Apple announces its 2021 Apple Design Award winners

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.

Image Credits: Loóna Inc

China’s Genshin Impact won for pushing the visual frontier on gaming, as motion blur, shadow quality, and frame rate can be reconfigured on the fly. The game had previously made Apple’s Best of 2020 list and was Google’s best game of 2020.

Image Credits: miHoYo Limited

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.

A video featuring the winners is here on the Apple Developer website.

“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.”

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

#a-i, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-watch, #apps, #awards, #belarus, #belgium, #companies, #computing, #denmark, #games, #gaming, #india, #ios, #league-of-legends, #loona, #susan-prescott, #text-to-speech, #united-states, #wwdc, #wwdc-2021

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Microsoft plans to launch dedicated Xbox cloud gaming hardware

Microsoft will soon launch a dedicated device for game streaming, the company announced today. It’s also working with a number of TV manufacturers to build the Xbox experience right into their internet-connected screens and Microsoft plans to bring build cloud gaming to the PC Xbox app later this year, too, with a focus on play-before-you-buy scenarios.

It’s unclear what these new game streaming devices will look like. Microsoft didn’t provide any further details. But chances are, we’re talking about either a Chromecast-like streaming stick or a small Apple TV-like box. So far, we also don’t know which TV manufacturers it will partner with.

It’s no secret that Microsoft is bullish about cloud gaming. With Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, it’s already making it possible for its subscribers to play more than 100 console games on Android, streamed from the Azure cloud, for example. In a few weeks, it’ll open cloud gaming in the browser on Edge, Chrome and Safari, to all Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers (it’s currently in limited beta). And it is bringing Game Pass Ultimate to Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Japan later this year, too.

In many ways, Microsoft is unbundling gaming from the hardware — similar to what Google is trying with Stadia (an effort that, so far, has fallen flat for Google) and Amazon with Luna. The major advantage Microsoft has here is a large library of popular games, something that’s mostly missing on competing services, with the exception of Nvidia’s GeForce Now platform — though that one has a different business model since its focus is not on a subscription but on allowing you to play the games you buy in third-party stores like Steam or the Epic store.

What Microsoft clearly wants to do is expand the overall Xbox ecosystem, even if that means it sells fewer dedicated high-powered consoles. The company likens this to the music industry’s transition to cloud-powered services backed by all-you-can-eat subscription models.

“We believe that games, that interactive entertainment, aren’t really about hardware and software. It’s not about pixels. It’s about people. Games bring people together,”
said Microsoft’s Xbox head Phil Spencer. “Games build bridges and forge bonds, generating mutual empathy among people all over the world. Joy and community -that’s why we’re here.”

It’s worth noting that Microsoft says it’s not doing away with dedicated hardware, though, and is already working on the next generation of its console hardware — but don’t expect a new Xbox console anytime soon.

#amazon, #android, #australia, #brazil, #cloud-gaming, #computing, #directx, #gadgets, #gaming, #google, #hardware, #japan, #luna, #mexico, #microsoft, #nvidia, #phil-spencer, #tc, #xbox, #xbox-cloud-gaming, #xbox-game-pass

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Decades-old ASCII adventure Nethack may hint at the future of AI

Machine learning models have already mastered Chess, Go, Atari games, and more, but in order for it to ascend to the next level, researchers at Facebook intend for AI to take on a different kind of game: the notoriously difficult and infinitely complex Nethack.

“We wanted to construct what we think is the most accessible ‘grand challenge’ with this game. It won’t solve AI, but it will unlock pathways towards better AI,” said Facebook AI Research’s Edward Grefenstette. “Games are a good domain to find our assumptions about what makes machines intelligent and break them.”

You may not be familiar with Nethack, but it’s one of the most influential games of all time. You’re an adventurer in a fantasy world, delving through the increasingly dangerous depths of a dungeon that’s different every time. You must battle monsters, navigate traps and other hazards, and meanwhile stay on good terms with your god. It’s the first “roguelike” (after Rogue, its immediate and much simpler predecessor) and arguably still the best — almost certainly the hardest.

(It’s free, by the way, and you can download and play it on nearly any platform.)

Its simple ASCII graphics, using a g for a goblin, an @ for the player, lines and dots for the level’s architecture, and so on, belie its incredible complexity. Because Nethack, which made its debut in 1987, has been under active development ever since, with its shifting team of developers expanding its roster of objects and creatures, rules, and the countless, countless interactions between them all.

And this is part of what makes Nethack such a difficult and interesting challenge for AI: It’s so open-ended. Not only is the world different every time, but every object and creature can interact in new ways, most of them hand-coded over decades to cover every possible player choice.

Nethack with a tile-based graphics update – all the information is still available via text.

“Atari, Dota 2, StarCraft 2… the solutions we’ve had to make progress there are very interesting. Nethack just presents different challenges. You have to rely on human knowledge to play the game as a human,” said Grefenstette.

In these other games, there’s a more or less obvious strategy to winning. Of course it’s more complex in a game like Dota 2 than in an Atari 800 game, but the idea is the same — there are pieces the player controls, a game board of environment, and win conditions to pursue. That’s kind of the case in Nethack, but it’s weirder than that. For one thing, the game is different every time, and not just in the details.

“New dungeon, new world, new monsters and items, you don’t have a save point. If you make a mistake and die you don’t get a second shot. It’s a bit like real life,” said Grefenstette. “You have to learn from mistakes and come to new situations armed with that knowledge.”

Drinking a corrosive potion is a bad idea, of course, but what about throwing it at a monster? Coating your weapon with it? Pouring it on the lock of a treasure chest? Diluting it with water? We have intuitive ideas about these actions, but a game-playing AI doesn’t think the way we do.

The depth and complexity of the systems in Nethack are difficult to explain, but that diversity and difficulty make the game a perfect candidate for a competition, according to Grefenstette. “You have to rely on human knowledge to play the game,” he said.

People have been designing bots to play Nethack for many years that rely not on neural networks but decision trees as complex as the game itself. The team at Facebook Research hopes to engender a new approach by building a training environment that people can test machine learning-based game-playing algorithms on.

Nethack screens with labels showing what the AI is aware of.

The Nethack Learning Environment was actually put together last year, but the Nethack Challenge is only just now getting started. The NLE is basically a version of the game embedded in a dedicated computing environment that lets an AI interact with it through text commands (directions, actions like attack or quaff)

It’s a tempting target for ambitious AI designers. While games like StarCraft 2 may enjoy a higher profile in some ways, Nethack is legendary and the idea of building a model on completely different lines from those used to dominate other games is an interesting challenge.

It’s also, as Grefenstette explained, a more accessible one than many in the past. If you wanted to build an AI for StarCraft 2, you needed a lot of computing power available to run visual recognition engines on the imagery from the game. But in this case the entire game is transmitted via text, making it extremely efficient to work with. It can be played thousands of times faster than any human could with even the most basic computing setup. That leaves the challenge wide open to individuals and groups who don’t have access to the kind of high-power setups necessary to power other machine learning methods.

“We wanted to create a research environment that had a lot of challenges for the AI community, but not restrict it to only large academic labs,” he said.

For the next few months, NLE will be available for people to test on, and competitors can basically build their bot or AI by whatever means they choose. But when the competition itself starts in earnest on October 15, they’ll be limited to interacting with the game in its controlled environment through standard commands — no special access, no inspecting RAM, etc.

The goal of the competition will be to complete the game, and the Facebook team will track how many times the agent “ascends,” as it’s called in Nethack, in a set amount of time. But “we’re assuming this is going to be zero for everyone,” Grefenstette admitted. After all, this is one of the hardest games ever made, and even humans who have played it for years have trouble winning even once in a lifetime, let alone several times in a row. There will be other scoring metrics to judge winners in a number of categories.

The hope is that this challenge provides the seed of a new approach to AI, one that more fundamentally resembles actual human thinking. Shortcuts, trial and error, score-hacking, and zerging won’t work here — the agent needs to learn systems of logic and apply them flexibly and intelligently, or die horribly at the hands of an enraged centaur or owlbear.

You can check out the rules and other specifics of the Nethack Challenge here. Results will be announced at the NeurIPS conference later this year.

#artificial-intelligence, #facebook, #facebook-ai-research, #facebook-research, #gaming, #machine-learning, #nethack, #science

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Tiny handheld Playdate ships next month for $179, with 24 charming monochrome games to start

Playdate, app and game designer Panic’s first shot at hardware, finally has a firm price and ship date, as well as a bunch of surprise features cooked up since its announcement in 2019. The tiny handheld gaming console will cost $179, ship next month, and come with a 24-game “season” doled out over 12 weeks. But now it also has a cute speaker dock and low-code game creation platform.

We first heard about Playdate more than two years ago, were charmed by its clean look, funky crank control, and black and white display, and have been waiting for news ever since. Panic’s impeccable design credentials combined with Teenage Engineering’s creative hardware chops? It’s bound to be a joy to use, but there wasn’t much more than that to go on.

Now the company has revealed all the important details we were hoping for, and many more to boot.

The Playdate handheld with a person playing a game on it.

Image Credits: Panic

Originally we were expecting 12 games to be delivered over 12 weeks, but in the intervening period it seems they’ve collected more titles than planned, and that initial “season” of games has expanded to 24. No one knows exactly what to expect from these games except that they’re exclusive to the Playdate and many use the crank mechanic in what appear to be fun and interesting ways: turning a turntable, opening a little door, doing tricks as a surfer, and so on.

The team hasn’t decided how future games will be distributed, though they seem to have some ideas. Another season? One-off releases? Certainly the presence of a new game by one-man indie hit parade Lucas Pope would sell like hotcakes.

Screenshots of the Pulp game creation tool.

Image Credits: Panic

But the debut of a new lo-fi game development platform called Pulp suggests a future where self-publishing may also be an option. This lovely little web-based tool lets anyone put together a game using presets for things like controls and actions, and may prove to be a sort of tiny Twine in time.

A dock accessory was announced as well, something to keep your Playdate front and center on your desk. The speaker-equipped dock, also a lemony yellow, acts as a magnetic charging cradle for the console, activating a sort of stationary mode with a clock and music player (Poolsuite.fm, apparently, with original relaxing tunes). It even has two holes in which to put your pens (and Panic made a special yellow pen just for the purpose as well).

Playdate attached to its little cubical dock.

Image Credits: Panic

The $179 price may cause some to balk — after all, it’s considerably more than a Nintendo 3DS and with the dock probably approaches the price of a Switch. But this isn’t meant to be a competitor with mainstream gaming — instead, it’s a sort of anti-establishment system that embraces weirdness and provides something equally unfamiliar and undeniably fun.

The team says that there will be a week’s warning before orders can be placed, and that they don’t plan to shut orders down if inventory runs out, but simply allow people to preorder and cancel at will until they receive their unit. We hope to get one ourselves to test and review, but since part of the charm of the whole thing is the timed release and social aspect of discovery and sharing, it’s more than likely we’ll be experiencing it along with everyone else.

#gadgets, #gaming, #hardware, #panic, #playdate

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Twitch introduces Animated Emotes for their 10th anniversary

Twitch announced today that they will release major updates to their Emotes this month to celebrate their 10th anniversary. These new features will include Animated Emotes, Follower Emotes, and a Library for Emotes. 

Since the origin of the live streaming platform for gamers, Emotes – Twitch’s version of emojis – have been a key component of Twitch culture. They’re micro memes, and images like Kappa, TriHard, and PogChamp have come to carry meaning in the greater gaming world, even off the Twitch platform. 

“Emotes are a language that transcends countries,” said Ivan Santana, Senior Director of Community Product at Twitch. “Anywhere you are in the world, they mean the same thing for us.”

The Amazon-owned platform regularly adds new global Emotes, which can be used on any streamer’s channel. Individual creators can make custom Emotes for their own community, which paying subscribers can use across the platform. But the ability to add animated gifs as Emotes is something that the community has been asking for since Santana can remember. 

“I’ve been at Twitch for four years, and it’s something people have been asking for since before I joined,” Santana told TechCrunch. “It’s certainly been a very, very long time.” 

Streamers who lack animation skills need not worry. While the more tech-savvy among us can upload custom gifs, Twitch will provide six templates for streamers to choose from, which can animate their existing Emotes. These animations include Shake, Rave, Roll, Spin, Slide In, and Slide Out. Viewers who are sensitive to animations will be able to turn off the feature in their Chat Settings. 

Image Credits: Twitch

Twitch is also beta testing Follower Emotes, which will be available to select Partners and Affiliates. This feature creates a fun, free incentive for viewers to hit the follow button on a channel they might be checking out for the first time. When viewers follow a channel, they’ll be notified when the creator is streaming, which can lead to an eventual subscription. Twitch takes 50% of streamers’ subscription money, creating a valuable revenue stream for the company.

In Q1 of 2021, Twitch viewership hit an all-time high, growing 16.5% since the previous quarter. Twitch viewers watched 6.34 billion hours of content in Q1, making up 72.3% of the market share. That’s double the total hours watched on Twitch in Q1 of 2020. Facebook Gaming and YouTube Gaming earned 12.1% and 15.6% of viewership in the sector respectively. 

“For a long time, creators have been asking for better ways to attract and welcome new viewers into their channel,” said Santana. “The idea is generally to create a lot of excitement around that community, and more feelings ultimately of community.”

Creators with beta access will be able to upload up to five Emotes for their followers, but unlike Subscriber Emotes, followers won’t be able to use these across other channels. There’s no guarantee that Follower Emotes will be here to stay – Santana says it’s a feature Twitch is “experimenting” with – but if all goes well, the feature will roll out more widely later in the year.

Finally, the Library function will make it easier for creators to to swap Emotes in and out of subscription tiers without having to delete and reupload them each time. This builds upon an upgrade that launched in January, which centralized channel-specific icons into an Emotes tab on the Creator Dashboard. As usual, new Emotes have to be approved by Twitch before they’re put into use. The Library will roll out soon to all Partners and Affiliates, staggered over a few months to account for an expected increase in volume of new Emotes. 

“As Twitch has scaled, we now have millions of communities across many different cultures across the world,” Santana said. “We can hand over more of the controls of our Emote language to our community, and let them sort of evolve in a way that we never could imagine that ultimately serves them in their unique ways.”

Twitch teased that there’s more in the works to celebrate the platform’s 10th anniversary, including an official 10 Year celebration. 

#animation, #apps, #computing, #digital-media, #emotes, #entertainment, #gamers, #gaming, #livestreaming, #streaming, #twitch, #video-gaming, #video-hosting

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Microsoft’s Surface Duo gets dual-screen gaming support

In December, Microsoft wrote a blog post highlighting “The year ahead for Surface Duo.” The news highlighted the dual-screen device’s upcoming availability outside the U.S. (including Canada, the U.K., France and Germany this year), as well as a smattering of features. It’s been pretty well acknowledged from most everyone who reviewed the device (us included), that it’s very much a work in progress.

After making the feature available in beta, Microsoft today is issuing at update to Xbox Cloud Gaming for Android that will unlock some of the product’s entertainment potential. It’s something the company has discussed, and even previewed, but until now, it has remained one of a handful of blind spots.

The app works as you’d expect on the Duo — displaying the game on the top screen and transforming the bottom into a virtual version of an Xbox controller in the Compose Mode orientation. Obviously you can only go so far on that front with a touchscreen, but gaming is genuinely an application where having a second screen can really come in handy.

As Engadget notes, there are now more than 50 titles that support Xbox Touch Controls. Those will be available to users with an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription.

A much-hyped — and eagerly anticipated — alternative to the foldable form factor, the Duo was a disappointment on launch. The company has since dropped the product’s price from $1,500 to $1,000 — not exactly a sign that it was selling well — but continued software support like this is, perhaps, an indication that the company is going to support the line going forward, in spite of early stumbles.

 

#foldables, #gaming, #hardware, #microsoft, #mobile, #surface, #surface-duo, #xbox

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Women-led sports media startup The GIST raises $1M to challenge sports reporting norms

The three co-founders of The GIST are all themselves sports fans, but realized in 2018 that sports media in general left a lot to be desired when it comes to catering to audiences outside of the traditional, male-dominated stereoptyical sports audience. So they started a new kind of sports media enterprise, taking a risk on a very different kind of careers vs. their background in financial services in Toronto.

On the back of impressive 350% audience through 2020, c-founders Jacie DeHoop, Ellen Hyslop and Roslyn McLarty have now raises an initial $1 million round of seed funding, form investors including 3GP Capital, JDS Sports, August Group, Even Odds Investments, and Bettor Capital. The company also just got approved for a $350,000 loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada, bringing its total new funding across venture and state-backed credit incentives to $1.35 million.

“In the sports industry, as you probably are aware, less than 4% of coverage is on female athletes, and less than 14% of sports journalists are women,” explained McLarty, who is also The GIST’s head of finance, operations and growth. “It’s no wonder, as women, we don’t necessarily resonate with the the more traditional male-dominated sports media and the way that sports is represented. So we were finding it hard to be a part of that community sports can provide, and around the same time, we were seeing a trend of media companies developing these more authentic relationships with their audience, and building community and being built a little bit more ground up, and that being really effective.”

McLarty cites other media ventures including theSkimm, Morning Brew and The Hustle as examples of what her and her co-=foudners saw was working well in media. That approach, combined with what they saw as a massive potential untapped audience, led to the creation of The GIST, which because as a newsletter and has evolved into a news site, a podcast and more.

“We started with the purpose of making sports more accessible, inclusive, approachable and fun for a casual fan, or a female fan,” she said. “For anyone really, that hadn’t resonated with traditional sports media.”

I asked McLarty why her and her co-founders wanted to get into the media business specifically, given that their experience prior to that was on Bay Street, which is effectively Toronto’s equivalent of Wall Street. She admitted that it took the trio some time to find their footing, but that now the business has opened up a new and growing audience that basically wasn’t served previously, which is helping them win over advertisers and brand partnerships.

“I think we’ve discovered an audience that is really valuable, and there hasn’t really been a way for brand partners to engage with a female audience through sports,” she said. “So we’ve kind of found our niche, and have built really built things out and gotten to the point where we are today in a really lean lean way. The hard part was the initial investment in the audience to get it to the point where it is now, but once you hit that scale in the audience, the margins on the newsletter are obviously awesome for every additional person that we add on.”

The GIST’s partners include brands like the NBA, FanDuel, Red Bull and Adidas, to name a few, and it says its revenue is up over 1,000% this year vs. the year prior, on course to meet its goal of $1 million in total revenue for 2021. The company says it will be using the new funding to grow the team, including new hires on the content side, as well as additional headcount on the sales and operation teams, too.

#adidas, #articles, #business-development-bank-of-canada, #daily-fantasy-sports, #electronic-arts, #entertainment, #fanduel, #finance, #financial-services, #funding, #gaming, #gist, #media, #national-basketball-association, #nba, #red-bull, #tc, #toronto

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Fantasy fantasy sport Blaseball developers score $3M seed funding to go mobile

In the absence of a real baseball league, it is perhaps not surprising that a simulated one should grow popular during the troubled year 2020. But even so, the absurdist horror and minimalist aesthetic of Blaseball seem an unlikely success. The text-based fantasy fantasy league has attracted hundreds of thousands of players and now $3.4 million in funding to build up the game and go mobile.

If you’re unfamiliar with Blaseball, feel free to go check it out now and sign up — it’s free. You’ll probably get a better idea of what the game is from 30 seconds of browsing than the next couple paragraphs.

For those of you who’d rather read, however, Blaseball is a web-based fictional baseball-esque league where players can bet in-game currency on the outcomes. But this is where things get weird. The teams aren’t the Mariners or the Mets but the Moist Talkers and the Worms; players have names like Chorby Soul and Peanutiel Duffy; their stats include things like allergies, pregame rituals, and an inventory of RPG-like items.

Likewise, games — told through simple text summaries of the action like you might see in the corner of a sports site — involve hits, balls, and stealing, but also incineration, shaming, and secret bases. “Weather” might involve spontaneous blood transfusions between players, or birds that interfere with play.

In short, it’s totally ridiculous, utterly unpredictable, and very funny. This totally unique concoction of fantasy leagues, baseball satire, and cosmic horror has accrued a dedicated yet routinely puzzled fanbase over its 19 week-long seasons. And like so many hits, this one came as something of a shock to its creators.

Activity feed from the game Blaseball showing various absurd and normal events like hits and incinerations.

Image Credits: The Game Band

“We’re as surprised as you are,” said Sam Rosenthal, founder and CEO of The Game Band, which developed (and is developing) the game. “Blaseball was an experimental side project for the studio — we were in the middle of a pandemic, publishers were in a spending freeze, it was a scary time. We wanted to make a game that brings people together in this really isolating time.”

The idea for it came from banter at a real baseball game, where Rosenthal and a friend speculated about a league where the rules were “different and more chaotic.” Of course the rules of real-life baseball are continually being revised, but so far there haven’t been any resurrections of players incinerated by rogue umpires, free runs for home teams, or shrink rays.

While the resulting game-like product bears some resemblance to baseball, betting, and fantasy leagues, it’s much too weird and random to really be considered the same thing. That’s led to some friction as players who expect a more traditional experience lose coins on a game decided by, say, a bird pecking their team’s star hitter inside an enormous peanut shell, or a guaranteed home run because the batter ate magma.

The Hades Tigers… so hot right now. The roster shows a team’s current and permanent attributes, while players can work together to create change by voting weekly.

“Sometimes we have to remind the fans that this is a horror game,” Rosenthal admitted. The gameplay, as players discover in time, consists more in cooperation and guiding the league itself than in precision oddsmaking. “This is not a game about individual success but collective success. The mechanics of the game reward organization, fans banding together with other fans of their team.”

Using those coins to buy votes to determine how the most-idolized players are treated at the end of a season, for instance, could have huge repercussions on the next season. Ultimately the players are really participating in a sort of long-term alternative-reality game rather than a zany baseball sim, as the ominous announcements and events drive home now and again.

Next to the outcome of a match and the news that a player was walked to second base, you might learn that “Reality flickered in the Feedback” or see disembodied dialogue about the league or disordered cosmos.

It can be disconcerting and one may rightly wonder whether the creators have a narrative or goal in mind, or whether they’re just winging it and being weird for weirdness’s sake. I guessed the latter, but Rosenthal set me straight.

The Game Band logo on a flag behind several instruments.

Image Credits: The Game Band

“It is going somewhere,” he assured me. “There are a lot of plans, we have a ton of lore written. We literally have a writers’ room every day, usually about 3-4 hours long. But we need to stay flexible because there’s two other creators: the simulation, since we don’t know what will happen in the games themselves, and the fans. There are things we don’t know they’ll latch onto, emergent narratives like the reincarnation of Jaylen Hotdogs. We’re always learning, and we give ourselves a lot of room to backtrack or change things quickly if needed.”

What was never clear even to the developers, however, was whether the game would live long enough to see those plans come to fruition. Blaseball, being a side project built during strange days, was never envisioned as a big money maker. For a small game developer to have a runaway success on their hands but little ability to monetize that success, the stresses of continuing development and support can overtake the benefits of popularity.

“Since we didn’t really set it up from the get go to be profitable, we were just sort of slowly losing money,” said Rosenthal. “Fortunately our community has been really supportive through Patreon and sponsorships. But ultimately we wanted to make the game better and sustainable, and we wanted to pay our team what they deserve.”

Illustration showing how 51 percent of Blaseball players are on mobile.

Image Credits: The Game Band

The $3M seed round keeps the lights on, to begin with, but also lets The Game Band staff up, so the writers don’t have to break up a meeting early because one of them is doubling as product support and the site is breaking. More importantly, however, the team plans to make a native mobile app. More than half of Blaseball’s players (that is, the real ones, not Baby Triumphant and Wyatt Mason IV) are on mobile and Rosenthal admitted the mobile experience is “not great.”

The company comes from a mobile development background, he noted, so they know what they’re doing, but saw the web as the easiest platform to deploy on during the pandemic. Now they want to get mobile up and running, since the live, constantly shifting nature of the game fits well with the kind of updates sports and fantasy aficionados tend to sign up for. Who wouldn’t want to know right away that their favorite team has entered Party Time, or that their idolized player found a new piece of armor, or that a new non-physical law has been ratified?

Rosenthal said they resisted seeking funding to begin with due to a desire for independence, but was enthused about their choice of investor, Makers Fund, saying they actually understand Blaseball and have been partners rather than parents when it comes to moving the operation towards making money.

“The know we can’t just copy monetization from another game and put it in Blaseball, that would ruin the experience right away. They have an amazing network of people in the games industry, and at the end of the day they’re not prescriptive,” he said.

(They also gamely did not object to a line in the press release by the fictional Commissioner asserting that “Blaseball has acquired Makers Fund,” which says a lot.)

“We’re very cognizant that there are ways that free games can monetize that are detrimental to the community,” he continued. “So it will always be free to play and it will never be pay to win. Like, the Crabs are never going to run away with it because they’re the richest team. When we think about monetization we think about how it can benefit the community as a whole, not individuals.”

In the meantime the league slouches on, morphing from week to week in a live dialogue between players and developers. Don’t expect it go get any less weird, because the creators know that constant disorientation is part of the game’s charm.

Amazingly, Rosenthal even managed to suggest that Blaseball was, in the parlance of game design tropes, the Dark Souls of baseball simulators — “it [Dark Souls] gives you so little, it asks you to interpret and put a thesis together, to go linger on forums and talk with others about it. We wanted to create that kind of experience, and see how people would interpret this sort of weird, unknowable entity.”

They certainly got the weird and unknowable part right. You can try Blaseball out for yourself here.

#apps, #baseball, #fantasy-sports, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gaming, #media, #mobile, #recent-funding, #sports, #startups, #venture-capital

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Gucci brings digital items and experiences to Roblox in new partnership

As gaming platforms capitalize on pandemic-fueled traffic to their digital worlds, brands that drive culture in the physical world are fighting to ensure they don’t miss any new opportunities. A new partnership between Roblox and Gucci brings digital items from the fashion house into the platform’s metaverse alongside a new limited-run digital experience.

Guccis new experience teams a set of virtual spaces with a set of digital branded items in an effort to immerse Roblox users inside a world that feels unique to the Gucci brand and Roblox platform. The new space, called Gucci Garden, debuts today for a two-week run on the Roblox platform.

The environment takes advantage of recent advances in the game engine powering Roblox, bringing users a high-dynamic set of environments that they can traverse as blank mannequins, which evolve visually as users move through different spaces. Different rooms in the experience draw influence from different Gucci campaigns of the past several years. The digital event’s rollout accompanies a real-world multimedia event in Florence.

The rollout follows an early pilot with creator Rook Vanguard in releasing Gucci-branded digital items to the platform this past December.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Gucci CMO Robert Triefus details how the luxury fashion brand has been redefining its approachability as it extends its reach to digital platforms like Roblox — which the company sees as an opportunity that’s growing too quickly to ignore.

“Hats off to Roblox, scale came quickly,” Triefus tells TechCrunch. “Gucci is scale, though it’s taken us 100 years, and it took Roblox about 100 days.”

For high-fashion brands, the digital sphere has presented plenty of challenges when it comes to preserving exclusivity on a medium that begs for mass adoption. Triefus says Gucci has aimed to lean into the access offered by digital platforms as a way of promoting a more inclusive brand.

“There’s so much talk today about the metaverse,” Triefus says. “In the last 6 years, [Creative Director Alessandro Michele] has created a Gucci Metaverse but it’s not necessarily a digital manifestation, it’s a narrative.”

Luxury and authenticity have been some of the central sells of blockchain-based NFTs, something Triefus still sees opportunities for down the road. “It’s astonishing to me how fast the conversation around NFTs has exploded,” Triefus says. “We’ve been studying blockchain for a long time as you might imagine, authenticity of product and of experience is extremely important.”

In addition to experiments with Roblox, late last year Gucci partnered with startup Genies to outfit user avatars.

Virtual items from real world retailers have been relatively slow to pop up inside digital worlds, though as user perceptions of paying for digital goods have shifted, platforms are moving to capitalize.

“We don’t partner with very many brands,” Roblox exec Christina Wootton tells TechCrunch. “One thing that was very special when we started speaking with Gucci is that they took the time to understand our platform and what works well for designers and creators in our community.”

#distributed-computing, #florence, #gaming, #genies, #gucci, #metaverse, #online-games, #roblox, #tc, #video-gaming

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Leveling the playing field

In 2011, a product developer named Fred Davison read an article about inventor Ken Yankelevitz and his QuadControl video game controller for quadriplegics. At the time, Yankelevitz was on the verge of retirement. Davison wasn’t a gamer, but he said his mother, who had the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS, inspired him to pick up where Yankelevitz was about to leave off.

Launched in 2014, Davison’s QuadStick represents the latest iteration of the Yankelevitz controller — one that has garnered interest across a broad range of industries. 

“The QuadStick’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Davison told TechCrunch. “And I get a lot of feedback as to what it means for [disabled gamers] to be able to be involved in these games.”

Laying the groundwork

Erin Muston-Firsch, an occupational therapist at Craig Hospital in Denver, says adaptive gaming tools like the QuadStick have revolutionized the hospital’s therapy team. 

Six years ago, she devised a rehabilitation solution for a college student who came in with a spinal cord injury. She says he liked playing video games, but as a result of his injury could no longer use his hands. So the rehab regimen incorporated Davison’s invention, which enabled the patient to play World of Warcraft and Destiny. 

QuadStick

Jackson “Pitbull” Reece is a successful Facebook streamer who uses his mouth to operate the QuadStick, as well as the XAC, (the Xbox Adaptive Controller), a controller designed by Microsoft for use by people with disabilities to make user input for video games more accessible. 

Reece lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 2007 and later, due to an infection, lost the use of his upper body. He says he remembers able-bodied life as one filled with mostly sports video games. He says being a part of the gaming community is an important part of his mental health.

Fortunately there is an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition, around the creation of hardware for gamers within the assistive technology community. 

But while not every major tech company has been proactive about accessibility, after-market devices are available to create customized gaming experiences for disabled gamers.

Enter Microsoft

At its Hackathon in 2015, Microsoft’s Inclusive Lead Bryce Johnson met with disabled veterans’ advocacy group Warfighter Engaged

“We were at the same time developing our views on inclusive design,” Johnson said. Indeed, eight generations of gaming consoles created barriers for disabled gamers.

“Controllers have been optimized around a primary use case that made assumptions,” Johnson said. Indeed, the buttons and triggers of a traditional controller are for able-bodied people with the endurance to operate them. 

Besides Warfighter Engaged, Microsoft worked with AbleGamers (the most recognized charity for gamers with disabilities), Craig Hospital, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Special Effect, a U.K.-based charity for disabled young gamers. 

Xbox Adaptive Controller

The finished XAC, released in 2018, is intended for a gamer with limited mobility to seamlessly play with other gamers. One of the details gamers commented on was that the XAC looks like a consumer device, not a medical device.

“We knew that we couldn’t design this product for this community,” Johnson told TechCrunch. “We had to design this product with this community. We believe in ‘nothing about us without us.’ Our principles of inclusive design urge us to include communities from the very beginning.”

Taking on the giants

There were others getting involved. Like many inventions, the creation of the Freedom Wing was a bit of serendipity.

At his booth at an assistive technology (AT) conference, ATMakers‘ Bill Binko showcased a doll named “Ella” using the ATMakers Joystick, a power-chair device. Also in attendance was Steven Spohn, who is part of the brain trust behind AbleGamers.

Spohn saw the Joystick and told Binko he wanted a similar device to work with the XAC. The Freedom Wing was ready within six weeks. It was a matter of manipulating the sensors to control a game controller instead of a chair. This device didn’t require months of R&D and testing because it had already been road tested as a power-chair device. 

ATMakers Freedom Wing 2

Binko said mom-and-pop companies are leading the way in changing the face of accessible gaming technology. Companies like Microsoft and Logitech have only recently found their footing.

ATMakers, QuadStick and other smaller creators, meanwhile, have been busy disrupting the industry. 

“Everybody gets [gaming] and it opens up the ability for people to engage with their community,” Binko said. “Gaming is something that people can wrap their heads around and they can join in.” 

Barriers of entry

As the technology evolves, so do the obstacles to accessibility. These challenges include lack of support teams, security, licensing and VR. 

Binko said managing support teams for these devices with the increase in demand is a new hurdle. More people with the technological skills are needed to join the AT industry to assist with the creation, installation and maintenance of devices. 

Security and licensing is out of the hands of small creators like Davison because of financial and other resources needed to work with different hardware companies. For example, Sony’s licensing enforcement technology has become increasingly complex with each new console generation. 

With Davison’s background in tech, he understands the restrictions to protect proprietary information. “They spend huge amounts of money developing a product and they want to control every aspect of it,” Davison said. “Just makes it tough for the little guy to work with.”

And while PlayStation led the way in button mapping, according to Davison, the security process is stringent. He doesn’t understand how it benefits the console company to prevent people from using whichever controller they want. 

“The cryptography for the PS5 and DualSense controller is uncrackable so far, so adapter devices like the ConsoleTuner Titan Two have to find other weaknesses, like the informal ‘man in the middle’ attack,” Davison said. 

The technique allows devices to utilize older-gen PlayStation controllers as a go-between from the QuadStick to the latest-gen console, so disabled gamers can play the PS5. TechCrunch reached out to Sony’s accessibility division, whose representative said there are no immediate plans for an adaptable PlayStation or controller. However, they stated their department works with advocates and gaming devs to consider accessibility from day one.  

In contrast, Microsoft’s licensing system is more forgiving, especially with the XAC and the ability to use older-generation controllers with newer systems. 

“Compare the PC industry to the Mac,” Davison said. “You can put together a PC system from a dozen different manufacturers, but not for the Mac. One is an open standard and the other is closed.”

A more accessible future

In November, Japanese controller company HORI released an officially licensed accessibility controller for the Nintendo Switch. It’s not available for sale in the United States currently, but there are no region restrictions to purchase one online. This latest development points toward a more accessibility-friendly Nintendo, though the company has yet to fully embrace the technology. 

Nintendo’s accessibility department declined a full interview but sent a statement to TechCrunch. “Nintendo endeavors to provide products and services that can be enjoyed by everyone. Our products offer a range of accessibility features, such as button-mapping, motion controls, a zoom feature, grayscale and inverted colors, haptic and audio feedback, and other innovative gameplay options. In addition, Nintendo’s software and hardware developers continue to evaluate different technologies to expand this accessibility in current and future products.”

The push for more accessible hardware for disabled gamers hasn’t been smooth. Many of these devices were created by small business owners with little capital. In a few cases corporations with a determination for inclusivity at the earliest stages of development became involved. 

Slowly but surely, however, assistive technology is moving forward in ways that can make the experience much more accessible for gamers with disabilities.

 

#accessibility, #advocacy, #chair, #column, #cryptography, #game-controller, #gaming, #hardware, #hori, #joystick, #logitech, #microsoft, #nintendo, #playstation, #xbox, #xbox-adaptive-controller, #xbox-one

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Legionfarm, pairing pro gamers with amateurs, raises $6 million Series A

Legionfarm, the gaming platform that lets gamers play with pro players in their favorite games, has today announced the close of a $6 million Series A round. Investors in the round include SVB, Y Combinator, Scrum VC, Kevin Lin, Altair Capital, Ankur Nagpal and more.

Legionfarm launched out of Y Combinator at the beginning of last year with a mission to give pro players a way to generate income and amateur players the chance to get better by playing with a pro coach. It started out with an a la carte business model but has since added a subscription product.

It either costs $12/hour to play on an individual session basis (one hour of play) or you can pay $25 or $50/month. That gives gamers access to discounted prices for pros and unlimited sessions with pros who are brand new to the platform, which Legionfarm calls ‘rookies’.

The company was founded by Alex Belyankin, who is a former pro gamer and was once in the top .01 percent of World of Warcraft players. There are many, many pro caliber players out in the world who can’t necessarily make a living off of gaming. They either have to be signed by an org (super limited supply) or play in as many tournaments as possible (unreliable) or stream on Twitch.

Legionfarm gives these pros the opportunity to earn a living playing the games they love.

Meanwhile, gamers are always looking to get better but don’t often have the environments in a game to do so, particularly in Battle Royale games. Legionfarm, which supports a couple of the biggest BRs (Call of Duty: Warzone and Apex Legends), allows these players to team up with pros and learn from them.

The startup is also running a hardware support program, which lets pros on the platform effectively rent gear by paying for it over time in installments that come directly out of their earnings each month.

“Recently, we’ve learned that one pro player can acquire seven or more new customers to the platform if we work with the pro properly,” said Belyankin. “That’s the biggest growth point for us and the biggest challenge. We don’t need to demand in the performance channels, but through existing supply. If we manage to build some sustainable processes here, I think we’re going to skyrocket because we see some huge potential here.”

#entertainment, #gaming, #legionfarm, #recent-funding, #startups, #y-combinator

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Xbox teams up with Tencent’s Honor of Kings maker TiMi Studios

TiMi Studios, one of the world’s most lucrative game makers and is part of Tencent’s gargantuan digital entertainment empire, said Thursday that it has struck a strategic partnership with Xbox.

The succinct announcement did not mention whether the tie-up is for content development or Xbox’s console distribution in China but said more details will be unveiled for the “deep partnership” by the end of this year.

Established in 2008 within Tencent, TiMi is behind popular mobile titles such as Honor of Kings and Call of Duty Mobile. In 2020, Honor of Kings alone generated close to $2.5 billion in player spending, according to market research company SensorTower. In all, TiMi pocketed $10 billion in revenue last year, according to a report from Reuters citing people with knowledge.

The partnership could help TiMi build a name globally by converting its mobile titles into console plays for Microsoft’s Xbox. TiMi has been trying to strengthen its own brand and distinguish itself from other Tencent gaming clusters, such as its internal rival LightSpeed & Quantum Studio, which is known for PUBG Mobile.

TiMi operates a branch in Los Angeles and said in January 2020 that it planned to “triple” its headcount in North America, adding that building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games was core to its global strategy. There are clues in a recruitment notice posted recently by a TiMi employee: The unit is hiring developers for an upcoming AAA title that is benchmarked against the Oasis, a massively multiplayer online game that evolves into a virtual society in the fiction and film Ready Player One. Oasis is played via a virtual reality headset.

Xbox’s latest Series X and Series S are to debut in China imminently, though the launch doesn’t appear to be linked to the Tencent deal. Sony’s Playstation 5 just hit the shelves in China in late April. Nintendo Switch distributes in China through a partnership with Tencent sealed in 2019.

Chinese console players often resort to grey markets for foreign editions because the list of Chinese titles approved by local authorities is tiny compared to what’s available outside the country. But these grey markets, both online and offline, are susceptible to ongoing clampdown. Most recently in March, product listings by multiple top sellers of imported console games vanished from Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace.

#asia, #call-of-duty, #china, #gadgets, #gaming, #honor-of-kings, #los-angeles, #nintendo, #nintendo-switch, #player, #ready-player-one, #tencent, #video-games, #video-gaming, #virtual-reality, #xbox

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Sanlo raises $3.5M to help apps and games gain access to financial insights and capital

Having a great idea for an app or game is one thing, but scaling it to become a successful business is quite another. A new fintech startup called Sanlo aims to help. The company, which is today announcing an oversubscribed $3.5 million seed round, offers small to medium-sized game and app companies access to tools to manage their finances and capital to fuel their growth.

To be clear, Sanlo is not an investor that’s taking an equity stake in the apps and games it finances. Instead, it’s offering businesses access to technology, tools, and insights that will allow them to achieve smart and scalable growth while remaining financially healthy — even if they’re a smaller company without time to sit down and structure their finances. Then, when Sanlo’s proprietary algorithms determine the business could benefit from the smart deployment of capital, it will assist by offering financing.

The idea for Sanlo hails from co-founders Olya Caliujnaia and William Liu, who both have backgrounds in fintech and gaming.

Caliujnaia began her career in venture capital in one of the first mobile-focused funds, before moving to operator roles in gaming, stock photography, and fintech, at EA, Getty Images, and SigFig, respectively. She later joined early-stage fintech and enterprise fund XYZ.vc as an Entrepreneur in Residence.

Liu, meanwhile, had also worked in gaming at EA, but later switched to fintech, working at startups like Earnest and Branch.

After reconnecting in San Francisco, the co-founders realized they could put their combined experience to work in order to help smaller businesses just starting out recognize when it’s time to scale, what areas of the business to invest in, and how much capital they need to grow.

Image Credits: Sanlo’s Olya Caliujnaia and William Liu

Caliujnaia has seen how the app and gaming market has evolved over the years, and she realized the difficulties new developers now face.

“You have this explosion of the app economy that’s growing insanely,” she says. “That’s the exciting part of it. That creativity. That passion and that desire to build — that’s so admirable.”

Today, companies benefit from having access to better development tools, broader access to talent, consumer demand, and other forces, she notes, compared with those in the past. But on the flip side, it’s become incredibly difficult to scale a consumer app or game.

“I think a lot of that comes down to, one, that there are dynamics around the free-to-play model — how you monetize and therefore, what kind of players and users you bring on board,” Caliujnaia says. “And then the second aspect is that it’s just harder to get noticed. So, ultimately, it comes down to marketing.”

Many of the decisions that a company has to make on this front are predictable, however. That means Sanlo doesn’t have to sit down with businesses and consult with them one-on-one, the way a financial advisor working in wealth management would do with their clients.

Instead, Sanlo asks companies for certain types of data to get started. This includes product data about how well the app or game monetizes and customer acquisition and retention, for example, as well as marketing data and a subset of financial data. Its predictive algorithms then continually monitor the company’s growth trajectory to surface insights to identify where and how the business can grow.

This concept alone could have worked as a services business for mobile studios, but Sanlo takes the next step beyond advice to actually provide companies with access to capital. The amount of financing provided will vary based on the life stage of the company and risk profile, but it’s non-dilutive capital. That is, Sanlo takes no ownership stake in the companies it finances.

Image Credits: Sanlo

Caliujnaia said it made more sense to go this route rather than return to the VC world, because of potential to reach a wider group.

“There’s this long tail of developers and it’s more about enabling them, rather than producing more hits,” she says. “It’s very different mindsets, different markets that we’re going for.”

Sanlo doesn’t have a lot of direct competitors beyond perhaps, Silicon Valley Bank and other financial lenders, as well as mobile gaming publishers. But the publisher model often implies some sort of ownership, which is a significant differentiating factor. In some cases, you may see a larger gaming company extending debt financing to a smaller one. That was the case with Finnish mobile games company Metacore which recently raised another debt round from gaming giant Supercell, for example.

Caliujnaia points out that most smaller companies don’t have that kind of access to financing. Now they could, through Sanlo.

“The idea is to have a healthier layer of companies that are able to survive for the long-term,” she says.

That means more companies that won’t have to stress about their futures, leading to them to aggressively monetize their users, and later, scrambling for an exit when their financial runway comes to an end.

Sanlo is currently pilot testing its system with a small group of mobile game studios who will serve as its initial customer base, but plans to later support consumer apps, which have similar struggles with customer acquisition costs and growth.

The San Francisco-headquartered startup itself was founded in 2020 and began raising money. It has now raised a total of $3.5 million in seed funding co-led by Index Ventures and Initial Capital, with participation from LVP, Portag3 Ventures, and  XYZ Venture Capital. Angel investors include Kristian Segestrale (Super Evil Megacorp CEO), Gokul Rajaram and Charley Ma. 

Initial Capital co-founder and partner Ken Lamb became a board director with the fundraise, while Index partner Mark Goldberg and XYZ managing partner Ross Fubini joined as board observers.

“Sanlo cracked the code to help mobile gaming and app companies reach maturity with a new level of speed, scale, and fiscal wellbeing,” said Goldberg, in a statement. “The company is building a very sophisticated fintech offering that will give those companies superpowers.”

Sanlo plans to use the funds to grow its team and product suite ahead of its public launch later this year.

#apps, #finance, #financial-technology, #financing, #fintech, #funding, #gaming, #mobile, #recent-funding, #san-francisco, #startups

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Sequoia Games looks to capitalize on NBA Top Shot fever with an AR tabletop game

It’s the golden age of collectibles and legacy institutions are looking to move beyond trading cards, embracing new tech that brings the fandom together online. Sequoia Games, a new game studio launching out of stealth, is aiming for a hit with its tabletop AR game that’s looking to find an audience in a post-Top Shot world.

With a game that seems to be trading cards meets Catan meets NFTs meets augmented reality, Flex NBA is aiming to capture some of the magic that Dapper Labs did with NBA Top Shot, albeit with a title reliant on physical collectibles and a tabletop game.

Collectibles are incredibly hot right now and while there’s been a lot of attention on digital-only collectibles, Sequoia Games’ hybrid approach is probably one that will likely find some new audience segments. The game is centered around these hexagonal discs that function like trading cards but can be tracked inside its mobile app with 3D animations of the players superimposed on top of them. With mechanics similar to other popular trading card games, users can augment those tiles with power-up tiles.

Users get a handful of tiles that vary depending on the tier of their Kickstarter pledge, but going forward, the startup is planning to sell the tiles in randomized packs as well.

Image via Sequoia Games

Users register these tiles inside their app where the ownership of individual tiles is tracked across the network using something that sounds an awful lot like a blockchain — though that’s a word the team was very careful to avoid using. What’s interesting is that once the tiles are registered users can play the game in-person or online. The company is working on first-party marketplace for the tiles, though buyers will have to actually purchase and ship the physical tiles even if they are only playing on mobile.

Like Top Shot, Sequoia Games boasts an official partnership with the NBA and national players’ association. Unlike Dapper Labs, they’re not currently sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars of venture money. The startup’s founder says they’ve raised a modest seed round and are in the process of closing a more sizable Series A.

Also unlike Top Shot, which can — and has been able to — rapidly adjust supply of new moments to meet demand, Sequoia Games is stuck in the physical world and is thus a little more supply-confined — one of the reasons they’ve chosen to do a Kickstarter to gauge interest from potential users early-on.

Prices for the tiers of Kickstarter tiers vary pretty wildly, with a $35 basic pack that includes the most common tiles and a $699 “Supreme Flex Domination Pack” that boast rarer items like MVP-level player tiles. The startup plans to start shipping out packs in July.

#gaming, #national-basketball-association, #nba, #player, #tc

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The Last Gameboard raises $4M to ship its digital tabletop gaming platform

The tabletop gaming industry has exploded over the last few years as millions discovered or rediscovered its joys, but it too is evolving — and The Last Gameboard hopes to be the venue for that evolution. The digital tabletop platform has progressed from crowdfunding to $4M seed round, and having partnered with some of the biggest names in the industry, plans to ship by the end of the year.

As the company’s CEO and co-founder Shail Mehta explained in a TC Early Stage pitch-off earlier this year, The Last Gameboard is a 16-inch square touchscreen device with a custom OS and a sophisticated method of tracking game pieces and hand movements. The idea is to provide a digital alternative to physical games where that’s practical, and do so with the maximum benefit and minimum compromise.

If the pitch sounds familiar… it’s been attempted once or twice before. I distinctly remember being impressed by the possibilities of D&D on an original Microsoft Surface… back in 2009. And I played with another at PAX many years ago. Mehta said that until very recently there simply wasn’t the technology and market weren’t ready.

“People tried this before, but it was either way too expensive or they didn’t have the audience. And the tech just wasn’t there; they were missing that interaction piece,” she explained, and certainly any player will recognize that the, say, iPad version of a game definitely lacks physicality. The advance her company has achieved is in making the touchscreen able to detect not just taps and drags, but game pieces, gestures and movements above the screen, and more.

“What Gameboard does, no other existing touchscreen or tablet on the market can do — it’s not even close,” Mehta said. “We have unlimited touch, game pieces, passive and active… you can use your chess set at home, lift up and put down the pieces, we track it the whole time. We can do unique identifiers with tags and custom shapes. It’s the next step in how interactive surfaces can be.”

It’s accomplished via a not particularly exotic method, which saves the Gameboard from the fate of the Surface and its successors, which cost several thousand dollars due to their unique and expensive makeups. Mehta explained that they work strictly with ordinary capacitive touch data, albeit at a higher framerate than is commonly used, and then use machine learning to characterize and track object outlines. “We haven’t created a completely new mechanism, we’re just optimizing what’s available today,” she said.

The Last Gameboard's interface, showing games available to play on the tablet's surface.

Image Credits: The Last Gameboard

At $699 for the Gameboard it’s not exactly an impulse buy, either, but the fact of the matter is people spend a lot of money on gaming, with some titles running into multiple hundreds of dollars for all the expansions and pieces. Tabletop is now a more than $20 billion industry. If the experience is as good as they hope to make it, this is an investment many a player will not hesitate (much, anyway) to make.

Of course, the most robust set of gestures and features won’t matter if all they had on the platform were bargain-bin titles and grandpa’s-parlor favorites like Parcheesi. Fortunately The Last Gameboard has managed to stack up some of the most popular tabletop companies out there, and aims to have the definitive digital edition for their games.

Asmodee Digital is probably the biggest catch, having adapted many of today’s biggest hits, from modern classics Catan and Carcassone to crowdfunded breakout hit Scythe and immense dungeon-crawler Gloomhaven. The full list of partners right now includes Dire Wolf Digital, Nomad Games, Auroch Digital, Restoration Games, Steve Jackson Games, Knights of Unity, Skyship Studios, EncounterPlus, PlannarAlly, and Sugar Gamers, as well as individual creators and developers.

Animation of two players grabbing dots on a screen and moving them around.

Image Credits: The Last Gameboard

These games may be best played in person, but have successfully transitioned to digital versions, and one imagines that a larger screen and inclusion of real pieces could make for an improved hybrid experience. There will be options both to purchase games individually, like you might on mobile or Steam, or to subscribe to an unlimited access model (pricing to be determined on both).

It would also be something that the many gaming shops and playing venues might want to have a couple of on hand. Testing out a game in-store and then buying a few to stock, or convincing consumers to do the same, could be a great sales tactic for all involved.

In addition to providing a unique and superior digital version of a game, the device can connect with others to trade moves, send game invites, and all that sort of thing. The whole OS, Mehta said, “is alive and real. If we didn’t own it and create it, this wouldn’t work.” This is more than a skin on top of Android with a built-in store, but there’s enough shared that Android-based ports will be able to be brought over with little fuss.

Head of content Lee Allentuck suggested that the last couple years (including the pandemic) have started to change game developers’ and publishers’ minds about the readiness of the industry for what’s next. “They see the digital crossover is going to happen — people are playing online board games now. If you can be part of that new trend at the very beginning, it gives you a big opportunity,” he said.

CEO Shail Mehta (center) plays Stop Thief on the Gameboard with others on the team.

Allentuck, who previously worked at Hasbro, said there’s widespread interest in the toy and tabletop industry to be more tech-forward, but there’s been a “chicken and egg scenario,” where there’s no market because no one innovates, and no one innovates because there’s no market. Fortunately things have progressed to the point where a company like The Last Gameboard can raise $4M series A to help cover the cost of creating that market.

The round was led by TheVentureCity, with participation from SOSV, Riot Games, Conscience VC, Corner3 VC, and others. While the company didn’t go through HAX, SOSV’s involvement has that HAX-y air, and partner Garrett Winther gives a glowing recommendation of its approach: “They are the first to effectively tie collaborative physical and digital gameplay together while not losing the community, storytelling or competitive foundations that we all look for in gaming.”

Mehta noted that the pandemic nearly cooked the company by derailing their funding, which was originally supposed to come through around this time last year when everything went pear-shaped. “We had our functioning prototype, we had filed for a patent, we got the traction, we were gonna raise, everything was great… and then COVID hit,” she recalled. “But we got a lot of time to do R&D, which was actually kind of a blessing. Our team was super small so we didn’t have to lay anyone off — we just went into survival mode for like six months and optimized, developed the platform. 2020 was rough for everyone, but we were able to focus on the core product.”

Now the company is poised to start its beta program over the summer and (following feedback from that) ship its first production units before the holiday season when purchases like this one seem to make a lot of sense.

(This article originally referred to this raise as The Last Gameboard’s round A — it’s actually the seed. This has been updated.)

#artificial-intelligence, #augmented-reality, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #gaming, #hardware, #tabletop, #tabletop-gaming, #tc

0

Snowman, the studio behind Alto’s Adventure and others, launches a kids app company, Pok Pok

Snowman, the small studio behind award-winning iOS games Alto’s Adventure, Alto’s Odyssey, Skate City, and others, is spinning out a new company, Pok Pok, that will focus on educational children’s entertainment. Later this month, Pok Pok will debut its first title, Pok Pok Playroom, aimed at inspiring creative thinking through play for the preschool crowd.

The launch takes Snowman back to its roots as an app maker, not a games studio.

In fact, the company’s first iOS app, Checkmark, had been in the productivity space, offering location-based reminders to iPhone users. But Snowman later shifted to making games, tapping into the demand for mobile games with early launches like Circles and Super Squares. But it wasn’t until Alto’s Adventure came out that Snowman really kicked off its foray into gaming.

“We’ve never really considered Snowman to be a video game studio,” explains Snowman co-founder and Creative Director Ryan Cash. “A lot of people would assume that because it’s really all that we’re known for at the moment. It’s kind of our core business. But we like to think of ourselves more as like a team of tinkerers who like working on creative stuff. And for now, it happens to be video games, but you never know kind of what might be around the corner,” he says.

Image Credits: Snowman

Pok Pok actually emerged from Snowman’s culture of tinkering.

Snowman employees Mathijs Demaeght and Esther Huybreghts, now Pok Pok Design Director and Creative Director, respectively, went looking for an app to entertain their young son James when he was a toddler. They soon found that there weren’t many options that fit what they had been hoping to find.

They had wanted something that wouldn’t rile him up, something that wasn’t too technical, and something that wasn’t gamified, Esther explains.

When they later had their second son Jack, they decided to just built the app they wanted for themselves. After showing a rough prototype to Ryan, he saw the potential and told them to run with it.

Ryan’s sister, Melissa Cash, whose background was in developing products at Disney for babies and toddlers, had been helping with the Alto’s Odyssey launch at the time. When she saw what Esther and Mathijs were working on, she was impressed.

Image Credits: Snowman

“I’ve worked in the kid space for five years, and I’ve never seen anything that’s even remotely like this. And then, I just knew this is what I wanted to work on for the next 20 years,” she says. Melissa became involved with the project and is now CEO of the Pok Pok spinout.

Although legally a distinctive entity, Pok Pok remains closely tied to Snowman.

“We’ve been incubating the company within Snowman. We moved desks to a corner and we all work together as mentor, colleagues, and collaborate as a group,” Melissa notes. Ryan is still involved, as well. “Ryan is everything — our advisor, our helper — we haven’t even come up with a title for him,” she adds.

Today, the Pok Pok team is six full-time employees, but works with contractors and educators on its projects. Snowman, meanwhile, is over 20 people, mostly in Toronto. However, some Snowman employees spend 30% to 50% of their time on Pok Pok, Ryan says.

For the time being, Pok Pok is self-funded thanks to Snowman’s success on other fronts, which not only includes the Alto’s series, but also Apple Arcade’s Where Cards Fall and Skate City, both of which are now expanding to PC and console. The company is also working on DISTANT, a collaboration with Slingshot and Satchel.

Pok Pok Playroom, which is aimed at kids ages 2 to 6, will be the first title to go live from Pok Pok, arriving on May 20th. The app itself will initially contain six “digital toys,” so to speak, which encourage kids to creatively play. These toys also grow with the child as they age up.

For example, a stacking blocks toy could appeal to toddlers who just want to move the shapes around, but an older child might build a town with them. A drawing toy can encourage scribbles at younger ages or become a real canvas for art when the child is older. There’s also a calming toy called “musical blobs” that’s sort of like a lava lamp with differently-shaped that bounce around and respond to touches.

All the toys are designed to be open-ended — there’s no right or wrong way to use them. And Pok Pok Playroom is not a game. There are no levels to beat or objectives to achieve. There’s nothing to buy.

What is different about Pok Pok Playroom, compared with games and “digital toys” from rivals like Toca Boca, for example, is that it’s designed to be more educational and realistic.

“We take a more educational approach, and we still plan to do that for future apps and for whatever Pok Pok Playroom will grow into after launch,” says Esther. “For example, we have no unicorns or no wizards in Pok Pok Playroom. Everything is grounded in reality. I think we want to explore with children what the world looks like and how it works. We have tons of ideas for taking a more education-based approach for all the children, as well, that isn’t necessarily the ABCs, 1,2,3’s pedagogical, so to speak.”

Image Credits: Snowman

Pok Pok also won’t use talking animals or fantasy characters in order to avoid the subject of diversity. Instead, its apps will features all races, all genders, all family constructs, all different sorts of abilities and disabilities, as they’re built.

“I think it’s very important to us to have kids be able to recognize themselves, and family members and friends in the app,” says Esther. “It’s really important to our entire team that everyone feels respected in who they are and what their family looks like, and… I think that’s still really lacking in the kid space right now. We want to be the front-runner there,” she notes.

The new app, which has been in development for nearly three years, will be priced on a subscription basis with more “digital toys” added over time.

Though Pok Pok will aim more at the preschool crowd, the company envisions a future where it designs creative projects for the next age group up and for other types of learning.

Pok Pok Playroom has been beta tested with around 250 families ahead of its launch.

It will be available on iPhone and iPad starting on May 20th at 9 AM ET, with a 14-day free trial. It will then be priced at $3.99 per month or $29.99 per year, and will not feature in-app purchases.

 

#altos-odyssey, #altos-adventure, #apple, #apps, #education, #families, #gaming, #ios-apps, #iphone, #kids, #mobile, #parents, #ryan-cash, #snowman, #tc, #video-games, #video-gaming

0

Metafy adds $5.5M to its seed round as the market for games coaching grows

This morning Metafy, a distributed startup building a marketplace to match gamers with instructors, announced that it has closed an additional $5.5 million to its $3.15 million seed round. Call it a seed-2, seed-extension or merely a baby Series A; Forerunner Ventures, DCM and Seven Seven Six led the round as a trio.

Metafy’s model is catching on with its market. According to its CEO Josh Fabian, the company has grown from incorporation to gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $76,000 in around nine months. That’s quick.

The startup is building in public, so we have its raw data to share. Via Fabian, here’s how Metafy has grown since its birth:

From the company. As a small tip, if you want the media to care about your startup’s growth rate, share like this!

When TechCrunch first caught wind of Metafy via prior seed investor M25, we presumed that it was a marketplace that was built to allow esports pros and other highly capable gamers teach esports-hopefuls get better at their chosen title. That’s not the case.

Don’t think of Metafy as a marketplace where you can hire a former professional League of Legends player to help improve your laning-phase AD carry mechanics. Though that might come in time. Today a full 0% of the company’s current GMV comes from esports titles. Instead, the company is pursuing games with strong niche followings, what Fabian described as “vibrant, loyal communities.” Like Super Smash Brothers, its leading game today in terms of GMV generated.

Why pursue those titles instead of the most competitive games? Metafy’s CEO explained that his startup has a particular take on its market — that it focuses on coaches as its core customer, over trainees. This allows the startup to focus on its mission of making coaching a full-time gig, or at least one that pays well enough to matter. By doing so, Metafy has cut its need for marketing spend, because the coaches that it onboards bring their own audience. This is where the company is targeting games with super-dedicated user bases, like Smash. They fit well into its build for coaches, onboard coaches, coaches bring their fans, GMV is generated model.

Metafy has big plans, which brings us back to its recent raise. Fabian told TechCrunch any game with a skill curve could wind up on Metafy. Think chess, poker or other games that can be played digitally. To build toward that future, Metafy decided to take on more capital so that it could grow its team.

So what does its $5.5 million unlock for the startup? Per its CEO, Metafy is currently a team of 18 with a monthly burn rate of around $80,000. He wants it to grow to 30 folks, with nearly all of its new hires going into its product org, broadly.

TechCrunch’s perspective is that gaming is not becoming mainstream, but that it has already done so. Building for the gaming world, then, makes good sense, as tools like Metafy won’t suffer from the same boom/bust cycles that can plague game developers. Especially as the startup becomes more diversified in its title base.

Normally we’d close by noting that we’ll get back in touch with the company in a few quarters to see how it’s getting on in growth terms. But because it’s sharing that data publicly, we’ll simply keep reading. More when we have a few months’ more data to chew on.

#dcm, #forerunner-ventures, #fundings-exits, #gaming, #metafy, #recent-funding, #seven-seven-six, #startups, #tc

0

Krafton announces PUBG India return under Battlegrounds Mobile title

Krafton, the South Korean video game developer of PUBG Mobile, said on Thursday that it is bringing back the popular gaming title to India under the brand name Battlegrounds Mobile India. The new title, which uses the color scheme of the Indian flag, will offer “a world class AAA multiplayer” and free-to-play gaming experience on mobile devices, it said.

The developer said it will open pre-registration for Battlegrounds Mobile India ahead of its launch in the country, but didn’t share a specific date. The title has been exclusively developed for the world’s second largest internet market, Krafton said.

“Krafton will collaborate with partners to build an esports ecosystem while bringing in-game content regularly, starting with a series of India specific in-game events at launch, to be announced later,” it said.

Thursday’s announcement comes months after India banned PUBG Mobile alongside 200 other apps with links to China citing national security concerns. In the months since Krafton has taken several steps — including cutting ties with its publishing partner Tencent, inking a global cloud deal with Microsoft, pledging a $100 million investment in India’s mobile gaming ecosystem, and earlier this year backing local startup Nodwin — to ally New Delhi’s concerns.

“With privacy and data security being a top priority, Krafton will be working with partners, to ensure data protection and security, at each stage. This will ensure privacy rights are respected, and all data collection and storage will be in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations in India and for players here,” it said in a statement.

The firm didn’t say whether it had any conversation with New Delhi and if it had received the approval to launch the new title.

Prior to being banned in India, PUBG Mobile was the most popular mobile game in the country. The app had amassed over 50 million monthly active users in the country. PUBG Mobile still had over 10 million users in India last month, according to a popular mobile insight firm. (Many have been using VPN tools and other workarounds to bypass the geo-restriction.)

This is a developing story. More to follow…

#apps, #asia, #gaming, #india, #krafton, #pubg-mobile

0

Supercell likes Metacore’s games so much it just gave it another $180M credit line

Metacore, a Finnish mobile games company, seems to have an amazing “relationship” with Supercell, another (quite successful) Finnish mobile games company.

Back in September 2020, Metacore raised $17.7 million in equity from Supercell and another $11.8 million line of credit, sometimes also called a debt round. That amazing relationship appears to be ongoing. Because Metacore has now raised yet another debt round from Supercell, but this time for €150 million ($180 million). These guys really like each other.

The simple reason for this is two words: Merge Mansion. This game has been so spectacularly successful that Supercell clearly wants a stake in that success, and it has the cash reserves to make that bet.

The puzzle discovery game has 800,000 daily players, and an annual revenue run rate of more than €45 million, so it’s really on a growth curve.

Why so successful? Well, players have really loved the idea that they can literally merge two items they pick up in the game to make a brand new thing. So for instance, you can merge two rakes and you get another kind of tool that you can then can use somewhere else. This is a very unique mechanic in mobile games.

Supercell is also enamored of Metacore’s games development strategy: It creates games with two- to three-person teams and only adds resources when a game takes off. This innovative approach to game development is at least part of the reason Supercell is doubling down on its investment, not just Merge Mansion itself. It’s a sort of “fail-fast” approach to game-making that is clearly paying dividends.

So why this approach to the latest financing?

I spoke to CEO and co-founder Mika Tammenkoski, who told me: “Yes, it is a credit line. We are more about scaling up the company as we are scaling up revenue. We already have meaningful revenue, we can invest the money, and we can expect a certain kind of return on investment. So this is the cheapest investment that we can get. Equity investment would dilute us. So this makes sense from that point of view. With Supercell, we have a really great partner backing us. They know exactly what is ahead of us. They know exactly the kind of challenges that we have, and that makes us aligned in that sense… We both think long term, we both want to scale the game as big as possible. And with Supercell we get the best terms overall.”

So there you have it. Metacore and Supercell are locked in an embrace which any other outside investor is going to have to invest in big to get a look in on the action.

#europe, #gaming, #recent-funding, #startups, #supercell, #tc, #video-gaming

0

Riot Games and Konvoy Ventures back games publisher Carry1st in $6M Series A

Africa is the last frontier for basically anything. Mobile gaming is no exception. For a continent that is home to more than 1 billion millennials and Gen Zers, mobile gaming has never really picked up, despite the continent witnessing rapid economic growth and smartphone adoption.

Two issues have proved detrimental to this growth: distribution and payments. With fragmented and unresolved distribution and digital payments ecosystems, game studios have found it difficult to serve African consumers and make a ton of money doing so. Carry1st is a mobile games publishing platform fixing this problem, and today it is announcing the close of its $6 million Series A round.

This month last year, we reported that the company had just raised a $2.5 million seed investment. CRE Ventures led that round, but this time, the company, which has offices in Cape Town and New York, brought in a blue-chip group of investors spanning gaming, media and fintech.

U.S. VC firm Konvoy Ventures led the Series A round. The firm is known for its investment in the video gaming industry’s infrastructure, technology, tools and platforms. Riot Games (developer of League of Legends), Tokyo’s Akatsuki Entertainment Technology Fund (the company behind Dragon Ball Z), Raine Ventures and fintech VC TTV Capital participated.

Carry1st was founded by Cordel Robbin-Coker, Lucy Hoffman and Tinotenda Mundangefupfu in 2018. The company started as a game studio, developing and launching its own mobile games. But a projection on what it could be in the long run made the company switch tactics.

Instead of the studio model (quite popular among gaming companies in Africa), Carry1st sought to become a regional publisher, thereby opening the continent to international studios. Also, the company helps local studios that find it difficult to create games with a global appeal by pairing them with strong operators.

“We learned that African users don’t need their own games; they want to play the best games in the world,” CEO Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch.

COO Hoffman said that the company provides a full-stack publishing platform for its partners. It also handles localization, distribution, user acquisition, monetization, customer experience for studios and licenses their games on exclusive, long-term contracts.

“We fund user acquisition so that the games are played by as many users as possible, and then send our partners a royalty in return for the ability to leverage their IP,” Hoffman said.  

Carry1st

L-R: Cordel Robbin-Coker (CEO), Lucy Hoffman (COO) and Tinotenda Mundangefupfu (CTO)

This is somewhat akin to how Tencent-backed Sea Limited (parent company of Garena) took off. The company was the publisher of League of Legends across Southeast Asia but launched its own game, Free Fire. Now, the company has built out the largest consumer payments and e-commerce platform in the region, which is now worth over $130 billion. Carry1st aspires to do the same for Africa.

Although there aren’t many details about its e-commerce activity, Carry1st is tackling payments and difficult monetization issues by partnering with some fintechs like Paystack, Safaricom, and Cellulant. These partnerships have been pivotal to developing its in-house payments platform Pay1st, which allows customers to pay in their preferred way. “For global studios, this is the difference between making money and not,” Robbin-Coker added

Demand for Carry1st has grown rapidly. Since its seed round last year, the company has signed seven games with well-known mobile gaming studios. They include Sweden’s Raketspel (the company has more than 120 million downloads across its portfolio), Cosi Games and Ethiopia’s Qene Games.

All these signups happened in 2020 and the catalyst for this growth has pandemic-induced lockdowns written all over it. The African mobile gaming market has always pointed toward a strong growth market, but being forced indoors surely skyrocketed mobile usage and gaming.

People who might not have previously needed a mobile phone have now come to rely on them to keep in touch with family and friends. For the average user using a smartphone for the first time, there’s a natural tendency to explore the fun things available on their device.

Typically, the first things people do when they get their first smartphone is to chat with friends and play games. This is the same all over the world — Africa is no different. For that reason, we are seeing more and more mobile gamers across Africa,” remarked Robbin-Coker.

The company has also grown its team from 18 to 26 across 11 countries with recruits from Carlyle, King, Jumia, Rovio, Socialpoint, Ubisoft and Wargaming — a testament to the company’s global ambitions to be a top gaming publisher. 

Expanding the team, which cuts across product, engineering and growth departments, is one way Carry1st will put the new investment to use. The company also plans to secure new partnerships with global gaming studios while launching and scaling its existing games like Carry1st Trivia and All-Star Soccer.

Carry1st

User playing a Carry1st game

With this investment, Carry1st has raised a total of $9.5 million. On the caliber of investors brought on, Robbin-Coker said their investment in the company would put them in a place to “delight millions of users across Africa and the globe.”

Carry1st is Konvoy Ventures first foray into the African gaming market (same can be said for Riot Games), and representatives from both teams (Konvoy managing partner Jackson Vaughan and Riot Games head of corporate development Brendan Mulligan) believe the company is unequivocally solving the continent’s distribution and gaming experience problems. Vaughan will also join the company’s board.

Africa’s gaming industry has lacked innovation in times past. While we’ve seen companies try to change the narrative, most have operated as studios. Carry1st is one of the few companies to operate a hybrid model, but the endgame for the company really is to be one of the region’s dominant consumer internet companies. 

We think social games and payments is the best first step to doing so, but we have very large ambitions. If we execute this, we will catalyze massive growth in the digital ecosystem across the region, creating tons of high-quality jobs in the process. We think all of the ingredients are in place — we want to be the catalyst,” Hoffman said. 

#africa, #carry1st, #consumer-internet, #cordel-robbin-coker, #electronic-arts, #gaming, #konvoy-ventures, #league-of-legends, #mobile, #mobile-game, #recent-funding, #riot-games, #smartphone, #startups, #tc

0

Sony announces investment and partnership with Discord to bring the chat app to PlayStation

Sony and Discord have announced a partnership that will integrate the latter’s popular gaming-focused chat app with PlayStation’s own built-in social tools. It’s a big move and a fairly surprising one given how recently acquisition talks were in the air — Sony appears to have offered a better deal than Microsoft, taking an undisclosed minority stake in the company ahead of a rumored IPO.

The exact nature of the partnership is not expressed in the brief announcement post. The closest we come to hearing what will actually happen is that the two companies plan to “bring the Discord and PlayStation experiences closer together on console and mobile starting early next year,” which at least is easy enough to imagine.

Discord has partnered with console platforms before, though its deal with Microsoft was not a particularly deep integration. This is almost certainly more than a “friends can see what you’re playing on PS5” and more of a “this is an alternative chat infrastructure for anyone on a Sony system.” Chances are it’ll be a deep, system-wide but clearly Discord-branded option — such as “Start a voice chat with Discord” option when you invite a friend to your game or join theirs.

The timeline of early 2022 also suggests that this is a major product change, probably coinciding with a big platform update on Sony’s long-term PS5 roadmap.

While the new PlayStation is better than the old one when it comes to voice chat, the old one wasn’t great to begin with, and Discord is not just easier to use but something millions of gamers already do use daily. And these days, if a game isn’t an exclusive, being robustly cross-platform is the next best option — so PS5 players being able to seamlessly join and chat with PC players will reduce a pain point there.

Of course Microsoft has its own advantages, running both the Xbox and Windows ecosystems, but it has repeatedly fumbled this opportunity and the acquisition of Discord might have been the missing piece that tied it all together. That bird has flown, of course, and while Microsoft’s acquisition talks reportedly valued Discord at some $10 billion, it seems the growing chat app decided it would rather fly free with an IPO and attempt to become the dominant voice platform everywhere rather than become a prized pet.

Sony has done its part, financially speaking, by taking part in Discord’s recent $100 million H round. The amount they contributed is unknown, but perforce it can’t be more than a small minority stake given how much the company has taken on and its total valuation.

#apps, #discord, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #gaming, #microsoft, #playstation, #playstation-5, #ps5, #recent-funding, #sony, #sony-interactive-entertainment, #startups, #tc, #voice-chat, #xbox

0

Avatar startup Genies scores $65 million in funding round led by Mary Meeker’s Bond

Over the past several years, I’ve covered my fair share of upstart avatar companies that were all chasing the same dream — building out a customizable platform for a digital persona that gained wide adoption across games and digital spaces. Few of those startups I’ve covered in the past are still around. But by netting a string of successful partnerships with celebrity musicians, LA-based Genies has come closer than any startup before it to realizing the full vision of a wide-reaching avatar platform.

The company announced today that they’ve closed a $65 million Series B led by Mark Meeker’s firm Bond. NEA, Breyer Capital, Tull Investment Group, NetEase, Dapper Labs and Coinbase Ventures also participated in the deal. Mark Meeker will be joining the Genies board. The company didn’t disclose the Genies’ most recent valuation.

This funding comes at an inflection point for the eight-year-old company, evidenced by the investments from NBA Top Shot-maker Dapper Labs and crypto giant Coinbase. As announced last week, the company is rolling out an NFT platform on Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain, partnering closely with the startup who will be building out the backend for a Genies avatar accessories storefront. Like Dapper Labs has leveraged its exclusive deals with sports leagues to ship NFTs with official backing, Genies is planning to capitalize on its partnerships with celebrities in its roster including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Cardi B and others to create a platform for buying and trading avatar accessories en masse.

In October, the company announced a brand partnerships with Gucci, opening up the startup to another big market opportunity.

Genies’ business has largely focused on leveraging high-profile partnerships to give its entertainer clients a digital presence that can spice up what they’re sharing on social media and beyond. As they’ve rolled out avatar creation to all users through beta mobile apps, Genies has been focusing on one of the more explicit dreams of the avatar companies before it; building out a broad network of avatar users and a broad network of compatible platforms through its SDK.

“An avatar is a vehicle to be able to showcase more of your authentic self,” Genies CEO Akash Nigam tells TechCrunch. “It’s not limited by real world constraints, it’s an alter-ego personality.”

Trends in the NFT world have provided new realms of exploration for Genies, but so have broader pandemic era trends that have pushed more users to wholly digital spaces where they socialize and connect. “The pandemic accelerated everything,” Nigam says.

Nigam emphasizes that despite the major opportunity its upcoming NFT platform will present, Genies is still an avatar company first-and-foremost, not an NFT startup, though he does say he is believes crypto-backed digital goods are going to be around for a long time. He has few doubts that the current environment around digital goods helped juice Genies’ funding round which he says was “6-8X oversubscribed” and was an opportunistic play for the startup, which “could have gone years without having to raise.”

The company says their crypto marketplace will launch in the coming months, as early as this summer.

#akash-nigam, #artificial-intelligence, #avatar, #breyer-capital, #ceo, #coinbase, #coinbase-ventures, #cryptocurrency, #dapper, #dapper-labs, #films, #gaming, #genies, #gucci, #justin-bieber, #national-basketball-association, #nba, #nea, #netease, #software-development

0

Epic Games buys artist community ArtStation, drops commissions to 12%

One the same day as Fortnite maker Epic Games goes to trial with one of the biggest legal challenges to the App Store’s business model to date, it has simultaneously announced the acquisition of the artist portfolio community ArtStation — and immediately lowered the commissions on sales. Now standard creators on ArtStation will see the same 12% commission rate found in Epic’s own Games Store for PCs, instead of the 30% it was before. This reduced rate is meant to serve as an example the wider community as to what a “reasonable” commission should look like. This could become a point of comparison with the Apple App Store’s 30% commission for larger developers like Epic as the court case proceeds.

ArtStation today offers a place for creators across gaming, media, and entertainment to showcase their work and find new jobs. The company has had a long relationship with Epic Games, as many ArtStation creators work with Epic’s Unreal Engine. However, ArtStation has also been a home to 2D and 3D creators across verticals, including those who don’t work with Unreal Engine.

The acquisition won’t change that, the team says in its announcement. Instead, the deal will expand the opportunities for creators to monetize their work. Most notably, that involves the commission drop. For standard creators, the fees will drop from 30% to 12%. For Pro members (who pay $9.95/mo for a subscription), the commission goes even lower — from 20% to 8%. And for self-promoted sales, the fees will be just 5%. ArtEngine’s streaming video service, ArtStation Learning, will also be free for the rest of 2021, the company notes.

The slashed commission, however, is perhaps the most important change Epic is making to ArtStation because it gives Epic a specific example as to how it treats its own creator communities. It will likely reference the acquisition and the commission changes during its trial with Apple, along with its own Epic Games Store and its similarly low rate. Already, Epic’s move had prompted Microsoft to lower its cut on game sales, too, having recently announced a similar 30% to 12% drop.

In the trial, Epic Games will try to argue that Apple has a monopoly on the iOS app ecosystem and it abuses its market power to force developers to use Apple’s payment systems and pay it commissions on the sales and in-app purchases that flow through those systems. Epic Games, like several other larger app makers, would rather use its own payment systems to avoid the commission — or at the very least, be able to point users to a website where they can pay directly. But Apple doesn’t allow this, per its App Store guidelines.

Last year, Epic Games triggered Fortnite’s App Store expulsion by introducing a new direct way to pay on mobile devices which offered a steep discount. It was a calculated move. Both Apple and Google immediately banned the game for violating their respective app store policies, as a result. And then Epic sued.

While Epic’s fight is technically with both Apple and Google, it has focused more of its energy on the former because Android devices allow sideloading of apps (a means of installing apps directly), and Apple does not.

Meanwhile, Apple’s argument is that Epic Games agreed to Apple’s terms and guidelines and then purposefully violated them in an effort to get a special deal. But Apple says the guidelines apply to all developers equally, and Epic doesn’t get an exception here.

However, throughout the course of the U.S. antitrust investigations into big tech, it was discovered that Apple did, in fact, make special deals in the past. Emails shared by the House Judiciary Committee as a part of an investigation revealed that Apple had agreed to a 15% commission for Amazon’s Prime Video app at the start, when typically subscription video apps are 30% in year one, then 15% in year two and beyond. (Apple says Amazon simply qualified for a new program.) Plus, other older emails revealed Apple had several discussions about raising commissions even higher than 30%, indicating that Apple believed its commission rate had some flex.

Ahead of today’s acquisition by Epic Games, ArtStation received a “Megagrant” from Epic during the height of the pandemic to help it through an uncertain period. This could may have pushed the two companies to further discuss deeper ties going forward.

“Over the last seven years, we’ve worked hard to enable creators to showcase their work, connect with opportunities and make a living doing what they love,” said Leonard Teo, CEO and co-founder of ArtStation, in a statement. “As part of Epic, we will be able to advance this mission and give back to the community in ways that we weren’t able to on our own, while retaining the ArtStation name and spirit.”

#android, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #artist, #computing, #energy, #epic-games, #epic-games-store, #gaming, #google, #ma, #mobile-devices, #software, #streaming-video, #united-states, #unreal-engine

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Cloud gaming service Shadow taken over by OVHcloud founder

Blade, the French startup behind cloud gaming service Shadow, has been acquired by Octave Klaba’s fund following a commercial court order. Klaba is better known as the founder of OVHcloud, a French cloud hosting company. He’s acquiring Blade (and Shadow) through his investment fund Jezby Ventures — not OVHcloud.

Shadow is a cloud computing service for gamers. People can pay a monthly subscription fee and gain access to a gaming PC in a data center. You can connect to this PC from your computer, a smartphone, a tablet or a smart TV. You can see a video stream of what’s happening on the screen and your actions are relayed to the server.

Unlike Google Stadia, Amazon Luna or even Nvidia GeForce Now, you can install whatever you want on your server. You get a full Windows 10 instance so it supports anything from Steam to Photoshop and Excel.

While the French startup has raised over $100 million across multiple funding rounds, the company couldn’t keep up with pre-orders, didn’t generate enough revenue to be self-sustainable and couldn’t find cash to expand its service. Despite attracting 100,000 paid users, Next INpact reported that the company had no choice but to go into administration with the commercial court.

Several companies and group of people submitted takeover bids. In particular, Blade CTO Jean-Baptiste Kempf teamed up with other employees, while Octave Klaba submitted his own offer. Klaba plans to keep all employees except Jean-Baptiste Kempf.

Now, it’s going to be interesting to see how the service changes over the coming weeks. Subscriptions currently start at €12.99 per month in Europe or $11.99 per month in the U.S. It’s unclear whether Shadow will remain available at this price point, how specifications are going to evolve and if the company is going to spin up more servers to attract new clients.

#blade, #europe, #gaming, #jean-baptiste-kempf, #octave-klaba, #ovh, #ovhcloud, #shadow, #startups

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PortalOne raises $15M from Atari and more for a new hybrid gaming/TV show app

Gaming and streamed video have been two of the biggest pastime winners during the last year+ of pandemic living. Today a startup that has created an app that brings those two entertainment formats together is announcing a notable seed round of funding as it prepares to come out of closed beta.

PortalOne, a hybrid gaming startup, is announcing a $15 million seed round of funding as it prepares to come out of closed beta with an app that lets people play on-demand games and also watch live shows in which users can play against a special guest.

The startup and its funding are notable in part because of who is doing the investing.

It includes Atari and camera maker ARRI, Founders Fund, TQ Ventures (the firm led by Scooter Braun and financiers Schuster Tanger and Andrew Marks), Coatue Management (specifically Arielle Zuckerberg), Rogue Capital Partners (Alice Lloyd George’s new fund), Signia Venture Partners (via Sunny Dhillon); Seedcamp, Talis Capital and SNÖ Ventures out of Europe.

Other investors included Kevin Lin, the co-founder of Twitch; Mike Morhaime, co-founder of Blizzard and Dreamhaven; Amy Morhaime, co-founder of Dreamhaven; Marc Merrill, co-founder of Riot Games; Xen Lategan, former CTO and executive advisor at various companies such as Hulu; and Eugene Wei, former Head of Video at Oculus and Head of Product at Hulu.

PortalOne is part tech startup, and part media company. On the one hand, it has spent the last three years building a full stack of hardware and software that can be used to build games, record live shows, and integrate the two into an experience that blends both on-demand and real-time gaming and entertainment.

“One of the benefits of building first is that what we are doing is extremely hard to do on a technical level,” said co-founder and CEO Bård Anders Kasin. “The way we do it is the key. It is our secret sauce.”

On the other, it is using that tech to create a gaming and live events platform and brand — providing a place for itself and third parties to build games and bigger live experiences around them. It believes that it’s managed to do something here that has eluded others for years.

“We come from the entertainment industry and have also been in games many years,” said Stig Olav Kasin, Bård’s brother, CXO, and the other co-founder. “We’ve talked to all the big companies and know that hybrid gaming combining games and TV is difficult,” not least because of the silos in companies where different groups “own” TV and gaming.

The Oslo-based company has so far been running a pared-down, early version of its service in the US and Norway — two games in so far, one called Blockbuster that, well, involves you throwing a massive ball and knocking over blocks, and another a reimagined version of Centipede — with corresponding talk shows set out of a living room that’s actually all computer-generated on a green screen.

Users can play and watch all this either through a VR headset or over a phone, and they win “prizes” for placing well in gaming competitions. Alongside that PortalOne will sell virtual goods much as companies like Fortnite do today.

The plan is to more widely launch the first iteration of its service — PortalOne Arcade, a selection of 80s-themed, old-school arcade games reimagined as multiplayer, immersive experiences combined with interactive talk shows — in the US and Norway later this year before extending to other markets.

Bård Anders Kasin — who previously built a VR company and worked as a technical director at Warner Brothers, making movies such as the Matrix trilogy — and Stig Olav Kasin — who worked with his brother on VR and before that was a media exec on shows like The Voice and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — founded PortalOne back in 2018.

Between then and June 2020, when PortalOne launched its closed beta, the startup’s focus was on building out its technology and its content strategy and early partners.

From the sounds of it, it was no small task. Its tech stack incorporates virtual reality, computer vision, gaming technology, and software and hardware to capture and stream video that drastically reduces the resources required for both, among other IP. Some of it PortalOne built itself; other areas it worked with Arri, a major player in motion picture camera equipment, which built a new kind of 3D camera for PortalOne.

Part of the challenge that PortalOne has been tackling has been the very process of creating content for a hybrid platform like the one it envisioned.

Typically, recording immersive experiences is complex and expensive because of the volumetric equipment that is used, the set-up of studios necessary to capture the experiences, and more, which involve Hollywood-movie-studio size, staffing and costs.

PortalOne’s breakthrough has been to turn that process into something that can be produced more easily and at a much lower cost, necessary “since we have daily shows and we want to scale and mass produce more daily shows for each game,” said Bård.

In the PortalOne setup, in addition to the host — an affable Norwegian with a mostly American English accent called Markus Bailey — and his guest, there are only two other people involved, technician-producers triggering effects and controlling when the action switches from talk to game and back again.

From previously needing large sets and dozens of people, “now we can do all of this in a YouTube-sized studio,” said Bård.

On the content front, PortalOne is building its own games, but it is also tapping into an old-school gaming aesthetic, it said.

Atari is not only investing, but has inked a seven-year deal with PortalOne, giving the latter exclusive global distribution rights to some of its most popular arcade game franchises, which PortalOne is reimagining and rebuilding for its hybrid platform.

Bård said that the company wants to work with brands in music, sport, travel and education to build other games, too. (Braun’s reach here might not extend to Taylor Swift, but he’s pulled in Justin Bieber for the promo video, and possibly more.)

“Massive opportunities continue to emerge in the interactive entertainment space as distribution and business models evolve,” said Kirill Tasilov, a principal at Talis Capital, in a statement. “PortalOne is redefining mobile by unlocking new hybrid experiences at the intersection of games and video, and we are thrilled to be a part of their journey.”

Blurring the lines

In some ways, what PortalOne is doing is not completely new, since the lines between what is a game, what is interactive, and what is linear entertainment have been getting blurred for decades.

You could argue that even game shows, one of the earliest TV formats, was an early stage in hybrid interactivity, although more modern programs like the ones that Stig helped build out, with interactive voting from at-home audiences using phones, definitely pushed the concept in new ways.

The coronavirus pandemic and the fact that so many in-person live events were cancelled, meanwhile, definitely paved the way for content players to think outside the box when it came to building new kinds of “live” shows. With Marshmello getting a huge response to his Fortnite “show” in 2019, the game saw 12 million people flock to its Travis Scott concert last year; and Roblox said in December said its show with Lil Nas will pave t