Chinese mobile games are gaining ground in the US

Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has spurred app usage in the United States as people stay indoors to limit contact with others. Mobile games particularly have enjoyed a boom, and among them, games from Chinese studios are gaining popularity.

Games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in a total of $5.8 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, jumping 34.3% from a year before and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, according to a new report from market research firm Sensor Tower.

In the quarter, Chinese titles contributed as much as 20% of the mobile gaming revenues in the U.S. That effectively made China the largest importer of mobile games in the U.S., thanks to a few blockbuster titles. Chinese publishers claimed 21 spots among the 100 top-grossing games in the period and collectively generated $780 million in revenues in the U.S., the world’s largest mobile gaming market, more than triple the amount from two years before.

Occupying the top rank are familiar Chinese titles such as the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, a collaboration between Tencent and Activision, as well Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. But smaller Chinese studios are also quickly infiltrating the U.S. market.

Mihoyo, a little-known studio outside China, has been turning heads in the domestic gaming industry with its hit game Genshin Impact, a role-playing action game featuring anime-style characters. It was the sixth-most highest-grossing mobile game in the U.S. during Q4, racking up over $100 million in revenues in the period.

Most notable is that Mihoyo has been an independent studio since its inception in 2011. Unlike many gaming startups that covet fundings from industry titans like Tencent, Mihoyo has so far raised only a modest amount from its early days. It also stirred up controversy for skipping major distributors like Tencent and phone vendors Huawei and Xiaomi, releasing Genshin Impact on Bilibili, a popular video site amongst Chinese youngsters, and games downloading platform Taptap.

Magic Tavern, the developer behind the puzzle game Project Makeover, one of the most installed mobile games in the U.S. since late last year, is another lesser-known studio. Founded by a team of Tsinghua graduates with offices around the world, Magic Tavern is celebrated as one of the first studios with roots in China to have gained ground in the American casual gaming market. KKR-backed gaming company AppLovin is a strategic investor in Magic Tavern.

Other popular games in the U.S. also have links to China, if not directly owned by a Chinese company. Shortcut Run and Roof Nails are works from the French casual game maker Voodoo, which received a minority investment from Tencent last year. Tencent is also a strategic investor in Roblox, the gaming platform oriented to young gamers and slated for an IPO in the coming weeks.

Area 120 is beginning to use Google’s massive reach to scale HTML5 GameSnacks platform

Hundreds of millions of users, especially in developing markets, don’t own high-end smartphones and can’t afford fast data plans to enjoy much of anything on the web.

Google has been exploring multiple ways to better serve this segment of the user base. It has tried partnerships to make the internet more affordable to tens of millions of users. It has worked with smartphone makers to bring reliable Android experience to cheap smartphones. In fact, it’s currently working on a project with telecom operator Jio Platforms in India to further lower the price point for decent Android experience.

For mobile games, however, Google has a slightly different idea to reach users. Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator for experimental projects, last year launched GameSnacks. It’s an HTML5 gaming platform, where titles are bite-sized and they load much faster and consume far less resources because of the way they have been designed.

And that idea appears to be working.

Google said on Tuesday that over the past year it has made inroads with GameSnacks, and is now ready to scale the platform and test monetization models to make it worthwhile for game developers.

In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Ani Mohan, General Manager of GameSnacks, said the platform has amassed over 100 titles and millions of users.

“HTML5 gaming has been growing, especially outside of the United States. HTML5 is a great way to get games to users who have just come online and probably haven’t played games online before. These games are cross-device, work on low-bandwidth connection, and are instantly playable as they don’t require users to install any files,” he said.

These single-player games, that work on any device with as low RAM as 1GB and 2G to 3G data connection, are available to users through GameSnacks website. They can be played on desktop as well as Chrome on an iPhone or iPad (if you wanted to give it a whirl.)

Now the company is using its scale to expand the reach and discoverability of GameSnacks. Mohan said in recent weeks GameSnacks games have been made available from the New Tab page in Chrome for users in India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Kenya.

In India, Google’s biggest market by users, GameSnacks games are also arriving to Google Pay. The company is also experimenting with bringing GameSnacks games to Discover feed.

Mohan said the company is starting these integrations is select countries because that’s where many users face the challenges the platform is trying to address. “We view this as an early stage of experimentation. If it goes well, we will love to expand it,” he said.

Additionally, Mohan said the company is experimenting with bringing GameSnacks games to the Google Assistant.

“Now that few of these integrations are live, one of things we are hoping to do is talk to developers, and tell them that there is an easy way to get on Google,” he said.

Developers on GameSnacks currently monetize their games via a licensing or a contracting model where they sell some or all of their game rights to the company. Mohan said the team, which comprises six people (though more people from Google contribute to it), is working on helping these developers monetize their games using next-generation AdSense for Games ad formats.

“We want to help them build viable businesses over time so we’re going to start experimenting with advertising on the platform,” he said. However, this will be for a select number of GameSnacks games for now.

Emerging markets such as Africa and Asia are not new to the world of HTML games. In India, for instance, a gaming platform called Gamezop raised $4.2 million last year to expand its HTML5 games to reach more developers and embed them into over 1,000 apps.

In 2018, South African telco, MTN Group, launched the Bonus Bucks HTML5 game portal for its subscribers in the Southern African country. Facebook operated HTML5 Instant Games on Messenger for years until taking it off the messaging service. A quick search on our own archive returns scores of firms that work on HTML5 games in the past, though we have seen fewer examples in recent years.

Mohan remains bullish that there is a big opportunity for HTML games and this extends beyond Africa and Asia. “We don’t see these markets as our only option. These are just the markets we’re starting with because the need for HTML5 games… is especially compelling. We think the market size for this is much broader because HTML has users all around the world,” he said.

Google Play’s Best of 2020 Awards highlight the stressful year it’s been

Continuing its annual tradition, Google today announced its Best of 2020 awards — the company’s list of the best apps, games, movies and books for the year. Not surprisingly, the top apps picked by both Google Play users and editors reflect the stressful year that 2020 has been, with a top sleep app, Loóna, winning the title of “Best App” of 2020. Meanwhile, Google Play users picked streaming service Disney+ as their choice.

Loóna is a fitting app to win the award this year. The sleep aid promises a mood-altering experience that helps its users deal with the negative emotions that accumulate during the day and are then processed during sleep. As anxiety and stress grow, people’s sleep patterns and REM sleep be disrupted, Loóna explains. To combat this, its app offers nightly “sleepscapes,” that combined activity-based relaxation, storytelling and sounds to help people shut out their stress and relax.

Unlike other sleep or meditation apps where users close their eyes and drift off, Loóna is intended to help people wind down while still on their phones. Users tap to color images while the sleep story plays. The company also this year introduced music playlists, called soundscapes.

Image Credits: Loóna

In October, the company reported its app — which is also available on iOS — was seeing daily average time spent of 34 minutes from its subscribers. And its average conversion rate from trial to paid subscriber was 52.5%. With version 2.0, Loóna plans to reposition its app from being solely focused on bedtime relaxation to become a broader mood management app that also covers the sleep to wake up cycle, among other things. It also plans to add personalized content recommendations.

In addition to Loóna, Google Play editors selected the free-to-play action role-playing game Genshin Impact as the year’s best game for giving players a “wondrous world to explore” while unraveling mysteries. The game, miHoYo’s first-ever open-world game, features battles with elemental magic, character switching, and gacha game monetization for obtaining new characters, weapons, and other additions.

Google Play users, however, selected SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off as the year’s best game.

Another app that benefitted from coronavirus lockdowns was Disney+, which won this year’s User’s Choice award for Best App. The streaming service helped families stuck at home to keep their kids entertained. Plus, with new shows like the “The Mandalorian,” the service has been a hit for adults in the family, too.

In addition to the top winners, Google gave a shout-out to a few other notable titles in its announcement, including Chris Hemsworth’s training app Centr, behavioral modification app Intellect, as well as games like The Gardens Between, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, and Sky: Children of the Light.

The Play Store also awarded various gaming subgenres with awards of their own, like best competitive games, best indies, best pick up and play, and best game changers. These winners include Brawlhalla, Bullet Echo, GWENT: The Witcher Card Game, Legends of Runeterra, The Seven Deadly Sins: Grand Cross, Cookies Must Die, GRIS, inbento, Maze Machina, Sky: Children of Light, Disney Frozen Adventures, DreamWorks Trolls Pop, EverMerge, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, Fancade, Genshin Impact, Minimal Dungeon RPG, Ord., and The Gardens Between.

Other top apps won awards in categories like best everyday essentials, best for personal growth, best hidden gems, best for fun, and best apps for good. These app winners include Calmaria, Grid Diary, The Pattern, Whisk, Zoom, Centr, Intellect, Jumprope: How-to Videos, Paird: Couples App, Speekoo, Cappuccino, Explorest, Loóna, Paperless Post, Tayasui Sketches, Bazaart, Disney+, Dolby On, Reface, Vita, GreenChoice, Medito, and ShareTheMeal.

Movies that won “Best of” for 2020 included Bill & Ted Face the Music, Just Mercy, Miss Juneteenth, Onward, and Parasite; while book winners included A Promised Land by Barack Obama, The City We Became by N.K. Jesmin, Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh, and You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria,

The promise and challenge of Roblox’s future in China

In a much-anticipated move, California-based gaming firm Roblox filed to go public last week. One aspect driving the future growth of the children- and community-focused gaming platform is its China entry, which it fleshes out in detail for the first time in its IPO prospectus.

Like all gaming companies entering China, Roblox must work with a local publishing and operations partner. And like Riot Games, Supercell, Epic Games, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, Nintendo and many more, Roblox chose Tencent, the world’s largest gaming firm by revenue, according to Newzoo.

The partnership, which began in 2019, revolves around a joint venture in which Roblox holds a 51% controlling stake and a Tencent affiliate called Songhua owns a 49% interest. The prospectus notes that Tencent currently intends to publish and operate a localized version of the Roblox Platform (罗布乐思), which allows people to create games and play those programmed by others.

User-generated content is in part what makes Roblox popular amongst young gamers, but that social aspect almost certainly makes its China entry trickier. It’s widely understood that the Chinese government is asserting more control over what gets published on the internet, and in recent times its scrutiny over gaming content has heightened. Industry veteran Wenfeng Yang went as far as speculating that games with user-generated content will “never made [their] path to China,” citing the example of Animal Crossing.

Roblox says it believes it’s “uniquely positioned” to grow its penetration in China but its “performance will be dependent on” Tencent’s ability to clear regulatory hurdles. It’s unclear what measures Roblox will take to prevent its user-generated content from running afoul of the Chinese authorities, whose appetite for what is permitted can be volatile. Tencent itself has been in the crosshairs of regulators over allegedly “addictive” and “harmful” gaming content. It also remains to be seen how Roblox ensures its user experience won’t be compromised by whatever censorship system that gets implemented.

Roblox chose Tencent as its Chinese partner. / Image: Roblox

At the most basic level, Roblox claims it works to ensure user safety through measures designed “to enforce real-world laws,” including text-filtering, content moderation, automated systems to identify behaviors in violation of platform policies, and a review team. The company expresses in its filing optimism about getting China’s regulatory greenlight:

While Tencent is still working to obtain the required regulatory license to publish and operate Luobulesi [Roblox’s local name] in China, we believe the regulatory requirements specific to China will be met. In the meantime, Luobu is working towards creating a robust developer community in China.”

The company is rightfully optimistic. China is the world’s largest gaming market and Tencent has a proven history of converting its social network users into gamers. Roblox’s marketing focus on encouraging “creativity” might also sit well with Beijing’s call for tech companies to “do good,” an order Tencent has answered. Roblox’s Chinese website suggests it’s touting part of its business as a learning and STEM tool and shows it’s seeking collaborations with local schools and educators.

Nonetheless, the involvement of Tencent is the elephant in the room in times of uncertain U.S.-China relations. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. or CFIUS, which is chaired by the Treasury Department, was inquiring about data practices by Tencent-backed gaming studios in the U.S. including Epic and Riot, Bloomberg reported in September.

Roblox isn’t exempt. It notes in the prospectus that CFIUS has “made inquiries to us with respect to Tencent’s equity investment in us and involvement in the China JV.” It further warns that it “cannot predict what effect any further inquiry by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. into our relationship with Tencent or changes in China-U.S. relations overall may have on our ability to effectively support the China JV or on the operations or success of the China JV.”

The other obstacle faced by all foreign companies entering China is local clones. Reworld, backed by prominent Chinese venture firms such as Northern Light Venture Capital and Joy Capital, is one. The game is unabashed about its origin. In a Reddit post responding to the accusation of it being “a ripoff of Roblox,” Reworld pays its tribute to Roblox and admits its product is “built on the shoulders of Roblox,” while claiming “it did not take any code from Roblox Studio.”

The Beijing-based startup behind Reworld has so far raised more than $50 million and had about 100 developers working on Reworld’s editing tool and 50 other operational staff, its co-founder said in a June interview. In comparison, Roblox had 38 employees in China by September, 38 of whom were in product and engineering functions. It’s actively hiring in China.

Roblox cannot comment for the story as it’s in the IPO quiet period.

To own an AR future, Niantic wants to build a smarter map of the world

Niantic is continuing to bet heavily on the idea that it knows where consumer computing is headed, namely augmented reality. The game development startup behind Pokémon Go has some good company with companies like Apple, Facebook and Snap making similar bets, but stakes are high for the studio which hopes it can build an early advantage in foundational AR infrastructure and bring third-party developers on board, edging out efforts from companies that are quite a bit larger.

Niantic’s experiments are still being bankrolled by their 2016 first-party hit Pokémon Go, which SensorTower estimates is having its best year ever in 2020. A report from the firm suggests that the title has pulled in more than $1 billion in revenue since the start of the year, a marked increase since 2019 that might be surprising given the social effects of a global pandemic. Those revenues have allowed Niantic to be one of the more active acquirers in the AR infrastructure space, buying up small buzzy AR startups like Escher Reality, Matrix Mill and, most recently, 6D.ai.

That latest purchase in particular has acted as a signal for what the company’s next plans are for its augmented reality platform. 6D.ai was building cloud AR mapping software with companies like Airbnb among its early customers. The tech allowed users to quickly gather 3D information of a space just by holding up their phone to the world. Since the acquisition, Niantic has been integrating the tech into their developer platform and have been aiming to juice the technology with their own advances in semantic understanding so that they can not only quickly gather what the geometry of a space looks like, but also peer into the context of what the objects are that makes up that 3D mesh.

“We ultimately have this vision that for an AR experience, everything has to come together for it to be really magical,” Joel Hesch, Niantic’s Senior Director of Engineering, told TechCrunch. “You want precise location information so that you can see content in the right location and experience things together with others who are in the same location. You want the geometric information for things like occlusion or physics interactions. And you want to know about what things mean from a semantic perspective so that your characters can interact with the world in an intelligible way.”

While they’ve been building out the tech, they’ve also been pushing users to try it out. Niantic has been urging Pokémon Go players to actively capture videos of certain landmarks and destinations, visual data from which is fed back into bulking up models and improving experiences for subsequent users. As users gain access to more advanced tech like the LiDAR sensor inside the new iPhone 12 Pro, it’s likely that Niantic will gain access to more quality data themselves.

The ultimate goal of this data collection, the startup says, is to build an ever-updating 3D map of the world. Their latest tech allows them to peer into this map and distinguish what types of objects and scenes are in these scans, distinguishing buildings from water from the sky. The real question is how useful all of this data will actually prove to be in practice, compared to more high-level geographic insights like the Google Maps API .

Though the company has been talking about their Real World Platform since 2018, they’ve been slow to officially expand it as the enthusiasm behind phone-based AR has seemed to recede since Apple’s initial unveil of ARKit in 2017 prompted a groundswell of attention in the space. “We’ve primarily been focused on first party games and applications, but we are very excited about extending the platform to be something that more people can use,” Hesch says.

For Niantic and other companies that are bullish on an AR future, their best bet seem to be quietly building and hoping that their R&D will give them a years-long advantage when the technology potentially starts landing more consumer hits.

PUBG Mobile to terminate access for users in India on October 30 following ban order

PUBG Mobile, the sleeper hit mobile game, will terminate all service and access for users in India on October 30, two months after New Delhi banned the game in the world’s second largest internet market over cybersecurity concerns.

India banned PUBG Mobile Nordic Map: Livik and PUBG Mobile Lite, along with over 100 apps with links to China on September 2. The ban came after India banned TikTok and dozens of other popular Chinese apps in late June.

These apps were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order,” the country’s IT Ministry said on both the instances.

But unlike other affected apps that became unavailable within days — if not hours — PUBG Mobile apps remained accessible in the country for users who already had them installed on their phones, tablets, and PCs. In fact, according to one popular mobile insight firm, PUBG Mobile had retained more than 90% of its monthly active users in the country, a mobile-first market where 99% of smartphones run Android, in the weeks following New Delhi’s order.

(Following the ban, Google and Apple pulled PUBG Mobile apps from their app stores in India. But soon enough, guides on how to workaround the ban and obtain and install the apps became popular on several forums.)

PUBG Mobile had about 50 monthly active users in India, tens of millions of users ahead of Call of Duty: Mobile and Fortnite and any other mobile game in the country.

“PUBG Mobile kickstarted an entire ecosystem — from esports organisations to teams and even a cottage industry of streamers that made the most of its spectator sport-friendly gameplay,” said Rishi Alwani, a long-time analyst of Indian gaming market and publisher of news outlet The Mako Reactor.

“Granted Tencent did a lot of the heavy lifting in building it out, but the game’s quality itself was heads and shoulders above what most Indians were used to on smartphones. And that’s a reason many kept coming back, some eventually monetising as well,” he added.

South Korea-headquartered PUBG Mobile attempted to assuage New Delhi’s concern by cutting ties with Tencent, the game’s publishing and distribution partner in India.

On Thursday, PUBG Mobile said, “protecting user data has always been a top priority and we have always complied with applicable data protection laws and regulations in India. All users’ gameplay information is processed in a transparent manner as disclosed in our privacy policy.”

“We deeply regret this outcome, and sincerely thank you for your support and love for PUBG Mobile in India,” it added.

Former Apple engineer and autocorrect creator builds his first app, a word game called Up Spell

Former Apple software engineer and designer Ken Kocienda, whose work included the original iPhone and the development of touchscreen autocorrect, has created his first iOS app, Up Spell. The fast-paced, fun word game challenges users to spell all the words you can in two minutes and uses a lexicon of words Kocienda built to allow for the inclusion of proper names. A portion of app revenues are also being donated to a local food bank, so you can help give back while relieving stress through gaming.

Kocienda says he had never before made a standalone iOS app.

When he worked at Apple, all the code he wrote was integrated into a bigger iOS release. So when Kocienda got the idea to develop a game, he looked to obvious sources of inspiration: his past experiences with typing, keyboards and autocorrect.

The game’s lexicon was built first with the New General Service List to serve as its foundation. This was followed by weeks of writing small programs to generate lists of candidate words — like, by adding an “S” to existing words to pluralize them, for example. And hours more were spent scanning lists to choose the words to include.

Kocienda says he also wanted the game to be fun, and personally found it frustrating that other word games wouldn’t allow proper names.

“Many games accept words like PHARAOH and PYRAMID, but not NILE or EGYPT. This doesn’t make sense to me. These are all words!,” he says.

So he built his own list that includes thousands of proper names, then added to it more slang and contractions to expand it even further. That means you can spell a word like S’MORES, which involves an apostrophe, for example.

Image Credits: Up Spell

While support for a variety of words, including proper names, is the key way the gameplay differentiates from rivals, the app’s business model is also one that’s becoming less common these days: it’s a one-time paid download.

The app is a $1.99 download that lets you pay once to play forever. Today, many games in this same space use a freemium model where the app download itself is free, but you’re then nagged with in-app hooks to buy coins or tokens to advance gameplay or unlock certain features.

Kocienda’s decision to forgo this model was intentional, he explains.

“I made Up Spell a two-minute game without much in the way of gameplay gimmicks,” says Kocienda. “You just spell words. 2020 has been a rough year for everyone, and sometimes taking out two minutes to think about nothing but spelling a few words is just the kind of right kind of stress reliever,” he adds. “I hope Up Spell brings people a little unexpected happiness to their 2020.”

Also of note, 25 cents per download is being donated to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, which works to get food to vulnerable people in Kocienda’s area.

If all goes well, Up Spell may be followed by other games with a similar model, like a sounds or color-matching games, for instance.

The new game is a one-time paid download on the App Store.

 

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