Facebook buys studio behind Roblox-like Crayta gaming platform

Facebook has been making plenty of one-off virtual reality studio acquisitions lately, but today the company announced that they’re buying something with wider ambitions — a Roblox-like game creation platform.

Facebook shared that they’re buying Unit 2 Games, which builds a platform called Crayta. Like some other platforms out there it builds on top of the Unreal Engine and gives users a more simple creation interface teamed with discovery and community features. Crayta has cornered its own niche pushing monetization paths like Battle Pass seasons giving the platform a more Fortnite-like vibe as well.

Unit 2 has been around for just over 3 years and Crayta launched just last July. Its audience has likely been limited by the studio’s deal to exclusively launch on Google’s cloud-streaming platform Stadia though it’s also available on the Epic Games Store as of March.

The title feels designed for the lightweight nature of cloud-gaming platforms with users able to share access to games just by linking other users and Facebook seems keen to use Crayta to push forward their own efforts in the gaming sphere.

“Crayta has maximized current cloud-streaming technology to make game creation more accessible and easy to use. We plan to integrate Crayta’s creation toolset into Facebook Gaming’s cloud platform to instantly deliver new experiences on Facebook,” Facebook Gaming VP Vivek Sharma wrote in an announcement post.

The entire team will be coming on as part of the acquisition, though financial terms of the deal weren’t shared.

#computing, #epic-games, #epic-games-store, #facebook, #fortnite, #google-stadia, #online-games, #roblox, #software, #stadia, #tc, #tencent, #video-gaming, #virtual-reality, #vp

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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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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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The gaming industry needs more than just coders

While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on countless businesses across the globe, the $118 billion gaming industry not only survived, it thrived, with 55% of American consumers turning to gaming for entertainment, stress relief, relaxation and a connection to the outside world amid lockdowns.

This drove a 20% boost in gaming sales globally and created nearly 20,000 jobs in 2020 alone. And it’s not expected to stop any time soon: According to research company IBISWorld, the industry is set to grow again in 2021, adding to the year-over-year growth the industry has seen in the preceding half-decade.

This is great news for the growing gaming industry and especially those looking to score a job at a company developing the next blockbuster. The unemployment rate is already near zero for those with gaming development and design skills, which means there is an unprecedented opportunity to join the field.

The unemployment rate is already near zero for those with gaming development and design skills, which means there is an unprecedented opportunity to join the field.

Gamesmith, a digital community dedicated to the gaming industry, currently has more than 5,750 open jobs posted on its site, with roles in design, engineering and animation leading the way. In other words, if you never considered a career in the gaming industry — or thought that your skill set wouldn’t translate — this expanding job market needs employees from all types of backgrounds. Chances are one of your interests — besides gaming, of course — can act as a conduit into finding a career.

One career path for those with art skills — particularly with a talent for digital art tools like Autodesk Maya and Adobe Photoshop — is animation. An animator can do any number of jobs at a gaming company or studio, from building immersive landscapes and cities to modeling what a certain character will look like to designing user interfaces and navigational components. There is significant growth here, too: According to a recent study, most sectors of the animation industry are growing 2% to 3% year over year. According to Gamesmith, the average 30-year-old female artist or animator makes a salary of just under $90,000 a year.

If you’re a whiz with words and witty dialogue, then you might consider applying for a job as a writer at a studio. Writers are responsible for writing everything from the profanity-laced shouts heard in the background in the Grand Theft Auto series to the long speeches in epic adventures like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Employers are looking for writers with a flair for crafting stories and understanding characters, so even if you’re not a career writer, highlight the work you’ve done that fits in the mold of what game publishers are looking for.

One of the most important segments of the industry — and one of the fastest-growing — is developing and designing the gaming experiences themselves. The job market for these roles is predicted to grow by 9.3% between 2016 and 2026, according to the New England Institute of Technology, and the breadth of jobs in this wing of the industry range from level designers to lead designer and developers.

Gamesmith calculated that these jobs account for 16% of the available openings, but make up only 5% of all applications. While you will need at least a computer science degree and an understanding of the fundamentals of programming to land one of these jobs, the payoff for the time spent hitting the books is worth it. Gamesmith estimates that the average 28-year-old male engineer earns a salary north of $100,000.

Even if you don’t have any of these skills to help design a game from the ground up, there are still plenty of ways to break into the industry. No matter how good a game is, it will only be a success if people know about it, so the marketing and promotions teams at studios play a crucial role in making sure that consumers purchase the latest release and that it gets written about. If you have great communication skills and can work through people’s problems, companies always need customer service representatives.

Across all sectors of the gaming world, companies are looking to diversify their workforce and move away from an image as a job sector solely populated by white men in their early to mid-30s. Gamesmith research found that currently 74% of the industry’s workforce is male and 64% is white.

But that is changing. While in 2020, only 24% of studios invested moderate resources into diversity initiatives, out of those studios that did invest those resources, 96% reported at least moderately successful results and improvements to company culture. It may seem slow, but there does seem to be a recognition that the gaming industry needs a more diverse workforce as a way not just to bring more equity to their offices, but to make better games in the future and make the industry look more like the people who play games.

“Diversity isn’t a nicety; it’s a necessity if the industry is going to grow, thrive and truly reflect the tens of millions of people who play games every day in this country,” said Jo Twist, the CEO of the U.K.-based gaming trade association Ukie. “A diverse industry that draws on myriad cultures, lifestyles and experiences will lead to more creative and inclusive games that capture the imagination of players and drive our sector forward.”

Between the push to diversify the industry and a slew of new opportunities in the field, the key takeaway is that there are a wide range of possible careers in the industry and, even if you don’t think they do, your skills probably translate into one of the many roles that a gaming company needs to fill. Avid gamers know that you’re not going to beat a game the first time you turn on your console. So hone your skills, build up your experience and continue your quest to land a job in the industry of your dreams.

#animation, #artist, #column, #digital-media, #diversity, #diversity-and-inclusion, #engineer, #entertainment, #gamer, #opinion, #tc, #video-game, #video-gaming, #writer

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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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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

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Turkey’s Ace Games raises $7M to develop casual and ‘hyper casual’ games

Ace Games, a Turkish mobile gaming company founded by a former Peak Games co-founder, has raised a $7 million Seed funding round led by Actera Group. Co-investment has come from San Francisco’s NFX. Former gaming entrepreneurs Kristian Segerstrale, Alexis Bonte, and Kaan Gunay also participated. Firat Ileri is previous investors from the pre-seed round.

The company runs two studios, one focused on casual and one on ‘hyper-casual’ games.

Co-founded by CEO Hakan Bas, the former Co-Founder, and COO at Peak Games, Ace Games has had some success on the US iOS Store with its hyper-casual title, ‘Mix and Drink.’

In a statement, Bas said: “Ace’s main focus is actually the casual ‘hybrid puzzle’ game that we have been working on for a while now. However, our hyper-casual studio assists the main studio in many aspects like training talent, coming up with creative game mechanics and marketing ideas, generating cash, and creating user base.” Ace’s casual title is to be released late-summer this year and the global launch is expected in early 2022.

Peak Games, Gram Games and Rollic Games were all acquired by Zynga, showing that Turkey is capable of producing decent exits for gaming startups.

VCs such as Index, Balderton, Makers and Griffin have all made M&A deals with Dream Games, Bigger Games and Spyke Games.

#ceo, #co-founder, #electronic-arts, #griffin, #hyper, #mobile, #peak-games, #san-francisco, #tc, #turkey, #video-gaming, #zynga

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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

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Manticore Games raises $100 million to build a ‘creator multiverse’

The gaming sector has never been hotter or had higher expectations from investors who are dumping billions into upstarts that can adjust to shifting tides faster that the existing giants will.

Bay Area-based Manticore Games is one of the second-layer gaming platforms looking to build on the market’s momentum. The startup tells TechCrunch they’ve closed a $100 million Series C funding round, bringing their total funding to $160 million. The round was led by XN, with participation from Softbank and LVP alongside existing investors Benchmark, Bitkraft, Correlation Ventures and Epic Games.

When Manticore closed its Series B back in September 2019, VCs were starting to take Roblox and the gaming sector more seriously, but it took the pandemic hitting to really expand their expectations for the market. “Gaming is now a bonafide super category,” CEO Frederic Descamps tells TechCrunch.

Manticore’s Core gaming platform is quite similar to Roblox conceptually, the big difference is that the gaming company is aiming to quickly scale up a games and creator platform geared towards the 13+ crowd that may have already left Roblox behind. The challenge will be coaxing that demographic faster than Roblox can expand its own ambitions, and doing so while other venture-backed gaming startups like Rec Room, which recently raised at a $1.2 billion valuation, race for the same prize.

Like other players, Manticore is attempting to build a game discovery platform directly into a game engine. They haven’t built the engine tech from scratch, they’ve been working closely with Epic Games which makes the Unreal Engine and made a $15 million investment in the company last year.

A big focus of the Core platform is giving creators a true drag-and-drop platform for game creation with a specific focus on “remixing” allowing users to pick pre-made environments, drop pre-rendered 3D assets into them, choose a game mode and publish it to the web. For creators looking to inject new mechanics or assets into a title, there will be some technical know-how necessary but Manticore’s team hopes that making the barriers of entry low for new creators means that they can grow alongside the platform. Manticore’s big bet is on the flexibility of their engine, hoping that creators will come on board for the chance to engineer their own mechanics or create their own path towards monetization, something established app store wouldn’t allow them to.

“Creators can implement their own styles of [in-app purchases] and what we’re really hoping for here is that maybe the next battle pass equivalent innovation will come out of this,” co-founder Jordan Maynard tells us.

This all comes at an added cost, developers earn 50% of revenues from their games, leaving more potential revenue locked up in fees routed to the platforms that Manticore depends on than if they built for the App Store directly, but this revenue split is still much friendlier to creators that what they can earn on platforms like Roblox.

Building cross-platform secondary gaming platforms is host to plenty of its own challenges. The platforms involved not only have to deal with stacking revenue share fees on non-PC platforms, but some hardware platforms that are reticent to allow them all, an area where Sony has been a particular stickler with PlayStation. The long-term success of these platforms may ultimately rely on greater independence, something that seems hard to imagine happening on consoles and mobile ecosystems.

#app-store, #ceo, #co-founder, #core, #correlation-ventures, #epic-games, #frederic-descamps, #funding, #gaming, #jordan-maynard, #online-games, #roblox, #softbank, #sony, #video-game, #video-games, #video-gaming

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Rec Room raises at $1.25B valuation from Sequoia and Index as VCs push to find another Roblox

Investor FOMO following Roblox’s blockbuster public debut is pushing venture capitalists who missed out on that gaming giant to invest in competing platforms.

Today, Rec Room announced it has raised $100 million from Sequoia and Index, with participation from Madrona Venture Group. The deal is a huge influx of capital for Rec Room, which had raised less than $50 million before this round, including a $20 million Series C that closed in December. In 2019, we reported that the company had raised its Series B at a $126 million valuation, this latest deal values the company at $1.25 billion, showcasing how investor sentiment for the gaming space has shifted in the wake of Roblox’s monster growth.

Rec Room launched as a virtual reality-only platform, but as headset sales creeped along slowly, the company embraced traditional game consoles, PC and mobile to expand its reach.

In a press release accompanying today’s funding announcement, Rec Room detailed it has surpassed 15 million “lifetime users” and had shown 566% year-over-year revenue growth. In December, CEO Nick Fajt told TechCrunch that the company has tripled its player base in the past 12 months.

The company has been following in Roblox’s footsteps in many ways as it build out its creator tools and seeks to build out an on-platform economy for game creators. The company says that two million players have created content on the platform and that Rec Room is on track to pay out more than $1 million to them this year.

#ceo, #gaming, #madrona-venture-group, #player, #rec-room, #roblox, #series-b, #tc, #techcrunch, #venture-capital, #video-games, #video-gaming, #virtual-reality

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Niantic announces partnership with Nintendo on new augmented reality ‘Pikmin’ title

Nearly five years after the launch of Pokémon Go, Niantic announced Monday that they are partnering with Nintendo to co-develop a new title based on the company’s Pikmin franchise.

Niantic says the app is being developed in their Tokyo office and will launch later this year.

“The app will include gameplay activities to encourage walking and make walking more delightful,” a press release from Niantic reads. The company notably specifies that the title will make use of their augmented reality platform to integrate the real world into the app’s experiences.

Pokémon Go has fallen out of headlines but has continued to deliver massive sums to the San Francisco gaming company, eclipsing $1 billion in revenue in 2020. In recent years, Nintendo has sought to build out their presence on mobile gaming platforms with a number of titles playing on some of their biggest franchises, but none of them have reached Pokémon Go’s level of success.

Niantic has raised nearly $500 million in capital, most recently raising at a $4 billion valuation.

#augmented-reality, #games, #niantic, #nintendo, #pokemon, #pokemon-go, #san-francisco, #video-games, #video-gaming

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With 1v1Me, anyone can gamble on their ability to crush an opponent in player vs. player games

Anthony Geranio has played video games for the past thirteen years. The 26 year-old first time founder of 1v1Me, a new company that lets anyone gamble on their ability to win in a player vs. player game, tried to make it as a professional gamer, but when that didn’t work, he turned to the tech industry.

Geranio and his co-founder Alex Emmanuel bounced between companies like TextNow, Skillshare, and Grailed to combine both of their passions — gaming and entrepreneurship into a new company.

“The reason I got into programming was because I wanted to be my own boss one day,” Geranio said. And even though he was making $200,000 a year working at mission driven companies like SkillShare, Geranio said he still wasn’t fulfilled.

The COVID-19 pandemic finally convinced Geranio and Emmanuel to take the plunge. All of Geranio’s friends had started lockdown whiling away the hours by playing poker online for money. Then poker turned into Call of Duty, which turned into Madden, which became whatever else the kids play these days (my gaming days ended with Mortal Kombat II).

Geranio then went to OnDeck and, after graduating, began knocking on investors’ doors. The company managed to raise over $2 million from investors including On Deck, Erik Torenberg at Village Global, Turner Novak at GeltVC, Niv Dror at Shrug, SterlingVC, Ali Hamed at Crossbeam, Cody Hock and Cole Hock from UpNorth, Lightshed Ventures and BettorCapital. Notable angels also wanted in on the action including Justin Waldron, Brud founder Trevor McFedries, Ian Borthwick, Albert Cheng, Stephen Sikes and Anthony Pompliano.

The company is launching its app on the app store with an invite only approach, with the first invites going to content creators who already play games like Call of Duty. The longterm goal is to create content creators around wagering. “We’re trying to create a network where wagering is the engagement tool,” said Geranio.

For now, the company is only supporting bets on games like Call of Duty and Fortnite. The service acts as a marketplace which exchanges contact information on a PlayStation or Xbox. To win a wager, competitors have to link their bank accounts, settle on an amount, and 1v1Me puts that money in escrow. Gamers stream their game on Twitch and 1v1Me monitors the game to determine the winner. Once the competition is over, the winner gets the money transferred to their account.

The company is launching with gamers like  NoisyButters (who invested as well), LunchtimeRLaw, and Vonniezugz.

To juice signups and invites, which can either be obtained through a creator or by following the company on Twitter where 1v1Me will give codes away, the company is also hosting a $500 challenge to whichever competitor wins the most games at the end of the week.

“When I worked at YouTube, I met many gaming creators that desired to entertain their fans and hone their skills, but it can be a struggle to make significant money along the way,” said Albert Cheng, Co-lead of Socially Financed and Director of Product at Duolingo. “1v1 is the most promising platform for esports gamers to make a living, and I’m thrilled to back them on their journey.”

#ali-hamed, #anthony-pompliano, #call-of-duty, #co-founder, #duolingo, #erik-torenberg, #founder, #gamer, #gaming, #grailed, #justin-waldron, #madden, #online-poker, #player, #skillshare, #stereotypes, #tc, #turner-novak, #twitch, #video-gaming, #village-global

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Epic Games buys photogrammetry software maker Capturing Reality

Epic Games is quickly becoming a more dominant force in gaming infrastructure M&A after a string of recent purchases made to bulk up their Unreal Engine developer suite. Today, the company announced that they’ve brought on the team from photogrammetry studio Capturing Reality to help the company improve how it handles 3D scans of environments and objects.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

Photogrammetry involves stitching together multiple photos or laser scans to create 3D models of objects that can subsequently be exported as singular files. As the computer vision techniques have evolved to minimize manual fine-tuning and adjustments, designers have been beginning to lean more heavily on photogrammetry to import real world environments into their games. 

Using photogrammetry can help studio developers create photorealistic assets in a fraction of the time it would take to create a similar 3D asset from scratch. It can be used to quickly create 3D assets of everything from an item of clothing, to a car, to a mountain. Anything that exists in 3D space can be captured and as game consoles and GPUs grow more capable in terms of output, the level of detail that can be rendered increases as does the need to utilize more detailed 3D assets.

The Bratislava-based studio will continue operating independently even as its capabilities are integrated into Unreal. Epic announced some reductions to the pricing rates for Capturing Reality’s services, dropping the price of a perpetual license fee from €15,000 to $3,750 USD. In FAQs on the studio’s site, the company notes that they will continue to support non-gaming use clients moving forward.

In 2019, Epic Games acquired Quixel which hosted a library of photogrammetry “mega scans” that developers could access.

 

#3d-imaging, #3d-modeling, #computer-graphics, #epic-games, #forward, #gaming, #laser, #photogrammetry, #tc, #tencent, #unreal-engine, #video-gaming

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How Roblox’s creator accelerator helps the gaming giant build new platform opportunities

As Roblox eyes what could be a historic debut on public markets in the coming months, investors who have valued the company at $29.5 billion are certainly eyeing the gaming company’s dedicated and youthful user base, but it’s the 7 million active creators and developers on the Roblox platform that they are likely most impressed by. 

Since 2015, Roblox has been running an accelerator program focused on enabling the next generation of game developers to be successful on its platform. Over the years, the program has expanded from one annual class to now three, each with now around 40 developers participating. That means over 100 developers per year are working directly with Roblox to gain mentorship, education, and funding opportunities to get their games off the ground.  

As the company’s efforts on this front have grown more formalized, Roblox in 2018 hired a former Accelerator alumni Christian Hunter, a Roblox gamer since age 10 and game developer since 13, to run the program full-time. Having been through the experience himself, Hunter brought to the program an understanding of how the Accelerator could improve, based on a developer’s own perspective. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic threw the company’s plans to run the program into disarray. Instead of being able to invite developers to spend three months participating in classes hosted at Roblox’s San Mateo office, the company had to revamp the program for remote participation. 

As it turned out, developers who were used to playing and building games taking place in virtual worlds quickly adjusted to the new online experience. 

“Before COVID, everyone was together. It was easier to talk to people. [Developers] could just walk up to someone that was on our product or engineering team if they were running into issues,” explains Roblox Senior Product Manager Rebecca Crose. “But obviously, with COVID-19, we had to switch and think differently.”  

The remote program, though differently structured, offered several benefits. Developers could join the program’s Discord server to talk to both current participants and previous classes, and reach out and ask questions. They could also participate in the Roblox company Slack to ask the team questions, and there were more playtests being scheduled to gain reactions and feedback from Roblox employees.

Meanwhile, to get to know one another when they couldn’t meet in person, developers would have game nights where they’d play each other’s games or others that were popular on Roblox, and bond within the virtual environment instead of in face-to-face meetings and classes. 

The actual Accelerator content, however, remained fairly consistent during the remote experience. Participants had weekly leaders standup, talks on topics like game design and production, and weekly feedback sessions where they asked Roblox engineers questions. 

But by its nature, a remote Accelerator broadend who could attend. Instead of limiting the program to only those who could travel to San Mateo and stay for three months, the program was opened up to a more global and diverse audience. This drove increased demand, too. 

The 2020 program saw Roblox receiving the largest number of applications ever — 5 times the usual number.

As a result, the class included participants from five countries: The Philippines, South Korea, Sweden, Canada, and the U.S. 

The developers at IndieBox Studios saw the program as a chance to double down on their game development side hustles. The young friends spread across the UK and Kentucky spent their time during the accelerator scaling up their photorealistic title called Tank Warfare.

“We’ve actually never once met in real life, like we’ve been friends for going on what nine years now,” Michael Southern tells TechCrunch. “We met on Roblox.”

IndieBox is representative of many of Roblox’s early developer teams, younger gamers that have spent more than a decade learning the ins and outs of the evolving Roblox gaming platform.

“We all joined Roblox way back in 2008,” IndieBox’s Frank Garrison says. “But we only started developing on the platform in 2019. And for us, the decision to choose Roblox was more down to like, well it’s what we know, why not give it a bash?” 

The demographics of the accelerator have been shifting in other ways as the developer base grows more diverse.

“I would say, in the beginning, it was mostly young males. But as we’ve watched the program evolve, we’ve been getting so many new interesting teams,” notes Program Manager Christian Hunter. 

The 2020 program had more women participants than ever, for example, with 12 in a class of 50. And one team was all women. 

The age of participants, who are typically in the 18 to 22 year-old range, also evolved. 

“We’ve seen a lot more older folks,” Hunter says. “With [the COVID-19 pandemic], we actually saw our first 50-year old in the program. We’ve never had anyone older than, I’d say, 24. And in 2020, we had 12 individuals over the age of 30,” he notes. 

Two of the teams were also a combination of a kid and a parent. 

Shannon Clemens learned about the Roblox platform from her son Nathan, learning to code and bringing her husband Jeff in to form a studio called Simple Games. Nathan’s two sisters help the studio part time, as well as his friend Adrian Holgate.

“Seeing [my son’s] experience on Roblox getting involved with the platform, I thought it would be neat to learn how to make our own games,” Shannon Clemens told TechCrunch.

Their title Gods of Glory has received more than 13.5 million visits from Roblox players since launching in September.

“Our whole family is kind of creatively bent towards having fun with games and coming up with things like that,” Jeff Clemens tells us. “Why would we not try this? So, that’s when we applied to the program and said, ‘well, we’ll try and see if we get accepted,’ and we did and it’s been awesome.”

In addition to the changes facilitated by a remote environment, Roblox notes there were other perks enabled by remote learning. For one thing, the developers didn’t have to wake up so early to benefit from the experience.  

“With it being remote, the developers were working their hours,” says Crose. “As a developer, we tend to work later and stay up at night. Having them come in at 9 AM sharp was very difficult. It was hard for them because they’re just like…a zombie. So we definitely saw that by letting them work their own hours, [there is] less burnout and they increase their productivity,” she says. 

Though the COVID-19 crisis may eventually end as the world gets vaccinated, the learnings from the Accelerator and the remote advantages it offers will continue. Developers from the program hope that the growth seen on gaming platforms like Roblox continues as well.

“The pandemic has been great for most game studios,” developer Gustav Linde tells TechCrunch. “Obviously, it’s a very weird time, but the timing was good for us.”

The Gang Stockholm, a Swedish game development studio co-founded by Linde, has been building branded experiences for clients exclusively on the Roblox platform. The team of 12 has used the accelerator to slow down development deadlines and dig into some unique areas of the platform.  

“If you look at Steam and the App Store and Google Play, those markets are extremely crowded, and Roblox is a very exciting platform for developers right now.” said Linde. “Roblox is also getting a lot of attention and a lot of big brands are interested in entering the platform.”

Roblox says that going forward, future Accelerator programs will feature a remote element inspired by the COVID experience. The company plans to continue to make its program globally available, with the limitation for now, of English-speaking participants. But it’s looking to expand to reach non-English speakers with future programs.

The fall 2020 Accelerator class graduated in December 2020, and the next Spring class will start in February 2021. The applications are being reviewed now with a decision to be finalized soon. The next class will have some 40 participants, as is now usual, and Roblox will again aim to diversify the group of participants.

#app-store, #canada, #computing, #game-developer, #gaming, #kentucky, #online-games, #philippines, #product-manager, #roblox, #software, #south-korea, #sweden, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #video-gaming

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Chinese esports player VSPN closes $60M Series B+ round to boost its international strategy

Esports “total solutions provider” VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has closed a $60 million Series B+ funding round, joined by Prospect Avenue Capital (PAC), Guotai Junan International and Nan Fung Group.

VSPN facilitates esports competitions in China, which is a massive industry and has expanded into related areas such as esports venues. It is the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for a number of top competitions, partnering with more than 70% of China’s esports tournaments.

The “B+” funding round comes only three months after the company raised around $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings.

This funding round will, among other things, be used to branch out VSPN’s overseas esports services.

Dino Ying, founder and CEO of VSPN, said in a statement: “The esports industry is through its nascent phase and is entering a new era. In this coming year, we at VSPN look forward to showcasing diversified esports products and content… and we are counting the days until the pandemic is over.”

Ming Liao, the co-founder of PAC, commented: “As a one-of-its-kind company in the capital market, VSPN is renowned for its financial management; these credentials will be strong foundations for VSPN’s future development.”

Xuan Zhao, head of Private Equity at Guotai Junan International said: “We at Guotai Junan International are very optimistic of VSPN’s sharp market insight as well as their team’s exceptional business model.”

Meng Gao, managing director at Nan Fung Group’s CEO’s office said: “Nan Fung is honored to be a part of this round of investment for VSPN in strengthening their current business model and promoting the rapid development of emerging services and the esports streaming ecosystem.”

#asia, #business-model, #china, #dino-ying, #esports, #financial-management, #gaming, #guotai-junan-international, #league-of-legends, #nan-fung-group, #prospect-avenue-capital, #recent-funding, #sports, #startups, #tc, #tencent, #tencent-holdings, #video-gaming, #vspn

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Roblox raises at $29.5 billion valuation, readies for direct listing

Roblox is now one of the world’s most valuable private companies in the world after a monster Series H raise brings the social gaming platform a stratospheric $29.5 billion valuation. The company won’t be private for long, though.

The $520 million raise led by Altimeter Capital and Dragoneer Investment Group is a significant cash influx for Roblox, which had previously raised just over $335 million from investors according to Crunchbase. The Investment Group of Santa Barbara, Warner Music Group, and a number of current investors, also participated in this round.

In February of 2020, the company closed a $150 million Series G led by Andreessen Horowitz which valued the company at $4 billion.

The gaming startup has initially planned an IPO in 2020, but after the major first day pops of DoorDash and Airbnb, the company leadership reconsidered their timeline, according to a report in Axios. Those major say-one share price pops left significant money on the table for the companies selling those shares, an outcome Roblox is likely looking to avoid. Today, the company also announced that it plans to enter the public markets via a direct listing.

Roblox’s 7x valuation multiple signals just how feverish public and private markets are for tech stocks. The valuation also highlights how investors foresee the company benefiting from pandemic trends which pushed more users online and towards social gaming platforms. In a 2019 prospectus, the company shared that it had 17.6 million users, now Roblox claims to have 31 million daily active users on its platform.

#airbnb, #altimeter-capital, #andreessen-horowitz, #computing, #crunchbase, #doordash, #dragoneer-investment-group, #gaming, #online-games, #roblox, #tc, #valuation, #video-gaming, #warner-music-group, #websites

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Nintendo buys Canadian game studio in rare acquisition

While gaming giants Sony and Microsoft have made M&A a critical part of their strategic growth plans, Nintendo has always seemed to be more reluctant to bring outside talent into the fold of its video game empire. Today, the company announced that it will be acquiring the developer behind Luigi’s Mansion 3, Canada-based Next Level Games.

Nintendo’s announcement is the first studio acquisition for the company since their 2007 purchase of Xenoblade Chronicles developer Monolith Soft.

Next Level Games has been working on Nintendo-licensed IP exclusively for the better part of the last decade, crafting a number of titles across some of the company’s second tier of intellectual property including the Super Mario Strikers series as well as mobile iterations of Metroid Prime and Luigi’s Mansion.

The Vancouver-based studio’s recent Luigi’s Mansion 3 title for the Nintendo Switch has been a pretty huge success for the company which has had pretty light offerings of first-party IP since the system’s launch. In a recent earnings report, Nintendo shared that Luigi’s Mansion 3 had sold nearly 8 million copies, earning it a spot as one of the system’s top-selling titles.

#canada, #gaming, #ip, #luigi, #metroid, #microsoft, #next-level-games, #nintendo, #sony, #video-games, #video-gaming

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How Niantic evolved Pokémon GO for the year no one could go anywhere

Pokémon GO was created to encourage players to explore the world while coordinating impromptu large group gatherings — activities we’ve all been encouraged to avoid since the pandemic began.

And yet, analysts estimate that 2020 was Pokémon GO’s highest-earning year yet.

By twisting some knobs and tweaking variables, Pokémon GO became much easier to play without leaving the house.

Niantic’s approach to 2020 was full of carefully considered changes, and I’ve highlighted many of their key decisions below.

Consider this something of an addendum to the Niantic EC-1 I wrote last year, where I outlined things like the company’s beginnings as a side project within Google, how Pokémon Go began as an April Fools’ joke and the company’s aim to build the platform that powers the AR headsets of the future.

Hit the brakes

On a press call outlining an update Niantic shipped in November, representatives said the company had tossed out its product roadmap, which included a handful of new features that have yet to see the light of day. They declined to say which features were removed, noting that it just didn’t make sense to release them right now.

Instead, as any potential end date for the pandemic slipped further into the horizon, the team refocused in Q1 2020 on figuring out ways to adapt what already worked and adjust existing gameplay to let players do more while going out less.

Turning the dials

As its name indicates, GO was never meant to be played while sitting at home. John Hanke’s initial vision for Niantic was focused around finding ways to get people outside and playing together; from its very first prototype, Niantic had players running around a city to take over its virtual equivalent block by block. They’d spent nearly a decade building up a database of real-world locations that would act as in-game points meant to encourage exploration and wandering. Years of development effort went into turning Pokémon GO into more and more of a social game, requiring teamwork and sometimes even flash mob-like meetups for its biggest challenges.

Now it all needed to work from the player’s couch.

The earliest changes were those that were easiest for Niantic to make on-the-fly, but they had dramatic impacts on the way the game actually works.

Some of the changes:

  • Doubling the players “radius” for interacting with in-game gyms, landmarks that players can temporarily take over for their in-game team, earning occupants a bit of in-game currency based on how long they maintain control. This change let more gym battles happen from the couch.
  • Increasing spawn points, generally upping the number of Pokémon you could find at home dramatically.
  • Increasing “incense” effectiveness, which allowed players to use a premium item to encourage even more Pokémon to pop up at home. Niantic phased this change out in October, then quietly reintroduced it in late November. Incense would also last twice as long, making it cheaper for players to use.
  • Allowing steps taken indoors (read: on treadmills) to count toward in-game distance challenges.
  • Players would no longer need to walk long distances to earn entry into the online player-versus-player battle system.
  • Your “buddy” Pokémon (a specially designated Pokémon that you can level up Tamagotchi-style for bonus perks) would now bring you more gifts of items you’d need to play. Pre-pandemic, getting these items meant wandering to the nearby “Pokéstop” landmarks.

By twisting some knobs and tweaking variables, Pokémon GO became much easier to play without leaving the house — but, importantly, these changes avoided anything that might break the game while being just as easy to reverse once it became safe to do so.

GO Fest goes virtual

Like this, just … online. Image Credits: Greg Kumparak

Thrown by Niantic every year since 2017, GO Fest is meant to be an ultra-concentrated version of the Pokémon GO experience. Thousands of players cram into one park, coming together to tackle challenges and capture previously unreleased Pokémon.

#artificial-intelligence, #flash, #gaming, #google, #john-hanke, #mobile, #niantic, #player, #pokemon, #pokemon-go, #social, #tc, #video-games, #video-gaming, #xp

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How esports can save colleges

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about esports and the Olympics after sitting on a panel discussing whether, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, esports had an opportunity to work with the International Olympic Committee. After careful consideration and research, my conclusion was basically, “I think that the Olympics need esports a whole lot more than esports needs the Olympics.”

I was surprised by some of the data I uncovered in the course of researching the Olympics piece, specifically on audiences for international, professional and collegiate sports. I observed that while the esports model isn’t as mature as in traditional sports, esports actually garnered close to the same level of viewership, and the audience was growing astronomically. I couldn’t help but wonder how long this phenomenon would go unacknowledged by the institutions that might benefit most from it.

Enter colleges’ and universities’ flirtation with esports: There are currently more than 170 collegiate varsity gaming programs in NCAA Division I, and the number of clubs is even higher. So even as institutions investment in esports, there are still many misunderstood and overlooked aspects of the potential to drive value (and even revenue) in the collegiate esports space.

College in the 21st century

The college experience today is very different than it was 50 years ago. The pace of change outside of institutions is ever-accelerating, often leaving colleges struggling to keep up. Technology, students’ interests, evolving economies and workplaces, and changes in cultural norms have left colleges and universities in a place of less relevance than at many points in the past.

The same can be said of college sports: Outside forces have eroded a once-near-hegemonic source of collegiate pride, cultural power, recruitment, alumni engagement and, in some cases, revenue.

I did a quick review of the audience for the biggest NCAA events in the world; the Football Bowl Subdivision Bowl Championship and the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament.

pre-championship viewers FBS bowls

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

post-championship viewers

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

Look at the average viewership of the big bowl games before the championship system went into effect in 2015, as well as after. Above, you see the trend line for viewership for the various big bowl viewership as well as an average. While there are certainly occasional spikes, the best case you could make here is that the product is flat — when you isolate the trend line for both, here is the result:

average viewership all bowls

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

In the aggregate, the trend seems mostly downward.

Look at the same trends in viewership for the NCAA Final Four — the early semi-final, the late semi-final and finally the championship game.

final four viewership

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

They look rather similar. So, while collegiate sports still have a massive following, there are two concerning issues here. First, the audience isn’t growing at all; in fact, it appears to be slightly contracting. Secondly, the audience is aging, making collegiate sports less relevant to younger people. While an older audience is still a valuable source of alumni donations and ancillary revenue, it doesn’t exactly align with another core target demographic: potential college students.

Now despite this, there is data that suggests that schools with elite academic departments do enjoy a phenomenon known as the “Flutie effect,” named after Doug Flutie, a quarterback for Boston College whose exciting performance on the gridiron was credited with boosting BC applications. An article in Forbes breaking down an HBS study goes into the phenomenon more deeply than we can here.

Granted, much of the data is from a few years ago, when college sports were perhaps more relevant, but the point is broadly the same: Having an elite program in an activity students enjoy benefits the institutions that sponsor and promote them. But what happens when enthusiasm for those activities among the student body is waning? One idea is to explore involvement in what the students of today are interested in.

As a comparison to FBS football (maxed out at 35 million viewers) and the NCAA Final Four (maxed out at 28 million), Riot Games’ Mid-Season Invitational event for League of Legends had a total viewership of 60 million people. In second place is the Intel Extreme Masters tournament in Katowice with 46 million people. While precise demographic data isn’t readily available, it stands to reason that the latter two events skew younger than the former two.

A few caveats, as these are not precisely apples-to-apples comparisons: These esports events are broken up over a number of days and encompass a significant number of matches — comparable to March Madness, perhaps — and the content is consumed in different ways. Much of the NCAA’s content is presented on television, some of which is on paid, premium channels. Esports events are broadcast on Twitch and YouTube via streams for free.

But the thing to understand is that esports audiences are growing at a 15%-16% year-over-year clip and it commands a worldwide audience, meaning its total addressable market (TAM) is MUCH bigger. The NCAA events are not likely to draw serious audiences outside of North America.

COVID-19

In the context of the pandemic, colleges are hamstrung by students’ inability to engage in a college experience in-person, which is one of the primary reasons one goes to college. Networking, developing new friends and having new experiences are all a part of the collegiate draw, none of which work as well from students’ parents’ living rooms. Similarly, collegiate sports as we know them have essentially ceased to exist, along with their functions of institutional pride, marketing and revenue. The NCAA Tournament was canceled in March of 2020 and there is no sign that it, or any other sport, will be back anytime soon.

Esports, on the other hand, are thriving in this context, thanks mostly to their ability to offer remote competition and viewing. Esports tournaments can isolate audiences, teams and even referees to allow for safe content creation and consumption.

Esports and college

Believe it or not, esports is a better fit for college than it is for the pros. I won’t go into all of the details here, but I actually wrote a separate article about why the pro sports model is NOT a good one for esports. In this article we talk about intellectual property, who owns the league in esports and how all of the entities make money. The biggest problem is, in pro sports, the teams own the league and can then act in the best interest of all of the teams. In esports, the league is usually owned or regulated by the publisher of the video game, meaning you have hands in the monetization pie in a way that pro sports doesn’t have.

The interesting thing about this is that college athletics actually has the same problem and has found a way to mitigate that. The athletes get their scholarships, and the schools, their athletic conference, and the NCAA itself all own a piece of the pie that gets packaged and sold for distribution to the ESPNs and Fox Sports of the world.

This is a much better model for esports. It’s unlikely that any group that “owned” football IP would tell the Dallas Cowboys how to market their team, what their cut is and how it will be distributed. This process happens all the time in college, though. In fact, in order for everyone to get their seat at the table, you HAVE to work all of this out so that the schools make some money (equivalent to a team), the conference makes their money (equivalent to the league) and the NCAA makes their money (equivalent to the publisher themselves). If the chain breaks down at any point, then the whole process grinds to a halt and nobody makes money.

I mention this in my article about the Olympics. The IOC is used to having full autonomy over how the Olympic Games are broadcast, which events are part of the games, who is eligible and who isn’t, etc. There is no chance this would be the case if the Olympics took on esports. The publisher would absolutely wield an incredible amount of influence over how the games are portrayed, broadcast, judged and the like. The IOC isn’t used to that. In college, that’s just a typical Saturday afternoon.

College admission is down and not just because of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, colleges were trying to find their footing with potential students as people reevaluate the college experience. Forbes wrote back in 2019 that college enrollments were down two million students in that decade. Add onto that the preliminary data we are getting on the effect of COVID on colleges, we could see enrollment in 2020 down anywhere from 5%-20%.

Student enrollment at US colleges has been declining since 2011

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

The outlook

For colleges, it’s not great. Revenue is massively down, with even stalwarts like Harvard University hemorrhaging cash. With enrollment down before the pandemic, we have reached a point where colleges and universities have to adapt to survive.

The good news is, I believe that esports could be an opportunity to do just that. Colleges are diving into esports, with 115 different programs offering scholarships for esports and club programs are growing even faster. Certainly, it will help attract students, but monetization in esports is really tricky.

It’s critical that colleges and universities get expert advice on how to create an ecosystem that ultimately compensates all of the stakeholders, including the college themselves. It also will require universities to move quickly and get on board with a model that is still being formed in real time. The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, but I think there will be many colleges that will. The time to move is now.

#column, #education, #esports, #gaming, #league-of-legends, #ncaa, #sports, #video-games, #video-gaming

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Gaming rules the entertainment industry, so why aren’t investors showing up?

As gaming’s popularity reaches epic heights, venture investors’ activity in the industry doesn’t seem to equate with the overall size of the games market. Spurred by an unreal year where traditional entertainment has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and consumers find unity in virtual worlds like Animal Crossing and Fortnite, gaming has never been more popular.

Late-stage investors have shown that they have a tremendous appetite for businesses in the gaming industry. They’ve been pouring capital into established gaming companies like Scopely, which on Wednesday announced a $340 million investment round at a $3.3 billion valuation. But venture capital simply hasn’t given the gaming industry and the broader synthetic market the attention it deserves given its place in the entertainment and cultural firmament.

Just ask LeBron “Bronny” James Jr., the son of the NBA’s biggest star, who became a professional athlete this week — as a gamer with one of the most popular teams in online gaming, FaZe Clan. Or look at Unity, the creator of a popular game development engine, whose stock price has nearly doubled since its public offering in mid-September. Since opening trading at $56 per share, the stock has nearly doubled in value and is now trading at $100 per share.

In the first half of the year gamers spent $36.8 billion on games through both the Android and iOS app stores, according to data from SensorTower. New game installs are also up for the year. The app analytics company said that new game installs were up to 28.4 billion over the first half of the year. Annually the 15 billion new game downloads in the second quarter represented a 45.2% year-on-year growth in gaming.

Then there’s Bitkraft, one of the only venture firms to focus on the totality of the gaming industry, which announced the close of its most recent fund, a $165 million investment vehicle. The firm, which added a former Goldman Sachs managing director earlier in the year to capitalize on the opportunity in what the firm calls “synthetic reality” investments, raised $25 million more than its $140 million target. One of these things is not like the others.

“I’ve been in the games industry for 23 years now [and] I’ve always had this huge fundamental conviction of video games not only dominating the entertainment industry but sort of taking up a big part of what society is — where video games create the digital identities that define evermore of what we understand of ourselves,” said Jens Hilgers, Bitkraft’s founding general partner. “We feel that these are times of acceleration … it’s great to see how we’re leapfrogging one or two or three years of the games industry in this crisis and it makes it more exciting to invest in these times.”

The Unity public offering, and its emphasis on markets outside of gaming, seems to prove Hilgers point and show just how much opportunity remains around the notion of synthetic reality in business and entertainment.

“Their thesis around democratizing access to gaming tools by letting hobbyists use the tools for free is smart, if you want to win the market,” said Alice Lloyd George, founder of Rogue Ventures, a new investment firm focused on frontier technologies and gaming investments.

Lloyd George compared Unity’s business to its biggest competitor, Epic Games, and noted that both have broad aspirations. “Both of them want to use their game engines beyond pure gaming,” Lloyd George said of the two big new gaming platform developers. “Unity is really well-positioned because they’re so strong on mobile. That positions them well for AR and VR. And you need onramps for the developers for AR and VR.”

Engagement and the future of entertainment

When Scopely’s co-chief executive Walter Driver talks about the attraction of gaming properties for players — and the reason investors have been willing to value his Los Angeles-based company in the billions of dollars — he talks about the connections between players. “People have found — and investors looking at the space have found also — that people value the connection they’re getting from interactive experiences. It’s not just our relationship with the players, but their relationships with each other,” Driver said. “Inside of most passively consumed media experiences, you don’t have an identity. You don’t have friends.“

#android, #epic-games, #faze-clan, #gaming, #nintendo, #sports, #startups, #tc, #twitch, #unity-technologies, #video-gaming

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Scopely raises $340 million at a $3.3 billion valuation as gaming grabs investors’ interest

In a move to shore up institutional support in what’s likely to be it’s last fundraising as a private company, the Los Angeles-based mobile gaming behemoth Scopely has raised $340 million in its latest eye-popping round of funding.

Acting as if there’s not still a global pandemic raging throughout the world, some of the largest institutional financing firms like Wellington Management, TSG Consumer Partners, CPP Investments, and funds managed by BlackRock poured more money into the gaming giant just one year after the company raised $200 million in another late-stage funding round.

“What we are seeing is that there’s a significant appetite from public market investors to interactive entertainment as a category,” said Scopely co-chief executive Walter Driver. “We were excited to crossover and invest in Scopely.”

These late-stage, traditionally pre-IPO investors joined NewView Capital, Battery Ventures, Greycroft, Revolution Growth and Highland Capital Partners in the funding, which values the company at $3.3 billion, according to a person familiar with the financing.

The massive windfall won’t mean anything for Scopely’s strategy as the already wildly profitable business continues to grow both organically and through its acquisition strategy of major mobile gaming studios, according to co-chief executive, Walter Driver.

Unlike the other big companies that have taken billions of dollars in the gaming market — chiefly Epic Games and Unity — Scopely isn’t making tools for gaming. The focus at the Los Angeles-based company is squarely on the games themselves and the players who spend billions of dollars on them.

Scopely is focused on building the end-to-end publishing capabilities and development capabilities that will result in the longest term relationships with players for years to come,” Driver said. “This space is evolving really quickly and we have grown exponentially. If we want to be the leading company in the space, we have to be capitalized like the leading the company in the space.”

In terms of capitalization, no other mobile gaming studio comes close. The company’s closest competitor, both in proximity and in strategy would probably be the other LA-based mobile gaming company, Jam City, which is reportedly valued at $1.1 billion.

Scopely doesn’t shy away from developing aspects of the platform technologies that have powered Epic and Unity to their own multi-billion valuations, but it isn’t selling those tools to other companies, Driver said.

“Our belief is that over the longterm the most valuable companies in this space are going to be fully vertically integrated and own proprietary technology platforms,” he said.  

For Scopely, technology development is all about user retention, and developing the publishing capabilities and development capabilities that will help the company and its games stay relevant to an increasingly expanding and increasingly savvy audience of gamers.

And the company has an eye on the future. It’s looking at moving more of its games between platforms desktop, mobile, and consoles as games evolve to be played across those different systems. While that doesn’t mean developing for augmented reality or virtual reality hardware yet, Driver doesn’t rule it out.

“We do think there’s going to be continued innovation of new genres and consumer experience and more convergence and cross-pollination between platforms. Scopely is going to be focused on a player-centric approach rather than a device-centric one,” said Driver. 

For Driver and his co-founder, Javier Ferreira, Scopely’s growth — and that of the total gaming industry — represents an evolution in the ways that consumers want to be entertained.

Scopely’s players are spending 80 minutes per-day on games like “Star Trek Fleet Command”, “MARVEL Strike Force”, Scrabble GO” and “YAHTZEE With Buddies” and that time spent is actually spent socially.

“People have found — and investors looking at the space have found also that people value the connection they’re getting from interactive experiences. It’s not just our relationship with the players, but their relationships with each other,” Driver said. “Inside of most passively consumed media experiences, you don’t have an identity. You don’t have friends.

Or, to put in more nakedly capitalist terms, “We believe mobile gaming’s rapid growth makes it one of the most attractive categories in entertainment from an investment standpoint,” as Dan Sundheim the co-founder of late-stage Scopely backer D1 Capital, said in a statement. “We are confident that Scopely’s vision for the future coupled with its strategic approach to creating a vertically integrated game-making ecosystem, differentiated technology platform, and deep relationships with players will continue to cement its status as an industry leader.”

 

#battery-ventures, #blackrock, #co-founder, #d1-capital, #driver, #epic-games, #greycroft, #highland-capital-partners, #jam-city, #los-angeles, #louisiana, #newview-capital, #scopely, #tc, #technology-development, #tsg-consumer-partners, #video-games, #video-gaming, #virtual-reality, #walter-driver, #wellington-management

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Tencent leads $100M Series B funding round into China-based esport provider VSPN

Further confirmation that the esports market is booming amid the pandemic comes today with the news that esports ‘total solutions provider’ VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has raised what it describes as ‘close to’ $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings . Other investors that participated in the round include Tiantu Capital, SIG (Susquehanna International Group), and Kuaishou. The funding round will go towards improving esports products and its ecosystem in China and across Asia.

Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Shanghai, VSPN was one of the early pioneers in esports tournament organization and content creation out of Asia. It has since expanded into other businesses including offline venue operation.

In a statement, Dino Ying, CEO of VSPN (see also our exclusive interview) said: “We are delighted to announce this latest round of funding. Thanks to policies supporting Shanghai as the global center for esports, and with Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi’an expressing confidence in the development of esports, VSPN has grown rapidly in recent years. After this funding round, we look forward to building an esports research institute, an esports culture park, and further expanding globally. VSPN has a long-term vision and is dedicated to the sustainable development of the global esports ecosystem.”

Dino Ying, VSPN CEO

Dino Ying, VSPN CEO

Mars Hou, general manager of Tencent Esports, commented: “VSPN’s long-term company vision and leading position in esports production are vital for Tencent to optimize the layout of the esports industry’s development.”

We had a hint that Tencent might invest in VSPN when, in March this year, Mark Ren, COO of Tencent Holdings, made a public statement that Tencent would provide more high-quality esports competitions in conjunction with tournament organizers like VSPN.

As we observed in August, Tencent, already the world’s biggest games publisher, that it would consolidate Douyu and Huya, the previously competing live-streaming sites focused on video games.

In other words, Tencent’s investment into VSPN shows it is once again doubling-down on the esports market.

This Series B funding round comes four years after VSPN’s 2016 Series A funding round, which was led by Focus Media Network, joined by China Jianteng Sports Industry Fund, Guangdian Capital, and Averest Capital.

Now, VSPN has become the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for PUBG MOBILE international competitions, and China’s top competitions for Honor of Kings, PUBG, Peacekeeper Elite, CrossFire, FIFA, QQ Speed, and Clash Royale. This will tally-up 12,000 hours of original content. The company has partnered with over 70% of China’s esports tournaments.

In March, another huge esports player, ESL, joined forces with Tencent to become a part of the PUBG Mobile esports circuit for 2020.

In addition to its core esports tournament and content production business, VSPN has branded esports venues in Chengdu, Xi’an, and Shanghai. In May, VSPN launched its first overseas venue, V. SPACE in Seoul, South Korea.

And even offline events are coming back. VSPN hosted the first large-scale esport event with offline audiences in August this year. And the LOL S10 event will open 6,000 tickets. However, all tournaments will operate under strict COVID-19 prevention measures and approval processes by the Chinese government, and not all esports events are allowing offline audiences. In the main, only high-level ones are approved.

VSPN said it will continue to focus on building an esports short-form video ecosystem, improving the quality of esports content creation, and reaching more users via different channels. VSPN currently houses more than 1,000 employees in five business divisions.

#asia, #beijing, #ceo, #china, #coo, #douyu, #esl, #esports, #europe, #fifa, #games-publisher, #huya, #rss, #seoul, #shanghai, #south-korea, #susquehanna-international-group, #tc, #tencent, #tencent-holdings, #video-games, #video-gaming

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Cloud9 adds the MAJKL Valorant roster to create Cloud9 White as its first women’s esports team

Cloud9 has brought on the all-women MAJKL Valorant squad to become its first women’s esports team.

Moving forward the team of Alexis “alexis” Guarrasi, Annie “Annie” Roberts, Jasmine “Jazzyk1ns” Manankil, Katsumi, and Melanie “meL”Capone will compete as Cloud9 White in competition for Riot Games’ Valorant league.

The new team is sponsored by AT&T.

As MAJKL, the team has already won first place in the FTW Summer Showdown tournament — a part of the Valorant Ignition Series. That $25,000 prize put the team as the sixth highest paid team on the competitive circuit.

“What stood out to me about MAJKL is that they had to work hard to perfect their play, find each other, and then compete as a unit,” said Gaylen Malone, Senior General Manager of Cloud9, in a statement. “They are a talented group of women who came together with the goal of being the best at the game and were committed to doing what it took to get there, and watching their improvement over just the past few months has been incredible.”

Competitive esports should be one place where women and men can compete on equal footing, but the league is still subject to the same problems that beset other competitive events. Few women are members of the elite teams in eSports. Competitors like FaZe Clan (which is sponsored by TechCrunch’s parent company’s parent company, Verizon) only has one girl on their Fortnite roster.

“Our goal is to not only provide value to gamers with AT&T’s products and services, but to also contribute to real, meaningful change in the industry by giving this powerhouse team and other talented women what they need to succeed,” said Shiz Suzuki, associate vice president, sponsorships & experiential marketing, AT&T, in a statement. “We can’t wait to tell their stories and see the best of the best represent Cloud9 and AT&T on some of the world’s largest stages.”

Female gamers experience the same kind of harassment and unequal treatment that women in other sports are subjected to.

“A lot of female gamers get driven away, and they don’t want to be seen as gamers,” Madison “Maddiesuun” Mann told the online publication ShondaLand. “I remember in high school, I was pretty insecure about it. I didn’t tell anybody I played video games until I graduated — it’s just that weird insecurity.”

#att, #cloud9, #esports, #gamer, #riot-games, #tc, #verizon, #video-gaming

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As Blizzard sunsets StarCraft II, some of its key creators raise cash for a new gaming studio

Even as Blizzard pulls the plug on new updates for its StarCraft II game, nearly a decade after its launch, gaming investors are financing the next new thing coming from key members of the game’s early development team.

Blizzard vets Tim Morten, the former production director for StarCraft II; and Tim Campbell, the lead campaign designer for WarCraft III; have launched a new studio with a number of colleagues from Blizzard to bring real time strategy games to a bigger audience.

The new company, Frost Giant Studios, has picked up $4.7 million in seed funding from the gaming and synthetic media focused investment firm, Bitkraft Ventures, along with participation from 1 Up Ventures, GC Tracker, Riot Games, and Griffin Gaming Partners, the company said.

“Frost Giant Studios is on a mission to bring one of the most beloved genres to a broader audience,” said Scott Rupp, Founding General Partner at Bitkraft Ventures. “We are excited to see some of the most experienced leaders in real-time strategy game development come together to build a game that will secure the future growth of the RTS genre while staying true to the core player fantasy of RTS.”

Building on their experience developing StarCraft II over the past ten years, the Frost Giant Studios strategy is focused on making gameplay better, easier, and more collaborative.

Think of it as taking some of the best elements of the battle royal genre and bringing them into real-time strategy games with an eye toward playability and competitive opportunities in esports.

“Real-time strategy players are an incredibly passionate community, and they deserve not just a great new game, but one they can share broadly with friends. Building a worthy successor will take time, but we’re incredibly excited and grateful to carry real-time strategy forward at Frost Giant Studios,” said Tim Morten, Frost Giant Studios CEO.

#blizzard-entertainment, #ceo, #director, #general-partner, #iii, #player, #riot-games, #starcraft, #synthetic-media, #tc, #video-games, #video-gaming

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Unity’s IPO numbers look pretty … unreal?

Unity, the company founded in a Copenhagen apartment in 2004, is poised for an initial public offering with numbers that look pretty strong.

Even as its main competitor, Epic Games, is in the throes of a very public fight with Apple over the fees the computer giant charges developers who sell applications (including games) on its platform (which has seen Epic’s games get the boot from the App Store), Unity has plowed ahead narrowing its losses and maintaining its hold on over half of the game development market.

For the first six months of 2020, the company lost $54.2 million on $351.3 million in revenue. The company narrowed its losses compared to 2019, when the company lost $163.2 million on $541.8 million in revenue, and 2018 when the company lost $131.6 million on $380.8 million in revenue. As of June 30, 2020 the company had total assets of $1.29 billion and $453.2 million in cash.

Increasing revenue and narrowing losses are things that investors like to see in companies that they’re potentially going to invest in, as they point to a path to profitability. Another sign of the company’s success is the number of customers that contribute more than $100,000 in annual revenue. In the first six month of the year, Unity had 716 such customers, pointing to the health of its platform.

The company will trade on the NYSE under the single-letter ticker ‘U’. The NYSE only has a few single letters left to offer, although Pandora gave up the letter P when it was bought by Liberty Media back in 2018.

Unlike Epic Games, Unity has long worked with the major platforms and gaming companies to get their engine in front of as many developers and gamers as possible. In fact, the company estimates that 53 percent of the top 1,000 mobile games on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store and over 50 percent of mobile, personal computer and console games were made with Unity.

Some of the top titles that the platform claims include Nintendo’s Mario Kart: Tour, Super Mario Run and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp; Niantic’s Pokémon Go and Activision’s recent Call of Duty: Mobile are also Unity games.

The knock against Unity is that it’s not as powerful as Epic’s Unreal rendering engine, but that hasn’t stopped the company from making forays into industries beyond gaming – something that it will need to continue doing if it’s to be successful.

Unity already has a toehold in Hollywood, where it was used to recreate the jungle environment used in Disney’s Lion King remake (meanwhile, much of The Mandalorian was created using Epic’s Unreal engine).

Of course, Unity’s numbers also reveal that the size of its business is currently a bit smaller than its biggest rival. In 2019, Epic said it had earnings of $730 million on revenue of $4.2 billion, according to VentureBeat . And the North Carolina-based game developer is now worth $17.3 billion.

Still, the games market is likely big enough for both companies to thrive. “Historically there has been substantial industry convergence in the games developer tools business, but over the past decade the number of developers has increased so much, I believe the market can support two major players,” Piers Harding-Rolls, games analyst at Ampere Analysis, told the Financial Times.

Venture investors in the Unity platform have waited a long time for this moment, and they’re certainly confident in the company’s prospects.

The last investment round valued the company at $6 billion with the secondary sale of $525 million worth of the company’s shares.

#activision, #app-store, #apple, #computing, #copenhagen, #disney, #epic-games, #fundings-exits, #gaming, #google-play-store, #liberty-media, #mario-kart, #niantic, #nintendo, #north-carolina, #startups, #tc, #tencent, #the-financial-times, #unity, #unreal, #unreal-engine, #venturebeat, #video-gaming

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Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator was worth the wait

It’s been 14 years since the launch of Flight Simulator X, which long seemed like it would be the final release in the long-running series. When the company announced it would re-launch the franchise just over a year ago, using a new graphics engine and satellite data from Bing Maps, it sure created a lot of hype among both old fans and those who had never played the older version but were drawn to the next-gen graphics the company showed off in its trailer. The good news is, the new Microsoft Flight Simulator was worth the wait and, starting August 18, you’ll be able to see for yourself.

Pricing starts at $59.99 for the standard version of Flight Simulator on both the Microsoft Store and Steam. If you want access to more planes and hand-crafted airports, you will need to buy either the $89.99 deluxe version or, for even more of those, the $119.99 premium version. You can find the details of which airports and planes are included in each version here.

Rest assured, though, especially if this is your first outing in Flight Simulator, with the base version you can still land at the same 36,000 airports as the others, and there are more than enough planes to keep you occupied — you’ll just miss out on a few extras (and if you really want to, you can buy upgrades to the more premium versions later).

The cheapest way to give the game a spin is to subscribe to the Xbox Game Pass for a month, because the standard edition is now part of Microsoft’s subscription program, and if you’re a new subscriber, the first month only costs $1.

I already dove pretty deeply into the beta a few weeks ago, but Microsoft provided me with an early review copy of the final release of the premium version, so it’s worth taking a second look at what you’ll get.

The first thing everybody I showed the new sim to told me was how beautiful it looks. That’s true for the scenery, which includes a mix of cities reconstructed in every detail thanks to the photogrammetry data in Bing Maps and those Microsoft partner Blackshark.ai reconstructed from the 2D maps (for more on how that works, here is our interview with Blackshark). What makes this work is not just the realistic cities and towns, but also that they feel pretty alive, with traffic zipping down highways and local streets and street lights and even the windows of houses lighting up at night.

And then there’s the weather model. Flight Simulator features the prettiest clouds you’ve ever seen in a game. Rain clouds in the distance look just like in real life. Wind acts realistically on your plane. If you fly in winter, snow covers the ground — and you can play around with all of those settings in real time without having to reload the game with every change.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

But since Microsoft and Asobo Studios decided to almost build a digital twin of our planet in Flight Simulator — and because the only way to do that is to use machine learning instead of placing every object by hand — you’ll still find plenty of oddness in the world, too. I had hoped that the team would fix more of these between the beta and final release, but I haven’t seen a lot of changes here. That means you’ll find bridges that look more like dams, roads that go under water and a few misplaced buildings and trees — there are so many trees where they don’t belong.

The way I look at this is that Flight Simulator is still a work in progress, and that hasn’t changed in the final release. I’m okay with that because even when there are mistakes, the cities and towns still usually look better than in any paid add-on for other flight simulators. Because a lot of this data is streamed from the Azure cloud and the team will continue to tweak its algorithms, I also expect that we’ll see fewer and fewer of these issues over time. Early on, I got hung up on this, but after a while, I realized that it doesn’t take away from enjoying the game — but it’s something to be aware of.

One area where I really hoped Microsoft would have improved the game, though, is air traffic control. This was always an area where Microsoft (and to be fair, all of its competitors) struggled. This was a problem during the alpha and beta, and it still is, which is really a shame, but what we have now just doesn’t feel very realistic.

Air traffic controllers don’t use standard phraseology (no real-life controller will ever tell you that he will contact you next when you leave his airspace, for example), don’t hand you off from tower to departure and constantly tell everybody to go around. I’m pretty sure I’ve done more go-arounds in three days with the final version of Flight Simulator than during the entire training for my pilot’s license. That feels like something that could be easily improved in the next update because, maybe even more so than the occasional graphics hiccup, it breaks the immersion for those looking for a simulator experience.

I also just wish that the controllers would call airlines by their real names. Microsoft has partnered with FlightAware to show real-life flights in the game, which depart and land on time, but somehow there are no liveries for them (except for the occasional stray United plane, which hints that we’ll see more of these over time) and only a limited set of models. Again, that’s something we’ll probably see more of in future updates.

Speaking of those flight models, Microsoft tweaked some of them a bit since the beta and, while I’ve never been in the cockpit of a 787, the single-engine Cessnas that I’ve flown still behave like I would expect them to in the sim (though I find the rudder is still pretty twitchy and needs some tweaking). I can’t vouch for the other aircraft in the game, but I expect real live pilots will find they are similarly realistic.

I still found some bugs with the flight instruments here and there and the GPS systems sometimes won’t let me activate a course, for example. I also wish the simulation of the G1000 and G3X glass cockpits would go just a little bit further. I can’t help but wonder if Microsoft and Asobo specifically held back here a bit to leave more room for add-on developers.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Performance hasn’t really changed since the beta, but I’m typically getting around 40 frames per second with the 2070 Super and i7-9700K, even when barely skimming over the roofs of cities like Barcelona or Berlin.

The only time I’ve seen real dips down into the 20s is when flying low over some of the hand-crafted airports like Frankfurt, and even then, after turning around and flying over the airport again, those numbers shot back up to the 40s.

You’ll notice that I used the words “simulator” and “game” interchangeably in this post. That’s because I think, in many ways, Flight Simulator is what you want it to be. There are plenty of game elements here, with flight training, landing challenges and bush-flying exercises. And in this age of COVID-19, there’s also something about it that just feels very relaxing when you’re flying around the planet low and slow, looking at the gorgeous scenery and forgetting about everything else for a while. I do worry, though, that most casual players will get bored after a short time.

For simmers, the new Flight Simulator is a godsend and provides a great basis for their hobby for years to come, especially given that Microsoft will continue to update it and because a lot of companies will develop all kinds of add-ons for it — and thanks to the inherent flaws in the game, there’s still room for somebody to not just build additional aircraft but also handcrafted versions of smaller airports, for example.

As I said in my preview, Flight Simulator is a technical marvel. Is it perfect? No. But I can forgive those imperfections because it does so much right.

#alpha, #artificial-intelligence, #cloud, #gaming, #machine-learning, #microsoft, #microsoft-flight-simulator, #microsoft-store, #simulation, #tc, #video-games, #video-gaming

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In game app-development platform Overwolf acquires CurseForge assets from Twitch to get into mods

Overwolf, the in-game app development toolkit and marketplace, has acquired Twitch’s CurseForge assets to provide a marketplace for modifications to compliment its app development business.

Since its launch in 2009, developers have used Overwolf to build in-game applications for things like highlight clips, game performance monitoring and metrics, and strategic analysis. Some of these developers have managed to earn anywhere between $100,000 and $1 million per year off of revenue from app sales.

“CurseForge is the embodiment of how fostering a community of creators around games generates  value for both players and game developers,” said Uri Marchand, Overwolf’s chief executive officer, in a statement. “As we move to onboard mods onto our platform, we’re positioning Overwolf as the industry standard for building in-game creations.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch to think of the company as the Roblox for applications for gamers and now it’s moving deeper into the gaming world with the acquisition of CurseForge. As the company makes its pitch to current CurseForge users — hoping that the mod developers will stick with the marketplace, they’re offering to increase the revenue those developers will make by 50 percent.

Overwolf said it already has around 30,000 developers, who have built 90,000 mods and apps, on its platform already.

As a result of the acquisition, the CurseForge mod manager will move from being a Twitch client and become a standalone desktop app included Overwolf’s suite of app offerings and the acquisition won’t have any effect on existing tools and services.

“We’ve been deeply impressed by the level of passion and collaboration in the CurseForge modding community,” said Tim Aldridge, Director of Engineering, Gaming Communities at Twitch . “CurseForge is an incredible asset for both creators and gamers. We are confident that the CurseForge community will thrive under Overwolf’s leadership, thanks to their commitment to empowering developers.”

The acquisition comes two years after Overwolf raised $16 million in a round of financing from Intel Capital, which had also partnered with the company on a $7 million fund to invest in app and mod developers for popular games.

“Overwolf’s position as a platform that serves millions of gamers, coupled with its partnership with top developers, means that Intel’s investment will convert into more value for PC gamers worldwide,” said John Bonini, VP and GM of VR, Esports and Gaming at Intel, in a statement at the time. “Intel has always prioritized gamers with high performance, industry-leading hardware. This round of investment in Overwolf advances Intel’s vision to deliver a holistic PC experience that will enhance the ways people interact with their favorite games on the software side as well.”

Other investors in the company include Liberty Technology Venture Capital, the investment arm of the media and telecommunications company, Liberty Media.

#chief-executive-officer, #computing, #gamer, #intel, #intel-capital, #liberty-media, #minecraft-mods, #mod, #overwolf, #roblox, #tc, #telecommunications, #twitch, #twitch-tv, #video-games, #video-gaming, #video-hosting, #vp, #wikia

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‘Fallout Shelter’ joins Tesla arcade in latest software update

Nearly a year ago, Todd Howard, the director of Bethesda Games, said that the company’s “Fallout Shelter” game would be coming to Tesla displays. It arrived, via the 2020.20 software update, this week, which was first noted at driver’s platform Teslascope.

Fallout Shelter is the latest — and one of the more modern games — to join Tesla’s Arcade, an in-car feature that lets drivers play video games while the vehicle is parked. It joins 2048, Atari’s Super Breakout, Cuphead, Stardew Valley, Missile Command, Asteroids, Lunar Lander and Centipede. The arcade also includes a newly improved (meaning more difficult) backgammon game as well as chess.

The 2020.20 software update that adds the game, along with a few other improvements, hasn’t reached all Tesla vehicles yet, including the Model 3 in this reporter’s driveway (that vehicle has the prior 2020.16.2.1 update, which includes improvements to backgammon and a redesigned Tesla Toybox).

However, YouTube channel host JuliansRandomProject was one of the lucky few who did receive it and released a video that provides a look at Fallout and how it works in the vehicle. Roadshow also discovered and shared the JuliansRandomProject video, which is embedded below.

Fallout Shelter is just one of the newer features in the software update. Some functionality was added to the steering wheel so owners can use the toggle controls to play, pause and skip video playback in Theater Mode, the feature that lets owners stream Netflix and other video (while in park).

Tesla also improved Trax, which lets you record songs. Trax now includes a piano roll view that allows you to edit and fine tune notes in a track.

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