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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Westward plans a $30M debut fund to take Chinese indie games global

By Rita Liao

In Hefei, a Chinese city known for its relics from the Three Kingdoms period and its manufacturing industry today, Maxim Rate was thrilled to find a small studio crafting a Western role-playing game, a genre that attracts lovers of gritty aesthetics and dark storylines.

“The design and computer graphics are really good. You can’t tell they are a Chinese team,” said Rate.

Rate’s mission is to find Chinese studios like the bootstrapped Hefei team and help them woo international players. As Chinese regulators tighten rules on game publishing and make licenses hard to obtain in recent years, small studios find themselves struggling. Since last year, Apple has pulled thousands of unlicensed games from its Chinese App Store at the behest of local authorities. Small-time developers begin to look beyond their home turf.

“The problem is these startups have no experience in overseas expansion,” said Rate.

An avid gamer himself, Rate quit his job at a Chinese cross-border payment firm last year and launched a part-incubator, part-investment vehicle to take Chinese games abroad. The firm, called Westward Gaming Ventures, took inspiration from Zheng He, a Chinese diplomat and explorer who embarked on state-sponsored naval expeditions to the “Western Oceans” during the Ming Dynasty.

Westward plans to raise 200 million yuan ($30 million) for its debut fund, Rate told TechCrunch in an interview. It plans to deploy the capital over the next three years with an intended check size of 2-4 million yuan per studio. It’s currently in talks with 20-30 teams that span a wide range of genres.

The Chinese fund being established is a so-called Qualified Foreign Limited Partners Fund, which, for the first time, will enable foreign investors (USD and EUR) to invest directly in Chinese gaming firms. Only a few institutions own a license for QFLP, and while Westward itself doesn’t hold one, it gains legitimacy for direct foreign investment by partnering with the private equity arm of a major Chinese financial conglomerate, which declined to be named at this stage.

To navigate such regulatory complications, Westward also seeks help from its advisors, including one that oversaw the legal and financial process of one of the largest joint ventures established between Chinese and foreign gaming firms in recent years. The partnership, which can’t be named, was also the first time a foreign entity has become the majority shareholder in a gaming joint venture in China.

China limits foreign investments in areas it considers sensitive, such as value-added services, so many companies resort to setting up elaborate offshore entities to receive overseas funding. The restriction makes it difficult for resource-strapped studios to land foreign investors, who could help them venture into global markets. They are left with the option of getting backed or bought by Chinese giants like Tencent or ByteDance.

Rise of Chinese plays

The idea of Westward is not just to lower the barriers for independent Chinese games to secure foreign capital but also better prepare them for overseas expansion.

“Chinese gaming studios, big or small, used to rely heavily on ads for user acquisition when they went abroad,” said Rate. “Sometimes a game would take off, but the team had no idea why, so they continued to test. Those who failed may just give up.”

But taking a game abroad is not as simple as translating it, hitting the publish button and launching an ad campaign on Facebook.

Westward’s plan is to get involved in a game’s early development phase and help them position: Is it an RPG? Is the targeted user a casual or serious player? What’s the graphic style? In addition, the firm also plans to supply developers with workspace, technical assistance, marketing and localization expertise, connection to publishers, and overseas operation help.

Image Credits: Westward Gaming Ventures

To provide post-investment support, Westward has partnered up with V+ Gaming Society, an incubator for games headquartered Shenzhen, which Westward also calls home.

Chinese tech companies are facing mounting challenges in the West as geopolitical tensions rise. Many now prefer calling themselves “global firms” and even deny their Chinese roots outright.

But for Westward, the games it helps doesn’t need to pretend they are non-Chinese. “Most players don’t consider where a game is from if it is a really good game,” said Rate.

“We actually hope to see elements of Chinese culture in these games that can be understood by overseas players.”

Amy Ho, a partner at Westward along with Rate and Edward He, said one of the few Chinese games that have managed to be both “Chinese” and transcend cultural boundaries is Chinese Parents. The simulation game became a global hit by letting users experience what it is like to raise a child in China.

The benchmark Rate gave was the generation of Japanese games that began exporting 20-30 years ago, which he described as “Japanese” in spirit but “globalized” in graphics and game design.

There have already been globally successful titles from Chinese makers like Tencent and rising studios Lilith and Mihoyo. In the past, many Chinese users on Steam would be asking foreign titles to rush out Chinese versions. Now, it’s not uncommon to see Western users demanding English editions of Chinese games, Rate observed.

Rather than politics, the bigger challenge, especially for small studios, is how to “collect key data for product iteration while complying with local privacy laws,” said Ho.

50-70% of Westward’s capital will come from Chinese institutions. The presence of Chinese investments inevitably leads to questions around censorship. Ho said while Westward provides resources and capital to studios, it will work to ensure their independence from investor influence.

If things go well, Westward could help facilitate cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world. Beijing has been trying to export the country’s soft power, and games may be a suitable conduit, suggested Rate. Amid the ongoing trade war, having foreign fundings in Chinese companies may also do good to China’s “brand”, he said.

The Best Accessories for Your New PlayStation 5

By Jess Grey
From backup controllers to full-on sound systems, here are our favorite complements to your PS5.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

The Best Mouse (and Mousepads) for Every Kind of Gamer

By Jess Grey
Whether you’re into esports or casual fragging, these are the greatest gaming mice we’ve tested.

Garry Kasparov launches a community-first chess platform

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Four years ago, MasterClass, a platform that sells celebrity-taught classes, invited chess legend Garry Kasparov to teach a class. He said yes, but soon realized that creating a message that could satisfy a majority of players was a “struggle throughout the process.”

While the class did pretty well, Kasparov found it “a little bit annoying” that he had to downplay concepts and stick to a specific structure. So, now, Kasparov is launching a platform he says has been several years in the making: Kasparovchess.

Kasparovchess will be a platform in which legendary chess players will have free reign to share tips and tricks with players from various levels. Financed by private investors, and media conglomerate Vivendi, the company declined to disclose its total capital raised to date.

The platform, produced by Vivendi, includes documentaries, podcasts, articles and interviews between experts and known players in the chess community. Moe than 1,000 videos have been recorded to date, Kasparov said. Beyond content, Kasparovchess will have an exclusive Discord server attached to it and playing zones.

In many ways, it’s a vertical-specific version of the chess MasterClass he did years ago, with a big focus on community and variety. MasterClass, which is reportedly raising funding that would value it at $2.5 billion, has been a leader in the “edutainment” space, which monetizes off of documentary-style entertainment. One of the unicorn’s biggest characteristics, as Kasparov alluded to earlier, is that it has to appeal to a wide audience so subscribers can hop from one class to another. Within the same month, a user could go from a Kasparovchess class to general pontifications from RuPaul on self expression. The more classes that MasterClass can get you to take, the longer you’ll keep your subscription.

Image Credits: Kasparovchess

MasterClass might consider its broad view as a differentiator, but it’s clear that Kasparov views it as an opportunity.

Kasparovchess has a monthly or yearly subscription of $13.99 or $119.99, respectively. The majority of lessons from experts and retrospective analysis on games you’ve played sit behind the paywall. The premium product also grants users access to a database of 50,000 manually created puzzles that allows players to train certain skills. The product will be available to the public by the end of month.

A popular competitor already exists: Chess.com. It’s a chess server, forum and networking site that launched in 2005, with premium subscription that ranges between $5 a month or $29 a year. Kasparovchess is significantly more expensive.

Kasparov says his biggest differentiator will be a focus on community. The long-term goal of Kasparovchess is to connect global chess communities with each other, unearth prodigies that might not have access otherwise and give others access to his experiences. He thinks that remote education during the pandemic has shown the need to have more interactive solutions, beyond buzzy promises.

“It’s time to actually switch from what we’re teaching to how students can apply it,” he said. “And that helps us indirectly because chess has been recognized for centuries as a nexus for intelligence and creativity.”

Kasparov became the youngest world chess champion in 1985. He retired from public chess in 2005, and has since launched a foundation to help children have access to chess worldwide. Most recently, he helped advise for “Queen’s Gambit,” a show about a chess prodigy that became Netflix’s most-watched scripted limited series to date on the platform. The show was so ubiquitously popular that sales for chess boards soon skyrocketed.

“I was so happy because it was the first time where we could see chess as a positive factor,” he said. “We had so many years with chess being seen as potential destruction and something that could push kids to the dark area of psychological instability.”

The freshness of this message mixed with an uptick in remote education has given Kasparov confidence that his years-long project is finally ready to launch.

“It’s not just about teaching the game, or playing the game, or debating the game,” he said. Instead, he hopes people who come to the platform focus on the culture of chess, its survival and its seemingly timeless power.

Fortnite-maker Epic completes $1B funding round

By Brian Heater

How much is Epic Games worth? Well, we’ve long ago surpasses the realm of dollar figures regular humans can contextualize. With its latest round, the gamer hits an equity valuation of $28.7 billion. Yes, “b” for “billion.” That’s a lot of micro-transactions.

Time to start talking metaverse!

Best known for the wildly successful battle royale title, Fortnite, Epic just announced another $1 billion funding round, featuring a $200 million Sony Group Corporation investment. The rest of the list is, predictably, a long one, including [deep breath], Appaloosa, Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, GIC, T. Rowe Price Associates-managed accounts, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, BlackRock managed accounts, Park West, KKR, AllianceBernstein, Altimeter, Franklin Templeton and Luxor Capital.

“We are grateful to our new and existing investors who support our vision for Epic and the Metaverse,” CEO and founder Tim Sweeney said in a statement tied to the news. “Their investment will help accelerate our work around building connected social experiences in Fortnite, Rocket League and Fall Guys, while empowering game developers and creators with Unreal Engine, Epic Online Services and the Epic Games Store.”

Sweeney has plenty of reason to be grateful, as the controlling shareholder.

Developing…

The Best Controllers for ‘Microsoft Flight Simulator’

By Richard Baguley
We may all still be trapped at home for a while, but we can at least take flight. Virtually, that is.

How to Manage Your Mess of Cables, Once and for All

By Cecilia D'Anastasio
You don't have to suffer with tangled cords behind your TV or under your desk, even if you're committed to the wired life. Here's how to tidy up.

Norwegian corporate training startup Attensi raises $26M from NYC’s Lugard Road, DX Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Corporate training startup Attensi — which originally emerged out of Oslo, Norway — has raised $26 million from New York-based Lugard Road Capital, DX Ventures (a VC fund backed by Delivery Hero), and existing shareholder Viking Venture. The new funding will be used to expand in North America and Europe.

Attensi uses a ‘gamified approach to corporate training, putting employees into 3D simulations of their workplace and work processes. Its competitors include companies like GoSkills, Mindflash SAP Litmos Skilljar.

With the pandemic shifting all office work to remote, digital training platforms like this stand to benefit.

This is also yet another recent example of how US VCs are ‘going hunting’ for startups in Europe, putting pressure on local VCs.

Attensi co-founder and co-CEO, Trond Aas said in a statement: “With gamified simulation training, we have combined the best of workplace psychology with our expertise in simulations and gamification to create a new category of training solutions.”

The company claims it’s experienced a 63% CAGR in annual recurring revenue. Its clients include Daimler Mercedes Benz, Circle K, Equinor, BCG, and ASDA.

Doug Friedman, a partner at Lugard Road Capital, said: “We could not be more excited to be investing in the Attensi team as they work to forever change and improve corporate learning and development through their Attensi solutions.”

Twitch expands its rules against hate and abuse to include behavior off the platform

By Taylor Hatmaker

Twitch will start holding its streamers to a higher standard. The company just expanded its hate and harassment policy, specifying more kinds of bad behavior that break its rules and could result in a ban from the streaming service.

The news comes as Twitch continues to grapple with reports of abusive behavior and sexual harassment, both on the platform and within the company itself. In December, Twitch released an updated set of rules designed to take harassment and abuse more seriously, admitting that women, people of color the and LGBTQ community were impacted by a “disproportionate” amount of that toxic behavior on the platform.

Twitch’s policies now include serious offenses that could pose a safety threat, even when they happen entirely away from the streaming service. Those threats include violent extremism, terrorism, threats of mass violence, sexual assault and ties to known hate groups.

The company will also continue to evaluate off-platform behavior in cases that happen on Twitch, like an on-stream situation that leads to harassment on Twitter or Facebook.

“While this policy is new, we have taken action historically against serious, clear misconduct that took place off service, but until now, we didn’t have an approach that scaled,” the company wrote in a blog post, adding that investigating off-platform behavior requires additional resources to address the complexity inherent in those cases.

To handle reports for its broadened rules, Twitch created a dedicated email address (OSIT@twitch.tv) to handle reports about off-service behavior. The company says it has partnered with a third party investigative law firm to vet the reports it receives.

Twitch cites its actions against former President Donald Trump as the most high profile instance of off-platform behavior resulting in enforcement. The company disabled Trump’s account following the attack on the U.S. Capitol and later suspended him indefinitely, citing fears that he could use the service to incite violence.

It’s hard to have a higher profile than the president, but Trump isn’t the only big time banned Twitch user. Last June, Twitch kicked one of its biggest streamers off of the platform without providing an explanation for the decision.

Going on a year later, no one seems to know why Dr. Disrespect got the boot from Twitch, though the company’s insistence that it only acts in cases with a “preponderance of evidence” suggests his violations were serious and well-corroborated.

 

Daily Crunch: Apple Arcade expands with classic games

By Anthony Ha

Apple adds classic titles to Apple Arcade, Microsoft experiences an outage and Coinbase is going public. This is your Daily Crunch for April 2, 2021.

The big story: Apple Arcade expands with classic games

Until now, Apple’s game subscription service was limited to exclusive new titles, but today it’s introducing two new categories: App Store Greats (popular iPhone games like Monument Valley+, Fruit Ninja Classic+, Cut the Rope Remastered and Badland+) and Timeless Classics (board games and puzzle games, such as Backgammon+ and Chess Play and Learn+).

This is a major expansion to the Apple Arcade back catalog, but it’s not simply a matter of putting previously free games behind a paywall. The Arcade versions of these titles will be ad-free and without in-app purchases — you’re never paying anything beyond the $4.99 monthly subscription fee. Also, some of these games had become unavailable in their original forms due to iOS and hardware updates.

The tech giants

Microsoft outage knocks sites and services offline — Microsoft stumbled back online Thursday after an hours-long outage in the middle of the U.S. west coast working afternoon.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Coinbase to direct list on April 14th, provide financial update on April 6th — The company will trade under the ticker symbol “COIN.”

Uruguayan payments startup dLocal quadruples valuation to $5B with $150M raise — This means that the five-year-old Uruguayan company has effectively quadrupled its valuation in a matter of months.

Backflip offers an easier way to turn used electronics into cold, hard cash — The company offers customers cash on delivery for their used electronics, which could be anything from iPhones to Game Boys.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How is edtech spending its extra capital? — Edtech M&A activity has continued to swell.

Tech in Mexico: A confluence of Latin America, the US and Asia — LatAm entrepreneurs seem to be looking to Asian tech giants for product inspiration and growth strategies.

RPA market surges as investors, vendors capitalize on pandemic-driven tech shift — Robotic process automation came to the fore during the pandemic as companies took steps to digitally transform.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Apple expands Apple Arcade with classic App Store games

By Romain Dillet

Apple has announced an expansion for its subscription gaming service Apple Arcade. In addition to exclusive game releases, the company is adding two new categories — Timeless Classics and App Store Greats.

In the ‘App Store Greats’ category, you can find some well-known iPhone games that have been released over the past decade, such as Threes+, Mini Metro+, Monument Valley+, Fruit Ninja Classic+, Cut the Rope Remastered and Badland+.

This is an interesting move as Apple has focused on exclusive titles so far. Arguably, some Apple Arcade games are sequels of popular App Store games — I’d put Mini Motorways and Rayman Mini in this category for instance.

But Apple is changing its stance and essentially buying a back catalog of App Store games. Some of them are still available on the App Store, while others have become incompatible with modern iOS versions due to framework and hardware updates. 64-bit processors have rendered many games incompatible for instance.

As always, Apple isn’t just putting free games behind a paywall. These are brand new downloads on the App Store. You get the full game without any ad or in-app purchase.

In addition to old school App Store games, Apple is also adding ‘Timeless Classics’ games. It’s a selection of board games and classic puzzle games that are included in your subscription. Games include Backgammon+, Chess Play & Learn+, Good Sudoku+, Tiny Crossword+, etc.

Those games should definitely help when it comes to reducing churn. Some people just like playing chess over and over again. They might start subscribing to play some chess and pay an Apple Arcade subscription just to keep using the same app.

Overall, Apple is dropping 32 games today and Apple Arcade has more than 180 games in its catalog. Apple originally launched the service in September 2019. You can download Apple Arcade games for $4.99 per month and there’s no additional in-app purchases. Games are available on the iPhone, the iPad, the Apple TV and macOS. Up to six family members can play with a single Apple Arcade subscription and you can also access Apple Arcade with an Apple One subscription.

Apple has been betting heavily on subscription services, such as Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Fitness+ and Apple News+. While some of those services have been very successful, such as Apple Music, the company is still adding more and more content to other services to prove that you should subscribe over the long haul. And today’s Apple Arcade update should definitely help for its game subscription service.

Image Credits: Apple

This Retro Gaming Console Is a Time Machine to the '80s

By Simon Hill
The Evercade is a cartridge-based handheld, and it successfully delivers a dose of nostalgia and joy.

Bilibili ups the ante in games with $123 million investment in TapTap

By Rita Liao

Competition in China’s gaming industry is getting stiffer in recent times as tech giants sniff out potential buyouts and investments to beef up their gaming alliance, whether it pertains to content or distribution.

Bilibili, the go-to video streaming platform for young Chinese, is the latest to make a major gaming deal. It has agreed to invest HK$960 million (about $123 million) into X.D. Network, which runs the popular game distribution platform TapTap in China, the company announced on Thursday.

Dual-listed in Hong Kong and New York, Bilibili will purchase 22,660,000 shares of X.D.’s common stock at HK$42.38 apiece, which will grant it a 4.72% stake.

The partners will initiate a series of “deep collaborations” around X.D.’s own games and TapTap, without offering more detail.

Though known for its trove of video content produced by amateur and professional creators, Bilibili derives a big chunk of its income from mobile games, which accounted for 40% of its revenues in 2020. The ratio had declined from 71% and 53% in 2018 and 2019, a sign that it’s trying to diversify revenue streams beyond distributing games.

Tencent has similarly leaned on games to drive revenues for years. The WeChat operator dominates China’s gaming market through original titles and a sprawling investment portfolio whose content it helps operate and promote.

X.D. makes games, too, but in recent years it has also emerged as a rebel against traditional game distributors, which are Android app stores operated by smartphone makers. The vision is to skip the high commission fees charged by the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi and monetize through ads. X.D.’s proposition has helped it attract a swathe of gaming companies to be its investors, including fast-growing studios Lilith Games and miHoYo, as well as ByteDance, which built up a 3,000-people strong gaming team within six years.

Bilibili’s investment further strengthens X.D.’s matrix of top-tier gaming investors. Tencent is conspicuously absent, but it’s no secret that ByteDance is its new nemesis. The TikTok parent recently outbid Tencent to acquire Moonton, a gaming studio that has gained ground in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is also vying for user attention away from content published on WeChat.

Lowkey raises $7 million from a16z to help game streamers capitalize on short-form video

By Lucas Matney

While the growth of game-streaming audiences have continued on desktop platforms, the streaming space has felt surprisingly stagnant at times, particularly due to the missing mobile element and a lack of startup competitors.

Lowkey, a young gaming startup that builds software for game streamers, is aiming to build out opportunities in bit-sized clips. The startup wants to be a hub for both creating and viewing short gaming clips but also sees a big opportunity in helping streamers cut down their existing content for distribution on platforms like Instagram and TikTok where short-form gaming content sees a good deal of engagement.

The startup announced today that they’ve closed a $7 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from a host of angel investors including Figma’s Dylan Field, Loom’s Joe Thomas and Plaid’s Zach Perret & William Hockey.

We last covered Lowkey in early 2020 when the company was looking to build out a games tournament platform for adults. At the time, the company had already pivoted after going through YC as Camelot but which allowed audiences on Twitch and YouTube pay creators to take on challenges. This latest shift brings Lowkey back to the streaming world but more focused on becoming a tool for streamers and a hub for viewers.

One of the challenges for streamers has been adapting widescreen content for a vertical video form factor, but CEO Jesse Zhang says that it’s not really a problem with most modern games. “Games inherently want to focus you attention on the center of the screen,” Zhang tells TechCrunch. “So, almost all clips extend really cleanly to like a mobile format, which is what we’ve done.”

Twitch and YouTube Gaming have proven to be pretty uninterested in short-form content, favoring the opportunities of long-form stream that allow streamers to press broadcast and upload 30 minutes+ streams. Lowkey users can easily upload footage captured from Lowkey’s desktop app or directly import a linked stream. This allows content creators to upload and comment on their own footage or remix and respond to another streamer’s content.

Lowkey’s desktop app is available on Windows and their new mobile app is now live for iOS.

Manticore Games raises $100 million to build a ‘creator multiverse’

By Lucas Matney

The gaming sector has never been hotter or had higher expectations from investors who are dumping billions into upstarts that can adjust to shifting tides faster that the existing giants will.

Bay Area-based Manticore Games is one of the second-layer gaming platforms looking to build on the market’s momentum. The startup tells TechCrunch they’ve closed a $100 million Series C funding round, bringing their total funding to $160 million. The round was led by XN, with participation from Softbank and LVP alongside existing investors Benchmark, Bitkraft, Correlation Ventures and Epic Games.

When Manticore closed its Series B back in September 2019, VCs were starting to take Roblox and the gaming sector more seriously, but it took the pandemic hitting to really expand their expectations for the market. “Gaming is now a bonafide super category,” CEO Frederic Descamps tells TechCrunch.

Manticore’s Core gaming platform is quite similar to Roblox conceptually, the big difference is that the gaming company is aiming to quickly scale up a games and creator platform geared towards the 13+ crowd that may have already left Roblox behind. The challenge will be coaxing that demographic faster than Roblox can expand its own ambitions, and doing so while other venture-backed gaming startups like Rec Room, which recently raised at a $1.2 billion valuation, race for the same prize.

Like other players, Manticore is attempting to build a game discovery platform directly into a game engine. They haven’t built the engine tech from scratch, they’ve been working closely with Epic Games which makes the Unreal Engine and made a $15 million investment in the company last year.

A big focus of the Core platform is giving creators a true drag-and-drop platform for game creation with a specific focus on “remixing” allowing users to pick pre-made environments, drop pre-rendered 3D assets into them, choose a game mode and publish it to the web. For creators looking to inject new mechanics or assets into a title, there will be some technical know-how necessary but Manticore’s team hopes that making the barriers of entry low for new creators means that they can grow alongside the platform. Manticore’s big bet is on the flexibility of their engine, hoping that creators will come on board for the chance to engineer their own mechanics or create their own path towards monetization, something established app store wouldn’t allow them to.

“Creators can implement their own styles of [in-app purchases] and what we’re really hoping for here is that maybe the next battle pass equivalent innovation will come out of this,” co-founder Jordan Maynard tells us.

This all comes at an added cost, developers earn 50% of revenues from their games, leaving more potential revenue locked up in fees routed to the platforms that Manticore depends on than if they built for the App Store directly, but this revenue split is still much friendlier to creators that what they can earn on platforms like Roblox.

Building cross-platform secondary gaming platforms is host to plenty of its own challenges. The platforms involved not only have to deal with stacking revenue share fees on non-PC platforms, but some hardware platforms that are reticent to allow them all, an area where Sony has been a particular stickler with PlayStation. The long-term success of these platforms may ultimately rely on greater independence, something that seems hard to imagine happening on consoles and mobile ecosystems.

A trove of imported console games vanish from Chinese online stores

By Rita Liao

In the world’s largest gaming market, China, console games play a relatively small part as their revenue has been meager compared to mobile and PC games for years — at least by the official numbers (more on this later). There remains a community of hardcore console lovers, but they are finding it harder to get hold of devices and cartridges recently.

A handful of grey market videogame console vendors on Taobao stopped selling and shipping this week, according to checks by TechCrunch and online posts by gamers. Before we examine what might be happening here, a bit of industry history is needed.

In 2000, China banned the sale and import of videogame consoles as concerns over addiction in teenagers grew. Even with the ban, imported consoles still existed in the grey market targeting a group of loyal players. Meanwhile, the online PC and mobile gaming industry flourished, in part thanks to their affordability and the social experience built into their mechanics.

When China finally lifted its restriction on consoles in 2015, giants like Sony and Microsoft quickly responded by releasing Chinese editions of their products through local partners. Nintendo Switch hit the Chinese shelves in 2019 via a much-anticipated partnership with Tencent, which itself is the world’s largest gaming firm. But the grey market largely persisted because mainland Chinese versions of the consoles are subject to strict regulatory oversight, which limits users’ choice to a small friendly range approved by censors.

Many Chinese players thus resort to brick-and-mortar electronics bazaars and online marketplaces to find imported editions of PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch, along with their games. These products normally enter China through parallel trading, the import of legitimate goods through unauthorized channels. The games that are brought in normally lack a Chinese gaming license, which is hard to obtain even by local publishers.

Several major videogame console importers on Taobao have suspended business. Screenshot: TechCrunch

It’s unclear how many imported consoles and console games were taken down from Taobao and what triggered the purge. Tgbus, one of the largest console game sellers on Taobao with 462,000 followers, currently has zero product listing. When asked by TechCrunch, a customer service staff said the store has temporarily halted shipping due to “a water leak in the warehouse.” When we pressed further, the person said it was due to “an electrical-equipment failure.”

Other vendors keep their responses vague, citing “special reasons” for the suspended services. One seller named the “Shanghai Gaming Console Store” said it suspended its business at the request of Taobao, without elaborating further.

Alibaba could not be immediately reached for comment.

The incident appears to inflict mostly console sellers with a sizable business at this moment. Imported cartridges and console devices can still be found on smaller Taobao stores and alternative platforms like Pinduoduo by searching the right keyword.

Some users see the move as China further tightening its grip on what gamers get to play. Over the past year, Apple’s China App Store removed thousands of games to wipe out games without China’s official greenlight. Other motives are politcal. Animal Crossing was pulled from grey market stores on Taobao and Pinduoduo after one of Hong Kong’s most well-known pro-democracy activists used the game as his protest ground.

Other users point out that customs officers regularly clamp down on parallel trading, which is designed to evade import tax because goods are carried by traders who appear as regular travelers. This isn’t the first time the console grey market has been hit, either. Some grey goods manage to fly under the radar before they attract critical sales. There are signs that the new Monster Hunter Rise, a Nintendo-Switch exclusive which isn’t available on the Chinese console edition, is stoking much interest among local players in recent weeks and may have driven some imports.

Our 8 Favorite Gaming Headsets for Every System

By Jess Grey
No matter which console or device you play on, these corded headsets will lend depth and drama to your gameplay.

12 of the Greatest Mini-Games We’ve Ever Played

By Simon Hill
In these games-within-a-game, you can take a break to go fishing, play a few hands of combat dice, or administer a Voight-Kampff test.

Ryu Games raises $2.3M, betting that cash tournaments for mobile games are the future

By Alex Wilhelm

Ryu Games, a startup that helps developers add cash tournaments to their mobile games, announced this morning it has raised $2.3 million in a seed round. The funds came from a number of investors, including Side Door Ventures, MGV Capital, Velo Partners and Citta Ventures.

In addition, 500 Startups participated in the round. To see the accelerator take part in the funding round is not a surprise, as TechCrunch first caught wind of Ryu during its participation in the most recent 500 Startups demo day. At the time, we were enthused by the idea of gamers wagering money to go head-to-head with other players on mobile devices. Investors appear to back our first impression of the company.

The gist behind our bullishness on the company’s idea is that esports is cool. And though your humble servant is sufficiently ancient as to favor PC-based esports, younger folks are into mobile gaming esports. Fair enough. Now mix in the sports-betting frenzy that we’ve seen in the United States, and you have a potentially potent cocktail.

TechCrunch caught up with Ryu Games co-founder and CEO Ross Krasner to dig in a bit more. It turns out that the original esports-y model that we envisioned for Ryu was a bit off. Instead, players will often go toe-to-toe in an asynchronous fashion, betting high scores in a game against one another. So, competitive “StarCraft II” this is not. But “StarCraft” is famously difficult to be even mediocre at, while mobile games are simpler by nature, and thus more popular.

Perhaps your parents will square off against office friends in cash-fueled solitaire tournaments.

The money setup is simple, with Krasner likening it to a poker tournament. You wager a set amount, and then play. Ryu collects a fee for hosting, and then players get to it.

Ryu hopes to be present on a few dozen games this year. One matter that could slow adoption, however, is that games it partners with tend to relaunch a version of their title with Ryu’s SDK built in. The startup bites back against the work that partner-developers have to undertake by cross-promoting titles that use its system. So, if you sign up, you can do more than generate revenue. Your game might also find a new audience.

Like with most seed-stage startups, Ryu Games is more of a bet on the future than proof of a new trend. Let’s see how far it can get with this set of capital, especially as vaccines take larger and larger bites out of the pandemic that has kept us locked up for so very long.

Rec Room raises at $1.25B valuation from Sequoia and Index as VCs push to find another Roblox

By Lucas Matney

Investor FOMO following Roblox’s blockbuster public debut is pushing venture capitalists who missed out on that gaming giant to invest in competing platforms.

Today, Rec Room announced it has raised $100 million from Sequoia and Index, with participation from Madrona Venture Group. The deal is a huge influx of capital for Rec Room, which had raised less than $50 million before this round, including a $20 million Series C that closed in December. In 2019, we reported that the company had raised its Series B at a $126 million valuation, this latest deal values the company at $1.25 billion, showcasing how investor sentiment for the gaming space has shifted in the wake of Roblox’s monster growth.

Rec Room launched as a VR-only platform, but as headset sales creeped along slowly, the company embraced traditional game consoles, PC and mobile to expand its reach.

In a press release accompanying today’s funding announcement, Rec Room detailed it has surpassed 15 million “lifetime users” and had shown 566% year-over-year revenue growth. In December, CEO Nick Fajt told TechCrunch that the company has tripled its player base in the past 12 months.

The company has been following in Roblox’s footsteps in many ways as it build out its creator tools and seeks to build out an on-platform economy for game creators. The company says that 2 million players have created content on the platform and that Rec Room is on track to pay out more than $1 million to them this year.

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