This Week in Apps: AltStore, acquisitions and Google Play Pass

The app industry shows no signs of slowing down, with 194 billion downloads in 2018 and over $100 billion in consumer spending. People spend 90% of their mobile time in apps and more time using their mobile devices than watching TV. In other words, apps aren’t just a way to spend idle hours — they’re a big business. And one that often seems to change overnight. In this new Extra Crunch series, we’ll help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps — including everything from the OS’s to the apps that run upon them, as well as the money that flows through it all.

This week, alternatives to the traditional app store is a big theme. Not only has a new, jailbreak-free iOS marketplace called AltStore just popped up, we’ve also got both Apple and Google ramping up their own subscription-based collections of premium apps and games.

Meanwhile, the way brands and publishers want to track their apps’ success is changing, too. And App Annie — the company that was the first to start selling pickaxes for the App Store gold rush — is responding with an acquisition that will help app publishers better understand the return on investment for their app businesses.

Headlines

AltStore is an alternative App Store that doesn’t need a jailbreak

An interesting alternative app marketplace has appeared on the scene, allowing a way for developers to distribute iOS apps outside the official App Store, reports Engadget — without jailbreaking, which can be difficult and has various security implications. Instead, the new store works by tricking your device into thinking you’re a developer sideloading apps. And it uses a companion app on your Mac or PC to re-sign the apps every 7 days via iTunes WiFi syncing protocol. Already, it’s offering a Nintendo emulator and other games, says The Verge. And Apple is probably already working on a way to shut this down. For now, it’s live at Altstore.io.

For the third time in a month, Google mass-deleted Android apps from a big Chinese developer.

Does Google Play have a malicious app problem? That appears to be the case as Google has booted some 46 apps from major Chinese mobile developer iHandy out of its app store, BuzzFeed reported. And it isn’t saying why. The move follows Google’s ban of two other major Chinese app developers, DO Global and CooTek, who had 1 billion total downloads.

Google Firebase gets new tools

Google Play Pass launches with 350+ premium apps and games, initially for $1.99 per month

Following the well-received launch of Apple Arcade, Google today is officially introducing its own take on subscription-based access to premium mobile games — or, Google’s case, premium mobile apps, too. The new Google Play Pass subscription, arriving this week, will offer over 350 apps and games that are completely unlocked, with no upfront fees, in-app purchases, or advertisements. And the initial price point is something of a no-brainer — it’s just $1.99 per month for the first year, Google says.

That price will increase to $4.99 per month after the first 12 months have passed, which is the same price as Apple Arcade at launch. This launch promotion is only available until October 10, 2019, however.

The two services are similar in concept, as both are providing a large library of premium content for a monthly subscription. But there are some differences between the two.

For starters, Apple Arcade is filled with exclusives — meaning its games will not be found on Andriod. The reverse is not true for Google Play Pass. Instead, the Play Pass catalog includes many cross-platform titles, including some that even found their fame first on iOS, like ustwo’s Monument Valley.

In addition, Play Pass’s launch titles aren’t all games. There are also ad-free versions of popular mobile apps, like AccuWeather, Facetune, and Pic Stitch, for example.

Notable launch titles include Stardew Valley, Risk, Terraria, Monument Valley, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Reigns: Game of Thrones, Titan Quest, and Wayward Souls. Some lesser-known additions include LIMBO, Lichtspeer, Mini Metro, and Old Man’s Journey. Others, like This War of Mine and Cytus, are coming soon. And for little kids, there are some preschooler-friendly titles like Toca Boca classics and the My Town series.

More titles are added on a monthly basis, Google says.

pph realistic

Because it’s not relying on exclusives, Google’s catalog is more than triple the size of Apple’s at launch. That being said, Apple’s Arcade library is filled with gorgeous, high-quality games while Play Pass is rounded out with a lot of more utilities, like weather apps and photo editors.

Play Pass ticket logoLike Apple Arcade, the new subscription gets its own tab in the Google Play app, where the games are organized by genre, popularity and other factors — just like a mini app store. However, unlike Apple Arcade, where games are only found in the Arcade tab or through search, Google Play Pass titles will appear directly in the Play Store. They’ll be designated with a Play Pass ticket badge, so you can easily identify them.

The Play Pass subscription also allows the games to be shared with the whole family. The family manager can share their Play Pass subscription with up to five other family members, who can each access the titles independently. This is comparable to Apple Arcade.

We already knew Google was working on an Apple Arcade competitor before today. The Play Pass subscription’s existence had been leaked, and Google later confirmed the service with a tweet. What we didn’t yet know was the launch date, lineup, or the official pricing.

Google Play Pass service is rolling out this week to Android devices in the U.S., with more countries coming soon. A 10-day subscription is available, before it converts to the $1.99 per month limited promotion, followed by the $4.99 per month price point when the promotion ends.

While neither Apple nor Google is discussing the terms of their deals with developers, Google says that the more people who download a Play Pass title, the more the revenue developers receive on a recurring basis. It also explained that Google itself is funding the initial launch offer, so developers can gain more subscriber interest without impacting their revenue.

 

 

Google Play Pass launches with 350+ premium apps and games, initially for $1.99 per month

Following the well-received launch of Apple Arcade, Google today is officially introducing its own take on subscription-based access to premium mobile games — or, Google’s case, premium mobile apps, too. The new Google Play Pass subscription, arriving this week, will offer over 350 apps and games that are completely unlocked, with no upfront fees, in-app purchases, or advertisements. And the initial price point is something of a no-brainer — it’s just $1.99 per month for the first year, Google says.

That price will increase to $4.99 per month after the first 12 months have passed, which is the same price as Apple Arcade at launch. This launch promotion is only available until October 10, 2019, however.

The two services are similar in concept, as both are providing a large library of premium content for a monthly subscription. But there are some differences between the two.

For starters, Apple Arcade is filled with exclusives — meaning its games will not be found on Andriod. The reverse is not true for Google Play Pass. Instead, the Play Pass catalog includes many cross-platform titles, including some that even found their fame first on iOS, like ustwo’s Monument Valley.

In addition, Play Pass’s launch titles aren’t all games. There are also ad-free versions of popular mobile apps, like AccuWeather, Facetune, and Pic Stitch, for example.

Notable launch titles include Stardew Valley, Risk, Terraria, Monument Valley, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Reigns: Game of Thrones, Titan Quest, and Wayward Souls. Some lesser-known additions include LIMBO, Lichtspeer, Mini Metro, and Old Man’s Journey. Others, like This War of Mine and Cytus, are coming soon. And for little kids, there are some preschooler-friendly titles like Toca Boca classics and the My Town series.

More titles are added on a monthly basis, Google says.

pph realistic

Because it’s not relying on exclusives, Google’s catalog is more than triple the size of Apple’s at launch. That being said, Apple’s Arcade library is filled with gorgeous, high-quality games while Play Pass is rounded out with a lot of more utilities, like weather apps and photo editors.

Play Pass ticket logoLike Apple Arcade, the new subscription gets its own tab in the Google Play app, where the games are organized by genre, popularity and other factors — just like a mini app store. However, unlike Apple Arcade, where games are only found in the Arcade tab or through search, Google Play Pass titles will appear directly in the Play Store. They’ll be designated with a Play Pass ticket badge, so you can easily identify them.

The Play Pass subscription also allows the games to be shared with the whole family. The family manager can share their Play Pass subscription with up to five other family members, who can each access the titles independently. This is comparable to Apple Arcade.

We already knew Google was working on an Apple Arcade competitor before today. The Play Pass subscription’s existence had been leaked, and Google later confirmed the service with a tweet. What we didn’t yet know was the launch date, lineup, or the official pricing.

Google Play Pass service is rolling out this week to Android devices in the U.S., with more countries coming soon. A 10-day subscription is available, before it converts to the $1.99 per month limited promotion, followed by the $4.99 per month price point when the promotion ends.

While neither Apple nor Google is discussing the terms of their deals with developers, Google says that the more people who download a Play Pass title, the more the revenue developers receive on a recurring basis. It also explained that Google itself is funding the initial launch offer, so developers can gain more subscriber interest without impacting their revenue.

 

 

Through crowdsourcing, Cerberus Interactive wants to take location based gaming to the masses

Sami Khan began his work in the startup world by marketing mobile-based investment services like Acorns.

Now the marketer who helped grow that business to a nearly $1 billion valuation is turning his attention to location based gaming in the hopes that he can take on leading contender, Niantic, with a faster, more flexible, and fan driven approach to game development with his new startup, Cerberus Interactive.

Khan’s pitch is that he’s taking the skills he’d honed building up services like Acorns or the browser extension for bargain hunters, Honey, to game development to make games more viral from their inception.

The biggest thing is how do you de-risk what is perceived as a hit driven industry?” Khan asks. “Games are closer to digital apps than back in the days of the console and companies should ship it like an ecommerce concept… If adoption of the game is going to be the decision factor of whether a game fails or succeeds…why isn’t the adoption fo the game tested before the title is built or while the game is being conceived?”

So for his first foray into gaming, Khan is combining a crowd-sourced approach to the development of the game and applying it to what many people think is gaming’s next big frontier —  the location based game phenomenon that hit its stride with Niantic’s Pokemon GO.

Right now in location based games you have the behemoth which is Niantic,” says Khan. “Right now the gaming industry looks at location based games as its own sub genre. But when we look at location based games, we believe that location based games have an aspect that it is a game mechanic within other games.” 

The first game that Cerberus is developing is a base building simulator akin to a title like “Age of Empires” but based on real-world locations. “Simulation games or casual games with location built in will have a bonus or an advantage over the stationary games that we play today,” says Khan.

The “Atlas Empires” title that Cerberus is currently developing is being made in concert with the gamers who might want to play it. So far, an undisclosed number of customers are already paying to have a say in certain aspects of the game’s development — kind of like a premiere tier within a crowdfunding campaign.

Khan, a New Orleans native who splits his time between Los Angeles and Austin, has enlisted some marquee investors in his bid to challenge both the traditional ways in which games have been developed and the current industry leader.

Strategic investor MobilityWare has signed on to back the company along with individual investors like Steve Huffman, the co-founder and chief executive of Reddit, and Blake Chandler, the chief business officer of the runaway social network hit, TikTok.

Khan traces his love of games to his time visiting his cousins in Bangladesh and playing “Prince of Persia” on an early Toshiba laptop. “I remember sitting around the computer, watching my oldest cousin play because my dad didn’t want any of the kids touching the laptop,” Khan says.

So far the beta version of “Atlas Empires” has had 50,000 downloads and has about 1,000 daily players, Khan says. The commercial version of the game is expected to go live in the first quarter of 2020, says Khan.

 

‘Harry Potter: Wizards Unite’ reaches 400K downloads, $300K in consumer spend in U.K. and U.S.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, the highly anticipated new mobile game from Pokémon Go makers Niantic and Warner Brothers’ games division, is off to a good start but it’s not breaking Pokémon Go records. According to preliminary estimates from Sensor Tower, the new game has been installed some 400,000 times in its first 24 hours in its launch markets of the U.S. and U.K. — where the game arrived ahead of schedule on Thursday. Gross player spending in these markets hit around $300,000 across both iOS and Android during this time.

This is not the full picture, however.

The game was also available in Australia and New Zealand during a pre-launch beta trial of sorts, and is only now rolling out to worldwide users on a country-by-country basis. During its beta test period, Sensor Tower estimates the game grossed around $80,000.

But in the same number of days, Pokémon Go had grossed $1.6 million in those two markets.

Following its U.S. launch, it took Harry Potter: Wizards Unite around 15 hours to reach the No.1 position on the iOS App Store. This ascension is also going a bit slower than Pokémon Go did when it arrived. That game was an immediate hit, debuting at No. 1 on its launch day of July 6, 2016. It was then installed 7.5 million times in the U.S. during its first 24 hours. And it didn’t reach the U.K. until seven days later.

In its first 24 hours, Pokémon Go had become the No. 1 app by revenue in the U.S., as well. The new Harry Potter title is ranked No. 102 overall for iPhone revenue, Sensor Tower says. It’s also No. 48 for U.K. revenue, and not yet ranked on Google Play. However, these figures differ from App Annie’s, which says the game has broken into the top 100.

App Annie hasn’t yet put out numbers related to Harry Potter: Wizards Unite’s revenue, but the company tells us it hit No. 1 in the U.S. for downloads as of 12 AM on June 21, 2019. And for consumer spending, App Annie says game broke into the top 100 grossing games by hitting No. 63 as of 7:00 AM June 21 on iPhone in the U.S.

The new game’s lesser demand compared with Pokémon Go could be attributed to a number of factors. Pokémon Go was hugely anticipated, had a massive fan base ready to download, and was one of the first compelling use cases of AR in gaming.

Harry Potter’s fan base is active as well, but they’ve also had other games to play before now.

For example, Jam City has a Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery game that’s been getting a huge boost since yesterday’s news of the new Niantic title. That points to a case of mistaken identity or perhaps clever App Store SEO…or both.

 

 

It’s also worth noting the App Store itself has changed in the years since Pokémon Go’s launch.

In September 2017, Apple introduced its brand-new App Store that took the emphasis off its Top Charts as a means of discovery, and instead features apps in editorial “stories” on its Today tab. Within the dedicated apps and games section, the revamped App Store points users to editorial collections, with Top Charts only found upon scrolling down the page quite a bit.

We’ve heard from some developers that these changes reduced their downloads, as getting into the Top Charts doesn’t drive numbers like it used to. They said getting into the Today tab’s feature editorial doesn’t send as many installs, either. But this is all anecdotal — and of course, Apple doesn’t talk about numbers like this. Further investigation is needed.

In any event, the two app store intelligence firms — App Annie and Sensor Tower — both predict big numbers for the new Harry Potter title over time.

Sensor Tower estimates the game will pull in $400 million to $500 million in revenue in its first year. However, the firm notes that Harry Potter isn’t as popular in Asia — a market that delivers Pokémon Go over 40% of its revenue.

App Annie, meanwhile, predicts the game will hit $100 million in consumer spend in its first 30 days. (Pokémon Go hit this milestone in 2 weeks.)

Pokémon Go shattered mobile gaming records, clearing $100 million in its first two weeks and becoming the fastest game to reach $1 billion in consumer spend,” noted App Annie. “While we don’t expect it to surpass Pokémon Go’s launch, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is set to clear $100 million in its first 30 days — which is no small feat.”

Mobile games now account for 33% of installs, 10% of time, and 74% of consumer spend

Mobile gaming continues to hold its own, accounting for 10% of the time users spend in apps — a percentage that has remained steady over the years, even though our time in apps overall has grown by 50% over the past two years. In addition, games are continuing to grow their share of consumer spend, notes App Annie in a new research report out this week, timed with E3.

Thanks to growth in hyper-casual and cross-platform gaming in particular, mobile games are on track to reach 60% market share in consumer spend in 2019.

The new report looks at how much time users spend gaming versus using other apps, monetization, and regional highlights within the gaming market, among other things.

Despite accounting for a sizable portion of users’ time, games don’t lead the other categories, App Annie says.

Instead, social and communications apps account for half (50%) of the time users spent globally in apps in 2018, followed by video players and editors at 15%, then games at 10%.

In the U.S., users generally have 8 games installed per device and globally, we play an average of 2 to 5 games per month.

The number of total hours spent games continues to grow roughly 10% year-over-year, as well, thanks to existing gamers increasing their time in games and from a broadening user base including a large number of mobile app newcomers from emerging markets.

This has also contributed to a widening age range for gamers.

Today, the majority of time spent in gaming is by those aged 25 and up. In many cases, these players may not even classify themselves as “gamers,” App Annie noted.

While games may not lead the categories in terms of time spent, they do account for a large number of mobile downloads and the majority of consumer spending on mobile.

One-third of all worldwide downloads are games across iOS, Google Play, and third-party app stores.

Last year, 1.6+ million games launched on Google Play and 1.1+ million arrived on iOS.

On Android, 74 cents of every dollar is spent on games with 95% of those purchases coming as in-app purchases not paid downloads. App Annie didn’t have figures for iOS.

Google Play is known for having more downloads than iOS, but continues to trail on consumer spend. In 2018, Google Play grabbed a 72% share of worldwide downloads, compared with 28% on iOS. Meanwhile, Google Play only saw 36% of consumer spend versus 64% on iOS.

One particular type of gaming jumped out in the new report: racing games.

Consumer spend in this subcategory of gaming grew 7.9 times as fast as the overall mobile gaming market. Adventure games did well, too, growing roughly 5 times the rate of games in general. Music games and board games were also popular.

Of course, gaming expands beyond mobile. But it’s surprising to see how large a share of the broader market can be attributed to mobile gaming.

According to App Annie, mobile gaming is larger than all other channels including home game consoles, handheld consoles, and computers (Mac and PC). It’s also 20% larger than all these other categories combined — a shift from only a few years ago, attributed to the growth in the mobile consumer base, which allows mobile gaming to reach more people.

Cross-platform gaming is a key gaming trend today, thanks to titles like PUBG and Fortnite in particular, which were among the most downloaded games across several markets last year.

Meanwhile, hyper-casual games are appealing to those who don’t think of themselves as gamers, which has helped to broaden the market further.

App Annie is predicting the next big surge will come from AR gaming, with Harry Potter: Wizards Unite expected to bring Pokémon Go-like frenzy back to AR, bringing the new title $100 million in its first 30 days. The game is currently in beta testing in select markets, with plans for a 2019 release.

In terms of regions, China’s impact on gaming tends to be outsized, but its growth last year was limited due to the game license regulations. This forced publishers to look outside the country for growth — particularly in markets like North America and Japan, App Annie said.

Meanwhile, India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia lead the emerging markets with regard to game
downloads, but established markets of the U.S. and China remain strong players in terms of sheer numbers.

With the continued steady growth in consumer spend and the stable time spent in games, App Annie states the monetization potential for games is growing. In 2018, there were 1900 games that made more than $5 million, up from 1200 in 2106. In addition, consumer spend in many key markets is still growing too — like the 105% growth in two years in China, for example, and the 45% growth in the U.S.

The full report delves into other regions as well as game publishers’ user acquisition strategies. It’s available download here.

Apple announces its 2019 Design Award winners

Apple doled out its 2019 Design Awards at its Worldwide Developer Conference this afternoon, highlighting a range of apps that work as beautifully as they look, the company said. This year, half the award winners were mobile games, which may speak to where much design innovation is today taking place. Other creativity focused and health care apps filled out the rest of the winners’ list.

To take home a prize, the apps’ had to excel across three areas: visual design, technology, and innovation. Specifically, Apple looks for apps that take full advantage of its latest devices and technologies.

The award winners don’t just get to take home a (newly redesigned) trophy. They also get an envious Apple prize pack that includes a 512GB iPhone 10S, AirPods, a 512GB 12.9 inch iPad Pro, Apple Pencil 2, a 64GB Apple TV 4K, an Apple Watch Series 4, a top of the line MacBook Pro, and a fully loaded iMac Pro. The apps will also be featured in the iOS App Store, gaining them more exposure.

The winning apps this year included:

Ordia: a one-finger action game where you play as a new life form taking its first leaps into a strange and hazardous world. Apple said this game offered a great balance between difficulty and satisfaction. It also focused on accessibility features, with a colorblind mode, for example. The game, from Loju LTD, was developed for two years and launched only a month ago, catching Apple’s eye.

Flow by Moleskin: Creative app for sketching, writing and drawing, Flow, was chosen for its attention to detail and overall design. It also showcased Apple technologies like Apple Pencil, gestures, iOS drawing APIs, and Metal.

The Gardens Between: A a single-player adventure-puzzle game about time, memory and friendship from The Voxel Agents won for its cinematic moments and immersive experience. Apple also really liked its gameplay mechanic which lets you stop time, which allows you to play without feeling rushed.

Asphalt 9 Legends: Gameloft’s latest iteration on the car racing game features cars from Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, and W Motors. What makes it worthy of the award are its incredible effects and graphics, as well as its custom engine and Metal 2 integration. 

Pixelmator Photo: This photo editing app specifically won for its iPad version, which makes photo editing easy for everyone. But what Apple really liked was its use of Metal, CoreML and how it leveraged machine learning technologies to suggest changes to photos.

ELOH: Another game winner, this one described as a “chilled out puzzler.” The game helps you relax and decompress, said Apple, but its key component is its sound effects soundtrack, which complements its beautiful graphics and the animations. There are no time constraints on this one, so you can relax and enjoy playing.

Butterfly IQ – Ultrasound: This app was a standout from the group for focusing on a real healthcare need, not gaming or the creative arts. The app connects with a separate device to give mobile ultrasounds. The app won based largely on that innovation alone. As Apple noted, the idea with this app is that you can move ultrasound to a microchip and move the computer to an iOS device, instead of the big, expensive machines required today.

Thumper: Pocket Edition: This winning music rhythm game was unique and did a great job introducing new game mechanics involving swipes and taps. But it also has a psychedelic soundtrack to complement the action that sounds great when played loud.

Homecourt: The Basketball App:  This basketball training app uses a proprietary mobile AI technology to track, record, and provide deep analysis of all your shots and workouts using your iPhone’s camera.

 

 

‘Gato Roboto’ and ‘Dig Dog’ put pixelated pets to work in gleeful gaming homages

Drawing inspiration from games of yore but with dog and cat protagonists that signal light adventures rather than grim, dark ones, Gato Roboto and Dig Dog are easy to recommend to anyone looking to waste a couple hours this weekend. Not only that, but the latter was developed in a fascinating and inspiring way.

Both games share a 1-bit aesthetic that goes back many years but most recently was popularized by the inimitable Downwell and recently used to wonderful effect in both Return of the Obra Dinn and Minit. This is a limitation that frees the developer from certain concerns while also challenging them to present the player with all the information they need with only two colors, or in Dig Dog’s case a couple more (but not a lot).

In the latter game, you play as a dog, digging for bones among a series of procedurally generated landscapes populated by enemies and hazards. Dig Dug is the obvious callback in the name, but gameplay is more bouncy and spontaneous rather than the slower, strategic digging of the arcade classic.

On every stage you’re tasked with collecting a bone that’s somewhere near the bottom, while avoiding various types of enemies and traps or, if you so choose, destroying them and occasionally yielding coins. These coins can be traded with a merchant who appears on some stages, offering various gameplay perks like a longer dash or higher jump.

Get it! Get the bone!

The simple controls let you jump, dig, and do a midair dash that kills enemies — that’s pretty much it. The rest is down to moment-to-moment choices: dig around that enemy or go through them? If I go this way will I trap myself in this hole? Is it worth attacking that bat nest for a coin or will it be too hard to get out alive?

Collected bones contribute towards unlocking new stages with different, more dangerous enemies and devious traps. It gives a sense of progression even when you only get a bone or two, as does your dog rocketing back upwards in a brief but satisfying zoomies celebration every time. So even when you die, and you will die a lot, you feel like you’re working towards something.

It’s a great time-waster and you won’t exhaust its challenges for hours of gameplay; it’s also very easy to pick up and play a few stages of, since a whole life might last less than a minute. At $4 it’s an easy one to recommend.

Interestingly, Dig Dog was developed by its creator with only minimal use of his hands. A repetitive stress condition made it painful and inadvisable for him to code using the keyboard, so he uses a voice-based coding system instead. If I had been told I couldn’t type any more, I’d probably just take up a new career, so I admire Rusty Moyher for his tenacity. He made a video about the process here, if you’re curious:

Gato Roboto, for Switch and PC, is a much more complicated game, though not nearly so much as its inspirations, the NES classics Metroid and Blaster Master. In Gato Roboto, as in those games, you explore a large world filled with monsters and tunnels, fighting bosses and outfitting yourself with new abilities, which in turn let you explore the world further.

This one isn’t as big and open as recent popular “metroidvanias” like Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest — it’s really much more like a linear action-adventure game in the style of metroidvanias.

The idea is that you’ve crash-landed on a planet after tracking a mysterious signal, but the spaceman aboard the ship is trapped — you play his cat, Kiki, who must explore the planet in his stead.

At first (or shall I say fur-st) you really are just a cat, but you’re soon equipped with a power suit that lets you jump and shoot like any other action game. However, you frequently have to jump out of it to get into a smaller tunnel or enter water, in which the suit can’t operate (and the cat only barely). In this respect it’s a bit like Blaster Master, in which your pilot could dismount and explore caves in top-down fashion — an innovation that made the game one of my favorites for the system. (If you haven’t played the Switch remake, Blaster Master Zero, I implore you to.)

Gato Roboto isn’t as taxing or complex as its predecessors, but it’s not really meant to be. It’s a non-stop romp where you always have a goal or an obstacle to overcome. The 1-bit graphics are so well executed that I stopped noticing them after a minute or two — the pixel art is very clear and only rarely does the lack of color cause any confusion whatever.

Like Dig Dog and Downwell before it, you can pick up color schemes to change the palette, a purely aesthetic choice but a fun collectible (some are quite horrid). The occasional secret and branching path keeps your brain working a little bit, but not too much.

The game is friendly and forgiving, but I will say that the bosses present rather serious difficulty spikes, and you may, as I did, find yourself dying over and over to them because they’re a hundred times more dangerous than ordinary enemies or environmental hazards. Fortunately the game is (kitty) littered with save points and, for the most part, the bosses are not overlong encounters. I still raged pretty hard on a couple of them.

It’s twice the price of Dig Dog, a whopping $8. I can safely say it’s worth the price of two coffees. Don’t hesitate.

These pleasant distractions should while away a few hours, and to me they represent a healthy gaming culture that can look back on its past and find inspiration, then choose to make something new and old at the same time.

Eyeing an entry into China, Roblox enters strategic partnership with Tencent

Kids gaming platform Roblox has its sights set on China with today’s news that it has entered into a strategic relationship with Chinese tech giant, Tencent. The companies announced a strategic partnership that will initially focus on education — specifically, coding fundamentals, game design, digital citizenship, and entrepreneurial skills.

The joint venture — still unnamed — will be based in Shenzhen, Roblox says. And its eventual goal is to bring Roblox to China. This is something Roblox has been steadily working towards ahead of today, most recently by adding support for Chinese languages and making its coding curriculum available for free in Chinese.

The first initiative from the new JV will be a scholarship fund that sponsors 15 young developers, who will fly to the U.S. to attend a week-long creator camp at Stanford University. The camp, taught by iD Tech, will teach the students game design, including how to create 3D worlds, along with programming fundaments using Roblox’s developer tools and Lua code.

Roblox and Tencent, together with the China Association for Educational Technology (CAET), are calling for applications from creators ages 10 through 15. Teachers will be encouraged to nominate their students, who can apply online on Roblox’s website. The submissions close on June 14, and scholarship recipients will be notified on June 28.

The first camp will run the week of July 23, and a second session will run the week of August 18. During camp, students will work, eat and stay at Stanford.

“I’m extremely excited to partner with Roblox,” said Steven Ma, Senior Vice President of Tencent, in a statement. “We believe technological advancement will help Chinese students learn by fueling their creativity and imagination. Our partnership with Roblox provides an engaging way to reach children of all ages across China to develop skills like coding, design, and entrepreneurship.”

“Tencent is the perfect partner for Roblox in China,” added Roblox Founder and CEO Dave Baszucki. “They have a deep understanding of the Chinese market and share our belief of the power of digital creation and our vision to bring the world together through play.”

The multi-year JV will continue to invest in educational initiatives, including local coding camps, training programs for instructors to build custom courses, and more.

Unlike other gaming companies, Roblox has to do more than just finding a way into China with the help of a local partner — it also has to create an active community of game creators in the region. That’s because Roblox is a gaming platform, not a game maker itself. Instead, third-party creators build their own games on Roblox for others to play.

Roblox gets a share of the revenue the games make through sales of virtual goods.

In 2017, Roblox said paid out $30 million to its creator community, and noted that number would more than double in 2018. In April, Roblox noted that game players and creators now spend more than a billion hours per month on its platform. Now valued at over $2.5 billion, Roblox claims more 90 million monthly active users — a number that could dramatically increase if Roblox launched in China.

‘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.