The Sims gets its own in-game Alexa-style assistant, Lin-Z

There’s nothing like The Sims to log off from reality for a bit. Getting away from the increasingly ubiquitous world of smart assistants, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. EA announced this week that the perennial favorite life simulation series is getting its very own smart assistant.

Lin-Z is a lot like an in-game version of Alexa — or, for that matter, Google Assistant or Siri or Bixby or Cortana, et al. Accessed via a smart speaker with a familiar glowing green diamond, the assistant can play music, do trivia, tell jokes, turns lights on and off (smart home!) and order different services, like food, gardening and repair.

That feature is available this week in The Sims 4 for PC and Mac. Fittingly, the real Alexa is also getting a bunch of Sims-related skills, including trivia and the ability to play songs from the game’s soundtrack. That one’s available for users in Australia, Canada, India, the US and UK, for those looking to further blur the lines of reality.

Improbable urges Unity to unsuspend their license, to rectify ‘farcical’ situation for developers

Improbable may be pissed at Unity, but they still want them back.

In a blog post titled “A final statement on SpatialOS and Unity,” the team at the cloud gaming startup aimed to tell their side of the story and implored Unity to “clarify their terms or unsuspend our licenses.”

Unity is a game engine that developers use to create, among other things, games. Improbable offers a cloud solution to developers that basically enables large multiplayer online gameplay by rendering the game worlds across multiple servers on its SpatialOS platform.

Yesterday, Improbable announced that Unity had terminated their game engine access and that developers that used SpatialOS were in danger of losing their work. Unity responded that live and in development games were fine and that Improbable was in violation of their new terms of service and needed to negotiate a new partnership.

In the new blog post, Improbable doesn’t mince words, saying it “still has all its Unity license and access suspended. We cannot easily fix bugs, improve the service or really support our customers without being in a legal grey area. Anyone who has ever run a live game knows this is a farcical situation that puts games at risk.”

Last night, Improbable appeared to leverage their relation with rival engine-maker Epic Games to put the heat on Unity, creating a $25 million fund with the gaming giant to help developers move to “more open engines,” a pretty transparent knock on Unity.

Improbable now seems to be claiming that Unity basically changed the rules on them and was trying to bully them into a deal that none of their other partners have requested.

“We do not require any direct technical cooperation with an engine provider to offer our services – Crytek, Epic and all other providers clearly allow interoperability without commercial arrangement with cloud platforms. We have no formal technical arrangements there and have not required any with Unity for years.”

Losing Unity support is a huge blow to Improbable, which has raised $600 million largely on the promise that it can revolutionize online gaming, something that would prove difficult to do without one of the largest available game engines.

Improbable and Epic Games establish $25M fund to help devs move to ‘more open engines’ after Unity debacle

Improbable is taking a daring step after announcing earlier today that Unity had revoked its license to operate on the popular game development engine.

The UK-based cloud gaming startup has inked a late-night press release with Unity rival Epic Games, which operates the Unreal Engine and is the creator of Fortnite, establishing a $25 million fund designed to help game developers move to “more open engines.”

An incoming blog post penned by Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney and Improbable CEO Herman Narula reads, in part:

To assist developers who are left in limbo by the new engine and service incompatibilities that were introduced today, Epic Games and Improbable are together establishing a US $25,000,000 combined fund to help developers transition to more open engines, services, and ecosystems. This funding will come from a variety of sources including Unreal Dev Grants, Improbable developer assistance funds, and Epic Games store funding.

This is pretty bold on Improbable’s part and seems to suggest that Unity didn’t give them a call after Improbable published a blog post that signed off with, “You [Unity] are an incredibly important company and one bad day doesn’t take away from all you’ve given us. Let’s fix this for our community, you know our number.”

Unity, for its part, claims that they gave Improbable ample notice that they were in violation of their Terms of Service and that the two had been deep in a “partnership” agreement that obviously fell short. The termination of Improbable’s Unity license essentially cut them off from a huge portion of indie developers who build their stuff on Unity.

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney was quick to jump on the news earlier today, rebuking Unity’s actions.

“Epic Games’ partnership with Improbable, and the integration of Improbable’s cloud-based development platform SpatialOS, is based on shared values, and a shared belief in how companies should work together to support mutual customers in a straightforward, no-surprises way,” the blog post reads.

In a way this is a positive development for Improbable, suggesting that Epic Games is committed to sticking with the startup, but at the same time, one wonders how Unity and Improbable’s relationship managed to sour so quickly based on what’s been said publicly today.

A Pong table managed to wow CES 2019

That’s not the kind of headline one expects to write going into the week. But here we are. Universal Space’s analog Pong table is a mindblower in a whole unexpected way. The tabletop machine goes more retro than retro by bring pong into the real world through the magic of magnets (some day, perhaps, we’ll discover how they work).

There’s a square “ball” and a pair of rectangular paddles on either side, moved back and forth by spinning a wheel. Like the classic game, spinning faster and hitting corners puts a little English on it, as they say in billiards. Players score by striking the opposite side the ball. From there, you tap an orange arcade button to fire it back.

It’s really a thing to behold — even more so in single player mode, where the machine controls the other panel. You’ve got easy, medium and hard options for that. I’d start off slow, because there’s a bit of a noticeable lag that takes some getting used to.

It’s a neat parlor trick, and one that will almost certainly get party guests excited. It’ll cost you, though — $3,000 to be precise. The arcade model is an additional $1,500. It’s a lot to pay for what feels like a kind of one trick pony. Like the original Pong, it’s hard to imagine it holding one’s attention long enough to justify the price.

Unity pulls nuclear option on cloud gaming startup Improbable, terminating game engine license

A pair of highly-funded gaming unicorns are publicly skirmishing and the deal could have major repercussions for game developers.

Today, UK-based cloud gaming startup Improbable, announced that Unity, a hugely popular game development engine, had terminated their license, effectively shutting them out from one of their top customer sources. If permanent, the license termination would be a significant blow to Improbable, which enables studios to host large online multiplayer games across multiple servers. The gaming startup has raised more than $600 million from top investors like Softbank, Andreessen Horowitz and Horizons Ventures.

Just how many Improbable customers utilize Unity as their game engine of choice through the SpatialOS GDK is unknown, but the two platforms do share some similarities in appeal among small teams looking to innovate. “Unity is a popular engine and that popularity extends to the people using our [game development kit],” an Improbable spokesperson told TechCrunch. Improbable’s SpatialOS platform also runs on the Unreal Engine and CryEngine and can be designed to work with custom engines.

So, how’d this happen?

The way Improbable told it this morning, Unity changed their Terms of Service last month and then, without warning, pulled the rug out from under them. That’s not how Unity sees it though, the company penned a terse blog post in response, alleging that Improbable was well aware that they were in violation of the ToS.

“More than a year ago, we told Improbable in person that they were in violation of our Terms of Service or EULA. Six months ago, we informed Improbable about the violation in writing. Recent actions did not come as a surprise to Improbable; in fact, they’ve known about this for many months,” the post reads.

Unity developers using SpatialOS spent the day complaining about the move and wondering whether their projects in development would have to be completely reshaped. While the folks at Improbable also seemed unsure about this detail, Unity clarified in its blog post that SpatialOS projects that were live and in production would still be supported.

Unity’s Terms of Service isn’t exactly the most lucid reading material, but the section in question titled Streaming and Cloud Gaming Restrictions seems to lay out a fairly clear rebuke of what Improbable does.

You may not directly or indirectly distribute the Unity Software, including the runtime portion of the Unity Software (the “Unity Runtime”), or your Project Content (if it incorporates the Unity Runtime) by means of streaming or broadcasting so that any portion of the Unity Software is primarily executed on or simulated by the cloud or a remote server and transmitted over the Internet or other network to end user devices without a separate license or authorization from Unity.

The vagueness of the language does seem to give Unity broad discretion to wield the hammer.

The question, then, is why Improbable seems to have been targeted. Asked for comment, a Unity spokesperson referred us to their blog post. The answer probably lies in the “partnership” that both Unity and Improbable allude they were in the process of reaching, i.e. Unity likely wanted Improbable to pay up if they were going to be hosting the Unity Runtime on Improbable servers, but the two couldn’t come to an agreement.

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, whose company operates the rival Unreal Engine, seemed to rebuke Unity on Twitter, suggesting that engines need to be more transparent in the governing rules they establish.

Regardless, it now appears that Improbable realizes they may have pissed off the wrong powerful partner.

In a much more contrite blog post published later this afternoon, the team wrote, in part:

We apologize that this event we instigated has created so much uncertainty, confusion and pain for so many developers who really do not deserve this…

As a platform company, we believe humility and introspection are critical responses to the suffering of your community, however it comes about. We invite every company involved in today’s discourse to do a little of that.

We also invite Unity to participate in this broader thinking with us, whatever the outcome of our misunderstanding. You are an incredibly important company and one bad day doesn’t take away from all you’ve given us. Let’s fix this for our community, you know our number.

It sounds like Improbable became well aware throughout the course of the day that they are going to have be the ones to compromise here.

Razer integrates Amazon’s Alexa voice controls and haptic feedback into its gaming platform

Razer, the company that makes high-end hardware and software specifically tailored to gaming enthusiasts, is adding new voice and touch features to its platform to bring it into the next generation of computing and take the Razer gaming experience to the next immersive level. Today at CES, the company announced that it will be integrating Amazon’s Alexa into its gaming platform to let users control certain aspects of the Razer gaming experience by voice; and it also announced a new range of devices it’s calling HyperSense, to provide haptic interfaces for its gamers.

The Alexa integration will start to be rolled out in Q2 2019, while the HyperSense ecosystem is only getting previewed with no launch date at this stage.

Razer is also making some strides in its efforts to expand the ubiquity of its ecosystem to more than just Razer products: the company said that its Chroma Connected Devices Program — which brings in a new range of peripherals that can work with Razer machines — now has 15 new partners and covers 300 different devices that can run Chroma-enabled games and apps.

The move is a signal of how, while Amazon has yet to build its own dedicated gaming hardware, it has been making some headway into that consumer sector regardless among the 100 million devices that now work with the voice assistant. Last September, Microsoft announced that Alexa would work with the Xbox One, the first big gaming console announcement for Alexa after making a little headway with Sony and the PlayStation Vue a year before.

As with those two, it looks like the Alexa integration with Razer is more around controlling what happens around the game — you will be able to control voice-control lighting effects, device settings and so on, but not in-game actions themselves — although you might consider that in-game controls could be the next step (perhaps one that Amazon would prefer to make itself).

“We’re thrilled to work with Razer and provide customers a first-of-its kind integration that showcases how Alexa can enhance the gaming experience,” said Pete Thompson, VP of the Alexa Voice Service, in a statement. “With Alexa, users can control compatible Razer peripherals while taking full advantage of other Alexa capabilities, including the ability to manage smart devices, access tens of thousands of skills and more.”

In the case of Razer, the company is bringing Alexa into its ecosystem by way of its Razer Synapse 3 Internet-of-Things platform, which it uses to connect up Razer and third-party peripherals that a user might have set up to play.

As Razer describers it, those wearing Razer headsets and mics can then be used to control compatible devices, such as in-game lighting, mice, keyboards and headsets. 

“This is an amazing look forward for Razer into a future for gamers where the full potential of gaming gear is seamless and intuitively controlled through voice activation, synchronization and connected cloud services,” said Razer Co-Founder and CEO Min-Liang Tan (pictured above) in a statement.

The haptic developments, meanwhile, will also come by way of a partnership with third parties — in this case, two companies called Lofelt and Subpac, and others that Razer is not disclosing.

As with other haptic systems, the idea with HyperSense is not that die-hard gamers will start installing wind machines, chillers and strange smells in their living rooms, but that Razer wants to build and work with others to create, for example, high-fidelity speakers and touch boards that will give users the sensation of different experiences in a way that will bring them even closer into the action of the game. (If you think this sounds closer and closer to Ready Player One, you’re not alone.)

So in the case of HyperSense, cues might include specific sound cues in games like rocket firing, or wind, which will might get “played out” in the form of sound waves that you can feel in your feet or — if you might imagine — a connected jacket that will suddenly make you colder, lean to one side, and shudder with the gust.

“We are finally able to feel what we see and hear all around using the gaming arena, sensing the hiss of enemy fire or feeling the full bass of a monster’s growl,” said Min. “Much like Razer Chroma where we have demonstrated the power of a connected lighting system across gaming devices, Razer HyperSense syncs gaming devices equipped with high-fidelity haptic motors to enhance immersion in gaming.”

 

After 5 years, Sony’s PS4 is still killing it

After a successful holiday season, Sony’s PlayStation 4 is nearing some pretty wild milestones.

The company announced Monday that they had sold over 5.6 million PS4 units over the holiday season worldwide, bringing the total number of current-gen consoles sold to 91.6 million, a number that suggests the popular console is still vibrant even after five years on the market.

Microsoft has been in a losing position throughout the “console wars” and while it hasn’t released its own numbers recently, it’s estimated that the quantity of Xbox One units sold may make up just about half of what Sony has shipped this generation. Meanwhile, Nintendo has had a banner year following the success of the Switch which launched in late 2017 and has become the fastest-selling game console ever in the U.S. though the total units sold still drags far behind the much older PS4.

Beyond the hardware, Sony also delivered some statistics on title sales, saying that they sold over 50 million titles and that they have sold at least 9 million copies of the Spiderman Sony-exclusive title. A staggering 876 million PS4 games have been sold to date.

Samsung steps up its game with the new Notebook Odyssey

Reviews of the Notebook Odyssey line have been…mixed. Hopefully the electronics giant can right the ship as it navigates the tricky waters of high-end gaming systems. At very least, the latest version of the line — unveiled tonight at CES in Vegas — certainly looks the part.

The 15.6 inch laptop features an aluminum design and a display attached with an innovative hinge connected only in the center to mimic a standalone monitor. The bezels have been shrunk down considerably as well, at 6.7 millimeters. The typewriter-style keyboard is backlit, as one would expect from their gaming laptop.

There are a few different performance pre-sets on-board here, too. Per Samsung,

Odyssey Mode allows users to save settings presets under different profiles for various types of games. Beast Mode lets users modulate the Samsung Notebook Odyssey’s performance depending on the software it is running, and the Black Equalizer helps users get a leg up on the competition by improving in-game lighting.

Inside you get an eighth-gen hexa-core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and either 256GB (SSD) to 1TB (HDD) of storage. Graphics-wise, you’re getting an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080, featuring the new Turing GPU. There’s a fairly healthy selection of ports, as well, including USB-C, three full USB, HDMI and Ethernet.

The new Odyssey is due out at some point “early” this year. No word yet on pricing.

Security researchers find over a dozen iPhone apps linked to Golduck malware

Security researchers say they’ve found more than a dozen iPhone apps covertly communicating with a server associated with Golduck, a historically Android-focused malware that infects popular classic game apps.

The malware has been known about for over a year, after it was first discovered by Appthority infecting classic and retro games on Google Play, by embedding backdoor code that allowed malicious payloads to be silently pushed to the device. At the time, more than 10 million users were affected by the malware, allowing hackers to run malicious commands at the highest privileges, like sending premium SMS messages from a victim’s phone to make money.

Now, the researchers say iPhone apps linked to the malware could also present a risk.

Wandera, an enterprise security firm, said it found 14 apps — all retro-style games — that were communicating with the same command and control server used by the Golduck malware.

“The [Golduck] domain was on a watchlist we established due to its use in distributing a specific strain of Android malware in the past,” said Michael Covington, Wandera’s vice-president of product. “When we started seeing communication between iOS devices and the known malware domain, we investigated further.”

The apps include: Commando Metal: Classic ContraSuper Pentron Adventure: Super HardClassic Tank vs Super BomberSuper Adventure of MaritronRoy Adventure Troll GameTrap Dungeons: Super AdventureBounce Classic LegendBlock GameClassic Bomber: Super LegendBrain It On: Stickman PhysicsBomber Game: Classic BombermanClassic Brick – Retro BlockThe Climber Brick, and Chicken Shoot Galaxy Invaders.

According to the researchers, what they saw so far seems relatively benign — the command and control server simply pushes a list of icons in a pocket of ad space in the upper-right corner of the app. When the user opens the game, the server tells the app which icons and links it should serve to the user. They did, however, see the apps sending IP address data — and, in some cases, location data — back to the Golduck command and control server. TechCrunch verified their claims, running the apps on a clean iPhone through a proxy, allowing us to see where the data goes. Based on what we saw, the app tells the malicious Golduck server what app, version, device type, and the IP address of the device — including how many ads were displayed on the phone.

As of now, the researchers say that the apps are packed with ads — likely as a way to make a quick buck. But they expressed concern that the communication between the app and the known-to-be-malicious server could open up the app — and the device — to malicious commands down the line.

“The apps themselves are technically not compromised; while they do not contain any malicious code, the backdoor they open presents a risk for exposure that our customers do not want to take.

“A hacker could easily use the secondary advertisement space to display a link that redirects the user and dupes them into installing a provisioning profile or a new certificate that ultimately allows for a more malicious app to be installed,” said the researchers.

One of the iPhone apps, “Classic Bomber,” which was spotted communicating with a malicious command and control server. It’s since been pulled from the U.S. store. (Screenshot: TechCrunch)

That could be said for any game or app, regardless of device maker or software. But the connection to a known malicious server isn’t a good look. Covington said that the company has “observed malicious content being shared from the server,” but that it wasn’t related to the games.

The implication is that if the server is sending malicious payloads to Android users, iPhone users could be next.

TechCrunch sent the list of apps to data insights firm Sensor Tower, which estimated that the 14 apps had been installed close to one million times since they were released — excluding repeated downloads or installs across different devices.

When we tried contacting the app makers, many of the App Store links pointed to dead links or to pages with boilerplate privacy policies but no contact information. The registrant on the Golduck domain appears to be fake, along with other domains associated with Golduck, which often have different names and email addresses.

Apple did not comment when reached prior to publication. The apps are appear to still be downloadable from the App Store, but all now say they are “not currently available in the U.S. store.”

Apple’s app stores may have a better rap than Google’s, which every once in a while lets malicious apps slip through the net. In reality, neither store is perfect. Earlier this year, security researchers found a top-tier app in the Mac App Store that was collecting users’ browsing history without permission, and dozens of iPhone apps that were sending user location data to advertisers without explicitly asking first.

For the average user, malicious apps remain the largest and most common threat to mobile users — even with locked down device software and the extensive vetting of apps.

If there’s one lesson, now and always: don’t download what you don’t need, or can’t trust.

Zelda has a minus world

Listen, everyone. It’s not every day that a new fact comes to light regarding a game that came out more than 30 years ago. And I happen to love it when retro games get broken in fabulous and entertaining ways. So the news that The Legend of Zelda for NES has a minus world like Super Mario Bros and others hit me like like a freight train.

The phenomenon was discovered by Youtuber SKELUX, who starts off his video with a quick explanation of how minus worlds work. If you think about an NES game as a big file, there are places where graphics are stored, sounds and music are described, and of course level layouts and enemy logic are kept.

As a player, you are expected to navigate the structured parts of this file, namely the game world — level 1, 2, 3, this or that dungeon or town, etc. But there are ways to escape that structure by exploiting flaws in the game’s code, letting you run free in portions of the game’s data that aren’t meant to be “real” levels — yet the game’s engine will interpret the data as best it can, producing in some cases pretty wacky but still navigable levels. This type of thing gets its name from Super Mario Bros, where you could easily warp to a buggy level “-1” and progress from there.

Zelda and other games often use data trickery to get around the natural limitations of 8-bit computing and severely restricted storage space. For instance, did you know that in order to store them more efficiently, Zelda’s dungeons all fit together like giant tiles?

I just about lost my mind when I found out about that. Note that the above is two 16×8 grids set one on top of the other.

As Skelux explains, the overhead map is similarly divided, except the bottom “half” isn’t actually filled with map data. And although there are cheats that let you walk through walls, the game’s code detects when you reach an invalid map coordinate and returns you to the starting location. But a little hackery takes that safety measure out of play and the result:

A new world!

And a horribly buggy one, as it turns out right from the start. Octoroks are shooting boomerangs out of their snouts; the old man on one screen tells you it’s dangerous to go alone, then next door says “leave your life of money”; a Molblin caterpillar shoots fireballs at you; glitchy inverted witch women swarm the statues of Death mountain; and so on.

It’s a strange, hilarious world and one that obviously was not crafted but is simply created on the fly by the game’s engine attempting to make sense of the data it’s reading. It isn’t canon.

This type of video game archaeology is endlessly fascinating to me, because it demonstrates both the fragility and the robustness of these venerable pieces of software — and, of course, the enduring love and interest they engender in fans. Another one that recently absorbed my attention was the explanation of parallel dimensions inside Super Mario 64 and how sliding between them lets you beat a level with only half a press of the jump button.

That’s all. Please return to your ordinary lives, which now likely seem just a bit more ordinary now that you know one more magical secret of the Legend of Zelda.