Razer doubles down on Southeast Asia and payments with acquisition of MOL

Gaming hardware maker Razer, which went public in a big IPO in Hong Kong last year, is doubling down on payments after it announced a deal to acquire MOL, a company that offers online and offline payments in Southeast Asia.

Razer made an initial $20 million investment in MOL last June to supercharge its zGold virtual credit program for gamers by allowing them to buy using MOL’s online service or its offline, over-the-counter network of retailers that includes 7-Eleven. Now Razer aims to gobble up MOL in full by acquiring the remaining 65 percent, which will allow it to grow its alternative revenue streams by pushing fully into payment services by merging MOL’s virtual payment platform with zGold.

It’s worth noting that the deal is an intention to buy MOL. It’ll be subject to review from shareholders, but Razer said it has already secured support from major shareholders. The transaction gives MOL, which delisted from the Nasdaq in 2016 following a bumpy two-year spell, the same $100 million valuation it held for the initial Razer investment.

The acquisition will boost Razer’s recently announced online games store, which rivals services like Steam, but first and foremost it is focused on growing the firm’s share of online sales in Southeast Asia’s growing e-commerce and payment space. To that end, Razer recently launched a store on Lazada, the Alibaba-owned e-commerce service in Southeast Asia, something that Apple did earlier this year.

“We are already the No. 1 gaming brand in the U.S., Europe and China, but Southeast Asia is still nascent and a very small part of our business,” Razer CEO and co-founder Min-Liang Tan told TechCrunch in an interview. “We see this [deal with MOL] as stuff we can do immediately.”

Tan said that, in particular, working with MOL saw revenue grow “dramatically” while MOL itself surpassed $1.1 billion in GMV across its payment network last year.

“This is the perfect opportunity for us to not just be a minority shareholder, but to combine the business and continue scaling from here,” he added, reiterating that he believes the deal gives Razer the world’s largest virtual credit system for gamers based on user registrations. “That’s a huge opportunity for us.”

Away from its core business, the push will also help Razer in Singapore where it has applied to develop a unified e-payment system that would be used across the country, which is the Razer CEO home nation.

Tan said he has kept an ongoing dialogue with regulators, adding that he believes this deal “makes it clear that we don’t just have the scale, we also have the right technology.”

Beyond the Singapore opportunity, where Razer is a new entrant and thus considered an outsider for the license, Tan said the focus is on enabling cash-less payments right across Southeast Asia.

The blockchain has been widely touted as a building block that can help develop financial inclusion platforms in emerging markets, but for now Razer isn’t talking about whether it will hop on that wagon.

“We are excited about blockchain and the technology it brings, but we don’t have anything to comment on at this juncture,” Tan said.

The Razer chief was more vocal on the company’s wider goal, which he said is to develop “an entire ecosystem for our games partners.” The goal is to offset Razer’s impressive hardware sales business by constructing services that span game payments, game distribution and analytics on gamers and their behavior.

That optimism isn’t shared right now by investors in Hong Kong, however, which lured Razer as part of a push to attract more tech listings. Despite a surge when it when public in November, the stock traded at an all-time low of HK$2.44 today, down from its initial list price of HK$3.88.

Tan said he is focused on growing the business and its services regardless, but he did admit there’s a need for “the Hong Kong investment public to be more educated on tech companies.”

Nintendo Labo review

I’m here to tell you first-hand: Nintendo Labo is no joke. I’m a grown-up human person, who has spent many hours of his life building things: office furniture, websites, a model of the Batmobile from the 1989 Tim Burton movie. In the fourth grade, I attempted to build Mission Santa Barbara out of sugar cubes. It didn’t go great, but the point (I’m told) is that I tried.

We’re talking multiple decades of building things. Following instructions, backtracking, trying again. I’m sure there are all sorts of valuable lessons I learned along the way; self-discipline, patience, teamwork, why sugar is not a structurally sound building material. But event with all of that building under my wisened belt, Nintendo Labo is no walk in the park.

It’s literal child’s play. It says right there, on the box, “6+.” I’ve been six-plus for — let’s just say… a while now. And yet, it took me around two hours this morning to build a cardboard piano. Now I’ve got a table full of scraps, a small paper cut on my ring finger and a surprise sense of accomplishment. Oh, and the piano is pretty cool, too.

Labo is one of the most fascinating products to come across my desk in recent memory. It’s unique, bizarre and as frustrating as it is fun. In other words, it’s uniquely Nintendo — not so much out-of-the-box thinking as it is the actual box. It’s a product that’s built entirely around the premise of making kids sit still, follow instructions and fold the heck out of some cardboard. And, strangely, it totally works.

Hook, line and sinker

I wouldn’t have been my first choice to review Labo, but I was uniquely qualified, if only for the half a day I spent getting walked through the construction kit with a room full of brightly dressed and infectiously enthusiastic Nintendo employees. That experience served as the foundation for our hands on, as we were broken up into small teams and walked through a pair of increasingly complex projects.

We started with the race cars, the box’s introductory project, which is really as much about getting you used to the strange world of Labo. But even that small starter is a glimpse of the cleverness contained throughout, as the cardboard-wrapped Joy-Cons use their own haptic feedback to propel forward, as you control its speed via the touchscreen. Because there are a pair of Joy-Cons for every Switch, you can use them to race against one another.

The second hands-on project felt like a considerable step up. Nintendo puts the fishing rod’s build time at one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, versus the cars’ 20 minutes total. In other words, find a comfortable spot, maybe put on some music and make sure you’re hydrated. When it’s done, however, you get a working reel with a string and a rod that vibrates when you catch a fish on screen. Pretty neat.

Having accomplished those in a well-supervised room full of Nintendo employees a few weeks back, I naturally took on the most complex project of the bunch.

Keys to the kingdom

The piano should take two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half hours, by Nintendo’s estimates. I built the thing in about two hours — an accomplishment of sorts for a grown-up person who was supposed to be working. Even so, it reflects just how large of a time sink these projects are. That’s certainly good news for parents looking for the ideal project for a rainy day. It’s a clever little play that leverages a video game system to get them to do something other than play video games. Neat trick, Nintendo.

The primary set is a big, flat and heavy box with 28 cardboard sheets, comprising six different projects. There’s a plastic bag inside, too, containing a random assortment of knick knacks — rubber bands, reflective stickers, washers — all of which will come in handy down the road. There’s no real instruction booklet, because the Switch is going to do all of the heavy lifting there.

The screen walks you through the process of building, one patient step a time. The touchscreen instructions are superior to paper in a number of ways, including a number of animated videos showing off the motions of properly working components, and the ability to pivot the camera angles to get a full 360-degree view of the build. You can rewind if you need to back up, or fast-forward when things get repetitive — like they did with the piano’s 13 keys.

Cardbored?

Don’t go too fast, though. The kit tosses some curve balls at you — as in the case of some tabs that are folded inward, to double as springs. That, however, is the one constant. Folding. So, so much folding. Honestly, it gets pretty tedious on the longer projects. The instructions actually make light of this fact, from time to time, with little quips about the repetition. It also recommends stepping away before a particularly grueling section — probably the right move for both your sanity and health.

Once you get into the rhythm, however, it’s strangely meditative. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold. Tap, fold.

Congratulations, you’ve completely 1/6 steps.

I’d say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, but honestly, it’s really about the destination here. The most satisfying part in all of this was how seemingly abstract shapes lock into place and create a fully formed object. These little kits are truly remarkable feats of engineering in their own right, and in the case of the piano, it’s incredible satisfying to see the object completed — and actually get to play the keys, recognizing the role each individual piece plays in the whole creation.

There are so many smart touches here, from the incorporation of the Joy-Cons, to the use of reflective tape, which triggers the Switch’s built in cameras. It’s that functionality that makes the piano keys play notes through the Switch itself. It also triggers the arms and legs on the robot through a set of pulleys.

It’s equally relieving the moment you realize you did everything right. Though I still had a few instances where I found myself having to backtrack multiple steps, because I’d missed a fold or turned something the wrong way. Also, as the instructions note, folding is at the heart of the project. A bad or incomplete fold can lead to heartbreak at the end. So fold, children. Fold like your lives depend on it.

Building stories

Companies that make coding toys will usually tell you the same thing: it ultimately doesn’t matter that they’re not built in some universal programming language, so long as they teach the fundamentals. The jury is still out on all that, as far as I’m concerned, but I think there’s a lot to be said for a product that’s capable of fostering curiosity and love in some bigger idea. That, I think, is the biggest appeal of Labo. It encourages kids to step outside the console for a minute and build something with their hands.

Does building a Labo piano or fishing rod make you any more qualified to create the real thing? Not really, but it does help foster a genuine interest in the way things work. A maker friend of mine recently related a story to me about how she got into the culture. Her parents came home one day and she had disassembled and reassembled a computer, in order to install a component. From then on, she told me, they came to her for computer help.

Every maker has a story like that — a first step that often involves tearing down a computer or clock or toaster, piece by piece. Labo potentially affords the ability to explore that path without destroying some antique clock in the process. (Though, if it’s successful with your kids, I’d keep a close eye on your piano, if you have one at home.) Parental guidance is also recommended for the more complex projects, making for a great opportunity to bond with kids through creation with a side of frustration. And when you’re done, you’ve got a lovely object that looks like it stepped out of the panels of Calvin & Hobbes.

If your kids don’t have the passion to build — they’ll also learn that lesson pretty quickly. Many kids simply won’t have the patience to sit still and fold for hours on end. It’s also worth pointing out that the objects, when finished, are fragile. They are cardboard, after all. Water is their mortal enemy, and rowdy kids are a close second — pieces can easily rip or tear, even accidentally during the building process. Thankfully, the company has started selling pieces individually.

Of course, $70 isn’t an insignificant amount to pay to find all of that out. And by just about any measure, it’s a pretty steep premium for what amounts to a cardboard box full of cardboard. And, of course, that doesn’t factor in the price of the Switch itself.

But what the kit does afford is continual discovery. From there, kids can graduate to the massive Robot Kit (saving that one for a rainy weekend), which runs $80 and features a complex pulley system and a fun little game where you’re a mech trampling some poor, defenseless city. Even more compelling (and significantly less expensive), however, is Toy-Con Garage.

Built into both packs, the portal lets kids remix and hack creations, offering a breaking down of the technologies involved. If there’s a gateway to the wonderful world of making in this box, it’s this. The pre-determined kits are as much a lesson in following instructions as they are building. Toy-Con Garage, on the other hand, opens the door to true creativity.

Labo is the most bizarre, creative and uniquely Nintendo product since the Switch itself. It’s not for every kid — that much is certain. And the $70 fee will make it cost prohibitive for many parents. But those who take to it will do so like ducks to water — and hopefully won’t get that cardboard wet in the process.

SNK may be making a mini-console stuffed with arcade classics

If you’ve worked through the amazing selection of games provided by the NES and SNES Classic Editions, you may be in luck: SNK, the legendary arcade game creator behind the likes of Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown, is teasing what looks like its own tiny arcade cabinet.

Teased as part of the company’s 40th anniversary, the shrouded gadget definitely doesn’t look like a NEO-GEO, or even a NEO-GEO Pocket. Gizmodo notes that the description mentions a “new game machine,” but no details beyond that. The tall, boxy outline suggests a small arcade cabinet, and the slab in front of it looks a lot like an arcade controller.

It wouldn’t be a particularly original creation — there are dozens of tiny arcade cabinets with built-in games, but the truth is, none of them is particularly good. They’re novelties, perfectly fun for a laugh, but the hardware — compared with the impressive solidity of real arcade controllers and the NEO-GEO’s itself — just isn’t there.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is an arcade cabinet-style console with improved internals, a decent screen to accommodate games newer than 1996 and a separate, perhaps even wireless arcade controller. Price… I’d put it at $200 or $250. Extra controller (and you’ll want it), my guess is $60. I could easily be way off, though. Maybe they’d even let us plug in our old Tanksticks?

An original NEO-GEO controller. You can feel the sturdiness from where you sit.

Inside, you’ll probably find a generous helping of SNK classics, likely limited to arcade and NEO-GEO titles. Even without SNK’s classic games for home consoles like the NES, my eyes were watering as I scrolled down the list of games the company has put out and which may end up on this device.

King of the Monsters 2? Last Resort? Twinkle Star Sprites? King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and all the other fighters? Not to mention Metal Slug and its sequels. The amount of quarters I’ve sunk into these fantastic, beautiful games is uncountable.

If SNK is smart, they’ll make it possible to add new games to the system, too. There are plenty to choose from, as the company catered to a number of niches. Having them available for a few bucks each would be a dream — and anyway, if this isn’t a possibility, people will just hack new ROMs onto the system.

Whatever the case is, you can be sure I’m already jockeying for position to review the thing. I’ll let you know the second I hear anything.

Crypto-collectibles and Kitties marketplace Rare Bits raises $6M

Rare Bits wants to be eBay for the blockchain, where you buy, sell and trade non-fungible crypto-goods. After CryptoKitties raised $12 million from Andreessen Horowitz last month for its digital collectibles game, there’s been an explosion of interest in the space. But without a popular marketplace, it’s hard to find the goods you want at the right price. Now a team of former Zynga staffers is building out the Rare Bits crypto-collectible auction and commerce site with a $6 million round led by Nabeel Hyatt at Spark Capital, and joined by First Round Capital, David Sacks’ Craft Ventures and SV Angel.

Because of the Ethereum ledger, for the first time, users can truly own their digital items,” says co-founder Amitt Mahajan. “Previously in mobile or social games, virtual items earned through play or by spending money were actually owned by the company operating the game. If they shut down their servers, the items would go away and users would be out of luck. We believe this new asset class represents a paradigm shift in digital property whereby centralized assets will be moved onto decentralized systems.” For now, Rare Bits isn’t slapping any extra fees on its marketplace, compared to paying up to 1 percent on other marketplaces like Open Sea, or even more elsewhere. Instead, if a crypto-item developer charges a fee on secondary sales, say 5 percent, they’ll split that with Rare Bits for arranging the transaction.

Rare Bits lists more than 500,000 items from a dozen games, including CryptoPunks, Ether Tulips, CryptoBots, CryptoFighters, Mythereum and CryptoCelebrities. Users get the benefit of having all their crypto-collectibles in a single wallet. They can see historical pricing before they buy anything thanks to the transparency of the Ethereum ledger, whether they want to “Buy Now” or win an auction. The collectors can also see related items rather than transacting in a vacuum. One item sold for more than $10,000, and sales in the 5-10ETH range ($555 each today) aren’t uncommon.

Rare Bits founders from left: Danny Lee, Payom Dousti, Dave Pekar and Amitt Mahajan

Mahajan, Danny Lee and Dave Pekar all met after selling their gaming startups to Zynga . [Disclosure: I know Pekar from college.] Their fourth co-founder, Payom Dousti, worked at fintech VC fund 1/0 Capital and sold his sports analytics startup numberFire to FanDuel. With experience across the gaming, virtual goods and crypto space, Mahajan tells me, “We thought long and hard about potentially building blockchain-based games ourselves, but ultimately decided that there was a larger opportunity in focusing on crypto-based property as a whole.” The Rare Bits exchange launched in February and did more than $100,000 in transactions in its first month.

With some CryptoKitties selling elsewhere for as much as $200,000, investors liked the idea of taking a cut of everyone’s transactions rather than just launching another digital trading card. That led Rare Bits to raise a $1 million seed from Macro Ventures and angels like Steve Jang and Robin Chan. As scaling issues threaten to prevent the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains from supporting micropayments and mainstream commerce, new use cases like crypto-collectibles are taking the spotlight.

Now with the $6 million Series A, Rare Bits is bringing in some heavyweight angels from the world of gaming. That includes Emmet Shear and Justin Kan, the co-founders of Twitch. Former Dropbox execs and married couple Ruchi Sanghvi and Aditya Agrawal are also in the round, alongside Greenoaks Captial MD Neil Mehta and Channel Factory CEO Tony Chen.

The team hopes the runway will help it secure partnerships with developers and creatives to publish new collectibles for the blockchain that have a home on Rare Bits. Mahajan says, “People are viewing these items as assets that can be invested in instead of liabilities that are one way transfers of value towards the developer, it’s one of the major changes in this ecosystem versus traditional virtual items.”

Rare Bits will have to deal with the inherent scaling troubles of the Ethereum blockchain it operates on. For now, it’s refunding users the “gas” it costs to execute purchases and sales on its marketplace in a timely manner. Those range from a few cents to a few dollars, depending on network congestion. But Rare Bits could be looking at a steep bill or be forced to push those fees onto users if it gets popular enough.

There’s always the danger that CryptoKitties and the like are just the new Beanie Babies — valued today, but worthless when the fad dies. Rare Bits benefits from getting to follow the trend to whatever crypto-collectible is in vogue, and just has to hope the whole concept doesn’t fade.

But Rare Bits has a hedge against that. “While today most of these items are items from games and collectibles, we envision that we will see licenses, tickets, rights, even tokenized physical goods represented as digital assets,” Mahajan tells us. It’s now building a Fan Bits feature that will let YouTube creators, Twitch streamers and Instagram celebrities create crypto-based collectibles “to engage with their audience and let their fans support them,” he explains. You might one day be able to buy and resell a meet-and-greet pass for your favorite band.

“Our ultimate goal is to convince millions of new people to begin owning and transacting crypto-based property,” says Mahajan. But the founders will probably be okay regardless. “Like anyone crazy enough to start a crypto app company this early, we started buying and HODLing BTC and ETH years ago.”

PlayVS wants every high school to have an esports team

Nearly 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada are actively recruiting for esports scholarships. But unlike other sports, there is currently no real infrastructure for high school esports.

PlayVS, a Science-backed startup out of Los Angeles, is looking to change that.

Founded by Delane Parnell, PlayVS has signed an exclusive contract with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to provide support in building the infrastructure for high school esports, allowing students to play esports on behalf of their school all the way to the state championship level.

Most of us have participated in high school sports in some way, but many of us aren’t aware of all the moving parts going on behind the scenes. The NFHS, essentially the NCAA of high school sports and activities, handles those moving parts for more than 90 percent of schools in the U.S. across almost every sport.

From writing the rules to referees to building out the districts and conferences to organizing the state playoff tournaments, the NFHS has almost 100 years of experience across hundreds of sports and activities handling organization.

But esports represents a new challenge for the governing body, requiring more technical infrastructure than established sports.

That’s where PlayVS comes in. The company has built a website that handles league organization, scheduling, leaderboards and more. Plus, PlayVS has existing relationships with the game publishers, letting the platform pull stats in real-time from each high school match.

There will be two seasons each year, with students organizing their own teams at their school for a variety of games. High school teams go to the PlayVS website to see their schedule and log on for their game (which is played on the publisher client).

Eight season matches will be played online, with the top teams competing in a LAN tournament in front of a live spectator audience organized by PlayVS.

PlayVS is also partnering with NFHS Network, a live-streaming platform for high school sports, to broadcast some of the games to spectators.

As it stands now, colleges and esports organizations have to rely on relationships with publishers and tournament results to get a clear view of the top young talent. But there are surely many players slipping through the cracks.

With the new high school esports league powered by PlayVS, colleges and esports orgs will be able to use the PlayVS platform to see real-time stats and player profiles. Plus, the PlayVS site allows coaches and recruiters to request an introduction to the student’s parents and/or coach to start talking scholarships.

To start, the high school esports leagues will be PC-only games in three genres: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, Fighting and Sports games.

The first season will start in the fall.

Someone made a game where you ride the rapidly changing prices of cryptocurrencies

The cryptocurrency world is a strange one, but at least it has a sense of humor. A new game has you riding a little crypto-car along the wildly fluctuating prices of major and minor currencies. It’s quite ridiculous, and it isn’t even a bad game!

It’s called Crypto Rider, predictably, and is very much a spawn of the popular Line Rider type of game, though (hopefully) different enough that there won’t be any cease and desists forthcoming.

You select your car, then pick a chart to ride — most are a ride from a coin’s humble start to its highest value. But there’s a mountain-like “total market cap” track, a “drag race” where you need to clear a valuation gap and one that must be depressing for BTC holders: a bumpy downhill ride from $20K to $7,850. New tracks should appear in time, as new cryptocurrencies rise and fall.

The game is cute — there are fun messages along the track, and the exhaust is tiny coins — and you collect coins toward unlocking new cars. I’m pretty sure they’re just aesthetic changes, but I’m gunning for a Dogecar anyway.

“The game was a side project for me to do in my own time,” wrote back Daniel Fahey, founder of the developer, SuperFly Games. “So the first original 10 tracks were what I felt were needed to give the game some replayability. But after the reception the game has received during its launch day, I will certainly be adding more tracks.”

It’s free, it’s dumb and it’s a fun way to waste a few minutes while you inadvertently lampoon the hubris of this rushed attempt to overthrow existing financial systems.

“I hope people find the game funny because it certainly wasn’t meant to be serious,” Fahey wrote. “It’s a bit of light-hearted fun in a somewhat serious space.”

Blockchain stuff is promising and we’ll get there eventually. But as the game seems to emphasize, it’ll probably be quite a ride.

You can download Crypto Rider for iOS or Android.

Sega to release Mega Drive Mini this year

Just like Nintendo before it, Sega is releasing a mini version of its iconic Mega Drive game system. The system is supposed to be available sometime in 2018; the company also announced at least 15 classic Sega games will hit the Switch this summer to celebrate the system’s 30th anniversary.

Sega turned to AtGames to build the hardware. AtGames had previously built the shoddy Sega Genesis Flashback, so hopefully this system will be better than that version. Nintendo paid attention to the details in its retro systems — and it showed. The mini NES and SNES are lovely throwbacks that bring the best of the past to the present — I just wish the controllers had longer cords.

Growing up I had an SNES because my parents thought Sega games were too violent. Basically, Killer Instinct instead of Mortal Kombat. I hope I can handle Scorpion’s finishing moves now.

If that’s not enough nostalgia, Sega Ages series producer Kagasei Shimomura hints Sega Dreamcast games could also hit the Switch, which, if that happens, could bring Phantasy Star Online or Jet Set Radio to Nintendo’s system.

Also, Bryce, our all-star illustrator, didn’t know the Genesis was called Mega Drive outside of North America. He can’t be alone.

Google’s ‘Semantic Experiences’ let you play word games with its AI

Google does a great deal of research into natural language processing and synthesis, but not every project has to be a new Assistant feature or voice improvement. The company has a little fun now and then, when the master AI permits it, and today it has posted a few web experiments that let you engage with its word-association systems in a playful way.

First is an interesting way of searching through Google Books, that fabulous database so rarely mentioned these days. Instead of just searching for text or title verbatim, you can ask questions, like “Why was Napoleon exiled?” or “What is the nature of consciousness?”

It returns passages from books that, based on their language only, are closely associated with your question. And while the results are hit and miss, they are nice and flexible. Sentences answering my questions appeared even though they were not directly adjacent to key words or particularly specific about doing so.

I found, however, it’s not a very intuitive way to interact with a body of knowledge, at least for me. When I ask a question, I generally want to receive an answer, not a competing variety of quotes that may or may not bear on your inquiry. So while I can’t really picture using this regularly, it’s an interesting way to demonstrate the flexibility of the semantic engine at work here. And it may very well expose you to some new authors, though the 100,000 books included in the database are something of a mixed bag.

The second project Google highlights is a game it calls Semantris, though I must say it’s rather too simple to deserve the “-tris” moniker. You’re given a list of words and one in particular is highlighted. You type the word you most associate with that one, and the words will reorder with, as Google’s AI understands it, the closest matches to your word on the bottom. If you moved the target word to the bottom, it blows up a few words and adds some more.

It’s a nice little time waster, but I couldn’t help but feel I was basically just a guinea pig providing testing and training for Google’s word association agent. It was also pretty easy — I didn’t feel much of an achievement for associating “water” with “boat” — but maybe it gets harder as it goes on. I’ve asked Google if our responses are feeding into the AI’s training data.

For the coders and machine learning enthusiasts among you, Google has also provided some pre-trained TensorFlow modules, and of course documented their work in a couple of papers linked in the blog post.

Watch the new trailer for the 15-year Rooster Teeth documentary

Being an online video star might seem cool or even glamorous these days, but Burnie Burns, co-founder and chief creative officer at Rooster Teeth, can remember when that wasn’t the case.

Rooster Teeth, which is behind the popular web series Red vs. Blue, is turning 15 years old this month. (The studio was acquired by Fullscreen a few years ago.) And Burns has been looking back at its history as part of the upcoming documentary Why We’re Here: 15 Years of Rooster Teeth.

He acknowledged that nowadays, anyone in the business is competing with “an enormous noise,” but at the same time, Burns said, “There’s the misconception that because no one was doing this when we got started, that made it easier. It’s really difficult to go into a place where no one else is and no one else cares what’s going on there.”

He recalled that in the studio’s early days, he would tell people about his work and realize, “Home video was a dirty word, and online video was beneath it.”

The documentary was directed by Mat Hames, and it allows Burns and his co-founder Matt Hullum to revisit many of their old haunts, including the bedroom where Burns uploaded the first episode of Red vs. Blue, “Why Are We Here?”

For Rooster Teeth fans, Burns promised footage that has never been seen before, as well as a recounting of the history that’s as honest as they could make it without violating nondisclosure agreements.

“I think we almost have an obligation to show what things were like back then,” he said.

And even if you haven’t been following the company through the years, Burns said the film provides an overview of how online video has evolved. After all, when Red vs. Blue launched, YouTube didn’t exist, and Burns said the documentary process has helped him understand “how short the memory of the Internet is.”

Rooster Teeth published a teaser for Why We’re Here last week, and today it’s launching the official trailer. The documentary will be released exclusively on the studio’s subscription video service FIRST on April 20.

Arcade fame turns to infamy as Billy Mitchell’s record-setting Donkey Kong score is invalidated

The record-setting score that settled the Donkey Kong arcade rivalry made famous by the documentary The King of Kong has been invalidated by Twin Galaxies, the de facto arbiter of arcade world records. What’s more, Billy Mitchell, the occasionally controversial player who set it and other record breaking scores, has been permanently banned from consideration for future records.

It’s a huge upset that calls into question decades of history. Will other similarly disputed scores get the ax? Are any old-school arcade legends safe?

Before anything, it should be noted that although this sounds like kind of a random niche issue, the classic gaming scene is huge: millions follow it closely and take it very seriously. Breaking a high score on a 30-year-old game or shaving a quarter of a second off a hotly contested time can and will be celebrated as if the player has won an Olympic medal. One can never underestimate the size or sincerity of online communities. Cheating is, of course, not tolerated.

With that said, it’s worth considering that Billy Mitchell’s case is unique. He is undoubtedly a highly skilled player and has been setting records since the ’80s. But, as anyone who watched The King of Kong will have learned, he’s also a bit shady and his Donkey Kong acumen is far from established.

The issue is simply that despite his having provided tapes of games setting certain records — including, most famously, being the first to break a million in Donkey Kong — no one has seen him play like that in person.

That may sound like a red flag, but in the speedrunning and record-setting community, a great deal of practice happens alone, in an empty arcade, or otherwise with no credible witnesses (though Twitch has changed that). You could set a world record while in the zone after getting home from work, but it doesn’t count unless it’s seen live, or a recording reviewed and verified by a neutral party. Twin Galaxies is the largest organization performing that duty, and they take it very seriously indeed.

The final score on Mitchell’s disputed tape showing in The King of Kong (the leading 1 is omitted because the digits roll over when you reach a million).

You may remember that at the end of The King of Kong, Mitchell reestablishes his supremacy over plucky local kid Steve Wiebe with a “direct capture” tape of a run scoring 1,047,200 points. There are no witnesses to this game. Shortly after this, he recorded a 1,050,200 score, also not witnessed. And just a week before being inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame in Iowa, he set records in both Donkey Kong (1,062,800) and Donkey Kong 2.

Now here’s where things get dicey (and nerdy).

If anyone thinks something is fishy, they can officially dispute a score and the Twin Galaxies team may choose to look into it. Jeremy Young, aka Xelnia, put together a two-part complaint on the forum back in February. In one part of it, he mentioned the suspicions some already had regarding the evidence set forth of the last and highest score Mitchell set, in a place called Boomers.

As others had already pointed out, not only are the run itself and resulting score not shown in the video, but the referee is one considered notoriously unreliable, and the timeline is unclear, among other things. Most damning, however, it is clear that when Mitchell’s confederate ostentatiously “swaps out” the Donkey Kong board (so it can be verified elsewhere) for a Donkey Kong Jr. one (which Mitchell supposedly then set a record on), both PCBs were in fact the latter.

Twin Galaxies user Robert.F explained the differences in charming internet forum argot:

to a UN-trained train eye Dk and DKjr look the same and in fact they are vary similar, except for a few noticeable differences…the DK pcb has white text on the pcb and the Dk jr has banana yellow text printed on the board ,, the DK pcb is 1/2 digital and 1/2 Analog sound and there is a adjustment pot on the dk pcb for the Analog sound`s, The Dk Jr board is fully digital and has no Analog sound adjustment pot in the exact same position on the dkjr board, and the 3rd noticeable differences and you will see; it if you review the video carefully Dk has the same ROM socket lay out and the same number of sockets as a Dkjr pcb ,, But DKjr has one of them ROM socket empty ,,,,,,

Why perform this clumsy sleight of hand? Was it just a mistake? Why are people who point out the issue having their comments deleted from YouTube? Although suspicious, these circumstantial issues could be explained as a bit of confusion in the moment, a misspoken word in the excitement of setting a record, and so on. Fortunately, that wasn’t the extent of the evidence.

As you may know, emulators are a type of application made to run old software (like arcade games) as closely as possible to how it ran on the original hardware. MAME is by far the most complex and perhaps the best-known emulator; this amazing app can emulate everything from Donkey Kong to much more recent games with complex 3D graphics. Of course, MAME runs aren’t accepted for world records — you could easily manipulate the software or even the game data itself. Real arcade hardware is required.

But MAME isn’t perfect; there are tiny differences in how it displays graphics — things you wouldn’t notice unless you were watching a game frame by frame looking for them in particular.

Which is exactly what people started doing with Mitchell’s no-witnesses, only-on-video scores.

It turns out that the original Donkey Kong PCBs had a specific method of rendering a scene during graphics transitions called a “sliding door effect,” distinctive in the pattern of how pixels are updated. Careful inspection of Mitchell’s tapes showed not a sliding door, but instead a distinctive artifact of MAME emulation whereby the frame is rendered in chunks according to how the data is loaded from memory.

You can see the similarity in the GIFs below, provided as evidence by Young.

First is footage of an actual machine taken at 60FPS. Note the diagonal “sliding door” that reveals the scene from the top left downwards:

Next, Mitchell’s 1,050,200 run:

Last, how MAME renders a similar scene:

See how the ladders come in all at once in that pattern, and there’s no sliding door? As you can tell, it’s something of a smoking gun. Certainly Twin Galaxies investigators thought so. In their conclusions, issued today on the forums, they wrote (emphasis theirs):

The taped Donkey Kong score performances of 1,047,200 (the King of Kong “tape”), 1,050,200 (the Mortgage Brokers score) that were historically used by Twin Galaxies to substantiate those scores and place them in the database were not produced by the direct feed output of an original unmodified Donkey Kong Arcade PCB.

They decline to go so far as saying they know it was MAME, but that’s a mere scruple — everyone understands it’s the most likely situation. Regardless, the very fact that Mitchell passed off non-authentic footage as real is more than enough to strike his scores and, as they also announce, ban him from further placement anywhere in the system.

Perhaps more importantly, Steve Wiebe, the underdog challenger in The King of Kong, has been elevated to become the first player to actually hit a million points in the game. Better late than never! Belated congratulations to Wiebe. (Wikipedia has already been updated.)

Update: Wiebe tells Variety: “I’m not the champ any more, but getting recognition for being the first to a million is a great consolation. That’s what I was really bummed out about 11 years ago.”

Mitchell, on the other hand, has remained out of sight during the investigation that has gone on these last few months, and has essentially been ruined for good in the arcade world. Even if he were to set a world record today (and existing record holders doubt he has the skill to do so based on reviewing his play), it would be tainted by years of proven deception. The community won’t forgive him.

And that’s the worry others are voicing: Will the investigators come for other scores that for years have been venerated but have not been verified as strictly as modern records are? Will, for example, any score without an accredited witness or reliable recording be removed from the lists?

In their decision, Twin Galaxies’ authorities write:

Twin Galaxies is dedicated to absolutely rooting out invalid scores from our historic database wherever we find them.

Our methodic approach has allowed many things to surface, not only related to this specific score, but other scores as well as some previously never-before-discussed video game related history.

We must repeat, the truth is the priority. That is the concern. Whatever it takes.

This dispute is closed, and a controversial but nevertheless legendary gaming figure covered in shame (or he should be if he has any). Who will be next? Regardless of who falls, the community will no doubt continue to thrive; the passion for these old games is undying and, as new generations have shown, is not limited to an aging cohort of Gen-Xers striving to extend a bygone era of glory (though admittedly they are a big part of it).

If this strange saga interested you anywhere near as much as it interested me, go ahead and dive in. You might find you have a new hobby. Just don’t try to fake it. And by the way, the current top score in Donkey Kong is 1,247,700, set just two months ago by Robbie Lakeman. Good luck.