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Age of Empires IV could bring back RTS in a big way this fall

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Age of Empires IV could bring back RTS in a big way this fall

Microsoft gave fans a deep dive into Age of Empires IV today, and the game looks beautiful. It looks like it could give real-time strategy games on the PC a much-neeeded shot in the arm.

The company’s Relic Entertainment division has been making the game since 2017, and it finally announced it will be arriving on the PC on Windows 10, Xbox Game Pass for PC, and Steam during the fall of 2021. The fan event was a celebration of Age of Empires for those who miss the The Town Center. I feel like this RTS genre should be a mass market, not a niche.

RTS games are best played as mouse-and-keyboard games, and are far harder to play with a game controller. That has meant that the games can’t reach as many fans and they haven’t been as popular, even though they’re hard to develop. We’ve seen big lapses in Blizzard Entertainment’s RTS efforts in brand new installments in franchises such as StarCraft and Warcraft.

Above: You can zoom in pretty close in Age of Empires IV.

Image Credit: Microsoft/Relic

While Microsoft’s Age of Empires franchise has been stalled since 2005 (with the exception of some retro remakes), other key players have been carrying the RTS flag. Sega’s The Creative Assembly has a thriving Total War series, with the latest titles coming including Total War: Warhammer III and Total War: Rome Remastered. Meanwhile, Eugen Systems has been doing a great job with World War II titles with its Steel Division series. Other startups working on RTS titles are Frost Giant Studios and SunSpear games.

But Age of Empires IV could really fill the RTS gap. Microsoft’s success with Age of Empires started in 1997, and the marriage of history and RTS generated so much revenue that, in addition to Microsoft Flight Simulator, the game enabled a vast expansion in the company’s game investments and ultimately led to the debut of the Xbox game console in 2001.

Age of Empires and its sequels sold more than 20 million copies, but Microsoft shut down the studio that made it, Ensemble Studios, in 2009, during the Great Recession after attempts to branch out like Halo Wars met with limited success. Other games had higher priorities at Microsoft.

A new game

aoe

Above: Age of Empires IV will feature the Delphi Sultanate.

Image Credit: Microsoft/Relic

But this new game takes advantage of the last 15-plus years of graphics improvements that allow for much more detail to be used in the individual characters and buildings that make up the scenes in 4K HDR battlefields.

The game will have eight civilizations and Microsoft has revealed four so far. Today, Relic showed the Delhi Sultanate (which features elephant units), and it also showed campaigns of William the Conquerer in England, as well as campaigns in China with the Mongols and sea warfare.

Relic said the civilizations will play very differently, with strengths and weaknesses that play out  across campaign maps as well as randomly generated maps. The game will have four campaigns such as the Norman conquest of England.

aoe 4

Above: Age of Empires IV takes advantage of 4K graphics.

Image Credit: Microsoft/Relic

Players will be able to stage ambushes with stealth, which allows players to hide their units from the enemy unless scouts spot them first. Soldiers can also fend off attackers by shooting down from castle walls while attackers can use siege weapons.

Microsoft also said the classic titles — Definitive Edition of Age of Empires II and III — will be updated, as Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition will get a Dawn of Dukes expansion and co-op play this year. Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition will add the U.S. and an African expansion.

I’m looking forward to have real choices for RTS games in the future, and Age of Empires IV looks like it could consume an awful lot of my time.

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Metacore secures $179.9M in credit from Supercell for casual games

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Metacore secures $179.9M in credit from Supercell for casual games

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Mobile game studio Metacore has raised $179.9 million in credit from Supercell to continue developing its casual mobile game Merge Mansion.

It’s a huge amount of money to pour into a game studio with one game, but it shows what Helsinki-based Supercell is willing to do with the cash it generates from mobile gaming hits like Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, Hay Day, and Brawl Stars.

Since releasing its first game (Merge Mansion) in late 2020, Metacore’s annual revenue run rate has reached $54 million, putting the company on track to become one of the fastest-growing game studios in Europe. Merge Mansion is a puzzle game with more than 800,000 daily players. The new funding will help boost Merge Mansion’s global operations and strengthen Metacore’s core team.

“We’re off to a really good start and raised this follow-on funding from Supercell to increase the scaling of the game,” said Metacore CEO Mika Tammenkoski in an interview with GamesBeat. “It couldn’t be more exciting than this.”

Supercell has backed the game studio for years, with an initial investment of $5.9 million in 2018 followed by a $17.9 million investment and $11.9 million credit line in 2020. The new credit line financing strengthens Metacore’s capability to accelerate its growth while maintaining their current ownership structure and autonomy.

Supercell’s investments lead Jaakko Harlas said in a statement that Metacore is going from strength to strength. He said Merge Mansion launched with high expectations and has met them. He said Supercell invests in strong teams, and Supercell’s role is to remove obstacles.

“Merge Mansion has hit its metrics, and we have been scaling it successfully so far,” Tammenkoski said. “We believe that we can really reach the top of the charts with that game. As you know, as you know, getting to the top of the charts, or scaling mobile games, is really capital intensive because of the dynamics of the free-to-play business model. And it means that you have to invest heavily, and then you have to wait for a while to get the return on the investment.”

Metacore looks to fill key roles in game development and brand marketing.

“Most of the money goes into marketing,” he said. “The personal costs are really marginal compared to what you can spend on performance and brand marketing. And we really want to make Merge Mansion into an entertainment brand in the mobile game space. And that means that we really need to invest into it as well.”

Metacore has a distinctive approach to scaling its studio: It builds and tests games with small, two-to-three person teams that have full autonomy over games they develop and only expand these teams once they’ve validated the concept on the market through player feedback. That’s pretty similar to the way that Supercell runs.

Regarding Supercell, “They know how capital intensive scaling these games is,” Tammenkoski said. “We couldn’t have a better partner than this.”

Above: Metacore’s Merge Mansion mixes puzzles with discovery.

Image Credit: Metacore

This enables Metacore to quickly pivot or scrap game projects that players aren’t responding to, but it also means the studio can swiftly act when it’s clear they have a hit game like Merge Mansion on its hands.

Metacore has doubled its team size to close to 30 since last fall and is actively recruiting for key roles in game development, brand marketing, and other strategic business functions. Tammenkoski emphasized that the company is not rushing with recruitment and is taking the time to find the right fit.

Tammenkoski and Aki Järvilehto founded the company. Merge Mansion features a grandmother and her grandaughter who bond over an old mansion and try to get it back into livable shape. The advertising will focus on telling a story for a mass market audience, Tammenkoski said.

The funding comes at a time when mobile advertising is in flux, as Apple is prioritizing user privacy over targeting advertising. Tammenkoski said there is turbulence in the market and no one knows how bad it will get, but he said he is not targeting any particular cohort of players. That should make it easier to deal with Apple’s change in the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA).

“The dynamics will change, but we will go broad with our advertising,” Tammenkoski said.

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Speech recognition system trains on radio archive to learn Niger Congo languages

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speech recognition

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For many of the 700 million illiterate people around the world, speech recognition technology could provide a bridge to valuable information. Yet in many countries, these people tend to speak only languages for which the datasets necessary to train a speech recognition model are scarce. This data deficit persists for several reasons, chief among them the fact that creating products for languages spoken by smaller populations can be less profitable.

Nonprofit efforts are underway to close the gap, including 1000 Words in 1000 Languages, Mozilla’s Common Voice, and the Masakhane project, which seeks to translate African languages using neural machine translation. But this week, researchers at Guinea-based tech accelerator GNCode and Stanford detailed a new initiative that uniquely advocates using radio archives in developing speech systems for “low-resource” languages, particularly Maninka, Pular, and Susu in the Niger Congo family.

“People who speak Niger Congo languages have among the lowest literacy rates in the world, and illiteracy rates are especially pronounced for women,” the coauthors note. “Maninka, Pular, and Susu are spoken by a combined 10 million people, primarily in seven African countries, including six where the majority of the adult population is illiterate.”

The idea behind the new initiative is to make use of unsupervised speech representation learning, demonstrating that representations learned from radio programs can be leveraged for speech recognition. Where labeled datasets don’t exist, unsupervised learning can help to fill in domain knowledge by determining the correlations between data points and then training based on the newly applied data labels.

New datasets

The researchers created two datasets, West African Speech Recognition Corpus and the West African Radio Corpus, intended for applications targeting West African languages. The West African Speech Recognition Corpus contains over 10,000 hours of recorded speech in French, Maninka, Susu, and Pular from roughly 49 speakers, including Guinean first names and voice commands like “update that,” “delete that,” “yes,” and “no.” As for the West African Radio Corpus, it consists of 17,000 audio clips sampled from archives collected from six Guinean radio stations. The broadcasts in the West African Radio Corpus span news and shows in languages including French, Guerze, Koniaka, Kissi, Kono, Maninka, Mano, Pular, Susu, and Toma.

To create a speech recognition system, the researchers tapped Facebook’s wav2vec, an open source framework for unsupervised speech processing. Wav2vec uses an encoder module that takes raw audio and outputs speech representations, which are fed into a Transformer that ensures the representations capture whole-audio-sequence information. Created by Google researchers in 2017, the Transformer network architecture was initially intended as a way to improve machine translation. To this end, it uses attention functions instead of a recurrent neural network to predict what comes next in a sequence.

Above: The accuracies of WAwav2vec.

Despite the fact that the radio dataset includes phone calls as well as background and foreground music, static, and interference, the researchers managed to train a wav2vec model with the West African Radio Corpus, which they call WAwav2vec. In one experiment with speech across French, Maninka, Pular, and Susu, the coauthors say that they achieved multilingual speech recognition accuracy (88.01%) on par with Facebook’s baseline wav2vec model (88.79%) — despite the fact that the baseline model was trained on 960 hours of speech versus WAwav2vec’s 142 hours.

Virtual assistant

As a proof of concept, the researchers used WAwav2vec to create a prototype of a speech assistant. The assistant — which is available in open source along with the datasets — can recognize basic contact management commands (e.g., “search,” “add,” “update,” and “delete”) in addition to names and digits. As the coauthors note, smartphone access has exploded in the Global South, with an estimated 24.5 million smartphone owners in South Africa alone, according to Statista, making this sort of assistant likely to be useful.

“To the best of our knowledge, the multilingual speech recognition models we trained are the first-ever to recognize speech in Maninka, Pular, and Susu. We also showed how this model can power a voice interface for contact management,” the coauthors wrote. “Future work could expand its vocabulary to application domains such as microfinance, agriculture, or education. We also hope to expand its capabilities to more languages from the Niger-Congo family and beyond, so that literacy or ability to speak a foreign language are not prerequisites for accessing the benefits of technology. The abundance of radio data should make it straightforward to extend the encoder to other languages.”

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Gamescom announces online-only festival in August, reversing hybrid event plan

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The crowd at Gamescom 2019 on opening day on Tuesday, August 20.

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Reversing a plan announced in March, Gamescom will no longer try to do a hybrid gaming expo this summer. Instead, it will focus on an online-only event at the end of August.

The fan-and-business trade show is the world’s biggest game-industry event — with 370,000 people attending the physical event in 2019 — but it had to switch to online-only in 2020 due to the pandemic. The event organizers floated the idea of a hybrid physical event where fans could come see games in person along with digital announcements. The hope was that the coronavirus would subside thanks to vaccinations and that people would want to recapture the excitement of an in-person event.

But today, the Association of the German Games Industry and Koelnmesse decided against that plan, based on responses from potential exhibitors and fans. They plan to hold the main part of the show from August 25 to August 29.

Gamescom Congress will once again take place Thursday, August 26, and Devcom will start off the events August 23. The main days of Gamescom will take place on August 26 and August 27. IGN will produce a show dubbed Awesome Indies. Opening Night Live, which Geoff Keighley produces, will still take place, but it will now be online-only as well. Gamescom was planning to start selling tickets in May.

Above: The crowd at Gamescom 2019 on opening day. The show was online-only in 2020. It will be online-only again in 2021.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

“This decision was made after extensive discussions with partners and exhibitors,” the organizers said in a press release. “Thus, the organizers take into account the current situation, in which too many companies are unable to participate in physical events this year due to the still difficult development. In this way, they also meet the partners’ strong need for planning security. This means that Gamescom 2021 will be held exclusively digitally and free of charge for all Gamescom fans.”

Last year, Gamescom had more than 100 million video views over all formats and channels, more than 50 million unique viewers from 180 countries, and 370 partners from 44 countries. Oliver Frese, chief operating officer of Koelnmesse, said in a statement that Gamescom was coming too early for many companies in the industry, as it required so much advanced planning amid an uncertain environment. Companies need that planning reliability, he said.

Felix Falk, managing director of the German Games Industry Association, said in a statement that next year the groups will be able to implement more of the concepts they had in mind for a hybrid version of Gamescom. There will be business-to-business matchmaking events such as “indies meet investors and publishers” pitch events.

GamesBeat

GamesBeat’s creed when covering the game industry is “where passion meets business.” What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you — not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it.

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