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Video Game Deep Cuts: PlayStation’s 25th, Top Games Of 2019

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[Video Game Deep Cuts is a weekly newsletter from video game industry ‘watcher’ Simon Carless (GDC, Gamasutra co-runner, No More Robots advisor), rounding up the best longread & standout articles & videos about games, every weekend.

This week’s roundup includes excellent pieces on the PlayStation’s 25th anniversary, multiple new 2019 ‘best of’ game lists, and great articles on Katana Zero, Shovel Knight, Knights Of The Old Republic modders, Mario Maker 2, and lots more.

Until next time…
– Simon, curator.]

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PlayStation: The First 25 Years (Jeff Cork / Game Informer – ARTICLE)
“The path from the PlayStation 1 to the upcoming PlayStation 5 lines up neatly, but only if you’re looking at it numerically. In actuality, for more than 25 years the PlayStation team has had to navigate some of the industry’s most difficult terrain.”

Paradox Interactive is Not Immune to Propaganda: Leftist Politics in Grand Strategy (Huntress X Thompson / YouTube – VIDEO)
“[The video is] about Paradox Interactive’s Victoria 2 & Hearts of Iron 4, and how they both include anti-anarchist and anti-communist messages that are suspiciously consistent with propaganda.”

How Katana Zero brought action into cutscenes (Alex Wiltshire / RockPaperShotgun – ARTICLE)
“When this action game halts its razor-fine combat to tell you its story, I sit forward. That’s down to its interrupt system, which lets me choose whether I want to hear NPCs out, or whether I want to tell them to shut up. “I honestly hope more games adopt the interrupt system, if nothing else because it just feels like a much better way to tell stories,” developer Justin Stander tells me. “It’s less reading and more doing.”

The 10 best video games of 2019 (Christopher Byrd / Washington Post – ARTICLE)
“In assembling this year’s top 10 list, I leaned toward the titles that surprised me with their forward-thinking aesthetics, challenges to convention or sheer ability to dazzle.”

What happens when you try to recycle a video game? (People Make Games / YouTube – VIDEO)
“We take a look at what happens when you try to recycle a video game, plastic box and all.”

How “randomizers” are breathing new life into old games (Scott White / Ars Technica – ARTICLE)
“After playing a classic game to the point of memorization, how do you recapture the sense of adventure and discovery you experienced the first time you played it? A small but growing community in the retro emulation scene is aiming to answer those questions with a class of mods and hacks called “randomizers.””

What a YouTube Copyright Strike From 2015 Has to do With ‘Mario Maker 2’ in 2019 (Patrick Klepek / VICE – ARTICLE)
“One of the coolest features coming to Super Mario Maker 2 is what Nintendo’s calling Ninji Speedruns, where you try to complete Nintendo-designed levels while racing against the scattered ghosts of other players. What makes the connection between McClure and Nintendo curious is the video Nintendo directed a copyright strike at on McClure’s channel.”

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare… 12 Years Later (Raycevick / YouTube – VIDEO)
“[SIMON’S NOTE: feedback from a dev in the comments on this excellent video: ‘Ex IW dev, current Respawn dev here. Thank you for this. It was a lovely trip down memory lane. <3’.]”

The 30 Best Videogames of 2019 (Garrett Martin & Paste Games writers – ARTICLE)
“Did you know that a certain number of games this year shared some similarities, either incidental or fundamental, that are in no way unique to this year or each other, and that that’s enough for me to draw a tenuous and surface level connection between them? Rad. 2019: what a year for games and the people who have to hit word counts about ‘em!”

How Sony bought – and squandered – the future of gaming (Sean Hollister / The Verge – ARTICLE)
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a video game platform that lets you play games with the press of a button, no need for discs or downloads. Tap on a YouTube ad for a game, and you’re instantly playing in your web browser. [SIMON’S NOTE: part of a gigantic PlayStation 25th Anniversary set of articles.]”

Classic Postmortem: GoldenEye 007 (Martin Hollis / GDC / YouTube – VIDEO)
“In this 2012 GDC Europe Talk, Martin Hollis shares how his team created Goldeneye 007, the biggest release for the N64 without Mario in its title, and how what started as a Virtua Cop-style on-rails project became the legendary FPS that paved the way for console shooters like Halo and countless others.”

51 top games in soft launch: From Marvel Super War and Disney Sorcerer’s Arena to Minecraft Earth and Tetris Royale (Matthew Forde / PocketGamer.biz – ARTICLE)
“An important part of the shift to a games-as-a-service approach, the soft launch process enables developers to fine-tune their game, particularly in relation to meta-game mechanics such as time gates, in-game resources and psychological components. [SIMON’S NOTE: this constantly updated list is interesting because these iOS/Android games are often pretty high-profile/interesting & sometimes never even make it out of a regional iOS ‘soft launch’…]”

Clark Tank: Analyzing Steam Top 50 and Playing Automation Empire! (Ryan Clark / Brace Yourself Games / YouTube – VIDEO)
“Every third Friday at 1pm Pacific time we stay on top of the latest game industry trends by examining the Steam top 50, scrutinizing the latest Kickstarted games, and by playing the most prominent recent releases. [SIMON’S NOTE: loooots of good stuff in here as normal – look at the date stamps.]”

Marathon man: A Twitch streamer spent nearly the entire month of November live on camera (Gene Park / Washington Post – ARTICLE)
“Last century, George Mallory tackled Mount Everest “because it’s there.” In 2019, GiantWaffle spent 80 percent of November live on camera for similar reasons… On Nov. 30, Andrew Bodine, a popular variety Twitch entertainer who live streams under the handle of GiantWaffle completed a 573-hour streaming marathon on Twitch, sleeping no more than four hours a night while spending between 19 to 20 hours a day on camera.”

The modders who spent 15 years fixing Knights of the Old Republic 2 (Austin Taylor / Ars Technica – ARTICLE)
“Originally, Staniewicz and his team planned to fix one planet at a time and release them accordingly as they were completed. Once the team finished working on Nar Shaddaa, however, they decided to keep going and release their work as one large mod encompassing all the cut content.”

The Making of Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, Part 3: Our Favorite Secrets and More (Yacht Club Games / USGamer – ARTICLE)
“It’s at this point that the team really starts scrutinizing the level as an organic unit, then revisiting everything one sequence at a time as we block in more final placements and smooth out rough parts. The result should be a ‘done’ level where only final touches remain! [SIMON’S NOTE: this whole series is great behind the scenes dev stuff!]”

The Tekken Hero Putting America on His Back (TheScore eSports / YouTube – VIDEO)
“Anakin has been around forever. He’s played in dozens of tournaments, repping Jack and America in even the hardest times. He’s a fan favourite, but right now? He’s North America’s greatest hope.”

Razer CEO Berated And Threatened His Staff, Former Employees Say (Cecilia D’Anastasio / Kotaku – ARTICLE)
“Min-Liang Tan was “officially pissed off,” he wrote in an email to members of Razer’s marketing team in February of 2014. The gaming hardware company hadn’t made the business website Fast Company’s 2014 list of “Most Innovative Companies,” and in his email, part of an exchange obtained by Kotaku, Tan asked of his marketing employees, “Are you guys fucking off?””

No Blood for Imulsion: Gears of War and the Military-Industrial Complex (Michael Goroff / EGM Now – ARTICLE)
“Early on in Gears 5’s campaign, an aging, gray-bearded Marcus Fenix says something that sounds like it was torn out of the pages of a Second Amendment rights pamphlet: “It’s not the weapons I don’t trust, First Minister,” he tells Jinn after she expresses concerns about resurrecting the Hammer of Dawn weapon system. “It’s the people who use them.” In other words, satellite-powered superweapons don’t kill people; people kill people.”

How the PlayStation changed video games forever (Polygon w/Archipel / YouTube – VIDEO)
“We sat down with four key former developers and businessmen from Sony to reflect on the original PlayStation, its creation and launch, and how the video game industry has changed over the past 25 years. [SIMON’S NOTE: the wonderful Archipel YouTube channel teamed up with Polygon for this one!]”
 

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[REMINDER: you can sign up to receive this newsletter every weekend at tinyletter.com/vgdeepcuts – we crosspost to Gamasutra later, but get it first via newsletter! Story tips and comments can be emailed to [email protected]. MINI-DISCLOSURE: Simon is one of the organizers of GDC and Gamasutra & an advisor to indie publisher No More Robots, so you may sometimes see links from those entities in his picks. Or not!]

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Now Available on Steam – Nostos

Nostos is Now Available on Steam!

Nostos is a cross-platform multiplayer game for PC & VR in an open world setting, where Oriental animation elements are found. You can explore with friends, discover historical sites and remains of war, build shelters and fight, uncovering the truth hidden by time and tasting the past stories of hope or regret.

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Get a job: These teams are hiring Camera, Level, and Game Designers now!

Whether you’re just starting out, looking for something new, or just seeing what’s out there, the Gamasutra Job Board is the place where game developers move ahead in their careers.

Gamasutra’s Job Board is the most diverse, most active, and most established board of its kind in the video game industry, serving companies of all sizes, from indie to triple-A.

Here are just some of the many, many positions being advertised right now. If you’re a recruiter looking for talent, you can also post jobs here.

Location: Bellevue, Washington

Sucker Punch is looking for a Camera Designer to take the player on an immersive, thrilling experience. You get to work with game cameras in the realms of design, implementation and tuning. World class artists and designers await your creative view on solutions to make our world more dynamically alive!

Location: Dublin, California

Designers work closely with all disciplines to help ensure game levels have fun scenarios, are well-composed and navigable, and are well integrated into the game’s overarching narrative and vision. We are interested in all levels of experience, from junior to senior level designers. Only designers with the passion and talent for creating engaging and memorable game worlds need apply.

Location: Helsinki, Finland

As a Senior Game Designer, your task is to create the next best, engaging, fun and innovative Futureplay games while working with an experienced team of programmers, artists and analysts. You’ll be responsible for leading the design all the way from the concept stage to a live product, from core and meta-systems to monetization and economy balance, making sure the team is up to speed with the vision you clearly communicate through verbal, written and visual materials while driving the Futureplay mentality of game making from start to finish.

Location: Burbank, California

Insomniac Games is searching for its next Lead Level Designer. This should be someone who’ll lead the Level Design team in the operation of designing, developing, and polishing game levels including level geometry, enemy encounters, puzzles, and unique gameplay. The individual in this position works closely with the project Leads, Design Director, Game Director, and/or Creative Director to help ensure game levels have cutting edge features, are creatively entertaining, and well balanced. This role will schedule team through the pre-production, production, and polish phases.

Location: Baltimore, Maryland

This one-year creative residency is a unique opportunity to work closely with our students, research lab, and the larger MICA community over the course of the 2020-2021 academic year. During the residency, the designer is expected to complete a game or other play-based project and will teach 12 credits per year (2 courses per semester). We are looking for a designer making compelling work in the field of games/play who wants to gain further teaching experience.

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Adobe acquires 3D VR sculpting tool Medium from Facebook

Adobe has picked up Facebook’s Oculus-focused sculpting program Medium for an undisclosed sum, a move the Medium team says brings the tool out of strictly video games and to a wider creative audience.

“This is an important milestone for the entire VR community as it demonstrates VR’s maturation and value in the realms of productivity and non-gaming use cases,” reads the announcement over on the Oculus blog. “We look forward to Medium’s continued evolution in the years to come as Adobe works to advance the field of 3D modeling.”

In the short term, nothing is changing for current Medium users. In the longer term, the only shift mentioned is a vague note of “features, improvements, and other developments” headed to the platform starting in 2020.

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Chucklefish apologizes after casting white voice actors for non-white characters

Wargroove developer Chucklefish has issued an apology for a recent announcement that highlighted the fact it had hired white voice actors to voice non-white characters, sharing details on the casting process and acknowledging that the recent promotion was “insensitive and poorly communicated.”

The promotion in question featured headshots of the newly announced voice cast for an upcoming Wargroove DLC alongside pictures of the characters each voiced in-game, calling attention to the fact that while the character designs pointed towards a majority non-white group, the casting itself skewed white.

“We also understand that posting photos of our voice actors beside characters of color without acknowledgment of the systemic problem of representation in the industry was insensate and poorly communicated,” reads the statement shared by the Wargroove team.

That statement, shared here, explains that the studio worked with an external casting management team and handled the audition blindly by keeping “profiles, back catalogues, headshots, etc.” out of the selection process, a step that aimed to keep the team’s own personal bias from playing a part in casting decisions. 

However blind casting to avoid bias is a less helpful step when seeking creative talent to create and voice characters from underrepresented demographics, as the actors, writers, and other creatives from those communities are often just as underrepresented behind the scenes as they are in the games themselves.

“We sincerely apologize for the harm we have caused,” concludes the statement. “We will be more sensitive in our future casting decisions and will continue to support the work of all those pushing for better representation of people of color in the industry.”

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Report: Magic Leap laid off ‘dozens’ following slow sales of its debut AR headset

Sources speaking to The Information say that Magic Leap has laid off dozens of staff across multiple departments in recent months, following lower-than-expected sales of its debut AR headset the Magic Leap One.

One source speaking to the publication says that the $2,300 Magic Leap One Creator Edition reportedly sold around 6,000 individual units in the first six months following its August 2018 release.

Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz reportedly hoped to move around 100,000 of the headset in its first year, putting those first 6 months’ worth of sales well behind internal targets. Though the Magic Leap One is now well past that first-year marker, only that 6-month sales figure is mentioned in the report. 

The Information reports Magic Leap has rolled out a handful of internal cost-cutting measures following the unexpectedly slow launch, but it also notes the company is in the midst of raising funds for a second-generation headset that aims to vastly improve on the original, though that headset is still likely years away from seeing the light of day.

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Video: Rare’s classic postmortem of GoldenEye 007 for the N64

In this 2012 GDC Europe Talk, Martin Hollis shares how his team created GoldenEye 007, the biggest Nintendo 64 release that wasn’t a Mario game. 

It was an illuminating look at how a game that started as a Virtua Cop-style on-rails project became an influential first-person shooter that paved the way for similar games (like Halo and Call of Duty) to succeed on consoles.

The information and anecdotes Hollis shared were fascinating, so if you never saw it (or just want to refresh your memory) know that this classic GoldenEye postmortem is now free to watch on the official GDC YouTube channel!

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault and its accompanying YouTube channel offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent Game Developers Conference events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers.

Those who purchased All Access passes to recent events like GDC or VRDC already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscription via a GDC Vault subscription page. Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company by contacting staff via the GDC Vault group subscription page

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Best of 2019: Designing Baba is You’s delightfully innovative rule-writing system

Baba Is You is amazing. Start with a sightly more lenient version of block-based puzzle game Sokoban, but make some of the blocks into words, like ROCK, PUSH, WALL, FLAG, or WIN. When three blocks in a row make a sentence, like “ROCK IS PUSH,” it creates a rule that immediately takes effect in-game: rocks in the stage become pushable. If you push one of the words in a ruleset out of line, that effect instantly ceases.

One of the rules on every screen states that something “is you.” That thing (or things) you can control; if you break that rule, though, you make the level unsolvable, and will have to either undo or restart to continue. But more than that, there’s a ton of other words, with clever, and sometime hilarious, interactions. And later on, some very strange things can be observed…

Arvi Teikari, aka Hempuli, created the original version of Baba Is You for a game jam back in 2017, and it’s now available for PC, Mac, and Linux on itch.io and Steam, and on Switch, where it has dominated my TV for weeks now. Here’s what Hempuli had to say about creating this gem of a game.

Lightly edited for length and clarity.

The game only updates the rules if it needs to; there’s a variable that tracks if some of the words in a level move or change, and upon detecting that tells the system about the need to re-write the rules. Consequently, the game initiates the actual rule-writing process, which is divided into various subprocesses. The previous rules are removed entirely, and words that could potentially start rule sentences are detected on the level.

For example, the word “Baba” is needed to write the sentence “Baba Is You,” so a “Baba” with other words below or to the right from it is picked here. Once these “first words” are gathered, the game checks for other words near them and does several rudimentary checks for these word jumbles.

For example, these checks make sure that the sentences contain enough words and in such configurations that they abide to the game’s syntax (this is a fairly complicated process since the rule system is very dynamic). After these checks, the rules get restructured into a format more fit for storing and sent to a function that actually adds the rules to their relevant lists.

Finally, once everything is (hopefully) set, the game goes through the final set of rules and adjusts them if needed. (For example, if the rule “Baba Is Not You” exists, “Baba Is You” is marked as being not valid.)

Some of these words, such as SINK and PULL, imitate classic puzzle game behavior, and were thus somewhat obvious. Others originated from me trying to think of effects that could be interesting or that could look amusing; MORE and conditional worlds such as LONELY are good examples of these.

Lastly, as the development went on, I started seeing more and more opportunities for more ‘meta’ words, ones that somehow affect the game’s rule system itself. TEXT, a word that allows the player to apply rules to the words themselves, showcases this category well.

Usually once I implemented a new word, I immediately spent some time going through the most obvious level ideas that came from it. At times there didn’t turn out to be many, and there’s at least one word I ultimately left out due to this. After this initial level brainstorming, most levels came to me over time from considering the words and systems I had and trying to figure out surprising/amusing interactions between them.

Once I thought I had found one, I reverse-engineered a level that required the use of that interaction, and determined that way whether the idea was any good. Of course multiple levels were also based on suggestions from others, or came to me out of the blue without any explicit brainstorming. The “variant” levels (replay levels where the trick that worked last time has been disabled) especially were often based on tester-found alternative solutions that I didn’t want to keep in the original level but wanted to otherwise have around.

Sometimes it turned out that designing a level that showcased the word interaction in my mind without the player being able to ignore and solve the level via other means turned out to be too tough, though, and the level had to be cut. Another reason for cutting levels was the setup for the intended solution turning out to be overly specific and needing too many supporting rules — one of the biggest puzzle design limitations in the game has been that the levels very easily become overwhelming as the number of initially-active rules increases.

…At one point during development I quite suddenly realized that in certain cases the player would be able to stack words on top of each other. This hadn’t crossed my mind at all previously. (Although a tester had made a level suggestion that would’ve required this, without me realizing, heh.)

The entire rule system had been built under the assumption that there’d always be only one word on a given space, and under these rules if a space had two words, the selection for which one of them to actually use in a rule would be arbitrary. Reworking the rule system to properly take these stacked words into account turned out to be one of the larger undertakings over the game’s development, because the stacking adds the need to go through all the possible permutations a rule could have, potentially with only some of these permutations being valid.

Of course, most of this system is never seen in the game itself, but it felt very important to take the possibility of the player doing something utterly surprising into account.

Game jams are excellent for prototyping ideas that have been bobbing in your head that you don’t know whether they’d work or be completely unfeasible. Being able to spend a limited amount of time to flesh out the basics of a concept, without having to worry about finishing or polishing it, helps a lot with figuring out how much potential it has, if it has surprising looming design obstacles, and so on.

Additionally, game jams can be good for getting new perspective by interacting with other devs and (in the case of physical jams) working in a new environment. Game jams have been a very fundamental part of the indie scene for a long time now, and I can’t see that situation changing much in either direction.

A potential danger is, though, that an overly competitive/intensive approach to jamming can lead to overworking and crunch, neither of which healthy, and can reinforce these kinds of behaviors in other game development work. It’s very important not to overdo it, and to be honest for me a big part of game jams is just walking around the venue and appreciating the atmosphere. I’ve had some of my favorite design ideas when taking walks during game jams, and spending a weekend doing literally nothing but sleeping and watching the monitor hardly leaves one in a good shape.

I’ve been using tools of the Clickteam product family for at least 14 years, I’d say. I’m very accustomed to MMF2’s quirks, and thus find it a comfortable tool to use. In fact, before a developer friend introduced me to a Lua plug-in for MMF2 in 2016, I didn’t really have any substantial knowledge of programming languages.

Thus the decision to use MMF2 for Baba Is You was borne more out of habit (or should that be called “necessity” in this case?) than anything else. Lua allowed me to implement the game logic in ways MMF2’s base “event system” couldn’t have done without a lot of hassle, while MMF2 made things like rendering graphical assets very easy.

This approach did make porting significantly harder — MMF2 has a couple of official exporting tools, but they have their own rules to follow and require additional work to support plug-ins. Luckily for me, the company MP2 Games had built an engine specifically for porting Fusion-made games; without it the Switch port would probably have been outright impossible without a rewrite from scratch, and ports to e.g. Mac and Linux would have had to be significantly more limited.

I was aware of that risk, but before release didn’t think there’d be much I could do beyond what the game already does. It made a lot of sense to divide the areas by words they introduce, and once that structure was chosen, it felt like a good idea to have also the harder levels incorporating a given word in the same area but try to nudge the player to look elsewhere when needed by some means.

In hindsight it has seemed that the “Extra” markers have been reasonably successful in preventing players from tackling overly tough levels too early on, but the incremental numbering definitely works against this “return here later”-design mindset. After release I’ve promoted a couple levels from normal ones to extras to make it clearer that they’re way harder than other levels in their area, and even moved levels to different, later areas when it has seemed necessary, but the structure could definitely still be improved.

Spoilers!

Quite early in the game’s development, I knew that I’d make a huge mistake if I didn’t include some kind of a meta structure into the game — the game’s mechanics were already on a sort of a metalevel due to the you-change-the-rules behavior, and I felt that the system would lend itself well to some kind of a deeper surprise. However, at first I had no idea what this would be.

The earliest ideas were e.g. having the final level include the rule “Game Is Win” or “You Is You” which would lead the player to a cutscene happening “outside” the game, or adding words that affect the game’s UI directly (“Right Is Defeat” making pressing to the right deadly, and so on); these were interesting but quite shallow and more one-off gimmicks than full-depth explorations of the game’s mechanics.

Another one of these early ideas was some kind of a secret world, or a new version of the world map. When getting this idea the world map was an entirely separate screen outside of the game’s logic, and it took quite some time and suggestions from other indie developers to get to the idea of the map being a level like any other. Yet more time was required to figure out how the player would interact with the implications of this, and I actually can’t remember if the idea came to me independently or based on someone’s suggestion.

Nonetheless, I was very happy when I finally got the codebase to the point where I could implement this meta system in full. (A tester actually convinced me to make the meta structure go one level deeper than what I had initially intended, hehe.)

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Adobe Acquire Oculus Medium

Adobe announced today that they have acquired Oculus Medium, a VR based content creation tool developed at Facebook’s Oculus division.

Details from the Adobe announcement:

Today, I am thrilled to welcome the amazing Medium team to the Adobe family. Born as an innovative VR authoring tool at Facebook’s Oculus division, the Medium team and technology are an exciting addition to Adobe as we aim to meaningfully accelerate our 3D and immersive efforts.

Medium has been a beacon of creativity in the VR space, pushing creative and technical boundaries of 3D modeling. The creative tool enables users to sculpt, model and paint in an immersive environment – to easily create characters, objects, environments, expressive works of art and more. The integration of Medium’s tools and technology will greatly contribute to our 3D and immersive strategy.

Medium also have a blog post about the acquisition, with details of how existing customers will be impacted:

To our passionate Medium users, nothing is changing for you today. And the app is currently still free when you activate your new Oculus Touch controllers on the Oculus Store. Stay tuned for more features, improvements, and other developments coming from Adobe in 2020 as Medium continues to evolve.

If you wish to learn more about the acquisition, be sure to check out the video below.

GameDev News


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Mobile developer Wildlife Studios nets $60 million in funding

Mobile game company Wildlife Studios has secured $60 million in Series A funding to bolster its dev team, continue supporting existing titles, and kickstart new projects. 

The investment round was led by Benchmark Capital, and also included former Facebook VPs Hugo Barra and Javier Olivan, Bessemer Venture Partners, and Red Ventures co-founder and CEO Ric Elias.

Wildlife has launched over 60 titles since 2011, including popular titles like Tennis Clash and Zooba, and claims its roster is on course to reach 2 billion downloads by the end of 2019. 

It currently has 500 staffers working in offices throughout Brazil, Argentina, Ireland, and the United States, but wants to expand to 800 employees in 2020.

“Benchmark’s partnership will help us further our mission of entertaining billions of players around the world,” said Wildlife co-founder and CEO Victor Lazarte. “We are increasing our investment in world-class talent and significantly growing our team as we scale our games globally.”