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Pokémon GO influencers threaten a boycott after Niantic removes COVID safety measures

By Amanda Silberling

The creators of Pokémon GO, Niantic developed one of the first mainstream augmented reality games, boasting 166 million users and over a billion dollars in revenue last year. Taking inspiration from the main series Pokémon games, Pokémon GO uses in-game incentives to encourage users to explore their surroundings, team up with other users to fight legendary beasts, and travel to places they’ve never been before.

Before the pandemic, this posed an accessibility issue — when certain tasks could only be completed by walking a certain distance, for example, it alienated users with physical conditions and disabilities that prevent them from easily taking a walk around the neighborhood. Plus, for players in wheelchairs, it might be impossible to access certain PokéStops and Gyms. It’s necessary to interact with these real-world landmarks to play the game to its fullest.

When much of the world entered lockdown March 2020, Pokémon Go doubled the size of the radius that players can be within to interact with a PokéStop or Gym, widening the radius from 40 meters to 80 meters. So, you could now be further away from a landmark but still reap its rewards. This made it easier for users to play from home, or play outside while social distancing — but it also made the game much more accessible. Plus, for a game that still gets a bad rep for causing traffic accidents, the increased radius helped pedestrian players access landmarks without brazenly jay-walking across the street (to be fair, it’s on users to make smart decisions while gaming in augmented reality — but, Niantic has responsibility here too). And for businesses that happened to be located in a prime location for raid battles, which require players to gather in-person within a Gym’s radius to defeat rare monsters, this meant that Pokémon players could maintain a respectful distance from store fronts while playing the game (later in the pandemic, it became possible to join raid battles remotely — this feature will remain in the game, probably because it proved profitable).

These pandemic incentives were always framed as temporary bonuses, but players embraced the changes — in 2020, Pokémon GO had its highest-earning year yet. Now, the increased landmark radius has been removed “as a test” in the U.S. and New Zealand.

“As we return to the outside world again, these changes are aimed at restoring the focus of Pokémon GO on movement and exploration in the real world,” the company wrote in a blog post. “These changes will be introduced slowly and carefully to make it more exciting to explore the world around you.”

One new incentive gives users 10x XP for visiting a new PokéStop for the first time (or, in real-world terms, visiting a new place). But as the Delta variant spreads in the U.S., players find these changes to be frustrating and misguided. Why roll back features that made the game more accessible while also netting the company more money?

The removal of double distance is nothing short of a slap in the face towards the #PokemonGO Community.

I’ll realistic and say I that I’ll quit GO if changes aren’t being made ASAP.

I REFUSE to cover a game that doesn’t have it’s player base in its best interest.

— REVERSAL – Pokémon GO (@REVERSALxPoGO) August 1, 2021

The Pokémon Go YouTuber, Reversal, who has created sponsored content for Niantic, wrote that he will quit the game if changes aren’t being made ASAP. Other players launched a petition with over 130,000 signatures to keep increased PokéStop and Gym interaction distance. Prominent Pokémon Go content creators like ZoëTwoDots and The Trainer Club have referenced a potential boycott of the game in videos they uploaded today, citing Niantic’s refusal to listen to community concerns after they announced the impending end of pandemic bonuses in June.

“I’m more than down to boycott the game with everyone if we’re vibing that,” ZoëTwoDots, who has also partnered with Niantic, told her 212,000 subscribers. “I know for myself personally, I’m just straight up not spending money in the game going forward until they address it publicly.”

My opinion on the Pokéstop radius hasn't changed. It was a clear quality of life change that was only fully realised because of a (ongoing) pandemic. It has provided accessibility to disabled players, safety to all players, and NEVER affected our enjoyment of exploration. https://t.co/DK1VWkw0ga

— ZoëTwoDots 🎀 (@_ZoeTwoDots) August 1, 2021

As the game celebrates its five year anniversary, the conflict it now faces isn’t about players wishing for the game to be easier. Rather, this represents a failure by Niantic to listen to its user base, prioritize accessibility, and incentivize users to stay home as COVID-19 cases rise again in the U.S.

Elon Musk calls Apple’s App Store fees ‘a de facto global tax on the Internet’

By Lucas Matney

Elon Musk is siding with Epic Games in the App Store monopoly case, with the Tesla CEO firing off a tweet Friday morning that called Apple’s Store fees “a de facto global tax on the Internet,” also adding that “Epic is right.”

Epic Games legal battle with Apple is sure to last years and the Fortnite maker has hardly been secretive about its aims to win the battle for popular opinion as well. Musk’s vote of confidence could hold sway with consumers who have yet to develop a clear opinion on the topic.

Apple has argued publicly that dissatisfied developers can take their products to Android or mobile web on iOS, but Epic Games and others have argued that Apple’s stranglehold on apps is nothing short of a monopoly.

What’s less clear is why Musk is taking up this issue right now. While Musk is rarely one to pass up offering an outside opinion on a contentious issue that doesn’t involve him, none of Musk’s current companies seem to be deeply affected by the fees from the App Store, though there certainly could be action happening behind the scenes.

Apple app store fees are a de facto global tax on the Internet. Epic is right.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021

Horizon Blockchain Games raises $4.5M for its NFT trading card game and wallet

By Greg Kumparak

Horizon Blockchain Games is — as the name implies — a company building games on the blockchain, along with tools to help others do the same.

The company announced today that it has raised another $4.5M, bringing its total raised to a little over $13M.

Horizon’s first game is Skyweaver, a competitive digital trading card game which taps the blockchain to give players more realistic ownership of their virtual cards. Once earned through competition with other players, cards can be sold, traded, or taken out of the system and put in storage.

As I previously wrote about Horizon here:

Horizon is working down two paths in parallel here: On one path, they’re building an Ethereum-powered platform called Arcadeum for handling in-game items — establishing who owns any specific instance of an item, and allowing that item to be verifiably traded, sold or given from player to player. Once an item is in a player’s possession, it’s theirs to use, trade or sell as they please; Horizon can’t just take it away. In time, they’ll open up this platform for other developers to build upon.

On the other path, the company is building out its own game — a digital trading card game called SkyWeaver — meant to thrive in its own right while simultaneously showcasing the platform.

“Arcadeum” mentioned above has now been rebranded as “Sequence“, an easy-to-integrate wallet system that aims to hand-wave away the complexities of the blockchain. They want to let users buy and store their digital goods on the blockchain without either the user or an app’s developer really having to think about the blockchain. Horizon co-founder Michael Sanders tells me the rebranding comes with an overall broadening of its focus; the ‘Arcade’ in ‘Arcadeum’ suggested it was all about gaming, whereas the aim is to help manage all kinds of digital items, from virtual gaming goods to NFT art and beyond.

The Horizon team often mentions being built to support “Web3”, a term I’ve been hearing more and more lately. In short (or, at least, as best I understand it), Web3 is a category of online-but-decentralized apps, services, and games built around the blockchain (Ethereum, in this case) to give individual users more control of their data. The Ethereum foundation has a breakdown of the concept here.

A match in Skyweaver Image Credits: Horizon Blockchain Games

Horizon originally intended to open Skyweaver up more broadly in 2020; as of this morning it’s still in private beta, with plans to open widely later this year. Sanders tells me they’ve let in over 66,000 players so far.

The company says that investors in this round (a “pre-Series A round SAFE”) include CMT Digital, The Xchange Company, BITKRAFT Ventures, Khaled Verjee, and Zyshan Kaba.

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

By Taylor Hatmaker

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.”

Escape into the Rift

Take a musical journey to magical new realities and drop into the Rift Tour August 6-8 https://t.co/1ljUFhYrL5 pic.twitter.com/GFIUYB5hGC

— Fortnite (@FortniteGame) July 29, 2021

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.

Story and Street Style Converge in The World Ends With You

By Ria Teitelbaum
The iconic action RPG introduced a world of gamers to Japanese fashion. Now with a sequel on the way, its influence has only grown.

How AI Will Help Keep Time at the Tokyo Olympics

By Jeremy White
Omega, the official timekeeper of the Games, is now using computer vision and motion sensors for events like swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball.

The Activision Blizzard Harassment Suit Feels Painfully Familiar

By Cecilia D'Anastasio
A complaint filed this week alleges corrosive behavior that seems increasingly endemic to the video game industry.

DraftKings shares plans for launch of NFT collectibles marketplace

By Lucas Matney

DraftKings is charging into the NFT game, announcing a marketplace aimed at curating sports and entertainment-themed digital collectibles for its audience of enthusiasts. The platform is “debuting later this summer,” and showcases another potentially lucrative expansion for the fantasy sports betting company.

DraftKings is entering a market that is both crowded and sparse — with plenty of NFT marketplace options for today’s niche group of collectors though offerings are still light when considering the billions that have flowed through the space in the first several months of the year. This week, investors gave NFT marketplace OpenSea a $1.5 billion valuation. Dapper Labs, which makes NBA Top Shot, recently raised at a reported $7.5 billion valuation.

Dapper’s existing sway in the space will leave DraftKings pursuing opportunities outside exclusive league partnerships. NBA Top Shot allows players to buy “Moments” from NBA history, clips of actual game and player footage which it has access to via league and players association partnerships. In addition to the NBA, Dapper has already partnered with other leagues.

DraftKings foothold in the space will come from an exclusive partnership with Autograph, a newly-launched NFT startup co-founded by quarterback Tom Brady. The company has inked exclusive NFT deals with some top athletes including Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Derek Jeter, Naomi Osaka and Tony Hawk, hoping to build out its platform as the hub for sports personality collectibles.

Aside from the partnerships, DraftKings is hoping to get a leg up in the space by further simplifying the user onboarding process, allowing users to buy NFTs without loading a wallet with cryptocurrency, instead purchasing with USD. When the platform launches users will be able to purchase NFTs from DraftKings and resell or trade them through the platform.

For DraftKings, which has raised some $720 million in funding since launch in 2012, the NFT expansion could offer an opportunity of funneling their existing audience into the new vertical. Few existing tech startups have made noteworthy expansions into the NFT world despite plenty of hype and investor interest. DraftKings co-founder Matt Kalish tells TechCrunch that the startup’s devoted community is its biggest asset to winning in the rising space.

“DraftKings has millions of people in our community who show up to out platform every day and every week,” Kalish says. “We think our biggest advantage is the strength and size of our community… [We] will bring a lot of eyeballs to the table.”

Epic Games acquires Sketchfab, a 3D-model sharing platform

By Romain Dillet

New York-based startup Sketchfab has been acquired by Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite and Unreal Engine. Sketchfab has been building a platform to upload, download, view, share, sell and buy 3D assets. Essentially, it is the leading repository for 3D files on the web.

Epic Games isn’t disclosing the terms of the deal. Sketchfab will still operate as a separate brand and offering. Epic Games also says that all integrations with third-party tools will remain available, including with Unity.

The deal makes a ton of sense as Epic Games has been developing — and acquiring — some of the most popular creation tools. Unreal Engine has been one of the most popular video game engines of the past couple of decades.

More recently, Unreal Engine has been used for different use cases beyond video games, such as special effects, 3D explorations of virtual worlds, mixed reality projects and more.

But an engine without assets is pretty useless. That’s why creators either design their own 2D and 3D assets, outsource this process or buy assets directly. It led to the creation of an entire ecosystem of assets and creators.

Epic Games has its own Unreal Engine marketplace, but Sketchfab has been working on building the definitive 3D marketplace for many years with three important pillars — technology, reach and collaboration.

On the technology front, Sketchfab lets you view 3D models on any platform. The Sketchfab viewer works with all major browsers on both desktop and mobile — you can see an example on Sketchfab. It also works with VR headsets. You can upload 3D models from your favorite 3D modeling app, such as Blender, 3ds Max, Maya, Cinema 4D and Substance Painter.

Sketchfab can also convert any format into glTF and USDZ file formats. Those formats work particularly well on Android and iOS.

When it comes to reach, Sketchfab has grown tremendously over the years. In 2018, the company shared some metrics — 1 billion views, 2 million members and 3 million 3D models. Around the same time, the company launched a store so that creators can buy and sell assets directly on the platform.

Finally, Sketchfab launched an interesting feature for companies that work with 3D models all the time — Sketchfab for Teams. It’s a software-as-a-service play that lets you share a Sketchfab account with the rest of the team. Essentially, it works a bit like a shared Google Drive folder — but for 3D models.

With today’s acquisition, Epic Games is making some immediate changes. Starting today, store fees have been reduced from 30% to 12% — just like on the Epic Games Store. The company lowered commissions on ArtStation immediately after acquiring ArtStation, as well.

As for Sketchfab users paying a monthly subscription fee, everything is a bit cheaper now. All features in the Plus plan are now available for free, all features in the Pro plan are available to Plus subscribers, etc.

“We built Sketchfab with a mission to empower a new era of creativity and provide a service for creators to showcase their work online and make 3D content accessible,” Sketchfab co-founder and CEO Alban Denoyel said in the announcement. “Joining Epic will enable us to accelerate the development of Sketchfab and our powerful online toolset, all while providing an even greater experience for creators. We are proud to work alongside Epic to build the Metaverse and enable creators to take their work even further.”

With the acquisitions of ArtStation and Capturing Reality, Epic Games has been on an acquisition spree. It’s clear that the company wants to build an end-to-end developer suite for the gaming industry.

When the Game Is Over, Where Do Our Avatars Go?

By Zak Jason
The player characters from childhood video games were conceived in glory. Where are they now?

Twitch Streamers Rake in Millions With a Crypto Gambling Boom

By Cecilia D'Anastasio
The company says it is “closely monitoring gambling content,” but legal experts told WIRED that some promotions may be illegal.

Give Me More Romance Options in Video Games

By Swapna Krishna
Show me DLC and I will pay good money to spend, uh, quality time with characters.

Google faces a major multi-state antitrust lawsuit over Google Play fees

By Taylor Hatmaker

A group of 37 attorneys general filed a second major multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google Wednesday, accusing the company of abusing its market power to stifle competitors and forcing consumers into in-app payments that grant the company a hefty cut.

New York Attorney General Letitia James is co-leading the suit alongside the Tennessee, North Carolina and Utah attorneys general. The bipartisan coalition represents 36 U.S. states, including California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Colorado and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

“Through its illegal conduct, the company has ensured that hundreds of millions of Android users turn to Google, and only Google, for the millions of applications they may choose to download to their phones and tablets,” James said in a press release. “Worse yet, Google is squeezing the lifeblood out of millions of small businesses that are only seeking to compete.”

In December, 35 states filed a separate antitrust suit against Google, alleging that the company engaged in illegal behavior to maintain a monopoly on the search business. The Justice Department filed its own antitrust case focused on search last October.

In the new lawsuit, embedded below, the bipartisan coalition of states allege that Google uses “misleading” security warnings to keep consumers and developers within its walled app garden, the Google Play store. But the fees that Google collects from Android app developers are likely the meat of the case.

“Not only has Google acted unlawfully to block potential rivals from competing with its Google Play Store, it has profited by improperly locking app developers and consumers into its own payment processing system and then charging high fees,” District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine said.

Like Apple, Google herds all app payment processing into its own service, Google Play Billing, and reaps the rewards: a 30 percent cut of all payments. Much of the criticism here is a case that could — and likely will — be made against Apple, which exerts even more control over its own app ecosystem. Google doesn’t have an iMessage equivalent exclusive app that keeps users locked in in quite the same way.

While the lawsuit discusses Google’s “monopoly power” in the app marketplace, the elephant in the room is Apple — Google’s thriving direct competitor in the mobile software space. The lawsuit argues that consumers face pressure to stay locked into the Android ecosystem, but on the Android side at least, much of that is ultimately familiarity and sunk costs. The argument on the Apple side of the equation here is likely much stronger.

The din over tech giants squeezing app developers with high mobile payment fees is just getting louder. The new multi-state lawsuit is the latest beat, but the topic has been white hot since Epic took Apple to court over its desire to bypass Apple’s fees by accepting mobile payments outside the App Store. When Epic set up a workaround, Apple kicked it out of the App Store and Epic Games v. Apple was born.

The Justice Department is reportedly already interested in Apple’s own app store practices, along with many state AGs who could launch a separate suit against the company at any time.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart Ups the Ante on Accessibility

By Grant Stoner
Insomniac Games’ new banner title shows what developers can do to make games more inclusive.

Mendel's Quest, aka Angry Jew, Helped Me Embrace My Heritage

By Jay Deitcher
Growing up Jewish was a challenge, but who knew an over-the-top game like this one would help me come to terms with who I am, and what my own culture meant to me.

Returnal and Why Games Need More Badass Middle-Aged Women

By Susan Arendt
Women in video games are either young and sexy or old and wise. But a character who’s built up the strength and confidence of experience? Sign me up.

The Case for Orc Wizards—and Why You Should Play RPGs 'Wrong'

By Laurence Russell
Breaking the conventions of tabletop roleplaying is great for everyone.

The Games Done Quick Marathon Is More Important Than Ever

By Alex Miller
For years, GDQ has brought together gamers to speedrun for charity. After a year of loss and loneliness, the event means so much more.

Creator tools startup Spore raises $1M to build closer bonds between influencers and their fans

By Lucas Matney

Few spaces have grown hotter in the past year than the creator economy has, but for all of the new tools available to those starting a podcast, newsletter or storefront, most players have been more focused on building out their own platform opportunity rather than selling full independence to creators.

Spore wants to transform the creator web experience into a Shopify-like basket of tools that users tap into to connect with their audience across a variety of mediums. Spore CEO Austin Hallock is looking to compete with other creator giants for the “link in bio” real estate on social media sites with a white-label option that uses a creator’s own URL, selling an easy-to-build hub focused solely on connecting personalities with their fans.

With Spore, users can manage their audience, communicate with them and analyze what is and isn’t working.

The platform allows for blasting out newsletter updates, podcasts or texts while embedding functionality like storefronts or Discord-like chat feeds into their sites to keep the interactions going 24/7. Creators can also use the tool to convert free subscribers to paying ones, managing the payments flow while also building flows to allow creators to send certain content to their paying fans.

The small startup has raised a $1 million pre-seed round led by SignalFire with additional participation from Justin Kan & Robin Chan’s GOAT, Canaan, Lenny Rachitsky, Nathan Baschez, Justin Waldron and Dave Nemetz, among others.

Spore’s creator platform backend

It’s the first lead investment for former TechCrunch editor Josh Constine in his role at SignalFire (full disclosure: I used to work closely with Josh). Constine started using Spore to build out a site for his regular show on Clubhouse, fellow investor Justin Kan also grew familiar with the team by building out a website for his podcast and YouTube channel.

“I chose Spore as my first lead investment as a VC because it solves creators’ biggest problems by giving them their own white-labeled website they control, and combining all the best content, communication, analytics, and payment tools so creators can spend their time making art instead of being web developers,” Constine tells TechCrunch.

Spore is certainly a small-scale operation at the moment with 4 full-time employees, though they’re hoping to grow their team with this raise. All of these features are in their early MVP stages, but Hallock wants his company to continue building out its utility to creators so that they can build a direct connection with their fans, one that isn’t obfuscated by algorithms..

“We definitely want to give creators ownership,” Hallock tells TechCrunch. “Today, you’re promoting your Linktree page or Patreon rather than just promoting your own brand… We don’t want it to be about Spore.”

Games Don't Just Let You Escape. They Also Help You Remember

By John Kehayias
Video games aren't unique in the way they make us nostalgic, but those memories do seem to persist more than other forms of entertainment. Here's why.
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