Monthly Archives: November 2018

Valve is discontinuing the Steam Link, at least the hardware part

Valve has quietly updated the Steam page for the Steam Link. The message says that Valve is discontinuing the Steam Link. The device will become unavailable once all units have been sold.

When Valve introduced the Steam Link in 2015, your TV setup was completely different. Google, Amazon and Apple just released Android TV, the Fire TV and tvOS. Smart TVs weren’t so smart. In other words, you had no way to install an app and run it on your TV.

The Steam Link was a tiny box with an HDMI port, USB ports, an Ethernet port, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and more. It could only do one thing — you could connect the Steam Link to a Steam client running on a powerful computer and play games on a different screen. Even before the Nintendo Switch, companies were thinking about ways to play the same game in multiple ways.

And if you were wondering why the Steam Link has yet to receive an update, you now have the answer. The company is switching to a software strategy.

“The supply of physical Steam Link hardware devices is sold out. Moving forward, Valve intends to continue supporting the existing Steam Link hardware as well as distribution of the software versions of Steam Link, available for many leading smart phones, tablets and televisions,” the company says on the store page.

You can still find devices on third-party retailers, but they’ll soon be all gone.

Going forward, you’ll be able to install the Steam Link app on your phone or Android TV device (including on the Fire TV if you side-load the app). You can then launch a Steam game on your PC and play it on your TV.

Unfortunately, Apple currently refuses to allow the Steam Link app on the App Store. I really hope that Apple is going to change its mind because it would be a pretty good gaming and entertainment system.

With investors knocking, PlayVS opens the door to a $30M Series B

PlayVS, the company bringing esports infrastructure to high schools across the country, has today announced the close of a $30.5 million Series B financing. The round was led by Elysian Park Ventures, the investment arm of the L.A. Dodgers, with participation from five existing investors, including New Enterprise Associates, Science Inc., Crosscut Ventures, Coatue Management and WndrCo.

New investors also joined in on the round, including Adidas (the company’s first esports investment), Samsung NEXT, Plexo Capital, as well as angel investors such as Sean “Diddy” Combs, David Drummond, DST Global partner Rahul Mehta, Michael Dubin and others.

It’s certainly worth noting that PlayVS raised a $15 million Series A just six short months ago. Founder and CEO Delane Parnell explained that this Series B was an opportunistic raise, as the company received a lot of inbound from investors to get a slice of the next round.

“This gives us much more stability and runway so that we can hire more senior employees and leadership,” said Parnell. “It also gives us a bit of a war chest to let the team go out and work their strategies.”

Alongside the raise, PlayVS also announced new game partnerships, bringing Rocket League and SMITE into the company’s portfolio. Rocket League and SMITE join League of Legends, which was added to the platform two months ago.

PlayVS launched early this year with a relatively novel approach to the esports world. Instead of focusing on the current esports space, PlayVS realized there was a huge opportunity to bring infrastructure to the esports landscape in high school. As more and more esports careers are created through investment by colleges (via scholarships) and esports orgs, PlayVS gives students a place to show off their skills and get in front of recruiters.

The first step in the process was establishing a partnership between PlayVS and the NHFS, which is essentially the NCAA of high school sports. Through that partnership, PlayVS handles team schedules, district league schedules, coaching clinics and referees, and sets up an in-person live spectator event for the State Championship at the end of the year.

Right now, the company is in the midst of its Season Zero, testing out the platform with a small number of states — Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — in preparation for the official Inaugural Season, which will begin in 2019. Today, PlayVS is adding Alabama (AHSAA), Mississippi (MISSHSAA) and parts of Texas (TCSAAL).

But the growth of the company is largely dependent on states and school districts, which is why PlayVS is announcing the launch of Club Leagues. Club Leagues is identical to the PlayVS sports league product, except there is no State Championship at the end. Still, students who do not yet have access to the official PlayVS sports league can create teams, join up and play matches.

Eventually, Parnell says, the company will phase out Club Leagues as soon as official sports leagues are available to those players.

Half-Life turns 20, and we all feel very old

The only thing that’s crazier than the fact that Half-Life was released exactly 20 years ago is that I wrote up its 10th anniversary on this very website… well, 10 years ago. We’ve both aged well, I like to think. But Half-Life has already left a legacy.

Half-Life was Valve’s first game, when they were a young game studio and not the giant gaming conglomerate we know them as today. The game was also a big risk — its narrative-heavy gameplay, including the now famous arrival-at-work intro sequence, was a departure from the generally simple shooters of the late ’90s.

At a time when most games were still level-based, Half-Life set forth a continuous (though still largely episodic) journey punctuated with setpiece encounters and more than a few terrifying moments. This story-centric, wide corridor approach would be immensely influential in game design, as would Half-Life’s scarily smart (for the time) enemy AI, particularly the soldiers sent to shut down the Black Mesa facility and everyone in it.

The tantalizing tastes of a larger story in which you were only one part — orchestrated by the still-mysterious G-Man — kept players on the hook through its expansions and eventually its masterful and sadly unfinished sequel.

The multiplayer, too, was a joy. I remember in particular long matches of robots versus scientists in Gasworks, and brutal close-quarters combat trying to escape the air raid in Crossfire. Then of course Team Fortress Classic and all that came after.

But it wasn’t just Half-Life itself that was influential. Valve’s success with this experiment drove it to make further forays into gaming infrastructure, leading to the creation of Steam — now, of course, the world’s leading PC gaming platform. Although there are arguments to be made now that Steam is stuck in the past in many ways, it’s hard to overestimate its effect on the gaming industry over the years.

I replayed the game a couple of years ago and it mostly holds up. The initial chapters are still compelling and creepy, and the action is still fun and frantic. The pacing isn’t so hot and of course the graphics aren’t so hot these days, and of course Xen is still a pain — but overall it’s easy to put yourself back in your ’90s shoes and remember how amazing this was back then.

If you’re thinking of replaying it, however, you might do yourself a favor and instead play Black Mesa, a full-on remake of the game with more modern graphics and a lot of quality of life changes. It’s still largely the same game, just not quite as 1998.

Microsoft could release a disc-less Xbox One

According to a new report from Thurott, Microsoft has been working on a new console in the Xbox One family. This cheaper model could play regular Xbox One games, but there would be no Blu-Ray drive.

This move would lower the price of the entry-level Xbox One. An Xbox One S officially starts at $299 but you can currently find it for around $250 on Amazon. The disc-less Xbox One could start at $199.

If you already have an Xbox One and physical games, you could imagine going to an official retailer to trade your discs for a digital download code. Let’s hope that this new Xbox comes with a big hard drive for those who have a slow internet connection.

Back when Microsoft first unveiled the Xbox One in 2013, the company wanted to make a big push toward digital games. The original plan was that you would associate your physical games with your Xbox account. After that, you could play the game even without inserting the disc. Microsoft also planned a way to lend a digital game to a friend for 30 days.

After some backlash, Microsoft gave up on this plan and switched back to a more traditional system. But it’s been five years, digital games are more popular than ever and internet connections are faster than ever.

Microsoft also thinks the future of games is based on subscriptions. With the Xbox Game Pass, you can access dozens of games for $10 per month. You can also subscribe to EA Access on the Xbox One. Eventually, you could imagine replacing the Xbox altogether with a subscription for a streaming service. But we’re not there yet.

According to Thurott, Microsoft is also working on an updated Xbox One S that could be a bit cheaper. This one would have a traditional disc drive.

Blockchain gaming gets a boost with Mythical Games’ $16M Series A

Fortnite, the free multi-player survival game, has earned an astonishing $1 billion from in-game virtual purchases alone. Now, others in the gaming industry are experimenting with how they too can capitalize on new trends in gaming.

Mythical Games, a startup out of stealth today with $16 million in Series A funding, is embracing a future in gaming where user-generated content and intimate ties between players, content creators, brands and developers is the norm. Mythical is using its infusion of venture capital to develop a line of PC, mobile and console games on the EOSIO blockchain, which will also be open to developers to build games with “player-owned economies.”

The company says an announcement regarding its initial lineup of games is on the way.

Mythical is led by a group of gaming industry veterans. Its chief executive officer is John Linden, a former studio head at Activision and president of the Niantic-acquired Seismic Games. The rest of its C-suite includes chief compliance officer Jamie Jackson, another former studio head at Activision; chief product officer Stephan Cunningham, a former director of product management at Yahoo; and head of blockchain Rudy Kock, a former senior producer at Blizzard — the Activision subsidiary known for World of Warcraft. Together, the team has worked on games including Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, Marvel Strike Force and Skylanders.

Galaxy Digital’s EOS VC Fund has led the round for Mythical. The $325 million fund, launched earlier this year, is focused on expanding the EOSIO ecosystem via strategic investments in startups building on EOSIO blockchain software. Javelin Venture Partners, Divergence Digital Currency, cryptocurrency exchange OKCoin and others also participated in the round.

It’s no surprise investors are getting excited about the booming gaming business given the success of Epic Games, Twitch, Discord and others in the space.

Epic Games raised a $1.25 billion round late last month thanks to the cultural phenomenon that its game, Fortnite, has become. KKR, Iconiq Capital, Smash Ventures,Vulcan Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Lightspeed Venture Partners and others participated in that round. Discord, a chat application for gamers, raised a $50 million financing in April at a $1.65 billion valuation from Benchmark Capital, Greylock Partners, IVP, Spark Capital and Tencent. And Dapper Labs, best known for the blockchain-based game CryptoKitties, even raised a VC round this year — a $15 million financing led by Venrock, with participation from GV and Samsung NEXT.

In total, VCs have invested $1.8 billion in gaming startups this year, per PitchBook.

E3 slouches towards irrelevance again as Sony announces it’s skipping the show

I like E3. I really do. But it’s also monumentally dumb: game companies spending millions to show off essentially faked content to an increasingly jaded audience. And it’s increasingly out of step with how the gaming industry works. So it should come as no surprise that Sony will be skipping the show more or less altogether this year, joining Nintendo in taking a step back from spectacle.

Sony has been a part of E3 for 20 years and this will be the first one it’s ever missed. I’ve gone to their events every time I’ve attended; I was there for their historic putdown of Microsoft after the latter announced some hugely unpopular restrictions on used games. I think you can actually see me near the front in the broadcast of that one. (You can! I’m at 1:29.)

And E3 has been a part of Sony’s yearly cadence as well. Like other companies, for years Sony hoarded information to debut at E3, TGS and Gamescom, but E3 was generally where you saw new consoles and flagship titles debut. But as even E3’s organizers have admitted over and over again, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Too often we have seen half-finished games onstage at E3 that end up cancelled before the year is out, or commitments made to dates the companies can’t possibly keep. Assigning a complex, creative industry to a yearly schedule of major announcements is a great way to burn them out, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

Variety first noticed Sony’s absence from ESA communications. In a statement issued to multiple outlets, Sony said:

As the industry evolves, Sony Interactive Entertainment continues to look for inventive opportunities to engage the community. PlayStation fans mean the world to us and we always want to innovate, think differently and experiment with new ways to delight gamers. As a result, we have decided not to participate in E3 in 2019. We are exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019 and can’t wait to share our plans with you.

They won’t be alone. Nintendo hasn’t had a real proper E3 press conference in years. Instead, they host a live stream around the event and have a big booth where people mainly just play games. Their Nintendo Direct videos come out throughout the year, when the titles and developers are good and ready.

Microsoft is still there, and still puts on quite a show. I remember the original announcement of the Kinect, probably one of the weirdest and dumbest things I’ve ever taken part in. It was memorable, at least.

But Microsoft is also doing its own thing, announcing throughout the year and on its own terms. The Xbox One X was only hinted at during E3, and announced in full much later. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft also announced they were taking it easy this year at E3 — though this might also be a good opportunity for them to double down. With the schedules these huge shows go on, they might already be committed to one course or another.

Sony actually has its own PlayStation Experience event where it announces things and lets gamers and press play the latest, but even that was cancelled ahead of its expected December date. Is Sony just getting shy?

More likely they are leveraging their dominance in the console market to be a market leader and “decider,” as they say. They have no shortage of amazing games coming out, including lots of hot-looking exclusives. What have they got to prove? Although Sony itself is not participating in E3, the developers it backs will almost certainly be there. What better way to school the competition than to not show up and still have everyone talking about you?

With the PS4 Pro out there and a solid line-up already confirmed, Sony is sitting pretty for 2019, and the company probably feels this is a safe time to experiment with “inventive opportunities to engage the community,” as the statement put it. E3 will still be big, and it will still be fun. But the trend is clear: it just won’t be necessary.

Bunch scores $3.8M to turn mobile games into video chat LAN parties

The best parts of gaming are the jokes and trash talk with friends. Whether it was four-player Goldeneye or linking up PCs for Quake battles in the basement, the social element keeps video games exciting. Yet on mobile we’ve lost a lot of that, playing silently by ourselves even if we’re in a squad with friends somewhere else. Bunch wants to bring the laughter back to mobile gaming by letting you sync up with friends and video chat while you play. It already works with hits like Fortnite and Roblox, and developers of titles like Spaceteam are integrating Bunch’s SDK to inspire longer game sessions.

Bunch is like Discord for mobile, and the chance to challenge that gaming social network unicorn has attracted a $3.8 million seed round led by London Venture Partners and joined by Founders Fund, Betaworks, Shrug Capital, North Zone, Streamlined Ventures, 500 Startups and more. With Bunch already cracking the top 100 social iOS app chart, it’s planning a launch on Android. The cash will go to adding features like meeting new people to game with or sharing replays, plus ramping up user acquisition and developer partnerships.

“I and my co-founders grew up with LAN parties, playing games like Starcraft and Counter Strike — where a lot of the fun is the live banter you have with friends,” Bunch co-founder and CEO Selcuk Atli tells me. “We wanted to bring this kind of experience to mobile; where players could play with friends anytime, anywhere.” 

Bunch team

Atli was a venture partner at 500 Startups after co-founding and selling two adtech companies: Manifest Commerce to Rakuten, and Boostable to Metric Collective. But before he got into startups, he co-founded a gaming magazine called Aftercala in Turkey at age 12, editing writers twice his age because “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” he tells me. Atli teamed up with Google senior mobile developer Jason Liang and a senior developer from startups like MUSE and Mox named Jordan Howlett to create Bunch.

Over a year ago, we built our first prototype. The moment we tried it ourselves, we saw it was nothing like what we’ve experienced on our phones before,” Atli tells me. The team raised a $500,000 pre-seed round and launched its app in March. “Popular mobile games are becoming live, and live games are coming to mobile devices,” says David Lau-Kee, general partner at London Venture Partners. “With this massive shift happening, players need better experiences to connect with friends and play together.”

When you log on to Bunch’s iOS app you’ll see which friends are online and what they’re playing, plus a selection of games you can fire up. Bunch overlays group voice or video chat on the screen so you can strategize or satirize with up to eight pals. And if developers build in Bunch’s SDK, they can do more advanced things with video chat, like pinning friends’ faces to their in-game characters. It’s a bit like OpenFeint or iOS Game Center mixed with Houseparty.

For now, Bunch isn’t monetizing, as it hopes to reach massive scale first, but Atli thinks they could sell expression tools like emotes, voice and video filters, and more. Growing large will require beating Discord at its own game. The social giant now has over 130 million users across PCs, consoles and mobile. But it’s also a bit too hardcore for some of today’s casual mobile gamers, requiring you to configure your own servers. “I find that execution speed will be most critical for our success or failure,” Atli says. Bunch’s sole focus on making mobile game chat as easy as possible could win it a mainstream audience seduced by Fortnite, HQ Trivia and other phenomena.

Research increasingly shows that online experiences can be isolating, and gaming is a big culprit. Hours spent playing alone can leave you feeling more exhausted than fulfilled. But through video chat, gaming can transcend the digital and become a new way to make memories with friends — no matter where they are.

Here’s the teaser trailer for Niantic’s Pokémon GO-style Harry Potter game

The good news: Niantic/WB Games/Portkey has released a trailer for “Wizards Unite,” the Harry Potter game built in the same spirit as Pokémon GO.

The bad news: It… doesn’t show much.

If you were hoping for gameplay footage or really anything detailing how the game will work, you’re out of luck. Alas! It’s just a teaser trailer, and tease it does.

The game’s newly expanded website, meanwhile, adds this:

Please resist the urge to panic. Traces of magic are appearing across the Muggle world without warning and in a rather chaotic manner. We worry it is only a matter of time before even the most incurious Muggles catch wind of it. We call on all witches and wizards to help contain the Calamity or risk the worst of times since You Know Who. Brush up on your spells, get your wand ready, and enlist immediately.

The one big new detail? The game’s launch timing. While Niantic was reportedly aiming for the end of 2018, this trailer puts it in no uncertain terms: it’ll land in 2019.

Wreck-It Ralph is getting a warehouse-sized VR experience at Disney parks

For the last year or so, Disney has been dabbling with massive virtual reality experiences that let players strap on a portable VR rig and run around in a warehouse-sized environment. In partnership with The VOID (part of Disney’s 2017 accelerator class) and Lucasfilm’s ILMxLab, it launched a Star Wars-themed experience, Secrets of the Empire, at both Downtown Disney (California) and Disney Springs (Florida) back in November of 2017.

The next Disney property getting the VR treatment? Wreck-It Ralph.

Here’s the trailer, released this morning:

Based on the upcoming movie sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” this one will be called, aptly, Ralph Breaks VR. Like Secrets before it, the Ralph experience will support four players running around a shared VR environment — but rather than dodging blaster fire and outsmarting stormtroopers, they’ll be having food fights with kittens and outrunning security drones.

While I’m mostly neutral on Ralph, I’m… pretty excited for this. Secrets of the Empire is one of the most ridiculous experiences I’ve ever had in virtual reality. It’s hard to say much without spoiling some of the moments, but my jaw was on the damned floor for half of the time. Alas, there wasn’t much time to speak of; the entire thing only lasts about 25 minutes — which, at $30 per person, felt way too short. Tickets for Ralph cost roughly the same; depending on location, it’ll be $30 or $33 per person.

A representative for Disney confirms that Secrets of the Empire is not going away. It’s an upside of taking place almost entirely in VR — retune the physical space to be a bit less Star Wars-y, schedule things just right, and you’re all set.

(Oh, and while details are light: after Ralph, they’re working on a Marvel-themed experience set to debut in 2019.)

Tickets for the Ralph experience are available starting next week. In addition to VOID’s Disneyland/Disneyworld locations, it’ll also be running at their Glendale, Calif. and Las Vegas spots.

Tencent returns to profit growth despite concern around games

Chinese internet giant Tencent bounced back from a disappointing previous quarter, but for once the company didn’t have its gaming business to thank.

Tencent may be best known for conjuring up WeChat, China’s most popular messaging platform, but its revenue is driven by its gaming business, which includes top smartphone titles and a thriving PC unit. Its Q3 results, announced today, however, saw its gaming income slacken and other units, including a booming advertising business, step up.

The firm posted a net profit of RMB 23.3 billion ($3.4 billion) on total revenue of RMB 80.6 billion ($11.7 billion), up 30 percent and 24 percent, respectively. Profit growth was back on track, mainly thanks to increased net gains from investments, including a blockbuster IPO of Meituan in September.

Advertising increased by 47 percent and generated 20 percent of total revenues, marking the first time that the segment has reached that mark. The jump is in part a result of strong ad revenue growth on Tencent’s two main chat apps, WeChat and QQ.

These changes are a sign that Tencent has begun to aggressively monetize its massive network of social networking users. As of September, Tencent had 1.08 billion monthly active users on WeChat worldwide, though the app’s spectacular growth has slowed to 2.3 percent quarter-to-quarter.

Tencent underwent an internal reorganization in October that saw it merge several business groups, which have resulted in a more unified system of advertising sales platforms, the company explained in today’s report.

“Our advertising, digital content, payment and cloud services sustained robust activity and revenue growth, and now account for the majority of our revenue,” chairman and CEO Pony Ma said in a statement.

In contrast, games, which have been Tencent’s major revenue driver for years, slid four percent this quarter due to a prolonged freeze on gaming licenses in China. The firm claims it has 15 games with monetization approval in its pipeline, which means that gaming revenues could rebound when it publishes those titles, although it said the same in the previous quarter, so a lack of progress is fairly ominous.

The firm also pointed out that while mobile games continued to fuel revenue growth, PC games suffered a decline.

When asked about the situation with gaming licenses on a call with investors, Tencent President Martin Lau said the company is “waiting for the government to start the approval process.”

Tencent appears to have found a potential interim solution, which involves allowing third-party publishers who secured a license before the freeze to publish games through its platform, but of course, that has limited use.

While games are the hot topic, Tencent was keen to push the story of its cloud computing business, which it said is a key to widening its focus into IOT and other areas.

Emboldened by the reorganization in October, which seemed aimed at shifting Tencent from a consumer-facing internet company into one that’s increasing serving industries, the firm said its cloud business more than doubled its revenue year-on-year. There was no raw revenue figure released for the quarter, but the company did disclose that the cloud unit has brought in more than RMB 6 billion, $860 million, over the last three quarters.

Furthermore, cloud computing and payment-related services helped its “Others” business increase its revenue 69 percent year-on-year to reach RMB 20.3 billion, $2.92 billion, for the quarter.