For a few months in 2016, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people swiping at their phones, trying to catch a Psyduck superimposed on their local streets. The news was full of reports of people mobbing hotels or parks to find virtual critters. But Pokémon Go was more than a fad: it showed us a new way for video games and real life to combine. Friendships, communities and rivalries formed over the years as people went on cross-country or global trips to catch ’em all.
14. Papers Please
(Lucas Pope, 2013)
Sorting through the passport details of potential immigrants to an eastern European state doesn’t sound like the stuff of video-game magic. But this is an extraordinary and gripping game, where the rules of entry are constantly shifting and where lives perpetually hang in the balance. As a commentary on the cruelties meted out to desperate stateless people, it is as heartbreakingly relevant now as it was almost a decade ago.
13. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
You are the general standing between the people of Earth and an alien invasion that’s quickly overwhelming the cobbled-together resistance. When you send out your troops, there is a good chance that not all of them will return. XCOM is extraordinary because it’s high-stakes, frightening, and consequential: this is a desperate battle for survival, not a power fantasy. It embraces heart-pumping last-minute scrabbles, plans gone awry, devastating failure and unlikely success. And when you do snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, you never forget it.
From idyllic Cotswold villages to stark Scottish highland runs, the fourth title in the open world Horizon series acts like a glorious interactive advert for scenic Britain. With expert use of high-end lighting techniques and an astonishing eye for detail, the world is an absolute pleasure to drive around – and you get to do it in hundreds of beautifully modelled cars. No wonder so many people found it such a comforting lockdown escape route.
(Derek Yu, 2012)
Ask video game scholars for an example of a “perfect” game, and Spelunky is often mentioned. Delve into Spelunky’s ever-changing and yet just-about conquerable subterranea, and you’re never sure whether you will fall into lava, be dispatched by a bat, accidentally rob a shopkeeper, be impaled on spikes, or make it all the way to hell. A sublime combination of gameplay ideas, daunting environments and random chance combine to make this cave-diving classic feel inexhaustibly fun.
10. Super Mario Galaxy 2
When Nintendo untethered Mario from gravity in 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy, we discovered that bending or erasing the laws of physics only created more gleeful and innovative ways for him to run and jump. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a meteor-shower of brilliant ideas, each level based around a single idea that could support hours of fun, but instead appears only briefly and vanishes while you’re still smiling. Perhaps the greatest expression yet of the joy of movement that Mario embodies.
9. Mass Effect 2
Generally, when aliens die in video games, it’s because you’ve just shot them, and not because – for example – you’ve accidentally condemned their entire race to extinction with your bad choices, or spent tens of hours befriending them and then walked into what turns out to be a suicide mission. Mass Effect 2 is a blinding science-fiction story about uniting in the face of the impossible, allowing you to create the kinds of relationships with its many characters and themes that film and TV just cannot compete.
8. Red Dead Redemption
The story of retired outlaw John Marston riding across a lawless America as the modern era dawns is the stuff of classic western cinema. The fact this huge open game manages to provide all the atmosphere of a John Ford western, with the violence and horror of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, says much about the narrative and world-building skills of the Rockstar hivemind. Unlike GTA, this is a game with characters you care about in a world that makes emotional sense. It is, in many ways, truly profound.
7. The Last of Us
(Naughty Dog, 2013)
Brutal, elegiac and uncompromising, The Last of Us dragged the emerging “dad game” genre into a stunningly realised post-apocalyptic landscape and then beat the crap out of it. The growing relationship between Joel and Ellie provides the emotional core, but they exist in a world filled with sad stories as well as monsters – and Naughty Dog knows just how to do both. But amid the horror, no one, no one, will ever forget the giraffe scene when they see it.
6. The Witcher 3
(CD Projekt Red, 2015)
Geralt of Rivia isn’t your typical world-saving fantasy protagonist – he’s a grizzled monster-hunter with a low tolerance for bullshit and an ongoing thing for his ex-girlfriend, a powerful witch. And this allows us to see European low-fantasy through different eyes: there’s little glory here, not much nobility, and good doesn’t automatically triumph. The stories you find in this vast world are never what you’d expect, and neither are the creatures. You’ll find plenty of fantasy tropes in The Witcher 3, but they’re always turned on their heads.
5. Portal 2
The original Portal was a perfectly realised physics puzzler with a fun side story about a misanthropic AI, a corrupt scientific genius and a slice of cake that didn’t exist. The sequel takes those narrative threads and crafts a vast dystopian tale of hubris and nemesis, relishing the concept of Glados as a sociopathic sensei to the imprisoned Chell. Intricate, clever and engrossing, it’s also among the funniest games ever made.
4. Grand Theft Auto V
Here is the story of three revolting men in a terrible city filled with cheap death and dead-eyed satire – and yet this game is certainly a masterpiece. Rockstar’s pastiche on fame, Silicon Valley, and bromance action movies shows utter commitment to the cause, with every inch of the landscape feeling alive and authored. And the narrative is only a tiny part of the experience, with the game’s multiplayer component, GTA Online, becoming an anarchic playground that has lasted a decade. No other open world gangster game has ever come close to taking this Godfather down.
Mojang’s creative playground is the closest video games have ever come to combining the spontaneous and improvisational qualities of Lego building and tabletop RPGs. Utterly open to player decisions and desires, it revolutionised the idea of cooperative play, introducing unparalleled depths of creative collaboration. Over the past decade it has become a place to play, to grow up and to be a child again. It made stars of the biggest YouTubers in the world, and it has changed innumerable lives for the better – including my own.
2. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The most beautiful Zelda game, and also the least restrictive, Breath of the Wild is bottled freedom, a banquet of tempting horizons. It allows for curiosity, daring and playful creativity; where in previous Zelda games you’d see a target across a chasm and know you’d need a hookshot to get over there, in Breath of the Wild you might freeze a boulder in time, whack it with a hammer a few times to store up some kinetic energy, then cling to it as it flies across the gap. You can start fires, run away from fights, see something that looks a bit like a dragon in the skies and end up chasing it deep into a forest halfway across Hyrule. A game you can live inside for months.
1. Dark Souls
Dark Souls’ predecessor, Demon’s Souls, challenged every convention of its time when it came to what players needed from a game. Comprehensive tutorials? An easy-to-follow plot? Characters or maps telling you what to do and where to go next? Nah. Just drop them into a dark fantasy full of fascinating, terrifying undead things, leave some weapons around, and let them work it all out. This approach to play, informed far more by old fantasy novels and history’s earliest, most challenging games than by the slick blockbusters of the time, gave players a thrillingly rewarding gauntlet to overcome. But then Dark Souls took those ideas and weaved them into a forsaken world so intricate, desolately beautiful and fascinatingly interconnected that it still feels bottomless. This is a game in which every encounter can surprise you, every misstep can lead to an ignominious death, and every scrap of dialogue or discarded ring provides a clue to what happened in this towering kingdom of fetid swamp-towns, crumbling castles and cities abandoned to ghosts. This game would enthral millions and make a cult celebrity out of its creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, the one-time unenthusiastic coder who is now president of FromSoftware. It has proven extraordinarily influential, and yet none of the “Soulslike” games that followed have captured its mystery and exquisitely exciting combat (except perhaps Miyazaki’s own gothic horror game, Bloodborne).
The price of a 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer is going up $10, and its supply is expected to be capped at seven million devices this year due to the ongoing global chip shortage.
Demand for components is outstripping manufacturing capacity at the moment; pre-pandemic, assembly lines were being red-lined as cloud giants and others snapped up parts fresh out of the fabs, and the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak really threw a spanner in the works, so to speak, exacerbating the situation.
Everything from cars to smartphones have felt the effects of supply constraints, and Raspberry Pis, too, it appears. Stock is especially tight for the Raspberry Pi Zero and the 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 models, we’re told. As the semiconductor crunch shows no signs of letting up, the Raspberry Pi project is going to bump up the price for one particular model.
The 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 will now once again set you back $45, an increase of $10 from its previous retail price. It used to be $45, then was brought down to $35 early last year when the 1GB model was discontinued. Now it’s back up again. This is the first time the project has hiked its prices, the trading arm of the Raspberry Pi Foundation said.
Don’t worry, however, the bump is said to be temporary and the module will eventually return to its original price of $35, company CEO Eben Upton announced on Wednesday.
The 4GB Raspberry Pi 4 and 8GB Raspberry Pi 4 versions will remain at $55 and $75, respectively. For those relying on a supply of $35 2GB boards, the project will bring back those 1GB Raspberry Pi 4 modules, priced $35.
“This provides a degree of choice: less memory at the same price; or the same memory at a higher price,” said Upton. 2GB for $45 or 1GB for $35. A choice, but not one people might expect.
“As many of you know,” he continued, “global supply chains are in a state of flux as we (hopefully) emerge from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. In our own industry, semiconductors are in high demand, and in short supply: the upsurge of demand for electronic products for home working and entertainment during the pandemic has descended into panic buying, as companies try to secure the components that they need to build their products … At Raspberry Pi, we are not immune to this.”
The project is expected to make around seven million of its computer boards total this year, maintaining the same level of production as last year as the pandemic took hold of the world. This is unlikely to increase much next year either, Upton said. Judging from his explanation, this figure is lower than hoped: “Despite significantly increased demand, we’ll only end up making around seven million units in 2021.”
Pis containing 40nm chips will feel the chip crunch the hardest over the next year, meaning there will be limited supplies of devices older than the current generation of Raspberry Pi 4, Raspberry Pi 400, or Compute Module 4.
“In allocating our limited stocks of 40nm silicon, we will prioritise Compute Module 3, Compute Module 3+, and Raspberry Pi 3B, and deprioritise Raspberry Pi 3B+ … Our guidance to industrial and embedded users of Raspberry Pi 3B+ who wish to optimise availability in 2022 is to begin migrating your designs to the 1GB variant of Raspberry Pi 4,” Upton said.
The biz expects to be able to make enough systems using 28nm silicon – namely the Raspberry Pi 4 and Compute Module 4 – over the next 12 months to hold their price… bar the aforementioned 2GB model.
“These changes in pricing are not here to stay. As global supply chain issues moderate, we’ll keep revisiting this issue, and we want to get pricing back to where it was as fast as we can,” Upton concluded. ®
UK headquartered Swoop was one of three finance companies to have received funding from RBS, which has previously given the start-up £5m in 2019.
Irish start-up Swoop Finance has received £2.5m from a fund established by banking giant RBS.
In 2019, it was awarded £5m by the banking firm, which accepted a £45bn bailout from the UK government at the height of the financial crisis in 2018. The bailout programme came with the condition that RBS would set up a £775m fund to boost competition in the region’s finance sector.
Swoop is one of three companies to have benefitted from that fund, with the others being UK finance companies Codat and Cashplus. The three start-ups will receive a combined £12.5m in grants from RBS.
Codat and Cashplus will both receive £5m from the fund.
Swoop was founded in 2017 by former KPMG chartered accountant and corporate financier Andrea Reynolds along with Ciarán Burke. Reynolds spoke at Silicon Republic’s Future Human event last year about the process of launching Swoop. She said she founded it after she spotted a gap in the market for a virtual “finance buddy” aimed at SMEs seeking financial advisers and lenders.
Today, Swoop is headquartered in the UK and it employs around 60 people. It recently launched in Canada, adding to its existing locations in Dublin, London and Sydney.
The fintech’s backers include Enterprise Ireland and Velocity. It has raised around €1.6m so far. Speaking last year, Reynolds said the pandemic’s digitisation of the finance industry – and most other industries – had benefitted the company.
She added that the ongoing changes in the industry would hopefully “democratise finance” and “open up opportunities” to companies seeking funding no matter where they are located.
“The future is that you won’t need to know who the lender is,” Reynolds said.
“All decisions will be made through your data and you’ll get those decisions instantly. So you could have a lender in Barcelona lending to a business in Ballyjamesduff, for example. It won’t matter where you are. It’s what your profile is and does it match to their algorithm.
“This means it’ll open up opportunities. It’ll democratise finance further because businesses, regardless of where they’re located, will not be disadvantaged. Everybody will have this at their fingertips,” she added.
Reynolds said she had seen “a 30pc increase in businesses moving online” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I’m going to try to convince you that you should care about exactly how many people watched the moral panic-inducing hit Netflix series Squid Game. Yes, I know there’s a lot going on in the world. But bear with me: I think this really matters regarding how we understand our culture – and the balance of power in a media business where data is king.
(As a treat, if you stick with this newsletter then further down I’ll tell you about some of the biggest flops that Netflix would prefer you didn’t know about.)
In the past it was simple to find out how many people watched a popular television show. Audience figures for traditional television broadcasts have been produced in a similar way for decades. Research companies recruit a group of households considered to be statistically representative of the general population (in the UK this is done by Barb, in the US by Nielsen) and then their viewing habits are monitored, often using a box attached to their television set.
This data is then processed and used to produce industry-standard television ratings that can make or break careers. Journalists love these figures because you can make narratives out of them! It’s why you see headlines in news outlets about how half of the UK watched a football match, or how no one watched a new rightwing news channel.
These figures are made public, in part, because commercial television channels have advertisers. And advertisers need to know their adverts are actually being watched, so they need reliable and trustworthy numbers produced by a third-party organisation. Sure, this survey system is flawed, but broadly speaking it is equally flawed for everyone. You can tell if a programme on BBC is much more popular than a show on ITV, and you can tell if a particular drama massively outperformed what you’d expect.
Then Netflix and subscription streaming services came along. They don’t have advertisers. Their aim is to hook, retain, and encourage customers to keep using their service until it becomes so ingrained in their lives that they can never stop paying their monthly subscription fee. Core to working out how to do this is the data they collect on you.
Because Netflix knows exactly what shows you watch. They know how many seconds you lasted with each programme, when you got bored, what you put on instead when you got bored, and exactly what time of night you were watching that smutty foreign series. And it’s really not in Netflix’s interest to share this information with journalists, their rivals, or with the people who make the shows.
Which brings us back to the original question: How many people watched Squid Game? And why does it matter?
Well, if you believe Netflix, who occasionally drip-feed out positive ratings stories when it suits them, by last night Squid Game had been watched by 142 million households, making it one of the biggest hits ever.
But we’ve only got Netflix’s word to go on for that figure. And even then, Netflix currently defines a viewer as someone who watched the first two minutes of a show’s opening episode. Did you put Squid Game on for a few minutes to check out the hype then get bored? Well, you might be surprised to find you’re counted to be just as much a “fan” of the show as someone who watched all nine episodes back-to-back.
Journalistically, it’s a challenge. We end up having to accept Netflix’s word for the figures they provide because there’s simply no other option. It also enables the streaming outlets to selectively publish the narrative that they want to construct. It’s sexy and cool to trumpet your investment in high-end original drama. (And hell, Netflix really is investing incredible sums in high-end original drama!) It’s less sexy to admit that your critically acclaimed show was a ratings flop and people just want to watch endless repeats of Grand Designs.
What’s more, it warps our perceptions of audiences and what is popular in culture. Is a Netflix drama more popular than a BBC drama? Possibly. This may have enormous implications for the future of whether we still need the licence fee. Does the public really engage with Oscar-nominated state-of-the-nation films or secretly sit there watching another Adam Sandler release? With the culture wars grinding on, it’s probably worth knowing. What are the truly unifying television moments that bind a society together? It’s hard to be sure. Because we can’t get the data out of Netflix.
The truth is out there
Except … one small family business based in Bristol has worked out how to do just that. The staff at Digital i, an analytics firm, realised that while Netflix won’t release viewing figures, it does release data to members of the public about their personal viewing history.
(It’s true, you can see an overview of your recent Netflix viewing history, or you can download every bit of data that Netflix holds on you by visiting this link. In my case, it reveals that I was really binge-watching an awful lot of episodes of The Good Wife in 2015.)
Digital i realised that if they could convince thousands individuals to willingly hand over this personal viewing history in return for a small payment, the company can effectively create a statistically rigorous survey panel, then use this to create audience “ratings” for Netflix shows and sell this data to rivals. At the moment they have users signed up in five major European countries but they hope to expand globally.
“We’re trying to level the playing field for Netflix competitors,” said Sophia Vahdati from the company, who says their customers include the likes of BBC and ITV.
Her company has shone a light on one of Netflix’s biggest secret: how much of their audience is viewing endless repeats of old shows, because people binge high-profile original series in such a short period of time.
“The biggest thing that isn’t mentioned in the hype is how important sitcoms are to retaining Netflix subscribers,” she said, highlighting the availability of Brooklyn 99 and Big Bang Theory as just as core to Netflix’s offering as their buzzy acclaimed shows.
Here’s some of the findings of their Digital i’s data from its UK audience research that she shared with the Guardian:
British Netflix users spent more time watching old episodes of Friends in 2020 than watching big-budget original series the Crown.
The three most popular new releases in the UK during August were Clickbait (watched by 2.34m Netflix accounts), Hit & Run (2.1m households), and The Chair (1.64m). These are high ratings but Channel 5 can top them.
Sex Education Series 3 was released on the same day as Squid Game and performed just as well in Europe – but has had a fraction of the hype.
Shows such Bridgerton, Afterlife and The Queen’s Gambit were all hitting over 80% completion rates in the UK – meaning people were hooked and watched to the end of each series.
At the other end of the market, the five shows with the worst series completion rates were The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (just 35% of viewers finished it), What/If (45%), The Irregulars (53%), White Lines (56%), and Sex/Life (56%) – which explains why most of them were cancelled.
Any film that is watched to the end by 70% of people is a success. Martin Scorsese’s big-budget much-hyped Irishman? That struggled, on their metrics.
People now watch original series in a very short space of time – about a quarter of people who watched Squid Game finished it within two days.
Even though Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are not far apart in terms of signed-up users, Netflix dwarfs Amazon when it comes to people actually watching their content.
Oh and almost no one chooses to watch the credits nowadays. Sorry to everyone who made the programmes, we’ve already autoplayed the next episode.
So why does all this matter?
A lack of transparency changes the balance of of power when it comes to small companies negotiating with a global giant such as Netflix.
One independent producer who sold a film to Netflix suspects their release performed well, based on online reaction. But they told me that they just don’t know: “Netflix doesn’t usually give producers information about viewing figures of films they made – which is both frustrating and very disempowering for producers trying to negotiate funding for the next one, with them or anyone else.”
And for Squid Game? Digital i reckons 79% of Europeans with Netflix on their research panel watched at least one episode within the first fortnight of its release – with half making it all the way to the end in that time. So it really is a massive hit. Just perhaps not quite as big as Netflix’s own figures would suggest.
Last night, the streaming company announced that they would slightly change the metrics they use and drop the “two minutes watched” measure in favour of total hours watched. But it’s still in the company’s gift when they make the information public.
Vahdati says her company’s data shows how the streamer can selectively release data to shape the narrative about their output: “The originals are punchy, sharp and aesthetically innovative. But at the heart of it we haven’t become a nation who like to be challenged all the time with foreign-language dramas.”
Oh – and if you’re one of the many Squid Game viewers, then no spoilers please. I’m still only two episodes in.
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