Facebook undermined rivals in bid to dominate global messaging

https://www.computerweekly.com/news/252474399/Facebook-undermined-rivals-in-bid-to-dominate-global-messaging

When Facebook’s instant messaging service was falling behind rivals, including WhatsApp, CEO Mark Zuckerberg devised a plan to grow Facebook Messenger into the dominant messaging service. To implement it, Facebook undermined competitors.

Facebook’s staff saw the social network as “the biggest service on Earth” and Messenger was a key, yet vulnerable, part of the business. Despite Facebook’s popularity, its messaging service was losing out to competitors that focused solely on messaging.

Confidential documents, published by Computer Weekly and NBC, are likely to raise questions for lawmakers and regulators, as they reveal that Facebook walked over developers who had helped make Facebook a success.

The documents are being examined by US lawmakers in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law as part of its antitrust investigation into Facebook and other big tech companies. Separate investigations are underway by the US Federal Trade Commission and US state attorneys general.

Based on extensive analysis of leaked documents, Computer Weekly can reveal how Zuckerberg’s plan to dominate instant messaging unfolded.

Facebook said in a statement that Six4Three, which developed an app called Pikinis to find friends wearing bikinis, had “cherry-picked” the documents as part of a lawsuit attempting to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users.

Paul Grewall, vice-president and deputy general counsel at Facebook, said: “The set of documents by design tells only one side of the story and omits important context. We still stand by the platform changes we made in 2014/2015 to prevent people from sharing their friends’ information with developers like the creators of Pikinis.”

Zuckerberg pulls the trigger

At 1.28am on 10 January 2013, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was working into the night.

“I think we should block WeChat, Kakao and Line Ads [from Facebook],” he wrote in an email to his team. “Those companies are trying to build social networks and replace us.”

His decision followed tormented discussions among Facebook’s team about the threat posed by rival messaging services.

“I think we should block WeChat, Kakao and Line Ads. Those companies are trying to build social networks and replace us. The revenue is immaterial compared to any risk”

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Zuckerberg must have read his vice-president of international growth Javier Olivan’s anxious message several times: “We will look like complete idiots if we lose our business to these messenger services and help them along for a couple of $$.”

One of Facebook’s biggest sources of revenue was an advertising service for app developers, called Neko, which allowed developers to promote their apps to Facebook users, for a fee.

But Olivan had qualms that Facebook could be helping developers who threatened Facebook’s business model.

The company had good reason to worry. It had been slow off the mark to move Facebook services to mobile, and it was seeing a “terminal decline” in the number of posts people were making on their personal Facebook pages.

“The sum-product of shift to mobile + messenger services morphing into fully fleshed [social networking] sites is IMO [in my opinion] the biggest competitive threat we face as a business,” said Olivan.

“Messenger services deserve special treatment since [they are] arguably one of the most dangerous beachheads to morph into Facebook”
Javier Olivan, Facebook

“Messenger services deserve special treatment since [they are] arguably one of the most dangerous beach heads to morph into Facebook ” he wrote.

A tweet from WhatsApp on 2 January had triggered Olivan’s panic. He shared it with Zuckerberg: “On Dec 31st we had a new record day: 7B msgs inbound, 11B msgs outbound = 18 billion total messages processed in one day! Happy 2013!!”.

More bad news came from Korea’s Information Society Development Institute, which revealed the volume of messages sent via Kakao Talk – a free mobile instant messaging application for smartphones – had increased by over 850% and more than 100 billion users in just one year. 

Facebook goes on the offensive

News about the success of strategic competitors kept landing as the team pulled together shortlists of apps and developers it considered a strategic threat. 

Facebook had encouraged developers to build apps and to embed them into the Facebook platform since 2007, a tactic which helped it to rapidly acquire millions of new users.

Now, after fending off rival social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook planned to restrict access to data about the friends of people who used rival messenger apps – information that many developers considered offered the greatest value for their products. 

Third-party apps could access a wide range of data about users’ friends, through an application programming interface (API) called Friends.get. It gave them access to the names of their customers’ friends, their birthdays, gender, geographic location, email addresses and personal photographs. Developers used this information to encourage friends of their existing users to download their apps.

Jud Hoffman, then Facebook’s global policy manager, wrote in January 2013: “On the Platform side, we’re restricting access to Friends.get for all messenger apps so that they’re not using our data to compete with us.”

“Twitter launched Vine today which lets you shoot multiple short video sequences to make one single 6 second video… Unless anyone raises any objections, we will shut down their friends API access today”
Justin Osofsky, Facebook

When Twitter launched Vine, a service for making and sharing six-second videos, Zuckerberg ordered immediate counter-measures.

Facebook’s vice-president, Justin Osofsky, emailed the leadership team alerting them to Vine as soon as it appeared: “Unless anyone raises any objections, we will shut down their [Vine’s] friends API access today.” Zuckerberg’s reply came swiftly: “Yeah, go for it.” 

Facebook dealt Vine another blow some five months later, when Facebook’s newly acquired picture-sharing service, Instagram, launched its own 15-second video-sharing apps on Android and iPhone.

Messenger services pay more for ads

By August 2012, Facebook had decided to increase advertising prices “for the entire competitive list”, starting with Google products.

Leaked documents show some Facebook staff worried about how the plan would affect Facebook financially. 

Facebook’s advertising chief, David Fischer, warned that “a large part of the market for our network will come from current and potential competitors”. He was sceptical that Facebook could “have the winning product if we rule out such large parts of the market”.

Facebook kept a list of strategic competitors that was “personally reviewed” by Zuckerberg, according to confidential emails. Messaging apps WhatsApp, Viber, Imo and Kakao Talk were among those that attracted Zuckerberg’s interest.

Hoffman suggested ways to ensure that rival messaging apps could not promote their apps to Facebook users: “Reject ads for WeChat and a specific list of competitors. This is ‘surgical’ but the list is difficult to maintain as new products/companies become successful and it’s difficult to explain.”

Or: “Reject ads for all messenger apps. This would potentially affect more advertisers, but it is easier to consistently enforce and explain, especially since it mirrors the Platform policy.”

Hoffman wanted Facebook to “reserve the right to reject ads for any reason”, including those that promote competitive products, a policy that ensured Facebook users would not be able to see ads encouraging them to download apps from competitors.

Doug Purdy, Facebook’s director of product, explained how losing developers would be treated: “There are a small number of developers whom no amount of sharing on FB or monetary value can justify giving them access to Platform,” he said. 

“These developers do not want to participate in the ecosystem we have created, but rather build their ecosystem at the expense of our users, other developers and, of course, us. That is something that we will not allow.”

Surveillance and blacklisting

In Facebook’s feverish battle with competitors, one ally was crucial: Onavo, an Israeli tech intelligence company, which Zuckerberg bought in 2013.

Facebook marketed Onavo as a secure mobile phone virtual private network (VPN) to protect its users’ privacy. Users were unaware that Facebook was surreptitiously using Onavo to gather intelligence on the apps they were using.

Facebook used Onavo to monitor the popularity of competing apps, how engaged people were with them, and how many people were using them.

Facebook marketed Onavo as a secure mobile phone VPN to protect its users’ privacy. Users were unaware that Facebook was surreptitiously using Onavo to gather intelligence on the apps they were using

Olivan produced a spreadsheet based on data from 30 million Onavo users and other sources, to compare WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and the main Facebook app downloads across different countries.

Facebook used data from Onavo to compare the engagement and reach of WhatsApp with Facebook Messenger, and Facebook’s main site.

There was some “good news” for the social network – audiences for Facebook Messenger became more engaged with the Messenger app, as more people joined Facebook.

The bad news was that for the same reach, people were more engaged with competitors’ messaging apps.

“This signals that the quality of our app isn’t where it needs to be yet. We need to invest in performance and reliability of our app.” a draft presentation revealed.

“More bad news – we have not reached more than 40% Messenger penetration in a given country,” it said.

Facebook internal intelligence showed WhatsApp significantly ahead of Facebook

A highly confidential report in April 2013, drawing on data from Onavo and the market research company Neilsen, assessed the performance of Facebook Messenger against a range of rival messaging and social media apps.

It showed that, measured by volume of messages, WhatsApp was way ahead of Facebook’s mobile phone messenger service. WhatsApp was sending 8.2 billion messages a day, compared with 3.5 billion for Facebook’s mobile app.

The data identified two emerging apps in the US that also posed potential threats to Facebook. Twitter’s video service, Vine, was the most popular app in the US iTunes store, and Path, a social networking-enabled photo-sharing and messaging service for mobile devices, was ranked number two in social media.

Facebook also kept a close eye on Snapchat, a service which offers disappearing messages – and another serious competitive risk.

Facebook monitored the performance of Snapchat

Shooting the messenger

Facebook’s executives became increasingly worried about how much rival messaging apps were spending on advertisements to promote themselves on Facebook.

Rivals were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting their apps on Facebook’s mobile app advertising service, known internally as Neko. 

In December 2012, Hoffman warned that WeChat had spent over $500,000 on Neko ads to drive downloads of its app and was accelerating its spending. 

Facebook gave its rivals no warning. Nine minutes after the clock struck 9.00am on 10 January 2013, Osofsky emailed everyone to implement Zuckerberg’s ban on messenger apps advertising on Facebook, and prepared “reactive PR” to pre-empt any complaints.

Ten days after Zuckerberg’s guillotine email, Debora Liu, Facebook vice-president for platform and marketplace, informed her colleagues that WeChat and other competitive networks would no longer be advertising on Neko.

Paranoia over WhatsApp

Facebook had cut off messaging apps from data about Facebook users’ friends, and had blocked them from advertising their mobile apps on Facebook. But the social network company continued to remain paranoid about losing ground to WhatsApp. 

Before Facebook acquired WhatsApp, the social network was looking at ways to reduce the messaging app’s influence on the platform. Blacklisting WhatsApp from advertising on Facebook was one option.

“WhatsApp launching a competing platform is definitely something that makes me paranoid”
Mike Vernal, Facebook

“WhatsApp have apparently been placing domain ads through an agency that lead to whatsapp[.]com (rather than the app). Do we want to add them to the list of messenger apps we reject?” Hoffman wrote to the team.

In 2014, Layer, a sophisticated messaging platform for app developers, won a TechCrunch award. The award sparked conversations among Facebook executives about the merits of turning Messenger into a similar platform.

Facebook still did not take competitors lightly. “WhatsApp launching a competing platform is definitely something that makes me paranoid,” product and engineering lead Mike Vernal told his colleagues. 

Existential threat

For Vernal, Messenger represented an “existential threat” to Facebook. He proposed a radical solution: offer all the features app developers needed “as a service”.

His idea was inspired by Amazon’s decision to make spare capacity in its datacentres available to other companies, including competitors, to run their own datacentre applications.

But Vernal proposed going further. In addition to hardware, Facebook could offer the software infrastructure to other companies to allow them to build their own social networks of users.

“We do all this to lock in mobile developers to our stack (vs iOS or Google),” he wrote.

The plan was that Facebook Messenger would become “the de facto web standard by integrating with all other apps out there”.

Zuckerberg: Get people to ditch WhatsApp

Some six years earlier, in 2007, Zuckerberg had propelled Facebook ahead of its competition by encouraging developers to build web and mobile applications on top of Facebook in return for access to Facebook users’ data.

The strategy paid off handsomely. Hundreds of thousands of developers built applications on the Facebook Platform, bringing a vastly expanded audience to the social network.

From 2007 to 2011, Facebook grew its user base from 60 million active monthly users to well over 800 million, on the back of third-party apps and features that Facebook could not hope to build itself. 

Now Zuckerberg planned to use the same playbook with Facebook Messenger.

Zuckerberg wrote a long vision statement laying out plans to grow Messenger by turning it into a platform that other companies could build on. His main concern was “to get people to ditch WhatsApp and switch to Messenger”.

It would never be enough to be 10% better than WhatsApp or to offer better features, he wrote. “We will have to offer some new fundamental use case that becomes important to people’s daily lives.”

Zuckerberg’s plan was audacious – rather than simply offering a communications service, Facebook Messenger would become the “backbone” for everyone’s activity on a mobile phone.

Phone users, for example, would be able to use Messenger to make reservations at a restaurant, order food deliveries or takeaways, and to play games.

Zuckerberg was playing a long game. He talked of a future in which people would share through private messages, rather than public posts on Facebook’s timeline. “Sharing is become increasingly private,” he said. The strategy became public over five years later, in 2019, when Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s “pivot to privacy”.

“When the world shifts like this, being first is how you build a brand and a network effect. We have an opportunity to do this at scale, but that opportunity won’t last forever”
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Facebook would have to move fast. Rivals Line, Kakao and WhatsApp were already thinking along similar lines, Zuckerberg warned.

“When the world shifts like this, being first is how you build a brand and a network effect. We have an opportunity to do this at scale, but that opportunity won’t last forever. I doubt we even have a year before WhatsApp starts moving in this direction,” he said.

If Facebook was going to succeed, it could not hope to build the infrastructure needed to make this project succeed by itself.

Instead, Zuckerberg would leverage third-party developers to do the work for Facebook, as he did in 2007 when he encouraged developers to build apps on Facebook’s platform.

The idea, he said, was one of his most ambitious and riskiest: “With a relatively small team at Facebook, we can build a system that leverages a lot of the work outside. We could build a developer community that builds agents for virtually any task you can imagine, ranging from running errands to looking up shuttle times or other information.” 

Facebook’s nuclear option

Facebook planned to test the idea by working with selected partners, such as music streaming services Spotify and Deezer and mobile phone operators.

By making deals to build exclusive integrations with other apps, Facebook would be able to differentiate Messenger from WhatsApp. It would be able to exploit network effects to compete “asymmetrically” with the “category leader”, WhatsApp.

As a further buttress against competitors, Facebook would encourage rival messaging services, such as Kik, Kakao Talk and Line, to “hook” into Messenger. That way, Zuckerberg calculated, people would be less likely to install other messaging apps alongside Facebook’s Messenger.

If all else failed, there was the nuclear option – if Facebook could not win at messaging, it would ensure no one else could.

Facebook’s fall-back idea was to turn messaging into a commodity service. It would integrate Messenger with BlackBerry Messenger, SMS text messages and Apple’s iPhone messaging service, to make messaging services a low-value ubiquitous business. The message was: “If we can’t win, commoditise.”

Facebook never had to implement its mutually assured destruction strategy. Rather than blow up its number one competitor, WhatsApp, in February 2014, Facebook bought it for some $20bn.

Copying competitors 

In May 2014, having eliminated the threat from WhatsApp, Zuckerberg emailed his team with a more confident memo, fleshing out his vision to turn Messenger into a business that could rival Google.

His poise was partly reassured by Facebook’s ability to spy on competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.

Messenger would become a “competitive barrier for other messaging products like WeChat that try to compete with us for either consumer attention or business dollars”, Zuckerberg wrote.

He saw a big financial opportunity in low-brow content, such as stickers or in-message games, which did well for Facebook’s competitors: “It’s easy to say these things are silly, but I think this is how WeChat and Line make 30-50% of their revenue today.”

Zuckerberg had no qualms about learning from competitors, particularly WeChat, China’s biggest messaging app.

“I imagine we’re going to need to run constant promotions like WeChat has to encourage people to pay and transfer money in different ways – gifts on new year’s, paying for taxis, investing in mutual funds, etc,” he said.

WeChat also offered a service that alerts people when their friends are in town or people are nearby who may like to meet, and Zuckerberg asked his team to develop similar features on Facebook.

Facebook could do better than WeChat, he argued. The Chinese company had taken the easy opportunities, but had failed to invest in the infrastructure that could allow it to make money from the majority of its traffic.

“They’re still doing at a bit more than ~$3 per person annually, but our goal is to reach the monetisation levels we see in News Feed of greater than $10 per person, if not more,” he said.

Turning messages into money

Those were just details in a much bigger plan to turn Messenger into a communications platform that would bring in significant advertising revenues.

Zuckerberg talked of a future where Facebook would make money by charging businesses to send direct advertising messages to users.

“A business messaging you out of the blue is where I expect most of our business to be over time,” he wrote. “If we can pull this off then we can enable experiences like you’re walking down the street and get a notification for a personalised offer to a nearby shop based on your identity and history there.”

Mark Zuckerberg talked of a future where Facebook would make money by charging businesses to send direct advertising messages to users

The idea was risky. Injecting business content straight into people’s inboxes appeared “dangerous and unnatural”, Zuckerberg acknowledged. It would have to be introduced gradually over time.

As a first step, Facebook would add a “discovery tab” to Messenger that would keep business discussions separate from personal discussions.

“This is important because people will not just wake up one morning and start messaging businesses,” said Zuckerberg. “First we need to introduce the idea of business within Messenger to people and show people how they can be useful.”

Zuckerberg planned to lure businesses in slowly, with free and low-cost offers, before raising prices.

“Initially, I expect we’d highlight these businesses on Messenger for free or very cheaply. But once we have a good number in there, then the third stage of evolution for the discovery tab is to turn this into a market and start charging for paid placement.”

The discovery tab was not intended to be a permanent feature. The real money would come from businesses being able to message people directly.

This roadmap is a big stepping stone to getting people used to engaging with businesses through their Messenger inbox, Zuckerberg wrote.

Bigger than Google

Zuckerberg’s boldest idea was to build a digital assistant in Facebook that could answer questions from Messenger users.

Facebook would encourage other business to build their own meta-assistants. On the back of this, Facebook would build its own over-arching meta-assistant using the data that businesses provided.

Partnering would give Facebook a ready-made registry of which businesses knew how to answer what questions.

“With these pieces, building this meta-assistant is just a matter of enabling our special Facebook entity to answer any question that has registered a response from any other entity in our system,” he wrote.

Facebook’s meta-assistant could become more useful than Google and other search engines for helping people find what they are looking for, Zuckerberg predicted.

“If we can succeed in building the most useful assistant – for which the most important step would be getting as many businesses as possible into Messenger – then this could actually be the future of search in addition to a big part of the future of advertising and commerce,” he said.

In Zuckerberg’s vision, a user’s habits, including spending via Facebook, were going to be monitored, analysed and marketed for personalised offers. He knew back then that Facebook Messenger’s future was going to be anything but private.

To make commercial transactions work on Messenger, Facebook would need to keep credentials on file for a large percentage of its users, including credit cards and bank account information.

Facebook blocks Path

By December 2014, Facebook was placing restrictions on competitive messaging apps, but hardly in an impartial way.

“We have more restrictions imposed on Line than we have on Path,” wrote strategic partner manager Konstantinos Papamiltiadis in an email.

Facebook had ensured that Line’s access to friends’ data, photos, photo album, checking, stream read, post and group message features was restricted. Path, too, could not access photos and people’s status.

By December 2014, Facebook was placing access restrictions on competitive messaging apps

Path’s founder, Dave Morin, was unhappy with Facebook’s new policy and requested a meeting. He told Ime Archibong, Facebook’s vice-president for partnerships, that he was going to “reach out to Mark and get a sense of how he views Path these days”.

He was confirming what Facebook’s communications director, Tera Randall, wrote about him, in that he was going to be one of their suspected “noisy” developers who might kick up a fuss about the negative impact of its platform changes for developers.

Archibong didn’t share with Morin what he shared with his team: “I think Path is blacklisted from a couple of things.”

Antitrust buyouts?

Zuckerberg could afford to buy its competitors. Following its uninhibited popularity in the messaging ecosystem, Facebook bought WhatsApp in early 2014, two years after acquiring Instagram. These are just two of its strategic mergers and acquisitions.

Before Zuckerberg could buy WhatsApp, he had to reassure antitrust regulators in the European Union (EU) that WhatsApp and Facebook platforms would not be merged. Facebook told the EU that it could not reliably match Facebook and WhatsApp user accounts.

However, it wasn’t long before WhatsApp announced the merger of the two platforms in the app’s new terms and policy details. The EU issued a fine of €110m in 2017 for supplying “incorrect or misleading information”, though the breach was not enough to overturn the EU’s authorisation of the merger.

In December 2014, Olivan’s analysis of more than 80,000 apps showed that, through its acquisition of WhatsApp, Facebook now owned the number one messaging service – a feat it would have struggled to achieve with Messenger alone.

The analysis, based on data secretly gathered from mobile phone users, showed that the app consumers were most engaged with was WhatsApp. Facebook was trailing in third place, and Facebook Messenger a distant eighth place.

Messenger was becoming one of Facebook’s main tools for building a “business ecosystem”.

The question for regulators in the US and Europe is now whether Facebook’s dominance in messaging and its treatment of rival messaging app developers breaches antitrust and competition law

In 2014, Zuckerberg had a vision for a nationwide deal proposal with Starbucks, which would let users order drinks through Messenger, or order a cab, “because it’s how WeChat started building up their payment base”.

That was just the beginning. Facebook executives were already boasting about their “titan partners” – Netflix, RBC Social Payments, Dropbox, Waze, Spotify, Nokia, BlackBerry, Rockmelt, Foursquare – in internal presentations about Facebook’s Messenger strategy. They had further plans to woo brands such as Nike, Evernote and Pinterest.

The first businesses to go live on Facebook’s “Business on Messenger” service were fashion retailers Everlane and Zulily, and software company ZenDesk.

By 2016, Facebook boasted that 34,000 developers had joined Messenger and had built 30,000 bots. Two years later, the number of active bots reached 300,000.

Fast-forward to 2019, and Messenger is now part of the corporations’ and institutions’ engagement with us – Uber, banks, schools, Vogue, sports groups, Spotify, Nike, computer manufacturers and marketing groups, you name it.

The question for regulators in the US and Europe is now whether Facebook’s dominance in messaging and its treatment of rival messaging app developers breaches antitrust and competition law.

Facebook’s vice-president and deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal, said in a statement that the Six4Three documents were selectively leaked as “part of what the court found was evidence of a crime or fraud to publish some, but not all, of the internal discussions at Facebook at the time of our platform changes. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data”.

Documents used for this article were disclosed by Facebook and placed under seal during court proceedings brought by app developer Six4Three against Facebook in the US. Some of the sealed documents had previously been obtained by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee of Parliament in November 2018 as part of its investigation into “fake news”. The DCMS Committee’s hard-hitting report, published on 18 February, described Facebook and its executives as “digital gangsters”.

SimpliSafe Home Security System

https://www.pcmag.com/review/339580/simplisafe-home-security-system


Best of the year 2018 logo smallLike most people, I like the idea of keeping my family and my home secure, but I don’t like the idea of locking myself into a multi-year service contract during which I have to pay a high monthly monitoring fee. SimpliSafe (starting at $229) is a DIY smart security system that’s easy to set up and use, and keeps your home safe from intruders and environmental threats like fires and floods. It’s a seamless system that succeeds quite well at what it sets out to do—secure your home simply and flexibly, letting you monitor everything remotely with (or without) an affordable monthly plan.

Our biggest gripes when we first tested SimpliSafe back in 2015 were the lack of cameras, support for third-party smart home devices and protocols, and the design of the hardware itself. With its latest updates, SimpliSafe addresses many of these issues, providing an ideal balance of high-quality service, ease of use, and value, earning our Editors’ Choice award for DIY home security systems. In addition, for the second year in a row, PCMag readers have named SimpliSafe their favorite smart home security system.

Package Pricing

One of the best things about SimpliSafe is that it’s a completely configurable system, with five packages available. On the high-end there’s the Haven package ($489), which comes with 14 hardware components including the base station, a wireless keypad, a keychain remote, two motion sensors, four door/window entry sensors, a panic button, a 105-decibel siren, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, water and freeze sensors, and a SimpliSafe yard sign and window decals. The least expensive Foundation pack ($229), which is designed for small homes and focuses solely on basic home security, includes the base station, a wireless keypad, one motion sensor, one entry sensor, and the yard sign and decals. If you want to add one or more SimpliCam security cameras (the system supports up to four), they’re $99 each. The Video Doorbell Pro is an integrated 1080p smart doorbell with camera that you can add for $169, while the $99 Smart Lock allows keyless entry. SimpliSafe doesn’t typically offer any packages that include cameras, the lock, or the doorbell. They’re add-ons. Though we have seen the company throw in a SimpliCam as part of a limited-time special-price promotion.

Additional components can also be purchased separately to create your own package, or expand on one. If you have a lot of first-floor windows, for example, you might want a glass break sensor ($34.99) or extra entry sensors ($14.99 each; the system supports up to 100 sensors). Or if there are multiple entryways in your home, you can opt for additional keypads ($69.99 each).

If you want a one-stop home monitoring solution that encompasses more than just security, adding environmental sensors makes sense. Smoke detectors are $29.99 each and you can hook them into your monitoring plan, which will alert you via email or text message when an alarm is triggered and send first responders to your door in the event of a fire. Freeze sensors ($29.99 each) alert you when the temperature falls below a certain point to prevent burst pipes, and water sensors ($19.99 each) detect and alert you of leaks and floods.

SimpliSafe

Prices for additional hardware are reasonable when you consider that extra entry sensors cost $27 each with the DIY Abode iota system. Even with the budget-focused iSmartAlarm, entry sensors are two for $59.99.

Monitoring Plan Pricing

For professional monitoring, there’s a basic $14.99 per month Standard plan that includes 24/7 coverage. If a sensor is triggered, SimpliSafe will contact you, and if you don’t provide a safe word that you designate during setup, police will be dispatched. For $10 more per month, the Interactive plan adds SMS and email alerts, the ability to use the Online Dashboard for finer control of the system (more on that in a minute), and the app to arm and disarm the system. If you opt for the $14.99 plan, you can use the online dashboard to see your timeline of system events, but you can’t control the system remotely.

Another neat feature that comes with the Interactive plan is the ability to set up Secret Alerts. You can set up certain sensors in an Alert Only mode, without triggering alarms. Have a well-stocked liquor cabinet and unsupervised teenagers? Put an entry sensor on the door, set up a Secret Alert in the app, and you’ll be notified each time the cabinet is accessed.

If you don’t want to pay the monthly fees, SimpliSafe can be used as a local alarm. So when a sensor is triggered, it’s up to you to contact the authorities. There aren’t any contracts or commitments, and you can start and stop service or change plans at any time. This flexibility is what makes SimpliSafe a compelling alternative to competitors like ADT Pulse or Vivint Smart Home, where monitoring fees cost more, ranging from $30 to $60 per month. And with those fuller-service systems, you need to sign contracts and are subject to steep penalties for early termination.

Major Facelift, Same Simple Setup

The biggest upgrade that comes with the new SimpliSafe is the design of the system hardware. Every component has been redesigned. Where the old system looked and felt cheap and plasticky, the new hardware is sleek and modern. And the new components are not backward-compatible with the original SimpliSafe system.

The new pear-shaped base station, which powers the system, is 8.5 inches tall and 4 inches in diameter at its widest spot, with a blue light at its base—it glows steadily to tell you that the alarm is on, and pulses to tell you there’s an error with one of your sensors. It’s much sleeker and smaller than the original base, which looked like it was designed in the 1970s. And now the base station comes in black (Obsidian) or white (Cloud) to fit in more seamlessly with your home décor.

Setup requires placing the base station in a central location within 400 feet of your sensors and 100 feet of your keypad(s), and plugging in the included power cord. The new base station integrates a 802.11n 2.4GHz Wi-Fi radio, adding another layer of connectivity with SimpliSafe’s monitoring service. The Wi-Fi is a boon for those living in rural areas who wouldn’t be able to use the monitoring service because of patchy cellular coverage. If you’re concerned about IoT threats, you don’t have to connect SimpliSafe to your Wi-Fi network, the monitoring works just fine without it, though you won’t receive firmware updates. Inside the base, there’s a siren, a backup battery the company claims will last up to 24 hours, and a SIM card for cellular communication.

Redesigned Keypad and Base Station

The entry sensors are also redesigned, and are much smaller (about half the length they were before), squarer, and modern looking. They’re powered by inexpensive, user-replaceable CR2032 coin cells that should last an average of five years, and the system will warn you when they need to be replaced. Installation requires no wiring or drilling; I simply pulled off the battery-activation strips, peeled the backing on the 3M Command-like strips, and adhered each component after naming and pairing it with the system (more on that below). Components are easy to move around without damaging your walls, and you can take the system with you to your next home, which is a welcome feature.

The keypad, also available in black or white (and powered by four standard AA batteries), sees the biggest design improvement, with a 2.5-inch LCD replacing a tiny monochrome screen. Nicely sized, round backlit rubber buttons replace the tiny oval ones on the old keypad. A proximity sensor is a nice touch, illuminating the keypad for nighttime use. The larger screen also makes the system setup process much easier, since you just pair all the components using easy step-through menus on the display. Each component has a small button you press to pair it with the system. Once you do, the keypad will walk you through the naming process. You no longer need to consult the user manual for setup instructions.

Menus on Keypad

Setting up my test system, which included installing the keypad, pairing four entry sensors, two motion sensors, the siren, and environmental sensors, establishing a PIN, and testing the system, took me about 45 minutes. I’m confident that the Essentials package could easily be set up in less than 30 minutes. The company covers the system with a 60-day money-back guarantee and a three-year warranty on hardware.

Adding SimpliCams

Up to four SimpliCams will work with the system (though the company promises support for an unlimited number of cameras in the near future). Setup is easy and consists of entering your wireless network details and scanning a QR code in the app. (Unlike with the system itself, Wi-Fi is required for the cameras to work.) The camera is a plain-looking black plastic rectangle—which contains a round lens, privacy shutter, microphone, and LED indicator—that slides onto a black metal stand. At 4.56 by 2.55 by 2.08 inches (HWD) and 5.3 ounces, it’s pretty standard in size as far as home surveillance cameras go.

SimpliSafe Home Security System

The indoor camera is height and tilt adjustable, but lacks the ability to pan or zoom, though a 120-degree lens assures a wide range of view. The attached flat cable is nice and long at 10 feet, giving you some flexibility in where to place it, since it needs to be plugged into a wall outlet. The $19.99 add-on Outdoor Kit adds a weatherproof camera sleeve and a 25-foot power cord.

Video is captured in 720p, but looks surprisingly good. It’s also quite smooth, and never suffered choppiness in my testing—despite the fact that the camera only operates on the 2.4GHz band. When analyzing footage captured with an adjacent 1080p Logi Circle, which supports the 5GHz band, the SimpliCam’s video quality was comparable. Sound captured is a bit muffled, but certainly audible, though the camera does not currently support two-way audio. Night vision footage is clear and motion detection sensitivity can be adjusted in the app. Motion detection is based on heat signature so the camera can discern the difference between, say, a spinning fan, a small dog, and an actual moving person who’s breaking in to your home.

SimpliSafe Home Security System

Push-based alerts and a live camera feed are free. A $4.99 per month/per camera optional plan lets you record, download, and share footage. With it, you can elect to allow SimpliSafe’s monitoring center to view alarms in progress and provide visual verification of alarms to the police.

The metal privacy shutter on the camera is closed when the system is disarmed (off), or in Home mode. It opens when you set the system to Away mode and records if an event is triggered. It also records a short clip when you arm or disarm the system. And you can view a live video feed any time in the mobile app or the desktop dashboard, though the latter requires a Flash-enabled browser. Simply put, the SimpliCam is not the most advanced home security camera, but it works fine for its intended purpose.

A Sharp Focus on Simplicity, But Getting Smarter

There’s still no support for Zigbee, Z-Wave, IFTTT, or other home automation protocols. That means little integration with third-party cameras, lights, door locks, or video doorbells. In most cases, you can install these devices alongside the SimpliSafe system, but you’ll have to use a separate app to control them independently.

The company’s CEO Chad Laurans explained to me that this limited integration is by design. The system is meant to be, well, simple. While additional platforms integrations are always being explored, there are no full-scale plans in this regard.

Still, there’s an August Smart Lock integration (if you don’t opt for SimpliSafe’s own Smart Lock), and you can hook a Nest Thermostat into the system to control the temperature in your home based on alarm modes. When you leave and arm the system in Away mode, the thermostat too, switches to Away mode and adjusts the temperature accordingly. When you disarm SimpliSafe, the Nest enters Home mode. This integration worked fine in my testing.

Recently added, Alexa voice control lets you arm your system or check on its status on Amazon Echo devices. Enabling the SimpliSafe Home Control skill in the Alexa app is simple, and commands like “Alexa, tell SimpliSafe I’m leaving” (to arm the system in Away mode), “Alexa, tell SimpliSafe good night” (to arm the system in Home mode), and “Alexa, ask SimpliSafe if my home is secure” (to get system status) worked well in testing. There was little lag between the voice command and the base station announcing status or changes in system modes. The Alexa integration only works with the new SimpliSafe hardware, and the system can’t be disarmed via voice (for obvious reasons).

You can arm or disarm the system from your wrist if you subscribe to the Interactive plan and download and install the SimpliSafe app on your Apple Watch.

Using SimpliSafe

With just three available modes, arming and disarming Simplisafe is very straightforward. Home mode activates the door and window sensors, while Away mode activates both the entry sensors and the motion sensors. Test mode helps you set up the system and allows you to periodically ensure that all the sensors are in working order. The base station loudly and clearly announces your actions as you enter various modes. The volume can be adjusted on the keypad or in the app.

When the alarm is armed and a sensor is triggered, the keypad will beep, and you have 30 seconds to enter your PIN. If you do not enter it, the base station siren activates and sends an alert to SimpliSafe, and the company will contact you via phone and ask you for the safe word that you designate during setup. If you don’t get the call, or you don’t provide the safe word, the Emergency Dispatch Center will send the police (or firefighters in the case of the smoke detector).

I like that SimpliSafe contacts you first. For me, cranky police officers showing up at my door because I fumbled my PIN is one of the greatest fears that comes with having an alarm system in my home. To be doubly safe, the time period allowed for PIN entry can be notched up to 250 seconds, and it can be varied by sensor.

In my testing over the course of several weeks, all entry and motion sensors worked properly, and the base station and 105dB siren did their jobs of loudly announcing accidental breaches—and SimpliSafe’s monitoring service contacted me promptly each time.

A new diagnostic feature, Heartbeats are periodic signals each sensor sends to tell the system whether it’s in range, if its batteries are low, or if it’s been tampered with, ensuring that your system is always working properly.

Online Dashboard and Mobile App

SimpliSafe Home Security SystemWith the monthly Interactive Plan, you can use SimpliSafe’s Online Dashboard or mobile app to control the system, including arming and disarming it. The Dashboard also lets you view your System Event Log, change your PIN, assign up to four guest PINs, and choose an optional Duress PIN, to use when an intruder is coercing you to disable the alarm. Enter it, and the alarm will stop sounding, but SimpliSafe will immediately send the police. You can also tweak settings like siren volume, entry and exit delay time, and manage and rename sensors in the Dashboard. But now, with the new system, most of these controls are accessible on the keypad too, which is nice.

If you can swing the extra $10 over the Standard monitoring plan, the ability to customize and control your system from anywhere, offered in the app and online dashboard and app are worth the price. You’ll also need the Interactive plan to get the most from SimpliSafe’s smart lock and video doorbell. $25 a month is pretty reasonable when you consider that similar plans with competitors, Nest Secure and Abode Home Security, start at $30 a month, and those with ADT Pulse and Vivint are even more.

SimpliSafe or Something Else?

As far as smart home security systems go, we really like SimpliSafe for its ease of use, flexibility, and price. It lets anyone add a home security system in less than an hour, learning to use it is a breeze, and you don’t have to sign any contracts to get access to affordable 24/7 monitoring plans that can be turned off at any time. The system offered all of those things beforeadd in the redesigned hardware, an even easier setup process, and still-low hardware and monitoring prices, and SimpliSafe earns our Editors’ Choice badge for DIY smart home security systems.

If you’re really into home automation, a system like Abode might be a more compelling choice, with its support for several smart home protocols, and compatibility with many more existing devices. It too offers customizable hardware along with flexible, inexpensive monitoring. If DIY isn’t your thing, take a look at ADT Pulse. It will cost you much more, and you’ll give up the flexible monitoring plans, but you’ll get a full-featured system and someone will come to your home and set everything up. For everyone else, SimpliSafe is worth a serious look.

Confronting The Challenges Of Moderating Online Games

https://www.gameinformer.com/feature/2019/11/18/building-stronger-communities

Introduction

Ever play an online game and feel your blood pressure rise over complete frustration with poor sportsmanship, or even worse felt your anxiety spike due to harassment and bullying taking place right before your eyes?

A game is only as strong as the community that supports it, but what happens when a few bad apples disrupt the flow and prevent others from having fun? Most gamers have a story where they’ve experienced griefing or team-killing, or even worse had another player verbally insult them in a way that goes well beyond “trash talk.” In fact, a recent study by anti-bullying organization Ditch the Label reported that 57 percent of the young people it surveyed experienced bullying online while playing games; even more alarming was 22 percent said it caused them to stop playing. Instead of drawing people to games, are more people turning away from them due to these unpleasant social interactions?

Negative experiences playing games online aren’t anything new; you can go back to the earlier days of commercial MMORPGs, such as EverQuest and Ultima Online, and find plenty of examples of these scenarios. A common perception among gamers has been it just comes with the territory if you want to play online, but that doesn’t make it okay. Playing games should bring people together, and as gamers, we all know how powerful these experiences can be. Nobody should have to tolerate hate speech or threats to their safety to simply engage with their hobby online.

This issue has only continued to heat up as more games are evolving and becoming online-centric. The extra emphasis on their social aspects has forced developers to get creative to help encourage players to “play nice.” With more initiatives and efforts in this area, we chatted with leaders across the industry, from developers figuring out solutions to companies that specialize in moderation, to gain insight into the ever-growing and complex issue.

Riot has experimented with many different design tactics to address disruptions in League of Legends

It’s About Disruption

It’s About Disruption

The word “toxic” seems to go hand-in-hand with online gaming and has been used as a way to describe problematic, negative players who go out of their way to make the experience unpleasant for others. Maybe it’s a player who’s purposely throwing a match in Dota 2, or spamming insults in League of Legends’ chat to make someone feel bad about their skills. This is what many developers consider “disruptive behavior” and is the preferred term when discussing these types of individuals.

No matter the phrasing, it still all comes down to one thing: They are getting in the way of how the game is meant to be experienced. Every developer we spoke to for this feature commented on this specifically and why it’s a bummer. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to make playing their games a fun, happy experience because that’s why people go to play these games – they want to have a fun time,” says Overwatch principal designer Scott Mercer.

This also extends to keeping players invested in a gaming experience. If something doesn’t feel fun or pleasant, why stick around? Dave McCarthy, head of operations at Xbox, puts forth a simple comparison to illustrate how important it is that these digital landscapes feel safe and protected: “I just think it’s as simple as, ‘Would you walk into a physical space, anywhere where you face harassment, or are made to feel unwelcome by certain imagery or language that’s used there?’ No, of course you wouldn’t; you get out of that space physically. And the same is true for the digital space.”

Overwatch

When players log into games, they look for the social norms to get an idea of what’s acceptable. Is it a more laid back, jokey atmosphere? Is it composed of serious competitors wanting to get down to business? That’s why it’s extremely important the tone is set early in games and services. Chris Priebe, founder and CEO of Two Hat Security, a company that provides moderation tools, says that a community’s identity forms on day one and that’s why it’s so important for those behind the games to build and inform the culture. “When people launch a game, they need to be thinking about, ‘How am I building the community and putting people in the community?’ I think too often in the game industry it’s just, ‘Launch it and the culture will form itself.’”

Priebe discussed how oftentimes moderation and chat features are thought about far too late in development, without much consideration going into how to shape the community. He compared it to hosting a party and how it takes shape once you set the tone. “If you don’t set a tone, it can go very, very poorly,” Priebe says. “That’s why people have bouncers at the front door. Somehow with games, we don’t think we need to put bouncers at the front door, and we wonder why things go so terribly wrong.”

While this might seem discouraging, in more recent years. Priebe says he has seen an increased effort going into changing this. People across the industry are working hard to find answers, whether that’s more transparent guidelines, better moderation tools, or designing solutions within the game. However, it all comes with time and experience, using the community as a testing ground.

Blizzard most recently introduced role queue to help bypass team composition disputes in Overwatch

The Learning Process

The Learning Process

The more people we spoke to about this topic, the more it was clear how complicated and difficult of an issue it is. Most companies are experimenting with different features or tools to see what works, and some are even still deciding where to draw the line between “okay” and “not okay.” “It turns out that calling something toxic is difficult to design for,” says Weszt Hart, head of player dynamics at Riot Games. “It’s difficult to make decisions on, because it’s so subjective. What’s toxic to you might not be toxic to somebody else. Trash talk could be for some people considered toxic, but for others, that’s just what we do with our friends.”

Working on League of Legends, a team-based game that earned quite a reputation for its toxic community, Hart says it was challenging for the team to figure out where to focus to mitigate these issues. To figure out what the community considered “good” and “bad,” Riot presented the now-defunct Tribunal, where players logged in and reviewed cases, deciding if an offender should be disciplined or pardoned. After this, Riot tried encouraging more positive interactions by rolling out the honor system, a way to give your teammate kudos if you thought they did a good job. “But then we realized that all of those systems were after-the-fact, they were all after the games,” Hart explains. “They weren’t helping to avoid potential transgressions. We needed to identify where the problems were actually happening, maybe even before games.”

Rainbow Six Seige

Enter team builder. “Team builder was looking at addressing, I suppose a way to put it is, a shortcoming of our design,” Hart says. “Because as the community evolved, the concept of a meta evolved with it. Players started telling us how to play and the system wasn’t recognizing their intent, so in an effort to play the way they wanted to play, they were essentially yelling out in chat the role that they wanted. We needed to find a way to help the system, help players play the way they wanted.” Riot created team builder for matches to start out on a better note, as a way to decrease players entering matches already frustrated, which often just increased the chance of negative interactions.

While Riot isn’t the first to deal with players treating each other poorly, the influence of its systems can be seen around the industry. Take Blizzard’s cooperative shooter Overwatch, for example. Overwatch launched back in 2016, and while being considered one of the more positive communities, it dealt with its share of problem players, which game director Jeff Kaplan often had to address in his developer update videos. Kaplan finally put it bluntly: “Our highest-level philosophy is, if you are a bad person doing bad things in Overwatch, we don’t want you in Overwatch.”

Since launch, Overwatch has received several improvements to the game: better reporting tools, an endorsement system encouraging positivity, and most recently, role queue, which took away the extra frustration and bickering that often erupted over team composition. The latter two are very reminiscent of League’s honor system and team builder.

Overwatch is far from Blizzard’s first foray into the world of online gaming, so the team anticipated some issues, but it also charted new territory. “I don’t think we were expecting exactly the sort of behavior that happened after launch,” says senior producer Andrew Boyd. “I know that there were a lot of new things for us to deal with. I think this is one of the first games where we’re really dealing with voice as an integrated part of the game, and that changed the landscape a lot. That said, when we saw it, obviously, addressing those issues became very important to us very quickly, and we started to take steps to make the game a better place for folks.”

While developers can try to catch potential issues ahead of time, most of the time they really don’t expose themselves until the game is up and running. Ubisoft Montreal experienced this first-hand with Rainbow Six Siege, forcing the company to crack down on bad behavior and get creative with its solutions. A player behavior team was created to “focus on promoting the behaviors we hope to see in the game,” says community developer Karen Lee. It’s here that the team worked on Reverse Friendly Fire (RFF) system to help with team-killing. “RFF was first concepted to help contain the impact of players abusing the game’s friendly fire mechanic,” Lee says.

Rainbow Six Siege’s developer updates openly discuss toxicity and the solutions going forward

RFF makes it so if you attempt to harm an ally, the damage reverses straight back to you. Since then, Ubisoft has iterated on it to ensure it works on all the different operators and their gadgets. Now, before any new operators go live, the player-behavior team reviews it, trying to determine all the ways they could be used unintentionally by the community to cause griefing. “We also have weekly and monthly reports that go out to the entire team,” Lee explains. “These help everyone gauge the health of the community, and we highlight the top concerns from the week.”

Many different game companies and organizations have been coming together [see The Fair Play Alliance sidebar] to share ideas and work toward change. Even though developers have learned much of what works and what doesn’t, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, as all games are different, whether it’s the audience or genre. “The problem space is too big to look at any particular feature, and say, ‘This is how you do it,’” Hart says. “There aren’t best practices yet for what we’re calling player dynamics, which is the field of design for player-to-player interactions and motivations. Depending on your game and your genre, some things may work better than others.”

EA community team senior director Adam Tanielian speaks at the Building Healthy Communities Summit at this year’s EA Play

Putting The Power In The Community

Putting The Power In The Community

Building healthier communities doesn’t just fall on the developers and publishers. Sure, designing different mechanics and improving moderation tools are steps in the right direction, but they also need the community’s help to be successful. It makes sense. The people that play your game make it what it is and know it the best. That’s why more and more developers and companies are depending on their communities to give feedback and self-moderate by reporting bad player behavior. “Everyone needs to be involved,” Priebe says. “The gamers need to say, ‘Look, I’m sick of this.’” Priebe was quick to point out that he thinks most gamers already feel this way but feels more need to put their foot down and be vocal to help shift the culture. “It will take some gamers to say, ‘No, that isn’t cool. You can’t be in our guild unless you have good sportsmanship,’” he says.

Many believe the community should be just as involved with the process as they are when giving feedback on games for betas. “We need to work with our players and say, ‘What do you guys think?’ The same way we do when we develop our games,” says EA community team senior director Adam Tanielian. “We think the same idea should apply to our communities. How do we keep them healthy? And how do we build tools?” EA recently held a summit devoted to building healthier communities to start getting feedback from gamers and devs alike. Born from this was a “player council,” which Tanielian says meets regularly and is similar to the ones they have for their various franchises, but this focuses on feedback for tools, policies, and how EA should categorize toxicity. “We know that we have to take action,” Tanielian says. “We can’t just talk about it and not do something. Some things take longer than others, but there are always things we can be doing. There are always areas that we can be addressing.”

Most platforms have parental settings, like the Xbox One (pictured here), to give parents some control over their child’s online experience

Many people we chatted with discussed how easy-to-use reporting tools have been essential, but players need to be encouraged to use them. If they’re hard to find, require players to visit a website, or are needlessly complex, developers and moderators simply won’t get the valuable information they need. Reporting also helps developers learn what the community values. “The community itself is sort of driving what’s good and what’s not great for it in terms of communication, in terms of that play experience,” Mercer says. “I think the most important thing about the reporting is it’s a way for the community to help police itself, to help determine amongst itself what they find acceptable or not.”

Players often feel more encouraged to report if they know it’s facilitating change. Sure, giving players the ability to mute or block players that rub them the wrong way helps, but once the Overwatch team started following up on reports and letting the players know action was taken, they noticed it led to an increase in reporting. “That was important, reaching out and building that trust,” Mercer says. “Saying, ‘Hey, as a member of the Overwatch community, you are part of the solution to dealing with issues of players acting poorly within a game.’”

Xbox allows players to search for others with similar goals so they can team up in games

While self-moderation has certainly been key to helping get problem players out of games, Microsoft saw an opportunity to take it one step further. For those who just want to play or converse with like-minded individuals, Microsoft created the “clubs” feature (online meeting spaces) on Xbox One, where people with similar values, interests, and goals can come together. McCarthy says Microsoft has seen great success in this area. “We discovered the strong communities are not only ones where you provide kind of a safe space and a set of norms, but they’re also the ones where they get some degree of self-governance,” he explains.

Microsoft has also used clubs as a testing ground for new moderation features, which McCarthy says are in the works. A long-term goal for Xbox is to give you more choices and tools in how you play. “What I mean is put the dials and sliders ultimately in your hands so that you could decide, ‘Hey, I want to filter out stuff that is detected as harassing-type messages,’ or I’ll be silly, like, ‘I want to filter out the word ‘peanut butter’ and never see the word peanut butter again.’ You could customize down to whatever level you felt was appropriate as a user.”

Involving the community and putting moderation tools in their hands is a step in the right direction, and it’s encouraging to see more companies put forth ways for the community to help. After all, this is too big of an issue to be tackled alone, and it will only grow in complexity as games continue to get bigger and are turning more and more into social activities.

Building A Better Future

Building A Better Future

The industry doesn’t get better if it’s not constantly finding new solutions, and many companies are realizing that more needs to be done as our technology grows. “This needs to be a solved problem,” Priebe says. “Because games are [becoming] more and more voice-driven, especially as you need collaboration more than ever. People are realizing that if you have social games, that’s where your friends are.”

While game developers are still behind in this area, there is plenty of hope for the future. “What we are facing in gaming is more of a cultural shift over the last 10 years … and it is on us to react more quickly than we have in the past to stay ahead of the curve,” says Rainbow Six Siege community developer Craig Robinson. “Right now, we are playing catch-up, and that’s not where we need to be in order to get toxicity under control. I expect for there to be a ton of improvements over the next 5-10 years across the industry, especially with the various publishers and developers sharing their learnings and insights through the Fair Play Alliance.”

Minecraft, the best-selling game of all time, is available across 20 different platforms, making community moderators and parental controls essential

And plenty of people tackling this issue have already been thinking ahead. Right now, we’ve depended largely on reactive measures to moderate people. The problem with that is it’s after the fact, as in the damage is already done. Many have an eye toward being more proactive, which means trying to anticipate problems before they happen, whether that’s designing to combat them or depending more on filters and A.I. “I think one of the biggest challenges is being stuck in the ways we’ve done things before,” Hart says. “We have the social needs increasing for players online; we need to think of our games differently. We need to be much more proactive. If we wait to have a game to be thinking about how people may interact with each other within that game, we’re already behind because then we have to retrofit systems onto an existing game as opposed to proactively designing to reduce disruption and to help produce those successful interactions. A short way of putting it is we need to move from punitive to proactive.”

What’s encouraging is that technology is only going to get better, and many feel optimistic that A.I. will be a great asset in moderation going forward. “A.I. is something that could really be a difference-maker with regards to how we’re able to moderate and how we’re able to enforce its scale across the community,” Tanielian says. Companies like Microsoft have already been investing in this area by trying to get as much data as possible to ensure the A.I. is accurate. “There’s actually goodness in those models getting trained more and more by more data,” McCarthy says. “As an example, we’ve done something called ‘photo DNA’ at Microsoft, where we tag certain images and we actually share that database with a large range of other companies. This is where I think collaboration is actually really important in the industry. Because if we can start to share some of these models and learning, then they get more sophisticated and accurate, and they actually can help a larger range of users overall. That’s just something we have to keep chipping away at: How do we utilize powerful technology like that in the right way? And to get it trained broadly across the industry to do the things we want it to do?”

These are big questions, but they’re the ones we can’t afford to leave unsolved, as we’re spending more and more time in these online spaces.

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Game Informer.

An Exclusive Tour Of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Revendreth

https://www.gameinformer.com/feature/2019/11/18/an-exclusive-tour-of-world-of-warcraft-shadowlands-revendreth

For this zone, the team was trying to tackle the question of: “What would WoW Translyvania look like?” It takes the form of a gigantic gothic castle sprawling over a misty forest and a curious pit. Carriages, floating vampiric aristocracy, gargoyles, and little Igor-style gravedigger minions called dredgers mill about. The zone is colossal, so my guided tour through the realm of sinners – who can still be redeemed in some form – took me through each of the castle’s five wards.

The entryway itself is suffering disrepair, as are the buildings and structures across the castle grounds. This is a problem that many of the Shadowlands zones have, as no new souls are coming in due to everyone being routed to the Maw. The castle proper looms over the zone like an oppressive titan, towering over the Village Ward where players enter and can get the lay of the land. Sin stones, gravestones with the soul’s crimes listed upon it, litter each pathway. Souls sent here can etch these sins off their stones over time as they prepare for the afterlife, but the Venthyr’s methods are often horrific and torturous. While the Venthyr may have an important purpose in the Shadowlands, with their task of preparing tainted souls for the afterlife, you can’t help but think these vampiric, bickering aristocrats have a serious streak of sadism.

The souls that show up here under normal circumstances are “bad guys,” prideful, and perhaps having justified terrible things, and have a chance at redemption over eons of suffering in the Shadowlands. A famous character from Warcraft that ended up here is Kael’thas Sunstrider. Carriages are a frequent sight throughout the castle grounds, and beyond being a cool aesthetic addition, players can hop on and off at will to help speed up travel or get through pockets of aggressive enemies. The Village Ward is mostly exterior environments, various dilapidated buildings, and a view of the fog-filled forest where the Venthyr schedule hunts on tortured souls, sending them out with a false sense of security and hope they run away, then track them down and “humble” them.

The next stop on the carriage-ride is the Cathedral Ward. It’s a mix of interior and exterior space and significantly higher class than the village below. One of the major dungeons of the expansion, Revendreth Cathedral, is located here. Elevators are scattered everywhere, allowing players to move from ward to ward and explore the vertical space of the zone. Along the way in this area, we spot someone who looks decidedly out of place, a sort of Ethereal-looking merchant that’s part of an organization known as the Brokers.

The Brokers are a faction separate from the Covenants and the Maw, sort of soul-traders, that can move freely around the Shadowlands. In the wake of the recent calamities, the Brokers have taken this chance to capitalize on new opportunities for profit and perhaps more. They are similar in appearance to the Ethereal faction from multiple expansions, and the team’s comments lead me to believe they’ll be just as shady and manipulative throughout this expansion as our old friends.

The Ember Ward is a stark contrast to the rest of the space. This is the only spot in Revendreth where the light has actually broken through, and hence is the worst nightmare for our light-vulnerable friends. This area is destroyed, and the unfortunate Venthyr that have been sent here as punishment are either dead, driven insane by the light, or battling each other for the scant pockets of shadow that dot the ward. The ruling class of Venthyr can’t torture each other like they would other souls, but they have the Ember Ward to handle dissidents and rabble-rousers. Outside of being burned to death by the light, the exposure also slowly turns Venthyr insane. This isn’t a fun place, but it’s thematically awesome – the Venthyr have even turned their torturous pursuits to utilizing mirrors as weapons with the stray light.

The Venthyr’s massive gargoyle army is housed in the Military Ward, but this area and the gargoyle forces are both in disrepair due to the soul drought. We spot a dredger being created out of a giant pit here – they’re just made from muck. The dredgers keep attempting to rebuild and keep the wards active, but it’s a battle they’re losing. The Military Ward is an endgame centric area featuring catacombs, hostile enemies, and cool animated weapons and items that the Venthyr have shoved souls into.

A quick jaunt around the Castle Ward highlights multiple points of interest. Various districts make up the Castle Ward, designed for those who curry favor with the countess, a place for old money, dark favors, decadent delights, and grisly parties. This is also the first chance I get to look at the area below the castle, a spooky place known as Endmire. Endmire is where creatures end up that have moved from realm to realm in the Shadowlands, twisted and misshapen as a result of the anima ending up in the wrong place. The stuff down here isn’t necessarily the creepy Bloodborne-vibe of the parapets above, instead, it’s a different blend of strange, an unnerving warped reality composed of creatures that defy sense and explanation, with a wide assortment of aberrations and colors flitting about in an unchecked bog. Under normal circumstances, the gargoyles would keep these manifestations under control, but now they’re simply tossing these creatures down. Creatures with two heads. Creatures with no heads. Energy spiders. The denizens down there are super weird, and kind of awesome, like a Princess Mononoke/Spirited Away bestiary gone wrong.

My tour of Revendreth left me a bit awestruck. It’s rare that I can’t wait to get in and begin what will inevitably just be distilled down to grabbing a bunch of quests and doing them most efficiently to level up, but I’m more excited for the prospect of what happens after. Once players complete their trial period in each of the four core realms, they’re given a choice at a level cap that starts a post-level campaign, full of quests and adventures that players selecting the other options won’t get to do. These choices flesh out the zones and cultures even more while bringing the player into the fold of that covenant and their particular challenges and stories. It’s difficult to say right now, but I think Revendreth has a good shot at ousting Karazhan as my favorite WoW environment of all time.


Click the banner below for more on World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, Overwatch 2, and Diablo IV!

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Game Informer.

The Force is strong with Samsung’s Star Wars-themed Galaxy Note 10 Plus – Circuit Breaker

https://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2019/11/18/20970681/samsung-star-wars-galaxy-note-10-plus-kylo-ren-s-pen-rise-of-skywalker

With the impending December 20th release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker looming like a nearby Death Star, Samsung has announced a Star Wars-themed Galaxy Note 10 Plus that’s giving off some major Kylo Ren energy. It will be on sale in the US on December 13th for $1,299.99.

The phone looks really slick. I love the red lightsaber-style S Pen. It’s a black Note 10 Plus with a First Order emblem on the back and red trim on the buttons and around the camera. In the Kylo Ren-themed box, you’ll also get black Galaxy Buds with a red inner casing, a Ren-themed leather phone case, and a Ren-themed “metal badge.”


Image: Samsung

Samsung says the phone will come with exclusive Star Wars-themed wallpapers, shutdown animations, icons, and sounds.

With a price tag of $1,299.99, it’s a little more expensive than a base Galaxy Note 10 Plus — which you can buy on Samsung’s website at a sale price of $839.99 — but the extra Star Wars-themed goodies might make the extra cost worth it.

Samsung says bundle will be available in Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Korea, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, UAE, the UK, and the US. In select markets, it will be available starting on December 10th, which is a bit sooner than the US release date.

X019: Halo: Reach Arrives December 3 with Xbox Game Pass

https://news.xbox.com/en-us/2019/11/15/x019-halo-reach-arrives-december-3rd/

Earlier this year, we shared the news that two of the Halo community’s longest standing requests were becoming a reality – Halo: Reach was being added to Halo: The Master Chief Collection and the entire collection was headed to PC. Today, after months of development, flighting, community feedback (and more than a flew slices of pizza), we’re thrilled to announce that Halo: Reach arrives December 3rd via Xbox Game Pass, the Microsoft Store, and Steam and is now available for pre-order

Remember Reach

The UNSC stronghold on the planet Reach and the Spartans of Noble Team are all that remains between Earth and an encroaching Covenant threat, hell-bent on the destruction of humanity. From the highly-acclaimed Campaign to co-op Firefight to competitive Multiplayer, Halo: Reach for The Master Chief Collection looks and plays better than ever at 60FPS with 4K UHD support. And now, for the first time, experience the epic origins of the Master Chief’s saga on PC with new features, optimizations, and customization options built for the platform.

On December 3rd you’ll have a few different avenues to obtain Halo: Reach depending on your platform of choice and whether you already own Halo: The Master Chief Collection (MCC).

THE HALO SAGA BEGINS ON PC

XBOX GAME PASS FOR PC (BETA)

Subscribe to Xbox Game Pass for PC (Beta) and get Halo: Reach, the first chapter in Halo: The Master Chief Collection, on December 3rd.

Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2: Anniversary, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST (Campaign) and Halo 4 are also included in your subscription with each game delivered over time, completing the collection in 2020.

MICROSOFT STORE & STEAM 

Halo: Reach is the first title to come to PC as part of Halo: The Master Chief Collection with the remaining titles (Halo: CE Anniversary, Halo 2 Anniversary, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST Campaign, and Halo 4) coming over time through 2020.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection is available for pre-order ($39.99USD) which includes Reach beginning Dec. 3 and will automatically update with the remaining titles as they launch next year. Halo: Reach, and the remaining titles within MCC for PC, can also be purchased à la carte ($9.99USD).

Xbox One: Improved, Refreshed and Better than Ever

For existing owners of MCC on Xbox One, the Halo: Reach Campaign, along with Firefight, will be available as a premium add-on ($9.99USD). The multiplayer components of Halo: Reach – including PVP modes, Forge, and Theater – will be automatically included as part of the base content offering of MCC at no additional cost via a game update.

If you’re new to MCC on Xbox One, you can obtain the entire updated and improved collection via Xbox Game Pass or purchase via the Microsoft Store. Beginning today, Halo: The Master Chief Collection is available for purchase ($39.99USD) and will include the totality of Halo: Reach (coming 12/3) as well as the Halo 3: ODST Campaign (previously only available as a premium add-on). Visit Xbox.com to learn more! 

Become a Halo Insider

Thank you to Halo Insiders who’ve shared feedback and participated in hands-on testing of pre-release builds on our journey to bring Halo: Reach to MCC and bring the entire collection to PC! The community’s support and involvement through public “flights” over the past several months has been critical to ensuring Halo: Reach offers the best experience possible when it launches.

As we look ahead to the remainder of this journey, we will continue to partner closely with Halo Insiders to playtest the upcoming titles in the collection and gather feedback to continue improving current and future releases for PC. Sign up at HaloInsider.com to help us finish the fight and bring the rest of MCC to PC in the coming year!

Looking Ahead

December 3rd is an exciting milestone for us as we finally deliver on one of our community’s longest-standing requests but really, we’re just getting started. As the team works to support the launch of Reach, we’re already working on the framework and plans to kick off public flighting of the next PC release – Halo: CE Anniversary – in early 2020.

Thank you to the Halo community for keeping this dream alive for so many years and thank you for partnering with us to make it a reality beginning December 3!

Xbox Insider Release Notes – Alpha Skip Ahead Ring (2004.191113-2300)

https://news.xbox.com/en-us/2019/11/15/xbox-insider-release-notes-alpha-skip-ahead-ring-2004-191113-2300/

Hey Alpha Skip Ahead ring users! Today’s Xbox Insider Release Notes highlight the latest fixes, known issues, and features coming to your console. Starting at 2:00 p.m. PT today, users will receive the latest 2004 Xbox One system update (build: RS_XBOX_RELEASE_200419024.1201.191113-2300). Keep reading for more details.

System Update Details:

  • OS version released: RS_XBOX_RELEASE_200419024.1201.191113-2300
  • Available: 2:00 p.m. PT – November 15, 2019
  • Mandatory: 3:00 a.m. PT – November 16, 2019

System Update

System Update

Fixes for Alpha Skip Ahead

We’ve heard your feedback, and we’re happy to announce the following fixes have been implemented for this 2004 build:

My Games & Apps

  • Users should no longer see a “Join Game Pass” button when trying to install titles with active Game Pass subscription.
  • We’ve fixed an issue where users could not see their installed titles in Membership tabs (Game Pass, EA Access).

System

  • Various updates to properly reflect local languages across the console.

Xbox Insider Release Notes

Xbox Insider Release Notes

Known Issues for Alpha Skip Ahead

We understand some issues have been listed in previous Xbox Insider Release Notes. These issues aren’t being ignored, but it will take Xbox engineers more time to find a solution. We appreciate your patience at this time!

Audio

  • Users who have Dolby Atmos enabled and console display settings set to 120hz with 36 bits per pixel (12-bit) are experiencing loss of Dolby Atmos audio in some situations.
    • Workaround: Disable 120hz or set Video Fidelity to 30 bits per pixel (10-bit) or lower.

Disney + App

  • Users have reported playback is buffering while streaming content.

Dolby Access

  • Users are unable to complete the setup for Dolby Atmos in the app and the app is not recognizing Dolby Atmos headphones.
    • Note: This is an issue with the Dolby Access app and the app developers are aware and investigating.

Home

  • Users have reported that the dashboard is unresponsive to controller input on boot.
    • Workaround: Perform a hard restart of the console (hold the power button for 5-10 seconds) to resolve the issue.

Home (Experiment)

  • Users may see the images for ads on the dashboard looking cropped or cutoff.

 Plex App

  • Users have reported playback is buffering constantly while streaming content.

 Settings

  • Some users have reported that 3D display mode is not working with supported content.

 Profile Color

  • Sometimes users may encounter the incorrect Profile color when powering on the console.

Are you not seeing your issue listed above? Make sure to use Report a problem to keep us informed of your issue. We may not be able to respond to everyone, but the data we’ll gather is crucial to finding a resolution.

Learn more about feedback and how each ring is differentiated in the following links:

For more information regarding the Xbox Insider Program follow us on Twitter and join the community subreddit for support and updates. Keep an eye on future Xbox Insider Release Notes for more information regarding your Xbox One Update Preview ring!