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Minecraft Earth is live, so get tapping

By Devin Coldewey

Microsoft’s big experiment in real-world augmented reality gaming, Minecraft Earth, is live now for players in North America, the U.K., and a number of other areas. The pocket-size AR game lets you collect blocks and critters wherever you go, undertake little adventures with friends, and of course build sweet castles.

I played an early version of Minecraft Earth earlier this year, and found it entertaining and the AR aspect surprisingly seamless. The gameplay many were first introduced to in Pokemon GO is adapted here in a more creative and collaborative way.

You still walk around your neighborhood, rendered in this case charmingly like a Minecraft world, and tap little icons that pop up around your character. These may be blocks you can use to build, animals you can collect, or events like combat encounters that you can do alone or with friends for rewards.

Ultimately all this is in service of building stuff, which you do on “build plates” of various sizes. These you place in AR mode on a flat surface, which they lock onto, letting you move around freely to edit and play with them. This sounded like it could be fussy or buggy when I first heard about it, but actually doing it was smooth and easy. It’s easy to “zoom in” to edit a structure by just moving your phone closer, and multiple people can play with the same blocks and plate at the same time.

Once you’ve put together something fun, you can take it to an outdoors location and have it represented at essentially “real” size, so you can walk around the interior of your castle or dungeon. Of course you can’t climb steps, since they’re not real, but the other aspects work as expected: you can manipulate doors and other items, breed cave chickens, and generally enjoy yourself.

The game is definitely more open-ended than the collection-focused Pokemon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Whether that proves to be to its benefit or detriment when it comes to appeal and lasting power remains to be seen — but one thing is for sure: People love Minecraft and they’re going to want to at least try this out.

And now they can, if they’re in one of the following countries — with others coming throughout the holiday season.

 

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • South Korea
  • Philippines
  • Sweden
  • Mexico
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Iceland

You can download Minecraft Earth for iOS here and for Android here.

 

‘Death Stranding’ brings back appointment gaming

By Devin Coldewey

Game launches these days are frequently the very worst time to play them. Plagued by bugs, server issues, balance problems, and a lack of content, many “games as a service” titles are best consumed after a month or two. Not so with Hideo Kojima’s long-awaited Death Stranding, which if you’re going to play at all… you should probably play now.

This type of game comes out once every year or two: A title where the gradual discovery of mechanics and ideas by the players is part of the adventure. Being part of that vanguard of players who go in unsure of what to expect, learning by doing, and sharing that information with others has a special feeling, not of exclusivity exactly, but of a collective experience.

Sure, playing the new Call of Duty on day one can be thrilling, but it’s not exactly a journey of discovery. Furthermore, games like those tend to get better after the first few months as content is added, gameplay is tweaked, and so on.

But just as some TV and movies are best seen with friends on the day they’re released, some games beg to be played before they become over-amply documented, their mysteries vivisected and wikified.

The most frequent entries on this list are From Software’s Dark Souls type games, the esoteric workings of which are sometimes never fully revealed even years later. Bloodborne is still yielding up its secrets even now, for instance.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was another one, in which it wasn’t exactly that people were finding hidden things or speculating on lore, but rather finding how open-ended the world really was and demonstrating that in ingenious ways. When someone figured out you can trick an enemy into being struck by lightning by slipping them a metal weapon in a thunderstorm, it was like a million gamers worldwide squinted, said “wait, what?” and ran to their Switch to try it.

Death Stranding is likewise “appointment gaming,” because… well, it’s so weird. But it definitely belongs in the company of those games that are best experienced while steaming hot, like the frequent showers you’ll see Norman Reedus take in it. I’m glad I let a friend of mine convince me to jump in right away.

Don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling anything you don’t learn in the first couple hours. But there is a mechanic where items like ladders or climbing ropes you lay down to help navigate the terrain get shared with other people for their own use. Just as there is glory in being the first to call down lightning in Zelda, there’s a glory (slightly more obscure admittedly) in being the first to go a certain way and let others follow in your footsteps.

Lay down a bridge to reach a shelter more easily while carrying lots of cargo, and you may find that a day or two later, thousands of people have used it, given it “likes,” and maybe even upgraded or expanded it with their own resources.

The thing about this is that in a year or two, the locations of these bridges will have been optimized and documented for all to know, as if they were part of the game’s landscape to begin with. Where’s the fun in that? It’s a pleasure knowing that the environment around you is being improvised by players all over the world.

Similarly, there are “aha” moments already occurring. You’re told directly that your character’s bodily fluids seem anathema to the ghostly “BTs” that are your most serious enemies. You’re also given the option, once you’ve drank sufficient quantities from your canteen, to have a wee. Someone made that connection and decided to wee on the horrible ghostly BTs — and it repels them!

And a million gamers squint, say “wait, what?” and run to their PS4 to try it.

That collective experience that we shared when we sat in the same room to watch the Game of Thrones finale or, before that, Lost’s ultimately regrettable but thrilling perambulations, is present here in Death Stranding, as it has been for other games before it.

Is Death Stranding a game for everyone? Hell no. But nor was Dark Souls. Death Stranding is a game that is frequently original and odd and surprising, while also occasionally being heavy-handed, tedious, and obtuse. We need more of that in the increasingly cynical and predictable world of AAA gaming.

By its nature Death Stranding is something that, if you don’t give it a hard pass (and I definitely get that), you should be playing today — not next year or even next month. Get it, then be patient, be weird, have fun, and send likes.

The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 is a truly great game controller

By Darrell Etherington

Microsoft’s original Xbox Elite controller was a major step up for gamers, with customizable buttons, changeable physical controls and adjustable sensitivity for serious personalization. The new Xbox Elite Controller Series 2 has just landed, and it offers similar features, but with new and improved features that add even more customization options, along with key hardware improvements that take what was one of the best gaming controllers available and make it that much better.

USB-C

This might seem like a weird place to start, but the fact that the new Xbox Elite 2 comes with USB-C for charging and wired connections is actually a big deal, especially given that just about every other gadget in our lives has moved on to adapting this standard. Micro USB is looking decidedly long in the tooth, and if you’re like me, one of the only reasons you still have those cables around at all is to charge your game controllers.

In the box, you get a braided USB-A to USB-C charging cable, which at nine feet is plenty long enough to reach from your console to your couch. Of course, you also can use your phone, tablet, MacBook or any other USB-C charger and cable combo to power up the Elite 2, which is why it’s such a nice upgrade.

This is big for one other key reason: Apple recently added Xbox controller compatibility to its iPad lineup, which also charges via USB-C. That’s what makes this the perfect controller for anyone looking to turn their tablets into a portable gaming powerhouse, as it reduces the amount of kit you need to pack when you want to grab the controller and have a good option for digging into some iPad gaming.

Adjustable everything

Probably the main reason to own the Elite 2 is that it offers amazing customization options. New to this generation, you can even adjust the resistance of the thumbsticks, which is immensely useful if you’re a frequent player of first-person shooter (FPS) games, for instance. This lets you tune the sensitivity of the sticks to help ensure you’re able to find the right balance of sensitivity versus resistance for accurate aiming, and it should help pros and enthusiasts make the most of their own individual play style.

The shoulder triggers also now have even shorter hair-trigger locks, which means you can fire quicker with shorter squeezes in-game. And in the case, you’ll find other thumbsticks that you can swap out for the ones that are pre-installed, as well as a D-pad you can use to replace the multi-directional pad.

On top of the hardware customization, you also can tweak everything about the controller in software on Windows 10 and Xbox One, using Microsoft’s Accessories app. You can even assign a button to act as a “Shift” key to provide even more custom options, so that you can set up key combos to run even more inputs. Once you find a configuration you like, you can save it as a profile to the controller and switch quickly between them using a physical button on the controller’s front face.

Even if you’re not a hardcore multiplayer competitive gamer, these customization options can come in handy. I often use profiles that assign thumbstick clicks to the rear paddle buttons, for instance, which makes playing a lot of single-player games much more comfortable, especially during long sessions.

Dock and case included

The Xbox Elite 2 includes a travel case, just like the first generation, but this iteration is improved, too. It has a removable charging dock, which is a quality accessory in its own right. The dock offers pass-through charging even while the controller is inside the case, too, thanks to a USB-C cut-through that you can seal with a rubberized flap when it’s not in use.

In addition to housing the charger and controller, the case can hold the additional sticks and D-pad, as well as the paddles when those aren’t in use. It’s got a mesh pocket for holding charging cables and other small accessories, and the exterior is a molded hard plastic wrapped in fabric that feels super durable, and yet doesn’t take up much more room than the controller itself when packed in a bag.

The case is actually a huge help in justifying that $179.99 price tag, as all of this would be a significant premium as an after-market add-on accessory for a standard controller.

Bottom line

Microsoft took its time with a successor to the original Xbox Elite Wireless Controller, and while at first glance you might think that not much has changed, there are actually a lot of significant improvements here. The controller’s look and feel also feel better, with more satisfying button, pad and the stick response, and a better grip thanks to the new semi-textured finish on the front of the controller.

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USB-C and more customization options might be good enough reason even for existing Elite Controller owners to upgrade, but anyone on the fence about getting an Elite to begin with should definitely find this a very worthwhile upgrade over a standard Xbox One controller.

New York’s ERA invests in esports org Gen.G

By Jordan Crook

Esports are the wild wild West right now. There’s clearly a huge potential for the industry to become incredibly lucrative, but everything from the infrastructure of competition to the overall culture isn’t quite ready for prime time.

This introduces a huge opportunity for the tech world to get in on the action. We’ve seen traditional VC money start to sniff around esports in ways big and small. Bessemer Venture Partners has invested in Team SoloMid, while Sequoia has invested in 100 Thieves.

Today, Gen.G has announced that it has accepted investment from the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, a longstanding New York City-based accelerator program.

Gen.G started as KSV (Korea plus Silicon Valley) in mid-2017 with a debut in the Overwatch League. In 2018, after expanding to other games including Heroes of the Storm, PUBG and League of Legends, KSV eSports rebranded to Generation Gaming (Gen.G) and launched a Clash Royale esports team.

At the end of 2018, Gen.G made yet another huge move. They lured Chris Park from his position as executive vice president in charge of product and marketing at Major League Baseball to join Gen.G as CEO.

Since, Park has been thinking about the long-term opportunities for the esports org and the industry as a whole. He secured $46 million in funding from Los Angeles Clippers minority owner Dennis Wong, Will Smith’s Dreamers Fund, NEA, Battery Ventures, Canaan Partners, SVB Capital and Stanford University, among others.

He signed a partnership with dating app Bumble to create Team Bumble, an all-female professional Fortnite squad.

Gender inclusion is one of the biggest misses in the esports world right now. Data shows that 46 percent of gamers are female (ESA) and that nearly one in four esports viewers are female (Nielsen). Despite no physical differentiators between men and women, women are severely underrepresented in the esports world.

Not one female competed in the Fortnite World Cup in 2018, despite the fact that qualifiers were completely open to any player. A big reason for the disparity here is that the gaming community isn’t generally a safe environment for female gamers, in big and small ways. Many female gamers experience abuse while playing games, like this streamer, and it’s gotten bad enough to push a small percentage of female gamers away from playing entirely.

But exclusion comes in many forms. Ninja announced in August 2018 that he won’t be streaming with female gamers, which you can read about here.

Beyond general principles about equality, the female gamer is a lucrative demographic that has yet to be properly tapped by any particular esports org, publisher, or otherwise. Gen.G is now ahead in the race to acquire female gamers as fans, customers and future talent.

Another forward-thinking move by Gen.G is its recent partnership with the University of Kentucky to help create and manage its esports program. We’ve seen startups like PlayVS look to build out the infrastructure and connective tissue that will eventually bind education and professional sports, as has been the case with traditional sports for generations. Gen.G is now tackling that ever-important bridge from academia to professional life by looking at universities.

The funding from ERA, the amount of which has not been disclosed, not only allows Gen.G to grow its foothold on the East Coast. It also gives the esports org a strategic partnership with ERA, which invests in super early stage tech startups. As more founders tackle the mounting challenges in esports, Gen.G is now in a prime position to watch over those deals closely and potentially tap into some of the solutions and services sure to sprout up in the next five to ten years.

“We are focused on ways to make it easier for people in the gaming community to connect,” said Chris Park, hinting at some of the technology that Gen.G is interested in. “My hope is that over time, platforms as well as teams treat fans and athletes as more than just users, and more like collaborators and partners.”

Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure is a silly, gentle way to shape up

By Devin Coldewey

Nintendo has a long history when it comes to exercise-driven games. I’m dating myself, but I can say I remember playing Track & Field on NES with the Power Pad. How far we’ve come! Ring Fit Adventure is a full-body workout for grown-ups, but fun, gentle, and ridiculous enough to forget it’s exercise.

The game and accessories were announced in September, coming as a complete surprise even considering Nintendo’s constant but hit-and-miss attempts at keeping its players healthy. What really threw people off was that this game actually looked like… a game. And so it is!

Ring Fit Adventure has you, the unnamed and (naturally) mute protagonist, journeying through a series of worlds and levels chasing after Dragaux, a swole dragon who’s infecting the land with… something. Maybe he’s not wiping down the equipment afterwards. Come on, man.

Playing with these virtual versions of the controllers gives you a real feel for how solid the motion detection is.

Anyway, you do this by using the Joy-Cons in a new and strange form: the Ring-Con and leg strap. The latter is pretty self-explanatory, but the ring must be explained. It’s a thick plastic resistance ring that you squeeze from the edges or pull apart. It detects how hard you’re squeezing it through the other Joy-Con, which slots into the top. (The strap and ring grips are washable, by the way.)

The two controllers combined can detect all kinds of movements, from squats and leg lifts to rotations, presses, balancing, and yoga poses. You’ll need them all if you’re going to progress in the game.

Each level is a path that you travel down by actually jogging in real life (or high stepping if you’re in goo), while using the Ring-Con to interact with the environment. Aim and squeeze to send out a puff of air that opens a door or propels you over an obstacle, or pull it apart to suck in distant coins. Press it against your abs to crush rocks, do squats to open chests — you get the idea.

ringfit1

I haven’t gotten this one yet, but it looks handy. I could use a stronger arm-based multi-monster attack.

Of course you encounter enemies as well, which you dispatch with a variety of exercises targeting different muscle groups. Do a few arm presses over your head for some basic damage, or hit multiple enemies with some hip rotations. Each exercise has you do a number of reps, which turn into damage, before defending against enemy attacks with an “Ab Guard.”

The ring and leg strap seem almost magical in their ability to track your motion in all kinds of ways, though some are no doubt only inferred or fudged (as when you lift the leg without the strap). A missed motion happened so rarely over thousands of them that I ceased to think at all about it, which is about the highest compliment you can give a control method like this. Yet it’s also forgiving enough that you won’t feel the need to get everything right down the millimeter. You can even check your pulse by putting your thumb on the IR sensor of the right Joy-Con. Who knew?

As you progress, you unlock new exercises with different uses or colors — and you soon are able to fight more strategically by matching muscle group coloring (red is arms, purple legs, etc) with enemies of the same type. It’s hardly Fire Emblem, but it’s also a lot more than anyone has every really expected from a fitness game.

The red guys are like, “yeah… do him first.”

In fact, so much care and polish has clearly gone into this whole operation that’s it’s frequently surprising; there are so many things that could have been phoned in an not a single one is. The exercises are thoughtfully selected and explained in a friendly manner; the monsters and environments show great attention to detail. There’s no punishment for failure except restarting a level — the first time I “died,” I expected a little sass from my chatty companion, Ring, but it just popped me back to the map with nary a word.

Throughout is a feeling of acceptance and opportunity rather than pressure to perform. You can quit at any time and it doesn’t chide you for abandoning your quest or not burning enough calories. If you decide not to do the warm-up stretch, Tabb just says “OK!” and moves on. When you perform a move, it’s either “good” or “great,” or it reminds you of the form and you can try again. Whenever you start, you can change the difficulty, which I believe is reps, damage, and other soft counts, since it can’t increase the resistance of the Ring-Con.

dragaux

Seems familiar…

There’s no pressure to change your body and no gendered expectations; Your exercise demonstration model/avatar, Tabb, is conspicuously androgynous. Your character is a pretty cut specimen of your preferred gender, to be sure. And Dragaux himself is a sort of parody of oblivious, musclebound gym bunnies (“He’s working out while planning his next workout,” the game announced one time as he skipped an attack to do some bicep curls). But even he, Ring mentions at one point, used to be very insecure about his body. Importantly, there’s nothing about the game that feels targeted to getting a certain type of person a certain type of fit.

I’m not a trainer or fitness expert, but so far the variety of exercises also feels solid. It’s all very low-impact stuff, and because it’s resistance ring and body weight only, there’s a sort of core-strengthening yoga style to it all. This isn’t about getting ripped, but you’ll be surprised how sore you are after taking down a few enemies with a proper-form chair pose.

If you don’t want to play the adventure mode, there are minigames to collect and short workouts you can customize. Honestly some of these would make better party games than half the stuff on 1-2-Switch.

As I’ve been playing the game and discussing it with friends, I found myself wanting more out of the game side. I’m hoping Ring Fit Adventure will be a success so that Nintendo will green light a new, deeper version with more complex RPG elements. Sure, you can change your outfit here for a little extra defense or whatnot, but I want to take this concept further — I know the fundamentals are sound, so I’d like to see them built on.

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It feels like until now there have been few ways to really gamify fitness, except the most elementary, like step tracking. The two separate motion controllers and the smart ways they’re used to track a variety of exercises really feel like an opportunity to do something bigger. Plus once people have bought the accessories, they’re much more likely to buy matching software.

My main criticisms would be that it’s a bit limiting at the beginning. There’s no choice to, for example, prioritize or deprioritize a certain type of exercise. I could probably stand to jog more and do arm stuff less, and I dreaded having to resort to squats for the first few worlds. And the constant instruction on how and when to do everything can be wearing — it would be nice to be able to set some things to “expert mode” and skip the tutorials.

The game and accessories will set you back $80. If you consider it simply as buying a game, it’s an expensive gimmick. But I don’t think that’s the way to think about it. The target audience here is people who likely don’t have a gym membership, something that can cost $50-$100 a month. As a fun and effective fitness tool that does what it sets out to do and does so in a praiseworthy way, I think $80 is a very reasonable asking price.

Mario Kart Tour will test real-time multiplayer in December

By Devin Coldewey

The mobile version of Nintendo’s iconic racing franchise, Mario Kart Tour, will soon support multiplayer races, bringing the game closer to its competitive roots. A limited multiplayer beta test is planned for December, just in time for holiday laziness, but only for paying subscribers — the rest of us will have to wait.

Mario Kart has had a focus on multiplayer since its first (and best, in my opinion) appearance on the SNES, with multiple modes available pitting players together in real time. So despite Mario Kart Tour’s general excellence as far as gameplay and variety, players have been disappointed by the lack of that core aspect of the game.

Sure, you can post high scores and best times, but that’s nothing compared with the feeling of coming from behind in a hard-fought race and beating out half a dozen tough competitors.

mario kart tour ios

Well, players will soon have that opportunity — if they happen to be Gold Pass subscribers. That’s the subscription tier that gives access to extra content in the “free to start” game, and will be a requirement to join the beta.

Naturally this will provoke ire among players who feel they are owed not just a free game, but a free game that gives them everything they want for free. And in fact they may eventually get that, but it’s probably smart for Nintendo to limit this experience at first to paying customers so they can stress-test, balance gameplay and so on. A subpar multiplayer experience is a good way to turn off otherwise interested players.

Still, this feeds into a larger dissatisfaction among gamers with Nintendo’s online and multiplayer strategy. The subscription service required for many popular games on the Switch comes with a selection of Nintendo and Super Nintendo Games, but beyond that the benefits are minimal, and features standard on other platforms for years — voice chat, for instance — are absent or long in coming.

At only $20 a year it’s hardly a big investment, but subscription fatigue is growing among tech-savvy consumers and they are cutting things out where they can. Hopefully Nintendo’s offering will solidify and survive.

Twitch hires former Zynga exec Doug Scott as chief marketing officer

By Sarah Perez

Amazon-owned game streaming service Twitch has snagged Zynga’s Chief Marketing Officer, Doug Scott, to join as its own CMO, the company announced today. At Zynga, Scott led global marketing for just over three years. Prior to that, he was CMO at the music startup BandPage and the VP, Marketing and Revenue at mobile game publisher, DeNA.

He has additionally served on the board for Matrixx Initiatives and as an advisor to YouTube Music.

Scott’s background spanning gaming, entertainment, and streaming make him a good fit to join Twitch at a time when it’s trying to stretch beyond its roots.

In more recent years, Twitch’s creators have expanded into areas like personal vlogs, creative arts, entertainment, and more. One Twitch streamer’s efforts in interactive media even won the site its first Emmy this year.

And now, Twitch is trying out “Watch Parties,” where streamers can screen Amazon Prime Video shows and movies to their fans as a shared experience.

doug scottMeanwhile, Twitch itself has driven the expansion beyond video games in its own way. It has made deals with sports leagues including the NBA and NFL to stream some games, and more recently announced deals with wrestling and women’s hockey, The NYT reported.

Twitch also makes its own content. In April, for example, it launched its first game — Twitch Sings, a karaoke-style experience designed for live streaming.

Last month, the company underwent a huge makeover, from a marketing and branding perspective, with the introduction of a new Twitch logo and other branding changes.

While purple remains the Twitch logo’s iconic color, it’s now supported by a range of complementary colors that streamers can adopt for themselves. Via a new “Creator Color” tool, Twitch streamers can pick a color that better represents their own personal brand — even if it’s not Twitch’s classic purple. The updated style also includes a new Glitch logo, new font, and larger plans for Twitch’s unique ’emotes.’

Twitch presented the platform’s makeover at this year’s TwitchCon event in San Diego, where it unveiled a new ad campaign that highlights how Twitch can be more than just a place to stream games. (Its tagline: “You’re already one of us.”)

With all these shifts underway, it was high time for Twitch to fill its vacated CMO position, which was previously held by Kate Jhaveri, who left for the NBA this summer.

Other recent hires at Twitch have included Sarah Iooss, previously of Mic, as Head of North America Sales, and ex-Googler Dan Clancy as executive VP of creator and community experience.

“Twitch is revolutionizing entertainment through its massive and highly engaged community of creators and fans,” said Scott, in a statement. “I could not be more excited to join this incredible team and help to bring Twitch’s unique culture, brand and its passionate community to new audiences and global markets.”

“We’re thrilled to welcome Doug Scott to Twitch as our Chief Marketing Officer,” added Sara Clemens, COO, Twitch. “Doug has deep experience extending brands into new markets across games and entertainment industries, making him the ideal fit to lead Twitch’s marketing strategy. As Twitch continues to grow, Doug will play an integral role in extending the brand beyond endemic audiences, supporting our incredible creators and expanding our presence in global markets,” she said.

Twitch today claims over 15 million average daily users and over 3 million unique creators streaming each month. At any given time, the site has an average of 1.3 million viewers, the company says.

 

YouTube founder secretly building sports fan game GreenPark

By Josh Constine

Chad Hurley is hunting for what comes after fantasy sports. He envisions a new way for fans to play by watching live and cheering for the athletes they love. Beyond a few scraps of info the YouTube co-founder would share and his new startup’s job listings revealed, we don’t know what Hurley’s game will feel like. But the company is called GreenPark Sports, and it’s launching in Spring 2020.

“There is an absence of compelling, inclusive ways for large masses of sports fans to compete together” Hurley tells me. “The idea of a ‘sports fan’ has evolved – it is now more a social behavior than ever before. We’re looking at a much bigger, inclusive way for all fans of sports and esports teams to play.”

GreenPark Sports Chad Hurley

 

Hurley already has an all-star team. One of GreenPark’s co-founders Nick Swinmurn helped start Zappos, while another Ken Martin created marketing agency BLITZ. Together they’ve raised an $8.5 million seed round led by SignalFire and joined by Sapphire Sports and Founders Fund. “With this team’s impeccable track record and vision for the future of fandom, this was an investment we had to make,” said Chris Farmer, founder and CEO of SignalFire.

It all comes down to allegiance — something Hurley, Swinmurn, and Martin truly understand. Everyone is seeking ways to belong and emblems to represent them. In an age when many of our most prized possessions from photographs to record collections have been digitized, we lack tangible objects that center our individuality. Culture increasingly centers around landmark events, with what we’ve done mattering more than what we own.

GreenPark could seize upon this moment by helping us to align our identities with a team. This instantly unlocks a likeminded community, a recurrent activity, and a unified aesthetic. And when reality gets heavy, people can lose themselves by hitching their spirits to the scoreboard.

Rather than just tabulating results after the match like in fantasy sports, GreenPark wants to be entwined with the spectacle as it happens. “We’re going to be working with a mix of ways to visualize the live game – from unique gamecast-like data to highlight clips. The social viewing experience can be much more than just the straight live video” Hurley explains.

GreenPark Sports Logo

He came up with GreenPark after selling assets of his video editing app Mixbit to BlueJeans a year ago. Hurley already had an interactive relationship with sports…though one that’s reserved for the rich: he’s part owner of the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Football Club. Meanwhile, Swinmurn co-founded the Burlingame Dragons Football Club affiliated with San Jose’s team, and is on the board of Denmark’s FC Helsingør.

Those experiences taught them the satisfaction that comes from a deeper sense of ownership or allegiance with a team. GreenPark will give an opportunity for anyone to turn fandom into its own sport. “We shared a love of sports and set out to look into opportunities around legalized sports betting in the US” Hurley tells me.” But quickly they found “it was obvious the regulated space wouldn’t allow us to innovate as quickly as we wanted” and they saw a more opportunity amidst a younger mainstream audience.

“We’re not ready to disclose publicly the exact detailed gameplay yet” Hurley says. But here’s what we could cobble together from around the web.

GreenPark Sports lets you “Destroy the other teams’ fans” to “climb the leaderboards”, its site says cryptically. According to job listings, it will pipe in live game data, starting with the NBA and expanding to other leagues, and offer cartoon characters with facial expressions and full-body gestures to let users live out the highs and lows of matches. Don’t expect trivia questions or player stat memorization. It almost sounds like a massively multiplayer online fan arena. 

As with blockbuster games Fortnite or League Of Legends, GreenPark is free-to-play. But a mention of virtual clothing hints at monetization, where you could spruce up avatars with digital team apparel. Hurley tells me “We are in the perfect storm of the thirst for innovation at the traditional league level, the next level of maturing for esports, investment in sports betting and overall dire need to better understand today’s largest populace of sports fans – Millenial / Gen Z.” The closed beta launches in the Spring.

Screen Shot 2019 10 21 at 9.45.29 AM

There’s a massive hole to fill in the wake of the Draft Kings / FanDuel marketing sure a few years ago. Most apps in the space just carry scores or analysis, rather than community. “What’s amazing about being a fan of a team or player is the common bond you have with other fans” Hurley explains, “where even if you don’t know the other fans of your team – you are all in it to win it – together.”

Publications like The Athletic have proven there are plenty of fans willing to pay to feel closer to their favorite teams. The most direct competitor for GreenPark might be Strafe, that lets you track and predict the winners of esports matches.

People already spend tons of time on building fictional worlds like Minecraft and money outfitting their Fortnite avatar with the coolest clothes. If GreenPark can create a space for sports’ fan self-expression, it could create the online destination for legions of IRL enthusiasts that see who they root for as core to who they are.

Tilting Point acquires game monetization startup Gondola

By Anthony Ha

Tilting Point announced yesterday that it has acquired Gondola, a company that aims to increase to improve game monetization by optimizing in-game offers and video ads.

Tilting Point CEO Kevin Segalla described his company’s model as “progressive publishing” — usually, mobile game developers starting working with Tilting Point because they need help with user acquisition, and then develop a deeper publishing relationship over time.

“With a select group of our development partners, we’ll acquire an IP, and we’ll … have them take the engine that they already have and create a whole new game,” Segalla said. “It’s really a dual effort between us and the developer.”

To accomplish all this, the company has built artificial intelligence tools to improve user acquisition. But the other side of that equation, in Segalla’s view, is increasing the lifetime value of the users acquired.

“At the end of the day, scaling a game boils down to two simple things, [cost per install] and LTV,” he said. “Strong developers are working to improve the LTV of their players, but there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that with the right toolset you can use to improve the lifetime values. That’s what Gondola is about … We’ve been following for years, and we said, ‘Let’s bring this in-house.'”

Gondola currently offers four modules: Target Optimization (choosing the best offer for a player), Rewarded Video Ad Optimization (choosing the right amount of virtual currency to reward a player for watching a video ad), Store Optimization (choosing the right store items to show a player) and Currency Optimization (choosing the best virtual currency amounts for offers and promotions).

The financial terms of the acquisition — Tilting Point’s first — were not disclosed. As part of the deal, Gondola CTO André Cohen is joining Tilting Point as its head of data science, while his co-founder and CEO Niklas Herriger remains involved as an executive advisor.

Mobile game startup MadBox raises $16.5 million after 100 million downloads

By Romain Dillet

French startup MadBox is raising a $16.5 million (€15 million) Series A funding round from Alven. The company is developing mobile games and handles everything from start to finish, from game design to publishing and user acquisition.

MadBox is a young player in the mobile game space. The company is the result of the merger of two tiny Paris-based game studios in July 2018. After a couple of months, the startup released its first game, Dash Valley. And the game quickly ended up trending in the top 50 of top free game downloads in the App Store in the U.S.

The company has released a handful of games since then. At some point, MadBox had three games in the top 10 charts in the U.S. (once again, free game downloads) — StickMan Hook, Sausage Flip and Idle Ball Race. Overall, MadBox has generated 100 million game downloads.

“The core method at MadBox is that we internalize everything,” co-founder and CEO Jean-Nicolas Vernin told me. “We try to automate as many thing as possible.”

In addition to reusing assets from one game to another, MadBox also tries to apply the same method when it comes to user acquisition and marketing. “People often tell us that we have a data-driven culture that is disproportionately developed in our company,” Vernin said.

MadBox has a careful approach when it comes to growth. The company hires slowly and doesn’t release dozens of games in a year.

With 30 to 40 employees and a business model mostly based on ads, the company is currently profitable. MadBox now wants to tackle a wider range of mobile games, from hyper casual to idle games and less casual games. The startup is also opening a second office in Barcelona.

“We are a generation of friends who have worked for well-known casual game studios. And we all think that big game productions will have to become simpler so that people can play them like casual games — and vice versa,” Vernin said. And MadBox wants to be there when these two worlds collide.

How Unity built the world’s most popular game engine

By Eric Peckham

What do BMW, Tencent, Pokémon Go creator Niantic, movie director Jon Favreau and construction giant Skanska have in common? They’re all using the same platform to create their products.

Founded in a small Copenhagen apartment in 2004, Unity Technologies’ makes a game engine — a software platform for building video games. But the company, which was recently valued around $6 billion and could be headed toward an IPO, is becoming much more than that.

“Unity wants to be the 3D operating system of the world,” says Sylvio Drouin, VP of the Unity Labs R&D team.

Customers can design, buy, or import digital assets like forests, sound effects, and aliens and create the logic guiding how all these elements interact with players. Nearly half of the world’s games are built with Unity, which is particularly popular among mobile game developers. 

And in the fourteen years since Unity’s engine launched, the size of the global gaming market has exploded from $27 billion to $135 billion, driven by the rise of mobile gaming, which now comprises the majority of the market.

Unity is increasingly used for 3D design and simulations across other industries like film, automotive, and architecture and is now used to create 60% of all augmented and virtual reality experiences. That positions Unity — as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg argued in a 2015 memo in favor of acquiring it — as a key platform for the next wave of consumer technology after mobile.

Unity’s growth is a case study of Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. While other game engines targeted the big AAA game makers at the top of the console and PC markets, Unity went after independent developers with a less robust product that was better suited to their needs and budget. 

As it gained popularity, the company captured growth in frontier market segments and also expanded upmarket to meet the needs of higher-performance game makers. Today, it’s making a push to become the top engine for building anything in interactive 3D.

This article is part of my ongoing research into the future of interactive media experiences. This research has included interviews with dozens of developers, executives, and investors in gaming and other industries, including interviews with over 20 Unity executives.

Founding

Unity was founded in Copenhagen by Nicholas Francis, Joachim Ante, and David Helgason. Its story began on an OpenGL forum in May 2002, where Francis posted a call for collaborators on an open source shader-compiler (graphics tool) for the niche population of Mac-based game developers like himself. It was Ante, then a high school student in Berlin, who responded. 

Ante complemented Francis’ focus on graphics and gameplay with an intuitive sense for back-end architecture. Because the game he was working on with another team wasn’t going anywhere, they collaborated on the shader part-time while each pursued their own game engine projects, but decided to combine forces upon meeting in-person. In a sprint to merge the codebases of their engines, they camped out in Helgason’s apartment for several days while he was out of town. The plan was to start a game studio grounded in robust tech infrastructure that could be licensed as well.

Helgason and Francis had worked together since high school, working on various web development ventures and even short-lived attempts at film production. Helgason dropped in and out of the University of Copenhagen while working as a freelance web developer. He provided help where he could and joined full-time after several months, selling his small stake in a web development firm to his partners. 

According to Ante, Helgason was “good with people” and more business-oriented, so he took the CEO title after the trio failed to find a more experienced person for the role. (It would be two years before Ante and Francis extended the co-founder title and a corresponding amount of equity to Helgason.)

They recruited a rotating cast to help them for free while prototyping a wide range of ideas. The diversity of ideas they pursued resulted in an engine that could handle a broad range of use cases. Commercializing the engine became a focus, as was coming up with a hit game that would show the engine off to its best advantage; for indie developers, having to reconstruct an engine with every new game idea was a pain point that, if solved, would enable more creative output. 

Supported by their savings, a €25,000 investment from Ante’s father, and Helgason’s part-time job at a café, they pressed on for three years, incorporating in the second year (2004) with the name Over The Edge Entertainment.

The game they ultimately committed to launching in spring 2005, GooBall, was “way too hard to play,” says Ante and didn’t gain much traction. Recognizing that they were better at building development tools and prototypes than commercially-viable games, they bet their company on the goal of releasing a game engine for the small Mac-based developer community. Linking the connotations of collaboration and cross-compatibility, they named the engine Unity.

Sentons launches SurfaceWave, a processor and tech to create software-defined surfaces that supercharge touch and gesture

By Ingrid Lunden

As handset makers continue to work on ways of making smartphones more streamlined and sleek, while at the same time introducing new features that will get people buying more devices, a startup that is pioneering something called “software-defined” surfaces — essentially, using ultrasound and AI to turn any kind of material, and any kind of surface, into one that will respond to gestures, touch and other forces — is setting out its stall to help them and other hardware makers change up the game.

Sentons, the startup out of Silicon Valley that is building software-defined surface technology, is today announcing the launch of SurfaceWave, a processor and accompanying gesture engine that can be used in smartphones and other hardware to create virtual wheels and buttons to control and navigate apps and features on the devices themselves. The SurfaceWave processor and engine are available to “any mobile manufacturer.”

Before this, Sentons had already inked direct deals to test market interest in its technology. There were already three smartphones released — two of which were only sold in Asia (models and customer names undisclosed by Sentons) and one of which is made by Asus in partnership with Tencent, the Republic of Gamers phone (the Air Triggers are powered by Sentons). Jess Lee, the company’s CEO, told me in an interview that there are another 10-12 devices “in process” right now due to be released in coming cycles. He would not comment on whether his former employer is one of them.

Sentons has been around since 2011, but very much under the radar until this year, when it announced that Lee — who had been at Apple, after his previous company, the cutting-edge imaging startup InVisage, was acquired by the iPhone maker — was coming on as CEO.

The company has quietly raised about $35 million from two investors; NEA and Lee confirmed to me that it’s currently raising another, probably larger, round. (Given the company’s partnership with Tencent and Asus, those are two companies I would think are candidates as strategic investors.)

The sound of silence

Sentons’ core idea is focused around sound — specifically ultra sound.

posterImage 4813Its system is based around a processor that emits ultrasonic “pings” (similar to sonar array, the company says, which is used for example on submarines to navigate and communicate) to detect physical movement and force on the surface of an object. The company says that this technique is much more sophisticated than capacitive touch that has been used on smartphones up to now, because combined with Sentons’ algorithms it can measure force and intent as well as touch.

Combined with the processor that emits the pings and houses the gesture engine, Sentons also uses “sensor modules” around the perimeter of a device to detect when those pings are interrupted. The system trains itself and can adjust both to temporal “buttons” and also other unintended things like when a screen cracks and your gestures move over to a different area of the phone.

Asus ROG 350x176Gaming — the main use case for Asus’s ROG phone — is an obvious category ripe for software-defined surfaces. The medium always strives for more immersive experiences, and as more games are either natively made for phones, or ported there because of the popularity of mobile gaming, handset makers and publishers are always trying to come up with ways to enhance what is, ultimately, very limited real estate (even with larger screens). Using any and all parts of a device to experience motion and other physical responses, and to control the game, is a natural fit for what Sentons has built.

But the bigger picture and longer-term goal is to apply Sentons’ technology for other uses on devices — photography and building enhanced camera tools is one obvious example — and on other “hardware,” like connected cars, clothes and even the human body, as Sentons’ technology can also work on and through human tissue.

“Every surface is an opportunity,” Lee said, noting that conversations around health and medical technology are still very early, while other areas like wearables and automotive are seeing “engagement” already. “In the cabin of a vehicle, you have a wealth of tactile materials, whether it’s leather dashboards or metal buttons, and all of those are extremely interesting to us,” he added.

At the same time, the more immediate opportunity for Sentons is the mobile industry.

Smartphone sales have slowed down, and for some vendors declined, in recent years; and while some of that might have to do with premium device prices continuing to climb, and much higher smartphone penetration globally, some have laid the blame in part on a lack of innovation. Specifically, newer phones are just not providing enough “must have” new features to merit making a purchase of a new device if you already have one.

You could argue that making a technology like this widely available and open to all comers might make those who are trying to make their devices stand out with special features less inclined to jump on the bandwagon.

“Yes, you could say there is more value in scarcity, an approach we took in the last company,” Lee said, referring to InVisage and how very under the radar it was before being snapped up by Apple.

However, he thinks a different approach is needed here. “Whether we launched this platform to everyone or not, the gates have opened, the piñata has broken, and we see a lot more opportunities and want to go for them,” he said.

“You can call it a multi-pronged approach,” he continued, “but ensuring the adoption of software-defined interactions [by trying to work with as many companies as possible] gets the technology or use out there quickly.” He noted that when a new gesture is introduced on devices, it can take time for the world to absorb it, “and we are positive there will be followers, perhaps with different technology, that will compete with us, so a broad launch is what we are going for.”

Analogue Pocket Game Boy Player: Price, Specs, Release Date

By Jess Grey
Its upcoming portable console will play all Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games.

Sony’s next console is…the PlayStation 5, arriving holidays 2020

By Brian Heater

Part of me wishes Sony had gone for something a little flashier. The PlayStation Unicorn or PlayStation Trebuchet or something. But there’s something to be said for consistency. Simplicity. The next version of Sony’s perennial favorite gaming console will be, drumroll…the PlayStation 5.

The company notes that nothing is particularly revelatory in this morning’s reveal. That information, it seems, is still coming. And there’s still plenty of time and lots of gaming-centric shows in which the company can spill more about the system. “These updates may not be a huge surprise,” SIE President and CEO Jim Ryan writes, “but we wanted to confirm them for our PlayStation fans, as we start to reveal additional details about our vision for the next generation.”

There’s a smattering of additional details. Ryan highlights the upcoming system’s controllers, for one thing. There’s new haptic feedback on board, in place of the more traditional rumble technology that’s been around for some time. That should give a better approximation of the simulated experiences during game play.

Also new is “adaptive triggers,” which are being added to the L2 and R2 buttons. Ryan again,

Developers can program the resistance of the triggers so that you feel the tactile sensation of drawing a bow and arrow or accelerating an off-road vehicle through rocky terrain. In combination with the haptics, this can produce a powerful experience that better simulates various actions. Game creators have started to receive early versions of the new controller, and we can’t wait to see where their imagination goes with these new features at their disposal.

The PlayStation 5 will be available in time for the 2020 holiday season. More information soon, one assumes. 

HP Omen X 2S Review: A Secondary Screen Doubles Your Gaming Pleasure

By Christopher Null
This brawny gaming laptop has a secondary display embedded above the keyboard.

Amid AR/VR experiments, Apple buys UK visual effects studio

By Lucas Matney

Apple has reportedly acquired U.K. special effects studio IKinema, a startup that may be useful in Apple’s quest to bolster its mobile devices with AR special effects and in its more far-flung attempts to enter the AR/VR headset market.

The company issued its standard confirmation for the deal to TechCrunch “Apple buys smaller companies from time to time, and we generally don’t discuss our purpose or plans.” The news was first reported by FT after rumors were floated by MacRumors. .

IKenema has used motion-tracking work to live-animate the bodily movements of digital characters, but the team has also stockpiled this information to create realistic models of movements of digital characters in digital environments, specifically in the context of games and virtual reality titles.

These models were highlighted in the startup’s RunTime product that integrated into game engines like Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. RunTime was powering avatar interactions in experiences like The Void’s “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” a virtual reality experience at Disney resorts, as well as in works by studios like Capcom Linden Lab, Microsoft Studios, Nvidia, Respawn and Square Enix.

unnamed 1

RunTime being used in Impulse Gears’ PSVR game, Farpoint

The company’s Orion product allowed motion capture with lower-cost input, essentially syncing limited input like head and hand movement with motion models that could allow for a hybrid solution that still looked realistic. The technology was being used for visualizations by teams at NASA, Tencent and others.

What does Apple want with this company?

There are a handful of spots that this tech could prove helpful, the most obvious of which would be bringing special AR effects to the iOS camera, juxtaposing the spatial data that the camera can gather from a real-world space with digital AR models. This could theoretically allow something like an AR figure to walk up your stairs or sit on a chair. The issue iKenema doesn’t solve in these scenarios is computer vision segmentation to be able to tell what surface is a table versus a floor versus a couch cushion, but enabling digital models to interact with these spaces is a big advance.

Where else?

Well, a little bit more of a reach for Apple would be using this tech in the context of a VR or AR avatar system. And although iKenema worked a lot with motion capture, they did so with the explicit purpose of designing models for digital humans to interact with digital environments in real time. Their solution was already being used by virtual reality developers to give VR gamers a way to visualize how their own bodies moved in VR given limited inputs.

Facebook Horizon World Builder

Facebook Horizon’s legless avatars

Virtual reality systems typically only know the location of your head and hands, given trackers are on the controllers and headset, but IKinema’s solution allowed developers to make the rest of users’ in-game bodies look more natural inside games. This is a pretty difficult challenge, and it’s the reason plenty of VR titles have made avatar systems that are missing legs, necks, arms and shoulders, because everything looks awful if the movements are off.

Apple’s computer vision needs are only heightening as they bowl forward on AR and VR devices while also aiming to bolster the camera on the iPhone as a point of differentiation from Google and Samsung devices.

 

Tencent to take 29% stake in multiplayer games maker Funcom

By Natasha Lomas

Chinese social media and gaming giant Tencent is taking a 29% stake to become the largest shareholder in Oslo-based Funcom.

The indie games developer is responsible for multiple adaptations involving the “Conan the Barbarian” franchise, such as “Age of Conan” and “Conan Exiles,” as well as a number of other multiplayer titles — including a forthcoming open world sandbox game that will be set in the “Dune” sci-fi universe.

The news that Tencent has entered into a share purchase agreement to acquire almost a third of the company was announced in a press release today. The Chinese giant has agreed to acquire all the shares belonging to the Norway-based KGJ Capital AS, which is currently the largest shareholder in Funcom.

Commenting in a statement, Funcom CEO Rui Casais said: “Tencent has a reputation for being a responsible long-term investor, and for its renowned operational capabilities in online games. The insight, experience, and knowledge that Tencent will bring is of great value to us and we look forward to working closely with them as we continue to develop great games and build a successful future for Funcom.”

Tencent, which has a substantial games operation of its own, also holds stakes in a number of other major games makers — including Riot Games, Epic, Supercell, Ubisoft, Paradox, Frontier and Miniclip.

A prolonged games licensing freeze in China dented Tencent’s profits last year. And earlier this year, while it reported record profits in its Q1, it also recorded its slowest revenue growth since going public.

Regulatory risk at home is one reason for Tencent to expand its stakes in overseas games developers and tap into a global audience to stoke growth.

This Week in Apps: AltStore, acquisitions and Google Play Pass

By Sarah Perez

The app industry shows no signs of slowing down, with 194 billion downloads in 2018 and over $100 billion in consumer spending. People spend 90% of their mobile time in apps and more time using their mobile devices than watching TV. In other words, apps aren’t just a way to spend idle hours — they’re a big business. And one that often seems to change overnight. In this new Extra Crunch series, we’ll help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps — including everything from the OS’s to the apps that run upon them, as well as the money that flows through it all.

This week, alternatives to the traditional app store is a big theme. Not only has a new, jailbreak-free iOS marketplace called AltStore just popped up, we’ve also got both Apple and Google ramping up their own subscription-based collections of premium apps and games.

Meanwhile, the way brands and publishers want to track their apps’ success is changing, too. And App Annie — the company that was the first to start selling pickaxes for the App Store gold rush — is responding with an acquisition that will help app publishers better understand the return on investment for their app businesses.

Headlines

AltStore is an alternative App Store that doesn’t need a jailbreak

An interesting alternative app marketplace has appeared on the scene, allowing a way for developers to distribute iOS apps outside the official App Store, reports Engadget — without jailbreaking, which can be difficult and has various security implications. Instead, the new store works by tricking your device into thinking you’re a developer sideloading apps. And it uses a companion app on your Mac or PC to re-sign the apps every 7 days via iTunes WiFi syncing protocol. Already, it’s offering a Nintendo emulator and other games, says The Verge. And Apple is probably already working on a way to shut this down. For now, it’s live at Altstore.io.

Very excited to officially announce AltStore: an alternative app store for iOS — no jailbreak required. Launching this Saturday, September 28, but you can download the preview TODAY https://t.co/M7nULBV28p

— Riles 🤷‍♂️ (@rileytestut) September 25, 2019

For the third time in a month, Google mass-deleted Android apps from a big Chinese developer.

Does Google Play have a malicious app problem? That appears to be the case as Google has booted some 46 apps from major Chinese mobile developer iHandy out of its app store, BuzzFeed reported. And it isn’t saying why. The move follows Google’s ban of two other major Chinese app developers, DO Global and CooTek, who had 1 billion total downloads.

Google Firebase gets new tools

Not all is predictable on Facebook’s social Horizon

By Lucas Matney

Most of the people I spoke with at Facebook’s Oculus Connect see the proliferation of virtual reality as a foregone conclusion, one that’s just a matter of timing at this point. For Facebook, the conference’s “The Time is Now” catchphrase showcased that they feel their hardware is ready for everyone.

But despite the success they feel like they’ve tapped into when it comes to hardware iterations, the company’s bread and butter social networking prowess feels like it’s barely improved in-headset in the past several years of VR experimentations.

“On the social side, looking back, it’s kind of embarrassing all of the stages we’ve gone through at Oculus,” Oculus CTO and veteran programmer John Carmack conceded onstage during his signature rambling annual keynote, noting that his own social APK was followed by Oculus Rooms, Oculus Venues, Facebook Spaces and now the company’s latest shiny pearl Facebook Horizon.

Horizon’s debut this year included a flashy trailer for what quickly seemed to be the company’s biggest gamble and first potential social hit, a massive multi-player online world. In introducing the software, Zuckerberg talked about people-centric software as Facebook’s “bread-and-butter,” noting, “We build a lot of the best social experiences for phones and computers, and we want to do this for virtual reality as well.”

But Facebook does not actually appear to hold that much of an advantage over much smaller game studios in terms of understanding how to make social virtual reality experience take off.

Logitech acquires popular game streaming tool Streamlabs for around $89M

By Greg Kumparak

If you’re into live-streaming video games, you’ve probably heard of Streamlabs. They make a popular, free software tool for overlaying content on top of whatever game you’re playing, allowing streamers to pop everything from sponsorship logos to donation alerts on top of their video.

Logitech has acquired the company for roughly $89 million, plus $29 million in bonus payments if the team can hit “significant revenue growth targets.”

Streamlabs says that they have about 1.6 million streamers using their tool each month, with 161 million hours streamed through it since it launched in beta in January of 2018. They also have a mobile streaming app, which the company says has around 480,000 users.

The acquisition makes a good amount of sense. Logitech has been pushing into the space for some time now, with purpose-built hardware for gamers and streamers (like, say, webcams that auto-remove everything behind you for a greenscreen-style overlay effect). Now they’ve got the software to push people to after their hardware is all setup, and it’s already a proven solution.

In a post announcing the acquisition, Streamlabs founder Ali Moiz says that their tools will remain free, and they’ll continue to support any platform they already support today (so Windows, Android and iOS.)

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