Get ready for the Super Mario film, hitting theaters in a little over one year. [credit: Nintendo ]
Nintendo’s “winter 2021” direct-video presentation exploded on Thursday with reveals of serious fan service coming to not only Switch consoles but also movie theaters by the end of next year.
The event’s biggest pop-culture announcement was the upcoming Super Mario CGI animation movie, now confirmed to launch in the United States on December 21, 2022. This film, helmed by CG animation house Illumination (Despicable Me), still doesn’t have a title or any preview footage. But it does have an English-language cast:
Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Mario
Anna Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) as Peach
Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as Luigi
Sebastian Maniscalco (The Irishman) as Foreman Spike (from the Wrecking Crew series)
None of Nintendo’s other YouTube channels, particularly the Japanese feed, confirmed any voice cast members for the film’s likely additional languages. Nintendo did confirm that Charles Martinet (who has voiced Super Mario in games since 1996) will participate in the film, though in exactly what capacity remains to be seen (er, heard). My money’s on Waluigi.
SEATTLE—It’s not every day I hear about unannounced Nintendo products over guac.
Thanks to a chance encounter last month, I’ve been sitting on one of the weirder scoops in my 25-year writing career—one that will simultaneously set many gamer tongues wagging and bore other gamers to death. It’s about Nintendo, and I should start by making abundantly clear that I didn’t get the information double-checked or verified by anyone who has particular access or insight into the gaming company’s plans (neither did I ask my uncle who—promise, swear—works as Mario’s personal driver).
But I have been turning over this minuscule scrap of information in my mind ever since. What I heard is both simultaneously a resounding “duh” for a company like Nintendo and yet also possibly illuminating about the industry giant’s near-future plans. So I invite you to sit with me, grab a chip, and pick at this bowl of game-industry-news guacamole.
Before Nintendo released the Game Boy, the company sold simplistic, LCD-based Game & Watch units—and lots of them. When sales broke 20 million units, creator Gunpei Yokoi commissioned special edition Donkey Kong Game & Watch pieces to commemorate the achievement. One of those units, which came on the market for the first time, recently sold in an online auction for $9,000—the most paid for a single Game & Watch to date.
The device features work by artist Makoto Kano, programmer Hiroshi Momose, and sound engineer Naoto Ishida. It’s unknown how many Yokoi produced. John Hardie, director at the National Video Game Museum in Frisco, Texas, speculated with Ars, saying, “Were there just three made (one for each of them) or [was] it a limited thing Nintendo made and sold/gave away? Maybe there’s 50 of them? Maybe Nintendo has a pallet in their warehouse. It’s just hard to know since there’s very little information. If I had to guess, I would say there were more than three made, but again, just a guess.”
Even if 50 were made, $9,000 for such a rare piece of Nintendo memorabilia, especially given the recent million-dollar Zelda and Super Mario 64 video game auctions, remains cheap. Hardie wasn’t surprised by the price given the current state of the collector’s market, but he did note, “We at the museum would have paid that,” and sadly, the NVM does not have one in their otherwise sizable collection.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.
(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.
However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-comeincreasedregulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.
The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.
U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection
The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images
Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.
Image Credits: Apple
Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails,which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.
A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.
Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.
Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.
Image Credits: Facebook
Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
Twitter also tapped crypto developer Jay Graber to head the company’s “bluesky” project, which aims to create a decentralized social media protocol on which a number of networks, including Twitter, will eventually operate. The project will operate independently from Twitter, but is funded by Twitter and run by Twitter employees. Elsewhere, Twitter rolled out a new option that would allow users to report misinformation.
The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles.
Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.
WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.
Streaming & Entertainment
Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well,reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.
Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.
Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut,reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Health & Fitness
Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.
China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.
Security & Privacy
A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.
Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.
Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.
Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.
Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.
Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.
Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.
U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.
Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.
Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2. Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.
Image Credits: Polycam
3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.
Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.
When your app redesign goes wrong…
Image Credits: Twitter.com
Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said.
During today’s Pokémon Presents livestream, The Pokémon Company announced that Pokémon Unite will become available for iOS and Android on September 22. The strategic battle game came out for Nintendo Switch in late July, but its arrival on mobile devices will expand the game’s potential user base.
For users already playing on Nintendo Switch, fear not — the game allows cross-platform play, which means you can play on your Switch, then pick up where you left off on mobile. All users can play together regardless of what device they’re using, and it’s not necessary to have a Switch to get the mobile game. Pokémon Unite is free-to-start with microtransactions — you can purchase in-game currency to get certain items or Pokémon.
Image Credits: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl
Like previous main series game remakes, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will expand upon the original games’ foundation and introduce features that appeared in later games, like Following Pokémon, Secret Bases, and — very importantly — changing your trainer’s outfit. The game will also include re-designed features from its original release, like designing Poké Ball capsules and competing in Pokémon Contests. But for the first time in a Pokémon Game, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will introduce a new aspect of gameplay called the Sinnoh Underground. Players can collect statues of Pokémon for their Secret Base, and depending on what statues are on display, different Pokémon will appear in Pokémon Hideaways within the Sinnoh Underground. To commemorate the fifteen-year-old games’ remakes, on November 5, 2021, Nintendo will release a “Dialga and Palkia Edition” of the Nintendo Switch Lite, which features the legendary Pokémon in gold and silver on a grey console.
Then, the Pokémon Company shared more information about Pokémon Legends Arceus, a first-of-its-kind release for the iconic franchise. Fans have compared its open world design to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is the fourth best-selling Nintendo Switch game with 23.2 million copies sold, but others say it’s more similar to Monster Hunter. The new game introduces the Hisui Region (an ancient version of the Sinnoh Region), along with new Pokémon like a grandpa-esque Growlithe, and an evolution of Basculin called Basculegion, which can evolve when “possessed by the souls of other Basculin from their school that could not withstand the harsh journey upstream”… Yes, this is a children’s franchise.
Nightmare-inducing new Pokémon aside, the livestream revealed more information about how exactly this new type of Pokémon game will work.
Like standard Pokémon games, players will set out on a mission to complete a Pokédex, but rather than training to become “the best like no one ever was,” they will be part of an expedition team, conducting survey work to learn more about the nature of Pokémon and the secrets they hold. In between field assignments, players can heal their party, craft items, and buy supplies at outposts (ancient Pokémon Centers?). Pokémon Legends: Arceus will also introduce a new battle style — like Pokémon Unite, it won’t simply repurpose the turn-based gameplay we’ve been accustomed to since the first Pokémon games were released in 1998.
Anyway, these games seem promising, but just try your best not to think about Basculegion.
Fig. 1: The PS5 is among the quickest consoles ever to reach 10 million worldwide sales.
When Sony announced Monday that it had sold 10 million PlayStation 5 consoles to consumers, it trumpeted the system as “the fastest-selling console in Sony Interactive Entertainment history.” That statement certainly sounds impressive, but it lacks the specificity we need to judge just how impressive the PS5’s sales have been so far (despite component shortages that could make the system hard to find into next year).
To add more context to Sony’s announcement, we looked at how quickly some other recent consoles took to sell their first 10 million systems worldwide. While different launch dates and staggered international launches skew some of these comparisons, the data overall shows that the PS5 is selling as fast or faster than some of the most popular consoles of the recent past.
We also looked at newly revealed sales data for PS5 exclusives Returnal and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and compared their sales rates to similar early system-sellers on the Switch.
If you aren’t immersed in the world of high-end video game collecting, it’s probably hard to understand why someone paid in excess of $1.5 million for a single, shrinkwrap-sealed boxed copy of Super Mario 64 last Sunday. But if you talk to people who have been collecting games and following this insular world for decades, you’ll find… well, they also think it’s hard to understand.
The confusing part isn’t even the sheer amount of money being spent on a video game box that no one will ever open, much less play. Ever since an early sealed printing of Super Mario Bros.sold for over $100,000 in 2019, the general consensus in the world of high-end game collecting was that an eventual seven-figure game sale was inevitable. But even after a $660,000 Super Mario Bros. sale two months ago, many didn’t think the flashy million-dollar barrier would be broken so quickly. “I honestly thought that this was a milestone that we wouldn’t pass until years from now,” Heritage Auctions Video Game Consignment Director Valarie McLeckie told Ars.
More than the timing, though, game collectors that spoke to Ars expressed near-universal shock that this was the first game to command such a high price. In the past, the small handful of games that have sold for $100,000 or more have all been extremely rare and notable in some way. The Legend of Zelda that temporarily set an $870,000 sales record earlier in Heritage’s recent weekend auction, for instance, was described in the listing as “the only copy from one of the earliest production runs that we’ve ever had the opportunity to offer” for an iconic game.
If you’re hoping to grab one, here are the retail listings that are up as of this writing. We’ll add more as we see them, but given the intense demand for recent gaming hardware like the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and Nvidia’s RTX graphics cards, we don’t expect stock to be available for long:
A labeled mock-up of the new model shows where everything goes. [credit: Nintendo ]
The recently announced “OLED Model” of the Nintendo Switch will retail for $50 more than the $300 standard model when the upgrade goes on sale on October 1. But the new model is estimated to cost Nintendo only about $10 more to produce, increasing the company’s profit margins on the high end of its still-hot gaming hardware.
The Strong National Museum of Play has obtained a rare demo of Super Mario Bros. 3 that a pre-Doom id Software coded for MS-DOS PCs back in 1990. The acquisition will ensure the historical curiosity will be preserved and accessible to researchers well into the future.
Students of video game history have long been aware of the existence of the demo, which was described in detail in David Kushner’s excellent 2003 book Masters of Doom. id Software—then known as Ideas from the Deep (IFD)—coded the game in under a week and sent a copy to Nintendo in the hopes of getting a contract to develop an official PC port of the NES classic, which had launched in the US earlier in 1990.
Part of what made the demo special was a John Carmack-coded scrolling algorithm that went way beyond the stuttering background movements and full-screen wipes you’d usually see in late ’80s DOS games. “When looking at PC games of the era, there really weren’t titles with the smooth scrolling seen in Nintendo’s hits,” Museum of Play Digital Games Curator Andrew Borman told Ars via email. And though Nintendo would never entertain the idea of a PC port for SMB3, id Software was “not deterred by the rejection [and] the technology was reused for Commander Keen, which is still one of my favorite series of that era,” Borman said.
Those who’ve followed Nintendo with any sort of frequency over the years know the gaming giant has a tendency to be extremely protective with its IP. Ultimately, it’s probably for the best that the market wasn’t flooded with cheap Mario knickknacks the way it easily could have been.
In recent years, however, the company has seemingly loosened its approach, more readily embracing brand partnerships in ways it has shunned in the past. Heck, we’ve even gotten a bunch of mobile games and a theme park out of the deal.
Today, it takes the wraps off of one of the more surprising brand partnerships in recent memory, in a deal with Swiss watch company TAG Heuer, which makes very nice — and extremely expensive — timepieces. The “long-term collaboration” is kicking off with a limited-edition (2,000 units) Mario smartwatch that will set you back $2,150.
Image Credits: TAG Heuer/Nintendo
Clearly there’s a bit of a disconnect between the pricing on the TAG Heuer Connected and the sort of accessibility the company offers with hardware like the Switch. In fact, you can buy six of the high-end new OLED Switches for the price of a single Mario-branded smartwatch — or, for that matter, five Apple Watch Series 6s.
I will give it this — it’s a pretty sweet-looking watch. And, given the barrier of entry, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be the only person you know who owns one (forget for a moment that, unlike expensive analog watches, smartwatches aren’t designed to last forever). The hook here are little Mario animations that pop up throughout the day as you hit your step count and meet other goals. It’s fun and something that would play really well on a fitness watch for kids (for, one imagines, a fraction of the price).
Image Credits: TAG Heuer/Nintendo
The watch is, effectively, a redesigned version of the TAG Heuer Connected, a $2,000 Wear OS device that launched last April. The timepiece got high marks for design quality — as one would expect from the company. This version adds touches like a Mario “M” on the dial, red accents throughout and a matching red rubber strap (along with a black leather version).
Image Credits: TAG Heuer/Nintendo
The case measures 45mm in diameter and the watch sports a 430 mAh battery the company says should get you between six and 20 hours of life, depending on usage. That’s due in part to the inclusion of GPS and a heart rate monitor.
A labeled mock-up of the new model shows where everything goes. [credit: Nintendo ]
Where is my 4K “Switch Pro” upgrade?
The most surprising thing about the Switch’s newly announced “OLED Model” might just be what it’s missing. Namely, it’s missing a new chipset that bumps up the processing power above what’s available on existing Switch hardware.
That lack of improved internals is surprising mainly because of a number of reports that promised the next Switch would support a bump to “4K graphics when paired with TVs,” as Bloomberg phrased it is as recently as March. Bloomberg’s reporters tend to be reliable when it comes to this kind of insider Nintendo reporting, including an early 2019 report that predicted a “lower-priced” Nintendo Switch Lite months ahead of its announcement. Bloomberg also got the other details right about the OLED Model, including the 7″ OLED screen that maintains the original Switch’s 720p resolution and the general timing of when manufacturing would begin.
Maybe Bloomberg’s reporters just got ahead of themselves on this one detail and assumed 4K support that was never really in the cards. More likely, though, is that Nintendo just changed its plans for a processing-power boost at some point after Bloomberg’s sources first leaked the information.
So much for the big E3 reveal. Weeks after the big gaming show, Nintendo has finally taking the wraps off the latest iteration of its wildly popular hybrid gaming console. The Nintendo Switch (OLED model) [parentheses theirs] will arrive on October 8, priced at $350. That is, the company’s quick to note, the same day it launches Metroid Dread, the long-awaited latest side scrolling entry in the long-standing franchise.
The system sports a 7-inch OLED, improved audio and 64 GB of internal storage. The hybrid dock sports a wired LAN port, and the system ships with an adjustable port for playing in tabletop mode. The company will also be offering a separate carrying case, because you don’t want to get the fancy screen on your new $350 system scratched.
From the sound of it, the two existing Switch models are sticking around, as lower cost alternatives. Those models run $299 and $199, respectively, though it seems reasonable to expect there may be some price drops as the new model arrives, ahead of the holidays.
“The new Nintendo Switch (OLED model) is a great option for players who want to experience the new vibrant screen when playing in handheld and tabletop mode,” Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser said in a press release. “With the addition of this new model to the Nintendo Switch family of systems, people have an additional choice of a system that best fits the gaming experience they desire – whether it’s Nintendo Switch (OLED model), Nintendo Switch or Nintendo Switch Lite.”
An upgraded version of the four-year-old system has been rumored for some time, carrying the decidedly less clunky name, Switch Pro. With both Sony and Microsoft releasing next-gen versions of their consoles last year, the time certainly seemed right for big refresh from Nintendo. A refreshed version of the standard Switch arrived in July 2019, addressing the original’s poor battery life — far and away the largest complaint of an otherwise well-received system.
Of course, in spite of growing a bit long in the tooth, the Switch continued to dominate the sales charts ahead of the arrival of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox One X. Nintendo utterly dominated sales during the pandemic, after some initial supply chain shortages. That success was due in no small part to the arrival of a new Animal Crossing title that provided some much-needed social gaming during the pandemic.
In spite of the lack of new hardware, last month’s E3 did see some big game news from Nintendo, before just a new Metroid. Far and away, the most eagerly anticipated is 2022’s sequel to Breath of the Wild, one of the most beloved entries in the Zelda series and easy one of the Switch’s best titles.
Storman—who said in court documents that his post-RomUniverse income was derived primarily from “unemployment and food stamps”—seems unlikely to ever pay even a small chunk of the $2.1 million judgment against him. Paying a token $50 a month, an amount Nintendo says Storman “proposed and agreed to,” would mean that fully covering the damages would take Storman 3,500 years, and that’s without accounting for interest.
Still, Nintendo is using the damages to its advantage, arguing that Storman’s failure to make his first $50 monthly payment “demonstrates that Nintendo has no adequate remedy at law for Defendant’s past or future infringement and underscores the need for a permanent injunction.”
Samus Aran is back in a 2D adventure. [credit: Nintendo ]
Nintendo rolled out dozens of game and feature announcements over the course of a nearly 40-minute Direct presentation today. If you don’t have the time or inclination to watch the entire video, we’ve gathered all of the relevant news in a convenient quick-access format below.
Upcoming Switch exclusives
Metroid Dread is the first completely new 2D Metroid game in about 19 years and focuses on “a new feel, showcasing a variety of threats.” It’s coming to Switch on October 8 as Nintendo continues work on Metroid Prime 4. Read more in our separate write-up.
Nintendo defied expectations today with an E3-timed Direct showing off not the hoped-for new Switch hardware but a dozen or so new games — as well as a general release window for the much-anticipated next Zelda game. And to celebrate the original’s 35th anniversary, it will sell a new Game & Watch featuring the first three games in the series.
Among other things, Nintendo showed off remasters or remakes of titles from the “Monkey Ball,” “Mario Party,” “Advance Wars, “Wario Ware” and other series, and announced new entries in the “Mario + Rabbids” and “Shin Megami Tensei” worlds. Other newly announced or teased games will be making it to Switch as well, like the new “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Perhaps most surprising was the inclusion of a new side-scrolling Metroid game, the first in nearly 20 years — and in fact, it has been in and out of development for half that time. “Metroid Dread,” the fifth in the mainline series that began on the NES, will release October 8, and we’ll see if Nintendo has managed to keep pace in a genre it pioneered but others have refined.
Image Credits: Nintendo
Everyone was hoping for Zelda news, however, and Nintendo… only slightly disappointed us. As the announcers noted, it’s the 35th anniversary of the NES original, and the perfect time to announce something truly special, but they have “no campaigns or other Nintendo Switch games planned.”
Instead, they offered an admittedly tempting Game & Watch in the style of the one we saw released last year for the Mario series. I had lots of good things to say about that device, and the new one will no doubt be just as fun. The ability to pause the game and pick it up later (but not rewind or save states) should make for a fun, authentic playthrough of the first three games in the Zelda series: “The Legend of Zelda” and “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link” for NES, and “Link’s Awakening” for Game Boy (recently remade).
Image Credits: Nintendo
The last item on the list was a new look at the follow-up to Breath of the Wild, which years after its debut still shines as one of the, if not the, best game on the Switch. Its sequel has a lot to live up to!
While the first trailer was all cinematic, this one showed gameplay and the overworld, including a new level of verticality that brings flying fortresses and castles in the air into play. It certainly looks impressive, but one wonders how much further the company can push its Switch hardware. After all, “Breath of the Wild” pushed the system to its limits at its debut, and even then it was not as powerful as its rivals from Microsoft and Sony — both now replaced by a new generation.
One hopes that Nintendo is simply being weird and has a trick up its sleeve, as it has many times before. The Switch was announced out of nowhere, and previous hardware updates have also dropped with little or no warning and seemingly arbitrary timing. What’s expected is an updated Switch that’s physically the same dimensions but considerably updated inside and using a larger, better display. Perfect backwards compatibility, like with the 3DS series of handhelds, also seems only logical. But Nintendo has always done its own thing and its fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Zelda Producer Eiji Aonuma said that “development has been steadily progressing” on the game, which is now targeting a 2022 release window. This time around, the “setting has been expanded to include the skies above Hyrule,” a move highlighted by Link falling through the clouds to an island below at the trailer’s introduction (in a scene that brings Skyward Sword to mind a bit).
The brief trailer teases a few new and upgraded abilities, including a scene of Link phasing through solid rock to rise up through the bottom of a floating island and freezing a giant spiked cement ball to roll it back at the enemies that sent it. The trailer concludes with scenes of a castle being violently ripped from the ground and suspended mid-air in a field of wispy red miasma.
Samus Aran is back in a 2D adventure. [credit: Nintendo ]
This year, Nintendo’s long-running Metroid series is getting an entirely new sequel—and not the previously announced Metroid Prime 4 first-person shooter.
Instead, we’re getting Metroid Dread, apparently dubbed Metroid 5 in its debut trailer, launching October 8 exclusively for Nintendo Switch. The funky game title has been hinted to in prior 2D games, and years later, Nintendo itself confirmed it was the name of an in-development 2D game that was eventually canceled. Thus, Dread‘s return today as an official game name makes it a particularly juicy Easter egg for anyone who’s been following the lore of space bounty hunter Samus Aran in her journey to eradicate the Metroid scourge.
As a fully 2D Metroid game, Metroid Dread resembles 2017’s Metroid: Samus Returns, a modern 2D remake of the Game Boy classic Return of Samus. Not just in perspective or aesthetics, either: This year’s new Metroid sequel includes that 2017 game’s melee-swipe ability—and in kind, Nintendo has confirmed that the 2017 game’s developers at MercurySteam are involved this time, as well. Unsurprisingly, as a Metroid series sequel, it also includes new and trippy abilities like a cloak shield—and a few entirely new alien foes.
The Covid-19 pandemic drove increased demand for mobile gaming, as consumers under lockdowns looked to online sources of entertainment, including games. But even as Covid-19 restrictions are easing up, the demand for mobile gaming isn’t slowing. According to a new report from mobile data and analytics provider App Annie in collaboration with IDC, users worldwide downloaded 30% more games in the first quarter of 2021 than in the fourth quarter of 2019, and spent a record-breaking $1.7 billion per week in mobile games in Q1 2021.
That figure is up 40% from pre-pandemic levels, the report noted.
Image Credits: App Annie
The U.S. and Germany led other markets in terms of growth in mobile game spending year-over-year as of Q1 2021 in the North American and Western European markets, respectively. Saudi Arabia and Turkey led the growth in the rest of the world, outside the Asia-Pacific region. The latter made up around half of the mobile game spend in the quarter, App Annie said.
The growth in mobile gaming, in part accelerated by the pandemic, also sees mobile further outpacing other forms of digital games consumption. This year, mobile gaming will increased its global lead over PC and Mac gaming to 2.9x and will extend its lead over home games consoles to 3.1x.
Image Credits: App Annie
However, this change comes at a time when the mobile and console market is continuing to merge, App Annie notes, as more mobile devices are capable of offering console-like graphics and gameplay experiences, including those with cross-platform capabilities and social gaming features.
Games with real-time online features tend to dominate the Top Grossing charts on the app stores, including things like player-vs-player and cross-play features. For example, the top grossing mobile game worldwide on iOS and Google Play in Q1 2021 was Roblox. This was followed by Genshin Impact, which just won an Apple Design Award during the Worldwide Developer Conference for its visual experience.
Image Credits: App Annie
The report also analyzed the ad market around gaming and the growth of mobile companion apps for game consoles, including My Nintendo, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation App, Steam, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox apps. Downloads for these apps peaked under lockdowns in April 2020 in the U.S., but continue to see stronger downloads than pre-pandemic.
Image Credits: App Annie
On the advertising front, App Annie says user sentiment towards in-game mobile ads improved in Q3 2020 compared with Q3 2019, but rewarded video ads and playable ads were preferred in the U.S.
If you’re like me, you spent the weekend longing for the mixed bag that is downtown Los Angeles during E3. I’ve got fond memories of fish tacos, The Last Bookstore, watching playoff basketball in garishly lit hotel lobbies and, of course, video game press conference after video game press conference.
For a second year in a row, the show’s gone all virtual, owing to…well, you know, that pesky virus that has defined the past year and a half of our lives. Last year’s show was canceled altogether (though a handful of companies still kept to the schedule). Show organizers simply didn’t think they would be able to pull together a digital event — and frankly, it’s probably for the best that they understood those limitations.
The 2021 event, which kicked off on Saturday, marks the first all-virtual version of the event. For the time being, it’s also the last. Mayor Eric Garcetti kicked off the show by announcing that E3 would return to the LA Convention Center in 2022.
Gaming had a banner 2020, and while growth has slowed, as parts of the world look forward to a post-pandemic life, things are still growing. Some well-timed numbers from NPD this morning point to a 3% year-over-year growth for May 2021, as spending on gaming rose to $4.5 billion. Year-to-date, things are up 17%.
The timing of last year’s canceled event was certainly unfortunate from a hardware standpoint. Console refreshes are massive events at E3. 2020 gave us the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Announcements were relegated to Sony and Microsoft’s own events. That meant the companies were able to draw things out — revealing small details, piece by piece, rather than saving everything for the big show. It’s a strategy that lends itself much better to virtual presentations and blog posts than it does big conventions.
Congrats to @XboxP3 and the whole team on a great showcase. Great time to be a gamer
Sony is sitting this one out, too. While it’s entirely possible the company will be holding a big, virtual State of Play event at some point this summer, it won’t be tied to E3. Still, some Sony execs like PlayStation Studios head Hermen Hulst used the opportunity congratulate Microsoft on “a great showcase” on Twitter. So that’s a nice thing.
Thus far, Microsoft is the only one of the big three to present at the event. Nintendo will be holding a Treehouse event tomorrow. The Switch Pro could be on tap for the event, with an upgraded OLED display and internals. That would likely also mean a bunch of upgraded content for the new version of the four-year-old console.
Microsoft, meanwhile, went big on games. Understandable, given the recent launch of the Series X. And, let’s face it, these virtual events are perfectly suited for playing a whole bunch of trailers. The company showcased 30 games (and a fridge) in all. Of those, 27 will be part of the Xbox Game Pass, in case you had any doubt about what the future of gaming on the Xbox will look like. The event was framed as a combination Xbox and Bethesda showcase, having acquired the publisher earlier this year.
“Our growing family of 23 studios is devoted to advancing the medium we all love,” the company writes, “so we were happy to share that now through the end of the year, you can look forward to back-to-back monthly releases coming to Xbox Game Pass on day one, led by a record five new titles from Xbox Game Studios this holiday, including Halo Infinite.”
Halo Infinite got a trailer and some in-game multiplayer footage. The latest version of the beloved Xbox mainstay is arriving this holiday season.
Starfield will be arriving November 11 [deep breath] 2022. The expansive space title will be an Xbox exclusive at launch.
Forza Horizon 5 will arrive in November. The latest installment of the popular racing series is set in Mexico.
In a no-brainer crossover event, Sea of Thieves will be teaming up with Pirates of the Caribbean for gameplay featuring Captain Jack Sparrow and others.
Age of Empires IV got an extended trailer and release date: October 28.
Battlefield 2042 got its first gameplay, including a sweet new wing suit.
Microsoft’s Flight Simulator will be hitting the new Xboxes on July 27th, along with a Top Gun expansion pack. That’s in honor of Top Gun: Maverick, which is apparently still coming out at some point.
Square Enix also held its customary big showcase on Sunday. The publisher will be releasing a bunch of new Marvel titles. Highlights include:
The long-awaited Guardians of the Galaxy. The adventure title is set to launch this October.
Marvel’s Avenger, meanwhile, will be getting the Black Panther-themed expansion pack, War for Wakanda. That’s arriving in August.
It wouldn’t be a Square Enix event without a Final Fantasy spinoff, right? The perennial favorite RPG is birthing Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin, which arrives on a slew of different platforms next year.
Ubisoft, meanwhile, made waves on Saturday with a first look at the new Avatar adaptation, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Extraction is due out on September 16. Originally titled Rainbow Six: Quarantine, the name was changed for obvious reasons.
Capcom and Take-Two will showcase tonight, followed by Nintendo Direct and Bandai Namco tomorrow. On Thursday, EA is set to hold its own Play Live event. Meanwhile, here’s some video of that new Xbox fridge. Who said there wasn’t any new hardware?
The now-unemployed owner of a shuttered ROM distribution site has been ordered to pay $2.1 million in damages to Nintendo after trying and failing to defend himself in the case.
In September 2019, Nintendo filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles resident Matthew Storman over his operation of RomUniverse.com, which offered prominent downloads of “Nintendo Switch Scene Roms” and other copyrighted game files. At the time, Nintendo said that the site had been “among the most visited and notorious online hubs for pirated Nintendo video games” for “over a decade.”
Storman has admitted that, in 2019, the site made up the bulk of his $30,000 to $36,000 a year in income. This included direct revenue from the sale of “premium unlimited accounts” for $30 per year that provided users with faster downloads and no limits. By the time Storman signed a September 2020 agreement with Nintendo to shut the site down, he said he was deriving $800 a month from the site. According to court documents, Storman’s income is now derived primarily from “unemployment and food stamps.”
Welcome to a blank, empty world that you get to fill.
The idea of a video game that lets you build other video games is nearly as old as the medium itself, dating back at least to 1983’s Pinball Construction Set. More recently, series like Little Big Planet and Dreams have shown just how powerful simple controller-based game creation tools can be, while experiments like Kodu and Project Spark have failed to find the necessary audience to sustain themselves.
Nintendo isn’t new to this concept, either—the Mario Maker series and games like WarioWare DIY have given players robust creation tools to play with. But Game Builder Garage is Nintendo’s most ambitious effort yet to let its users make games, using a coding-free environment built for the Nintendo Switch.
Meet the Nodons
The basic layout of Game Builder Garage will be familiar to anyone who has used visual programming tools Scratch or the Unreal Engine’s Kismet environment. Instead of being built with lines of code, Garage games are made by placing and connecting little colored square beings called Nodons, which sit in the design space and distractingly blink their eyes at you every few seconds.
In the 2011 Wii release of Skyward Sword, Link could only transition between the surface areas and the airborne world of Skyloft at specific Bird Statues, which also served as save points. In the upcoming remake, Nintendo says players will be able to tap a new Zelda and Loftwing Amiibo to the controller to hit the sky “from anywhere on the surface world… even within the depths of a dungeon. Scan it again above the clouds to return to the same spot on the surface.”
That’s bound to be a welcome feature for many players, alleviating what Gamasutra called “boring bits of navigation back-to-back with other boring bits of navigation” upon the game’s release. Nintendo itself suggests at least one practical use for the new ability: “If you run out of items while exploring the surface, for example, you can quickly return to the Bazaar in Skyloft to replenish your supplies. Once you’re done shopping, the Amiibo allows you to quickly zip back to the surface and pick up where you left off!”
Congratulations! It’s a bouncing, baby gaming console! [credit: Nintendo ]
In the last year, Nintendo sold roughly 5.8 million Switch units to households that already had at least one Switch. That’s according to a recently translated investor Q&A in which Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa said that “household demand for multiple systems accounted for roughly 20% of [28.83 million] unit sales of the Nintendo Switch family of systems” for the fiscal year ending March 31.
While Nintendo said in 2019 that “some households have already purchased multiple consoles,” this is our first concrete look into just how much multi-Switch households are contributing to the Switch’s sales, which now amount to over 85 million units over the system’s lifetime. And Furukawa thinks the trend of multi-Switch households is only set to increase.
“Going forward, we expect demand for multiple systems per household will increase even as hardware unit sales grow,” he said. “By region, significant sales growth is continuing in Asia, and we believe there is still room for sufficient growth of new demand in Europe and the United States, considering the sizes of those populations. To this end, we must thoroughly convey the appeal of existing titles and future titles to consumers.”
The detonation of the first atomic bomb during the 1945 Trinity Test produced temperatures and pressures so extreme that the surrounding sand fused into a glassy material called trinitite. Physicists have now discovered a rare material known as a quasicrystal in one of the trinitite samples. According to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that makes it the oldest anthropogenic quasicrystal yet known.
The very definition of a crystal assumes a precisely symmetrical ordering of atoms in periodic patterns that repeat over and over in a 3D lattice. The patterns look the same no matter which direction you look at them, but quasicrystals are different. They clearly follow mathematical rules, but each cell has a slightly different configuration of cells nearby, rather than repeating in an identical pattern. It’s that unique structure that gives quasicrystals their unusual properties.
Think about tiling a bathroom floor. The tiles can only be in certain symmetrical shapes (triangles, squares, or hexagons), otherwise you won’t be able to fit them together without leaving gaps or having some of the tiles overlap. Pentagons, icosahedrons, and similar shapes with different symmetries that never precisely repeat just won’t work—except in the case of quasicrystals, where nature decided they could work. The trick is to fill the gaps with other kinds of atomic shapes to create the unlikely aperiodic structure.
If the Instagram ads feel like they’re closing in and you can’t bring yourself to toggle your Zoom camera on these days, you’re far from alone. Well into 2021, many of the social apps and virtual chat tools that kept the world connected during the pandemic feel more exhausting than the real-life interactions they’re meant to simulate.
But what if hanging out online was… not miserable?
That’s the idea behind Skittish, a virtual browser-based event platform from XOXO co-founder Andy Baio. Skittish is a playful cross between a social audio chat app like Discord or Clubhouse and a cute video game, replete with round, colorful animal avatars to choose from. Unlike a Zoom call, Skittish is a place — one where its inhabitants can bump into one another, do activities together and wait for serendipity to strike.
Skittish is a natural extension of Baio’s interests, a sort of inviting, lightly indie-gamified space where creative people can showcase their work and hang out. “I think I’m just drawn to places where people can be themselves,” Baio told TechCrunch. “With Skittish, it’s been really important to me that people can engage at the level they’re comfortable with.”
Baio has a reputation for curating social spaces, though previously they were mostly IRL. In 2012, Baio co-created XOXO, a whimsical Portland-based festival for quirky people who make stuff. While the festival took a few years off due to Covid, the event lives on in a bustling online community full of indie game devs, offbeat podcasters and digital artists. Prior to XOXO, Baio worked on Kickstarter pre-launch and went on to serve as the crowdfunding site’s first chief technology officer. (Full disclosure: I’m a former XOXO attendee who is part of the community.)
The aptly named Skittish is meant to create an online social space that doesn’t put people on the spot. In Baio’s ideal virtual world, introverts could circle the periphery while extroverts could plunge right in and hold court at the center, just like they might in real life. That range of social styles that isn’t reflected in virtual environments that are either explicitly for work or modeled after work and it’s enough to inspire dread for a lot of people.
For Baio, audio chat hits a sweet spot. Taking the camera out of the equation makes people feel socially fluid, but audio still evokes a degree of social presence that text can’t compete with.
“There’s an assumption in a lot of virtual events that people want to be on camera all the time with strangers, which feels alien to me,” Baio said. “Skittish is audio by default, and uses spatial audio so that you can hear people around you and lurk a little bit before deciding if you want to jump into a conversation. Socializing anywhere, even online, can be really anxiety-inducing.”
Clubhouse might be synonymous with social audio right now, but its structure still doesn’t appeal to everyone. “I like the casual and conversational approach to audio, but [it] just feels like a series of conference panels and needs a strong moderator to be compelling enough to tune in,” Baio said.
In Skittish, walking up to a group of people (animals, really — Skittish users can differentiate themselves by choosing one of more than 75 deeply cute animal avatars) allows you to hear a conversation just like you would in real life. Backing away, you’d hear that chatter fade until eventually it wouldn’t be audible any more. To have a more private side conversation, you and a friend (a crocodile, maybe?) could peel off from a cluster of other people and deepen your chat on a virtual walk.
Inside a Skittish room, event participants can walk around, chat with others over a mic, place virtual objects and even hop through portals to other rooms. Anyone running a Skittish space can stream videos and music from YouTube or Soundcloud to a virtual screen. Event organizers can also broadcast themselves or other speakers to the full room, overriding the normal proximity rules that let you hear what’s around you.
Baio doesn’t imagine Skittish as a persistent social space, but instead wants it to provide a flexible, playful platform for all kinds of events, everything from live podcast readings and tabletop games to larger company events. Baio says the core target audience for Skittish is “anybody with a Patreon,” and larger company events will offset costs for creators who use Skittish to connect with their communities. Anyone hosting an event can choose to either populate a virtual space with pre-designed virtual objects (think pirate ships and giant doughnuts) or dream up their own environment from scratch.
By designing a service that only exists when people need it, he hopes to avoid the harassment and toxicity that abounds on big social networks. Skittish will still pack a set of tools that allow a space’s creator to mute, kick or even ban users, but ideally, it won’t need it.
“I’m a big fan of dark social, in general, where people can feel more like themselves and moderation is much more human and manageable,” Baio said.
Building Skittish and what’s next
The pandemic shed new light on what people really want out of online social spaces. Zoom’s novelty wore off quickly, and by late 2020 group video chat felt like an entrenched fixture of virtual work, not virtual play. It shouldn’t be surprising that a gentle social simulator with light multiplayer features emerged as the game of 2020.
“It’s a bit of a cliché, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons became a reliable escape for me during the pandemic, a daily source of comfort and routine when we couldn’t go outside,” Baio said. He was charmed by his first foray into the series’ famously soothing rhythms and the game helped him envision Skittish.
“… I think what inspired me most were the simplicity of the controls and camera, the overall tone of the game, and the social features, limited as they are,” Baio said. “You’re capped at seven visitors and it takes forever for people to fly in, but despite that, it’s just a joyful experience to have a bunch of people over to your island.”
With the Nintendo Switch sold out everywhere and Animal Crossing racing up the console’s all-time sales charts, it was obvious early on that something resonated. People who wouldn’t normally consider themselves gamers bought Switches and spent hours shaking virtual trees, chatting with squirrels and touring friends’ islands for interior design tips. With Skittish, Baio hopes to capture a little of that same magic.
Games that double as social networks are booming right now — and with good reason. For many people it’s more natural to socialize when you’re ambiently doing something else together, whether that’s teaming up for a Fortnite duo, building a viking longhouse in Valheim or sampling user-built games within Roblox.
Socializing online with avatars also lets you express yourself in a meaningful enough way that Epic built an entire business around it, with sales of skins (virtual outfits) and emotes (dance moves and gestures) making up the lion’s share of Fortnite revenue.
Skittish grew out of a $100,000 grant awarded by Grant For The Web, a fund created by Coil, Mozilla and Creative Commons to support projects that incorporate micropayments for online creators. Baio began prototyping Skittish last July, imagining it as a pop-up space for events rather than a persistent virtual world.
Skittish spaces initially accommodated up to 120 mixed voices in a single room, but the audio capacity is even higher now. Though he’s still testing what the new limits might be, Skittish is getting closer to Baio’s goal of hosting 1000-person events. Skittish rooms can now be password protected, invite-only or public, and Baio imagines special “cozy” 3-5 person spaces in the project’s future.
Skittish will host its first paid events this month as a test, with invites to follow after that. Baio plans to rely on paid events for revenue and he’s on the fence about offering a free tier due to moderation concerns and the costs associated with hosting hundreds of simultaneous conversations between virtual elephants, zebras and raccoons.
I met up with Baio in Skittish to chat about the project and it immediately felt less awkward than a Zoom call or Google Hangout. As a noble trash panda, I followed Baio’s owl around the colorful polygonal virtual set like we might have walked around a park having coffee together.
Skittish looks like a video game and you can move around using WASD if you want, but it’s straightforward enough that anyone can get the hang of it right away. The world’s simple graphical style sets a chill, creative vibe and the avatars even have a gentle idle animation, a kind of bounce that brings your respective elephant, raccoon or zebra to life.
Like experiences I’ve had in a few other innovative avatar-based virtual worlds (AltspaceVR comes to mind), the sense of really being there, just hanging out, feels revelatory. Multiplayer games have been miles ahead of traditional social networks on this phenomenon for ages; it’s no wonder that Fortnite and Minecraft are de facto social networks for a huge swath of younger people. In Skittish, the high quality spatial audio and playful sense of presence offer something similarly transporting.
Virtual owls aside, Baio says says Skittish will be a success when people start make real connections there that follow them beyond the virtual world he’s created.
“Just like the events I’ve run in real life, I’ll know it’s working when I hear stories about people meeting each other in a playful environment and making new friends,” Baio said.
In the late 17th century, a Dutch draper and self-taught scientist named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek earned renown for building some of the best microscopes available, at a time when the instrument was just beginning to revolutionize scientific inquiry. He rarely divulged his lens-making methods, however, leading to centuries of speculation as to how he achieved such superior magnifications.
Now neutron tomography has enabled scientists at TU Delft in the Netherlands to peer inside van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes for the very first time. A new paper published in the journal Science Advances reveals that, far from requiring his own secret lens-crafting method, van Leeuwenhoek was a master craftsman who was able to achieve his extraordinary magnifications by honing and perfecting the typical lens production methods of his era.
It’s not entirely clear who invented the first bona fide microscope, but contenders for the claim include a late 16th century Dutch maker of spectacles named Zacharias Janssen, a neighboring rival spectacle manufacturer named Hans Lippershey, and a Dutch engineer and inventor named Cornelis Drebbel. Galileo noted the basic principle sometime after 1610, and built his own compound microscope after seeing one of Drebbel’s instruments on display in Rome in 1624. He dubbed it the “occhiolino” or “little eye.”
Williesha Morris has been a journalist and freelancer off-and-on for over a decade. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, playing video games or chatting about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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.
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.
At its Hackathon in 2015, Microsoft’s Inclusive Lead Bryce Johnson met with disabled veterans’ advocacy group Warfighter Engaged.
“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.
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.
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.
Here’s an unavoidable fact: the original Nintendo Game Boy is reaching middle age. The world may have moved on to sleeker, less bulky technology since Nintendo’s first portable landed in shopping malls and mom-and-pop electronics stores back in 1989. But a number of developers are returning to the green hue of Nintendo’s flagship handheld to explore new ideas for the platform, using the classics as a template.
“Pokémon and Zelda are obvious, really surface level,” Izma, creator of new Game Boy game Deadeus, says of his inspirations. “But then there’s some that I would say are a little deeper. Lisa: The Painful, the vibe and tone of that game heavily influenced [Deadeus]. Things like Tower of Heaven, a flash Game Boy-style game—the narrative’s not the emphasis of the game, but there are certain beats that I tried to match here.”
Currently a full-time UI artist at Coatsink games, Izma began making Deadeus during a game jam with some friends from Magic Leap Studios. They used GB Studio, a free engine for building games to the specifications of a standard Game Boy. Izma had been toying with the Game Boy’s art style in GameMaker and found using GB Studio to be compelling enough to flesh out a fuller version of what he’d started.