Tencent takes minority stake in French casual games maker Voodoo

Tencent just added another portfolio member to its expanding global gaming empire, this time, to up its game in mobile casual plays.

Voodoo, the French company behind a slew of popular casual games, announced Monday that Tencent has become a minority shareholder in its business valued at $1.4 billion.

The company did not disclose the funding amount, but Tencent has made offerings of all sizes, from big checks that bought it full control in studios like Riot Games to smaller deals in return for minority stakes in the likes of Epic Games.

Bloomberg reported in May that the French games company began to look for a potential stakeholder in a deal that could value the company at more than $1.6 billion. Goldman Sachs became Voodoo’s minority shareholder in 2018, and sources from Reuters put the funding amount at about $200 million.

The seven-year-old startup was co-founded by its current CEO Alexandre Yazdi and Laurent Ritter. Yazdi will remain the largest shareholder and together with the management will retain the control of the group, according to the company.

Voodoo has emerged as one of the world’s biggest publishers of ‘hyper-casual games’, titles that are built quickly, serve a single purpose and don’t obsess over the ‘glitz and glam’ of design, as we wrote before.

The company claims 3.7 billion downloads across its family of games like Helix Jump. Its reservoir of mini games is an ideal match to Tencent’s WeChat messenger, which itself runs a platform for light and simple games.

The other benefit of teaming up with Voodoo, as games analyst Daniel Ahmad pointed out, is that its ad-driven model means it has fewer regulatory hoops to jump in China compared to publishers monetizing through in-app purchases, which require a government license.

For Voodoo, the deal is clearly a gateway into the massive Asian gaming market. “We are thrilled to welcome Tencent, a company we admire for its leading game and consumer mobile apps. We look forward to developing new products together for the Asian market, and publishing games created by the many talented games studios in the region,” Yazdi said in a statement.

Tencent wants to merge China’s esports archrivals Douyu and Huya

The war between two of China’s largest esports companies may soon come to a truce at the will of their investor Tencent.

Tencent, the world’s biggest games publisher, announced late Monday a proposal to consolidate Douyu and Huya, the competing livestreaming sites focused on video games. Rather than paying in cash, the deal will see the pair enter a stock-for-stock merger.

The proposal is non-binding, but Tencent has paved the way for it to go through. In a separate deal, the entertainment giant agreed to pay Joyy, part-owner of Huya and the company behind TikTok’s serious rival Likee, $810 million in exchange for 30 million shares. Tencent will also buy 1 million shares from Huya CEO Dong Rongjie. Upon the transaction, Tencent will hold 51% of Huya’s shares and 70.4% of its voting rights.

Tencent is also the largest shareholder of Douyu with a 38% stake and voting power.

What this means is the esports platforms that have long fought neck and neck for audiences and livestreaming hosts may soon need to work together. That’s good news for investors who have been hemorrhaging cash.

NYSE-listed Huya has a current market cap of $5.27 billion and NASDAQ-traded Douyu is worth $4.44 billion, giving the duo a combined value of around $10 billion. The pair will together control over 300 million monthly esports users. By March, Douyu had 158 monthly active users and Huya claimed 151.3 MAUs, though there can be overlaps.

The question is who will be in charge of the consolidated behemoth. Could Mr. Dong be relinquishing control of Huya as he gives up a considerable amount of shares? Joyy already signaled its retreat in the first quarter when it stopped folding Huya’s operating results into its own report.

Ammo for Tencent

Industry observers believe the merger can significantly expand Tencent’s reach in the gaming supply chain. The company is the publisher behind blockbusters like the mobile versions of PUBG and Call of Duty, and the addition of a livestreaming empire will allow it to capture not just gamers but also the wider esports spectatorship.

It’s worth noting that Tencent has its own in-house ‘Penguin Esports‘ that’s a counterpart to Douyu and Huya. It’s not hard to imagine the three players integrating resources and generating synergies under Tencent’s oversight.

New challengers have sprung up in the field. While Douyu and Huya focused on esports from the outset, more general-purpose video services like Bilibili and Kuaishou have been luring legions of esports users in recent years. But lo and behold, Tencent is also an investor in Bilibili and Kuaishou.

Microsoft makes Teams video meetings less tiring with its new Together mode

Video meetings. While the move to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic may have made them mainstream, they are not without issues and more and more people are now opting out. For good reason. As it turns out, it’s really hard for our brains to sustain concentration while we’re trying to focus on 20 people in neat squares, all with different backgrounds and never quite looking at the camera. While we’ve had quite a bit of anecdotal evidence for this, Microsoft today released some of the research it did in this area, as well as new features in Teams that it hopes will make video meetings easier and less tiring.

The first of these is Together mode. The idea here is actually pretty simple. To be able to change backgrounds or add background blur, Teams already features Microsoft’s AI segmentation technology to detect and cut out a participant’s image from the background. Now, with Together Mode, it is taking everybody’s images and putting them into a shared space, starting with an auditorium. So instead of lots of little squares, all of the meeting participants now sit in this auditorium. This, Microsoft’s research shows, is actually quite a bit easier on the brain to process than standard remote collaboration tools.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“In our preliminary research — and it’s only been preliminary thus far, this has only been around for a couple of months — we’ve noticed quite a few things,” Microsoft’s Marissa Salazar explained to me ahead of today’s announcement. “First and foremost, you’ll notice the way that we’re looking at each other is obviously very different than something we’re used to, not only are we out of the grid, but we’re looking at this, ‘mirror image’ of ourselves.” This view of ourselves, Microsoft argues, is something we’re quite used to from being at the barbershop, for example, where we talk to the mirror. This also tricks our brain into mitigating some of the eye contact problems we’ve all experienced in video meetings.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“Our research has also shown that people tend to be happier, be more engaged in meetings, feel more comfortable keeping their camera on longer — even if they’re not asked to in this mode. And then — I think most importantly — be able to pick up on the behavioral social cues that are so important to human interaction,” said Salazar.

Michael Bohan, a director in Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group, noted that just removing the grid view already makes a major difference here. “When you have a grid view, everybody’s boxed off and so your brain has to treat those as individual parts — it has to parse all information. When you remove those edges, then your brain can start to see a more unified view of things.”

For now, Together Mode only features the auditorium view, which can handle up to 49 participants, but Microsoft is already working on other views, including a more intimate coffee shop mode.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The other new mode Microsoft is introducing is Dynamic view. The idea here is that Together Mode is obviously not perfect for every kind of meeting, so this view provides more control over how you see shared content and the other participants in a meeting, including the ability to see content and specific participants side-by-side.

Also new in this update are video filters, to tweak your lighting levels, for example, and soon, Teams will add live reactions, which let you share your sentiment with emojis without interrupting the meeting. Coming soon, too, are PowerPoint Live Presentations to Teams, chat bubbles so you don’t have to keep a separate chat view open, and speaker attribution and translation for live captions and transcripts. For chats in teams, Microsoft is introducing Gmail-like suggested replies.

But there is more. Teams will soon let you bring the whole company together, with meetings that can support up to 1,000 participants. For presentations, Teams will support up to 20,000 participants.

And since Cortana still lives, she is also now coming to the Teams mobile app to help you make calls, join meetings and more.

Microsoft also today reintroduced its dedicated Team Displays that it first announced at CES.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Another new feature Microsoft CVP Jared Spataro stressed when I talked to him ahead of today’s announcement was the new Reflect messaging extension. “This allows you to have a manager check in on the well-being of your team,” he explained. “You can do that anonymously or publicly. We’ve already been doing some of that on my team — just trying to check in with people — and this gives you a more structured way to do that. I think it’ll be really well-received based on what I’m talking about with customers because this well-being component is becoming very important.”

Image Credits: Microsoft

Global app revenue jumps to $50B in the first half of 2020, in part due to COVID-19 impacts

Consumer spending on mobile apps and app installs grew significantly during the first half of 2020, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data from Sensor Tower. In the first half of the year, consumers spent $50.1 billion worldwide across the App Store and Google Play — a figure that’s up 23.4% from the first half of 2019. Previously, revenue had grown 20% between the first half of 2018 and 2019, for comparison. In addition, first-time app installs were up 26.1% year-over-year in the first half of 2020 to reach 71.5 billion downloads.

Apple’s App Store accounted for 18.3 billion of those downloads, up 22.8% year-over-year, while Google Play delivered 53.2 billion new app installs, up 27.3%.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Though Google Play saw far more app installs, Apple’s App Store continued to outpace its rival on consumer spending.

During the first half of the year, the App Store generated $32.8 billion from in-app purchases, subscriptions, and premium apps and games, Sensor Tower estimates. This figure is up 24.7% year-over-year from the $26.3 billion spent during the first half of 2019. It’s also nearly twice the estimated gross revenue on Google Play, which was $17.3 billion, an increase of 21% year-over-year.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

The pandemic’s impacts are only somewhat reflected in the top-earning (non-game) apps of the first half of 2020. The biggest earner, for example, was Match’s online dating app Tinder — an app that, one would think, would have dropped out of the top 5 due to social distancing requirements.

During the first half of the year, Tinder generated an estimated $433 million in spending across both app stores, combined. However, this number does represent a decrease of about 19% from the first half of 2019, or $532 million. It’s unclear how much that decline is related to consumers’ changing behavior and spending habits during the pandemic. Though shelter-in-place orders and quarantines kept people indoors and social distancing, social networking apps — and particularly those focused on online communication — have boomed amid lockdowns.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Tinder embraced the growing interest in online networking by making its “Passport” feature free. This setting allows users to match with other singles around the world, turning Tinder into more of a social app than one focused on real-world dating. But this change could have also led to a decrease in Tinder’s total revenues for the first half of the year.

The No. 2 top grossing app during the first half of 2020 was YouTube, bringing in an estimated $431 million globally. This was followed by ByteDance’s TikTok with $421 million. The social video app, which includes Douyin in China, had also broken download records during the first half of the year, passing 2 billion total global downloads, Sensor Tower earlier reported.

Tencent Video and Netflix were the No. 4 and No. 5 top grossing apps, respectively.

Meanwhile, consumers stuck at home during the pandemic have been downloading apps and games in greater numbers. During the first half of the year, consumers installed 71.5 billion apps for the first time, up 26.1% from the first half of 2019.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

TikTok was the most-downloaded app in the first half of the year with 626 million downloads. But its position may look quite different in the second half of year, given the recent changes in India where the government has now banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok.

The No. 2 and No. 3 apps were WhatsApp and Zoom, respectively — the latter an indication of the rapid shift to work-from-home and consumers’ embrace of online video conferencing, in general. In addition to WhatsApp, Facebook snagged the No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6 positions in the top 10, with Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, in that order.

Snapchat’s social app was No. 7 and No. 8 was video app Likee, which is similar to TikTok but offers a variety of face effects and filters. Netflix and YouTube rounded out the top 10.

Mobile gaming also saw a boost during the pandemic, with game spending up 21.2% year-over-year to reach an estimated $36.6 billion during the first half of the year, Sensor Tower found. Spending on the App Store grew 22.7% year-over-year to reach $22.2 billion, while Google Play game spending grew 19% to reach $14.4 billion.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Tencent’s PUBG Mobile beat out Honor of Kings as the top-grossing game for the first half of the year. Tencent’s game, which includes its localized versions (Game for Peace and Peacekeeper Elite) generated $1.3 billion across both app stores, not including China’s third-party Android app stores. Honor of Kings, meanwhile, pulled in roughly $1 billion.

The remaining top 10 included, in order, Monster Strike ($632M), Roblox, Coin Master, Candy Crush Saga, AFK Arena, Gardenscapes, Fate/Grand Order, and Pokémon Go. The latter recently adapted to indoor gaming amid government lockdowns.

Roblox, in particular, has been surging due to the pandemic as kids stuck indoors have gone online to play and socialize with friends in its virtual environment. In June, Sensor Tower reported Roblox had surpassed a milestone of $1.5 billion in lifetime player spending, for instance. Coin Master, meanwhile, is approaching the $1 billion lifetime player milestone, the firm found.

In terms of top game installs, PUBG Mobile came out on top here as well, followed by another battle royale title, Garena Free Fire. Ruby Game Studio’s Hunter Assassin, Eyewind Limited’s Brain Out, and Playrix’s Gardenscapes — which many found to be a relaxing distraction during a stressful time — rounded out the top five.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Across all of the mobile gaming market, downloads grew 42.5% year-over-year to reach 28.5 billion first-time installs in the first half of 2020. Of those, Google Play downloads grew 46.2% year-over-year to 22.8 billion while App Store downloads grew 29.5% to 5.7 billion.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

 

COVID-19 impacts more apparent in Q2 

Indications of COVID-19’s impact on the app market can be found among the figures for the first half of the year — like the growth seen by Zoom or social gaming platforms like Roblox, for example. But a closer look at the second quarter of 2020 alone makes the COVID-19 impacts more apparent.

Sensor Tower’s initial projections show consumer spending on apps and games jumped 11% on a quarterly basis from Q1 to Q2, and grew 28.8% year-over-year to reach $26.4 billion worldwide. This is a sizable increase from the 1.4% growth between Q1 2019 and Q2 2019. Downloads were up 12% on a quarterly basis and up 31.7% year-over-year to reach 37.8 billion worldwide. Again, a large increase from the 2.5% growth between Q1 2019 and Q2 2020.

Kahoot raises $28M for its user-generated educational gaming platform, now valued at $1.4B

As schools stay closed and summer camp seems more like a germscape than an escape, students are staying at home for the foreseeable future and have shifted learning to their living rooms. Now, Norwegian educational gaming company Kahoot — the popular platform with 1.3 billion active users and over 100 million games (most created by users themselves) — has raised a new round of funding of $28 million to keep up with demand.

The Oslo-based startup, which started to list some of its shares on Oslo’s Merkur Market in October 2019, raised the $28 million in a private placement, and said it also raised a further $62 million in secondary shares. The new equity investment included participation from Northzone, an existing backer of the startup, and CEO Eilert Hanoa. While it’s not a traditional privately held startup in the traditional sense, at the market close today, the company’s valuation was $1.39 billion (or 13.389 billion Norwegian krone).

Existing investors in the company include Disney and Microsoft, and the company has raised $110 million to date.

Kahoot launched in 2013 and got its start and picked up most of its traction in the world of education through its use in schools, where teachers have leaned on it as a way to provide more engaging content to students to complement more traditional (and often drier) curriculum-based lessons. Alongside that, the company has developed a lucrative line of online training for enterprise users as well.

The global health pandemic has changed all of that for Kahoot, as it has for many other companies that built models based on classroom use. In the last few months, the company has boosted its content for home learning, finding an audience of users who are parents and employers looking for ways to keep students and employees more engaged.

The company says that in the last 12 months it had active users in 200 countries, with more than 50% of K-12 students using Kahoot in a school year in that footprint. On top of that, it is also used in some 87% of “top 500” universities around the world, and that 97% of Fortune 500 companies are also using it, although it doesn’t discuss what kind of penetration it has in that segment.

It seems that the coronavirus outbreak has not impacted business as much as it has in some sectors. According to the midyear report it released earlier this week, Q2 revenue is expected to be $9 million, 290% growth compared to last year and 40% growth compared to the previous quarter, and for the full year 2020, it expects revenue between $32 million and $38 million, with a full IPO expected for 2021.

As it has been doing even prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Kahoot has also continued to invest in inorganic growth to fuel its expansion. In May, it acquired math app maker DragonBox for $18 million in cash and shares. The company also runs an accelerator, Kahoot Ignite, to spur more development on its platform.

However, Hanoa said that Kahoot is shifting its focus to now also work with more mature edtech businesses.

“When we started out, we were primarily receiving requests on early stage products,” he said. “Now we have the opportunity to consider mature services for either integration or corporation. It’s a different focus.”

Update: A previous version of this story said that DragonBox was acquired in March. It was acquired in May. The story has been updated to reflect this change. 

FTC fines kids’ app developer HyperBeard $150K for use of third-party ad trackers

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today announced a settlement of $150,000 with HyperBeard, the developer of a collection of children’s mobile games over violations of U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA Rule). The company’s applications had been downloaded more than 50 million times on a worldwide basis to date, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

A complaint filed by the Dept. of Justice on behalf of the FTC alleged that HyperBeard had violated COPPA by allowing third-party ad networks to collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers to track users of the company’s child-directed apps. And it did so without notifying parents or obtaining verifiable parental consent, as is required. These ad networks then used the identifiers to target ads to children using HyperBeard’s games.

The company’s lineup included games like Axolochi, BunnyBuns, Chichens, Clawbert, Clawberta, KleptoCats, KleptoCats 2, KleptoDogs, MonkeyNauts and NomNoms (not to be confused with toy craze Num Noms).

The FTC determined HyperBeard’s apps were marketed toward children because they used brightly colored, animated characters like cats, dogs, bunnies, chicks, monkeys and other cartoon characters, and were described in child-friendly terms like “super cute” and “silly.” The company also marketed its apps on a kids’ entertainment website, YayOMG, published children’s books and licensed other products, including stuffed animals and block construction sets, based on its app characters.

Unbelievably, the company would post disclaimers to its marketing materials that these apps were not meant for children under 13.

Above: A disclaimer on the NomNoms game website. 

In HyperBeard’s settlement with the FTC, the company has agreed to pay a $150,000 fine and delete the personal information it illegally collected from children under the age of 13. The settlement had originally included a $4 million penalty, but the FTC suspended it over HyperBeard’s inability to pay the full amount. But that larger amount will become due if the company or its CEO, Alexander Kozachenko, are ever found to have misrepresented their finances.

HyperBeard is not the first tech company to be charged with COPPA violations. Two high-profile examples preceding it were YouTube and Musical.ly (TikTok)’s settlements of $170 million and $5.7 million, respectively, both in 2019. By comparison, HyperBeard’s fine seems minimal. However, its case is different from either video platform as the company itself was not handling the data collection — it was permitting ad networks to do so.

The complaint explained that HyperBeard let third-party advertising networks serve ads and collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers, in order to serve behavioral ads — meaning, targeted ads based on users’ activity over time and across sites.

This requires parental consent, but companies have skirted this rule for years — or outright ignored it, like YouTube did.

The ad networks used in HyperBeard’s apps included AdColony, AdMob, AppLovin, Facebook Audience Network, Fyber, IronSource, Kiip, TapCore, TapJoy, Vungle and UnityAds. Despite being notified of the issue by watchdogs and the FTC, HyperBeard didn’t alert any of the ad networks that its apps were directed towards kids, not to make changes.

The issues around the invasiveness of third-party ad networks and trackers — and their questionable data collection practices — have come in the spotlight thanks to in-depth reporting about app privacy issues, various privacy experiments, petitions against their use and, more recently, as a counter-argument to Apple’s marketing of its iPhone as a privacy-conscious device.

Last year, these complaints finally led Apple to ban the use of third-party networks and trackers in any iOS apps aimed at kids.

HyperBeard’s install base was below 50 million at the time of the settlement, we understand. According to Sensor Tower, around 12 million of HyperBeard’s installs to date have come from its most popular title, Adorable Home, which only launched in January 2020. U.S. consumers so far have accounted for about 18% of the company’s total installs to date, followed by the Chinese App Store at 14%. So far, in 2020, Vietnam has emerged as leading the market with close to 24% of all installs since January, while the U.S. dropped to No. 7 overall, with a 7% share.

The FTC’s action against HyperBeard should serve as a warning to other app developers that simply saying an app is not meant for kids doesn’t exempt them from following COPPA guidelines, when it’s clear the app is targeting kids. In addition, app makers can and will be held liable for the data collection practices of third-party ad networks, even if the app itself isn’t storing kids’ personal data on its own servers.

“If your app or website is directed to kids, you’ve got to make sure parents are in the loop before you collect children’s personal information,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement about the settlement. “This includes allowing someone else, such as an ad network, to collect persistent identifiers, like advertising IDs or cookies, in order to serve behavioral advertising,” he said.

Kids now spend nearly as much time watching TikTok as YouTube in U.S., U.K. and Spain

A new study on kids’ app usage and habits indicates a major threat to YouTube’s dominance, as kids now split their time between Google’s online video platform and other apps, like TikTok, Netflix, and mobile games like Roblox. Kids ages 4 to 15 now spend an average of 85 minutes per day watching YouTube videos, compared with 80 minutes per day spent on TikTok. The latter app also drove growth in kids’ social app use by 100% in 2019 and 200% in 2020, the report found.

The data in the annual report by digital safety app maker Qustodio was provided by 60,000 families with children ages 4 to 14 in the U.S., U.K., and Spain, so it’s data isn’t representative of global trends. The research encompasses children’s online habits from February 2019 to April 2020, takes into account the COVID-19 crisis, and specifically focused on four main categories of mobile applications: online video, social media, video games, and education.

YouTube, not surprisingly, remains one of the most-used apps among children, the study found.

Kids are now watching twice as many videos per day as they did just four years ago. This is despite the fact that YouTube’s flagship app is meant for ages 13 and up — an age-gate that was never truly enforced, leading to the FTC’s historic $170 million fine for the online video platform in 2019 for its noncompliance with U.S. children’s privacy regulations.

The app today is used by 69% of U.S. kids, 74% of kids in the U.K., and 88% of kids in Spain. Its app for younger children, YouTube Kids, meanwhile, is only used by 7% of kids in the U.S., 10% of kids in the U.K., and wasn’t even on the radar in Spain.

The next largest app for online video is Netflix, watched by 33% of U.S. kids, 29% of U.K. kids, and 28% of kids in Spain.

In early 2020, kids in the U.S. were spending 86 minutes on YouTube per day, down from 88 minutes in 2019. In the U.K., kids are watching 75 minutes per day, down from 77 minutes in 2019. And in Spain, kids watch 63 minutes per day, down from 66 minutes in 2019.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the time spent increased quite a bit, as you could imagine. In the U.S., for example, kids in mid-April spent 99 minutes per day on YouTube.

In part, the decline in total YouTube minutes could be due to the growing number of daily minutes kids spend on TikTok. The Beijing-owned short-form video app could gain further traction if more YouTube creators leave Google’s video platform as a result of the increasing regulations and the related losses in monetization. More creators would broaden TikTok’s appeal, as it expands its content lineup.

Last year, TikTok became one of the top five most-downloaded apps globally that wasn’t owned by Facebook, and it has continued to grow among all age demographics.

From May 2019 through February 2020, the average minutes per day kids spent on TikTok increased by 116% in the U.S. to reach 82 minutes, went up by 97% in the U.K. to reach 69 minutes, and increased 150% in Spain to reach 60 minutes.

In February 2020, 16.5% of U.S. kids used TikTok, just behind the 20.4% on Instagram, and ahead of the 16% on Snapchat. In the U.K. and Spain, 17.7% and 37.7% of kids used TikTok, respectively.

Time spent on TikTok increased during COVID-19 lockdowns, as well, leaving the app now only minutes away from being equal to time spent on YouTube. In the U.S., for example, kids’ average usage of TikTok hit 95 minutes per day during COVID-19 lockdowns compared with just 2 minutes more — 97 minutes — spent on YouTube

In terms of online gaming, Roblox dominates in the U.S. and U.K., where 54% and 51% of kids play, respectively. In Spain, only 17% do. Instead, kids in Spain currently prefer Brawl Stars.

Similarly, Minecraft is used by 31% of kids in the U.S., 23% in the U.K., and only 15% in Spain.

Roblox isn’t just a minor diversion. It’s also eating into kids’ screen time.

In February 2020, this one game accounted for 81 minutes per day, on average, in the U.S., 76 minutes per day in the U.K., and 64 minutes per day in Spain. On average, kids play Roblox about 20 minutes longer than any other video game app. (Take that, Fortnite!)

During COVID-19 lockdowns, the kids who played Roblox increased their time spent in the game, up 31%, 17%, and 45% respectively in the U.S., the U.K., and Spain. But lockdowns didn’t increase the percentage of kids who used gaming apps, as it turned out.

Education apps, as a whole, did not see much growth from 2019 to early 2020 until the COVID-19 lockdowns. But then, Google Classroom won in two of the three markets studied, with 65% of kids now using this app in Spain, 50% in the U.S., but only 31% in the U.K. (Show My Homework is more popular in the U.K., growing to 42% usage during COVID-19.)

All these increases in kids’ app usage may never return to pre-COVID-19 levels, the report suggested, even if usage declines a bit as government lockdowns lift. That mirrors the findings that Nielsen released today on connected TV usage, which has also not yet fallen to earlier, pre-COVID levels even as government restrictions lift.

“We now live in a world with an estimated 25 billion connected devices worldwide. Many of those in the hands of children,” Qustodio’s report noted. “Today, on average, a child in the U.S. watches nearly 100 minutes of YouTube per day, a child in the U.K. spends nearly 70 minutes on TikTok per day, a child in Spain plays Roblox over 90 minutes a day,” it said. “The world is not going to return to the way things were, because screen-time rates were already increasing. COVID-19 just accelerated the process,” the firm concluded.

Game downloads will be throttled to manage internet congestion

For the billions stuck at home during the global effort to flatten the curve, gaming is a welcome escape. But it’s also a bandwidth-heavy one, and Microsoft, Sony and others are working to make sure that millions of people downloading enormous games don’t suck up all the bandwidth. Don’t worry, though, it won’t affect your ping.

A blog post by content delivery network Akamai explained a few things it is doing to help mitigate the tidal wave of traffic that the internet’s infrastructure is experiencing. Although streaming video is of course a major contributor, games are a huge, if more intermittent, burden on the network.

Akamai is “working with leading distributors of software, particularly for the gaming industry, including Microsoft and Sony, to help manage congestion during peak usage periods. This is very important for gaming software downloads, which account for large amounts of internet traffic when an update is released,” the post reads.

Take the new “Call of Duty: Warzone” battle royale game, released last week for free and seeing major engagement. If you didn’t already own the latest CoD title, Warzone was a more than 80-gigabyte download, equivalent to dozens of movies on Netflix . And what’s more, that 80 gigs was likely downloaded at the maximum bandwidth home connections provided; streaming video is limited to a handful of megabits over the duration of the media, nowhere close to saturating your connection.

And Warzone isn’t alone — there are tons of high-profile games being released at a time when many people have nothing to do but sit at home and play games — PC game platform Steam posted a record 20 million concurrent players the other day, and one analysis saw a 400% increase in gaming traffic. So gaming is bigger than ever, while games are bigger than ever themselves.

As a result, gaming downloads will be throttled for the foreseeable future, at least in some markets. “Players may experience somewhat slower or delayed game downloads,” wrote Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan in a brief blog post. I’ve asked Microsoft, Nintendo and Valve for comment on their approach as well.

It’s important to note that this should not apply to the rest of the gaming experience. Unlike downloading games, playing games is a remarkably low-bandwidth task — it’s important for packets to be traded quickly so players are in sync, but there aren’t a lot of them compared with even a low-resolution streaming video.

The best thing to do is to set your games to be downloaded overnight, as local infrastructure will be less taxed while everyone in your region is asleep. If you have downloads or updates coming during the day, don’t be surprised if they take longer than usual or are queued elsewhere.

Female-led Robin Games raises $7 million to combine lifestyle content with fantasy gaming

As a former Jam City executive, Jill Wilson led teams behind some of the top-grossing gaming franchises, like Cookie Jam and Panda Pop. Now she’s running her own startup, Robin Games, where a team of mostly women is working to create a new niche in mobile entertainment they’re calling “lifestyle gaming.” As the name implies, the idea is to create a mobile gaming experience — in this case, fantasy gaming — that’s more like the sophisticated and stylish lifestyle content that’s popular today.

Robin Games is backed by $7 million in seed funding, the company announced on Thursday, as it made its public debut. The round was led by early-stage fund LVP, which has invested in other to game companies including Supercell, Playfish, and NaturalMotion. Additional investors in the oversubscribed round include 1Up Ventures, Alpha Edison, Everblue Management, firstminute Capital, Greycroft Tracker Fund, Hearst Ventures, and Third Kind Venture Capital.

“Traditionally in gaming, when you say ‘fantasy,’ you mean dragons and other mythical creatures, disproportionately built women, armies and battles and explosions and glory,” explained Wilson, Robin Games’ sole founder and CEO. “As a lifelong gamer, I love (most) of these themes, but traditional gamers are no longer in the majority. Thanks to the smartphone, everyone now has access to a gaming console in their pockets. We are expanding the definition of ‘fantasy’ for this modern wave of gamers, whose fantasies are just as diverse as they are,” she added.

Wilson clarified that she’s not meaning to stereotype women as not enjoying fantasy games about things like warriors and dragons. Instead, Robin Games aims to expand the types of fantasies being explored through gaming — including those mobile gaming has yet to include.

While the company isn’t yet announcing its first titles or specific details, like launch dates, the games are said to cover content you’d typically find in a lifestyle magazine, on an Instagram influencer’s profile, or on a lifestyle blog, for example.

“We are focused on developing games that are deeply sophisticated under the hood, with an elevated, real-world, approachable style that reflects more of the lifestyle content you’d previously see outside of gaming,” Wilson told TechCrunch.

All this will be wrapped up in the free-to-play business model that powers most top-grossing games. In addition, Robin Games’ strategy will allow it to expand to include a partnership strategy, which will diversify its revenue streams further down the road.

 

Wilson said the idea for Robin Games was something she had in mind for some time, as she was personally looking for games to like this to play herself — only to find they didn’t exist.

“I’ve always designed products for myself first and foremost, which allows me to deeply connect with what the end-user really wants — since the end-user is me,” said Wilson. “Recently, I realized that not only did we have a unique answer to a pretty major gap in the market, but also that the timing was right and, most importantly, that we could pull together the exact right team to execute this vision.”

The startup is currently a team of nine based in Venice Beach. Management is 80% women and everyone had worked together to make hit games in years prior. In terms of hiring, the company is focused on building out a diverse team in order to better realize its vision, Wilson said, and, more broadly, change the face of the gaming industry as it stands today.

“Our mission goes beyond filling a gap in the market. We’re really looking to shake up the games industry, not only redefining what a modern game team looks like, but also changing the definition itself of what it means to be a gamer,” noted Wilson.

In previous studies, female players have been shown to prefer match-3 and social farming games, among others, with fantasy and MMOs further down the list, and sports and shooting games last. But the types of games Robin Games is proposing don’t really fit into any one category that exists today, so it’s still unknown how female gamers will respond.

However, it makes sense to target this underserved market, given that women account for 46% of all U.S. game enthusiasts.  

“Jill Wilson and her incredible team are already further along than most developers starting out,” added Are Mack Growen, partner at LVP and member of Robin Games’ Board of Directors, about the firm’s investment. “This team has developed and operated some of the world’s most successful games for a decade, and now they have assembled to bring premium experiences to the massively underserved audience of women. In addition to their industry expertise, they fundamentally understand their audience and the ingredients for powerful entertainment. We are proud to have led their seed round and look forward to helping them redefine what it means to be a gamer.”

 

 

Roblox raises $150M Series G, led by Andreessen Horowitz, now valued at $4B

Online gaming platform Roblox, now home to 115 million largely Gen Z players per month, announced today it has raised $150 million in Series G funding, led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Late Stage Venture fund. The company will also open a tender offer for up to $350 million of common and preferred shares, it says.

The company has previously offered stakeholders and employees liquidity through periodic secondary offerings, as it believes in its long-term potential. Roblox is also cash-flow positive, according to its CFO Michael Guthrie.

Others participating in the Series G include new investors Temasek and Tencent Holdings Limited, as well as existing investors Altos Ventures, Meritech Capital, and Tiger Global Management.

The funding comes at a period of significant growth for the gaming platform. Just last summer, it was being visited by 100 million users, topping Minecraft, and its developer community of over 2 million actives earned $110 million in 2019 — up from around $70+ million in 2018 and $40+ million in 2017.

Since then, Roblox has further invested in its developer business, with the launch of new tools for building more realistic 3D experiences and a marketplace where creators can sell their own development assets and tools to others, among other things.

Roblox offers a platform for its developers to build upon, similar to the App Store. Many of its most popular games are free, instead monetizing as players spend on in-game items using virtual cash called Robux. Some of its largest games average over 10 million users monthly. Over 10 games have seen more than 1 billion visits.

Players on Roblox often do more than just focus on completing a goal or task — they go online to hang out with friends in a gaming environment. Half of weekly active users go to Roblox to play with friends. In addition, half of Roblox users update their avatar every month.

In recent months, Roblox has also been working to take its platform further outside the U.S. including most notably China. Last year, Roblox entered a strategic partnership with Tencent in an effort to bring its platform and coding curriculum to the region, including by adding support for Chinese languages and running coder camps. Today, Roblox has players and creators in over 200 countries, it says.

As of last year, Roblox was valued at $2.5 billion, with roughly half of U.S. children ages 9 through 12 playing on its platform, according to comScore. This remains true today. In addition, its user base overall skews younger, with over 40% 13 and up.

The company is now valued at $4 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported. (TechCrunch additionally understands this to be true. Roblox isn’t commenting.)

Today, Roblox says its user base is spending a collective 1.5 billion hours per month on its service. And because it’s accessible across platforms, users often move from PC to smartphone to continue to play — a newer trend in online gaming, and one that’s also driving adoption of games like Fortnite, PUBG, and others.

“We are big believers in Roblox’s long-term vision, and are confident in backing the team as they enter this next inflection point,” said David George, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, of the firm’s investment. “Roblox is one of those rare platform companies with massive traction and an organic, high-growth business model that will advance the company, and push the industry forward for many years to come,” he added.

Roblox plans to leverage the new funds to continue its growth, including international; further build out its developer tools and ecosystem; and invest in engineering talent and infrastructure.

“We’ve stayed true to our vision of creating a safe and civil place where people come together to create, learn, and have fun, and it’s amazing to see what we’ve built together with our global creator community,” said David Baszucki, CEO and co-founder of Roblox, in a statement. “Looking ahead, we’re doubling down on our commitment to building the most advanced tools and technology to take our creators and players into the metaverse of the future.”

Updated, 2/26/20, 7:30 PM ET with more updated statistics.