Apple incorporated the announcement of this year’s Apple Design Award winners into its virtual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) online event, instead of waiting until the event had wrapped, like last year. Ahead of WWDC, Apple previewed the finalists, whose apps and games showcased a combination of technical achievement, design and ingenuity. This evening, Apple announced the winners across six new award categories.
In each category, Apple selected one app and one game as the winner.
In the Inclusivity category, winners supported people from a diversity of backgrounds, abilities and languages.
This year, winners included U.S.-based Aconite’s highly accessible game, HoloVista, where users can adjust various options for motion control, text sizes, text contrast, sound, and visual effect intensity. In the game, users explore using the iPhone’s camera to find hidden objects, solve puzzles and more. (Our coverage)
Image Credits: Aconite
Another winner, Voice Dream Reader, is a text-to-speech app that support more than two dozen languages and offers adaptive features and a high level of customizable settings.
Image Credits: Voice Dream LLC
In the Delight and Fun, category, winners offer memorable and engaging experiences enhanced by Apple technologies. Belgium’s Pok Pok Playroom, a kid entertainment app that spun out of Snowman (Alto’s Adventure series), won for its thoughtful design and use of subtle haptics, sound effects and interactions. (Our coverage)
Image Credits: Pok Pok
Another winner included U.K.s’ Little Orpheus, a platformer that combines storytelling, surprises, and fun and offers a console-like experience in a casual game.
Image Credits: The Chinese Room
The Interaction category winners showcase apps that offer intuitive interfaces and effortless controls, Apple says.
The U.S.-based snarky weather app CARROT Weather won for its humorous forecasts, unique visuals, and entertaining experience, which is also available as Apple Watch faces and widgets.
Image Credits: Brian Mueller, Grailr LLC
Canada’s Bird Alone game combines gestures, haptics, parallax, and dynamic sound effects in clever ways to brings its world to life.
Image Credits: George Batchelor
A Social Impact category doled out awards to Denmark’s Be My Eyes, which enables people who are blind and low vision to identify objects by pairing them with volunteers from around the world using their camera. Today, it supports over 300K users who are assisted by over 4.5M volunteers. (Our coverage)
Image Credits: S/I Be My Eyes
U.K.’s ustwo games won in this category for Alba, a game that teaches about respecting the environment as players save wildlife, repair a bridge, clean up trash and more. The game also plants a tree for every download.
Image Credits: ustwo games
The Visuals and Graphics winners feature “stunning imagery, skillfully drawn interfaces, and high-quality animations,” Apple says.
Belarus-based Loóna offers sleepscape sessions which combine relaxing activities and atmospheric sounds with storytelling to help people wind down at night. The app was recently awarded Google’s “best app” of 2020.
Innovation winners included India’s NaadSadhana, an all-in-one, studio-quality music app that helps artists perform and publish. The app uses A.I. and Core ML to listen and provide feedback on the accuracy of notes, and generates a backing track to match.
Image Credits: Sandeep Ranade
Riot Games’ League of Legends: Wild Rift (U.S.) won for taking a complex PC classic and delivering a full mobile experience that includes touchscreen controls, an auto-targeting system for newcomers, and a mobile-exclusive camera setting.
Image Credits: Riot Games
The winners this year will receive a prize package that includes hardware and the award itself.
“This year’s Apple Design Award winners have redefined what we’ve come to expect from a great app experience, and we congratulate them on a well-deserved win,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s vice president of Worldwide Developer Relations, in a statement. “The work of these developers embodies the essential role apps and games play in our everyday lives, and serve as perfect examples of our six new award categories.”
The Verge notes that what was once the “Games” tab on the Roblox website is now listed as “Discover” (though the URL still retains the old roblox.com/games/ address). Individual games are now referred to as “experiences” across the website and the mobile Roblox apps, while the word “game” seems to have been scrubbed altogether.
“The term ‘experiences’ is consistent with how we’ve evolved our terminology to reflect our realization of the metaverse,” a Roblox spokesperson told The Verge. “Roblox is an online community where people do things together in virtual worlds, and over the years, we began referring to these worlds as experiences, as they better represent the wide range of 3D immersive places—from obbys [obstacle courses] to virtual concerts—that people can enjoy together with their friends.”
In Hefei, a Chinese city known for its relics from the Three Kingdoms period and its manufacturing industry today, Maxim Rate was thrilled to find a small studio crafting a Western role-playing game, a genre that attracts lovers of gritty aesthetics and dark storylines.
“The design and computer graphics are really good. You can’t tell they are a Chinese team,” said Rate.
“The problem is these startups have no experience in overseas expansion,” said Rate.
An avid gamer himself, Rate quit his job at a Chinese cross-border payment firm last year and launched a part-incubator, part-investment vehicle to take Chinese games abroad. The firm, called Westward Gaming Ventures, took inspiration from Zheng He, a Chinese diplomat and explorer who embarked on state-sponsored naval expeditions to the “Western Oceans” during the Ming Dynasty.
Westward plans to raise 200 million yuan ($30 million) for its debut fund, Rate told TechCrunch in an interview. It plans to deploy the capital over the next three years with an intended check size of 2-4 million yuan per studio. It’s currently in talks with 20-30 teams that span a wide range of genres.
The Chinese fund being established is a so-called Qualified Foreign Limited Partners Fund, which, for the first time, will enable foreign investors (USD and EUR) to invest directly in Chinese gaming firms. Only a few institutions own a license for QFLP, and while Westward itself doesn’t hold one, it gains legitimacy for direct foreign investment by partnering with the private equity arm of a major Chinese financial conglomerate, which declined to be named at this stage.
To navigate such regulatory complications, Westward also seeks help from its advisors, including one that oversaw the legal and financial process of one of the largest joint ventures established between Chinese and foreign gaming firms in recent years. The partnership, which can’t be named, was also the first time a foreign entity has become the majority shareholder in a gaming joint venture in China.
China limits foreign investments in areas it considers sensitive, such as value-added services, so many companies resort to setting up elaborate offshore entities to receive overseas funding. The restriction makes it difficult for resource-strapped studios to land foreign investors, who could help them venture into global markets. They are left with the option of getting backed or bought by Chinese giants like Tencent or ByteDance.
Rise of Chinese plays
The idea of Westward is not just to lower the barriers for independent Chinese games to secure foreign capital but also better prepare them for overseas expansion.
“Chinese gaming studios, big or small, used to rely heavily on ads for user acquisition when they went abroad,” said Rate. “Sometimes a game would take off, but the team had no idea why, so they continued to test. Those who failed may just give up.”
But taking a game abroad is not as simple as translating it, hitting the publish button and launching an ad campaign on Facebook.
Westward’s plan is to get involved in a game’s early development phase and help them position: Is it an RPG? Is the targeted user a casual or serious player? What’s the graphic style? In addition, the firm also plans to supply developers with workspace, technical assistance, marketing and localization expertise, connection to publishers, and overseas operation help.
Image Credits: Westward Gaming Ventures
To provide post-investment support, Westward has partnered up with V+ Gaming Society, an incubator for games headquartered Shenzhen, which Westward also calls home.
Chinese tech companies are facing mounting challenges in the West as geopolitical tensions rise. Many now prefer calling themselves “global firms” and even deny their Chinese roots outright.
But for Westward, the games it helps doesn’t need to pretend they are non-Chinese. “Most players don’t consider where a game is from if it is a really good game,” said Rate.
“We actually hope to see elements of Chinese culture in these games that can be understood by overseas players.”
Amy Ho, a partner at Westward along with Rate and Edward He, said one of the few Chinese games that have managed to be both “Chinese” and transcend cultural boundaries is Chinese Parents. The simulation game became a global hit by letting users experience what it is like to raise a child in China.
The benchmark Rate gave was the generation of Japanese games that began exporting 20-30 years ago, which he described as “Japanese” in spirit but “globalized” in graphics and game design.
There have already been globally successful titles from Chinese makers like Tencent and rising studios Lilith and Mihoyo. In the past, many Chinese users on Steam would be asking foreign titles to rush out Chinese versions. Now, it’s not uncommon to see Western users demanding English editions of Chinese games, Rate observed.
Rather than politics, the bigger challenge, especially for small studios, is how to “collect key data for product iteration while complying with local privacy laws,” said Ho.
50-70% of Westward’s capital will come from Chinese institutions. The presence of Chinese investments inevitably leads to questions around censorship. Ho said while Westward provides resources and capital to studios, it will work to ensure their independence from investor influence.
If things go well, Westward could help facilitate cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world. Beijing has been trying to export the country’s soft power, and games may be a suitable conduit, suggested Rate. Amid the ongoing trade war, having foreign fundings in Chinese companies may also do good to China’s “brand”, he said.
U.S. consumers spent an average of $138 on iPhone apps last year, an increase of 38% year-over-year, largely driven by the pandemic impacts, according to new data from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower. Throughout 2020, consumers turned to iPhone apps for work, school, entertainment, shopping, and more, driving per-user spending to a new record and the greatest annual growth since 2016, when it had then popped by 42% year-over-year.
Sensor Tower tells TechCrunch it expects the trend of increased consumer spend to continue in 2021, when it projects consumer spend per active iPhone in the U.S. to reach an average of $180. This will again be tied, at least in part, to the lift caused by the pandemic — and, particularly, the lift in pandemic-fueled spending on mobile games.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Last year’s increased spending on iPhone apps in the U.S. mirrored global trends, which saw consumers spend a record $111 billion on both iOS and Android apps, per Sensor Tower, and $143 billion, per App Annie, whose analysis had also included some third-party Android app stores in China.
In terms of where U.S. iPhone consumer spending was focused in 2020, the largest category was, of course, gaming.
In the U.S., per-device spending on mobile games grew 43% year-over-year from $53.80 in 2019 to $76.80 in 2020. That’s more than 20 points higher than the 22% growth seend between 2018 and 2019, when in-game spending grew from $44 to $53.80.
U.S. users spent the most money on puzzle games, like Candy Crush Saga and Gardenscapes, which may have helped to take people’s minds off the pandemic and its related stresses. That category averaged $15.50 per active iPhone, followed by casino games, which averaged $13.10, and was driven by physical casinos closures. Strategy games also saw a surge in spending in 2020, growing to an average of $12.30 per iPhone user spending.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Another big category for in-app spending was Entertainment. With theaters and concerts shut down, consumers turned to streaming apps in larger numbers. Disney+ had launched in late 2019, just months ahead of the pandemic lockdowns and HBO Max soon followed in May 2020.
Average per-device spending in this category was second-highest, at $10.20, up 26% from the $8.10 spent in 2019. For comparison, per-device spending had only grown by 1% between 2018 and 2019.
Other categories in the top five by per-device spending included Photo & Video (up 56% to $9.80), Social Networking (up 41% to $7.90) and Lifestyle (up 14% to $6.50).
These increases were tied to apps like TikTok, YouTube, and Twitch — the latter which saw 680% year-over-year revenue growth in 2020 on U.S. iPhones, specifically. TikTok, meanwhile, saw 140% growth. In the Lifestyle category, dating apps were driving growth as consumers looked to connect with others virtually during lockdowns, while bars and clubs were closed.
Overall, what made 2020 unique was not necessarily what apps people where using, but how often they were being used and how much was being spent.
App Annie had earlier pointed out that the pandemic accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time. And Sensor Tower today tells us that the industry didn’t see the same sort of “seasonality” around spending in certain types of apps, and particularly games, last year — even though, pre-pandemic, there are typically slower parts of the year for spending. That was not the case in 2020, when any time was a good time to spend on apps.
That price comes after 13 early proxy bids, placed ahead of four days of live bidding for a large lot of comics and games memorabilia set to start on April 1. The bid also includes a 20 percent “buyer’s premium” that will go to Heritage Auctions itself and not the game’s current owner.
Early provenance, excellent condition
Unlike some earlier high-priced Super Mario Bros. sales, this copy isn’t from the earliest production run of the game, which had a box sealed only with a small sticker and which was only sold in New York City during the NES’ late 1985 test-market run. But this copy is one of the earliest shrink-wrapped editions of the game, sold only for a short time in late 1986, according to WATA Games’ guide. This copy also received an incredible 9.6 out of 10 on WATA Games’ quality scale, with an “exceptional” A+ seal in “near-mint” condition. It also still has an intact hangtab, meaning it never had its seal pierced for hanging it in a store display.
Valve has launched a standalone app for Steam Link on Apple’s macOS App Store, adding a new option for Mac users who want to play games on machines that are often labeled as poor choices for gaming.
Steam Link allows users to stream games from a gaming PC to a supported device on the same local network and to play those games with a MFI or Steam controller.
Valve already offered a full Steam app for macOS, but it takes up 1GB of space and has a reputation for being clunky. In contrast, the Steam Link app has a minimalist interface that appears to be designed with game controller peripherals in mind.
Nearly five years after the launch of Pokémon Go, Niantic announced Monday that they are partnering with Nintendo to co-develop a new title based on the company’s Pikmin franchise.
Niantic says the app is being developed in their Tokyo office and will launch later this year.
“The app will include gameplay activities to encourage walking and make walking more delightful,” a press release from Niantic reads. The company notably specifies that the title will make use of their augmented reality platform to integrate the real world into the app’s experiences.
Pokémon Go has fallen out of headlines but has continued to deliver massive sums to the San Francisco gaming company, eclipsing $1 billion in revenue in 2020. In recent years, Nintendo has sought to build out their presence on mobile gaming platforms with a number of titles playing on some of their biggest franchises, but none of them have reached Pokémon Go’s level of success.
Niantic has raised nearly $500 million in capital, most recently raising at a $4 billion valuation.
Im aktuellen #DealMonitor für den 17. März werfen wir wieder einen Blick auf die wichtigsten, spannendsten und interessantesten Investments und Exits des Tages in der DACH-Region. Alle Deals der Vortage gibt es im großen und übersichtlichen #DealMonitor-Archiv.
+++ Die Silicon Valley Bank gewährt dem FinTech Modifi eine Kreditlinie in Höhe von 60 Millionen US-Dollar. Das Berliner Startup, das 2018 von Nelson Holzner, Sven Brauer und Jan Wehrs gegründet wurde, finanziert weltweit den Handel zwischen Unternehmen. “Damit hat Modifi insgesamt über 111 Millionen US-Dollar eingesammelt. Das Darlehen wird genutzt, um die steigende Nachfrage in bestehenden Märkten zu befriedigen, das anhaltende Wachstum voranzutreiben und kleine und mittelständische Unternehmen in neuen Regionen, insbesondere in den USA, zu finanzieren”, teilt das junge Unternehmen mit.
+++ In unserem Newsletter Startup-Radar berichten wir einmal in der Woche über neue Startups. Alle Startups stellen wir in unserem kostenpflichtigen Newsletter kurz und knapp vor und bringen sie so auf den Radar der Startup-Szene. Jetzt unseren Newsletter Startup-Radar abonnieren und 30 Tage kostenlos testen!
Linus Digital Finance
+++ Nicht genannte Geldgeber “aus der Tech-, Private Equity- und der Immobilien-Branche” investieren eine zweistellige Millionensumme in Linus Digital Finance. Die “daten- und technologiegesteuerte Finanzierungslösungen für Immobilienprojekte” wurde 2016 mit Kapital von Alexander Samwer, dem jüngsten der bekannten Internet-Investoren, gegründet. Über Linus Digital Finance erhalten professionelle und semiprofessionelle Investoren Zugang zu Immobilieninvestments. Geführt wird die Berliner Jungfirma, die kürzlich in eine AG umgewandelt wurde, von David Neuhoff und Frederic Olbert.
+++ Emeram Capital Partners, GIMV und “eine Reihe neuer Investoren” steigen beim Berliner Lerndienst sofatutor ein. “Sie lösen damit die bisherigen Investoren – darunter die Venture-Capital-Fonds Acton Capital Partners, Frog Capital und IBB Ventures – ab und übernehmen deren Anteile”, teilt das Unternehmen mit. In den vergangenen Jahren flossen bereits rund 13 Millionen Euro in sofatutor, das 2008 von Stephan Bayer gegründet wurde. 2019 erwirtschaftete die Jungfirma einen Umsatz in Höhe von 13,9 Millionen. Der Jahresfehlbetrag lag bei 1,4 Millionen. 200 Mitarbeiter wirken derzeit für sofatutor.
+++ Das japanische Unternehmen Itochu Corporation, ein Grosshandelsunternehmen, investiert gemeinsam mit “weiteren Investoren aus Europa sowie Nord- und Südamerika” 9 Millionen US-Dollar in farmer connect. Das Startup aus Genf bietet eine Supply-Chain-Software an, die faire, nachhaltige und rückverfolgbare Landwirtschaft ermöglichen soll. “With this money we can capitalise on demand for sustainable, inclusive and efficient agriculture supply chains that benefit everyone, from farmers to consumers”, teilt das AgTech mit. farmer connect wurde 2019 von Dave Behrends gegründet.
+++ LifeCare Partners, Bayern Kapital, die Eckenstein-Geigy-Stiftung und “ein Konsortium branchenerfahrener Business Angels” investieren 4,1 Millionen Schweizer Franken in NeoPrediX. Das Unternehmen, das 2020 als Spin-Off der Universität Basel ausgegründet wurde, entwickelt eine Software zur frühzeitigen Erkennung von Krankheiten bei Neugeborenen. “Die Mittel plant NeoPrediX in die technologische Weiterentwicklung der Software-Lösungen zu investieren”, teilt das Unternehmen mit Sitz in Regensburg und Basel mit.
+++ Der amerikanische Geldgeber Skycatcher investiert eine niedrige siebenstellige Summe in die junge Berliner Gamesfirma Stratosphere Games. “On top of that the German Games Fund (Computerspieleförderung des Bundes) will add $1.21M (€1.02M) to develop a new Mobile Strategy title called “Project MiniCiv” bringing the total investment to over $2.5M”, teilt das MMO-Unternehmen mit. Stratosphere Games wurde 2015 von Kristian Metzger gegründet.
+++ Das Unternehmen Robert Thomas Metall- und Elektrowerke investiert eine sechsstellige Summe in air-Q. Mit air-Q, das vom Unternehmen Corant entwickelt wird, lässt sich die Luftqualität messen. Das Luftmessgerät arbeitet unter anderem mit KI-Algorithmen, um sämtliche Schadstoffe in der Luft einer Wohnung zu messen. Das Unternehmen mit Sitz in Chemnitz und Leipzig wurde 2015 von Daniel Lehmann, Mario Körösi und Alexander Stinka gegründet.
+++ Sarbacane aus Frankreich, ein Unternehmen rund um Unternehmenskommunikation, übernimmt den Freiburger Newsletterdienst rapidmail. “Die Sarbacane Gruppe, die in Deutschland bereits über Mailify tätig ist, stärkt ihre Position auf dem deutschsprachigen Markt und bestätigt ihre Ambitionen außerhalb ihres Heimatmarktes”, teilt das Unternehmen zur Übernahme mit. rapidmail, 2008 gegründet, verfügt nach eigenen Angaben über 100.000 Kunden in 28 Ländern.
Achtung! Wir freuen uns über Tipps, Infos und Hinweise, was wir in unserem #DealMonitor alles so aufgreifen sollten. Schreibt uns eure Vorschläge entweder ganz klassisch per E-Mail oder nutzt unsere “Stille Post“, unseren Briefkasten für Insider-Infos.
Startup-Jobs: Auf der Suche nach einer neuen Herausforderung? In der unserer Jobbörse findet Ihr Stellenanzeigen von Startups und Unternehmen.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.
Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This week, we’re taking a look at some of the buzzier stories from the world of apps, including the latest around Parler’s attempted return to the App Store, a review of Walmart’s second livestream shopping event, and Instagram Lite’s global rollout. We also have new Clubhouse data on its total installs and its global footprint and info about Disney’s new service that could replace your MagicBand, among other things.
Parler tries and fails to re-enter App Store
The right-wing social app was booted from the App Store, Google Play and Amazon AWS following the U.S. Capitol riot, for violations of community guidelines. Apple had specifically asked Parler to change its moderation policies, which had been fairly hands-off prior to its removal from the App Store. Though Apple has a number of rules about what apps can and cannot do, Parler’s own policies were guided by the First Amendment’s approach to free speech — basically, users could say almost anything without consequence.
According to documents obtained by Bloomberg, Parler again tried to gain entry into the App Store after the original ban, and was again denied. Following the new review, Apple reportedly told Parler’s chief policy officer on Feb. 25, there was no place for “hateful, racist, discriminatory content” on the App Store. The review had also included several offensive images, including profile pictures with swastikas and other white nationalist imagery, as well as misogynistic, homophobic and racist usernames and posts.
Parler last month had said negotiations with Apple were underway, and it expected to get back in the App Store. But with this new rejection, Parler cut its three remaining iOS developers from its team, out of a total of seven who were let go, Bloomberg reported.
The controversy around Parler is reflective of a larger conversation underway in the U.S. over tech’s responsibility to moderate the content on its platforms, as users’ posts and comments are increasingly leading to real-world violence. The U.S. government has not yet regulated these platforms, leaving decisions like this up to tech itself. Parler, in a statement, said it had added filters and human review to address threats of violence, as well as optional tools that let users filter and block certain kinds of hate speech. But this didn’t go far enough to address Apple’s claims about hate symbols and offensive speech still present on the network.
Apple released important security patches across all platforms. The patches fix a vulnerability — a memory corruption bug in WebKit, the engine that powers Apple’s Safari browser. An attacker can exploit the vulnerability via a malicious web page.
Image Credits: Walmart
Walmart again teamed up with TikTok to host a new livestream shopping event on Thursday night. The event, co-hosted by Gabby Morrison and Nabela Noor, focused on beauty products, offering demos and tutorials where viewers could buy the products through an integrated shopping cart. The content itself was engaging, feeling very much like the makeup tutorials and “get ready with me” vlogs users already watch across social media platforms. Gabby, who demoed all the products, was adept at balancing the more casual makeup try-on portions of the live event with the QVC-like call-to-action to actually buy the item being shown.
At times, there were as many as 8,000+ concurrent viewers participating in the live event, we noticed during our viewing. (We joined about 20 mins. after its start). During the event, we saw high engagement in the stream’s comments, including a number of positive comments — like jokes from users who lamented they were buying everything, shout-outs from those who just added an item to their cart, or compliments directed at the hosts. But there were also some trolling remarks that should have violated TikTok’s guidelines over cyberbullying, which were not moderated out — an issue TikTok will need to address as these events grow larger and more common.
Image Credits: screenshot of Walmart’s account on TikTok
Walmart last year had run an apparel-focused live shopping holiday event — the first pilot of TikTok’s live shopping feature in the U.S. The retailer has not commented on sales from its first event, but says they hit Walmart’s projections. Walmart also said the event drove a 25% increase in TikTok follower growth, and 7x more views than anticipated.
Facebook is targeting emerging markets with launch of Instagram Lite, a lightweight Android version of the app that takes up just 2MB of space. The app was made available across 170 countries this week, offering the ability to view and share photos and videos, Stories, IGTV, discover content through Explore, and more. However, the app lacks the ability to film Reels — Instagram’s TikTok rival — users can only view them.
Image Credits: Facebook
The app is not Facebook’s first attempt to develop a lightweight version of Instagram. The company previously released an Progressive Web App, which was pulled in 2020. A new app was then launched in December in India in a limited test, ahead of this broader release.
Clubhouse has now reached 12 million worldwide downloads, an increase of 600K since March 1, according to new data from App Annie. The largest market for the app is still the U.S. which accounts for 3.1 million downloads. But the app has a strong global footprint, with 1.8m downloads in Japan, 710K in Germany, 600K in Brazil, 505K in Russia, 420K in Italy, 375K in the U.K., 370K in South Korea, 350K in Turkey, and 107K in France, the firm said. Clubhouse was said to have 8 million global downloads just in February, so this is notable growth.
Facebook expands creator monetization options with the addition of ads for short-form video content — including videos as short as 1 minute, instead of previous minimum of 3 minutes. Those ads will now play 30 seconds after the start of a shorter video. It also opened its in-stream ads program for Live videos out of invite-only mode. The move could encourage creators to make content for Facebook instead of rival platforms like TikTok, by wooing them with more money-making opportunities.
TikTok rolled out new commenting features aimed at preventing bullying. Creators will now be able to control which comments can be posted on their content, before those comments go live. Another new addition, aimed at users who are commenting, will pop up a box that prompts the user to reconsider posting a comment that may be inappropriate or unkind.
Image Credits: TikTok
Pakistan again bans TikTok over “immoral and objectionable” videos. The app, which has around 33 million users in the country, was blocked by the Pakistan Telecom Authority after Peshawar High Court’s Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid Khan said some TikTok videos were “unacceptable for Pakistani society,” and were “peddling vulgarity.”
A new app called Limit App is offering an Instagram-like service but only for those ages 18 to 25. Reviewed by Geekwire, the app’s creator said it’s not about ageism, but rather about giving young people a place to be themselves. The app uses a secure ID and age verification process to onboard users and, when they turn 26, they’re giving 30 days to download their content before being booted out. Begone, boomers.
Pinterest saw over 193M downloads worldwide in 2020,according to App Annie — a 50% YoY increase, driven by consumers using the platform for product discovery, design ideas, and shopping.
Facebook tests a feature in India that will share Instagram Reels on the Facebook News Feed. The move is an indication of how seriously Facebook is taking the TikTok threat — it’s now leveraging not just one, but two of the world’s largest social networks to fight back.
TikTok in the U.K. launched a new “music hub” that highlights trending artists and tracks. The company has already been driving music streams and sales through the social app, and the hub will now offer a dedicated section to keep up with what’s currently trending.
Twitter’s head of consumer product, Kayvon Beykpour, defended Apple’s App Store commission rates in recent interview. The exec said the commission isn’t a “highway tax,” but reflects the cost and effort that goes into accepting online payments, including issues with fraud and risk, and the customer service flow around refunds.
India’s government threatened to jail Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter employees if they don’t comply with data and takedown requests related to the protests by Indian farmers over agricultural law changes.
Google will link Android phones with Chromebooks through a new Phone Hub feature, allowing Chrome OS users to respond to texts, check their battery life, enable a Wi-Fi hotspot and locate a misplaced device, among other things.
Bumble launched “Night In,” a new feature in the U.S. and Canada that lets online daters play games together from the app. At launch, users can play trivia games but the company says it plans more virtual experiences in the future. The timing of the launch is interesting — it comes a year into the pandemic which has forced people to stay home and social distance. But as “Night In” arrives, vaccinations are ramping up and, likely, so will real-world, in-person dating. That Bumble still invested in virtual dating experiences indicates the company sees the feature as something with longer-term potential, rather than a temporary stand-in for that first drink or coffee date.
Bumble also filed its first quarterly report since its Feb. 2021 IPO, topping Wall St. estimates with $165.6 million in revenue and 2.7 million paid users (up 32.5% YoY) in the fourth quarter.
Streaming & Entertainment
Amazon adds a merch store to its streaming music app. The company’s Amazon Music app is now offering in-app product sales from Billie Eilish, Selena Gomez, and other artists via a Merchbar integration. (Just wait until it actually remembers it has a whole retail website it could connect.)
YES Network debuts an app that will live stream New York Yankees, Brooklyn Nets, NYFC, and New York Liberty games via a TV Everywhere integration. This is the first live streaming app from the network. Sure, we need another one.
Apple Podcasts is replacing the “subscribe” button with a “follow” button for keeping up with favorite podcasts. The change, first reported by Podnews, came about because people increasingly think of subscribe as referring to a paid option. I’m sure they didn’t get that idea from…THE APP STORE.
Spotify this week updated its app with support for 36 new languages, as promised during last month’s “Stream On” event, including: Afrikaans, Amharic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Bulgarian, Simplified Chinese, Croatian, Danish, Estonian, Filipino, Gujarati, Hindi, Icelandic, Kannada, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Norwegian, Odia, Persian, Portuguese for Portugal, Eastern Punjabi, Western Punjabi, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Swahili, Tamil, Telugu, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Zulu. The app is now available in 62 languages in total, and is expanding to over 80 global markets.
New streaming service Paramount+ saw its app downloaded 277K+ times in the first 5 days,reports Apptopia. The app launched similarly to how HBO Max did — it took an existing app and transitioned it to a new one. In its case, the CBS All Access app transitioned to Paramount+. This impacts the number of early downloads, as many users are just upgraded. Thanks to a pre-launch sale, the app also saw $86.7K in IAP revenue on March 2, the highest single-day revenue to date.
Image Credits: Apptopia
Epic Games takes its app store legal fight to Australia with a new anti-competitive claim against Google, over the 30% commissions on in-app purchases. The company is fighting Apple and Google in many markets now, including the U.S., E.U., and U.K.
The average size of the U.S. App Store’s top games has grown 76% in the past 5 years, says Sensor Tower. The average game file size in 2016 was approximately 264 megabytes across the top 100 revenue generating games on the U.S. App Store. This has grown to 465 MB in 2020. Top games driving the file size growth include DoubleDown, Fortnite, Clash of Clans, Roblox and Homescapes.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Food & Drink
Data from App Annie indicates app sessions in food and drink apps grew 105% YoY in 2020, as the pandemic led to a surge of adoption for food delivery apps. Deliveroo in particular had a standout year in 2020, as the No. 2 “breakout” food & drink app in France and No. 3 in the U.K. — a metric App Annie uses to track growth in total sessions. App sessions grew from their lowest point of 1.81 billion on March 22, 2020 to 3.02 billion by the end of Dec. 2020, the firm said.
Disney is bringing the service that powers its existing MagicBands to Apple devices with the launch of Disney MagicMobile. The service, which will launch in phases starting later this year, will allow guests to create a mobile pass using the My Disney Experience app, then add it to their smart device’s digital wallet. Users can then hold up their smart device, including their Apple iPhone or Watch, to check into rides at the access points.
Image Credits: Disney
This doesn’t necessarily mean the end for MagicBands, though. The bands still make sense for kids without devices or for anyone who doesn’t want to worry about pulling out their phone for every ride (or who doesn’t own an Apple Watch). Plus, some Disney fans like collecting MagicBands in new styles. Disney said it will soon release a new set with favorite characters.
India’s Paytm will turn Android phones into POS terminals by introducing a card acceptance feature in the NFC-enabled Paytm Business app. Once activated, merchants will be able to process transactions by tapping a payment card to their smartphone.
The new Google Pay app exited beta this week, to replace the older version that will close down on April 5 in the U.S. The updated version include NFC tap-to-pay functionality and p2p payments, but an Ars Technica review slams the app as being less convenient and laden with more fees, among other things.
Chinese beauty app Meitu bought $40 million worth of cryptocurrency, including 15,000 units of Ether and 379.1214267 units of Bitcoin — worth around $22.1 million and $17.9 million, respectively. Meitu chairman Cai Wensheng has been bullish on cryptocurrency and believes in diversifying beyond holding just cash.
Security & Privacy
Apple must face a consumer lawsuit over FaceTime and iMessage privacy in court, not through private arbitration. The case, Ohanian v Apple Inc. focuses on an iOS bug coupled with T-Mobile’s approach to recycling phone numbers that gave third-parties access to users’ communications, despite Apple’s marketing of iMessage and FaceTime as secure features.
Apple is also now facing a privacy complaint in Europe from startup lobby group, France Digitale. The complaint focuses on the IDFA changes, which will required third-party apps to have to ask to track users, while Apple’s own apps are able to track user activity and run personalized ads by default without a similar opt-in pop-up, giving it an unfair advantage.
Funding and M&A
Social networking app Wefarm, aimed at independent farmers in Africa, raised $11 million in an extension of its 2019 Series A led by Octopus Ventures. The London-based company now has 2.5 million users and has hosted over 37 million conversations via SMS.
Gaming platform Roblox made its stock market debut on Wednesday under the ticker symbol RBLX. The stock closed the day at $69.50 per share, giving the business a market cap of $38.26 billion. The cross-platform gaming service works across a range of devices, including mobile.
Chatbot startup Heyday raised $5.1 million from existing investors Innovobot and Desjardins Capital for its system that lets businesses respond to customers’ messages across apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Business Messages or even email.
Songclip raised $11 million in new funding to bring music to more social media apps. The company is working to popularize the short audio clip media format, and make it accessible across a range of services.
Real estate software and data firm VTS acquired Chicago-based Rise Buildings, the makers of a property tech mobile app used in over 130 million sq ft of office space.
Japan’s SoftBank Group announced this week it will invest $4.7 billion into Tokyo-based messaging app Line, owned by Naver. The investment aims to help develop Line into a “super app,” similar to China’s WeChat, by integrating online news and entertainment from Yahoo Japan (which it owns) as well as financial services from SoftBanks’s mobile payments app PayPay, and more.
Mobile payments service PayPal to acquire cryptocurrency security startup Curv in a deal valued at less than $200 million. PayPal has recently partnered with Paxos to allow U.S. users to buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies in its app.
TikTok competitor Triller bought livestream music competition Verzuz, created by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. To date, the competition has hosted 43 artists including RZA, Nelly, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, DMX, and Gucci Mane. The program will continue to air on IG Live in addition to now, Triller.
Detail raised $2 million in pre-seed funding led by Connect Ventures for its app that that will turn your iPhone into a software-optimized camera for live video.
Krafton, the developer of PUBG Mobile, invested $22.4 million into the Indian esports firm Nodwin Gaming, a subsidiary of gaming giant Nazara and one of the largest esports firms in India.
Eco, a startup building a personal finance app for saving and spending money, raised $26 million led by a16z Crypto. Uber co-founder Garrett Camp came up with the idea and now advises Eco as a board member. His startup studio, Expa, is also an investor, Fortune reported.
Runway gets YC backing for its service aimed at streamlining mobile app releases. The app was built by the first iOS team for Rent the Runway, and focuses on automating many common pain points that can stop an app release’s progress.
Image Credits: WildWorks
A new game, Fer.al, has entered the market to compete for Gen Z’s time and attention which is currently spent in virtual worlds like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite. The game was developed by WildWorks, the makers of what’s often kids’ first virtual world game, Animal Jam. It also continues the animal-as-avatar metaphor, but this time with fantasy creatures you customize yourself, and a storyline about a animal-themed reality show, dueling queens, factions, and adventures. The game is available across platforms including Mac, PC, iOS and Android.
Last week, “deep nostalgia” was going viral as people animated their long-lost relatives or even closer family members using apps like MyHeritage or TokkingHeads. But this week, everyone’s trying out Wombo — an AI-powered deepfake app that can animate any face to lip sync to songs like “Thriller” or “I Will Survive,” as well as many meme songs, like “Never Gonna Give You Up” or “Numa Numa.” The results are…ugh, cringe. But the attention sent a surge of downloads to the app, moving it up to (as of the time of writing) No. 30 Overall on the App Store. Since its Feb. 2020 launch, the app has been downloaded 2M+ times across iOS and Android.
For the last few years, ByteDance, the parent company of short video app TikTok, has been working to diversify its revenue streams beyond advertisement and find more ways to monetize its hundreds of millions of users. One area it is targeting is gaming, which has historically been a lucrative business in China’s internet economy.
China is the world’s largest gaming market, generating revenues of $40.85 billion in 2020, according to market research firm Newzoo. The United States trailed behind at $36.92 billion.
But competition is also intense. Giants Tencent and NetEase have long dominated and smaller players like Mihoyo and Lilith are making breakthroughs. According to market research firm Analysys, Tencent occupied over half of the Chinese gaming market in 2019, while NetEase and 37 Interactive respectively commanded around 16% and 10%, leaving little breathing room for smaller rivals.
Regardless, ByteDance is forging ahead, giving a brand name, Nuversegame, and a website to its gaming business for the first time last month. Its strategy consists of a genre-spanning portfolio, a hiring spree, a proven monetization scheme, and a focus on both the domestic and overseas markets. During his short-lived stint with ByteDance, Kevin Meyer was put in charge of multiple overseas businesses, including gaming.
ByteDance, the David when it comes to games, seems undeterred by the Goliaths. As one of the company’s gaming executives Yan Shou wrote in a social media post a year ago: “Gaming is a content business. A monopoly is difficult to maintain [in this industry] as long as there is patience.”
Battle for talent
In recent years, ByteDance has hired a large number of ex-employees from the BAT, the acronym for three of the most prominent tech firms in China: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. Yan himself worked on strategy at Tencent for over two years before joining ByteDance in 2015. While poaching and job-hopping are common in China’s fast-changing tech industry, ByteDance is known for doling out generous paychecks and many tech workers are lured by the prospects of receiving employee options before the firm goes public someday.
Ambitious staff may also feel stagnant after a long period at Alibaba and Tencent, which are both over 20 years old and where room for career advancement is limited. ByteDance, in comparison, is merely nine years old and is still in a fast-growth phase, a Beijing-based headhunter for technology firms tells TechCrunch.
“The current stage of ByteDance and the new businesses it is incubating provide the right platform for these people to achieve their ambitions,” the headhunter says.
In gaming, too, ByteDance has gone on a recruiting spree. The company’s gaming headcount numbers nearly 3,000 today, up from only 1,000 last year, according to a person with knowledge. These employees are scattered across China’s major tech hubs, from Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou to Shenzhen, working in various gaming studios under ByteDance.
How big is a 3,000-person team? 37 Interactive, the third-largest gaming firm in China, had around 4,000 gaming staff as of January, according to a company executive. It took the company 10 years to reach this scale. ByteDance began exploring games only around five years ago.
ByteDance declined to comment on the story.
Factory of games
Being late to the game could bring advantages. Having seen how Tencent and other predecessors tackle the gaming market allows ByteDance to learn. For one, ByteDance is working on a diverse range of genres simultaneously, from disposable mobile games to indie titles with unorthodox design or topics. This makes ByteDance different from Tencent, says Daniel Ahmad, a gaming analyst at Niko Partners. Tencent, the world’s largest gaming firm, cut its teeth on board and card games in the 2000s before gradually expanding into other genres.
Of course, only a deep-pocketed upstart like ByteDance could strive for a diverse portfolio from day one. With a well-oiled advertising business built upon its short video app Douyin and news aggregator Toutiao, as well as over $7 billion raised from equity funding over the years, ByteDance has been able to fund its horizontal expansions in not just games but also education and SaaS.
Aside from hunting down talent from other tech giants, ByteDance also relies on swallowing smaller companies to boost its workforce. Since 2018, ByteDance has invested in at least 11 gaming companies, six of which were full acquisitions, according to public disclosures. The acquired assets and talent were subsequently incorporated into ByteDance’s gaming studios. Acqui-hiring is an old and proven formula at ByteDance. Kelly Zhang, the product manager credited for taking Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, off the ground, also joined after her photo-sharing startup was bought by ByteDance.
Like many gaming firms, ByteDance’s monetization scheme is two-pronged: distribution of third-party titles and original creation. Quality games don’t come overnight, so the strategy allows its gaming unit to have some revenue as it bets on one of its own works to be a cash cow. Casual games are great for ads, which are normally placed between levels. More complex games rely on user loyalty and the natural way to make money is through in-app purchases.
A number of ByteDance’s licensed casual games have so far made it into the Top 10 iOS free games in China, including car racing game Drift Race, music game Yinyue Qiuqiu, and puzzle game Brain Out. While these collaborations don’t make big bucks yet, the initial traction proves the viability of ByteDance’s traffic strategy.
ByteDance said in 2019 it had 1.5 billion monthly users across its app family (there can be user overlap between apps). One way ByteDance is marketing games is by inserting native ads into users’ content feeds. Videos, says Niko Partners’ Ahmad, are “interactive, easy to use, easy to click through and can get much higher conversion than traditional ads.”
In some cases, the ad may prompt users to download a standalone gaming app. But like WeChat and most of China’s popular apps, Douyin and Toutiao support third-party “mini apps” within their own platforms. Users can, for instance, play a lite game on Douyin just as they can on WeChat.
With hundreds of millions of monthly users, ByteDance already has a good grasp of people’s tastes and behavior, so it knows what games to recommend. In theory, the more people see and react, the more accurate its predictions become.
“Through targeted ‘recommendations’, our ‘algorithms’ will automatically show users mini games presented in various forms,” explains ByteDance’s gaming developer handbook. “All games have a fair and equal chance of getting initial exposure.”
Before kids graduate to the expansive virtual worlds in games like Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite, they often get their start in online social gaming with a game like Animal Jam. Here, kids learn to personalize their avatar, explore a world, chat with other players, and trade items in a safe environment with parental controls. Today, the company behind this popular title, WildWorks, is launching a new game, Fer.al, which builds on Animal Jam’s legacy while catering to a slightly older crowd of Gen Z teens.
“When we started talking about Fer.al, it was the idea of where do kids go when they age out of Animal Jam?,” explains Clark Stacey, co-founder and CEO of WildWorks. “Because there isn’t a transitional space between a completely walled garden like Animal Jam and…Instagram and the adult social networks and games that don’t have those same protections,” he continues.
“We knew we wanted to provide a place for these older kids to go where the walls are a little bit lower,” Stacey adds.
The new game is meant to cater to older kids — meaning young teens ages 13 to around 18 — who are now choosing their own games, have their own email address, and don’t need parental permission to play. The guardrails on chat also won’t be as high on Fer.al as on Animal Jam, and will focus more on preventing bullying and abuse than blocking words. Players will also be able to connect their online social accounts to their game accounts in the future.
Image Credits: WildWorks
With Fer.al, WildWorks is introducing another animal-centered title, but this time it’s moving into the fantasy realm. Players choose between bipedal humanoid creatures based on folklore and myth including a Kitsune, Senri, Dragon, Jackelope, Werewolf, Kirin, or a Shinigami, with more to come i time.
The characters’ style was inspired by Animal Jam fan art, Stacey says, where kids would create animal avatars that were sort of a mix between manga, Animal Jam’s style, and other, older animation styles.
Like its predecessor, Fer.al players will also be able to personalize their character and change their appearance, design their personal space (this time, a “sanctuary” instead of a “den,”) discover a world where they can interact with other players, collect items and trade, and venture on quests. But the storyline has also evolved to reflect teens’ interests, including their growing understanding of social media and the desire to grow an online fan base.
The larger narrative involves a reality show where two warring queens, Aradia and Delilah — each with their own Instagram account, naturally — are angling for control. The company isn’t offering a lot of details as to how this narrative plays out in the long-term, but it will involve weekly and monthly contests as the game ramps up, in addition to the everyday missions and quests which are undertaken to gain ingredients to create new clothes or a new “glamour” (a rendering effect that goes around your character.)
Image Credits: WildWorks
Much like Animal Jam — or even other virtual worlds like some Roblox games — players are meant to engage in cooperative gameplay to advance. There will be tasks you can’t complete on your own, meaning you’ll need to interact and chat. You will also be able to join factions, initially driven by the two queens, as the game advances.
Another notable aspect to Fer.al is that it’s largely designed to cater to girl gamers.
“It’s certainly not intended to be to the exclusion of boys who are in this age range,” explains Stacey. “But we recognize the fact that, among the most engaged Animal Jam players, it’s about 80% girls. We’ve leaned into that pretty heavily in Animal Jam — we’re trying to feature a lot of female scientists and working with them on causes that promote girls in STEM. So we know a lot of the built-in audience is coming from that,” he says.
“And I think the need that we recognized is that it’s not hard for adolescent boys to find online communities that jive with them. It’s pretty hard for girls to find the same thing. So, as we’re creating this this community — everything from the rules to the visuals — we are very conscious of that. And the people that we’re going to and asking for what works for you and what doesn’t, is primarily girls,” he adds.
Image Credits: WildWorks
Building off the Animal Jam fan base has been an advantage for getting Fer.al off the ground. Today, Animal Jam has anywhere between 2.5 million to 4 million monthly active users out of a total of 135 million registered accounts. The gulf between the registered and active figures is indicative of how many kids have since grew out of Animal Jam since its October 2010 launch. But Stacey admits the title has seen some decline since its peak usage, as well.
Still, there’s a lot of interest in what WildWorks does next, it seems.
Within a week of launching the Fer.al website, the game had 75,000 kids sign up to become beta testers. The testers were brought into the beta slowly, starting in April 2020, and initially on desktop only. Now, the beta version of the game sees daily actives in the low 10,000’s pre-launch. On the Apple App Store and Google Play, over 100,000 people have registered for the pre-release, as well.
Like Animal Jam, Fer.al will offer a freemium experience. But while Animal Jam generated nearly 80% of revenues through subscriptions, Fer.al will use a season pass model of monetization. Users buy the season — priced around $10 to $20 — via an in-app purchase, which will unlock unique items and experiences specific to that season. It expects to launch around 7 seasons per year.
Image Credits: WildWorks
The company didn’t offer seasons until later in the beta test, but Stacey says the conversion rate was at “the high end of our expectations so far on desktop.” If the mobile conversion rates remains as high as desktop, it will be in the range to start investing in user acquisition, he says. The company may also consider ads at a later date as well as merchandise, if all goes well.
Salt Lake City-headquartered WildWorks (formerly Smart Bomb Interactive) is majority owned by Signal Peak Ventures, which has invested $20+ million into the company over the years. The company shifted in 2008 to focus on its own IP, resulting in the launch of Animal Jam and other titles.
Over the past few years, WildWorks’ revenue — largely from Animal Jam and another game, Tag with Ryan — has ranged between $20+ million to below $30 million. If Fer.al is able to successfully capture the Animal Jam graduates who are looking to move up to “older kid” gameplay, it could grow that revenue base by a sizable amount.
Fer.al is launching publically today in all countries, and will be available initially in English. It can be played on PC, Mac, iOS and Android.
Games company Zynga has been on an acquisition tear the last several years to beef up its activity in particular in mobile and casual-puzzle games, spending over $3 billion to pick up a range of startups across Europe (specifically Turkey and Finland) in the process. Today, however, it’s taking a turn towards more immersive, highly graphic cross-platform experiences. The company has announced that it is acquiring San Francisco’s Echtra Games, the role-playing game publisher behind Torchlight III, which is available on Steam, XBox One, PS4 and Nintendo Switch.
The team will be working on releasing a new title in partnership with Zynga’s NaturalMotion studio, the company said. No other details on that were released for now.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. It’s also not clear who backed Echtra, if anyone.
But Echtra is in some ways a classic example of a gaming startup built out of a burning idea, rather than cold, calculated moneymaking — perhaps the best kind of company you can have.
Max Schaefer, the co-founder and CEO, had previously been at Runic Games, the developer of the original Torchlight series, as well as Diablo and others. Runic was shuttered by its owner, Perfect World, and so in 2016, Shaefer went on to form a new company, Echtra, with some of his Runic colleagues and others in the industry because he saw more life left in the franchise.
The plan will be to bring on Echtra’s team and expertise both to continue building the franchise and to more generally help Zynga build out more of a footprint in cross-platform games, and also gaming technology, in particular around tools built on Unreal Engine, the platform of choice at the moment for RPG and other immersive applications.
“Max and his team at Echtra Games are responsible for some of the most legendary game properties ever created, and they are experts in the action RPG genre and cross-platform development.I’m excited to welcome the Echtra Games team into the Zynga family,” said Frank Gibeau, Chief Executive Officer of Zynga, in a statement. “This acquisition will be instrumental in growing our iconic licenses and brands from mobile to PCs and consoles, while helping to further expand Zynga’s total addressable market.”
“Echtra Games is delighted to be joining the Zynga family,” added Max Schaefer. “We share Zynga’s vision that cross-platform play is an essential part of the future of RPGs and interactive entertainment and are eager to apply our vast experience and talents to this effort.”
Gaming has been one of the bright spots in the last year — no surprise, since people are spending so much more time indoors and at home because of the pandemic. Zynga, as a consequence of that, has also been on a roll in recent times, with its fourth quarter earnings, released last month, beating analyst expectations. Its revenues of $616 million are the highest ever quarterly bookings posted by the company. Acquisitions are major part of its strategy these days, the company said at the time.
Going for more immersive RPG titles outside of mobile is an ambitious and potentially more expensive undertaking and is a very notable swerve away from the company’s acquisitions in recent years, which have included a majority stake in Turkey’s Rollic for $228 million, Peak for $2.1 billion, 80% of Small Giant Games for $718 million; and Gram Games for $299 million.
Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has spurred app usage in the United States as people stay indoors to limit contact with others. Mobile games particularly have enjoyed a boom, and among them, games from Chinese studios are gaining popularity.
Games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in a total of $5.8 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, jumping 34.3% from a year before and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, according to a new report from market research firm Sensor Tower.
In the quarter, Chinese titles contributed as much as 20% of the mobile gaming revenues in the U.S. That effectively made China the largest importer of mobile games in the U.S., thanks to a few blockbuster titles. Chinese publishers claimed 21 spots among the 100 top-grossing games in the period and collectively generated $780 million in revenues in the U.S., the world’s largest mobile gaming market, more than triple the amount from two years before.
Occupying the top rank are familiar Chinese titles such as the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, a collaboration between Tencent and Activision, as well Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. But smaller Chinese studios are also quickly infiltrating the U.S. market.
Mihoyo, a little-known studio outside China, has been turning heads in the domestic gaming industry with its hit game Genshin Impact, a role-playing action game featuring anime-style characters. It was the sixth-most highest-grossing mobile game in the U.S. during Q4, racking up over $100 million in revenues in the period.
Most notable is that Mihoyo has been an independent studio since its inception in 2011. Unlike many gaming startups that covet fundings from industry titans like Tencent, Mihoyo has so far raised only a modest amount from its early days. It also stirred up controversy for skipping major distributors like Tencent and phone vendors Huawei and Xiaomi, releasing Genshin Impact on Bilibili, a popular video site amongst Chinese youngsters, and games downloading platform Taptap.
Magic Tavern, the developer behind the puzzle game Project Makeover, one of the most installed mobile games in the U.S. since late last year, is another lesser-known studio. Founded by a team of Tsinghua graduates with offices around the world, Magic Tavern is celebrated as one of the first studios with roots in China to have gained ground in the American casual gaming market. KKR-backed gaming company AppLovin is a strategic investor in Magic Tavern.
Other popular games in the U.S. also have links to China, if not directly owned by a Chinese company. Shortcut Run and Roof Nails are works from the French casual game maker Voodoo, which received a minority investment from Tencent last year. Tencent is also a strategic investor in Roblox, the gaming platform oriented to young gamers and slated for an IPO in the coming weeks.
For mobile games, however, Google has a slightly different idea to reach users. Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator for experimental projects, last year launched GameSnacks. It’s an HTML5 gaming platform, where titles are bite-sized and they load much faster and consume far less resources because of the way they have been designed.
And that idea appears to be working.
Google said on Tuesday that over the past year it has made inroads with GameSnacks, and is now ready to scale the platform and test monetization models to make it worthwhile for game developers.
In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Ani Mohan, General Manager of GameSnacks, said the platform has amassed over 100 titles and millions of users.
“HTML5 gaming has been growing, especially outside of the United States. HTML5 is a great way to get games to users who have just come online and probably haven’t played games online before. These games are cross-device, work on low-bandwidth connection, and are instantly playable as they don’t require users to install any files,” he said.
These single-player games, that work on any device with as low RAM as 1GB and 2G to 3G data connection, are available to users through GameSnacks website. They can be played on desktop as well as Chrome on an iPhone or iPad (if you wanted to give it a whirl.)
Now the company is using its scale to expand the reach and discoverability of GameSnacks. Mohan said in recent weeks GameSnacks games have been made available from the New Tab page in Chrome for users in India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Kenya.
In India, Google’s biggest market by users, GameSnacks games are also arriving to Google Pay. The company is also experimenting with bringing GameSnacks games to Discover feed.
Mohan said the company is starting these integrations is select countries because that’s where many users face the challenges the platform is trying to address. “We view this as an early stage of experimentation. If it goes well, we will love to expand it,” he said.
Additionally, Mohan said the company is experimenting with bringing GameSnacks games to the Google Assistant.
“Now that few of these integrations are live, one of things we are hoping to do is talk to developers, and tell them that there is an easy way to get on Google,” he said.
Developers on GameSnacks currently monetize their games via a licensing or a contracting model where they sell some or all of their game rights to the company. Mohan said the team, which comprises six people (though more people from Google contribute to it), is working on helping these developers monetize their games using next-generation AdSense for Games ad formats.
“We want to help them build viable businesses over time so we’re going to start experimenting with advertising on the platform,” he said. However, this will be for a select number of GameSnacks games for now.
Emerging markets such as Africa and Asia are not new to the world of HTML games. In India, for instance, a gaming platform called Gamezop raised $4.2 million last year to expand its HTML5 games to reach more developers and embed them into over 1,000 apps.
In 2018, South African telco, MTN Group, launched the Bonus Bucks HTML5 game portal for its subscribers in the Southern African country. Facebook operated HTML5 Instant Games on Messenger for years until taking it off the messaging service. A quick search on our own archive returns scores of firms that work on HTML5 games in the past, though we have seen fewer examples in recent years.
Mohan remains bullish that there is a big opportunity for HTML games and this extends beyond Africa and Asia. “We don’t see these markets as our only option. These are just the markets we’re starting with because the need for HTML5 games… is especially compelling. We think the market size for this is much broader because HTML has users all around the world,” he said.
Plex, the media software maker that’s expanded into streaming in recent years, is adding to its service once again with today’s launch of game streaming. Unlike other game streaming efforts from companies like Microsoft or Google, the new “Plex Arcade” isn’t focused on top gaming titles and new releases, but rather on retro games. At launch, the service is offering around 30 games, including titles like Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command, Adventure, and Ninja Golf.
The game streaming service was spun out of Plex’s in-house incubator, Plex Labs, and represents more of a passion project for the company, rather than some larger shift in direction, we’re told. The technology to make it available was already 95% built, so the team decided to put together the game streaming service as a surprise for users, as well as a way to expand Plex’s core mission of becoming a broader entertainment platform.
The company says it actually kicked around the idea of adding games to Plex for years, but over the course of 2020 in particular, the team was drawn to the idea even more out of personal interest and a need for a distraction.
Image Credits: Plex
The game service was built the help of new partner Parsec and its underlying, low-latency streaming technology, Plex says. This made it possible to bring fully playable game libraries to Plex.
To build the game library, Plex partnered with Atari to license a catalog of classic titles.
At launch, the full list of games include: 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Adventure, Alien Brigade, Aquaventure, Asteroids, Avalanche, Basketbrawl, Centipede, Combat, Dark Chambers, Desert Falcon, Fatal Run, Food Fight (Charley Chuck’s), Gravitar, Haunted House, Human Cannonball, Lunar Battle, Lunar Lander, Major Havoc, Millipede, Missile Command, Motor Psycho, Ninja Golf, Outlaw, Planet Smashers, Radar Lock, Sky Diver, Sky Raider, Solaris, and Super Breakout.
Due to the partnership and licensing fees involved with the project, Plex Arcade will not be a free addition.
Instead, it will be offered as a separate subscription for $2.99 per month for existing Plex Pass subscribers (Plex’s existing $4.99/mo plan). For non-subscribers, Plex Arcade is $4.99 per month. A free, 7-day trial is also available.
Plex Arcade’s server will require either a Windows or Mac to run (due to Parsec’s limitations), which means it won’t work on Linux, NAS devices, or NVIDIA Shield. Gameplay, meanwhile, is restricted to iOS, Android (mobile or TV), tvOS, and the Chrome web browser.
It will also support Bluetooth and USB game controllers that are compatible with your device, or you can use a keyboard for Chrome-based gaming. Plex recommends the Sony DualShock 4 or Xbox One controller for the best results.
Image Credits: Plex
The company is taking a wait-and-see approach to expanding the service over time. If it demonstrates interest and traction in the form of subscriptions, Plex may consider growing it further.
Plex Arcade is the latest addition to what’s now a growing lineup of entertainment options for Plex users.
Im aktuellen #DealMonitor für den 7. Dezember werfen wir wieder einen Blick auf die wichtigsten, spannendsten und interessantesten Investments und Exits des Tages. Alle Deals der Vortage gibt es im großen und übersichtlichen #DealMonitor-Archiv.
+++ White Star Capital, Rubin Ritter, David Schneider und Robert Gentz (alle zalando) sowie die Altinvestoren HV Capital, Picus Capital, Heartcore und UVC Partners investieren 20 Millionen Euro in finn.auto. Die Bewertung soll bei rund 100 Millionen Euro liegen – wie in unserem Insider-Pocast berichtet. Wie andere Anbieter auch bietet das junge Unternehmen, das von Max-Josef Meier (früher Stylight) gegründet wurde, Autos im Abo an – siehe: “Immer mehr Startups setzen auf Auto-Abos“. Ende Dezember des vergangenen Jahres investierten Geldgeber wie HV Capital, Heartcore Capital, UVC Partners und Picus Capital bereits 8,8 Millionen Euro in das Münchner Startup finn.auto.
+++ EQT Ventures und Alt-Investor BlueYard Capital investieren 11 Millionen Euro in das Video-Meeting-Startup Wonder. Das Startup, bisher unter dem Projektnamen Yotribe unterwegs, entwickelt eine Plattform, mit der sich Nutzer in virtuellen Räumen miteinander austauschen können. Anders als beim großen Vorbild Zoom ist es dabei aber jederzeit möglich, sich in Kleingruppen aufzuteilen und untereinander miteinander zu reden. Wonder wurde 2020 von Leonard Witteler, Stephane Roux und Pascal Steck gegründet.
Simplesurance +++ Altgesellschafter Allianz X investiert – wie sich bereits Ende November andeutete – im Rahmen eines Wandeldarlehens 15 Millionen Euro in simplesurance. Das Berliner Startup in Deutschland als Schutzklick bekannt, gehört zu den ganz großen InsurTech-Pionieren. Mindestens 60 Millionen Dollar flossen zuvor in das Unternehmen, das 2012 an den Start ging. Zuletzt investierten unter anderem die Tokio Marine Holdings (TMHD) und die deutsch-französische Finanzgruppe ODDO BHF Kapital in das Unternehmen. In unserem Insider-Podcast hatten wir beriets Ende November über die Investmentrunde bei Simplesurance berichtet.
asgoodasnew +++ Der skandinavische Finanzinvestor Verdane, der bereits mehrheitlich an Momox beteiligt ist, plant einen “mittelbarern Anteilserwerb” beim Re-Commerce-Anbieter asgoodasnew, zu dem neben asgoodasnew auch WirKaufens gehört. Das entsprechende Vorhaben wurde bereits beim Kartellamt angemeldet. MVP Munich Venture Partners, MCI.PrivateVentures, Ventech, PDV, BFB Wachstumsfonds Brandenburg und SevenVentures investieren 2015 beachtliche 11 Millionen Euro in das Unternehmen, das 2008 von Christian Wolf gegründet wurde. 2018 erwirtschaftete asgoodasnew , das “generalüberholte und geprüfte Gebraucht-Elektronik” kauft und verkauft, einen Umsatz in Höhe von 52,4 Millionen Euro.
+++ Der Berliner Kapitalgeber Project A investiert in WindStar Medical. Das Unternehmen entwickelt und vertreibt Medizinprodukte und freiverkäufliche Arzneimittel. Zum Portfolio des Unternehmens zählen erfolgreiche Gesundheitsmarken wie SOS, GreenDoc oder BodyMedica. Oakley Capital übernahm das Unternehmen vor wenigen Wochen (Bewertung: 280 Millionen Euro). “Der Einstieg bei der WindStar Medical Group ist ein Co-Investment, das Project A gemeinsam mit dem Finanzinvestor Oakley Capital durchführt. Oakley Capital unterzeichnete im Oktober eine Vereinbarung zum Erwerb der Mehrheit von WindStar Medical, die zuvor bei der ProSiebenSat1. Tochter NuCom Group lag”, teilt der Geldgeber mit. Seit 2016 gehörte WindStar Medical zu ProSiebenSat. 2018 wurde das Unternehmen unter das Dach der NuCom Group, die mehrheitlich ProSiebenSat1 sowie General Atlantic als Minderheitsinvestor gehört, umgegliedert.
+++ Die Modern Times Group (MTG) übernimmt weitere 17 % an der Spieleschmiede InnoGames. Das schwedische Medienhaus hält nun 68 % an InnoGames. “Der Preis für die zusätzlichen Anteile beträgt 106 Millionen Euro. Bestandteil dieser Transaktion ist die Gründung einer neuen Unternehmensgruppe für MTGs gesamtes Gaming-Portfolio, zu dem auch Kongregate zählt”, teilt das Unternehmen mit. MTG stieg 2016 beim Hamburger Unternehmen Innogames ein. Die Bewertung lag damals bei 260 Millionen Euro.
Checkyn / recover
+++ Checkyn aus Hildesheim und recover aus Köln, zwei Startups zur digitalen Kontaktdatenerfassung schließen sich zusammen. recover wurde von Railslove-Macher Jan Kus ins Leben gerufen. Dietmar Meister gründete Checkyn gemeinsam mit Henning Thöle, Robin König und Dominik Groenen. “Die nächsten Schritte: Zusammenarbeit mit der Corona-Warn-App, Städten und Kommunen”, teilen die Checkyn- und recover-Macher mit. Was man noch wissen muss: “Weder Checkyn noch recover waren und sind darauf ausgelegt sein, besonders profitabel zu sein”.
+++ Der Berliner Möbel-Shop Home24 plant, seinen brasilianischen Ableger Mobly an die Börse zu bringen. “Um eine mögliche, zukünftige Börsennotierung vorzubereiten, reicht Mobly heute erste erforderliche Unterlagen ein. Aufgrund der brasilianischen Kapitalmarktvorschriften wäre Februar 2021 das früheste Zeitraum für einen möglichen IPO. Die finanziellen Mittel aus einem potentiellen brasilianischen Börsengang würden in erster Linie dazu verwendet, die Wachstumsstrategie in Lateinamerika unabhängig von der Finanzierung durch die home24 SE zu beschleunigen”, teilt das Unternehmen mit. Home24 ging 2018 an die Börse.
Achtung! Wir freuen uns über Tipps, Infos und Hinweise, was wir in unserem #DealMonitor alles so aufgreifen sollten. Schreibt uns eure Vorschläge entweder ganz klassisch per E-Mail oder nutzt unsere “Stille Post“, unseren Briefkasten für Insider-Infos.
Startup-Jobs: Auf der Suche nach einer neuen Herausforderung? In der unserer Jobbörse findet Ihr Stellenanzeigen von Startups und Unternehmen.
Continuing its annual tradition, Google today announced its Best of 2020 awards — the company’s list of the best apps, games, movies and books for the year. Not surprisingly, the top apps picked by both Google Play users and editors reflect the stressful year that 2020 has been, with a top sleep app, Loóna, winning the title of “Best App” of 2020. Meanwhile, Google Play users picked streaming service Disney+ as their choice.
Loóna is a fitting app to win the award this year. The sleep aid promises a mood-altering experience that helps its users deal with the negative emotions that accumulate during the day and are then processed during sleep. As anxiety and stress grow, people’s sleep patterns and REM sleep be disrupted, Loóna explains. To combat this, its app offers nightly “sleepscapes,” that combined activity-based relaxation, storytelling and sounds to help people shut out their stress and relax.
Unlike other sleep or meditation apps where users close their eyes and drift off, Loóna is intended to help people wind down while still on their phones. Users tap to color images while the sleep story plays. The company also this year introduced music playlists, called soundscapes.
Image Credits: Loóna
In October, the company reported its app — which is also available on iOS — was seeing daily average time spent of 34 minutes from its subscribers. And its average conversion rate from trial to paid subscriber was 52.5%. With version 2.0, Loóna plans to reposition its app from being solely focused on bedtime relaxation to become a broader mood management app that also covers the sleep to wake up cycle, among other things. It also plans to add personalized content recommendations.
In addition to Loóna, Google Play editors selected the free-to-play action role-playing game Genshin Impact as the year’s best game for giving players a “wondrous world to explore” while unraveling mysteries. The game, miHoYo’s first-ever open-world game, features battles with elemental magic, character switching, and gacha game monetization for obtaining new characters, weapons, and other additions.
Another app that benefitted from coronavirus lockdowns was Disney+, which won this year’s User’s Choice award for Best App. The streaming service helped families stuck at home to keep their kids entertained. Plus, with new shows like the “The Mandalorian,” the service has been a hit for adults in the family, too.
The Play Store also awarded various gaming subgenres with awards of their own, like best competitive games, best indies, best pick up and play, and best game changers. These winners include Brawlhalla, Bullet Echo, GWENT: The Witcher Card Game, Legends of Runeterra, The Seven Deadly Sins: Grand Cross, Cookies Must Die, GRIS, inbento, Maze Machina, Sky: Children of Light, Disney Frozen Adventures, DreamWorks Trolls Pop, EverMerge, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, Fancade, Genshin Impact, Minimal Dungeon RPG, Ord., and The Gardens Between.
Other top apps won awards in categories like best everyday essentials, best for personal growth, best hidden gems, best for fun, and best apps for good. These app winners include Calmaria, Grid Diary, The Pattern, Whisk, Zoom, Centr, Intellect, Jumprope: How-to Videos, Paird: Couples App, Speekoo, Cappuccino, Explorest, Loóna, Paperless Post, Tayasui Sketches, Bazaart, Disney+, Dolby On, Reface, Vita, GreenChoice, Medito, and ShareTheMeal.
Movies that won “Best of” for 2020 included Bill & Ted Face the Music, Just Mercy, Miss Juneteenth, Onward, and Parasite; while book winners included A Promised Land by Barack Obama, The City We Became by N.K. Jesmin, Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh, and You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria,
In a much-anticipated move, California-based gaming firm Roblox filed to go public last week. One aspect driving the future growth of the children- and community-focused gaming platform is its China entry, which it fleshes out in detail for the first time in its IPO prospectus.
The partnership, which began in 2019, revolves around a joint venture in which Roblox holds a 51% controlling stake and a Tencent affiliate called Songhua owns a 49% interest. The prospectus notes that Tencent currently intends to publish and operate a localized version of the Roblox Platform (罗布乐思), which allows people to create games and play those programmed by others.
User-generated content is in part what makes Roblox popular amongst young gamers, but that social aspect almost certainly makes its China entry trickier. It’s widely understood that the Chinese government is asserting more control over what gets published on the internet, and in recent times its scrutiny over gaming content has heightened. Industry veteran Wenfeng Yang went as far as speculating that games with user-generated content will “never made [their] path to China,” citing the example of Animal Crossing.
Roblox says it believes it’s “uniquely positioned” to grow its penetration in China but its “performance will be dependent on” Tencent’s ability to clear regulatory hurdles. It’s unclear what measures Roblox will take to prevent its user-generated content from running afoul of the Chinese authorities, whose appetite for what is permitted can be volatile. Tencent itself has been in the crosshairs of regulators over allegedly “addictive” and “harmful” gaming content. It also remains to be seen how Roblox ensures its user experience won’t be compromised by whatever censorship system that gets implemented.
Roblox chose Tencent as its Chinese partner. / Image: Roblox
At the most basic level, Roblox claims it works to ensure user safety through measures designed “to enforce real-world laws,” including text-filtering, content moderation, automated systems to identify behaviors in violation of platform policies, and a review team. The company expresses in its filing optimism about getting China’s regulatory greenlight:
“While Tencent is still working to obtain the required regulatory license to publish and operate Luobulesi [Roblox’s local name] in China, we believe the regulatory requirements specific to China will be met. In the meantime, Luobu is working towards creating a robust developer community in China.”
The company is rightfully optimistic. China is the world’s largest gaming market and Tencent has a proven history of converting its social network users into gamers. Roblox’s marketing focus on encouraging “creativity” might also sit well with Beijing’s call for tech companies to “do good,” an order Tencent has answered. Roblox’s Chinese website suggests it’s touting part of its business as a learning and STEM tool and shows it’s seeking collaborations with local schools and educators.
Nonetheless, the involvement of Tencent is the elephant in the room in times of uncertain U.S.-China relations. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. or CFIUS, which is chaired by the Treasury Department, was inquiring about data practices by Tencent-backed gaming studios in the U.S. including Epic and Riot, Bloomberg reported in September.
Roblox isn’t exempt. It notes in the prospectus that CFIUS has “made inquiries to us with respect to Tencent’s equity investment in us and involvement in the China JV.” It further warns that it “cannot predict what effect any further inquiry by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. into our relationship with Tencent or changes in China-U.S. relations overall may have on our ability to effectively support the China JV or on the operations or success of the China JV.”
The other obstacle faced by all foreign companies entering China is local clones. Reworld, backed by prominent Chinese venture firms such as Northern Light Venture Capital and Joy Capital, is one. The game is unabashed about its origin. In a Reddit post responding to the accusation of it being “a ripoff of Roblox,” Reworld pays its tribute to Roblox and admits its product is “built on the shoulders of Roblox,” while claiming “it did not take any code from Roblox Studio.”
The Beijing-based startup behind Reworld has so far raised more than $50 million and had about 100 developers working on Reworld’s editing tool and 50 other operational staff, its co-founder said in a June interview. In comparison, Roblox had 38 employees in China by September, 38 of whom were in product and engineering functions. It’s actively hiring in China.
Roblox cannot comment for the story as it’s in the IPO quiet period.