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‘Astral Chain’ and Nintendo’s Killer 3rd-Party Exclusivity Strategy

Nintendo’s investment in third-party partnerships is paying off beyond mere software sales. But what’s that mean going forward?

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To say Nintendo’s lineup for the second half of 2019 is stacked would be an understatement. The company admittedly started the year off at a crawl with the likes of New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, and Yoshi’s Crafted World making up the entirety of the company’s lineup of exclusives before E3. Ever since June, however, the hits haven’t stopped coming. Super Mario Maker 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Astral Chain, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remake are making for one of Nintendo’s best summer lineups in years.

So, how’s Nintendo pulling it off? In a year where Sony is largely absent and Microsoft’s release schedule has been scattered at best, how’s the Switch getting enough heavy hitters to compete with either company at their peak?

The key: a killer third-party exclusivity strategy.

astral chain

Imagining this would’ve been laughable just three years ago. Though the Wii U enjoyed plenty of support early on from the likes of EA, Ubisoft, and PlatinumGames among others, that support dropped off as soon as sales started to slip. Naturally, Nintendo couldn’t produce enough first-party efforts to fill the calendar themselves while simultaneously juggling 3DS software production. This ultimately resulted in a yearly lineup plagued by months-long dry spells and player frustration.

Ever since the Switch blew past the Wii U’s lifetime sales in less than a year, however, external support has exploded. Nintendo has leveraged this in three major ways:

  1. Investing in exclusive third-party projects,
  2. Publishing Switch-exclusive versions of existing games, and
  3. Focusing heavily on indie partnerships.

A Chain Effect

Perhaps most notable out of aforementioned summer blockbuster lineup is Astral Chain, a PlatinumGames-developed sci-fi epic that was only announced six months before release. The title is a powerhouse; its unique brand of investigative gameplay, innovative combat that only Platinum could pull off, and a strikingly futuristic art design all come together to make for one of the best games released this year…and it’s only available on the Nintendo Switch.

Nintendo’s relationship with PlatinumGames goes back 10 years to Madworld in 2009. Despite finding massive success with 2017’s Nier: Automata, Platinum still relies on publishers to bring their off-the-wall ideas to life. Bayonetta 2 never would’ve seen the light of day without Nintendo’s assistance and, based on co-founder Hideki Kamiya’s recent remarks, Astral Chain likely faced a similar fate. Nintendo presumably reached out for an additional game to invest in besides Bayonetta 3, funded the project, and now has yet another highly rated exclusive for the year. In return, Platinum gets to follow through on their creative vision, enjoy the acclaim Astral Chain is receiving, and sell well enough to claim their first No. 1 charting game on the UK sales charts.

Nintendo E3 Predictions

Smart third-party exclusivity deals aren’t just about investing in talented developers, however; strategic partnerships also play a major role. Alongside Bandai Namco, Koei Tecmo is one of Nintendo’s most trusted collaborators. Not only have they been granted multiple first-party licenses for Warriors spin-offs, but they also did a significant amount of the footwork on the Switch-exclusive Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Thus, it’s not too surprising that Team Ninja (owned by Koei Tecmo) was commissioned to develop Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order.

Though MUA 3 ultimately came out to middling reviews, the marketing push behind it–coupled with its near-perfect timing following Avengers: Endgame in April–made it a major exclusive release with a fair amount of buzz behind it. The message at E3 was clear: the Switch is far more than just a port machine.

The Definition of “Definitive”

The Switch’s position of being released in the middle of a console generation didn’t come without some growing pains. Many studios that had been developing games for the Xbox One and PS4 for years prior simply didn’t have time to work in a Switch version by release day. Though many started porting older versions on their own once the platform proved itself to be a sales powerhouse, Nintendo has also taken a proactive approach in ensuring players will be willing to double-dip: version-exclusive content.

The most heavily publicized example of this is the upcoming Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition. The game shifted a whopping two million units in its first two days in Japan, with its total sales breaking four million worldwide as of November 2018. So, what was Square and Nintendo’s strategy to get the Switch audience (especially in Japan, where the game has already sold incredibly well) to pick up the definitive edition? By including an absolutely monumental list of additional features, including tons of gameplay improvements, story additions, a fully orchestrated soundtrack, new enemies, new voiced dialogue, the 16-bit style from the 3DS version in Japan, Photo Mode, and a deluge of other additions. Plus, in publishing the game themselves on Switch, Nintendo has ensured that these additions will never leave the platform.

Indie Haven

The Switch has, in many ways, been something of an indie darling ever since its release. The attractive form factor and enticing low price of dev kits has made it a welcome home for smaller developers struggling to be seen on Steam, the PlayStation Store, and other platforms. While the Switch eShop could use a redesign to increase visibility itself, there’s no denying that we’ve seen countless indie success stories on Switch over the years.

Nintendo hasn’t just noticed this, but has actively tasked its Developer Relations team to foster a thriving indie community on the platform. Just as these efforts include special Indie Highlight presentations (now rebranded as “Indie World”), they also include nabbing promising exclusives such as Snipperclips, Golf Story, Azure Striker Gunvolt, and Dragon Marked for Death. The Switch’s status as a premier platform for indies has also garnered it a wealth of console-exclusive titles like the brilliant Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King and Gato Roboto. Perhaps most telling of all was Nintendo’s full-on collaboration with Brace Yourself Games to develop the Cadence of Hyrule for the Switch, one of the very few times the company has ever lent its major properties to an indie studio. Judging by its success, they might start consider doing it more often.

Full eShop Ahead

So, it’s safe to say that the Nintendo has done a fairly solid job of cultivating experiences that can only be found (or, at least, the best versions can only be found) on their system. However, what are things looking like going forward? Have the last few months simply been an outlier?

It certainly doesn’t seem that way. Game Freak (a second-party studio) is bringing Little Town Hero to Switch next month, and SEGA is co-publishing Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to the platform in November. Though Nintendo itself has only announced Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition as first-party 2020 releases, they’ve also already planted several enticing seeds:

  • Aside from Astral Chain (and a possible sequel somewhere down the line), Platinum has also been hard at work for at least two years on Bayonetta 3.
  • Atlus has likely been hammering away at Shin Megami Tensei V since its initial reveal at the Switch presentation in January of 2017 (and is bringing the revamped Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore exclusively to Switch in January 2020). As mainline Persona games are exclusive to Sony, mainline Shin Megami Tensei games are exclusive to Nintendo.
  • Grasshopper Manufacture is planning to launch No More Heroes 3 exclusively on Switch sometime in 2020.
  • Sidebar Games put out the call for a pixel artist in March of this year, roughly a year and a half after Golf Story’s release. That same month, it was also revealed that Golf Story is still one of the Switch’s top 10 best-selling indie games to date. Though there’s no definitive word on exclusivity for their second effort, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising given the marketing push that fueled the success of their first.

As Microsoft and Sony are gradually gearing up to launch the next console generation in a little over a year, we can only hope Nintendo keeps their third-party relationships firmly in focus. If Astral Chain’s recent success is any indication, it’ll be in everyone’s best interest.

Brent fell head over heels for writing at the ripe age of seven and hasn't looked back since. His first love is the JRPG, but he can enjoy anything with a good hook and a pop of color. When he isn't writing about the latest indie release or binging gaming coverage on YouTube, you can find Brent watching and critiquing all manner of anime. Send him recommendations or join him in being way too excited about Animal Crossing: New Horizons @CreamBasics on Twitter.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Gemmol

    September 8, 2019 at 12:41 am

    Fix your article astral chain not a 3rd party game the director clearly state it’s Nintendo IP

    • Brent Middleton

      September 8, 2019 at 12:53 am

      Hey Gemmol, thanks for taking the time to comment. If you read the article, I never call Astral Chain a “third-party game.” I mention that Nintendo partnered with Platinum by investing in and publishing the game. Astral Chain is indeed part of their third-party strategy because Platinum isn’t a first-party studio (like, say, Monolith). It was made by an outside developer, which is why I included it here.

  2. Rogerio Andrade

    September 10, 2019 at 10:23 am

    I do believe that Nintendo started this strategy back in the WiiU days, when they decided to support/fund (and save!) some Platinum projectss like Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2.
    If I remember well, they also saved a THQ game named Devil´s Third and funded the production of Fatal Frame 5.
    During an interview on those old “Iwata Asks” features, published on the official Nintendo website, aimed towards the launch of Bayonetta 2, I remember something on the lines that Nintendo was looking for companies to bring them exclusive games throught contracts that would include financing and consulting.
    I think that they are now fully applying this strategy and it feels that it´s paying off.

    • Brent Middleton

      September 10, 2019 at 12:29 pm

      Ahh, good point Rogerio. They definitely tested the waters in years prior, but like you said, it seems like they’re going all-in with this strategy for the Switch. Here’s hoping they keep it up; it appears to be doing quite well for them so far.

      (Side note: I do miss those old “Iwata Asks” features.)

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PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.

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Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

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An In-Depth Analysis of FIFA’s Career Mode

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Fifa’s Career Mode

It’s a well-known fact that career mode on FIFA has been a long-neglected element of the best selling sports games series of all time. But for soccer fans who want to pretend to be a football manager, but also want to personally play the game, FIFA is currently the main option.

The problem is: for a 60 dollar game, almost nothing about FIFA career mode works properly. 

Two of the most game-breaking bugs in FIFA career mode are so bad that it fundamentally makes the game unplayable for those who want to feel any sort of immersion. 

The first is a bug that makes it so that top teams will sign many more players for a position than they could possibly need. 

For example, Bayern might end up signing 6 or 7 great center backs, and then only play three or four of them, while what they really need to sign might be a winger or a fullback. 

This leads into the second huge issue: even when a team like Bayern HAS 6 or 7 great center-backs, they will STILL often choose to start second or third-string center backs! This often leads to top teams languishing at 12th or 13th in the tables by the end of the season, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Everything about this image is wrong. Everything. The top three teams in this table shouldn’t finish higher than 7th more than once every ten seasons between them, and teams that should finish first and second aren’t even in the top eight. 64 points near the end of the season for first place is also a very low number. 

There’s been plenty of other issues as well. Even on the highest difficulties, AI on both defense and ESPECIALLY offense ranges from poor to horrible, with the AI on offense rarely actually running at the defense (making defending boring and unrewarding), leaving players like Messi or Hazard to not even try to use their incredible dribbling ability and speed and instead pass away the ball as soon as they get it. 

Instead, the most common way the AI scores are by performing a janky, unrealistic and clearly scripted pinball, with impossibly precise passes between 4 or 5 players before the ball ends up in the back of the net. 

Another major problem with the game (though some might call it simply a feature in presenting a more arcade-like, less realistic take on soccer) is your ability (if you’re a big club) to buy multiple huge players and bring them to your club easily in your first season, making the game an absolute cakewalk. 

After years of incompetence and the ignoring of career mode’s many issues, however, EA finally faced serious backlash with the release of FIFA 20–the most broken iteration in the series yet. 

For a while, #fixcareermode was trending on twitter, and reviews blasted FIFA for its litany of issues, like players going on precipitous declines in stats right when they reach the age of 30.

Yet these bugs were treated by some in the media as a first time thing, issues that had only appeared in the latest iteration. They weren’t.

As one Reddit user noted to Eurogamer: “In the last few years, every FIFA game released has had bugs that ruin the immersion. Teams not starting their strongest lineups and unrealistic tables have been an issue not just for FIFA 20 but earlier editions. Our cries for patches and change have fallen on deaf ears. The community has been grossly neglected.”

The linked article by the Independent above wasn’t accurate in other ways, either. It claims that only simulated matches suffered from the bug of teams not playing their best players, and other articles have claimed that this bug only occurs when a big team plays against a small team. 

But neither of these claims is accurate. 

Fifa’s Career Mode

You could play against a top team like Barcelona, and you could also be a top team like Real Madrid, and Barcelona would still consistently field third or fourth-string players over the likes of Messi against your team. 

This wasn’t an occasional thing, either. At least three or four top players were benched for players 20 or more points below them every game. Every. Single. Game. 

I haven’t even mentioned the commentary in FIFA, which is so buggy and so immersion-breaking in its disconnection from reality that it’s more immersive to just turn it off entirely. 

What is so infuriating is that that many of the bugs seem like fairly minor fixes (commentary issues aside), something that seems like it would take no more than a few hours of rooting around in the code to figure out whatever misplaced number value was causing the issue.

The fact that these major issues have existed for at least no less than SIX years (FIFA 14 was the first game I played) indicates definitively how little EA cares about its products, and how little the designers care about actual football or delivering an enjoyable experience out of Ultimate Team. 

Of course, Ultimate Team alone in 2017 accounted for almost a third of all of EA’s revenue from sports titles, so it’s somewhat understandable why Ea focuses most of its attention on that element of FIFA.

FIFA

But with the amount of effort put into the new “futsal” mode in FIFA 2020, or the three campaign-like “Journey” modes from FIFA 17 to FIFA 19, one wonders why the developers couldn’t have spent just a little more effort to fix a mode that was in many ways fundamentally broken.

FIFA have made certain changes to career mode over this period, so it’s not like they’ve ignored it entirely. But the changes made to career mode in the six years I’ve played it have all either made the game much worse, slightly worse or had no great effect. 

The major changes over this period have included: 

A slightly updated youth system, which has suffered from its own serious bugs over the years, such as youth prospects never gaining stats in sprint speed or acceleration so that you end up getting stuck with players with 50 to 70 speed for eternity; a widely disliked training system for players that is utterly broken and unfair, allowing you to train players to abilities well beyond what is even vaguely realistic within a matter of a year or two; a new display screen for your team; the removal of form; the slight modification of morale; adding the ability to talk with your players; and, last but not least, transfer cut scenes which are the most incredibly pointless wastes of time in any sports game, both for the player and for the developers–at least they’re skippable. There is the ability to customize your manager–perhaps the most positive change made in this six-year period. But that’s still stunningly sad given that you will very rarely actually see your manager at all. 

None of these modifications, you may have noticed, go any way towards fixing the fundamental issues with the game, issues which have been pointed out to EA year after year.

It’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that FIFA got away with what it did for so long was not thanks to the players, but the media. 

Year after year, reviews for FIFA received solid scores (hovering around the low to mid 80’s), whereas user reviews were usually much lower. It was only this year that media reviews seriously pointed out issues with the career mode. 

The fact that FIFA received so much better reviews from reviewers as compared to players is easily explained away by the fact that the former usually play the game for comparatively shorter times, and therefore tends to miss a lot of the details. 

In response to the recent outrage which had finally reached a degree of publicity that EA could no longer ignore, EA finally patched some of FIFA’s issues, like the problem of teams not fielding their strongest lineups at least semi-frequently. This was a huge step towards making career mode not fundamentally broken, but whether or not the other most glaring issue of teams like Juventus signing 9 80+rated strikers (yes, that happened in my game once) has been solved remains to be seen. Given that I mostly gave up on the series after FIFA19 continued the same problems of its predecessors, I don’t think it’ll be me that finds out.

  • Evan Lindeman
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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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