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Genki’s Covert Dock is the perfect dock for the Nintendo Switch – and other gadgets, too

By Darrell Etherington

The Nintendo Switch’s ability to quickly transition from portable to home console is definitely one of its major selling points, but Nintendo’s official dock never really made much sense with the portable nature of the Switch itself. Luckily, third-party accessory maker Genki created the Covert Dock, a device no larger than a smartphone USB charger that easily connects your Switch to any TV. Plus, it actually is a USB charger for all your devices, too.

The basics

The Covert Dock includes a USB Type-C port that’s rated for the Power Delivery 3.0 standard, which means it can charge not only the Switch, but also an iPhone, Android smartphones, the iPad Pro and even a MacBook (though its max output is 30w, so you won’t get full-speed charging for any power-hungry large devices). It also includes a USB-A port, which you can use not only for charging, but also for connecting controllers, microphones, mice, Ethernet adapters, and more to devices connected via USB-C. Finally, there’s an HDMI port, which you can use to connect your Switch (or other devices that support USB-C video out) to your TV or display.

The HDMI port supports a maximum resolution of 1080p at up to 60hz, so it can easily handle the 720p output of the Switch. The Genki Covert Dock also features folding power prongs for maximum portability – and it’s extremely compact, coming in smaller than a MacBook Air charger despite all of its capabilities.

Image Credits: Genki

Genki also provides a set of global power adapters that slide on to the folded prongs for easy travel compatibility, adding to its versatility. There’s also a six-foot USB-C 3.1 charging cable included in the box, so you have everything you need to begin using it right away. When you don’t have an HDMI cable plugged in, it can also power your Switch while you play just like with any other standard USB-C charger.

At $74.99, the Genki Covert Dock actually comes in under the retail price of Nintendo’s official dock set for Switch – and it’s a much more versatile device thanks to its ability to act as a hub for a wide range of devices that support display output over USB-C. Combine that with the travel adapter set, and the Covert Dock is really replacing two or three devices in your bag, rather than just a Switch dock.

Performance

Genki’s Covert Dock feels very sturdy and well-built, not at all like many of the third-party dock alternatives that you can find on Amazon. Inside, it uses Gallium Nitride technology to enable its small size while still making sure it can provide good power output without overheating.

It worked flawlessly both for charging my Switch (and other devices) and for connecting the Switch to my TV. As soon as you plug in an HDMI cable, the Switch behaves just as it would when using the official dock, switching off the built-in display and outputting to the television in HD resolution.

Image Credits: Genki

Ditto with plugging in an iPad Pro, and a MacBook Pro. Both automatically detect the HDMI connection and behave just like they would using any other display adapter.

Users of other third-party Switch display docking solutions might be hesitant to trust another one, given how frequently third-party hardware has led to issues including console bricking. But Genki has a great and thorough explanation of why their dock shouldn’t encounter such issues, and it mostly relates to their proper implementation of the PD 3.0 specification. Over the course of testing on an up-to-date Switch console over a couple of weeks, I definitely haven’t encountered any issues.

Bottom line

If you own a Switch (not the Switch Lite, sadly, since it doesn’t support video out), then there’s no question that you should also own a Genki Covert Dock. It’s the dock that the console should’ve shipped with, since it respects the Switch’s portability and offers a way to connect to a TV that takes up no more space than the Switch USB charger itself.

Even if you don’t own a Switch, the Genki Covert Dock might be something you need – it’s a great way to power an iPad while presenting during a meeting, for instance, and also a fantastic travel charger even when you’re not using the display features. Genki has done a tremendous job of packing a whole lot of versatility into a unique and well-built device, and at a price that’s very reasonable when you consider how many other potential gadgets and dongles it’s replacing.

Microsoft showcases mobile gaming accessories designed to work with Xbox cloud gaming

By Brian Heater

Way back in the before times of October 2019, Microsoft announced that it would be expanding its Designed for Xbox stamp of approval to a line of mobile accessories. The play was pretty obvious: The company is trying to get serious about smartphone gaming through the backdoor approach of its own Project xCloud streaming service.

Without a major in-person gaming conference this summer, Microsoft is announcing a number of new additions to the line this morning, by way of blog post. The line is getting five approved devices from names that should prove familiar to anyone with a passing interest in gaming accessories. All of them go up for pre-order today, ahead of the September 15 launch of the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.

Most of the included accessories are, unsurprisingly, controllers. Aside from latency, the biggest hurdle to this type of technology is control. After all, we’re talking about playing console games on a touchscreen handset. Without a sufficient accessory, the vast majority of titles just aren’t going to fly here.

Thankfully, Razer, PowerA and 8bitdo all have forthcoming controllers designed expressly for the purpose of xCloud streaming. Both the expandable Razer Kishi and PowerA MOGA XP7-X Plus Bluetooth controllers run $100, while the clever mini 8bitdo is $50. PowerA and 8bitdo also offer smartphone clips for wireless Xbox controllers, priced at $15.

Also getting the Xbox thumbs-up are the $100 Arctis 1 from SteelSeries. The headphones are designed specifically to switch back and forth between console games and mobile devices.

Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator is a beautiful work in progress

By Frederic Lardinois

For the last two weeks, I’ve been flying around the world in a preview of Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator. Without a doubt, it’s the most beautiful flight simulator yet, and it’ll make you want to fly low and slow over your favorite cities because — if you pick the right one — every street and house will be there in more detail than you’ve ever seen in a game. Weather effects, day and night cycles, plane models — it all looks amazing. You can’t start it up and not fawn over the graphics.

But the new Flight Simulator is also still very much a work in progress, too, even just a few weeks before the scheduled launch date on August 18. It’s officially still in beta, so there’s still time to fix at least some of the issues I list below. Because Microsoft and Asobo Studios, which was responsible for the development of the simulator, are using Microsoft’s AI tech in Azure to automatically generate much of the scenery based on Microsoft’s Bing Maps data, you’ll find a lot of weirdness in the world. There are taxiway lights in the middle of runways, giant hangars and crew buses at small private fields, cars randomly driving across airports, giant trees growing everywhere (while palms often look like giant sticks), bridges that are either under water or big blocks of black over a river — and there are a lot of sunken boats, too.

When the system works well, it’s absolutely amazing. Cities like Barcelona, Berlin, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and others that are rendered using Microsoft’s photogrammetry method look great — including and maybe especially at night.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The rendering engine on my i7-9700K with an Nvidia 2070 Super graphics card never let the frame rate drop under 30 frames per second (which is perfectly fine for a flight simulator) and usually hovered well over 40, all with the graphics setting pushed up to the maximum and with a 2K resolution.

When things don’t work, though, the effect is stark because it’s so obvious. Some cities, like Las Vegas, look like they suffered some kind of catastrophe, as if the city was abandoned and nature took over (which in the case of the Vegas Strip doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, to be honest).

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Thankfully, all of this is something that Microsoft and Asobo can fix. They’ll just need to adjust their algorithms, and because a lot of the data is streamed, the updates should be virtually automatic. The fact that they haven’t done so yet is a bit of a surprise.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Chances are you’ll want to fly over your house the day you get Flight Simulator. If you live in the right city (and the right part of that city), you’ll likely be lucky and actually see your house with its individual texture. But for some cities, including London, for example, the game only shows standard textures, and while Microsoft does a good job at matching the outlines of buildings in cities where it doesn’t do photogrammetry, it’s odd that London or Amsterdam aren’t on that list (though London apparently features a couple of wind turbines in the city center now), while Münster, Germany is.

Once you get to altitude, all of those problems obviously go away (or at least you won’t see them). But given the graphics, you’ll want to spend a lot of time at 2,000 feet or below.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

What really struck me in playing the game in its current state is how those graphical inconsistencies set the standard for the rest of the experience. The team says its focus is 100% on making the simulator as realistic as possible, but then the virtual air traffic control often doesn’t use standard phraseology, for example, or fails to hand you off to the right departure control when you leave a major airport, for example. The airplane models look great and feel pretty close to real (at least for the ones I’ve flown myself), but some currently show the wrong airspeed, for example. Some planes use modern glass cockpits with the Garmin 1000 and G3X, but those still feel severely limited.

But let me be clear here. Despite all of this, even in its beta state, Flight Simulator is a technical marvel and it will only get better over time.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Let’s walk through the user experience a bit. The install on PC (the Xbox version will come at some point in the future) is a process that downloads a good 90GB so that you can play offline as well. The install process asks you if you are OK with streaming data, too, and that can quickly add up. After reinstalling the game and doing a few flights for screenshots, the game had downloaded about 10GB already — it adds up quickly and is something you should be aware of if you’re on a metered connection.

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Once past the long install, you’ll be greeted by a menu screen that lets you start a new flight, go for one of the landing challenges or other activities the team has set up (they are really proud of their Courchevel scenery) and go through the games’ flight training program.

Image Credits: Microsoft

That training section walks you through eight activities that will help you get the basics of flying a Cessna 152. Most take fewer than 10 minutes and you’ll get a bit of a de-brief after, but I’m not sure it’s enough to keep a novice from getting frustrated quickly (while more advanced players will just skip this section altogether anyway).

I mostly spent my time flying the small general aviation planes in the sim, but if you prefer a Boeing 747 or Airbus 320neo, you get that option, too, as well as some turboprops and business jets. I’ll spend some more time with those before the official launch. All of the planes are beautifully detailed inside and out and except for a few bugs, everything works as expected.

To actually start playing, you’ll head for the world map and choose where you want to start your flight. What’s nice here is that you can pick any spot on your map, not just airports. That makes it easy to start flying over a city, for example. As you zoom into the map, you can see airports and landmarks (where the landmarks are either real sights like Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle or cities that have photogrammetry data). If a town doesn’t have photogrammetry data, it will not appear on the map.

As of now, the flight planning features are pretty basic. For visual flights, you can go direct or VOR to VOR, and that’s it. For IFR flights, you choose low or high-altitude airways. You can’t really adjust any of these, just accept what the simulator gives you. That’s not really how flight planning works (at the very least you would want to take the local weather into account), so it would be nice if you could customize your route a bit more. Microsoft partnered with NavBlue for airspace data, though the built-in maps don’t do much with this data and don’t even show you the vertical boundaries of the airspace you are in.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

It’s always hard to compare the plane models and how they react to the real thing. Best I can tell, at least the single-engine Cessnas that I’m familiar with mostly handle in the same way I would expect them to in reality. Rudder controls feel a bit overly sensitive by default, but that’s relatively easy to adjust. I only played with a HOTAS-style joystick and rudder setup. I wouldn’t recommend playing with a mouse and keyboard, but your mileage may vary.

Live traffic works well, but none of the general aviation traffic around my local airports seems to show up, even though Microsoft partner FlightAware shows it.

As for the real/AI traffic in general, the sim does a pretty good job managing that. In the beta, you won’t really see the liveries of any real airlines yet — at least for the most part — I spotted the occasional United plane in the latest builds. Given some of Microsoft’s own videos, more are coming soon. Except for the built-in models you can fly in the sim, Flight Simulator is still missing a library of other airplane models for AI traffic, though again, I would assume that’s in the works, too.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

We’re three weeks out from launch. I would expect the team to be able to fix many of these issues and we’ll revisit all of them for our final review. My frustration with the current state of the game is that it’s so often so close to perfect that when it falls short of that, it’s especially jarring because it yanks you out of the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, though, flying in FS2020 is already a great experience. Even when there’s no photogrammetry, cities and villages look great once you get over 3,000 feet or so. The weather and cloud simulation — in real time — beats any add-on for today’s flight simulators. Airports still need work, but having cars drive around and flaggers walking around planes that are pushing back help make the world feel more alive. Wind affects the waves on lakes and oceans (and windsocks on airports). This is truly a next-generation flight simulator.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft and Asobo have to walk a fine line between making Flight Simulator the sim that hardcore fans want and an accessible game that brings in new players. I’ve played every version of Flight Simulator since the 90s, so getting started took exactly zero time. My sense is that new players simply looking for a good time may feel a bit lost at first, despite Microsoft adding landing challenges and other more gamified elements to the sim. In a press briefing, the Asobo team regularly stressed that it aimed for realism over anything else — and I’m perfectly ok with that. We’ll have to see if that translates to being a fun experience for casual players, too.

Roblox jumps to over 150M monthly users, will pay out $250M to developers in 2020

By Sarah Perez

Gaming platform Roblox, which has seen a surge of use due to the coronavirus pandemic, now has over 150 million monthly active users, up from the 115 million it announced in February before the U.S.’s shelter-in-place orders went into effect. The company also said its developer community is on pace to earn over $250 million in 2020, up from the $110 million they earned last year.

These metrics and other company news were announced over the weekend at RDC, Roblox’s annual developer conference that was held virtually for the first time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roblox, to be clear, doesn’t build the games that run on its platform. Instead, offers the platform for developers to build upon, similar to the App Store. Many of its most popular games are free, monetizing as players spend on in-game items using virtual cash called Robux. Some of the company’s larger individual games, before the pandemic, would average over 10 million monthly users. And over 10 games as of February claimed more than 1 billion total visits.

Image Credits: Roblox

 

Thanks to the pandemic, however, these gaming milestones have significantly increased in size.

During the first part of the year, the Roblox game Adopt Me! reached 1.615 million concurrent users and over 10 billion visits. A new game called Piggy, launched in January 2020, now has over 5 billion plays. Jailbreak surpassed 500,000 concurrent users during a live event held in April 2020.

In total, there are now 345,000 developers on the Roblox platform who are monetizing their games, and over half of Robux being spent in catalog is now being spent on user-generated content (UGC) items, in less than 12 months after the UGC catalog program began.

The more than doubling of Roblox developers’ earnings year-over-year is related to a combination of factors, including the platform’s growing game catalog, new development tools, international expansions, and of course, a pandemic that has locked kids indoors away from their friends, forcing them to go online to connect.

On notable factor driving the increased developer earnings, however, was Roblox’s recent introduction of Premium Payouts, which pays developers based on the engagement time of Premium subscribers in their game. Through this system, launched earlier this spring, developers earned $2 million in June 2020 as part of this program alone.

Image Credits: Roblox

During the RDC event, Roblox also detailed its plans for expanded developer tools and platform updates. This includes new collaboration tools for larger development teams, which will allow developers to grant permissions to team members and contractors to work only on a certain part of their game. It will also launch a talent marketplace by the end of the year to help developers find people and resources to help with game development.

Roblox also said it will begin rolling out automatic machine translation for all supported languages, languages including Brazilian Portuguese, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, and Spanish. This feature will help developers more easily reach international users with localized versions of their games.

Later this summer, Roblox said it will launch “Developer Events,” a new service that will help developers find one another in their local communities. Initially, these events will be held virtually, but will transition to in-person events when it’s safe to do so.

The company also signed its first music label partnership with Monstercat, an indie electronic music label known for its collaborations with gaming titles and artists, including Marshmello and Vicetone. The partnership has initially yielded 51 tracks for developers to use, free of charge, in their games. These include songs from a variety of EDM genres, such as Drum & Bass, Synthwave, Electro, Chillout, Electronic, Breaks, Future Bass, and more. More tracks will be added over time, Roblox says.

“The accomplishments of our developer community have eclipsed even our loftiest expectations; I am incredibly impressed by the unique and creative experiences being introduced on the Roblox platform,” said David Baszucki, founder and CEO, Roblox. “Our focus is to give developers the tools and resources they need to pursue their vision and create larger, more complex, more realistic experiences and collectively build the Metaverse.”

Roblox raised an additional $150 million in Series G funding, led by Andreessen Horowitz’s late-stage venture fund, just before the COVID-19 health crisis hit the U.S., valuing the business at $4 billion. Ahead of this, Roblox had been working to take its platform further outside the U.S. and into China, through a strategic partnership with Tencent focused on bringing its coding curriculum to the region and through added support for Chinese languages, among other things. Also with the additional funding, Roblox said it planned to help further its expansion effects, and build out more tools and its developer ecosystem.

Pre-orders for the Analogue Pocket retro portable game console start August 3, ships May 2021

By Darrell Etherington

Analogue has repeatedly proven that it’s the gold standard when it comes to retro gaming, delivering extremely faithful, but modern hardware to play original NES, SNES, Sega cartridges and more. The company revealed its forthcoming Analogue Pocket last October, and now it’s about to kick off pre-orders for the portable classic console, which can play Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance games out of the box, and works with even more classic handheld game systems via adapters.

The Analogue Pocket will be available to pre-order for $199.99 on August 3, starting at 8 AM PST (11 AM EST). The actual ship date is quite a while after that, however: Analogue estimates that the hardware should actually start to be delivered to customers in May, 2021. That’s due to “the unfortunate global state of affairs and supply chain challenges outside of our control,” according to the company, and they’re hardly the only indie hardware outfit feeling the pinch of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on tech suppliers.

Image Credits: Analogue

The good news is that so long as you’re patient, the Pocket will almost certainly deliver the goods. Analogue isn’t new to this, having successfully shipped multiple products in the past, including the Nt mini, the Super Nt and the Mega Sg. Each of these more than delivered on their promises, offering fantastic performance in bringing classic games to modern TVs and displays – without relying on emulation.

Analogue Pocket has changed a bit since it was originally introduced last year, with the start and select button relocated to the base of the front of the device, a design change designed for “optimal comfort” according to the company. The Dock that you can use to connect the Pocket to your TV for a big-screen gaming experience also now features a recessed USB-C port to make the connection more stable.

True to form in terms of combining classic gameplay with modern conveniences, Analogue has designed Pocket with a sleep and wake function that’s much more like what you’d expect from today’s smartphones and tablet: Press the power button once and the console enters a low-power suspended state – press it again and it wakes to right where you left off. That’s an awesome perk for games that often lack their own internal save mechanisms.

Image Credits: Analogue

The Analogue Dock ($99.99) can support up to four controllers at once, using either wired, Bluetooth or 2.4ghz wireless connectivity. You can also use separately available multilink cables to connect up to four Pockets for local multiplayer action.

Analogue is also offering a range of other accessories for the Pocket, including a transparent hard case for storage and transportation, a USB-C fast-charging power brick, adapters to provide compatibility with Game Gear, Neo Geo Pocket Color and Atari Lynx games, and MIDI and Analog sync cables for connecting to Mac, PC and music peripherals for use with the company’s Nanoloop music creation software.

Image Credits: Analogue

The company has also revealed some new software features for the Pocket, including ‘Original Display Modes’ which provides faithful representations of the displays (quirks and all) of the original hardware consoles these games where available for. The display itself is made of Gorilla Glass for extra resilience, and offers variable refresh rates and 360-degree custom rotation control.

Analogue Pocket has a 4,300 mAh built-in rechargeable battery that offers between 6 and 10 hours of play time, and over 10 hours of sleep when not in active use.

This definitely looks like Analogue’s most impressive product yet, and one that will be truly amazing for portable console gaming.

20 Xbox Series X Games Revealed (Trailers): Every Game Shown

By Jess Grey
The fourth Xbox is coming this year, and these are its first batch of trailers, including new Halo and Fable games.

PlayVS founder Delane Parnell is coming to Disrupt 2020

By Lucas Matney

Gaming has always been one of the world’s most massive niches, but as game-streaming and esports have drifted to the forefront of mainstream culture, it’s clear that there’s plenty of room left for the industry to expand. One harbinger of this shift has been the widespread adoption of esports leagues in high schools and colleges across the country, a movement that has pushed online gameplay as just another athletic program schools should be offering.

One of the central catalysts of this change has been Delane Parnell, whose company PlayVS has pushed school districts in the United States to embrace esports, all while courting venture capitalists to shower the startup with tens of millions in funding.

We’re amped to announce that Parnell is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt in September to discuss the future of esports competition and gaming’s continued mainstream drift.

Parnell started PlayVS in 2018, hoping to bring high schools into the fold of esports competitions. Through an exclusive partnership with the NFHS (the NCAA of high schools), PlayVS enables schools across America to build teams and compete against neighboring schools on its platform.

Last year, the company picked up a $50 million Series C, bringing their total funding to a whopping $96 million. With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening the future of in-person sporting events at school districts, esports leagues are likely to be less impacted, an outcome that could gather even more momentum for the company’s platform.

Hear how it all got started, and what’s next in the world of online gaming, from Parnell at Disrupt 2020 on September 14-18. Get a front-row seat with your Digital Pro Pass for just $245 or with a Digital Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. Prices increase next week, so grab your tickets today!

Microsoft showcases gameplay from ‘Halo Infinite’ and other Xbox Series X titles

By Brian Heater

Last month Sony showcased gameplay from a slew of upcoming PlayStation 5 titles, including Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Stray and NBA 2K21. Today it was Microsoft’s turn. The company announced 13 titles for the Xbox Series X back in May, but today it gave gamers the best look at what the next-gen console will have to offer when it arrives at the end of the year.

Like Sony, the company promised to offer some actual gameplay from the upcoming titles, though plenty of standard gaming trailers were also on display at the virtual event. Xbox chief Phil Spencer kicked things off by noted that there would be titles from 9 of 15 Xbox developers on display, including five first party games.

As expected, the company kicked off with the latest version of Halo, because, hey, it wouldn’t be an Xbox release without one.  Halo Infinite got a substantial portion of the spotlight, with extended gameplay from the start of the title. 

The company says the title will be “several times larger” than the last few Halo titles combined. More big Bungie news, with the arrive of Destiny 2 on the Xbox Game Pass. The title will be available free to Game Pass subscribers later this year. 

Rare’s Everwild was one of the biggest surprise hits of the event — and easily one of the most striking. The title was offered up as a preview trailer later last month, but the developer offered up a better look at the dreamy, psychedelic game.

Another Xbox mainstay, Forza, also got some time at the top of the event. With the Motorsport name, the game bucks the standard number system of the past several entries in the popular racing title. The game will run at 60 FPS in 4K and will utilize the system’s ray tracing tech for improved graphics. The title is likely to debut at some point next year.

 

Another in a long line of date-less titles is the latest entry in the popular zombie series, Stay of Decay. The third installment didn’t get much info beyond that, but did get the lovely above cinematic trailer.

Arriving this month for PC and Xbox One, Grounded is a delightful Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style back yard adventure. An Xbox Series X release is also scheduled. Today’s event closed out with a fairy getting swallowed by frog for an extremely quick preview of Playground Game’s Fable IV.

 

The Herman Miller x Logitech gaming chair will set you back $1,500

By Brian Heater

I’ve learned a lot during this pandemic. About myself, about the world. But perhaps most important of all, I’ve learned the value of a good chair. In normal years I’m rarely home, between work and travel, and as such it’s not something I gave much thought to. So naturally, I spent the first month and half cultivating some serious lower back pain.

The truth of the matter is that we have no idea how much longer we’re going to be dealing with all of this, and as such, I can’t recommend investing in a good chair enough. You can get a pretty solid one for a couple of hundred dollars, if you know where to look. Or there’s always Herman Miller.

The company’s office chairs are pretty universally well-received, and they’ve got a price tag to match. Even with that in mind, however, its venture into the world of gaming chair is still… well, “investment” is certainly one way to put it. The company’s collaboration with gaming peripheral mainstay Logitech is going to set you back a cool $1,500.

Image Credits: Herman Miller

According to the companies, the Embody Gaming Chair was designed with help from 30 physicians, with a focus on good posture (something many gamers can likely use) and the ability to sit in one spot for an extended period of time, because, let’s be real here, gamers are gonna game.

There’s padding with “copper-infused particles” designed to cool off the body, and “pixelated support,” which helps more evenly distribute the sitter’s weight. Herman Miller describes that bit thusly:

Thanks to a dynamic matrix of pixels, Embody’s seat and back surfaces automatically conform to your body’s micro-movements, distributing your weight evenly as you sit. This reduces pressure and encourages movement, both of which are key to maintaining healthy circulation and focus.

The chair itself is made up of 42% recycled materials and is up to 95% recyclable — though hopefully you won’t be thinking about that for a while, given the pricing. There’s also a 12-year warranty that should let you hold onto it for a little bit longer. Which, again, will hopefully be a while at that price.

The Embody is going to be the first of a number of collaborations going forward, including a $1,300 gaming-focused desk and a $300 monitor arm. At the end of the day, your lower back will be more thankful than your bank account. 

Mobalytics raises $11M and adds eye tracking metrics to its automated gaming coach

By Devin Coldewey

Back in 2016, Mobalytics wowed the judges at Disrupt SF with its data-based coach for the exploding competitive gaming world, winning the Startup Battlefield. The company is building on the success of the past few years with a new funding round and a compelling new collaboration with Tobii that uses eye-tracking to provide powerful insights into gamers’ skills.

Mobalytics began with the idea that, by leveraging the in-game data of a competitive e-sport like League of Legends (LoL), they could provide objective feedback to players along the lines of how fast or effective they are in different situations. Quantifying things like survivability or teamplay provides an analogue to similar measures in physical sports.

“On an athlete you have all these measurements, like pulse oximeters, ECGs, the 40-yard dash,” said Amine Issa, co-founder and “Warchief of Science.” Not so much with PC games. Their challenge at that time was to take the LoL API provided by Riot and transform it into actionable feedback, which the company’s success in the years since suggests they managed to do.

But Issa had always wanted to use another, more direct and objective measurement of a gamer’s mental processes: eye tracking. And last year they began an internal project to evaluate doing just that, in partnership with eye-tracking hardware maker Tobii .

“If you know where someone is looking, it’s the closest thing to knowing what they’re thinking,” Issa said. “When you combine that with the larger picture you can put together something to help them along. So we spent six months conducting research, taking players of different levels and roles and studying their eye tracking data to find some metrics we could organize the platform around.”

Not surprisingly, there are characteristics of the highly skilled (and practiced) that set them apart, and the team was able to collect them into a set of characteristics that any player can relate to.

Well, the gif compression isn’t so hot, but you get the idea – the purple square indicates attention. Image Credits: Mobalytics

“We had to think about how to build a product that people want to use. One thing we learned after TechCrunch is that even a simple score from 0-100 doesn’t work for everyone. You need to provide the context for that. So with something like eye tracking, you’re getting 30 data points per second — how do you break that down in a way that players understand it?”

Talking to professional gamers and coaches during the study helped them form the main categories that Mobalytics now tracks with the aid of a Tobii device, like information processing, map awareness, and tunnel vision.

“It’s important to be able to tell a narrative to people. Say you get ganked a lot,” said Issa, referring to the unfortunate occurrence of being picked off by enemy players while alone. “Why are you getting ganked? If your vision score is high but map awareness is low, that’s one thing. Did you know all the information and go in arrogantly, or were you not aware? League is a very complicated game, so players want to know, in this specific fight, what did I do wrong, and what should I have done instead?”

That second question is a tougher one (though perhaps AI MOBA players may have something to say about it), but the metrics are powerful in and of themselves. “Pros are fascinated by this technology,” Issa said. “There’s a lot of ‘I had no idea’ moments. Coaches have said, these are my fastest players but it’s cool to see that as a quantifiable variable.”

A post-game dashboard lets you know your strengths and weaknesses.

Tobii’s head of gaming, Martin Lindgren, echoed this feeling: “Pro teams aren’t interested in being told what to do. They want the data so they can draw their own conclusions.”

Tobii now has a gaming-focused eye-tracker and integrates with a number of AAA games, like Rise of the Tomb Raider, where it can be used in place of fiddly aiming using the analog sticks. As someone who’s bad at specifically that part of games, this is attractive to me, and Lindgren said opportunities like that are only increasing as gaming companies embrace both accessibility and try to stand out in a crowded market.

The companies have worked together to improve the eye-tracking coaching, for instance lowering the number of games a user must play before the system can accurately track their in-game actions; Lindgren said the collaboration with Mobalytics is ongoing — “definitely a long-term partnership” — in fact Tobii’s relationship with the founders predates their startup.

Image Credits: Tobii

The ultimate goal of the Mobalytics is to have a gaming assistant that adapts itself to your playing and preferences, making intelligent suggestions to improve your skills. That’s a ways off, but the company is getting the hang of it. Its first product the LoL assistant, took a year to build, Issa said. A more recent one, for Legends of Runeterra, took three months. Teamfight Tactics took three weeks.

Admittedly it was more difficult to design one for Valorant, which being a first-person shooter is wildly different from the other games — but now that it’s done, a lot of that work could be applied to an assistant for Counter-Strike or Overwatch.

Expansion to other games and genres is the reason for raising an $11M series A, led by Almaz Capital and Cabra VC, with HP Tech Ventures, General Catalyst, GGV Capital, RRE Ventures, Axiomatic and T1 Esports participating.

“It was a very different experience from the post-TechCrunch one, where you’re in the spotlight and everyone’s throwing money your way,” said Issa. “But we’ve built a successful product on LoL, expanded to four games, today we have more than seven million monthly active users… Our plan is to double down on what’s worked for us and create the ultimate gaming companion.”

Lenovo brings some unique features to its new gaming phone

By Brian Heater

Gaming phones are a weird one. They make sense on paper to some degree. As we well know, everyone’s a gamer these days, and much or most of that gaming happens on mobile devices. So why aren’t devoting gaming phones a more popular phenomenon? It’s not for lack of trying.

Lenovo’s the latest company to toss its hat in that highly-specific ring. That’s the sort of thing you can do when you’re the size of Lenovo and can experiment with such things. Gaming phones are a kind of go big or go home proposition, and the company’s doing mostly the former with the Legion Phone Duel, a mobile addition to the company’s Legion line of gaming PCs.

For starters, the handset was briefly alluded to in Qualcomm’s recent Snapdragon 865 Plus announcement — and is now is one of a very small club of phones sporting the chip. From where I sit, however, the most interesting thing about the category is the way it affords manufacturers an opportunity to experiment with ideas in a way that you don’t often see on flagships. And, indeed, there’s definitely some interesting stuff happening here.

For one thing, it’s got two batteries — something you don’t really see outside of foldables. Of course, those sport them for the very pragmatic reason that phone batteries don’t fold. Here, however, the batteries are separated to prevent overheating, leading the company the split the extremely health 5,000mAh capacity in two. You’re going to need that sort of battery for a gaming-centric 5G handset.

Also worth pointing out is the horizontal pop-up selfie camera — the most notable feature from early leaks. The idea here, of course, is that serious mobile gaming happens in the landscape configuration. As such, the design makes sense for video capture to stream to services like Twitch and YouTube. It’s a highly specific case use, of course, but this is highly specific phone. And, of course, your results of taking selfie video on the mobile device you’re using to game may vary.

Speaking of unique feature positions, there are also two separate USB-C charging ports — one in standard position on the bottom, and the other on the side. Again, the idea here is to make it as easy as possible to remain in landscape mode. If you’ve ever attempted to charge your phone and play a game at the same time, you know how much of a pain that can be.

Along with the aforementioned Snapdragon chip, you’ll also find up to 16GB of RAM and up to 512GB of storage. The display is 6.65 inches at 2340×1080, with a 144Hz refresh rate. The phone does not appear to be coming to the U.S. for now, but will be available this month in China (where it will be called the Legion Phone Pro), followed by the Asia Pacific region, Europe/Middle East/Africa and Latin America.

Pricing is TBD.

Gaming sales had another great month in June

By Brian Heater

We continue to be stuck inside, and video games continue to sell well. It’s pretty much as simple as that, honestly. I mean, there’s more nuance than that, obviously, but that’s really the top line takeaway from NPD’s June gaming numbers.

More specifically, last month saw $1.2 billion total spent on gaming, up 26% from the year prior. That marks the highest figure for June since 2009. With June included, the first half of the year saw $6.6 billion total spent for the industry, the highest figure for that time frame since 2010, when it hit $7.0 billion. Not too shabby, considering the extremely tenuous economic situation the world finds itself in.

Gaming software spending hit $570 for the month, up a full 49% from 2019. The Last of Us: Part II took the top spot for June, making it the third-best-selling title for the year and marking the highest launch month sales figure for the year so far.

Also notable is the success of the Nintendo Switch exercise title Ring Fit Adventure, which shot to No. 7 after only hitting No. 835 in May. The game’s success is no doubt due in part to the lack of access to gyms and other more traditional workouts. The figure was previously skewed by a depletion of stock for the game — something that has also impacted Switch sales.

Even so, the Nintendo console was once again the best-selling system for the month.

Play the prologue of ‘Linda & Joan,’ a video game about the worst year of its creator’s life

By Anthony Ha

It’s not hard to see why Russell Quinn calls 2017 the worst year of his life. That was the year when he moved back to the United Kingdom take care of his mother, and the year in which both his mother and grandmother died within a month of other.

Quinn recalled returning to Los Angeles afterwards and “trying to unpack all of this trauma that had happened.” During that time, he said he was “reading a lot about how other creative people dealt with grief” and realized that there’s “a rich history” of novelists writing about their personal tragedies.

So Quinn — a designer and programmer who previously worked as digital media director at McSweeney’s and co-created the digital novel “The Silent History” — decided to make a video game about the experience.

Grief isn’t exactly a popular subject for games, but Quinn suggested that this was the approach that made sense to him.

“I’m not a novelist and I’m not a filmmaker,” he said. “I had been wanting to make a game for a while, and it seemed to make sense tell my story in the medium that I am most used to.”

He admitted that the development process could be emotionally taxing. For example, he delayed creating a 3D model of his mother, instead letting a pink cylinder stand in for her character, because he worried that her death would “become far too real once I put her in the game.” But once he created the model, “I realized: That is not my mother. It’s an actor, it’s an avatar. From that point onward, I felt like a director directing actors on a stage.”

And this week, Quinn released “Four Months Earlier,” a free prologue playable on Windows, Mac and iOS. As the title suggests, the prologue takes place months before the rest of the game, with Russell going for a walk with his visiting mother Linda. Through dialogue choices, you get a sense of who they are and the challenges they’re facing.

Quinn doesn’t expect to finish the full game, “Linda & Joan,” until 2022, but he’s releasing “Four Months Earlier” now as a promotion, both for future players and potential publishers.

It sounds like the prologue is very different from the rest of the game, which will shift from sunny Los Angeles to “small houses in England.” Compared to “Four Months Earlier,” Quinn said “Linda & Joan” will be “more of a point-and-click adventure,” with “tasks and puzzles to solve.”

Not that he’s trying to add fictional drama or a happy ending to the real story. The puzzles, he said, are all “emotion-based” — you’ll play as Russell, Linda and Joan (his grandmother), trying to balance their different needs.

“It ends with the two deaths, there’s no way of avoiding those things,” Quinn said. “What you can change is how you feel about them, which kind of mirrors [real life]. If somebody in the family gets a terminal diagnosis, that is fixed. But you still have to live together for many more months, and your reality, how you deal with it, can change from day to day.”

Game developer poll suggests longer hours and less productivity as the industry adapts to remote work

By Brian Heater

Ahead of the upcoming online-only version of its big annual conference, GDC commissioned a survey of 2,500 game developers to determine how the industry is coping with the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While gaming sales are up as many turn to the medium to cope with stay-at-home orders, the virus appears to be impacting devs in similar (if somewhat blunted) fashion to innumerable other industries.

For starters, 32% find themselves being less productive, in spite of working longer hours. That no doubt sounds familiar to anyone who has attempted to transition to a home office amid the pandemic. Some 70% of developers say they’ve moved to working from home — if that number seems relatively low, that’s only because 27% of those surveyed say they were already working from home. That leaves some 3% in the office, I suppose.

One-quarter of respondents say their household income has declined, while a third say their business has declined over the last few months. A third also say they’ve had a project delayed. That could certainly complicate the upcoming schedules of the latest version of the Xbox and PlayStation, both due out at the end of the year.

The shift toward moving online found many companies scrambling to update their workflows, including a shift to different cloud services. Though, the nature of the industry means that many were already accustomed to having a distributed workforce prior to the pandemic. While two-thirds say their company has a plan to return to the office, only 12% feel safe returning to the office right now.

The majority of respondents added that they believe the pandemic will permanently change some aspect of their workplace, going forward. “We had to make some changes on our daily tasks to compensate not being at our office working physically together, but those have proven to increase our efficiency and productivity,” one developer responded. “Lately we have even talked about embracing the home office configuration even after the pandemic.”

Tilting Point acquires FTX Games and Plamee Studios’ assets

By Anthony Ha

Game publisher Tilting Point announced today that it has made its third acquisition in eight months, buying games, key employees and “most of the assets” from FTX Games and Plamee Studios — both previously owned by Playtech, which will be focusing on its gaming and sports betting software moving forward.

Plamee previously developed Narcos: Cartel Wars, which has supposedly made $60 million in revenue since launch. FTX published Cartel Wars, as well as The Walking Dead: Free Casino Slots and Criminal Minds: The Mobile Game. Tilting Point has taken over operations for all three FTX titles, as well as a fourth that’s currently in development.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Last fall, Tilting Point acquired Gondola, a startup that optimizes in-game offers and ads. Then it purchased the mobile game Star Trek Timelines earlier this year, hiring the development team to form a new gaming studio called Wicked Realm Games in the process.

CEO Kevin Segalla said he’s always seen acquisitions as a big part of the company’s “progressive publishing” model, in which the company is first hired to help developers with user acquisition and then develops a deeper business relationship over time.

“We were built to ultimately be in a position where we could acquire some of the studios that we’re working with,” Segalla said.

He added that he expects “more acquisitions down the pike for sure,” with Tilting Point particularly interested in acquiring games that have previously been “constrained in marketing spend” and “clearly are going to have longer legs.”

It sounds like studios acquired by Tilting Point continue to operate with a degree of independence while drawing on the larger company’s resources to grow and monetize their games.

“We truly value the developers’ independence,” Segalla said. “We specifically want to work to continue operating their business and help them accelerate their growth. A lot of development studios are recognizing that scale is becoming more and more important.”

Over 2,500 games removed from Apple’s China App Store in early July, as crackdown begins

By Sarah Perez

Over 2,500 mobile games have been removed from China’s App Store during the first week of July, according to a new report from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower. The removals were expected due to a planned crackdown on unlicensed games, but this data is the first to demonstrate the impact on the app economy.

For comparison, the July figure is four times the number of games that were delisted during the first week of April, five times higher than the first week of May, and over four times higher than the first week of June.

The removals have to do with Apple’s new compliance with Chinese gaming regulations.

Apple earlier this year set a deadline of June 30 for app developers to comply with a Chinese law for mobile games, first introduced in 2016. The law requires game developers offering paid downloads or in-app purchases to get a license from one of the country’s censorship bodies, the General Administration of Press and Publication of China.

For years, iPhone game developers had skirted the law by publishing their games then waiting for their license approval. This can be a long and tedious process that could take many months, or longer if there’s a freeze underway — as in 2018. Then, the gaming industry saw a 9-month halt on the issuing of licenses as Chinese regulators reshuffled their duties to clamp down further on games containing pornography, gambling, violence and and any other content deemed inappropriate by Beijing.

Major Android app stores had already enforced the 2016 rule, but Apple’s loophole allowed a mobile gaming industry to thrive on the iPhone platform in China for years.

Apple’s decision was expected to see the removal of thousands of games from the App Store, starting July. Sensor Tower data indicates that came to pass.

However, its data is only able to capture those games that saw enough downloads to rank in the App Store’s charts, including the game subcategory charts.

Out of the 2,500+ games that were pulled, nearly 2,000 (80%) had less than 10,000 downloads since the start of 2012, the firm estimates. Together, the titles had seen a total of 133.4 million lifetime downloads.

Combined, the removed games generated $34.7 million in lifetime gross revenue, with one game accounting for more than $10 million and 6 that earned over $1 million.

Notable removals included Contract Killer Zombies 2 from Glu, Solitaire from Zynga, ASMR Slicing from Crazy Labs, Nonstop Chuck Norris from Flaregames. More recently, Hay Day from Supercell was also taken down.

The changes to the gaming market as well as the coronavirus impact on the app economy have already allowed the U.S. to reclaim the top spot in terms of iOS consumer spend in Q2. According to App Annie, the U.S. saw 30% quarter-over-quarter growth in iOS consumer spend in Q2, besting China.

The longer-term fallout from the removals may show up in Apple’s bottom line, as China has been the most lucrative mobile games market in the world, noted Sensor Tower, including on iOS. In 2019, games on China’s App Store generated an estimated $12.6 billion, or 33.2% of all global games spending on Apple’s marketplace last year, the firm said.

Best Nintendo Switch Deals and Console Bundles (July 2020)

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Hand-crank a level of Super Mario Bros. on Lego’s new 2,646-piece NES kit

By Brian Heater

Feel that? That’s the unmistakable and overwhelming sensation of nostalgia for your misspent youth coursing through your blood, as the 35th anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System is sneaking up on you. The original NES turns 35 years old tomorrow, and to celebrate another shocking reminder of our own mortality, Lego just announced another fantastic-looking set scheduled to arrive later this summer.

Image Credits: Lego/Nintendo

After a brief tease, the NES Building Kit is now officially official, featuring a buildable console, cartridge and controller (even the RCA ports are present on the system’s side). The game can be loaded into the system and locked in place, and the controller has its own cable that plugs directly into the front. The pièce de résistance, however, is that period-appropriate television set. There’s a buildable 2D Mario that runs and jumps along a level that unfolds and scrolls as you spin a hand crank.

Image Credits: Lego/Nintendo

Honestly, the execution is great. Just really, really clever. It plays on the boxy eight-bit graphics of the classic console, while offering an adorable counterpart to the already announced Mario set. The power of synergy is strong here. The Mario from the other set actually plugs into the top of the TV set once you remove a piece, with its speaker playing out the soundtrack and effects as his 2D counterpart makes his way through the level.

Image Credits: Lego/Nintendo

No word on pricing, but I’m willing to bet that the final price is no object for many fans. Also, knowing what we know about Lego, it seems safe to guess it’s not going to be cheap. There are 2,646 pieces in the set. It’s one of the most technically impressive Lego sets I’ve seen, starting with the detailed accuracy of the console and really taking it up a notch with the crank system that advances the background, as Mario, attached to a stick, bounds up and down. The Mario from the other set, meanwhile, appears to scan for the colors on the series of blocks at the top, outputting the corresponding sounds. 

Honestly, this thing effectively triggers all of the human nostalgia centers simultaneously, and you’re powerless to deny it, so you might as well earmark some cash and set aside some shelf space. If I had to guess, I would put it somewhere in the ballpark of $300. Consider the Mario set the playable one for the kids and this one a complimentary conversation piece for their parents who grew up playing the original system. It’s available through the Lego site (and those brick and mortar stores that happen to be open) starting August , along with the Super Mario set). It will be available at additional retailers at some point next year. 

10 Best Android and iPhone Games to Help You Survive Social Distancing

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