Category Archives: Gaming

Improbable brings its massive multiplayer platform to Unity game engine

As battle royale games like Fortnite pit more players against each other, studios are starting to realize the potential of bringing a massive online audience together at one time. This ambition has always existed, but Improbable, a well-funded startup aiming to enable these vast online worlds, is looking to bring these experiences to more game developers.

Improbable has announced that it is bringing a game development kit for its SpatialOS multiplayer platform to Unity, a popular game development platform used to create about half of new video games.

Improbable has some pretty grand ambitions for multi-player gaming and they’ve raised some grand venture capital to make that happen. The London startup has raised just over $600 million for their vision to enable digital worlds with vast expanses of concurrent users. The company’s SpatialOS platform allows single instances of an online game to run across multiple servers, essentially stitching a world together with each server keeping an eye on the other, allowing for hundreds of users to see each other and their in-game actions translated in a persistent way on systems across the globe.

The company’s tech opens the door for a lot of game developers to become more ambitious. There are several developers who have released titles on the platform.

Today’s news is a major step for the company, leveraging the popularity of Unity with a lot of younger studios to enable easier MMO development on an engine that is very popular with a wide range of developers. SpatialOS was previously available in a more limited, experimental scope on Unity. It also supports some development on Unreal Engine and CryEngine.

With today’s release, developers building with SpatialOS can craft games that allow for up to 200 players. The game development kit gives developers multiplayer networking and some other related features to expand the playing field, or at least further populate it. Improbable’s involvement goes far beyond just facilitating a download; a game built for SpatialOS will be hosted on Improbable’s servers, where it can be maintained via its host of web tools.

Apple Design Award winner Florence breaks new ground in mobile gaming

Designer Ken Wong’s app Florence isn’t exactly a game. Or a comic. It’s a little bit of both — a new experience in storytelling using a mobile device.

The app — or game, if you prefer — comes from the mind of Ken Wong, best known before Florence’s release as Monument Valley’s designer — another app which broke new ground in mobile gaming by creating a visually stunning world that ended up winning the title of Apple’s Game of the Year in 2014, as well an Apple Design Award.

Now Wong has won for his work again on his first venture post-Monument Valley with an Apple Design Award for Florence.

We sat down with the designer on the sidelines of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose this week to talk about how Florence came to be, and what Wong has planned next.

Wong had left ustwo Games (Monument Valley’s publisher) before its sequel, Monument Valley II, because he wanted to try something new.

“I kind of said what I wanted to. The best thing for Monument Valley would be to have other people take over and expression their vision for it,” he says.

Wong moved back to his home country, Australia, from London, to Melbourne, where there’s a thriving indie gaming scene, to launch his new company Mountains.

The team at Mountains is small — just a programmer, producer and artist in addition to Wong.

The company partnered with Annapurna, a film studio behind hits like “Her” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” that now runs its own games division. The studio backed Mountains on the Florence project, but also gave the team advice and input along the way.

As part of this arrangement, Annapurna shares in Florence’s revenue. (Florence sells for $2.99.)

Unlike traditional games, you don’t play the “game” Florence with a goal of getting a high score or achieving goals of some kind.

Instead, you tap your way through the interactive story where a young woman, Florence, meets someone, falls in love and has a relationship. You live through it with her, dealing with everything from parental pressure over her single status, to then first dates and moving in together.

Music is a key part of the experience, and helps the game invoke an emotional response.

When the relationship ends, you’ve been invested in this story and characters, and probably will feel sad.

That’s the point, says Wong.

“A lot of people think of games as things you can win — things that involve luck or skill. But…in video games — or, largely, the digital interactive space — there’s so much that you can do,” he says.

“It seems like we’re surrounded by stories of love and romance and relationships…but it felt like that was a blind spot for mobile games. We wanted to tap into that and see how far we could take a romance game on mobile,” Wong explains.

Wong says he was inspired by stories from friends, as well as his own personal experience, when building Florence, as well as movies about relationships like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “500 Days of Summer.”

Like those, Florence is also a portrait of a relationship that’s both light and dark, both joyful and painful.

“It’s my job to provide stimulating material. I just want to move people. And I think moving people in itself can be a goal. What they take out of it is really up to the individual,” he says.

Now that Florence is out there, on both iOS and Android, Wong says he hopes it will inspire other developers to take what the team introduced in terms of the app’s interface design, and use that to tell their own stories.

As for Mountains, however, the team is now considering what stories they want to tell next. They’re not announcing the details of those discussions, but they have some ideas around telling other types of stories that aren’t represented today through mobile gaming.

We might not see those come to life for some time — it took Florence 15 months to go from idea to launch, and the next title will likely take just as long.

But Wong knows what kind of stories they probably won’t do, he says.

“There are so many other studios out there exploring your traditional power fantasies, like combat and fighting and such,” he says.

“I think where we can really contribute is telling stories that are less explored — human experiences that have to do with family or identity. I think that’s who we are.”

PlayVS, bringing esports infrastructure to high schools, picks up $15 million

PlayVS, the startup building esports infrastructure at the high school level, has today announced the close of a $15 million Series A funding round. The financing was led by New Enterprise Associates, with participation from existing investor Science, as well as CrossCut Ventures, Coatue Management, Cross Culture Ventures, the San Francisco 49ers, Nas, Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin, Twitch cofounder Kevin Lin, and others.

PlayVS first publicly launched out of the LA-based Science startup studio in April. The company partnered with the NFHS, the equivalent of the NCAA for high school-level sports, to build out leagues, rules and more around high school esports.

Most high school sports are governed by the NFHS, which writes the rules, hires referees, schedules seasons and determines the format of playoffs and state championships. That same infrastructure might carry over from one high school sport to another, but esports represents a new challenge for the NFHS.

PlayVS brings to market a platform that schedules games, helps schools hold tryouts and form teams, and pulls in stats real-time from games thanks to partnerships with game publishers.

In October, PlayVS will launch its inaugural season, bringing organized esports to more than 18 states and approximately 5 million students across 5,000 high schools.

As esports continue to grow, colleges and professional organizations have already started investing in scholarship programs and pro teams respectively. But whereas other high-level teams look at high school athletes for recruiting, the same infrastructure has not yet been put into place for esports.

PlayVS wants to change that. The new round of funding will go towards expanding the product and the team to eventually put PlayVS in every high school across the country. The company has yet to announce which schools will participate and which games will be available during the first season, but PlayVS has confirmed that the games will be PC-based and will come from the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, Fighting and Sports genres.

Call of Duty Black Ops IIII adds battle royale mode while taking the game back to boots on the ground

In recent releases, Activision has taken its Call of Duty franchise into space (with its Infinite Warfare) and back in time (with the World War II release); now it’s looking to its past to bring it back to glory, while adding the massive multi-player Battle Royale mode.

The new Black Ops game is set within a narrative universe between Black Ops II and Black Ops III and stresses multi-player gaming like the battle royale, improved league play and collaborative features for gamers.

Critical to that is the franchise’s introduction of Battle Royale mode, bringing favorite characters, favorite weapons and the most iconic parts of players’ favorite maps along with the ever-popular zombies into a winner-take-all competitive landscape.

It’s a nod to the new ways gamers are playing and a pitch to rejuvenate Call of Duty — one of the world’s most popular game titles, with Black Ops as perhaps the most compelling title in the company’s arsenal. Previous releases have failed to capture the imagination in the same way as its early releases. Black Ops IIII is returning to the complete boots on the ground game play, and stressing the multi-player functionality that made the first games such a hit.

The game will launch in October and will be available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows.

Black Ops IIII doesn’t have a traditional campaign, but weaves narrative into each of the game’s modes. “This is a game that’s built to last for years to come,” said Treyarch chairman Mark Lamia.

The game developers stressed more nuanced game play, with improved sound and graphics capabilities like more refined muzzle flashes and better audio for improved orientation. Weapons mods are getting an upgrade; each weapon will get its own set of attachments. There are operator mods and better, more realistic recoil.

For players familiar with the game, Treyarch developers stressed changes to make the game more tactical, including a new healing mechanic and better situational awareness for more measured, strategic play.

“Tactical players can choose when to disengage and look for a better opportunity to survive,” said one of the Treyarch developers presenting onstage. As part of the tactical emphasis, the company reintroduced characters like FireBreak to deal with aerial threats and two new specialists, a reconnaissance expert and a defensive player who can create tactical positions for teams.

Zombie mode 

Black Ops IIII also adds new features and first-time experiences for fans of its Zombie mode. “As with the rest of the Black Ops IIII we’ve gone back to the drawing board on Zombies,” says Jason Blundell. “The zombies community has always been our most loyal…. So 10 years after it all began we’re about to begin a brand new chapter with the Zombie story right here.”

There are three zombie game-play scenarios. Two new scenarios include one set in a past, mythical Romanesque era while the other is set in the luxurious venue of the Titanic as the maiden voyage turns deadly and zombifying. 

For both experiences there are going to be customizable tools and social experiences so that the new Zombie world can exist in an evergreen mode. On offer will be customizable zombie modes for ways fans can customize and trade their own zombies. There’s also a Black Ops stamp system to validate the work that’s been done.

Activision and Treyarch also introduced limited-time creative challenges for modding zombies, and promised new ways to play the game and updated seasonal themes based, in part, on player modifications. For Zombies, Black Ops IIII will include bot support to play with an artificial intelligence. Zombie Rush is a new mode designed to introduce players to the zombie universe and adding in-game tutorials. Difficulty settings are also customizable to encourage repeat game play.

PC focus

Black Ops IIII is the first title to be released on the multi-player Battle.net PC platform. The company is focused on PC as “its own unique platform, integrated with all the social features on Battle.net.” Players can talk across Black Ops IIII and Overwatch, and the company is emphasizing the customizable elements for PC gamers.

NES Classic loaded with classic manga games raises hopes for other special editions

Japanese gamers and manga aficionados and every combination thereof will get a treat this summer with the release of a NES Classic Edition loaded with games from the pages of Weekly Jump. The beloved manga mag is celebrating its 50th anniversary and this solid gold Famicom is part of the festivities.

There’s basically no chance this Jump-themed NES will get a release in the US — first because hardly any Americans will have read any of these manga (with a couple exceptions) and second because even fewer will have played the Famicom games associated with them.

Familiar… and yet…

That said, this nurtures the hope inside me that we will at some point see other themed NES Classics; the original has, of course, a fantastic collection — but there are dozens more games I would have loved to see on there.

You can hack the thing pretty easily and put half the entire NES library on it, but Nintendo’s official versions will have been tested and perhaps even tweaked to make sure they run perfectly (though admittedly emulation problems aren’t common for NES games).

More importantly it’s possible these hypothetical themed consoles may come with new accessories that I desperately need, like a NES Advantage, Zapper (not sure how it would work), or NES Max. Perhaps even a Power Glove?

In the meantime, at least if you missed the chance to buy one the first time around, you can grab one come the end of June.

Supreme Court allows states to legalize sports betting, opening floodgates for online gambling profits

Whoever had the over on DraftKings‘ boss Jason Robins and FanDuel chief executive Matt King being given a potential billion-dollar windfall by the Supreme Court’s decision to allows sports betting should head to the cashier’s cage.

In a six-to-three decision (Justice Breyer was a partial dissent), Supreme Court Justices struck down a federal law that had banned gambling on sporting events in most states.

The implications of this for state tax revenues, and around arguments for making significant changes to the ways college athletes are compensated (or should be compensated), are huge, but clear winners from this ruling are the online betting companies… or any media company that has any sort of exposure to live-streaming sporting events.

DraftKings and FanDuel seem like clear early winners, but really there’s a market for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the major networks that hold sports broadcasting rights to open up new sources of revenue. For the two leaders in online sports betting, the decision is a new lease on life — although both companies had argued that they were games of skill and not chance, and should not be regulated as odds-based gambling companies.

At stake is an industry that NBA commissioner Adam Silver pegged at nearly $400 billion in a New York Times editorial from 2014.

Specifically, the case before the Supreme Court concerned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which outlawed states from approving sports gambling. At the time, the court gave exemptions to states that already held sports lotteries and Nevada — because… well… Nevada. Other states had the opportunity to opt in, but they couldn’t get their acts together in time to approve sports betting in their legislatures.

Mainly, the current court was concerned with whether the law represented an instance of commandeering by the federal government (basically improperly stepping on states’ rights). At the heart of the case was New Jersey voters’ decision to legalize sports betting in the state in 2011 as revenues from Atlantic City’s casinos (the only places where hopelessness and schadenfreude converge) declined.

The New Jersey decision was challenged by every major American sporting league and the New Jersey law was struck down by the federal courts. When Jersey tried to change the law to make sports betting legal at places where gambling was already permitted, the leagues again swooped in to challenge the law — and they won again.

In the recent Supreme Court decision, the Justices decided that the Federal government could not commandeer states’ resources for national purposes.

The ruling MAY also have implications for another industry that has been trying to get on more secure legal footing. Indeed, the (very conservative) New York Post published an op-ed at the end of last year basically arguing in favor of letting states decide on the legality of both gambling and marijuana nationwide.  

Nintendo Switch Online costs $20 per year and comes with 20 online-playable NES games

Nintendo has finally revealed the details of its paid online service after months of speculation by fans. The pricing is pretty much as expected ($20 per year), but the additions of online save game backups and NES games with added online multiplayer sweeten the deal.

We first heard the pricing last June, including the $3.99 monthly and $7.99 3-month options, but the announcement then left much to the imagination. This one makes things much clearer, but there are still a few mysteries it will perhaps clear up at E3 or closer to the September launch.

Save data being backed up online is perhaps the most asked-for feature on the Switch, and one other platforms have provided for years. So its official announcement will surely be greeted with cries of joy. The exact details are coming soon.

But it’s the online play for NES games that really caught my eye. Officially called “NES – Nintendo Switch Online,” it will be a collection of 10 games to start and 10 more to come, all of which can be played in both single- and multi-player modes online. How that looks exactly isn’t quite clear; the Nintendo release says “Depending on the game, players can engage in online competitive or co-op multiplayer, or take turns controlling the action.”

Does that mean we’ll have leaderboards? Ghost runs in Super Mario Bros 3? Low-latency battles in Balloon Fight? No clue.

At least the first 10 games are confirmed: Balloon Fight, Dr. Mario and Super Mario Bros. 3, Donkey Kong, Ice Climber, The Legend of Zelda, Mario Bros., Soccer, Super Mario Bros. and Tennis. The other 10 will supposedly be announced soon, with more added “on a regular basis.”

Those are of course all Nintendo-made games, suggesting licensing negotiations are still underway for classics like Final Fantasy and Double Dragon. For now it’s a package deal, you can’t just buy Soccer and play it unless you go for the full online experience.

The $20 per year subscription will also be necessary starting in September for online play. It might be a bit much to ask if you don’t play a lot of Splatoon or Mario Kart 8 or aren’t so into retro NES games, but it’s sure cheaper than the competition.

If you want to talk with your friends while trading off Zelda dungeons, you’ll still need the smartphone app, though. Perhaps a chat service will be announced another time.

A couple technical notes: the subscription is tied to an account, not the hardware, so if you and I shared a Switch and only I paid for the online aspect, you don’t get it when you log in. On the other hand, when I go to a friend’s house, I can log in to their device and use online services there. There is a $35 yearly option that lets you authorize up to 8 accounts though, for families with multiple users.

The Switch Online service isn’t needed for system updates or buying games online or anything — just online play, the NES games, and save game backups.

A friendly robotic arm plays tic-tac-toe to help rehabilitate patients

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel are building a tic-tac-toe game to help patients with their rehabilitation exercises. The game is played on a grid of boxes and includes “embodied” and non-embodied play. Embodied play means a robotic arm will grab and place a marker – in this case a small cup – and non-embodied play includes bright lights that light up to mark the computer’s spot.

The system uses a Kinova arm and cups. The cups are part of the rehabilitation process and help users learn to grasp and manipulate objects after an illness or accident.

“Playing Tic Tac Toe with a set of cups (instead of X’s and O’s) is one example of a game that can help rehabilitate an upper limb,” said Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek. “A person can pick up and place many cups while enjoying a game and improving their performance of a daily task.”

Interestingly the speed of the robot had an effect on the users. A slower robot would make users perform more slowly while a faster robot sped up the game. This could be used to modify the game for individual patients and individual needs. Because the robot never gets tired the rehabilitation staff can pay attention to the minute movements of a patient, catering the speed and type of play as appropriate for their specific rehabilitation regimens.

The research paper appeared in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.

Goldman Sachs CFO Martin Chavez and Roblox CEO David Baszucki to hit up Disrupt SF

We’ve already got a star-studded lineup prepped to speak at Disrupt SF, running September 5 to September 7. So far, we’ve announced appearances by Sophia Amoruso, Carbon’s Dr. Joseph DeSimone, Adidas’ Eric Liedtke, Ripple’s Brad Garlinghouse, Michael Arrington, and Drew Houston.

But given that today is the last day to purchase early bird tickets, we thought we’d let slip a couple more stellar speakers joining the agenda.

We’re thrilled to announce that Roblox CEO and cofounder David Baszucki and Goldman Sachs CFO Martin Chavez will be joining us on the Disrupt SF stage. (Not together, to be clear.)

David Baszucki – Roblox

Back in 2006, Roblox started out as an interactive physics program, giving people the opportunity to test out their own physics experiments in a virtual setting, from testing out pulley systems to simulating a car crash.

In the time since, Roblox has managed to turn physics into a gaming sensation for young people.

The massively multiplayer online game has overtaken Minecraft and is wildly popular with the pre-teen crowd. In fact, the company recently announced that it has hit 60 million monthly users, spending more than 780 million hours on the platform.

Roblox lets users build their avatars and almost anything else using their imagination, sort of replacing the LEGO of older generations. But because those users tend to skew young, Roblox has made safety a priority, implementing a number of parental controls, with moderators scanning all communication between users, ensuring that a young person doesn’t give out any personal identifying information.

The company has raised nearly $100 million from investors like Index Venture Partners, First Round Capital, Altos Ventures, and Meritech Capital Partners. Roblox also recently signed a deal with HarperCollins to grant them the publishing rights for Roblox, marking the beginning of Roblox’s existence in the physical world.

Plus, Roblox has established itself on YouTube as well as with merchandise, which is an increasingly important part of successfully running a game studio.

We’re absolutely psyched to have David Baszucki join us on stage to talk about the company’s meteoric rise.

Martin Chavez – Goldman Sachs

Many don’t think of Goldman Sachs as a technology company. But those people would be wrong.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has said many a time that the firm is a technology company, and has gone on to state that Goldman Sachs employs more engineers than companies like Facebook and Twitter.

But Goldman Sachs is also a huge investor, with more than 600 investments according to CrunchBase. Some of those investments include WeWork China, Cadre, Dropbox, Uber, and Ring, which recently sold to Amazon for more than $1 billion, according to reports.

Trust us, keeping a finger on the bleeding pulse of technology is exhausting. But Goldman Sachs CFO Martin Chavez, who has a long history in the technology sector, is keeping up with the Joneses.

Before serving as the CFO, Chavez was the Chief Information Officer at Goldman Sachs and led the technology division. He’s also a serial founder, cofounding and serving as CTO of Quorum Software Systems from 1989 to 1993, as well as cofounding Kiodex, where he served as Chairman and CEO until 2004.

We’re excited to pick Chavez’s brain on how fintech might evolve over the next five years and what role Goldman Sachs might play in that evolution, especially given the rise of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain.

Twitch solidifies its lead with viewership up 21% in Q1, while YouTube Gaming drops

Twitch further solidified its lead in the game streaming market in the first quarter of the year, with gains in both average concurrent viewership and peak concurrent viewership, while the number two streaming site, YouTube Gaming, saw losses on both fronts. According to a new report from Streamlabs, which has visibility into the market thanks to its software platform used by hundreds of thousands of streamers, Twitch viewership was up by 21 percent in the quarter, growing from 788K average concurrent viewers in Q4 2017 to 953K in Q1.

Meanwhile, YouTube Gaming dropped 12 percent from 308K average concurrent viewers to 272K during that same time.

Other streaming services also saw gains, but their viewership numbers are much smaller.

Facebook, for example, grew viewership by 103 percent to reach 56K average concurrent viewers, Periscope grew 18 percent to 94K, and Microsoft’s Mixer grew 90 percent to 9.5K. (Microsoft’s real figures are likely much higher, however, because Streamlabs can’t track Mixer’s viewership on Xbox – which is most of it. Streamlabs is also missing some of Facebook Live’s viewership, as it can’t track private live streams only shared with friends.)

It’s no surprise that Twitch has a killer quarter, however.

The company announced in February it saw a record-breaking 388,000 concurrent viewers tune into a stream by Dr. Disrespect. This milestone was then blown out of the water the following month when Ninja played Fortnite with Drake and Travis Scott, reaching 628,000 concurrent viewers.

But even without these special events, Twitch has been growing.

It also saw a 33 percent increase in average concurrent streamers in Q1, going from 27K to 36K. Mixer and Periscope gained as well, up 282 percent and 126 percent, respectively. But YouTube Gaming dropped by 13 percent on this metric, going from 8.7K average concurrent streamers in Q4 2017 to 6.1K in Q1.

As Twitch grew, streamers made more money, too, Streamlabs found.

It claims to have seen the biggest quarter ever in Streamlabs tipping volume, rising 33 percent to $34.7 million, up from $26.2 million in the prior quarter. (Keep in mind this is tipping that takes place through Streamlabs software – the total tipping volume across platforms will be even higher.)

The company chalks up these gains to a variety of factors, including streamers’ more professional-quality videos, streams from games with huge audiences like Fortnite, growth of non-game streams, and more.

Streamlabs’ full report, here, also delves into its own gains in terms of traction, as well as the breakdown of the quarter’s most popular games.

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