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Computing

The revolutionary PC gaming tech developers are ignoring

Variable Rate Shading, or VRS, is a major piece of graphics tech that PC games have largely ignored for the past three years. It works on all modern AMD and Nvidia graphics cards, and it has a simple goal: Improve performance by as much as 20% without any perceivable drop in image quality.

Sounds amazing, right? Well, there’s a reason you probably haven’t heard much about it. The last couple of years have focused on Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) and AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) as the performance-saving champions of the modern graphics era. And although they offer the best bang for the game developer’s buck, VRS is an equally impressive tool that’s been woefully underused.

Variable Rate Shading: Not new

Microsoft / The Coalition

VRS isn’t new — Microsoft’s blog post announcing the feature in DirectX 12 is over three years old. If you’re not familiar, VRS changes the resolution at which shaders are applied within a scene. It’s not changing the resolution of the game; VRS simply allows neighboring pixels to share a shader rather than having the GPU do redundant work.

If there’s a corner of a scene wrapped in shadow without a lot of detail, for example, your graphics card doesn’t need to calculate the light, color, and texture values for each pixel. It can save some hassle by grouping them together — four pixels in a 2×2 grid may have extremely similar shading values, so VRS kicks in to optimize performance by only calculating one shader and applying it to the rest of the grid. The size of the grid is the shading rate, and more pixels in a grid means a lower shading rate.

That small change can make a big difference in performance. In Gears Tactics at 4K, for example, VRS offered a 22.9% increase in my average frame rate. That’s the best example, but Resident Evil Village also showed a 9.8% increase in my average frame rate, while Hitman 3 offered a solid 8% boost. And the idea behind VRS is that it should be indistinguishable when it’s turned on, essentially offering free performance.

VRS performance in three video games.

There are only a small number of games that support VRS on PC, despite it being more than three years old. I’ll address that issue later in the column, but the more pressing issue is how VRS is used among the few games that support it.

There are two buckets for VRS: One that makes it look like a revolutionary piece of kit that offers free performance, and another that makes it look like a feature that hurts more than it helps.

Two worlds of VRS

A debug screen for VRS in Dirt 5.
Codemasters

Microsoft has two tiers of VRS in DirectX 12 Ultimate: The aptly-named Tier 1 and Tier 2. Tier 1 VRS is the most common technique you’ll find in games, which is the heart of the problem. This level doesn’t concern itself with individual pixels, and it instead applies different shading rates to each draw call. When there’s a call to draw background assets, for example, they may have a 2×2 shading rate, while assets drawn in the foreground have a shading rate of 1×1.

Tier 2 VRS is what you want. This is far more granular, allowing the developer to shade within a draw call. That means one part of a model can have a shading rate of 2×2, for example, while a more detailed area on that same model could use 1×1. Tier 2 VRS is ideal, allowing the developer to focus on the details that matter to squeeze every ounce of performance out.

VRS comparison in Resident Evil Village.
Left: VRS Off, Right: VRS On

The problem: Even among the small pool of games that support VRS, most of them only use Tier 1. Resident Evil Village, the most recent game I looked at, uses Tier 1 VRS. You can see how that impacts the image quality above, where you can make out pixels in the snow as Tier 1 VRS lumps together everything a few feet away from the camera.

Contrast that with Gears Tactics, which supports Tier 2 VRS. There’s a minor difference in quality when zoomed in to nearly 200%, but it looks much nicer than Tier 1. You can spot a difference when the two are side-by-side and zoomed in, but put these two frames back to back in a blind test, and you wouldn’t be able to tell a difference. I certainly couldn’t.

VRS comparison in Gears Tactics.
Left: VRS Off, Right: VRS On

Free performance for virtually no loss in image quality is a huge deal, but on PC at least, VRS isn’t in the conversation as much as it should be (let alone the discussion between Tier 1 and Tier 2). Even after moving Gears Tactics and Gears 5 to Tier 2 VRS, developers haven’t jumped on the performance-saving train. Instead, VRS has mostly focused on the limited power budgets of consoles, and there’s one particular console holding the feature back.

A console blockade

A PS5 standing on a table, with purple lights around it.
Martin Katler/Unsplash

The reason VRS comes in two flavors is that Tier 2 requires specific hardware to work. Nvidia’s RTX graphics cards and AMD’s RX 6000 GPUs have hardware support, as does the Xbox Series X. Older graphics cards and the PlayStation 5 do not. Instead, they use a software-based version of Tier 1 VRS, if it’s even available in the game at all.

Developers working on multi-platform titles are usually going to focus on the lowest common denominator, which means Tier 1 VRS. There are only a few developers who have gone out of their way to support Tier 2 VRS on supported hardware (id Software uses Tier 2 VRS on Doom Eternal for the Xbox Series X, for example), but the vast majority of modern AAA games either don’t support VRS or use this Tier 1 approach.

As Gears Tactics shows, a proper Tier 2 implementation from the developer offers the best image quality and performance. It’s true that DLSS and FSR provide an easy solution for developers to improve performance in PC games. But proper Tier 2 VRS can represent around a 20% boost for barely any difference in image quality, and that’s too good to ignore.

This article is part of ReSpec – an ongoing biweekly column that includes discussions, advice, and in-depth reporting on the tech behind PC gaming.

Editors’ Choice




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Game

‘Saints Row’ developers promise that the reboot will still be fun

It was last August that Saints Row developer Volition . The new title was intended as a swerve away from the series’ trademark preposterousness and juvenalia. Now, , the team would like to clarify that just because it’s grounded, doesn’t mean it’s not going to be fun. Saints Row hasn’t suddenly become a po-faced exploration of organized crime, and it remains just as cartoonish as you may expect, it’s just a bit more grounded in its cartoonishness.

Last year, Chief Creative Officer Jim Boone and Lead Mission Designer Jeremy Bernstein said that the Saints Row series had burned out its narrative runway. After all, when your character has conquered the Earth, descended into Hell and fought a hair-rock opera duel with the Devil, street-level crime is going to feel like a big comedown. “I’ve been wanting to clarify that!” said Creative Director Brian Traficante, “I believe you can continue that runway […] but we didn’t want to.”

“In terms of going back to the grounded tone, it took some time,” said Traficante, as the team sought to analyze and define “what is Saints Row?” That series-defining formula seems to focus on meshing fun gameplay, silly jokes, cartoonish violence and a hefty dose of reference gags. “At times, it’s a gag for a gag’s sake, but there’s a consciousness of making sure that it’s exactly what we want to do, and it’s the right time to do it,” he said. There was a focus on ensuring that there’s plenty of light moments to balance out the times in the story when things go dark.

Writer Jennifer Campbell said that the team abides by “the rule of making sure that you’re punching up, not punching down.” Campbell added that “we’re exploring a more diverse group of characters so it gives us a lot more avenues to explore, anyway.” Traficante said that the developers created “internal mechanisms” to help ensure that a broad group of people could weigh in on some of the edgier gags in the game. He added that the team wanted to craft jokes that would enable “everyone [to] be a part of the joke.”

Saints Row’s use of parody reached a fairly extreme level during the fourth game, where it ran a series of relationship-simulation sequences in the vein of Mass Effect. (Except, of course, the camera wasn’t cutting away as quickly when two characters decided to spend some alone time together.) These parodies are “definitely in the recipe,” said Traficante, but that they aren’t “front and center” in the new title, so players will need to hunt out the nods.

A pair of friends dance along inside a Cowboy-themed bar.

Volition

And players will spend a lot of time being encouraged to hunt through the world of Santo Ileso in pursuit of storytelling, gameplay and entertainment. The team has laced the city with randomly spawning discoverables, like a security fan loaded with cash, for you to find as you walk around. Traficante said that it takes testers around a week, playing full time, to work their way through the bulk of the title, which is vast and ever-growing.

As well as the breadth of the city, Volition also wanted to emphasize the depth of features like character customization. Users can expect a level of tweaking that looks to be beyond the level offered in, say, Cyberpunk 2077. You’ll be able to customize your appearance, voice and clothing, as well as the looks of your cars and weapons. And none of these features will be pay-to-use, mercifully, with everything instead unlocking the further into the game you progress.

Interestingly, the new title has a little less narrative freedom than some of its predecessors as a consequence of this richer, deeper world. This, says Jennifer Campbell, is to help imbue the game with a greater sense of purpose and meaning, bolstering the story. “We were really focused on keeping a causal chain, because you’re doing things in response to something,” she said. “You’re shooting at things because you did something earlier in the mission to elicit a response from an enemy faction,” she added, with the aim of putting “reason behind the things that we asked the player to do.” Players will feel that “their actions are affecting the game state.”

Having now seen around 45 minutes of gameplay footage, I can say that the new title focuses on a narrower definition of silly. You can melee an opponent, stick a grenade down their throat and then throw their body over to a group of enemies to blow them up. Or you can ask a friend in co-op play to pick up your car with a helicopter’s trailing electromagnet and drop you off at a mission location. There are piñata guns and footballs that stick to people hurling them up into the air, as well as a new wingsuit mechanic that enables you to bounce off a pedestrian to give yourself more flight time.

Certainly, the arrival of this Saints Row game feels like it’s going to be more of an event than it did previously. The enduring success of GTA Online’s ever-present crime simulation sandbox has sucked so much air out of the genre that having a new alternative should be a big deal: We haven’t had a true “GTA-like” game since 2016’s Watch Dogs 2. The one risk is that Saints Row is looking to perfect a game that users have now moved on from.

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AI

AT&T and H2O collab on feature store for AI developers

Telecom giant AT&T and Mountain View, California-headquartered AI cloud company H2O have jointly launched an artificial intelligence feature store for enterprises.

The repository, available as a paid software platform, enables data scientists, developers, and engineers to discover, share, and reuse machine learning features to speed up their AI project deployments. According to the companies, it can be used for work on personalization and recommendation engines as well as models that are aimed at forecasting, as well as the optimization of dynamic pricing, supply chain, and logistics and transportation.

The development comes as more and more organizations turn to AI implementation to generate actionable insights and predictions from a huge trove of data. AT&T originally had this solution in production use for network optimization, fraud prevention, tax calculations, predictive maintenance, among other things.

Features in machine learning

When it comes to building machine learning models, data is of the utmost importance. However, raw data is not the key to a well-performing algorithm. The information gathered first must be cleaned and enriched with features — individual independent variables or characteristics that act as the input for the system. The quality of these features defines the quality of the model as well as the accuracy of its predictions.

Typically, AI experts apply domain knowledge of the data and engineering tools to extract and create features. The entire process takes months and has to be repeated for every new AI project (adding to the cost), even if it is under the same organization.

A feature store strives to solve this challenge by serving as the home for commonly used features. With this solution, experts could create new features for a project and then add them into the store, ensuring they could be reused if required at a later stage. Databricks, Tecton, Molecula, Hopsworks, Splice Machine, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are the leading players that offer feature stores to accelerate MLOps.

Additional capabilities

The latest offering from H2O and AT&T not only performs the core function of a feature store, but also comes equipped with multiple additional capabilities. The store offers integration with multiple data and machine learning pipelines, which can be applied to an on-premise data lake or by leveraging cloud and SaaS providers. It is integrated with Snowflake, Databricks, Apache Spark, H2O Sparkling Water, Python, Scala, and Java.

Then, the solution also offers an automatic recommendation engine that learns over time and recommends new features and feature updates to improve the AI model performance of the user. This way, data scientists can simply review the suggested updates and accept the recommendations best suited for their model. FeatureRank scores all the features on the store based on their popularity and value.

“We are building AI right into the feature store and have taken an open, modular, and scalable approach to tightly integrate into the diverse feature engineering pipelines while preserving sub-millisecond latencies needed to react to fast-changing business conditions,” Sri Ambati, CEO and founder of H2O.ai, said in a statement.

The company says any firm engaged in AI development can adopt its store, starting from financial services and health organizations to pharmaceutical makers, retail, and software developers.

“Feature stores are one of the hottest areas of AI development right now because being able to reuse and repurpose data engineering tools is critical as those tools become increasingly complex and expensive to build,” Andy Markus, chief data officer at AT&T, said.

“With our expertise in managing and analyzing huge data flows, combined with H2O.ai’s deep AI expertise, we understand what business customers are looking for in this space and our feature store offering meets this need,” Markus added.

According to a PwC study, AI will $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. Leading this growth are China and North America, which will drive the greatest economic gains at $10.7 trillion.

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AI

Gartner: Citizen developers will soon outnumber professional coders 4 to 1

To meet a coming wave of hyper-automation, IT organizations need to do a better job of partnering with professionals outside of IT to automate business processes and data integration, according to research firm Gartner.

Gartner defines hyper-automation as “a business-driven, disciplined approach that organizations use to rapidly identify, vet, and automate as many businesses and IT processes as possible.” The possibilities are so vast that IT can’t pursue them alone — and shouldn’t try to, Gartner distinguished VP, and analyst on software design and development, Jason Wong, argued in a presentation at the Gartner IT Symposium this week.

Instead of complaining about “shadow IT” efforts outside the control of the CIO, IT should engage with business unit developers to make sure they have what they need to get their work done.

This group includes “business technologists,” or trained, full-time developers who are embedded in a department like marketing. But it also includes “citizen developers” who know how to use no-code, low-code, or data management and analytics tools to automate processes for themselves and their teams. Gartner’s prediction: “By 2023, the number of active citizen developers at large enterprises will be at least four times the number of professional developers.”

IT organizations must break out of the mindset that the work done by these groups is trivial or insignificant, Wong said. “In fact, they are doing serious work. They create algorithms. They create user interfaces that make it easier for their teams to do their work,” he said. Often, they are creating new capabilities, not just making tweaks, he said. “They see the power of workflow and business logic.”

A prescription for business-driven automation

In recent Gartner surveys, only 42% of these workers reported that they were using tools specifically designed for them, such as robotic process automation software. Wong suggested that may be simply because they haven’t been offered access to those tools, which are often only made available to centers of excellence or other pockets within the organization. In contrast, 64% said they were working with database, data science, analytics, and AI tools, 59% said they worked with application development tools, and 45% said they worked with integration tools including data integration and API management tools.

As a result of their work, 82% say they are making their departments more effective, 68% say they are improving efficiency, and 63% say they are boosting business agility.

Wong’s prescription for organizations that want to get the most value out of business-driven automation includes:

  • Co-operate, take these teams seriously and work to amplify their skills
  • Co-own, provide access to a variety of tools, and include business technologists and citizen developers in communities of practice that promote excellence
  • Co-create, scale-up what can be accomplished by including these developers in multidisciplinary teams who plan big initiatives and help them understand broader enterprise considerations such as technology risk

For a win-win strategy, organizations should work to ensure their business achieves automation that makes it more effective and efficient, while also ensuring that whatever the business develops, IT can support, Wong concluded.

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Game

‘Journey to the Savage Planet’ developers reform after Google shut them down

The employees of Typhoon Studios, the developer behind Journey to the Savage Planet, are reforming under the name Raccoon Logic. In an announcement, the team says that they are “to boldly go back to where they were before,” Google’s doomed acquisition of the company. Raccoon Logic has also revealed that the team has reacquired the rights to Savage Planet, enabling them to “hit the ground running on new adventures in the action adventure space.”

Typhoon was founded in 2017 by a group of Montreal-based game executives, including Far Cry 4 director Alex Hutchinson and Arkham Knight executive producer Reid Schneider. Their first title was Journey to the Savage Planet, a satirical sci-fi game for PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch first released January 2020.

In 2019, Typhoon was acquired by Google as part of its push to acquire first-party content for its nascent Stadia streaming service. Sadly, in early 2021, Google’s notoriously impatient leadership decided to change strategy, closing its first party games division and firing the employees.

That decision would, in the short term, prove problematic, as Journey to the Savage Planet experienced some game-breaking bugs that Google had to race to work out how to fix. And left the future of both the Savage Planet franchise and the careers of those Typhoon staffers in the balance.

In a statement, Raccoon Logic says that it has received a “pivotal investment” from Tencent which will bankroll its as-yet unannounced debut project. Alex Hutchinson says that Tencent’s backing is a “huge boost, meaning we can do significant work on our own before we start talking to publishers.” Reid Schneider, meanwhile, thanks 505 Games, which published Savage Planet, and added that he’s planning to “build upon the Journey to the Savage Planet franchise in the future.”

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Computing

Best Windows 11 Feature? Here’s How Developers and Fans Voted

Windows 11 comes with tons of new things to play with, which is why Microsoft was curious as to which feature Windows users liked best. In the results of a new bracket poll on the Windows Developer Twitter, fans have decided that rounded corners reign supreme over everything else.

Up against features like the new startup sound, new icons, and backgrounds, Windows fans really do seem to like rounded corners the most. Rounded corners narrowly defeated the new Snap Groups feature, which helps improve multitasking in Windows 11. It came home with a 54% victory, according to TechRadar.

And the gold ???? goes to…. rounded corners ????

Thanks to all who voted in our Windows 11 UI Element Bracket! pic.twitter.com/tnhqBl9y1s

— Windows Developer (@windowsdev) August 4, 2021

The results should not be too surprising. Though some might see it as a small change, rounded corners are a signature feature of Windows 11. Rounded corners are present on the Start Menu, Quick Settings, and event the notification center. You’ll find them no matter where you click.

It is a big change from Windows 10, where most of the operating system featured squared-off edges. Microsoft even made some subtle changes in recent Windows Insider builds so rounded corners expanded to more areas, such as the hidden icons flyout in the lower right corner of the Taskbar.

The second-place feature, Snap Controls, is the other defining feature of Windows 11. As we detailed, it lets you create more ways to tile your windows for multitasking so that you can get more work done and stay in your flows. Snap Controls even create Snap Groups in the Taskbar, so you can get back to your apps more easily as you minimize windows.

Windows 11 is still in beta testing with Windows Insiders, and Microsoft is targeting a holiday 2021 release for the new operating system. Other than rounded corners and the Snap Controls feature, it comes with a redesigned Microsoft Store and a Microsoft Teams integration. Microsoft is also bringing the Android app to Windows 11 soon via the Amazon App Store, though it is not yet available for testing.

If you want to experience these features, you can do so in a couple of steps. Just opt your PC into the Windows Insider Program, and join either the “Beta” or “Dev” branch of the Windows Insider program. The Beta branch is more stable, and the Dev branch will get features at a quicker pace.

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Game

Sony reportedly showed off its next-generation PSVR at a developer’s conference

Sony already hinted that it’s working on a new PlayStation VR headset, promising “dramatic leaps” in performance, higher resolution, a wider field of view, better tracking and a new controller. On Tuesday, Sony reportedly revealed more specifics about the headset at a developer’s summit, according to the YouTube channel PSVR Without Parole (below) and UploadVR, The Verge has reported.

The device is reportedly codenamed next-gen VR (NGVR) and features controllers with capacitive touch sensors that can detect when you’re holding the controller or touching the buttons, and even sense the distance to your fingers. Sony also reportedly told developer’s that it’s planning optional VR support for all AAA releases, so you could play them either in VR or on your TV — much like it did with Resident Evil 7 and No Man’s Sky on the PS4 and PS5. 

PSVR Without Parole also noted that the next-gen PSVR will offer a 110-degree field of view that’s 10 degrees wider than the PSVR. To make the most of those pixels, it will use flexible scaling resolution, along with foveated rendering that uses eye-tracking to improve resolution where you’re looking. UploadVR, meanwhile, said that the the headset will feature high-resolution 2,000 x 2,040 OLED displays (4K in total). 

We’ve already heard that the PSVR will connect to PlayStation consoles with a single cable, with no passthrough box required. It will also use inside-out tracking and offer adaptive triggers and haptic feedback on the controllers.

All told, the PSVR 2 (or whatever it’s called) should have features mostly on par with rival headsets like the Oculus Quest 2 and HTC Vive Pro 2. However, Sony itself said that the headset won’t launch until at least next year, and a Bloomberg report from June indicated it might not come until late in 2022. For now, though, all of that is still grist for the rumor mill until Sony announces something official, possibly later this year. 

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Categories
Game

PS5 VR details leak from private developers conference

It’s arguable that Facebook’s Oculus now takes up the majority of the attention in the virtual reality market, but it is hardly the only major player. HTC is still actively working on Vive, and Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality also dips into that field. And then there’s PlayStation VR, the only console-based system among the VR giants. With the new PlayStation 5 console, however, the interest in a VR system to match has also grown. Fortunately, Sony does seem to have big plans for what the PS5 VR will offer, both in hardware and content.

The Next-Gen VR or NGVR, the alleged codename for the PS5 VR, will come with a headset that will boast significant upgrades over its predecessor. Considering the PSVR pictured above hasn’t exactly gotten major upgrades since it launched in 2016, that’s not exactly a surprising revelation.

According to the details reported by PSVR Without Parole, the headset will feature a new HDR OLED screen with a combined 4000×2040 resolution and 110 field-of-view. Eye-tracking will be used to implement foveated rendering, and a new flexible scaling resolution will supposedly improve performance. The new controllers will also allegedly have capacitive touch sensors for the thumb, index, and middle finger, probably for finger tracking.

An upgraded VR system, however, also needs upgraded VR experiences, and Sony is looking into bringing AAA titles to its VR ecosystem. That might mean requiring new titles to support a hybrid VR version alongside the regular flat screen game. There is no word yet on backward compatibility, though.

This PS5 VR upgrade could take Sony’s VR system to the next level and help it catch up with its peers. Unfortunately, it seems that fans will have to wait next year for that to happen.

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Game

Stadia Pro revenue model change has game developers worried

A gaming platform lives or dies by the number and quality of games available on it. The latter, in turn, is dependent on attracting developers and publishers to make a bet on that platform. Although it has been around for more than a year now, Stadia’s long-term survival has always been in question because of developer and publisher support. Now it seems that developers are once again questioning Google’s commitment to the cloud-based game streaming platform, thanks to an important change it made to Stadia Pro’s revenue model.

At first glance, the changes Google announced last week seemed to favor all developers. New games launching from October 1st, 2021, until some time in 2023 will see an 85/15 split between developer and Stadia, at least for the first $3 million in sales. It won’t last forever, though, and it will revert to the “standard” 70/30 revenue sharing sooner or later.

The problem, however, is the change that Google is making for the games that are offered for free on the Stadia Pro tier. Instead of upfront payment for games like Google promised in its previous terms, developers will instead get 70% of revenue that’s based on player engagement. In other words, the more days a Stadia Pro game is played in a month, the higher that revenue and the higher the cut that a developer will make.

The problem is that this new revenue-sharing model might be skewed to favor certain types of games only. Online games like PUBG definitely have the advantage because there is no definite end game and content just keeps getting added. Players of single-player titles or even co-op games with end content will most likely taper off at some point.

It remains to be seen whether this new business model will end up being more profitable for developers, especially when they factor in direct sales outside of Stadia Pro. The changes, however, are already adding more worry to developers on top of fears that Google might pull the plug at any given point in time like Google often does.

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Game

Google Stadia just sweetened the pot for game developers

Google today announced that it’s going to be implementing some changes on the business side of Stadia. These changes are being implemented to sweeten the pot for developers, so to speak, as Google is attempting to get more developers to put more games on the streaming service. First and foremost, Google has announced that it will give developers a more enticing revenue split until their games reach a certain sales threshold.

More specifically, Google says that it will launch a new revenue-sharing program for newly-signed games. Any game launching on Google Stadia after October 1st, 2021 will be subject to an 85%/15% revenue split for the first $3 million in sales it pulls in. After that, the revenue split will presumably revert to the industry standard of 70%/30%.

All new games launching on Google Stadia will be subject to this improved revenue split through the end of 2023, so it’ll be available for two years and three months before Google goes back to its usual split. Unfortunately for those who have already signed with Google Stadia, it doesn’t sound like this new revenue split is retroactive.

In addition to announcing its new revenue sharing program for Stadia game sales, Google also announced a revenue sharing program for games that are offered for free through Google Stadia Pro. Google will shared70% of Stadia Pro subscription revenue with developers of “active and claimable” games on Stadia Pro, splitting it up based on player engagement. On top of that, Google is also launching a new affiliate program that will let Stadia Pro developers share links to their games and get paid $10 for each user who clicks that link and then later converts a free trial membership to a paid one.

When it comes to attracting developers, Google Stadia is already working from behind against the more established gaming platforms out there, so the hope is clearly that these new perks will make developers want to bring their games to Stadia. These new programs were announced during the Google for Games Developer Summit Stadia keynote, which you can see embedded above.

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