Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.
This week, the gaming industry again became a target of Beijing, which imposed arguably the world’s strictest limits on underage players. On the other hand, China’s tech titans are hastily answering Beijing’s call for them to take on more social responsibilities and take a break from unfettered expansion.
China dropped a bombshell on the country’s young gamers. As of September 1, users under the age of 18 are limited to only one hour of online gaming time: on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 8-9 p.m.
The stringent rule adds to already tightening gaming policies for minors, as the government blames video games for causing myopia, as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. Remember China recently announced a suite of restrictions on after-school tutoring? The joke going around is that working parents will have an even harder time keeping their kids occupied.
A few aspects of the new regulation are worth unpacking. For one, the new rule was instituted by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the regulatory body that approves gaming titles in China and that in 2019 froze the approval process for nine months, which led to plunges in gaming stocks like Tencent.
It’s curious that the directive on playtime came from the NPPA, which reviews gaming content and issues publishing licenses. Like other industries in China, video games are subject to regulations by multiple authorities: NPPA; the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet watchdog; and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the country’s industrial standards and telecommunications infrastructure.
As analysts long observe, the mighty CAC, which sits under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping, has run into “bureaucratic struggles” with other ministries unwilling to relinquish power. This may well be the case for regulating the lucrative gaming industry.
For Tencent and other major gaming companies, the impact of the new rule on their balance sheet may be trifling. Following the news, several listed Chinese gaming firms, including NetEase and 37 Games, hurried to announce that underage players made up less than 1% of their gaming revenues.
Tencent saw the change coming and disclosed in its Q2 earnings that “under-16-year-olds accounted for only 2.6% of its China-based grossing receipts for games and under-12-year-olds accounted for just 0.3%.”
These numbers may not reflect the reality, as minors have long found ways around gaming restrictions, such as using an adult’s ID for user registration (just as the previous generation borrowed IDs from adult friends to sneak into internet cafes). Tencent and other gaming firms have vowed to clamp down on these workarounds, forcing kids to seek even more sophisticated tricks, including using VPNs to access foreign versions of gaming titles. The cat and mouse game continues.
While China curtails the power of its tech behemoths, it has also pressured them to take on more social responsibilities, which include respecting the worker’s rights in the gig economy.
Last week, the Supreme People’s Court of China declared the “996” schedule, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, illegal. The declaration followed years of worker resistance against the tech industry’s burnout culture, which has manifested in actions like a GitHub project listing companies practicing “996.”
Meanwhile, hardworking and compliant employees have often been cited as a competitive advantage of China’s tech industry. It’s in part why some Silicon Valley companies, especially those run by people familiar with China, often set up branches in the country to tap its pool of tech talent.
The days when overworking is glorified and tolerated seem to be drawing to an end. Both ByteDance and its short video rival Kuaishou recently scrapped their weekend overtime policies.
Similarly, Meituan announced that it will introduce compulsory break time for its food delivery riders. The on-demand services giant has been slammed for “inhumane” algorithms that force riders into brutal hours or dangerous driving.
In groundbreaking moves, ride-hailing giant Didi and Alibaba’s e-commerce rival JD.com have set up unions for their staff, though it’s still unclear what tangible impact the organizations will have on safeguarding employee rights.
Tencent and Alibaba have also acted. On August 17, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech calling for “common prosperity,” which caught widespread attention from the country’s ultra-rich.
“As China marches towards its second centenary goal, the focus of promoting people’s well-being should be put on boosting common prosperity to strengthen the foundation for the Party’s long-term governance.”
This week, both Tencent and Alibaba pledged to invest 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) in support of “common prosperity.” The purposes of their funds are similar and align neatly with Beijing’s national development goals, from growing the rural economy to improving the healthcare system.
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.
As one of the frontrunners in the race to build the metaverse, Roblox is thinking ahead to what virtual worlds really need. And while the platform has had no shortage of growth on its current path — as of July, it boasted 47 million daily active users — it’s looking to chart a course toward deeper, richer virtual experiences that will keep people coming back for years to come.
To that end, Roblox is taking careful but decisive steps toward weaving voice chat into the platform’s core experience. The first move: inviting a group of trusted developers to explore how they can integrate proximity-based audio into the wildly popular experiences that beat at the heart of the platform — from chill, vaporwavey vibe games to pulling off kickflips in a Vans-sponsored skate park.
With spatial audio, users will be able to speak with other people nearby through live voice chat. Roblox sees its new voice product as a natural extension of the way that text chat works now, but instead of text bubbles that pop up over an avatar’s head, visible to anybody around them, players will be able to talk naturally to the other people they bump into.
Say you’re hanging out in a virtual skatepark in Roblox with spatial audio enabled: skaters in the half pipe with you would sound loud and clear, just like they would in real life. But you wouldn’t be able to hear someone walking around on the sidewalk across the street, since they’re too far away. To have a private conversation with a nearby friend, you might peel off and walk toward a store down the block.
“As we think about the future of communication in the metaverse, we think that it needs to be very natural and feel very similar to the way we communicate in the real world,” Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein told TechCrunch in an interview. “But it also can transcend, some of the limitations that physics and space create in the real world.”
Bronstein joined the company in March, leaving Google to help realize Roblox’s particular vision for the metaverse. Prior to hopping over to Roblox, Bronstein worked on product teams at Zynga, Xbox and YouTube — three very different companies that are probably equal parts relevant to his current work.
“If you think about the metaverse as the next incarnation of where you know I could go shopping or I could go to a concert, I could go to school, I think that you need to be relevant to everybody in society and you need to both build the content, the rules, the features that support all of those behaviors,” Bronstein said. “And part of bringing voice to the platform is to ensure that our older audiences have a natural way to communicate.”
Voice chat is very much on the way to Roblox, but that doesn’t mean it will appear overnight — and that’s by design. The company is inviting an initial group of 5,000 developers, all 13 and older, to try out the new spatial voice chat capabilities in a custom-built Roblox community space.
“We’ve put a bunch of neat features in there and places for them to chat and hang out and they’re going to be able to learn from the code that we wrote for that community space… So a few weeks later or a month later they can put that into their experiences and turn it on,” Bronstein said.
Bronstein emphasizes that Roblox will take this process slowly, building new moderation and safety tools in parallel as it goes. The voice rollout will go slowly, starting with the chosen circle of developers and gradually expanding out from there as the company feels confident that it can create a safe enough environment with its moderation tools.
“I think we want to take it slowly and we want to learn as we go through it,” Bronstein said. “We may start, as I mentioned, with the developers. It is likely that right after that, we may go to an audience that is 13+ and park there for a while until we understand exactly if all the pieces are falling into place before deciding if we ever open it to a younger audience.”
To moderate its sprawl of virtual worlds, Roblox uses a blend of automated scanning and a 3,000-person safety team of human reviewers. Like in any social network, players can report, block and mute other players to make their own experiences feel more comfortable. And because half of its player base is under 13, Roblox gives parents options on what kinds of age-appropriate experiences to allow and toggles for things like text chat. If voice chat ever makes its way to younger age groups, parents would be able to disable it altogether.
Roblox’s under-13 crowd comprises a massive chunk of its user base, but a surprising number of older kids and young adults hang out there too. According to the company, 50% of its users are over the age of 13 and it’s seeing the most explosive user growth among 17- to 24-year-olds. Roblox is attracting new users, but its core users are also growing up and the company knows it needs to grow alongside them.
Whether voice chat ever rolls out for younger users or not, Roblox seems well aware that keeping a virtual environment with voice chat feeling safe and friendly is a steep challenge. The company plans to rely on user-initiated reporting as voice rolls out and it’s exploring other tools that could bolster those efforts. The company is looking at a few different tools, including automatically recording a snippet of conversation just prior to a user being reported as a way to capture bad behavior for reviewers. It’s also interested in expanding reputation systems that automatically restrict users who have a certain number of strikes against them.
Much like any social platform, Roblox will likely lean heavily on user reporting, which disproportionately shifts the burden to users on the receiving end of hate and harassment — an unfortunate outcome that no social company has properly dedicated the human resources to solving.
Bronstein describes spatial audio as “one component” of Roblox’s vision for natural communication. The next step is integrating a voice chat experience that’s persistent across experiences, letting users who know each other hang out even when they aren’t doing the same thing. For anyone who paid attention to the company’s quiet acquisition of a company called Guilded last month, that won’t come as a surprise. Though Roblox’s work on voice pre-dates the acquisition, Guilded will lay the groundwork for Roblox’s future voice plans.
A Discord competitor, Guilded similarly built out a chat platform for gamers, doubling down on the competitive gaming scene where Discord expanded its horizons beyond gaming. Beyond group voice chat, Guilded gives gamers built-in scheduling and community management tools that ease the hassle of organizing complex online social events, like wrangling 20-some-odd gamers to run raids in World of Warcraft.
“In the near term, Guilded has an amazing road map, we want to just continue with that road map and grow it without any hardcore integration at this point,” Bronstein said.
Moderation challenges aside, there’s basically nothing in Roblox’s way. The company went public in March and today it’s worth $49 billion, making it easily one of the most valuable companies in gaming. Investors, content creators and tech giants alike are going all-in on the metaverse, and really, it looks like a pretty safe bet.
Metaverse is a buzzy term right now, but it’s more shorthand than empty hype. When people talk about the metaverse, they generally want to evoke a futuristic vision of interconnected virtual worlds — online spaces that we can move through, socialize and shop within (for better or worse, that last part is key). Whether this will all be in virtual reality or not and when is a point of some debate, but really the interconnected part is the bigger challenge. In the app age, software was siloed by design. But to realize the promise of the metaverse, our virtual selves and our virtual stuff will need to be able to move through online worlds fluidly.
A few companies are ahead of the curve on this, and it’s no coincidence that two of the big ones, Roblox and Fortnite-maker Epic — best known for their virtual worlds stocked with custom avatars, in-game economies and a seamless social layer — are elevating user-created content. Those experiences, and the ability to easily hang out with friends while doing stuff in them and elsewhere in virtual space, may wind up being what the metaverse is all about.
Most adults can hardly grasp the appeal of the blocky, suburban worlds that their kids love hanging out in, but Roblox understands something fundamental about where online life is going. Or rather where we’ll all going — into online worlds like Roblox.
Over the last month, Twitch users have become increasingly concerned and frustrated with bot-driven hate raids. To protest Twitch’s lack of immediate action to prevent targeted harassment of marginalized creators, some streamers are going dark to observe #ADayOffTwitch today.
Per the protest, users are sharing a list of demands for the Amazon-owned Twitch. They want the platform to host a roundtable with creators affected by hate raids, allow streamers to approve or deny incoming raids, enable tools to only allow accounts of a certain age to chat, remove the ability to attach more than three accounts to one email address, and share a timeframe for when comprehensive anti-harassment tools will be implemented.
Hey friendos, I won’t be streaming tomorrow in support of #ADayOffTwitch. (Here’s a handy graphic of some of the things those protesting are asking of @Twitch in case you’re not familiar with what’s going on.) I’ll be back on Thursday for our first swing at Senior Detective! pic.twitter.com/OA9NQlTnq3
— Meg Turney (@megturney) September 1, 2021
TechCrunch asked Twitch if it has plans to address these demands. Twitch responded with a statement: “We support our streamers’ rights to express themselves and bring attention to important issues across our service. No one should have to experience malicious and hateful attacks based on who they are or what they stand for, and we are working hard on improved channel-level ban evasion detection and additional account improvements to help make Twitch a safer place for creators.”
Twitch Raids are a part of the streaming platform’s culture — after one creator ends their stream, they can “raid” another stream by sending their viewers over to check out someone else’s channel. This feature is supposed to help more seasoned streamers support up-and-comers, but instead, it’s been weaponized as a tool for harassment.
In May, Twitch launched 350 new tags related to gender, sexual orientation, race and ability, which users requested so that they could more easily find creators that represent them. But at the same time, these tags made it easier for bad actors to harass marginalized streamers, and Twitch hasn’t yet added tools for streamers to deal with increased harassment. In the meantime, Twitch users have had to take matters into their own hands and build their own safety tools to protect themselves while Twitch works on its updates. Twitch hasn’t shared when its promised anti-harassment tools will go live.
As recently as December, Twitch updated its policies on hateful content and harassment, which the platform said have always been prohibited, yet vicious attacks have continued. After facing targeted, racist hate raids on their streams, a Black Twitch creator RekItRaven started the #TwitchDoBetter hashtag on Twitter in early August, calling out Twitch for its failure to prevent this abuse. While Twitch is aware of the issue and said it’s working on solutions, many users find Twitch’s response to be too slow and lacking.
We've been building channel-level ban evasion detection and account improvements to combat this malicious behavior for months. However, as we work on solutions, bad actors work in parallel to find ways around them—which is why we can't always share details.
— Twitch (@Twitch) August 20, 2021
Along with streamers LuciaEverblack and ShineyPen, RekItRaven organized #ADayOffTwitch to put pressure on Twitch to make its platform safer for marginalized creators.
“Hate on the platform is not new,” Raven told WYNC’s The Takeaway. But bot-driven raid attacks are more difficult to combat than individual trolls. “I’ve had people come in with bots. It’s usually one or two people who program a bunch of bots, you bypass security measures that are put in place and just spam a broadcaster’s chat with very inflammatory, derogatory language.”
While Raven said they have since had a discussion with Twitch, they don’t feel that one conversation is enough.
Turns out a bunch of LGBTQUIA2+, BIPOC, Disabled, Neurodivergent, and Plural creators really can make a difference by showing up, being loud, and not backing down despite people telling us we won't accomplish anything. Just remember, we aren't done yet. #ADayOffTwitch
— Lucia Everblack (@LuciaEverblack) August 26, 2021
As part of #ADayOffTwitch, some streamers are encouraging their followers to support them financially on other platforms through the #SubOffTwitch tag. Twitch takes 50% of streamers’ revenue, so creators are promoting their accounts on platforms like Patreon and Ko-Fi, which take a much smaller cut. Though competitor YouTube Gaming takes 30% of revenue, and Facebook Gaming won’t take a cut from creators until 2023, Twitch remains dominant in the streaming space. According to Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet, Twitch represented 72.3% of the market share in terms of viewership Q1 2021.
Still, popular creators like Ben Lupo (DrLupo), Jack Dunlop (CouRage), and Rachell Hofstetter (Valkyrae) have recently left Twitch for exclusive deals with YouTube Gaming. If Twitch remains unsafe for marginalized creators, others might be swayed to follow their lead, exclusive deals or not.
Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”
The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.
Image Credits: Facebook
In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.
In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.
Image Credits: Facebook
Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.
The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.
Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.
The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.