Category Archives: Itech

Microsoft and Nintendo release Minecraft trailer focused on cross-play

In the world of gaming, cross-compatibility between platforms has always bene a bit of a white whale. While most players hope for it, console makers and game publishers haven’t always been so willing. Until recently.

Microsoft, Nintendo and PC game makers have started making games more cross-compatible. Most notably, the companies have made Fortnite Battle Royale, the biggest game of the year, cross-compatible on the Switch, Xbox, iOS, and PC. Yes, there is a big name missing from that list.

Sony has yet to budge, forcing PS4 players inside of a walled garden. Obviously, players have been outraged.

But today, Microsoft and Nintendo are seemingly putting salt in the wound with a new trailer for Minecraft.

Rather than focusing on the game, the trailer’s entire thesis is centered around the fact that it offers cross-play between Xbox and the Switch. In the video, you can see a Switch player and an Xbox player gaming together in the wonderful world of Minecraft.

The tag line at the end reads “Better Together.”

Long story short, cross play is happening in the gaming world. Finally. Whether or not Sony chooses to catch up is anyone’s guess.

Inside Atari’s rise and fall

By the first few months of 1982, it had become more common to see electronics stores, toy stores, and discount variety stops selling 2600 games. This was before Electronics Boutique, Software Etc., and later, GameStop . Mostly you bought games at stores that sold other electronic products, like Sears or Consumer Distributors. Toys ’R’ Us was a big seller of 2600 games. To buy one, you had to get a piece of paper from the Atari aisle, bring it to the cashier, pay for it, and then wait at a pickup window behind the cash register lanes.

Everyone had a favorite store in their childhood; here’s a story about one of mine. A popular “destination” in south Brooklyn is Kings Plaza, a giant (for Brooklyn) two-story indoor mall with about 100 stores. My mother and grandmother were avid shoppers there. To get to the mall from our house, it was about a 10-minute car service ride. So once a week or thereabouts, we’d all go. The best part for me was when we went inside via its Avenue U entrance instead of on the Flatbush Avenue side. Don’t ask me what went into this decision each time; I assume it depended on the stores my mother wanted to go to. All I knew was the Avenue U side had this circular kiosk maybe 50 feet from the entrance. The name has faded from memory. I remember it was a kind of catch-all for things like magazines, camera film, and other random stuff.

But the most important things were the Atari cartridges. There used to be dozens of colorful Atari game boxes across the wall behind the counter. When we walked up to the cashier’s window, there was often a row of new Atari games across the top as well. Sometimes we left without a new cartridge, and sometimes I received one. But we always stopped and looked, and it was the highlight of my trip to the mall each time.

For whatever reason, I remember the guy behind the counter gave me a hard time one day. I bought one of Atari’s own cartridges—I no longer remember which, but I’m almost sure it was either Defender or Berzerk—that came with an issue of Atari Force, the DC comic book. I said I was excited to get it. The guy shot me a dirty look and said, “You’re buying a new Atari cartridge just for a comic book?” I was way too shy to argue with him, even though he was wrong and I wanted the cartridge. I don’t remember what my mother said, or if she even heard him. Being too shy to protest, I sheepishly took my game and we both walked away.

Mattel Stumbles, While Atari Face-Plants

Mattel began to run into trouble with its Intellivision once the company tried to branch out from sports games. Because Mattel couldn’t license properties from Atari, Nintendo, or Sega, it instead made its own translations of popular arcade games. Many looked better than what you’d find on the 2600, but ultimately played more slowly thanks to the Intellivision’s sluggish CPU. Perhaps the most successful was Astrosmash, a kind of hybrid of Asteroids and Space Invaders, where asteroids, space ships, and other objects fell from the sky and became progressively more difficult. Somewhat less successful were games like Space Armada (a Space Invaders knock off).

Mattel also added voice synthesis—something that was all the rage at the time—to the Intellivision courtesy of an add-on expansion module called Intellivoice. But only a few key games delivered voice capability: Space Spartans, Bomb Squad, B-17 Bomber (all three were launch titles), and later, Tron: Solar Sailer. The Intellivoice’s high cost, lack of a truly irresistible game, and overall poor sound quality meant this was one thing Atari didn’t have to find a way to answer with the 2600.

These events made it easier for Atari to further pull away from Mattel in the marketplace, and it did so—but not without a tremendous self-inflicted wound. A slew of new 2600 games arrived in the first part of 1982. Many important releases came in this period and those that followed, and we’ll get to those shortly. But there was one in particular that the entire story arc of the platform balanced on, and then fractured. It was more than a turning point; its repercussions reverberated throughout the then-new game industry, and to this day it sticks out as one of the key events that ultimately did in Atari.

Pac-Man (Atari, March 1982)

The single biggest image-shattering event for the 2600—and Atari itself—was the home release of its Pac-Man cartridge. I can still feel the crushing disappointment even now. So many of my friends and I looked forward to this release. We had talked about it all the time in elementary school. Pac-Man was simply the hottest thing around in the arcades, and we dreamed of playing it at home as much as we wanted. The two-year wait for Atari to release the 2600 cartridge seemed like forever. Retailers bought into the hype as well. Toy stores battled for inventory, JC Penney and Kmart bought in big along with Sears and advertised on TV, and even local drug stores started stocking the game. And yet, what we got…wasn’t right.

Just about everyone knows how Pac-Man is supposed to work, but just in case: You gobble up dots to gain points while avoiding four ghosts. Eat a power pellet, and you can turn the tables on the ghosts, chase them down, and eat them. Each time you do so, the “eyes” of the ghost fly back to the center of the screen and the ghost regenerates. Eat all the dots and power pellets on the screen, and you progress to the next one, which gets harder. Periodically, a piece of fruit appears at the center of the screen. You can eat it for bonus points, and the kind of fruit denotes the level you are on (cherry, strawberry, orange, and so on).

But that’s not the game Atari 2600 owners saw. After securing the rights to the game from Namco, Atari gave programmer Tod Frye just five weeks to complete the conversion. The company had learned from its earlier mistakes and promised Frye a royalty on every cartridge manufactured (not sold), which was an improvement. But this was another mistake. The royalty plus the rushed schedule meant Frye made money even if the game wasn’t up to snuff, and thus Frye had incentive to complete it regardless. Atari also required the game to fit into just 4KB like older 2600 cartridges, rather than the newer 8KB size that was becoming much more common by this point. That profit-driven limitation heavily influenced the way Frye approached the design of the game. To top it all off, Atari set itself up for a colossal failure by producing some 12 million cartridges, even though there were only 10 million 2600 consoles in circulation at the time. The company was confident that not only would every single existing 2600 owner buy the game, but that 2 million new customers would buy the console itself just for this cartridge.

We all know how it turned out. The instruction manual sets the tone for the differences from the arcade early on. The game is now set in “Mazeland.” You eat video wafers instead of dots. Every time you complete a board, you get an extra life. The manual says you also earn points from eating power pills, ghosts, and “vitamins.” Something is definitely amiss.

Pac-Man himself always looks to the right or left, even if he is going up or down. The video wafers are long and rectangular instead of small, square dots. Fruits don’t appear periodically at the center of the screen. Instead, you get the aforementioned vitamin, a clear placeholder for what would have been actual fruit had there been more time to get it right. The vitamin always looks the same and is always worth 100 points, instead of increasing as you clear levels. The rest of the scoring is much lower than it is in the arcade. Gobbling up all four ghosts totals just 300 points, and each video wafer is worth just 1 point.

The ghosts have tremendous amounts of flicker, and they all look and behave identically, instead of having different colors, distinct personalities, and eyes that pointed in the right direction. The flicker was there for a reason. Frye used it to draw the four ghosts in successive frames with a single sprite graphic register, and drew Pac-Man every frame using the other sprite graphic register. The 2600’s TIA chip synchronizes with an NTSC television picture 60 times per second, so you end up seeing a solid Pac-Man, maze, and video wafers (I can still barely type “video wafers” with a straight face), but the ghosts are each lit only one quarter of the time. A picture tube’s phosphorescent glow takes a little bit to fade, and your eye takes a little while to let go of a retained image as well, but the net result is that the flicker is still quite visible.

It gets worse. The janky, gritty sound effects are bizarre, and the theme song is reduced to four dissonant chords. (Oddly, these sounds resurfaced in some movies over the next 20 years and were a default “go-to” for sound designers working in post-production.) The horizontally stretched maze is nothing like the arcade, either, and the escape routes are at the top and bottom instead of the sides. The maze walls aren’t even blue; they’re orange, with a blue background, because it’s been reported Atari had a policy that only space games could have black backgrounds (!). At this point, don’t even ask about the lack of intermissions.

One of Frye’s own mistakes is that he made Pac-Man a two-player game. “Tod used a great deal of memory just tracking where each player had left off with eaten dots, power pellets, and score,” wrote Goldberg and Vendel in Atari Inc.: Business is Fun. Years later, when Frye looked at the code for the much more arcade-faithful 2600 Ms. Pac-Man, he saw the programmers were “able to use much more memory for graphics because it’s only a one player game.”

Interestingly, the game itself is still playable. Once you get past the initial huge letdown and just play it on its own merits, Pac-Man puts up a decent experience. It’s still “Pac-Man,” sort of, even if it delivers a rough approximation of the real thing as if it were seen and played through a straw. It’s worth playing today for nostalgia—after all, many of us played this cartridge to death anyway, because it was the one we had—and certainly as a historical curiosity for those who weren’t around for the golden age of arcades.

Many an Atari 2600 fan turned on the platform—and Atari in general—after the release of Pac-Man. Although the company still had plenty of excellent games and some of the best were yet to come, the betrayal was immediate and real and forever colored what much of the gaming public thought of Atari. The release of the Pac-Man cartridge didn’t curtail the 2600’s influence on the game industry by any means; we’ll visit many more innovations and developments as we go from here on out. But the 2600 conversion of Pac-Man gave the fledgling game industry its first template for how to botch a major title. It was the biggest release the Atari 2600 had and would ever see, and the company flubbed it about as hard as it could. It was New Coke before there was New Coke.

Grand Prix (Activision, March 1982)

The next few games we’ll discuss further illustrate the quality improvements upstart third-party developers delivered, in comparison with Atari, which had clearly become too comfortable in its lead position. First up is Activision’s Grand Prix, which in hindsight was a bit of an odd way to design a racer . It’s a side-scroller on rails that runs from left to right, and is what racing enthusiasts call a time trial. Although other computer-controlled cars are on the track, you’re racing against the clock, not them, and you don’t earn any points or increase your position on track for passing them.

Gameplay oddities aside, the oversized Formula One cars are wonderfully detailed, with brilliant use of color and animated spinning tires. The shaded color objects were the centerpiece of the design, as programmer David Crane said in a 1984 interview. “When I developed the capability for doing a large multicolored object on the [2600’s] screen, the capability fitted the pattern of the top view of a Grand Prix race car, so I made a racing game out of it.” Getting the opposing cars to appear and disappear properly as they entered and exited the screen also presented a problem, as the 2600’s lack of a frame buffer came into play again. The way TIA works, the 2600 would normally just make the car sprite begin to reappear on the opposite side of the screen as it disappeared from one side. To solve this issue, Crane ended up storing small “slices” of the car in ROM, and in real time the game drew whatever portions of the car were required to reach the edge of the screen. The effect is smooth and impossible to detect while playing.

The car accelerates over a fairly long period of time, and steps through simulated gears. Eventually it reaches a maximum speed and engine note, and you just travel along at that until you brake, crash into another car, or reach the finish line. As the manual points out, you don’t have to worry about cars coming back and passing you again, even if you crash. Once you pass them, they’re gone from the race.

The four game variations in Grand Prix are named after famous courses that resonate with racing fans (Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch, Le Mans, and Monaco). The courses bear no resemblance to the real ones; each game variation is simply longer and harder than the last. The tree-lined courses are just patterns of vehicles that appear on screen. Whenever you play a particular game variation, you see the same cars at the same times (unless you crash, which disrupts the pattern momentarily). The higher three variations include bridges, which you have to quickly steer onto or risk crashing. During gameplay, you get a warning in the form of a series of oil slicks that a bridge is coming up soon.

Although Atari’s Indy 500 set the bar early for home racing games on the 2600, Grand Prix demonstrated you could do one with a scrolling course and much better graphics. This game set the stage for more ambitious offerings the following year. And several decades later, people play games like this on their phones. We just call titles like Super Mario Run (a side-scroller) and Temple Run (3D-perspective) “endless runners,” as they have running characters instead of cars.

Activision soon became the template for other competing third-party 2600 developers. In 1981, Atari’s marketing vice president and a group of developers, including the programmers for Asteroids and Space Invaders on the console, started a company called Imagic. The company had a total of nine employees at the outset. Its name was derived from the words “imagination” and “magic”—two key components of every cartridge the company planned to release. Imagic games were known for their high quality, distinctive chrome boxes and labels, and trapezoidal cartridge edges. As with Activision, most Imagic games were solid efforts with an incredible amount of polish and were well worth purchasing.

Although Imagic technically became the second third-party developer for the 2600, the company’s first game didn’t arrive until March 1982. Another company, Games by Apollo, beat it to the punch by starting up in October 1981 and delivering its first (mediocre) game, Skeet Shoot, before the end of the year.

But when that first Imagic game did arrive, everyone noticed.

Demon Attack

At first glance, the visually striking Demon Attack looks kind of like a copy of the arcade game Phoenix, at least without the mothership screen (something it does gain in the Intellivision port). But the game comes into its own the more you play it. You’re stuck on the planet Krybor. Birdlike demons dart around and shoot clusters of lasers down toward you at the bottom of the screen. Your goal is to shoot the demons all out of the sky, wave after wave.

The playfield is mostly black, with a graded blue surface of the planet along the bottom of the screen. A pulsing, beating sound plays in the background. It increases in pitch the further you get into each level, only to pause and then start over with the next wave. The demons themselves are drawn beautifully, with finely detailed, colorful designs that are well animated and change from wave to wave. Every time you complete a wave, you get an extra life, to a maximum of six.

On later waves, the demons divide in two when shot, and are worth double the points. You can shoot the smaller demons, or just wait—eventually each one swoops down toward your laser cannon, back and forth until it reaches the bottom of the screen, at which point it disappears from the playfield. Shoot it while it’s diving and you get quadruple points. In the later stages, demons also shoot longer, faster clusters of lasers at your cannon.

The game is for one or two players, though there’s a cooperative mode that lets you take turns against the same waves of demons. There are also variations of the game that let you shoot faster lasers, as well as tracer shots that you can steer into the demons. After 84 waves, the game ends with a blank screen, though reportedly a later run of this cartridge eliminates that and lets you play indefinitely. If I were still nine years old, I could probably take a couple of days out of summer and see if this is true. I am no longer nine years old.

Demon Attack was one of Imagic’s first three games, along with Trick Shot and Star Voyager. Rob Fulop, originally of Atari fame and one of Imagic’s four founders, programmed Demon Attack. In November 1982, Atari sued Imagic because of Demon Attack’s similarity to Phoenix, the home rights of which Atari had purchased from Centuri. The case was eventually settled. Billboard magazine listed Demon Attack as one of the 10 best-selling games of 1982. It was also Imagic’s best-selling title, and Electronic Games magazine awarded it Game of the Year.

“The trick to the Demon Attack graphics was it was the first game to use my Scotch-taped/rubber-banded dedicated 2600 sprite animation authoring tool that ran on the Atari 800,” Fulop said in 1993. “The first time Michael Becker made a little test animation and we ran Bob Smith’s utility that successfully squirted his saved sprite data straight into the Demon Attack assembly code and it looked the same on the [2600] as it did on the 800 was HUGE! Before that day, all 2600 graphics ever seen were made using a #2 pencil, a sheet of graph paper, a lot of erasing, and a list of hex codes that were then retyped into the source assembly code, typically introducing a minimum of two pixel errors per eight-by-eight graphic stamp.”

Although you can draw a line from Space Invaders to just about any game like this, Demon Attack combines that with elements of Galaga and Phoenix, with a beautiful look and superb gameplay all its own.

Pitfall! (Activision, April 1982)

A watershed moment in video game history, David Crane’s Pitfall! was one of the best games released for the 2600. As Pitfall Harry, your goal is to race through the jungle and collect 32 treasures—money bags, silver bars, gold bars, and diamond rings, worth from 2,000 to 5,000 points each. Jump and grab vines, and you soar over lakes, quicksand, and alligators, complete with a Tarzan-style “yell.” You can stumble on a rolling log or fall into a hole, both of which just dock you some points. Each time you fall into quicksand or a tar pit, drown in a lake, burn in a fire, or get eaten by an alligator or scorpion, you lose a life. When that happens, you start the next one by dropping from the trees on the left side of the screen to keep playing.

Pushing the joystick left or right makes Pitfall Harry run. He picks up treasure automatically. Holding the stick in either direction while pressing the button makes him jump, either over an obstacle or onto a swinging vine (running into the vine without jumping also works). Push down while swinging to let go of the vine. You also can push up or down to climb ladders.

In an incredible feat of programming, the game contains 255 screens, with the 32 treasures scattered throughout them. The world loops around once you reach the last screen. Although Adventure pioneered the multiroom map on the 2600, Pitfall! was a considerably larger design. Crane fit the game into the same 4KB ROM as Adventure. But rather than storing all 255 screens as part of the ROM—which wouldn’t have fit—Crane’s solution was not to store the world in ROM at all. Instead, the world is generated by code, the same way each time. This is similar to games like Rogue, but even in that case, the game generates the world and then stores it during play. Pitfall! generates each screen via an algorithm, using a counter that increments in a pseudorandom sequence that is nonetheless consistent and can be run forwards or backwards. The 8 bits of each number in the counter sequence define the way the board looks. Bits 0 through 2 are object patterns, bits 3 through 5 are ground patterns, bits 6 and 7 cover the trees, and bit 7 also affects the underground pattern. This way, the world is generated the same way each and every single time. When you leave one screen, you always end up on the same next screen.

“The game was a jewel, a perfect world incised in a mere [4KB] of code,” Nick Montfort wrote in 2001 in Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age, 1971-1984.

You get a total of three lives, and Crane points out in the manual that you need to use some of the underground passages (which skip three screens ahead instead of one) to complete the game on time. The inclusion of two on-screen levels—above ground and below ground, with ladders connecting them—makes the game an official platformer. And the game even gives you some say in where to go and what path you take to get there. Pitfall Harry is smoothly animated, and the vines deliver a genuine sensation of swinging even though the game is in 2D.

The game’s 20-minute timer, which approximates the 22-minute length of a standard half-hour television show, marked a milestone for console play. It was much longer than most arcade games and even cartridges like Adventure, which you could complete in a few minutes. The extra length allows for more in-depth play.

“Games in the early ’80s primarily used inanimate objects as main characters,” Crane said in a 2011 interview. “Rarely there would be a person, but even those weren’t fully articulated. I wanted to make a game character that could run, jump, climb, and otherwise interact with an on-screen world.” Crane spent the next couple of years tinkering with the idea before finally coming up with Pitfall!. “[After] only about 10 minutes I had a sketch of a man running on a path through the jungle collecting treasures. Then, after ‘only’ 1,000 hours of pixel drawing and programming, Pitfall Harry came to life.”

Crane said he had already gone beyond that 4KB ROM limit and back within it many times over hundreds of hours. Right before release, he was asked to add additional lives. “Now I had to add a display to show your number of lives remaining, and I had to bring in a new character when a new life was used.” The latter was easy, Crane said, because Pitfall Harry already knew how to fall and stop when he hit the ground. Crane just dropped him from behind the tree cover. “For the ‘Lives’ indicator I added vertical tally marks to the timer display. That probably only cost 24 bytes, and with another 20 hours of ‘scrunching’ the code I could fit that in.”

Pitfall! couldn’t have been timed more perfectly, as Raiders of the Lost Ark was the prior year’s biggest movie. The cartridge delivered the goods; it became the best-selling home video game of 1982 and it’s often credited as the game that kickstarted the platformer genre. Pitfall! held the top spot on Billboard’s chart for 64 consecutive weeks. “The fine graphic sense of the Activision design team greatly enriches the Pitfall! experience,” Electronic Games magazine wrote in January 1983, on bestowing the cartridge Best Adventure Videogame. “This is as richly complex a video game as you’ll find anywhere…Watching Harry swing across a quicksand pit on a slender vine while crocodiles snap their jaws frantically in a futile effort to tear off a little leg-of-hero snack is what video game adventures are all about.” Pitfall!’s influence is impossible to overstate. From Super Mario Bros. to Prince of Persia to Tomb Raider, it was the start of something huge.

Singapore-based game studio Mighty Bear raises $2.5M ahead of debut release

Mighty Bear, a game studio startup that grew out of King.com’s former office in Singapore, has landed new funding as it readies its debut title for smartphones.

The startup was founded by four former King.com staffers — Simon Davis, Fadzuli Said, Benjamin Chevalier and Saurabh Shukul — after the gaming giant closed its Singapore office — inherited via the acquisition of Non Stop Games — following its $5.9 billion acquisition by Activision. Today, Mighty Bear’s team of 18 counts experience working with Ubisoft, EA, Lucasarts, Disney, Gameloft and others.

The startup previously raised $775,000 in a pre-seed round in early 2017, and this time around it has pulled in a seven-figure USD investment. The deal is officially undisclosed, but a source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch it is worth around $2.5 million.

The deal was led by U.S.-based Skycatcher, New York hedge fund banker Eric Mindich’s Everblue fund, and M Ventures from Los Angeles. Others in the round include Singapore’s Atlas Ventures, Lev Leviev — who is co-founder of VK.com among other things — and existing backer Global Founders Capital, which is affiliated with Rocket Internet.

“We’ve already got a good set of investors from Europe and Asia so we realized we needed networks in North America, too,” Mighty Bear CEO Simon Davis told TechCrunch in an interview.

Davis added that, beyond extending their reach for purposes like hiring, partnerships and more, they open up the potential for IP and media deals further down the road.

First thing first though: Mighty Bear is working to launch its first title, which Davis said will be an MMORPG. Right now, it is being secretly tested for scalability and technical capabilities among users in India and the Philippines with a view to a full launch on iOS and Android later this year. Davis said the company plans to launch another title, too, with both games managed concurrently.

“We’ve basically taken a genre that we know is monetized and engaged with hardcore users and tried to bring it to a large audience. Our goal is to take big desktop experiences and streamline them into five-minute bursts,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

You may not know it, but you may have run into Mighty Bear’s concepts already even though it hasn’t fully launched a title yet. That’s because part of the research and development process includes creating and disseminating videos and advertising for mock games through channels like Facebook.

That, Davis explained, can help Mighty Bear in all manner of ways, from basics such as figuring out what kind of visuals or advertising approach gets engagement from users, to broader purposes such as understanding the types of games that people want to play.

“The process helps witter down ideas to those that will get traction with users. If a game makes it through the various internal gates we have, and to soft launch, then we have the best potential for it to perform well,” Davis said.

Developing artwork and advertising for ‘fake’ games isn’t as obscure as it may sound. While it isn’t usual for smaller studios, it’s a practice that Davis said is common at huge game development companies — that in turn is a reflection in the experience that the team at Mighty Bear has under its belt.

Facebook launches gameshows platform with interactive video

Rather than build its own HQ trivia competitor, Facebook is launching a gameshow platform. Today the company announced a new set of interactive live and on-demand video features that let creators add quizzes, polls, challenges and gamification so players can be eliminated from a game for a wrong answer. The features could help Facebook achieve its new mission to push healthier active video consumption rather than passive zombie watching that hurts people’s well-being. Creators and publishers who want early access can sign up here.

Gameshow launch partners include Fresno’s What’s In The Box, where viewers guess what’s inside, and BuzzFeed News’ Outside Your Bubble, where contestants have to guess what their opponents are thinking. Plus, Facebook is testing the ability to award prize money with (Business) INSIDER’s Confetti, where viewers answer trivia questions and can see friends’ responses, with winners splitting the cash.

“Video is evolving away from just passive consumption to more interactive two-way formats,” Facebook’s VP of video product Fidji Simo tells TechCrunch. “We think creators will want to reward people. If this is something that works with Insider and Confetti, we may consider rolling out payments tools.”

When asked if Facebook was inspired by HQ, Simo repeatedly dodged the question and avoided mentioning the startup’s name, but relented in saying, “I think they’re part of a much broader trend that is making content interactive. We’ve seen that across much more than one player.”

Facebook won’t be taking a share of the prize money in this test. For now, it’s also forgoing its cut of its $4.99 per month subscriptions option that lets fans pay for exclusive content, which rolls out today to more creators. Facebook also just launched its Brand Collabs Manager that we scooped in May, which helps brands browse creators by demographic and portfolio so they can set up sponsored content and product placement deals.

Initially Facebook is not taking a cut there either. For all three of these features, though, Simo says “that doesn’t mean we never will.” Creators can sign up for these monetization options here.

The new interactive video features will be available to all publishers and creators, alongside the global launch of the Android version of Facebook’s Creator app for web celebs. The tools range from offering basic in-video polls to creating a full trivia gameshow. Creators will be able to write out their trivia questions and designate correct answers, as well as “write down the logic of the game,” says Simo.

While polls will work for Live and on-demand videos, gamification that impacts the outcome of the broadcast is only for Live. Brent Rivera and That Chick Angel are two creators who will be testing the features in the coming weeks. Facebook already found that fans enjoyed polling on its Watch show Help Us Get Married, which let viewers influence the wedding planning decisions about themes and the venue.

Facebook’s last attempt at original video, its Watch hub, saw mediocre adoption as the content felt also-ran rather than something special or must-see. That’s why Facebook is expanding Watch to offer a broader range of shows for more creators, including potentially longer or non-episodic content. That includes bringing Facebook videos originally only hosted on Pages into the Watch destination.

Facebook’s family of apps will get another chance at an original video home run when Instagram launches its long-form video hub tomorrow, according to TechCrunch’s sources.

What we’re seeing here is positioning that diverges Facebook and Instagram’s video efforts. Facebook’s might be more interactive, about playing and watching with friends, and embrace more novel new formats like mobile gameshows. Instagram, with its history of polished photos, could house more traditional high-end entertainment content.

“We’re not trying to do one show or one trivia game. We’re trying to get every creator to create such gameplay. The beauty of the creators space is that they each have a unique audience,” Simo tells me. With 2.2 billion users, making an in-house one-size-fits-all game may have been impossible.

PUBG juggernaut hits 400 million users, and for a limited time, players can get the PC version for $19.99

Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, the progenitor and once-reigning champion of last-player-standing battle royale gaming that’s swept the video game world by storm, has hit over 400 million players globally across all platforms.

As a perk and potential sop to bring new players to its personal computing platform, PUBG is offering the full version of its full-throttle game for $19.99 — a 33.33 percent cut from the game’s regular price.

The offer includes classic maps Erangel and Miramar and the all-new Sanhok, launching on June 22, according to a statement from the company.

PUBG has already moved 50 million units of its game across PC and Xbox One consoles and has hit 87 million daily players. Roughly 227 million players engage in PUBG’s particular murder-death-kill competition every month.

“We are genuinely humbled by the ongoing success and growth of PUBG,” said CH Kim, CEO, PUBG Corp. “We are not resting on our laurels though, as we continue to focus on performance and content updates for current players to enjoy, and look to our future as we aspire to deliver the signature PUBG experience to fans worldwide.”

While PUBG’s rise has been swift, hitting the 400 million figure in a little over six months since its worldwide release (and over 15 months since its early access release), the game’s publisher has been beset with competitors nipping at its heels.

Already, the game has been toppled from the top slot by the new player on the battle royale block — Fortnite.

In April alone, Fortnite pulled in $296 million for its own last-avatar-standing game — and the game’s popularity likely will only grow once the title takes its bow on the Android gaming platform later this month.

PUBG, the company, and its parent company, Bluehole, aren’t taking the competition lying down. They’ve taken Fortnite’s creators to court, filing a suit against Epic Games over copyright infringement concerns. As we reported earlier, the South Korean suit, noted by The Korea Times, takes particular issue with Fortnite’s battle royale mode.

PUBG leadership declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Twitch now lets streamers use multiple Extensions at once

Last year, Twitch announced a suite of tools called Extensions, that allow streamers to customize their channel pages with interactive features, including polls, leaderboards, schedules and more. Today, Twitch is making Extensions even more useful by allowing streamers to run up to three of these overlays at the same time on their video, plus three more below the video player, for a total of six that can be active on their channel at any time.

This update, Twitch says, will allow streamers to better customize their channels in unique ways, while engaging and retaining their fans.

To enable multiple Extensions, streamers will visit their channel dashboard’s redesigned Extensions Manager, where Extensions can now be sorted by category, like Extensions for Games, Music, Streamer Tools, and others. There’s also a “Partner Picks” section here which is where top creators are sharing their favorites.

Alongside the launch, a number of developers have released new and updated Extensions that are designed to work with one another. However, Twitch does note that there will be some exceptions based on the area needed to display the Extension itself. That is, you can’t put overlays on top of one another.

In addition to the better customization options, there’s another reason why streamers may be interested in adding multiple Extensions: monetization.

In April, Twitch introduced a new revenue stream for creators and developers alike with the launch of Bits in Extensions. This allows developers to customize their Extensions with other interactive experiences they can charge for using Bits. That allows viewers to pay using Twitch’s virtual currency to unlock the features, and the streamer gets a portion of the revenue for hosting the Extension on their channel.

By combining multiple Extensions that use Bits on their channel pages, streams and developers will be able to generate additional revenue thanks to this expansion.

Twitch says there are over 250 Extensions live today, over 30 of which can be combined with others, and 35 that offer paid experiences via Bits. There are thousands of Extensions in development, as well.

All channels will be able to use the new customization options starting today.

‘Gaming disorder’ is officially recognized by the World Health Organization

Honestly, “gaming disorder” sounds like a phrase tossed around by irritated parents and significant others. After much back and forth, however, the term was just granted validity, as the World Health Organization opted to include it in the latest edition of its Internal Classification of Diseases.

The volume, out this week, diagnoses the newly minted disorder with three key telltale signs:

  1. Impaired control over gaming (e.g. onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context)
  2. Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities
  3. Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences

I can hear the collective sound of many of my friends gulping at the sound of eerily familiar symptoms. Of course, the disorder has been criticized from a number of corners, including health professionals who have written it off as being overly broad and subjective. And, of course, the potential impact greatly differs from person to person and game to game.

The effects as specified above share common ground with other similar addictive activities defined by the WHO, including gambling disorder:

“Disorders due to addictive behaviours are recognizable and clinically significant syndromes associated with distress or interference with personal functions that develop as a result of repetitive rewarding behaviours other than the use of dependence-producing substances,” writes the WHO. “Disorders due to addictive behaviors include gambling disorder and gaming disorder, which may involve both online and offline behaviour.”

In spite of what may appear to be universal symptoms, however, the organization is quick to note that the prevalence of gaming disorder, as defined by the WHO, is actually “very low.” WHO member Dr. Vladimir Poznyak tells CNN, “Millions of gamers around the world, even when it comes to the intense gaming, would never qualify as people suffering from gaming disorder.”

Bet money on yourself with Proveit, the 1-vs-1 trivia app

Pick a category, wager a few dollars and double your money in 60 seconds if you’re smarter and faster than your opponent. Proveit offers a fresh take on trivia and game show apps by letting you win or lose cash on quick 10-question, multiple choice quizzes. Sick of waiting to battle a million people on HQ for a chance at a fraction of the jackpot? Play one-on-one anytime you want or enter into scheduled tournaments with $1,000 or more in prize money, while Proveit takes around 10 percent to 15 percent of the stakes.

“I’d play Jeopardy all the time with my family and wondered ‘why can’t I do this for money?’ ” says co-founder Prem Thomas.

Remarkably, it’s all legal. The Proveit team spent two years getting approved as “skill-based gaming” that exempts it from some laws that have hindered fantasy sports betting apps. And for those at risk of addiction, Proveit offers players and their loved ones a way to cut them off.

The scrappy Florida-based startup has raised $2.3 million so far. With fun games and a snackable format, Proveit lets you enjoy the thrill of betting at a moment’s notice. That could make it a favorite amongst players and investors in a world of mobile games without consequences.

“I could spend $50 for a three-hour experience in a movie theater, or I could spend $2 to enter a Proveit Movies tournament that gives me the opportunity to compete for several thousand dollars in prize money,” says co-founder Nathan Lehoux. “That could pay for a lot of movies tickets!”

Proving it as outsiders

St. Petersburg, Fla. isn’t exactly known as an innovation hub. But outside Tampa Bay, far from the distractions, copycatting and astronomical rent of Silicon Valley, the founders of Proveit built something different. “What if people could play trivia for money just like fantasy sports?” Thomas asked his friend Lehoux.

That’s the same pitch that got me interested when Lehoux tracked me down at TechCrunch’s SXSW party earlier this year. Lehoux is a jolly, outgoing fella who became interested in startups while managing some angel investments for a family office. Thomas had worked in banking and health before starting a yoga-inspired sandals brand. Neither had computer science backgrounds, and they’d raised just a $300,000 seed round from childhood friend Hilt Tatum who’d co-founded beleaguered real money gambling site Absolute Poker.

Yet when he Lehoux thrust the Proveit app into my hand, even on a clogged mobile network at SXSW, it ran smoothly and I immediately felt the adrenaline rush of matching wits for money. They’d initially outsourced development to an NYC firm that burned much of their initial $300,000 seed funding without delivering. Luckily, the Ukrainian they’d hired to help review that shop’s code helped them spin up a whole team there that built an impressive v1 of Proveit.

Meanwhile, the founders worked with a gaming lawyer to secure approvals in 33 states including California, New York, and Texas. “This is a highly regulated and highly controversial space due to all the negative press that fantasy sports drummed up,” says Lehoux. “We talked to 100 banks and processors before finding one who’d work with us.”

Proveit founders (from left): Nathan Lehoux, Prem Thomas

Proveit was finally legal for the three-fourths of the U.S. population, and had a regulatory moat to deter competitors. To raise launch capital, the duo tapped their Florida connections to find John Morgan, a high-profile lawyer and medical marijuana advocate, who footed a $2 million angel round. A team of grad students in Tampa Bay was assembled to concoct the trivia questions, while a third-party AI company assists with weeding out fraud.

Proveit launched early this year, but beyond a SXSW promotion, it has stayed under the radar as it tinkers with tournaments and retention tactics. The app has now reached 80,000 registered users, 6,000 multi-deposit hardcore loyalists and has paid out $750,000 total. But watching HQ trivia climb to more than 1 million players per game has proven a bigger market for Proveit.

Quiz for cash

“We’re actually fans of HQ. We play. We think they’ve revolutionized the game show,” Lehoux tells me. “What we want to do is provide something very different. With HQ, you can’t pick your category. You can’t pick the time you want to play. We want to offer a much more customized experience.”

To play Proveit, you download its iOS-only app and fund your account with a buy-in of $20 to $100, earning more bonus cash with bigger packages (no minors allowed). Then you play a practice round to get the hang of it — something HQ sorely lacks. Once you’re ready, you pick from a list of game categories, each with a fixed wager of about $1 to $5 to play (choose your own bet is in the works). You can test your knowledge of superheroes, the ’90s, quotes, current events, rock ‘n roll, Seinfeld, tech and a rotating selection of other topics.

In each Proveit game you get 10 questions, 1 at a time, with up to 15 seconds to answer each. Most games are head-to-head, with options to be matched with a stranger, or a friend via phone contacts. You score more for quick answers, discouraging cheating via Google, and get penalized for errors. At the end, your score is tallied up and compared to your opponent, with the winner keeping both player’s wagers minus Proveit’s cut. In a minute or so, you could lose $3 or win $5.28. Afterwards you can demand a rematch, go double-or-nothing, head back to the category list or cash out if you have more than $20.

The speed element creates intense, white-knuckled urgency. You can get every question right and still lose if your opponent is faster. So instead of second-guessing until locking in your choice just before the buzzer like on HQ, where one error knocks you out, you race to convert your instincts into answers on Proveit. The near instant gratification of a win or humiliation of a defeat nudge you to play again rather than having to wait for tomorrow’s game.

Proveit will have to compete with free apps like Trivia Crack, prize games like student loan repayer Givling and virtual currency-based Fleetwit, and the juggernaut HQ.

“The large tournaments are the big draw,” Lehoux believes. Instead of playing one-on-one, you can register and ante up for a scheduled tournament where you compete in a single round against hundreds of players for a grand prize. Right now, the players with the top 20 percent of scores win at least their entry fee back or more, with a few geniuses collecting the cash of the rest of the losers.

Just like how DraftKings and FanDuel built their user base with big jackpot tournaments, Proveit hopes to do the same… then get people playing little one-on-one games in-between as they wait for their coffee or commute home from work.

Gaming or gambling?

Thankfully, Proveit understands just how addictive it can be. The startup offers a “self-exclusion” option. “If you feel that you need to take greater control of your life as it relates to skill-gaming,” users can email it to say they shouldn’t play any more, and it will freeze or close their account. Family members and others can also request you be frozen if you share a bank account, they’re your dependant, they’re obligated for your debts or you owe unpaid child support.

“We want Proveit to be a fun, intelligent entertainment option for our players. It’s impossible for us to know who might have an issue with real-money gaming,” Lehoux tells me. “Every responsible real-money game provides this type of option for its users.

That isn’t necessarily enough to thwart addiction, because dopamine can turn people into dopes. Just because the outcome is determined by your answers rather than someone else’s touchdown pass doesn’t change that.

Skill-based betting from home could be much more ripe for abuse than having to drag yourself to a casino, while giving people an excuse that they’re not gambling on chance. Zynga’s titles like Farmville have been turning people into micro-transaction zombies for a decade, and you can’t even win money from them. Simultaneously, sharks could study up on a category and let Proveit’s random matching deliver them willing rookies to strip cash from all day. “This is actually one of the few forms of entertainment that rewards players financially for using their brain,” Lehoux defends.

With so much content to consume and consequence-free games to play, there’s an edgy appeal to the danger of Proveit and apps like it. Its moral stance hinges on how much autonomy you think adults should be afforded. From Coca-Cola to Harley-Davidson to Caesar’s Palace, society has allowed businesses to profit off questionably safe products that some enjoy.

For better and worse, Proveit is one of the most exciting mobile games I’ve ever played.

Pokémon GO is finally going to let players trade Pokémon

Just shy of two years after launch, Pokémon GO is finally about to roll out one of its most notably absent features: Pokémon trading.

A staple of the series, trading lets players swap their Pokémon with another player in the never-ending quest to, well, catch ’em all.

The trading mechanics will be tied into a new Friend system; the Friend system will roll out later this week, with the trading mechanics going live “soon after” (though Niantic doesn’t want to get more specific than that, presumably in case something breaks).

Here’s how it all works:

    • To trade with someone, you must be their in-game friend *and* within 100 meters (~320 ft.) of them.
    • To become friends, you exchange your unique Trainer Codes.
    • Once friends, you’ll get in-game perks for playing together. Your Pokémon will get attack bonuses when battling gyms together, for example — and when you raid together, you’ll get extra Pokéballs.

    • The more you play together (raiding, battling gyms, etc), the higher your relationship level will be.
    • Certain Pokémon (Legendaries, Shinies and any Pokémon you don’t already have) are considered “special trades.” You can only make special trades with the players with whom you’ve reached the higher tiers of friendship. In other words, they mostly want you trading with the people you play with somewhat regularly — not rando spoofers selling Pokémon on eBay.
    • You can only make one special trade per day.
    • Trades cost stardust (the in-game resource otherwise required for powering up a Pokémon). The rarer the Pokémon, the more it’ll cost to trade. Having a higher friendship level, though, will offset that a bit (note in the example below, for instance, how it starts at a rather insane requirement of a million stardust and drops down to a more manageable 40,000 as the friendship level, shown in the upper right, increases).

Meanwhile, they’ve also introduced another entirely new concept as part of the friend system: Gifts. Every once in a while, spinning a Pokéstop will give you a “Gift” item. You can’t open it yourself — instead, you’re meant to send it to a friend for them to open. It’ll arrive marked with a photo of the stop where you picked it up — a little Pokéstop post card, of sorts, bundled with a handful of “helpful items.” Niantic doesn’t say exactly what those “helpful items” might be, though they do note that they could include eggs containing Alolan Pokémon (which, for the most part, haven’t been made available in-game yet).

While the trading/friend system might seem a bit complicated, with its stardust requirements and daily limits and friendship requirements, it theoretically helps limit some issues that a free-for-all trade system might face. It’s easy to imagine someone spoofing back and forth around the world to farm rare Pokémon as they pop up, slinging them on eBay (or wherever) for a few bucks a pop, and just spoofing to an agreed location to initiate a trade. Requiring players to have some history of playing/raiding/battling gyms together before they can trade the good stuff makes that a bit more challenging.

Reflections on E3 2018

After taking a year off, I returned to E3 this week. It’s always a fun show, in spite of the fact that the show floor has come to rival Comic-Con in terms of the mass of people the show’s organizers are able to cram into the aisles of the convention center floor.

We’ve been filing stories all week, but here is a very much incomplete collection of my thoughts on this year’s show.

Zombies are still very much a thing

I’d have thought we’d have hit peak zombie years ago, but here we are, zombies everywhere. That includes the LA Convention Center lobby, which was swarming with actors decked out as the undead. There’s something fundamentally disturbing about watching gamers get pictures taken with fake, bloody corpses. Or maybe it’s just the perfect allegory for our time.

Nintendo’s back

A slight adjustment in approach certainly played a role, as the company has embraced mobile gaming. But the key to Nintendo’s return was a refocus on what it does best: offering an innovative experience with familiar IP. Oh, and the GameCube controller Smash Bros. compatibility was a brilliant bit of fan service, even by Nintendo’s standards.

Quantity versus quality?

Microsoft’s event was a sort of video game blitzkrieg. The company showed off 50 titles, a list that included 15 exclusives. Sony, on the other hand, stuck to a handful, but presented them in much greater depth. Ultimately, I have to say I preferred the latter. Real game play footage feels like an extremely finite resource at these events.

Ultra violence in ultra high-def

Certainly not a new trend in gaming, but there’s something about watching someone bite off someone else’s face on the big screen that’s extra upsetting. Sony’s press conference was a strange sort of poetry, with some of the week’s most stunning imagery knee-deep in blood and gore.

Reedus ’n fetus

We saw more footage and somehow we understand the game less?

Checkmate

Indiecade is always a favorite destination at E3. It’s a nice respite from the big three’s packed booths. Interestingly, there were a lot more desktop games than I remember. You know, the real kind with physical pieces and no screens.

Death of a Tomb Raider

I played Shadow of the Tomb Raider on a PC in NVIDIA’s meeting space. It’s good, but I’m not good at it. I killed poor Lara A LOT. I can deal with that sort of thing when my character is in full Master Chief regalia or whatever, but those close-up shots of her face when I drowned her for the fifth time kind of bummed me out. Can video games help foster empathy or are we all just destined to desensitize ourselves because we have tombs to raid, damn it?

I saw the light

NVIDIA also promised me that its ray-tracing tech would be the most impressive demo I saw at E3 that day. I think they were probably right, so take that, Sonic Racing. The tech, which was first demoed at GDC, “brings real-time, cinematic-quality rendering to content creators and game developers.”

VR’s still waiting in the wings

At E3 two years ago, gaming felt like an industry on the cusp of a VR breakthrough. In 2018, however, it doesn’t feel any closer. There were a handful of compelling new VR experiences at the event, but it felt like many of the peripheral and other experiences were sitting on the fringes of the event — both literally and metaphorically — waiting for a crack at the big show.

Remote Control

Sony’s Control trailer was the highest ratio of excitement to actual information I experienced. Maybe it’s Inception the video game or the second coming of Quantum Break. I dunno, looks fun.

AR’s a thing, but not, like, an E3 thing

We saw a few interesting examples of this, including the weirdly wonderful TendAR, which requires you to make a bunch of faces so a fake fish doesn’t die. It’s kind of like version of Seaman that feeds on your own psychic energy. At the end of the day, though, E3 isn’t a mobile show.

Cross-platform

Having said that, there are some interesting examples of cross-platform potential popping up here and there. The $50 Poké Ball Plus for the Switch is a good example I’m surprised hasn’t been talked about more. Along with controlling the new Switch titles, it can be used to capture Pokémon via Pokémon GO. There’s some good brand synergy right there. And then, of course, there’s Fortnite, which is also on the Switch. The game’s battle royale mode is a great example of how cross-platform play can lead to massive success. Though by all accounts, Sony doesn’t really want to play ball.

V-Bucks

Oh, Epic Games has more money than God now.

Moebius strip

Video games are art. You knew that already, blah, blah, blah. But Sable looks like a freaking Moebius comic come to life. I worry that it will be about as playable as Dragon’s Lair, but even that trailer is a remarkable thing.