The plot thickens in the Machine Zone vs. Kabam lawsuit

Kate Upton in Game of War: Fire Age ad.

When Game of War mobile game publisher Machine Zone sued Kabam a couple of weeks ago for allegedly accessing a confidential Machine Zone document, the evidence was based on an argument that took place at a cocktail party. But now, during the course of discovery in the lawsuit, Kabam has disclosed an email that Machine Zone says supports its case. On top of that, the declaration of a Kabam employee appears to shed some light on some financial details that Machine Zone wants to keep private.

Gabe Leydon, CEO of Machine Zone.

Above: Gabe Leydon, CEO of Machine Zone.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

The newly disclosed email from Kabam corporate development director Daniel Wiggins is the latest in what Kabam belittles as an episode of HBO’s farce, the Silicon Valley TV show. But if this email is an indicator of what is to come in the case, the whole thing could turn out to provide a rare look inside the corporate walls at two of Silicon Valley’s largest mobile game companies.

The incident started on August 12 during the Casual Connect game conference at an after-party that took place at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. Gabe Leydon, the chief executive of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Machine Zone and whose Game of War: Fire Age has been in the top charts for a couple of years, was at the party with Wiggins. Based on sources interviewed by GamesBeat, we believe Leydon is trying to raise a $500 million round of funding — a huge amount for a mobile game company. His pitch deck (a PowerPoint document) was apparently being circulated by investment bank Morgan Stanley, as we reported on June 25, well before the incident happened.

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Wiggins and Leydon got in an argument while drinking at the cocktail party. During that bickering, Wiggins allegedly told Leydon that he had seen the confidential Machine Zone pitch deck. After that, Leydon became irate, and Machine Zone sued Kabam the next day. The companies began gathering testimony and witnesses. At first, Kabam said the lawsuit was ridiculous, like an episode of Silicon Valley, and that it could find nothing related to Machine Zone’s deck in all of Wiggins’ computer documents. Kabam still maintains it does not have the confidential document.

But the case has brought up one interesting email. Provided by Kabam, the email from Wiggins shows that he sent a message to his supervisor, Chris Petrovic, the senior vice president at Kabam, about Machine Zone’s attempts to raise money. In an email sent on July 10 with the subject line (sic) “Re: MachineZone and Japan,” Wiggins told his boss that he talked to a banker at Morgan Stanley who was complaining about “how slow Japanese companies were to make decisions and negotiate.”

Petrovic asked who the “big players,” or presumably potential investors, were. Wiggins replied, “No confirmations. I got him to admit that they were advising, which was prior a two-source rumor. I tested (sic) w “so SoftBank and Gung Ho” [a reference to SoftBank and its subsidiary GungHo Online Entertainment],” and he laughed, awkwardly excused himself from our group.”

That email message differs slightly from an account that Wiggins gave earlier, where he said that he met a Morgan Stanley person at a different party and couldn’t confirm that they were representing Machine Zone in its attempt to raise money. In his previous declaration, he had said that he surmised that Morgan Stanley’s big client was Machine Zone.

Kabam spokesman Steve Swasey, senior vice president of corporate communications, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the email means nothing and doesn’t corroborate any of Machine Zone’s allegations.

“They are chasing an elusive butterfly which has transparent wings, because it doesn’t exist,” Swasey said. “We have been transparent on this because we know there is nothing here. Regretably, it has gone on for far too long. We want it to go away, but we will defend ourselves.”

Kabam email, with email addresses redacted, between Daniel Wiggins and Chris Petrovic.

Above: Kabam email, with email addresses redacted, between Daniel Wiggins and Chris Petrovic.

Image Credit: Court records

But Machine Zone views the email as a kind of smoking gun. Tracy Tosh Lane, the deputy general counsel and head of litigation for Machine Zone, issued a statement about the discovery of the email.

“Kabam’s story simply doesn’t add up. One month before Casual Connect, Daniel Wiggins sends an email bragging to his boss, SVP Chris Petrovic, that he successfully pumped a Morgan Stanley banker for highly confidential Machine Zone information,” Tosh Lane said. “Rather than reprimanding Mr. Wiggins, Mr. Petrovic applauds Mr. Wiggins’ behavior and even asks for more information. Mr. Wiggins’s statements at Casual Connect are looking like more of a drunken confession than innocent banter. We believe this email is just the tip of the iceberg and reveals the true business practices of Kabam and its executives.”

Wiggins sent a second email about Morgan Stanley shopping around a Machine Zone deal, but that was simply a copy of my publicly available article on rumors about the deal.

Wiggins’ own previously undisclosed declaration of what happened was recently unsealed in the court, and it is also revealing. Wiggins’ job is “competitive intelligence,” or finding out what other companies are doing.

Wiggins claims in his declaration that he and Leydon gradually became involved in a “very heated exchange” about the business prospects for both companies. Leydon put down Kabam for being dependent on licenses from Hollywood entertainment companies. Kabam has licenses from Disney’s Marvel and Warner Bros.’ The Lord of the Rings properties. Wiggins alleges that Leydon said that the licensors are “evil” and “predatory” and that “game developers [such as those who license their works to Kabam] are stupid to work with licensors because they take advantage of the game developers.”

Game of War: Fire Age

Above: Game of War: Fire Age

Image Credit: Machine Zone

Wiggins declared, “I felt Mr. Leydon was extremely aggressive — if not downright hostile — in attacking Kabam so openly and in public.”

Wiggins further said that Leydon “bragged” that his company had only paid about $1 million to use supermodel Kate Upton’s likeness in the Game of War ads. As a result, Wiggins said that Leydon contended that the Upton rights were “hugely profitable for Machine Zone.” Leydon also allegedly said that Upton did not require Machine Zone to pay ongoing royalties for the use of her likeness.

Leydon also reportedly said that his company has 1.2 to 1 ratio of lifetime value (LTV) to cost per install (CPI). That means that the amount of money that Machine Zone gets from its free-to-play games is 1.2 times the marketing spend. Wiggins did a calculation in his head (first doing so inaccurately) and concluded that marketing spend is about 83 percent of Machine Zone’s costs. Wiggins doubted that model would be sustainable.

Upon hearing that, Leydon allegedly said that Machine Zone’s revenues next year would be $1 billion. In other words, Leydon allegedly communicated a confidential figure that is likely part of the confidential document in question. Wiggins said the rumor was that Machine Zone was not profitable, and he alleges that Leydon replied that the company could become profitable very quickly if it just stopped “spending so much on marketing.”

The argument came to a halt when Wiggins said he told a lie. He admitted in his declaration that he told Leydon that he saw the confidential Morgan Stanley document and knew what Machine Zone’s numbers were. Wiggins said in his declaration that, in fact, he had never seen a confidential deck about Machine Zone.

Wiggins alleges that Leydon “shouted at me for some time.” Witnesses reported that the two men did in fact get into a heated argument over the matter. Leydon reportedly showed his phone to Wiggins to convey that he was texting his lawyer to file a lawsuit against Wiggins and Kabam.

I would expect Machine Zone’s legal counsel to point out that the witness declarations do not (so far) verify that Leydon himself disclosed any of the financial information during the argument. I would also expect them to say that Wiggins isn’t a reliable source of what Leydon said, as he admitted that he was both drinking and lied about one thing.

Near the end of his declaration, Wiggins said that Machine Zone’s complaint has many inaccuracies. He concluded, “In hindsight, I should not have made the false boast that I did about seeing a Morgan Stanley ‘deck.’ The fact is that I had had a few drinks, was just angry that Mr. Leydon was being so unreasonably aggressive about Machine Zone, and felt that someone should put him in his place about how wrong he was to attack Kabam and about his company’s long-term prospects for profitability.”

Sensel unveils its Morph pressure-sensitive pad for touch devices

Sensel is creating a new kind of touch user interface with the Sensel Morph.

Sensel is unveiling a new kind of touch user interface, the Sensel Morph, that lets you do things like paint with a brush on a PC.

The Sensel Morph is a pressure-sensitive pad that the company believes can become a next-generation input device for creators and innovators, with applications in music, art, gaming, and more. The company is launching a Kickstarter campaign today to try to raise $60,000 for the product.

San Francisco-based Sensel has created a pad that is the size of an iPad and has more than 20,000 sensors. It can translate the detail, speed, expression, and power of touch with precision that goes far beyond swiping on a tablet surface, the company contends.

“Ever since I started using computers, I’ve been frustrated by how limiting all the interfaces that we use daily are. Keyboards, mice and touch screens are unable to capture the creativity or the expression of our hands,” said Ilya Rosenberg, CEO and co-founder of Sensel, in a statement. “With Sensel, we wanted to build a new interface which captures all the nuance of human touch and makes this available to any application – from painting or playing a musical instrument, to sculpting virtual clay.”

Sensel Morph

Above: Sensel Morph

Image Credit: Sensel

Beyond fingers and styli, the Sensel Morph can detect any object or creative tool, from paintbrushes to drum sticks. Sensel partnered with frogVentures, the investment arm of global product strategy and design firm Frog, to co-develop the intuitive and engaging user experience.

“Our digital tools have progressed far beyond the slowly evolving physical interfaces we use to interact with them – it’s time to catch up,” said Ethan Imboden, vice president and head of venture design at Frog, in a statement. “Our work with Sensel focuses on closing the gap between creative intent and digital realization. Sensel Morph is simple, powerful and adaptable.”

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The Sensel Morph can be used with optional magnetic, flexible, and fully customizable overlays that transform the device into any instrument or tool. Five overlays are now available, including: a QWERTY keyboard, an MPC-style MIDI controller, a piano and a drum-pad. The fifth is a translucent “innovator’s” overlay, which allows users to design, print and use their own custom interfaces. The company will release new interfaces, which are easily implemented and automatically detected by the Sensel Morph.

Users will be able to create new, custom interfaces. Sensel Morph users will also have access to a vast range of interfaces created by other users, with the ability to load a new interface with a single click of a button. Sensel has an open source applications programming interface.

“We’re now accustomed to using electronic devices that upgrade and improve over time, and until now, physical interfaces (keyboards, mice, midi controllers, etc) have been the exception,” said Aaron Zarraga, CTO and cofounder of Sensel, in a statement. “Sensel is creating the first physical, tactile interface that is both dynamic and upgradable. We’re hoping that people use the Morph to create interfaces that have never been possible before. Human interaction with the digital world can be so much more than just tapping on glass.”

The Sensel Morph is compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Arduino. Sensel was founded in 2013, and is a graduate of the StartX accelerator. Sensel has five employees.

Sensel Morph

Above: Sensel Morph

Image Credit: Sensel

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In Sony’s Until Dawn interactive horror game, the player becomes part of the narrative

Who will your survivors be? Here's Mike and Sam in Until Dawn.

Editors note: We’ve tried to remove most of the story spoilers in this interview.

In Until Dawn, the interactive horror game is what you make of it. Based on the chaos theory of the butterfly effect, where a small change or decision can have a very large downstream impact, Until Dawn forces you to make split-second life-or-death decisions about eight young adults who are trapped at a mountain lodge.

The title debuts in North America today as an exclusive on the Sony PlayStation 4. We think that it’s one of the best collaborations of Hollywood and video games to date, with a lot of different branching stories about each of the main characters. Your job in the game is to make decisions that enable each character to survive the night. It is a very different kind of horror tale than you’ll see at the movies on a Saturday evening.

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Hollywood writers and directors Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick wrote the story of Until Dawn, with more than 10,000 pages of dialogue. It took that much writing because any of the eight characters can die. That means each character’s part of the story has to be like a main storyline. We played the game all the way through a couple of times and interviewed Reznick about how he and Fessenden approached the writing and worked with the video game designers at Supermassive Games.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. Read our review here.

Graham Reznick, co-writer of Until Dawn.

Above: Graham Reznick, the co-writer of Until Dawn.

Image Credit: Sony

GamesBeat: One thing I didn’t know about was your background in writing game narratives. Can you talk about that, as it compares to Hollywood work?

Graham Reznick: This is actually the first game I’ve written. We started this project in 2011. Technically the Until Dawn that’s being released is the second game I’ve written. The first one was the Until Dawn for the PS3, which wasn’t released. We started it as a PlayStation Move project, wrote it, and worked on it for about two years. Then it was decided that we’d scrap that version and go to PS4, and we decided to rewrite everything from scratch. The technology allowed us to do far better facial animation, which meant the acting could be more nuanced. We could tell the story through a more cinematic style of dialogue.

My background is primarily film. I’m a writer and director. I’ve done a lot of sound design, music, and so on.

GamesBeat: What was attractive to you about the project? It seems like one of the unique things about this is the butterfly effect. I’d imagine that causes a lot of branching in the narrative that you have to write around.

Reznick: Definitely. That was a big draw for me. This came about because my co-writer on the project, Larry Fessenden – the head of Glass Eye Pix, which is the company myself and a lot of my friends make movie for – had been approached by Supermassive. Larry doesn’t have a history with games. He didn’t grow up a gamer. But he knew I did, so he brought me on.

We wrote a bunch of tests, sample sections of the game. We didn’t know anything about it or what it was going to be. We just had some test specs, assignments to write. We were immediately attracted to the approach Supermassive had, what Will Byles and Pete Samuels had come up with. It was very similar to a cinematic approach, and similar to the Glass Eye Pix ethos. They weren’t making this type of horror game for cynical reasons. They wanted to make the best stories they could in the best way.

As far as the butterfly effect and the branching narrative, as a filmmaker and a screenwriter, you sit down with a character and a story, and then you immediately think of every possible version of that story at any given moment. You’re trying to find the best path for your screenplay. If a character has to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread, there’s a million ways that can happen. Who’s he gonna run into along the way? Does the store get held up when he gets there?

Writing the game is basically the same, but all those different weird little pathways suddenly become additional scenes that you have to write in tandem with the main story. Or what you hold onto as the main story for a little while, until you start realizing, “Oh my God, they’re all main stories.” It’s like writing parallel universes, which is—I’m a big science fiction fan, so that appealed to me.

Mike and Emily in Until Dawn.

Above: Mike and Emily in Until Dawn.

Image Credit: Sony

GamesBeat: The combinations seem mind-boggling. If you have 16 characters, I imagine that the number of lines of dialogue you have to write just multiplies and multiplies.

Reznick: It’s insane. We have eight main characters, and they all can live or die at various points in the game. You can finish the game with them all alive, all dead, or any permutation in between. It’s not just whether they’re alive or dead that changes the narrative. Little choices you make change the personalities of the characters in interesting ways, which then has a ripple effect throughout the narrative. There’s all these things that can completely alter the path through the game.

I don’t know for sure how many pages are in the final PS4 version, but between the two versions there have been more than 10,000 pages of dialogue written. It’s been pretty intense.

GamesBeat: Now let’s bring up the analyst. At the end of each episode, you have a conversation. You don’t know who the analyst is talking to yet. He talks about how you’re playing the game. It made me think that he was talking directly to me, the player, rather than the psycho in the story. That ambiguity was very interesting. It made it suspenseful, but it also layered in different messages. I wonder if you could talk about that a little.

Reznick: The analyst in the game is an interesting device. It came later in the process, but it’s something we were always thinking about. In a sense, the analyst stands in for the video game designers and the writers, that part of our persona as we’re creating the game.

Last year, when the game was shown at Gamescom, or maybe it was more than a year ago, the developers put a little survey in front of the game asking about people’s fears. That was so the demo could get some information to help us understand what we should do as we were finishing the game. But it was so impactful for the player to feel like they were having an effect on the actual tonality of the game, more than just the narrative – as if it were catered to them. Will Byles realized that should be part of the game.

Dr. Hill, the psychoanalyst who appears during intermissions, narrates your progress in Until Dawn.

Above: Dr. Hill, the psychoanalyst who appears during intermissions, narrates your progress in Until Dawn.

Image Credit: Sony

GamesBeat: There was a time, maybe in the beginning, that I felt as if I was the puppet master. And then you find that there’s another character who’s the puppet master. But at various times, especially when you’re doing something like a jump scare, I feel like you’re the puppet master. The writer is manipulating the player.

Reznick: Here’s an interesting way to look at it. When you’re making a movie, everything is very static. You show the audience one specific story, the story the filmmaker wants to show. That’s how the artform, the medium of film, works. It’s great, and there’s a million different ways to explore that.

What’s exciting about games, and specifically narrative-based games, is that you can take that approach from filmmaking, the curated narrative, and then explode it out so that the designers and writers of the game are curating a narrative environment for the player, but the player becomes a complicit collaborator. The interplay becomes very interesting when the player is not sure exactly what all the pieces are. It’s like you’re moving chess pieces around on a board, but one of those pieces can suddenly melt and turn acidic, or one of them can explode and blow up half the board.

It’s kind of like real life in that way. You move through life trying to make your way through your environment, and you think you know what’s going on sometimes, but people can surprise you. Little things you do have impacts on the environment and the milieu around you. Our biggest goal with this was to make sure the player could weave their own narrative through a larger meta-narrative that we created, but that it would always be satisfying, no matter what happened.

That was the biggest challenge. You can get to the end and all the characters will be dead, but it’s still a satisfying story. You’ll still get the full nine-plus hours of gameplay and narrative.

GamesBeat: There are parts where it seems like the choice is not always easy or clear. It almost seems random. How much choice is built in to the game? You could go left or right, and if you go left, you die, and if you go right, you live. That sort of thing.

Reznick: Part of it was we didn’t want it to be super cut and dried at any given point, so you could say, “I’ll be the good guy here. I’ll be the bad guy there.” You just have to make choices. Almost all the choices you can make should be informed, to an extent. There are some more or less random ones in there, but I don’t remember exactly what all the choice points are. The majority aren’t so black and white. Some of them are.

Samantha, played by Hayden Penetierre, is about to be in trouble as she takes a bath in Until Dawn.

Above: Samantha, played by Hayden Panettierre, is about to be in trouble as she takes a bath in Until Dawn.

Image Credit: Sony
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IndoorAtlas offers navigation inside buildings, so you can always find the mall bathroom

IndoorAtlas uses magnetic fields to track location indoors.

IndoorAtlas has begun to deliver its service that lets you navigate inside enclosed buildings such as shopping malls.

IndoorAtlas' IPS app can find a mall bathroom.

Above: IndoorAtlas’ IPS app can find a mall bathroom.

Image Credit: IndoorAtlas

The Palo Alto, California-based company, which was founded in Finland, launched a private beta test in San Francisco for its “indoor positioning system,” or IPS, which lets you navigate to find specific stores, brands, products, promotions, and your friends. The navigation is a big deal because retailers say they lose 15 percent of sales because consumers cannot find the store or the product they’re looking for.

I saw a demo of the service inside the Westfield San Francisco Centre, a multistory mall in San Francisco. I started out at Bloomingdale’s and made my way to a Godiva chocolate shop, and the navigation worked precisely and continuously.

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Using the standalone IPS app, shoppers can now find the exact locations of specific products at multiple locations and then be guided to the last meter to find them. I searched on items such as men’s watches and was directed to different stores that offered them in the mall. We also found a restroom, which is the most frequently requested location at a mall. The directions were accurate, showing me a path around various obstacles among the Bloomingdale’s displays.

The service works only indoors and is a complement to global positioning systems (GPS), which use a network of satellites for fixing locations. By contrast, IndoorAtlas built a system based on the way that sea creatures such as lobsters and turtles navigate the oceans.

IndoorAtlas can find a chocolate shop at the mall.

Above: IndoorAtlas can find a chocolate shop at the mall.

Image Credit: IndoorAtlas

“We believe the IPS app will change the way people get around indoors, just like GPS did for outdoors,” said Janne Haverinen, CEO and founder of IndoorAtlas. “Our patented technology accurately determines positions within a wide range of indoor use cases like shopping malls, airports, museums, hospitals, hotels and more. Today’s beta release at the Westfield San Francisco Centre will be the first of many commercial spaces that leverage proximity awareness to deliver a superior experience to the visitor.”

IPS uses the core IndoorAtlas magnetic positioning technology and a smartphone compass to detect anomalies in the Earth’s magnetic fields. The company said the magnetic positioning works in every building with steel girders, to an accuracy of one to two meters. That makes it possible to do accurate indoor navigation, location-aware mobile search, location-based advertising, and online-to-offline commerce. This magnetic solution eliminates the need for cumbersome, expensive, hard-to-maintain external infrastructures such as beacons, routers, or radio access points via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

At the Westfield San Francisco mall, shoppers can get their exact location, paths to any place in the mall, product search results for categories from men’s belts to women’s dresses, and brand searches for specific brands such as Kate Spade or Hugo Boss. It also has a feature dubbed Buddy Finder. If your friend gives you permission, you can find where that person is in the mall and trace a path to reach them inside the building.

The app can’t yet tell which floor you are on in a multi-story building, however. You have to tell it which floor you are on.

Founded in 2012, IndoorAtlas already serves about 270 million users globally, thanks to a commercial rollout it did with Baidu in China. The company has 20 patents and more than 40 employees. It also signed a partnership with SK Planet in Seoul last week to enhance the O2O service, Syrup.

IndoorAtlas spun out of Oulu University in Finland. It has raised $14.5 million to date, including $10 million from Baidu. The IPS app is available on Android and iOS in a private beta in the U.S.

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Until Dawn is like a scary and riveting interactive horror movie

Samantha, played by Hayden Panettiere, in Until Dawn.

Editors note: This review has some minor story spoilers.

The new PlayStation 4 exclusive psychological horror game Until Dawn may go down as one of the finest collaborations of Hollywood and gaming.

Such collaborations have been tried for decades with underwhelming results, and this title could have been just one more cheap game version of an easily forgotton Hollywood horror B-movie. But the collaborators at Supermassive Games and horror film writers and directors Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick took their time to craft an ingenious and intricate story, and they made full use of the next-generation console’s ability to create realistic human characters that really look like people in a horror movie.

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The result of the four-plus years of work is a riveting, scary game that gives you a chance to save the characters in the story from making all-too-familiar mistakes in horror movies. Because the story is interactive, the experience is much more immersive and emotional. You can get to know the characters and feel much closer to them as they evolve, unlike the stereotypical characters who fill the body count in typical slasher movies. In the story, eight young adult friends are trapped on a remote mountain getaway after they find that there’s a killer loose among them. Your job is to make snap life-or-death decisions and save as many of them as you can as dawn approaches.

On the scary meter, Until Dawn ranks pretty high, as the creators actually tested the game with playtesters who were hooked up to biometric monitors. If a scene didn’t scare people as much as it could have, the developers went back to the drawing board. I measured my own pulse myself during part of the game. After one “jump scare” scene, my pulse shot up from around 70 to 108 beats per minute. I had plenty of little heart attacks while I played the 10 episodes of the game — twice.

But the title isn’t just about scaring the crap out of you. It also makes you ponder the relationships between characters and why you try harder to save some characters than others. The choices are not always black and white. The writing is really good and contemporary, with plenty of lines that will crack you up, like when a character says “Unfollow” after facing a psycho.

It’s also a story with a lot of foreshadowing and multiple layers. There’s a meta layer in the story where an analyst starts questioning you, the player, about how you think the “game” is going. The conversations with the analyst are just one part where you realize that nothing is as it seems on the mountain. And as the characters and story change, you realize that Until Dawn isn’t as predictable as you thought.

A long development cycle

Chris approaches an ominous barn in Until Dawn.

Above: Chris approaches an ominous barn in Until Dawn.

Image Credit: Sony

Supermassive Games and Sony have been working on the game for a long time, enlisting the seasoned horror filmmakers to concoct a story with a lot of branching storylines. Until Dawn was originally scheduled to be released on the PlayStation 3 with PlayStation Move motion controls. But the game was redone for the PlayStation 4 and the Dual Shock 4 controller, which also has motion-sensing capabilities. The new game has episodes that are akin to TV show segments. Between the two different games that were created, there are 10,000 pages of dialogue. There were so many branching stories that each story becomes like a main story unto its own, said Graham Reznick, co-writer of the game, in an interview with GamesBeat.

“We decided to rewrite everything,” said Reznick, regarding the switch from the PS3 to the PS4. “The PS4 had more facial animation and that meant that the actors could be much more nuanced and tell the story through a more cinematic dialog language.”

The game mechanics are similar to Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, where you have to periodically make binary choices, like hiding or running, to save someone’s life. You also have to be able to press the PlayStation controller buttons quickly and accurately in fast-moving situations. If you miss enough times, you may be sending a character to his or her death.

But the interesting twist that Until Dawn brings to the plot is the theory of the “Butterfly Effect,” or the chaos theory idea that suggests a small change in a system’s initial conditions can result in huge variations in a later state. The name was coined by Edward Lorenz, and it comes from an example where the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause subtle changes that affect the path of a hurricane weeks later. In the game, your smallest and biggest decisions can affect the outcome of the evening and who will survive “Until Dawn.” Sometimes, seemingly trivial choices will mean the difference between survival and death.

What you’ll like

Ultrarealistic human face animations

Emily in Until Dawn.

Above: Emily, played by Nichole Bloom, in Until Dawn.

Image Credit: Sony

Most game publishers advertise their games as “cinematic.” But this lives up to that claim. I’ve never been fooled by 3D graphics as much as I was in this game. The human faces look real. The movements of the characters still need work, as does the degree of interactivity. But when you’re staring at the face of one of these characters, it’s truly an amazing feat.

The title combines Hollywood actors with next-generation facial animation technology from Cubic Motion, the company whose animation tools also created the face capture of actors in games such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Ryse: Son of Rome.

As I noted in a preview, I saw from the outset that the characters are stunningly realistic, as if you’re looking at the real actors and actresses, rather than video game animations. Several times, my family members saw me playing the game and they asked, “Is that a movie or a game?” (It’s not a game I would willingly show one kids, though).

I caught a glimpse of the face of the cockiest male character, Michael (played by Brett Dalton), with a tear dripping from one of his eyes. It made me consider just for a moment that there was something deeper behind his always-macho facade. And for the most part, the close-up animations of each person made me feel sympathy for each character, rather than the usual sense of hate because they were about do something stupid that was going to get them killed. You form an emotional bond with the character and fear for his or her safety. And this only happens because of the quality of the motion capture and 3D animation.

It is as if the combination of Cubic Motion, 3Lateral technology, and the Killzone Engine in this title has almost gotten us across the “uncanny valley,” or the long-held idea that the more animators try to create realistic human faces, the more there’s something spooky about the image, and the more it eludes their grasp.

Interesting gameplay choices

Sam, Mike, and Emily contemplate a choice in Until Dawn.

Above: Sam, Mike, and Emily contemplate a choice in Until Dawn.

Image Credit: Sony

Sometimes the best thing is staying still. The game uses a motion-sensing Dual Shock 4 controller. Early on, you learn that making no choice at all, such as letting a bird be, is the right move. Sometimes you have to hide. In that case, your job is to keep the controller as still as possible. If your hands are trembling, then you’ll lose for certain. You might as well put the controller on the ground.

In the very first scene, the group of friends plays a poor-taste prank on one of the girls, Hannah, luring her into one of the men’s rooms at 2 a.m. on the promise of secret tryst. But most of the friends are hiding in the room, ready to snap pictures of the unaware visitor. The victim runs off into the snow alone, followed by her twin sister, who wasn’t in on the prank.

Running off alone is, of course, a major no-no in a horror story, and it is one that you can’t do anything about. Your job is to do something that helps them avoid a horrible fate. The women started running off into the snow and quickly found there was something spooky out there besides growling beasts. One of them finds a totem that signifies “death,” and you know you’re about to decide something important. You have to choose whether they should run through shortcuts or stay on a path. Eventually, they wind up on a cliff, trapped by their pursuer, and you have to choose which one of the girls will survive.

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Qualcomm Hexagon 680 promises improved location, better photos, and more battery life

Qualcomm Hexagon 680 DSP makes Snapdragon chips faster.

Qualcomm‘s new Hexagon 680 digital signal processor chip makes a lot of promises. The new mobile chip will enable better battery life for mobile devices, improved location data even when you don’t have a strong navigation signal, and photos that have a better blend of dark and bright imagery.

Qualcomm said that the new Hexagon 680 DSP will be part of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor and lead to better smartphones with improved camera and computing capabilities. You’ll see these chips in the next generation of mobile devices in the coming years.

The San Diego, Calif.-based company is describing the details of the Hexagon 680 this week at the Hot Chips engineering conference in Cupertino, Calif.

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The Hexagon 680 DSP offloads tasks from the main Snapdragon 820 processor. This is a more efficient way to do processing because the DSP was engineered to get certain kinds of tasks done faster while consuming less power than the central processing unit. The Hexagon DSP can double the music playback battery life on the Nexus 5.

The Hexagon 680 can handle sensor processing. The DSP is like a low-power island within the chip, so it can handle duties for parts of a phone that are always on, such as those counting steps or receiving data from sensors on your location. The latter task enables a smartphone to provide more accurate location information when you don’t have a strong global positioning system (GPS) signal.

Qualcomm also gets more power from the Hexagon 680 in the form of Hexagon Vector eXtensions. This added hardware supports advanced imaging and computer vision when used with the Qualcomm Spectra camera image sensor. In low-light situations, the Snapdragon 820 processor will use the image sensor and DSP to adaptively brighten areas of both video and photos that would otherwise appear too dark. With Hexagon 680, the Snapdragon 820 can perform this task three times faster than earlier generations of processors and at only 10 percent of the power.

With Hexagon 680 integrated into Snapdragon 820, Qualcomm said “the DSP is taking center stage on a wider-range of the newest user experiences.”

Qualcomm's Hexagon 680 DSP can brighten a picture that is too dark.

Above: Qualcomm’s Hexagon 680 DSP can brighten a picture that is too dark.

Image Credit: Qualcomm


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Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski teases announcement for his next game

Cliff Bleszinski is the creator of Project Bluestreak.

Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski teased his new online game. Game publisher Nexon is expected to reveal the game on Wednesday at 9 am Pacific time.

The first-person online shooter game has been known so far under the code name Project Bluestreak. On the web site, Nexon said: Welcome to The Shattering….Create an account to stay in the know & share the countdown timer to receive an exclusive forum badge! Come back tomorrow for the first reveal….

Polygon reported that the game would be called The Shattering, but Bleszinski tweeted that was incorrect. Bleszinski was a 20-year veteran game designer at Epic Games, and he is best known for his as lead designer of Gears of War, as well as his work on Unreal and the Unreal Tournament. He left the company in 2012. He started his own studio, Boss Key Productions, in 2014, and he set up a publishing deal with Tokyo-based Nexon.

Project Bluestreak

Above: Project Bluestreak

Image Credit: Nexon

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