EU charges Valve and five publishers with geo-blocking games


Valve Software

Two years after the EU began investigating whether Valve uses regional pricing and geo-blocking practices in its Steam store, the European Commission has formally charged the distributor and five game publishers. The Commission released its “preliminary view” that Valve, Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax prevented consumers from purchasing videogames cross-border from some Member States. That’s considered geo-blocking, and it violates EU competition rules.

The problem centers around activation keys. When users buy physical games, they often get activation keys, which they must enter to add the games to their Steam libraries. The Commission says Valve and the five publishers agreed to use geo-blocking so that activation keys sold in some countries — like Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Latvia — would not work in other Member States.

On the surface, it seems logical that a publisher would sell an activation key for less money in, for instance, Hungary, where the per capita GDP is much lower than it is in, say, Germany. Then, to prevent gamers in Germany from buying activation keys at a cut rate in Hungary, the publisher might restrict where the keys work. But doing so violates the EU’s Digital Single Market rules, which aim to enforce an open market across all of the EU. The Commission also says the publishers broke antitrust rules by including contractual restrictions that prevented distributors other than Valve from selling some PC games outside of certain Member States.

Now, Valve and the five publishers have an opportunity to respond to the Commission’s charges. If the Commission still believes they’re in violation of EU competition rules, they could be forced to change their ways and each be fined up to 10 percent of their annual revenue. In order to comply, Valve and the publishers could increase their costs throughout the EU, and gamers could be left to pay the price.

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Disney revives Lucasfilm Games as EA flounders with 'Star Wars'


Lucasfilm Games

There hasn’t been a Lucasfilm Games-badged release since before 1991’s Monkey Island 2, but that isn’t stopping Disney from resurrecting the classic label. The company recently posted several job listings for producers and marketers under the Lucasfilm Games badge, all of whom would oversee the development of games based on “Lucasfilm IP” like Star Wars. The team plans to support a wide range of platforms that could include living room consoles, PCs, smartphones and “AR/VR platforms.”

It’s not certain when the new Lucasfilm Games might launch in earnest. PCGamesN noted that there may be a good reason for choosing that name instead of the more contemporary LucasArts, though. Disney kept LucasArts around as a licensor when it bought Lucasfilm, so it might not want to step on any toes as it returns to in-house game development.

The move comes as doubts have mounted about EA’s exclusive rights for Star Wars games. The publisher has only released two Star Wars games in the six years since the deal, both of them in the Battlefront series — and Battlefront II left a bad taste in people’s mouths as EA’s fondness for pay-to-win mechanics effectively wrecked the game’s progression. The company has also developed a reputation for cancelling games, and the jury’s out on Respawn’s Jedi: Fallen Order until its premiere in late 2019. Simply speaking, Star Wars game development slowed to a trickle under EA’s watch and left many wondering if it was squandering the opportunity.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Lucasfilm Games is about to override EA. The EA exclusive is supposed to last until 2023, and any in-house studio will likely take a few years to release its first game. However, this might indicate that Disney isn’t completely happy with its reliance on an outside party and wants to take more control over the future of titles based on its brands.

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'Anthem' was the top-selling game in the US this February


BioWare/EA

BioWare may be racing to fix Anthem after its bumpy launch, but it doesn’t have to worry quite so much about its bottom line. NPD Group data shows that the shared-world shooter was the top-selling game in the US in February, and the second strongest game for 2019 up to that point (Kingdom Hearts III is the year’s current champion). Moreover, this was the second best launch month for a BioWare game, falling only behind Mass Effect 3‘s debut in 2012.

It’s not a completely surprising figure. EA had been hyping the game for the better part of two years, and there were strong incentives to pre-order. The real litmus test will likely be the March NPD figures — you’ll know Anthem lost momentum if there’s a sharp drop in sales. Nonetheless, BioWare could see this as a chance to grow the game and edge closer to fulfilling its lofty promises.

February also marked a good month for Nintendo. The Switch gave the company its best February and year-to-date dollar sales (not units) since 2011. That’s despite a relatively grim market where overall hardware spending dropped 12 percent versus a year earlier. NPD didn’t offer an explanation as to why, but it may be a virtue of console cycles. The Switch is still young, while the PS4 and Xbox One are nearing the end of their respective heydays. Buyers may be reluctant to spring for the Sony and Microsoft consoles knowing that something new is on the horizon, at least outside of the usual holiday shopping frenzy.

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Google built a controller for its Stadia gaming service


Google

Google is backing up its new Stadia game streaming service with some honest-to-goodness hardware — but not a box. The internet giant has unveiled a gamepad built with Stadia in mind, and it borrows a few cues from its earlier design patent. The wireless gamepad connects over WiFi, not Bluetooth, giving it access to the internet, and makes use of that through its dedicated buttons. You can press a “capture” button to save and share gaming moments, while a Google Assistant button can provide help when you’re stuck.

The company didn’t share pricing or availability for the gamepad, although a 2019 release alongside Stadia itself seems likely. It’s likely to be colorful, at least. Google showed black, white and mint-colored versions of the controller, suggesting that you can pick one that matches other Google gear in your home.

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Microsoft's latest preview program lets you test 'Halo' PC releases


343 Industries

There was already a preview program for the Master Chief Collection when 343 Industries was fixing the Xbox One version, but it’s giving the concept another shot now that the PC ports are on the way. It’s launching a Halo Insider Program that will give you a chance at playing pre-release versions of all Halo games and services, whether they’re for console or PC, in return for feedback. You’re not guaranteed to get into every test, but it may your best shot at playing a future Halo game in advance.

The 343 crew didn’t say just when it would release the first preview, although Halo: Reach is a strong candidate for that preview when it’s the lead title for the MCC PC introduction. Both Xbox and PC players will be asked to fill out occasional surveys. If you’re an Xbox fan, you can also use the Xbox Insider Program’s “report issue” tool to provide input.

There’s no secret motivation behind the new program — 343 knows the original MCC release had plenty of teething troubles, and it wants to avoid a repeat. This initiative increases the chances of a smooth launch, and might just rejuvenate overall interest in Halo.

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