Twitch acquires gaming database site IGDB to improve its search and discovery features

Amazon-owned Twitch has made a small but strategic acquisition designed to improve its search capabilities and better direct viewers to exactly the right content. The company is acquiring IGDB, the Internet Games Database (no relation to Amazon’s IMDb), a website dedicated to combining all the relevant information about games into a comprehensive resource for gamers everywhere. As a result of the acquisition, IGDB’s database will now feed into Twitch’s search and discovery feature set. However, the IGDB website itself will not be shut down.

Founded in 2015 by Christian Frithiof and a small team based in Gothenburg, Sweden, IGDB sources its gaming content both through community contributions and automation.

The site includes useful information for every game, like the genre, platforms supported, description, member and critic ratings and reviews, storyline, game modes, publisher, release dates, characters, and more. You could also find less common details like how long it would take to play the game in question, or the player perspectives the game offered, among other things.

And similar to IMDb’s mission of organizing everything associated with the entertainment industry, IGDB allowed voice talent to claim their profile on its site, in addition to listing the full credits associated with a given title.

To generate revenue, IGDB provided a developer API that’s been free to use for smaller shops or $99 per month for up to 50K requests. Interested partners, (e.g. ASUS), could reach out to request special pricing. To date, IGDB was working with several thousand API users, we understand. 

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Twitch confirmed the acquisition to TechCrunch in a statement.

Millions of people come to Twitch every day to find and connect with their favorite streamers and communities, and we want to make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for,” a spokesperson said. “IGDB has developed a comprehensive gaming database, and we’re excited to bring them on to help us more quickly improve and scale search and discovery on Twitch.”

Deal terms were not disclosed, but it was likely a small deal, from a financial standpoint. IGDB is only a 10-person team and had raised just $1.5 million to date, according to data from Crunchbase.

From a strategic standpoint, however, the acquisition is much more impactful.

Twitch CEO Emmett Shear has spoken publicly about the issues surrounding Twitch’s search functionality and how it needs to improve on that front.

“We want every place on Twitch to help you get discovered. Today, nearly one in three people who come to Twitch use Search to find what they’re looking for. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that our search function hasn’t always been the best experience,” Shear had said earlier this year, speaking at TwitchCon Berlin.”One wrong letter and your search results may come back empty, or direct you to a very different streamer than the one you were looking for. So we’re going to fix search so it actually works,” he promised.

In recent weeks, there were hints that something was going on at IGDB.

In a blog post dated August 19, 2019, IGDB announced it was starting a “large scale migration of our backend, database, and hosting” and said that the service was “about to undergo some changes, some temporary and others more permanent.” As a part of its changes, it shut off the ability for users to sign-up or update their profiles, and it shut down its pulse news, feed, and recommendations features.

Now a part of Twitch, IGDB will merge its free and premium APIs into one free tier, will clean up other features, and migrate infrastructure. Its IGDB website will continue to remain online.

“Our mission has always been to build the most comprehensive gaming database in the world. Such a monumental undertaking can be quite challenging when you are a small startup team,” reads an IGDB blog post. “By joining Twitch, we will be able to tap into their experience, resources, and skills, which will enable us to accelerate our progress and deliver the version of IGDB we all always dreamed about. Not only that, our companies share the same culture, core values, and passion for gaming– making this the perfect fit,” the post said.

It was common industry knowledge Twitch previously used competing data provider Giantbomb. As is often the case, the company may have been in discussions with IGDB about making switch which led to the acquisition. (The company declined to say how it can about.) What had made IGDB different from other API providers, like Mobygames, is that it allowed its API to be used commercially, including by competing projects, and it allowed caching and storing data on local databases.

The entire 10-person team from IGDB will remain based in Sweden, but will report into Twitch through its Viewer Experience organization.

 

 

 

I hope Apple Arcade makes room for weird cool shit

Apple Arcade seems purpose built to make room in the market for beautiful, sad, weird, moving, slow, clever and heartfelt. All things that the action, shooter and MOBA driven major market of games has done nothing to foster over the last decade.

I had a chance to play a bunch of the titles coming to Apple Arcade, which launched today in a surprise move for some early testers of iOS 13. Nearly every game I played was fun, all were gorgeous and some were really really great.

A few I really enjoyed, in no particular order:

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Where Cards Fall — A Snowman game from Sam Rosenthal. A beautiful game with a clever card-based mechanic that allows room for story moments and a ramping difficulty level that should be fantastic for short play sessions. Shades of Monument Valley, of course, in its puzzle + story interleave and it its willingness to get super emotional about things right away. More of this in gaming! Super satisfying gameplay and crisp animations abound.

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Overland — Finji — Overland is one of my most anticipated games from the bunch, I’ve been following the development of this game from the Night in the Woods and Canabalt creators for a long time. It does not disappoint, with a stylized but somehow hyper-realized post apocalyptic turn-based system that transmits urgency through economy of movement. Every act you take counts. Given that it’s a rogue like, the story is told through the world rather than through an individual character’s narrative and the world does a great job of it.

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Oceanhorn 2 — Cornfox & Brothers — The closest to a native Zelda you’ll get on iOS — this plays great on a controller. Do yourself a favor and try it that way.

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Spek — RAC7 — One of those puzzle games people will plow through, it makes the mechanics simple to understand then begins to really push and prod at your mastery of them over time. The AR component of the app seems like it will be a better party game than solo experience, but the effects used here are great and it really plays with distance and perspective in a way that an AR game should. A good totem for the genre going forward.

I was able to play several of the games across all three platforms including Apple TV with an Xbox controller, iPhone and iPad. While some favored controller (Skate City) and others touch controls (Super Impossible Road), all felt like I could play them either way without much difficulty.

There are also some surprises in the initial batch of games like Lego Brawls — a Smash Brothers clone that will be a big hit for car rides and get togethers I think.

My hope is that the Apple Arcade advantage, an agressive $4.99 price and prime placement in the App Store, may help to create an umbrella of sorts for games that don’t fit the ‘big opening weekend’ revenue mold and I hope Apple leans into that. I know that there may be action-oriented and big name titles in the package now and in the future, and that’s fine. But there are many kinds of games out there that are fantastic but “minor” in the grand scheme of things and having a place that could create sustainability in the market for these gems is a great thing.

The financial terms were not disclosed by Apple but many of the developers appear to have gotten up front money to make games for the platform and, doubtless, there is a rev share on some sort of basis, probably usage or installs. Whatever it is, I hope the focus is on sustainability, but the people responsible for Arcade inside Apple are making all the right noises about that so I have hopes.

I am especially glad that Apple is being aggressive with the pricing and with the restrictions it has set for the store, including no in-app purchases or ads. This creates an environment where a parent (ratings permitting) can be confident that a kid playing games from the Arcade tab will not be besieged with casino ads in the middle of their puzzle game.

There is, however, a general irony in the fact that Apple had to create Apple Arcade because of the proliferation of loot box/currency/in-app purchase revenue models. An economy driven by the App Store’s overall depressive effect on the price of games and the decade long acclimation people have had to spending less and less, down to free, for games and apps on the store.

By bundling them into a subscription, Apple sidesteps the individual purchase barrier that it has had a big hand in creating in the first place. While I don’t think it is fully to blame — plenty of other platforms aggressively promote loot box mechanics — a big chunk of the responsibility to fix this distortion does rest on Apple. Apple Arcade is a great stab at that and I hope that the early titles are an indicator of the overall variety and quality that we can expect.

Apple Arcade is now available for some iOS 13 beta users

If you’re running a beta version of iOS 13 or 13.1, chances are you can now open the App Store and subscribe to Apple Arcade. The company has been rolling out its new subscription service, as MacRumors spotted. It works on my iPhone running a public beta version of iOS 13.1.

Apple Arcade requires iOS 13, tvOS 13 or macOS Catalina, which means that you won’t be able to access the service before updating to the new major versions of the operating systems. The final version of iOS 13 is set to launch on Thursday on the iPhone.

Originally announced earlier this year, Apple has been working on an ad-free gaming service that lets you download and play games for a monthly subscription fee. These games have no ads or in-app purchases.

Essentially, you pay $4.99 per month to access a library with dozens of games. Subscriptions include a one-month free trial and work with family sharing.

You can browse the selection of games without subscribing. There are currently 53 games available, but Apple said that it plans to launch over 100 games this fall.

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Each game has its own App Store page with a trailer, screenshots and some new icons indicating the age rating, category, number of players and more.

If you search for a game on the App Store and you’re not an Apple Arcade subscriber, you get a new button that tells you that you can try it free by subscribing to Apple Arcade. It also says “Apple Arcade” above the app name.

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This game uses troll tactics to teach critical thinking

The best medicine against online disinformation is an informed society that’s thinking critically. The problem is there are no shortcuts to universal education.

Enter Finnish Public Broadcasting Company, Yle, which is hoping to harness the engagement power of gamification to accelerate awareness and understanding of troll tactics and help more people spot malicious Internet fakes. It’s put together an online game, called Troll Factory, that lets you play at being, well, a hateful troll. Literally.

The game begins with a trigger warning that it uses “authentic social media content” that viewers may find disturbing. If you continue to play you’ll see examples of Islamophobic slogans and memes that have actually been spread on social media. So the trigger warning is definitely merited.

The game itself takes the form of a messaging app style conversation on a virtual smartphone in which you are tasked by the troll factory boss to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment. You do this by making choices about which messages to post online and the methods used to amplify distribution.

Online disinformation tactics intended to polarize public discourse which are depicted in the game include the seeding of conspiracy theory memes on social media; the exploitation of real news events to spread fake claims; microtargeting of hateful content at different demographics and platforms; and the use of paid bots to amplify propaganda so that hateful views appear more widely held than they really are.

After completing an inaugural week’s work in the troll factory the game displays a rating and shows how many shares and follows your dis-ops garnered. This is followed by contextual information on the influencing methods demonstrated — putting the activity you’ve just participated in into wider context.

Yle, which is a not-for-profit public service broadcaster with a remit to educate and inform, released a Finnish version of the troll factory game back in May but decided to follow up with this international version (in English) after the game got such a strong local reception, including being picked up by people in natsec and education to use as an educational resource, according to Jarno Koponen, head of AI & personalization, at Yle Uutiset News Lab.

“The initial response in Finland was so encouraging: Something like this is needed,” he told us. “Something that makes information operations tangible and visible. We believe that it’s our duty as a public broadcasting company to promote methods, in Finland and abroad, that help citizen’s to better understand our everyday digital environments from their own standing point.

“We want simultaneously to collect more feedback on what’s working in the game-like storytelling, in order to use those findings to develop better products in the future, and to share those finding with for example with other public broadcasting companies in the world.”

Koponen said the team also wanted to test a specific hypotheses about the power of games to debunk junk — after a recent Cambridge University study showed gamified methods work in fighting fake news.

“Based on our data, news articles or more traditional social media analysis doesn’t reach and thus have effect on people en masse,” he said, when asked why Yle chose a game wrapper for its anti-disinformation message, rather than a more traditional educational format such as a documentary film.

“Social media is in your pocket and goes wherever you go. The means to educate you about social media need to be in your pocket too. Especially young people are a hard audience to reach. Thus we need to actively develop new storytelling methods to provide for them nonpartisan information and insight about the world around us. We experimented with different forms from data visualisations to interactive simulations and found game-like experience being the most effectual and engaging.”

“We’ve so far collected direct feedback from our users in social media (from Twitter to Reddit) and on our website,” he added. “Some of the descriptive comments were: ‘This is horrible, but thanks for making us aware of this’ or ‘Scary but illuminating’. It was picked up in social media especially by people and organisations working with younger people from teachers to public libraries, as well as information security and national security professionals.”

Asked whether he thinks social media platforms should be doing more to clear bots and inauthentic content off their platforms, Koponen called for increased transparency from platforms but added that media literacy remains key to influencing how tech giants behave too.

We believe that more transparency is needed on behalf of the social media platforms. However, the more aware the citizen is, the better equipped she’s to decide on her own behalf what works and what doesn’t. We believe that promoting media literacy is key in having meaningful impact on the practices and policies of social media platforms.”

Nintendo shows off exercise-powered RPG for Switch, Ring Fit Adventure

Nintendo has been at the crossroads of video games and fitness since the famous Power Pad for the NES, and the Switch is the latest to receive a game powered by physical activity: Ring Fit Adventure. And it actually looks fun!

In the game, you’ll jog in place to advance your character, and perform various movements and exercises to avoid obstacles and defeat enemies. Your quest is to defeat an “evil body-building dragon” who has disrupted the peaceful, apparently very fit world of the protagonist. Sure.

The game comes with a pair of accessories: a ring and leg strap, each of which you slot a Joy-Con into. The two controllers work together to get a picture of your whole body movement, meaning it can be sure you’re keeping your arms out in front of you when you do a squat, and not phoning it in during leg raises.

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The ring itself is flexible and can tell how hard you’re squeezing or pulling it— but don’t worry, it can be calibrated for your strength level.

Interestingly, the top button of the controller appears to be able to be used as a heart rate monitor. That kind of came out of left field, but I like it. Just one more way Nintendo is making its hardware do interesting new things.

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There look to be a ton of different movements you’ll be required to do, focusing on different areas of the body: upper, lower, core, and some sort of whole-body ones inspired by yoga positions. Ingeniously, some enemies are weak to one or another, and you’ll need to use different ones for other scenarios, so you’re getting a varied workout whether you like it or not.

Meanwhile your character levels up and unlocks new, more advanced moves — think a lunge instead of a squat, or adding an arm movement to a leg one — and you can get closer to the goal.

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There are also minigames and straight-up workouts you can select, which you can do at any time if you don’t feel like playing the actual game, and contribute to your character’s level anyway.

The idea of gamifying fitness has been around for quite a while, and some titles, like Wii Fit, actually got pretty popular. But this one seems like the most in-depth actual game to use fitness as its main mechanic, and critically it is simple and easy enough that even the most slothful among us can get in a session now and then at their own pace.

Ring Fit Adventure will be available October 18 — no pricing yet, but you can probably expect it to be a little above an ordinary Switch game.

You can watch the full-length walkthrough of the game below, but beware — the acting is a little off-putting.

Loot boxes in games are gambling and should be banned for kids, say UK MPs

UK MPs have called for the government to regulate the games industry’s use of loot boxes under current gambling legislation — urging a blanket ban on the sale of loot boxes to players who are children.

Kids should instead be able to earn in-game credits to unlock look boxes, MPs have suggested in a recommendation that won’t be music to the games industry’s ears.

Loot boxes refer to virtual items in games that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance. The MPs argue the mechanic should be considered games of chance played for money’s worth and regulated by the UK Gambling Act.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) parliamentary committee makes the recommendations in a report published today following an enquiry into immersive and addictive technologies that saw it take evidence from a number of tech companies including Fortnite maker Epic Games; Facebook-owned Instagram; and Snapchap.

The committee said it found representatives from the games industry to be “wilfully obtuse” in answering questions about typical patterns of play — data the report emphasizes is necessary for proper understanding of how players are engaging with games — as well as calling out some games and social media company representatives for demonstrating “a lack of honesty and transparency”, leading it to question what the companies have to hide.

“The potential harms outlined in this report can be considered the direct result of the way in which the ‘attention economy’ is driven by the objective of maximising user engagement,” the committee writes in a summary of the report which it says explores “how data-rich immersive technologies are driven by business models that combine people’s data with design practices to have powerful psychological effects”.

As well as trying to pry information about of games companies, MPs also took evidence from gamers during the course of the enquiry.

In one instance the committee heard that a gamer spent up to £1,000 per year on loot box mechanics in Electronic Arts’s Fifa series.

A member of the public also reported that their adult son had built up debts of more than £50,000 through spending on microtransactions in online game RuneScape. The maker of that game, Jagex, told the committee that players “can potentially spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month”.

In addition to calling for gambling law to be applied to the industry’s lucrative loot box mechanic, the report calls on games makers to face up to responsibilities to protect players from potential harms, saying research into possible negative psychosocial harms has been hampered by the industry’s unwillingness to share play data.

“Data on how long people play games for is essential to understand what normal and healthy — and, conversely, abnormal and potentially unhealthy — engagement with gaming looks like. Games companies collect this information for their own marketing and design purposes; however, in evidence to us, representatives from the games industry were wilfully obtuse in answering our questions about typical patterns of play,” it writes.

“Although the vast majority of people who play games find it a positive experience, the minority who struggle to maintain control over how much they are playing experience serious consequences for them and their loved ones. At present, the games industry has not sufficiently accepted responsibility for either understanding or preventing this harm. Moreover, both policy-making and potential industry interventions are being hindered by a lack of robust evidence, which in part stems from companies’ unwillingness to share data about patterns of play.”

The report recommends the government require games makers share aggregated player data with researchers, with the committee calling for a new regulator to oversee a levy on the industry to fund independent academic research — including into ‘Gaming disorder‘, an addictive condition formally designated by the World Health Organization — and to ensure that “the relevant data is made available from the industry to enable it to be effective”.

“Social media platforms and online games makers are locked in a relentless battle to capture ever more of people’s attention, time and money. Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users,” said DCMS committee chair, Damian Collins, in a statement.

“Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm. Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up. We challenge the Government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.

“Gaming contributes to a global industry that generates billions in revenue. It is unacceptable that some companies with millions of users and children among them should be so ill-equipped to talk to us about the potential harm of their products. Gaming disorder based on excessive and addictive game play has been recognised by the World Health Organisation. It’s time for games companies to use the huge quantities of data they gather about their players, to do more to proactively identify vulnerable gamers.”

The committee wants independent research to inform the development of a behavioural design code of practice for online services. “This should be developed within an adequate timeframe to inform the future online harms regulator’s work around ‘designed addiction’ and ‘excessive screen time’,” it writes, citing the government’s plan for a new Internet regulator for online harms.

MPs are also concerned about the lack of robust age verification to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games.

The report identifies inconsistencies in the games industry’s ‘age-ratings’ stemming from self-regulation around the distribution of games (such as online games not being subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, meaning voluntary ratings are used instead).

“Games companies should not assume that the responsibility to enforce age-ratings applies exclusively to the main delivery platforms: All companies and platforms that are making games available online should uphold the highest standards of enforcing age-ratings,” the committee writes on that.

“Both games companies and the social media platforms need to establish effective age verification tools. They currently do not exist on any of the major platforms which rely on self-certification from children and adults,” Collins adds.

During the enquiry it emerged that the UK government is working with tech companies including Snap to try to devise a centralized system for age verification for online platforms.

A section of the report on Effective Age Verification cites testimony from deputy information commissioner Steve Wood raising concerns about any move towards “wide-spread age verification [by] collecting hard identifiers from people, like scans of passports”.

Wood instead pointed the committee towards technological alternatives, such as age estimation, which he said uses “algorithms running behind the scenes using different types of data linked to the self-declaration of the age to work out whether this person is the age they say they are when they are on the platform”.

Snapchat’s Will Scougal also told the committee that its platform is able to monitor user signals to ensure users are the appropriate age — by tracking behavior and activity; location; and connections between users to flag a user as potentially underage. 

The report also makes a recommendation on deepfake content, with the committee saying that malicious creation and distribution of deepfake videos should be regarded as harmful content.

“The release of content like this could try to influence the outcome of elections and undermine people’s public reputation,” it warns. “Social media platforms should have clear policies in place for the removal of deepfakes. In the UK, the Government should include action against deepfakes as part of the duty of care social media companies should exercise in the interests of their users, as set out in the Online Harms White Paper.”

“Social media firms need to take action against known deepfake films, particularly when they have been designed to distort the appearance of people in an attempt to maliciously damage their public reputation, as was seen with the recent film of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi,” adds Collins.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gets an educational mode — complete with quizzes

In my review of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, I was blown away by the authenticity and level of detail in the game world. The game itself — well, it was fine. But the highlight was ancient Greece in all its classical splendor, and a new educational Discovery Tour mode aims to teach the history of that society through a gaming lens.

The free update, available now to anyone who owns the game, adds dozens of historical “tours” guided by a NPC, in which you can learn about the cities of ancient Greece, the life and crafts of the people who lived there, what they believed and how they were governed, and of course the many famous battles of the era.

It’s an expanded version of a similar feature created for Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which was set in ancient Egypt. It seemed wasteful then, as in Odyssey, to create such a rich world and just have you stab your way through it. Obviously others at Ubisoft felt the same way, especially Discovery Mode director Maxime Durand, who says he envisioned a feature like this a decade ago.

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And how could you not with the Assassin’s Creed series? From the very first one players were immersed in a painstakingly recreated period of history that gave variously accurate but always compelling experiences of really living in that bygone era. All the work that went into making it convincing can easily — well, perhaps not easily, but directly — be applied to educating the player as well as thrilling them.

And quizzing them! The end of each guided tour will have an optional live quiz-type chat with the guide, which Ubisoft assures players will be fun and not for a grade. I’d probably skip it myself. But history teachers will probably make you do it for extra credit or something.

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There are 30 discovery sites, each with its own tour and modern-day context, so for example an artist in-game may explain how they sculpt, but then you’ll also see a museum artifact showing the process in “real life.”

Here’s hoping the history lessons are a little less lenient on the topic of slavery than some of the quests were.

“I think learning is a lot about agency… as soon as someone tells you you have to learn about something, there’s some of the fun taken away from it,” said Ubisoft’s Alicia Fortier. “So if we look at learning as play and as exploring, we need to make sure players can focus on what’s interesting to them and then they’ll naturally get more curious.”

The Discovery Tour update is free for all players today. Go, learn something.

Drivetime nabs $11M from Makers Fund, Amazon and Google to build voice-based games for drivers

Fully autonomous cars may (or may not) be just around the corner, but in the meantime, a startup that’s building in-car apps to help human drivers pass the time when behind the wheel has raised a round of funding.

Drivetime — which makes voice-based trivia quizzes, games and interactive stories that people can play while driving — has raised $11 million in funding led by Makers Fund (a prolific investor in gaming startups), with participation also from Amazon (via the Alexa Fund) and Google (via its Assistant investment program).

The startup today has eight “channels” on its platform consisting of games and stories that you can access either within a limited free-to-play tier or via a paid subscription ($9.99 a month or $99.99 a year). The plan is to use the funding to continue expanding that catalog, as well as investing in deeper integrations with its new big-name strategic investors, who themselves have longstanding and deep interests in bringing more voice services and content to the in-car experience.

Co-founder and CEO Niko Vuori told TechCrunch that his ultimate ambition is for Drivetime to become “the Sirius XM of interactive content” for cars, with hundreds of different channels of content.

In keeping with those plans, along with the funding, Drivetime is today announcing a key content deal. It has teamed up with the long-running, popular gameshow Jeopardy to build a trivia channel for the platform, which lets drivers test their own skills and also play against other drivers and people they know. The Jeopardy channel will source content from the TV show’s trove of IP and come with another familiar detail: it will be narrated by Alex Trebek, with a new quiz getting published every weekday for premium users.

That social element of the Jeopardy game is not a coincidence. The San Francisco-based startup is founded by Zynga alums, with Vuori and his co-founders Justin Cooper and Cory Johnson also working together at another startup called Rocket Games since leaving the social games giant and exiting that as well, to gaming giant Penn National, for up to $170 million. The strong track record goes some way to explaining the strong list of investors in the new startup.

“Social and interactive formats are the next frontier in audio entertainment,” said Makers Fund Founding Partner Jay Chi, in a statement. “Niko, Justin Cooper and Cory Johnson, with a decade-long history of working together and a proven track record in building new platforms, is the best team to bring this idea to life.”

In addition to the three investors in this latest round, prior to this Drivetime had raised about $4 million from backers that include Felicis Ventures, Fuel Capital, Webb Investment Network (Maynard Webb’s fund) and Access Ventures.

Vuori declined to say how many installs or active users the app has today — although from the looks of it on AppAnnie, it’s seeing decent if not blockbuster success so far. Meanwhile, Jeopardy is building on what has worked best so far. The most popular category at the moment is trivia, with Tunetime (a “name that tune” game) coming in second with storytelling a third.

The company’s premise is an interesting one. Drivers are a captive audience, but one that has up to now had a relatively limited amount of entertainment created for it, focusing mainly on music and spoken word. However, the rise of voice-based interfaces and interactivity using natural language — spurred by the rise of personal assistant apps and in-home hubs like Amazon’s Echo — have opened a new opportunity, developing interactive, voice-based content for drivers to engage with more proactively.

You might think that this sounds like a recipe for a car accident. Won’t a driver get too distracted trying to remember the fourth President of the United States, or who was known as the Father of the Constitution (hint: it’s the same guy)? Vuori says it’s actually the reverse: having an interactive game that requires the driver to speak out loud can focus him or her and keep the driver more alert.

“We are double-dipping in safety,” he said. “On the one hand, we embody the safety aspects of Alertness Maintaining Tasks (AMTs). But we also act as a preventative, meaning that while players engage with Drivetime, they are not engaging with anything else.”

While the content today may serve as a way of keeping drivers from doing things they shouldn’t be doing while in a car, there is another obvious opportunity that might come as drivers become less necessary and themselves will need other things to occupy themselves.

Longer term, the Jeopardy deal could usher in other channels based on popular gameshows. Sony Pictures Television Games, which owns the rights to it, also owns Wheel of Fortune, and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

“We are thrilled to work with Sony Pictures Television Games to bring JEOPARDY!®, the greatest game show on the planet, to an underserved audience that desperately needs interactive entertainment the most – the 110 million commuters in North America driving to and from work by themselves every day,” said Vuori said in a statement.

Interestingly, despite the growth of “skills” for Alexa or apps for Google Home and other home hubs, Vuori says that he hasn’t seen any competition emerge yet from other app developers to build voice-based entertainment for drivers in the way that Drivetime has. That gives the company ample opportunity to continue picking up new users — and more details with publishers and content companies looking for more mileage (sorry) for their legacy IP and new business.

“Drivetime is one of the early pioneers in creating safe, stimulating entertainment for drivers in the car,” Ilya Gelfenbeyn, founding lead of the Google Assistant Investments Program, noted in a statement. “More and more people are using their voice to stay productive on the road, asking the Google Assistant on Android and iOS phones to help send text messages, make calls and access entertainment hands free. We share Drivetime’s vision, and look forward to working with their team to make the daily commute more enjoyable.”

“Gaming and entertainment are among customers’ favorite use cases for Alexa, and we think those categories will only grow in popularity as Alexa is integrated into more vehicles,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon. “Drivetime stands out for its focus on voice-first games in the car, and we’re excited to work with them to broaden the Alexa Auto experience and help customers make the most of their time behind the wheel.”

CDC says stop vaping as mystery lung condition spreads

Vape lung is spreading and the CDC is warning people not to use vaping products while they are investigating the cause. In a media briefing, the public health agency said that some 450 people are now thought to be affected, and as many as five have died.

The CDC’s incident manager for this issue, Dana Meaney Delman, summed up the situation as follows:

CDC, states, and other partners are actively investigating, but so far, no definitive cause has been established. No specific e-cigarette device or substance has been linked to all cases, and e-cigarette include a variety of chemical and additives; consumers may not know what these products contain.

Based on the clinical and laboratory evidence to date, we believe that a chemical exposure is likely associated with these illnesses. However, and I really want to stress this, more information is needed to determine which specific products or substances are involved

Reports earlier this week suggested that Vitamin E acetate, a byproduct of the vitamin complex formed during the vaporization process, may be to blame. Delman downplayed this, saying that although they are working with the labs that made that connection, nothing has been established as yet.

One trend worth noting, however, is that very few of the cases involve only nicotine products; Most of the afflicted users reported using THC exclusively or as well as nicotine. This could be the result of many factors, however, so take it with a grain of salt.

The first death was reported in late August in Indiana, but other suspected cases have turned fatal in Illinois, Minnesota, California, and Oregon — as reported by the Washington Post, though the CDC said three are confirmed and one is under investigation. The number of reported cases has skyrocketed, though this is likely a consequence of better information coming from state health authorities and hospitals, rather than a sudden epidemic.

In the meantime the only advice they have is to avoid e-cigarette and vape device usage, especially modified devices or homebrew material. The fact is no one really knows what chemicals are formed in the conditions created by these devices and some of them could be toxic.

While the investigation is ongoing, CDC has advised that individuals consider not using e-cigarettes because as of now, this is the primary means of preventing this type of severe lung disease. And of course e-cigarette use is never safe for youth, young adults, or pregnant women.

People who do use e-cigarette products should monitor themselves for symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, or others) and promptly seek medical attention for any health concerns. Regardless of the ongoing investigation, people who use e-cigarette products should not buy these products off the street and should not modify e-cigarette products or add any substances that are not intended by the manufacturer.

The CDC is working with numerous state authorities and the FDA to identify the cause of this malady, and will soon publish a report in the New England Journal of Medicine detailing the first 53 cases identified. This should help doctors and other health workers tell if they are dealing with a case of vape lung or something else.

Daniel Fox from WakeMed Hospitals in North Carolina characterized the condition as they had encountered it, with a preliminary diagnosis of “lipoid pneumonia”:

What we wanted to report and what we have seen has been a cluster of five cases that will be reported later today. Each of these cases featured a pulmonary illness in a relatively young person. Ranging in age from 18-35 from what we saw here in North Carolina. The symptoms that these patients were experiencing were being short of breath, having some GI or gastrointestinal symptoms of nausea and vomiting and fevers.

One of the things that was found in common with all of these cases is that all patients were using vaped substances in e-cigarettes. They all had abnormal chest x-rays and developed a need for a lot of oxygen.

All of our patients underwent evaluation, and after the clinical evaluation we found a certain type of pneumonia that was noninfectious. It’s called lipoid pneumonia. Basically, can be, it can occur when either oils or lipid-containing substances enter the lungs.

That is consistent with the Vitamin E acetate hypothesis, as that substance is oily and could enter the lungs mixed with the vapor and then stay there. But none of the doctors or experts on the call made that connection officially.

Some patients are being misdiagnosed as having bronchitis or a viral infection. If you are or anyone you know is getting sick and uses vaping products a lot, it’s worth mentioning this if you get checked out.

Delman concluded her briefing with an assurance that everything that can be done is being done:

Please know that CDC, FDA, state, and clinical partners are working hard to understand why people are getting sick. We will continue to share what we know and what we don’t know to help health departments, clinicians, and the public respond to this outbreak.

If you are concerned about your health or the health of a loved one who is using an e-cigarette product, contact your health care provider, or your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

Looking to become the meme-based social network of the gaming world Medal.tv raises $9 million

When Medal.tv first launched on the scene, the company was an upstart trying to be the social network for the gaming generation.

Since its debut in February, the clipping and messaging service for gamers has amassed 5 million total users with hundreds of thousands of daily active users. And now it has a $9 million new investment from firms led by Horizons Ventures, the venture capital fund established by Hong Kong multi-billionaire Li Kashing.

“We’re seeing sharing of short-form video emerge as a means of self-expression and entertainment for the current generation. We believe Medal’s platform will be a foundation for interactive social experiences beyond what you can find in a game,” says Jonathan Tam, an investor with Horizons Ventures .

Medal sees potential both in its social network and in the ability for game developers to use the platform as a marketing and discovery tool for the gaming audience.

“Friends are the main driver of game discovery, and game developers benefit from shareable games as a result. Medal.tv is trying to enable that without the complexity of streaming,” says Matteo Vallone, the former head of Google Play games in Europe and an angel investor in Medal.

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It’s a platform that saw investors willing to fork over as much as $20 million for the company, according to chief executive Pim DeWitte. “There are still too many risks involved to take capital like that,” DeWitte says.

Instead the $9 million from Horizons, and previous investors like Makers Fund will be used to steadily grow the business.

“At Medal, we believe the next big social platform will emerge in gaming, perhaps built on top of short-form content, partially as a result of gaming publishers trying to build their own isolated gaming stores and systems,” said DeWitte, in a statement. “That drives social fragmentation in the market and brings out the need for platforms such as Medal and Discord, which unite gamers across games and platforms in a meaningful way.”

As digital gaming becomes the social medium of choice for a generation, new tools that allow consumers to share their virtual experiences will become increasingly common. This phenomenon will only accelerate as more events like the Marshmello concert in Fortnite become the norm.

“Medal has the exciting potential to enable a seamless social exchange of virtual experiences,” says Ryann Lai, an investor from Makers Fund.