Epic Games to shut down Houseparty in October, including the video chat ‘Fortnite Mode’ feature

Houseparty, the social video chat app acquired by Fortnite maker Epic Games for a reported $35 million back in 2019, is shutting down. The company says Houseparty will be discontinued in October when the app will stop functioning for its existing users; it will be pulled from the app stores today, however. Related to this move, Epic Games’ “Fortnite Mode” feature, which leveraged Houseparty to bring video chat to Fortnite gamers, will also be discontinued.

Founded in 2015, Houseparty offered a way for users to participate in group video chats with friends and even play games, like Uno, trivia, Heads Up and others. Last year, Epic Games integrated Houseparty with Fortnite, initially to allow gamers to see live feeds from friends while gaming, then later adding support to livestream gameplay directly into Houseparty. At the time, these integrations appeared to be the end goal that explained why Epic Games had bought the social startup in the first place.

Now, just over two years after the acquisition was announced, and less than half a year since support for livestreaming was added to the app, Houseparty is shutting down.

The company didn’t offer any solid insight into what, at first glance, feels like an admission of failure to capitalize on its acquisition. But the reality is that Epic Games may have something larger in store beyond just video chat. That said, all Epic Games would say today is that the Houseparty team could no longer give the app the attention it required — a statement that indicates an executive decision to shift the team’s focus to other matters.

While none of the Houseparty team members are being let go as a result of this move, we’re told, they will be joining other teams where they will work on new ways to allow for “social interactions” across the Epic Games family of products. The company’s announcement hinted that those social features would be designed and built at the “metaverse scale.”

The “metaverse” is an increasingly used buzzword that references a shared virtual environment, like those provided by large-scale online gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Roblox and others. Facebook, too, claims the metaverse is the next big gambit for social networking, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg having described it as an “embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”

To some extent, Fortnite has begun to embrace the metaverse by offering non-gaming experiences like online concerts you attend as your avatar, and other live events. Ahead of its shutdown, Houseparty also toyed with live events that users would co-watch and participate in alongside their friends.

An Epic Games spokesperson tells TechCrunch the Houseparty team has worked on (and continues to work on) a number of other projects that focus on social. But some of the “multiple, larger projects” Epic Games has in the works remain undisclosed, we’re told.

In terms of social products, Houseparty’s technology now underpins all of Fortnite voice chat and the features they built are widely available for free to developers through Epic Games Services. They also worked on building out new social experiences, which have ranged from the social RSVP functions for Fortnite’s global events, like the recent Ariana Grande concert, to the upcoming “Operation: Sky Fire” event for collaborating quests and other game mechanics. More social functionality and new experiences are also being built into Fortnite’s user-generated content platform, Create Mode.

While it may seem odd to close an app that only last year experienced a boost in usage due to the pandemic, it appears the COVID bump didn’t have staying power.

At the height of lockdowns, Houseparty had reported it had gained 50 million new sign-ups in a month’s time as users looked to video apps to connect with family and friends while the world was shut down. But as the pandemic wore on, other video chat experiences gained more ground. Zoom, which had established itself as an essential tool for remote work, became a tool for hanging out with friends after-hours, as well. Facebook also started to eat Houseparty’s lunch with its debut of drop-in video chat “Rooms” last year, which offered a similar group video experience. And bored users shifted to audio-based social networking on apps like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces.

Image Credits: Apptopia

According to data from Apptopia, Houseparty has been continually declining since the pandemic bump. To date, its app has seen a total of 111 million downloads across iOS and Android, with the majority (63 million) on iOS. The U.S. was Houseparty’s largest market, accounting for 43.4% of downloads, followed by the U.K. (9.8%), then Germany (5.6%).

Epic Games, meanwhile, said the app served “tens of millions” of users worldwide. It insists the closure wasn’t decided lightly, nor was the decision to shutter “Fortnite Mode” made due to lack of adoption.

Houseparty will alert users to the shutdown via in-app notifications ahead of its final closure in October. At that point, Fortnite Mode will also no longer be available.

#android, #app-store, #apps, #computing, #epic-games, #exit, #facebook, #fortnite, #gaming, #houseparty, #mark-zuckerberg, #metaverse, #mobile, #online-games, #roblox, #social, #social-networking, #software, #uno, #video-gaming

Infinite Canvas raises $2.8M for a metaverse creator group modeled after esports teams

With the promise of an interconnected virtual world coming into focus and user-crafted gaming content exploding, Infinite Canvas is looking to apply lessons learned in the esports boom to the metaverse.

“Metaverse” is the hot buzzword right now, but it’s not an empty term. Ten different people would probably define the metaverse in ten different ways, but it’s generally used as shorthand for the web of emerging virtual spaces full of personalized avatars, games and digital goods that are already shaping our world.

Much like the realm of esports boasts individual standout players who command their own followings, the social gaming world has its own stars who make original in-game content. But right now, creators making hit content in Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft are mostly operating on their own, without the supportive infrastructure that quickly professionalized the esports world. And like the early waves of esports players, those content creators skew young and lack some of the resources that would make it smoother to scale the digital brands they’re building.

Founded by Tal Shachar and Sebastian Park, Infinite Canvas is looking to connect creators who craft content for the world’s most popular online games with the financial resources, tools and experience they need to grow their businesses beyond what would be possible in isolation.

Shachar, the former growth strategist at Buzzfeed Studio and Chief Digital Officer at Immortals Gaming Club, and Park, previously VP of Esports for the Houston Rockets where he founded League of Legends franchise team Clutch Gaming, envision a hybrid talent management company and game publisher modeled after the success they’ve seen in the esports world. The pair liken the new venture to “an esports team for the metaverse.”

To grow their vision, Infinite Canvas has raised $2.8 million in pre-seed funds led by Lightshed Venture Partners, the venture firm founded by media analyst Richard Greenfield. BITKRAFT Ventures, Day One Ventures, Crossbeam, and Emerson Collective also participated in the funding round.

“We are just at the beginning of seeing what the metaverse market opportunity can be,” said Greenfield. “While the path to monetization is clear on platforms like YouTube, in virtual worlds Infinite Canvas is pioneering a network that will unite creators, players, and content partners to enhance the earning power of the talent building new virtual empires.”

Out of the gate, Infinite Canvas has partnered with some big names in Roblox, including Russoplays, Deeterplays, Sabrina and DJ Monopoli from Terabrite Games as well as a handful of other Roblox developers, Fortnite map makers and streamers who combined reach more than 4.5 million subscribers.

For the team, this nascent era of user-generated gaming content looks a lot like another now-ubiquitous creator platform once did.

“Roblox in particular, but really all of these UGC gaming platforms really reminded me a lot of YouTube. Which is to say that they were enabling a new type of person to distribute a content format that was previously kind of locked right behind like barriers of distribution and also of skills set and capital, quite frankly,” Shachar told TechCrunch.

After getting curious, Shachar and Park dove into the creator community and found a diverse array of generally self-taught young people from all around the world crafting custom in-game content for Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft. Much of that content, whether intentionally or not, offered players more digital spaces to connect during the pandemic-imposed social isolation, which saw interest in online social spaces take off.

“Everyone was pretty negative about the world writ large and we’re just talking to these like 17, 16, 18 19 year old guys, gals and non-binary pals from all over the world just like straight up making cool stuff,” Park said.

In those conversations, Park and Shachar realized that while the world of user-generated gaming content can produce huge hits, creators were mostly isolated from support that could help them take their work to the next level.

“It felt very siloed — you have people making content over here on the right and then people developing these games on the left and then players kind of in the center there and that didn’t really make a ton of sense to us,” Shachar said. “Especially because it was super clear that there was this really strong loop of content creation leading to gameplay leading to content creation.”

With Infinite Canvas, they want to provide that missing framework, offering creators crafting content in virtual worlds everything from marketing support to capital and tech tools. As creator monetization channels within virtual worlds mature, Infinite Canvas hopes to even be able to broker ad and brand opportunities and empower creators to expand their own brands across platforms.

“What if we built a new kind of organization that blended parts of being a game publisher, parts of being an esports team, parts of being a capital and tech backend to basically enable these people to do what they do but better and bigger?” Shachar asked.

“For the metaverse — whatever word you want to use — to really exist, it’s going to take all of these independent people to actually populate it and bring it to life and make all of these experiences and there’s just an insane amount of talent out there that we think can be unlocked.”

#crossbeam, #day-one-ventures, #esports, #lightshed-ventures, #metaverse, #online-games, #roblox, #social, #tc, #video-gaming

Fortnite adds a new mode that’s basically Among Us

Fortnite now boasts its own version of one of the pandemic’s hottest games.

Fortnite-maker Epic just introduced into the game a new limited-time mode called Impostors; it follows the hit format that sent Among Us to Twitch’s front page — and Congress — during the pandemic’s earlier days.

Up to 10 people can play the new Impostors game mode simultaneously, divided into two competing factions: agents and… impostors. Eight agents work to complete tasks around the new map before the two impostors can sabotage their efforts by eliminating agents and undoing their work. And because it’s Fortnite, you can also teleport players randomly around the map and turn everyone into a banana.

The game takes place in a new interior map location that properly conjures the claustrophobic paranoia that makes the social deception-style game intense to play and fun to watch. During each round, the players come together to vote on who they think is secretly working against the agents, which generally leads to a lot of spicy conversation. Players can stick with a smaller group (by picking the private game mode) if they’d like to keep things intimate.

Happily, you can still try it out if you don’t have a group of friends to play with, though this kind of game works best with people you know. While public voice chat is off in the new mode, players in open matches can communicate through a quick chat box and the game’s emotes to vote on who they think has infiltrated the group.

It’s too early to say if Fortnite’s Among Us clone will take off in the same way as the game that inspired it, or how long it’ll stick around. But considering that Fortnite is still one of the most popular games in the world, a new hit whodunnit game mode that’s eminently streamable is just icing on the cake.

#among-us, #congress, #epic, #fortnite, #fortnite-battle-royale, #gaming, #social, #tc, #twitch, #video-games, #video-gaming

Roblox acquires Discord competitor Guilded

Roblox is using M&A to bulk up its social infrastructure, announcing Monday morning that they had acquired the team at Guilded which has been building a chat platform for competitive gamers.

The service competes with gaming chat giant Discord, with the team’s founders telling TechCrunch in the past that as Discord’s ambitions had grown beyond the gaming world, its core product was meeting fewer competitive gaming needs. Like Discord, users can have text and voice conversations on the Gulded platform, but Guilded also allowed users to organize communities around events and calendars, with plenty of specific functionality designed around ensuring that tournaments happened seamlessly.

The startup’s product supported hundreds of games, with specific functionality for a handful of titles including League of Legends, Fortnite, CS: GO and, yes, Roblox. Earlier this year, the company launched a bot API designed to help non-technical users build bots that could enrich their gaming communities.

Guilded had raised $10.2 million in venture capital funding to date according to Crunchbase, including a $7 million Series A led by Matrix Partners early last year. The company launched out of Y Combinator in mid-2017.

Terms of the Roblox deal weren’t disclosed. In an announcement post, Roblox detailed that the Guilded team will operate as an independent product group going forward. In a separate blog post, Guilded CEO Eli Brown wrote that existing stakeholders will be able to continue using the product as they have previously.

“Everyone – including communities, partners, and bot developers – will be able to keep using Guilded the same way you are now,” Brown wrote. “Roblox believes in our team and in our mission, and we’re going to continue to operate as an independent product in order to achieve it.”

Roblox has seen profound success and heightened investor attention in recent years as the pandemic has pushed more gamers online and brought more users into the fold, but that success has drawn the attention of competitors. In June, Facebook acquired a small Roblox competitor called Crayta, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg announcing just weeks ago that he planned to transform Facebook into a “metaverse” company, using a term many have come to associate closely with what Roblox has been building. Guilded represents an opportunity for Roblox to bring its user base deeper inside its own suite of products, creating a social infrastructure that keeps users bought in.

#api, #ceo, #core, #discord, #facebook, #freeware, #gaming, #guilded, #league-of-legends, #mark-zuckerberg, #matrix-partners, #metaverse, #online-games, #product, #roblox, #social-infrastructure, #software, #tc, #video-gaming, #y-combinator

Fortnite’s new ‘superstar’ virtual music tour kicks off next week

Epic Games is teasing the biggest in-game event since Travis Scott psychedelically stomped through Fortnite’s virtual meadows.

The mysterious new event, which Fortnite-maker Epic is calling the “Rift Tour,” will kick off on Friday, August 6 and run through Sunday, August 8. In the teaser announcement, Epic invites players to “take a musical journey into magical new realities where Fortnite and a record-breaking superstar collide.”

In-game events building up to the mystery show series will run from July 29 through August 8, so players can hop into Fortnite to check out new Rift Tour-themed quests and rewards now. The cotton-candy-colored event will offer a custom loading screen and a fluffy cloud kitty emoticon, among other digital prizes.

The Rift Tour isn’t a one-and-done event. Like the Travis Scott event, Fortnite will host five different show times across three days to make it easier for players to catch. Epic says they’ll have more details to share on Monday, August 2, so Fortnite players will have to wait for more hints or an official announcement about who’s performing.

So … who’s performing? So far, all signs point to Ariana Grande. Leakers have been saying as much for more than a week, and the documents revealed through Epic’s court battle with Apple also detailed plans for in-game events with both Grande and Lady Gaga.

Fortnite Rift Tour

Image Credits: Epic Games

At Forbes, Paul Tassi also connected the dots on how recent leaks point to Grande, including some visual themes from her music videos and a reference to her pet pig Piggy Smalls.

Since Epic is calling its latest virtual event a tour, that suggests Grande won’t be alone, if she is indeed the mystery superstar. A Lady Gaga appearance could also be in the cards, since Epic apparently had plans for Gaga to appear in a December 2020 concert that never materialized. Kanye West is also releasing his newest album on August 6, but it seems less likely that Epic would be willing to partner with West given his myriad recent controversies. And “Donda,” West’s latest album, was originally scheduled for a different date before being delayed.

Whoever it winds up being, we’ll likely know more on Monday. Even if you’re not a Grande fan or a regular gamer, Fortnite’s in-game concerts are some of the most creative and visually exciting virtual events to date.

Everyone should fall through the metaverse with their friends while a skyscraper-sized virtual rapper shoots neon lightning bolts at least once.

#epic, #epic-games, #fortnite, #fortnite-battle-royale, #kanye-west, #metaverse, #music, #social, #tc, #travis-scott, #video-games, #video-gaming

Activision Blizzard workers will stage a walkout after ‘abhorrent’ response to harassment suit

One of the world’s biggest video game companies is reeling after a state discrimination and sexual harassment suit kicked off a firestorm of controversy within the company. California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Activision Blizzard last week, alleging that the company fostered a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.”

Following a combative response to the lawsuit from corporate leadership, a group of employees at Blizzard will stage a walkout, which is planned for Wednesday at 10 a.m. PDT. Most employees at Blizzard continue to work remotely, but walkout participants will gather tomorrow at the gates to the company’s Irvine campus.

“Given last week’s statements from Activision Blizzard, Inc. and their legal counsel regarding the DFEH lawsuit, as well as the subsequent internal statement from Frances Townsend, and the many stories shared by current and former employees of Activision Blizzard since, we believe that our values as employees are not being accurately reflected in the words and actions of our leadership,” the organizers wrote.

In the new statement, they called for supporters to donate to organizations including Black Girls Code, the anti-sexual-violence organization RAINN and Girls Who Code.

Activision Blizzard publishes some of the biggest titles in gaming, including the Call of Duty franchise, World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Overwatch. Blizzard came under Activision’s wing through a 2008 merger and the subsidiary operates out of its own Irvine, California headquarters.

In the suit, the state agency describes a “frat house” atmosphere in which women are not only not afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts, but are routinely and openly harassed, sometimes by their superiors.

The company pushed back last week in a fiery statement, blaming “unaccountable state bureaucrats that are driving many of the state’s best businesses out of California” for pursuing the lawsuit. Activision Blizzard Executive Vice President Frances Townsend, former Homeland Security adviser to George W. Bush, echoed that aggressive messaging in an internal memo, slamming the lawsuit as a “distorted and untrue picture of our company.”

In an open letter published Monday, the walkout’s organizers condemned Blizzard’s response to the lawsuit’s allegations. “We believe these statements have damaged our ongoing quest for equality inside and outside of our industry,” they wrote. “ … These statements make it clear that our leadership is not putting our values first.”

More than 2,600 employees signed the letter, which demands an end to mandatory arbitration clauses that “protect abusers and limit the ability of victims to seek restitution,” improved representation and opportunities for women and nonbinary employees, salary transparency and a full audit of diversity, equity and inclusion at the company.

On Twitter, streamers, gamers, game devs and former employees expressed support for Wednesday’s walkout under the hashtag #ActiBlizzWalkout, with some calling for a blackout on Activision Blizzard games as a show of solidarity. Others called for streamers to use the walkout time slot to raise awareness about rampant sexual harassment and discrimination in gaming culture at large.

One Blizzard employee shared a photo of the company’s iconic statue depicting an axe-wielding orc, a central feature of its Irvine headquarters. Three plaques displaying corporate values that surround the statue had been covered with paper: “Lead responsibly,” “play nice, play fair,” and “every voice matters.”

#activision, #activision-blizzard, #blizzard-entertainment, #california, #gaming, #overwatch, #sexual-harassment, #tc, #video-gaming, #world-of-warcraft

Electronic Arts buys mobile game studio Playdemic for $1.4 billion

Video game giant Electronic Arts is continuing to make M&A moves as it looks to bulk up its presence in the mobile gaming world.

Fresh off the $2.4 billion acquisition of Glu Mobile this past April, their biggest purchase to date, Electronic Arts announced Wednesday that they are buying Warner Bros. Games’ mobile gaming studio Playdemic for $1.4 billion in an all-cash deal. The Manchester studio is best known for its release “Golf Clash” which the studio boasts has more than 80 million downloads globally.

The rather ominously-named startup is being jettisoned to its new home ahead of the $43 billion WarnerMedia-Discovery deal where the rest of the Warner Bros. Games division will live post-merger.

Electronic Arts is the second-largest Western video games company with a market cap around $40 billion. Their success has largely come from desktop and console titles including titles in their most popular franchises like Battlefield, Star Wars and Titanfall. Mobile dominance hasn’t come easy to the company which has spent much of the past decade or so trying to keep pace with competitors like Activision Blizzard which struck gold with its 2016 King acquisition. 

Electronic Arts has been on a studio buying spree as of late — in 2021 they’ve announced three major acquisitions worth some $5 billion combined.

#activision, #activision-blizzard, #companies, #electronic-arts, #gaming, #glu-mobile, #king, #titanfall, #video-gaming, #warner-bros, #warnermedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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