‘The Division 2’ is the brain-dead, antipolitical, gun-mongering vigilante simulator we deserve

In The Division 2, the answer to every question is a bullet. That’s not unique in the pervasively violent world of gaming, but in an environment drawn from the life and richly decorated with plausible human cost and cruelty, it seems a shame; and in a real world where plentiful assault rifles and government hit squads are the problems, not the solutions, this particular power fantasy feels backwards and cowardly.

Ubisoft’s meticulous avoidance of the real world except for physical likeness was meant to maximize its market and avoid the type of “controversy” that brings furious tweets and ineffectual boycotts down on media that dare to make statements. But the result is a game that panders to “good guy with a gun” advocates, NRA members, everyday carry die-hards, and those who dream of spilling the blood of unsavory interlopers and false patriots upon this great country’s soil.

There are two caveats: That we shouldn’t have expected anything else, from Ubisoft or anyone; and that it’s a pretty good game if you ignore all that stuff. But it’s getting harder to accept every day, and the excuses for game studios are getting fewer. (Some spoilers ahead, but trust me, it doesn’t matter.)

To put us all on the same page: The Division 2 (properly Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, which just about sums it up right there) is the latest “game as a service” to hit the block, aspiring less towards the bubblegum ubiquity of Fortnite and than the endless grind of a Destiny 2 or Diablo 3. The less said about Anthem, the better (except Jason Schrier’s great report, of course).

From the bestselling author of literally a hundred other books…

It’s published by Ubisoft, a global gaming power known for creating expansive gaming worlds (like the astonishingly beautiful Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) with bafflingly uneven gameplay and writing (like the astonishingly lopsided Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey).

So it was perhaps to be expected that The Division 2 would be heavy on atmosphere and light on subtlety. But I didn’t expect to be told to see the President snatch a machine gun from his captors and mow them down — then tell your character that sometimes you can’t do what’s popular, you have to do what’s necessary.

It would be too much even if the game was a parody and not, as it in fact is, deeply and strangely earnest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

EDC Simulator 2

The game is set in Washington, D.C.; its predecessor was in New York. Both were, like most U.S. cities in this fictitious near future, devastated by a biological attack on Black Friday that used money as a vector for a lethal virus. That’s a great idea, perhaps not practical (who pays in cash?), but a clever mashup of terrorist plots with consumerism. (The writing in the first Division was considerably better than this one.)

Your character is part of a group of sleeper agents seeded throughout the country, intended to activate in the event of a national emergency, surviving and operating on your own or with a handful of others, procuring equipment and supplies on the go, taking out the bad guys and saving the remaining civilians while authority reasserts itself.

You can see how this sets up a great game: exploring the ruins of a major city, shooing out villains, and upgrading your gear as you work your way up the ladder.

And in a way it does make a great game. If you consider the bad guys just types of human-shaped monsters, your various guns and equipment the equivalent of new swords and wands, breastplates and greaves, with your drones and tactical launchers modern spells and auras, it’s really quite a lot like Diablo, the progenitor of the “looter” genre.

Moment to moment gameplay has you hiding behind cover, popping out to snap off a few shots at the bad guys, who are usually doing the same thing 10 or 20 yards away, but generally not as well as you. Move on to the next room or intersection, do it again with some more guys, rinse and repeat. It sounds monotonous, and it is, but so is baseball. People like it anyway. (I’d like to give a shout-out to the simple, effective multiplayer that let me join a friend in seconds.)

But the problem with The Division 2 isn’t its gameplay, although I could waste your time (instead) with some nitpicking of the damage systems, the mobs, the inventory screen, and so on. The problem with The Division 2 isn’t even that it venerates guns. Practically every game venerates guns, because as Tim Rogers memorably paraphrased CliffyB once: “games are power fantasies — and it’s easy to make power fantasies, because guns are so powerful, and raycasting is simple, and raycasting is like a gun.” It’s difficult to avoid.

No, the problem with The Division 2 is the breathtaking incongruity between the powerfully visualized human tragedy your character inhabits and the refusal to engage even in an elementary way with the themes to which it is inherently tied: terrorism, guns, government and anti-government forces, and everything else. It’s exploitative, cynical, and absurd.

The Washington, D.C. of the game is a truly amazing setting. Painstakingly detailed block by block and containing many of the most notable landmarks of the area, it’s a very interesting game world to explore, even more so I imagine if you are from there or are otherwise familiar with the city.

The marks of a civilization-ending disaster are everywhere. Abandoned cars and security posts with vines and grass creeping up between them, broken and boarded up windows and doors, left luggage and improvised camping spots. Real places form the basis for thrilling setpiece shootouts: museums, famous offices, the White House itself (which you find under limp siege in the first mission). This is a fantasy very much based in reality — but only on the surface. In fact all this incredibly detailed scenery is nothing more than cover for shootouts.

I can’t tell you how many times my friend and I traversed intricately detailed monuments, halls, and other environments, marveling at the realism with which they were decorated (though perhaps there were a few too many gas cans), remarking to one another: “Damn, this place is insane. I can’t believe they made it this detailed just to have us do the same exact combat encounter as the entire rest of the game. How come nobody is talking about the history of this place, or the bodies, or the culture here?”

When fantasy isn’t

Now, to be clear, I don’t expect Ubisoft to make a game where you learn facts about helicopters while you shoot your way through the Air and Space Museum, or where you engage in philosophical conversation with the head of a band of marauders rather than lob grenades and corrosive goo in their general direction. (I kind of like both those ideas, though.)

But the dedication with which the company has avoided any kind of reality whatsoever is troubling.

We live in a time when people are taking what they call justice into their own hands by shooting others with weapons intended for warfare; when paramilitary groups are defending their strongholds with deadly force; when biological agents are being deployed against citizenry; when governments are surveilling and tracking people via controversial AI systems; when the leaders of that government are making unpopular and ethically fraught decisions without the knowledge of their constituency.

Ultimate EDC simulator

This game enthusiastically endorses all of the previous ideas with the naive justification that you’re the good guys. Of course you’re the good guys — everyone claims they’re the good guys! But objectively speaking, you’re a secret government hit squad killing whoever you’re told to, primarily other citizens. Ironically, despite being called an agent, you have no agency — you are a walking gun doing the bidding of a government that has almost entirely dissolved. What could possibly go wrong? The Division 2 certainly makes no effort to explore this.

The superficiality of the story I could excuse if it didn’t rely so strongly on using the real world as set dressing for its paramilitary dress-up-doll fantasy.

Basing your game in a real world location is, I think, a fabulous idea. But in doing so, especially if as part of the process you imply the death of millions, a developer incurs a responsibility to do more than use that location as level geometry.

The Division 2 instead uses these deaths and the most important places in D.C. literally as props. Nothing you do ever has anything to do with what the place is except in the loosest way. While you visit morgues and improvised mass graves piled with body bags, you never see anyone dead or dying… unless you kill them.

It’s hard to explain what I find so distasteful about this. It’s a combination of the obvious emphasis on the death of innocents, in a brute-force attempt to create emotional and political relevance, with the utterly vacuous violence you fill that world with. It feels disrespectful to itself, to the setting, to set a piece of media so incredibly dumb and mute in a disaster so credible and relevant.

This was a deliberate decision, to rob the game of any relevance — a marketing decision. To destroy D.C. — that sells. To write a story or design gameplay that in any way reflects why that destruction resonates — that doesn’t sell. “We cannot be openly political in our games,” said Alf Condelius, the COO of the studio that created the game, in a talk before the game’s release. Doing so, he said, would be “bad for business, unfortunately, if you want the honest truth.” I can’t be the only one who feels this to be a cop-out of pretty grand proportions, with the truth riding on its coattails.

Perhaps you think I’m holding game developers to an unreasonable standard. But I believe they are refusing to raise the bar themselves when they easily could and should. The level of detail in the world is amazing, and it was clearly designed by people who understand what could happen should disaster strike. The bodies piled in labs, the desolation of a city overtaken by nature, the perfect reproductions of landmarks — an enormous amount of effort and money was put into this part of the game.

On the other hand, it’s incredibly obvious from the get-go that very, very little attention was paid to the story and characters, the dialogue, the actual choices you can make as a player (there are none to speak of). There is no way to interact with people except to shoot them, or for them to tell you who to shoot. There is no mention of politics, of parties, of race or religion. I feel sure more time was spent modeling the guns — which, by the way, are real licensed models — than the main “characters,” though it must have been time-consuming to so completely to purge those characters of any ideas or opinions that could possibly reflect the real world.

One tragedy please, hold the relevance

This is deliberate. There’s no way this could have happened unless Ubisoft, from the start, made it clear that the game was to be divorced from the real world in every way except those that were deemed marketable.

That this is what they considerable marketable is a sad sort of indictment of the people they are selling this game to. The prospect of inserting oneself into a sort of justified vigilante role where you rain hot righteous lead on these generic villains trampling our great flag seems to be a special catnip concoction Ubisoft thought would appeal to millions — millions who (or more importantly, whose wallets) might be chilled by the idea of a story that actually takes on the societal issues that would be at play in a disaster like this one. We got the game we deserved, I suppose.

Say what you will about the narrative quality of campaigns of Call of Duty and Battlefield, but they at least attempt to engage with the content they are exploiting to sell the game. World War II is marketable because it’s the worst thing that ever happened and destroyed the lives of millions in a violent and dramatic way. Imagine building a photorealistic reproduction of wartime Stalingrad, or Paris, or Berlin, and then filling it not with Axis and Allied forces but simplified and palatable goodies and baddies with no particular ethos or history.

I certainly don’t mean to equate the theoretical destruction of D.C. with the Holocaust and WWII, but as perhaps the most popular period and venue for shooters like this, it’s the obvious comparison to make thematically, and what one finds is that however poor the story of a given WWII game, it inevitably attempts to emphasize and grapple with the enormity of the events you are experiencing. That’s the kind of responsibility I think you take on when you illustrate your game with the real world — even a fantasy version of the real world.

Furthermore Ubisoft has accepted that it must take some political stances, such as the inclusion of same-sex player-NPC relationships in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey — not controversial to me and many others, certainly, but hardly an apolitical inclusion in the present global political landscape. (I applaud them for this, by the way, and many others have as well.) It’s arguable this is not “overt” in that Kassandra and Alexios don’t break the first wall to advocate for marriage equality, but I think it is deliberately and unapologetically espousing a stance on a politically and societally charged issue.

It seems it is not that the company cannot be overtly political, but that it decided in this case that to be political on issues of guns, the military, terrorism, and so on was too much of a risk. To me that is in itself a political choice.

I do think Ubisoft is a fantastic company and makes wonderful games — but I also think the decision to completely divorce a game with fundamentally political underpinnings from the real politics and humanitarian conditions that empower it is a sad and spineless decision that makes them look both avaricious and inhumane. I know they can do better because others already have and do.

The Division 2 is a good game as far as games go. But games, like movies, TV, and other media, are very much art now, deserving of criticism as to their ideas as well as their controls and graphics; and as art, The Division 2 is as much a barren wasteland scoured of humanity as the D.C. it depicts.

Consumer spending in apps to reach $156B across iOS and Google Play by 2023

Consumer spending in mobile apps across both Apple’s App Store and Google Play will grow by 120 percent to reach $156 billion worldwide by 2023, according to a new report out today from app store intelligence firm, Sensor Tower. The forecast estimates that both stores will more than double their revenues during the next five years, with China, the U.S. and Japan leading the way on iOS and the U.S., South Korea and Japan leading on Google Play.

The report projects that Apple will reach $96 billion in worldwide consumer spending by 2023, an increase of 104 percent over 2018’s total of $47 billion. Google Play is set to grow by 140 percent over 2018 to reach $60 billion — closing the gap even further with Apple’s platform. However, Apple’s store will account for nearly 62 percent of all revenue generated by the two platforms, Sensor Tower says.

The firm’s estimates for 2018 are a little lower than App Annie’s data, which estimated iOS and Google Play stores topped $76 billion in consumer spend last year. (Sensor Tower says $72 billion). However, App Annie’s forecast was calculated before year-end. After the year wrapped, it estimated consumer spend grew to $101 billion in 2018 across Apple’s App Store, Google Play and third-party Chinese app stores. Sensor Tower doesn’t delve into third-party app store data.

Another trend in the new forecast is the projected growth for emerging markets. Africa and Latin America will see the largest revenue growth over the next five years, with the former poised for 296 percent growth to $420 million on the Apple App Store by 2023 and the latter with 239 percent growth to $2.4 billion.

Revenue growth from Google Play will be even larger, with Latin America reaching $2.8 billion in 2023, up 408 percent from 2018. African countries will grow 296 percent during this same time to reach $430 million by 2023.

These are still far smaller numbers than what’s predicted for top markets, of course.

The U.S., for example, is on track to reach $40 billion in consumer spend across both app stores by 2023, up 110 percent over 2018’s total of $19 billion. Apple’s App Store will account for $25 billion of that figure, and Google Play will account for the remaining $15 billion.

Other notable moves include Taiwan becoming a top-five App Store country by revenue in 2023 ($2.1 billion), and the U.S. overtaking Japan in Google Play revenue in 2019. Japan’s Google Play revenue was driven by top games in 2018 like Monster Strike and Fate/Grand Order, but is expected to slow this year.

Sensor Tower is also estimating the U.S. will briefly pass China in App Store revenue by 2020 — a figure that ties to Apple’s slower iPhone sales in China, which led it to cut its revenue forecast. China was also substantially impacted by the game-licensing freeze, which saw app downloads fall 4 percent between 2017 to 2018, after having grown 8 percent the year before. Consumer spending then grew only 14 percent in 2018, versus 60 percent the prior year.

China’s revenue is expected to recover with the renewal of mobile game licensing, but the U.S. is now projected to reach China’s levels over the next few years.

Thanks to subscriptions and the Entertainment category (e.g. streaming apps), revenue growth in non-game apps on iOS (24 percent) will pass growth of revenue in games (10 percent) over the next five years. This will lead non-game apps to accounting for 40 percent of App Store revenue in 2023, or $38.8 billion.

Games will continue to have a larger share on Google Play during this time, accounting for 86 percent of revenue by 2023, down from only 89 percent in 2017.

The full report is on Sensor Tower’s site.

In a challenge to Twitch and YouTube, Facebook adds ‘Gaming’ to its main navigation

Facebook’s gaming efforts and challenge to Twitch are taking another big leap today, as the social network begins the initial rollout of a dedicated Facebook Gaming tab in the main navigation of Facebook’s app. The goal with the new addition is to help people more easily find games, streamers and gaming groups they follow, as well as discover new content, based on their interests.

After clicking the new Gaming tab, there will be a feed of content that points you to instant games you can play with friends; videos to watch from top streamers, esports organizations, and game publishers; and updates from your various gaming groups, the company says.

The new Facebook Gaming tab builds on the gaming video destination the site launched last year as Fb.gg. That hub had offered a collection of all the video games streaming on Facebook, and a way to for gamers and fans to interact. As a top-level navigation item, Facebook’s new Gaming tab will now further extend the gaming hub’s reach.

While Twitch and YouTube are today dominating the gaming space, Facebook’s advantage – beyond its scale – are its promises of a reduced cut of transactions. On Fb.gg, gamers were able to attract new fans with the aid of Facebook’s personalized recommendations based on users’ activity, and then monetize those viewers through a virtual tipping mechanism.

Facebook’s cut of those tips ranges from 5 to 30 percent, with the cut getting smaller when users buy larger packs of the virtual currency. Meanwhile, Facebook’s fan subscriptions payments for streamers also see it taking a cut of up to 30 percent, the same as YouTube but smaller than Twitch’s roughly 50 percent.

That could potentially attract streamers who want to maximize their earnings and believe they can port their audience over to a new destination. Of course, some streamers may not trust Facebook to maintain those same percentages over time, nor believe it will ever offer the sorts of features and innovations that a more focused gaming destination like Twitch can.

Facebook also last year experimented with making its gaming hub mobile with the launch of Fb.gg as a standalone mobile app.

The app, like the web-based gaming hub, offered a way for gamers and fans to discover content, join communities, and even play instant games like Everwing, Words with Friends, Basketball FRVR, and others.

However, the strategy of keeping Facebook’s Gaming efforts more separated from Facebook’s main site may not have paid off – the Fb.gg Android app, for example, only has some 100,000+ installs according to Google Play.

Instead, much like YouTube recently decided – Facebook will now leverage the power of its platform to boost interest in its gaming content.

YouTube in September said it was giving its Gaming hub a new home right on the YouTube homepage, and would shut down its standalone Gaming app. (The latter doesn’t seem to have occurred, however). As YouTube noted, gaming was a popular category, but the majority of viewers weren’t looking for a separate app or experience – they were just visiting YouTube directly.

Similarly, Facebook today says that over 700 million people play games, watch gaming videos or engage in gaming groups on Facebook. That’s a far larger number than those who downloaded the Fb.gg app, and surely a much larger number than those who have been visiting the Fb.gg destination directly.

That said, Facebook is continuing its tests on mobile with a standalone (rebranded) Facebook Gaming app on Android, which will have more features that the Gaming tab.

Facebook says it will roll out the Gaming tab to a subset of the over 700 million Facebook game fans, and will expand it over time to more gaming enthusiasts across the network. If you don’t see the new tab in your main navigation bar, you can still find it by going to the Bookmarks menu on Facebook.

 

 

Apple announces its ‘Best of 2018’ lists across apps, games, music, podcasts and more

Apple today announced its Best of 2018 selections – its annual, editorial list of what it considers the best content across its App Store and iTunes, along with its top charts of the most downloaded apps and games fo the year. As in other years, Apple selected a “best” app and game for each platform, including iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and Mac. It also rounded-up several favorite Apple Watch apps, but didn’t award a winner.

The best app of 2018 on iPhone was the iPhone version of the popular Procreate drawing app for iPad, Procreate Pocket.

Meanwhile, the top iPad app was Froggipedia, an AR app that lets you virtually dissect a frog so you don’t have to actually dissect a frog.

Both apps showcase technologies Apple aims to promote. In Procreate Pocket’s case, it’s the iPhone companion to an Apple Pencil-powered app on iPad. On the iPhone, it instead uses 3D Touch support for painting with your finger. Froggipedia turns an Apple Pencil into the scalpel to dissect a virtual frog.

On Mac, the top app was image editor Pixelmator Pro, and top Apple TV app was the big-screened version of workout app Sweat, whose creator Kayla Itsines also showed up at WWDC this year to lead a special session.

The top games this year were: Donut County (iPhone), Gorogoa (iPad), The Gardens Between (Mac) and Alto’s Odyssey (Apple TV) – the latter which also won an Apple Design Award earlier this year.  

Showcasing their somewhat secondary status, Apple Watch apps didn’t get a “best of” pick for app and game, but a small group got a shoutout from Apple as being “favorites.”

This includes: WaterMinder, Lifesum, 10% Happier, Carrot Weather, FunGolf GPS, Swing Tennis Tracker, Slopes, App in the Air, Overcast, and Just Press Record.

While its “Best of” selections were editorially chosen, Apple also unveiled its year-end “Top Charts” across iPhone and iPad, which were separated by both apps and games (free and paid).

These are the most downloaded app of 2018. The lists still show Facebook, YouTube, Google, and other entertainment apps dominating the top free charts.

Top Free iPhone Apps – Chart

  1. YouTube: Watch, Listen, Stream
  2. Instagram
  3. Snapchat
  4. Messenger
  5. Facebook
  6. Bitmoji
  7. Netflix
  8. Google Maps – Transit & Food
  9. Gmail – Email by Google
  10. Spotify Music
  11. Amazon – Shopping made easy
  12. Uber
  13. WhatsApp Messenger
  14. Pandora – Streaming Music
  15. Wish – Shopping Made Fun
  16. TikTok – Real Short Videos
  17. Cash App
  18. Google Photos
  19. Google Chrome
  20. Twitter

Top Paid iPhone Apps – Chart

  1. Facetune
  2. kirakira+
  3. Dark Sky Weather
  4. HotSchedules
  5. PlantSnap Plant Identification
  6. AutoSleep Tracker for Watch
  7. Sky Guide
  8. 1 Second Everyday: Video Diary
  9. The Wonder Weeks
  10. Afterlight 2
  11. My Talking Pet Pro
  12. Glitché
  13. Scanner Pro
  14. TouchRetouch
  15. 7 Minute Workout Challenge
  16. Forest – Stay focused
  17. Full Fitness : Exercise Workout Trainer
  18. Word Swag – Cool Fonts
  19. SkyView® – Explore the Universe
  20. HeartWatch. Heart & Activity

Top Free iPhone Games – Chart

  1. Fortnite
  2. Helix Jump
  3. Rise Up
  4. PUBG MOBILE
  5. Hole.io
  6. Love Balls
  7. Snake VS Block
  8. Rules of Survival
  9. ROBLOX
  10. Dune!
  11. Subway Surfers
  12. Episode – Choose Your Story
  13. Word Link – Word Puzzle Game
  14. Toon Blast
  15. Color Road!
  16. HQ Trivia
  17. Twisty Road!
  18. 8 Ball Pool™
  19. Kick the Buddy
  20. Sniper 3D Assassin: Gun Games

Top Paid iPhone Games – Chart 

  1. Heads Up!
  2. Minecraft
  3. Plague Inc.
  4. Bloons TD 6
  5. Pocket Build
  6. Bloons TD 5
  7. Geometry Dash
  8. The Game of Life
  9. Papa’s Freezeria To Go!
  10. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
  11. Trivia Crack (No Ads)
  12. Getting Over It
  13. Monument Valley 2
  14. Alto’s Odyssey
  15. True Skate
  16. The Room: Old Sins
  17. Terraria
  18. Exploding Kittens®
  19. Five Nights at Freddy’s
  20. The Escapists: Prison Escape

Top Free iPad Apps – Chart

  1. YouTube: Watch, Listen, Stream
  2. Netflix
  3. Messenger
  4. Facebook
  5. Amazon Prime Video
  6. Google Chrome
  7. Gmail – Email by Google
  8. YouTube Kids
  9. The Calculator
  10. Amazon – Shopping made easy
  11. Spotify Music
  12. Hulu: Watch TV Shows & Movies
  13. Google Docs: Sync, Edit, Share
  14. Google Drive
  15. Google Maps – Transit & Food
  16. Microsoft Word
  17. Pandora – Streaming Music
  18. Amazon Kindle
  19. Colorfy: Coloring Art Games
  20. Google

Top Paid iPad Apps – Chart

  1. Procreate
  2. Notability
  3. GoodNotes 4
  4. Toca Life: Pets
  5. Duet Display
  6. Toca Life: After School
  7. XtraMath
  8. Toca Hair Salon 3
  9. MyScript Nebo
  10. Toca Kitchen 2
  11. PDF Expert by Readdle
  12. Toca Life: Hospital
  13. Affinity Photo
  14. Toca Life: Office
  15. GoodReader
  16. Toca Lab: Elements
  17. Notes Plus
  18. Human Anatomy Atlas 2019
  19. Toca Life: City
  20. AnyFont

Top Free iPad Games – Chart

  1. Fortnite
  2. ROBLOX
  3. Kick the Buddy
  4. Love Balls
  5. Helix Jump
  6. Color by Number Coloring Game!
  7. Bowmasters – Multiplayer Game
  8. Hole.io
  9. Rise Up
  10. Rules of Survival
  11. Subway Surfers
  12. Rolling Sky
  13. PUBG MOBILE
  14. Toon Blast
  15. Snake VS Block
  16. Granny
  17. Piano Tiles 2™
  18. slither.io
  19. Run Sausage Run!
  20. Pixel Art – Color by Number

Top Paid iPad Games – Chart 

  1. Minecraft
  2. Geometry Dash
  3. The Game of Life
  4. The Room: Old Sins
  5. Heads Up!
  6. Bloons TD 6
  7. Goat Simulator
  8. Five Nights at Freddy’s
  9. LEGO® Jurassic World™
  10. Terraria
  11. The Escapists: Prison Escape
  12. Bloons TD 5 HD
  13. Monument Valley 2
  14. Plague Inc.
  15. Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location
  16. Goat Simulator PAYDAY
  17. Five Nights at Freddy’s 2
  18. Teeny Titans – Teen Titans Go!
  19. Teen Titans Go! Figure
  20. Scribblenauts Unlimited

Apple also rounded up its best stories

In addition to the best content across categories, Apple this year also highlighted the most-read stories from the “Today” section on the App Store.

The revamped and more editorially-driven App Store launched over a year ago in September 2017, making this year the first full year of its existence.

The store is now not just a marketplace and search engine for apps, but also a place to read about the developers who create apps, their businesses, and learn other tips and tricks.

According to Apple, the top ten most-read stories included several on popular games, and a guide for parents on Snapchat, among others.

The full list included:

Apple also picked a few editorial favorites of its own, including:

Music, books and more

The company also unveiled its editorial and most-downloaded lists for podcasts, audiobooks, books, TV shows and music.

Some highlights of those selections included Artist of the year: Drake; Breakout Artist of the Year: Juice WRLD; Song of the Year: I Like It – Cardi B featuring Bad Bunny & J. Balvin; Album of the Year: Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves; Most Downloaded Podcast: The Daily; Best Book of the year: American Marriage; and Audiobook of the year: American Marriage.

Apple isn’t the only one with a year-end “Best of” list out now. Google Play also this week unveiled its own “Best of 2018” winners. Its list included the best app, Drops: Learn 31 new languages, and best game, PUBG Mobile. It introduced a “fan favorites” category as well, where users got to vote on their own favorite apps and games. Those winners included PUBG again, but for best app, they chose YouTube TV.

YouTube is closing the gap with Twitch on live streaming, report finds

Twitch continues to dominate the live streaming market, with approximately 2.5 billion hours watched by viewers in the third quarter of 2018, according to a new industry report out this morning. While YouTube still trails, it’s begun to close the gap with Twitch, it appears. YouTube’s live streaming platform, YouTube Live, started the year with 15 percent of the overall live streaming market’s viewership, but by September 2018, it had grown to roughly 25 percent of all live streaming hours viewed.

These findings, and more, were the subject of a “state of the industry” report released today by StreamElements, which also dug into what’s making these live streaming sites tick.

Of course, Twitch is still the market leader, with around 750 million monthly viewers, on average, who watched over 813 million hours in September. YouTube Live, by comparison, saw over 226 million hours that month, and Microsoft’s Mixer saw just 13+ million.

Also of note is that Twitch’s growth is now coming from the long tail, the report claims. Its top 100 channels haven’t grown much since the beginning of the year – in fact, they’re down a bit, according to the findings. In January 2018, viewers watch around 262 million hours on the top 100, which dropped to 254 million in September.

In addition, Twitch is growing viewership thanks to its expanded focus outside of gaming content. IRL streaming – meaning, watching creators “in real life” going about their day, vlogging, or participating in other activities, for example – is now one of the site’s most consistently growing categories, with 41 million more hours watched in Q3 2018 than in Q1.

This growth likely impacted Twitch’s recent decision to do away with the overarching “IRL” category to instead break down the content into subcategories like music, food & drink, ASMR, beauty, and more, and other organizational changes to its site.

StreamElements also claims that game streams and other content – but not the competitions known as “esports” –  are what’s attracting viewers.

Esports viewership now makes up 9 to 17 percent of overall Twitch viewership, the report says. (This is consistent with findings Newzoo has reported in past years, as well.)

The report’s data, however, is not first-party – it comes from StreamElements’ position as a production and community management solutions provider for live streamers, which allows it some insight into live streaming trends. The company also partnered with streaming analysts StreamHatchet to compile this report, it says.

That being said, it’s not the only one to point to YouTube’s more recent growth. In StreamLabs’ Q2 report this year, it also found that YouTube’s live gaming streams were on the rise, as was viewership. But StreamLabs tends to look at concurrent streams and viewership, so it’s not a direct comparison.

YouTube recently did away with its standalone YouTube Gaming app, and incorporated gaming content more directly into its main site. This could impact its future growth even more than is reflected in this Q3-focused report.

Finally, the report also found that Fortnite’s popularity may have peaked – it’s still the most watched game on Twitch, but since reaching over 151 million hours watched in July, it’s been shedding viewers. The game saw 20 million fewer hours viewed in August, then dropped by another 25 million hours in September.

Twitch is closing its Communities

Say goodbye to Twitch’s Communities. The game-streaming service says it’s soon killing off this still relatively new addition to its site in favor of implementing a tagging system instead. With the changes, users will be able to filter streams by tags within a directory or across different games on the Browse page, in order to better find the sort of streams they want to watch.

The closure of Communities and addition of tags is being planned for mid-September, says Twitch.

Twitch launched Communities just last year, with the goal of better catering to users’ unique interests. For example, different types of gaming, like retro, or different activities, like speedrunning, could then have their own community. There are also communities centered around titles like Fortnite Battle Royale, PUBG, League of Legends and others, as well as those focused on creative endeavors like music, drawing, cooking, cosplay and more.

But the system has become less helpful as Twitch itself, the number of streamers and the number of communities grew. Today, there’s a lot of overlap between different Communities or between Communities and games, says Twitch.

This is attributable, in part, to the open nature of Communities — there are many with similar names, and no good way to tell what makes them different from one another at first glance.

“Communities were one solution for giving viewers information to help them decide what to watch, but viewers weren’t able to see that information while browsing within a directory they were interested in,” the company noted in an announcement.

It also found that Communities weren’t driving viewers to watch streams — in fact less than 3 percent of Twitch viewership was from users who found streams through the Communities feature. That points to a pretty broad failure of Communities serving as a discovery feature.

Twitch now hopes that the implementation of tags will make things better on that front.

The company says it will add tags to the site in mid-September, and these will be used to identify a stream across Twitch’s directory pages, the homepage, search, channel pages and everywhere else. The main Directory pages and the Browse page will also be able to be filtered by these tags, some of which will be auto-generated.

Twitch says it will automatically add tags like game genres, and some in-game features it can auto-detect — another project it now has in the works. But most of the tags will be selected by the streamer — not user-generated, to be clear, but selected.

Streamers will be able to suggest new tags, however.

The tags will appear alongside the video thumbnail, stream title and the game or category being streamed.

The change is one that speaks to the limitations of portal-like interfaces being used to access a large amount of information — that is, browsing to a particular section to find things you like, then scrolling through those results takes too much time. It isn’t that helpful in the long run. Tagging lets users filter information, paring down, in this case, a large number of Twitch streams to find just those you like.

That being said, not all Twitch users are happy about the changes. But some are happy about it and others are cautiously optimistic about tagging.

Twitch says tagging will first launch on the web, and the company will then listen to feedback about missing tags before launching the feature on mobile.

The mid-September launch date could change, but is the target for now.

Roblox responds to the hack that allowed a child’s avatar to be raped in its game

There’s a special place in Hell for people who think it’s funny to rape a 7-year-old girl’s avatar in an online virtual world designed for children. Yes, that happened. Roblox, a hugely popular online game for kids, was hacked by an individual who subverted the game’s protection systems in order to have customized animations appear. This allowed two male avatars to gang rape a young girl’s avatar on a playground in one of the Roblox games.

The company has now issued an apology to the victim and its community, and says it has determined how the hacker was able to infiltrate its system so it can prevent future incidents.

The mother of the child, whose avatar was the victim of the in-game sexual assault, was nearby when the incident took place. She says her child showed her what was happening on the screen and she took the device away, fortunately shielding her daughter from seeing most of the activity. The mother then captured screenshots of the event in order to warn others.

She described the incident in a public Facebook post that read, in part:

At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My sweet and innocent daughter’s avatar was being VIOLENTLY GANG-RAPED ON A PLAYGROUND by two males. A female observer approached them and proceeded to jump on her body at the end of the act. Then the 3 characters ran away, leaving my daughter’s avatar laying on her face in the middle of the playground.

Words cannot describe the shock, disgust, and guilt that I am feeling right now, but I’m trying to put those feelings aside so I can get this warning out to others as soon as possible. Thankfully, I was able to take screenshots of what I was witnessing so people will realize just how horrific this experience was. *screenshots in comments for those who can stomach it* Although I was immediately able to shield my daughter from seeing the entire interaction, I am shuddering to think of what kind of damage this image could have on her psyche, as well as any other child that could potentially be exposed to this.

Roblox has since issued a statement about the attack:

Roblox’s mission is to inspire imagination and it is our responsibility to provide a safe and civil platform for play. As safety is our top priority — we have robust systems in place to protect our platform and users. This includes automated technology to track and monitor all communication between our players as well as a large team of moderators who work around the clock to review all the content uploaded into a game and investigate any inappropriate activity. We provide parental controls to empower parents to create the most appropriate experience for their child, and we provide individual users with protective tools, such as the ability to block another player.

The incident involved one bad actor that was able to subvert our protective systems and exploit one instance of a game running on a single server. We have zero tolerance for this behavior and we took immediate action to identify how this individual created the offending action and put safeguards in place to prevent it from happening again. In addition, the offender was identified and permanently banned from the platform. Our work on safety is never-ending and we are committed to ensuring that one individual does not get in the way of the millions of children who come to Roblox to play, create, and imagine.

The timing of the incident is particularly notable for the kids’ gaming platform, which has more than 60 million monthly active users and is now raising up to $150 million to grow its business. The company has been flying under the radar for years, while quietly amassing a large audience of both players and developers who build its virtual worlds. Roblox recently stated that it expects to pay out its content creators $70 million in 2018, which is double that of last year. 

Roblox has a number of built-in controls to guard against bad behavior, including a content filter and a system that has moderators reviewing images, video and audio files before they’re uploaded to Roblox’s site. It also offers parental controls that let parents decide who can chat with their kids, or the ability to turn chat off. And parents can restrict kids under 13 from accessing anything but a curated list of age-appropriate games.

However, Roblox was also in the process of moving some of its older user-generated games to a newer system that’s more secure. The hacked game was one of several that could have been exploited in a similar way.

Since the incident, Roblox had its developers remove all the other potentially vulnerable games and ask their creators to move them over to the newer, more fortified system. Most have done so, and those who have not will not see their games allowed back online until that occurs. The games that are online now are not vulnerable to the exploit the hacker used.

The company responded quickly to take action, in terms of taking the game offline, banning the player and reaching out the mother — who has since agreed to help Roblox get the word out to others about the safeguards parents can use to protect kids in Roblox further.

But the incident raises questions as to whether kids should be playing these sorts of massive multiplayer games at such a young age at all.

Roblox, sadly, is not surprised that someone was interested in a hack like this.

YouTube is filled with videos of Roblox rape hacks and exploits, in fact. The company submits takedown requests to YouTube when videos like this are posted, but YouTube only takes action on a fraction of the requests. (YouTube has its own issues around content moderation.)

It’s long past time for there to be real-world ramifications for in-game assaults that can have lasting psychological consequences on victims, when those victims are children.

Roblox, for its part, is heavily involved in discussions about what can be done, but the issue is complex. COPPA laws prevent Roblox from collecting data on its users, including their personal information, because the law is meant to protect kids’ privacy. But the flip side of this is that Roblox has no way of tracking down hackers like this.

“I think that we’re not the only one pondering the challenges of this. I think every platform company out there is struggling with the same thing,” says Tami Bhaumik, head of marketing and community safety at Roblox.

“We’re members of the Family Online Safety Institute, which is over 30 companies who share best practices around digital citizenship and child safety and all of that,” she continues. “And this is a constant topic of conversation that we all have – in terms of how do we use technology, how do we use A.I. and machine learning? Do we work with the credit card companies to try to verify [users]? How do we get around not violating COPPA regulations?,” says Bhaumik.

“The problem is super complex, and I don’t think anyone involved has solved that yet,” she adds.

One solution could be forcing parents to sign up their kids and add a credit card, which would remain uncharged unless kids broke the rules.

That could dampen user growth to some extent — locking out the under-banked, those hesitant to use their credit cards online and those just generally distrustful of gaming companies and unwanted charges. It would mean kids couldn’t just download the app and play.

But Roblox has the momentum and scale now to lock things down. There’s enough demand for the game that it could create more of a barrier to entry if it chose to, in an effort to better protect users. After all, if players knew they’d be fined (or their parents would be), it would be less attractive to break the rules.

Pokémon Quest hits app store with a jolt

Coming just shy of a month after its original release on the Nintendo Switch, Pokémon Quest has hit the the App Store and Google Play Store today with an impressive response. According to analytics by Sensor Tower, the app on iPhone is already at No. 2 in Japan and No. 3 in Korea. While hovering at No. 5 in the U.S., the momentum looks like it could carry it to No. 1 by the end of the day.

The game itself is designed to be an easily accessible, free-to-play RPG that features your favorite pokémon from Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue — with a geometric twist.

Taking a left-turn from their typical animation style, the pokémon in Quest have been transformed into cube versions of themselves and inhabit a brightly colored — also 90-degree angled — terrain called Tumblecube Island. After choosing a pokémon companion to begin your quest, trainers are tasked with exploring the island for hidden treasure.

But if Minecraft-ified Pokémon is not exactly your cup of tea, don’t worry, Nintendo has more up its sleeves.

In a joint announcement in Tokyo this May, Nintendo, the Pokémon Company (the group behind Quest) and Niantic (the creators of Pokémon GO) announced a plan to release four new Pokémon titles by 2019.

Pokémon Quest jump-starts that plan and two new Switch titles  — Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee! — are slated to be released to the Switch in November. A yet untitled “core” game is scheduled to be released by the end of 2019.

The companies plan to begin weaving these platforms, games and fans together, including allowing users to transport their pokémon from GO to the Switch titles and the creation of a “real” Poké Ball for the Switch.

It’s too early to speculate on the success of these grand plans, but it’s an exciting prospect for pokémon trainers worldwide.

Razer’s gaming ecosystem gets bigger with the launch of its online game store

Razer, known mainly for gaming laptops and peripherals, expanded its ecosystem today with the launch of Razer Game Store, an online game distribution platform. Razer Game Store will compete with Steam and Amazon, but wants to grab the attention of gamers with perks like the chance to earn more credits in Razer’s zSilver loyalty program, plus exclusive discounts on games and Razer hardware.

Razer Game Store is available worldwide, with localized content, payment methods and customer support for the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France. Other countries get access through a global storefront. Games come from Razer’s partners (which include developers Ubisoft, Bethesda, Bandai Namco, Deep Silver and Rockstar) and, like titles purchased through other online stores such as Amazon, Green Man Gaming or Humble Bundle, are delivered via Steam or Uplay product keys.

In the company’s announcement, Razer co-founder and chief executive officer Min-Liang Tan said “As gamers, we know the importance of a good deal and the Razer Game Store delivers that to everyone. We have been delighting gamers with our high-performing peripherals, laptops and software, and we’re now also able to provide the content itself that fuels their passion.”

Launched in 2005 to build gaming peripherals like mouses and keyboards, Razer was backed by investors including Horizons Ventures, Accel Partners and Intel Capital before raising $529 million in its debut on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange last November. The company’s other recent products include the gaming-focused Razer Phone, launched after it acquired smartphone maker Nextbit.

Google Play Instant lets you try games without having to install them

Last year, Google launched Instant Apps, a way for developers to give users a native app experience that didn’t involve having to install anything. Users would simply click on a link on the search results page and the instant app would load. Today, the company is extending this program to games. Thanks to this, you can now see what playing a level or two of Clash Royale, Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire or Panda Pop is like without having to go through the usual install procedure. Instead, you simply head for the Google Play store, find a game that supports this feature, and hit the “Try now” button.

Google Play product managers Jonathan Karmel and Benjamin Frenkel told me that the team learned a lot from the experience with building Instant Apps. For games, though, the team decided to increase the maximum file size from 2 MB to 10 MB, which isn’t really a surprise, given that a game needs a few more graphical assets than your regular to-do list app. In my experience testing this feature, this still allows the games to load quickly enough, though it doesn’t feel quite as instant as most of the regular instant apps do.

The main idea behind this project, Karmel and Frenkel said, is to drive discovery. To do this, the team is adding a new ‘arcade’ tab in the newly redesigned Google Play Games app to highlight the current crop of Instant games and launching an Instant Gameplay collection in the Google Play Store. The main advantage of these Instant games, though, is that users can try the game without having to install anything. As the team noted, every extra step in the install process offers potential players yet another chance to drop off and move on. Indeed, many users actually install a game and then never open it.

Some casual games already take up less than 10 MB and those developers will be able to opt to make their complete game available as a Play Instant app, too.

For now, this project is still a closed beta, though Google plans to open it up to more developers later this year. Some games that currently support Play Instant include Clash Royale, Words with Friends 2, Bubble Witch 3 Saga and Panda Pop, as well as a few other titles from Playtika, Jam City, MZ, and Hothead.

As Karmel and Frenkel told me, their teams are still working on providing developers with better tooling for building these apps and Google is also working with the likes of Unity and the Cocos2D-x teams to make building instant apps easier. For the most part, though, building an Instant Play game means bringing the file size to under 10 MB and adding a few lines to the app’s manifest. That’s probably easier said than done, though, given that you still want players to have an interesting experience.

Unsurprisingly, some developers currently make better use of that limited file size than others. When you try Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire, all you can do is regularly tap on some kind of blue monster and get some gold until the game informs you how much gold you received. That’s it. Over time, though, I’m sure developers will figure out how to best use this feature.

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