright under recently appointed CEO Satya Nadella. Today, Microsoft released its earnings for the first fiscal 2015 quarter, with the main takeaway being the growth of its Devices and Consumer revenue by 47 percent, to $10.96 billion, and a total of $23.20 billion in overall revenue, a 25 percent increase compared to the same period last year. In other words, business is superb over in Redmond.

Part of the reason for this is how successful its productivity suite, Office 365, has been — there are now over 7 million subscribers to the Home and Personal software. What’s more, Microsoft revealed that the Surface Pro 3 drove the momentum of its Surface line to a revenue $908 million, doubling the amount of the previous quarter; meanwhile, 2.4 million Xbox units were sold during the term, though the company didn’t specify how many of those were for its newest console, the Xbox One.

Beyond that, its smartphone efforts continues to be on the rise. The phone hardware business totaled $2.6 billion and 9.3 million Lumias were sold, which is an even better figure than the record 8.8 million sales reported within the same timeframe last year. “We delivered a strong start to the year, with continued cloud momentum and meaningful progress across our device businesses,” Amy Hood, Microsoft’s Executive Vice President and CFO, Amy Hood, said in a statement from the company. “We will continue to invest in high-growth opportunities and drive efficiencies across the organization to deliver long-term shareholder value.”


[Image credit: Michael Kappel/Flickr]

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Let’s look at each game console’s lineup of exclusives for holiday 2014

Can you smell that? It’s the aroma of game lovers’ tears everywhere as they realize their bank accounts likely can’t sustain buying every title coming out in the annual deluge of fall video game releases. That’s to say nothing of the amount of time you’d need to play absolutely everything that’s come out since September. Or even on November 18th alone! But what is each console offering exclusively this holiday? That’s a bit more manageable, and we compare them below.

With a few exceptions, nearly everything made by a third-party developer (i.e., one not working solely with Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony) is available on PC, so we’re going to leave those out of the conversation. Platform-exclusive goodies don’t count here either — adios, Far Cry 4!

Sony’s PlayStation 4

Sony made its bed at E3 this year and is now getting comfy under that (likely luxurious) comforter. During its near-two-hour-long media briefing, it mentioned first-party retail games exactly three times. And in that trio, only one title was an original game for the PS4 that was coming out this year. That was none other than the adorable 2D platformer, LittleBigPlanet 3. The other two? The Last of Us: Remastered and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. While LBP3 will likely be every bit as whimsical and charming as previous efforts, it isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind as a tentpole fall release that’ll move loads of consoles — especially not when it releases the same day as Far Cry 4 and the Grand Theft Auto 5 remaster: November 18th. Not that the PS4 needs much help with that anyway; last we knew, over 10 million of them have been sold so far.

Considering what we’ve been able to experience of it, it’s pretty apparent why the already-released racer Driveclub wasn’t given any time on the stage at E3 this past June. The game is pretty in spots, but an absolute bore to play, which is all the more disheartening given that the developer’s previous work was the over-the-top (and excellent) MotorStorm franchise. That’s to say nothing of how the game’s been hamstrung by connectivity woes that render its key feature, a socially driven online experience, utterly unusable.

PlayStation’s fall commercial featured third-party games exclusively.

No one really expects a system’s launch to have amazing games, but here we are almost a year later and the PlayStation 4 still doesn’t have a killer app. Even Sony itself seems to acknowledge this with TV spots that feature third-party games exclusively. Hell, the PlayStation Twitter account’s header image is for the trio of those titles in the commercial — not one of its internally developed games. At this point in its predecessor’s lifecycle there was the first Uncharted as well as Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction to look forward to; neither Driveclub nor LBP 3 look to stand up to that legacy. Looking ahead, Sony’s got The Order: 1886 (originally scheduled for a fall 2014 release) coming early next year, in addition to the hugely anticipated Bloodborne, the next game from the Dark Souls team. For now, though, the PS4 is a hard sell when it comes to games that you can’t get anywhere else.

Nintendo’s Wii U

Super Smash Bros. Those three words alone could be enough to carry Nintendo through this holiday season, but the gaming giant has a pair of other games to help lighten Mario and Co.’s load too. Not only is Smash absurdly anticipated — the 3DS version beyond whet our appetite — but it’s also releasing on two platforms and has its own set of Skylanders-esque figurines (dubbed amiibo). Nintendo’s had a relatively good year so far, and if Mario Kart 8 was any indication, we can expect the Wii U version of its mascot-laden fighting game to flex some serious muscle when it comes to moving a few consoles come November 21st and beyond.

Then we have the just-released Bayonetta 2 (like, this week), a game that’s likely to please the hardcore crowd with its frenetic pacing and old-school approach to action and combat. Granted, it earns every bit of its Mature rating, but series fans know what they’re getting into with this one. You’re a witch who fights angels and demons on the back of a fighter jet, among other places. Seriously. Who can’t get behind a premise like that?

Taking a step away from the violent side of things is Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, a spin-off from last year’s incredibly good Super Mario 3D Land. In Captain Toad, you’re navigating the adorable, mushroom-adorned Toad through a variety of puzzles in themed worlds that should be familiar to anyone who played 2013’s Mario release. Wait, you didn’t? For shame! At least you can make up for that this year.

Surprisingly, Nintendo’s first-party line-up is incredibly strong this season. The Japanese company’s reputation rests on its ability to make games that no one else can or seemingly wants to. Even without a proper Mario or Legend of Zelda release this holiday (we’re excepting Hyrule Warriors as a side game rather than series entry), Nintendo proved that it has what’s needed to compete against the likes of its relatively younger opponents with practiced ease.

Microsoft’s Xbox One

Perhaps more than any console maker, Microsoft has the most to prove this fall. Redmond came out on the losing end of a PR battle when it announced confusing (and somewhat consumer-hostile) policies for the Xbox One last year, not to mention it costing $100 more than its closest rival, the PS4. Phil Spencer and Co. responded in 2014 by doubling down on games, hoping to shed the image forged by a previous management regime. At the firm’s media event at E3 this year, it spent the entire time talking about games and a majority of that was devoted to platform exclusives and first-party titles. The company line that it was all about “games, games, games” wasn’t a hollow promise and this fall’s crop of Xbox One releases shows it.

Let’s start with Forza Horizon 2: It’s excellent. Unlike Driveclub, it’s a social-based racing game that worked as promised from the outset. Beyond that, though, it’s an absolute blast to play. From racing against a bullet train as The Clash’s “Train in Vain” blasts over your car’s stereo, to challenging a buddy’s ghost to a head-to-head race only to see it drive his Hemi ‘Cuda up a hillside in effort to gain the lead, there’s loads to see and do in the game. In fact, both Ben Gilbert and I have stopped playing Destiny to soak in as much of virtual Nice as possible. You should not miss Forza Horizon 2.

When it was first teased at E3 2013, no one quite knew what to make of Sunset Overdrive. It was a parkour-style open-world something from the folks at Insomniac Games (Ratchet and Clank and Resistance franchises for PlayStation), but that’s all anyone really knew. What a difference a year made, however. What we played of the punk-rock take on Crackdown and to a certain extent, Tony Hawk Pro Skater, though, at E3 this year made us believers. It’s unapologetically a video game; bright, stylized and flashy, with a highly saturated color palette that emphasizes cartoony fun over everything else. Hell, there’s a weapon that shoots ricocheting vinyl records at energy-drink-crazed mutants and an RPG that uses teddy bears as ammunition. It’s the best kind of ridiculous.

And how could anyone forget Halo: The Master Chief Collection? We broke the news that it was coming, and since then it’s been impossible to ignore. Microsoft is going all-out for this release and including every multiplayer map that’s ever been in a Halo game into the package, as well as fully remastered versions of classic Halo 2 arenas and a totally overhauled campaign for the sequel. What else? The other three numbered Halo releases running at 1080p and 60 FPS.

Perhaps even more than Nintendo, Microsoft was in panic mode this past year. Given the improvements that’ve been made to the Xbox One’s system software and the price drop that brings parity between it and the PS4, the Xbox One is the best environment to play games that you can’t get anywhere else this fall. If all goes well, maybe Redmond will take to touting sales numbers of its own soon enough.

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Some Xbox One users can already add custom backgrounds to the console

The folks in Microsoft’s Xbox One update preview program are a pretty privileged bunch. Hot on the heels of this week’s announcement that the next patch for its new console will bring custom backgrounds, Redmond’s giving that access to the testers starting today. This is in addition to the ability to use a custom color or achievement image for your backdrop, and comes as an update to the system’s media player app. Sounds pretty simple to use, too: just open the JPEG or PNG file of choice from a USB drive, hit the controller’s menu button and choose to set the image as a background. What’s more, the outfit has even posted a Photoshop template for calculating just what in your picture will and won’t be obscured by the Xbox One’s tile-filled dashboard. Voila, now you’ll have something other than the infinite blackness of eternal night to occupy the system’s UI.

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Source: Major Nelson


Windows 10 has new ways to protect you against internet data breaches

Windows 10 Technical Preview

There are plenty of online services that use two-factor authentication to reduce the chances of someone hijacking your account after a data breach, but what about the operating system on your PC or phone? You’ll get that safeguard if you use Windows 10, according to a Microsoft security brief. The new OS will optionally treat a device (including something nearby, like your phone) as one authentication factor when signing into a local or internet account, and a PIN code or biometric reader as the second. If hackers find your login data sitting on a server, they won’t get to use it unless they also have your gear — and in some cases, they may need a fake fingerprint as well.

Not that Microsoft is leaning solely on this to guard your digital goods. The new platform will store user access tokens in a secure “container” that can’t be exposed, even if an intruder messes with the Windows kernel’s code. It’ll also keep your home and work data separate (like Android for Work or BlackBerry Balance), give you finer-grained control over virtual private networks and let companies prevent staff from installing anything but digitally signed apps. This doesn’t mean that you can stop worrying about control of your info as soon as you install Windows 10, but it could reduce the chances of a full-fledged security disaster.

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Source: Windows For Your Business, The Fire Hose


It costs $50 to plug an Xbox One Kinect into your PC

What’s stopping you from creating the first killer Kinect 2.0 hack? Well, now that Microsoft’s released the do-all sensor’s SDK to the public for free you don’t have many more excuses. The software development kit is available without any fees and what’s more, you can now put any finished apps up for sale on the Windows Store as well. Just like that! To help developers along even further, Redmond is releasing an adapter that makes the Xbox One Kinect play nicely with a Windows 8 PC. Meaning, they won’t have to use a hack to create a hack (or buy a redundant Windows Kinect). The $50 USB 3.0 dongle not only brings price parity between the two previously separate cameras, but it’s another instance of Microsoft reversing a previous hardline policy to better suit its customers too. Now, get out there and get cracking — the hardware giant already has a head start on you.

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Source: Official Microsoft Blog


Xbox Music ditches free desktop streaming on December 1st

Xbox Music on a Surface tablet

If you’re hooked on Xbox Music’s free desktop-based listening, you’re going to have make some backup plans very shortly. Microsoft has announced that it’s dropping the no-cost web and Windows streaming option as of December 1st; after that, you’ll have to pay for a Music Pass if you want all-you-can-eat tunes beyond the 30-day trial period. The company claims that it’s refocusing Xbox Music to make it the “ultimate music purchase and subscription service,” although it’s not elaborating on what that entails. Suffice it to say that Microsoft has a lot of competition in the free music space. Its main rival, Spotify, has over 30 million free users worldwide on a wider range of platforms — it wouldn’t be easy for Microsoft to challenge that lead using the free tier you know today.

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Via: Marques Lyons (Twitter)

Source: Xbox Support (sign-in required)


Microsoft Android Wear app lets you search Bing by twisting your wrist

Microsoft Torque on a Samsung Gear Live

Slightly irked that you have to say “OK Google” whenever you want to use voice search on your Android Wear smartwatch? Microsoft, of all companies, is coming to your rescue. The developer is leading a trio of experimental Android releases with Torque, an app that lets you start a Bing search just by twisting your wrist; you only have to speak when you’re asking your question. You’ll get optimized output for certain kinds of search results, including maps, stocks and weather.

The other apps are meant solely for your phone, but they could be equally handy. Next Lock Screen puts important at the top level of your phone, including missed calls and frequently used apps; you can also change the lock screen’s background depending on your location. Journeys & Notes, meanwhile, lets you write notes to share with anyone else who visits nearby, such as tips about what to eat. All three of Microsoft’s latest Android apps are free, so it probably won’t hurt to give them a try.

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Via: Droid-Life, Microsoft

Source: Google Play (Torque), (Next Lock Screen), (Journeys & Notes)


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