A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.
While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.
At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.
At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.
— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021
According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.
“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.
What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.
Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.
In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.
“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.
In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.
— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021
The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.
Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.
“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.
Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.
The app is a free download on the App Store.
Following its announcement late last month, Facebook’s new 128GB model of the Oculus Quest 2 is now available to buy. You can purchase the VR headset from the company’s website for the same $299 price as the previous 64GB base model. “Long story short? We’ve created this 128GB model so that players can easily store and access more games and apps on a single device,” Facebook says of the new variant.
Facebook announced the 128GB model at the same time it issued a voluntary recall of the Quest 2 to address an issue with the original face insert that came with the headset. The company temporarily stopped selling the Quest 2 for about a month so that it could add a new silicone face cover inside the box of each new unit. If you’re a current Quest 2 owner, you can request Facebook send you the new silicone cover by visiting the My Devices section of the account settings. The new 128GB model also comes with the silicone cover inside the box.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.
Facebook’s journey toward making virtual reality a thing has been long and circuitous, but despite mixed success in finding a wide audience for VR, they have managed to build some very nice hardware along the way. What’s fairly ironic is that while Facebook has managed to succeed in finessing the hardware and operating system of its Oculus devices — things it had never done before — over the years it has struggled most with actually making a good app for VR.
The company has released a number of social VR apps over the years, and while each of them managed to do something right, none of them did anything quite well enough to stave off a shutdown. Setting aside the fact that most VR users don’t have a ton of other friends that also own VR headsets, the broadest issue plaguing these social apps was that they never really gave users a great reason to use them. While watching 360-videos or playing board games with friends were interesting gimmicks, it’s taken the company an awful lot of time to understand that a dedicated ”social” app doesn’t make much sense in VR and that users haven’t been looking for a standalone social app, so much as they’ve been looking for engaging experiences that were improved by social dynamics.
This all brings me to what Facebook showed me a demo of this week — a workplace app called Horizon Workrooms which is launching in open beta for Quest 2 users starting today.
The app seems to be geared towards providing work-from-home employees a virtual reality sphere to collaborate inside. Users can link their Mac or PC to Workrooms and livestream their desktop to the app while the Quest 2’s passthrough cameras allow users to type on their physical keyboard. Users can chat with one another as avatars and share photos and files or draw on a virtual whiteboard. It’s an app that would have made a more significant splash for the Quest 2 platform had it launched earlier in the pandemic, though it’s tackling an issue that still looms large among tech savvy offices — finding tech solutions to aid meaningful collaboration in a remote environment.
Horizon Workrooms isn’t a social app per se but the way it approaches social communication in VR is more thoughtful than any other first-party social VR app that Facebook has shipped. The spatial elements are less overt and gimmicky than most VR apps and simply add to an already great functional experience that, at times, felt more productive and engaging than a normal video call.
It all plays into CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proclamation that Facebook is transitioning into becoming a “metaverse company.”
Now, what’s the metaverse? In Zuckerberg’s own words, “It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.” This certainly sounds like a fairly significant recalibration for Facebook, which has generally approached AR/VR as a wholly separate entity from its suite of mobile apps. Desktop users and VR users have been effectively siloed from each other over the years.
Generally, Facebook has been scaling Oculus like they’re building the next smartphone, building its headsets with a native app paradigm at their core. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s future-minded “metaverse” sounds much more like what Roblox has been building towards than anything Facebook has actually shipped. Horizon Workrooms is living under the Horizon brand which seems to be where Facebook’s future metaverse play is rooted. The VR social platform is interestingly still in closed beta after being announced nearly two years ago. If Facebook can ever see Horizon’s vision to fruition, it could grow to become a Roblox-like hub of user-created games, activities and groups that replaces the native app mobile dynamics with a more fluid social experience.
The polish of Workrooms is certainly a promising sign of where Facebook could be moving.
Facebook’s booming business is dominated by digital ads, but it also has hardware ambitions beyond VR. During the company’s latest earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said its next product release would be a pair of smart glasses from Ray-Ban.
“The glasses have their iconic form factor, and they let you do some pretty neat things,” the Facebook co-founder said. “So I’m excited to get those into people’s hands and to continue to make progress on the journey toward full augmented reality glasses in the future.”
Facebook’s sunglasses have been the subject of rumors since 2019. Back then, sources told CNBC that Facebook was working with Ray-Ban owner EssilorLuxottica on AR eyewear nicknamed “Orion.” The glasses were billed as a full-fledged phone replacement on which you could take calls, see information and even broadcast livestreams. That inevitably drew comparisons to Google Glass (another Luxottica collab) instead of the phone-tethered Spectacles from Snap. Last year, Hugo Barra, then VP VR at Facebook Reality Labs, confirmed that the glasses would land in 2021. But, we haven’t heard much since.
For Facebook, the glasses hold the key to its future. Alongside virtual reality, augmented reality (AR) is integral to building the “metaverse,” Zuckerberg said. In the future, Facebook will morph into a shared, liveable platform that lets you “teleport” between different social experiences using VR and AR, Zuckerberg explained.
The term metaverse is the latest buzzword seized upon by Silicon Valley and futurists. While the concept has been around for well over a decade, it gained traction after the breakout success of multiplayer game creation platforms like Fortnite and Roblox. Earlier this week, Microsoft chief Satya Nadella mentioned an “enterprise metaverse” on his company’s earnings call.
For Facebook, the metaverse is more than just a fad. The company is spending billions in order to build its shared universe, which will be populated with Facebook users and digital ads, according to Zuckerberg. In order for it to become a reality, the company needs more people to buy its computing hardware. Therefore, the plan is to make those devices more affordable.
“Our business model isn’t going to primarily be around trying to sell devices at a large premium or anything like that because our mission is around serving as many people as possible,” Zuckerberg noted. “So we want to make everything that we do as affordable as possible, so as many people as possible can get into it and then compounds the size of the digital economy inside it. So that’s kind of at a high level how I’m thinking about this.”
Sunglasses aren’t the only hardware Facebook is reportedly working on. Multiple reports have claimed Facebook is developing a smartwatch with a built-in cellular connection and a detachable display. Initially, it was believed that the watch would be first out the gate, but it seems Zuckerberg had other plans.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.
“I wanted to discuss this now so that you can see the future that we’re working towards and how our major initiative across the company are going to map to that,” Zuckerberg said on the call. “What is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”
These comments echoed an interview he gave to The Verge last week, detailing some of the company’s future goals.
The metaverse offers Facebook an opportunity to draw a line between its moonshot efforts and its core business, building a wide-reaching hub that shines on augmented reality and virtual reality platforms but feels just as friendly on mobile and desktop. Zuckerberg’s definition of metaverse is more broad than some others, but comes down to building a version of the web that feels more like an MMO than a collection of web pages.
Early renders of Facebook’s Horizon platform. Image via Facebook.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Facebook was late to mobile. A decade ago, Facebook’s apps were buggy, crash-prone HTML5 experiences, even as smooth native mobile apps were quickly becoming the standard for major software makers. By 2012, Zuckerberg realized that apps were the future — quickly becoming the present — and the Facebook founder scrambled to turn the company’s attention toward mobile at every level. Facebook doesn’t intend to make the same mistake twice. That philosophy first became abundantly clear when the company bought the industry-leading VR hardware maker Oculus in 2014.
“Mobile is the platform of today, and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow,” Zuckerberg said around the time of the two billion dollar acquisition. “Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”
Becoming “a metaverse company” is a further evolution of this thinking. For many, Roblox has seemed to be the clearest embodiment of the metaverse today — a social world where users can jump between virtual experiences while creating their own experiences inside it. It’s notably not a virtual reality experience instead thriving largely on mobile and desktop. Roblox’s vision has resonated with investors, the now-public company is worth more than $45 billion — a fraction of Facebook’s value but more than almost any other games company in the West.
Facebook has been signaling its continued interest in this space. In June they bought a Roblox-like platform called Crayta for an undisclosed sum, and they’ve spent much of the last several years buying up a host of VR-focused game studios.
The company has tried to build its own VR-centric social hubs but most have fallen flat. Facebook’s metaverse-like Horizon platform garnered major headlines when it was announced nearly two years ago, but the company has had little to say during its exceedingly quiet beta period. This week, Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth detailed that Gaming VP Vivek Sharma would be taking over the effort under a new metaverse-centric product group led by Instagram’s Vishal Shah.
There’s a very particular distinction in Facebook’s choice of rebranding itself as a “metaverse” company as opposed to an AR/VR one. While some might have seen specialized hardware as essential to a spatial internet, it’s become increasingly clear that users aren’t clamoring to embrace early headsets even as other new gaming platforms greatly accelerate their growth. While the company’s Quest 2 headset has sold much better than its previous devices — according to Facebook which has yet to release any hard sales numbers — it’s unclear whether they truly need a world full of users with Facebook glasses and headsets strapped to their faces in order to embrace this metaverse ideal — or whether that would just be the cherry on top.