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Source: A teaser from an unnamed Spanish magazine, relayed by the NeoGAF forums.
What we heard: Activision took an axe to many of Vivendi's in-development projects in the wake of the pair's multibillion-dollar merger in 2008, and one party happy to scoop up the shavings was Monolith Entertainment. The Warner Bros.-owned studio was able to acquire the rights to its paranormal shooter franchise F.E.A.R., paving the way for the studio to use the acronym for the game's sequel, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin.
The purchase also seems to have cleared the way for a third installment in the F.E.A.R. franchise. As spotted by a resident of the gaming-centric NeoGAF forums, F.E.A.R. 3 will be featured in a Spanish magazine next month. In the scan of the teaser page posted by the forum-goer (pictured), it would appear as if Warner Bros. has signed off on the alpha-numeric F.3.A.R. title. Spanish language text accompanying the picture reads: "next issue."
The scan shows what appears to be the series' antagonist, creepy kiddo Alma, who is apparently with child. Also pictured is a gun-toting, long-haired man who may be a member of the First Encounter Assault Recon team. Another man, who may or may not be original antagonist Paxton Fettel, is also shown, having apparently shrugged off a bullet wound to the cranium. The three are pictured above a nuclear blast, with Alma's fetus situated inside the heart of the mushroom cloud.
The official story: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: Tentative not bogus. Attempts to verify the scan's origin have proven fruitless, but sales of the past two F.E.A.R. games were strong enough to warrant a third installment. A more definitive answer should arrive next month.
Source: Gaming blog Joystiq.
What we heard: Last year ended with British company Datel suing Microsoft after an Xbox 360 firmware update locked out all third-party memory units. Now, it looks like the days of the console's proprietary memory units and hard drives may be numbered.
According to screenshots and documentation obtained by Joystiq, Microsoft is planning to add USB memory device support to its console via a firmware update later this year. The blog selectively quoted a memo from a "senior software development engineer" that said "USB mass storage device support on Xbox 360" is necessary due to "increased market penetration of high-capacity, high-throughput USB mass storage devices." The update will reportedly allow gamer profiles, game saves, and entire titles ripped from a disc to be stored on said devices--although the latter requires a game disc to be in the console for verification.
Screenshots accompanying the memo show a software development kit formatting a 4-gigabyte memory unit for use with the Xbox 360. Most new models are larger than the biggest first-party memory unit's 512MB capacity; Datel's third-party memory units went up to 4GB. Microsoft's spec for the functionality reportedly said USB devices must be at least 1GB in size but could not be anymore than 16GB, thereby artificially blocking the use of high-capacity external hard drives with the console.
The inability to hook up to large hard drives will anger many gamers who consider Xbox 360 hard drive pricing exorbitant. The $300 Elite model ships with a 120GB HDD as standard, although higher priced limited edition bundles come with a 250GB HDD. Sold separately, the 120GB HDD was $150, but the stand-alone product is no longer available at GameStop, Amazon, or Wal-Mart. The sudden disappearance has been coupled with premature retailer listings of a 250GB hard drive being released on March 23 for $130. Currently, the only Xbox 360 hard drive sold separately is the 60GB HDD that is part of the $100 Xbox Live starter pack.
The official story: "Microsoft does not comment on rumors or speculation." -- Microsoft representative.
Bogus or not bogus?: Looking not bogus. With rumors of a slimline model gathering steam, Microsoft seems to be open to tinkering with the Xbox 360 form factor. And given the increasingly competitive battle with the PlayStation 3--which does support USB drives--the software giant may be amenable to expand its console's functionality as well.
What we heard: Last August, Sony announced the PS3 Slim, a smaller, cheaper redesign of the PlayStation 3 system it launched less than three years earlier. The impact was immediate, as the Slim, which also received a $100 price cut, sold more than a million systems in less than three weeks.
Now it appears that Microsoft could be following Sony's lead with a redesign of the Xbox 360. Users on A9VG posted two images of what appears to be a redesigned Xbox 360 motherboard. One image shows the entire motherboard, which is more compact and closer to a square than the system's current configuration. A second image on the thread shows what's underneath the giant fan in the original picture: a single chip that is supposed to combine the functions of the Xbox 360's CPU and GPU.
While the Xbox 360 hardware has undergone several revisions since its November 2005 launch, those changes have been mostly internal and invisible to the average consumer (added HDMI port aside). Given the significantly different shape, size, and screw locations of this 360 motherboard, the system casing would need to be revised and almost certainly would undergo a change in outward appearance.
It's also worth noting that this motherboard appears to lack the current Xbox 360's specialized hard-drive port, but includes an extra SATA interface port. That has led to speculation that Microsoft will be making the system's hard drive an internal component, and possibly inaccessible to users.
This wouldn't be the first time a hardware redesign was leaked out from overseas. Last May, a Chinese hardware blog leaked pictures of the PS3 Slim, which were all-but-confirmed when media outlets started receiving notices from a Taiwanese law firm demanding the photos be taken down.
The official story: "Microsoft does not comment on rumors or speculation."--A Microsoft representative.
Bogus or not bogus?: Leaning not bogus. It's about time for a shake-up to the Xbox 360. Sony reinvigorated the PS3 with the introduction of a Slim model less than three years after the original hardware launched. The Xbox 360 is well over four years old, having already passed the age where Microsoft ceased production on the original Xbox. A revamped look for the system might help ease concerns of consumers who remember the Red Ring of Death issues. While Microsoft's internal revisions to the hardware have made the systems more reliable, the company hasn't heavily advertised those changes.
If this console generation is going to last, Microsoft would be well served by trying to freshen up the Xbox 360. Part of that will come from the upcoming launch of Project Natal, but a sleek new look for the system could help to keep consumers thinking of the Xbox 360 as cutting-edge technology, even as the platform passes its fifth birthday.
Even if the photos are legit, that board could undergo numerous changes before being finalized. However, a redesigned Xbox 360 makes plenty of sense, and leaks of this sort have become fairly common.
Source: The online edition of UK game-industry magazine Edge.
What we heard: As far back as November 2006, Microsoft has been making references to a "Gears of War Trilogy." At the 2008 Game Developers Conference, Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski made a surprise appearance to announce Gears of War 2 would ship later that year--just two years after the original.
Given those two precedents, many expected some news about Gears of War 3 at Epic Games' GDC 2010 press briefing leading up to a fall 2010 release. However, the developer instead used its presentation to show off some new features of its Unreal Engine 3 and how they're being used in the massively multiplayer action game APB.
With Gears 3 missing from GDC, speculation brewed about whether the game would stick to the series' biannual release schedule. Citing "a trusted US publishing source," Edge says the game will arrive in April 2011, after the first quarter but before publisher Microsoft's fiscal year ends in June. A trailer for the game will reportedly unspool next month, with a full reveal set for the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June.
Why so late? Two reasons. First off, Edge's source says that Microsoft pushed the game out of 2010 so it wouldn't divert consumer dollars from the fall launch of Project Natal, the Xbox 360's camera-based motion-sensing system. Secondly, the first quarter of 2011 is when Electronic Arts will publish an as-yet untitled shooter from Epic Games' Polish studio People Can Fly, maker of the Painkiller games. Releasing Gears of War 3 then would pit one Epic game against another--something the North Carolinian studio wouldn't abide.
The official story: "Microsoft does not comment on rumors or speculation." -- Microsoft rep.
Bogus or not bogus?: Though factually thin, the April 2011 theory makes sense. As noted above, the timing is spot-on. Microsoft has said it is treating Natal's debut with the same importance as a console launch, meaning even the mighty Gears series might have to move out of the way. There's also the not-so-small matter of Halo: Reach already filling the shooter slot on many 360 owners' holiday shopping lists.
Finally, April has proven a sweet spot for shipping blockbuster series and recognized IPs. Since it launched on April 28, 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV has sold over 15 million units worldwide. Ubisoft and Microsoft are also betting the month will be fortuitous for Splinter Cell: Conviction, which launches April 13.
Source: Game-news site 1up.
What we heard: With Dragon Age: Awakening shipping next week, game publications are starting to receive retail review copies from Electronic Arts. It looks like the mailman stopped at 1up first, as the site is now displaying pictures of a flyer contained in the box that apparently reveals the release date for Dragon Age II.
As can been seen in the photo, the flyer shows the series' iconic blood-red dragon. However, instead of being shown from the side with one wing, it is shown head-on, so two wings are visible. In the upper-right hand corner, the date "02.01.2011" is displayed. In North America, that translates to February 1, 2011.
The date falls in the first quarter of next year, when EA announced it would be releasing "Dragon Age Title TBA." The game was listed for the PC, consoles, and unspecified portable platforms. However, sources close to EA have downplayed the handheld version to GameSpot, saying it is likely an iPhone spin-off.
The official story: BioWare and EA reps had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: Not bogus. Valentine's Day will apparently come two weeks early for role-playing game fans next year.
Source: Web gaming forums, including GameSpot's.
What we heard: PlayStation 3 owners globally have received an unwelcome surprise in the last few hours, with a yet unexplained error preventing some games from being played. The error--commonly being reported as "error number 8001050F" by console owners on user forums such as GameSpot's--prevents gamers from signing into the PlayStation Network and in several cases disallows gameplay in both offline and online modes.
Though Sony Computer Entertainment did not immediately make an official statement on the issue, various online forums said pre-Slim PS3 models have been the most affected. Forum goers have speculated that the issue could be related to a Y2K-like error with "Fat" PS3 internal clocks, or something more along the lines of a PSN server failure.
The official story: A Sony Computer Entertainment Australia spokesman told GameSpot AU that Sony was "aware of the issue and are currently investigating it."
Bogus or not bogus?: Not bogus that there's a massive issue affecting plenty of consoles globally. Internal testing performed by GameSpot staff has found that while some games can still be played offline successfully, others--such as Tekken 6, Darksiders, and Heavy Rain--cannot be played, with error messages reporting an inability to obtain or create trophy data on startup.
[UPDATE] A Sony Computer Entertainment America representative has now confirmed that the issue is indeed a widespread clock error affecting non-PS3 Slims built before 2009. It released the following statement to the press:
As you may be aware, some customers have been unable to connect to the PlayStation Network today. This problem affects the models other than the new slim PS3.
We believe we have identified that this problem is being caused by a bug in the clock functionality incorporated in the system.
Errors include: * The date of the PS3 system may be re-set to Jan 1, 2000.
* When the user tries to sign-in to the PlayStation Network, the following message appears on the screen; "An error has occurred. You have been signed out of PlayStation Network (8001050F)".
* When the user tries to launch a game, the following error message appears on the screen and the trophy data may disappear; "Failed to install trophies. Please exit your game."
* When the user tries to set the time and date of the system via the Internet, the following message appears on the screen; "The current date and time could not be obtained. (8001050F)"
* Users are not able to playback certain rental video downloaded from the PlayStation Store before the expiration date.
We hope to resolve this problem within the next 24 hours. In the meantime, if you have a model other than the new slim PS3, we advise that you do not use your PS3 system, as doing so may result in errors in some functionality, such as recording obtained trophies, and not being able to restore certain data.
As mentioned above, Please be advised that the new slim PS3 is not affected with this error. We are doing our best to resolve the issue and do apologize for any inconvenience caused.
[UPDATE 2] Monday afternoon, afflicted PS3 Fats at GameSpot's US offices were able to play games again and trophies appeared to be awarded as normal. However, Sony has still not given the all clear yet, and the PS3s in question all had erroneous dates of February 28 on their clocks, believed to be the source of the problem. Gamers who want to be 100 percent sure that they will earn trophies as normal may want to wait for Sony's final blessing.
[UPDATE 3] As of 5 p.m. PST on Monday afflicted PS3 Fats were awarding trophies with the correct date and time.
[UPDATE 4] Around 6 p.m. PST, Sony declared the PlayStation Network was fully operational and gamers could resume playing as normal. A spokesperson also revealed the exact problem which led to the nearly day-long outage.
"We are aware that the internal clock functionality in the PS3 units other than the slim model, recognized the year 2010 as a leap year," said Patrick Seybold, SCEA's director of corporate communications and social media, on the official US PlayStation Blog. "Having the internal clock date change from February 29 to March 1 (both GMT), we have verified that the symptoms are now resolved and that users are able to use their PS3 normally.
Source: Comments made by Jimi Hendrix's stepsister and estate holder Janie Hendrix to the LA Times as part of a feature on the celebrated guitarist.
What we heard: In 2009, Activision went on a rhythm-game bender, releasing stand-alone games ranging from Guitar Hero 5, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, and Guitar Hero: Smash hits to spin-offs DJ Hero and Band Hero. Late in 2008, it appeared as if legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, too, would receive his own installment in the Guitar Hero franchise. However, considering Activision's new stance on the slumping rhythm genre, that occurrence seems more and more unlikely.
Of course, that's to say nothing of rival MTV Games and Harmonix. On the eve of Hendrix's newest posthumous release--Valleys of Neptune, due March 9--Janie Hendrix told the LA Times that Sony Music intends to make the rocker's catalog "available through every type of media." Janie went on to note that one facet of that proliferation would be "a new edition of Rock Band" that would be out by the end of the year.
Harmonix has certainly entered the business of making band-exclusive installments in its Rock Band franchise. Last year, the studio found success with The Beatles: Rock Band, which has sold more than 1 million units worldwide. MTV Games and EA Partners are also collaborating on Green Day: Rock Band, which will be available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii this year.
Thus far, only one song from Hendrix's catalog has made it into the Rock Band franchise. A playable version of "Fire" from the guitarist's debut album Are You Experienced was available in last year's Lego Rock Band.
The official story: Unfortunately, Jimi Hendrix Experience: Rock Band doesn't currently appear to be in the cards. An MTV Games representative told GameSpot that "We are not doing a stand-alone game" devoted to Hendrix's music.
That said, it appears as if Harmonix and Hendrix's estate plan to expand the famed musician's offerings in the Rock Band platform. "While we have not made any official announcements regarding Jimi Hendrix and Rock Band, we are excited to say that we are in discussions to bring more of his music to our platform. Stay tuned," the MTV Games rep said.
Bogus or not bogus?: Bogus that Harmonix is at work on Jimi Hendrix Experience: Rock Band. Looking not bogus that additional Hendrix music is headed to the Rock Band platform.
Source: A report on Kotaku says Activision has closed down Mountain View, California-based RedOctane and fellow Bay Area shop Underground Development. The moves serve as a gruesome capper to a day that saw Activision cull staffers at Radical and Neversoft and shutter Luxoflux.
What we heard: It has been a busy week for Activision. The publisher announced its year-end financial results Wednesday, showing an annual $113 million profit--but a quarterly loss of $286 million. The latter shortcoming was blamed on a write-down of its ryhthm-game assets, which were devalued by the ongoing music-game glut. The company's lineup of Guitar Hero games suffered significantly, with sell-through down 35 percent from 2008.
That prompted Activision to take action, dramatically scaling back its slate of Guitar Hero SKUs (stock-keeping units; a game with two different bundles on three platforms each would be six SKUs). In 2009, Activision bombarded retailers with 25 different Guitar Hero SKUs, from the PlayStation 2 edition of Guitar Hero: Van Halen to the Wii version of Guitar Hero: Metallica. For 2010, Activision is planning just two major music games--a Guitar Hero game and DJ Hero 2--with fewer than 10 SKUs.
If Activision is making fewer games, that means it needs fewer development teams, something confirmed yesterday by the publisher's layoffs across the company. Radical Entertainment (Prototype) and Neversoft (primary Guitar Hero developer since 2007) endured some layoffs, while Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen studio Luxoflux was shuttered entirely.
That RedOctane would be included in the cuts is not entirely surprising. That it would be shuttered entirely is. Kotaku reports that RedOctane "has been completely shut down," with some key employees retained to "report straight to Activision" and 30 to 40 others laid off. The blog also says Underground Development, which worked on Guitar Hero: Van Halen, has been shuttered.
A source within the company confirmed for GameSpot that Activision is planning to close RedOctane down within two months and that the publisher is discarding the brand name entirely. If even the outfit that published the original Guitar Hero and was acquired by Activision for $100 million is expendable, the publisher would have little reason to flinch in closing a shop that worked on exactly the sort of spin-off project that won't be made this year.
The official story: "As part of our overall strategy to release fewer Guitar Hero SKUs in 2010, we are closing the Underground studio and relocating Guitar Hero headquarters to Santa Monica under the leadership of [Guitar Hero business unit COO] David Haddad." - An Activision representative.
Bogus or not bogus?: Unfortunately not bogus.
What we heard: With X10 less than 24 hours away, excitement is building about what announcements might come out of Microsoft's press event in San Francisco. Given what looks like a major leak, gamblers should place their bets on a $400 bundle with both Final Fantasy XIII and a 250GB hard drive-equipped Xbox 360 being on the day's agenda.
A listing for just such a bundle was spotted by NeoGAF on ExpertZone, which is used to preview and display wares to Microsoft's retail partners. Before it was summarily pulled down, NeoGAF user jmoe316 quickly screen-grabbed the retailer listing, which shows a FFXIII-themed box with heroine Lightning on the cover next to a white Xbox 360 console. Also shown are the FFXIII game, two white controllers, and a white console.
Visually, the $399.99 "Special Edition" bundle's contents seem straightforward--and completely plausible, given the great fanfare with which Microsoft announced that the formerly PlayStation 3-exclusive role-playing game was coming to the 360. The product description also bears classic Microsoft marketing-speak, touting the expanded storage of the drive and how FFXIII "takes full advantage of the Xbox 360 system's advanced hardware, providing intuitive controllers while delivering seamless transitions between real-time gameplay and stunning cinematics."
Unfortunately, it's somewhat stunning that just a few inches away, the "What's included" breakdown of the box content describes the console and the controllers as "black." The less-than-seamless discrepancy makes it unclear if Microsoft's graphics department forgot to change the fine print when they recycled a mock-up from November's black Modern Warfare 2 bundle or if the ad is a top-notch fake. Also unnerving is the crude Photoshopping of the controllers and console, which also points to either a forgery or a mock-up. Finally, one of the Final Fantasy boxes bears the "Only on Xbox 360" logo reserved for console exclusives.
The official story: "We have nothing to announce at this time."--Microsoft rep.
Bogus or not bogus?: Looking not bogus. The ad's origin, language, and presentation all appear genuine, and it's easy to believe an underpaid, unobservant graphic designer on a tight deadline simply made a mistake. (Such things have happened before.) And given the building excitement of long-suffering Final Fantasy XIII fans for the game's looming March 9 launch, what better way to entice non-Xbox 360 owners into the fold than with a shiny new bundle?
[UPDATE] The bundle has been officially confirmed by Xbox Live director of programming Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb. Surprise?
What we heard: Polyphony Digital certainly isn't trying to set any speed records with the development of its racer Gran Turismo 5. Having initially been revealed in 2005, the game appeared to be on track for a March 2010 release in Japan, with series creator Kazunori Yamauchi saying to expect the Western release a few months later. However, that plan hit the skids last month, when Sony postponed the game's launch in Japan for an indeterminate amount of time.
Following the game's delay, initial Japanese reports indicated that the game had been bumped back three months in the island nation, signaling a Western launch this fall. That speculation appears to have gained some substantiation this week, courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment Portugal president James Armstrong.
As reported by GT Planet and translated by GameSpot, Armstrong told Canarias Al Dia that he expects Sony to release the long-awaited GT5 this fall in time for the important holiday shopping season. "We believe that we are launching the product this fall, before Christmas, even though this isn't yet decided," he said.
Armstrong went on to say that while he doubts GT5 will make use of Sony's new camera-based motion controller, he wasn't willing to rule it out. The controller, which is rumored to be named the PlayStation Arc, was also initially slated to be available in Japan in March. Sony has since bumped the device's launch back to this fall.
The official story: "We haven't announced the launch date for GT5," a SCE America representative told GameSpot.
Bogus or not bogus?: Looking not bogus that Sony is targeting a fall release for GT5. However, Armstrong himself noted that the game's launch window is still up in the air, so Polyphony Digital has clearly been given license to take as much time as it needs.
Source: UK gaming magazine Develop.
What we heard: Later this week, Sony is expected to report its first profit in five quarters, thanks in large part to a resurgence in its gaming and LCD TV segments. However, even with the turnaround, Sony may be on the verge of making deep cuts at its Liverpool, UK-based studio, which is best known for the futuristic racing series WipeOut.
Speaking to Develop, a Sony representative confirmed that it would be restructuring the WipeOut studio and, in the process, cancelling a few games. "It has been decided that production on a number of projects within Studio Liverpool will cease immediately due to project prioritisation," the Sony Europe rep reportedly confirmed.
Sony did not indicate which projects would be shelved, saying only that the "North West Studio Group has been, and will continue to be, a vital cog in the [Sony Worldwide Studios] family, with a history of producing genre defining games, such as MotorStorm, WipeOut, Formula 1, and WRC." The statement provided to Develop went on to note that the project cancellations "will have no impact of the role that the North West Studio Group will play in the future of all PlayStation platforms."
Unfortunately, it would appear as if the project cancellations will result in a dramatic reduction in headcount at the studio. According to Develop, the publisher's intended cuts are "looking heavy," with as much as half of the studio in line to be pink-slipped.
The Liverpool studio's latest full release was WipeOut HD, a game that garnered a positive critical reception upon its release for the PlayStation 3 in September 2008. The outfit later expanded upon the game with WipeOut HD Fury in July 2009.
The official story: Sony's North American reps had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: Considering Sony Europe has confirmed the cancellation of a number of projects, a substantial headcount reduction seems to be the logical next step. Looking not bogus.
What we heard: Ever since it was unveiled at E3 2009, the PlayStation 3 Motion Controller has been officially referred to as...the PlayStation 3 Motion Controller. Even in the recent announcement of the light-wand-based system's delay, Sony did not offer a name for the technology, which will now arrive this fall. It will be going head-to-head with Microsoft's controller-less motion-sensing scheme, Project Natal.
That said, since the game industry abhors a vacuum almost as much as nature, various speculative names for the PS3 Motion Controller began popping up. In a presentation at a UBS financial conference last December, Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello referred to the system as the "Gem." However, a more popular contender has been "Sphere," a title that several Japanese developers have dropped in interviews and Sony reportedly has used internally.
Now another potential moniker might have become the front-runner. Sony Computer Entertainment has quietly registered the domain name PlayStationarc.com, leading many to believe the system will be called "PlayStation Arc." Though the URL is currently dead, online records show that Sony registered the domain name back in October, shortly after Sony touted the PS3 Motion Controller at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show.
The official story: "We have not announced an official name and do not discuss rumors or speculative queries."-- Sony rep.
Bogus or not bogus?: Not enough to go on. The PlayStation Arc certainly has the sort of simple-but-elegant ring that Sony favors for its products (the Bloggie excepted). However, there's no guarantee that that is the name of the PS3 Motion Controller versus another PlayStation-related product or initiative.
Source: The Loose Talk rumor section of Game Informer's February issue.
What we heard: Last fall, Half-Life series hero Gordon Freeman was voted Greatest Game Hero by GameSpot's users, despite not having been in a new game in two years. The last title to feature the crowbar-wielding physicist was 2007's The Orange Box, which featured Half-Life 2: Episode Two and its two immediate forbearers: 2006's Half-Life 2: Episode One and 2004's Half-Life 2. (The package also included Team Fortress 2 and the award-wining Portal.)
Initially, Half-Life 2's episodes were supposed to allow the developer to release a new expansion every several months. It began in June 2006 with Episode One (initially subtitled "Aftermath") and was to end "by Christmas 2007" with Episode Three. However, that scheme was derailed when Valve struck a deal with Electronic Arts to distribute the Orange Box. That compilation arrived in October 2007, and since then, Valve has remained mum on the subject of Episode Three, instead focusing on its wildly popular Left 4 Dead series.
With nary a peep about Episode Three in 2008 or 2009, many were hoping at least some new information about its release--or fate--would arrive this year. Don't count on it, says Game Informer, which claims to have knowledge that the game won't arrive until 2011--at the earliest. "There won't be any game from the franchise in 2010," the GameStop-owned magazine declared, before raising the possibility of the Half-Life 2 series skipping directly to Half-Life 3 in "a few years."
The official story: As of press time, Valve's notoriously recalcitrant PR department had not responded to requests for an update on Episode Three's status.
Bogus or not bogus?: Not bogus that Episode Three isn't coming out in 2010. With Half-Life 2: Episode Two already showing its age in 2007, it's likely that Valve wants to take the time to ensure the next Half-Life title is graphically competitive. Given the visual caliber of today's first-person shooters, that may require a true sequel with all-new technology.
What we heard: In 2007, Bethesda Softworks parent company Zenimax Media formed Zenimax Online, a massively multiplayer online gaming arm headed by Mythic Entertainment cofounder Matt Frior. At the time, Zenimax was hush-hush on what the branch, which was given access to some $300 million in funding, was at work on. However, speculative eyes soon turned toward an MMORPG devoted to Bethesda's celebrated Elder Scrolls fantasy franchise, after Zenimax registered the URL elderscrollsonline.com.
Unfortunately, beyond that initial and altogether ambiguous sighting, no additional details about the game have surfaced. However, that changed this week, courtesy of court documents related to Bethesda's ongoing spat with Interplay over the Fallout license.
As reported by Duck and Cover, testimony from a preliminary injunction hearing held on December 29 between Bethesda and Fallout yielded information relating to Zenimax Online's project. Duck and Cover reports that the studio has "tens and tens of millions of dollars" as well as "close to a hundred people" wrapped up in crafting a "World of Warcraft"-style MMORPG. Bethesda reportedly has been trying to keep the project under wraps in an effort to stave off competition.
The testimony reportedly goes on to note that a team was assigned to the project in late 2006, with work entering full production since 2007. Duck and Cover's reading of the document had Bethesda's project on a four-year development cycle, indicating that the game could be released as soon as next year.
Unfortunately, Bethesda subsequently filed to have the pertinent information redacted from the court testimony, a motion that was approved this week. According to court documents, the revised document will be available once again to the public on March 29.
Still, the court transcript reportedly did not indicate the exact nature of Zenimax Online's project. However, it did reportedly note that the MMORPG in question is not related to Fallout, the rights for which Bethesda is currently disputing with Interplay.
However, British gaming news site VG247 claims to have been "very reliably informed" that the project is indeed an Elder Scrolls MMORPG. The site's source reportedly claimed that Bethesda had initially planned to announce the game in 2009 but that the reveal was canceled for an undisclosed reason.
The official story: Bethesda had not returned requests for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: Looking not bogus. It seems unlikely that Bethesda and Zenimax would invest so heavily into a new intellectual property for a risky online effort--especially considering Elder Scrolls' strong following and suitable fantasy aesthetic.
Source: The New York Times.
What we heard: When they hear "Xbox 360," most people think "game console." Not the executives at Microsoft, according to the Times. In an article published Monday, the venerable newspaper reported that the software giant now views its online-enabled platform as more of a "cable channel" than a dedicated gaming device. Via the 360's Xbox Live service, Microsoft now offers numerous pay-per-view video options, as well as movie streaming via an embedded Netflix service.
Now, the Times reports that Microsoft has been in talks with the Walt Disney Company to bring its ESPN 360 service to the Xbox 360. The sport television channel's Web-based service, currently available through several Internet Service Providers around the country, allows subscribers to stream live sporting events, such as college basketball, soccer, and tennis. Anonymous sources told the newspaper that ESPN 360 would be available for a "per-subscriber fee," presumably referring to the Xbox Live Gold subscription fee. Officially, that fee is $50 per year, though it can be purchased cheaper via various online outlets.
The official story: "We don't discuss products, services, or games which may or may not come to the Xbox 360 platform in the future," said a Microsoft rep.
Bogus or not bogus?: Given the NYT's pedigree, the fact that Microsoft is talking to ESPN looks not bogus. However, by its own account, the paper says that an agreement to bring ESPN 360 to Xbox Live "was not imminent," meaning it could still fall through.
Source: Popular gaming blog Joystiq.
What we heard: It appears as if Red Dead Redemption isn't the only title creating a strenuous work environment at Rockstar Games. Joystiq reports today that it has received word that a similar situation is unfolding at Max Payne 3 development house Rockstar Vancouver.
"Virtually everything said in the original 'Rockstar wives' letter and by current and former Rockstar San Diego employees in the comments applies to my experience at Rockstar Vancouver," a purported former employee at the studio told Joystiq. The studio is also reportedly in "enforced crunch mode through to the end of the project," necessitating "14 - 16 hour work days, six or seven days a week."
The source also noted that Rockstar is targeting an August 2010 release for Max Payne 3, having delayed the game to late 2010 in December. The game was officially announced in March 2009 after having been first mentioned in March 2004.
"The game's story just went through another total re-write earlier this month (the third that I am aware of in the past two years) and that [means] the team would have to have all of the content done by April or May to make that August release date," he said.
The official story: Rockstar had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: Given that the Independent Game Developers Association has offered to mediate in the quality-of-life concerns at Rockstar San Diego, it seems like there is some credence to the purported Vancouver employee's claims.
Source: A blog posted to game-industry news site Gamasutra.
What we heard: In 2004, someone claiming to be the spouse of a developer at Electronic Arts issued a now-famous manifesto that brought to light quality-of-life concerns at the publisher. The blog post was issued alongside class-action lawsuits filed by employees at EA over unpaid overtime dues--suits that each resulted in multimillion dollar settlements.
Now, a similar online denunciation has been leveled at Rockstar Games and specifically its San Diego studio, which is prepping Red Dead Redemption for its April 27 release on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Posted in the blog section of industry news site Gamasutra, the missive was issued by "Rockstar Spouse" on behalf of the "Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees" in an effort to "assert their concerns and announce a necessary rejoinder, in the form of an immediate action to ameliorate conditions of employees."
According to the lengthy post, conditions began to deteriorate at the San Diego studio in March 2009, as management at the outfit began enforcing mandatory 12-hour workdays and extended the work week to Saturday. "The managers at Rockstar San Diego continue in their dishonesty, pushing their employees to the brink [by] promising temporariness, fully equipped with the knowledge of another deadline just around the corner," the post reads.
Rockstar Spouse goes on to note that the studio has also cut benefits at the studio, including promised time-off credit, milestone bonuses, and cost-of-living raises. "This is especially unjust to those who significantly contribute to projects," Rockstar Spouse wrote. "Further than unappreciative, employees are disrespected when lied to as a whole on how Rockstar games [do] not generate money and, as claims of justification for unappreciated employees are made, [point] to the deficit, meanwhile the last Grand Theft Auto game made over a billion dollars of revenue."
Rockstar Spouse ends the post by threatening legal action against Rockstar San Diego, but the allegations against the studio continue into the comments. Corroborating Rockstar Spouse's claims, a poster by the name of "BitterPartyOfMany" offers other condemnations against the studio that range from overtime exploitation to fiscal irresponsibility.
"Where is the detail about people getting performance warnings for not working 11hrs+ a day?" BitterPartyOfMany wrote. "The running joke is that donuts were taken away every other week (about $200 in savings per month), yet Rockstar flies in people from all the other studios (Vancouver, Leeds, Toronto, New England, etc.) and puts them up in a luxurious rental home, gives them per-diem, and rents cars for them. How about the temporary appointment of a new studio president who spent thousands at a time on drinking outings, only to give up the position after a few short months?"
BitterPartyOfMany also claims that Rockstar dismantled the San Diego studio's Midnight Club team. "Please, someone explain why the profitable and very functional Midnight Club team was ripped apart, their technology thrown away (after Midnight Club Los Angeles), and everyone who wasn't fired or quit was shoved onto a project that has been struggling for well over 4 years?" the posting states.
Another commenter posting under the handle "Code Monkey" claimed to be a current employee at Rockstar San Diego and also offered damning words against the studio-level and corporate management team.
"We're producing a fantastic game right now, but in times past, it seemed to have little in the way of direction or conception," Code Monkey wrote. "If it did indeed have these attributes, they were largely lost upon the majority of the development team, and many of us had little knowledge of what kind of product we were actually trying to put out there. I think we all do now, but it's in no thanks at all to any concerted effort whatsoever to actively motivate the team and evangelize the product to the developers themselves."
The words echo other statements made by BitterPartyOfMany, who claimed that Rockstar's New York division has done away with the San Diego studio's top managerial talent.
"They have fired and demoted all the best and most well respected managers," BitterPartyOfMany wrote. "They lost some of the best graphics and optimization people in the industry because of their attitude and management style. What they're left with are a few managers who nobody believes deserves their position, or who nobody likes/respects, and some very talented developers who are just waiting for the project to end so they can move on. You're just not going to get the best work out of people when they don't like/trust/respect their managers."
The official story: Rockstar had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: Not bogus that somebody is mighty steamed at Rockstar San Diego. The gaming industry has developed a reputation for its exploitative work schedules, especially in the lead-up to a game's ship date, and many commenters on Rockstar Spouse's entry concurred with the assessment at the studio. However, it remains to be seen how the working conditions will affect Red Dead Redemption or any future installments in the Midnight Club franchise.
Source: British game-info site VG247.
What we heard: In July 2008, Infinity Ward announced that its top developers had signed a long-term contract with Activision. Besides involving presumably large monetary sums, the deal allowed the Santa Monica studio to branch out from the Call of Duty series it created in 2002 to work on a "unique new IP."
Now, with Call of Duty franchise sales topping $3 billion, unconfirmed reports indicate Infinity Ward may be focusing on its mystery project. Citing "US Insiders," the UK site says that Activision has farmed out development of the sequel to the megahit Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which minted $550 million in five days last November.
If Infinity Ward is indeed moving on to its Next Big Thing, who might take over such an important franchise as Modern Warfare? Citing more unnamed sources, VG247 has two suspects: an unnamed Canadian studio, and Sledgehammer Games, Activision's newly founded San Francisco Bay Area studio.
Sledgehammer seems the more likely suspect, given that it has publicly said it is working on a "new game based on one of Activision's existing franchises." It is also currently hiring lead online multiplayer designers who must have at least "five years experience working on current AAA multiplayer shooters for current consoles and PC." Then there's the shop's sterling pedigree: its two founders, Glenn Schofield and Michael Condrey, were the main minds behind Electronic Arts' acclaimed Dead Space series before Activision poached them last July.
The official story: Activision reps had not returned requests for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: It's certainly in the realm of possibility, since Call of Duty development has been farmed out before. Since 2006, former Spider-Man developer Treyarch has made World War II-themed entries in the series while Infinity Ward crafted the first two Modern Warfares. Also, after eight years of Call of Duty, the latter studio's talented development team is likely ready to try something completely different.
Source: In a post to his Pastapadre site, former SportsGamer writer Brian Wiedey pointed out that Take-Two Interactive neglected to include NHL 2K11 on its 2010 release schedule.
What we heard: As Wiedey pointed out, Take-Two's fiscal fourth quarter report (released yesterday) has been the publisher's preferred opportunity to confirm new installments in its long-running ice hockey series.
That alone might not raise eyebrows, as Take-Two's preliminary 2010 lineup is far from inclusive, consisting of only seven games. However, the publisher did specify that it would have MLB 2K11 and a new NBA 2K11 game next year, leaving NHL as the only annualized Take-Two sports franchise unaccounted for.
Dropping the NHL series would make some sense for Take-Two. 2K's games have been a distant second to EA's efforts this generation, both critically and commercially. And while the recent Wii edition of NHL 2K10 was warmly received by critics and vigorously supported with TV advertising, that hasn't significantly boosted sales over last year's edition. With the publisher's stated focus on AAA game development, a middling licensed franchise with a limited potential audience up against tough competition every year might be a tempting target for cutting costs.
Take-Two also seems to be shying away from the need to compete with EA in the sports genre. It was the desire to compete that led the publisher's management team (a group since ousted) to shell out for third-party exclusivity on the Major League Baseball license, a move that executives said will cost Take-Two $30-35 million during its current fiscal year alone.
The official story: "We are currently in the process of evaluating our sports portfolio and have not announced any new NHL titles at this time."--A 2K Sports representative.
Bogus or not bogus?: Tentatively not bogus, but no matter how one slices it, the outlook isn't good for NHL 2K11. Take-Two proved itself willing to walk away from an unprofitable series after it canceled its College Hoops series in 2008. And given how strong EA's puck sims have been in recent years, there's likely not much of a near-term opportunity to increase NHL 2K's market share without a significant investment.
Source: Industry news site Big Download.
What we heard: Yesterday, the NPD Group reported sales were down compared to last year in November, the eighth out of nine consecutive months his year. With revenue across the board slipping, it's no surprise that 2009 has seen a number of publishers and developers cut their workforce, ranging from Electronic Arts and Activision to Harmonix and Funcom, to name but a few.
The latest industry player to stumble under the weight of the overarching economic climate appears to be Austin, Texas-based Aspyr Media. Big Download reports this week that it has received information indicating that Aspyr has laid off over 50 percent of its workforce. The headcount reduction apparently occurred in November.
It is unclear how large of a workforce Aspyr maintained before the purported layoffs, though Big Download's source noted that only a handful of employees remain. It is also unclear whether the alleged staff cuts have impacted any projects currently under way at the company.
Aspyr is perhaps best known for its less-than-stellar ports of a variety of noteworthy titles. Most recently, the publisher released the critically Force-choked PC edition of LucasArts' Star Wars The Force Unleashed. Aspyr has also handled porting duties on Dark Sector, Supreme Commander, Civilization IV, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, as well as released original games such as Dreamkiller and Necrovision.
The official story: Aspyr had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: Given Aspyr's silence on the matter, it seems likely that some form of shake-up has occurred. However, with not much information to go by either way, it remains unclear just how big or impactful said staff reductions were.